On the outskirts of Arlit there is a modern uranium mine surrounded by gigantic piles of tailings. This is a French enterprise, and to serve the mine, they have built a bitumen road on which we were to travel in style to Agadez. However the streets of Arlit were unpaved, dusty and full of holes. The cool Saharan winter wind was not blowing in town, and it was now very hot and sultry for the first time since we had arrived in Africa.
We did not intend stopping in Arlit, staying only long enough to take on supplies of petrol, water and any fresh food we could buy. We were to find throughout our time in Africa that the cities and large towns held little for us. The streets were invariably crowded, dangerous or dirty, often all three, and there was seldom a place for us to camp. To safeguard our belongings, we were usually restricted to one of us remaining with the van. We did not enjoy exploring alone, and in any case, the real Africa for us was to be found in the countryside.
Of course we had to pay our mandatory visit to the Police Station in Arlit. The Police sent us to the Custom’s house to have the van thoroughly searched again, and later that day, we were finally issued with papers allowing us to travel to Agadez. If we had requested to travel into the Air Mountains in search of rock art, we would have been denied unless we arranged a local guide. In any case, our Niger visa expired on the 19th Feb, just over two weeks away. This did not give us time to arrange a local guide, wait for permission to proceed, take at least a few days for the trip and then get back down to the border. It may have been possible to extend the visa but we did not ask. Everything seemed such a bother to these police officials who operated at a glacial speed with everything they did.
We went a short distance out into the desert to a place where we had been told there was water. This turned out to be true, and we found clean water gushing from a pipe into an animal trough in what was possibly an animal sale-yard surrounded by high wooden fences. We were lucky there were no animals in residence at the time to compete with us for our water. That would have been a trial we would prefer to avoid because there was only one pipe and one animal trough. We had to sweeten the guard with some bonbons before he would allow us to take our 60 liters.
Later, at the market-place, we were able to buy tomatoes, sweet-corn and onions but there were no eggs or bread available and of course no meat. We had totally given up expecting to find that by now.
It was now a long time since we had been able to relax while driving but the road to Agadez was sealed, straight and beautifully made. It crossed semi-arid country with thorn bushes and little tufts of grass here and there. Soon we stopped to camp just off the road beside a solitary thorn tree.
Since water was at last in plentiful supply, a hot and dusty Evan immediately decided he was going to try out his shower. Previously we had always been too tired to set it up, and also we had not been able to waste water while crossing the Sahara. The shower hung on the outside of the van behind a makeshift shower curtain, with the water-pump from the sink used to pump a bucketful of warm water up through the shower nozzle. Evan had finally got this all set-up, stripped off and turned on the pump. Weeks of Saharan dust, sweat and oily grime from repairing the engine were swished away with the stream of warm water and lots of suds. It was a luxury we had failed to appreciate until we had been deprived of it for so long.
The bucketful of water was about half gone when a group of nosey Touareg mounted on their camels rode slowly past. They were almost falling off their high perches as they peered over to see what in the world was happening. It was just at that moment that a stiff Saharan wind blew the flimsy shower curtain perpendicularly straight upwards, and then the Touareg gentlemen did fall off their camels with laughter. I decided instantly that I preferred the privacy of the van and my usual sponge bath.
The next day, as we continued to cross the endless tundra, we passed many oases where the tribesmen had brought their thirsty goats, camels, donkeys and oxen to the trough. The largest oasis of them all is Agadez where there is a row of crude mud houses and shops cluttered along a dusty main street. We searched at once for the Police Station to apply for passport stamp and papers to proceed to the Nigerian border.
While we were there, we met Alison, an English girl and her Italian doctor friend Roberto. They were driving their Landrover southwards but they did not have a visa for Nigeria and would have to go to Niamey, the capital of Niger to obtain it. Since we had obtained our visa for Nigeria in London, we could go directly to Kano in Nigeria. But we all agreed to travel together the next day until our paths divided.
The petrol station was closed but there was a long queue of people waiting with plastic containers. They wanted kerosene for cooking and lighting, and we all continued to wait patiently in the hot sun. When it finally opened, we bought enough petrol to take us the 700 km to Kano as this would safeguard against unreliable supplies in the towns and villages along the way. There was water available in the market-place but we had to pay for it.
The rest of the afternoon was spent talking to other travelers under a shady tree in front of a café. Two tourists had reputedly been fined 15,000 francs (about US$60 and a veritable fortune to us) the previous day for camping in the open. And as it happened, there was a camping ground at Agadez. Although its reputation amongst the other tourists was not great, we felt it would be wise to use it that night. Alison had a guide book which described it as a veritable paradise complete with swimming pool and a French restaurant. It was also recommended in our guide book, Sahara Handbook and as they pointed out, it was an opportunity to meet other overlanders.
Because it was not sign-posted and situated way out in the desert, night had fallen before we eventually found it. A German had originally established the place and had maintained it with great efficiency. Since his death, his wife and family had obviously reverted to the African way. Consequently the swimming pool was black and fetid, there was no running water in the camp and the restaurant sold Cokes only but nevertheless the camping fees were extraordinarily high. So both our guide books proved out-of-date in the recommendation. However, as with all overlanders, we were independant, self-contained and undaunted by whatever we were confronted with. We spent an enjoyable evening in the company of other overlanders.
We left Agadez the next day with Roberto and Alison following in their Landrover. Along the way, each village was a tidy cluster of perfectly round little huts with thatched roofs and set off the road in a field of dry spindly grass. Standing on stone stilts amongst the huts and almost as high as them were rounded clay pots for storing grain. However the soil in the vicinity seemed so dry and lifeless that we began to wonder how they were able to grow the grain to fill them. Niger is one of the hottest countries in the world although while we were there, it was pleasantly cool, and perhaps one would have thought, the best growing season. However there was no rain and no rivers for irrigation.
We were stopped every 100 km or less at police checkpoints for them to see that our travel papers and passports with border stamp were in order. It would have been trouble for us if we had failed to obtain the stamps from all the other police posts along our route. Our travel papers from Agadez gave us seven days to reach the Nigerian border. This paper was meticulously checked over and over again with all the details being recorded laboriously in a ledger.
Towards evening, we decided to visit the market town of Tohoua and with Roberto in his brand new Landrover leading the way, drove slowly down the crowded main street. Suddenly his back wheel went down into a large hole which seconds before had not been there. We all got out and found that he had driven over a man-hole cover hidden in the dust, and with the weight of the vehicle on one side of the cover, it had turned and tipped poor Roberto into the main sewer. He was quite flustered and angry when he saw what had happened. However with the powerful 4-wheel drive and not forgetting all the advice of the friendly cluster of villagers we had attracted, Roberto was able to drive out. The market was closed, and we went out of town to camp for the night in a field covered in dried grasses that relentlessly speared us with very long toothy thorns.
Using the extract from the Michelin map shown in the previous chapter (Chapter 7: From the Niger Border to Arlit), it can be seen that we followed a circular route from Assamakka to Tahoua and were now immediately south of Assamakka. We had circled around the low-lying area called the Vallée de Azaouagh which is subject to flooding and where there is no through road. This is where we would have ended up if we had not turned back in the sand storm to find Assamakka when we did. In any case, our permit only allowed us to travel via Arlit and Agadez on the official piste. Independant travel in Niger is permitted but very carefully controlled every inch of the way.
The next morning, we parted company with Alison and Roberto at the crossroads. Although we made tentative plans to meet up later, we were not to see them again. We heard several days later on the tourist grapevine that visas for Nigeria were not available in Niamey, and that they would have to go to Upper Volta over an almost impassable road to get them.
We were pleased that we had obtained our Nigerian visas in London because we were always conscious throughout this time of the need to keep going towards central Africa before the rains came. Although we did not break any records or drive for long hours at a time, we refrained from taking any side trips that could take days or weeks at a time. We were lucky because it was the extra effort at this stage which ultimately led to the success of our expedition.
The road was now filled with potholes, and once more, we were only crawling along. A strong wind tore across the land and was creating havoc. The overgrazed pastures had exposed the sand which was being blown across to cover what little fertile soil remained. The demands of an ever-increasing population for firewood and grazing was quite obviously encouraging the Sahara’s relentless spread southwards.
We reached Dan Issa, the Nigerian border town that night and camped beside the road just before it. Our very own garden boy (an elderly gentleman in fact) came uninvited and swept clear an area around our door so that there would not be any dried sticks for us to tread on. He received some bread for his trouble (and enterprise) although he quickly indicated that he would much prefer a shirt. We had by now made the transition from a predominantly Arab population to an area were the people were all Negroid. However the Muslim religion was still predominant.
In the desert, as on the wide sea, the voyager is frequently impeded by storms; a furious wind lifts whirling sand over a plain lacking vegetation, filling the mouth and eyes of the voyager; in this event, it is necessary to halt the journey.
Sallus (97 B.C.)
Early the next morning, after we had obtained the required immigration stamp in our passport, we were on our way across no-man’s-land to Assamaka, the Niger border-post. However, five minutes later we were stuck fast in the sand, still within sight of In Guezzam. We had failed to choose the correct set of tracks to lead us safely around a hill of sand. Instead we had gone towards the high ridge in the center, to come to a halt in the deep sand halfway up the steep slope. Although we dug ourselves out and laid the sand-ladders in front of the wheels, we were unable to pick up enough speed on the hill to launch the van off the sand. We dug out the wheels time and time again before we finally reached a stony patch where the tyres could grip and take the van to the top.
At first, the terrain was rocky with patches of deep sand which had caught in the hollows. The tyres were still soft for traveling in the sand, and as we bumped and thumped on the sharp rocky ridges, it was remarkable that they were not punctured. Soon we were traveling on another wide sandy plain where the wind began to fling flurries of sand against the side of the van with an increasingly loud tattoo. It was not long before our vision became limited to the sand immediately in front of us.
Although we knew it was only 35 km from In Guezzam to Assamaka, we had soon driven about 65 km without seeing any sign of the border-post. We were still following a well-used piste with many vehicle tracks which we could still see clearly despite the blowing sand. However we should have found Assamaka by now, and it seemed we were lost.
The prospect of being lost or broken-down in the Sahara is terrifying, and was something we had done everything we could to avoid, including carrying large numbers of spare parts and excess water. Michael Marriot and his wife, Nita were lost in this same region of the Sahara and ran very short of water. Their main problem was that their elderly London taxi cab kept overheating, and the radiator needed constantly topping up. They carried far less water than we did, and the taxi cab engine used almost all they had. Eventually, they decided to stop and wait for a passing truck to rescue them, rather than risk driving in circles:
The Sahara is trying hard to claim us. We have already broken the strictest rule, and drunk water in the heat of the day; it is a relief for a few moments, then the raging thirst returns, infinitely worse than before. We can no longer smoke, and our lips and eyelids are swollen and painful. It is impossible to talk without great effort. I tell Nita to get under the cab; the heat had caused her to vomit. It has affected me similarly. Now I moisten my wife’s lips with a little water to freshen her mouth. The trickling water is torture to my ears, and the tempatation to drink the remains right away is agony to resist.
Desert Taxi by Michael Marriott. Panther Books, 1956.
We came upon the five French cars that had left In Guezzam just after us and had overtaken us at speed half an hour before. They had stopped to talk to a truck driver who was having a picnic in the whirling sand. He confirmed that we had all missed Assamaka by waving vaguely northwards, the direction from which we had come. Because our distance vision had been blocked by the sand, we had driven straight past it.
Since the truck driver was giving detailed instructions in French which we could not understand, we decided to try to keep up with the Peugeots. They drove at an incredible pace, and it was almost beyond the capability of the van to stay with them. We were careering over bumps at such a speed that our large sliding door began to come off. I hung grimly on to it for as long as I could but eventually we had to stop to repair it and allow the engine to cool. The Frenchmen immediately stopped too, and it transpired that they knew no more than us about the precise location of Assamaka. They were relying on us to lead them to it.
During this pause while Evan reattached the sliding door, the wind dropped slightly so that the sand was being whisked up only to knee level, and we could see more clearly into the distance. As we drove further on, this time with us setting the pace, we saw a distant white mass reflecting the sun and shimmering through the dust and haze. As we came closer, the square white buildings of the border-post slowly materialized from this mirage.
Because it lies about one km from the piste that we had been driving on, we left the track to drive straight towards it. This whole experience illustrates the distinct disadvantage of navigating by using the tracks of others; you have to assume that their destination was the same as your own, and in this case it had obviously not been. During the frequent sandstorms, there must be many travelers searching for Assamaka as we had done. Assamaka is the only official border-crossing point along the border between Algeria and Niger, although the Touareg and other local travellers cross anywhere they happen to be along the border. There is no-one to stop them.
They put their borderpost in the middle of a trackless desert and expect everyone to find it. Woe betide anyone who enters Niger without first going through this border-post. The other problem of course was that we needed to make a ninety degree turn at Assamaka to reach our intended destination of Arlit and Agadez.
Around the base of the oasis hillock of Assamaka is a large area of deep sand. It is therefore essential to approach the border-post traveling fairly fast. All six vehicles charged into the compound of the border-post and screeched to a halt amid a great cloud of dust. There was a miniature palmerie beside the small cluster of white-washed buildings which are inhabited only by the border guards with no family dwellings.
One of the guards collected up all our passports and took them off to the office while customs officers began the treasure hunt. Each vehicle in turn was emptied entirely, with the contents being spread out on the sand. Then the customs officers began to ferret through it all. We had not rushed forward like our French companions had but stood back to watch the proceedings. However, all too soon, it was our turn.
“Take-everything-out,” spouted the guard in what proved to be the only sentence of English he knew. The sand storm was still raging, and our bedding, clothing and food was soon filled with sand. We watched as they diligently flipped through our books, peered into the honey pot and rifled through our underwear.
“Velly good,” said the boss-guard when I had finished taking everything from my handbag. Then they passed on to their next victims, leaving us to sort through the mound of our belongings lying on the ground and rapidly being buried in sand by the wind. We now had no clean clothes or bedclothes, and all our food supplies were gritty. And of course there was no water to remedy the situation.
While we waited for our passports to be returned, we noticed an English-registered Landrover nearby. The owner was occupied in trying to repack his belongings in the back. He introduced himself as Mark Milburn, an English ethnologist who specializes in Saharan prehistory. When we discovered that he had been here before, we asked him to point us in the direction of Arlit. He was going there also, and we accepted his invitation to join him for lunch a little way out from Assamaka.
Although the Frenchmen also asked us to travel with them, we tactfully declined as we were sure that the van would never stand the pace. We already knew that they were taking the cars to West Africa to sell on the black market there. But we had begun to suspect some skullduggery because some of the cars had no ignition keys and had recently been repainted, perhaps indicating that the Sahara had become a lucrative outlet for stolen cars from Europe. This might help to explain why they always seemed to be in such a hurry. And on their way back to Europe, did some of them steal vehicles from tourists who unsuspectingly left them in the desert to take a stroll for a few hours? We began to wonder.
Soon the immigration officers returned with the pile of passports. The Frenchmen grabbed theirs and disappeared over the horizon in a halo of dust. However, when we spoke to them again in Arlit, they told us that the guards at Assamaka had neglected to stamp one of their passports. The authorities in Arlit required them to travel the 200 km back to Assamaka to obtain the stamp. We dodged that bullet too because, by sheer good luck, our passports had the Assamaka stamp in each one. We did not know enough about the system at the time to check before we left Assamaka but we were learning fast.
