Motorcyclist Illustrated February, 1976 - Southern Sahara

Motorcyclist Illustrated February, 1976

part 5

by Fergus & Sharyn Reilly

Southern Sahara
2258 klms

Arlit, Niger
December 18th, 1974
(day 106 - 15327 klms)


Gurara Falls, Nigeria
January 4th, 1975
(day 123 - 17585 klms)

Arlit, Niger to Gurara Falls, Nigeria

stuck in the sand Our route circumvented the massive dune. but the sand to the edges was thick and now in the heat of late afternoon, slippery to boot. Each four-wheeled vehicle ground to a halt, out came the sand ladders and everybody took turns to push, whilst we found a convenient place to park the bikes and merely had to use our legs a little to get through sand halfway up the wheels. One of the Land Rovers became firmly embedded in one particularly deep patch and none of the drivers could budge it despite roaring engine, burning clutch and multi-lingual profanities. Fergus gingerly asked if he might have a go much to the amusement of the French contingent - their smiles disappeared when he gently persuaded the vehicle to ease its way out of difficulty with an idling motor and no effort other than patience. It didn't seem to do his popularity much good at all!

Perhaps we became to cocky, having reached the end of the bad stretch, Fergus was riding diagonally in front of me when his front wheel hit a truck's ruts at an angle. The bike somersaulted and Fergus pitched over the handlebars to land squarely on the back of his head, Luckily his helmet took the brunt and he was back on the bike, which hadn't stopped running, before I caught up.

When we stopped at nightfall we were totally exhausted to the point of managing only to eat a tin of sardines and then fall flat on the sand to watch the sunset and dream of the fresh bread waiting in Arlit.

comparing bikes in Arlit

We reached Arlit without a hitch - miraculous! After a race with a pack of donkeys we suddenly found ourselves in a maze of roundabouts and two-lane gravel roads built for the local uranium mine. It is a bit disconcerting to leave the barrels which mark the desert route and then have to rough ride over a series of culverts to reach the tantalising "real road"!

The rest of the day was spent eating vast quantities of fresh bread in the shade of the police post. Suddenly there was a roar and a Honda trail bike rounded the corner opposite. It was the truck driver‘s myth come true, as before we'd had time to close our mouths eight others rounded the corner followed by a Chevy power wagon carrying three more bikes!

Most of the town, and us, went wild. It is not so very often that there is such a collection of bikes in the desert. We arranged to camp all together 10kms down the road. Naturally the night was spent swapping stories of the road. but as they listed their spectacular falls, including a broken leg and collar bone we silently thanked Allah and surveyed our scratch free bodies!

The road from Arlit to Agadez was reputed to be good. It is strange that here say is so often wrong. I fell in the bed of powdered dust of a dried up river bed five minutes after starting in the morning, and it got worse. We had left the sandy expanse of desert, and as the vegetation increased the road became more defined, consequently more used and tortuous to ride. Most of the American guys took to the bush, but found their tyres stuck like pincushions with inch-long thorns. We stuck to the road which ultimately proved faster because we didn't suffer punctures.

We saw our first village of beehive huts with hordes of children flashing smiles and waving. Excited as we were by the feeling of having reached black Africa, we could not even wave back as the road through their village was the worst I have ever seen, compounded by the fact it passed by the cattle's watering hole. Dodging huge beasts with horns up to four feet long through deep powdery sand is no mean feat.

cattle populate the road from time to time

Agadez Mosque,  Made of clay, it was originally built in 1515 and restored in 1844

Towards Agadez the road improved as it wound through the foothills of a mountain range. The countryside is beautiful, huge valleys of rocks and trees which looked amazingly green against the yellow sand. We began to see small gardens and suddenly we had reached Agadez.

After riding through a maze of mud-brick houses we saw what seemed a sign from the gods "Coke". We lay on the ground beside the bikes and sipped the nectar! A swimming pool. cold beer and Guinness, no less, make Agadez campsite a luxurious oasis in the desert.

No matter the attraction. there was still desert to cross. The Americans left on their bikes. promising to save us campsite space in Kano. We planned to leave a day later in the company of two young English guys who had offered to carry our baggage in their Land Rover.

The majority of traffic takes the much longer route to Niger, rather than the direct road to Zinder; in Agadez stories of its nightmare conditions fly thick and fast. At Tirat we made fast time over a newly improved gravel road which cut through sparse savannah. We spent our rest stop chuckling over the fantasies of those in Agadez. What ignorant fools we were! The road ended abruptly, and a deviation sign pointed down a bush track leading off through the dense gorse bushes.

