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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 soon 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 seething with resentment 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!
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A chilly desert morning somewhere south of Ghardaia. Further south it may also freeze at altitude but there isn’t enough humidity to produce overnight frost.
Back at those first 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 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. ‘Crossing the Sahara’ back then meant riding off the end of the trans-Sahara Highway and following sandy tracks for 600km out of Algeria and into Niger. As I found out in 1982, alone on the XT500 (when I got less than halfway), there was no clear single track anymore, but a mass of winding, braiding trails many miles wide, with occasional 2-metre high marker posts every few kilometres.
Young Narcissus; a quick selfington 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.
Mysterious 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 fantastic 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 again 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 so later, Helmut radically 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 next day getting a good run for the 350km to the border.
Next morning we come across some Swiss riders. One of them flipped and cartwheeled his 80G/S 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 honour-bound duty to write Desert Biking a few years later. That book evolved into the Adventure Motorcycling Handbook and here we all are.
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 setting off from Paris.
As I say in book, 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 tense 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 innovative 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 highway resumed. This section in Niger still remains unsealed in 2021; banditry has made the job of completing the trans-Sahara Highway too risky. 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 on those crap tyres, I camped on some dunes above the river. As the sun set, over the river I could hear drums beating in the villages. This was Afrikah, just like in the movies!
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 soon got a puncture and encountered the Blue Man as described in the book. From here on I’d have many punctures from thorns 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 put 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. Most locals don’t venture much further.
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? This was the era before tail tidies and you can see my perspex numberplate has succumbed to the piste; a common problem back then. Small metal plates are better.
Rough tracks in west Mali heading towards Kayes. Few people took this route and now I think about it I don’t recall passing any other vehicles in two days. From Kayes it was another 100km to the border which I had to reach that night or I’d turn into a pumpkin.
But there was 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 near Timbuktu. It was January 14, 1986.
Somewhere after Ambidedi, I crash out 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 Luggage fame. He gives me a spare tyre (my own got ruined from being run flat with the rim lock done up).
My cameras had packed up by this stage (another common problem of the era) but I still had film, so Al took some pictures of the Dakar finale for me. Above; Al and 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. Luckily they weren’t shod with Metzeler Sahara Enduro tyres.
That year Rothmans Porsche 959s got first and second, and so did Cyril Neveu and Giles Lalay (above) on Rothmans Honda NXR 780s (which became the original XRV 650 Africa Twin two years later). Go Rothmans. Go Gauloises; Go Chesterfield. If that won’t get you smoking, nothing will!
Serge Bacou – cool centre stand (not my pic) Yamaha factory racer Andrea Marinoni in Dakar
Al inspects a Honda 125 #1. Thanks to this handy website – the best I’ve found for all things Dakar bikes – I was told it was the bike of Gerald Barbezant who was a DNF in ’86. .
Here he is again, setting off in 1987 on his 3rd Dakar on a somewhat flashier 30-hp Skyrock MTX 125 two-stroke and getting his lurid fork gaiters admired by a lurid lady in lime green PVC. Aged 57, Gerald Barbezant went on to finish the ’93 Dakar (actually Marseille to Red Sea) on his 10th attempt riding a 125 KTM EXC. He started another four Dakars, riding 125s because ‘he never got a full bike licence’. Interview here. Fellow 2001 Dakar competitor Lawrence Hacking was not so complimentary in his book.
The route was similar to mine, but twice as fast, taking half as long and many, many times harder
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?!