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Common Tread

Broke down in the desert: How I survived the Sahara

Oct 14, 2016

When I knocked on the door of Christian Travert’s machine shop a couple of years ago, I was just looking for a custom aluminum part for my dad's business. A few hours later, I was still in his machine shop as we started what I call our constant motorcycle conversation, which to this day is still going.

Christian is the real deal. As a rider, he’s done more than 400 enduro and supermoto races, a few African rallies and the brutal 24-hour moto race in Brittany. He’s also an accomplished mechanical engineer and machinist with a MacGyver knack for finding simple solutions to complex problems. But of all the stories he’s shared with me, the one that most stands out is an epic story of survival in the Sahara Desert.

What started with my search for a part became much more as Christian and I became both friends and business partners, as founders of Hugo Moto Corp. But none of that would have happened if a Touareg nomad had not stopped for tea at just the right moment in the middle of the Sahara in 1987, because Christian would not be here.

This is his survival story told in his words.

Christian Travert riding in the 1987 Atlas Rally. Photo provided by Christian Travert.

Surviving the Sahara

The Atlas Rally in 1987 was my first African rally, a week long and a few thousand miles riding in the desert and the treacherous Atlas mountain range in Morocco. Toward the end of the rally, I finally dipped my knobbies in the much anticipated and respected Sahara sand.

I had a Kawasaki KX 500 two-stroke that I prepared in France with an extra 20-liter tank in the back. With a total of 40 liters (10 gallons) of fuel, I believed I was ready. I was pretty happy with myself as I had managed to stay in the top tier of the general ranking, but I eventually succumbed to the desert. I am lucky. I came out alive with a whole new attitude about life. I became grateful for the little things, especially oranges.

Too much fun riding in the sand

Zagora in Morocco is considered the gateway to the Sahara. Your eyes easily get lost in the valleys and the myriad of small sand dunes surrounding the town. It looks like an ocean of sand.

I was ninth on the general classification when I left that morning. I was feeling so good, happy that I was starting to get used to the bike and its weight. 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.

Camel off-road racing team
The Camel off-road racing team. Photo provided by Christian Travert.

There was a long stretch of sand dunes ahead. All I had to do was find the ideal speed to hop from one dune to the next. It was like piloting a boat on choppy seas, and once I figured it out I coasted at around 140 km/h (85 mph). What a blast!

I loved it so much. This kind of stage felt like pure freedom. The brutal slow riding in the Oued (a river bed in Morocco) was a thing of the past. A few hundred miles later, lost in the euphoria of flying at high speed in the desert, I failed to realize that the dreaded orange engine light had come on. My engine stalled and immediately quit. The unique smell of welded metal found its way into my helmet and my nostrils.

"Congratulations. Your engine seized!" said the little voice in my head.

When we made our tanks, we put foam inside, so the gas did not slosh around. This exact same foam is used in airplane tanks. It made my bike a lot more stable. Since we welded the aluminum tank, we could not put the foam inside beforehand. We came up with what is now known as the French method. We cut the foam into French fries and pushed them inside the tank. But when we cut them, we used a large blade and inadvertently made microfoam shavings. One of them made it through the gas filter and lodged itself in the carburetor jet and eventually plugged it. The engine was running too lean and seized.

When this all went down I was far from civilization, and the race was over for me. 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 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 two liters of water behind for weight purposes and fill my gas tank to the rim, instead.

In the previous stages in the Atlas Mountains, 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.

This was pre-GPS era, you know. All we had to navigate by was a road book given to the competitors. 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 “S A H A R A” written across it in a large map font.

No roads. Nothing. Only contour lines.

1987 Atlas Rally
1987 Atlas Rally. Photo provided by Christian Travert.
There was a little dot with no name on the map to the south. I hoped it was a settlement of sorts. It was probably mid-day, the sun was reaching its zenith and the heat had started to suck my body fluids like a little kid draining a milkshake on a hot day. I had to move. I walked due south, putting one foot in front of the other, keeping everything on. My helmet, my boots, my bright yellow Camel synthetic shirt. I even kept my goggles on! I knew that covering my body would help keep the moisture in.