The piste to Arlit was, of course, not signposted. It went at right angles to the route we had traveled on from In Guezzam and was clearly marked with an oil drum placed every kilometer. ‘Clearly marked’ that is to those who realized what the lone rusted drum signified. The wide flat waterless waste of sand and pebbles which surrounded us stretched both southwards, and westwards for a thousand kilometers. Over the centuries, many travelers have been swallowed up forever by the treacherous desert. This token rusted drum was all there was to prevent you going astray, as we had already done today.
The wind gradually dropped, and after the exertions and sheer terror of the morning’s driving, it was extremely pleasant to relax over lunch, listening to Dr Milburn talking about his work in the Sahara. Because he had just spent a fortnight alone in the desert between Tamanrasset and In Guezzam, he also appreciated our company. He told us that the entire Sahara had once been populated by stone-age cattle-herders and hunters between 10,000 and 2000 BC. Evidence of this can be found all around this area in the prehistoric rock-art of which the predominant subject is cattle. However they also drew horses, giraffes, ostriches, even elephant and rhino, and we tried to imagine a Sahara hospitable enough to support animals like these. It certainly must have been a wetter and more fertile place than it is today.
The ancient peoples who lived in this tropical paradise have also left behind their stone tools but, unlike in conventional locations, archeology in the Sahara usually does not involve digging. Instead, the continuously shifting sands are eternally burying and subsequently exposing the old surfaces when the ancient stone tools and burial sites are to be found merely lying on top of the sand. Mark was particularly excited that day about some large stone gourds he had just found. They were flat rocks which had been hollowed out to use either as a water receptacle or as a base for grinding meal.
Mark was on the lookout for a ‘likely dune’ to check for more tools that afternoon, and he invited us to go with him. Later, as we were driving south-eastward towards Arlit, he waved us to follow him as he left the piste and headed towards a distant clump of trees. Once we were off the piste, the sand was soft with a hard crusty layer over the top. We dared not stop until we reached harder ground or the wheels would have sunk in immediately. However the engine was working very hard to push us through the spongy layer of sand, and the temperature of the oil rose to 130°C for the second time that day. I remembered this crusty layer on top of the sand from my childhood in New Zealand, as it had always formed on the beach following a heavy rainstorm. As a young child, I loved the feel of the crust breaking with every step I took across the surface in my bare feet. I knew such crusts formed on the sand after rain, and so it seemed likely to me that it had rained recently in this part of the Sahara too.
We finally reached the tiny uninhabited oasis which was completely encircled by inhospitable desert. We were surprised to see that there were spindly grasses growing amongst the scattering of acacia trees. The vegetation indicated that there was subterranean water beneath the sands, and it may have always been there. As we looked around us, we tried to imagine a time when this slight depression was a deep crystalline pool shaded by tall pines, with the long reeds dipping in the cool water. In any case, water will always attract human habitation, and it was on this premise that Mark hoped to find the debris of an ancient dwelling-place.
Long ago, when the Sahara was still green, the not-yet-desert was lively, in all senses of the word. There were forests in the gullies, and on the mountain slopes, massive stands of cypress and pine. The plains were grasslands, as lush as the American praire at the time of the buffalo; reeds, papyrus, and water lilies filled the ponds, and mosses lined the streams. As the desert dried up, and the water supply shrank, growing things retreated to a few specialized habitats. First the cultivated crops like millet disappeared, then the forage, the tough wild grasses. Some grasses, shrubs and trees survived in the wadies, salt-tolerant plants hung on to life on the periphery of the former lakes…The acacia tree has both tap root and a lateral root system to maximize its search for water. The tap root can descend to extraordinary depths.
(From “The Tenacity of Life” in “Sahara” by Marq de Villiers & Sheila Hirtle. Bloomsbury 2002.)
On the Michelin map above, it can be seen that this area, between Assamaka and Artlit, west of the Air mountain system, forms part of an ancient river system that drains this entire region. Today it consists mainly of dry wadies that will fill with water following a rare rainstorm. 4000 – 10,000 years ago however, this region would have formed the drainage area of a huge river system which originally would have linked up with the Niger River far to the south. No wonder Mark had headed straight to this area to look for evidence of ancient human habitations.
We wandered amongst the acacia trees, peering at the carpet of scattered stones in search of any unnaturally-shaped ones. It was so peaceful and relaxing after the stresses of desert travel that we have faced. This was the first ocassion that we had taken the time to wander around the desert. Without the safety of another vehicle travelling with us to pull us out of the sand if needed, we had been unable to leave the piste and explore before this.
Soon we were finding smooth edged chips from the edges of clay gourds and plates, along with pieces of stone which had obviously been worked but the original shape was no longer recognizable. I picked up a huge pancake-shaped, smooth round stone which our expert-on-the-spot told us was part of a mortar and pestle set used for grinding cereals. The pestle was lying nearby.
After a happy few hours of wandering around this ancient oasis, we headed back to the distant piste. Soon we hit a large hole which rocked the van unmercifully. The piste became more sandy as we drove on through the afternoon until suddenly there ahead of us was an immense pile of sand which stretched endlessly at right angles to our path. We plunged the van into it but the soft coarse sand quickly overwhelmed us. Out came the shovels and sand ladders but with each attempt, we jumped only a few meters. As soon as we came to the end of the sand ladders, the van would instantly sink back into the sand again. In the end, it required seven attempts before we were finally back on terra firma again. It was not until later that evening that Dr Milburn told us that this abyss is aptly named ‘The Valley of the Dead’. He had refrained from telling us this whilst we had been firmly caught in its grasp.
As the sun began to go down, it was difficult to distinguish a hard surface from a soft one. The hollows in the sand became large bottomless shadows, making it impossible to judge their depth, and adjust our speed to suit. We set up camp on the sandy plateau, and Mark Milburn joined us for a dinner of tomato pasta supplemented with potatoes and onions which were the only fresh vegetables we had left. There were still some oranges left for dessert, and with a plastic mug of French brandy (undiscovered by the customs officials for all their diligence), we talked on into the night about the stone-age men and women who had walked these plains before us.
That night Dr Milburn slept, as was his habit, under the stars beside his Landrover. Several nights previously, he had woken to find the prints of a large wolf-like animal which had padded around his pillow. Dr Milburn left us the next morning as he had business appointments in Arlit. We expected to be stuck in the sand again that day and did not wish to delay him any further. He spoke of his admiration for our unhurried and calm attitude towards getting unstuck, and he had great confidence that he would see us again in Arlit in a few days. As we stood and waved him farewell, we could only hope he was right.
Just as he left, a young Touareg girl with a large herd of camels came wandering over the horizon and, surprisingly, came to visit us just as we were clearing away our breakfast dishes. She was very hungry, wolfing down two slices of what was now very stale bread that I had liberally spread with strawberry jam. After I had given her the rest of the loaf and shown her how to spread the jam with a knife, she began ladling jam and munching steadily until all the bread was gone. Then she poured the last of the jam directly into her mouth from the pot. She looked longingly at the stainless steel table knife I had given her to spread her jam before carefully handing it back to me.
Having breakfasted so well, she was in no hurry to leave. She was now able to concentrate on all the other gadgets that accompanied this amazing vehicle. She was entranced by a musical calculator we had until we showed her a felt-tip pen. She then set about decorating her arms using bold geometric designs until suddenly Evan’s shiny padlock and chain caught her eye. In all cases, she scrupulously handed each article back after she had experimented with it. We were able to communicate a little in French, and she told us her parents lived several kilometers south of the piste. Presumably their village must lie in a small unmapped oasis similar to the one we had visited with Mark Milburn the day before.
During all this time, her camels were straying off, and she kept casting them a furtive eye. Eventually she could leave them no longer. We gave her matches, the felt-tip pen and some socks. We hoped the socks might keep her bare feet warm on these chilly evenings. As we set off, our dear little desert maiden was near to tears. Even a parting gift of a few sweets did not console her and bring back her lovely smile. It is indeed a lonely life for a teenage girl who, like young animal herders everywhere, should be in school. With her lively intelligence, dogged inquisitiveness and natural charm, she would do well in the modern world. Instead she is destined to wander the desert, bringing up more children in poverty and ignorance.
That morning, we were stuck in three sand piles, each of which was nearly as wide as the Valley of the Dead and took seven or eight jumps before we were finally out. The sand was of much coarser grain than further north, and the van seemed to sink more deeply and be more difficult to extricate. This was definitely the worst stretch of desert we had encountered so far.
Suddenly the piste led us on to a hard-packed stony plain on which grew increasingly more coarse grass. We were hailed by a Touareg woman who had a baby and three other older children. They were holding out a small plastic container for water which we stopped to fill for them. Their piteously small animal-skin tent was pitched on the stones nearby. They were almost certainly victims of the droughts which had afflicted this area in the past.
One of the children raced over to the marker post where they kept their belongings, returning with a bag of stones. On examining them, we became convinced that they were stone-age arrowheads and cutting tools which Dr Milburn had described to us the previous evening. When we bartered for them, we soon discovered that her lifelong struggle for existence had made the mother into a hard business woman. Although they were now in Niger, she asked for Algerian Dinars. The Touareg know no boundaries in the desert and wander without passports from one country to another. She also asked for food, clothing and matches, and we tried to help her from our rapidly diminishing supplies. However the stone-age tools we acquired from her were later confirmed as being genuine.
Soon afterwards, we were hailed for water again, this time by a young Touareg goatherd who informed us that we were only 10 km from Artlit. There were stubby trees scattered all over the desert here while his goats were finding plenty of wiry grass to eat. It began to look as though we had successfully crossed the Sahara Desert. The journey had taken us just two weeks of unhurried driving and digging.
Letter written by Evan Lewis:
Well its 28 January 1982, and we made it across the Sahara, despite getting lost in a sandstorm in the most dangerous part of the desert near the Niger customs post. With the sand blowing across the tyre tracks that we were following, we missed the ones going at right angles towards the custom’s post. After driving another 30 miles, we realized – in the midst of a huge sea of blowing sand – that we had surely missed it. Out there, we came across six car-loads of mad Frenchmen in the same predicament, and raced back along our tracks which were rapidly disappearing. We drove at a dangerous breakneck speed to keep up with them, risking wrecking Katy’s suspension.
We eventually tracked down the customs post, an old army fort, in the no-man’s – land between Algeria and Niger. There we met a refreshingly sane Englishman in a Landrover who joined up with us. He was an ethnologist, Dr Mark Milburn who spoke French and helped us through the formalities with the border guards. This process involved taking everything out of the van in a sandstorm for the custom’s agents to sort through.
That night, we camped beside Dr Milburn in the middle of a huge expanse of empty sand between In Guezam and Arlit. The next day, far out in the Sahara Desert, he showed us where to find stone tools.
In some places, the moisture in the sand varied during the day so that at each hour, its qualities changed. Feche-feche is very soft sand with a hard crust over the top. As long as you keep going at least 30 mph, you do not sink through the crust. However, the rolling resistance is high, and the engine reached 130 degrees C twice (the maximum allowable is 127 degrees C ) but we could not stop without sinking. This happened once when Mark Milburn took us off the track to go looking for stone-age artifacts in a distant grove of straggly trees. This ancient oasis formed an island in the middle of a sea of feche-feche.
Once there, Mark began to pick up pieces of mortars and pestles from the Stone Age. Kae found a smooth flat disc which had been used for grinding grain against stone mortars. Mark told us it was only the second one he had seen. It was a pity we did not meet up with him earlier because he had been visiting cave and rock drawings of hundreds of cattle. Thousands of years ago, the Sahara had been lush pastures for man and his cattle. The artifacts were coming to the surface near ancient sand dunes which were once fertile and populated lands. They are exposed by the shifting sands for only a short time before being buried again in the next sand storm. They lie around in fantastic abundance.
Mark left us early in the morning of the second day, our pace being a little slow for him as he had an appointment in Artlit. With his 4-wheel drive Landrover, he was not getting stuck at all.
Soon after that, a young girl appeared out of nowhere with a herd of camels. The camels happily wandered off over the horizon while she passed some time with us. Kae gave her half a loaf of bread and part of a jar of strawberry jam which she hurriedly gulped down in its entirely.
The Touareg often stop cars asking for water but sometimes they are obviously camping on the road especially for that purpose. At one stage, we were in complete isolation in a huge expanse of sand where every vehicle takes a different route when we saw camels silhouetted against the sky over a shimmering mirage lake. I stopped for photos and in no time at all, the Touareg herder arrived to pose for photos. He then asked for sugar which is a great luxury to them. Bonbons are also popular, and fortunately we had a good supply. We were continually being pestered by children in Algeria demanding cadeaux (gifts) – an unfortunate side-effect of tourism.
The terrain in the Sahara is surprisingly varied. We did not see much of the huge golden sand dunes which were to the east of our route in the Tenére. However we saw quite enough soft sand. We were stuck in soft sand a total of ten times. When you get stuck, you have to declutch before the vehicle stops moving forwards to avoid digging in. (Perhaps we have not mentioned before that the VW Kombie van has a manual transmission.) Then we did not have to dig so much to get the aluminium planks under the back wheels. We then laid our old rubber conveyor belts for about five meters in front of the front wheels. The aluminium sand ladders allow the back wheels to grip and climb out of the hole, and we could then gain some acceleration. The front wheels produced no friction on the rubber artificial road and when the back wheels came onto it, it allowed us to accelerate up to 10 – 15 mph before hitting the sand again. In certain types of sand, this speed was sufficient to prevent the van from sinking into the sand again. I could then drive right out of the bad patch – sometimes hundreds of yards but usually shorter. Then we had to drag the heavy metal sandladders and canvas conveyor belt all the way back to the van. Fortunately it was never very hot, one of the advantages of crossing the Sahara in the winter.
In the coarser round-particled sand between Assamaka and Arlit, this procedure only allowed the van to leap 30 – 40 meters before it sank back in again. We then had to repeat this up to eight times to get out of one ‘hole’ in this region. At that time, we were with Mark Milburn, and he complimented us on our driving technique and for keeping our cool, persevering until we eventually got out. Apparently many first-time tourists become very depressed and discouraged at this stage and want to turn around and go back. But we had known roughly what to expect before we started, as a result of reading several books about it. The reality was not as bad as we had expected in fact.
The most successful way of getting across the sand without getting stuck is to hit the soft patches at maximum revs in second gear at about 30 mph. You have to hope that you do not hit any big holes at that speed and flip over, or break the suspension! Often the only tracks have been deeply rutted by trucks. These ruts are too wide and deep for the VW, and the undercarriage drags on the sand hump in the middle, quickly bringing us to a halt. That then entails a lot of digging to clear the hump away for a good distance, both underneath and in front of the vehicle.
While digging in the sand, there was always a danger of snakes, although we never saw any. We saw some Saharan sand vipers in a zoo in Guardaia. They move like a sidewinder and lie under the sand without moving until you stand on them. Then they bite, and you are dead in ten minutes. They are the biggest worry in the Sahara.
