I tried an NC a few weeks back, liked it as I knew I would, so bought a low-mileage current XA/XD model with an idea of converting it into a budget but high-economy ‘Africa Twain’. Plus I wanted to properly get to grips with this DCT malarkey. Judging by Google search results (right), I’m not the only one. I picked it up near Leamington, rode straight down to Cornwall, then over a couple of days headed back to London via the Dorset Coast. Here’s what I found.
High 80s/low 90s mpg without really trying. Back off a bit – say 60mph – and it will register a live 26.4mpl or 100mpg. With the 14.1-litre tank, at 88mpg/31.1kpl that would give a range of 438km or 272 miles.
Plenty of real-world power to get the job done. Fifty-four hp really is all you need
Thumb/finger manual changes slicker than my MTB
I like the manual override on auto
And the auto downshiftoverride when in manual. They thought it through
Suspension – what a surprise! I assumed it would be poor, like a CB-X or XSR7. Far from it. I rode an RE Interceptor recently; it’s better than that, too
Corners really well. Not had such a planted road bike for years
Right-engle tyre valves. No more struggles with inflation nozzles
TFT dash – also new on me and the way to go
Despite low-speed lugging, day to day preferred the smoother D mode. Settled occasionally on S1. Higher S levels felt more jerky.
Tank box (but even open-face lids can be a squeeze; right)
Seat was actually pretty good; sore over 4 slow hours, but not in outright agony
For a modern bike, the slabby space ship look is less bad than some
Nice crobba-crobba thudding noise as the 270° mill pulls away.
Average mpl display was pretty accurate – 5% under at fill up
You pull in, flick down the sidestand and it switches off. Remove the key and walk away.
It’s a Honda; peace of mind on a long trip
Heavy – on the home scales it came very close to the claimed 232kg wet. Holds you back on some rough bends.
Lumpy pulling away at town speeds. That was my impression hopping back on the bike after a couple of weeks. A bit more lumpy than you’d assume is good for the engine, but it’s only a 750, not a huge Harley. It may well smooth out when warm.
Harshness – noticed this as soon as I pulled away from the seller’s place. Could be part engine, part transmission (on the move). The test bike I rode a month earlier felt notably smoother, but this wouldn’t be the first time a Honda-sourced (not dealer) test bike felt better than what you buy. It mostly cleared after 1000 miles – maybe old fuel stood for months and needed a good blast? But it’s not as smooth as modern injected twins can be, cf: Interceptor.
The engine on my XSR700 was much nicer – and it was 47hp restricted, not the full 72hp. But the XSR only averaged 74mpg over 4000 miles. Can’t see an NC ever dropping below 80. I do wonder if extreme leanness – either to gain economy or pass emissions regs – can spoil an engine’s feel.
Still a bit auto-clunky at low speeds, not seamless like an auto car despite the so-called Adaptive Clutch Capability Control.
Rode mostly in D but felt like it lugged at times, especially up steep hills and despite ‘a control system in AT mode for gauging the angle of ascent or descent and adapting shift pattern accordingly’. Got into manual downshifting. Auto downshifted better on downhills. Maybe it would have adapted for uphills in time?
Maxed it out but the TFT dash was still a bit dim in daylight. Plus would have liked engine/ambient temp info on there, too
No 12-v power outlet. I thought there was one in the tank box?
I know it’s how we fill up in the UK, but would have preferred other metrics besides Miles per Litre – a new one on me but you’d learn soon enough. (I assume it shows kpl or L/100km if you flip the speedo to kph). Older models had mpg – maybe I didn’t RTFM enough.
Like other bikes I’ve had lately, trip distance total (for true mpg calcs) is annoyingly lost when it resets to reserve towards E (or I didn’t work out how to dig it out)
Screen is of course too small
No centre stand. I bought one before I even picked it up
Traction control was a new game for me. I played with it on mid-road gravel patches and the steep track down to my Cornish mate’s house. But unlike ABS, I can’t really see a real-world use for it on a fat-tyred, 54-hp bike like this, assuming you ride alert and sensibly. Corner too fast in the wet or hit oil and the front might go just as fast. TC just seems to be a brake on applying so much power you lose traction. How often do you do that on the road ?
