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Sahara Overland A6: Djanet to Tamanrasset

South of Tazat, 1987

In the good years the various tracks between Djanet, near the Libyan border, and Tamanrasset at the southwestern foot of the Hoggar mountains all combined to make classic multi-day adventures in southern Algeria.

You traversed Algeria’s fabulous southern expanse, from the sandstone ramparts of the Tassili N’Ajjer plateau, long famed for its prehistoric rock art, then went around (or over, left)) the dunes of the Erg Admer and out across oued-strung plains. Passing isolated mountains and other outliers, the volcanic rubble and basalt columns of the once molten Hoggar erupted from the sands and lifted you up to Assekrem, a few hours from Tamanrasset and a refuel.

Puzzled near Borne; KM241

The main route used by non-clandestine locals (A6 in my Sahara Overland guidebook, see bottom of the page) was still nearly 700 kilometres or two desert nights for most. It was also on the limit of what an unsupported bike could manage. When I first did it in 1987, the road from the north ended in Illizi, 400km from Djanet over the Fadnoun plateau. That all added up to over 1000km and one of the best all-dirt stages in southern Algeria, with just enough pre-GPS navigational challenges to keep you on your toes. It was rare to pass more than one or two other vehicles during the transit.

Fallen MAN, 2018

Over the decades the army were tasked with building a road over the Fadnoun’s switchback escarpments. Up to that point trucks supplying isolated Djanet had to take a huge, sandy detour to the west via Amguid, nearly doubling the road distance. Today the Fadnoun (below) sealed and still a great drive, but occasionally lorry drivers still fall foul of the Fadnoun’s curves, as left.

Gara Ihadja n Kli, one of the Fandoun’s ‘collapsed domino’ escarpments

Morocco is famed for sealing southern desert pistes faster than we can keep up. Algeria isn’t like that. The huge distances and minimal population of the south, along with insurgent badlands over the borders in all directions, hold back development of transportation infrastructure – along with so much else in benighted DZ.

Caught on camera west of Serenout (Bing Maps)

Route A6 has been supposedly closed to tourists for several years but recently satellite imagery as well as traveller’s reports show that the two famous southern Algeria towns are about to be joined with a slender ribbon of asphalt. The gap is now less than 100km. How long it will take to ‘hammer down the golden spike‘, and whether the surface with survive the baking summers of the south remains to be seen, but that’s been an issue since they finished Trans Sahara Highway from Algiers to Tam in the early 1980s. It’s said the TSH remained intact over its 2000-km distance for just one year before flash floods, poor engineering and overloaded trucks beat the bitumen back into rubble and made driving back on the sands less damaging to truck tyres and suspension.

Two red crosses mark the respective ends of the tarmac verified in early 2023.
The northern arc of the ‘N55’ as indicated on Google Maps is incorrect. The source is unknown, there was never a route here and current asphalting to the east follows another alignment entirely. Southwest of the red cross (KM427) to Ideles, Google Maps is correct.
Yellow = waypoints from original A6 route description (see below).

In early 2023 a Swiss couple in a Mercedes Sprinter reported that that the new road from Djanet ended a short distance west of the once abandoned Serenout fort (KM300), now re-occupied and surrounded by rubbish.

The tarmac resumes westbound, about 100km later at KM427 in my old A6 route description. Even if they do succeed in sealing this traverse, it will still remain one of the great routes in the Sahara, and of course there is no need to follow it. There is A7 to the north, A14 in the deep south and at least one more route via Tiririne, Tarabine and the Tassili Hoggar we did in 1989 and again in 2006 on the way back back from Mauritania on Sahara: The Empty Quarter.

Trans Mauritania with electric FatBike [videos]

See also: Empty Quarter 2006

Mauritania and Citroen 2CV specialist, Cyril Ribas supports his son Evann as he cycles his Gorille e-MTB fatbike from Aïn Ben Tili on the PFZ frontier south for over 1500km to the Route d’Espoir highway paralleling the Senegalese border.
Cyril is recharging spare bike batteries as he tracks his son’s progress while keeping out of sight. Evann has to keep the e-bike in Eco power mode to extract up to 130km in a day.
The northern half of the route is relatively flat but from Ghallaouiya, east of Guelb er Richat they must cross the Mrayer Sand Sea before entering the tussocky region leading down to Tichit and the Aouker basin.
As you’d expect, there are some sublime drone images of the immense desert.

