Tag Archives: in salah

Tenere Troubles (2001)

Richard Washington
  • Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso
  • December 2000 – January 2001
  • Landrover Series 2A 4 cyl. petrol

Tunis

We left Marseille on 10 December ferry to Tunis. The ferry was only about 1/3 full making the loading in Marseille uneventful compared with our trip a week closer to Christmas in 1999. The ship docked in Tunis at noon with clearance through Tunisian immigration and customs taking a mere 30 minutes (compared to 5 hours in 1999) allowing us to reach the salt pan of Chott El Jerid near Nefta (Algerian frontier) shortly after dark. We camped on the salt pan, leaving early for the border crossing the next morning.

Algeria

Clearance out of Tunisia took about 30 minutes but entry into Algeria just over 4 hours. In that time the officials processed only 3 cars, two of which were Algerian. The officials were nevertheless friendly. Two German bikers were crossing into Tunisia as we were leaving. They had ridden a loop from El Oued to Djanet then onto Tam and back along main route through In Salah (which included a convoy).

The Algerian border formalities correspond exactly with those described elsewhere on the STI site (immigration, customs, compulsory money change and car insurance). The only problem we had was with customs insisting on us filling in the form to reflect ‘Landrover’ as the type of car but ‘Toyota’ as the make. I guess this finally signifies the death of the British automotive legend, in this part of North Africa at least. [It was the same story with one of the LRs on my tour, too – but caused no probs. CS]

From the Algerian border we headed on towards El Oued. There seemed to be few camping possibilities along this stretch given the awkward hummocky dunes lining the road and the proximity of villages. About 20 or 30km from El Oued, while entering one of the small villages, a group of youngsters aged less than 10, stoned the Landrover. No windows were broken but a bit more topography was added to the body work – never a serious issue in a 30-year-old vehicle with an aluminium body. We were welcomed into El Oued by the police and local businessmen alike. El Oued was calm and the streets clean and quite empty. We changed money at one of the banks.

That night we slept on the south side of the road 60km short of Hassi Messaoud. A strong north-easterly was drifting sand in a conveyor about 1m deep so we were looking for shelter behind south-facing hills. There is a small escarpment out of view of the road (N32° 10′ 37” E5° 52′ 23”) which served the purpose on a stretch that offered few alternatives. We arrived in Hassi shortly after 8am the next day. Here the military checkpoint issued our laissez passer in about 20 minutes. It was valid for a month. We were waved through the south side of Hassi en route to Hassi Bel Guebbour. The next check point was at Gassi [Gassi Touil, I think]. Here the military spoke very little French, but seemed to want us to return 3km and wait at the side of the road. We went back, found nothing at the road side and so returned to the checkpoint. After a bit of discussion amongst themselves we were eventually waved through. We now know that a convoy operates on this stretch and may entail a delay of several hours until the convoy leaves.

If you have ever looked out of the window of a 747 on a night time trans Africa flight and seen two tiny pin pricks of light in the insanely massive blackness of the Sahara, the chances are that you are looking at somewhere like Hassi Bel Guebbour – with the two lights shared between the fuel station and the shop, this being the first fuel after Hassi M. It has a great sense of isolation and the interdune corridor that the tarmac follows south from Gassi is stunning.

Some 50km east of Bel Guebbour (28 36′ 10”N, 7 5′ 27”E) we passed large pools of water in an otherwise dry river bed. Although it was fairly early in the day we couldn’t pass the opportunity by and so set up a pleasant camp a few kms clear of the road out of the still strong north-easterly. A piste runs south to Bordj Omar Driss which starts parallel to the road [I have been told to avoid this piste – plenty of oilfield security].

The next day we called in at In Amenas (the bakery was selling awesome custard slices) and headed south through the huge dune field which seems to be the far western limb of the Ubari sand sea, eventually camping off the road in a sand field in the lee of a shady glade of trees (N26° 56′ 23″ E8° 41′ 54″). Firewood was plentiful. From our campsite we drove early the next day to Illizi for fuel and then on across the Fadnoun Plateau. The new road is a bonus but twists sharply without warning. It is rather like a pub video game where a blind rise could be followed by a sharp left, u-turn or a stranded truck jack-knifed across the road. The whole route from Illizi to Djanet is beautiful. We camped about 100km short of Djanet in a large dry river bed (N24° 54′ 56″, E8° 45′ 87î”). It was a stunning setting and well worth a few weeks stay. In Djanet we had a pleasant stay at Hotel Zeribas, camping in the far corner under the reed shelters. Djanet offered a great selection of fresh veggies, telephones which work given a bit of patience and pleasant temperatures. South of Djanet the daily temperatures were well over 30 degrees.

