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Alone, 150 miles into the Sahara, mobile phones hadn't been invented yet, and you look down to discover your tank is cracked and leaking fuel. Circumstances that certainly focus the mind as Chris Scott discovered during his travels through the Sahara and West Africa in the 1980's. We pick up the story on the edge of Tamanrasset, Algeria as Chris begins to discover what it takes to ride a motorcycle through the desert.


My first impulse was to find some shelter, a tall order seeing as I hadn’t passed so much as a tree since leaving the oued that morning. Nevertheless, in a state of restrained panic, I felt compelled to start the bike and get moving, a rather pointless display of an adrenaline-charged ‘flight’ instinct when faced with danger. It merely delayed the only solution to my problem: finding and repairing the leak.

Within a short time I chanced upon one of the many shells of abandoned cars, which litter the piste, a green BMW 2002 sedan with every removable component bar its body long since scavenged. The car symbolised a tenuous link with humanity and salvation, and helped me regain my composure as I hastily pulled the bike apart. Setting the damaged tank on the car’s front wing revealed a broken mounting bracket, which had allowed the tank to bang onto the frame backbone over rough ground, ultimately cracking it, but a tankbag had disguised the movement. The photo stop had been a lucky intermission, as carrying on with my fuel dribbling away would have eventually stranded me, unable to go to In Guezzam or back to Tamanrasset. And because the piste here was up to 15-kilometres wide there might have been a day or two’s wait for a vehicle to pass close enough to see me; I’d seen a single vehicle since the road ended.

I set to repairing the tank with some Araldite which I’d fortuitously swiped as I walked out the front door of my mum’s house a few weeks earlier. Now that I knew what was wrong I didn’t think I was in serious danger; I had enough water to last up to a week and at the very worst I could burn a tyre to make a smoke signal.

Within an hour a truck passed nearby, crunching its gears over the irregular piste. I began walking towards it, waving as I went, certain that it would stop, as all other vehicles had done without being prompted on the highway up north in the hope of a hand-out. But, either oblivious or indifferent to my plight, this truck ground on southwards to the border. As the sun set and the glue hardened I thought carefully about what I should do: carry on with my still overloaded and now unreliable bike, or call it a day and head back the 150-odd kilometres to Tam? I decided on the latter. I’d seen enough both of the dreary, cold, flat, boring desert and of Algeria, which seemed composed entirely of cheerless young men in bomber jackets.

Sleeping on a sandy bed beside the car, I scrawled a regretful epitaph to my solo Saharan venture on the BMW’s door next morning, collected a few Neolithic-looking stone tools and the car’s chassis serial number plate as souvenirs, and tentatively filled the tank from the jerrican.

As I left, I had a notion that the repair, which had finished off the glue on the final successful attempt, might not last and I’d be racing the leaking fuel back to Tam. It was only then, acknowledging that I was effectively ‘on the run’ from the desert that my fears finally caught up with me. I found, without really knowing why, that I’d lost the knack of smooth riding I’d refined the day before.

Apart from the mind games of that first night, the idea of conquering my fears was not present on that first Saharan escapade, nor has it figured since. Like anyone developing a skill, the goal in later trips was to extend my experience as my confidence in my ability grew. But with this immersion of deserty things came also the knowledge of fear.

Fear in the Sahara is not the sudden shock of a near miss; it’s the constant nagging awareness of the consequences of something going wrong, and of your helplessness in the face of that possibility. Fear of the many ways in which things had gone wrong before and how they could go wrong again. I learned to detest that momentary panic clawing in the chest at even the most minor error when riding a alone in the desert, but I’ve found the caution learned over time to be useful in guiding what you do. Nothing is actually conquered except ignorance.

Geoffrey Moorhouse describes reaching similar enlightenment the hard way in The Fearful Void, his attempt to walk the width of the Sahara alone in the early Seventies. With a recklessness that must have had his publisher licking their lips, he stated that his trek – presumably the most dangerous thing he could think of at the time – was an attempt to ‘examine the bases of my fear, to observe in the closest possible proximity how a human being copes with his most fundamental funk’.

In his words, fear was ‘the most corrosive element attacking the goodness of the human spirit’ and perhaps here Moorhouse’s and my understanding of the F-word differ. To me it’s not an emotion which cripples humanity, but a useful instinct. Moorhouse boasted of his complete lack of experience for this unprecedented feat: the self-deprecating ‘Adventures of a Greenhorn’ ploy of so many contemporary English travelogues since Eric Newby’s likeable short escapade in the Hindu Kush. Not surprisingly, Moorhouse’s absurd stunt ended prematurely and after great personal suffering in Tamanrasset, about a third of the way through. He’d learned what most people recognise after one viewing of Lawrence of Arabia, that the desert doesn’t suffer fools and that the biggest void was in his own lack of experience and understanding. That, and the way the intolerant hero treated his desert guides, made it hard to admire his achievement. The Sahara was eventually traversed from the Atlantic to the Red Sea a decade later by the experienced cameleer Michael Asher and his wife, Mariantonietta Peru. Their trek is described in Asher’s The Impossible Journey.


Chris Scott is credited with coining the term 'Adventure Motorcycling' back in the 80's. He is the best selling author of the Adventure Motorcycling Handbook and regularly runs expeditions to the Sahara. If you would like to join him, take a look here.

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