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!
Additional pix by Dan W, Dave K and Robin W. For the full story on our tour read this.
Having had a couple of XR400s on previous desert tours, I’ve long wanted to try one for myself and finally got a MY 2000 model in late 2017. I rode it up and down the road, got some man-caving mates to fix a few things up, then loaded it into a van bound for Germany and Algeria. Even if they’d have made easier work of it, I couldn’t bring myself to splash out at least twice as much for a KTM and the like. There’s very little in this old category but the XR was a safe, undemanding choice which I was pretty sure wouldn’t disappoint me on the sort of riding I was expecting.
Quick stats • Produced from 1996-2004
• Air-cooled, dry-sump, RFVC, 5-speed
• 34hp @ 6500rpm
• 116kg dry
• 36.6” / 930mm claimed seat height
• 9.5 litre tank (~150km range)
• Disc brakes and 18/21-inch wheels
• Go from around £2000 used in the UK
• Light • Easy kick starting • Enough power • Great suspension, all things considered • Looks great if you’re of a certain age
• Tall seat height
• Poor economy
• Kick only
• Dry-sump oil-level checking faffery
• Was never a contender as a good travel bike
• No modern version exits
Some other bikes I considered were:
• DRZ400 Has the button but 15-20kg heavier, more trail bike less dirt bike and finding a decent one with few owners that’s not covered in naff Monster stickers is tricky. • Husaberg FE450
Liked the unusual engine and good reputation of later models but obscure = hard to sell on and anyway, it’s a hardcore enduro racer. • KTM 500 EXC
Less frantic than a 450, lighter than a 690 and easy to sell on, but efi ones cost thousands and relaxed ≠ XT500. • KLX450R
Unchanged since 2008 and said to be the ‘softest’ of the Jap 450 enduros but carb’d and rare in the UK. But again, softest is all relative. • KLX250S
Better suspension than a CRF-L but it’s still only a 250. I’ve had enough 250s for the moment.
My XR showed 8550km (5300m) on the clock and looked in pretty good nick. It had a small rack, bashplate and an OK front tyre so not much needed adding of fixing for a fortnight in the desert: a new Mitas E09 on the back with Slime in the tubes and self-tapers through the rims to stop tyre creep. New wheel bearings (old ones rusted right up – jet wash victims, I guess) plus fatter pegs and a Trail Tech temperature gauge. Air- or water-cooled, I’m a believer in closely monitoring actual engine temps in the desert. I also got TTR-Simon (on the tour) to add my old Barkbuster Storms and Rox risers, plus a disc of HDPE (chopping board plastic) melted and bolted under the side stand foot – a light and simple way of doing it.
Before flying out to Algeria I had a thought that my kick-only XR might take a lot of starting after being transported across the freezing Alps, the salty Med and half the dusty, arid Sahara. But came the day in Illizi I nearly fell off the seat when it lit up first kick and proceeded to do so throughout the rest of the trip, whether baking hot or freezing cold.
Once geared up, leaving Illizi we were thrown in the deep end with a short but sandy ride to our first dune camp. Those new to sand or who’d not ridden it for ages – like me – were a bit startled but eventually remembered what to do: gun it. The XR felt light, well sprung and reasonably responsive (this was on road pressures), though not enough to make me want to blast up wayside dunes for the hell of it. Most of us felt the same way; there was plenty of rugged riding ahead. FYI, the other bikes on the tour were a CRF250L (DNF); two BMW XChallenges (1 DNF), two KTM 690s, Husaberg 450, two bored-out 315-cc Yamaha TTR250s, KTM 350 EXC, Husqvarna TE300, XR250R and an old KTM 640 Adventure. All of these bikes appeared to cope as well with the riding and, like the XR, none of them needed anything more than the slightest attention. Read the full ride report on advrider.
Fast forward a few days and my XR had impressed me and saved my arse many times; most commonly when I was certain I was about to go over the bars following an unexpected drop-off, trench or general gnarlitude. I thank the light weight – it really is the answer to so many issues on the dirt – and the Showa forks on whatever setting the bike came with. The rebuilt rear Showa shock also did a great job without any meddling. It goes to show that good quality suspension on a light bike works well over a broad spectrum – or how easily pleased I am.
