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Big Trip special: Scooters in the Sahara

By Dave Rawlings -

General news

 03 January 2008 01:00

Dennis Robinson and seven buddies took a gaggle of Honda C90s and £200,000 worth of medical supplies to a hospital in Gambia. As told to MCN’s Events Editor Dave Rawlings.

The whole idea of this trip was the brainwave of my mate Bill Oats. He went out on rally in a Land Rover and met Stella Marsden, who runs a chimpanzee rehabilitation centre in Bansang, Gambia.

Bill left his Land Rover behind for the clinic as they were in greater need of it.

He was so taken with the area he decided to help the local Bansang community and hospital (which was built by the British in the ’70s but not had a scrap spent on it since) by supplying them with medical supplies and bikes.

He then decided the best way to get them to the Gambia would be to ride them there.

Bill started a thread on the UK GSer Forum (I’m a member of the forum, as I normally ride a BMW GS) to see if anyone fancied riding 12 C90s from Morocco to Bansang. After pages and pages of replies it turned out that only seven scooters would make the final journey.

The plan was to raise sponsorship, buy medical supplies for the hospital and hand over the bikes at the finish point where they were really needed.

I joined the party and along with fellow forum members, set off in January (2007). We decided the best course of action would be to drive through Europe with the bikes in another van.

We would start our C90 adventure in Morocco, leaving our Land Rover Discovery in Spain, with the support van following. The support was full of £200,000 worth of medical supplies, jerry cans for the C90s and our luggage.

Out of all the bikes we took mine was the oldest (1984 B-reg) and the only one with MOT, tax and insurance. They had all been given a major overhaul before we set off and were in near showroom condition.

I wanted to ride from England all the way but no one else did. I was proved wrong as soon as we hit France and were snowed in. Riding would’ve been impossible.

When we got to Morocco we were horrified to find that it was actually -4°C, not the scorching sun-drenched roads we’d hoped for. But never mind, we were ready to go.

Throughout the whole journey the scoots never gave us a problem, not one single mechanical failure, the only problem we had was three punctures throughout the whole trip.

The van on the other hand was a nightmare from day one, we had overheating problems when it was -4°C and we were panicking that when it got to the desert it would just melt and give up the ghost. The water pump and radiator had to be replaced, a fuel line split and a tyre blew – it was a bit of a never ending saga.

One of the weak points of the C90 is its tank range. It has great fuel consumption but as the tank’s so small you only get 90 between stops. Because of the tank range we avoided as much desert riding as possible.

However I really wanted to do a cross-desert route and the plan was to do it right up until the moment we got there, when Bill changed his mind.

I didn’t pull any punches telling Bill how I felt about that and how if I’d known we were not going that way I wouldn’t have gone at all. A few of the others felt the same as me – I’m not always good at hiding my emotions.

Between the Western Sahara and Mauritania we came across a Freelander that was stuck up to its belly pan in sand. The path that we were on runs through the middle of a minefield.

In the car was a young family Nora, Jordi and their little girl. Jordi worked for the Spanish government and was on a five year posting to Mauritania and they were on their way home to Nouadhibou. 

We tried to help them but the car was stuck solid and it was getting late, not the sort of place you want to be riding in the dark. But we couldn’t leave them; it would go against the nature of the trip, so we took Nora and the baby to the border where they were meeting friends.

We dropped them off and the friends went and pulled Jordi out.

The trip was full of surprises but the biggest was Senegal. It was an amazing country, really vibrant.

One night we stopped to set up camp in this deserted wooded area, it seemed a bit like an orchard and we spotted the roof of a grass hut far off in the distance and thought it’s far enough away, no one will bother us.

Within ten minutes the entire village was around us having a laugh at our bikes and helping us set up camp. They were really good humoured considering we were in their orchard.

Another time in Senegal we stopped for a coffee, which was a rare treat, and we heard music from a side street. We wandered down and found a wedding party in full swing.

Everyone was dancing and singing, and the music was being made by one girl with an upturned metal fruit bowl clenched between her knees. The whole spectacle was amazing.

We had a few arguments along the way, one of the riders, Steve Chippendale, was ready to leave before we’d even sat on the scooters and wanted to fly home from Spain. Things had got a little heated in the Discovery on the way down to the ferry crossing.

We expected to be in the Land Rover for 24 hours but because of the weather it ended up being three days. And having seven people in a vehicle that size is tough.

But it helped us in the long run as it knocked the edges off us all and made the rest of the trip more pleasant and easier for everyone to get along.

We only managed a maximum of 300 miles a day. One of the reasons was a couple of the riders were heavy smokers so every 40-50 miles we had to stop for cigarettes making the journey quite painful and long, but hey, at the end of the day it was a holiday as well.

The one way we made the journey fun was the C90 races we had. We’d all just tuck in, as much as possible, and give it some.

But Jaqs, being the only girl and weighing a damn sight less would fly past us sat bolt upright, I think I reached a terminal speed of 63.2mph.

It was on one of these days when Paul Byrne had one of the biggest offs of the trip. He’s about 6ft 3ins and weighs around 18 stone, he nodded off after a long stretch.

I was leading at this point and saw some sand across the road so started to slow down, as did everyone else. Paul came flying past, hit the sand and went sprawling. He landed really hard, but to be fair to him he jumped straight back on the bike and carried on.

The Bansang Hospital appeal is run by Anita Smith and when she saw us arriving she was shocked. She never thought we’d all make it there in one piece, and if I’m honest, neither did we.

We had three days at the hospital to help with anything we could. And it also seemed we couldn’t have timed it better – all that was in the medical cupboard was half a pack of paracetamol.

Paul decided to fix the broken incinerator. He came back into the hospital with a black face and dour look – he’d cleaned it and sorted it out but then fired it up with the door open and was treated to a face full of soot – plus his eyebrows and hairline were a bit thinner.

Out the back of the hospital was a barren field with small piles of rocks and pieces of cardboard, it was a graveyard where they buried children. As soon as the bodies were buried hyenas would come along and dig them up.

To the African psyche that’s not a big deal because once the body has been buried they never go back. But a lot of the nurses are European, so to them it was quite upsetting. We decided to build a wall to keep it secure.

We’re going back next January (2008) and this time hoping to take three or four trucks and another fleet of scooters.

We have more knowledge this year of what the hospital needs so we can make our trip even more worthwhile.

For more information you can keep up with Dennis and the gang at www.scootersinthesahara.co.uk.