Whilst settling down for a quiet brew of tea in our campsite at Hotel Zeribas, Andy Pag drew up in a blast of diesel from the old Datsun he had brought down from Belgium. By this stage he was travelling alone and therefore keen to join us across the Northern Tenere to Chirfa and Dirkou. This was the planned next leg of the trip. We were glad for his company because the piste from Djanet to Dirkou is a lonely 850km stretch (we passed no traffic on this entire route).

Although our time in Algeria was much shorter than planned (for reasons explained later), we found the country calm and enjoyable to travel in. The only military checks we passed through were at Hassi M {Gassi Touil} and Hassi Bel Guebbour. Apart from this stretch we were free to come and go as we pleased. Whenever we encountered police we found them very helpful and accommodating. From a tourist perspective, everything is in place for Algeria’s recovery – all that is missing is the tourists. We saw none between the Tunisian border and Agadez (about 5000km) except for Andy in Djanet.

After some time to rest and check out Djanet we took off for Niger, leaving by the piste to Libya (a left turn off the new airport road past the old aerodrome). We turned off this mildly corrugated piste about 35km from Djanet, taking tracks through a gap in the mountains towards Mount Tiska. Once the tracks join, the piste is surprisingly well formed. After about an hour (roughly 40km) the piste turned east of Mount Tiska. The area is very beautiful with just about every spot a perfect campsite. We spent the night here with Andy cooking up a great veg stew. During the night we saw three vehicles approaching the Mount Tiska foothills some 10km to the south. They stopped when in view of our fire although we couldn’t be sure they saw us. They set off again well after midnight once the moon was up, passing within a few kilometres of us with their lights off. This all seemed to point to smugglers taking Marlboro into Algeria possibly via a piste through the Djado plateau.

We continued on the well-formed piste the next day. Within an hour it was obvious that the piste would pass well east of the Adrar Mariaou mountains. The piste is not marked on the Michelin or the TPC maps. Since we wanted to hook up with the balise line across the northern Tenere (which lies west of Adrar Mariaou) we left what seems to be a smugglers piste, taking a drainage line out onto the flat northern Tenere. The surface was better than any tarmac we had driven since France. While the route sounds complicated, the desert is very open with the Mount Tiska and Adrar Mariaou mountains clearly visible all the time. All the driving was easy. Within an hour we had gained the Tenere and found the first balise. There we several old (and a little indistinct) tracks along the balise line. Our GPS position showed us to be on the eastern most of the two pistes entering the Tenere which are marked on the TPC J 3B map. As the balise line piste appeared to be the western most piste on this map, we seemed to be on the wrong line, and so headed south-west to see if we intersected any other piste (although we were sure that there was only one balise line across the Tenere and that the TPC marked piste was wrong – but the check was easy to make and the surface pretty hard). It turned out that the piste marked on the TPC is wrong.

After about half an hour four Toyota Land Cruiser pick-ups could be seen driving straight at us from the northern base of the Adrar Mariaou mountains. They were travelling at speeds up to 160km/hr. The group turned out to be the Algerian police. After making their AK-47s clear to us and checking our papers (carte de grise, visas, insurance etc) they waved us on cheerfully. We should point out that it is not possible to leave Algeria officially along the northern Tenere route south of Djanet. While the police don’t mind, the Algerian customs do not permit official exit.

The northern Tenere is simply awesome. It is difficult to put words to the vastness of the place. It is impossible at times to tell whether you can see 50m, 500m or 50km off the piste. There are three wrecks (above right) on the balise line, 2 from the 1988 Paris-Dakar race. The shot blasted dark silver chassis gleaming in the bleached light. For the most part the Northern Tenere is very easy driving. The first few hundred kilometres out of Djanet were softer, the Landrover not being powerful enough to plane over the surface. Immediately south of Berliet balise 21 the sand is deep and powdery. It was the only time between Djanet and Agadez that we needed low range. The soft sand persists for 40km south of Berliet Balise 21. In a newish Toyota the northern Tenere could probably be crossed in a day. We took two days of driving, but three days altogether.

