Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Tunis – Hassi Messaoud – Quatre Chemins – Illizi – Fadnoun – Afara junction – Tazat – Djanet airport – Tazat – Toukmatine – Erg Tiodane – Amguid piste – Foum Mahek – Sli Edrar – Arak – TSH to Tam – Taghera – Erg Killian – Monts Gautier – Balise Line – Djanet airport – Fanoun – Erg Bouharet (Desert Driving base camp)
“It’s never over till it’s over” I’ve learned to say to myself over the years but it had barely begun when at Tunis port they whipped away my newly illegal GPS “telephone” unless I chose to arse about getting a permit from the Ministry of Stupid Ideas. I deposited it in a room full of CB radios (fair enough) while others did the same, a bit stunned about how to navigate down south. Luckily my real sat phone (which I had the presence of mind not to declare) had a rudimentary GPS.
Coming off the boat I’d met the famous David Lambeth coming back from supporting a bike rally – he was not keen on lending me his bells and buzzers Garmin 5, but another departee in a pink 110 kindly lent me an eTrex to back up the untried Thuraya sat phone navigator.
Then, trying to call g-friend down the road it turned out my PAYG Thuraya had expired its SIM (don’t use it much in London). This undermined the security of my solo route plans somewhat until my rendezvous with Prof. Nimbus in Djanet in ten days time. I was beginning to wonder was this going to be “one of those” trips – after all, all had gone remarkably to plan these past couple of years …
A fax to g-friend from Nefta saw some new SIMs on the way to Nimbus. Until then I was out of comms. Part of my job on this trip – my first solo car venture into the desert it transpired – was to dump food and fuel for my upcoming Desert Riders caper, scheduled for early 2003. D. Rider Jon had gone shopping for food just before I left and had been called by DR Andy asking him to buy one more of everything. I then spent a night by the Grand Erg scoffing at their tasty food choices and sorting the stuff out into packages we’d be able to carry on a bike from the fuel drops.
Next morning more problems. After fueling up for 1500km plus half a dozen petrol jerries to bury, HbG checkpoint made me take a soldier to Bordj Omar Driss but failed to tell me the piste from there was closed to Amguid (otherwise I’d not have bothered with the lift of course!). I’d heard this piste had been closed (due to smugglers he told me on the way back) and a barrier was pushed up against the piste at Quatre Chemins. It was the direct route to my planned fuel dump south of Amguid but anyway the weather was oddly hot, windy, hazy and even spitting rain. If nothing else my three Algerian trips this year have confirmed the unpredictability of Saharan weather. It boded ill for our much-postponed filming of Desert Driving in a couple of weeks…
I’d half expected a closed piste so had plans to hit Amguid from the Djanet side. I had a hot/cold, windy/rainy night near Ohanet in the back of the car, and with time to kill before meeting Nimbus, soon got to savour the relaxed non-tour-leading pace while driving alone in the desert. I checked out the hotel at In Amenas (a dump, fyi) and explored Erg Bouharet as a great location for some planned DD scenes. We camped here in 1988 on my first bike tour (described in Desert Travels) and I was amazed to see my so-called “apostrophe dune” pictured on my g-friend’s wall unchanged in 14 years. As I suspected, the myth of dune mobility is much exaggerated, especially if part of an erg rather than stranded on a plain.
That night I popped out to Oued Djerat east of Illizi, the site for much rock art, it is said. Clear tracks lead into the canyon and after it got narrow I parked up but found nothing but a quiet night out. Next morning a Tuareg cameleer creeped up on me as they do while I was finishing off Michael Palin‘s book. I’d left a colourful array of kids’ clothes hanging from the nearby trees. He helped himself to the booty and told me the art was a bit further up the canyon where I’d spotted an encampment earlier on. Now that I knew where, it was one for next time.
Over the Fadnoun the weather was still hot and windy from the south. I washed the car in a guelta and recced a D Riders route along which we planned to emerge from Oued Samene (to Ifni). It looked good, as the TPC map suggested. Down the road at Afara junction I headed right onto the piste. I rode this route in 1990 with Steve in his car and some images remained: the nice dune/outcrops where I camped that night and a very steep descent to the Afara plain which I managed to negotiate without a scrape next morning, despite the half ton of fuel on board. I even had the presence of mind to film the undercarriage with a bullet cam taped to the chassis to use in the Desert Driving film later.
