Tag Archives: sahara

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?!

S is for ‘Sahara’ ~ the mystique of the desert

Part of the Sahara A to Z series

The desert is ruthless
It strips you of your vanities
Your illusions
Gives you the opportunity to see yourself for who you really are


Character addressing Jesus figure in The Last Days in the Desert (2016)

sol-tazat

More than other wilderness environments, the desert is commonly seen as a place for spiritual rebirth or just some contemplation. Some speculate that it’s no coincidence the world’s great monotheistic religions originated in the desert. Or perhaps it was the other way round: the Fertile Crescent along with timely wheat mutations and climatic cycles spawned great civilisations from which monotheism evolved. Anyway, just being in the desert it’s commonly thought one can be purged, cleansed and reborn. When striped of familiar surroundings and associations, you commonly hear travellers professing an awareness of their insignificance in the great scheme of things. Whatever, it’s always been seen as a good place to get away from it all, including other people.

In the desert you can remember your name
Coz their ain’t no one for to give you no pain

sol-boa

Another one of those periodic ‘I want to cross the Sahara by camel’ posts popped up on the forum the other month. The OP ‘…thought to myself ‘I want to have a life changing experience’ and thought this would be just that adventure.’ Across the width of the Sahara from Atlantic to Red Sea. There followed some clarification, good advice and some scorn, and within a few days the thread blew itself out.
What is it about crossing the Sahara? Why do ordinary individuals get fixated on the idea of ‘crossing the Sahara’ at all costs? I know when I first went there the Sahara was something that was on the way to where I thought I was going, but so was France and the Mediterranean. I didn’t see crossing the Sahara as a life-affirming achievement or any sort of event – I was more looking forward to the simple challenge of some desert biking.
Perhaps the words ‘cross’ + ‘sahara’ add up to a compelling soundbite that anyone anywhere will get instantly, like ‘climbing Everest’ or ‘rowing the Atlantic’, but perceived as a whole lot easier.
I received a similar enquiry. A chap wanted to cross the Sahara with camels – it didn’t really matter where, it was the crossing that mattered. He suggested some catchy start and end points like Casablanca to Dakar without really thinking it through – padding alongside Morocco’s busy N1 highway with a troop of dromedaries strung out nose to tail. I made what I thought were some better suggestions that would give a real sense of travelling in the desert with camels while dodging the worst of the current political complications. I even sent him the camel chapter from the book (short version of this). I never heard back.

sol-rep1
impjor

Above is my answer to another enquiry which boldly stated the intention to pull off a hare-brained scheme so I’d have no doubt of the total commitment. ‘Nothing is impossible!’ Never heard  from her again, either. Maybe I am too blunt but I keep these emails as evidence of ‘well, I did warn them’ should they ever crop up in the news.
It seems that people hungry for adventure lose something of their reason when it comes to crossing the you-know-what. They’re carried away by the concept which ignites the dream and set about with a steely determination to make it happen.
To my mind camel crossing the Sahara north to south and especially laterally requires a solid background of experience which is why I respect the achievement of Michael Asher and Mariantonietta Peru when they did it in the 80s and went on to write Impossible Journey. At least they had a good idea of what they were taking on. These days the journey is a whole lot more impossible.

There must be something about camel trekking across the Sahara that makes it sound relatively uncomplicated and easily done alone. You traverse the wilderness with the unspoken companionship of your caravan and maybe a nomad guide whose language you don’t speak: ‘horses with no names’ who won’t question insecurities or flakey motivation.

sol-cam

Aside from the practicalities or logistics of such a monumental task, what irks me is that very often there’s little curiosity about the environment or the cultures they’re passing through. The conquest trounces all, and the empty Sahara is just a backdrop for a monumental vanity project, as it was for Geoffrey Moorhouse back in the 70s and several others before or since.
As I was told recently by an individual who came close to death in his quest: It was a bad time and I made poor decisions. I desperately wanted it to be “me and the desert” and to have my own experience in solitude. I’m wiser now.

sol-xt

Once I get used to it and feel comfortable I like to be alone out there too, and in the desert that’s not hard to do. If anything it helps you re-evaluate human companionship which may be part of the catharsis some seek out there. But I find there’s no need to go to extremes to do this. One memorable desert camp is all that’s required to consolidate a feeling of well being. For me the image below sums it up nicely. Only a mile off the track to Djanet in 1988. For the moment the bike was running well and so was I. It was nice spot for the evening – comfortably alone. There have been many more nights like that out in the Sahara, with or without other people.

djanet88

Usually though I’ve found travelling alone with a vehicle tends to extinguish any mystical retrospection. On a bike you’re totally preoccupied with keeping upright, not getting lost  and all the rest – and in a car it’s the same plus the noise and the shaking. It is the evenings that are a blessed respite from the task, the heat and the wind and when the appeal of the desert is easily felt.
In a group, walking with camels and crew is a far more satisfying way to enjoy the desert day or night, most probably because there’s so very little to worry about. You don’t have to know any more than how to walk, sleep and eat. It’s the very simplicity of such desert travels that strikes the chord, even if this is a fantasy enabled by the hired crew of desert nomads. The actual practicalities of making it happen and sustaining camelling independently get quite complex as many accounts that I’ve read have shown. And now you have to account for the unglamorous and unromantic political overlay.

I suppose the hope is that when one gets to the Other Side one is reborn or cleansed or at the very least feels a sense of achievement which ought to trump all insecurities. But no account I’ve ever read has admitted to that. Or perhaps midway through the journey there is some sort of epiphany with a closure and acceptance and an understanding that life must go on, at which point the epic challenge may lose its purpose.

After nine days, I let the horse run free,
‘Coz the desert had turned to sea.

Me, I just like being in wild places including the desert. It doesn’t have to get complicated.

sol-edg

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.