Morocco with Dacia Duster 4×4 rental

See also:
Toyota Prado TX rental

Drive around southern Morocco and you’ll see loads of Dacia Dusters. The Renault-owned Romanian brand has a factory in Tangier where Docker vans and Lodgy MPV taxis are also assembled. You’ll see those everywhere too.
After spending a week in a Prado TX (right; more about that job shortly), I rented a Duster from Medloc to start work on Morocco Overland IV with a pal.

Coupé, mon ami. Reculez-vous

I’d spent the preceding weeks on Google Maps, Bing and BaseCamp, extracting a whole new tangle of routes right across southern Morocco, way more than I’d manage to cover in 12 days driving. Sadly my tally turned out to be even less than hoped when the weather turned on the Prado job, ruining their route, snowing up passes down to 1800m and wreaking flood damage, landslides and transient floods across the land.

A network of discontinuous lines – c’est la vie.

With many normally bone-dry rivers still flowing I knew we wouldn’t achieve much in the Dacia but we went ahead anyway; no recce is totally wasted. On the very first day we were snowed back then blocked by a churned up oued and rerouted by a closed mountain road. On the second day (left) we had to turn back three times before lunchtime! We settled into this pattern for the next week or so, probing, turning back and covering about 3500km (map above).

Renting a Duster in Marrakech Airport [RAK]
I’d rented from Medloc in Marrakech years ago but it can still feel a bit sketchy to a first-timer. Unlike Avis, Hertz, etc, Medloc and other Moroccan rental agencies don’t have a cabin office in the Menara airport car park, a 5-minute walk from the terminal. Nor might they meet you with a sign as you come out of Arrivals (not me at least, but I was there already). I had to call them and tell them where I was, using a car park place number.

Next: do not expect your freshly valeted car to be there waiting for you. Two guys rocked up after I called but it was about a hour before our actual car, booked for 11am, turned up. It’s not just me; the week before a ‘executive/prestige’ rental outfit dicked us about for even longer sourcing a second Prado which had been booked well in advance. And this was a multi-car job worth tens of thousands. Note that Dusters come as 2WDs too; make sure you book the right one!
Our car was a little dinged and repaired here and there but with seemingly good tyres (as requested), a similar spare and the all-important jack and wheel-changing tools (always check these; half the Prados’ jacks were missing). I’d make a show of checking the oil level while they watch
too; it shows conscientiousness (our’s looked like Brent crude).
I paid the rental fee on a portable card reader: €65/day plus a deposit of €1500, same as we do when renting bikes from Loc. Basic 3rd party insurance is included; no other damage waiver insurance was offered. I signed various forms, the pouch of documents went back in the glove box and we were asked to return the car with the same four bars on the fuel gauge.
On returning the car another call identified my location in the airport car park. People turned up fairly swiftly; checked around the car, asked about the bodged repair to the turbo hose (see below), made some calls and even unexpectedly refunded me the 200D I’d paid for the repair with no receipt then signed the car off. There was no cancellation of the €1500 deposit; he said he’d email me later with it (he didn’t). This was unnerving but checking my bank statement that evening, it seemed it had never been taken in the first place while the full rental fee had. This was similar to a moto I’d once rented off a trailer by the roadside in central Marrakech from M2R using a wifi card reader. It all felt sketchy as hell but panned out too. Even where possible I try to avoid using my card in Africa – cash for the rental and deposit is an option with Medloc.

