So back to the story. It’s Algeria, northern Sahara, late summer 1984 and it’s very hot indeed. I’m riding a 200cc mash up of AJS, Honda, VW and Yamaha with enough ground clearance to become an Olympic event but barely enough power to stir a tea bag.
I got up and rode off my patch of dirt towards In Salah, a hour or so down the road and the last town.
Very soon I came across a French guy on a Z750LTD sat by the side of the road and looking a bit how I felt – shell shocked. Yesterday on the Tademait, the satanic sand storms had freaked him out and his bike, a spine-wrecking ‘factory custom’ (as was the fashion at the time) was not such a cool highway cruiser after all. He’d had enough and was heading back north.
The old fuel station in In Salah was always fighting to keep its chin above the sands and I pulled in to the new place to fill up for the next stage, 270km down to Arak Gorge with not so much as a well on the way (modern pix).
A short way out of town I passed another fallen truck, as I had near here in 1982 in the XT.
Again, a perfectly flat road; you presume the guy had passed out in the heat of his cab and flipped.
You’ll notice there’s a guardian camped by the truck – maybe the driver. He’s watching the wreck so it doesn’t get stripped until someone comes along with a crane.
As I rode on I experimented with as yet unheard of photo techniques and of course a quick pose why not.
I liked my trusty Bell Moto 3 but I’m sure glad I never had a crash in it. The padding inside was about as inviting as being kicked in the head by a pair of boots. I see now I’m wearing a natty British Airways cabin steward’s scarf picked up in Laurence Corner’s army surplus ‘boutique’ in Camden, just up the road from our squat. I’ve only just read this, but apparently the Beatles bought their Sgt. Pepper outfits there, and the likes of Kate Moss (possibly still in nappies at the time) and Jean-Paul Gaultier (older, but probably also in leopardskin nappies) have all rummaged around in the junk at LC looking for something to cut a dash. As trendy despatchers looking for the final solution to work wear, we did too, and I think the scarf was going for a pound.
Back to the desert where the only fashion was staying alive from water to water and the low elevation hereabouts meant it was becomingexceedingly hot. I’m guessing about 45°C or over 110 of your Farenheits (or however you spell it).
Like I said it’s nothing unusual at these latitudes I’m sure, but I’d never experienced temperatures hotter than I was.
I was being baked alive by the air I was riding through and wrapped up tight to keep the blast from turning me into a shrunken Peruvian mummy.
In this pre-Camelbak era, every half hour or so I just had to stop for a drink and was getting through water at a rate of 2–3 gallons a day which was all I could carry. By the time I could stand it no more I’d feel the desiccation reaching down my throat like some malevolent African djenoun, and realised that rapid dehydration actually gets you from the inside out as you helplessly breath in air at well over 40°C. It was clear that the survival manuals were right: without water or shelter, consciousness could be measured in a matter of hours in this sort of heat.
At one point I thought I simply must cool myself down and poured a helmet’s worth of water into my Bell and put it on. The delicious effect soaked through my clothes with a steamy hiss, but half an hour later I was again throat-parched and dry as a roadside baguette.
I spent another night out can’t recall where and thought of Arak tomorrow morning; a grubby oasis of fuel, water, shelter and a cafe.
By 7am I was on the road, trying to beat the heat and now very low on water if not right out of it.
The Trans-Sahara Highway that had finally linked Algiers with Tamanrasset just a couple of years earlier was already breaking up, and in this heat, you could see why. Black tar which sizzled as you spat on it wouldn’t stand a chance as another semi hammered the scorching highway to a pulp. Diversions shoved traffic onto the dirt so repairs could be undertaken, and I had my first chance to be forced to ride the Benele in the sands. All things considered it managed well enough, even with horsepower barely into double figures. The tyres and light baggage all did their share.
Then, as I neared salvation in Arak something changed in the ride, the suspension seemed to tighten up. I hopped off, dreading some problem with the Honda which could surely not handle such heat for much longer – a simpering commuter hack brutally mutilated and throw into the deep end of a Saharan summer.
A quick investigation revelled the chain as tight as a bow string. I was experimenting with running a non-o-ring chain dry to avoid sand wrecking it – I can tell you now that is a bad idea. In fact I recently rode a BM in Morocco with an o-ring that got plastered in sand and even with daily oiling it needed adjustment once in 4000 miles.
These modern chains are incredible but back then I was worried the hyper-taught chain and bouncing suspension – three times longer than any CD200 had imagined in it’s worse malarial dream – might rip out the engine sprocket and fling it across the desert floor. I soothed the creaking chain with a balm of engine oil and watched it sag before my eyes. Now it was way too slack but the AJS frame had some nutty (possibly ahead of its time) eccentric swing arm pivot which was a faff to adjust in the state I was in. I was out of water and the mercury was again working its way up the dial. Just as when I’d panicked when my XT500 had leaked away half its fuel on the way to Niger in ’82 (see above), I felt the compulsion to seek shelter and so rode on to Arak just a few miles away, with a slap-slapping chain.
