Sunday, 6 May 2018
Travel Tales: Desert Daze
My first trip to the Sahara was a well planned disaster. Information about what to expect and especially about bike preparation was hard to come by. The otherwise excellent and still useful Sahara Handbook only has a couple of pages of misleading and mistaken information about biking. I was amongst those adventurous nutters who bodged up their XT/XL or BMW and set off across the desert with an alloy tank, racks welded by a friend, spare tyres and far too much luggage.
I had the feeling of walking into an abyss and secretly knew that my overloaded pile of junk would barely make it across the desert to West Africa. In fact, it never did. When the first Yamaha Tenere came out I was down (and out) in Australia. A dribbling appraisal of the new XTZ in a bike shop in West Sydney revealed that this was the machine that my XT500 had tried to be. Big, well mounted tank, oil cooler and O-ring chain, DID rims and motocross derived suspension, a 12V halogen headlight and even folding tip foot controls. Truly the sand fairly had answered my prayers.
But why go? Perhaps I’m worse off for living in the south but you must admit that non competitive off-road riding in this country is hardly challenging. I've spent many a memorable weekend draining Welsh bogs out of air filters but it’s just not the same as spending three days riding the distance from Penzance to Newcastle, seeing maybe a couple of vehicles a day. Everything you need to complete that journey safely is carried with you, and it will all be done without eliciting ramblers', farmers' or plod's scorn. You won't even have to cross a bit of tarmac.
Come evening, pick a friendly dune and set up camp under the clearest sky you've ever seen and, soon after dark, snuggle into your sleeping bag and count the shooting stars, hoping the gerbils keep out of your way. Next morning you might see a caravan of Nomads pass soundlessly by on the other side of the valley, the women wrapped in veils sat motionlessly on the back of camels.
So, Sahara, big as Australia and only a few days away. Crossing the Sahara has been successfully accomplished by many people. As with crossing the Atlantic. one can cross it many times without trouble but for whatever reason, any trip could be your last. Like the sea, the Sahara does not suffer fools. Even with the best preparation and most cautious attitude, you will be lucky to get away without some kind of bite, if not a full blown bark. So don't bite off more than you can chew, something I still tend to do.
Expect the itinerary, carefully conceived on the living room floor with a couple of cans and all the chairs pushed back, to go all to pieces in the reality of the ride. Know also that the more hazardous and complex your situation, the more ingenious your decisions, the more innovative your skills. They have to be. It goes without saying that you are on your own out there. What insurance you can get is only academic with a broken shoulder 200kms from help.
This is what counts: A manageable, economical, reliable and comfortable bike that can carry you and your heap of gear over rack breaking corrugations, rim denting rocks and power sapping sand for half a week at a time. During this time you must have the mental and physical stamina to deal with all the usual stressful situations of getting lost, making emergency repairs and arguing with your mates. Most first timers (and a surprising number go back for more) tend to overestimate their personal needs and underestimate the hammering their bike will get.
There are no short cuts in preparing the bike for a desert trip, which is why most people carry on over to West, East and South Africa. By the time you've made it across the Sahara you might as well carry on. But for many, especially those on motorcycles, the desert will be the most memorable part of the trip. The bike should be light, with low rpm power characteristics and do at least 50mpg, capable of carrying at least six gallons of fuel and 50kg of water, food, tools and spares plus any other baggage.
You won’t be surprised to learn that 500-600cc Yamaha XTs and Honda XLs far outnumber any other bikes in the desert. GS BMWs are also found along with the odd Suzuki DR. Heavier and more comfortable bikes, like the Honda Transalp, are also making an appearance, but I’ve never seen a watercooled Kawasaki KLR out there, even though the 650 version has, if nothing else, got the tank for it. Proper Enduro four strokes like TTs and XRs are usually travelling with a car carrying the baggage and extra fuel. Two stroke scramblers are usually left in the back of the van, used only for the odd bit of dune bashing in the evenings.
In the Sahara, spares for Japanese bikes fall with the rain. There is the odd, abandoned XT/XL in Tamanrasset garages but you're on your own out there. You must have confidence in your bike to make the entire trip on its own resources. Even inner tubes are hard to find new, and, like jerry cans, are always in demand. My choice would be the original kickstart Tenere; later models have some improvements (notably in air filter design plus oil tank and cooler positioning) but the expense of the electric starts have meant retrograde, cost cutting features elsewhere. These models also seem less economical and durable.
I have mostly concerned myself with the Francophone countries of the central and western Sahara because Libya is still not a place for Brits to go on holiday and, away from the Lake, Chad is as remote as Mauritania and still dangerous in the north. Not forever, hopefully.
Despite the recently introduced requirements of visas for British passport holders (requiring an interview and costing £35) Algeria is still the best country for a bit of desert riding. It's a Mediterranean country and therefore still within the terms of limited travel and accident insurance available within the Sahara. Decent food, foreign cigarettes and alcohol are scarce. Don’t confuse Algeria with its more modern, tourist orientated neighbours, Morocco and Tunisia. And Algerians don’t exactly welcome you with open hands!