While traveling at this speed, you also have to hope that the deep sand is not hiding any big rocks to smash the engine, gearbox or steering gear. You can tell how bad the sand is well in advance by the number of wrecked cars – nearly all Peugeots – around the hole. Sometimes we saw as many as seven or eight around one sand hole. Quite a few were burned out VW vans too.
The Sahara Desert is never boring as it is always changing. You drive across 100 yards of soft sand followed by perhaps 50 yards of flat rock where you pick up speed for the next patch of sand. There can be some sharp bumps which cause you to hit the brakes. Our speed was about 30 mph with the engine at maximum revs per sec because the sand was dragging on the tyres.
Kae played an essential role in navigating through these sand patches. While I was fully occupied with getting through the immediate obstacles, it was Kae’s job to scan the horizon for the best route around the soft sand which you could distinguish only by the deeper shadows from previous tyre tracks. Just as you started to speed up, you would hit the brakes again for corrugations. Sometimes I had time to glance at the scenery but not often.
We had expected tyre trouble, and other VW owners we had met had experienced three or four blow-outs or punctures. We have not had a single problem to date, despite carrying five spare tyres. This is probably because I bought new heavy duty 8-ply oversize truck tyres, steel-belted radials. This decreases torque but that did not seem to be a problem in second gear.
Often the hard patches have shingle or rock strewn over them or a bit of tussock growing while the soft sand has been dug up by other vehicles. Sometimes huge flat smooth rocks provide stepping stones or rather launching pads to project you from one patch of sand to the next. Eventually we learnt that it pays to follow the tyre tracks of the dual-wheeled trucks driven by Arab or Toureg who know the desert well. They often drive a long way off the beaten track to find hard ground and then return to the piste later. Often Kae successfully navigated us through virgin sand around very bad holes where everyone else had tried to barge straight through the centre. Most of the other VWs got stuck 6 to 10 times at each sand hole too.
I must go as the post office closes soon and I want to post this to let you know that we are alive. Heading for Kano, then Kenya? Evan and Kae.
The road southwards for the first 40 miles was newly sealed and in beautiful condition but all too soon we came to the place where the Algerian Army were hard at work rebuilding the road. They seemed to have learnt from their past mistakes and were building a high base of coarse shingle above the desert floor on which to lay the seal. Meanwhile we found ourselves unceremoniously launched onto a rough track which followed the partially completed road for many miles.
We left the Hoggar Mountains behind us and began to follow the Oued Tin Amzi. Soon we were driving on pistefor the first time. Piste is a French word used to describe a desert track which has never been bulldozed. Instead there are the tyre tracks of other vehicles across the sand, and you must assume that these vehicles have been traveling to the same destination as you yourself wish to go. This method of desert navigation works only until the next sandstorm when sand could blow across the tracks and completely obliterate them. We did see a few marker posts here and there but there were long stretches with nothing at all.
The confusion of wheel tracks can spread out across the desert for several kilometers as thousands of drivers have each chosen a route which they feel will get them round the obstacle ahead. There is a feeling that nothing could be worse than the sand seen directly ahead, with each vehicle driving further out across the desert. Large sand dunes or rocky outcrops are the only features that limit this spread.
The piste was very sandy, and it was not long before we were stuck in the middle of a large patch of sand. It was so common for a car to be stuck in sand in the Sahara that the locals have a name for it: ensablement. We had been traveling quite fast as we had learnt to do in the Arak gorge but this patch had defeated us. The drag of sand on the underside of the van had gradually slowed us down until we had come to a halt and sunk down into it.
We discovered it was important not to rev the engine and spin the tyres in an effort to get out. The wheels only sink further into the sand, requiring more digging to extract them. By immediately stopping the wheels from turning when we got stuck, we found we were still virtually sitting on top of the sand with a small mound of sand in front of each wheel. After shoveling this aside, we placed the aluminium sand-ladders in front of the back wheels. We had two stretches of old rubberized conveyor-belt about 4 meters long which we laid before the front wheels. This gave us a short length of solid surface on to which we could drive, picking up speed before launching once more onto the sand. This extra speed usually (but not always) prevented us from sinking immediately, and thus we could reach solid ground. Then came the hard work of dragging the heavy equipment back to the van.
Evan decided to let some of the air out of the tires because the low pressure allows them to float on top of the sand more easily. While we were working on these tasks, four Peugeot 404 saloon cars sped through the sand beside us, going about 60 m.p.h. by our estimate. One of the cars was being driven by a girl who struggled to control the wildly vibrating steering wheel. It was rattling her whole body as though she were in the grip of a giant pneumatic drill.
There are often deep holes in the sand dug by an unfortunate traveler whose wheels have sunk deep into the sand. As he shovels his way out, he leaves a mound of sand beside his pit. If a Peugeot car traveling at the speed of the four we saw hits the mound with one wheel and the pit with the other, it usually overturns. Many of these wrecks burn out, probably caused by carrying spare petrol in plastic containers that leak. When the petrol heats up in the back of the car, there is no expansion space or extra wall strengthening, and the petrol explodes. We saw many wrecks of Peugeot 404 saloon cars along the desert trail.
The piste continued to be alternately sandy and then stony or corrugated, necessitating fast changes in driving tactics. We were continually on the watch for rocks or holes, especially when we were traveling fast. If we saw them in time, we were able to slow down which usually meant that we were immediately stuck in the sand. Alternatively we sometimes hit these obstacles when traveling too fast to see them in time. The van would leap wildly about, and it was only our seatbelts that prevented us from being thrown from our seats. We had to be careful because with our tyres let down to a very low pressure, a sharp rock could easily rip a hole in the sidewalls which are the weak points of radial tyres.
There was also the danger of deep ruts in the sand caused by large trucks going through. The high center between the ruts would hit the underneath of the van until we were virtually ploughing it down to our level. The drag would eventually bring us to a halt, stuck once more in the sand. The underside of the engine (at the rear of the van) was fully exposed to allow cooling, and so a large rock hidden in the sand could damage the engine permanently. Although there was a guard protecting the underside in the front of the van, it was already very battered, and Evan had to bang it back into shape and retie it on with string every day.
Evan, who had been driving through all this, had to make many quick decisions about the speed to travel on the holes and ruts immediately in front of him. While he concentrated on this, I searched ahead on each side of us to see if there was a better way round an obstacle ahead. Often the best policy was to drive on the left (eastern) side of a sandy area because the wind was coming from this direction, blowing the sand away. However there was often no choice because large rocks or other obstacles had forced all the vehicles into a narrow sandy chasm. Then I was forced to lead Evan straight through the middle of a huge mound of sand. In these cases, we would often stop to survey the situation on foot first but would eventually launch ourselves in, sure that this patch would soon ensnare us in its clutches. The faithful VW motor would give a throaty roar as it worked to full capacity to push us through, and against all odds, we would make it to the other side.
Sometimes the tracks of a lone truck would lead off into virgin sand, and hoping to learn from these professional desert drivers, we would confidently follow them. However we would have to be wary that he was staying parallel to the rest of the piste, not wanting to be led off to some lonely oasis that he might be heading to. Eventually we would lose his tracks as, thankfully, he led us back on to the piste again.
Later that same day, we met some Swedes, two boys and a girl riding two huge motorbikes. The bike with the girl riding pillion pitched over while they were bumping through the sand beside us. When we stopped to check that they were unhurt, they nonchalantly explained that this was a frequent occurrence for them. Their bikes were fully laden with equipment but even so, they had been able to bring only five liters of water which had heated up in the sun. With their mouths full of sand, they each gratefully accepted a drink from our bounteous supply of cool mineral water from ‘The Source’.
They had enough petrol to reach In Guezzam, at the border with Niger, and were relying on buying more there. We had been warned by the Germans we met at ‘The Source’ that there was no petrol at In Guezzam and had therefore taken on enough to reach Arlit in Niger. The motorcyclists were not pleased to hear our gossip and no doubt hoped we were wrong. However when we reached In Guezzam later the next day, there was still no petrol available. We were traveling faster than them and did not see them again.
The temperatures were still moderate. We did not have a thermometer but were around 20 – 25 degrees C. The sun shining into the cab was hot but outside in the cool air, we often needed woolen jerseys. We were stuck for a second time before the end of that day. The sand seemed to be thicker, and the patches closer together as we went. The sun began to sink in a blaze of orange, and we looked for a campsite.
The piste was very wide at this point. We drove off to look for a campsite, but soon discovered that we could not drive off the piste where other vehicles were driving without getting bogged in more sand. Of course we also knew it was no use looking for a caravan park with the trees, hot showers and spa pool in this deserted and isolated spot. Eventually we found a giant rock planted in the sand and parked behind it. The piste passed on both sides, and several trucks rattled by in the night.
We were not able to use our precious water for washing off the dust with which we were liberally coated because we could not be sure when next we would be able to obtain water. We wanted to be sure we would have enough if we were delayed several days in the desert with a breakdown. I thought of the Swedes with their meager supplies as I used about a liter to wash the worst from my face and hands.
With driving conditions the next day much the same, we were stuck almost immediately. A passing truck kindly stopped to help us. The Targui driver stood resplendent in a turquoise and gold trimmed robe and white turban while he rapped out the orders to his underlings. Sand flew high in the air as they dug furiously at the high ruts that had brought us to a halt. There was no need to bring out the sand mats. When the driver was satisfied that all the sand had been removed, he lined everyone up behind the van and then harangued them all until they had pushed it on to solid ground. All we had to do was steer the van, and even reving the engine was superfluous. When he was quite satisfied that we were safely on our way again, this Good Samaritan leapt into his cab in a flourish of turquoise and roared off with all his underlings clinging frantically to the top of the load.
A little later, we stopped at the ruins of Fort Laouni, a French Foreign Legion outpost which sits in a desolate, sandy basin behind some high black granite outcrops. The building is now a mere shell of crumbling walls with no roof, windows or door. While we were there, two four-wheel-drive vehicles pulled up, and one of the European occupants asked us about road conditions to Tamanrasset and how long it would take them to reach it. They seemed in an extraordinary hurry, covering us with dust as they raced off.
We set off at a more sedate pace in the opposite direction, gradually learning more about driving on the rough terrain. We were stuck five times between Tamanrasset and In Guezzam during those two days. Each time it required only one stop before we were back on solid ground. It made all the difference having the heavy conveyor belts for the front wheels, as well as the sand ladders for the back wheels. We had picked up the old conveyor belt washed up on a remote beach at John O’Groats, Scotland, near the Arctic Circle so they were well travelled by the time we were finished with them.
With all this hard work, we were so lucky to be crossing the Sahara in the winter with its mild, and sometimes downright cool temperatures. Michael Marriott and his wife were not so lucky when they crossed the Sahara in March 1953 in their London Taxi. What a difference a few months makes:
Tuesday 31st March 1953, South of Tamanrasset:
The desert envelops us. We continue over the sandy waste until 11 a.m. – by this time, the radiator is almost at bursting point -and we are forced, much against our will, to stop. Once more, we try to stave off the worst of the sun’s heat by sheltering underneath the cab; but one cannot escape from flames when within the fire. Today, we are shrivelled and baked until the mind screams out: stop! But just when the breaking point is reached – and I cannot see how we can lie prostate and gasping any longer – the sun begins its decline, and we are given another chance. Another period of rest and coolness. It is surprising what the human body can withstand.
Desert Taxi by Michael Marriott. Panther 1956.
Just before we came to the Gara Ekar mountain range, a Saharan truck stopped in front of us. The Touareg driver climbed out of the cab to hail us. When we stopped, a young French girl who was riding up on the tray of the truck began to tell us her story. Early that morning, she and her girlfriend had left their cars on the piste to go for a walk in the mountains. They had returned about three hours later just in time to see a white four-wheel-drive vehicle driven by Europeans pull away, taking one of the girls’ cars with them. They had smashed the windows of their other car, taking a large drum of diesel, all their money, passports, food and water.
The description she gave fitted the boys who had asked us for information about the route that morning, and this would explain why they were in such a desperate hurry and had seemed so breathless. They had had two vehicles, one of them being white with a large drum of diesel filling the entire back seat. It had been three or four hours now since we had seen them, and she translated this information to the driver in French. She was naturally very upset as she related her tale to us. We were glad she had the assistance of the kindly truck-driver who grimaced as he swung back up into his cab to race off in pursuit. The French girl waved forlornly to us as she was thrown violently back onto the tray floor by the acceleration of the truck.
We had already formed the habit of having one of us always remaining in the van when parked either in the town or the desert. It is tempting to lock up and go off exploring but it is obviously a dangerous practice. It was difficult to make the decision however, because if we restricted ourselves to remaining always near the van, there was much we would miss seeing and experiencing. The alternative, having our van disappear or be ransacked, would spell the end of our expedition, and this would be an even bigger disaster. We now knew that it was important to continue with this policy, leaving the van only on those rare occasions when we were sure the risk was worth it or where we could find a safe place to park it.
In the Gara Ekar Range, we passed down a narrow sandy valley between high granite knobs. They looked decidedly top-heavy, with their bases eroded away. Later, when the valley gradually opened out onto a gigantic plateau covered in soft dust, we were able to drive quite fast, kicking up a giant column of dust behind us. Then, unexpectedly, there was a dark green smudge on the horizon in front of us and from this, as we approached, the palm trees of In Guezzam gradually took shape. This was the border between Algeria and Niger. It was now the 26thJanuary, just twelve days since we had arrived in Algeria.
Since it was still one hour before sunset when the border would close, we decided to try to complete the border formalities that evening. The piste led us straight down through the dusty little village to the border-post but unfortunately, five Frenchmen, each driving a Peugeot 404 car zipped past us at the last moment to join the queue ahead of us. These French entrepreneurs obtain the cars in France, drive them to western Africa where they can sell them at a good profit to super-rich African politicians and businessmen. For them, crossing the Sahara is a business, and the faster they can get the cars to West Africa, the greater their profit. Most of them will return, taking multiple vehicles across through the winter months and perhaps even into the summer as well.
Although we received our customs clearance that evening, we still did not have a stamp from the immigration office when the sun sank over the sand and the border was closed. We camped the night on the sand between the palmerie and a well-frequented café, as did many other travelers. There was a huddle of squat mud-walled cottages lined up along the wide dusty wind-swept street. Goats wandered in and out of the doorways, and naked children were playing in the dust.
Camped nearby that night was an Irish girl who, together with her fiancé was driving a Landrover to Ghana. It was now a week since the Landrover had broken down here, and her fiancé had accepted a lift to Arlit where he had hoped to obtain a new water pump. In the meantime, she had become disillusioned with life in In Guezzam and was anxiously awaiting his return. They were going to Ghana, her fiancé’s homeland to see if she would want to live there after they were married. We heard not long after this that the borders of Ghana were temporarily closed due to civil strife. I fear she had a long wait and a difficult decision ahead of her.
Evan summaried driving in the Sahara in a letter to his father:
We got stuck in soft sand only about ten times, had no tyre trouble, only slight trouble with the front suspension. It’s never boring driving here, every 100 meters of desert is different. First 100 meters of soft sand, 50 meters of flat rock (pick up speed here for the next patch of soft sand), sharp bumps (hit the brakes), speed up to 30 m.p.h. with maximum revs in second gear for sand. Search the horizon for the best route ahead (that’s Kae’s job). Hit the brakes again for corrugations. Glance at the scenery if possible.