Lessons learned: go ahead and use your 4×4 to its full ability on Moroccan tracks but make sure you have a number to call and try it before you get in trouble. Alone in a smoking Duster with over 100,000 rental kms, you may want to constrain your off-roading ambitions. Some places we drove would have been a near impossible recovery but don’t assume they’ll come down with a replacement if you car breaks down. They may suggest you try and get it fixed locally. I’d also bring a good tyre compressor. I’d also considered blagging a couple of planks somewhere for bridging as well as traction, although rearranging rocks, kicking away oued banks and on soft terrain
stopping early and deflating did the trick.
I note that Hertz at RAK offer an auto KIA Seltos ‘or similar’ AWD for under €60 a day. It looks like a Duster and a Duster you may get. Renting with Hertz ought to feel more reassuring, but only if you get a proper 4×4 Duster (which don’t come as automatics in Morocco, afaik).

In a line
Prepare to be surprised with what you can manage in this light, all-terrain SUV.

 • You can feel how lightness helps
• Great end clearances – never touched on some steep banks
• Recorded up 45mpg (16 kpl), that’s a 750-km range
Nippy enough on southern Moroccan roads
• Suspension pretty good for what it is
• Had air-con and sat nav (but not the best)
• I didn’t miss Low Range much
• Road tyres worked fine up to a point when ATs would n’t have been much better. No punctures
• There is some underside protection
• There were fewer electrical faults (none, in fact) on our Duster than some of the Prados with similarly high rental mileages

 • Underbody clearance is lower than it looks over central track humps
Lame air-con and hard to see sat-nav
Clicking noises under power from the back diff on loose surfaces; an LSD working or transmission wear?

Le Doustaire is a budget SUV going from an amazing £15k new in the UK. I’ve long been impressed by its unusually functional angles and clearance – as good if not better than a stock Prado. In my experience, along with appropriate tyres, for off-roading good clearance is the first priority, followed by 4WD and good articulation (suspension range) or traction control, and finally low range. Plus a snorkel.

The 4WD Duster has six speeds but no low range, just a crawler first gear. I’d outlined my intended use to Medloc and asked for good tyres and that I didn’t mind a well-used example so long as it wasn’t black. At Menara we picked up a bronze 1st generation Duster a few years old with a Renault K9K 1.5dci, 85hp TD in 6-speed manual and 117,000km on the clock.

Our car had a sat nav which actually worked for routing once you’d got the better of the interface, but the matt LCD screen was hard to read and was set too low for the driver. There was also air-con but it was pretty poor at pumping cool air around. I don’t know if low pressure in the system does that.
With the back seats down (left and below right) there’s almost enough room for two to sleep on the near-flat surface, if needed. The brakes were OK (non ABS) and so were the lights. I should get a job at Top Gear!

4WD system
The Duster runs FWD until you turn a low-reach dial to ‘AUTO’ at which point the rear axle engages on demand, activated by front wheel slip. Another 90° turns the dial to ‘LOCK’ presumably engaging a central diff lock (up to 40- or 60kph) to split torque 50/50 for a bit more traction. I don’t think our car had ABS, nor did it have ‘ESP’ which includes traction control. Later models have more acronyms. This Renault video may help demystify things, or this page where there’s talk of the system overheating if used hard, so there must be something slipping somewhere.

It all feels a bit opaque compared to the old-school mechanical lever and lock systems I’m used to, but we only struggled twice; once when the articulation and so the traction was on the limit crossing a wash-out (left). That ditch took a bit to rocking/momentum (not ideal and how lurching, non-low-range cars get damaged). The other time was wet sand under a crust between low dunes where I wasted no time in stopping early, clearing the wheels, lowering the tyres and foot recce’ing a way out.

As I know well, on the piste you can manage with 2WD 95.3% of the time, but there’s no harm leaving it in AUTO which won’t wind up the transmission and ought only intervene when needed, though might create some drag and higher fuel consumption. It did feel like the steering stiffened reassuringly in LOCK so something was happening below, but a couple of times when turning on loose surfaces under power the back diff clicked as if there was a mechanical LSD in there, or something was slipping and would soon eventually strip splines or snap.
This is the risk in using lightly built ‘4WD’ SUVs on remote desert tracks where occasionally you might have to ask a lot of the transmission. There’s a reason why Land Cruisers and the like are relied on by aid agencies, despite their weight, cost and fuel. consumption. They are over-built to handle the task and last, but are of course still prone to failures.