Frantic that I’d just caught the bike in time, I decided to remount the barred blacktop under repair to save any extra strain on the transmission. Steadily the gorge walls rose up ahead but then the tar suddenly took on a darker shine and I sunk into a sludge of thick, freshly laid bitumen as the gutless Benele lurched to a crawl. I yanked on the single carb to spur the slug onward, the tyres cut a trench in the oily slush and bitumen sprayed across the mudguards with a clatter of sticky gravel. Oo-er, didn’t mean to do that. I steered off the unset mush and continued for the roadhouse, hoping my tar trench would melt back into form like divided custard.
Now safely at the roadhouse I crouched in the shade clutching a drink and looking forward to a rest before the final stage on to the Cone Mountains another day or so down the road.
As I pondered my near miss with wrecking the bike, an army jeep pulled up, two guys jumped out and marched up to me.
‘Is this your moto?’
‘Why did you drive on the closed road!’
I recall I may have pathetically tried to play dumb until they pointed our the sticky splat coating the undersides of my bike.
‘I am sorry. I was panicking. You see my chain was…’
‘Did you not see the signs ‘Route Barree? and the stones blocking the road’
‘yes. Sorry. Look I will go back and repair it myself’, I reasoned, thinking I could smooth it all back with a plank of wood.
‘Shut up! You will pay for this. Give me your passport’
One of them snatched it out of my had and they stormed off in a flurry of wheelspin back to the fort.
The other people in the roadhouse looked down at me with the pity of one who was rightly in the dog house, gagged up and tied down.
Another dumb, heat-frazzled wannabe adventurer disrespecting locals regs.
There began my three day ‘hut arrest’ in Arak.
Everything was hot all the time; nothing had been cool for days. As I unpacked my stuff I found candles had drooped into Dali-esque blobs and weirder still, opening a tin of luncheon meat or ‘spam’ (aka: synthesised proto-ham) the contents poured out like water, flecked with pink particles of fat-saturated meat-like matter. I’ve not eaten that stuff since!
I spent the days reading J. P. Donleavy’s Balthazar B or chatting with other similarly heat-struck bikers passing through, while dust storms periodically ripped through the gorge. By night it was just too hot inside the hut so I slept outside in what little breeze there was.
Even then I’d wake once in a while with my lips and throat parched fi to crack, and struggle to rejuvinate my mouth from the water bottle.
As the days passed I knew I was running out of time to visit my putative goal – the mini massif I now know as Sli Edrar. Then one morning the jeep returned and my passport was returned with nothing more than an admonition no to do it again.
Ashamed of my stupidity, I’d got off lightly and vowed to oil the chain as often as it damn well liked.
I packed my ragged bags and set off on the 1000-mile ride back to Algiers port.
A day or so later I wasn’t feeling well.
Lightheaded, stumbling and weak, up ahead of me was the climb back onto the dreaded Tademait plateau, not a place I wanted to tackle in the shape I was in. So halfway up the hairpin climb I pulled off the road and crawled into the shade of a metre-high culvert. What was wrong with me? I was surely drinking enough – 10 litres a day and a couple more by night. Then it struck me. Water was not enough. I needed to ingest salt and other essential minerals flushed out in sweat which evaporated unseen. That must be it. I made myself a salty-sugary drink and lay back while it took effect, wary that this was just the sort of place snakes and scorpions might also pass a siesta.
In my dozy state I clearly assumed that a striking picture of my other camera on a tripod would be a fitting souvenir of my pipe-clad recovery.
Be that as it may, nagging me were the 800 miles that lay between me and the boat that left the day after tomorrow. It was time to put in some miles.
The drink did the trick and revived, I set off across the Tademait, tensed up in preparation for something bad to happen – a piece of the sky to fall on head perhaps?
But the 400-km crossing passed without event which in itself was creepy. A fill up in grumpy El Golea and another 250 clicks knocked out past Ghardaia. Only now it was late afternoon – time for the headwinds to kick up so that at times the feeble motor strained to reach 25mph while I crouched over the bars, crippled with stiffness, watching the odometre roll by in slow motion.
Around Berriane the wind brought in a dust storm and visibility dropped to a few feet. I edged to the side of the road, wondering what would be thrown at me next and if I should get off the road altogether, not least because cars still rushed past me, confident that whatever risk they took, it was OK because All Was Written.
By Laghouat I’d caught up with myself, unclawed my hands from the bars and tracked down the only hotel in town. But the uppity ponce behind reception had no room for the likes of me, so I rode out to some edge-of-town wasteland more suited to my kind. As I slumped against a litter-strewn, shit-riddled ruin an old guy living in a cardboard hovel I’d not even noticed hailed me over.
I’d never actually met a real Algerian before. He invite me in and we chatted as well we could. While his unseen wife prepared a meal he proudly told me how he’d fought in the recent Western Sahara war against Morocco (Algeria lost that one) and when the time came I was invited to sleep on his carpet.