We were about to leave Algeria and cross the border into the country of Niger. We had been only twelve days on the road and come about 1500 miles (2312 km) on bad roads (or no roads) the whole way.
Tamanrasset lies in the middle of the Hoggar Mountains at a height of 1600 meters (5250 feet) above sea level. It has been built on either side of a large dry oued which on rare occasions can become a roaring mass of water coming down off the mountains. For the rest of the time, the oued is a large dusty common-area often used by squatters and refugees. The town is the seat of Amenokal who is the supreme chief of the Kel Rela Touaregs. He has a residence in Tamanrasset but is more commonly found in an encampment of camel skin tents in the desert nearby.
There are approximately 3000 Touareg living in Tamanrasset. Originally these tribes were strictly nomadic, dependent on the caravan trade, brigandage and their sheep and camels. They kept slaves and relied heavily on their labor. They were truly ‘masters of the desert’, as they always maintained.
With the coming of the French administration, the Touareg were forced to abandon their raids on oasis villages and farms. They turned instead to trading desert salt for the millet they needed. Eventually the Arab merchants began to compete in the desert regions, and the traditional Touareg way-of-life had to change. When the Algerians from the north took over the administration in 1962, the Touareg were made to release their slaves who then merely squatted on the edges of towns in bewilderment. Many Touareg began to join in the co-operative farming that was beginning while others fled southwards with their flocks into Niger.
Today many of the drivers of trans-Saharan trucks are Touareg, and this is a modern adaptation of their old style of life. Trading goods from the North with those of the South forms the basis of their livelihood while they operate the black market with goods obtained along the way. The old yen for slaves is possibly satisfied by the large number of drifters who attach themselves to the truck. They sway and bounce high up on the top of the load and are obedient to the commands of the driver in return for their passage.
Since it was Friday when we arrived in Tamanrasset, the market-place was crowded. The merchants, who had spread their wares on the ground everywhere, were selling wool rugs and hand-beaten silverware along with household items such as tin pots, clay dishes and long shiny daggers. We bought some bread, a large sack of oranges and then treated ourselves to some delicious apricot doughnuts being sold hot from the pan.
Before leaving Tamanrasset, every traveler must obtain permission from the Police de Frontiere at the Diara.. Passports are checked and stamped, and later at the border, they are checked again. If the required stamp from Tamanrassat is not in the passport, the culprit faces a grueling 500 km trip back to Tamanrasset to obtain it. Without the ‘Saharan Handbook’, we would not have known this because there is no other way to find out about the various requirements of these meticulous authorities.
The Police also ask each traveler to outline his planned route. Although the attitude seems to vary from year to year, when we were there, there was no check made on the equipment of those proceeding directly to the frontier at In Guezzam. Only those wishing to travel eastward to Djanet or westward were required to have four-wheel drive vehicles, to form a convoy of at least three vehicles and to carry a certain minimum of survival equipment.
We were instructed by the Police to drive to the customs office on the outskirts of town. We finally found this unmarked building only to be told that we were not required for custom’s inspection at all. By now, we had become so accustomed to this kind of run-around, that we cheerfully accepted this news and drove off. Because it was now a few weeks since we had been working in the West, the attitude that all time-wasting must be avoided at all costs was slowly wearing off. We could now see just how tightly wound-up and stressed we had been. Clock ticking is our great god, and the results are plain to see in the overcrowded coronary-care units of every Western city.
Our experience with officialdom in Tamanrasset was simple in comparison to the experience of Micheal and Nita Marriott when they passed this way in March 1953 in their London Taxi, as described in this extract from Michael’s book “Desert Taxi”:
One week in Tamanrasset, and we are still far from ready to leave. True, Bertha (the 18 year old Austin taxi cab they were driving) is now very different from the poor wreck that limped into the town seven days ago, but now we are wading through red tape which seems more arduous than persuading an ancient London Taxi to cross the Sahara. We are well and truly entangled, and the opposition looks formidable indeed. Three times – or is it four? – I have visited the Commandant of the town and requested permission to continue our journey. Each time he has told me that without a suitable escort vehicle, he absolutely forbids us to leave.
So far, the only vehicles which might possibly have acted as escort have been in an almighty hurry, and the drivers have pointed out that they could not possibly wait for us, with our speed averaging only 20 miles an hour. Most of these trucks, either S.A.T.T. lorries or Arab-owned vehicles carrying merchandise and built specially for desert motoring, travel at double that speed and could not crawl along at our pace – and understandably so. I have approached about seven French and Arab drivers and always the first question is, “What sort of vehicle have you.”
When I tell them, well, we are right back where we started. Nita and I are about the only two people in Tamanrasset who think we are continuing southwards; everyone else is certain we shall be making a return journey to Algiers!
The Commandant is adamant in his refusal, and I can see no way round the regulations. His attitude is understandable: terrible stories are plentiful of lone travellers being lost, or dying of thirst because their vehicles fail them, and I suppose that it is for our own good – but when you have set your heart on anything, logic is rarely acceptable, and, after all, it is our lives which are at stake. There must be a way somehow.
In the afternoon, we hear rumours that a small Génie force (French military) may be going to In Guezzam within the next few days. …(Then) we heard the wonderful news, the rumour of their journey to In Guezzam has been confirmed. They are leaving in two days time, and the Commandant has at last relented and told the Génie officer that he is agreeable to let us go one day in advance of the trucks.
Realising that we had got off lightly in comparison to the situation 30 years before, we drove off back to town. We had begun to wonder where we could fill up our water tanks. Back in the main street, we stopped to talk to some German tourists who were driving two VW Kombies. They told us that they were camping out in the desert where it was possible to obtain water and invited us to join them there.
The artesian water lying beneath Tamanrasset is not sufficient for the needs of the ever-increasing population as well as tourists and other migrants. The airport and a grand new hotel brings foreign visitors who expect flushing toilets and twice daily showers.
The one public tap which we had seen in the market-place had a long queue of more than thirty people, each dragging along several large water containers. Once the containers were finally full, the householder then staggered off with the water slopping around his ankles. It did not seem fair that these unfortunate townsfolk should have tourists like us also joining their long queue, and so we were pleased to hear about ‘The Source’ for water in the desert.
The Source was 15 km north of Tamanrasset on the road to Assekrem. The very sandy road scraped from the desert floor took us past a beautiful steeple-shaped pinnacle, the weathered remains of an old volcano plug. As we slowly drew near, the sheer grey rock was transformed into a fiery orange by the setting sun. Just past this peak, we turned off the road and drove towards a mountain range. The auberge (guesthouse) named ‘The Source’ is a half-finished cottage built at the entrance to a gorge in the foothills. There is a tap in the yard, and it is possible to induce the proprietor to open the valve. We paid about US$1 for 50 liters of this naturally effervescent mineral water.
Together with the Germans, we camped a short distance away in the desert. They were returning from Niger along the same route that we were about to take and were able to pass on much valuable information. We were astounded and very grateful when they gave us their Michelin #153 map of the Sahara since they were now finished with it. Although out-of-date, it was virtually the only detailed map of the Sahara available at this time. When we had tried to get it in Europe, it was out-of-print. We were told that Michelin would not be reissuing it until the long-standing Western Sahara problem has been resolved and the disputed boundaries redrawn. In the meantime, this third-hand copy of the coveted ‘153’ was invaluable to us.
An update for 2019: Michelin have now published a new map of the Sahara, and it is called #741 Africa North and West. It comes with a warning written on the map in red, the same warning that was also on the old #153:
Crossing the Sahara is subject to special regulations. Apply to the appropriate authorities (usually the prefecture or sub-prefecture nearest the Sahara of each of the countries concerned.
Our German friends set off northwards to Europe early the next morning while we stayed to do some vehicle maintenance and get some much needed rest. Evan had discovered that the rubber bushes on the rear suspension of the Peugeot, wrecks of which littered the desert everywhere we went, were not much different to the VW model. He had to reshape the rubber using a pen knife to make it fit in the space available, and then find some other means of attaching a Peugeot bolt to the VW socket. However, the resulting arrangement held together for months under appalling conditions, and a true Kiwi like Evan had once more proved that a ‘number 8 wire’ fix can be invaluable. We were very glad that we would not have to order new VW bushes in Tamanrasset and wait around for them to arrive.
Evan also set the tappets. This is important for a VW motor which has a tendency to overheat when the air temperatures are high. Previously, when driving in Greece in mid-summer, we had not had a temperature gauge. Before setting out on that trip, a mechanic had told us that to prevent over-heating in the VW, the motor should be kept at high revs when climbing hills. The result was cracks in the heads which required an engine replacement on our return. Now that we had a temperature gauge, we had discovered that in fact the engine must be kept at low revs to minimize the temperature. Evan decided that we would never allow the oil temperature to rise above 120° C. Whenever it did, we stopped to allow it to cool. Setting the tappets frequently helped to prevent the engine from overheating as well.
Our Sahara Handbook recommended that we not miss Assekrem, 85 km north in the Hoggar mountains. Later that day we set off on a road passing down wide, stony plains between sharp peaks and towering volcanic plugs. There were no signposts, and when the road forked, we chose the road using compass directions only.
As we climbed up towards Assekrem, the road became very steep. At one particularly steep incline, we had to tip out some of our water before we finally made it to the top. However it was not until the last kilometer before Assekrem that we were finally defeated. It was just too steep for our 1600 cc engine. Even after unloading some of the heavier objects, we could not make it up to the summit carpark. Instead we parked at the bottom and prepared to hike to the top.
A group of Czechoslovakians in an old Landrover were coming down the hill and stopped to ask us for water. We gave them some of our diminishing stocks of lovely mineral water to pour into their rusty old radiator which was puffing clouds of steam. A spare water pump for the radiator would appear to be essential equipment for a Landrover in the Sahara because we met several groups in this predicament. Evan’s temperature gauge had demonstrated quite clearly to us that we could not climb this very steep incline without damaging our engine, and we were glad we had it, even if it did mean we had to hike the last leg to the summit.
The sun was sinking low in the clear blue sky, and we wanted to be at the summit to see the sunset. We climbed first to the Auberge at the top of the ridge and then on a steep footpath to the stony plateau above. We paused for a rest at the tiny stone Hermitage originally built by Charles de Foucauld in 1910. He was a French Benedictine monk who felt that this stark, lonely place was suitably conducive to a life of mediation and prayer. He also worked amongst the Touareg during times of upheaval.
There are two monks (Les petits frere de Foucauld) living there today, and we could hear them at their evening devotions in the chapel as we sat quietly outside. Their droning voices carried quite clearly through the unmortared stone walls, and I suspect the cold winds whistled in to them through the same gaps at night. During the day on this stark rocky mountainside, they had no trees to offer shade from the pitiless Saharan sun.
However they are certainly compensated somewhat by having one of the world’s most magnificent views at their doorstep. All around us were towering needles and conical peaks rising to a maximum height of 2750 meters (9170 feet). The entire chain became emblazoned in a riot of color from orange to deep purple as the light from the sun slowly extinguished. The crescendo came when the sun, looking like a huge round piece of glowing coal sank over the horizon, silhouetting the black mountains against a golden sky. Then the sky turned purple and filled with a solid mat of glittering stars so close that you felt as though you could reach up and pluck them out. It was easy to see now why a meditative monk had chosen this place to live. This is the universe in its naked reality where man and his petty ways are reduced to insignificance.
We had hardly time to catch our breath before the whole scene was plunged into inky darkness before our eyes. The wind suddenly blew strong and icy cold, biting into any exposed skin and causing numbness within minutes. We stumbled down the precipitous, rocky path in the dark and were thankful when we finally reached the shelter of the van. Next time we climb up a mountain to see the sunset, we will try to remember to take a flashlight and warm clothes with us, even if it is broiling hot and bright sunlight when we set out.
The following letter was written by Evan Lewis to his parents in New Zealand:
Assekrem, 85 km north of Tamanrasset in the Hoggar Mountains. 24 January 1982.
Assekrem is incredibly spectacular. Perhaps we will never go to the moon as tourists but this place must be the next best thing. Even the weather is a bit moon-like. It was below zero at dawn and windy with fine dust blowing through everything but the minute the sun appeared, it became quite warm. You can easily imagine that in summer temperatures must approach 40°C. But in winter it can snow here, despite being right in the middle of the Sahara Desert. There is virtually no vegetation, although rabbits, donkeys, birds, snakes and scorpions seem to survive somehow.
The Hoggar mountains must have been a highly active volcanic area a long time ago. But the dozens of closely packed volcanoes have long since had their outer coating of soil removed by wind erosion, leaving dramatic vertical plugs of lava projecting from plains strewn with volcanic rocks. These plugs have vertical faces with vertical fissures in the direction of lava flow. They are sometimes textured with bubble holes like Swiss cheese. There is even a vulture circling above us to add to the desolate atmosphere.
Yesterday we drove up here from Tamanrasset, 83 km away, to see the dramatic sunset and sunrise. It took over 4 hours to drive that distance in first and second gears with rock-strewn corrugated sand roads. We are carrying 100 kg of water and at one stage, we could not quite get to the top of a steep hill. We unloaded some water canisters near the top, backed down and took another run at it. We just made it over the top. Then we had to walk back for the water. The next time we tried that was about 1 km from the summit of the mountain of Assekrem which we had come to see. This time, the van reached within six meters of the same point on each of three runs. We decided we would have to strike camp there and walk the 1:3 gradient to the top.
Once we reached the top of the road, it was another half an hour’s steep climb to the summit overlooking the plain. The view was spectacular and impossible to describe adequately. There are hundreds of these volcanic plugs of all shapes and sized sprinkled over the landscape as far as the eye can see. The colors of the rocks range from deep red through all shades of purple and magenta with a few yellow ones thrown into the mix. They disappeared in shades of blue and mauve haze in the distance. The sky was a clear blue and cloudless, and as the sun set, the whole scene began to change color through all shades of orange and red.
After the sun had disappeared, sinking as an orange orb behind a peak, the sunset was really only just beginning. The horizon, consisting of these dramatic peaks, was silhouetted against the orange sky. As time went by, the orange faded into blue and deep purple with stars beginning to appear directly above us. You feel on top of the world with this huge ring of orange fire completely surrounding you. There is no longer any evidence of the western point where the sun had set, as the whole circular horizon is orange with an even intensity all the way round.
Eventually it became so cold that we thought we might be frost-bitten and made a hasty retreat for the van.
It is said that the sunrise is even more dramatic, so despite a body full of aching muscles, I dragged myself out of bed at 6.30 am, before dawn. Since it was too cold for Kae, I was alone as I began to pick my way once more to the top of the mountain. This time the view was more spectacular on the way up because the vertical landscape is closer and the plugs, one in particular, tower high into the sky. Eventually, after a similar display to the sunset in reverse, the sun suddenly appears at the tip of this gigantic spike and sprays the mountains of Assekrem with orange light and you can immediately feel its searing heat, despite air temperatures below zero.
Then back to the world of reality because my hands were suffering badly from the cold. The day before, I had set the tappets, points and timing of the engine before we set out, and in the process, had taken skin off the knuckles of two fingers on one hand and the thumb on the other, all with one slip of the screwdriver while trying to lever the tappet cover off. Normally that would not cause much trouble but sand blew into them, and they festered badly. Now they suffered from the cold, and I have both hands bandaged up like a boxer.