This was why, again and again in our aged Dacia we backed away from terrain which we might have tackled in a stouter Prado with Low Range or with another vehicle present. And it was why we didn’t cross something which we weren’t confident we could reverse, if needed. Nor on this occasion did we intend to venture into the remote desert south of Rissani. The nature of flood damaged tracks: wash-outs, landslides, fallen rocks, boulder-filled river beds or actual rivers and slimy claypans (we encountered all these), is that a track can be perfectly drivable for miles, then virtually impassable, then fine for miles again to become completely impassable. It takes some experience of desert off-roading and a vehicle’s abilities to know how far to push it while also knowing what you can tackle without risk.

Camping fuel with fly-in rentals
Flying in to rent a vehicle then camp, you’re limited with what stoves or fuel you can carry on a plane. For boiling water a harmless volcano kettle will work but current models can be slow and fiddly. I managed to transport solid fuel ethanol blocks in my hold bag (they can be classed as ‘disinfectant gel’) to use on a compact gimp stove, and also thoroughly aired off my reliably powerful old Coleman petrol stove but ran up against the weight limit so left it. At the last minute I bought a Trangia burner which, using the same stand as a gimp stove, will work with alcohol that you can buy readily from pharmacies in Morocco.
In fact, in any small town it’s easy to buy a 5kg bottle of butane for just 60D (£5), as well as a cheap burner head for around 40D in a hardware store. From previous experience in North Africa a bottle this size will last a month and is of course dead easy to use once out of the wind.
While faff-free, one thing we noticed is that Moroccan butane is of a lower quality than what you’d get in Europe. You won’t get a crisp blue flame but it got there in the end, probably no quicker than a v-kettle, Trangia or a gimp stove.

Soon things got worse, then deteriorated

The independent coils all round give pretty good articulation and as mentioned, if nothing else, the clearances lapped up the piste. On the road the car was nippy in southern Moroccan traffic, didn’t roll much in bends and the brakes were OK. Six gears was a new one on me but if you don’t rush it you got it right most of the time. I’ve not driven a manual for over a decade but had I not read it before, I’d not have noticed first was extra low. Sixth is definitely an overdrive that drops the revs and noise.

Chunky 50L plastic tank

The Duster’s clearance is nearly as impressive as it looks; not once did we scrape either bumper; more than I can say for the stock Prado I used last October (The Prados we used just before this trip were notably lifted).
So we were surprised when the undercarriage scraped, grounded and thumped on deeper twin-rut central humps. Looking underneath there is actually some steel protection, but the full-width bashplate under the engine (below left) seemed to be the Duster’s point of contact, along with maybe the forward edge of the rear diff housing (below right). Seeing that neither was getting pulverised made the occasional scrapes and thumps easier to endure, but it was irritating to have to drive deep ruts off-centre like a regular 2WD car to avoid excessive contact.
As it was, on many occasions one of us hopped out to either move rocks and/or guide the driver over tricky ground to avoid needlessly bashing the undercarriage.

Duster fuel consumption range

A switch on the end of the wiper stalk I’d have never found toggles a nifty read-out on the dash which includes remaining range, live and average L/100km, odometer and outside temps. The Duster has a centrally mounted 50-litre tank and averaged the low to mid 40s mpg (6.5L/100km; 15kpl) which was pretty good. I doubt the hefty Tojo Prado ever exceeded 30. Accelerating the Toyota you could almost hear the gush of fuel pouring out of the pipe as the 3-litre engine heaved the 2.5-ton car into motion.

Turbo alert or something else?

We did get caught out on one little used track which we started late, had it turn unexpectedly gnarly (above), and with us low on water and with no signal. The fuel range dived under harder use, compounded when a dash warning light came on (left) and power dropped off. Limp-home mode?
From day one Barry thought the turbo was playing up; not knowing the car I wasn’t so sure. But we couldn’t decipher the warning icon on the dash as the only handbook in the glove box was for the sat nav (it needed one). We checked for drips underneath and under the bonnet and carried on into the night. It was a tense couple of hours.