The TC switch on the left bars is a clumsy afterthought. Same could be said for the parking brake, tbh.
At the Overland show, organiser Paddy Tyson told me he’d covered 38,000 miles on a manual NC and wondered ‘why isn’t everyone using these for overlanding?’ It was a good question. Manual or auto, an NC is a practical and exceedingly economical machine which carries it’s weight low while easily keeping up on fast highways. I’m pretty sure even in stock form it could cover the tracks on my Morocco tours, and with tyres to suit would have easily managed what I rode on the Himalayan in spring, but without the need to be truck to Malaga. And it would have used 15% less fuel too. CRF250-like mpg but with the grunt to tackle headwinds and hills and the power to sit comfortably at 70+ is not something you get on most bikes. That makes the NC sound like a pretty versatile machine but as is often the case, some bikes fail to catch the buying public’s imagination. The NC is a big seller among commuters, but I’ve barely heard of travellers using them. If DCT is so fabulous, it seems the much flashier Africa Twin is the bike of choice from what I’ve seen at shows lately. Just like BMW’s F800GS trounced the 650/700 version, despite my avowed pronouncements to the latter two’s superiority!
To me an AT (left) was going a bit far. Yes, it may have eaten all the dirt I was able to feed it but is even heavier an NC with a higher CoG, costs more and had much inferior economy. I’d like to see DCT in a lighter bike like the CB500X, but maybe that just cannot be achieved, yet. Or a sub 200-kg 750 Africa Twin as has been mooted now the 1000L is becoming an 1100. Low-speed clunks apart, it’s great not have to concentrate on stalling or heavy clutches or agricultural gearboxes or miss-shifts while still having manual control for slowing down into fast bends or steep hills. It allows you to concentrate on other things, and that includes gnarly climbs with steep, clutch-stressing hairpins which in auto or manual 1st would be easy work on the DCT.
I’d bought an unusually nice (for me) late model which would be easy to shift – at ~£5k the most I’ve ever spent on a bike. In the end, I decided the 750X was too nice a road machine to meddle with weight-adding protection, longer travel suspension, higher-profile tyres and maybe a 19er front (I suspect the front wheel from a 2019 CB500X would fit). At over 230kg it was too heavy for my sort of gravel roading and the lack of smoothness compared to similar motors was surprisingly off-putting. How spoiled we’ve become! I lost 100 quid selling it back on ebay; a reasonable sum for a fortnight’s rental. While selling the NC I took Enfield’s 650 Interceptor out for a quickie. Read what I thought about that one here.
I well remember the day in 1983 when I first clocked Yamaha’s original XT600Z Ténéré outside Maxim Motorcycles in Parramatta, west Sydney. I crouched down for a good look at the machine which appeared to have addressed just about all the deficiencies of my 1982 XT500 desert bike: front disc brake, huge 28-litre tank, monoshock back-end, 12-volt electrics, folding lever trips, oil cooler and a thrifty ‘twin-carb’ set up. And all at around 140 kilos dry.
The 34L XT600Z Ténéré, named after the most gruelling Saharan stage of the Paris-Dakar Rally (see below), was desert-ready right off the showroom floor.
‘Tenere’ – What’s that then?
Tenere – or as the French write it: Ténéré – is one of the many Tuareg words for ’emptiness’ or ‘desert’. The more familiar Arabic Sahra [Sahara] means the same thing, but like the Inuit and their snow, the nomads of the Sahara distinguish between many types of desert and regions. The Tenere is a particularly desolate and waterless flat expanse which fills the northeast corner of Niger (left).
