Africa

Chapter 4: The Sahara: Ghardaia to Tamanrasset

By Kae Lewis

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.  

A long flat featureless plain crossed by a sealed well-maintained road lay ahead of us. We began to think that maybe this whole thing was going to be a piece of cake after all.

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.

An ocean of sand surrounds a desert oasis of date palms

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.

The Kiwis have arrived in town looking for bread, 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.

Everywhere we went in Algeria, we saw moques.

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.

An Algerian goatherd greets us with a cheery smile as we pass by.

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.

A straight road through the featureless desert, with a vanishing point far in the distance.

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.

Old derelict buildings were scattered throughout the desert. There was no vegetation to be seen for miles and miles.

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. 

The very badly pot-holed tarmac of the Trans-Saharan Highway, Northern Algeria.
And no, that is not a cell phone tower in the distance, it was still another 20 years until they were to be invented. We had no communications with the outside world from here on.

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. 

Large Trans-Saharan trucks that disturbed our sleep as they crashed on through the night and wrecked the fragile road. Here they are sleeping during the hot part of the day.

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.

Plateau of Tademait with its black stone surface where we could clearly see the curvature of the earth all around us. It was like camping on the top of a giant beach ball.
As the sun sinks in the west, we camp on the black stones of the Plateau of Tademait. We had camped before in some lonely places but this has to have been the loneliest.

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 plunged down between granite peaks to another sandy plain below
Coming down off the Tademait Plateau at last.

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.

Map of our route from Ghardaia to In Salah, via the Tademait Plateau. The distance is 416 miles (669 km)
Map taken from the book: Sahara Handbook by Simon and Jan Glen 1980
In Salah, an oasis in the desert.

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 sand dunes that relentlessly try to engulf In Salah

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.

One of the many of these dry river beds we crossed. They certainly showed plenty of evidence of being filled with raging waters in their recent past. We were just grateful to find them dry while we crossed them.
A few short acacia trees and tufts of grass cling to life in the dry river beds.
A profusion of wild melons growing in the desert.

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.  

The desert settlement of Arak consisted of a road-workers camp and mud-walled houses.

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.  

Tall granite cliffs surrounded us on all sides.

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.

A gaping hole in the road with no warning signs or barriers for the unwary.

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.  

We saw burnt-out hulks of other VW Kombies in the desert, prompting us to be extremely careful with petrol fumes and naked cooking gas flames.

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.  

An overloaded trans-Saharan truck grinds its way along the road, such as it is.

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.

Negotiating soft sand (known locally as ‘fesh-fesh’) to bypass a washout. When the front wheels hit the first hole, they thumped down into it, flinging the van skywards.

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.

There were some high peaks in the distance, although the road would 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. 

The village of In Ecker consisted of a derelict cafe and an old S.A.T.T rest-house.

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 Bus-truck 1930s

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.

An abandoned French Foreign Legion Outpost in the Sahara
Source: Trailquest

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. 

French Foreign Legion Troops circa 1920

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.

Officers of the French Foreign Legion who were usually French citizens, rule the Legionaire with an iron hand.
Touareg warriors harassed the French Foreign Legion who were there to protect the French settlers throughout Algeria.
Source: Sahara Unveiled by Patrick Turnball 1940

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.

In Salah to Tamarasset, 431 miles (694 km) down through the Hoggar Mountains
Map taken from the book: Sahara Handbook by Simon and Jan Glen 1980

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.  

In Amguel
In Amguel

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.

Corrugations in the road, caused by heavy trucks bouncing over them at speed. We have no choice but to slow right down and bump over every wave. The steep piles of sand on the each side of the road trapped us on it long after dark.

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 rough road with potholes and corrugations damaged the front suspension, requiring Evan to make constant attempts to repair it. Also, the two tires we had mounted on the front of the vehicle was only worsening the pressure on the front suspension and had to be moved inside the vehicle (and onto our bed.)

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.

Our campsite with the Hoggar Mountains in the distance.

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.

Off-piste driving through rock piles and the distant peaks of the Hoggar Mountains, Central Sahara, just north of Tamanrasset.

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 road was full of pot holes so we could not travel more than 20 mph.
Beside the pot-holed road was an alternative track covered in corrugations which damaged the front suspension of our van. Our van is parked in the distance.
Corrugations in the road, with a distant view of the Hoggar Mountains, as we came closer to Tamanrasset.
After hundreds of miles crawling over pot-holes and corrugations, we were astounded to suddenly find this short patch of perfect road ahead of us.

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.

Outcrops of burnt rock, possibly old lava flows, were a common sight throughout this area.
Rocky outcrops like this were a common sight along the road.

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. 

We frequently saw mirages like this and of course as we drew closer, the ‘lake’ vanished every time, and it was just more sandy desert. There is also a herd of camels in this photo, which did not vanish.
Close-up of the mirage, showing the herd of camels.

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. 

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

1 reply »

  1. How like you to stumble upon a newly wrecked car with just the part you need intact and if not usable at least easily adaptable! 🙂

    Like

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