Never thought I’d be pleased to see the twinkling lights of Zagora.
A typical Agdz ‘Kwik-Fit’

It wasn’t till next day in Tamnougalte when we got online to find that orange warning lights are less critical than red. We also got a tip to check the turbo inlet hose. Up to that point we’d assumed the turbo had gone (Barry’s failed on his Defender at just 14k). But Medloc did not respond to detailed emails explaining our problem, or requests for a replacement car. Calling was the answer (trickier for me with shakey French) to which they suggested we buy a new turbo and get it fitted (for 1000D we were advised; one could have come down from Ouarzazate next day).

We should have spotted the loose hose on the piste; rev the engine and it blew off and remained displaced, producing black smoke so common to many older diesel bangers in Morocco. But the plastic hose (as opposed to more flexible rubber) wouldn’t push back onto the turbo and stay there; some attachment /clip was broken, caused I presume by old age plus the engine rocking on the chassis mounts over rough ground. I’ve had this engine-wobble/hose-strain problem before with the Land Rover 101 and other vehicles. Once our spliff-tooting mechanic had firmly lashed the hose back on with bailing wire and two jubilee clips, normal performance resumed and stayed. Was the turbo whining more? Hard to tell.

Quick rinse

Above all, what impressed me with the Duster was its lightness – or how little it took to get the combined 1500kg mass moving with very little throttle or a relatively high gear. Often you could trickle along a piste in third. And when things got a little rough this lack on mass translated into non-self destructing impacts where the mass of a proper 2-ton 4WD would have either broken something or bashed you against the insides. This really was a revelation in the Duster and why I’d rent one again. Just maybe not such an aged banger.

Westbound for Tazenacht

Aguinane cascade in spate

If you been on one of my Morocco Fly & Ride tours you’ll doubtless remember our overnight stop in Assaragh after our steep ride from Aguinane up the cliffside overlooking the dry cascade – and perhaps a walk we took to the cliff edge later that afternoon. Below is a video found by one of the riders recently, shot by a local in late 2018 of the usually dry waterfall in full spate. the force of the water looks quite staggering.

In February 2023 we came up to Assaragh to see it flowing a little for the first time, getting bigger as we watched, following a week of rain. But when we came back 2 hours later after getting snowed off the road to Agadir Melloul, it had stopped.
Then, two days later back in Taliouine I was shown a vid from that afternoon just like the one above. All roads south of the N10 were cut and the river at Assaka bridge (below), just west of Tali which had been trickling yesterday was running full width and several feet deep and heading for Agadir.

MZ1 – New Jebel Saghro crossing

MZ1 (formerly MH23)
Nekob > Skoura • 104km

Last ridden: November 2022 – KTM 890 Adventure R; BMW 310GS

Now that the once classic MH4 from Nekob to Tinerhir (or Dades) is fully sealed, the southern sections of MH14 and MH15 still offer challenging off road crossings of the western Saghro mountains. A little too challenging for some on MH14.
This ‘new’ route offers an easy way to access the range, initially following a well-maintained haul route west into the hills and down the other side on a regular but still good mountain track.
You get all the distinctive drama which make the volcanic ranges of Jebel Saghro so unique, but can manage MH15.2 in any vehicle, including a pushbike over two days. As with the other two routes, the drama subsides once west of the ranges around KM70 and heading towards Skoura, but in that time, above 1600m you’ll have passed several epic vistas that make it all worthwhile. Thanks to local geologist Saad B for pointing out this route. In 2017 I came up MH15 to the new haul road at KM34 and wondered where it went to the east. I assumed to some mine; now I know it’s all the way down to Nekob.

The whole of the Saghro massif is especially rich in high-value minerals and cross-crossed with dead-end prospecting tracks.