In the Dakar Rally’s 1980s heyday, the crossing of the Tenere from Algeria to Agadez in Niger via the dunes of the Bilma Erg, typically decimated the field and helped establish the Tenere’s already notorious reputation of the ‘desert within a desert’. In 2003 we rode to the famous Arbre Perdu or ‘Lost Tree’ in the northern Tenere (below) where Dakar founder Thierry Sabine had his ashes scattered following his death during the ’86 rally.
I bought my first Ténéré in London in 1985 to tackle my own London–Dakar adventure. This was the slightly modified 55W version of the original 1983 34L, produced for just one year. The changes were small: front disc brake cover, stronger DID rims, revised chain adjuster, longer, all-red or blue seat and most easily spotted: sloping speed blocks on the tank. Modifications to my 55W amounted to nothing more than adding thicker seat foam and some Metzeler ‘Sahara’ tyres – a rubbish choice for the actual Sahara, even back then. Using no rack was another mistake which nearly cost me the bike when my baggage caught fire.
In fact, there was so little to do that I went to the bother of moving the oil cooler from next to the carbs up out into the breeze over the bars. And I painted it black because I was still hadn’t shaken off my juvenile Mad Max phase. With my £5 ex-army panniers slung over the back, in December ’85 I set off for Marseille, bound for Dakar via Algeria, Niger and Mali.
This was my first overland trip which succeeded in actually crossing a few African borders – and it proved to be as eventful as my first Sahara ride on the XT500 (and the Benele quickie which followed). On the way I learned many must-do-next-times as well as several more never-do-agains, all useful material for my Desert Biking guide published a few years later and which evolved into the current AM Handbook.
I met Helmut in Tamanrasset and we set off across the Sahara together. Sadly he crashed and burned, never to reach the Niger border. I also had a smaller fire a day or two later, but was thrilled to have finally crossed the Sahara into West Africa. As I wrote later, reaching sub-Saharan Africa was like switching a TV from black and white to colour. There are a few photos at the bottom of the page, or you can read the long version of that trip in Desert Travels. A few weeks later, with many more adventures and worthwhile lessons under my belt, I shipped my charred Tenere out of Dakar and flew on to Spain to catch up with it.
Yamaha’s original 34L 55W Ténéré was the first proper well-equipped lightweight travel bikes, created on the back of Yamaha’s success in the Dakar Rally which I encountered on a few occasions out there. That bike was a game changer, with the brakes, range, suspension, economy, power and lack of weight which ticked all the boxes. In Europe they absolutely loved them; over a decade the French alone bought 20,000 Teneres; over 30% of all production. They were never officially imported into North America. From 1987 the only-recently discontinued KLR650 filled the same niche and had the same loyal following. In Europe the KLR was largely ignored. A good early-Tenere page.
The next Tenere was the 1VJ model (left and above) with kick and electric start, firmer suspension and the air filter positioned, rally-style, under the back of the tank. But costs were cut elsewhere, it supposedly had over-heating problems and it just didn’t seem as durable as the original kickers. Mine sounded pretty clapped-out by the time I returned from a 3000-mile Sahara trip.
I never owned one, but the classic twin-lamp3AJ Teneres (above and left), was said to be a better machine, even if it had by now gained some 25kg. There was said to be a 5th gear problem common to other 600 Teneres, but only if you rode them very hard and lugged the motor.
The 5-valve XTZ660 Tenere from the 1990s (left) still looked great but by now had gained even more weight and lost some cred. On top of that, poor electrics and other flaws managed to lose the Ténéré mojo in the face of KTM’s dirt-focussed 640 Adventure (right). After the 5-valve was dropped, for nearly ten lean years in the Noughties there were no Teneres in production. BMW’s 650 Dakar became popular big single travel bike; Teneres were seen as an 80s throwback.
Then, in 2008 Yamaha’s legendary desert bike returned as the XT660Z. Based on the injected XT660R and X produced from 2004, the fuelling was much improved and again, it ticked many boxes, even if it now weighed over 200 kilos and, at times, felt it. Fuel consumption varied widely but averaged 25 kpl, giving a range of about 570km/360 miles from the 23-litre plastic tank.
