Trouble with the Law, a drowned Ford Sierra, Team Bike, runaway coaches and chimpanzees: a simple plan to escape Thatcher’s Britain turns into a surreal adventure of a lifetime...
The bus crash certainly sped up my plans for some Trans- Saharan adventure. It was back in the good-old 1980s: Margaret Thatcher; miners’ strikes and dreadful spells of unemployment. It was all pre-internet and selfies, but on the plus side there were plenty of thriving pubs, LCs were £500 and Team Bike were in their heyday of 24-hour endurance racing. Things could have been worse. I’d already bought a few maps of Algeria, Mali and Niger and had read a couple of library books about people crossing the Sahara in Land Rovers. From this research it was clear I would need a serious bike and the one I chose was a Yamaha XT550 single. I overhauled the engine and my mates helped out with sub- frame reinforcements and also built me two metal panniers. Other tasteful additions were the base of a candlestick holder welded to the bottom of the sidestand and an electrical power take-off for a ‘new-fangled’ Walkman – the thought of listening to music while cruising through the desert was very appealing...
On the way home after a boozy night in the Bears Head me and a mate thought it would be worthwhile checking out the musical treasures in a Bostocks coach parked on a small incline over the road from a row of terraced houses. Hopefully there would be cassettes I could take on my trip. Fuelled by cheap Lowenbrau we managed to get the back emergency exit door open and climbed aboard. After grabbing a few tapes and much pulling
of buttons to get the front door open we scarpered. However, as we walked down the road the bus slowly rolled forward, crossed the road and nudged the house opposite. Oh shit. After a night in the cells we were charged and a court date set for two weeks’ time. My meagre savings for my Africa trip being spent on fines? Sod this, I’m off...
‘The bus crossed the road and nudged the house opposite. Shit’
After talking to a solicitor I decided to stay for the court appearance but not stay to pay any fines. The bike was ready to go with its doubled-up cables, spare tyres and inner tubes and all the paperwork was in place. I’d arranged to buy a 40-litre plastic fuel tank from a bike shop just outside Lyon, France so that was going to be my first stop. Then it was on to Paul Ricard in the South of France to catch up with my mates who were driving down in a hire car. Not far outside Paris, after camping in the corner of a farmer’s field, I was woken by the sounds of the sky diving World Championships in full flow a couple of fields away. But, as I spent a happy day watching, someone was making away with one of my metal panniers. Fortunately for me I had separated my stuff well enough so that I still had my paperwork, but I was a few traveller’s cheques lighter. I contacted my bank back in Britain about the stolen traveller’s cheques and they said they couldn’t replace them but could transfer the funds over to me ‘wherever you are in the world’. With one missing pannier and the bigger fuel tank I meandered my way to the Circuit Paul Ricard. As I was setting up camp in the back of the pit lane there was a smell of burning rubber emanating from a battered red Ford Sierra spinning around the car park. The lads had arrived in fine form and the party started. Cheap beer and Team Bike (Mat Oxley, Howard Lees, Dave Chisman, Vesa Kultalahti, Ian Martin et al): what a heady combination.
After the race it was off to Bandol. Somehow the Sierra made it onto the beach where an on-the-move driver change ensued, and then the red Ford ended up in the Med (right up to its ashtrays). Things took a further turn for the worse in St Tropez where a nightclub security man decided to punch a hole in the illegally parked Sierra’s windscreen, with a pick axe handle. Argy bargy followed before the local police suggested the bouncer hand over a fistful of French francs to replace the broken window and that we move on...
We used some of the bouncer’s money to book a second-floor double room in a hotel down the coast. The plan was two of us would walk through reception while the others would climb in through the window. The rest of the money was spent on the lash in a nearby bar. Around midnight the party moved from bar to hotel room and ended with us grabbing our belongings and making our escape onto the street where we were met by the hotel manager brandishing a sword and his mates waving CS gas canisters. Within seconds a ruck broke out and I ended up in hospital just outside Marseille with a bust shoulder, a sore head and a cut above my eye. Despite spending a night in the cells the lads did brilliantly and got my bike moved from the hotel and parked below my hospital room. Unfortunately, on their way back to England the Sierra’s engine seized in Lyon so they had to hitch the rest of the way home.
After a few days convalescing I had managed to exercise my arm enough to reach the bike’s bars so I discreetly left the hospital (and a sizeable bill) and caught the once-a-week ferry to Algiers. After 22 hours sailing my next challenge was to get through customs where, among myriad forms, there was a question about how much money I was bringing into the country. I genuinely believed I was correct to add the value of the missing traveller’s cheques as I was going to get the money transferred. And gave it no more thought. It didn’t take long for me to realise that Algeria’s rules of the road were totally different from Britain and Europe, and that size matters. Motorcycles were down near the bottom of the pecking- order while large trucks driven by sleep
‘I had spotted tracks running west – this was my last chance to get into Morocco’
deprived drivers ripped off their tits on amphetamines were at the top. Also, whenever you stop to set up your camp for the night, no matter how far you think you are out of town, once you light your fire people appear from nowhere. When you get deeper south the combination of the vistas, the solitude, silence and especially the night sky truly overload the senses. Also, there were no problems with navigation as there were so few routes – just follow the signs for In Shalah then onto Tamanrasset.
Mercifully the bike was running like a dream and returning good mpg, although I was still a bit sore and had to rest my arm in a sling once I got off. At Tamanrasset I visited the telecommunications office. A nice lady repeatedly dialled the international number to my bank who, once connected, informed me that transferring the money ‘anywhere in the world’ did not include Algeria and I would have to go to Morocco. I couldn’t go any further without funds so Morocco it was.