Away from either end, the only ‘village’ of substance is Tagmout (KM43), a few smallholdings strung out in the basin and overshadowed by the gold/copper excavation just to the north. This mine must be why the eastbound part of the track got carved out of the hills; it’s not like there are a string of others lonesome hamlets up here needing a link to the outside world. West of Tagmout – geologically quite different in character – a few Berber shepherds live out in the wilds.

There’s nothing on paper of course, unless you print it yourself, but you can track it clearly on Google satellite and Apple Maps, as well as free digital maps like the particularly good GarminOpenTopo. There were only a few scraps of trail showing on my v3 Garmin Topo (v4 is current).

Because the east section is used by mining dump trucks (I saw three just as I left Nekob in 2021; one in 2022), east of Tagmout this track is wide and in great shape and so remains doable with any car or bike. On an Africa Twin in 2021 I did find the countless western switchbacks – ground down to powder by the trucks’ scrubbing tyres – needed to be inched around. A more stable KTM 890 (with a group) made easier work of these in 2022, and a week later 310GSs were easier still to manage. A 4×4 will barely break into a sweat or low range.

Route finding
After studying Google satellite I traced a putative kml along what looked like the clearest route, and it all panned out fine with no wrong turns. Westbound, you can’t go wrong up to the blue sign in the Tagmout basin (KM42; Berber women selling trinkets) and beyond here most forks of substance are to the right on the downward section, passing north of Bou Skour village and mine site (which you don’t see) to the big village of Sidi Flah.
I saw no other traffic bar the three dump trucks rolling into Nekob in 2021 and in 2022 we saw a couple of Berber shepherd 125s and a lorry.

Suggested duration
Allow half a day in a car or 4 hours on a bike with scenic stops.

Route Description
 (104) Nekob west Afriquia fuel. On the other side of the main road, 200m to the west, a tarmac side road leads north to villages.

5.5 (98) A track splits left off the tarmac. There was some roadworks here in late 2022; work your wat round towards the pass to the northwest. Soon you cross a oued and enter a small palm gorge at which point the climb begins.

19 (85) Col at 1420m.


25 (79) Approach the impressive buttes of Jebel Agoulzi to the southwest (below). More noteworthy vistas follow.

KM25 and Jebel Agoulzi

33 (71) Reach a junction with tyres on cairns which is a 3-km link SW to MH14. MH15 comes in about 3km later (KM36) up from the south. You now head north for 9km, on the way passing the 2004-m high point with great views of the snowy High Atlas (below), if the season and conditions are right.
You then work your way down sweeping bends into the Tagmout basin with a mine on its northern flank and where tracks diverge.

Looking over the Tagmout Basin (March 2017)
The Blue Sign at Tagmout

42 (62) Blue sign junction just east of Tagmout ‘village’, such as it is. Turn left for both Kelaa (as signed; MH14/15) and almost immediately left again (no sign) up to the Tachbouft Pass (KM45; 1805m) visible to the southwest for the run west to Bou Skour.
Over the next 20km the track rises and drops over the ranges with several impressive viewpoints (below).

65 (39) Fork right. (Left leads down to Bou Skour village south of the mine). The most dramatic part of the crossing is over as the terrain loses elevation.

69 (35) Fork right again north of Bou Skour mine. In a kilometre keep right again just before some trackside machinery, and soon (around KM70) the main track from the mine (P1514 on Google) joins up from the left (south). You now follow the P1514 heading north then west.

79 (25) Fork. Keep left on the main track.

86 (18) Converge with a minor track coming from your left and where a red sign says ‘Bouskour 18,4km’ (pointing the way you’ve come from).

88 (16) Track joins from your right. All these three side tracks over the last 10km are minor: the main track is clear.

91 (13) Just after a passage alongside a farm wall, you cross a tributary of the nearby Oued Dades and swing north. Soon you pass through the small town of Sidi Flah. In 3km cross a bridge over the Oued Dades.