The XR is relatively short and tall and George (who followed us in the pickup over the tour) observed that the Jap bikes (XRs and TTRs) appeared relatively less stable compared to the generally racier European bikes. My XR does look short and high alongside a long-swingarmed 690 and I can’t say it rode the sand seas like an ocean liner nor trickled through grassy tussocks like a Montesa. That may have caused fatigue and palm blisters after a few days, but the relative skittishness never made me to crash outright.
Dave (690 fan) and I have an ongoing banter about why I should get ‘the best trail bike ever’. While in the 690 KTM do appear to give you your cake (lightness, economy, power, tough build) so you can eat it; I still find it and the similar Husky 701 I rode in Morocco too full-on, narrow-saddled and vibey; still more enduro racer than trail bike. A quick spin on Rob’s 690 (right) didn’t change my mind and anyway, for the use I’d give it, the attention it needs and my lack of secure parking/well-lit workshop space, such a bike would be an extravagance.
Kick-starting may be old school but the only time my XR took some starting was after it fell over long enough to drain the carb. Soon enough I learned to just keep kicking away whereupon it eventually coughed then fired up. This can be awkward (on a dune) or just plain tiring after a couple of minutes, so a button would be great. It can be done on an XR by fitting a motor (or crankcase?) from a Honda TRX400 quad – try and find one of those on ebay in good nick. TTR-Simon is currently engaged in such a project; he’s also producing a 350 barrel kit for the electric TTR 250s. Neither job’s an easy solution, but both these bikes – one too small cc, the other unbuttoned – comes with the great suspension and to make it worthwhile – possibly.
A couple of days in, looping some loops I smelled burning oil which turned out to be my bike. Dave (690 and ex-XR400) said the ‘RFVC‘ radial valve set-up tends to ovalise the valve guides due to non-inline forces. Sounds plausible and as the motor never started rattling as long as I kept the oil level up, I was sure it would complete the ride. The strain on the motor and transmission when hauling me over deep, soft sand or up a dune slope is not what I’m used to in the desert, but I never felt the XR needed to be nailed WFO to get the job done. That’s why we like 400-450s over 250s.
I’m guessing RFVC was an over-complicated way of optimising power by improving gas flow with the biggest possible valves. I was also told I might have released more power by easily removing the baffle, but I doubt it would’ve made a noticeable improvement – just a lot more noise which is often mistaken for the same thing.
Though I forgot to consider it before departure, the 14/45gearing on my XR turned out to be spot on for what we were doing; ie: on the low side. On the road, 90kph and once or twice 100 felt like enough and the close-ratio, 5-speed box never bogged (the XR250’s gearing was a lot wider). The chain was feeling the strain too, and needed two clicks during the 1600-km trip; what a pleasure those old school snail cams are to use. Low and close gearing also meant the clutch was never under strain.
Fuel consumption was pretty poor by my recent standards – down to just 100km to a tank or 150 to dry (45mpg). I bet the bigger efi 650s and 690s were doing much better – small engines aren’t always more efficient when you take into account power-sapping terrain or high-speed roads. I didn’t pull the spark plug but the bike did feel like it may have been running rich, even if starting and carburation were spot on. Better to leave it that way in the desert, even at the cost of mpg as the engine runs a little cooler.
Measured off the cylinder head, that temp gauge was handy for reading overnight ambients down to zero. On the road the bike ran in the 80s °C and up to 120 when pushed hard on slow dirt, heating briefly up another 10C or more when stopped or ticking over after a hard run. Though I didn’t like doing it, switching off after a couple of minutes seemed best as ticking-over saw the temps climb and climb, even with a breeze. Turned off, it only rose for a few minutes then dropped away quickly. I seemed to be the only one pre-occupied about cool running, but for an old, air-cooled engine I’m sure it’s important. Mechanic Simon (who knows XR4s and engines more than me – since diagnosed light glazing on my XR’s bore which will hone out with new rings and a lapping of the valve seats with new seals. As he says: ‘I think when stationary the engine should be off unless there’s a strong breeze. Combustion chamber temp should not rise further with no source of heat, but the temperature [spike] will move towards the outside of the engine as the temperature gradient changes (imagine it like a wave [of heat] radiating from the plug to the fins) which is why the sensor [briefly] records a continued rise.
