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Old 20 Nov 2011
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Sahara - XT500 - 1982

Greetings Hubbers,
Let me tell you how it was back in the day, before the inch-thick Touratech catalog, when you sent postcards not texts (and usually beat them home), when you made your gear out of scrap metal you found in skips, and when you navigated with a rosary, not a GPS. This is the story of my first big motorcycling adventure; a plan to ride across the Sahara to the Ivory Coast on an XT 500.

Southern England, 1982. I was dirt bike crazy and spent every spare hour bouncing my bikes off the scenery just for kicks. Here, after a brilliant day on a Perranporth Beach in Cornwall we got caught by the tide, rode up over the dunes but found ourselves trapped inside an army camp.

The only way out was to do a ‘Steve McQueen’ and jump the gate.

But man cannot live by jumps alone - he needs an adventure but in the UK what do we have - Welsh bogs. The nearest bit of wilderness was the Arctic or the Sahara in North Africa. I didn’t know anyone who’d been to the Sahara but figured it must be humanly possible and the Ivory Coast sounded like a nice place to end up. The Sahara Handbook had a lot on Kombis, Range Rovers and Land Cruisers, but just a page and a half on motorcycles: get an XT 500 it said, or get a BMW. They got shaft drive you know.
So I got an XT (that one I jumped wasn’t mine). A mate crashed it into a bus one night so I got some Suzuki RM forks and a 19” wheel as compensation. A bloke took a month to make an alloy tank that didn’t quite fit. I put on an oil cooler from a Citroen or some such. The rack was made of Dexion industrial shelving, the panniers were sacks or varnish tins with the tops sawn off and hinges put on. When the big day came it was snowing but there was no turning back.
Like so many first timers before and since, I was massively overloaded but hugely under-equipped.

'Where you gowin on dat fing?’ a kid at a fuel station asked on the way to Portsmouth.
‘Why Afrika, my lad.'
'No yer not!' he sneered.

Below, camping somewhere in France with my trusty Vango tent which tripled in weight when wet and stayed that way for days.
All the way down people were waving and shouting 'Rallye, rallye, rallye'. What rally? I'd never heard of the Paris-Dakar Rally back then, but in those days the Frenchies were mad for it and actually thought I was a front runner!

The idea of staying in a hotel was patently absurd. Here I’m camping in the hills near Cassis, just out of Marseille. I’d been on the road for all of 3 or 4 days and had already run out of money to pay for the ferry to Algiers. This travelling game; it just wasn’t like being at home.
Nice Alpine Stars. Do they still make them in steel?
Next stop - Algeria...

Don’t ride at night in Africa - they say it in all the books.

First night in Africa: rain… glaring headlights (not the XT's of course)… leftside/rightside? panic... roadside gravel... bike loaded like a refugee's handcart... You can guess the rest.

Luckily I landed on my head despite the fact that to save weight and keep my brain cool in the ‘searing Saharan heat’, I was wearing a £20 climbing helmet.

While crossing the Atlas I’d teamed up with a French bloke called Christian who had a cool, home-made BMW. Apart from the tyres that thing was way ahead of its time. It made my XT look like a mobile scrapyard.
Unfortunately the intolerant Christian was not as cool as his bike, so even though it made good sense to stick together across the Sahara (he was also heading for the Ivory Coast), I slipped away a few days later while he was yet again mending his BM which was having charging issues.

Things soon looked up - relatively - and I came across my first real dunes just north of El Golea (as they called it then). So this is the Sahara! Quite nice really.

But the truth was the northern Sahara in January was cold and the flat landscape elsewhere dreary. Huge plains of rubble and ditches, ugly half-finished towns.

That night I spent my first night alone out in the desert. I rolled into a ditch and set up camp. As the sun set I tried to walk away from the bike into the void as far as I dared, but felt myself pulled back as if by a bungee. It was quite freaky.

I forgot to say, this was the Tademait plateau. As I was to learn on future trips, bad things always happen on the Tademait plateau - a barren, stony 400km wasteland between El Golea and In Salah.

