Maverick Life


Cycling across the Sahara (Part 1): The lone and level sands

Cycling across the Sahara (Part 1): The lone and level sands
Jake Thorpe cycles through Western Sahara as part of his epic two-wheeled journey across Africa to Cape Town. (Picture: Jake Thorpe)

There is something reassuring about seeing your destination appear on its first road sign. A subtle psychological shift takes place. It marks the moment that the destination transitions from an ephemeral geographical concept to a grounded part of the landscape you’re travelling. A definite node on the tarmac network. Keep pedalling and you’re guaranteed to reach it. You’re no longer riding into the unknown, but instead into the known. 

I left home at the end of last year on a mission to seek out some unknown. I’d spent the last few years knuckling down and nestling into a career. You know, that thing you’re supposed to do in your early twenties. 

I’d gravitated towards the unconventional start-up space. Somewhere free from rigid chains of command; one where responsibility is given based on competence, rather than a two-page CV. It suited me well. But, in our variety-pack society, almost five years in the same place makes you a veritable veteran. 

If guests, like fish, smell after three days, then millennial employees, like babies, walk after 18 months. I’d more than tripled that tenure, and a distinct sense of wanderlust had begun to bubble up. 

The Thursday trips to the pub after work; the weekend cycles through London’s leafy suburbs; it had all started to feel a little too known. So, I began to have abstract conversations with the higher-ups (or is it just further-alongs in a non-hierarchical business?) about taking a breather. I was in the mood for an adventure. 

Jake Thorpe, cycling across the Sahara

Jake Thorpe and his trusty two-wheeled steed prepare for a journey into the unknown. (Picture: Jake Thorpe)

So that’s where you join me: aged 24 and on a cycle ride from London to Cape Town; in Africa, crossing a continent I’d never before set foot on; and currently staring up at an enormous road sign. If there’s comfort in seeing one of your destinations appear on the signs, there’s something distinctly uncomfortable about seeing an exhaustive list of your destinations for the next two months appear on that same sign together. Dakhla; Nouakchott; Dakar the list went on. That’s a little too much known for my liking. 

I was stood at the gateway to the Sahara, staring down the barrel of my next two months of riding. Being confronted with such a significant chunk of your future, spelled out impersonally in black and white, feels strangely terminal. 

Planning my trip from the relative comfort of a shared house in South London last year, I remember poring over a particular section of West Africa: Western Sahara. It was a big question mark, a section of the world’s largest hot desert. A vast expanse of nothing. 

The journey to come. (Picture: Jake Thorpe)

Well, almost nothing. A smattering of towns punctuate the desert: Akhfenir; Tarfaya; Laayoune; Fishing (no prizes for guessing what happens there). Oh, and more than a smattering of landmines. An estimated nine million of these incendiary relics remain after the region’s bloody battle for independence that waged for more than two decades from 1976, filling the vacuum left by its Spanish colonisers. In 2015, Global South magazine claimed it was one of the world’s most contaminated territories. Well, there goes my cavalier approach to wild camping. 

A single cord of asphalt carves a corridor through the dune fields and scrubland, hence the cluttered road sign. Settlements appear every 100km, with service stations striking the off-beat. Beyond that? The lone and level sands stretch far away…

Jake Thorpe cycling across the Sahara

Blue skies over Western Sahara. (Picture: Jake Thorpe)

Dunes stretch as far as the eye can see in Western Sahara. (Picture: Jake Thorpe)

For days before I entered its gravitational field, the desert preoccupied my thoughts. I don’t remember much about the ride from Tiznit. I stopped in a town called Ait Milk for my morning coffee, which I took black. Why? Clue’s in the name. 

The rest of the day faded into a brooding fug, and I set up camp a stone’s throw from the main road. The same road I’d be glued to for countless hours to come. As lorries thundered past, I dusted off my stove and warmed up some soup. Hot food in a hot desert seemed a strange combination, but February in the northern hemisphere is still unmistakably winter. Hot in the day, perhaps, but very cold at night.

Jake Thorpe cycling across the Sahara

The flat road through the desert stretches out ahead. (Picture: Jake Thorpe)

The single cord of asphalt unfolds through the desert. (Picture: Jake Thorpe)

Another day of fuggy riding passed before I took a preparational rest day in Tan-Tan: the final frontier. I found myself unable to relax, preoccupied with worry for the weeks to come. I couldn’t shake a distinct sense of futility. Why was I about to put myself through this? 

