Book Chapters: Chapter 4: The Trip of a Lifetime Chapter 5: Four Green Bottles Chapter 8: The Dune Corridor Chapter 9: Three Green Bottles Chapter 10: On the Piste Chapter 11: Djanet Chapter 12: Anna’s Southern Tour Chapter 13: The Cathedral Chapter 14: To the Land of Terror Chapter 15: Cracking Up
Most of Desert Travels covers my first attempt at running a desert biking tour in 1989. As it said on the back cover: five left but only one came back riding, but as well as the usual setbacks, we did see a whole lot of interesting Algerian desert along the way.
Some pictures by me, Pete Corbett (PC) and Mike Spencer (MS).
At the border post of Bordj Moktar, Steve and his girlfriend carry on south into Mali for Guinea, and we turn back north along the bleak, flat Tanezrouft. With the heat and end-of-trip fatigue, morale begins to fall apart and I become a pariah. See the book for the grizzly details.
Land Rover 101 for sale. Two previous owners. Light off-road use.
In Djanet I checked into the campsite which all the overlanders used. here I met a couple of very rich, young Berliners, playboys you might even call them, driving a lovely FJ45 Land Cruiser loaded down with every conceivable accessory and on their way to Cape Town. Toyota had only stopped making the 40s a couple of years earlier, and they were still by far the most common vehicle in southern Algeria before the 70 series took over.
I’ve had a soft spot for the classic Land Cruiser 40s after working on a farm with one in Queensland in the early 80s. I think it’s quite possibly the only Land Cruiser with any character, the way a Series Land Rover has in spades. A few years after this trip I bought a BJ45 (petrol 4) in Darwin to do my Rough Guide Australia research. I travelled all over the NT and WA at 15mpg and nearly as much oil per kilometre. But it kept going for a year.
Back in Djanet, I soon discovered, or was told, that the route south into Niger had been closed nearly ten years ago and all the marker posts had been pulled up after too many people had gone missing. So that was the end of the grand Teneres to the Tenere idea, not that I now had the intention of tackling it alone. The route was still possible providing you left Djanet on the sly, but as this report from 2001 found, doing so can end badly.
While enjoying a breather at the campiste, I also met an older French chappy who was in the habit of walking round in his saggy underpants. He was visiting Djanet in a vintage, twin-engined airplane from the 1930s or 40s. At one point it had been used by the Vanderbildts to escape Nazi Germany. One afternoon we all went down to the airport, half an hour out of town, to admire the old plane. I wrote in DT:
From this flat vantage point [the old airport], some 20 kilometres south of Djanet, you could clearly see the unmistakable conical profile of Mount Tiska… the first and only landmark in the featureless expanse which leads across the Ténéré to Chirfa and ultimately Bilma, nearly 900 kilometres away. A waterless expanse of flat, soft, sand, this was the route I’d planned to follow with the only partly cognisant Pete...
I also met a French bloke who walked around with his trousers on and was riding yet another 1VJ. I’d chop off that mudguard, mon ami!
A couple of days later I set off for Tamanrasset with the two Germans in their red Toyota and a shy Swiss couple in a VW Kombi. That was nearly 700km, still a healthy distance, but with more landmarks and chance of traffic than the Chirfa piste to Niger.
We are near the point marked ‘Borne’ on the Michelin map, an important junction 241km from Djanet. Somewhere nearby was a big stone block, but all we found was this rock-filled orange oil drum which in itself is a major landmark. Here the regular truck route carried on northwest for Amguid, but we turned southwest into the low hills for Tamanrasset.
We arrive at the ruins of Serouenout fort [KM300]. By the new millennium it had been reoccupied by the army.
A sandy passage somewhere on the way to Telertheba mountain.
Telertheba mountain (2455m), about 400km from Djanet.
An hour or two from here the sands turn to stones as the track rises into the Hoggar foothills.
There may be rubble ahead…
Ex-Dakar Range Rover could use some TLC.
