Buy Desert Travels 2021 on Amazon
ANOTHER BONUS CHAPTER!
I don’t write about this trip in Desert Travels, so lap it up here for free.
Soon after I got back from Dakar in early 1986 my Tenere was stolen, and so was a new XT350 from the same spot. Once I realised thieves were this cunning I got myself a Z250 hack (below left) which was a fab little work bike. That foiled the bastards!
Lord knows why – perhaps some sort of anti-sensible rebound – but I then got another IT250 – a J model with the YEIS boost bottle. What a huge difference that made compared to the original G model widowmaker I’d had a few years earlier. But still; 25mpg with a trail of blue smoke and deafened bystanders was just not on.
I flipped again and also got myself another BMW: a green R100S with a bikini fairing, just to make sure I hadn’t got it wrong with BMW boxers, too. But unlike the IT250, I’d been right first time round. Despite the persistent hype and pedigree, I just didn’t get it with BMs, it was like riding a waterbed with handlebars, but I do admit the gold pin-striping was superb.
Enough dicking about: it was time to focus and get myself a proper desert bike. It looks like I took the desert winter of 86-87 off – I must gave got a girlfriend. Then, in April 1987 I bought myself the second generation IVJ Tenere (good air-cooled Tenere page).
This one came with electric start (as well as a kick), firmer suspension, an oil cooler in front of the engine where it might actually do some good good, while the oil tank got tucked in where the air filter usually went. That was now set in the back of the tank, rrrrally style. As a result, tank volume dropped to 23 litres; still pretty good,. The swingarm was now steel painted as alloy, the Takasago rims were inferior to the previous 55W’s DIDs, and the brake line was now rubber. Costs were clearly being cut, and while they say it was the best looking of the 600Zs, it was not the best motor. Reliability took a knock due to an over-heating cylinder head leading to top-end wear or failures. It still amazes me that subsequent versions of hitherto reliable and near identical machines could be worse, but it commonly happened back then.
What do you do with a Yamaha Tenere? You ride it to the Ténéré Desert in Niger, of course! This was my fourth Sahara trip and I was finally learning how to do it right. I’d discovered where to score hard-wearing Michelin Desert tyres, as used by the Dakar rally. And I’d learned the value of some sort of rack to keep your baggage in place. No more firey episodes this time.
To cross the Ténéré on a motorcycle is no mean feat, and at that time or even since, I don’t think it’s ever been done. From Djanet you headed southeast into the void and over the border to refuel at Dirkou, no less than 820 kilometres. Then, it was another 600km southwest to Agadez, along the sandier truck route via Achegour and the famous Tree of Tenere.
The Sahara Handbook did not mince its words:
Those distances included passing next to nothing along of the way: not so much as a well, let along a village or military outpost. It was all wide open desert and every year the Dakar Rally rolled south into the Ténéré (following tougher dune routes), but half as many vehicles managed to come out the other side and reach Agadez.
The Handbook advised 25 extra jerricans for a Unimog. That’s half a ton of fuel. I was hoping to scrape through with one jerry and a bit; a total of 48 litres. That meant the XT needed to average 48mpg or 17 kpl on the three-day crossing to Dirkou. Even though the Sahara Handbook had 300-km gaps in the route description, it seemed doable provided the sand remained firm and I didn’t get lost and rack up extra miles. The fact that there were said to be marker posts every 500m made the whole thing possible.
A chap called Pete from Liverpool got in touch after reading my ‘Name that Dune’ story in SuperBike magazine about my eventful ride to Dakar. He was looking for a desert adventure. I knew that trans-Tenere solo was pushing my luck, so either he asked or I invited him to join me, suggesting he get himself another 1VJ to simplify things.
The bike he bought came with home-made alloy boxes on a steel rack. The rack slotted neatly into the open ended subframe tubes at the back, then bolted to the pillion mounts. It seemed a solid design (left) so I got a local metal basher to copy it for me, with trays to sit a holdall on one side and a jerrican on the other. Especially for off roading, I still think this platform idea is a good way to support loads. It doesn’t have to be full baggage width or have nasty pointed corners as my 1VJ example did.
