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, 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. 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.
The first part of the route led us into a swathe of dunes, and 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. 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. Cross-country or off-piste riding is like nothing else. 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. 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.