Libya • 1998 • Funduro

Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by Chris S, Mar 29, 2021.

  1. Chris S

    Chris S Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Feb 2, 2004
    Oddometer:
    399
    Location:
    UK and around
    During the 1990s a civil war in northern Algeria, and Tuareg rebellions further south made visiting the central Sahara risky.
    But trade and travel routes are like rivers or columns of ants: when they meet a blockage they back up and then find another way round.

    And so by the late 1990s for the first time in decades, you could ride down through the Western Sahara along the Atlantic Route to Mauritania (as I did last year on my Africa Twin; see sig RR).
    The Polisario War was on ceasefire and in Dakhla, the last town in Moroccan-controlled territory, you joined a twice-weekly army convoy which raced off the last few 100kms to a short, mined section of No Man's Land and the Mauritanian border.
    We did that in '97 in an old Mercedes when flogging somewhat stolen or no longer roadworthy cars was the thing to do.

    [​IMG]

    The 'river' was pushing through on the other side of the main trans-Sahara routes, too.
    It was said it was now possible to visit Libya, back then only just shaking off its status as a pariah, terrorist-sponsoring state on a par with Iran.
    I didn't know anyone who had been desert biking in Libya. The idea seemed rather out there but it was now time to try something new and visit the Land of our Brother Leader.


    [​IMG]
    #1
    husqvarna, scudo, Stravoxylo and 7 others like this.
  2. Chris S

    Chris S Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Feb 2, 2004
    Oddometer:
    399
    Location:
    UK and around
    The ayatollah may have had a scowl like he just trod in something unpleasant, but Gaddafi was known as the ‘Mad Dog of the Middle East’.
    I remember well in 1984 a policewoman at a demo shot dead from the Libyan embassy in St James’ Square, London. The ‘diplomat’ slipped away. In 1986 a clash with the US Navy in the Gulf of Sidra led to a bombing of a disco in West Berlin. US air raids swiftly followed but failed to kill Gaddafi. Two years later Pan Am 103 went down over Lockerbie, and in 1989 little-known UTA 772 met the same fate over the desolate eastern Tenere Desert in Niger. You can see the memorial (below), built in 2008, slowly succumbing to the sands on Google Sat.


    [​IMG]

    I’ve only just learned that much of this US-Libya acrimony stemmed from Libya (aligned with the USSR at this time) radically extending its territorial waters in the early 70s straight across the Gulf of Sidra, the big bite out of the Libyan coast west of Benghazi.
    It may even go back further than that.
    Way back in 1803 the newly independent United States’ first foreign war was with Tripolitania (NW Libya).
    At that time the North African 'Barbary Coast' (loosely under Ottoman rule) was the lair of pirates or corsairs who preyed on European shipping in the Med.
    As I’m sure some of you know, this conflict is commemorated in the US Marine Corps Hymn:

    From the Halls of Montezuma,
    To the shores of Tripoli;
    We fight our country’s battles
    In the air, on land, and sea.
    #2
  3. Chris S

    Chris S Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Feb 2, 2004
    Oddometer:
    399
    Location:
    UK and around
    [​IMG]

    Remember the Funduro? It came out in 1993, BMW’s first chain-driven bike for 30 years.
    BMW had only recently shaken off the beardy /7 era and, even with the Bricks well established by now, it’s easy to forget what a radical bike the F was at the time: Not a twin and no meistershaft.

    In the UK they became pretty popular as an entry-level BMW, the same way a Mercedes 190 was a hit: never mind the qualities, feel the badge. At over 200 kilos wet, the Funduro never caught on as a desert bike. It wasn’t much lighter than the smoother Transalp V-twin.
    Assembled by Aprilla who made the similar but different Pegaso, the Bombardier-Rotax engine was revvy for a single, the transmission was notoriously snatchy, and the 19-inch front was oriented towards road riding. That’s probably why it was such a hit: rufty-tufty looks with strictly road manners. Sound familiar?
    The injected F650s of 2000 proved what a huge advance EFI could be. Is the Chain Gang website still around?

    Anyway, despite the naff name (‘Enduro’ is what they call a DS in Germany, so you can see their thinking), no one had anything bad to say about them. The tank was a nearly useful 17.5 litres, and with the right tyres I reckoned the F would be up for some Saharan piste bashing which never gets that technical. Except when it is...

    I got myself a 3-year old one with a few thousand miles, and once I removed the chain guard and shaved off a few knobs, a Michelin Desert squeezed on the back. The front took a ‘rear’ 19” Pirelli MT21 with a lot more knob-chopping and a roomier mudguard off a VT500. Road riding on such tyres, especially the marbles-on-glass MT, is initially unnerving. I remember the tosser at the BMW service centre gave me a bollocking because he liberally shat himself after taking it out for a test ride on the fresh MT.
    As we all know, survive the first few hundred miles and you get used to it as the sharp edges wear down.