By now I’d written a couple of stories for magazines and was becoming known as that desert biking bloke; two-a-centime in western Europe, but unusual in the UK. The Dakar was slowly catching on too and so pitching ‘Riding Teneres to the Ténéré’ became something people might sponsor. Yamaha supplied some cables, levers and a spare CDI, and Pete managed to get us some Lorus watches. No, I’d never heard of them either. Castrol supplied some oil and Frank Thomas came up with some gloves and maybe boots for Pete. It was to be my most sponsored trip ever: a watch, some oil, gloves and sale-or-return bike spares.
Mid December Pete and I took a ferry to France and managed to cover the chilly 400-km, ride to Paris in one hop. By the time we got there it was dark, and I recall coming off my XT on a stop-start dual carriageway when the front Michelin knobbly slipped on some ice or oil. Pete was on regular road tyres and was carrying both his Michelins on the back.
Because we were snowflakes, we took the overnight Motorail to Marseille, then caught the lunchtime ferry to Algiers and got stuck in.
We camped under this bridge in the Chiffa Gorge in the Atlas mountains.
Just down the road a roadside snack on the south side of the Atlas. I recall putting the karrimat under the rack was not such a hot idea; it dragged and melted in the bends. Not that there were many more of those where we were going.
Later that day we were on the sunny trans Sahara Highway heading for Ghardaia, Gateway to the You-Know-What. Pete is synchronising his Lorus with GMT.
At Ghardaia we turned east for Ouargla and Hassi Messaoud, a new road for me, then turned south again along the Gassi Touil through the huge sand sea of the Grand Erg Occidental. We camped before Hassi bel Guebbour and a couple of miles from the road below the dunes, our first desert camp.
Pete’s 1VJ. A bungy looks a bit casual, but the good thing with a platform rack is you don’t need to lash things down too much: weight is carried on the platform.
Still on worn trail tyres, on the ride back to the highway next morning Pete had his version of my ‘knobby-in-Paris’ moment. By the look of it, he crossed my track at too shallow an angle and the front tyre got deflected. Knobblies would see to that, but it’s a lesson you soon learn on the dirt.
The Golden Road to In Amenas. Our minds were squirming like a toad.
On the edge of the Tinrhert plateau looking south towards oil fields, the Erg Issassouane and the ominous Graveyard Piste.
Hassi bel Guebbour (‘HbG’) – nothing but a grindhouse roadhouse, a checkpoint outhouse. The road turned east again towards Ohanet and the Libyan border.
We took time off to do ablute at the sulphurous hot springs of Hassi Tabankort. I’ve got a bit of a Quasimodo going on there.
“Persil! Persil! My kingdom for some Persil!”
Pete in full repose. He brought a short-wave radio to keep in touch with world events.
I can’t believe we put up with karrimats for all those years!
Illizi was where the tarmac road ended in 1987.
At this time trucks supplying Djanet had to take the long way around the Tassili plateau by leaving the road way back at HbG and going via Amguid. Smaller vehicles tackled the switchback grades of the ‘Piste Dangereuse’ over the Fadnoun plateau.
Local photobomber trounced by a roadsign. That’ll teach ya!
We camped early, a few miles out of Illizi at the start of the Fadnoun and set about fitting our purposeful Mich Deserts. Pete is about to have an ‘oh shit’ moment.
It turned out the custom heavy-duty spokes he’d had fitted (on my recommendation) had been pinging off at the hub, one by one. Half a dozen had gone already, just at the point where the wheels would be getting their biggest test over the Fadnoun’s bare sandstone slabs.
At that time (and probably now), getting replacements anywhere in Algeria, let alone Illizi was about as likely as the Sahara turning into Kew Gardens in spring.
As I wrote in DT, no matter what he did, first time out Pete had to pay his dues to The Ferryman. Just as on my own first desert venture six years earlier, The Ferryman had responded by throwing Pete overboard and blowing his money at the nearest Ladbrokes.