But as with so much about adv travel, it's all about adapting and getting used to your new environment - getting over a form of culture shock.

A couple of nights later I had a great camp in the Arak Gorge, south of In Salah - and as anyone who's been down the Trans-Sahara Highway (TSH) will know, south of In Salah things begin to look up. You pass the huge sand sea of Erg Mehajebat by the road, wind through the Gorge and emerge in a granite wonderland called the Monts de Mouydir.

I was so confident now I managed to leave the bike and walk up one of these bizarre, domed hills.

Down the road the TSH unrolled like a ribbon. You can clearly see the old piste which itself would have followed an ancient camel trading route long before the French arrived. (There's more on Sahara routes here).

But you can also see from the dust kicked up by the truck that the TSH was no smooth, two-lane blacktop. It wasn't 1982 that's for sure, but 80 or 81 was the one magical year when you could drive the 1300 miles from Algiers to Tam on complete and intact tarmac. Then the overloaded trucks, baking summers, flash floods and freezing nights up north took their toll. These days, like the Forth Bridge, the TSH always needs some work somewhere.

I looked down on my bike. Sadly, a passing truck had failed to run it over and it was still there when I walked back.

You’d think I could have ridden to the bottom of the hill, but I was scared of riding the sands. 'Schwei, schwei', as they say out there [take your time]. As it happens the off white granite sand as seen here is actually very nice to ride on - the big, angular grains lock up well - no sinking. All sand seas are made of much finer orange sandstone sand: nice to look at and walk through barefoot, not so nice to ride with a payload.

Just down the road I came across this alluring massif. I wanted to ride there and explore but the idea of leaving the tarmac any sooner than necessary was terrifying - how far was it, 2 miles or 20? What happened if I fell in a hole or got hit on the head by an asteroid? Until you catch up with yourself and your surroundings, adventuring can initially make you paranoid.

Those mysterious peaks became the goal of my next trip, 18 months later, but I never actually got there until just a few years ago. The place is called Sli Edrar and it's actually 10 miles away in the shot below - a lovely cluster of granite peaks. Here’s a video of us bombing around the back of it in 2007 - the Sli bit starts at 2.28 and runs for a minute.

Places like Sli or the ruins of Djado in Niger sum up the other-worldly magic of the Sahara to me.

There were hard rains in the winter of '82 it seems - the Arak Gorge had been trashed by the funnelled run-off and even out on the plains the flash floods had done their damage. I was being forced onto the sands whether I liked it or not.

Here there's a gap in the blacktop with 15-foot drop - ripped out by a phantom river. No red triangle or bloke in a high viz vest as I recall, just a discrete pile of stones. A good place not to be riding at night with a 6-volt Yamaha headlamp that even a moth would have trouble locating!

Well seeing as I had my camera out and all, I may as well take another picture of myself. I can see a hose from an old washing machine jammed in there. That'll come in handy if I come across a nomad with a leaking Zanussi.

This was about a 100 miles north of Tamanrasset and the new road was ripped up all the way down. Top to bottom, left to right, Tam is just about in the middle of the Sahara. The XT handled like a wet mattress of course but I'd need to get used to it - beyond Tam there was no tarmac for the 400-miles over the border to Niger.

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Old 20 Nov 2011
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Sahara - XT500 - 1982 part 2

Back to the story. In Tam I had a chance to assess the carnage. A guy on a XL500 had flipped on the broken road north of Tam, and this XR500 Dakar racer was intact but missing a tank - I think the engine had blown.

This was bike #54 - the racing plate at the top of this thread. Thanks to this ‘Inter-Net’ they have now I can tell you it turns out it was a chap called Michael Harteel from Belgium, on his second of four Daks.

These three French XT5s proved that the Yamaha could be set without looking like an earthquake in a coat hanger factory. By comparison my bike in the middle looks positively medieval. You can spot a Brit a mile away in the Sahara. Always scruffy!
Most of what little desert biking know-how there was was in Europe at that time, especially in Germany. In the UK you just walked around hitting yourself on the head with a frying pan and felt grateful.