It felt like arbitrary punishment for little discovery; little reward. At least hauling yourself up a mountain pass brings with it the promise of a hair-raising descent; or battling through a jungle, you encounter some weird and wonderful wildlife. Two thousand kilometres of flat desert road? Not exactly riveting. It felt both exposed and exposing. With little external distraction, the gaze settles internally. 

Leaving Tan-Tan, apprehension weighed heavy. I woke early and ceremoniously wrapped up in my desert rags. Admittedly, this animated me a little; at last, I had the opportunity to wear the headscarf without the worry of cultural appropriation. This was purely utilitarian, not stylish. Despite my desert-ready get-up, my cranks turned sluggishly. I felt as if I were fighting some magnetic repulsion, pushing me away from the stretching eternity of the Sahara. Before long, though, I shrugged off this cloak of portentous imagery and realised I was simply cycling into a headwind. 

Now, this was strange. The only information I’d received from fellow cyclists who’d previously tackled this stretch of coastline was that the riding itself was a breeze. Literally. There’s a prevailing northerly wind that gently encourages you down the continent. Of course, today would be the meteorological exception that proves the rule. And things got stranger yet. 

The very definition of a desert lies in its perpetual aridity, so you’d understand my confusion when the sky hung heavy with clouds. Clouds which soon broke. A soaking certainly wasn’t what I’d expected for my first day in the desert. Luckily, the showers were quick to wash away my worry and, mission complete, the downpour abated. The desert’s charm shone through as the skies cleared and I rode into a picture-perfect dunescape. 

Before long, I was caught up in the magic of the place. I felt a frisson of excitement as I passed signs warning of camels crossing, and wove around dunes that had burst their banks, spilling their sandy load across the tarmac. 

Jake Thorpe cycling across the Sahara

Excitement as road signs start warning of camels crossing. (Picture: Jake Thorpe)

That naive excitement, however, quickly wore off. By that afternoon, the place had begun to lose its shine. I conceded defeat for the day in one of the rare towns – Akhfenir – where I leapt at the opportunity to stay in a cheap hotel, on the condition I finished writing a blog I’d abandoned in Tan-Tan. 

The writing took me into the early hours thanks to some welcome distractions from my girlfriend Ellie, who was brimming with nervous energy for the Barcelona Marathon that she would be running in the morning. In solidarity – or, perhaps, because doing so would allow me the luxury of a bed in another of the region’s sparse settlements – I decided to take a punt at my own marathon the next day.

It’s widely accepted that running a marathon and cycling a century (100 miles; 160km) are about equivalent. Well, about as equivalent as you can get when comparing entirely different sports. Given my weather app showed the promised tailwind was arriving tomorrow, I wagered 200km would offer a fair simulation; coincidentally, the distance to Laayoune, Western Sahara’s unofficial capital. 

As Ellie set off from the start line amid a cacophony of shouts, cheers and vuvuzelas, I swallowed the last chunks from a bowl of camel’s milk which a kind restaurateur had provided to fuel my day. Thanks to the language barrier, this was followed by a very milky coffee. I can confirm my position on milk has not changed, and neither of these kind offerings aided the cause. 

Ellie finished her marathon in less than half the time I finished mine. While she was celebrating her epic achievement with a band of supporters, Champagne in hand, I was trucking along, braving the last stretch of the day’s crosswind before the sweet relief of Tarfaya. There, I stopped for a cold coke and a black coffee, carefully emphasising the noir. From Tarfaya, the road curved, allowing the promised tailwind to kick in.

I arrived in Laayoune thoroughly undernourished and very happy to be dismounting, but mostly unscathed. Sadly, Champagne was out of the question. Finding a hot meal became the urgent task at hand. After a brief search, I set a course to McLaayoune, one of the town’s independent fast-food joints. However, arriving to see an open case of non-rotating rotisserie chickens braving the elements by the kerb outside encouraged me to try my luck elsewhere. And you know what? It paid off. 

As I cycled in the direction of the one-star hotel, my luxury accommodation for the evening, a mirage appeared before me. It couldn’t be … the real McCoy…  the golden arches … the universally squat, slatted shack of … McDonald’s. I devoured three meals, checked into my hotel, then came back for two more. Terribly globalised of me, I know. But given this is the only McDonald’s between me and South Africa, I’ll allow myself the slight indiscretion.

Buoyed by the success of the previous day’s riding, and with the promise of yet more assistance from Boreas – the Greek god of wind – I set my sights on Boujdour for my evening’s kip. One hundred and eighty kilometres of riding should be more than manageable with divine intervention. And it was; the day slipped by in a blur.