Afara north is pretty amazing – like Monument Valley but without Navajo souvenirs, and the southern bit coming onto the ‘Borne’ plain is nice too, but in between it’s a basalt bashing butt-jabber (something that had not affected me on a bike in 90). Still, at least the weather was now as blue as it gets.
I came off this slow route in mid-afternoon trying to find the sandy pass on Route A7 KM195 (link below) with my sat phone GPS (I couldn’t work it out how to get the eTrex to do a “go to”). I’d been here a few months earlier on a tour, but still stumbled around until I found the pass. Then, again I got off track not concentrating on the compass or GPS, but finally picked up A7 and with the sun setting, dumped six cans for Amguid on a outcrop for collection later with Nimbus. I then retraced the route back east, enjoying the 120kgs missing off the roof.
Camping behind a fin of rock just past the KM195 pass, I decided to re-erect a fallen balise (steel post) to assist others. Even first time last March it had been tricky finding our way here. I excavated an old truck tyre and dragged the fallen balise over to the pass “gateway”. The balise had three sticky-out feet and by hoicking the truck tyre over the balise, it rested on the feet and, once filled with sand, held up the balise, sort of, now at KM 195 on A7.
That night I was freaked out by a car coming off the pass at 2am. It didn’t spot me behind my fin, but seeing the ‘new’ balise, circled it and swept me in its lights. By then I was already dressed and poised for a locked-in get-away, but the Patrol carried on back the way it came …. phew … and then came back! I was now slinging stuff into the car and ready to move out when it turned north before reaching me. I watched it trundle away for half an hour to make sure. Turns out they were probably as lost as I’d been earlier. Maybe a lot of night driving goes on in Ramadan. Or maybe it was connected with the mass kidnappings that were to occur near here a few months later.
On the way back to Djanet I explored north of Tazat, looking for the pass to Bordj el Haous (Zaoutallaz) as indicated on the TPC map. Climbing an outcrop and surveying the supposed Tehe-N-Essegh pass. it was all sanded up, no way from this side but maybe coming from the east with a slide down. I then slipped through the regular Tazat back corridor and followed a clear track almost all the way to Bordj, dumping the rest of my stash of old clothes with some hyena-like Tuareg kids.
With the plateau to the left and the dunes to the right, the run from Bordj El H’ to Djanet is one of the loveliest drives in the Sahara, even if it’s now sealed. Even though I’d done it several times over the years it still looks amazing and I enjoyed doing most of it on the sands north of the road, looking for new camps and generally marvelling at the scenery.
A couple of days later Prof. Nimbus, laden with Thuraya SIMs arrived at Djanet airport and I gave him the news: our double deep-southern run to Tam and back had been changed to a loop: up to Amguid then down to Tam and then back to Djanet, dropping fuel and food all along the way. Naturally, he was not bothered, it was all desert to him. We camped below Tazat that night, on the way trying out my airbag jack for the first time when I got sunk on a knoll of soft stuff. “I’ve never seen a car sink so deep” observed Nimbus without sarcasm. Turns out his petrol 2A hasn’t got the poke to sink itself like my tractor-engined TLC. I found this out for myself a few years later with an old Hilux, it’s an interesting benefit of a modestly powered 4×4, but at the time not enough to p-ex my 61 for a Series 2A. The airbag was nifty in the extreme, as you can see in the Desert Driving dvd which is now on youtube.
Next day we tried to climb Tazat mountain (2165m), but things got as complicated as they looked near the summit, so we satisfied ourselves with some low-angled shots that looked as good. Far below, ribbons of oueds rolled off towards the hazy horizon and the portly Tojo was but a speck. A smashing picture Nimbus took out there turned out to be the cover of the blue edition of Sahara Overland.