That's a pair of Peugeot 504s in the background - a great 2WD desert car back then. Like Mercs today, European kids would buy them cheap and flog them for profit in West Africa where they became bush taxis. But some made the mistake of doing this in their summer hols, got lost in sandstorms and in some cases weren't found for years. Most people go missing and die in summer in the Sahara (usually poor locals) because the margin for survival is so much shorter once the water's gone. In winter it's never really that hot.

Behind the cinq cents is an FJ 40-series Tojo pick up - the classic do-it-all Saharan load-carrier and a great looking ute.

And behind the ute's cab I just realised you can see the prominent volcanic plug of Iharen in the Hoggar foothills. You pass that on the way up to Assekrem.

I don't know who the two guys are - perhaps they're with the band?

Anyway, enough of checking out other bikes, it was time to load up my own mule, fill up the jerry and head for the border.

Right then, where were we? Ahh yes, setting off to cross the Sahara alone. You can just imagine how that's going to end...

They said there was fuel at the border, In Guezzam, 250 miles away, so with my 6-gallon tank (7.2 US) I didn't even need a jerry, let alone the other two I'd dragged over from the UK. But the XT was not as economical as it could have been (luggage 3 feet wide didn't help) so I filled one anyway - just as well...

A two fifty-mile ride over a flat desert in good visibility doesn't sound such a big deal. But it's quite unnerving to head out into a void with thin, intermittent tracks, irregular markers often miles apart, and the first prominent landmark being a low outcrop some 200 miles away. It was a bit like setting sail - you got to watch your heading, follow the main tracks where present, and keep your nerve.

The road ended a short distance south of Tam; I was let loose on the piste and fell off almost straight away. At around the 250-mile (400km) mark the outpost of In Guezzam would rise like a mirage, I kept an eye on the odometre as my 4 million-scale Michelin map was about as much use as a map of Uzbekistan.

Is that the time already? Crikey, must take another picture of myself in the Sahara - after all there's a handy post, you don't see those very often.
The balise was a good sign, it meant I was on track. On top, a sand-blasted stencil indicated 'TAM 150' and on the other side 'IGZ 250'. Less than half way then.

The XT almost looks flat-track cool, but now was the beginning of the end. Walking back with my camera I noticed a stain in the sand - my tank was leaking and had been for some time. I flipped open the cap: not enough to go on to the border, but did I have enough to get back to Tam...?

I remounted and tore off - the animal impulse was to look for shelter. Shelter - out here - I don't think so.
But there it was - the shell of an old green BMW 2002 with every possible lose fitting removed. I felt safe now, protected.

I pulled off the tank and applied some glue I'd only taken with me as an after-thought. Once dried I tested it, still leaking so I squeezed out the remains - wherever that crack was, I was going to smother it!

Was I goofing about or actually worried in the photo? Probably the former trying to mask the latter but you gotta ask yourself - where did all that lovely hair go over the years...?

As the glue hardened the sun was setting on my trans-Saharan adventure. I slept in the car with a family of gerbils.

I'd like to find this car one day...

The repair worked so I poured the rest of the jerry into the tank - surely enough to make it back to Tam as long as the glue held. I refitted the tank with a shirt padding the top tube (the rear mount had fractured causing the crack) and reloaded the bike.

I was tense now, but not in forward-seeking, 'bring-it-on' way. The dynamic of the trip and the urge to boldly go had evaporated. This latest setback allowed me to accept I'd had enough of this game, thank you very much. I just wanted to get out of the Sahara, out of Algeria and out of Africa - asap.

I set off north, but rode clumsily and navigated carelessly. What should have been a simple retracing for a couple of hours turned into a shambles as I lost the tracks, rigidly fixated on heading north like a GPS, instead of following the terrain and using my judgement. I was worried that by straying too far to the west I'd miss the Hoggar (a 10,000-foot mountain range!) and the vital road to Tam - and end up like those summertime Peugeot car dealers.

