Book Chapters: 16 Arak 17 Bad Day at Laouni 18 The Far Side 19 A Blue Man 20 The Hills are Alive
After my batty Benele excursion of 1984 I brushed my hair, straightened my tie and bought a sensible XT600Z, just like I always knew I would. This was the slightly better 55W version of the original kick-only Tenere, distinguishable by sloping speedblocks on the tank (more here). All I did was add thicker seat foam and fit some Metzeler ‘Sahara’ tyres – a rubbish choice for the actual Sahara, as I was to learn. Using no rack was another mistake which nearly cost me the bike. My learning curve was still as steep and loose as a dune slip face. In fact, there was so little to do to the Yahama that I moved the oil cooler from down by the carbs up into the breeze over the bars. And I painted it black because I still hadn’t shaken off my juvenile Mad Max phase.
With my £5 ex-army panniers slung over the back, in December 1985 I set off for Marseille, bound for Dakar via Algeria, Niger and Mali. As I mention in the book, I was going to try a new ‘go with the flow’ strategy’. Instead of being ground down and resentful by the setbacks of my previous adventures, I’d just take the reversals on the chin, bounce back, and move on. On this trip that stoic philosophy was to get a thorough road test!
This is part one of a bonus chapter which does not appear in the book.
You’d think I’d have learned something after my 1982 Saharan fiasco on the XT500. Well I did. Despite it all, I was still fascinated by the Sahara and wanted to go back and do it properly this time. When it was good it was epic and other-worldly, and if you came from one of the less edgy suburbs of South London, the Sahara made quite an impression: nature stripped back to its raw bones of sand and rock. Across it lay the frail ribbon of road they called the Trans Sahara Highway which I’d ridden off the very end of a couple of years earlier on the XT.
By 1984 I’d settled for an easy way of despatching for a living: working long but steady hours for a London typesetting outfit, delivering advertising copy on the one mile between Holborn and the West End. (You can read all about that and a whole lot more in The Street Riding Years.) There was no longer a need to ride an IT250 or a 900SS should you get sent to the other side of the country on a wet Friday evening. For this job a dreary commuter bike was sufficient. And none came drearier than Honda’s CD200 Benly twin (below left), a single-carbed commuter ridden by stoical Benlymen. Riding up to 12 hours a day on a hyper-dull CD can drive you a bit crazy at 24 years of age.
Knowing I was into dirt bikes, a mate put me on to a mate flogging an AJS 370 Stormer (right) for fifty quid. The Stormer was a vile, shin-kicking British two-stroke motocrosser that was the polar extreme of the Benly. In a flash of brilliance which years ago had given birth to the Triton cafe racer cult, I figured I could marry the two and make something more desert rideable and less boring: a Benly-engined, MX-framed desert racer!
Over the summer of 1984 the machine took shape in my artfully appointed bike design studio in London’s literary Bloomsbury district. It took two goes to get a bike shop to correct the engine alignment mistakes of the former. But here it was, suspended by some Honda XL250S shocks as long as truncheons, and silenced by VW Beetle tailpipes, a cunning, lightweight trick you may recall from the BMW I rode with in Algeria in 1982.
Later on, the job was finished off with gearing more suited to horizontal applications, and an RD250 tank with a sexy ‘Moto Verte’ sticker so there’d be no mistaking what an international, Franchophilious guy I was. I took it out to the woods near Addington to see what it could do. The answer was similar to dragging a dead dog around on a lead. The VW pipes reduced the power at the rear wheel to quite possibly single figures. The foot of clearance needed a running jump to get on the bike. And the AJS conical hub brakes where a requirement by the then powerful Ambulance Drivers’ Union to ensure their members were never without work scraping Stormer riders off the sides of buildings.
I dubbed the bike a ‘Bénélé‘ in envious recognition of Yamaha’s near-perfect XT600Z Ténéré which I’d spotted in a Sydney bike shop a year earlier, and which was itself based on Yamaha’s Dakar Rally desert racers. More about them, later.
So what do you do with a dumb-arsed desert racer? You ride it to the Sahara of course, in a little less time than was available. You pack a 3500-mile trip to North Africa into two-weeks and you schedule it for September when you imagine peak summer temperatures are on the wane. This time there’d be no fear of enduring the mid-winter transit of Europe and the northern Sahara, as in 1982.