I bought a barely used one soon after they came out, did the usual kerbside makeover and set off for Morocco to research the first edition of Morocco Overland. Read about that bike here. By 2016 ever-tightening emissions regs killed off the hefty 660Z Ténéré. Meanwhile, travel bikers round the world have pinned their hopes on 2019’s XT700 Ténéré, based on the brilliant twin-cylinder CP2 motor, as in my XSR700. The T7 is not much heavier than the 660Z and looks like it’ll be another desert-ready hit right out of the crate. Read my impressions here.
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 myself 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 that needed doing to the Yamaha that I moved the oil cooler from down by the carbs up into the breeze over the bars. And I painted the bike 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 adopting a new ‘go with the flow’ strategy’. Instead of being ground down and resentful by the setbacks of my previous calamities, 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!
Pumped out in Thailand for no less than 32 years up to 2018, Kawasaki have exhumed their KLR650, at least in North America. It was as popular there for real-world travels as Yamaha’s Tenere singles were in Europe and Australia.
In 2001 four of us rode KLRs along the sodden trails of British Colombia and the Yukon, Those old dogs lapped up their back-country beating as only a Jap dual sport can. Read a retrospective of the KLR decades at Rider magazine.
In the 2020 edition of AMH8, I predicted (right) the discontinued KLR would come back either little-changed but with EFI (like the KLX250), or they might repurpose the revvy Versys 650 twin with a 21-incher to take on the XT700. Kawasaki are the least adventurous of the Big Four when it comes to travel bikes and chose to keep things simple, do the minimum necessary short of Bold New Graphics, and keep the price low. Yes we’d all have loved to see something snazzy and new in this segment, but now I think about it, they did the right thing. At least a decade overdue, the new model has been restyled and incrementally improved with EFI, optional ABS and a modern LCD dash. Plus you get a chunkier one-piece chassis, 50% more output from the alternator (364w), LED lighting and near identical but reportedly firmer suspension. Most importantly, they kept it cheap at just $6700 (ABS + $300, same a CB-X in the US). That’s under £5000, but you can be sure if it ever gets to the UK (very unlikely) they’ll just switch the dollar sign for a £ and anyway, magazine reviews will bury it alive. For up to another $grand (and 15 more kg) you get the factory accessorised Traveler and Adventure models. Serious travel bikers will always be better off buying the base model with ABS and picking their own gear.
Keeping the low compression ratio, power remains the same chuffing 40-hp, but weight had jumped to 207 kilos (+3kg for ABS). To be fair that’s with a nearly full 23-litre tank so it’s about 192kg dry. That’s still more than a similar CB500X, or about the same as an XT700. I get the complaints about the staggering weight for a single cylinder. The 2018 model was 196kg and many twins and even triples are now lighter than the new KLR. But the commonly read whining about not having ‘more-must-be-better’ six gears goes right over my head. If the engine is torquey (with EFI it will be even more so) stick with five wider (stronger) gears. EFI will make it more economical and smoother. An easily achievable 25kpl (59US, 71UK) adds up to nearly 600km or 360 miles which is plenty. The saddle will be causing acute agony long before then though an adjustable screen will help collect the bugs. The new KLR is technically similar Yamaha’s XT660Z which came out way back in 2008 (not in North America) but was gone within a decade due to emission regs. You do wonder if North American regs are less strict than the EU. That could explain why the other carb’ed, big single dinosaurs like the DR400Z and DR650S ($6700; 166kg; 13L tank) and the XR650L ($6999; 158kg; 11L) are still sold there when even the injected WR250R has been dropped.
Lacking bodywork, those two are something like 20% lighter than the new KLR, even if they carry around 8 kilos less fuel. Suspension is better too (or there’s more of it) but despite that, for years and years the KLR still managed to trounce both as a travel bike. More off-road oriented riders put off the portly KLR will be hoping Suzuki or Honda will get round to injecting their 650s too.
