Chapter 2: Frustrations

By Evan Lewis

13 January 1982

La Libertie, Marseilles

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.  

Evan packed and ready to leave on Christmas morning 1981, Kohberg, Ulm, Germany.

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.  

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

Categories: Africa, Overland Travel

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