Libya • 1998 • Funduro

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

  1. Chris S

    Chris S Been here awhile

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    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
  2. Chris S

    Chris S Been here awhile

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    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
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  3. Chris S

    Chris S Been here awhile

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    [​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

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    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
  5. pyro_

    pyro_ Been here awhile

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    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

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    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.’
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  7. the slow heart

    the slow heart alive

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    Looks like a Funduro had deserved it's name.
    Bring the story on, please :beer
    #7
  8. beltipox

    beltipox Adventurer

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    Interesting, NEXT episode please!
    Ps i Just realized i read your AMH, amazing job!
    #8
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  9. Johnnydarock

    Johnnydarock Been here awhile

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    Looks interesting. Following along to see where this goes.
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  10. scudo

    scudo Adventurer

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    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

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    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.
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  12. Chris S

    Chris S Been here awhile

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    Sorry for the interruption. I had some work and we relocated.
    Now I'm idle again the story continues...

    At the Libyan border I was again resigned to hours of shuffling from one hangar to another, filling out forms and getting stamps. This is Libya where they do things their way; like Russia, forms are not in English, take it or leave it. This was going to take some time.

    Then by chance one of the many Libyan travel agents I’d given up on recognised me and whisked me through the formalities in just twenty minutes (and a hundred quid). Stunned at my good fortune, I set off towards Tripoli in the fading light with my rented Libyan number plate and soon pulled over to fill up the 27-litre (7-USg) tank for just a dollar. If I’d been less stingy I could have got premium for another 20 cents.

    Dozens of the roadside wrecks along Libya’s main coastal highway testified to the lethal mixture of ‘get-out-of-my-way’ gangsters (ie: members or friends of to government elite) in blacked-out Mercs bombing past lopsided farmyard bangers piloted by granddad in coke-bottle specs and a bucket on his head.

    So after a night in the bushes, I was relieved to turn off the Death Highway south towards Ghadames, 550km away. Now the roadsides were only marked by billboards of the Brother Leader, hands raised in a ‘we’re all in this together!’ salute.

    [​IMG]
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  13. Chris S

    Chris S Been here awhile

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    In Libya the place names were written in what we call ‘English’ but, unlike other Arab-speaking Saharan counties I'd visited, distances were shown in Arabic numerals (as was the money).

    At this point clever dicks step in and point out that our 10 9 8 7 6 5...… are Arabic numerals (as opposed to Latin), and what I’m referring to:
    ١ ٢ ٣ ٤ ٥ ٦ ٧ ٨ ٩ ١٠
    are Arabic–Hindu numerals from which our numbering system is derived.
    And, to keep you on your toes, in Libya at least you read them left to right, unlike Arabic writing which is unintelligible squiggle to me and is read right to left.
    So 550 clicks to Ghadames = ٥٠ ٥
    Back then, Garmins could not route along a road, and yje in-built maps of Africa were basically the continental outline showing borders and capital cities.
    So finding a way to memorise the Arabic–Hindu numerals was worthwhile
    3 squiggles ٣
    4 strokes ٤
    Delta 5 ٥
    Before ٦ is 6
    Se٧en
    ٨ight...

    As well as keeping track of the bike's odometer.
    #13
  14. Chris S

    Chris S Been here awhile

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    As I rode into the desert on super smooth blacktop I wondered when the real heat would begin.
    I didn’t have to wait long. By mid-afternoon the temperature had risen to over a 100 (or ١٠٠)
    and out of the blue the bike started spluttering.
    Surely I haven’t got through the tank already, I thought?
    Is cheap Libyan fuel too crap for my BMW's carb?
    Undoing the cap revealed plenty of gas sloshing about.
    The bike started up, but a few miles later cut out again.
    I got off, had a look at things and guessed the cause.
    A combination of half-empty tank and minimal throttle at cruising speed combined with the afternoon heat saw the trickling petrol evaporate in the added-on fuel filter from the heat of the barrel to cause vapour lock and cutting off the fuel supply.
    Stopping cooled things down and got the petrol flowing again ang when pouring cooling water over the fuel filter body rose the petrol level instantly, I knew I’d guessed right.

