January 2019 • Two weeks* • Starts/ends Marseille • £2799
When people think of motorcycling in the Sahara they often envisage a gnarly tyred trail bike loaded with jerricans battling through the desert sands. Much like the image right from 1988; my fourth visit to Algeria.
But like the rest of the planet, transport infrastructure has moved on, even in the Sahara. Around the turn of the millennium a sealed road across Mauritania finally linked Tangier with Dakar, and a few years later improvements in northern Sudan did the same for Cairo and Khartoum.
No asphalt road yet bridges the central Sahara; the famous trans-Saharan Highway I first rode in 1982 from Algiers to Tamanrasset and beyond (left) currently ends on the Niger border and is likely to stay that way for a while. Even in the 1980s it was in such bad shape cars found it easier to drive on the sands to either side (above right).
In the east is another, more scenically impressive desert highway, the more obscure N3, leading over 2000 kilometres from the coast to Djanet, the last town in southeastern Algeria. It took them ten years to complete the final 400-km section over the Fadnoun plateau and following a recent return to Algeria (my 26th visit), it’s time to revive an old idea: a two-week, 4500-km road bike tour across the Mediterranean, Tunisia and down the N3 to the oasis of Djanet, deep in the heart of the Sahara (map, right). That place where I laboriously dug out my XT600 in 1988 is near the dramatic Tin Taradjeli Pass (left, 1989). That pass is now part of a pristine highway, pictured below, 2018.
Sahara Road Trip
January 2019 we board a ferry from Marseille for the 22-hour voyage to Tunis, and from there ride to Algeria’s desert border near El Oued. Here we meet our mandatory agency guide and probably pick up one of several police escorts (right) who’ll see us on our way into the desert.
After three days riding through the vast Grand Erg Oriental, past the billowing Algerian oilfields and dropping off the Tinterhert escarpment, we arrive at the outpost of Illizi on the edge of the bleak Fadnoun. It’s now time for our dramatic transit over the fabulous Tassili N’Ajjer to the desert floor and the Erg Admer dunes which bring us to Djanet.
Situated close to the Libyan border amid a UNESCO heritage site, we have a day off in Djanet (right), though you may want to join an optional half-day ride out to the now famous ‘Lybie–Niger’ road sign (top of page). There aren’t many junctions in the world where the choice is one country or another. We’ll ride on to the scenic Oued Amais for lunch by the mysterious Tanaout engravings then head back to town. Next morning we fill up and reverse our long ride north to Tunis and the boat back to Europe.
This tour is 99% road based because at any time there may be unsealed deviations around roadworks several kilometres long. Nearer Djanet we may also choose to briefly ride alongside the dunes close to the road on flat, hard sand. It’s a big thrill, a great photo opportunity and easy enough providing you keep your head.
Where possible we stay in hotels. The south of Algeria may be world-class in terms of landscapes and prehistoric rock art, but tourism infrastructure is still somewhat Pleistocene. In Djanet it’s the same hotel as it was back in the 1980s – only then it was a straw-hut campsite filled with rugged overlanding types. And because of a gap in available lodgings, one night we must be prepared to bed down in the dirt beneath the watchtowers of an army camp. Some roadside cafes may also resemble a set from a Mad Max movie. The food will be fresh enough but in Algeria don’t bank on bars serving alcohol.
In short, it may all be just a long road ride but we will not be swanning around from one five-star parador to another, clinking Martinis by the pool. You need to be prepared to rough it, including waiting at roadside checkpoints with the stoic patience of a Venus flytrap. It will be an adventure, in the original sense of the word.
The Sahara Road Trip is suited to any kind of bike, but a manageable adventure-style bike over 500cc with a range of up to 400km ought to handle it all without breaking a sweat. I’ll probably be using my proven XSR Scrambler (right).