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Having crossed every continent, it seemed as if there wasn’t much left in the way of biking challenges. Until I recalled a childhood memory – my discovery of Timbuctoo in an atlas and the realisation that it is a real place, I made a pledge to myself that one day I would go there. Many years later, riding a BMW bike I found myself exchanging vicious swear words with a German doctor as we sweated and struggled our way across the Sahara Desert in search of the fabled "city of gold".
It turned out to be an incredibly hard ride and out of the seven riders who had originally agreed to undertake this journey (because you don’t go into that desert alone) I was the only one who made it there and back again on their bike.
It was an international gathering with riders approaching from various directions and even one guy flying in from Australia to take on the challenge.
I’d had to forsake Thelma for this sand-based encounter, even I will admit that 250kg is not a good weight to drag through a sand pit, let alone the world’s biggest desert. I acquired Ethel – Thelma’s little sister, a BMW F650GS, still a pretty heavy bike but she was fantastic on the sand- and with gritted teeth and wobbly kneed perseverance, I achieved that wondrous glide across the sand.
The Sahara took its toll, I dropped poor Ethel numerous times, smashing panniers, the number plate and three out of my four indicators. The final obstacle was the Niger River – we couldn’t find the ferry in the dark (what was that about never riding after sunset in Africa?), and ended up in a dug-out canoe- two big bikes and two exhausted riders, with the water lapping just inches from flooding the canoe.
The highs and the lows:
· Being at the start of the Dakar Rally in Barcelona AND then beating the riders by just two hours to the finish line in Senegal a fortnight later. OK, I had the easier route, but with no back-up, dealing with the most corrupt border officials I’ve ever encountered and all whilst riding a bike with a bloody chain, it felt like a miracle.
· The incredible hospitality of the villagers that we came across
· Realising that I can bodge repairs with the best of them.
· Losing my number plate and having to negotiate the border crossings of six countries (including the UK) with no plate.
· Riding the whole way back without the shock absorber – although a high point was then claiming for it under warranty.
· Being stuckin the desert as night was falling, the headlight fixings completely broken and unable to continue. In desperate need of a piece of wire to do a bodge job and realising that I had exactly what was needed –by slashing open the side of my bra and making use of the underwire for the perfect repair.
· My battery exploding in Mauritania – a country that has no 12 volt bike batteries – another dodgy repair job, this time using a tube of weld stuff to glue the battery back together.
· Having to tow another bike for 100 miles using just a luggage strap, - it was twice the size of Ethel, and I had a bald rear tyre.
The absolute highpoint was definitely reaching Timbuctoo, the ultimate goal after years of dreaming and weeks of hardship through the desert.