My goal that year was a mysterious massif of conical peaks which I’d passed by, south of Arak on my way to Tamanrasset in 1982 and which I’ve since learned is called Sli Edrar. The Bénélé’s top speed was no more than 53mph, and even at that speed it felt unsafe, should a squirrel run out in front of me. So to get a good run-up I rode straight from work on Friday night down to a mate’s in Canterbury, close to the port of Dover, ready to catch an early Dover ferry next morning.
By maintaining momentum, Monday night found me camped back among the magical limestone outcrops of Cassis, near Marseille, ready to hop on the ferry to Algiers the following morning.
You can see I had an all-new soft luggage set up. No more sawn-off chemical tins poorly lashed to Dexion racking. This time I had a small canvas pannier hanging on one side where a 10-litre jerrican slipped in; a thin cotton Times newspaper delivery bag dangling off the other with 10 litres of water, and an over-huge tank bag which sat on the flat-topped RD tank. A sleeping bag in front of the headlight – Easy Rider style – kept the bugs off the Benly headlight. Cunningly, I lashed a tool bag with other heavy items under the lofty engine. If my mass had been any more centralised I’d have become a Black Hole right there and then.
My first memory of Algeria that year was being a little unnerved that as far north as El Golea it was already 35°C by 9am. If you live in Yuma that’s probably no big deal in September, but for a South London boy it was a bit of a shock. I filled up in in town and set off across the Tademait plateau which had spooked me on my first transit in ’82. The town (or anything) was 400km away. I buzzed along at 9.8hp/hour and by early afternoon dust devils or mini tornadoes were whipping across the baking gibber to either side. I recalled how a mate said he’d been knocked off his XS650 by one in Turkey earlier that year.
I was already tired, thirsty, sore and hot when up ahead what looked like a huge wall of sand hundreds of feet high hurtled right across the blacktop. Only as I neared it did I realise it was the mother of all whirlwinds, a huge cauldron of rotating sand. I turned the wick up and and the motor droned as I punched the Benele into the sand wall. Inside, all visibility was lost as grains pelted me from all directions and I struggled to keep upright or even know which way it was. And then, as I slipped into the windless eye of the maelstrom, the sand grains briefly turned into pelting raindrops. WT jolly old F was going on!? Search me but before I knew it, I’d blasted out of the tornado’s far wall, this time shoved left onto the roadside gravel. Now I knew how those roadsigns got flattened into the dirt…
Just as in 1982, the Tademait had terrorised me and I vowed I’d ride into the dark to be off the plateau before stopping. I rode into the dusk, pulling up briefly with the engine running to remove the sleeping bag off the headlight, before pushing on into the big switchback descent from the Tademait to the desert floor.
That night I stripped off and lay in the dirt by the bike, listening to what sounded like the oil boiling in the crankcases, hours after switching off.
I wasn’t hungry but I drank and drank and soon fell asleep where I lay. Tomorrow I was heading past In Salah, the hottest town in Algeria, before heading deeper into the Sahara.
With the help of the internet I can affirm that the Chocolaterie Aiguebelle was founded by a medieval order of French Trappist monks in the mid 19th century to make a bit of money on the side. As explained here, they also got into producing advertising cards to entertain, educate and inform. It’s unclear whether these cards came with your chocolates or were distributed from hot air balloons. Probably the former, as that’s what drove me to collect inducements in the 60s and 70. You”l find loads of Chocolaterie Aiguebelle cards on ebay.
The operation shipped out to North Africa at some point where it’s still around today and which may explain the card below. Yes it’s another interesting map of the Sahara. No date is given but it looks like the state of colonial expansion in the late 19th century.
As always it’s interesting to see what is shown and what is not. Ancient Timbuktu seems an odd omission (though it’s mentioned on the back as a worthwhile destination for the trans-Sahara railroad). Tamanrasset was just a village at this time so gets skipped and Timassin is Timassinin, later Fort Flatters under the French and today Bordj Omar Driss (BoD). Not far to the west, Messagem and El Biodh were nothing but wells on the caravan route from In Salah to Ghadames, but it seems if early European explorers were led through these places by their guides, then they acquired a cartographic life of their own. They’re all on the map below from 1898. In the late 1980s we travelled this ‘forbidden’ piste from Fort Mirabel to below the westernmost ribbons of the Grand Erg, coming out at the checkpoint of Hassi bel Guebbour, just north of BoD. By the post war era these obscure wells had slipped off the maps and back into obscurity.
