Across the Sahara Desert on Kinetic Honda scooter. Chapter 6

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GOODBYE to Mr. SAMBOMATSU: He would leave us here and meet us again in Lagos, Nigeria, if we reached there alive. We still had thousands of km to ride through the most inhospitable dry terrain on earth, coping with islamik fundamentalists, professional brigands and Tribal Tuaregs, all carrying AK47s.

He gave us money (US$ cash) and excellent Michelin maps. He also gave us a Video Camera to record our journey for submitting to Guinness Book of World Records for being the “THE FiRST IN THE WORLD SAHARA DESERT CROSSiNG from the Mediterranean Sea to Atlantic Ocean ON UNGEARED SMALL WHEELED SCOOTER”.

On the designated day, two of us riding the scooters and four sitting in the Jeep, with Mr. Sambomatsu in a hired car rode to our goodbye point. We said our goodbyes and on 26.Dec.1991 Mr. Sambomatsu gave us our battle cry: He said, "Operation Sahara ATTACK begins - - BANZAi ! " which means exactly the same as what 0ur Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw had said 20 years before, in 1971: BASH--ON--REGARDLESS !

ON OUR OWN: We rode out of Algiers on the morning of 26.Dec.1991 with some apprehension. It had rained the previous night, the roads were wet, a faint drizzle was on and it was bloody cold. But luck held out: the drizzle stopped and we were on our way.

We rode across the Atlas Mountains, which are made more of mud than stone and there are no sharp peaks like Himalayas or even Western Ghats around Pune in India. The roads were excellent, the traffic thin and the scooters behaving beautifully. We stopped for lunch at a dhaba in a town called Ksar El Boukhari, which probably means: Water owned by Boukhari.

Lunch consisted of “poulette roti” for others, and “sookhi roti” for Dilip Bam – bloody vegetarian idiot! The C-grade food cost 270 Dinars (then about Rs.375/-). At any equivalent place in India (22 years ago), same quantity of much better food would have cost one-third of that.

FOOD was a problem for all of us. For me it was a bigger problem than for the others of our group bcoz I was the only vegetarian. But there was no vegetarian food anywhere bcoz there is no vegetation anywhere around. Also, the food everywhere was bland & tasteless. There is no concept of taste, no spice, no masala, no garlic, no chilli - nothing. To me it was just "STUFF" to stuff-up your stomach so that at least you could shit tomorrow morning. The standard fare was "POULE-ROTTi". In French POULE means chicken and ROTTi means roasted. I had to become a non-vegetarian, udderwise I would not survive. It is not for religious reasons that I do not eat meat. I just don't like it. That is what it was like as far as food was concerned.

WHEN it comes to food, the Chinese are MASTERs. India comes second. Europeans & Anglo-Saxons come a poor third, while Original inhabitants of the SAHARA desert come last. Maybe the Eskimos are even more backward in food than the desert inhabitants, but I am not sure because I have not yet been to the North Pole.

We arrived in Laghouat, 416 km from Algiers at 17:30 pm, checked into Al Marhaba hotel and crashed for the night. It was still bloody cold, but thank god the rooms were centrally heated.

Apart from the heating, the hotel was the pits, as all hotels were, in the hole of socialist Algeria. The concept of “service” just doesn’t seem to exist. We paid 500 Dinars (=Rs.700/- in 1991) for a triple-bed room, of a quality which would not cost more than Rs.200/- in any equivalent town in Hindustan.

It was obvious that socialism had done more damage to Algeria in 30 years than it had done to Hindustan in 45. The roads were dominated by French brands – Cars, Trucks and Buses – Puegeot, Berliet, Citroen etc., interspersed with an occasional Benz or Volvo. Our own Indian Telco (now TATA Motors) had over a thousand TATA buses plying in Algeria at that time, but they were in service in a region we did not pass through. Two wheelers were almost non-existent, except for the odd Motobecane and Puegeot mopeds in the back alleys. These need no registration, tax or License, and are, without exception, very dirty and very badly maintained.

