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I don’t write about this mad, two-week trip in Desert Travels, so lap it up here for free.
You’d think I’d have learned something after my 1982 Saharan fiasco on the XT500. Well I did. Despite it all, I was still fascinated by the Sahara and wanted to go back and do it properly this time. When it was good it was epic and other-worldly, and if you came from one of the less edgy suburbs of South London, the Sahara made quite an impression: nature stripped back to its raw bones of sand and rock. And right down the middle lay the frail ribbon of road they called the Trans Sahara Highway which I’d ridden off the very end of a couple of years earlier on the XT.
By 1984 I’d settled for an easy way of despatching for a living: working long but steady hours for a London typesetting outfit, delivering advertising copy on the one mile between Holborn and the West End. (You can read all about that and a whole lot more in The Street Riding Years.)
There was no longer a need to ride an IT250 or a 900SS should you get sent to the other side of the country on a wet Friday evening. For this job a dreary commuter bike was sufficient. And none came drearier than Honda’s CD200 Benly twin (below left), a single-carbed commuter ridden by stoical Benlymen. Riding up to 12 hours a day on a hyper-dull CD can drive you a bit crazy at 24 years of age. Your mind begins to wander.
Knowing I was into trail bikes, a mate put me on to a mate flogging an AJS 370 Stormer (above right) for fifty quid. The Stormer was a vile, shin-kicking British two-stroke motocrosser that was the polar extreme of the Benly. In a flash of brilliance which years ago had given birth to the Triton cafe racer cult, I figured I could marry the two and make something more desert rideable and less boring: a Benly-engined, MX-framed desert racer!
Over the summer of 1984 the machine took shape in my artfully appointed design studio in London’s literary Bloomsbury district. It took two goes to get a bike shop to correct the engine alignment mistakes of the former. But here it was, suspended by some Honda XL250S shocks as long as truncheons, and silenced by VW Beetle tailpipes, a cunning, lightweight trick you may recall from the BMW I rode with in Algeria in 1982.
The job was finished off by replacing the dinner-plate rear sprocket with gearing more suited to horizontal applications. Topped off with a classic speedblock RD250 tank, I added a ‘Moto Verte’ sticker so there’d be no mistaking what an international, Franchophilious guy I was.
I took it out to the woods near Addington to see what it could do. The result was similar to dragging a dead dog around on a lead. The VW pipes reduced the power at the rear wheel to quite possibly single figures. The foot of clearance needed a running jump to get on the bike. And the AJS conical hub brakes where a requirement by the then powerful Ambulance Drivers’ Union to ensure their members were never without work scraping Stormer riders off the sides of buses.
I dubbed the joke-bike ‘Bénélé‘ in mock-envious recognition of Yamaha’s near-perfect XT600Z Ténéré which I’d spotted in a Sydney bike shop a year earlier, and which was itself based on Yamaha’s Dakar Rally desert racers. More about them, later.
So what do you do with a dumb-arsed desert racer? You ride it to the Sahara of course, but in a little less time than was available. You pack a 3500-mile trip to North Africa into two-weeks and schedule it for September when you imagine peak summer temperatures are on the wane. This time there’d be no miserable mid-winter transit of Europe and the northern Sahara, as in 1982.
My goal that year was a mysterious massif of conical peaks which I’d photographed south of Arak on my way to Tamanrasset in 1982, and which I’ve since learned is called Sli Edrar.
The Bénélé’s top speed was no more than 53mph, and even at that speed it felt unsafe, should a squirrel run out in front. So to get a good run-up I rode straight from work on Friday night down to a mate’s in Canterbury, close to the port of Dover, ready to catch an early ferry next morning.
By maintaining momentum, Monday night found me camped back among the magical limestone outcrops of Cassis, near Marseille, ready to hop on the ferry to Algiers the following morning.
After the rubbish set up of the XT500, you can see I had an all-new ultralight soft luggage arrangement. No more sawn-off chemical tins poorly lashed to Dexion racking.
A small canvas pannier hung on one side with a 10-litre jerrican inside; a thin cotton Times newspaper delivery bag dangled off the other with 10 litres of water. And an over-huge tank bag sat on the flat-topped RD tank. A sleeping bag was lashed in front of the headlight – Easy Rider style – and kept the bugs off the Benly headlight. Cunningly, I lashed a tool bag with other heavy items under the lofty engine. If my mass had been any more centralised I’d have become a Black Hole right there and then.
My first memory of Algeria that year was being a little unnerved that as far north as El Golea it was already 35°C by 9am. If you live in Yuma that’s probably no big deal in September, but for a South London boy it was a bit of a shock.
I filled up in town and set off across the Tademait plateau which had spooked me on my first transit in ’82. The next town (or anything) was 400km away. I buzzed along at 9.8hp/hour and by early afternoon dust devils or mini tornadoes were whipping across the baking gibber to either side of me. I recalled how a mate said he’d been knocked off his XS650 by one in Turkey earlier that year.
I was already tired, thirsty, sore and hot when up ahead what looked like a huge wall of sand hundreds of feet high hurtled right across the blacktop like a train at a level crossing. Only as I neared it did I realise it was the mother of all whirlwinds, a huge cauldron of rotating sand. I turned the wick up and the motor droned as I punched the Benele into the sand wall.
Inside, visibility was lost as grains pelted me from all directions and I struggled to keep upright or even know which way upright was. And then, as I slipped into the windless eye of the maelstrom, the sand grains briefly turned into pelting raindrops. WT jolly old F was going on!? Search me, but before I knew it, I’d blasted out of the spinning tornado’s opposite wall, this time shoved left onto the roadside gravel. Now I knew how those roadsigns got flattened into the dirt…
Just as in 1982, the Tademait had terrorised me and I vowed to ride into the dark to be off the plateau before stopping. I continued into the dusk, pulling up briefly with the engine running to remove the sleeping bag off the headlight, before pushing on from the big switchback descent from the Tademait to the desert floor.
That night I stripped off and lay in the dirt by the bike, listening to what sounded like the oil boiling in the crankcases, hours after switching off.
I wasn’t hungry but I drank and drank and soon fell asleep where I lay. Tomorrow I was passing In Salah, the hottest town in Algeria, before heading deeper into the Sahara.