Interesting that remote In Zizawaterhole features, even though it’s not on any trade route, while Taoudenis was then still an important point on the 52 Days Road between Morocco and Timbuktu. East of there, it’s hard to think of today’s lonely well of Mabrouk being any sort of piste junction. Although the wiki waypoint matches the map below, today there aren’t any tell tale vehicle tracks, even though it’s not far from Timetrine where western hostages got shuffled around during their long captivities with AQIM.
On the Atlantic coast Tarfaia is there with more about it here. Never heard of Groha near or maybe Smara, not Djorf el Asfar near present day Bir Lehlou in the PF Zone. Further east in present day Niger, the Oasis of Djebado is the old name for Djado looks as important as Bilma and the other Kaour oases, but not enough get a marker point. It’s hard to know what Yat might be other than Seguedine or a misplaced and misspelt Ghat, or Tao which appears on other old maps (maps often repeat their predecessors mistakes).Maybe it’s Dao Timni, today a military base in the middle of nowhere.
I recently watched Michael Palin looking back on his Sahara TV series of 2002. I think it was the last of his big travel shows for the BBC.
I remember thinking there was more ‘Sahara’ in the show’s title than the actual programmes, and watching what they chose to use in the recap, it looks again like he – like most people – was more at home in cities like Fez, St Louis and Algiers, or places like Gibraltar than in the desert.
I must admit I never fell for the Palin ‘nicest-man-on-TV’ schtick, though I haven’t watched his other travel series. Palin was born in 1943 so it could be a generation thing: many encounters felt set-up and shallow. Perfect Sunday Night telly, then and now. I remember him bristling a bit when this necessary fakery came up as an audience question at a talk he gave in London to promote the Sahara show. Similar TV travel presenters like Bruce Parry (what happened to him?) and even Simon Reeves were among some fawning luvvies wheeled on to shower accolades. Both of them come across as equally genial and far more intrepid, immersive and engaged in their similar TV travels But all this is a bit like complaining about the Long Way… Ewan & Charlie motorbiking shows relying heavily on back-up vehicles. It’s a mainstream TV show, not Storyville.
As for Sahara, I can’t help thinking he didn’t like the actual desert. Fair enough; not everyone does. During the Niger episode (as deep into the Sahara as he got, afaik: a night or two in the Tenere and just after 9/11) he sits on a stool and sleeps in a tent rather than. getting down with the Tuareg. Disingenuously or not, over a snack he assumes they’re mocking him while teaching him local words. I’ve commonly experienced this ribbing and take it as no more than that. He gets his own back later by getting them to repeat ‘bottom’ – as in ‘Bottoms Up’ which all Brits say several times a day when having a cuppa.
‘Such a lovely scene…’ chirps Parry. ‘That’s what you get when you put the time in.’
He observes that the locals in Agadez seemed barely moved by 9/11 (or were less exposed to saturation news coverage) and resented this insensitivity. You get the feeling that like so many with a list to tick off, he was attracted by the romance of the desert: its mysterious veiled nomads and shimmering front-of-a-date-packet oases. Then he got there and found it hot and dusty, poor and dirty, with tiresomely chauvinistic guides, begging children, toilets from hell and all gradually exhausting. To his credit, the online diary certainly doesn’t hold back as the book (as I recall it) and especially the TV show had to do.
Oddly skipped in the show and the book is the fact that he travelled with Polisario escorts 1000-km overland from Tindouf down to Zouerat, partly along a route which has only recently re-opened. It was perhaps played down to appease the Moroccans, but also our man had a bad se of the runs which, as we all know, can make life miserable. Then he took the train to Choum and carried on to West Africa. Even with regular breaks back in the UK, by the time he got to Niger (‘in temperatures of up to 55°C…’), he must have had enough.
‘It’s a bare, dispiriting place.‘
So it can be if you’re there in the wrong season with a busy agenda of encounters to record. As mentioned elsewhere, I was struck that the Algerian Tree on Route L2 from my old book (visible on Google sat and pictured above in 1998) epitomised the essence of the desert for Michael Palin. He proclaimed:
‘… this spare, uncluttered, beautiful spot was one of my favourite places in the Sahara‘.
Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
The original 1996 paperback edition of Desert Travels (and now the ebook, left) featured us camped below a striking cathedral-like formation. I’d always wondered where that place actually was. The relevant chapter in the book is called The Cathedral, referring to the spires and church-like ‘portal’ of the pinnacle-clad outcrop. It was shot by Mike Spencer who had a proper camera and slide film.
This was before the GPS era and at the time I was too preoccupied keeping track of the bikes and my Landrover’s numerous issues to attempt to follow our progress on a map with dead reckoning. Our guide, Chadli, knew his stuff but was rather reticent – they teach them that in guide school. I knew the vague location within 50 square miles – the photo credit in the book says ‘near Tin Tarabine’ which is true enough, but that area, if not the whole Tassili-Hoggar southeast of Tam, is famed for unusual rock formations.
I had a rough idea the cathedral (above, with my crumby camera) was somewhere after Tadant canyon well and before Tin Tarabine oued. Then in 2006, coming towards the end of our epic traverse from Mauritania across Mali and Algeria towards the Libyan border (see: Sahara: The Empty Quarter) we passed through that area. I’d not been there since 1988, but anyway coming at it from a different direction, it was all new to me.
As we’d crawled steeply out of Tin Tarabine oued and away from the famous Youf Ehakit – an amazing area of eroded rocks and bizarre, neo-Celtic engravings (left) – our escort’s car needed the clutch repaired yet again.
They pulled up onto a flat rock shelf to to a proper job this time, while I and the others dispersed for a wander. Climbing the outcrop up above the cars, I spotted some intriguing spire-like formations across a plateau a few kilometres to the north. Could I have stumbled on the location of the original DT cathedral cover after all these years?
I grabbed a water and the GPS and set off cross-country, passing pre-Islamic tombs (right), then dodging down into little canyons and over outcrops as the terrain became rougher. On this occasion I didn’t have a copy of DT with me, but the huge, hand-like pinnacles in the far distance looked very familiar.
After about an hour and a half I was running out of daylight to get back, but got close enough to the weathered spires. I took a few hurried shots (left) and the following waypoint which I see now is actually just a kilometre from the formations. But when I got home and looked at the book’s cover closely, I realised they were similar and most unusual but were not the Cathedral, even if I was looking at them from behind.
I forgot all about it for a few years then began to wonder again if the Cathedral could be tracked down now that we have masses of imagery of everything everywhere and any time. I scanned people’s Panoramio and Flicker albums as well as the embedded photos on Google Earth (often irritatingly misplaced, as we all know…). There were plenty of amazing rock formations in the Tassili-Hoggar vicinity, but no distinctive Cathedral.
In the end I knew the best people to ask were the Germans –der uber-Saharans. I may know the Sahara well, but in Germany there are hundreds more experienced and better travelled Saharans than me. In the good years they explored every corner of the desert, but most didn’t feel the need to write guidebooks about it afterwards.
I posted my question with a picture on Wuestenschiff, one of the main German Sahara forums. Within a couple of days I had a name for my location: the Cathedrals of Tin Eggoleh and the waypoint: N22°21’6.75″ E007°5’12.20″. About 50km to the northeast of the ‘false-sprires’ of 2006.
Mystery solved and somewhere good to aim for next time…
Here a fascinating 1960s vintage film (45 mins; French) on the work it took IGN to produce their brilliant 1:200,000 scale Sahara maps from thousands of aerial photos, sonar readings and laborious ground surveys. Loads more in Yves R’s Sahara website and some stills below.
Organised by French ex-army Saharienne, Jean de Boucher, in February 1967 twelve land yachts with pilots from half-a-dozen countries set off on a 2500-km rally from Colomb Bechar (then linked by rail from Oujda on the Mediterranean) to Nouakchott on the Atlantic coast, at times following today’s recently reopened Tindouf Route via Algeria. It seems the race element of the rally was abandoned after some 2000km in Zouerat following several DNFs, but some carried on down the coast, cutting across what was then Spanish Sahara (‘PFZ’), on to the beach at Nouamghar and down the beach to Nouakchott. At this time most of Mauritania’s population still lived in the desert as nomads. The rally was supported by a couple Land-Rovers, small planes and surviving French military garrisons with which General de Boucher presumably had good connections.
