You’d think I’d have learned something after coming back from my 1982 fiasco on the XT500. Well I did. Despite it all, I was still fascinated by the Sahara. 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 impact: nature stripped back to its raw bones of sand and rock. And across it lay the frail ribbon of highway 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 typesetter, 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 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 bike 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 liked dirt bikes, a mate put me on to a guy flogging an AJS 370 Stormer (right) 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!
In 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, suspended by some Honda XL250S shocks as long as a truncheon, and silenced by a pair of VW Beetle tailpipes, a cunningly lightweight trick you may recall 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.
The 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 AJS’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.
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.
So 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 mid-winter transit of Europe and the northern Sahara, as in 1982.
My goal that year was the mysterious massif which I’d passed by, south of Arak on my way to Tam 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 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 the following morning.
You can see that I had an all-new soft luggage set up. No more sawn-off chemical tins poorly lashed to Dexion racking. No sirree. This time I had a small canvas pannier on one side, a thin cotton Times newspaper delivery bag on the other, and an over-huge tank bag that sat well on the flat-topped RD tank. 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 Golea and set off across the 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 tornadoes 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 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 as the motor droned 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 sand grains turned into pelting raindrops. WT jolly old F was going on here!? 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, pulled up briefly with the engine running to remove the bag off the headlight, and pushed on to the big 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, and then deeper into the Sahara.
Part II shortly.