Motorcyclist Illustrated January, 1976 - Central Sahara

Motorcyclist Illustrated January, 1976

part 4

by Fergus & Sharyn Reilly

Central Sahara
1673 klms

Tadjemout, Algeria
November 13th, 1974
(day 71 - 13654 klms)


Arlit, Niger
December 17th, 1974
(day 105 - 15327 klms)

Tadjemout, Algeria to Arlit, Niger

the Ladies of the Oasis on the Bikes The next day most of the traffic was moving northwards and that going south was only refrigerated vans, which naturally could not carry our baggage; had they opened the doors, their cold stores would have immediately melted in the sweltering heat. But they gave us news of three others who would soon arrive on motor bikes.

On the third day three 900 BMWs arrived at hourly intervals. to the shouts of both us and the pump attendant. They too seemed battered by the “piste” although their bikes were carrying the weight, they were even more tired than us trying to maneuver their heavy machines, let alone lifting them after falling. After hasty repairs to one they set off, though not what you would call eagerly!

During the days many Tuareg women and children would walk, or ride in on donkeys from out of the desert to fetch water. Three girls who would sit laughing and joking in our company for hours invited me for a swim. For them undressing was an amazing process of peeling off layers of dresses, with the best next to the skin! Heaven must be a swimming pool at midday in the desert!

That evening three car loads of French arrived, led by a priest in a Peugeot 404, who promptly invited us to share a meal of chips and whisky! Having watched our supplies of food diminish rapidly, he did seem heaven-sent. Our fortunes had changed: we found a truck the next morning which agreed take our luggage. We made a hasty departure in hot pursuit of the French and an English Land Rover which had joined them, and had offered to carry a jerry can for us after the truck had dropped it off for us full of petrol.


Fergus arranged with the truck driver that when he caught up with us he would stop and give us the 20 litres of fuel we would need to reach Tamanrasset - so we needed to be at least 180klms down the road before he caught us if we were to reach Tam on the fuel. What could possibly go wrong? an unloaded enduro could obviously outpace a fully-loaded 10-tonne truck in these conditions.

The bikes unloaded are a dream to ride. Suddenly the whole thing was enjoyable. and we soon caught up the others, who had to creep over the bone-shattering corrugations, which we skirted on the track verges.

But the trucks really move “like bats out of hell” The truck carrying our baggage suddenly roared out of the dust behind us, and the Land Rover was somewhere in front. Fergus decided to attempt to beat the truck to the Land Rover, with me more cautiously behind.

He was clocking over 110 kph over the reputedly worst road in Africa with a fully loaded 10 tonne truck just a few metres behind him. Fortunately this is what the Ossas were built for and the bike performed exceptionally well - sliding round bends, literally flying over culverts and generally providing the ride of Fergus' life so he later told me!

camping beside the highway after reclaiming our jerry can

Needless to say he made it first to the Land Rover, much to the amazement of the truck driver who had to be prodded from his daze to remember the jerry can!

Although there was a couple of hours light left the decision to stop for the night seemed to suit everyone and we avoided having to refuel, store the empty jerry can and resume our journey immediately.

At first light next morning we set off. As each car intermittently stopped with some problem or other, and we shuttled back and forth down the convoy with ease, we knew our bikes were made for the crossing.

We had moved out of the rocky gorges and onto a plain of massive boulders eroded by the wind and sand into weird shapes.

The Tomb of the Marabout Moulay Hass

But even stranger was rounding a corner to see a pristine white building with flags flying from the parapets at the foot of a granite mountain. Not a mirage, but the tomb of the Marabou Moulay Hass, a religious man whose good vibrations go with you if you circle his burial place seven times, which we duly carried out! Then we had coffee from the palm branch hut within the circle, and sipped between clouds of dust billowing down as massive lorries carried out the ritual.

Two of the vehicles didn't appear after an excessively long time. so Fergus went off to look. He came across their tracks through a sandy stretch which bypassed what passed for the main highway - it seemed they had managed to detour round the tomb which was not a good omen.

Sure enough when Fergus had come back to collect me and resumed our journey south we soon found the Deux Cheveaux beside the road with a broken spring in a brake drum.

We moved on again after temporary repairs were carried out watched by by a group of Tuareg men. Perhaps they laughed a lot because camels really don't need such complicated attention?

The last day to Tamanrasset was a fantastic ride. The piste had slightly improved, so as to allow time to take your eyes from the few yards directly in front. Each valley was a self-contained wonder of crazy rock formations and coloured sand, ranging from pink to yellow-green.

