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!
This is part one of a bonus chapter which does not appear in the book.
You’d think I’d have learned something after my 1982 Saharan fiasco on the XT500. Well I did. Despite it all, I was still fascinated by the Sahara and wanted to go back and do it properly this time. When it was good it was epic and other-worldly, and if you came from one of the less edgy suburbs of South London, the Sahara made quite an impression: nature stripped back to its raw bones of sand and rock. Across it lay the frail ribbon of road they called the Trans Sahara Highway which I’d ridden off the very end of a couple of years earlier on the XT.
By 1984 I’d settled for an easy way of despatching for a living: working long but steady hours for a London typesetting outfit, delivering advertising copy on the one mile between Holborn and the West End. (You can read all about that and a whole lot more in The Street Riding Years.) There was no longer a need to ride an IT250 or a 900SS should you get sent to the other side of the country on a wet Friday evening. For this job a dreary commuter bike was sufficient. And none came drearier than Honda’s CD200 Benly twin (below left), a single-carbed commuter ridden by stoical Benlymen. Riding up to 12 hours a day on a hyper-dull CD can drive you a bit crazy at 24 years of age.
Knowing I was into dirt bikes, a mate put me on to a mate flogging an AJS 370 Stormer (right) for fifty quid. The Stormer was a vile, shin-kicking British two-stroke motocrosser that was the polar extreme of the Benly. In a flash of brilliance which years ago had given birth to the Triton cafe racer cult, I figured I could marry the two and make something more desert rideable and less boring: a Benly-engined, MX-framed desert racer!
Over the summer of 1984 the machine took shape in my artfully appointed bike design studio in London’s literary Bloomsbury district. It took two goes to get a bike shop to correct the engine alignment mistakes of the former. But here it was, suspended by some Honda XL250S shocks as long as truncheons, and silenced by VW Beetle tailpipes, a cunning, lightweight trick you may recall from the BMW I rode with in Algeria in 1982.
Later on, the job was finished off with gearing more suited to horizontal applications, and an RD250 tank with a sexy ‘Moto Verte’ sticker so there’d be no mistaking what an international, Franchophilious guy I was. I took it out to the woods near Addington to see what it could do. The answer was similar to dragging a dead dog around on a lead. The VW pipes reduced the power at the rear wheel to quite possibly single figures. The foot of clearance needed a running jump to get on the bike. And the AJS conical hub brakes where a requirement by the then powerful Ambulance Drivers’ Union to ensure their members were never without work scraping Stormer riders off the sides of buildings.
I dubbed the bike a ‘Bénélé‘ in envious recognition of Yamaha’s near-perfect XT600Z Ténéré which I’d spotted in a Sydney bike shop a year earlier, and which was itself based on Yamaha’s Dakar Rally desert racers. More about them, later.
So what do you do with a dumb-arsed desert racer? You ride it to the Sahara of course, in a little less time than was available. You pack a 3500-mile trip to North Africa into two-weeks and you schedule it for September when you imagine peak summer temperatures are on the wane. This time there’d be no fear of enduring the mid-winter transit of Europe and the northern Sahara, as in 1982.
My goal that year was a mysterious massif of conical peaks which I’d passed by, south of Arak on my way to Tamanrasset in 1982 and which I’ve since learned is called Sli Edrar. The Bénélé’s top speed was no more than 53mph, and even at that speed it felt unsafe, should a squirrel run out in front of me. So to get a good run-up I rode straight from work on Friday night down to a mate’s in Canterbury, close to the port of Dover, ready to catch an early Dover ferry next morning.
By maintaining momentum, Monday night found me camped back among the magical limestone outcrops of Cassis, near Marseille, ready to hop on the ferry to Algiers the following morning.
You can see I had an all-new soft luggage set up. No more sawn-off chemical tins poorly lashed to Dexion racking. This time I had a small canvas pannier hanging on one side where a 10-litre jerrican slipped in; a thin cotton Times newspaper delivery bag dangling off the other with 10 litres of water, and an over-huge tank bag which sat on the flat-topped RD tank. A sleeping bag in front of the headlight – Easy Rider style – kept the bugs off the Benly headlight. Cunningly, I lashed a tool bag with other heavy items under the lofty engine. If my mass had been any more centralised I’d have become a Black Hole right there and then.
My first memory of Algeria that year was being a little unnerved that as far north as El Golea it was already 35°C by 9am. If you live in Yuma that’s probably no big deal in September, but for a South London boy it was a bit of a shock. I filled up in in town and set off across the Tademait plateau which had spooked me on my first transit in ’82. The town (or anything) was 400km away. I buzzed along at 9.8hp/hour and by early afternoon dust devils or mini tornadoes were whipping across the baking gibber to either side. I recalled how a mate said he’d been knocked off his XS650 by one in Turkey earlier that year.
I was already tired, thirsty, sore and hot when up ahead what looked like a huge wall of sand hundreds of feet high hurtled right across the blacktop. Only as I neared it did I realise it was the mother of all whirlwinds, a huge cauldron of rotating sand. I turned the wick up and and the motor droned as I punched the Benele into the sand wall. Inside, all visibility was lost as grains pelted me from all directions and I struggled to keep upright or even know which way it was. And then, as I slipped into the windless eye of the maelstrom, the sand grains briefly turned into pelting raindrops. WT jolly old F was going on!? Search me but before I knew it, I’d blasted out of the tornado’s far wall, this time shoved left onto the roadside gravel. Now I knew how those roadsigns got flattened into the dirt…
Just as in 1982, the Tademait had terrorised me and I vowed I’d ride into the dark to be off the plateau before stopping. I rode into the dusk, pulling up briefly with the engine running to remove the sleeping bag off the headlight, before pushing on into the big switchback descent from the Tademait to the desert floor.
That night I stripped off and lay in the dirt by the bike, listening to what sounded like the oil boiling in the crankcases, hours after switching off.
I wasn’t hungry but I drank and drank and soon fell asleep where I lay. Tomorrow I was heading past In Salah, the hottest town in Algeria, before heading deeper into the Sahara.
“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.
Sli Edrar 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.