The three of us reigned in our XRLs, cut the engines and stared ahead. Around us the horizon was a flat 360° sweep – sky above and the sands of the Ténéré below. But those silhouettes breaking the horizon – were they a group of army or smuggler Land Cruisers, neither of which we wanted to meet – or just the sandy mounds around the Lost Tree which we’d set course for that morning? I zoomed in the camcorder but was none the wiser. Whatever, they’d have seen us by now.
It was January 2003. A couple of weeks earlier Jon, Andy and myself had crossed from Tunisia into Algeria and ridden south through the oilfields of the Grand Erg Oriental sand sea. A couple of days in we’d fitted fresh Michelin knobblies and buried our trail tyres for the ride home. Ahead of us lay some challenging new routes and a number of fuel caches I’d buried three months earlier in my Toyota to help extend our range. The main cache at Erg Killian, close to the desolate Niger border, would enable the 2,000kms round-trip to the Arbre Perdu or ‘Lost Tree’; a lonely landmark in Niger’s Ténéré desert. It was a bit extreme, even by Saharan standards.
With our new knobblies primed and just enough fuel to get us to the first cache, we hit the sands on what we’d dub the ‘Red Sheds’. It didn’t take long to admit our imported XR650Ls were some way short of the KTM 640 Adventures we’d also considered. But after six months’ tinkering they were as good as they could be.
The first part of the route led us into a swathe of dunes, a route I’d done before but never the same way twice. With tyres sagging, the loaded Hondas’ throttles were pinned as we ploughed into the sands. Soon Andy’s oil temperature gauge was reading 145°C, but on the dunes we had to keep moving or sink. After a few U-turns and a well-timed emergency eject right on the crest of a big drop-off, I located the remnants of the French straw-bale ‘road’ which led out of the sands and to an ancient well for the night. The Hondas had pulled us through, but we knew there’d be more trials ahead.
Next morning we located a pair of jerries and some baked beans I’d left in a tree. From here we left the regular route known as the Graveyard Piste and headed south into the unknown. The plan was to locate and follow the Oued Samene canyon upstream to its watershed above a huge escarpment, then casually ride down the far side to pick up the trans-plateau highway. There was no Google Earth back then and though I’d pored over colonial-era mapping and NASA satellite images, it was still a far-fetched idea. No one I knew had travelled here and it would only take a small cliff face at the watershed to stop us in our tracks.
We rode between a ridge of dunes and cliffs with no tracks but our own. Most routes in the Sahara follow pistes (French for ‘tracks’) which are generally easy and are sometimes even marked with posts or cairns. Cross-country or off-piste riding is another thing altogether. Here you ride ‘ground to map’ as the terrain permits, and you’re on your own. Riding off-piste gives an exhilarating and liberating edge, picking our way over stony scarps and sandy creeks or around huge dunes and rocky hills. The riding was sublime and by the evening we were just a few kilometres from the canyon rim.
Next morning that all changed; after an hour of pushing, pulling and paddling we’d covered just a kilometre. A rock-strewn hillside lay between us and a notional GPS waypoint on the canyon rim, so we ditched the bikes to recce on foot. An hour later the cliff-rimmed canyon spread 100m below us; there was no way down just here but to the west a sandbank spilled over the rim right to the canyon floor, providing a one-way access slide. It took the rest of the morning to haul the bikes to that sand ramp and as long again to walk them down the unrideable slope to the canyon floor where we flapped haphazardly up the riverbed, tyres spinning in the powdery sand. When we came across an abandoned encampment of grass huts we threw off our sweaty riding gear and turned our backs on the cumbersome Sheds.
We’d bitten off more than we could chew with Oued Samene. Our top-heavy, over-wide machines were a liability even before the rider got tired. The watershed would have to wait. Next morning we lowered our gearing and turned back along the riverbed out to the canyon mouth then back north 200km to Illizi town.
Showered, fed, bowed but not beaten, our next track followed a long abandoned route across the Tassili plateau within sight of the Libyan border. Sure enough this proved to be a classic mountain route: clear stony tracks led to the base of the same 500-kms long escarpment we’d planned to breach at Oued Samene. Towards the second evening Andy’s pannier clipped a rock and sent him flying, so we camped early in a shallow creek bed, but by next morning he’d bounced back and we pursued the wonderful ride across the barren plateau.
You’d think we’d know better, being Desert Riders, but we ran out of water. A hoped-for well didn’t materialise so we pressed on south on the promise of a waterhole eighty clicks away. That took three hours of the roughest riding yet, a tyre-piercing, spoke-bending trail with hairy ‘one chance’ launches out of rocky creeks. We reached the waterhole at sundown beaten to a pulp, and crashed out where we lay.
By the following afternoon we were sipping milky coffees with mille feuille cakes in the tranquil oasis of Djanet in Algeria’s southeast corner. We’d done what we could on the plateau, now it was time for the legendary sands of the Ténéré. To do that we needed Niger visas from Tamanrasset (‘Tam’), but that involved a 1,500kms round trip that we just couldn’t face. I was also in two minds about our planned route into Niger – a few months earlier two Austrian parties I met went that way and got brutally robbed.