Niger

The exit from the Northern Tenere to Chirfa is clearly marked – nearly all the balises are in place across the Northern Tenere. On arrival in Chirfa we drove directly to the military checkpoint. They stamped our passports while looking over the vehicles, asking if we had any sat phones, short wave transmitters as so on. We helped the commander with his GPS as he had no manual for it. We left our passports with the military overnight, thinking that this was routine practice in Niger. We drove through the village and checked out the impressive Djado ruins (left). The next day we returned to the military post for our passports. By then the mood had changed and we were ordered to drive directly to Dirkou, not to leave the piste and to arrive there no later than 4pm. As it was already getting on to 10 am it was a tall ask in our old vehicles. We assumed Dirkou was the first official border post (as marked on the Michelin map) on this route and hence the requirement that we shouldn’t linger on the piste. We found the piste south of Seguedine very sandy. Again it would be very difficult to get lost on this route – in fact we hardly bothered with the GPS. We arrived in Dirkou a little after 4pm, handed over our passports (which were again kept overnight), met with Jerome and drove off to town for the night. The military checkpoint was pretty chaotic as several 10 wheel drive Merc trucks loaded to the hilt were about to leave for Libya.

We returned to the military post early the next day, waited around before asking for and being given back our passports (they now had stamps from both Dirkou and Chirfa). From there we headed up the hill to refuel (we had used about 220 L of petrol since Djanet) at Jerome’s fuel dump. Make sure you take your own pipe / 12V pump as Jerome’s assistants seem to have sucked too much fuel through their brains over the years. They are several sandwiches short of a picnic!

Whilst we were refueling the military drove up in a Landcruiser and took back our passports and vehicle papers. Once we had finished refueling the military impounded our vehicles. We now had no passports, no vehicles and no vehicle papers. Things weren’t looking good. No explanation was given but we were told to wait until 3:30pm. We waited in a barbed wire area between the passport shack and the military base. This is a stinking hot, dusty, shadeless area surrounded by feche feche that we grew to hate over the next few days. At 5pm were we told that there was a problem and that we would have to wait until 9am the next morning. We later found out that the Minister of Defence in Niamey had already phoned the French Ambassador in Niamey to say that European nationals were being held in the north. The French Embassy in Niger deals with all European nationals in Niger.

The next morning we were told to wait until 3:30 pm as the commander of the military base in Dirkou was waiting for instructions from Niamey. Most of our dealings had been with the Chef de Transit at the passport shack on the outskirts of the military base. He had been telling us all sorts of lies about why we were being held and when we would be released. He was a very difficult person to deal with – at one point gesturing to me that he would tear up my passports if we didn’t leave him alone. Our main effort at this stage was to speak to the Military commander of Dirkou. Of course we could get nowhere near his office. Our vehicle papers, passports and visas were all in order and we wanted to know what we were being held for.

The commander finally agreed to see us late that afternoon. It was rather like meeting Kurtz. We were shown into this darkened, blue room with padded doors. The commander greeted us and asked what our problem was as he had heard we were anxious! We explained that our vehicle papers, passports and visas were in good order and that we were uncertain what the problem was. He explained that the situation in the north is difficult, that tourists coming into Niger from the north were a problem and that the only way to enter this region was through Agadez where all the necessary paper work was available and where guides could be hired. He assured us that he was working on a solution for us. We asked if it was possible to simply deport us from Niger and we would leave immediately back to Djanet the way we had come (this had been our plan all along).

Fortunately we had managed to get permission to be taken to Bilma (45km to the south) to phone our embassies. With our vehicles still impounded we had to find a way of getting there. The distinction between who was military and who was a tour operator was extremely blurred. We were charged 30 quid one way for the trip although we returned with a tour operator anxious for our business. They were an unpleasant mafia-like gang and things turned sour shortly after they dropped us off. Interestingly we were taken to the military commanders office in the military base in the same tour operators Landcruiser. In Bilma we managed to call the German consulate in Niamey (there is only an unofficial representative for British nationals who is a businessmen in Niamey – he didn’t want to know our case!). I managed to get a line out to Megan who was in Cape Town at the time. Megan phoned the German and British Embassies in S Africa as well as the German Consulate in Niamey, eventually being put on to the French Embassy in Niamey. This helped our case enormously, although we had no way of knowing she had achieved all this until our problems were nearly over.