At the border crossing I was met by a burley Algerian guard who gleefully went through all my paperwork and insisted I remove everything from the bike. Then I made a big mistake by turning down his request for baksheesh as my carnet de passage did not cover Morocco. He raged back inside his office and scribbled ‘ANNULLED’ all over my Algerian visa and told me to go back to Algiers. Had I followed his directions it would have been the end of my adventure, but I thought it was worth trying the next crossing 50 miles north. This time I secreted a few Algerian Dinar in my paperwork and all was going well until my graffiti’d passport was inspected.
Mid-way between my two failed border crossing attempts I had spotted some small villages and valleys with donkey tracks running west – this was my last chance to get into Morocco. I filled up at a small village petrol pump (a 45-gallon drum with a hand-cranked pump) and as I set off west I was signalled by a couple of locals making men-firing-rifles hand gestures. Good, this meant I was close to the border. I skirted around the last of the houses and headed down the valley... After the umpteenth ‘off’ I was pretty much incapable of picking up the bike anymore what with my still-fractured shoulder. So, I decided I must be out of Algeria and headed up a dirt track that miraculously brought me out on a tarmac’d road which wound further up the valley. Eventually I stopped for petrol and had it confirmed – I WAS in Morocco.
When I finally arrived in Fez I was tired and starving. I stopped at a family orientated campsite where I was informed it was a bank holiday weekend and the banks would be closed for the next three days. When you’re hungry, really hungry, you don’t want to do much and tend to sleep a lot, so I thought I was dreaming when a couple of days later a British registered very long wheelbase Mercedes van turned up, towing a caravan from which I could hear the sound of chimpanzees. As it turned out driver Glyn was a nice bloke who, having suffered my tales of woe, gave me what amounted to about a tenner. I immediately raced off to the souk on the bike where I bought half a roast chicken and a small round loaf of bread – surprise, surprise after a couple of mouthfuls I was flip. As it turned out Glyn was heading south to Agadir where he planned to perform hotel shows with his four chimpanzees. Now I know animal shows can be cruel but I still liked the PG Tips adverts and the idea of being driven for a few days, so resting my shoulder, appealed. The bike was loaded into the back of the van and off we went. Agadir is a beach resort on the southern Atlantic coast rebuilt after an earthquake in the 1960s and has wide flowered boulevards, modern hotels and European style cafés. When we arrived the banks were open and to the surprise of the bank staff my money was transferred within a couple of hours. By now I had also bonded with the chimps and decided to stay at the campsite until I could get my passport sorted by the embassy.
Alarmingly, my idea of a British embassy as a grand imperial building full of upper class people waiting to help their fellow countrymen who face difficulties abroad was quickly blown apart. Firstly none of the reps at any of the hotels had a phone number that was ever answered. So, I travelled to Casablanca to see the embassy staff personally, my request for a new passport being met with a mixture of bemusement and disdain. But, eventually, they agreed they would tend to my problem and be in touch soon. Three weeks later a letter arrived at the campsite containing a standard British passport application form (exactly the same as you would get from the Post Office). I duly filled it in and hand delivered back to them. They told me it would be a priority.
Life with Glyn and the chimps in Agadir was a hoot. Wherever they went crowds of people thronged to see them. Tony was the oldest of the chimps (about four years old) and my favourite, always grooming your hair and trying to steal your mug of tea. It was agreed that I would help out at the shows, keeping the chimps under control and then assisting in an escapology act. To be fair, the shows were alright – the chimps dressed up
in their cute outfits going out one at a time to play on swings and slides, then Glyn would do his act escaping from straightjackets and handcuffs and finally escaping from a locked and chained box.
‘Glyn grabbed a frying pan and wham!’
Then, one afternoon, I was relaxing in the caravan when a very angry Tony, teeth barred, came storming in and launched himself at me. I managed to wrestle him to the floor but with two sets of very strong arms (thumbs on their feet) it took all my strength to keep him pinned. Glyn then appeared at the door, grabbed a frying pan and wham! Tony was out cold. I was bruised but luckily unbitten, Glyn was in shock. After a couple of days Tony was still unconscious and on a drip. Two days after that he gave up his fight and died. Glyn was devastated and after burying Tony in the mountain overlooking the town drove back to Europe. Two weeks later I collected my new passport from the embassy. I expected it to contain a Moroccan entry stamp but it didn’t – the embassy staff didn’t think this would be a problem. It had now been about three months since I’d set off and I was ready for home.
I made my way to the port at Tangiers and paid to have the ‘forgotten’ entry stamp put in my passport. This done I caught the next ferry out of Morocco and rode back through Spain and France to good old blighty. I stayed with friends and family for a couple of months then still hungry to travel went volunteering on a Kibbutz in Israel (Sta Nitzan) and made a couple of trips to Egypt. After that I travelled around the Greek islands, then onto Turkey where I caught a ‘Magic Bus’ to Amsterdam. I arrived in Holland on Sunday and by Tuesday I had managed to get a well paid job with all the correct paperwork in place. I stayed in Amsterdam for the next 18 months and four years later I returned to England and plucked up the courage to pay my well overdue £2000 fine. Since then I have stayed out of trouble but still like the odd adventure, just not so wild.
Every month Bike publishes a reader travel story, just like Bryan’s. So please tell us yours. It can be in words, or pictures, or both. It can be about speeding through Siberia on a Suzuki, meandering to Morocco on a Moto Guzzi or diverting to Derbyshire on a Ducati. You can get plenty of stories on a C90 in Cumbria.
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