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

This is the end my only friend the end. Jim Morrison and the Doors make for the perfect score for this third installment of our epic saga following the young and fearless offroad Atlas Rally rider Christian Travert . In 1987, Christian met his match in the Sahara sand dunes as he seized his Kawasaki KX 500 engine and had to abandon his machine to fight for his survival. Stop your AC for a sec, put your Enduro helmet back on and let's follow Christian Travert on an heroic survival adventure in the desert.

Too Much Fun Riding In The Sand

A few days after my first gas leak, I had a sad deja vu this time near Zagora. The ultimate fear of engine seizure came true. Zagora is considered the gate to the Sahara desert.  Your eyes get easily lost in the valleys and the myriads of small sand dunes. It looks like an ocean of sand.

The dunes south of Zagora Morocco.

The dunes south of Zagora Morocco.

I was 9th on the general classification when I left that morning. I was feeling so good, especially after barely making it back into the race a few days before. I was so happy as I was starting to get used to the bike and its weight. I finally had the passing in the dust part figured out. As I left in the early morning, I felt the light dew on my face, the only micro-particle of water the Sahara was willing to concede. There was a long stretch of sand dunes ahead, all I had to do, was to find the ideal speed to hop from one dune to the next. 

It was like driving a boat on choppy seas, once I figured it out I coasted at around 140km/h (85 MPH), what a blast!
Christian Travert during the 1987 Atlas Rally in Morocco, a couple days before his engine seizure.

Christian Travert during the 1987 Atlas Rally in Morocco, a couple days before his engine seizure.

I loved it so much. This kind of stage felt like pure freedom. The brutal slow riding in the Oued was a thing of the past. Thinking about it, I might have been riding too fast. I did not take into account that my tank that I had to re-weld was a tad smaller now.  A few 100 miles later, lost in the euphoria of flying at high speed in the desert, I failed to realize that I had run out of fuel. The dreaded orange engine light came on. My engine completely stalled and immediately after that quit. The unique smell of welded metal found its way into my helmet and to my nostrils. I knew too well that running out of gas abruptly at this kind of speed on a two-stroke engine could only lead to one thing. "Congratulations your engine seized!" said the little voice in my head. I was far away from civilization, and the race was over for me. I knew I had to shift my focus from the frustration of being disqualified to survival.

 

Surviving In The Sahara Desert

I was in the middle of the desert,  somewhere in between Algeria and Morocco. I decided to abandon my bike. I had no extra water on the bike to take with me. The day before, I had made the smart decision to leave the emergency 2 Liters of water behind for weight purposes and fill my gas tank to the rim instead.

 In the previous stages in the Atlas mountain, I could always see the tire tracks of my competitors in the dirt in front of me. But right now, in the golden Sahara sand, I could not find any tire tracks. It felt like I was walking on a gigantic white canvas. It was so hard to get oriented. I knew I was following the correct heading, but when I looked at my map, I panicked. I was now part of a huge mass of yellow, with the big  S A H A R A word written in wide map fonts across. No roads. Nothing. Only contours line. There was a little dot with no name on the map to the South, must be a settlement of sorts. It was probably mid day when this all went down; the sun was reaching its zenith, and the heat had started to suck on my body fluids like a little kid suck on milkshake on a hot day. I had to do something. I walked due South. I put one foot in front of the other keeping everything on: my helmet, my boots, my synthetic shirt.

I even kept my goggles on my face! I knew that covering my body in this heat would help with keeping the moisture in.
A few years after the Atlas Rally, Christian (right) talking to his race team partner Belloc during the Baja Aragon race in 1991

A few years after the Atlas Rally, Christian (right) talking to his race team partner Belloc during the Baja Aragon race in 1991

1980 motorcycles racing boots weighed a ton, add to this sand slowly filling them up and soon enough I ended up with two sand bags on my feet. I climbed 10 to 15 feet high dunes in well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit dry heat. I was drenched in sweat.  After a couple of hours of walking , I saw a small black dot in the distance. At first, I thought I was delusional; it was probably a mirage. Since I had nothing else to fix my attention on I focused on the dot. The dullness of the landscape makes one more akin to any visual detail--like a small black dot-- that comes your way. All of a sudden, the dot was moving.  I was so excited I started walking faster, and faster to catch up. Closing in I realized that the dot was a human, a Touareg on his camel to be more exact. I knew that yelling was not a good idea, I was still too far for him to hear me. I was also running out of steam, literally, as sweat was evaporating from my body. My heartbeat was beating so fast that I thought I was going to fall and die. I kept at it, pulling one boot out of the sand after the other making way. A pivotal point in me being alive and telling you this story today happened at this exact moment. The Touareg stopped, not because he saw me at all, he stopped just to have tea. 

Christian doing his thing in the desert during the Baja Aragon 1991

Christian doing his thing in the desert during the Baja Aragon 1991

The only reason for my survival is due to a Touareg deciding to stop in the middle of the desert to have tea!

As I stumbled up the dune where he was seating, our two worlds collided. Here I am, covered in sand in full motorcycle gear, as close to total collapse a dehydrated human being can be. Moments before, I thought I would not live another day to see my family again. I had even made up titles in my mind for the next day paper "Atlas Rally rider Christian Travert was found dead and dry in the Sahara after abandoning his Kawasaki somewhere close to Algeria." 

The Touareg sat on a small oriental rug on the sand, calmly watching the horizon. He had just parked his camel on the kickstand and was enjoying a fragrant cup of mint tea. His relaxed world and the smell of his mint tea made me feel like I had just stumbled into someone's house uninvited. I caught up with my breath, he came over to me and helped take off my helmet. He gave me a cup of tea and a couple of oranges. I said "Merci!" laughing hysterically. This guy had just saved my life. I had paced myself sipping on the tea but devoured an orange. To this day it is the best tasting food I have ever had. 

As I slowly started to come back to life, I explained to him that my motorcycle had broken down and that I was heading to the small village while pointing at it on my map. He nodded, offered me some more tea and told me to jump on his camel.  As we started our journey, I laughed again at the irony of the scene. My sponsor at the time was Camel; here I was in full Camel riding gear on... a camel. We rode for an hour as the terrain became progressively flat. Soon we reached what seem to be a vast plateau. We stopped on the side of the road as the cold desert night was upon us. As I ate another orange I was starting to realize how lucky I was to have survived my first day in the Sahara desert.

In the next and final part of this epic saga we will follow Christian on his journey back to civilization with a stop in a small hamlet, where time and space seem to no longer exist. Tune in next week for the final post in Adventure and Survival In The Desert: Atlas Rally 1987 .