    Knowing the problem was as good as solving it, so I found some wind-blown cardboard and made a heat shield, then filled up first chance I got.

    [​IMG]

    I arrived in Ghadames, on the Algerian border and the southern point of Tunisia, just as the sun set. Zonked out, I pitched up at the empty campsite and slumped out on the sand.

    Once the sun had gone down, the campsite guard came round to see if he'd snared any passing travellers. It turned out it was Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice when Abraham (Ibrahim to Muslims) decided not to sacrifice Ishmael (Isaac). In celebration, I got given a bowl of rice with goat meat. Which took care of dinner.

    After dinner I had a think.
    If it was reaching nearly 40°C this far north, how hot would it be further south?
    The vapour lock had been fixed, but would it last?
    I was keen to get the BM on the dirt, but was that a good idea alone?
    The wind kicked up and the palms began to rustle.
    Maybe tomorrow would provide some answers.
    #14
  15. Incredulous

    Incredulous Peanut Gallery Supporter

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    Really enjoying this report. Thanks for writing it up.
    #15
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  16. SR1

    SR1 Going to America!!!!

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    Me too. I haven't entered Ride Reports in a good long time. This is excellent. Wish I'd gone with you!
    #16
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  17. Chris S

    Chris S Been here awhile

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    Ghadames is a UNESCO-listed medieval trading post, famed for its labyrinthine Old Town or mediina where the adobe buildings were painted white and the narrow alleyways roofed over with palms and reeds to keep out the heat. By the time I was there most people lived in an adjacent breeze-block new town and the Old Town was left to us tourists and souvenir sellers.
    I'd enjoyed a couple of hours wandering around the maze of darkened passages and bursting out into tiny, dazzling squares (see link).

    My plan was to ride back to the village at Derj, then leave the road southeast across the Hamada el Hamra plateau. Once back on a road, I’d dodge the Ubari Sand Sea which would eat the Funduro for breakfast, and carry on south and west to Ghat, another old caravan oasis at the foot of the Akakus mountains and right alongside the Algerian border. Back then the road ended in Ghat. Officially, the borders into Algeria and nearby Niger were closed, certainly for tourists.
    Altogether that was about 5 days riding.

    That night at 2am a rising gale woke me and I dozed fitfully as the tent wobbled and the palms flapped overhead. Dawn revealed an orange sky and a thick dusty haze. Was this the enervating ghibli I’d been warned about? I waited a bit, hoping it would die down which it did a bit. I checked over the bike, wrote myself a roadbook and set off for the 100-km ride back to Derj. I’d reassess once I got there. I could always take the road round to Ghat, but that's not what I'd come here for.

    I imagine many of us solo off-roaders in wild places have had similar torments of action vs caution.
    Besides all the usual ‘what happens if…’ we wonder:
    Am I putting myself under pressure to be brave and adventurous?
    Have I really properly evaluated the risks?

    My French guidebook (all that was available that I could read) claimed the route across the plateau was a straightforward 450km gravel track with a well halfway. About two days riding and just about within my fuel range. In these temperatures, water consumption would be another matter.

    Another 100+ degree days was bewing and after topping up at Derj for another $2, including the 5-litre can, I was on the verge of heading back to Tunisia.
    As I sat by a hut mulling over ‘dare I?’ with ‘should I?’, a desert-grizzled geezer leaned out the door and said
    ‘Eh, la mangeria?’
    La what?
    ‘Mangeria!’ He made the universal mime for chow.
    ‘Ah oui, merci.’

    I’d automatically slipped into French, but unlike Morocco, Algeria, Niger and so on, Libya had actually been an Italian colony – and even then, only briefly. That’s presumably where this slang for food had come from.

    As I ate my bowl of oily stew, a SWB Isuzu Trooper with German plates pulled in and, as you do in the desert, we sized each other up. A brief chat revealed that Rainer (a retired professor), and Katja (his quite-a-lot younger ex-student/partner) were also heading across the plateau for Ghat, and would be happy to have another vehicle along for safety [Katja took most of the following photos from the car with my camera but, sorry to say, I’ve not photos of them].

    That was all the motivation I needed. Let’s hit the dirt!

