The Desert

Crossing the Sahara: Algeria to Niger, 1991

I am on a motorcycle. The bike is bucking about, but I’m in control. In fact, I’m flying. The engine’s pumping and the bars are buzzing as the front wheel kicks about, now in, and now out, of the ruts in the sand.

The sand’s bloody hard going, but I can handle it now. The sun is hot, hot, hot, and inside my helmet I’m grinning from ear to ear.

I’m at the front now. Behind me, forming a left flank to the convoy of trucks, are a handful of other riders. Maybe half a dozen. Roughly the same amount of bikes are to the right of the trucks. We’re making our way across the Sahara, about 100 kms into a 300 km mad-dash from no-man’s land at the Algerian/Niger border towards the town of Arlit in Northern Niger.

This morning the sand storm that had held us up at the border for the past three days stopped and we woke to silence. A silence soon broken by the revving up of the army trucks – supposedly our safe passage North – leaving.

The departure of the army caused a small panic amongst the varied bunch of about 60 desert crossers – bikes, cars, trucks, a bus – to be sold in Gahna, and one lone Japanese on a bicycle! – that had backed up at the border checkpoint. Bikes, cars and trucks scrambled to get going and head off.

Why the activity? There is a Tuareg uprising underway, and there have been many attacks on travellers in the last 400 kms of desert, stretching from Agadez in Southern Algeria to the border. We ourselves had covered that 400 km stretch in one mind-and-body-blowing day, as just half an hour after setting off from a night’s desert camp we had come as across a French couple we had met earlier on the track, now abandoned in the desert, their vehicle and possessions taken at gunpoint only 10 minutes previously.

People were nervous. Very nervous. So we struggled to get ready to join the first party out, struggled with zips locked solid with sand, struggled to sort our stuff and struggled to load the bikes. “Fuck it”, I said, “I need a coffee. Let this convoy go and we’ll hook up with a later one.” And so as I got the stove going, we watched a big convoy of maybe twenty cars and trucks and about ten bikes head off. A good decision as it goes.

Why a good decision? Because when we did head off with our smaller convoy, half an hour south of the border we came across the remains of the first convoy. Nobody shot, Insh’allah, but vehicles taken, possessions gone and a good many people bewildered that this had happened to them.

We stopped, but not for long. In this environment, looking after yourself was the priority and with the border still within reach, none of these people were going to die.

So back to the moment, I’m now heading the pack. We’ve been riding three plus hours and it’s become obvious to me that if we’re going to get hit, then it’s the slower trucks that are going to be the target. On the bikes we’re too quick, nor are we carrying the amount of potential treasure that can be found in the trucks. So, like I say, I’m flying. Fully alive. Charged. I’ve fallen a couple of times, but nothing serious. Today, I’m charmed …

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