Struggling to get over-complicated bike across the Sahara. Using the most reliable low-gear; walking
I won't bore you with the following weeks' travelling. I left Algiers and pedaled up over the Kabylie Mountains and down across the Ouled Nail hills and then I was in the desert proper. I pedaled relentlessly south. All kinds of good thing happened, of course. But here's the point relevant to this post – none of the good things came about because I had an expensive and complicated bike. In fact not having a cheap, local bike was a huge drawback. Not least when I realised that cycling across the Sahara and then around the Hoggar mountains was pretty daft, and i'd be much better throwing my lot in with locals and their camels. If i'd had a cheap local bike I could have abandoned it and done just that; headed off on a camel or on foot. But i couldn't just dump the most expensive bit of kit that i'd ever owned. And the bike that was getting more and more exotic the further into the Sahara I cycled, and so – i'm afraid – more stealable. I had to watch the bloody thing like a hawk night and day. Worse – any mechanical breakdown was a disaster. Bikes weren't totally unknown in the bigger Saharan towns but they were simple single-speed clunkers that could be fixed with a bit of old wire, or with a good whack from a hammer. But not the Rockhopper. To keep it running sweetly it needed the equivalent of regular brain surgery and a constant supply of spare parts that were as rare as Fabergé eggs in central Algeria. It got whacked with hammers and tied up with old wire. And, to give the faithful Rockhopper it's due, it kept going. But not easily.
The very worst thing came at the end of my thousand mile pedal across Algeria. And - I know that this defies imagination - but i'd been so fixated on getting down to Tamanrasset and then cycling off into the Hoggar mountains to look at the famed pre-historic rock carvings, and to meeting up with Tuareg to ask them about their music and do some recording, and to visit Pierre Fourcauld's hermitage at Assekrem (the three slender excuses i'd hung my trip on) that I had given no thought about how I was going to get back to Europe. There was a cold sinking feeling in the hot desert sands when virtually penniless, exhausted and hating the bike, I realised with a shock that I was going to have to re-trace my wheel-tracks the whole way back across the Sahara to reach the coast and a ferry back to France.
You'd think i'd have learnt from that.
No. A few months after returning from the Sahara I took the same bike, the same kit plus a warmer sleeping bag and a bivvy bag [see previous post for the joys of bivvy-bag camping; as learnt at this point in my life] and the same attitude to Iceland. I flew there with the bike as my hold luggage. To avoid excess baggage charges I wore every piece of clothing I had with me, and filled my pockets with the petrol stove, spares, tools and the rest of the gear. (Yes, that's right in those days either nobody cared, or nobody noticed that i had a petrol stove with all the vital statistics of a Molotov cocktail in my pocket on a flight). The next month was spent in a wet, windy early-summer circumnavigation of the thousand mile Icelandic Ring Road, which back in those days was unpaved and so a grinding ribbon of grit and sand virtually the whole way from Reykjavik back to Reykjavik.
In India two of us bought wonderful Hero Jets in Jodhpur and rode across Rajasthan, and into Madyar Pradesh, crossing the Satpura Mountains (where the Jungle Book was set) to finish up in Bhopal (of Union Carbide infamy). Those two bikes we actually bought new; and were so relatively cheap that we added all kinds of extras; sturdy racks to strap our rucksacks onto, kick-down stands to hold the parked bikes upright in treeless areas, and buffalo-hide saddles that started off wooden-hard but were pummeled by a month of being sat and bounced on into delicate sculptures formed to caress our rears with the fit of angels' hands. I added the Indian schoolboy's cunning weapon in the battle for ever better education; the handlebar-mounted, spring-loaded reading rack that allowed me to read a book – The Pickwick Papers, if you're curious – as I was pedalling along.
|Tiffin Box lunch and a siesta in India|
Carla and i bought tiffin boxes to sling from our cross-bars and would stop at village chai houses to fill them with chapaties and dahl to picnic on later.
And best of all, when we'd had enough of cycling across India we sold the two bikes for a slight profit, hopped on a bus and sped away. It would be hard to over-emphasise how much better cycle-touring was on these two paragons of virtue, our sturdy but ultimately expendable Hero Jets, than it was on those trips when i'd insisted on hauling a bike out from Ireland, pedaling it around some far-flung land whilst trying to keep it working and then bringing it all the way back to Ireland again.
So, I did it it the same simple way again on the following trip. The next bike I bought was in Morocco; a cherry-red bomber that cost around €30 in the mid-1990s from a market on the coast in El Jadida. I cycled from the coast to the Atlas Mountains and into Marrakech.
|Effortlessly outpacing a donkey and cart in Morocco|
In Morocco i was following in the tyre-marks of a 19th century traveller called Budget Meakin who had made the same trip a hundred years earlier. And he made the same mistakes I'd been making in the past. He had a carefully imported bike, wore a hot and itchy woolen cycling-suit and needed a train of mules and horses following to carry his tent and other kit.
|The cherry-red bomber - the camel of the cycle world|
I didn't have a tent, and my kit was no more than a small pack that I disguised with an old sack so my bike was indistinguishable from that of any Moroccan tripping around the place on a sturdy, cheap, simple bike.
I do think in all fairness that I shouldn't be too hard on the original Rockhopper – I was at fault, not it. It survived the double trip across the Sahara and the circumnavigation of Iceland, and numerous long trips across Ireland and England. And being hammered around the streets of Cork, and often left hitched and forgotten to a lamp-post for days on end. I finally gave it away to a friend; the frame, the wheels, the gears, the brakes and the handle-bars were all original; the saddle had been changed and replaced several times. I kept the back rack to put on my next bike.
And here's a tip - worth reading all the foregoing for. If planning on buying a local bike in some far off country, rest assured that if it's the kind of place that you can pedal then there will be bikes for sale. But there almost certainly won't be bicycle pumps, locks, puncture repair kits and spanners that aren't made out of some material that looks like metal but acts like putty. Nip into Halfords and buy all of the above bits of kit and take them out with you.
|Simple Bike - Siwa Oasis, Egypt|