Then 10 kilometres before Tamanrasset the bitumen began. After a cigarette to rest ourselves in face of this new wonder we rode crazily into Tam, Having ridden 700 klms dodging corrugations, rocks, potholes and sand, in fact maneuvering the bike over every inch, it was honestly difficult to keep on a straight course, We drove into the main street filled with Tuareg men in their indigo robes and knew we had arrived!

Several northward - bound travelers had told us of an amazing campsite 14km outside Tamanrasset. After bumping over the worst road so far encountered, we finally arrived at a large sign bidding us welcome to Chez Jojo.

Jojo turned out to be an Arab entrepreneur who claimed his wines were flown in direct from France, his fruit direct from various exotic gardens in Europe and his beef, the finest Aberdeen Angus, direct from London. Exhausted as we were, who were we to argue? But after each of us silently slid our evening's meat to the floor after chewing solidly for 15 minutes with no apparent effect, it became apparent it was probably camel that had been chased to death and highly unlikely that it was flown in from Britain!

The campsite's claim to fame, apart from its eloquent owner, is gaseous mineral water gushing from the mountains. Undeterred by the liberal decoration of toilet paper in the vicinity, we all gulped down great quantities. The next few days were spent resting, servicing the assortment of vehicles. and for those of us who drank too much water. adding to the decorations of toilet paper.

on the piste to Assekrem East of Tamanrasset

The Hoggar at sunset from the  hermitage of Charles Foucauld

We decided to venture to Assakrem, the hermitage of Charles Foucauld, high up in the Hoggar mountains behind Tamanrasset The road was reputed to be almost impassable so, those with vehicles elected to hire a Land Rover and driver.

By this time I was suffering the effects of the potent water, so whilst I elected to go in the Land Rover, Danielle, one of the young French guys would accompany Fergus on the bikes.

The road slowly climbed further into the mountains of rocks, rubble and massive boulders. We saw many Tuareg encampments of camel skin tents, and the occasional small caravan of camels. After creaking over a dried up river bed and slowly crawling up a precipitous mountain track we reached the foot of Assakrem.

Fergus and Danielle were waiting for us, wondering where we had got to and crowing about their fantastic speedy ride.

The sun would soon set, so we scrambled on foot, to the hermitage on top of the mountain. Looking out over the almost lunar landscape of the Hoggar Mountains, and watching the sky explode into colours and the sun visibly sinking behind the mountains is the most awesome sight Al have ever experienced. lf Father Foucauld had this spectacle every evening, I can well understand his hermitic existence.

After we had descended to the foot to sleep for the night, Fergus suddenly succumbed to the dreaded lurgy with a frighteningly high fever as well. Len the morning he was even worse. So, after watching the equally splendid sunrise from the mountain top there seemed nothing else to do but for me to ride the 80 kilometres back with Danielle while Fergus was laid out in the back of the Land Rover.

Initially al was terrified, both brakes on hard and still the bike seemed to be going too fast down the almost sheer slope on a deeply rutted and rocky track. But after maneuvering a few kilometres, confidence was regained. The rest of the ride was totally enjoyable. al suppose it is the closest I have ever come to real trials riding, only problem not being a trials rider at heart al kept gaping at the scenery, but fortunately al just missed flying over the edge of a cliff. and so concentrated on where al was going and trying to keep Danielle in sight.

We stopped to rest at a water source, a series of connecting ponds interspersed with huge flowering bushes and boulders washed smooth by the water. The beauty of this lushness in the midst of the arid mountains was marred for me however, at the sight of Fergus prostrate in the back of the Land Rover, now almost insensible with fever.

Over the next few days his condition did not improve. despite medicine from our supplies and from the French supplies. The others delayed their departure in the hope he would be fit to go on. Two more French guys had joined the party and had offered to take our baggage. Danielle offered to ride the bike to a small Oasis 30 kilometres beyond Tam and so give Fergus another day's rest.


We decided to move out. al checked over the bikes, for the first time by myself, but had to keep running back to Fergus for advice. The sprocket on one of the bikes was stripped and needed replacing. This was beyond my knowledge and, as it turned out, beyond the knowledge of the others in the party.

So Fergus was propped against a car wheel and directed operations in between slumping with pain and fever By now I felt I was going crazy al now knew well my mechanical limitations and Fergus seemed to be getting no better.

Danielle and I rode at the rear to the oasis We arrived to find Fergus in extreme pain and despite offers from others in the party to ride the bike, there seemed little sense to me in going on. I was exhausted both mentally and physically, and despite his hopes of improving, the best chance for Fergus seemed the hospital at Tamanrasset. Jacques, the French priest, agreed and left with Fergus prostrate in his 404, and a cloud of dust for Tam. After saying sad goodbyes to the others. Danielle and I followed on the bikes.