The swift progress was punctuated only by some proud fisherman who waved me over to admire their catch. Popping the trunk of their rusty sedan – long smothered by the corrosive kisses of the Atlantic’s spray – they proudly pointed and declared “Fish!” What greeted my eyes was an enormous grouper; 30 kilos or more, according to their estimates. They were on their way to Laayoune to flog the day’s catch, hoping to snag 3000 dirhams: a veritable fortune. No wonder they were practically bursting with excitement. We shared a midday tea, the last I’d enjoy for the rest of my time in Morocco. The time had finally come: Ramadan had arrived. 

Jake Thorpe cycling across the Sahara

Fishermen with the catch of the day. (Picture: Jake Thorpe)

I rolled into Boujdour with the sun low on the horizon. Checking my wind app, I noticed that the ideal conditions were forecast through the night. This, combined with the comforting prospect of a rest day or two in Dakhla, planted the seed of an idea. Almost automatically, I began to layer up, stock up and saddle up; my body registering that the seed had taken root before my mind had a chance to catch up. After a swift Google of “dangerous nocturnal wildlife of the Sahara”, I knocked back an espresso and pedalled quietly away from the bright lights of the town. 

My plan was as follows: ride through the night, soaking up the 300km gap between me and my promised rest. With the wind picking up, I was comfortably holding 40km/h. I was confident this would allow me to reel in the distance by the early hours. I allowed a spectacular sunset to frame the open road as I settled into a fluid cadence. 

Jake Thorpe cycling across the Sahara

Sunset, bringing with it a close brush with some desert dogs. (Picture: Jake Thorpe)

Sometimes grand plans like these end in Champagne, like Ellie’s marathon. Sometimes they leave you cowering in a deserted corner of a service station, nerves jangling, with caffeine still coursing through your veins. This time, it was the latter. 

As the sky blushed mauve and the last of the light drained from the day, the dogs came out to play. Until now I’d been unaware of their presence. Perhaps they accompany their owners to sea during daylight hours, or simply laze in the scorching sun, but the beasts patrolling the small fishing cabins sprinkled along the coastline turn no such blind eye at night.

I was chased relentlessly. The only indication of their inbound presence was a hammering of paws on the dusty ground as they accelerated to alarming speeds, outpacing me with ease. Snarls erupted mere centimetres from my frantically pedalling feet and I gripped the handlebars, white-knuckled, praying that one of them didn’t tangle in my spokes and throw me from the saddle.

You know things are bad when, despite your carefully crafted image of “Daredevil adventurer seeking the raw, untempered experiences of Nature (with a capital N)”, you nearly collapse with relief at the sight of the neon lights of a 24-hour petrol station. Craving the comfort of human construction to shield me from the wild, I pitched up camp amidst the bustle of nighttime commerce, and did my best to sleep off the night’s terrors. 

Jake Thorpe cycling across the Sahara

Making the way across the continent. (Picture: Jake Thorpe)

The next day, a cool 250km ride brought me to Dakhla: the first destination on that well-remembered road sign. As I rode, I realised I’d begun to find my desert rhythm. 

I allowed my mind to melt away from the mounting fatigue of my body, and wander back to the English living room of my parents’ house where this whole adventure began. Mum – making herself scarce as packing frustrations mounted; Dad – watching Instagram Reels at full volume, blissfully unaware of the chaos surrounding him; and me – desperately trying to jam a headscarf into already bulging panniers, struggling to imagine a landscape in a distant land where it might be appropriate to wear it. DM

To continue following Jake’s journey, check out his Substack — The magical & the mundane: a (mostly) solo cycle tour  — where he posts weekly.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Pikkie Holland says:

    Oh WOW! Can’t wait for Part 2. Epic adventure.

  • Helen Swingler says:

    I hope that there is a book to come.

  • David Bristow says:

    Hmmm, read all the blogs now or wait for the book …. I wonder what is the estimated final distance?

  • David Bristow says:

    Hmmm, read all the blogs now or wait for the book …. I wonder what is the estimated final distance?

  • Mervyn Wetmore says:

    Wow you are doing what I have dreamed about forever but sadly it is too late now. A few years back while on Mount Melsetter farm in the Karoo a young German pitched up at the farm mid-afternoon seeking somewhere to sleep overnight on his way from Cape Town to Egypt to attend a friend’s wedding! What an interesting evening we enjoyed with him. Sadly due to security issues in North Africa he only made it to Tanzania I think. Nevertheless he had a great experience and sent us a video of his truncated journey. The outcome for him was that all people are good and kind, that’s what he experienced on his journey. So looking forward to your next article.

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