Motorcyclist Illustrated May, 1976 - Back to the Sahara

Motorcyclist Illustrated May, 1976

part 8

by Fergus & Sharyn Reilly

Back to the Sahara
2630 klms

Sansanné-Mango, Togo
February 23rd, 1975
(day 173 - 21151 klms)


Niamey, Niger
April 2nd, 1975
(day 211 - 23781 klms)

Sansanné-Mango, Togo to Niamey, Niger

As we rode further north in Togo the bitumen suddenly improved to an extent we were sailing along a broad expanse, reminiscent of a British motorway, with not another vehicle in sight -the best road we'd seen in Africa. which abruptly ended in a small village, returning to the typical rutted dirt road interspersed with small patches of bitumen. It transpired that this village was the president's old home and the superhighway was built with overseas aid money!

This was reputed to be an area where people lived in a primitive state. and did not wear clothes. I suppose we rather imagined a scene like a movie nudist colony, but we only saw one man walking proudly along the road, wearing nothing else but a straw hat and a cape. I suspect the coming of the road had changed habits and the president was keen to “modernise” his region.

By night we had reached the savannah again. The night was completely still and quiet, like the desert. After the humidity on the coast, it was good to be returning to the desert.

women on the way to market

a Honda 90  towing a scooter by means of an electric  flex

The road had become deeply corrugated, but that didn't deter a Honda 90 towing a scooter by means of an electric flex 300 kilometres northwards over some of the poorest road we had ridden! We were beginning to worry we might be reduced to similar measures as my bike developed knocking noises in the engine and loss of power. Despite Fergus checking all possible sources he couldn't find the trouble, except to suspect the “fail-proof” timing regulator.

We decided to struggle on towards Ouagadougou. the capital of Upper Volta (now known as Burkina Fasso). By now the sun was unbearable after twelve and until four o'clock as we stopped to lie in the shade and wait for evening to carry on. Some small children were watching us so I went over to give them a share of our biscuits. But, as I approached. they ran off to return when I went back to the bikes. Finally, I left the biscuits on some leaves in the no man's land between us. When I had left again they picked up the biscuits. We learnt later that children are warned by their families never to approach strangers as child stealing, although rare. is still happening in West Africa, usually as sacrifices in juju (black magic) rituals.

We camped the night beside a river which had been dammed to build a bridge. It was a sanctuary for birds which skimmed the pools for fish. My romantic day-dreams were shattered when Fergus stated matter-of-factly that this would be an ideal place for crocodiles. Suddenly the pools of water linked by sandbars looked very threatening. I spent the night listening for any noise of slithering bodies. Fergus's apparent unconcern finally penetrated so I gave up my vigil and went to sleep. I was never so glad to wake and see a cloudless day and the peaceful pools of water below!

The following day my bike deteriorated further. Every half an hour we would stop to let it cool. We made little progress and stopped in the bush so that Fergus could recheck the timing. Just as he started to work a young boy appeared with a dead monkey slung over one shoulder, its tail split to allow the head to pass through, making a strap; a bloody stick and a bag of sweets in the other hand.

The monkey trapper
on the banks of the Kara River

Although speaking only one or two words of French he happily settled down next to Fergus and watched him working on the motor. Not only was he a monkey catcher, no mean feat as they are very fast, but he grasped mechanics so quickly that he handed Fergus pieces as he reassembled the bike. The young boy's delight on receiving an orange relieved some of the blow of not finding the trouble with the bike.

So, we limped into Ouagadougou. After several hours searching for a place to stay, we stopped to ask at a mission for advice. Our luck was changing again, the missionary and his wife offered their guest room which was not being used. Fergus spent the week trying to adjust the timing, after making a tool to release the flywheel. There was a slight improvement so we decided to send back to Britain for the “infallible” timing regulator and to head for Niamey, the capital of Niger. We had read there were potential buyers for our bikes there. It seemed we could sell them at a price to buy our tickets to Australia.

Although the week's work on the bike was not particularly successful we thoroughly enjoyed Ouagadougou. Upper Volta is reputedly the poorest country in the world, but the people's unbounded optimism makes them the most generous we had ever met. We spent hours sitting in the market talking to the stall holders, never hassled to buy and instead given tea and nuts for our company.

The drought of two years earlier had forced many of the nomadic races into the cities and Ouagadougou had quite a large number of Tuaregs, the Saharan nomads. The missionary couple we stayed with introduced us to a young Tuareg religious man. He instantly became a friend and took us to meet his friends who made knives and jewellery.

We spent many unbelievably peaceful hours in a makeshift tent watching the craftsmen and drinking the sweet green tea which the Tuaregs serve in tiny glasses after a ritualistic preparation.

Mustapha, our friend, sat with us late into every night explaining the powers of his religious caste. His father was a great Marabou and so, hopefully, would he become, after learning and passing rigorous tests; amongst which was the ability to survive alone in the desert with only a small quantity of water for almost a month.

Moussa's wife working leather
Achmed the Toureg Forgerant

His caste prepared pieces of the Koran which were inserted into leather amulets to ward off evil and sickness. having seen the results of juju in other races we couldn't disbelieve his claim that it was possible to create magic to make a person invisible or impenetrable to bullets.

