Tag Archives: Sahara

Desert Travels • London–Dakar 1986

Desert Travels Index Page

Buy Desert Travels 2021 on Amazon

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!

Zoomable Map Link
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.
A pose 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.
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 great 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 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 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 duty to write Desert Biking a few years later. That book evolved into the Adventure Motorcycling Handbook.
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 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 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 today (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 Africa, 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. 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 the two days.
From Kayes it was another 100km to the border which I had to reach that night.
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 myself 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.
I think my cameras had packed up by this stage (another common problem) 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. If that won’t get you smoking, nothing will!
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-stoke and getting his lurid fork gaiters admired by a 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.

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?!

Yamaha’s Ténéré travel bikes

My XT Travels
1982: XT500 • Algeria
1985-86: XT600Z 55W• London–Dakar
1987-88: XT600Z 1VJ • Algeria
1990: XT600Z 55W • Marseille–Mauritania (soon)
2007: XT660Z • Morocco

I well remember the day in 1983 when I first clocked Yamaha’s original XT600Z Ténéré outside Maxim Motorcycles in Parramatta, west Sydney.

I crouched down for a good look at the machine which appeared to have addressed just about all the deficiencies of my 1982 XT500 desert bike: front disc brake, huge 28-litre tank, monoshock back-end, 12-volt electrics, folding lever trips, oil cooler and a thrifty ‘twin-carb’ set up.
And all at around 140 kilos dry.

The 34L XT600Z Ténéré, named after the most gruelling Saharan stage of the Paris-Dakar Rally (see below), was desert-ready right off the showroom floor.

‘Tenere’ – What’s that then?

Tenere – or as the French write it: Ténéré – is one of the many Tuareg words for ’emptiness’ or ‘desert’. The more familiar Arabic Sahra [Sahara] means the same thing, but like the Inuit and their snow, the nomads of the Sahara distinguish between many types of desert and regions. The Tenere is a particularly desolate and waterless flat expanse which fills the northeast corner of Niger (left).

Marinoni85

In the Dakar Rally’s 1980s heyday, the crossing of the Tenere from Algeria to Agadez in Niger via the dunes of the Bilma Erg, typically decimated the field and helped establish the Tenere’s already notorious reputation of the ‘desert within a desert’.
In 2003 we rode to the famous Arbre Perdu or ‘Lost Tree’ in the northern Tenere (
below) where Dakar founder Thierry Sabine had his ashes scattered following his death during the ’86 rally.

Good French page on vintage Dakar and all the Teneres and similar bikes.
drid-attree

xt6spex

I bought my first Ténéré in London in 1985 to tackle my own London–Dakar adventure. This was the slightly modified 55W version of the original 1983 34L, produced for just one year. The changes were small: front disc brake cover, stronger DID rims, revised chain adjuster, longer, all-red or blue seat and most easily spotted: sloping speed blocks on the tank.
Modifications to my 55W amounted to nothing more than adding thicker seat foam and some Metzeler ‘Sahara’ tyres – a rubbish choice for the actual Sahara, even back then. Using no rack was another mistake which nearly cost me the bike when my baggage caught fire.

80-madmax
xt60-6

In fact, there was so little to do that I went to the bother of moving the oil cooler from next to the carbs up out into the breeze over the bars. And I painted it black because I was still hadn’t shaken off my juvenile Mad Max phase. With my £5 ex-army panniers slung over the back, in December ’85 I set off for Marseille, bound for Dakar via Algeria, Niger and Mali.

85xt60-dakarmap
My 85-86 route to Dakar in green.

This was my first overland trip which succeeded in actually crossing a few African borders – and it proved to be as eventful as my first Sahara ride on the XT500 (and the Benele quickie which followed). On the way I learned many must-do-next-times as well as several more never-do-agains, all useful material for my Desert Biking guide published a few years later and which evolved into the current AM Handbook.

86-burning

I met Helmut in Tamanrasset and we set off across the Sahara together. Sadly he crashed and burned, never to reach the Niger border. I also had a smaller fire a day or two later, but was thrilled to have finally crossed the Sahara into West Africa.
As I wrote later, reaching sub-Saharan Africa was like switching a TV from black and white to colour.
A few weeks later, with many more adventures and worthwhile lessons under my belt, I shipped my charred Tenere out of Dakar and flew on to Spain to catch up with it.
You can read the long version of that trip here.

tenere85
Camped by the Niger river, Niger
xt6-polo

Yamaha’s original 34L 55W Ténéré was the first proper well-equipped lightweight travel bikes, created on the back of Yamaha’s success in the Dakar Rally which I encountered on a few occasions out there. That bike was a game changer, with the brakes, range, suspension, economy, power and lack of weight which ticked all the boxes. In Europe they absolutely loved them; over a decade the French alone bought 20,000 Teneres; over 30% of all production. They were never officially imported into North America. From 1987 the only-recently discontinued KLR650 filled the same niche and had the same loyal following. In Europe the KLR was largely ignored.
A good early-Tenere page.