Some are bound to be disappointed by the new KLR – hoping it might be something like an AJP PR7. Me, I think the new KLR will pick up right up where it left off. The 34.5-inch seat height will put discourage some, but old fans will upgrade without thinking about it and enjoy a smoother, more economical engine, with more charging power, modern clocks, slightly better suspension and a load-carrying chassis that looks as tough at the XT660Z. When we are able to start travelling world again, the new KLR will take the rough roads, gravel trails and crumby fuel in its stride.
Recap: I’m taking a two-week touring holiday in Algeria, late summer 1984, and it has become very hot indeed. I’m riding a 200cc mash-up of AJS, Honda CD200, VW and Yamaha, with enough ground clearance to become an Olympic sport, but barely enough power to stir a tea bag.
Yesterday I rode through a tornado and right now I’m just south of the Tademait plateau: it’s Day 3 in Algeria. This is part two of a bonus chapter which does not appear in the book.
I got up before sunrise but it was still as warm as a hot summer’s day in the UK. I packed up and rode towards In Salah, a hour or so down the road. Soon I came across a French guy on a Z750LTD – that’s a Kawasaki early 80s mock-chop in case you’ve forgotten. Clearly, 1984 was the year to ride the Sahara on dumb bikes. He was sat by the side of the road looking a bit how I felt: shell shocked. Yesterday on the Tademait, the sand storms had also freaked him out too and he was beginning to realise his spine-wrecking ‘factory custom’ was not such a cool highway cruiser after all. He’d had enough and was heading back north.
I carried on south, passing the denuded outliers of the Tademait plateau.
The old fuel station in In Salah was always fighting to keep its chin above the sands, and I pulled in to fill up for the next stage: 270km along the Trans Sahara Highway to Arak Gorge with not so much as a well on the way.
A short distance out of town I passed another fallen truck, as I’d done near here in 1982 in the XT, only that time it had been flat on its back with its wheels were up in the air. As before, the road was perfectly flat and straight. You presume the driver dozed off in the heat of his cab and jack-knifed. It’s not the greatest picture I’ve ever taken but you’ll notice there’s someone camped by the truck’s under-carriage. He’s watching the wreck so it doesn’t get stripped bare before someone comes along with whatever it takes to get it back on its wheels.
Time for a quick pose why not. Young kids these days think they invented self obsession and selfies! We were doing that years ago!
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 the inside of a cylinder head. I also see I’m wearing a natty nylon British Airways cabin steward’s scarf picked up in Laurence Corner’s army surplus ‘boutique’ in Camden, just up the road from our Blooomsbury squat.
They say the Beatles bought their Sgt. Pepper outfits there, and the likes of, Adam Ant, Kate Moss and Jean-Paul Gaultier have all rummaged around in the junk at LC, looking for something to cut a dash. As trendy London despatchers looking for the ultimate outfit, we did too, and I think the scarf was an impulsive £1 purchase. Decades later Bell brought back the Moto 3, but with a 21st-century velvety interior.
Back to the desert where the only fashion was to get to the next water before what you had ran out. The low elevation hereabouts meant it was becoming exceedingly hot. I’m guessing about 45°C or over 110 F. That’s nothing unusual at these latitudes I’m sure, but I’d never experienced temperatures like this. I was being baked alive by the air I was riding through, and so I wrapped up tight to keep the blast from turning me into a shrivelled Peruvian mummy.
In this pre-Camelbak era, every half hour or so I just had to stop for a drink. I was getting through water at a rate of 10+ litres a day. As I rode along, by the time I could stand it no more I’d feel the desiccation creeping down my throat. I realised how fatal dehydration actually gets you: from the insides out as you helplessly breath in air at well over body temperature (36°C). The survival manuals were right all along: 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 deluge soaked down through my clothes with a steamy hiss. But half an hour later I was again throat-parched and dry as a roadside baguette.