Foothills! Good sign. I blundered into a valley and when that ended, I crawled over a ridge - and one point walking the bike over rocks. I staggered around cross-country like this in a low-voltage panic, determined to ride directly to Tam before the glue gave way. Following some promising car tracks along a creek, I rode too close to a thorn tree and got a flat - my first so far. Another set back. My resolve was being taxed but at least it made me stop, slow down and have a think.

I'd covered well over 100km and should have been close the ribbon of tarmac that led out of Tam. Before refitting the wheel I climbed a hill for a look around. Rightly thinking I'd strayed east, I scanned for a road to the west. Skipping some interesting details, I eventually found the road I’d overshot and was back in Tam by the afternoon.

I could have refulled and headed back out, but I didn’t consider it for a second. I’d had it with your so-called ‘Sahara’ and this ‘ex-tee five hundred’ with more hinges than a piano lid. I was low on cash with no way of getting more short of selling something. The call of the wild had turned into a compulsion to get back to the safe and familiar. Morocco was the nearest cheapest way of getting home.

I left Tam and headed north for Morocco - a 1000 miles or more, with more flats, more running out of fuel, luck, good decision-making and money - plus some scary encounters with locals. It’s all in the ebook.

But here was the village of Kerzaz with the lovely dunes of the Grand Erg cascading in from behind. I recall trying to sell a shopkeeper my £3 Casio digital watch. As advised by knowing travellers, I’d cunningly bought a batch of them for just such a 'Get me out of Jail' emergency. A Digital Watch, powered by the White Heat of Electronics - can you believe such a thing! These poor, benighted Algerians will be over the moon at such a space-age miracle!

The guy in the shop appraised my cheap watch like a used condom, pulled up his sleeve to reveal his Casio G-Shock XXL Tankbuster, and told me to hop it or he'd call the police.

In southern Morocco now - easier said then done to get away from the border but the end was in sight. Just a couple hundred miles to Melillia port and a boat to Spain. Riding through Oujda, northern Morocco, taxi drivers and kids on mopeds were cutting me up and yelling 'hashish, good shit, change money'. For a moment I wished I was back in the Sahara.

Melillia was a Spanish enclave on the Moroccan mainland so it was another ordeal of pushing through crowds to get in. Although it still looked like Morocco and was full of Moroccans, I was now technically in Spain and so could relax. Dossing on the quay that night, a shady bloke in a hooded djelaba robe strolled over and offered to sell me a brick of hash. I was tempted - after all, it could pay for this disastrous trip and I knew some potheads back home.
Wasn't this the sort of 'thinking on your feet' you needed to practise if you're to be a successful world adventurer?

‘Any checks in Almeria?’ I was no fool, me.
‘No, no, mon brave, it’s all fine, you just drive straight off le boat.’
'Oh, OK then.' How easy was that!
Luckily he didn’t come back and anyway, I didn’t have 10,000 francs.

In Spain next day the Custom's dogs in Almeria were all over the XT like a rash. Had I bought that brick I’d have got bricked up, big time.

On the boat over, Bruno, a hippy from Montreal was returning from a pothead holiday in Morocco. He invited me to share a cave he knew for a few days.

‘Quebec will be free!’ he exclaimed as we passed the days waiting for more money to arrive, ‘just you wait and see’. (‘Can you lend me some money?’).

Money arrived from home. Bruno got a share, but never sent it back. Never trust a hippy. Quebec remains occupied.

I headed up over the Sierra Nevada and across the windmill plateau of La Mancha, riding helmet-free and sleeping in old barns and ruins.

Northern Spain now, crossing the Picos and heading for Santander. Nearly there.
But the bolshy unions had the ferries on strike so it’s on to France. What’s another 500 miles?

Back in London, it’s all over. A mate spots me in Camden High Street posing in my slick new 'Deadline Couriers' jacket and eating a Nutty Bar.

'Sahara? Yea, I was there. You can shove it were the sun don't shine!'