All petrol pumps were run by a single govt. monopoly called NAFTAL (short form of Napthalene?). Diesel is called GASOiL and petrol is called ESSENCE. In 1991 in Algeria, diesel was selling at the equivalent of two Rupees a liter and petrol at less than five Rupees a liter.

27th December 1991 morning we rode for El Golea (also known as El Meniaa). When we started at 09:00 a.m. there were sheets of ice formed on the scooter seats and dashboards as well as on the bonnet of the Jeep. It was so bloody cold that eyes were watering even before we began riding. The landscape began changing, green gradually changing to brown.

Around 14:30 p.m. we stopped by the road where in the middle of nowhere some locals were selling fossilized corrals found on land in the desert. Obviously, millions of years ago this place must have been under the sea. The corrals were very expensive so we did not buy any. Also we had no place to keep it since the Jeep was 0verfull with our stuff.

At this place we met some Germans who were going in the opposite direction (south to north) having already crossed the desert in cars. They looked at our puny KiHos and laughed, and said: “You can use your scooters to make a bonfire when you start freezing in the desert”. We were a bit unnerved, but pushed on nevertheless, covering 479 km and arriving at El Golea around dark, the KiHos still behaving very well.

El Golea was even more cold. All water was frozen to ice. Also, the place was full of bloody speed breakers – as if to remind us of home. By 08:00 a.m. on 28th December 1991 we left El Golea for In Salah, @ 500 km away. The landscape by now was very desolate. The road was pukka (tarred) but on both sides there was only sand as far as the eye could see. Wayside joints were very rare, say one in over 100 km. There were only two petrol pumps between El Golea and In Salah.

We saw a few cars on the road in both directions, as well as some bikes, but all the bikes were BiG geared bikes, 650 cc and 750 cc jobs, like Africa Twins and Teneries, mostly Hondas, BMWs and Suzukis. We encountered patches of sand drifts on the road which slowed us down. We got into In Salah @ 16:00 p.m. Now there was desert all around us.

We checked into Hotel Tidkelt at In Salah and did some work on the scooters, mainly change tires. So far we were riding on standard Indian road tires which would be useless in the soft, loose desert sand. We fitted knobby (motocross type) Japanese tires which we had carried with us. We also cleaned the plugs, carburetors and air filters.

Our next stop was Tamanghrasset, @ 700 km away. The road from In Salah to Tamanghraasset was quite good in most parts except about 100 km which was broken. Tamanghrasset was where civilization ends and is the ‘Jump-0ff’point, where the road ends, desert surface begins, and you have to drive only on sand – all kinds of sand – hard sand, soft sand, loose sand, and even QUiCKSAND! Luckily we did not encounter any quicksand, because if we had, we would have drowned in it, and you would not be reading this story!

There are only two small settlements between In Salah and Tamanghrasset where one could get water and maybe fuel. The one closer to In Salah is called Arak (also spelt Irak) and the further one is Ain Ecker. There is absolutely no habitation and / or vegetation apart from at these two places.

We left In Salah late morning 29th December 1991, planning for two or three days to reach Tamanghrasset. Not many travelers on the road, and whoever passed or crossed us were driving so fast for fear of the Tuaregs that it was impossible to communicate. We ourselves were also scared of Tuaregs, but were not yet shitting bricks because we had not heard of Tuareg attacks between In Salah and Tamanghrasset. In the event we rode non-stop to Arak, reaching there around 16:00 p.m. the same day.

We got water in Arak and drank it heartily. It tasted like Piss, but what the hell? Water is water. At that place I would have traded all the whiskey (and Rum and Gin and Vodka and Brandy and……) in the world for a liter of the muddy, brackish, almost salty WATER. There was a petrol pump at Arak, but sadly no petrol or diesel. Luckily we had spare fuel in jerry cans in our Jeep and we topped up all vehicles there.