Kae continues the story:
Assekrem lies on a loop road to Tamanrasset but because we had not been able to reach the summit with the van, we had to return the next day the way we had come. About halfway back, a middle-aged European lady came dashing over the stones waving frantically at us. Strangely, she was coming from what appeared to be a native encampment with camels and skin tents. We stopped as we wondered if she wanted some help. We soon learnt that she was a French journalist working for a glossy travel magazine, and they had hired native guides with camels to take them to out-lying villages for photographic material. She was endeavoring to produce pictures which did not show plastic bottles and other signs of Western decadence or people with bad teeth or dirty hair.
“So that the readers can dream,” she explained to us.
The Parisian suburbanite who flipped through the pages would not wish to see anything nasty. Unfortunately the reality of the situation is that even in the remote areas far from any vehicle track, European influence permeates the entire fabric of life. Also she had found that the people were almost all in bad health, as we ourselves had already observed, even on the main road.
Her other problem was that the people, being Muslim, did not wish to be photographed. Their religious teachings forbid depiction of the human body in pictorial form, a situation that every tourist with a camera in an Islamic country is rapidly made aware of. Since the journalist had a letter of introduction from the Algerian Minister of Information, she was now proposing to return to Tamanrasset to ask the authorities there to send back an official who could force the people to pose for her camera. She was asking us for a ride into town but when she and her team discovered that we were stopping overnight 15 km before Tamanrasset at ‘The Source’, they changed their minds. There would be others passing shortly, and as we waved them goodbye, we could only hope that the authorities in Tamanrasset would see reason and refuse to pander to their preposterous demands.
It was for this same reason, that the Algerians on the whole did not like to be photographed, that we have only a few photos of local people in our collection. This was also the reason why we took no photos in the streets and marketplace of Tamanrasset.
Back at ‘The Source’, we filled right up with their marvellous effervescent mineral water in preparation for leaving Tamanrasset. Since we were expecting to be driving on sand from now on, Evan changed the four tyres to the sand tyres he had ready. These are wide and had very little tread. By keeping the air pressure in them very low, they were less likely to dig into the sand and get us stuck. They bulged out on each side, and were now very vulnerable to stone damage.
The next day, we went to Tamanrasset to buy petrol and, as well as filling the van tank, we filled eight jerry cans, making a total of 220 liters. We spoke later to some tourists who had passed through Tamanrasset a month before us when petrol had been in short supply. The garages would fill only vehicle tanks and not jerry cans. They had been forced to make several trips out into the desert to siphon petrol from the tank into jerry cans, a dangerous operation. We were fortunate to be there at a time when petrol was plentiful. Before finally leaving town that day, we bought bread, fruit and vegetables in the Tamanrasset marketplace. There was no fresh meat or eggs available but by now we had grown accustomed to doing without them.
As we drove out of Tamanrasset, we felt tense and very apprehensive. Ahead of us lay over 500 miles (860 km) of sandy piste before we would reach the next main town, Agadez in Niger. Navigation would be by following the tracks of other vehicles in the sand. We would be crossing the trackless desert where there were few, if any settlements and certainly none that could provide any petrol, water or food, let alone help in emergencies. There would be no medical care or even mechanics and spare parts until we reached Agadez. We were on our own.
As we began the long climb out of the valley of Ghardaia, the sky was clear and sunny. The long, flat, featureless plains ahead were crossed by a sealed, well-maintained road. The ground was still dotted sparsely with coarse grasses.
We reached El Golea by midday, and it is here that the Sahara Desert really began for us. The town lies in the heart of the Grand Western Erg region which is an ocean of sand stretching the rest of the way across Algeria. El Golea has a large date palmerie which is fed by a good water supply but the sand blows in unceasingly from the desert and inundates the palm groves. Life is a relentless struggle for the farmer who must dig the sand away or his palms will soon die. There are many different types of dates, from the large succulent deglet noir to the humble ghars which are the soft sweet date that forms the basis of the desert nomad’s diet. They were for sale in great black piles in all the markets we saw in the Sahara.
El Golea has a distinctly colonial atmosphere with wide sandy boulevards shaded by pine and eucalyptus trees. There are no twisted alley-ways with square houses cluttered along the length but instead each villa is surrounded by a high-fenced garden The women appeared to be permitted to have both eyes unveiled. We bought a long French loaf from a pile in the sand at a market and filled up the van with petrol. For the first time, we filled an extra jerrycan with petrol because it was 400 km to In Salah where we could next expect to obtain petrol and water.
Everywhere we went in Algeria, we were being constantly approached by black-marketeers who wanted to buy virtually anything we had. They always recited a standard list: whiskey, cigarettes, radios, jeans, jerrycans and what-have-you? Whiskey, which is prohibited in this Muslim country, sells on the black market for up to twenty times the price in Europe. Unfortunately we did not bring any but even if we had, we would never have got it through customs at the Algiers port.
When we arrived in Africa, we had three batteries, two of which were new and one with about half the life left in it. We would use the two new ones in the van, one at night to run the lights and water pump leaving the second one fully charged to start the engine in the morning. If we did not have this back-up battery, we could easily run one flat in an isolated campsite far from the road. It is a problem which is almost impossible to remedy without the help of another vehicle.
This left us with a third half-used battery surplus to our requirements, and we sold it for a good price to a very eager garage owner. Harsh import restrictions have starved these people of the essential spare parts they need to operate their rapidly emerging nation. Such conditions generate a thriving black-market, and it is the middlemen who make all the money.
On the way out of town, we were hailed by some boys selling ‘desert roses’. These beautifully shaped crystalline calcium stones which are found beneath the desert sands, sometime grow to the size of a coconut or more. As their name suggests, the crystals form the shape of the petals of a sand-colored rose. Looking for them would be a dangerous operation for these boys because the deadly sand vipers have a nasty habit of lying just below the surface of the sand with only the pair of horns protruding. They are small, the color of sand and move in a peculiar unsnake-like manner involving a wave that passes down the length of the body. This somehow propels them sideways and leaves a characteristic pattern of parallel lines in the sand to warn the would-be victim.
Just south of El Golea, the repair gangs had moved in and ripped up the road for many miles across the desert. No attempt had been made to provide an alternative detour roadway. Instead we had to drive on the desert beside the road, searching for a way as best we could.
Once we were finally back on the road again, we began to climb up through the sand dunes to the Plateau of Tademait which is about 150 km in width. Up on the plateau, all signs of vegetation of any kind were now gone and in every direction around us was hard, flat stony ground which was as black as asphalt. Each stone was flint grey on the top surface and when picked up, was sand-colored underneath. Whenever we stopped, we could see the curve of the horizon uninterrupted for the full circle around us. It was like standing on the top of a large beach-ball.
Suddenly, we came to a deserted little tin shack standing all on its own in the middle of this dismal place. The word Cafe had been scribbled on its side many years before. I wondered if any thirst-crazed pilgrims had seen this crude little sign shimmering in the distance and thought that their eyes were playing a cruel trick.
The sealed road, our trusty engine, a tank full of petrol and plenty of food and water all combined to give us a false sense of security. One has to stop and face the harsh truth that here on this hellish plateau, man without his survival equipment is a frail thing indeed.
Although the road was still tar-sealed, it had rapidly deteriorated and was was now very badly pot-holed. We were reduced to a crawl as we weaved around trying to avoid falling into any of the deeper holes. It was often unavoidable because the hole took up the whole width of the road. Then we would stop and in first gear, carefully lower the wheels down into the ditch and climb back out again.
It was easy to see how these holes had developed such elephantine dimensions when several large trans-Saharan trucks driven by maniacal Arab drivers roared past us, their wheels thumbing in and out of the potholes at an incredible rate. As we slept near the road at night, we were woken by these vehicles torturing every nut and bolt beyond endurance as they crashed on through the night. To survive in this spare-parts deprived area, these drivers must double as bush mechanics. They replace expensive and probably irreplaceable shock absorbers with large blocks of wood which allow the trucks to keep up this speed on the potholes undeterred by breakdowns.
Another problem seems to lie in the road-building itself. I cannot profess to be a road engineer but when the road is looked at closely, it is plain that the desert sand and fine gravel form its base. The desert has simply been scraped flat, and a thin layer of asphalt laid on top. Now the seal crumbled away like biscuit when touched with a finger. The Algerian government, in proposing to seal the trans-Sahara route has set itself a mammoth task. When they spent all this money on roads, they failed to take fully into account the effects of the ruthless Sahara climate and the heavy truck traffic which has developed as a result of the improved road conditions and an expanding economy. The sad fact is that they are pushing on, having now begun to seal south of Tamanrasset, while behind them the desert is rapidly reclaiming over 1000 km of road that they have not been able to maintain adequately.
When night eventually caught up with us, we were still on the plateau surrounded by the same black stony landscape while the road continued to be incredibly pot-holed. We had scarcely been out of first gear all day as we inched around these continuous gaping holes in the road, most of them now more than a meter wide.
We drove out into the desert in search of a nook for a campsite but there was nothing. All we could do was to park on the stones in the middle of it all. When the fiery red sun sank away, we were the only blob on the endless 360 degrees of horizon. It was a bitterly cold night but we were cozy in our New Zealand-made goose-down sleeping bags. The van was insulated beneath the wooden wall trim; we had seen to that when we built it. Our foam rubber mattresses, clean sheets and soft pillows gave us all the luxury of home and yet here we were alone in the middle of the vast emptiness of the Sahara.
When the sun rose again on the other side of the van, we immediately began to bake beneath its unrelenting rays. We had only an hour’s drive on the plateau before we reached Ain El Hadjadj where the road suddenly plunged down between high granite peaks to another sandy yellow plain at a lower level.
The road was still full of potholes, and in fact it became worse as we crept towards In Salah. We saw this oasis long before we reached it because the vivid green of its date palms contrasted so starkly with the sandy yellow wastes that encircled it.
In Salah means ‘brackish source’ although we found the water available at the garage to be sweet and palatable. We filled our containers with this precious liquid and took on a lot more petrol. We had managed the distance from El Golea without using our reserve jerrycan. However, after some careful calculations using the map and his calculator, Evan decided that we should fill four jerrycans for the stretch ahead. It was nearly 700 km to Tamanrasset and, although our map indicated that there were petrol stations ahead, we could not be sure that these tiny oases would have supplies on hand.
In Salah is a town of flat red mud-walled houses. An eternal wind whisks around the streets and endeavors year after year to engulf the town in desert sand. There were a few sleepy shops but since all the signs were in Arabic, we had to peer into each dark doorway to see what was for sale. Many of the men wore the traditional full-faced turban of the Touaregs, with only their eyes exposed. The cloth they used for their clothes was often a deep azure blue, and when the dye tinted their skin, they became known as the ‘blue men’. The turban is never removed in front of others, even for eating.
On the other hand, the women of In Salah were not as heavily veiled as they had been further north in Algeria. A young girl of about ten years old spoke to us in French and with a big toothy smile, asked us for writing paper. We gave her a note-pad in a blue plastic folder and a pen.
“Oh la la!” she exclaimed as she danced off to show her mother who was unveiled and had the same toothy smile as her daughter.
The potholes continued as we bounced across the forbidding plains that still lacked any form of vegetation. Every once in a while, we would cross an oued, a dry riverbed with possible subterranean water. Consequently a few short acacia trees and tufts of dry grass were able to cling to life in these isolated spots. There was also a creeping melon-type plant on which a magnificent crop of green and yellow striped melons were ripening in the sun. These plants were all growing in extremely poor sandy soil conditions. They must develop a complex root system which grows deep into the riverbed gravel to tap the underground moisture. There would be little more than one rainstorm a year, and in times of drought, even that fails to come year after year. The fierce wind and sand storms that rage for most of the year will tear all but the most tenacious plants out by the roots. Sand dunes that ‘walk’ across the desert in front of the wind will soon engulf the tiny plants. Some of the acacia trees have evolved a system of transferring their root system to escape the devastating advance of a dune.
We reached Arak gorge in the late afternoon on the same day. The tiny settlement of Arak stands at the entrance to the gorge. It consists of a road-workers’ camp and several dilapidated shanty-type shacks.
Once we had passed into the gorge, the tall red cliffs rose breathtakingly around us as we weaved our way through pot-holes down the narrow ravine. The late afternoon sun burnished the rock until it glowed in a kaleidoscope of scarlet, orange and purple. Although the temperatures on this January afternoon were chilly, we could easily imagine that this gorge would be a burning hell-hole in the summer.
The road through the gorge had been built on the riverbed itself, and when the river had flooded, it had been inevitable that the road would be washed away. Although fairly rare, rain storms in this region can be severe with rushing torrents of water suddenly filling the oueds. It seemed foolish in the extreme to build a road here, and we could only assume it was done shortsightedly for reasons of economy. The result was vast washouts where, in some cases, the road had been carried right away. There had been little effort made to repair the chasms in the road, probably because the repair gangs already knew the futility of it all.
It is more than a little disconcerting to come round a corner and find, instead of a sealed road, that only a gaping black hole confronts you. No signpost or barrier warns the motorist, and it was certainly fortunate that the potholes had forced us to travel so slowly. Since potholes did not slow the Arab truck drivers, they must know the exact location of all these obstacles, especially when they traveled at night. Rough tracks had been bulldozed around the obstacles but it was not always absolutely clear just where we were expected to go. We suspect the road-maker had left this ambiguous because he was not too sure himself.
In the valley, there were trees and a few dense thorn bushes which made a pleasant change from the desolate expanses that we had camped on for the previous few nights. The valley floor was covered in loose sand, and while searching for a camp-site, we became slightly bogged. By this time, we were so tired that we decided this had to be a problem for the morning. As the orange sun sank down behind the cliffs, the cold desert wind soon had us looking for our woolen jerseys.
We began the nightly ritual, unloading jerrycans, tyres, water containers and sand-ladders so that I could access the kitchen area to prepare a meal. To avoid accidents, we never lit the gas-cooker inside the van when the jerrycans of petrol were also there. Burnt-out hulks of numerous Kombies lying in the desert had already convinced us of the foolhardiness of this practice. Far from civilization, as we now were, was no place to have the van burn out.
Because it had been many days since we had been in Ghardaia and able to buy any fresh vegetables, we were by now relying almost entirely on rice and tinned meat. We were dining on this humble fare and trying not to think too much about fresh salads or roast beef when a young Touareg girl appeared from behind a bush. She was dressed in rags and was dragging a large piece of corrugated iron behind her. She, like us, had thought this place was deserted and was too frightened to approach us when we waved.
We were joined later by a French couple who were driving their Peugeot 504 saloon car to Upper Volta. They were sleeping in their car and camped near us that night. Before going to bed, Evan had to load the jerrycans and other equipment into the front cab area to prevent them from being carried off by scavengers. The next morning, before we could begin cooking our breakfast, all the equipment was stacked back on the sand again. Once we had eaten and washed up, we stowed it all in the back. It was heavy work, and care was required to pack them in so that they would not bounce loose on the rough track.
The stars in the Sahara were amazing. I do not know whether it was because we were at a high altitude, or the air was clear, or both but the sky is a carpet of stars so dense, its difficult to tell one from another, let alone pick out any familiar patterns. The old “porridge pot” stood out because the stars making it up are much larger and brighter than the myriad of dots behind them. No doubt that’s why we can see it through all the murk and smog we usually have to look through.