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 over-loaded lorry hammered the scorching highway to a pulp. Diversions shoved traffic onto the sands so repairs could be undertaken, and I had my first chance to be forced to ride the Benele off road. All things considered it managed well enough, even with horsepower barely into double figures. The trials tyres and light baggage all helped.
Then, as I neared the Arak Gorge something changed in the ride, the suspension seemed to tighten up. I hopped off, dreading some problem with the Honda motor which could surely not handle such heat for much longer. It was a simpering commuter hack brutally abused by being thrown into the deep end of a Saharan summer. A quick look revealed the chain was as tight as a bow string. On this trip I was experimenting running a non-o-ring chain dry to avoid oily sand wrecking the seals. I can tell you now that was a bad idea. Years later I rode a BM in Morocco with an o-ring that got plastered in sand, and even with daily oiling it needed adjustment just once in 4000 miles. The lack of lube and high ambient temps had caused the dry chain to somehow shrink – perhaps the rollers expanded and took up the slack.
Modern bike chains are incredible when you think what they do, but back then I was worried my hyper-taught chain and bouncing suspension – three times longer than any CD200 had imagined in its worse malarial dream – might rip out the engine sprocket and ping it across the desert floor like a Coke bottle cap. I soothed the creaking chain with engine oil and watched it sag before my eyes. Now it was way too slack but the AJS frame had some nutty eccentric swingarm pivot like 1970s Ducatis which was a faff to adjust in the state I was in. I was out of water and the mercury was again pushing at the end of the dial. Just as I’d panicked when my XT500 had leaked away half its fuel on the way to Niger in ’82, I felt the compulsion to flee towards shelter so rode on to Arak just a few miles down the road, with a slap-slapping chain.
Relieved I’d just caught a bike catastrophe in time, I decided to remount the closed-off blacktop under repair to save any strain on the transmission. The gorge walls of Arak 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 throttle to spur the slug onward, the tyres pushed a trench through the oily slush and bitumen sprayed up across the mudguards with a clatter of sticky gravel. What a mess. I steered off the unset mush and continued to the roadhouse, hoping my tar trench would melt back smooth again, like divided custard. Now safely at the roadhouse I crouched in the shade clutching a drink and looked forward to a rest before the final stage on to the Cone Mountains, 100km on where the desert landscape begins to get interesting. 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 pathetically tried to play dumb until they pointed our the sticky black splat coating the undersides of my bike. ‘I am sorry. I was panicking. You see my chain was…’ ‘Shut up. Did you not see the signs ‘Road Closed? 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. ‘I said shut up! You will pay for this. Give me your passport!’
One snatched it out of my had and they tore off back to the fort in a flurry of wheel-spin. 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 heat-frazzled wannabe adventurer disrespecting locals regs. There began my three day ‘hut arrest’ in Arak.
Everything I had was hot. Nothing had cooled down for days. As I unpacked my stuff I found candles drooped into Dali-esque blobs and weirder still, opening a tin of luncheon meat or ‘Spam’, the contents poured out like water, flecked with pink particles of fat-saturated gristle. I’ve not eaten that shit since. I spent the days reading J. P. Donleavy or chatting with other similarly heat-struck bikers passing through, while dust storms periodically ripped through the gorge. By night it was just too stifling inside the hut, so I slept outside in what little breeze there was. Even then, I’d wake up once in a while with my lips and throat parched fit to crack, and struggle to douse my mouth from the water bottle.
As the days passed I knew I was running out of time to visit my goal: the mini massif I now know as Sli Edrar (below).
Then one morning the army jeep returned with my passport with nothing more than an admonition to not 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 where a boat left in three days’ time.
A day or so later I wasn’t feeling well. I got past In Salah and found myself lightheaded and weak. Just up ahead 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 switchback ascent 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 my 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 like to pass a siesta. Despite, or perhaps because of my dozy state, I clearly thought a picture of my other camera on a tripod would be a fitting souvenir of my in-culvert recuperation.
