Problems really began for Andy Bell when he left the Desert Riders
south of Bordj el Haouas with tyre trouble.
I was always told that there comes a time in every man’s life when he has to put the greater good first. For me, this time came some 40km South of Bordj El Haouas when, after my fourth puncture in 24 hours, I bade farewell to my Desert Riding comrades and tottered up the piste on my own. An earlier rock-strike had cut the beading in my rear tyre causing the wall to begin to split. As the split grew, the frayed belting would rub the tube raw, eventually causing a hole. As the tyre went flat, the split would grow….and so on. The upshot of this was that I wrecked my main and spare rear tubes in only 250km, and was now eating horribly into Chris’. To try to get through the Hoggar mountains via Assekrem in this state, would have been to court disaster and rob the ‘Project’ of its last spare ‘chambre d’air’.
Before I set off on my own, Jon and Chris had helped to ‘double skin’ my rear tube, wrapping a ruined spare around it and securing it in place with insulating tape. This, I was assured was standard practise in enduro circles, and in any case would guarantee me a few extra k’s before everything went bang.
I left the guys with a feeling of mild shame, as if I’d somehow let them down, and rode gingerly toward BEH. Lacking Chris’ considerable route-finding instinct, I rode into town through the municipal rubbish tip and a sort of shanty-suburb, making it onto the road amid a flock of jeering urchins. As I was filling up with fuel, I began to hear the unmistakable ‘stealth fart’ sound of two Honda XRLs approaching. The Desert Remnants had decided to head north and have a few days R&R in Djanet before heading West. I felt grateful for this second chance to bid them a proper ‘farewell and bon voyage’, and before long was en route to Illizi with a happy heart.
It didn’t last though. After a couple of hours of tripping merrily through the incredible scenery which bounds the southern rim of the Tassili-N-Ajjer plateau, the shadows began to grow longer and I was left to contemplate the fact that for the first time in a month I was totally without the comrades who’d I’d come to depend on for company, morale and occasional arguments. The road began to climb, gently at first but later becoming an Alpine-style pass with sweeping S-bends and nosebleed-inducing drops. It was on this later section that I broke the First Rule of Good Karma, allowing myself to think ‘This would be about the worst place you could possibly have a….’, ‘Aaagh!’. The rear tyre had blown pretty fast, sending the back end of the bike into a nasty oscillation. As it lurched across the road toward the crash barrier, I managed to jump clear, ripping the leather ‘backside protection’ out of my riding pants as I threw myself over the Armco.
Looking up, I saw the bike, now on its side, begin to slide slowly down the steep road. After stopping this ‘slippage’ by wedging it against some roadside boulders, I got busy with fixing the flat. After much internal debate, I decided to keep my multi-patched spare rear tube and instead fit the front one, this being standard procedure in all ‘get-you-home’ type tales of puncture repair. The 21 inch tube fitted the 18 inch rim surprisingly well and with no patches on this tube, I was surely onto a winner. As I set about re-inflating the tyre with a Chinese compressor that Chris had given me, after I left my pump at home, a new silver 100-series Land Cruiser pulled up. The driver appeared to be wearing a chauffer’s uniform and seated next to him was a soldier. In the back was another soldier and a small chap in an immaculate brown three-piece suit. It was this latter chap who lowered his window and asked me in a perfect BBC-English accent if his men could help me. I explained rather nervously that everything was okay, and that I would soon be mobile again. To this, he leant forward earnestly and said, ‘May I ask you if everything is alright for you in Algeria?’. When I replied that everything was fine, and I was enjoying my visit, he smiled and nodded as if he had laid on the entire country specifically for my amusement. He then asked his driver in Arabic to give me food and water, which he duly did and bade me a ‘pleasant evening’. In the barren wilderness of that mountain side, it was a surreal experience.