Still, we had 120 litres of fuel, water and a luscious hamper of food buried and waiting 300 kilometres to the south. Plan B was unanimously approved: head for the stash cross-country, slip into Niger for a quick visit to the Lost Tree, then nip back before we got caught.
We filled up to the brim in Djanet’s fuel station and with trepidation wobbled out towards the Erg Admer, a cordon of dunes which bared the way to the south. I knew a way through the maze, but also knew that the final barrier dune would be a struggle for the tanked-up Red Sheds. But when the time came we hit that slope hard and sailed over the top then down to the gravel plain beyond. Longitude E8° 45’ looked like a promising corridor on the map, so we set our GPSs for the vital fuel dump and hoped for the best.
Initially the going was rough and slow but once we crossed an ancient floodplain, the desert finally opened out. Compared to the pummelling of the previous week, the riding out here was serene: dazzling sand plains leading to a distant rocky ridge which we eventually traversed to reach another sand plain.
No one was more surprised than me when we reached the fuel dump waypoint by 4pm – and for once we weren’t even knackered! Sandstorms had blown through but I recognised the rock-marker in the dunes where nearby the handle of a jerry poked out. A bit of digging unearthed the water and drums full of long-life tucker. We dragged it all to the camp and by dusk lay bloated in the sands, gorged and a little nauseous following an overdose of Haribo, chocolate, frankfurters and rice pudding.
Next day was the Big One, pushing on into the unknown with a 300kms run around the erg, over the border and towards the Tree. The bikes were stripped of non-essential baggage and by mid-morning we were probably on the unmarked Algeria-Niger frontier. Our now empty fuel drums were fashioned into the ‘DRP 2003’ monument, we sang the hearty Desert Riders Song and then keyed our Garmins in for the Tree: bearing 134°, distance 242kms. The fabled Ténéré was upon us.
You can’t beat the thrill of riding untouched terrain. The nearest piste was a hundred miles away and rarely used. But smugglers, bandits and a new wave of undesirables were all travelling on our wavelength, as were the Algerian gunships which hunted them. We sincerely hoped to avoid all of these, which explained how our paranoia had ‘miraged’ those unwanted Land Cruisers when, a day later, we finally approached the Lost Tree.
We rode on warily but soon relaxed as the ‘cars’ morphed into harmless withered remains of the centuries-old tamarisk tree. In the bitter cold we hurriedly paid our respects at a monument to Thierry Sabine, the Paris-Dakar Rally founder whose ashes were scattered here in 1985, then followed our lone tracks back to Algeria before we got in trouble.
What a ride that was. In the Oued Samene we DNF’d after four clicks; today we covered 400 and by the end nothing could stop the fuel-lightened 650s skimming over the sands back to our stash camp at Erg Killian. We ended three of the most amazing days of raw desert biking, buzzing. Job done!
But our luck was about to change, as was the face of adventure tourism in the Sahara. Heading back, Andy had tyre troubles and decided to head back north. Jon and I rode west to Tamanrasset, arriving at the festival of Tabaski, the end of Ramadan. The campsite owner slaughtered a goat as four other bikers rocked up on KTMs, a Paralever BMW and an Africa Twin, including Dutchman Arjen who I’d met on the boat the previous year. They were also planning to swing past Erg Killian, but with a guide in a pick-up to carry the fuel.
Jon and I said goodbye to the guys next morning and headed up to the dramatic Assekrem Pass where the dawn sun rises behind the primeval panorama of volcanic relics. The little used ride down the far side of the Hoggar really took it out of us, then we scooted up the Trans-Sahara highway for a bit, and hit the piste again for Garet El Djenoun, ‘Mountain of Spirits’, a striking granite turret which we thought climbable. By the end of the next day Garet was in our sights, as was the last fuel cache, stashed among some rocks to the north.
Next thing I knew I came to on the ground with my helmet under my head. How did I get here? Yaw! it hurts to breathe. Over there Jon was kicking my bike straight. He came over and pointed the camcorder in my face. After all the near-misses I’d flipped out on a virtual runway, landed badly and bust some ribs. If breathing was a struggle then riding was out but I got through to Tam and a German Unimog fetched me. The wonders of GPS and a sat phone. In town we set about flying the bikes back to the UK. Garet and the last fuel stash would have to wait.
But the party was about to end in Algeria. A week after I got back Arjen and his three mates were among 32 tourists abducted by terrorists off the Graveyard Piste. Had I not crashed out near Garet it’s likely Jon and I would have ridden straight into the multiple ambushes. Arjen’s group got shuffled among desert hideaways for six months; one died of heatstroke, the remainder were released following a widely denied multi-million-euro ransom. It’s no longer possible to roam the wild Algerian borderlands but we’d seen the promised land and tasted the thrill of unsupported cross-country riding. Tracks would never be the same again.
This article first appeared in Issue 12 of OVERLAND magazine.