The XT? - that had always been a lemon and was now a dead horse, so the best thing to do was spray it black and flog it.

Mad Max was still all the rage you see, and all-black, sawn-off bikes were cool, especially in a fetching, satin finish. A drunk guy came round one night and took it away for £500.
I in turn bought a cheap 200cc Honda Benly twin, forgot about the Sahara and got back to despatching. Little did I know that my innocuous, purring Benly would mutate into the diabolical Bénélé and take me back to the desert in 18 months.

For more desert biking photos, maps and other rubbish from the 1980s check out the blog (see the sig)

Thanks for reading!

Chris S

Last edited by Chris Scott; 22 Nov 2011 at 14:13.
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Old 20 Nov 2011
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Great read, really enjoyed that, thanks Chris.
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Old 21 Nov 2011
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More please....
Before the senility sets in...
Anything can happen in the next half hour
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Old 21 Nov 2011
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Thanks for sharing,
Luis Cabrita
Luis Cabrita, Honda XRV 750 Africa Twin '97 & Honda CBR 600 F4 '99
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Old 22 Nov 2011
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Thumbs up


Regards, Mick
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Old 22 Nov 2011
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Thanks for sharing that.
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Old 3 Mar 2015
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Forgot to add. After 33 years the XT turned up little changed after the current owner read an interview with me in a magazine.

He lent me the bike to display at a bike show a couple of weeks ago.

More here.
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Old 4 Mar 2015
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Cheers for sharing!!!
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Old 4 Mar 2015
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Thanks for that reminder of the 80's. Top write up.
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Old 5 Mar 2015
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I love your story. Glad you posted here.
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Old 22 Jun 2015
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Cracking desert tale! Funnily enough my brother got me your first book for my eighteenth, it took a few years but I followed in your tyre tracks. Forgetting everything I'd read in an instant.

My Ccm was so overloaded that it nearly bottomed out before I'd set off! (I junked half the load) Then I endured six hours of finger numbing freezing fog on the January ride from the Midlands to the Plymouth ferry. The bike ran like shit as I battled horrific cross winds across the plains of spain. I gave up headed for Portugal and spent a few weeks in the algarve. Learnt to say thank you from a mc shites bin and had my headlight blow in a monsoon so i ended up riding with a torch in my mouth so spent the night in a outoftheway truck stop.Some old boy helped me strip the rotax lump twice,until 2 MX lads (ended up importers for FMF) pointed out my fuel filter was reversed! Bike running well again I enjoyed some trail riding antics and drag racing locals while loaded on too much vino Verde. Then I ran for the hills well the Pico's. Had a couple of good rides before the Ccm did what it was an expert at and died. It was cooked so a local trails dealer trailered it to Santander and I pushed it onto the ferry home.me old boy kindly drove down to Plymouth to rescue me home.

Lessons learnt; camping alone in the middle of nowhere is weird for the first night but once you realise every noise isn't a vampire hunting party you start to enjoy it.

This is what adventure riding is all about. A year later I got as far as mellila on a much more reliable ttr 250 but that's another adventure!

Chris as far as I'm concerned is the original desert biking god and if you haven't read his books your missing out
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Thanks Stu, was just cooking up a plan today to get some more desert biking in. That's the easy, fun bit.

In the meantime, here's a pic from only yesterday of some fat, bald bloke riding that very XT after 33.3 years while skilfully avoiding a pile of chairs…
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Old 23 Jun 2015
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Originally Posted by Chris Scott View Post
Thanks Stu, was just cooking up a plan today to get some more desert biking in. That's the easy, fun bit.

In the meantime, here's a pic from only yesterday of some fat, bald bloke riding that very XT after 33.3 years while skilfully avoiding a pile of chairs…
Fair play,I'm layed up with a busted ankle so the ride tales are keeping me sane, just ordered adventures in motorcycling as I'm no fan of ebooks no good for lending!
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Old 23 Aug 2015
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Great write up!
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sahara, xt500

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