A Lesson from Africa
How sand riding skills saved me
I was perched on the edge of Black Africa, scanning the barren landscape littered with the abandoned hulks of cars left in the minefield which separates West Sahara from Mauritania. This 4km stretch of lawless road is simply referred to as ‘no man’s land’. It would not be the first or the last border that offered a world-renowned reputation for danger, but it would be only one where my riding skills likely saved my life.
Go to Safetravel.gov.nz and this border region is listed under a ‘Do Not Travel’ advisory. The website states “Do not travel to… Mauritania’s border areas with… Western Sahara due to the risk of military activities, the actions of extremist groups, and the risk of armed banditry and kidnapping… Land mines are also present along the border with Western Sahara.”
Being a white-faced Westerner on a loaded ADV bike, I knew I would be a likely target if the bandits were on the prowl. Mauritania is the least developed and poorest country in northwest Africa and any Westerner traveling through makes for a delightful target with an almost guaranteed payout.
The 4km of road between border checkpoints consists of roughly 60% straight, paved road with the remaining 40% a series of serpentine roads created out of deep sand with rock steps and unknown hazards. I’d been warned to not deviate from the worn path due to the potential of striking forgotten land mines, a warning I took seriously.
Similar to most crossings between borders, everything started off uneventful although I had an unusual anxiety as I rode along the paved road with no other vehicles in sight. When I neared the end of the pavement, several cars were parked and were surrounded by nine men who were standing in the road, waving me down to stop. I thought that if these men were just opportunistic sales people, they would be closer to one of the borders, or at least have goods to show. They were just trying to get me to stop. As the small gang began to fan out in front of me, I slowed only enough to spot a gap. Then, without hesitation, I gassed the bike to shoot through an opening, hoping I’d left them behind to harass or rob another traveler.
I looked in my mirror to see the men piling into the two cars to start a hot pursuit. At the same time, I watched as the pavement dissolved into sand with vehicle tracks running off into myriad of directions.
With the cars quickly closing the distance between us, I followed the vehicle tracks furthest right, hoping the deep sand and sharp-edged rocks would force them to drop pursuit. I rode into the loose sand, using the most perfect technique: standing on the pegs, weight back, light grip on the bars and, without exaggeration, riding for my life.
The plan worked… almost. The cars followed a track to my left with less sand and without rocks. As I looked across the desert, I could see two United Nations vehicles sitting atop a distant ledge, watching. They were not there to keep me safe and would serve as witness to my demise if things went badly. All the years of playing off-road on large bikes paid off as I rode my heavily-laden motorcycle over the rock path, obviously only accessible by high-clearance four wheel drive vehicles, which helped to keep the two cars at a distance.
As I rode, men hung out of the car windows, yelling at me and motioning for me to stop. I cleared my last rock obstacle with the Mauritania border in sight. All I had to left was to pass through the final stretch of deep sand and I would be safe. The bike shifted left and right, like an a fish fighting to get back into the water. I stayed light on the controls and let the bike move freely underneath as it thrashed left and right until it finally settled down. The land became more solid and I rocketed to the horizontal bar separating the border officers from ‘no mans land’. Once I was close enough to see the face of the nearest soldier, the two cars turned away and disappeared into the cloud of dust they had created.
As I reflect back, I realize how important the skills I teach ADV riders can truly be. It’s not just about making ADV riding more fun or lowering the risk of a broken bone or bike, it may truly be a life-saving skill.