Early in the afternoon of our fourth day in Dirkou we were told that we were being taken to Agadez. Remembering that the Commander of the military camp in Dirkou had told us that Agadez had all the services necessary to help us, we were relieved that the problems from their side seemed to be coming to an end. This soon changed when a Land Cruiser with a machine gun and live ammo chain mounted on the back rolled up. They were our escorts, so at least we didn’t have to take a guide! Our passports were still being held, so it was clear we were simply being transferred to Agadez. We protested that our 30-year-old series 2A was not up to the Dirkou to Agadez crossing of the Tenere, but we were told that there was no option – take the vehicle or leave it behind – do or die time for the 1950s transmission.

We left Dirkou at about 4pm. Although there was still problems to come it was good to leave that stinking hot, dust riddled, barbed wire camp. The military Land Cruiser drove in front but waved us past in frustration at our pace. We drove on to the wells at Achegour which we reached by about 7:30 pm. It was amazing to be crossing the central Tenere although it was a pity it was not in circumstances of our own choosing. We drove through the night, following a star but basically heading west south-west. Again we didn’t bother with a GPS. With no sign of the military we decided to savour our freedom and drove on into the morning light taking a dune corridor about 30km north of Arbre de Tenere (make sure you are in the correct corridor if you want to see this place otherwise you need to back track about 30km). The going in the central Tenere is much softer than the northern Tenere. Our consumption dropped to about 3km per litre [8mpg]. We hardly ever got out of second gear although we didn’t ever get stuck. Where the sand is very soft all the truck tracks merge. Apart from a very high median strip the going is OK on the tracks.

We emerged from the sandy desert at about noon the next day to find the military waiting for us. The piste is up to 50km wide in the Tenere so they must have passed us in the night. We drove on to Agadez arriving in the early evening. The commander of the military camp in Agadez then met with us. He simply said that after a day’s rest we would be taken on to Niamey 900km away. This was probably the low point of the trip! After a few days we had another military escort down to Niamey. We left on Christmas day at 9am and arrived in Niamey at about 8pm. We had a young soldier in our Land Rover but separated from the others over the distance. We were held at the outskirts of Niamey as our passport were in the other vehicle. Then we decided enough was enough and I negotiated for a passport substitute, giving them some paper with work letter heads. From there we basically made a run for the French Embassy – the soldier protesting from the back of the Land Rover while we made out we didn’t know what he wanted us to do. We arrived at the French Embassy at 11:30 pm Christmas night and were greeted by the French Ambassador, the head of the French Military attache in Niger and the Head of the Internationale Police in Niger. They were all amazingly helpful. Details began to emerge that we were suspected spies/gun runners. The piste from Djanet to Chirfa is never crossed from north to south these days and so our arrival out of the northern Tenere had aroused much suspicion. There was also a suggestion that we had been picked up by a military patrol in the Northern Tenere. This might have been the commander at Chirfa trying to win himself a promotion, but it was certainly not how it happened as we had driven directly to the military checkpoint at Chirfa and found them all lazing about in the sun.

A meeting was set up with the Niger Chief of Police for the next day. The arrangements were made from the French Embassy shortly after midnight. We were very surprised when the meeting went ahead as it was taking place at lunchtime on the Islamic equivalent of Christmas day. It was at that meeting that our passports were returned (left). We had been held for nine days and had been required to drive about 2000km for the ceremony. The Chief of Police of Niger pointed out to us that he didn’t know why we were being held by the Military.

From Niamey we took the shortest route out of Niger – to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso.

So if you want a trip across the Tenere from Dirkou to Agadez without the official guide, then just cross the northern Tenere from Djanet to Chrifa and the military is bound to oblige. The downside is that the trip goes at their pace! Our original trip had been planned to take in Libya, Niger and Algeria, so crossing the northern Tenere from south to north. Others have done parts of this route. Although the Niger military clearly don’t like tourists in the northeast, they seem to tolerate the route this way round. Our plans had to change when the Libyans refused our visas.

1984 – Algeria – Bénélé – Part II

Part 1 here

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.

(full size here, thanks Google!)

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?’

‘Yes’

‘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.

bol

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:
‘Fatigue, eh?’

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.