The rear Mitas E09 (non Dakar; 1 less ply and a bit lighter) wore very well, (right; at the end after 1000 miles), but on the sands 1 bar / 15psi was still too hard for this stiff tyre on a light bike, even with my weight. On the last day on sand I tried 12psi (~0.8 bar) and noticed less squirreling when pulling away and improved traction elsewhere. Tough as a Michelin Desert but less than half price, I’d use one again for similar riding. I had no punctures (nor did anyone else on this trip).
So thumbs up for the classic XR4; one of the best trail bikes of its day and still with nothing newer taking its place. I’m pretty sure that motor-wise, it was a better ride than the slightly heavier WR250R I used last year. The other day I put out a daring Twitter: ”Like’ if you want to see a modern XR400 such as a CRF450L’. I got the most responses to anything I’ve ever posted. Let’s hope that bike might come one of these years, while not weighing a ton. (It did).
Not long after 1989 when the original Sahara Motorcycle Tour (SMT) described in the Desert Travels staggered home, a bitter civil war broke out in Algeria as the army annulled elections and unrelated Tuareg rebellions broke out in Niger and Mali. At that time both Libya and the Western Sahara were not accessible and so the brief First 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. The Last Golden Age of Independent Saharan Exploration kicked off. Making the most of it, in 2003 I cooked up Desert Riders, an ambitious expedition. 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 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 and realised that maybe 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 and a couple of other more obscure TV channels.
Not surprisingly our actual route didn’t match our plans. Nothing new there. I’m pretty sure the Oued Samene canyon has never been traversed on a bike. One day I’d like to go back there 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.
Looking back, 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, we were way out there. The Sahara has become a dangerous place in the intervening years and I don’t imagine I could ever repeat something like this.
It was in Oued Samene – our famous 4km day – that the reality of riding our 250kg slugs-on-stilts really 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!
Within sight of the Libyan border, Tarat wasn’t on our original itinerary either, but a fantastic piste. I’d long wanted to do this one and I’d love to do it again. Fat chance these days. Water became a problem for us; the soak at Imirhou 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 down to Djanet.
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 food and fuelcache in one glorious day’s riding, all off-piste through beautiful country. Not a single track did we see. It was especially wonderful after the rock-bashing and bike hauling of the previous week up on the plateau.
You never know, do you but the fuel and food dump was all there and intact underneath the sands. We gorged ourselves on Haribo, tinned frankfurters and other junk food and slept as well as we could do, knowing what lay ahead.
From there next day over the border and to the Lost Tree was across truly terre sauvage. There were some tricky hills around the Niger frontier where we erected 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.
Next day on to the Tree and all the way back to Killian we did a stonking 450km – a ride to remember. We paid our respects at the remains of the marble monument erected to Thierry Sabine, the Paris-Dakar Rally founder whose ashes were scattered here in 1986 when he was among several killed in a helicopter crash near Timbuktu.
You can see below how Lost Tree is not quite what it was in 1986. Passing travellers had sawn to centuries-old acacia down to a stump over 17 odd years. With the growth in migrant traffic across the Tenere in recent years, the Lost Tree – the sole landmark for hundreds of miles – may have been lost for good.
The ride back across the Tenere was topped off with this great shot of Jon scooting down the Erg Killan on his home-made surf board.
Next day we packed up and rode back north from the Killian cache to Bordj on the Djanet road. It was another great cross country 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 piste 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.
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. they were keen to hear about our ride out to the Lost Tree. About ten days later they all got kidnapped in the Oued Samene region along with 29 other tourists in various groups. Arjen and his three mates were released six months later, several stone lighter and not all of them the same people. One woman died of the heat on the plateau (2003 was an exceedingly hot summer in the central Sahara, even by Saharan standards). Desert travel in Algeria never really recovered from that event which went on to spread all over the Sahara under the banner of the GSPC, Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and these days, more splinter groups than the Life of Brian scene.
But we didn’t know any of this yet, so Jon and I set off through the Hoggar, our back-heavy XRLs cutting through the hairpins like half-sunk canoes. Still, a cracking ride even if the rough western descent took it out of our alloy panniers (never again!). From there we were heading up the easy Amguid piste to climb Garet el Djenoun. Or so we thought. From Garet it was a 100 km or so to the last fuel cache* and try and reach 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 I crashed out so that would all have to wait for another time, and with the spate of abductions and restrictions of the following decade, that time may not be any time soon. The desert 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 under a rock.
** And in November 2007 I reached the amazing Amguid Crater with a camel caravan.