In the 1980s, motorcycle 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-foot dunes in well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit dry heat. I was drenched in sweat and could barely see as drops of sweat trickled into my eyes.

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. Suddenly, the dot started moving. I was so excited I started walking faster and faster to catch up. Closing in, I realized that the dot was a man, a Touareg on his camel to be more exact. I knew that yelling was useless. 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 heart 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. He stopped just to have tea. Survival is but a succession of seemingly small details that click with one another in most exquisite manner.

As I stumbled up the dune where he was seated, our two worlds collided. Here I am, covered in sand in full motorcycle gear, as close to total collapse as one can be. Moments before, I thought I would not live another day to see my family again. In my mind, I had already made up the story in the next day’s newspaper. "Atlas Rally rider Christian Travert was found dead and dried up by the Sahara hot wind after abandoning his Kawasaki 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 my breath and he 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 to pace myself sipping on the tea and quickly 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 in a combination of Arabic, French and sign language that my motorcycle had broken down. I pointed to the small dot on my map to show him where I was headed. 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 cigarettes. Here I was in full Camel riding gear on an actual camel. Advertising photo ops anyone?

We rode for an hour as the terrain became progressively flat and reached what seem to be a vast plateau. We stopped as the cold desert night was upon us. I ate another orange. I was starting to realize how lucky I was to have survived my first day in the Sahara desert.

From camel to moped

The next morning, we met our first soul on this 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 done riding the damn camel. Every bone in my body was hurting and I had a nasty headache.

I signaled to the kid and he stopped in a dust cloud. I asked the Touareg to stop the camel and jumped off the noisy beast. I took $200 out of my jacket and offered to buy the moped on the spot. The kid looked at me with a huge question mark in his eyes. He had no idea what he could do with $200. It had no value for him.

He 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.

As I sat on the moped's luggage rack, I realized the camel was, in fact, a much more comfortable ride. I waved the Touareg goodbye as we painfully managed to get to our cruising speed of 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 kilometers later, we arrived at the village. I stood up fast, desperate to stretch my legs and massage my numb derrière. 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. He must have been in a hurry. Kid if you read this, thank you!

1987 Atlas Rally
Christian Travert riding in the 1987 Atlas Rally. Photo provided by Christian Travert.

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 20 women and a bunch of kids. They could not say how many, exactly. They had lost count. 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. I am sure it was the first time they saw a man dressed like me.

A man from another planet came into the small desert hamlet and showed the children something they'd never seen before. Photo provided by Christian Travert.
My helmet quickly became the center of their attention. They had never seen such a brilliant and smooth surface! 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, each taking a turn to feel the magical object. They had met an alien from another planet showing them an incredible new material.

I used that time to rest my poor bones and drink gallons of water. I got 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 stretch

I spent another night sleeping on the sand and using my helmet to rest my head. I left early the next morning and walked four and a half hours to get to the dirt road. The waiting game was on. Night came quickly and the stars emerged as 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 kept me awake.

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. I was beyond exhaustion but couldn't sleep.

The sweet sound of a big diesel engine woke me the next morning. The Renault military truck picked me up and brought me to Alnif. Once there, I met a couple of French guys who had an accident with their Mitsubishi Pajero and were behind in the race. Happy to see I was still alive, they hurried me inside the car to get me checked by a doctor at 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 space in the car is taken by massive gas tanks in the back. The Pajero's roof was all messed up, due to the crash, so I crawled my sore bones in between the bent roof and the gas tank, lying flat for the last leg of my ride back to life. We had 200 kilometers 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 search party had stopped looking for me after the second day. 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 about 33 pounds.

The wreck of my Kawasaki KX 500 buried in the Sahara desert is the only evidence left behind by my survival adventure.

Christian Travert
Christian Travert went on to pursue many projects, including building limited-edition custom bikes like the V-Rex, a motorcycle with alternative suspension and powered by a Harley-Davidson V-Rod engine. Currently he is working on kits to convert Sportsters into the World Tour, a capable adventure-touring bike. Photo provided by Christian Travert.