Fantasies became hard fact as we toiled through two feet deep soft sand along the ruts left by massive trucks. The thorn bushes prevented any but a puncture repair freak leaving the track. Any slight erring to left or right in the six inch wide rut and the front tyre was caught by the sand and you were thrown to the ground. Fergus, in front. fell several times. I was congratulating myself on my superior riding abilities, forgetting. of course. that his falls were always clearly signposted by a great dent to one side of the rut. Then I fell over, and over and over........

Down to walking pace and with our legs under our armpits and feet sliding along the top of the ruts seemed a great solution to the sandiest sections, that is, until falling off and knocking chins on our knees.

in the ruts between Tamanrasset and Agadez

Ships of the desert

We stopped to catch breath by the "roadside". From the savannah appeared a vast train of camels. The leader, a Tuareg. walked over to greet us. His eyes, all that could be seen beneath his turban-come- veil, did not even blink at the sight of our bikes. I wondered what the "Princes of the Desert’ whose lives depend on the crossing of the Sahara, think of the attempts of those who basically do it for pleasure!

As we learnt later, they are slightly amused, but prefer to avoid the tourists‘ routes, in favour of their unchanged life in the desert.

Back on the track again, which now dipped up and down over tiny hillocks. Rather like riding a roller coaster on a bike, but as the bumps were rarely synchronised between the ruts, it was more like an octopus ride for the Land Rover.

Mercifully the day ended, and it was possible to stop for the night. Al fell off for the last time and the others kindly dragged me and the bike off the track. We were camped on an island between two tracks. Intermittently a loud banging would be heard in the distance which would herald a beaten-up truck bouncing towards us and hopefully glued to the ruts. After several had clanged past we felt quite secure, that is, until a truck lurched towards us with a man hanging over the cabin with a torch to light the way for the driver.

Before we had time to search out bruises in the morning we were back on the roller coaster. By this time falling was almost pleasurable, just a short drop into a nest of sand, and a welcome breathing space. Fergus. however, had mastered the art of breakneck speed riding, sliding around corners within the confines of the six inch rut. His edge of speed gave him the chance to stop and enjoy the spectacle of the Land Rover and me coming through.

The ruts in the Road to Zinder

It became unbearable. As soon as we saw a face grinning out from the bush ahead we knew we were in for a four feet deep dried-up river bed with treacherous bumps hidden below the dust, or else a stretch of sand-sure to bog down the Land Rover and tip me off. He was very hurt by our screams of abuse as we struggled past. Undaunted he took to hiding instead and would come laughing out to help push out the Land Rover or pick me up.

We catch up with the Americans again

We rounded a bend and knew the desert was over. A wide, lazy river cut across the valley below, and beyond was the gravel road. Just a few bone-shattering hours later we reached Zinder; although the desert was behind, the corrugations were still with us. Below us and stretching away in front lay beautiful grey bitumen. The local people didn't seem to mind, and I suppose expect it of tourists, as we weaved over their fantastic sealed road.

Our return to "civilisation" was complete when we met the Americans sitting by their bikes on the roadside. We had caught them up in two days, but our riding was not necessarily better, just more cautious, they had ridden through the bush and had tyres like pin-cushions!

Riding the bitumen was almost too easy to be enjoyable. The consolation was the increase of people and villages along the roadside; people dressed in bright colours carrying containers of various shapes and sizes on their heads, but always managing to smile and wave as we passed. We passed quickly through the border into Nigeria, despite our visas being ten days overdue.

Then we reached Kano.

The city seemed fast, frantic and noisy. We were promptly lost in a myriad of tiny streets, choked with traffic, pedestrians. cars, carts, bicycles, animals . . . Each time we asked for directions we were beamed a huge smile and answered “yes” an interjection not to be confused with the more common use as an affirmative. Finally another motorcyclist took pity on us and led us to the campsite.

In fact the campsite is not a site at all. just a piece of waste ground behind Kano's biggest hotel, "The Central". The Americans took one look at the rubbish everywhere, smelled the overpowering stench, listened to the lurid stories of thieving and fled to the hotel. By now numbed with shock, we pitched our tent in the middle of a truck shelter, surrounded on all sides by other campers and retired inside. Where was the glorious desert, clean, wide and solitary?

a petrol station in Kano, Nigeria

The Christmas campsite in Kano

Two days later, having tasted the fruits of civilisation located in the nearby Kano Club complete with a swimming pool, cheap drinks and chocolate, the campsite lost its horrific aspect. The thieves seemed to be more a sales gimmick exploited by the guards to persuade tourists to hire them. Anyway the guards and their friends and relations who were the vendors and moneylenders were really friendly. Everybody in Kano is a businessman, and although he might dream of making his fortune, once he was befriended you gained the best rates in town.

Christmas day was hot and dusty. We left our salubrious home for the luxury of a meal in the Central, dressed in borrowed clothes. Outside, the banana palms were brushing against the windows. Inside we were tucking into roast turkey and plum pudding. The Africans must find Europeans crazy!

