Desert Riders ~ XRL650s in the Sahara

“Having tasted the thrill of off-piste riding, corrugations just aren’t so much fun anymore.”

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Looking back 10 years later, I realise Desert Riders was the most amazing ride I’ve done in the Sahara. And looking again at the location of the Lost Tree (see map below), we were way out there. The Sahara has become a dangerous place in the intervening decade and I don’t imagine I could ever repeat something like this. 

XRL ChoiceXRL Preparation • XRL 4000-mile report

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Not long after 1989 when the original Sahara Motorcycle Tour (SMT) described in the Desert Travels staggered back home, a bitter civil war broke out in Algeria as the army annulled elections as unrelated nomad rebellions broke out in Niger and Mali. At that time both Libya and the Western Sahara to Mauritania were not accessible and so the brief Golden Age of independent Saharan exploration came to an end.

I took a nine-year break from desert biking until a chink opened up into Libya in the late 90s and I headed out there on a BMW Funduro. Soon I was running vehicle-supported motorcycle tours in Libya and then Algeria also re-opened. Making the most of it, in 2003 I cooked up an ambitious expedition: Desert Riders. It turned out to be my best pure desert ride on which, with the aid of fuel caches Jon, Andy and I managed to get out as far as the ‘Lost Tree’ in Niger’s Ténéré Desert, slip back into Algeria and get out again, all just days before a mass kidnapping which marked the beginning of the absolute end for unescorted Saharan moto tourism and which we managed to dodge thanks to a well-timed crash.

I looked at our route on a map the other day (a Google Map below) and realised there’s something to be said for a 38-litre fuel tank after all! All things considered, we made a pretty good dvd of it too, and in that pre-youtube era it managed to get broadcast in a shorter form on National Geographic Channel.

dr-borderlands-mcNot surprisingly our actual route didn’t match our plans. Nothing new there. I’m never sure, but Oued Samene canyon has never been traversed, except possibly by a guy on an unloaded TT600. One day I’d like to go back there on an similar machine and explore upstream – or nose up from the south to the watershed and see if there really was a bike-proof cliff face up there. But the chances of being able to do that are slimmer than ever  these days.

It was in Oued Samene – our famous 4km day – that the reality of riding 250kg slugs-on-stilts hit us. But it was also our first cross-country (‘off piste’) ride down to the canyon’s north rim and it underlined the thrill of finding one’s own way over wild terrain. Exploration: you can’t beat it!

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Within sight of the Libyan border, Tarat wasn’t on our original itinerary either, but a fantastic piste. I’ve long wanted to do this one and I’d love to do it again. Water became a problem for us; the soak or ’tilmas’ at Imirhou village was nearly dry, and then the route south to Dider (the cover of the dvd) became extremely rocky, right up to the last couple of kilometres. I don’t normally say this (though I often think it!) but it was a relief to get back to the road and ride on to Djanet.

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Here we decided we couldn’t be arsed with the 1500-km run to Tam and back for Niger visas, so we took on an excursion to the Lost Tree instead. Out of town, amazingly we covered the 300km to the Erg Killian fuel and food cache in one glorious day and all off-piste through beautiful country. It was especially wonderful after the rock-bashing and bike hauling of the previous week up on the plateau.

From the Killian fuel dump to the Tree was across truly terre sauvage. There were some tricky hills around the Alg-Niger frontier where we installed the DRP Monument from use fuel cans. And then out into the Tenere itself: butt-numbing endurance. We were illegal and out on the edge, but I at least felt pretty safe as dodgy encounters or all three bikes packing up at once was unlikely. We saw not a soul for four or five days.

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Next day on to the Tree (right) and all the way back to Killian we did a stonking 450 kms – a ride to remember. Then back north from the cache to Bordj on the Djanet road – another great ride until Andy got puncture fever and DNFed with tyre troubles all the way home. Read his story here.

Jon and I took the regular route west to Tamanrasset as we were keen to have a closer look at Telertheba mountain. We rode up as close as we could over the rubble and Jon trekked right up to the base of the cliffs. But climbing this jagged ridge (it’s been done) would be tricky and as usual we were low on water and food. By the time we got to Tam we felt a bit unsatisfied. Having tasted the thrill of off-piste riding, corrugations just aren’t so much fun anymore.

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Jon and I parked up in Tam for a few days (it was Tabaski festival) when a Dutch KTM – a guy I met last year on the Med ferry – turned up with a couple of German mates heading for Djanet. About ten days later they all got abducted in the Oued Samene region along with 29 other tourists in various groups – below. Arjen and his three mates were released six months later and several stone lighter. One woman died of the plakat3501heat on the plateau. Desert travel in Algeria has never recovered from that event which has since spread all over the Sahara under the banner of Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

But we didn’t know any of this yet so Jon and I set off through the Hoggar, our XRLs cutting through the hairpins like half-sunk canoes. Still, a cracking ride even if the rough western descent took it out of our panniers (hard cases out here, never again!). And from there we were heading up the easy Amguid piste to climb Garet el Djenoun. It was another of my all-time ‘want-to-dos’. From there we’d ride on to another fuel dump* and try and get to the Amguid Crater. Though to be honest we didn’t hold out much hope on our radical canyon approach route from Foum el Mahek.

Then the above crash happened so that would all have to wait for another time, and with all the abductions, that time may not be too soon. The party that started in the late 1970s is over. Me, I’m just pleased I packed in all the Algeria I could in the good years. I still try and go back to the Sahara most years, but Desert Riders marked the end on an era in a fabulous place with the richest memories of my original desert travels.

*We picked up the fuel in November 2005 during another visit. A bit of evaporation but 90% there after three hot summers on a rock. And in November 2007 I reached the amazing Amguid Crater on foot.

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