We carried on along A7, eventually locating the jerries I’d dumped a few days ago without needing a GPS (all hillocks don’t look the same it seems…). Then carried on up a new track to me – A5 up past Toukmatine ridge and Tiodane Erg. We lost the balises for a while but it was fast going until the complicated hills and knackered tracks which jam the entrance to the Amguid valley. Clouds rolled in that night and a mini sandstorm hit next day as we emerged onto the valley and set course for Foum el Mahek on the other side of the big valley. What a trucking slog this former route to Djanet would have been in the old – pre-Fadnoun – days!
The Foum emerged from the haze, bigger than I’d imagined and – bollocks – a family of Tuaregs camped by the mouth. Not a good spot to dump fuel then, so we blundered around and that night – 28°C at 8pm – crawled up a stony hill to stash 120 litres and a bottle of Dubonet, followed by a hot, windy night.
On my very first trip to the desert in 1982 I’d photographed a distinctive cluster of cone mountains (left) near Moulay Lahsane on the Trans Sahara highway, and always vowed to go back one day for a look around. Nimbus reckoned he’d visited Sli Edrar last year, so we set course alongside Tefedest westside. Other granite inselbergs proved to be decoys, but when we finally rolled up it was getting clearer that my 20-year old aspiration was about to be fulfilled. The flies were a pain and caterpillars were crawling all around, dying in the sands. I went for a wander and found some Neolithics in the crunchy granite sands, including a nice bone cruncher, and for sunset we climbed up to spot an unnoticed old camp in our hidden valley below.
Sli Edrar is just a few clicks off the highway, but hearing of fuel probs in Tam, we turned north 100km to Arak and tanked up there with 250 litres of diesel, plus another 120 of petrol and rolled down the highway to Tam, arguing bitterly whether In Ecker mountain was visibly shaken by its nuking in the early 1960s (below). In Tam cars where indeed queuing out into the hills for fuel – not due to washed-out supply routes but local politics.
From Tam we were taking on an ambitious route back east to Djanet – 900kms via Erg Killian in the deep south, using a 20-year-old route description (RD) in German including five NavStar (pre-Garmin GPS) waypoints. Nimbus was worried about my fatalistic attitude to spares and safety “I can’t believe you wrote that book!” he said in horror as he trapped me in an arm lock and forced me to buy an engine’s worth of motor oil. It began an interesting branch to the erstwhile LR/TLC debate. Nimbo carries a complete change of undies for his antediluvian Series 2A. Me, I’ve long forgotten what I stashed in the back wings of my Eocene HJ61 many years ago. Radiator hoses and some Haribos perhaps?
Seriously though, we were much encouraged by our Thurayas. If the Tojo soiled itself we could ring any agency in south Alg or even get a message on the web for an eventual rescue. A pre-departure check revealed the 61’s front wheel bearings were pretty floppy. I’m sure I had them done once – or was that the TLC before? We tried to tighten them but some annoying ‘cone washers’ in the hub made it too hard. Destiny it seems wanted them left untouched. Anyway, the other 60s in Moktar’s stable were all as loose and in the end the car got all the way here with only a tad of shimmy @ 101kph.
We’d used a lot of water on the Amguid truck piste and with no known wells till Djanet, four unknown days away, we stocked up with plenty and some fizzy drinks besides. Down out of town, past the south fuel station queues, people were running amok. Good tarmac led to bad and then none at all right up to the ancient In Azaoua sign right on cue.
From here it was fast SE, past a Dakar truck wreck down to a hook where we crossed a pass into the Taghrera (green sign) and headed north over grassy power-sapping sands with the classic Taghrera mushroom outcrops beyond. With half a mind to check out In Ebeggui well, we eventually found a little outcrop of our own, changed the TLCs oil for Algerian honey and enjoyed a nice desert camp.
Next day, into the unknown. We weaved through some barchans and got stuck in a nasty sandy/rocky pass (our old RD was not too specific) where you have to choose soft sand or tyre-shredding rocks. Further south we found a better crossing (which I was to use again with the MAN in 2007) and headed east from ridge to ridge to ridge – very nice driving cutting across masses of north-south tracks (some even corrugated!) used by what must be contrabanders. A full RD will follow (this is Route A14) but several passes later we rocked up at Killian Erg and headed for a good spot to dump a barrel of nosh and a pile of jerries for us to dig up in February 2003.