Time to move on again. Rumours of trouble in Zaire had reached us via north-bound travelers; one of the latest trucks through had been stoned several times. Our enquiries with officialdom informed us that the Conge, Central African Republic and Sudan had all either closed or were about to close their borders to travelers This meant that there was now an impassable line stretching from the Gulf of Guinea to the Red Sea. Our only option was to find a boat that could take us from Lagos to Luanda in Angola - probably a long time-consuming business with little appeal.

We decided to go with the flow and to opt for pleasure rather than endurance, momentously changed our plans and decided to turn west and spend our time meandering in West Africa in preference to sticking to a tight schedule to make the Cape on time. We would be carrying our baggage again, but decided to risk poor roads to better enjoy the scenery on a roundabout route to Lagos.

The City gate of Zaria

Exploring Zaria, Nigeria

We took the road to Zaria, which like Kano, is the seat of an Emir. the traditional leaders of the Muslims south of the Sahara The heavily cultivated savannah was barely perceptible through the dust hanging in the hot air. Just as we reached the outskirts of the city, Fergus stopped to adjust his luggage and spoke to the driver of a red VW.

When we set off instead of passing straight through the town Fergus followed the VW to an old house set in a beautiful cool garden. We had been invited to stay the night in their spare room, eat from their table and use their bathroom. Luxury again!

The bikes were a perfect means of exploring the old walled city whose streets are too narrow for cars. Inside is enclosed a whole society; the palace, mosque, market, houses and farms are made of dried mud. many of which are also decorated with raised designs. One white house was further painted with a red, blue, yellow and green floral design literally all over.

We encountered for the first time a vast crowd which formed rapidly after we stopped in the market, and many of whom demanded to be our guards. Totally con fused we pointed to the most vociferous and were left to wander off with just a small entourage of children, now that the crowd were satisfied our bikes would be safe.

Our schedules forgotten, we left two days later for the Jos Plateau. Only thirty miles out Fergus pulled to the side abruptly and looked up with a woebegone expression. His frame, probably weakened by falls in the desert, had cracked. There was nothing to do but make camp in an old gravel quarry and try for Jos without the baggage in the morning.

Hogmanay was spent in the dereliction of the quarry, with small fires flickering on all sides, whether spontaneous or the result of burning off dead grass, we never discovered. Fergus assured me that gravel does not burn and we were consequently quite safe. So we saw in the New Year in a totally dejected mood, heightened for me with my wild imagination that the crackling bush could well roast us alive.

New flexible exhaust, Zaria, Nigeria

Nigeria - off the main highway

New Year's day was saved however by a Scotsman who met Fergus limping into Jos on his broken bike. He not only came out and collected the baggage, but offered us his garden in which to camp until the bike was repaired. His friend did the necessary welding to get us back on the road for 30p!

We decided to leave the main road in preference for minor, unsurfaced roads crossing the Plateau towards Lagos. The loaded bikes were a bit unwieldy over the heavily corrugated roads, but the scenery was well worth it; mountains covered in bush and massive rocks, tiny mud and thatch villages in the flatter valleys and surrounded by ten feet high guinea corn. The fires were still in evidence and we gaped open mouthed at men on bicycles riding alongside a wall of burning corn; they did not even cross to the other side of the road.

A waterfall of fantastic splendour was reputed to be a great haven in the extremely hot dry climate. A few miles before we reached it I abruptly came off down a steep hill. Two young boys who were walking uphill at the time ran over, lifted the bike and helped me up. As they looked in horror at my hand liberally dripping blood they kept repeating "sorry, sorry". I managed to convey that Fergus would soon come back for me so the three of us sat down by the roadside. They continued their chant as we watched a vast egg appear where a knuckle used to be.

With their sign language and my whimpering, we explained to Fergus what had happened. He gave me a choice, camping there by the road or going on to the waterfall. The sun was broiling, so we went on. All went well until the descent down to the falls. Fergus rode down, and then returned for my bike. It was so steep that both brakes seemed essential and my front brake was broken. Fergus just slid down at breakneck speed over rocks and ruts, whilst I sheepishly followed behind.

After the fall with injured hand

The Guara Falls - water at last

We had found paradise. A huge rushing river cut through the dense jungle. over flat rocks and then crashed into a huge water- fall. We lay in the shallow pools between the rocks and decided to keep away from the bikes for at least three days.

Tadjemout, Algeria - Arlit, Niger

previous leg

Tadjemout, Algeria
Arlit, Niger
November 13th, 1974
December 17th, 1974
day 71 to day 105


of the

next leg

Gurara Falls, Nigeria
Kloto, Togo
January 5th, 1975
January 24th, 1975
day 124 to day 143
Gurara Falls, Nigeria - Kloto, Togo