1984 – Algeria – Bénélé – Part 1

Part II here

You’d think I’d have learned something from my 1982 ride on the XT5. Well I did: despite it all I liked the Sahara. When it was good it was epic and other worldly, and if you come from one of the less edgy suburbs of South London, the Sahara made quite an impact – nature stripped back to the raw bones of sand and rock. And though it all lay a frail ribbon of road called they called the trans-Sahara Highway.

benly-cd200By 1984 I’d settled for an easy way of despatching for a living: working long but steady hours for a typesetter collecting copy and delivering artwork on the short run between Holborn and the West End. There was no need to run 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 all that was needed. And none came drearier than Honda’s CD200 Benly twin (right), a single-carbed commuter bike ridden by stoical Benlymen who valued mind-numbing reliability above mind expanding activities.
AJS-stormerRiding on and off up to 12 hours a day on a hyper-dull bike can drive you a bit crazy at 24 years of age. Then I acquired an AJS 370 Stormer (left) a vile, shin-kicking British two-stroke motocrosser that was the polar extreme of the Bender. In a moment of intuitive brilliance which years ago had given birth to the Triton cafe racer, I figured I could marry the two and make something more rideable but less boring: a Benly-engined, MX-framed desert racer!

84-bikedesignstudioIn the summer of ’84 the machine took shape in my artfully appointed bike design studio in London’s literary Bloomsbury district (left). It took two goes to get a bike shop to correct the engine alignment mistakes of the former, but here it was, suspensed by some Honda XL250s rear shocks as long as a truncheon, and silenced by a pair of VW Beetle tail pipes, a trick some of you may recognise from the BM I rode with in Algeria in ’82.

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.

84-motoverteThe answer was not much more than dragging a dead dog around on a lead. The VW pipes managed to reduce the power at the rear wheel to quite possibly single figures while the AJ’s conical hub brakes where a stipulation made by the then powerful Ambulance Drivers’ Union in the early 1970s to ensure that their members were never without work scraping Stormer riders off the sides of buildings which had got in the way of the engine’s epileptic, all-or-nothing power delivery.

I dubbed the bike a ‘Bénélé’ in envious recognition of Yamaha’s near-perfect XT600Z Ténéré which had been out for a couple of years and which was itself based on Yamaha’s Dakar Rally desert racers.

84-sliSo what do you do with a dummy desert racer? You ride it to the Sahara of course, in a little less time than is available. You pack a 3500-mile trip to North Africa into two-weeks and you schedule it for September when you imagine the peak summer temperatures are on the wane. This time there’d be no fear of enduring the cold of a mid-winter European transit or indeed the northern Sahara. And my goal – the mysterious massif (above left) which I’d passed by, south of Arak on my way to Tam in 1982.

84-cassisThe Bénélé’s top speed was no more than 50mph – and even at that speed it felt rather unsafe, should a squirrel run out in front of me – so to get a good run up I rode straight from work on a Friday night down to a mate’s in Canterbury, close to the port of Dover. By maintaining momentum, Monday night found me camped back among the magical outcrops of Cassis, near Marseille, ready to hop on the ferry to Algiers next morning.

You can maybe see that I had an all-new soft luggage set up this time. No more sawn-off chemical tins on Dexion racking. Oh no – this time I had a small canvas pannier on one side, a thin cotton Times newspaper delivery bag on the other – I must have found in a bin somewhere – an over-huge tank bag that sat 84mapwell on the flat-topped RD tank and a sleeping bag in front of the headlight to keep the bugs off the lens. Cunningly, I also had a tool bag with other heavy items strapped 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 El G and set off across the sinister Tademait which had spooked me on my first transit in ’82. I buzzed along at 12hp/hour and by early afternoon dust devils or mini whirlwinds were whipping across the baking gibber to either side. I recalled how a mate told me he’d been knocked off his XS650 by one in Turkey 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 span 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 as much as I dared 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. And then in the windless core of the maelstrom the grains turned into pelting rain drops. WTF was going on here!? Search me but before I knew it I’d blasted out of the tornado’s far wall, shoved this time in the opposite direction onto the roadside gravel. Now I knew how those roadsigns got flattened into the dirt…
hi-res-c-scott-1984Yet again 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, pulled up briefly with the engine running to remove the bag off the headlight, and pushed on to the switchback descent off 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, deeper into the Sahara.

continue to Part II here