My spark plug fouled on the run and by now I was so distraught that when the bike toppled over when I was changing the plug, I couldn't even lift the bike - Ossas are renowned for their lightness!

But Danielle came to the rescue and we reached Tamanrasset without any more problems. Relief! Fergus although deathly pale, was peacefully lying in a bed having had dysentery prescribed, but relaxed to know he had one doctor, rather than a multitude of anxious friends prescribing various cures.

It was time then to say goodbye to Jacques, our benefactor and mentor, having crossed the Sahara twice before. And then I stumbled across the open space to the campsite, which is exorbitantly expensive, but close to the hospital and somewhere to relax.

the Tamanrasset Campground

The next few days saw Fergus's condition improve rapidly, thanks mainly to a supply of vitamin C provided by a young French intern with Médecins Sans Frontières, whilst I spent my days visiting the hospital and wandering round Tamanrasset. You see very few women in Town, mainly men dressed in the traditional indigo robes of the Tuareg. In a complete reverse to Arab society it is the men who are veiled and, if strict to their code, they do not remove their length of material wound round the head and face in the presence of women, even when drinking their innumerable cups of mint tea.

After four days Fergus was well enough to leave hospital. We said goodbye to his room-mate, who had traveled 500 kilometres to reach the hospital, and made our way back to the campground. By this time most of Tam knew of his illness so greetings were profuse as my pale and thin man slowly teetered past.

Now the worst was over Fergus made really fast progress. After a week of resting and just when we despairing as to how to travel on, a young English couple arrived in a half empty Land Rover. Eureka, they offered to carry our baggage and once more we were on the move!

The guy was a middle-aged paraplegic who was driving a fairly ancient Land Rover which had been fitted with hand controls for the clutch, brake and throttle. His companion - a vivacious blonde had no driving experience off bitumen and seemed like she would be more at home in a London nightclub than deep in the Sahara.

The stretch from Tam to Agadez would be the longest between petrol pumps, 1,000 kilometres or three jerrycans between the two bikes. On the first day out all went well. As usual we were much faster than the vehicles (a VW had joined the company) so we had plenty of time to enjoy the descent from the high altitude of Tamanrasset to the rocky plain to the south.

But at midday on the second day the Land Rover limped to a halt beside us with clutch trouble - the spring in the clutch master cylinder had snapped - a spare? no way! By now there was a strong wind blowing and whipping the sand across in biting gusts.

Fergus managed to fashion a serviceable replacement using wire taken from the back of a Land Rover seat and it was inserted behind a makeshift wind shield of jerrycans. Rather than pitch the tent in the wind, we slept for the night behind the same shield and asked the others to dig us out if we were submerged in the morning.

However, the wind died down overnight, but just as we set off next morning it began to blow even harder. This was an area of soft sand easily carried by the wind, so that it came to a stage where it was impossible to see the road, and only to feel the corrugations below. Having nearly lost each other in the blindness of sand we decided it was crazy to go on, and instead find relative shelter to wait for the others. Shelter was a huge boulder, which still didn't stop the sand cutting at the little of our faces exposed from our jacket hoods.

in the ruts between Tamanrasset and Agadez Three hours later and still the others hadn't arrived, so there was nothing for us to do but turn back. Just I kilometre back we found both vehicles bogged up to the axles in sand and being dragged out by a local truck. After finding a place to stand the bikes - no mean feat in soft sand - we ran over to find that the Land Rover had also broken a half shaft! It was hastily decided to put most of our luggage onto the truck to lessen the Land Rover's load. The truck driver was an amazingly friendly guy and offered to drive in the rear to see that all was well.

Soon after we left we came across a 504 which had punctured 3 tyres and only two spares. It transpired that they were friends of the truck driver so after he helped them patch up one tyre sufficiently to hold air we all continued.

By this time we had the knack of riding in sand. Go as fast as possible, never hesitate at a deep patch and hold on tight! So while the Land Rover, VW and even the truck intermittently bogged down, the 504, which had the speed to get through and we on the bikes, sailed on with no problems.

We found a French guy sitting beside his Land Rover which had put the fan through its radiator completely destroying it. His friend had gone up to Tam to get a new one while he guarded the vehicle. He was already 3 weeks overdue at his job, but it seems schedules are an anachronism on roads like these. Even the truck drivers expect trouble and do not work to fixed dates and thus, an amazing camaraderie develops between drivers who rely totally on help from each other if things go wrong.