Sad to report that it turned out to be agonisingly flee-ridden and try as I might I could not drop off as another bug took a jab. I moved out into the donkey yard but it was too late, the fleas had latched on and in turn went on to infest my preternaturally comfy old mattress back in my London squat for many months. We’d been through the squatting wars, the mattress and me, moving from place to place just ahead of the council bouncers, and I tried everything to save it, even gently torching it with hairspray and a lighter. But as the flames licked over it, those Algerian bloodsuckers just yawned and sharpened their mandibles. Eventually I had to chuck it.
But, back in Algie, thanks to a killer day I was well on target for the port, only 400kms to go. After a week of relentless heat day and night, the temperatures finally dropped as I rose back into the Atlas mountains and unready to face dealing with the congested capital, bounced into some roadside scrub, stalled the bike, and passed the night there.
But with the ignition carelessly left on (a mistake I’ve caught myself making since when dirt camping), next morning the battery was dead and try as I might,no jump starting could revive the bike.
With just hours before the ferry left, eventually two kind blokes responded to my plea and loaded the Benele into their pickup, remarking as they did ’what’s with all this tar all over the bike?’ Don’t ask, mon brave…
Following a battery acid transfusion and a cafe noire in Medea, I was good to go, spun down to the pot and blundered my way to the shore and the port gates.
Even today I can tell you nothing beats the feeling of a ferry steaming away from a North African port. Did I say that already about the 1982 trip? Well it was even more true in ’84 and on most years since.
Let nascent Somali pirates steal us to their thorny lairs, let sudden storms hail brimstone and flip the ferry empty like a jar full of bolts.
I was safe – out of Algeria. Yippeyiyay.
A day later the boat docked in Marseille. It was probably Friday, I had to be back at work on Monday, so I’m still not sure what possessed me to make a visit to the Bol D’or 24-hour endurance race set for that weekend nearby at Le Castellet raceway, except that Bike magazine had enshrined it as a biker’s rite of passage – France’s one-day equivalent of the Isle of Man or Daytona – as much a moto-carnival as a race spectacle.
I rode in and watched the 3-man teams flip their slick tyred UJM’s from bend to bend and also recall some baffled looks at my odd bike, battle scarred from its recent desert detour.
Look, I even had the presence of mind to check out #53 on an RD500LC popping in for a fill up. I think the team spent more time filling that tank than on the track.
But my telling memory from the ’84 Bol was a vision of the future of desert biking.
In fact it was a future that was already two years old, and it’s name was Yamaha. XT600Z. Ténéré.
My Bénélé jokebike had been two-fingers flicked at the Yam. Why? Search me, but I’m currently engaged in a similarly pointless project some 30 years later.
An TT-Z Dakar factory racer glared down at me from the Sonauto Yamaha stand, slick in the sexy, pale blue Gauloise livery which we never got in the UK.
It has it all: 55-litre tank, discs all round and 12-volt lights and a side stand as long as a pool cue. Even if the road-going XT-Z was less extreme, what was not to like?
(more pix of that bike – or one just like it – here)
OK, I concede. The Tenere ticked all the boxes, but it had been fun doing it my way. I’m sure there’s some pithy Armenian proverb that spells it all out, like ‘The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn from the crow’ (that’s actually the Indian dude quoting William Blake in Dead Man – a great movie)
Anyway, a Tenere would come later, right now It was time for the final haul, some 600 miles to Calais and a boat back to the UK.
I spent that night in some slug-riddled forest and Sunday morning saddled up early to get a good run up for the ferry ramp.
Tonight I’d be back home. But, as I’ve learned so well over the years – it’s never over till it’s over.
Within an hour or two a slate-grey death cloud crawled up onto the horizon, unzipped itself with a shrug and proceeded to empty its bladder down my neck. My desert-dessicated leathers soaked up what they could, before dutifully passing it onto my next layer of clothing, until within just a few minutes I was a sodden spongebag of saturated rags.
Splashing through a village, I overcame my reserve, swung into a farmyard and rode the bike into a barn.
There I slumped, dripping on a workbench, exhaustion welling up from the previous fortnight’s moto mania.
I was dropping off and ready to tip over in a heap when the farmer wandered in and said coolly:
Damn right mon ami. I perked up with glazed eyes and luckily looked the part of a road-weary, waterproof-scorning wayfarer, rather than some deviant trespasser. He let me be.
By late afternoon P&O disgorged me at the butt end of the A2 which reeled me back up to London.
Spinning along at 45-50, clogging up the inside lane, I snapped this defiant shadow shot as I went by.
Back home, what the Germans call the durchfall began to erupt, as my shrunken stomach was engorged with longed-for snacks.
My drenched coat fell to the floor with a thud whereupon I was surprised to see there were still dry patches on some parts of my clothes.
I had just enough energy left in me to glare at the camera and snarl:
No more sodding motorbikes! Ever again!
Well, not until 8am tomorrow, that is.