    The bike had crash bars, the baseplate was at least metal, and a 27-litre Acerbis tank managed to look barely bigger than stock and should be good for at least 500 clicks. A 5-litre can extended that by another 100km.
    The bike came with a new o-ring chain, some brand I’d never heard of. I figured surely it would surely last the trip of only 4000 miles. Except when it won't...

    [​IMG]

    Touratech sent me a cradle for the state-of-the-art Garmin 12 (remember them?). This was when a GPS only told you where you were as a waypoint (or how far in a straight line to another point). You still needed a map plus common sense to tell you where the heck to go.
    To reduce conversion errors, BMW UK kindly gave me a metric speedo, and a cheapo ball compass was screwed on the dashboard (last time I bothered doing that!). Lastly, I fitted an in-line fuel filter for that dirty desert fuel, a cig’ lighter plug for the GPS (another error), fork gaiters and topped it all off with a taller EMS screen. The baggage would be throwovers and a backpack.

    By Christmas 1997 the bike was ready. A reporter from the South London Press came round to take my picture.

    All that remained was the problematic issue of a Libyan visa.

    [​IMG]
    #3
  4. Chris S

    Chris S Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Feb 2, 2004
    Oddometer:
    399
    Location:
    UK and around
    Go to most embassies around the world and at the very least you’ll find a few tourist pamphlets and a poster of a couple frolicking by a fountain. No such noncing about at the Libyan Interests Section in London’s Harley Street in the late 1990s.
    Down in the grubby basement mean-looking guys ground another cigarette into a Brit passport and ignored you purposefully.
    Tourist literature was limited to a defiant newsletter commemorating the ‘Drawing of the Line of Death’ (the relocated Gulf of Sirte boundary) against imperial aggressors.
    Charming.
    Just the spot to enjoy a spring break on a bike.

    'What you want?'

    ‘Visa?’ I asked meekly.

    It has taken me months to get to this point.
    In November 1997 I’d finished the third edition of AMH and, with my head bursting with AM lore and know-how, I needed to get out there and put it into practice.

    [​IMG]

    Libya sounded interesting but as with many of these ‘rogue’ or, more accurately ‘anti-Western’ countries, getting a visa involved countless dead-end faxes to various Libyan tourist agencies for the required invitation. At the Libyan end, they watched them scroll out of the machine, smirked, and threw them in the trash. This had been going on all winter.
    Then, via someone on the Swiss Sahara forum, I got in touch with a shady Libyan expat businessman who said he could cough up an invite for a few hundred euros.
    The problem was the riding season in the Sahara was slipping away. It wasn’t until early April when my permit got telexed from Tripoli. A week later I was walking down Harley Street with the requisite stamp.

    April was really too late to be heading into the desert alone on a motorbike.
    I’d made that catastrophic error in September 1984 at the other end of the season.
    Sure, you can ride around the highways and make sure you drink enough, but off-road for days at a time with temperatures exceeding 100F was just too risky.
    But I can't be the first rider who, with a desert-ready bike outside itching for the sands and a visa in hand, ended up getting run over by the steam roller of their trip's momentum.
    Sod it, I’ll go and just see how far I can get.
    #4
    Oron, Hans Petter, scudo and 4 others like this.
  5. pyro_

    pyro_ Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 2005
    Oddometer:
    210
    Location:
    Sudbury, ON
    My father was working there around that time, he spent 15 years going back and fother between there and canada 6 weeks in and 6 weeks out, was always some interesting stories, unfortunatly a lot of the places that were around then are no longer standing today
    #5
  6. Chris S

    Chris S Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Feb 2, 2004
    Oddometer:
    399
    Location:
    UK and around
    Not surprised to hear a few here either worked, or know people who worked out there in oil and gas, despite the embargos and sanctions. Halliburton and Schlumberger were big operators out there, but you heard little of it.

    As far as I understand, Libyan crude is unusually low sulphur (a good thing) which made it much in demand.
    Less work to make clean fuel, or something.