We waited another two hours for the others to catch up as the Land Rover was really toiling from lack of four wheel drive. This time we decided to follow the 504. The driver was an old hand on the piste and used it only as a guideline, so we rode like the wind behind him over the windswept sand.

But after nightfall it became very hairy. The roads had taken their toll on our bikes electrics My light was working feebly and Fergus not at all. So between my faint glimmer and the lights of the 504 to the side we were speeding across the sand, dodging crazily round the cairns which mark the route After several near misses we persuaded the others to stop for the night.

what the trucks of the desert are like when they are loaded At crack of dawn next morning we set off again. across intermittently hard and soft sand Just before reaching a range of low rocky mountains we stopped beside a French couple and a hitchhiker in a broken down Renault. The woman was waiting for a truck to pick up spares from Tam After a cup of coffee we said goodbye and set off again, now on the relatively good track to the Algerian border post. On the way we passed seven huge empty trucks racing each other across the sand northwards. We heard later that when they came across the Renault on the roadside not only did they take the woman into Tam, but also the two others and the car itself!

At the border post we met up with the 504 again. The 18 kilometre stretch to the Niger post was reputedly very bad, a no-man's land where neither country's inhabitants ventured. The 504 signaled us to follow. Two yards after the post the soft sand began! We left the marked route and headed off into the dessert Then at speeds over 110 kph we tried to keep up with the 504's pace. Twenty minutes later we were sitting laughing at the border post after a fantastic dessert race.

Five hours later the others arrived. Though it has been known for vehicles to take two days to cross the 18km stretch!

The truck driver advised us to travel with him direct to Agadez rather than take the route through Arlit which most tourists now take The truck and 504 set off, but again, the Land Rover wouldn't start and was now leaking oil and clutch fluid in serious quantities. In true commando style we jumped on the bikes and raced after the others to see if they had oil enough to keep the Land Rover going.

But no and the friendly truckie was understandably hard pressed by his friends to keep going and deliver his load of dates. So the girl in the Land Rover elected to go to Agadez and bring back more oil and clutch fluid. Stuck again!

We spent the next six days at the exciting vacation spot of Assamaka. It's claim to fame is a hot source of water continually gushing out of the ground. As we sat in the shade of the tents and stared out across the plain of flat sand, marked only by two sets of oil drums indicating the alternative routes south, we were pristinely clean, having frequent showers and washing all our two pairs of jeans!

It's hard to believe but the six days were highly enjoyable each drawing to a close with a magnificent sunset filling the whole sky. The soldiers in the military post were very friendly and would come across in the evenings to make tea and have amazing discussions with us in our woeful French. The old Tuareg military guide would bring us a pile of wood each morning for the day's cooking. But unfortunately that's where the blight lay in our sojourn. Fergus was now feeling completely over the dysentery and ravenous for food. Offering a hungry male dates, figs and a square of cheese is not really satisfying!

When travelers called in at the post we received news of those on the road to the north and south. One truck driver swore he had seen 12 motorbikes like ours traveling south towards us. He was an old hand at desert driving so we couldn't put it down to a mirage, but it did seem pretty inconceivable! Having finished the work on the Land Rover and now only waiting on the fluid. Fergus offered to give two soldiers who were particularly interested in the bikes a demonstration. Off they went towards the horizon where there was a series of small hard-packed dunes. In the next hour all that could be seen was a cloud of sand, and all that could be heard was the roar of the bikes and screams of approval. One guy was so impressed he wanted to buy the bike and take it to Niamey, so he could in turn impress the girls.

Desert sunset

On the morning of the sixth day the friendly truck driver returned from Agadez, minus his load of dates, but with our friend carrying the fluid for the Land Rover. After hasty farewells to the truck driver and to the soldiers, we set off across the sand towards Arlit. We were making good time on the hard-packed sand until the Land Rover stalled in a soft patch, only 50 km out. The starting battery was totally dead but, with all the luck of Allah another Land Rover appeared over the horizon, and carrying the necessary jump leads.

Riding the bikes was unadulterated joy, mirages in the distance, golden sand, and so much space we could have races with each other starting a half mile or so apart. We reached the marker barrels of the area of supposedly soft deep sand. My fantasies had led me to believe this meant rolling sand dunes. Instead, one massive dune suddenly loomed out in front of us and we came to a dead stop while we assessed our options.

Oujda, Morocco - Tadjemout, Algeria

previous leg

Oujda, Morocco
Tadjemout, Algeria
November 1st, 1974
November 12th, 1974
day 59 to day 70


of the

next leg

Arlit, Niger
Gurara Falls, Nigeria
December 18th, 1974
January 4th, 1975
day 106 to day 123
Arlit, Niger - Gurara Falls, Nigeria