There was a camping site at Arak and we considered crashing there for the night. We met some Anglo-Saxons (Gora) on big bikes who were indeed crashing there. I very much wanted to crash there for one or two days, because who the hell will ever get a chance again in life to live for a day in a place like Arak? There were also some mountains (part of the Hoggar – Ahaggar range), which I wanted to climb and trek around, but our bloody team leader was just pushing and pushing and yelling “Tourism not allowed!” so we didn’t park at Arak and just drove on.

Just before dark we encountered the broken portion of the road. It was tricky in patches, but the KiHos took it in their stride, thank god! The Benz of course kept on performing without any complaints.

We hit Ain Ecker around 20:30 (=8:30.pm), had cooked food consisting of boiled rice and tomato sauce, and some coffee, but couldn’t get any fuel so we again topped up the bikes out of our jerry cans and moved on.

We hit Tamanghrassett after nidnight and after much wandering around found Tahat Hotel and also managed to find a couple of rooms there and promptly crashed in.

Tamanghrasset was the END OF THE ROAD – Literally! Southwards from Tamanghrasset is what is called, “The Great South”, and just out of town, going south, is a check-post where all travelers entering THE GREAT SOUTH have to register their passports, vehicles, personal details, permanent address (for informing your next of kin should you disappear in the desert) and such other information which would help the authorities to publish a flowery obituary. The check-post was more commonly known as CHECKPOiNT CHARLiE.

The whole of 30th December we spent in Tamanghrasset, generally trying to pick up information about the conditions across the great south desert and especially about the mood of the Tuaregs! What we heard was that the Tuaregs were in a very ugly mood and banditry was rife in “The Piste”. The rate was about half a dozen cases of LOOT-MAAR (=Banditry=holdups) every day and people getting shot as well.

PiSTE is the French word for DESERT, and as we found out, the English equivalent of The Piste is “The Pits”. The great south is the absolute pits and the most inhospitable terrain I have ever come across.

We also met a young French female at the Tahat hotel communications room who was trying to send messages to the French Embassy in Algiers (for a new passport) as well as to her home in France (for money). She and her companion were robbed in the Piste and she was left with only the clothes she was wearing. The Tuaregs had taken their vehicle, belongings, money, passports – EVERYTHiNG! We also met the companions of a guy who had been shot and had been flown to Algiers for operation to save his life.

We talked to other travelers, both, those who had made it north (where we were now) across the Piste to Tamanghrasset, as well as those who were waiting to cross the great south. A lot of people had given up the idea of going south because of the fear of Tuaregs.

Now we were in a dilemma. Everyone in Tahat hotel was talking about the Tuareg brigands and we were getting more and more scared with every passing minute. We didn’t want to hear more stories about brigands so we checked out of Tahat hotel and moved into one camping site which the locals called KOMPiNG.

In order to get Tuaregs out of our minds we did some work on the scooters. Change oil, change spark plugs, clean carbs, change air filters, top up oil and petrol etc. not knowing whether at the end of it we would have the guts to go on or not.

Our greatest fear was that if we chickened out and went back without crossing the desert, then back home our IJJAT-KA-FALUDA would happen. This one factor prodded us on and we decided to do or die – BASH ON REGARDLESS!

Once we had decided to push on, we had to stockpile supplies for the onward journey: water, food and Fuel. I alone stayed in our KOMPiNG tent to write our story (I was the official chronicler as ordered by Adil Jal Darukhanawala – so I was busy writing) while the others went shopping for supplies.

While shopping for food – mostly cooked, ready to eat, canned food – they met some locals, north Algerians I suppose, who were also headed south across the Piste to the settlement named In Guezzam, the last frontier of Algeria. They said they had been across the Piste many times and knew the way. They said we could follow them. Our team leader had agreed to meet them at checkpoint Charlie at 04:00 a.m. the next day.

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