The drink (1 spoon salt, 8 spoons sugar per litre) quickly did the trick and revived, I set off across the Tademait, tensed up in readiness for something bad to happen – a piece of the sky falling on my head, perhaps? Nagging me were the 1100km that still lay between me and the Algiers boat. It was time to lay down some miles. For once the 400-km crossing of the the Tademait passed without event which in itself felt creepy. I filled up in El Golea and another few hours got me past Ghardaia, the gateway from the Sahara. Only now it was late afternoon, time for the headwinds to kick up. At times the feeble motor strained to reach 25mph while I crouched over the bars, crippled with stiffness, watching the odometer numbers click by in slow motion.
By this stage the UV had seen to my thin cotton Times delivery bag which had fallen apart. I lashed it to the bike with a piece of plank and some nice 7mm climbing rope. Around Berriane the rising heat from the south sucked in a dust storm and visibility dropped to a few feet. I edged to the side of the road, wondering if I should get off it altogether, not least because cars still rushed past, confident that whatever risk they took, it was OK because All Was Written. By Laghouat I’d chewed a good 1100-km chunk out of the map. I unclawed my hands from the ‘bars and hobbled into 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. As I slumped against a litter-strewn, shit-riddled ruin, a guy living in a cardboard hovel I’d not even noticed hailed me over.
I’d never actually met a regular Algerian civilian. He invited me in and we chatted as well we could while his unseen wife prepared a meal. He proudly told me how was a veteran of the recent Western Sahara war against Morocco (Algeria lost that one and it eats them up to this day) and gave me a picture. When the time came I was invited to sleep on his living room carpet.
Sadly, the carpet turned out to be agonisingly flee-ridden and try as I might and worn out as I was, I couldn’t 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 favourite mattress back in my London squat for months. I did everything I could to delouse it, repeated dousing with flea powder and 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. Leaving Laghouat next day, I passed billboards of whichever corrupt Big Brother was dictating over Algeria at the time, and just out of town I found the time to wander up to Pigeon Rocks, not realising they were the site of prehistoric etchings.
Thanks to the killer, 12-hour, day from Arak, only 400kms remained to the port. I was well on target to catch the boat at noon tomorrow. After a week of relentless day and night heat, the temperatures finally began to subside as I rose into the Atlas mountains north of Ain Oussera. Late afternoon, unready to face the congested capital, I bought myself a roadside melon and bounced over some roadside scrub down into a ditch, stalled the bike, and passed the night there. Another big mistake. I’d carelessly left the ignition on after stalling the bike (something I’ve caught myself doing since, when dirt camping). Next morning the battery was as dead as week-old roadkill and, try as I might, no amount of jump starting could get the Benele going.
It was just 100km to the port with hours before the ferry left. I pushed the bike into a lay by, made a sign ‘Alger port SVP’ and eventually two kind blokes responded to my plea and loaded the Benele into their pickup. ’What’s with this tar all over the bike?’ Don’t ask, mate… Following a battery acid transfusion and a cafe noire injection in Medea, I was good to go. I spun down the Atlas bends into Algiers and blundered my way to the port gates. I was late but so was the ferry. 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 1984 and on most years since. Let Somali pirates steal us to their thorny lairs; let sudden storms rain down hail and brimstone. I was out of Algeria. Yippey–aye-yay!
A day later the boat docked at Marseille. It was probably Friday and I had to be back at work on Monday. So I’m still not sure what possessed me to make a casual visit to the Bol d’Or 24-hour endurance race scheduled for that weekend nearby at Le Castellet raceway. Maybe I had some energy to spare. Bike magazine had enshrined the Bol as a biker’s rite of passage – France’s one-day equivalent to 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 enjoyed some baffled looks at my bike, battle scarred from its recent desert detour. The trail-bike loving Frenchies, who went on to buy more Ténérés than anyone else, at least would get something like Le Bénélé.