The Tuaregs believe totally in the desert. Those forced into the town talked often of returning to the desert when they had enough money to buy the animals, depleted by 80 per cent in the drought. Mustapha explained that there the air is pure and not that breathed in and out by many people. The men are chivalrous like the knights of the Middle Ages, they always are veiled in the presence of women and even sip their tea from underneath the veil.

Tuareg women are free to a greater degree than their European counterparts; they retain all the wealth on divorce and either party can dissolve the marriage. But perhaps the most notable characteristics of Tuareg women is their irrepressible joy. They always were laughing, leaving all responsibility to the men, spending hours plaiting each other's hair into intricate patterns or playing with the children.

Our time and money were running short so we exchanged gifts and said goodbye to the Tuaregs. We were carrying letters to their families in Niamey which - they assured us - they could not do as it would be a prison sentence if they were caught.

The slight improvement on my bike lasted till the end of the bitumen. Once on the rough track again there was no way I could keep up speed to cope with the artificially advanced spark Fergus gained by widening the spark-plug gap.

We struggled on the rest of the broiling hot day. When I reached a low of 10kph before the knocking began we gave up. I rolled into a tiny village and we decided to stay to await a truck to carry the bike and me to Niamey.

the final stripping of the bike in a church near Koupela

The people sympathised with our problem and brought us a stool to sit beside the road under a tree. It was market day and soon we were watching the to-ing and fro-ing of various sellers. The nomadic cattle herders brought their beautiful tall wives to the village to sell their spices and to buy cloth or silver. The men sat with us whilst the women did the selling. The nomads again impressed us by their self-sufficiency; they asked no questions as to why we were there but made themselves comfortable and sat peacefully making idle conversation.

The day passed and not one vehicle had room for the bike. We had just fallen asleep when a truck screeched to a halt. Someone in the village must have stopped it. Fergus persuaded the driver to take the bike and me to the border of Niger, for a sum. The bike was lifted up and into the truck and I was given a place in the cabin. A few hours later at dawn we stopped in a tiny village. The men in the back of the truck jumped down with bundles which they opened up to display cloth and clothes. From the surrounding bush people appeared and a makeshift market ensued. The sellers were real actors and if we hadn't been in the middle of the African bush they could have been English Cockney tradesmen, bantering with each other and their buyers, and selling at a furious pace.

The campsite at Kantcharis ready for instant departure At each village the same procedure took place. The truck obviously served remote villages who were only too glad to turn out at dawn to buy wares from the “city”.

Fergus soon caught us up and followed the truck to the border. The soldiers on duty there suggested we stop outside their office as all traffic had to be checked and they would help us find a lift to Niamey.

Determined not to miss any possible chance of a lift (we had little money, water or food on board) we camped in the shelter of a large tree in front of the customs post where every truck stopped. These behemoths would roar into the area at all hours of the day and night bringing a dense cloud of dust which inevitably settled over our makeshift shelter between the two bikes and soon coated everything we had. We slowly grew more desperate as our supplies dwindled and not one vehicle had room for the bike.

The campsite at Kantcharis ready for instant departure

Three days later a man in a Peugeot utility offered to take the bike and me if I was ready in 5 minutes. So we hastily brushed off the dust, freed the bike from the structure we had made, wedged it between two refrigerators and set off. Luxury! I was in an air-conditioned cabin. Fergus was left to pack everything onto his bike and hopefully meet again in Niamey, he followed at a furious pace but only caught up with the Peugeot as it entered the outskirts of Niger's capital city and followed it to the local Catholic Mission.

The first signs of Niamey were the camels carrying goods into the city in the cool of the night. We met at the catholic mission and unloaded the bike. We spent the night outside the Archbishop of Niger's window, guarded by the Tuareg night watchmen and woke to the sound of a bustling African city.

at journeys end after 17000Km The next six weeks were six of frustration; the parts took two months to arrive, and we tried to sell the bikes. Many people showed interest, but all knew that we were a captive market. So, a long waiting game was played as the price dropped while our frustration increased. When we had only $20 left to our name a young American who befriended us convinced himself to buy the bike. He wanted it, but couldn't really afford it. But his beautiful Tuareg wife agreed and he was convinced! He arranged the sale of my bike which had finally been restored to its former glory by the new part, to a French boy, who would send us the remaining half of the money in Australia.

While we were clearly taken advantage of in the very biased buyer's market, we did end up selling the bikes for more than we had paid for them, brand-new, in Scotland. They had carried us and our gear for 17,000+ kilometres over some of the world's worst roads and were still in excellent working order - a tribute to the Spanish engineering.

We were finally set. We had enough money to buy a ticket to Australia. We nostalgically said goodbye to our bikes which had carried us for nine months. And to last reports they are fine and working well and living in the Sahara still.

Kloto, Togo - Sansanné-Mango, Togo

previous leg

Kloto, Togo
Sansanné-Mango, Togo
January 25th, 1975
February 22nd, 1975
day 144 to day 172


of the

next leg

Niamey, Niger
Mt. Gambier, South Australia
April 16th, 1975
April 19th, 1975
day 225 to day 228
Niamey, Niger - Mt. Gambier, South Australia