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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I never owned one, but the classic twin-lamp3AJ 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.
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.
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.
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.
Hooning about on a clay pan.
The century-old Aéropostale base at Cape Juby (Tarfaya).
Inside the base.
Cap Juby in its heyday.
Tojo wheels + jerries – the only windbreaks for miles.
Watchtower on a berm just 50km from the Mauritanian border.
Hot steam and rubber. Cleaning out the Slime.
‘Moto – Landrover – Layounne?’ I point to each and try and persuade a Saharawi to transport my bike to the coast.
Churned up, sandy gorge at MW6 KM246. The Himalayan meets it’s limit.
They like the word Sahara out here.
Crossroads where MW6 joins MW7. Came from the left on the WR in 2017.
Khnifiss Bird Lagoon.
Topping up for the day. A can will do me at least 500km.
Desert dawn near Gueltat Zemmour.
A Dakar Rally mound. Pushed up every kilometre or so as landmarks right along our route to the Digtree and beyond.
Most of the riding is easy, as above. But it only takes one lapse in concentration.
Removing the punctured Tubliss core in Layounne.
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.
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.
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).