The adventure featured in the November 1967 issue of National Geographic magazine (left, right, below). A couple of images are used here; read the full 30-page article scanned on the Extreme Kites website. There are more reminiscences here by American competitor, Larry P featured on the magazine’s cover.
Thanks to Dutch participant, Copijn Bruine Beuk for turning me on to this little-known story and sharing his own pictures of the event (below). Besides hundreds of punctures, as the article recalls, early on Copijn had a close shave with an overhead electricity wire – luckily it wasn’t live. The same happened to a few others who ended up with snapped masts. Once it gets going, a land yacht can hit 60mph or more, but back then brakes added up to little more than a hinged footboard you pressed into the dirt (left), like pressing your feet on the ground to slow an out-of-control pushbike. So you can see why half the field DNF’d. Other hazards included side gusts blowing a land yacht over – February-March were chosen as the time of the strongest northeasterlies. Note also the twin steering wheels: one to steer the front wheel and the other to adjust the sail’s trim: pressing on the footbrake for all your worth, that’s quite a lot to think about when hurtling towards a steep oued bank or into a small dune field. Makes desert biking look positively benign!
Part of an occasional Sahara A to Z series Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
‘Free Solo’ is a documentary covering Alex Honnold’s mind-boggling, rope-free ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite, California in 2017 (left). If you’ve seen it you may recall that, among other places, Honnold practised on a hidden cirque of cliffs surrounding the scattered hamlet of Taghia, buried about as deep in Morocco’s High Atlas as you can get. A couple of rudimentary gites cater for visitors but, even among Moroccan know-alls, unless you’re a rock climber you’ll have never heard of Taghia. The only way in is a four-mile mule trek through a canyon from the valley head at the equally obscure outpost of Zuweiat Ahansal, an hour or two’s ride south of Rocher de Mastfrane, better known as the ’Cathedral’ (below).
I rocked up at Zuweiat one lunchtime just as a group of young American climbers were spilling out of a taxi, and continued over the bridge to the edge of the old town. I pulled over for a snack and, unsure of the way and not wanting to blunder on, asked a passing local whether it was possible to ride a bike to Taghia and if yes, which way?
‘Oh no’ said the old man. ‘You can only get there on foot.’
I finished my snack and thought it over. Back by the bridge, I sought a second opinion from some more worldly looking dudes hanging out outside the post office. They were eyeing up the new, North Face-clad arrivals and one spoke good English.
‘Yes, I saw you pass and was going to say, you can’t ride your moto to Taghia.’
It turned out he’d worked on the Honnold doc as well as other National Geographic features and, reading his manner with my finely tuned bullshit detector (which they now hand out free at the border), it didn’t sound like the usual bragging. After that, he switched seamlessly into sales mode, offering lodgings and guides.
‘Maybe next time’, I said. I genuinely did hope to visit the mysterious valley, but the weather forecast was a bit shaky for the next couple of days. I wanted to get out of the mountains, not stuck in them.
A year or two earlier a bike-riding climber who’d visited Taghia suggested to me that a small bike (like my Himalayan) could probably reach the cirque following the riverside mule path.
While that may be true, I figured just because I could, did I have to – or even, should I? The local guide may merely have been protecting his mule-trekking services, but I like the idea of leaving some of the world’s wild corners unspoiled by the putter of mechanized transport. As I was about to be reminded, there’s plenty to see in Morocco on a bike or in a 4×4, but there are many places in the world which are best reached by less intrusive human-powered transportation. That’s what makes them special.
Set off with a mission to join some dots for my spring tour in a couple of weeks.
Mission accomplished. Dots joined.
More about the bike here.
High Atlas village
Another new road from nowhere to nowhere much. I suppose it helps stir up the local gene pool.
One of these days I’m going to watch a youtube doc on how they build mountain roads.
Above the clouds at 2500m or about 8300′ in old money.
An isolated juniper tree that’s managed to dodge the village wood burners.
Checking the link route to Map Junction above Ijoukak.
1970s Transit. One of the only vehicle’s I saw today once off the main roads. The other was a Trannie too.
Another photogenic village somewhere.
Resting outside a village north of Sidi Ouazik, a relocated Reguibat (Saharawi) ends up giving me some meteorites from the Hammada du Tindouf (St Expert mentioned these in WS).
Never knew Saharawi were relocated way up here – 45 families, he said.
I tell him I’m on my way to Reguibat country. About 5 days ride from here to #thedigtree