Adventure and Survival in The Desert: Atlas Rally 1987 Part II

In Part 1 of this story, we raced with Hugo Moto's own Christian Travert on his Kawasaki KX 500 from France to Morocco in the Atlas Rally of 1987. The dust has since settled so put on your Enduro helmet and let's get back to it.

Christian riding through one of the many small towns during the Atlas Rally 1987

Christian riding through one of the many small towns during the Atlas Rally 1987

Riding the Oued

Moroccan villagers watch as Christian comes out of a watery Oued- Atlas Rally 1987 

Moroccan villagers watch as Christian comes out of a watery Oued- Atlas Rally 1987 

Before I reached the High Atlas, I encountered one of the toughest rides of my life.  We rode all day on what Moroccans call "Oued," it is a stream bed during the rainy season. During the dry season, it is what the Atlas Rally organizers thought would be a delightful challenge to ride. Boy, they were right! The schist stones we rode on were like dinner plates piled up on the stream bed. No dirt in sight only the damn rocks. To make matter worse, a bunch of dry shrubs was bordering the narrow oued on each side. They were as high as my handlebar which made it extremely hard to see what was coming my way. The stones piled up so they created a series of steps 15 to 20 inches up and down. Dealing with this for a few miles is alright, but 100 miles of up and down at a grueling slow pace is torture. When I tried to ride faster I would get the wind knocked out of me while jumping up and down. At times, I could hear the somewhat unsettling metal grinding noise of my engine guard on the stones. I was getting bit up; my Kawasaki was getting bit up. I am not sure which of the two things was more discouraging: the fact that I was getting bit up or that I could not ride fast enough out of this mess. Morally it is probably one of the hardest ride I have ever done or as we say in French:

Moralement c’est tuant!
Mile marker 91 South of Ouarzazate Morocco

Mile marker 91 South of Ouarzazate Morocco

The Mayor of Nowhere

On a later stage, toward the middle of the race, I experienced my first gas leak coming from a hole in my main tank, I ended up running dangerously low on fuel. Well, you have another tank, right? I get your logic. I had both tanks open that way my bike was more balanced as they emptied at the same time. I have learned my lesson,  balance at times might not be the most important, and using the two tank separately is the way to go. That day, my average speed was probably 60 km/hour, much faster than previous days as I rode mostly on sand and dirt. When I focus on the trajectory, my brain tends to ignore the minor things. One of these minor things was that my right calf was progressively starting to burn.  I first thought it was a hole in the exhaust pipe, but as my bike began to stall, I quickly understood gas was trickling down from a hole in my tank into my boots. At this rate, I was going to run out of fuel soon. I stopped on the side of the dirt road; found the hole and fixed it while switching my back tank off.  I was now way too low on gas to finish the race. I could see riders dust clouds ahead, but they were too far, and no one in their right mind would stop to give me gas. Luckily there was a tiny village on my map that seemed close enough. I figured I could probably find some fuel there and make it back in time to stay in the race.

I made a detour of about 30 km and eventually got to the small village. According to my map, I must have been somewhere south of Ouarzazate. When I arrived, the sleepy town woke up to the sound of my single cylinder engine. People appeared in the street and looked at me like if I was from another planet. A tall and skinny dark-eyed Berber pointed me toward a small adobe house with a blue door. I  quickly understood that it was the house of the "guy in charge" and was asked to seat in the waiting room with no floor. I sat on the iron chair in the dirt, took off my helmet and set it on my laps. The whole experience seemed surreal, a few minutes ago I was racing my bike eating dust in the Moroccan desert, and I was now seated in the waiting room to meet with the Mayor of nowhere. There were maybe twenty adobe houses in this town, all of its inhabitants were Berber. A short guy came and said, "Quelqu'un va vous recevoir monsieur" (Someone is going see you, mister). Time was ticking in my head; I was anxious to get back on my motorcycle. I knew that I still had a little bit of time left to finish the stage without being completely disqualified. 

I’ll make it; I am still in the race I kept telling myself
Christian (second from the left) at his motorcycle racing team press launch in 1987.

Christian (second from the left) at his motorcycle racing team press launch in 1987.

In my head the ticking clock noise was growing louder, every second that went by was working against me. They must have gas somewhere; I kept telling myself. Time was running out. I waited nervously tapping my boots on the floor. The moment stretched into what felt like an eternity. It must have been 25 minutes later when the small guy finally came back out and said the "Mayor will see you now." He opened the door to a bigger, terra cotta tiled room. The floor was still wet; someone had just mopped it. The room was stark with one brown Formica desk in the center and an antique wooden chair was facing it. Behind the empty desk, the mayor sat his finger crossed wearing an impeccably pressed black suit, a white shirt with a gray tie. His dark hair were still wet, I came to the conclusion he just had a shower. My dust and mud covered bright yellow Camel race suit made for the perfect contrast. I felt out of place as my face must have been red covered in sweat and sand. In a soft scholarly voice, the mayor asked: "What can I do for you, sir?"
Lost for words, I paused. The scene was so incredibly surreal. 25 minutes ago I was racing my motorcycle in the desert and was only focused on the 100 of miles of dirt and dust I had in front of me. I was now seated in a small adobe village in the middle of nowhere, talking to the mayor addressing me like if we were having a political conversation in some official venue in Paris. 

 
I could not believe the guy made me wait to clean the floor, take a shower and put on his suit. I had just lost 25 precious minutes of racing. In retrospect, it makes for a good story but still!

I explained to him my situation, the race, me running out of fuel and how I ended up seating in front of him. I quickly moved to the crucial question: 

-"Do you have gas in this town?" 

To which he politely answered:

-" Yes, off corse sir, we can help you. People from Belgium came by not too long ago with a Renault 4. Their engine broke down and the car is still here with the gas in it."

My waiting was now justified, so I thought.

-" This is great! but how long ago was it exactly?"

-"Well, I believe it was four years ago Monsieur."

I laughed nervously to hide how pissed off I was. I also quickly realized I was facing a new problem. I had to find the few ounces of diplomacy left in me to refuse the mayor's offer to help me. You see, in his mind, he had something I wanted and therefore I had to come up with money or a trade for his useless fuel. At the time every rally participant had about the equivalent of 200 bucks emergency cash on him. 

 

I quickly explained to the mayor that I sincerely appreciated his time and hospitality but that the gas he had in his possession was not going to help me. I excused myself profusely and made a swift escape back to my bike. I started it on the first kick and left the village as a few little kids followed me waving and laughing. As I was getting back on the road toward the end of the stage, I kept on repeating to myself  "I have to make it, I'm gonna make it!" louder and louder in my helmet. My mantra must have worked out, or I simply got lucky. A few miles later I spotted a Mitsubishi Patrol with a big "Rallye De L'Atlas 1987" stickers on the side of the road. They had just broken down and unfortunately for that team they were not going to make it. Both pilot and navigator were rather sad but happy to know they could help me make it. We siphoned the gas out of the Mitsubishi into my Kawasaki, talk about a great Japanese collaboration! I made it at the end of the stage with a few minutes to spare and stay in the race. I was so happy and realized that the great African adventure had officially started for me. What I did not know at the time is that the next day a similar misfortune would leave me stranded in the desert for four of the most challenging days in my life.

Enjoy the Atlas 1987 archive video coverage of the French FR3 TV. Fast forward to the end to catch some motorcycle action.

 

Tune in next week to follow Christian on his most epic adventure as he gets lost in the Sahara and survive four grueling days.