With the cache buried, we rode on east over the Taffassasset oued towards the bailse line. It was was eerily fast until we spotted some striking mountains unnamed on any map I’ve got of the area (the TPC J3B is particularly crap). Were they the insignificant-looking Monts Gautiers? Who knows, we tucked up under the cliff in this spectacular setting, satisfied that we’d broken the back of the Deep South link from Tam to Djanet.
Heading for the Niger Balise Line (Route A15) we got stuck again, filmed it for posterity and hit the Line (over a 1000 markers planted every half km all the way to Chirfa!) just below Berliet 21. If anyone’s still reading, I left a Special Object in the drum at Balise 112, a bit south of Berliet 21. Retrieve it or present evidence of it and you can claim a prize.
Hitting the Balise Line after so many years trying was another seminal Saharan experience. Nimbus had rolled down this way and into a whole lot of bother a couple of years back and at the famous Berliet Balise 21 we took some commemorative pics and met a tooled-up Austrian G-Wagen with a nice 16mm Bolex retracing our route to Tam. It even had a laptop displaying a live position on a scanned IGN map.
Nim had buried water along the Line in 2000 and we were interested to see if his GPS location worked 40 paces east off the balise. No such luck, After much prodding at two locations, we decided in a featureless area like to north Tenere (as some like to call it!) you need a discreet stone marker or something to pull off a fuel dump with any hope of retrieval. This I’d done yesterday with the cache at Erg Killian.
We eased past Adrar Mariaou checkpoint without being machine gunned to bits and hit the very soft sands near Djanet which, I like to think, killed the kpl down to a pretty poor 5.8 (16.5mpg) since topping up at Killian. We blundered around all sorts of unknown back tracks (including Djanet’s clandestine bitumen depot) until we hit the Libyan Piste and rolled into Djanet for some calamari and chips.
With a couple of days to spare, we organised a day out to Jabbaren with the Zeriba guys – only 30 euros and well worth it. A pre-dawn drive to the foot of the Tassili is followed by a lung-stretching slog up to the plateau – leaving smoking bikers Ahmed and Ian T (and the guide) far below. I’d never actually been on the plateau but some of the rock art at Jabbaren (let alone the weird rock shapes) is quite amazing – even if you do get “cattled out” after a couple of hours. More here from a decade later.
Nimbus flew back to his day-job and I rolled back out to the Tassili plateau, exploring some nice canyons and slowly over the Fadnoun to Erg Bouharet camp (below), south of In Amenas, where I was set to meet Toby Savage and Rich to film the long-awaited sequel to Lawrence of Arabia: Desert Driving.
by Dan Ward ~ September 2007
Riding a bike in the desert is almost the most fun a person can have, so when I saw an advert in TBM for a three week trip to the Algerian Sahara, I jumped at the chance. The trip offered a rare opportunity to travel with legendary desert rider Chris Scott, author of ‘Adventure Motorcycle Handbook’ and ‘Sahara Overland’.
Chris is a well known figure in the Sahara (which became clear when he was mobbed by a group of adoring fans during the trip, at a roadside café in Arak). He isn’t a professional tour operator, but he does occasionally take groups out into the desert to help fund his own adventures. Chris is a very easy going character who doesn’t take himself or anything else too seriously.
The route chosen by Chris took us in a 2600km anticlockwise loop, heading west from a pretty oasis town of Djanet in the south of Algeria, and stopping halfway at Tamanrasset to visit the Assekrem (a hermitage in the Hoggar mountains), before looping back east to Djanet (click map right). Chris’s unique experience and knowledge enabled us to explore remote and normally inaccessible regions, riding largely off-piste in the most beautiful desert I have ever seen. Apart from Djanet and Tamanrasset we spent all of our nights camping out in the desert under the stars.
During the trip, Chris drove the MAN support lorry which carried all our food, water and fuel, and occasionally, the odd broken bike. Experienced desert rider Jon Escombe was the pace bike rider, and, since it has been obligatory in Algeria to have a local escort after the tourist kidnappings there in 2003, we were also accompanied by two entertaining local guides in a 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser.
