Tag Archives: desert biking

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.

hi-res-c-scott-1984

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

Desert Riders TV cut (video)

Desert Travels • Sahara Motorcycle Tour (1989)

Most of Desert Travels describes my Sahara Motorcycle Tour of 1989 (chapters 4-15).

Five riders left, only one came back riding.

Photos shortly.