On the outskirts of Ideles, the first village in 370km. Here we decided to prolong the tour by taking take the ‘Outer Ring Road’ around the Hoggar mountains via Tahifet village to Tam. The track was often two sandy ruts jammed between the rocks and boulders so I’m sure pleased I had the Mich Deserts and 10 psi.
A Tuareg chappy on walkabout.
Two signs in a day! This one near Tahifet village. By now I must have been running low on film. To think of all the photos that could have been (rubbish and otherwise) if we were not held back by rolls of 36 prints. My photography has definitely improved in the digital era now I can see and take risks.
The next shot is over a 1000 km away on my old nemesis, the Tademait plateau north of In Salah. The bike started chocking up and dying, with an odd hiss. Then it would start fine and run again, then slowly choke up and stop again, like a partial seizure but without the engine rattles – and that hiss. I checked the carb was OK and then assumed the dodgy 1VJ cylinder head or worn piston was the problem and the bike was kaput; prematurely killed by the tough crossing from Djanet. I pushed the dead bike off the highway behind a mound, took what I couldn’t afford to get pinched and flagged down a trans-Saharan trucker who dropped me back in In Salah. (Empty pickups were too rare to bother waiting for for the chance to load the bike). I thought if it gets pinched that’s one less thing to worry about and is the cost of desert biking.
In the In Salah campsite I met a Belgian hippy couple travelling with their baby in a VW LT35 camper. Well, Pappa Hippy was enjoying the road trip but, as so often happens, Mamma Hippy was not so in love with the desert. Explaining my plight, he kindly agreed to drive up with the LT and retrieve the bike next day. Amazingly, it was still there and intact. Back in the campsite the XT had the same symptoms, but without the roadside stress I was easily able to diagnose the problem: the silencer was somehow clogged and the trapped gases eventually choked the engine. I removed the silencer’s end cap and noticed the attached baffle’s fine gauze covering (left) was all clogged up with oily rust flakes. Exhaust gas has to pass through this gauze to get out the tail pipe. The bike revved fine without the baffle, but of course made a racket which may have leaned out and damaged the engine. So the easiest way to bodge it was to refit the end cap and punch three holes in the end to bypass the baffle. I’ve never heard of other 1VJ-ers having this odd problem, nor any other bike. Where did the rust come from and, more worryingly, where did the oil? Was it down to the leaded Algerian fuel? We may never know.
With the bike running well again, I headed back up the trans-Sahara Highway and on the 6th of January ferried out of Algiers port for Marseille. By past standards, this trip had gone rather well, the bike was well set up and I’d learned a bit more about travelling in the desert. This time it had been first-timer Pete who’d had to pay his dues back at the Tyre Tree. The Berliners had a rum do too: they rolled their overloaded Todje in Tanzania, cut off the roof and carried on to Cape Town through the rainy season under plastic sheets. We didn’t get to cross the Tenere, something I didn’t do until 2001 on a German tour out of Agadez, and again two years later riding off piste on XR-Ls from Algeria as far as the Lost Tree. These days, a lap like that looks less likely than ever.
By the time I got back to the UK the 1VJ engine was quite rattly and needed a rebore. I did that, flogged it, got another Benly and started planning my first Sahara Motorcycle Tour. More about that later.
ANOTHERBONUS CHAPTER! I don’t write much about this trip in Desert Travels, so lap it up here for free.
Part One ended just south of Illizi in southern Algeria where the road turned into a rough, chassis-snapping track over a desolate Fadnoun plateau, part of the Tassili N’Ajjer.
Only for Pete it was metaphorical end of the road, too. While fitting knobblies last night he’d noticed several broken spokes in his back wheel. Replacement was out of the question and carrying on over the plateau would wreck his wheel within an hour.
We chucked our old tyres up into the tree (they’d be gone in days). Pete set off for the 1300-mile ride north to Algiers, while I carried on south onto the plateau. The next town was about 300km, with Djanet another 110km beyond that, piste all the way.