87-tenere
87-xt-hoggar

The next Tenere was the 1VJ model (left and above) with kick and electric start, firmer suspension and the air filter positioned, rally-style, under the back of the tank. But costs were cut elsewhere, it supposedly had over-heating problems and it just didn’t seem as durable as the original kickers. Mine sounded pretty clapped-out by the time I returned from a 3000-mile Sahara trip.
You can read about my 87-88 trip here.

Yamaha XT600 3AJ

I never owned one, but the classic twin-lamp 3AJ Teneres (above and left), was said to be a better machine, even if it had by now gained some 25kg. There was said to be a 5th gear problem common to other 600 Teneres, but only if you rode them very hard and lugged the motor.

Yamaha XTZ 660-5v

The 5-valve XTZ660 Tenere from the 1990s (left) still looked great but by now had gained even more weight and lost some cred. On top of that, poor electrics and other flaws managed to lose the Ténéré mojo in the face of KTM’s dirt-focussed 640 Adventure (right).
After the 5-valve was dropped, for nearly ten lean years in the Noughties there were no Teneres in production. BMW’s 650 Dakar became popular big single travel bike; Teneres were seen as an 80s throwback.

tententen

Then, in 2008 Yamaha’s legendary desert bike returned as the XT660Z. Based on the injected XT660R and X produced from 2004, the fuelling was much improved and again, it ticked many boxes, even if it now weighed over 200 kilos and, at times, felt it. Fuel consumption varied widely but averaged 25 kpl, giving a range of about 570km/360 miles from the 23-litre plastic tank.

I bought a barely used one soon after they came out, did the usual kerbside makeover and set off for Morocco to research the first edition of Morocco Overland. Read about that bike here.
By 2016 ever-tightening emissions regs killed off the hefty 660Z Ténéré. Meanwhile, travel bikers round the world have pinned their hopes on 2019’s XT700 Ténéré, based on the brilliant twin-cylinder CP2 motor, as in my XSR700. The T7 is not much heavier than the 660Z and looks like it’ll be another desert-ready hit right out of the crate. Read my impressions here.

Himalayan: Out of the Western Sahara

Himalayan Index Page
dig tree

With back up from Mark in a 4×4 sat alongside Colin on a Nikon, we set off for the 1100-km ride from Assa through the Western Saharan interior to Dakhla via Smara and the Digtree (left), a fuel cache I had buried in 2015.

The fuel may have been getting a bit ripe by now, but all was going well until I hit irreparable tyre troubles just 100km from the Digtree. I limped back 250km to Layounne, got fixed up and, now out of time before I meet my tour group, we settled for a leisurely drive north up the windswept Atlantic coast. Not for the first time, my Sahara plans slipped through my fingers.

clayJPG

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHooning about on a clay pan.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe century-old Aéropostale base at Cape Juby (Tarfaya).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Inside the base.

him-capjuby

Cap Juby in its heyday.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATojo wheels + jerries – the only windbreaks for miles.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWatchtower on a berm just 50km from the Mauritanian border.

him-steamHot steam and rubber. Cleaning out the Slime.

him-sarawi‘Moto – Landrover – Layounne?’ I point to each and try and persuade a Saharawi to transport my bike to the coast.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChurned up, sandy gorge at MW6 KM246. The Himalayan meets it’s limit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThey like the word Sahara out here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACrossroads where MW6 joins MW7. Came from the left on the WR in 2017.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKhnifiss Bird Lagoon.

him-jerryTopping up for the day. A can will do me at least 500km.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADesert dawn near Gueltat Zemmour.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA Dakar Rally mound. Pushed up every kilometre or so as landmarks right along our route to the Digtree and beyond.

him-chatMost of the riding is easy, as above. But it only takes one lapse in concentration.

him-blissRemoving the punctured Tubliss core in Layounne.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAColourful beetle.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ex-Dakar track.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The mouth of the Draa which rises near Ouarzazate in the High Atlas, but very rarely flows in its entirety the 1000-odd km to the ocean.

him-fbj-route.jpg

Out of Tiznit we took an interesting track along the Oued Assaka to Fort Bou Serif ruins for a spot of lunch and some filming.

Honda XR400 in the Algerian Sahara

Additional pix by Dan W, Dave K and Robin W.
For the full story on our tour read this.

xr400r

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

tik
• Light
• Easy kick starting
• Enough power
• Great suspension, all things considered
• Looks great if you’re of a certain age

cros
• 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  husaberg450
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.

xr4 - 1

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.

xr4 - 32

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.

Version 2

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 14/45 gearing 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).

xr4 - 30

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).

xr4 - 14