Riders and Bikes
The seven riders on the trip were a very experienced group, most having previously ridden enduros or desert rallies, and all had travelled a fair bit. Oddly enough, out of seven riders – five were TRF members: Mike (who is now TBM’s ‘Mud Life Crisis’ columnist), Nick and Gerald from Cornwall, and Dave and myself from Surrey. Sean from Surrey and Ken from Scotland completed the group.
We each rode our own bikes on this trip. Chris drove the bikes to Djanet in the MAN and we flew out to meet them. There were two KTM 450s, one Beta 525, one Dominator and almost the complete range of Honda XRs (250, 400, 600 and a 650L with 40l tank!).
I had decided to splash out on a KTM 450EXC for this trip, as the horrors of kick-starting my recalcitrant XR250R in the desert didn’t appeal. Chris Hockey, aka Dr Shox, did a great job of lowering the KTM (as I’m just 5’6”) and set it up for my weight and the type of riding I do. (Chris sorted out my shocks and forks by POST!).
I fitted a beautiful Scott steering damper to calm the legendary KTM speed wobble, and this also had the beneficial side-effect of raising the bars to a much better position. I also fitted Michelin Desert tyres, a KTM cooling fan (essential) and a 13l Clarke fuel tank.
The KTM turned out to be a great choice for the desert – its light weight, electric start, fantastic suspension and responsive ‘point and squirt’ power characteristics made riding a joy. The steering damper took the big impacts, and kept the bike on line with much less effort on my part, greatly reducing fatigue. The combination of Excel rims, heavy duty spokes and stiff Desert tyres meant that I didn’t have to worry too much about punctures or dented rims when riding at speed over the more rugged terrain, although the Deserts might sometimes have been a little too stiff for the light bike to gain enough traction in the really soft sand.
The KTM ran well on the local Algerian fuel (89 octane), and the need for bike maintenance was minimal. A daily check of oil and water, chain tension, nuts and bolts and spoke tension, plus a single air filter skin change and engine oil change was all that was needed. The chain didn’t need any adjustment. The bike didn’t use any oil, and the water needed topping up only once when the radiator boiled over (after the cooling fan became accidentally disconnected during a slight tumble.) Odd spokes and the one or two nuts which I had missed with the Loctite came loose due to the heavy pounding the bike took.
Dave’s XR400 probably had the best size, power and handling characteristics for this type of ride, but all bikes performed well, although Mike’s XR250 was nailed the whole way as his KTM 525EXC hadn’t been ready in time for the trip. Gerald’s four year old KTM 450EXC was the only bike to have any mechanical problems, although this might have been due to lack of cooling fan. The bike overheated and ran completely dry, resulting in its ultimate demise, and the end of the trip for Gerald at Tamanrasset.
During the trip, the days and nights quickly settled into a routine. Each morning, we were woken in our tents by the distant burble of the volcano kettle, signalling the imminent possibility of hot tea and breakfast. I would then emerge from my layers of sleeping bag, bag liner, thermal clothing, rustling emergency space blanket and bike jacket. Yes, the nights were a bit cold!
After breakfast, we would pack up and ride out with Jon, meeting up with Chris and the truck at agreed waypoints for lunch and the evening camp. In the evening, Chris cooked the dinner while we rested and munched on snacks. After dinner, we would sit around the camp fire to chat and watch the stars.
Catering for nine people is a challenge in the desert. There are no shops, no refrigeration and no water, but oddly enough, Chris’ claim that the desert is a sterile environment is perfectly true. UHT milk kept very well decanted into a plastic bottle on the lorry, as did a 3kg block of cheddar. Baguettes also kept well in a black bin liner. Chris baked fresh bread for us a couple of times which was lovely (both the act and the bread), and one evening our guides went off into the desert and came back with warm camel milk – though, sadly, the taste fell somewhat short of my romantic expectations.