Wandering above the pits, I even had the presence of mind to check out #53: an RD500LC popping in for a fill up. I bet that team spent more time filling the tank than the rider did on the track.
But my abiding memory from the ’84 Bol was a vision of my desert biking future. In fact it was a future that was already two years old, and its name was Yamaha. XT600Z. Ténéré.
On the Sonauto Yamaha stand was TT-Z Dakar factory racer looking slick in the sexy, pale blue Gauloise livery (left) which we never got in the UK. The desert racer had it all: 55-litre tank, discs all round, 12-volt lights and a side stand as long as your arm. Even if the road-going XT-Z was less extreme, what was not to like? My Bénélé joke-bike had been a cocky two-fingers flicked at the Yam. Why? Search me, but 30 years later I found myself engaged in a similarly pointless project.
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, something like: ‘The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn from the crow‘. Actually that’s William Blake as quoted in Dead Man movie.
Anyway, a Tenere could (and did) come later, right now It was time for the final haul, another 1100 clickety-clicks to Calais and a boat back to the UK. I spent that night in some slug-riddled forest, and Sunday morning saddled up bright and 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. I don’t know where I was – the middle of France somewhere – but within an hour or two of setting off, a slate-grey death cloud crawled up onto the horizon, unzipped itself, and with a shrug proceeded to empty its bladder right in my face. My desert desiccated leathers soaked up what they could, before 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 Britannic reserve, swung into a farmyard and rode the bike into a barn. Inside was an old steam-powered lettuce thrasher. 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 dryly: ‘Fatiguée, eh?’ 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.
Later that afternoon the P&O ferry disgorged me at the end of the A2 which reeled me back into London. Spinning along at 45-50, clogging up the slow lane, I snapped this defiant shadow shot as I went by.
Back home, what the Germans call derdurchfall began to form, as my shrunken stomach reacted violently with longed-for snacks. My drenched leather coat fell to the floor with a squelchy thud and 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 which had become my cherished companion this last fortnight and snarl like an alcoholic on New Year’s Day: No more sodding motorbikes! Ever! Well, not until 8am tomorrow, that is.
I don’t write about this mad, two-week trip in Desert Travels, so lap it up here for free.
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. And right down the middle 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. Your mind begins to wander.
Knowing I was into trail bikes, a mate put me on to a mate flogging an AJS 370 Stormer (above 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 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. The job was finished off by replacing the dinner-plate rear sprocket with gearing more suited to horizontal applications. Topped off with a classic speedblock RD250 tank, I added a ‘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 result 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 buses.
I dubbed the joke-bike ‘Bénélé‘ in mock-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, but in a little less time than was available. You pack a 3500-mile trip to North Africa into two-weeks and schedule it for September when you imagine peak summer temperatures are on the wane. This time there’d be no miserable 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 photographed 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. 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 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.
After the rubbish set up of the XT500, you can see I had an all-new ultralight soft luggage arrangement. No more sawn-off chemical tins poorly lashed to Dexion racking. A small canvas pannier hung on one side with a 10-litre jerrican inside; a thin cotton Times newspaper delivery bag dangled off the other with 10 litres of water. And an over-huge tank bag sat on the flat-topped RD tank. A sleeping bag was lashed in front of the headlight – Easy Rider style – and 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 town and set off across the Tademait plateau which had spooked me on my first transit in ’82. The next 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 of me. 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 like a train at a level crossing. 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 the motor droned as I punched the Benele into the sand wall. Inside, visibility was lost as grains pelted me from all directions and I struggled to keep upright or even know which way upright 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 spinning tornado’s opposite 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 to ride into the dark to be off the plateau before stopping. I continued into the dusk, pulling up briefly with the engine running to remove the sleeping bag off the headlight, before pushing on from 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 passing In Salah, the hottest town in Algeria, before heading deeper into the Sahara.