103 (1) Near a power station, at a lone, unconnected orange pylon keep right to reach the N10 visible up ahead. Once there, turn right for the Inov roadhouse on the eastern outskirts of Skoura. Left is for Skoura and the N10 to Ouarzazate. Straight across leads up to the actual town centre and Amzeria (Amerzi; see update Update 3.0.14 – May 2019)

104 Inov roadhouse. (100km from Nekob on a 310GS odo).

Sahara Silhouettes 3

More Sahara silhouettes here and here.

Desert Travels •- London to Dakar (1985-6)

Desert Travels Index Page

Buy Desert Travels 2021 on Amazon

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!

Zoomable Map Link
A chilly desert morning somewhere south of Ghardaia. Further south there isn’t enough humidity to produce overnight frost.
Back at those first proper desert dunes north of El Golea (today: El Menia). What a crappy, lashed-up baggage system!
I return to Arak where I’d got detained on the enervating Benele trip the previous year for being an idiot.
Here I meet German Helmut on an old, ex-police R90 BMW.
We are both planning to cross the Sahara so agree to meet up in Tam a couple of days down the road and do it together.
A pose south of Arak. full black leathers, HiTec Magnum desert boots, and my dainty British Airways nylon scarf.
View of Sli Edrar: my aborted destination on the Benele trip. Even now I was too nervous to ride the 10km across the desert to the hills. What would happen if i hit quicksand?!
It takes years to get used to being out there. Or it did me.
Sli in 1982 on the XT500 trip.
I finally got to Sli Edrar 17 years later from the other side.while laying out fuel caches for Desert Riders.
And in 2008 we had a great afternoon riding Sli’s granite domes on one of my epic Algerian bike tours.
The worse thing about those rubbish 2-ply Metzeler Saharas, was that I bought a spare. Back then there were no hard-wearing Heidenau K60s or Mitas E09s.
In Tamanrasset I meet up with Helmut and we take an overnight excursion up to Assekrem in the Hoggar mountains.
Helmut on the R90. The overnighter was a good chance to test our bikes.
Sunset from the Hermitage at Assekrem. ‘There was no one there..’.
A chilly camp, high up in the bleak Hoggar.
On the less used western descent down from Assekrem, near the village of Terhenanet Helmut deftly flips his BMW. The rounded gravel in this particular oued is unlike anything I’ve found in the Sahara. I barely made it across myself.
A day or two later, Helmut lightens his load after the lessons of the Assekrem excursion and we set off into the night to cross the Sahara to Niger.
We camped a short distance out of Tam in the hope of getting a good run for the 350km to the border in a day.
Next morning we come across some Swiss riders. One of them flipped and cartwheeled his 80G/S and and now it won’t start.
Helmut knows his BM from his elbow and sorts it out: a barrel flooded with oil.
Look at the huge load on that other Tenere compared to mine. This was one of the reasons why I felt it was my duty to write Desert Biking a few years later. That book evolved into the Adventure Motorcycling Handbook.
As that day wore on, Helmut got progressively more and more tired from frequently falling off his bike.
One final crash around dusk finished him and the BMW off.
With his shoulder damaged and so unable to ride, I persuaded him to give his BMW a Viking burial with the loads of spare petrol he had left over.
The remains of Helmut’s trans-Sahara ride next morning. We abandoned most of his gear and he squeezed on the back of my XT. It was galling for him; he came off quite a lot worse than I did on my first attempt at crossing the Sahara in 1982 on an XT500.
After leaving Helmut at In Guezzam, the Algerian border post, I set off across No Man’s Land for Assamaka: the Niger border.
It was New Year’s Day, 1986 and the Dakar Rally was leaving Paris.
As I say in Desert Travels, the Sahara Handbook of the time warned of the very sandy conditions in No Man’s Land, but in fact the terrain wasn’t so bad. When things are tough or in times of stress I tend to press on; when they ease up I feel it’s safe to stop for a breather.
So even though it wasted precious film, I had the notion to take some aerial selfies by setting the camera on self timer and throwing it up in the air.
Most shots were of gravel or sky, but here’s a superb pre-drone-era snap of the Tenere from 20 feet up.