I found the trick on this trip (as any other) was to relax and try to ride with maximum technique and minimum effort. You can’t ride flat out for three weeks without becoming exhausted. The remoteness of the region and lack of possibility of any medical intervention in the event of accident means extra care is needed at all times. The riding requires constant vigilance, constantly re-checking the foreground looking for ridges, boulders and ditches, and looking well ahead for larger obstructions like oueds or dunes which may need to be skirted, and in which the unwary can be separated from the group. The weird optical effects of the desert also mean it’s difficult to judge distances.
The bikes mostly travelled independently of the truck, so were able to travel off piste, which provided some great technical riding over a huge variety of terrain. There are fast, exhilarating sand plains, sometimes with unexpected flood channels and ditches which are very difficult to see. There are island outcrops of basalt and exfoliated granite in golden white sand seas, and beautiful sandstone formations and arches reminiscent of the Utah Arches national park. (Mike couldn’t resist exploring one). In between the larger outcrops and formations there are valleys of soft sandy ruts. Often there are enormous boulder fields or lava fields where the outcrops have broken down over thousands of years and become spread out in a carpet over the desert floor. The black lava fields are sometimes marked by white, narrow, twisty camel trails, formed over centuries by each passing camel shuffling its feet in the footsteps of the preceding camel to form a path through the shattered, pointy rocks.
Dune fields are the most fun, it’s incredibly exhilarating playing in the dunes, but they can be dangerous. In the really big ones, it’s easy to get disoriented with no sense of which way is up or down, just white sand in all directions, and on all dunes the crests can hide unexpected vertical drops, so it pays to stop or ride along the crest first to check the descent before going over the top.
Oueds were the particular feature of the desert that provided most entertainment for our group. Oueds are dried out river beds, containing channels, ledges and deep ditches, and boulders which have been washed down from the mountains many miles away. In between the boulders, acacia bushes have sprung up and become covered with sand, forming close-spaced soft sandy clumps and humps. These features all combine to form an interesting enduro course, where picking a line is sometimes impossible and it’s often easier just to ride straight over everything except the very deepest troughs and channels. The oueds became a familiar experience on the trip, and became known as the ‘boondocks’. Crossing the wider boondocks caused the group to scatter in all directions in a mad scramble, to emerge erratically on the other side with wild grins.
Parallel and close spaced fields of transverse sand ridges (giant sharp-edged ripples) up to five feet high were a particularly dangerous feature of the terrain. They are usually found in the areas between large rocks or dunes, and are difficult or impossible to see, especially with the sun behind or above, when there is no shadow.
We had one serious crash during the trip when Sean hit a series of the afore-mentioned sand ridges and launched his XR600 30 yards over the top, suffering a broken shoulder, other minor fractures and 2 sprained ankles. There was no possibility of being airlifted out as only the military have helicopters in Algeria, so Sean had to endure an uncomfortable couple of days being driven out of the desert in the Toyota.
Crises do bring out the best in people though. Chris showed great calmness and pragmatism, and also sensitivity, when looking after Sean after his accident. Sean was incredibly strong and stoic. Even when helpless with painful injuries, hanging half off a makeshift orthopaedic board/sand ladder in the middle of the night in the desert, he was reluctant to wake anyone up to help, and suffered in silence. The guides were also really kind looking after Sean during the following days, and even gave up their sleeping blankets.
I was originally slightly wary of going to Algeria in the current political climate, and, being female, I was concerned about how I would be treated. However the reality of the trip was far removed from my fears, and full of lovely surprises, including the fantastic riding, the genuine warmth and generosity of the local people who made tea for us in the desert and invited us into their homes, and the staggering beauty and purity of the landscape. Oh, and finding hedgehogs in the sand dunes was a bit of a surprise too.
I would do this trip again in a heartbeat. For me there were moments of sheer joy and exhilaration, and also a sense of personal achievement. I am really grateful to the people who made this trip possible and enjoyable. Chris’ openness and willingness to share his world with us for a short while, Jon’s capable care, and the Algerian guides’ concern, generosity and humour, and of course, my fellow riders for their company and willingness to chip in and look out for each other in true TRF fashion made the whole thing a brilliant experience I will never forget.
Of all the many bike trips I have been on, this was definitely the ultimate off road bike trip.