    [​IMG]
    #17
  18. Chris S

    Chris S Been here awhile

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    The aptly named the Red Plateau was a barren, undulating prairie of rust-coloured gravel cut by dry water courses and seismic survey lines. Rising to 800m, my oilfield mate hadn’t much good to say about it: a pitiless void that was either freezing or baking and criss-crossed with enough tracks to confuse even the wily nomads.

    [​IMG]

    Enjoying the security of another vehicle, it felt great to be on the dirt at last. By myself I’d have been gnawing my lip into a frayed pulp. Shod with uncompromising tyres, the BM handled the 40-50kph pace well enough, and it was fun concentrating on the riding instead of sitting on the blacktop.

    [​IMG]

    As expected, I was a lot quicker than Rainer’s ex-trans African Isuzu, but I didn’t mind stopping and waiting. Their very presence made this whole excursion much less tense. But there was one thing which bothered me…

    ‘Rainer, shouldn’t we be at Bir Gazell well by now?’
    According to my speedo the landmark should have been close.

    ‘Bir Gazell? nein, zat is on zi direkt route, we are taking zi southern route.’

    ‘The southern route?’

    ‘Ya. Here, look. It goes down into the Ubari Sand Sea, turns east and follows the dunes to Idri.
    My guide book says it’s much more scenic than the boring plateau route.’

    ‘How far is it?’

    ‘Oh, about six hundert kilomitar.’

    ‘I doubt I’ve got enough fuel to go that far, especially if the piste gets sandy.’

    [​IMG]

    We paused for a moment to consider the implications.

    ‘Vel, I have some spare petrol, about six litres.’ said Rainer whose Isuzu was diesel.
    We topped up the bike’s tank and decided to take a gamble and press on south towards the dunes.
    #18
  19. Chris S

    Chris S Been here awhile

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    [​IMG]

    By late afternoon we’d got ourselves lost. The next waypoint was through rubble hills to the south, but our track was now heading west towards Algeria, the wrong way. This was all part of travelling in the Sahara so, not unduly worried, we made camp in a sandy creek bed and resolved to head directly for the waypoint next morning.

    Taking short cuts to get back on track is a common response to the unbearable idea of going back and seeing where you went wrong. Sometimes it works out easily, sometimes it doesn’t.
    Cross-country riding may sound fun on an agile dirt bike, but in the desert it can get incredibly slow. Once you ride off tracks, however bad they are, you can find yourself walking the bike down rocky slopes, blundering up dead-end valleys or edging towards drops.

    [​IMG]

    Even with an early start and me reconnoitring a way through the hills, it still took us till noon next day to cover the 14km to the waypoint and regain the southern route.

    [​IMG]

    Now and then I walked the loaded 650 down the rubble hillsides or paddled from rock to rock.
    At one point we had to clear a way for the Isuzu to clamber down one rocky hillside.

    [​IMG]

    The day began to burn and as I feared, the plateau’s firm gravel turned into plains of soft sand lapping the northern banks of the Ubari Sand Sea. In a fourbie it’s no bother: drop tyre pressures and engage 4WD, if needed. On a bike the sand has to be attacked standing on the pegs with a nailed throttle and eyes firmly fixed on the way ahead. There is no easy option: back off, the front wheel digs in and you’re off – go too fast and you risk crashing. I did my share of both and finished the day exhausted by more shades of soft sand than the Cote d’Azur.

    [​IMG]
    #19
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  20. Chris S

    Chris S Been here awhile

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    We were only halfway through day two and by now I’d drunk my ten litres (2.6US) of water and was cutting into Rainer and Katja’s reserves. We needed to find a well. Their German guidebook identified a source 40km away on the northern edge of the sand sea. We located what seemed the right place and ploughed into the sands where the Isuzu soon mired.
    While they shovelled away, I headed over the dunes, riding the sandy banks in all directions just to keep from getting stuck. After a while I found the well - bone dry and full of sand, just like in the movies. The only thing missing way an outstretched hand of a skeleton.

    This little excursion cost us two hours, a heap of energy and still more water and fuel. We flopped out under some meagre shade. No one said anything.

    [​IMG]
    #20
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