    A couple of months before I left I met a fellow dirt bike rider who worked in the oil fields, six on six off as you say. The money was great and he got to spend six weeks at home with the family.
    He gave me a couple of over-saturated OilCo picture books of the desert and warned me about the enervating ghibli winds which blew in April and melted strong men’s brains.
    A story of a guy who’d driven out into the storm sounded especially grim:
    ‘About a month after the guy had gone missing a nomad came into the camp and asked if we wanted to know where our Toyota was? We said yes and it cost us. Then he asked did we want our body back – it cost us some more. Turns out the guy had just parked up with the engine running and walked out into the sandstorm.’
    #6
  7. the slow heart

    the slow heart alive

    Joined:
    Oct 18, 2007
    Oddometer:
    40
    Location:
    Black Sea West Coast
    Looks like a Funduro had deserved it's name.
    Bring the story on, please :beer
    #7
  8. beltipox

    beltipox Adventurer

    Joined:
    Mar 2, 2008
    Oddometer:
    22
    Location:
    Sicily, hearth of Mediterranean Sea
    Interesting, NEXT episode please!
    Ps i Just realized i read your AMH, amazing job!
    #8
    Chris S and Eagletalon like this.
  9. Johnnydarock

    Johnnydarock Been here awhile

    Joined:
    May 6, 2009
    Oddometer:
    555
    Location:
    Redondo Beach CA
    Looks interesting. Following along to see where this goes.
    #9
  10. scudo

    scudo Adventurer

    Joined:
    Oct 23, 2010
    Oddometer:
    55
    Location:
    Sheffield UK
    Looking forward to the rest of your story Chris, if you are writing more, and would love to know what mods you did to your Funduro, I have one for my winter riding.
    #10
  11. Chris S

    Chris S Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Feb 2, 2004
    Oddometer:
    399
    Location:
    UK and around
    Sorry, got some actual work for the first time in months, so need to get on with that.
    But let's backtrack a bit and put things into context.

    [​IMG]

    Above is how the French govt sees North Africa (still current 2021).
    For as long as I've been travelling in the area, and for decades before, Morocco has been an easy country to visit and travel in (baring the once-notorious hassle in some cities). A one-hour ferry ride from Spain; visa at the border for most and plenty of great tracks do south, even if it's not the real Sahara.

    Western Sahara
    is a disputed territory (long version) half occupied by Morocco, and the rest (inland, behind the Berm) by the Polisario Front supported by Algeria who together with the Polisario lost a war with Morocco in the 80s.
    Today tensions are building up again between arch-foes Alg and Morocco. But that happens once in a while.
    As I found on a Himalayan a couple of years back:
    https://advrider.com/f/threads/himalayan-tubliss-troubles-in-western-sahara.1382499/
    while the Moroccan part of WS is accessible, no one goes there much as it is pretty flat, boring and empty.

    Algeria is a huge country and, for desert travellers, it's all here:
    https://advrider.com/f/threads/husky-te300-in-the-sahara.1281512/
    but like Iran, it's not aligned with the west and so visas can be hit and miss, tourism infrastructure is virtually non-existent and mandatory escorts since 2004 cramp your style on a bike. It was shut off for the 90s, then a mass desert kidnapping in 2003 (which we dodged by a stroke of luck) saw the beginning of the end. Desert tourism has never really recovered and for many of us old desert hacks that is a big shame.

    Up till 2011 and the Arab Spring which kicked off here, Tunisia was a bit vanilla for desert adventures with, of all things, a Spanish-style resort scene on the coast. Tunisia came across as a bit bland to the desert traveller and with the Morocco-Algeria border long closed, I and others only ever saw Tunisia as a useful side-door onto Algeria.

    Or the only way into Libya. There were never RoRo ferries from Europe to Libya, certainly not for Genoa, so it was a two-day ride across Tunisia to the border. Libya had the potential to be as interesting as Algeria but people were put off by Gaddafi's reputation and so no one really knew.

    Lastly, Egypt. Even when RoRo ferries ran from Venice or Greece to Alex, the world-class aggro and expense of getting a vehicle in (or via the land crossing from Libya) made it not worth the bother for a couple of weeks of desert biking. Egypt's reputation rightly rested on its fabulous Pharaonic relics (plus a bit of a Red Sea scuba resort scene). It was thought there was nothing here that you couldn't see or do as easily in Algeria.
    I found out later that wasn't so, but to get to the remote corners of southwest Egypt needed a Land Cruiser with three-dozen jerricans across the roof.

    So Libya it was. Even though it was April, I sought to save my Funduro's tyres by motorailing (overnight train) from Paris to Marseille and hopped on the 24-hour ferry to Tunis. Here ensued five hours of dicking about from one counter to another until I was clear to leave the port.
    If this was Tunisian immigration what would Libya be like? Well, it would hot, that's for sure. By now temperatures were climbing steeply right across the Sahara and with it, water consumption and a host of other problems.
    By the next afternoon, I was at the border, with a wodge of black market Libyan dinars stuffed down my crotch.
    I checked out of Tunisia, paying the 1TD fee, and expected to be back shortly, having failed to enter Libya.
    #11