By Kae Lewis
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.
© Copyright Kae & Evan Lewis 2019. All rights reserved.