One could do a lot worse than choosing Morocco for one’s first visit to the desert. Once you break away from the hassles of the north, south of the High Atlas, the small band of desert up to the disputed Algerian frontier has some interesting pistes that would give you a good taste of the real Sahara without committing yourself too much. Despite what they tell you at the tourist office, you can't yet ride down the Atlantic coast to Nouadhibou in Mauritania. Hopefully, this situation won't last forever.
The trouble with Niger is that, apart from the 200km section of the trans Sahara route from Assamaka to Arlit, you can't ride anywhere off tarmac without paying for an expensive guide - on a bike this is obviously a problem. It is also a shame because it denies you all the pistes in the Beautiful Air mountains and fascinating Tenere desert and beyond. Enough people have gone missing in the Tenere to make this restriction understandable.
Mali has the southern half of the other trans Sahara route, the Tanezrouft. This is the 600km section from Tessalit near Algeria to Gao on the River Niger (travel is sometimes restricted due to the Tuareg rebellion in this area). From Gao (or, to be precise, Bouremi a sandy piste leads the 400-odd kms to Timbouctou. You won’t be the first person to want to try to visit this town just for the sake of it, but if you manage to ride the entire piste without falling off consider yourself a fine off-road rider! Pistes north of Timbouctou are for camels and experienced locals only.
Mali has a host of tiresome and regularly renewable permits that make a long visit a complicated and expensive proposition. This is a shame because apart from the sometimes corrupt local authorities this is a friendly and interesting country.
Although currently only accessible from Mali, Mauritania will be a pleasant surprise, foreign aid putting more in the shops (and the middlemen's pockets) than you might have expected. Thoughtless generosity from successive Paris Dakar rally teams has given some locals expectations you can't match, though any visitor is bound to be a welcome recipient of legendary Moorish hospitality. The pistes here are as remote as any and you will need a very expensive guide, which unfortunately rules out unsupported bike trips.
Visiting the deep Sahara during the summer on a bike is out of the question. While a carefully planned crossing may be accomplished with some discomfort, the heat will demand water consumption of at least 10 litres per day. This is drinking water only and will still leave you feeling tired, lethargic and susceptible to sickness. A sound bike will handle things much better than you, but the safety margins of motorcycling in the desert are narrow enough and in summer the risk is far too great.
October to March is the best time to visit the desert. The shortest days (about 10 hours) and coldest nights (in the Hoggar) are around New Year. The Michelin 953 map has a climatic table giving temperature and rainfall in North and West Africa. I have experienced light rain only once, in '86, otherwise it will be colder than you think in the evenings.
Even on the tarmac highways where distances are vast you should always take the trouble to know your position as accurately as possible. On the piste, landmarks such as major road crossings, distinctive mountains or steep passes should be reassuringly anticipated with regular reference to the map, odometer and guide book. Zero the trip at the beginning of a stage when all your reserves are replenished and only reset it when you get to your next safe destination - a spare speedo cable is essential! Blindly following tracks without thought to landmarks, orientation or maps is the most common way of getting lost.
A track can infuriatingly begin to turn the wrong way or disappear altogether. If you are tired, low on fuel or your bike is running badly these moments of uncertainty can lead to careless decisions, such as trying to take a short cut back to your last known position. In mixed going getting totally lost is as easy as falling off. And if you are pinned down by your bike a mile away from the main route you may never be found again. If you get lost, always follow your tracks backwards to a point that is known.
Correcting these inevitable mistakes is where your barely adequate reserves of fuel will be used up. As you can see, keeping an eye on where you are, your partner and the terrain under your wheels, little time is left to appraise the sometimes spectacular Saharan scenery around you. Biking in the desert requires a clear mind aware of its own fallibility. Take compass bearings away from your bike.
A pair of mini binoculars can also be used in looking for lost partners or distant marker posts. If you are travelling alone carry a rocket flare but only use the thing when you are certain it will be seen by someone! Confident orientation that does not make hasty judgements can inspire confidence in a situation that is always slightly tense.
Even in the depths of winter you will soon notice the heat and dry air once you start trying to jump your bike up a sandy river bed. Away from the extreme ends of the recommended season, a ten litre water container plus a 2 litre water bottle should get you the 450 miles from Djanet to Tamanrasset safely - about three days riding. This water accounts for drinking and cooking only, never fail to fill up with fresh water whenever you can. If in doubt, boil or sterilise the water with Puritabs or the like. In Algeria this is rarely necessary but in the south be cautious.
In the very end, after everything else has broken down, run out or fallen off, it is your water that will keep you alive Be certain to attach your water containers securely to the bike and check frequently that it, and the rest of the baggage, are still attached, especially over rough ground. Crossing the Sahara is not the easiest trip in the world, but that’s probably why people keep coming back for more.