As it happens, in 2018 I passed our distinctive twin-trunked Tyre Tree alongside the now sealed road to Djanet. Acacias grow very slowly, but last hundreds of years if they don’t get chopped down for firewood.
Within a few miles the state of the track made it clear that Pete had made the right decision to turn back. You can read his story below (published in SuperBike, June 1988)
A short while later I came across these two Swiss guys coming from Djanet. They’d ridden right round the Mediterranean clockwise, also on XT600 1VJs. But I’m not sure they could have come from Libya. They were probably taking an excursion south from Tunisia before heading on for Morocco.
It had taken them days to get to this point from Djanet as their bikes were heavily loaded so they had to ride very slowly. The system was neat and thoughtful but amount of stuff was huge, no wonder the shocks were in shock. There’s a 20-litre jerrican under the alloy boxes and I recall one had an extra large kevlar tank of 30+ litres. That’s nearly my weight alone in fuel and/or water. It must have been a hell of a rack underneath all that gear.
As I climbed further onto the plateau and it levelled off, the bare slabs turned to corrugations. To either side stretched miles of barren, unrideable sun-blackened sandstone rubble, cut by the odd sandy oued. But the track was clear so there was no chance of getting lost.
Nevertheless, suddenly riding alone and on the dirt was initially stressful. I ended the day camped in a creek bed quite worn out.
Next morning the piste turned south towards the plateau’s southern rim. At one point I got buried in the sand as the tyres were still at road pressures to protect the rims. I quickly worked out the best way out was to unload the bike, lean it over and fill in the sandy hole. The way the baggage was set up made this effortless to do, and mostly crucially: redone securely. Once the bike is upright again, it was clear of the sand and could be pushed in first out on the throttle. Notice the three tins of sardines warming on the side of the jerrican: purpose unknown. Notice also the now sawn-off front mudguard. It seems an odd thing to have done overnight. I wonder if those two Swiss guys had warned me of the 1VJ’s overheating-prone cylinder head.
Not far from that point I upon to the epic viewpoint at the top of the Tin Taradjeli pass where the Fadnoun finally drops down to the desert floor. On the horizon eroded remnants of the plateau poke up from the sands.
Fifteen years later on Desert Riders we reached the same point on our XR650Ls after following the much rougher Tarat piste – the original colonial-era route to Djanet.
And thirty years on, in 2018 we rode back up that pass on a German tour I joined. The road now full width with Armco and a nice white line.
There’s more: I just spotted these Dakar images from the early 80s on this website.
At the bottom of the pass the famous sign: Attention, being Drunk is Dangerous.
Knowing the sands lay ahead, I dropped the tyre pressures on the Michelins. These rally racing tyres are so stiff you have to let a lot of air out to make them spread out (unless tour bike is very heavy). But when you do, the bike is transformed on soft sand..
After the village of Zaouatallaz (now called Bordj el Haouas), the truck route joined the track to Djanet and became very corrugated or thick with sandy ruts. Somewhere round here I came across a trailer stuck in the soft sand, a bit like below; same area a year later (photo: PC). I stopped to look but didn’t know how to help so just took a picture. The truck driver was annoyed.
It was easier to ride on the sands to either sides. With the Mich Deserts at 10psi or less riding off piste was a whole new game and a lot of fun. I criss-crossed the sands and low dunes, getting a feel for the XT.
After my initial nervousness on leaving Pete, I felt at home in the desert now, so decided to camp out below the escarpment rather than carrying on to Djanet.
Next morning I took this unusually good photo. I used it later for the cover of Desert Biking.
The 400-km route over the Tassili N’Ajjer plateau from Illizi to the oasis of Djanet. Even though it’s now sealed, or maybe even because of that fact, I can tell you the combination of epic views, switchbacks, sand sea finale and not least, the effort it takes just to get there, make this stretch One of the World’s Great Motorcycle Rides. There’s barely a dull mile. Tell that to Henry Cole next time you see him.
ANOTHERBONUS 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.
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!