Setting off again, my sole thought was ‘please let this repair last until I get back onto the flat’. I must have asked the wrong god though, as 5 km later and still on a steep climb, I felt the unmistakable ‘duh-duh duh-duh’ of knobbly tyre running on rim…
By now, it was getting dark, meaning that my only practical option was to get a good night’s sleep and attack the problem in the morning with a fresh zeal. Unfortunately however, Algerian mountain passes aren’t widely renowned for their sleep-giving properties, with my entire available world consisting of a cliff face, a narrow road, a crash barrier, 18 inches of gravel and a 200 foot drop. Electing not to sleep on either the cliff face or the road left me with the option of a night in Hobson’s Hotel &endash; so I set up my sleeping mat and bag on the gravel ‘shoulder’ and hoped to hell that I didn’t roll to the left while I was asleep. As it turned out, the prospect of actually getting any sleep was wildly optimistic, so I needn’t have worried.
As the evening turned to night, I lay there in stupefied boredom, listening out for the sound of a diesel engine that might be my salvation. Every now and again, a truck did pass, always heading east to Djanet and always crammed full to bursting point. The drivers however were fantastic, and each, having first overcome his surprise at having a waving maniac jump out in front of him on this lonely pass, gave me food and water and promised to collect me on their return from Djanet when his truck was empty. Eventually, the vehicles thinned out from their rush-hour frequency of about 1 an hour and I decided to stop waving down any that did come, and instead just try to get some rest. Even this however, was not to be as, on three further occasions, I was woken by the rough hands of a passing trucker, plying me with oranges and bottled water and words of good will. When morning came I had enough fresh fruit to open an East-End market stall and a decidedly more optimistic view of my trip. After all, at least it was no longer freezing cold. I took care with my puncture repair, first super-gluing a layer of inner tube to the gash in the tyre wall, and then fitting my last spare tube. With no more tubes and no patches left, this one had to last.
Setting off again through the brightening morning air, I reached the top of the plateau and swooped joyfully through chicanes bordered by red wild flowers and stark black rocks. I was going home. Oh no I wasn’t. The next puncture came after around 100km and at enough speed to nearly remind me that stark rocks = sore rocks. Now I had no option to but await help, so I sat by the side of the road and tried to give myself a vitamin C overdose with my newly acquired supply of citrus sustenance. After about half an hour, a ratty HJ61 Land Cruiser came along. The Tuareg driver and his passenger were transporting a load of goats (in the boot) to Illizi and couldn’t fit either me or my bike into the car. They did however offer the promise that a truck would come along soon and the driver would help me. At the time, I took this to be some sort of mystical prophecy, completely forgetting that in all probability, they would have overtaken such a truck in their relatively fast car a few kilometers back. After kicking my rear tyre and giving me three more oranges, the Tuaregs left with a wave, and I sat down again in anticipation of the camion.
Sure enough, just as I’d finished my umpteenth orange of the morning, a high-bed truck of some unfamiliar French vintage appeared. I shook the driver’s hand nearly off his shoulder and asked in my best French (which I’d been practicing in anticipation of this happy event) if he could take me and my bike the 80k’s or so to Illizi, where I would find a vulcanasiteur. The driver nodded and bade his ‘son’, who must have been in his late fifties, to help me load the bike. He climbed down from the cab and opened a small side door in the rear, the floor of which was about 6 feet off the ground. From behind the door a scrawny example of Algerian ‘yoof’ appeared and was instructed to stand by to pull the bike in. My heart sank as I realized the improbability of two people being able to lift a 200kg bike into this small aperture, but when we tried, it seemed like some invisible force was at work, for we did it easily and before long, I was reclining in the back of the truck with the ‘yoof’, eating biscuits and drinking Orangina and covering the remaining distance to Illizi in what seemed like decadent luxury.
The truck dropped me at a local tyre repair shop, whose owner was nearly killed by a falling XR650L as we unloaded the bike. I thanked the Grandfather-Father-Son team who had brought me and headed off to a local café for a ‘crème’ and a pastry while the punctures were fixed. As I sat in the early afternoon sun, a mere 24 hours after leaving Chris and Jon, I reflected on the kindness that had been heaped on me in this short time and couldn’t help but wonder whether I’d have got the same aid on the A34.