It took us about ten minutes to extricate ourselves from the sand we had camped in. We were just reloading the sand mats when trucks, vans and cars suddenly converged on our peaceful valley from every direction. There were several more Frenchmen with Peugeot saloon cars, another VW Kombie and some Algerian trucks. An articulated lorry came towards us from the back of the valley, far from the road. The driver obviously knew what lay ahead and had found his own route around it.
Soon we were all standing despondently around the patch of road ahead. It was a hill of sand over which the road passed in a series of ruts cut deep into the soft surface. On the other side of this, there was a good section of road which had been blasted into the rock of the cliff face and would at last take us out of the oued. But the cliff had caught the whirling sand at its base, leaving us with this deep patch to negotiate before we could reach that beautiful road ahead.
We all walked along the cliff base to where the tracks indicated that other drivers had ventured across. However, the general (very international) consensus of opinion was that this was worse than the first place we had looked at. Because on the previous evening, our van had become bogged on a relatively firm surface at the campsite, Evan and I were very apprehensive about going through this lot.
While I stood on the side of the road and watched, Evan backed the van up the road for some distance. He then approached the sand-pit at about 40 mph in second gear and, without hesitating, drove headlong into the sand. When the front wheels hit the first hole, they thumped down into it, flinging the van skywards. Then the back wheels went down into the same hole, bucking the van violently while Evan continued to grip the steering wheel like a determined cowboy mounted on a very reluctant broncho. Heedless to the pitching van, he pushed the accelerator pedal to the floor but the soft deep sand dragging on the underside of the van slowed it down rapidly. However the extra momentum at the beginning was just enough to carry the van through, and it struggled slowly out at the other end. Evan’s long experience with driving his old Austen 7 on the sands of the Papamoa Beach in his hometown in New Zealand had certainly paid off.
We were relieved that we had successfully negotiated our first major obstacle. For a long time now, we had worried that perhaps the Kombie would baulk at the first sign of adversity but here, with road conditions worse than we had ever imagined, she had not let us down. However we did wonder just how much of this kind of treatment she would be able to stand up to.
We did not have long to relax because at the top of the hill, the road had been washed out on both sides so that it was narrowed down to a width of just a few meters. The alternate track was through another mire of sand. After careful measurements showed that the road was just wide enough to take the Kombie, we drove gingerly towards it. With Evan still at the wheel, I was outside to check that the wheels did stay on hard ground, knowing that one false move would topple the van over the cliff which was almost has high as the van itself on either side. I called Evan forward and, inch by inch, we reached the other end safely. We knew we were lucky that the sheer edges of the washout had held and not collapsed under the weight of the van.
Later, as the van picked up speed, we noticed a terrible scraping noise in the front wheels. While all the other vehicles went on past us, Evan had to take off both front wheels to remove stones from the brake discs. An Arab truck driver kindly stopped to offer help. When we assured him that all was well, he started on his usual list of jeans, jerrycans, whiskey etc that he wanted to buy from us.
We were on a higher level now but were still slowed by potholes, washouts and make-shift deviations. There were some high peaks in the distance, our first view of the Hoggar Mountains, although the road was to take us through a sandy region between them.
Much later, we slowly approached In Ecker, the site of the French nuclear tests in the 1950s. The resulting debris was scattered for miles over the desert: rolls of barbed wire, empty oil drums, the remains of several large buildings and a large concrete structure built in a granite inselberg, probably a radiation-proof shelter. And yet all this can be only a mere fraction of what was originally abandoned. For almost 30 years, useful pieces have been carried off by truck drivers and desert nomads, as well as people living in the nearby village. This was no doubt where the Touareg girl we had seen the night before had obtained her large sheet of corrugated iron.
Bearing in mind the state of the ‘art’ in the 1950’s, one wonders just how safe it all is. How many houses in the area have been built with radioactive materials from this site? This act must have been one of the last great atrocities that the French committed against the people of the Sahara. After they left here, the French began to do the same thing to the people of the south Pacific, including our home in New Zealand.
When we stopped in the village of In Ecker, we found that there was petrol available, despite our fears. Beside the cluster of mud-walled huts was a small café built in the shantytown shack design, probably using material from the nuclear test site. There was also an old S.A.T.T. rest-house that was well preserved and now being used by the Algerian Army. It had an outer compound wall with corner watch towers and a wide-verandahed house in the middle.
In the book DESERT TAXI written by Michael Marriott in 1953, this outpost was already abandoned:
We pull up at some dilapidated mud buildings. They are surrounded by a high wall to keep out the wind. We had arrived at a S.A.T.T. rest-house called Iniker. Inside the mud walls, we find a compound with a central octagonal building of mud and thatch. There are several gaping holes in the walls and daylight streams through, lighting up a sandy floor and one rickety table with three legs. Close by is a row of ‘bedrooms’, completely bare, with doors open and sagging sadly from their hinges. The roof is of corrugated iron, and seems more serviceable than the centre building. We appear to have the place to ourselves. Most importantly, there is a well with a rope already attached. We shall have a pleasant stay here.
S.A.T.T. stands for the Société Algerienne des Transports Tropicaux, a private transport company offering a trans-Saharan bus and truck service from 1933 to 1952. They ran between Algiers and Kano during the winter months and had converted these outposts into rest-houses along their route. Later the company was called Société Africains des Transports Tropicaux. Even in the heyday of S.A.T.T, their rest-houses were often unfurnished, and the passengers slept huddled together on the floor.
We saw a number of these abandoned and derelict out-posts throughout the Sahara and many were initially built and occupied by the French Foreign Legion. The compound walls were hollow where doors led into the barrack rooms where the legionaires slept on iron bedsteads.
The Legionaires were foreign volunteers in the pay of France. Amongst their ranks were fugitives in hiding from police, victims of vendettas, noblemen living under assumed names, hotheads in search of adventure and many other misfits of society. The officers were mostly French citizens but the legionaires, after serving for five years, became eligible for French citizenship. Since its foundation in 1831, this highly disciplined professional army has been in almost continual combat. It is said that there is scarcely a valley, mountain, gorge or oasis in North Africa where bodies of legionaires do not lie. As well as fierce fighting to subdue the native tribes, they also built roads, bridges, forts and towns. However more legionaires died of heat, exhaustion and dysentery than at the tribesmen’s hands.
There is a story that in 1900, the Legion went on a route march in the area of El Golea, Ghardaia and Lagouat, the area we had just come through. They covered 1140 miles in 72 days, an average of 16 miles a day. This march was through hostile country, and there was a daily risk of attack. There was no accurate information available about the locations of wells and waterholes. The men, wearing thick woolen uniforms, floundered on through deep sands while temperatures soared above 40 degrees C. The Touareg, mounted on their racing camels, tormented the men beyond endurance. They would range ahead and fill the wells with sand so that the weary Legion would face another thirsty trek to find water before they could rest. Any legionnaire who could not keep up was left to die in the desert.
Another 70 km of potholes brought us to In Amguel where we were pursued by a crowd of young boys pestering us for bonbons and, less optimistically, jeans. Their domain was yet another collection of squat red mud-walled huts surrounded by a small date palmerie.
Just past the village, there has been a new track made beside the road to provide an alternative to the potholes. This track was not sealed and consequently had become badly corrugated. These parallel waves on the road surface look like corrugated iron and are caused by vehicles bouncing at speed on the fine gravel or sand. The corrugations do not slow the overloaded trucks any more than potholes do. In fact, many of them have modified suspension so that the wheels tramp in pairs in the hollows to allow them to travel faster. At the same time, their speed and weight digs the corrugations deeper.
Experts writing in desert travel books we had read advise that you should travel fast on corrugations so that the wheels fly from the top of each wave without going down into the troughs between. Since we were well versed in all this advice, we decided to give it a try. We went faster and faster until the van rattled like the workings of a rock-crusher. The whole structure of the van seemed destined to fly apart as we thumped down and back up each corrugation. We clung grimly on and pushed the van still faster, determined that we must eventually reach the critical speed when we would be traveling on a cushion of air.
We were hurtling along at maximum speed when the inevitable grinding sound came from the front suspension. We had broken a rubber bush on the front suspension, and we would be going no further until Evan could repair it. On closer examination, he found that we had also cracked the front axle (although he was not to tell me about that until we were on the other side of the Sahara, for fear I would want to go directly back to Europe.)
The problem with the theory of flying on air is that the corrugations have been created by 40 tonne trucks. Their wheels tramp at a different resonant frequency to a three tonne van, and consequently, no matter how fast we traveled, we always landed in the holes. It seems we had no alternative but to bump our way painfully over each wave at a walking pace.
Fortunately, Evan had two more rubber bushes for the suspension in his stock of supplies he had brought with him. Both were second-hand and not in very good condition but they at least offered us some chance of covering the 100 km to Tamanrasset. Just as the sun sank down over the distant Hoggar mountains, we were still parked on the side of the road where Evan was fitting on the best of the two rubber bushes. It had been a long and tiring day.
It was well after dark before we were mobile again and searching for a camping-place off the road. When the new track had been bulldozed beside the old one, the desert sand had been merely scraped to one side, forming a high barrier of sand down each side of the road. There was no verge, no tracks leading off and consequently we appeared to be trapped on the road in the dark.
After about an hour, we came to a connecting track which led us back onto the old pot-holed road still running parallel. We thought we would be undisturbed camping beside this road but some time later, it became apparent that both roads were operational, with drivers of light vehicles preferring to dodge potholes on the old road. We were camped right beside the road since it had been too risky to drive far off in the dark. At this stage, we were too tired to care, and we crawled into our sleeping bags as soon as we had had something to eat.
Here is an extract from a letter I wrote to my parents in New Zealand that night:
21 January 1982: Words fail me when I try to explain what we have seen and done in the last two days. Today was an experience for sure.. We will be in Tamanrasset soon, where I hope to find a post office so I will scribble a few lines to you for posting. We are both dead tired and a little discouraged. Our van is certainly too heavy because today we hit our first wash-board corrugations. After 20 km of that, we broke a rubber bush on the front suspension. Evan has two more but both are second hand and not in very good condition. It’s impossible to travel without these little rubber bushes in place in the suspension. We are going to have to buy some in Tamanrasset but do not hold out much hope that they will have any. Our hearts sink when we realise that we will not be able to leave Tamanrasset without them.
This morning was exciting from the very beginning. We had travelled 100 miles or more for the previous two days over dead flat plateau with nothing to see but stony black expanses as far as the eye could see. So you can imagine, it was marvellous to find ourselves in towering red granite peaks and we found a place to camp soon after that. A French couple in a Peugeot saloon car joined us later. They were going to Upper Volta, as they all are, to sell their Peugeot 404 and 504 saloon cars for a quick profit and return to France by air. They drive at top speed in great swarms across the desert.
We had got ourselves stuck finding a camp off the road but decided to just leave it until the morning. This morning we took about ten minutes to get unstuck using our trusty sand-ladders. No sooner had we finished when trucks and cars converged from nowhere into our peaceful valley.
Ahead was the worst bit of the road so far. The road has been under-mined and washed out all through mountains because they insist on building them in river valleys with no proper foundations. Inevitably there are floods in the dry riverbeds when the torrents of water and strong winds eat away the sand from under the tar-seal until the road just collapses. No-one comes to repair the road so everyone just has find a way across the rock and sand, to get around the great chasm in the road.
Where we had camped last night, there was a bad patch just ahead and the sand ruts were a foot or more deep. There were half a dozen French Peugeot saloon cars there, another VW van and a couple of Arab trucks. (The drivers of these trucks, when questioned, were usually Touareg or from a variety of other Muslim nations.) We all took it in turn to race though the huge dry sand mounds ahead of us. All made it without stopping but we got stones in both front tyres. Stopping to remove them slowed us up so we did not keep up with the bunch, although we passed some of them later, at lunch time.
The road deviated around chasms like that about a dozen times but we had no more real trouble. Then just when I had started to drive, we hit a road full of pot holes in old tar-seal, huge potholes like you would never believe, running one into the other. We travelled at 10 m.p.h. in first gear for at least another 100km, a slow grind indeed.
All day, we had driven through these huge mountains and rock piles, with no vegetation except a few scrubby bushes here and there in some of the oueds (empty river beds). A town consisting of a few mud huts (no petrol) came along about every 200km or so. We started from Ghardaia with 4 jerrycans of spare petrol, and we now have one left so have plenty to get to Tamanrasset tomorrow. Evan had made very careful calculations in Ghardaia to ensure that this would be so.
The rubber bushes worked well as next morning, we crept along the old road dodging potholes. There was only 60 kms to cover before we reached Tamanrasset but the road was still full of pot holes and in first gear, would take us half a day. Two couples riding pillion on two motor bikes roared past us with a cheery wave. Having only one set of wheels, they were able to weave around the holes and stay mostly on a firm surface. We, on the other hand, were dropping into a deep hole at least every car length.
We spotted the wreck of a late model Peugeot 504 car upside-down on the side of the road. There were several local trucks parked beside it, with the drivers busily stripping the vehicle of spare parts, like vultures on a carcass. They told us that it had been there only four days and yet now all that remained was the shell. Such are the perils of abandoning a vehicle in the desert, and it is possible that the owner had left it merely to obtain an essential spare part in Tamanrasset or to be taken off to hospital after an accident. Since it would appear that life here was a matter of ‘survival of the fittest’, Evan also joined the vultures and found that the rubber bushes on the suspension were still there, intact and best of all would fit the VW with minimal modification. It was a relief to us to have some spares to take along with us.
For centuries, travellers have paused in the desert city of Tamanrasset to replenish their supplies. Unlike in the days of old, we had followed a sealed road thus far, and although at times, we had cursed the bad road conditions, we at least had never been in danger of being lost, provided we stayed on the road. Only a few years ago, travellers were driving on unmarked desert between Ghardaia and Tamanrasset. In those days, Tamanrasset had been a half-way staging-post while now it is the starting point for those embarking on real desert travel.
It was 5 a.m. on the 25th December 1981, and Ulm was celebrating a white Christmas. There was about one metre of snow on the ground and, because the temperature had dipped well below freezing in the night, all the trees had icy white branches. At this early hour, each house was shuttered and quiet although within it would be warm and cosy as each family awoke to share the spirit of Christmas.
We, on the other hand, spent the early morning hours trudging through the snow to pack everything in the van. Since it was Christmas morning, the snow ploughs had not come out, and the roads were covered in snow. Thus began for us the treacherous dash across the frozen farmland of Northern Europe. Night fell, and we were still only half way to the French coast. There was no accommodation available, this being Christmas night, and so with the temperature standing steadily at –16 °C, we prepared our bed in the back of the van amongst jerry cans and spare tires. A battery-powered electric blanket helped to stave off the cold.
We crossed briefly to London to unload our household goods into storage and to obtain last minute visas, returning to Paris on New Year’s Eve. Here, after several more days, we obtained all the visas we would require to reach Nigeria. We had decided we would cross to Africa at the Straits of Gibraltar and drove down through France and Spain to Algecircus where a ferry crosses frequently to Ceuta. We passed the solid white bulk of the Rock of Gibraltar as we sailed out of the harbour. When we arrived on the other side of the Mediterranean, we were still not in Morocco because Ceuta is a little piece of Spain. However we had reached the continent of Africa.