After checking into Niger at Assamaka – a portacabin and mud hut in the middle of nowhere, next day I got lost on the last 200-km stretch to Arlit where the road resumed.
And not only that but just before I got there, my canvas baggage caught fire (pressing on the pipe; the usual story). One pannier burns merrily in the stiff Saharan breeze.
I wasn’t carrying that much stuff; now I had a bit less. Notice the H4 light bulb.
My first Saharan crossing had been quite eventful. See the Google Map.
A few days later I arrived at the banks of the Niger river. West Africa was a whole different vibe from the Sahara and North Africa.
After struggling along the very sandy riverside track from Niamey (Niger) into Mali, I camped on some dunes above the river. As the sun set, over the river I could hear drums beating in the villages.
Next morning I reached Gao, located the ferry over the Niger (there’s a bridge now), and headed straight to Bamako as my Mali visa only lasted a week. But I got a puncture and encountered the Blue Man as described in the book. From here on I’d have many punctures from thorns I picked up while battling along the sandy bush track to Gao.
The famous monoliths near Hombori, Mali.
Another monolith in the morning haze.
The fabulous Grand Mosque of Djenne (not my picture, can you tell?).
I’m now sick with the shits but need to rush on to Senegal before the visa expires.
In Bamako I gave up trying to get my bike on the train to Dakar, as most people did back then because the roads were so bad.
So I take the direct route to Kayes and the border. After all, I’ve crossed the Sahara and am on a trail bike, how hard can it be?
The track follows the Dakar railway which helped with orientation. Just as well as I got lost again and again. Unlike the desert, there are loads of bush tracks linking village to village.
Waiting for the non-existent ferry at Bafoulabe. After a while I realised there was a bridge just upriver. How else would the train get across.
You can see my perspex numberplate has succumbed to the piste; a common problem. Small metal plates are better.
Rough tracks in west Mali heading towards Kayes. Few people took this route and I don’t recall passing any other vehicles.
From Kayes it was another 100km to the border which I had to reach that night.
But there is time for a quick look at the Chutes de Gouma, west Mali (see map).
Passing through Kayes that evening, I learned that Dakar Rally founder Thierry Sabine, had been killed with several others in a helicopter crash.
January 14, 1986.
Somewhere after Ambidedi, I crash out myself under some baobab trees. I was still sick and too tired to carry on, visa or no visa.
Next morning I reach the border, now with two flat tyres, but accidentally manage to slip out of Mali unnoticed. With no more patches, I get a train to Tambacounda where I meet Al Jesse, of Jesse Luggae fame.
He gives me a spare tyre (my own got ruined from being running flat with the rim lock done up.
I think my cameras had packed up (another common problem) but I still had film so Al took some pictures of the Dakar finale for me, including Gaston Rahier #101, signing Al’s BMW 80ST which he’d ridden down from the Arctic Circle in Norway, two-up.
Gaston Rahier in action.
The Marlboro-Elf team. Imagine racing those tanks off road for up to 1000km a day.
That year Rothmans Porsche 959s got 1 and 2, and Neveu and Lalay did the same on Rothmans Honda NXR 780s (which became the original XRV 650 Africa Twin two years later).
What a great result for Rothmans – if that won’t get you smoking, nothing will!

Serge Bacou – cool centre stand (not my pic).
Al inspects a Honda 125 #1. I have failed to find out who this was, or if it was an actual finisher.
The route was similar to mine, but twice as fast, half as long and many, many times as hard.
From Dakar I ship the XT to Spain and fly on after it. What an adventure that was!
Weeks later I got a postcard from Helmut.
London to Dakar on an XT660Z Tenere. Next?!

Desert Travels • Bénélé 1984 • Part 1

Desert Travels Index Page

Buy Desert Travels 2021 on Amazon

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.

Benele 1984 Part II

‘C’ is for Chocolaterie Aiguebelle: a vintage Map of the Sahara

Part of an occasional series: Sahara A to Z 

See also this
And this

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 Ziza waterhole 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.