Adventure and Survival In The Desert: Atlas Rally 1987 Part IV

As we are about to embark on the last installment of this incredible survival adventure in the desert one famous Hollywood quote comes to mind:“Mama always said life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”  Forest Gump's mama did shed some light on life's mysteries, in particular on the fact that when faced with adversity one can only move forward and hope for the best. Christian Travert surely did as he went from racing a motorcycle to riding a camel trying to escape the deadly grip of the Sahara Desert when racing on the Atlas Rally in 1987. Here is what happened next, if you missed the beginning check it out here.

From Camel to Moped

The next morning we met our first soul on this same plateau, a kid on a bright orange Motobecane moped. He was riding in the opposite direction towards us. At the time I saw an immediate opportunity; I needed to buy that moped and get the hell out of this mess and back to civilization. I was also done riding the damn camel. Every bone in my body was hurting, and I had a nasty headache. I signaled for him to pull over. He stopped in a dust cloud. I asked the Touareg to stop the camel and jumped off the noisy beast. I took two hundred bucks out of my jacket and offered to buy the moped from the kid on the spot. He looked at me with a huge question mark in his eyes. He had no idea what he could do with two hundred bucks; it had no value. I shook his head in disapproval but offered to give me a ride to the village. I would have to ride--oh joy-- on the luggage rack. I was touched by his generosity but still wished I could have acquired his ride. The Touareg graciously offered me a bag of oranges. The people of the desert had decided to save me, and I was now just a passenger on a journey back to life. I learned many lessons on this adventure. 

The first one that comes to mind today is that the people that have the least will often give you the most.

Christian Travert in flight during his motocross racing years 1979-1996


As I sat on the moped's luggage rack, I realized the camel was in fact a much more comfortable ride.The kid, the moped and I took off slowly as I waved the Touareg goodbye. We painfully managed to get to our cruising speed of 25 km/h, about 15 mph. I tried not to think too much about my situation and focused on the repetitive sound of the struggling engine. Almost an hour and 20 km later we arrived at the village. I stood up fast, desperate to stretch my legs. I barely had the time to stand up before I heard the small engine revving. The kid had already turned around and was riding away. 

The Man In Yellow

The village was more of a hamlet. There must have been two or three adobe houses, two Berber men, a fat one and a skinny one were sitting on a low wall. As I started to talk to them in a mix of Arabic and French, I learned that they had twenty women and a bunch of kids, they could not say how many exactly, running around. That was it; this hamlet was their life. An oasis of life sustained by a small water well that provided water for about four hours a day. In the street, men walked on one side and women on the other. The kids had lived in dirt and dust their entire life. They looked like a giant had grabbed them and rolled their entire body in flour. Their hair was crusty and clumped together with sand. They were all smiling and laughed all the time, especially when they saw me. It had to be the first time they had seen a white man in their entire life. I am sure it was also the first time they saw a man dressed like me. My helmet quickly became the center of their attention.

A bright yellow and smooth surface, they had never seen such a thing!
Christian Travert wearing his camel gear, the same he wore when he got lost in the desert in 1987

Christian Travert wearing his camel gear, the same he wore when he got lost in the desert in 1987

It reminded me of the scene with the coke bottle in the movie "The Gods Must Be Crazy". They all wanted to touch it. They all queued up in line, each taking a turn to feel the magical object.

Some of them were a little scared; others could not stop rubbing their hands all over it. They all curiously assessed the foreign object, laughed and jumped. They had met an alien from another planet showing them an incredible new material. I used that time to rest my poor body, drink water and get some bread from the locals. Towards the end of the day, the big Berber showed me the trail that led to the road to Alnif. Once there, he told me to wait on the side of the road as a military truck drove back and forth once a day every day. 


The Last Strech

I spent another night sleeping on the sand and using my helmet to rest my head. I left early the next morning and walked toward Alnif. I spent four and a half hours to get to the "piste" (in French it translates to a dirt road in the middle of nowhere). The waiting game was on. I  sat on my helmet to have an orange. Night came quickly, and the stars came on like if someone had just switched them on. I thought I should get closer to the road for the truck to see me and pick me up, but perhaps if I was too close they would run me over in my sleep. The back and forth in my mind created enough noise to keep me awake. I was beyond exhaustion but couldn't sleep. 

You see the desert comes alive at night with all sorts of rats and small animals. It is so damn noisy. Not really in a white-noise-puts-you-to-sleep way, but rather in the oh-shit-what-was-that-noise way.

A truck eventually picked me up the next morning and brought me to Alnif. Once there, I met a couple of French guys that had an accident with their Pajero and were behind in the race. Happy to see I was still alive they hurried me inside the car to get me check by a doc at the camp of the next checkpoint. The issue is that in a race car there is only room for a pilot and his copilot. The rest of the car is used by massive gas tanks in the back. But their roof was all messed up due to the accident, so I crawled my sore bones in between the bit up roof and the gas tank, laying flat for the last ride back to life. We had 200 Km to go on rocky and bumpy roads. It must have been taken at least five hours for us to get to the checkpoint. When we got there, I could not feel my legs and my back was hurting so bad I could barely get myself out of the car. I remember the expression on my team members' faces. It was like they had just seen a ghost. Everyone thought I was dead, the research party had stopped looking for me after the second day I disappeared. I had been gone for four days. All in all, a network of extraordinary humans had saved me. The Touareg and his bag of oranges, the kid on the moped, the two family men in the hamlet who gave me water. When I finally got back to France, I had lost fifteen kilos, about thirty three pounds. Only three more days of racing were left after they found me. The wreck of my Kawasaki KX 500 buried in the Sahara desert is the only proof that this survival adventure took place. 

Epilog: The reason I ran out of gas

When we made the tanks, since they were rather big , we put foam in between so the gas did not move as much. We used the same foam they put in airplane tanks. It slows down the movement of gas, which makes the bike a lot more stable. Since we welded the aluminum tank, we could not put the foam inside before we closed them. We had to put the foam in using the tank fill up the hole. So we made French fries out of the foam to push them inside the tank. The only issue is when we cut the foam fries we cut them with a large knife and we inadvertently made micro foam shavings. The same foam shaving made it through the gas filter and lodged itself in the carburetor jet and eventually plugged it. The engine was running too lean. Success and failure for that matter is a succession of what may seem like tiny details. This tiny foam shaving is the reason why I did not finish the Atlas Rally in 1987. In 1988 I did not race it again as I was too busy with the Supermoto racing calendar. 

Supermoto race 1988 in France,Christian is number 28.

Supermoto race 1988 in France,Christian is number 28.

In the end, I must have done well over 400 races. With about 100km per race that comes to 40,000km. It is like riding a motorcycle around the world, at full speed.