The border with Morocco is on the outskirts of the city, and since Ceuta is a duty-free port, the border crossing is known to be congested. This day appeared to be normal because we waited hour after hour, first approaching the Spanish exit gate and then in no-man’s-land in between. This no-man’s-land was crammed with abandoned foreign vehicles which were being slowly stripped for spare parts. Most of the vehicles had European plates. This situation puzzled us, and we sat wondering what had forced people to abandon all these expensive vehicles. Little did we know, we were about to find out the reason all too soon.
At last we reached the front of the queue at the Moroccan border and were immediately signaled to pull over by the customs officer. We watched people in the heavy rain being asked to unload the contents of their suitcases and trailers onto the roadway for inspection. The clerk was taking in passports twenty at a time at the window which was surrounded by throngs of desperate people. We pushed our way to the front to hand ours in too.
We were apprehensive about this crossing because we had been told by other tourists that the Moroccans will not accept passports with Algerian visas. Since we did have Algerian visas, we were surprised when several hours later, we received our passports back with our entry visas duly stamped in them. However, we still had to obtain a car stamp at another office, and Evan came back much later with a very long face. We had been refused entry owing to our Algerian visas.
Because we had been warned to expect trouble here, we had previously telephoned both the Algerian and Moroccan Embassies in Germany to enquire. Both had resoundingly reassured us that of course the border would be open, and of course we could pass from one country to another. This experience was repeated often during our time in Africa because the embassies are not kept up-to-date with reliable information from the border by their governments. As a result, we had had our first taste of African officialdom. There was nothing for it but to return that evening on the ferry to Spain.
The only other ferry leaving directly for Algeria was from Marseilles in the south of France but that would require a three-day journey back through Spain along the road we had just traveled. Evan at least remained unswerving in his determination, and several weary days later, we were driving along the quay at Marseilles.
There was a ferry leaving the next morning. We were so exhausted that we slept with the van parked in a sleazy dock-land street amongst the bars and prostitution haunts of the Marseilles underworld. The ship which we boarded the next day for the twenty-four hour crossing, was outfitted like a railway wagon with compartments and long bench seats. There was no outer-deck on which to sit, and we were crammed in these rooms with a multitude of people, just about all of them being men. My heart sank when I realised we would have to spend the night in that room.
The bathrooms, though clearly labeled Mann and Dames, were a complete free-for-all. There were mostly men on board, and they used all bathrooms, whatever they were labeled. Perhaps they could not read? It was not very long before the initially very clean and modern toilets were swilling in mud and slush to the point where you needed rubber boots to wade in. The smell was indescribable. People even stood on the toilet seat, as evidenced by the muddy footprints they left behind there. Presumably they had decided that this was the way nature intended. Somehow we made it through the night but without a wink of sleep.
We arrived in Algiers the following morning, the 14thJanuary 1982. The vehicles would be driven off the boat by the dock-staff while we had to disembark on foot to begin the paper-chase with passports, visa, currency declaration, insurance and customs. We queued for over an hour to obtain a ‘carte touristique’, an apparently essential document. The van by this time had been driven on to the dock to wait for us to drive it through the customs shed.
Finally, many hours later, we had been through all the various offices and could emerge into the sun on the wharf. To our dismay, we found the unlocked van, with key in the ignition, parked facing the wrong way but already in the queue for customs. With other vehicles parked many layers deep on all four sides of us, it was no simple matter to turn around. It was a miracle we did it without a scratch in the end. When our turn came, someone eventually waved us into the customs’ shed where we sat hour after hour with all the other cars around us being sent on their way. Although most of the staff were standing around with their arms folded, when we approached a customs officer, he would just shake his head angrily. After our experience in Morocco, we were thoroughly disheartened.
It was some five frustrating hours later in that customs’ shed, with many of the officers packing up for the three-day weekend, when one of them noticed us. I had had the idea to hold up our carte touristique at the window, and he saw it. (We were sitting in our van right in front of their noses for all that time but apparently, for some reason, they had got the idea that we were immigrants.) This particular officer had already gone off duty, having changed out of his uniform, but began to go through our papers. After we had unloaded the van so they could sift through our belongings, we were finally waved through, free to enter Algeria. It was a minor detail to us that one of the customs officers had felt it necessary to paint the date in large untidy letters on the front of the van. After repacking our equipment, we thankfully drove off the docks and on to the streets of Algiers. The ship had arrived in the harbour at dawn that morning, and now it was 4.00 PM. We had taken about 12 hours to clear customs. We could not remember when we had last spent a more ghastly day.
It was Thursday, and the city had closed down at midday for the Muslim weekend. Since there were no banks open, we looked for a hotel where we could change some money. We were immediately approached by black-marketeers who wanted to change our money for about 50% more Dinars than the official rate would give us. Since this was an illegal practice, we felt it was likely to lead the unwary tourist to the squalors of an Arab prison, and so declined the hawkers at this early stage and took the miserable offerings the hotel gave us. From this time on, everything we bought would have two prices, depending on whether we had changed our money at the legal bank rate or illegally on the black-market. With the official rate, goods are outrageously overpriced by western standards but using the black-market, everything is ridiculously cheap.
The ancient harbor at Algiers is spectacular. A wide boulevard circles its palm-lined shore overlooked by aging hotels that still emanate a regal air. We watched the people as they bustled in preparation for the weekend. Many of the men wore a long white tunic, and practically all the woman except me were veiled in black. It gives the city a cold, mysterious atmosphere when half of its population peer from behind all-enveloping veils, often with only one eye showing. Some of the more emancipated woman had a type of embroidered handkerchief tied across the bridge of the nose and falling loosely over the mouth, in the manner we in the West associate with bank robbers.
We did not linger in Algiers because we had had such a tedious two weeks with cities and officialdom that we longed to be out in the country. We paused only to buy some petrol which was cheaper than in Europe, Algeria having its own gushing oil wells. We could not find a single signpost to help us as we searched for the road southwards and had to rely on the help of friendly local people. Apart from the Arabic dialects, the main language spoken was French. Our school French was minimal but proved adequate for the job when combined with sign language and much laughter.
Immediately south of Algiers is the Maghreb region which is fertile with forests of pine, oak, citrus and olive trees but the people have fought a long-standing battle to stop the desert from encroaching on this land. It is densely populated with 90% of Algerians living near the coast. They are a mixture of Berber and Arab, and physically it was difficult for us to distinguish between the races. They have intermixed, with their common religion Islam.
Colonial rule in Algeria lasted 130 years, with French settlers cultivating most of the fertile land. The Arabs and Berbers found themselves landless laborers on European farms or confined to the poorer land rejected by the Europeans. This forced them out into the Sahara regions where there was overgrazing. When the traditional nomadic desert herders returned to their summer pastures, they found them already occupied by people forced from European farms. So the French military governors attempted to control the movements of the nomadic tribes and their herds in the desert. With this French military control of native peoples of Algeria, there was growing confusion and unrest until in 1955, the Muslims began to resort to armed insurrection.
This gathered momentum throughout Algeria, and 750,000 French troops were brought in. Thus began the War of Liberation when people were herded into camps. The whole society broke down, and the traditional tribal leaders lost control. By 1962, there was so much hatred and terror that the white colonists, within a few short months, abandoned their carefully cultivated farms and fled back to Europe.
This left the Algerians with their land returned but their society in shreds. There were no educated upper classes to lead the newly formed nation, no skilled farmers to cultivate the abandoned land, no mechanics to repair the abandoned machinery, no teachers to educate the children and all their factories and infrastructure destroyed by seven long years of war. But at least they were masters of their own land and were an independent nation, no small achievement when they had wrenched this victory from one of the most powerful and richest nations in the world.
We were fortunate that over 20 years had past since those days of war. The nation of Algeria now seemed to us to be well advanced into the 20thcentury. The villages were settled and peaceful as we passed on our way southwards. We were just past Blida, entering a gorge at the base of the Atlas range when we saw a large river where people were washing their clothes. We joined them on the riverbank and cooked our first evening meal in Algeria just on sunset.
We assumed (quite rightly as it turned out) that this would be the last running water we would see for a long time and so made use of the water to catch up on our washing too. We had to walk a long way across the gravel riverbed to reach the flowing water. It was obvious that the river could be very much wider at times. The bare rocks of the Atlas range towered over our heads as we sat and ate our evening meal. It was a peaceful scene, and such a stark contrast to the bedlam we had endured for the last week. It had been a struggle to get this far, and as the sun set over the mountains, we wondered what other trials lay ahead of us.
Although it would have made a nice campsite, we did not risk staying on the riverbed that night. In the mountains, distant storms can come down suddenly and turn a peaceful riverbed into a raging torrent. So after dark, we went back up onto the road-side to camp with four German-speaking Swiss tourists. Since they were also heading for the Sahara, we sat under a canopy of bright stars to discuss our plans. They had an old Renault van which, for four of them, was a squeeze when they all slept inside at night. We subsequently saw them several times along the way, the last time in Tamanrasset where they were waiting for a part for their water pump to be flown out from Switzerland. One of this group had spina bifida and, undaunted by his severe handicap, was playing a leading role in seeing the expedition through.
The air was cool the next morning, my 31st birthday, as we climbed up into the Atlas range. Eventually the good sealed road brought us onto a high flat plateau. Here there was only wiry tussock grass and a few hardy bushes which grew more thinly as we progressed southwards. Even these woody, prickly little bushes provided sustenance for sheep, goats and camels. As we paused on the road-side in a seemingly deserted spot, the head of a young boy immediately popped up from the grass as we disturbed his afternoon nap. He ran to investigate this strange white apparition, checked to see if we might have a cadeau (present) for him and then, remembering his duty, dashed off to round up his straggling herd of goats.
The same thing happened to us later in the day in what we thought was a deserted spot where we had buried some rubbish, including the can we had opened for our evening meal. Later as we pulled away, we saw a crowd of children unburying our treasures again. They would have been able to put our discarded can to good use as a dipper at the well and a million other uses.
We saw this primitive pastoral technique in operation all over Algeria. The boys and in some cases girls as well, take the family herds from the village early each morning and range out on the common lands about them. In the evening, they return the herd to the family compound. As the pastures near the village are exhausted, the distance each herd must range gradually increases. Productivity can be low if the animal must expend so much energy walking so far each day. To keep their animals fat and healthy, the whole village will move periodically to better pastures.
When we looked at the goat meat for sale in the market places, it certainly did not seem very appetizing to us, and would probably require hours of boiling to make it chewable. There was no refrigeration in these makeshift outdoor butcher’s stalls, and we were very unsure about how long the meat had been there, exposed to the dust and flies as it was. For this reason, we began to rely mostly on our very small supply of cans or ate vegetarian meals.
That night, we reached Laghouat and camped on the outskirts of the town in an oued (dried river bed). Laghouat was founded in the 11thcentury, and it seems unlikely that it has changed much since as far as we could see. The next morning, we drove down the main street between the clutter of mud-walled buildings in search of an engineering shop. The roller on the large sliding door which gives access to the living area of the van had broken, and Evan had to find a way to fix it. He quite correctly assumed that a standard VW part was unavailable here, and his expertise as a Kiwi bush mechanic would be called into play.
As he was making his enquiries, he met Mohamed, a young Algerian about 25 years old. Mohamed spoke good English because he had once worked with the Americans on the oil rigs and immediately offered to act as our guide and interpreter. They visited all the garages together without success because, although there were several lathes in the town, there was no metal available for raw material. Mohamed invited us to park the van in his uncle’s yard where there was a large vice Evan could use.
We drove the van to the yard which was surrounded in a high iron fence. The yard was completely filled with rusted old vehicles which, having fulfilled a lifetime’s duty on the Saharan tracks, now stood in well-earned retirement. We parked the van next to some grand old pre-war vintage buses that were very down-at-heel and forlorn. I could almost hear the roar of the giant old engine as the driver crashed down through the gears to come to a halt in front of the solitary mud-brick outpost of the French Foreign Legion. A scowling soldier in a white peaked hat would nudge the dusty travel-weary passengers from their hard wooden seats with his rifle bayonet, and the luggage would be searched while the people stood out in the searing desert sun. Much later they would be on their way again, swaying and bouncing at a break-neck speed over rough desert trails. Fierce winds would fling sand at the tiny slit of a windscreen, blotting out all vision and filling the nostrils of the unprotected humanity within. As I dreamed of days past, Evan patiently whittled all day on a nylon screw-driver handle until he had fashioned a perfectly functional roller for our sliding door. This roller worked as well as the standard VW part and proved durable enough to last for a long time.
Mohamed stayed and talked to us during the afternoon, He was well-traveled and saw his country from an outsider’s point-of-view. As a result, he was disillusioned with many aspects of Algerian society. Most of Laghouat’s girls lived in purdah, being entirely enveloped in a white sheet whenever they were in public. Although Mohamed was sure he would like to marry some day, he felt that these girls would be too narrow-minded, having little or no experience outside their mother’s kitchen. He would not be given the opportunity to talk with the girl to find out her opinions on life and judge her personality before they were married. He thought for this reason that it was most likely he would marry a foreign girl.
Mohamed became an orphan when his father died in a French prison during the War of Liberation. He has one sister who is married and living in purdah. She is uneducated. Mohamed longs for female companionship, and it seems tragic that he is denied this for religious reasons. It cannot help in the development of a young nation when half of the population is wasted in such mind-destroying imprisonment while the other half must work alone, unsupported by any woman workers in society. A young man like Mohamed is left with nothing to aim for, except to drift into an arranged and perhaps unacceptable and unhappy marriage.
When we left the next morning, we made arrangements to meet Mohamed again in Ghardaia, his home town, since he had business to attend to and would be returning there the next day. South of Laghouat, we camped in the desert which was still dotted thinly with tussock grass. The next day, we saw several oil wells and pipelines. It was the discovery of oil in the desert which offered Algeria the chance to rebuild after independence. The reserves are not great, and from what we had seen, the standard of living in the country-side was still very low.
Back in England some years before, we had been given a slim paperback “The Desert taxi” by Michael Marriott (1956 Panther Paperbacks). It described the journey that Michael and his wife had made across the Sahara in 1953 in a thirty year old London taxi. This told us that 26 years before our journey, the sealed road had ended 100 miles south of Laghouat. Then the road had dropped this intrepid couple and their taxi into a deep pit of nearly impenetrable soft sand. Fortunately for us, the sealed surface now continued on for a further 200 miles past this point.
At mid-day, we stopped in the desert with a broken clutch cable. We knew that there was a spare one packed somewhere in the van, and after unloading practically everything, we finally found it. This was an example of how Evan’s forward planning had prevented disaster. Without the spare, one of us would have had to hitch a ride to the nearest town, arrange for one to be flown in, possibly from as far away as Europe, and then we would have had to wait a week or more for it to be flown out to us. All this would have been very hard on our budget and would have delayed us, possibly disastrously. As it was, after a few hours delay, we were on our way. We were becoming very philosophical about repairs to the van by now. We expected one thing or another to crop up every day, and it usually did.
Ghardaia, which means ‘seven villages’ sits in a hollow in the desert. Each village is topped by a central mosque and was originally a separate entity. Each mosque has a tall orange minaret which looks rather like an old-fashioned brick kiln with fingers protruding at right angles from the top. These were once used as look-outs during the tribal wars and have been there since at least the 15thcentury. Below each mosque, the villages are tightly packed with square flat-roofed mud-brick houses, each painted blue or white.
Between the houses are date palm groves, grown with irrigation from the artesian water supply. They also grow oranges, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and potatoes. Much to the Ghardaians’ amazement, it clouded over and rained in Ghardaia that afternoon. We could tell by the delighted faces raised heavenwards that this was a truly rare event for them. With the temperatures now somewhat cool, it was hard for us to even begin to imagine how hot it would get in Ghardaia later in the year.
The town had a busy marketplace where produce is brought from the entire Sahara by camel caravan, as it has been done through the ages. The arcades around the square were hung with colorful wool and camel-hair rugs, and in the central area, the villagers and nomads had spread their goods on the ground. There were many tall piles of oranges and carrots, boxes of ceramics and silks, bulging sacks of aromatic spices, stacks of tobacco leaves, tin billies and neatly laid-out daggers and knives.
It was immediately noticeable that amongst the customers and merchants, there were only men in the market place. Sometimes, a lone lady would scurry across with her white-shrouded eye peering around as she tried to see where she was treading. Unlike her sisters in Algiers, she at least does not have to worry so much about a speeding bus or car which she could not see through her veils. We caught no more than a fleeting glimpse of two or three women in the Market Place, even though we were there for several hours. I found it so very sad and was moved nearly to tears.
The rest of the village clung to the hillside above the market. Vehicles are kept out of the tortuous maze of streets which are barely wide enough for a donkey to pass. The town is ruled with an iron rod from the mosque at the top of the hill, and the ghostly women are not permitted to leave the village in their lifetime. When the menfolk are forced to leave to search for work, the women remain behind. It is the wives who maintain the traditions and hold the society together. We saw children frolicking in the cool rain and just a few women drawing water at the well. In the summer heat, it must be hot under all those heavy veils, and I supposed that even the children would no longer want to play on the street. It was only this unusually cool weather that was drawing them out of their cooler houses, verandahs and courtyards.
We made enquiries at one of the carpet shops in the market square as we had been instructed to by Mohamed. Everyone knew him, and one of them telephoned him for us. He seemed delighted to see us and had brought back with him two files and a hacksaw that Evan had left in Laghouat. Of course he was very excited about the rain. Although it had now cleared, and the sun shone brilliantly once more, he assured it was a time of ‘great happiness’ for everyone. He took us to a restaurant where we experimented with a meal of sheep’s brains. Afterwards we camped outside his house, and he was even able to offer us the luxury of a hot shower. I could not remember when I had last felt so clean and refreshed. We had not had a shower since leaving London so it was indeed a treat.
We found we were able to fill the Camping Gaz (propane) bottle in Ghardaia. We still had plenty left but wanted to have all the bottles full while we could still obtain it. By going without hot water for washing clothes, dishes or ourselves, we were making the gas last much longer than normal. However, as we traveled further from Europe, we had no guarantees that we would be able to buy much more. As a back-up, we had brought along a small paraffin burner but we hoped we would not have to use it.
Mohamed introduced us to the local mathematics teacher and his wife who surprisingly was not in purdah or veiled. She was a teacher also and worked part-time, despite having a five months old son. This was such a thoroughly modern domestic arrangement that it quite astonished us. Unfortunately, we were unable to communicate with them except through Mohamed’s translation as they spoke a language which is a mixture of Arabic and French. However, using the international sign language of mathematics, Evan delighted them by demonstrating his little Hewlett Packard programmable calculator.
They were all very worried about our journey ahead. Should we return (and they were sure we would be turned back), we were to come directly to them. It was wonderful to think that people could be so kind and concerned for the well-being of strangers, and as we waved goodbye to Mohamed the next morning, we could only hope that he succeeds in his endeavors to emigrate and find happiness.
Today is the 13th January and it could not have been unluckier than our previous attempt to get to the African continent. We are beginning our third crossing of the Mediterranean Sea this week. But I will start at the beginning.
We left Ulm on Christmas Day 1981 with all the van lockers packed with food, clothes, spares and tools for the Sahara, plus 16 large boxes (1.4 m3 each) of household goods which we were taking to Jerry in London for storage. Poor Katy! She was badly overloaded but took it well. We drove in heavy snow to Aachen, near the Dutch border. Here we stopped on the side of the road to cook and eat our Christmas dinner (pork chops). We had to stand out in the driving snow to eat them because we had so many boxes in the van, and did not want to get them wet. We moved some boxes into the front of the van to make enough space to sleep in the back, with temperatures well below freezing. What a start to our odyssey! But we had our trusty feather-down sleeping bags from New Zealand and a battery-operated electric blanket, so soon warmed up enough to sleep.
We got cheap midnight ferry tickets from Calais to Dover for £33 (return within five days) and arrived at Jerry’s near London at 2.00 AM. The next day we took our passports in to the Nigerian Embassy in London for visas and picked them up 24 hours later. In the meantime, we unloaded the boxes from the van and put them into storage in Jerry’s attic which considerably lightened the load for the van. We were also able to make some farewell phone-calls to family in New Zealand and catch a film and dinner with Jerry and a few other friends who wanted to wish us well.
We made one last attempt to purchase the Michelin Map of the Sahara (#153) which we determined once and for all was quite out-of-print. This meant we would have to go without a grid-patterned map of Africa at all. There just did not seem to be one available. This went quite against Brian’s advice to us on Sahara navigation. His entire thesis had started with the point that we would have a map that gave us compass directions and landmarks. He had not even questioned that fact. We also had to pick up our Carnet de Passage from the AA before catching another night ferry to Calais. We missed seeing in the New Year on that ferry because that was the hour we lost during the crossing of the Channel.
Next we had to call in to Paris to get a visa for Niger at the Embassy. We also had to pick up our last pay check from Germany which had been forwarded to us. We had wanted it in US dollars but after finding how much we would lose converting from marks to francs to dollars, we decided to leave it in French francs. We packed all our cash, along with our passports and other documents, into money belts that we each carried next to our skin from then on.
Finally on January 5th, we left Paris which was when the mad dash really began. We were traveling as fast as possible to get to Morocco early. We wanted to see something of it (Fez, Marakesh etc) before starting on our rigid timetable for crossing Africa. We had made a timetable to ensure we got into central Africa before the rainy season began in April. All our insurance and documents for the car started 15th Jan 1982 when we were to arrive in Algeria. We did not need these for Morocco so planned on having a week there before crossing the border into Algeria. Before leaving Germany, I had telephoned the Algerian and Moroccan Embassies to ask if there would be any problems at this border and both had assured me there would not. We had our Algerian visas, and Morocco had told us we did not need visas.
We drove solidly for 10 – 12 hours a day for two days from Paris to the Spanish border and then three days for the 800 miles through Spain to Algecircus near Gibraltar. On the way we must have passed a million heavy lorries on the winding highway around the coast. It was an exhausting trip but we finally drove straight on to the ferry at 3.00 pm.
Here, in the camping ground the night before, we met four very sad Germans in a big four-wheel drive Mercedes Benz Unimog truck equipped for crossing the Sahara. They had to cancel their trip because of a cracked cylinder block before they had even left Europe.
We eventually arrived on the African continent only to find that we had not yet left Spain. Cueta still belongs to Spain, and we found a camping ground there for the night. The next morning, I installed some new brake linings because one of the originals had rusted in place and no longer operated. This took one and a half hours, after which we went through customs formalities to get into Morocco.
Well, we did not exactly go through customs, more like into customs. We waited several hours in a queue to have our van searched. The driver in front had to unload his trailer in the pouring rain. We went through the passport formalities successfully but then the car papers had to be processed and they spotted our visa for Algeria. Morocco, we were informed, did not like Algeria so we would not be permitted to enter Morocco for transit to Algeria! They were only following their rules, and there was nothing they would do to bend them. I told them their Embassy in Germany had told us that we could cross this border. Their only answer was to tell us to go back and tell the embassy that it was not possible.
In the meantime we had been stamped out of the Spanish side of the border and were now in no-man’s-land between border posts. Here in this no-man’s-land compound were at least one hundred derelict cars and vans being openly raided and wrecked by the locals. All the vehicles had foreign number plates and apparently had been stranded by just the same type of bureaucracy as we had just met with. We were then panicking that we would be stranded there also, but fortunately they let us back into Spain.
At the Spanish border, we met two New Zealanders who had been forewarned about this problem. They were hoping to get their visas for Algeria in Morocco. We were not sure this would work since it was just as likely that the border from Morocco to Algeria would be closed when they got to the other side. With our tight schedule, it was better that we turned back now than to have to return right across Morocco at a later date. We had barely set foot on the continent of Africa, and already we were falling into what would be a common pattern for us, trying to fathom the workings of the minds of border guards and their superiors.
Still undaunted, we caught the next ferry back to Spain ($50). On the ferry, we met a German couple with a van who had planned to do the same trip as us. Algeria, it seems, does not like Germany because it helps Israel, and so they and their Dutch friends could not get visas for Algeria. After waiting five weeks and being told to wait another five weeks, they had given up and were going back home. What a mess!
The Moroccan border guards had told us to ring the British Embassy in Rabat (Moroccan capital) who would get transit permission for us from the Moroccan Internal Affairs and send a telex to the border. But we decided to cut our losses and go straight to Algeria. We had had quite enough of Morocco without ever having stepped on its soil. At least we had an Algerian visa in our passport, and we had no choice but to assume it would work.
At that stage, we thought we could get a ferry from Spain to Algeria. On making enquiries however, we found that the only ferries to Algeria are from France and Italy. The ferry from Italy would be half the price and better ships but it went to Tunisia, on the other side of Algeria. We decided not to run the risk of the same problems in transiting Tunisia. We would drive to Marseille in France and sail directly to Algeria instead.
So we were back on that road northwards through Spain again. We had hated it before because of the huge number of lorries on the road. This time, we took the motorway which, for economy’s sake, we had avoided on the way down. It cost us $26 but we drove the full length of Spain in two days instead of three. We had several beautiful sunny days driving, and even took our lunch breaks lying on the beach and swimming.
I think the van may be a bit on the heavy side. There are two spare tires on rims mounted on top of each other above the front bumper, another with a rim in a cupboard. Two new tires without rims but filled with a rubber conveyer belt which we hope to use as sand ladders is lying on the bed. On the bench-top are the two aluminium sand ladders which are landing-strip sections 30cm x 1.5m long. We have them wrapped in hemp to keep them from nicking everything, including us. They are lashed to the bench with two seat belts. There are four jerry cans for petrol and two plastic water bottles on the bed and four more jerry cans in the cupboards. Under the chassis and in the engine compartment are stored 150 kg of spare axels and springs. There are also two shovels in the engine compartment. The hinge of the engine compartment door fell off the other day, and I cannot find a VW parts shop anywhere. We have plenty of tools in the cupboard under our bed. There are also about six supermarket trolley-loads of food (mostly dried or canned) in the cupboards.
So you can imagine how cramped it is in the back, with most of the floor space taken up with tires. The engine battery (I have two) went flat twice in a row when we left the electric blanket on all night and also when I changed oil, points and plugs and started the motor several times in Paris. The battery is two years old so we decided to buy a new one to be on the safe side. I bought one at a Hypermarket in France but have not had time to install it so it is taking up the last remaining floor space. When the petrol canisters are full, they will also have to find room on the floor.
I finally bought an oil temperature gauge for the VW van. It was expensive but I think essential. The VW book says maximum temperature of the engine oil should be 127 °C but I have found another US book which says restrict it to 110 °C maximum. I find that engine speed is the most important parameter causing overheating but, since the VW has air cooling, it is also affected by air temperature. In warm (not hot) weather, the oil temperature hits 120 °C at 55 to 60 m.p.h. on the flat tar-seal so I hate to think what it will be like on Saharan sand. I thought changing down a gear on hills would increase airflow and keep it cool but it increases combustion causing it to overheat. I suppose we will need more new cylinder heads before we are finished this trip! Fortunately, oil pressure stays surprisingly high when it is hot, and this should help protect the engine.
Katy had her 100,000 mile birthday as we crossed the border into Spain the first time. Its like having a brand new van; her speedo reads 1800 now. She is like an old axe with a new head and a new handle: viz new motor, gearbox, front suspension, rear spring, brake discs, doors and chassis sections. We could have bought a Mercedes Unimog nearly twice over but it would have been old and might have ended up with a cracked block like the German group. There are Swiss and Belgians on this boat going over in Landrovers but they do not look equipped for the Sahara (no jerrycans and water bottles).
Actually the weather was lovely in Spain and France but raining in Morocco and looks bad from a distance in Algeria too. We may even run into roads blocked with snow in Algeria. It was a very bad winter in Europe this year but all we saw was some flooding.
We arrived in Marseille late in the evening, going straight to the port area. Once we had found the shipping office we wanted, we were too tired to look for somewhere to camp. We spent the night in a back alley near the port (a bit dangerous probably) so we could buy the tickets for the ferry early the next morning. The ship, with Katy and us on board, finally left the port the next morning at midday. It cost us £230 and took just under 24 hours to get to Algeria. We would not be permitted to sleep in the van, and a cabin would have been a further £60.
Instead, we ended up in a small room with bench seats like a European train, sharing with five gabbling Algerian men. Trying to read or write is giving us headaches, with all the noise and smoke, not to mention a stereo loud speaker with piped music and announcements in French. Kae wants to give up and go back already. We are both tired after driving 3200 miles in the last ten days. We are also sick of bureaucracy, having lost over $1000 in the last week of fowl-ups. The money left for our weekly budget has been cut in half already, and we are worried that if any more problems crop up, we will not have enough to make it. This would mean we will have to transfer New Zealand dollars to some African country. Perhaps that would not be so bad. It went smoothly when we transferred from New Zealand to Katmandu and Singapore some years ago.
Getting through the Algerian custom’s offices after the night on the ferry was a nightmare of anxiety. It was a Friday morning which is a holiday in Muslim countries, and all the customs officials wanted to go home at 12 noon. They quite obviously were not going to let a single vehicle out without being thoroughly searched. We had to give our keys to officials to drive the van off the boat while we were herded through passport control. They left the van unlocked for anyone to help themselves, and our insurance did not start until the next day. Passport control took so long that the insurance office and banks at the port were closed before we could get there. There were queues of frantic people, and we had no idea what we had to do or pay for. In any case, we had no Algerian money. I had to dash off to the van in the middle to get a list of our cash reserves in US$, £, Francs, Deutschmarks and Pasetas as these all had to be declared or you cannot take them out of the country again. I got to Katy just in time to be able to drive her off the boat myself but did not realise I was parking the van back-to-front when I parked it on the wharf. I then returned to the passport office to finish these formalities.
Once back in the van, we turned it around, an extremely difficult process because we were totally hemmed in with parked cars on all sides by then. We then inched forward and finally made it to the front of the queue. They seemed to put us to one side and made us wait while they processed all the other vehicles. Then they started packing up to go home, and we had visions of being thrown out of the customs yard without our van and no Algerian money in the middle of a Muslim holiday. But fortunately one of the last officials going out the gate saw us and discovered out Carte Touriste.They searched us and let us out but without issuing the third party insurance and without any Algerian money.