Africa

Chapter 5: Tamanrasset and the Hoggar Mountains

By Kae Lewis

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.

A Touareg warrior in traditional robes.

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.  

An Algerian truck on the outskirts of Tamanrasset. Many of the drivers we saw were Touareg.

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.

The S.A.T.T depot at Tamanrasset about 1940-1950

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.

The very sandy road from Tamanrasset to The Source took us past a beautiful steeple-shaped pinnacle, the weathered remains of an old volcano plug. We are following the Germans in their VW ahead.
A closeup of the volcanic plug at The Source.
The hills behind The Source at sunset.

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.  

A very battered, third-hand copy of the rare and much prized Michelin #153 map which we had been trying unsuccessfully to obtain in London and Paris before we left. When it was given to us by fellow travellers heading back home, it became one of our most treasured possessions.

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.

As the sun sank, we were camping in the desert near the Source with some German overlanders travelling north in two VW campers. We stayed here for several days for car maintenance and rest.
The volcanic plug we could see from the road could be seen for miles around, this time from our campsite at The Source.

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.

Our campsite near The Source.
A young girl visited our campsite during the day. Most of the children we saw in the desert were dressed in an assortment of cast-off European clothes.

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.  

The road to Assekrem wound on down through a series of spectacular weathered volcanic plugs and sheer-faced granite mountains interweaved with vast plains of trachyte rocks.
The road to Assekrem was surrounded in fields of rocks once flung from the surrounding extinct volcanoes.
The spectacular road to Assekrem.
The sheer sides of yet another volcanic plug. The entire area must have been extremely volcanic at one time.
The way that the intense Saharan sunlight played on the sheer rock walls was spectacular.
Rocky outcrops on the road to Assekrem

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. 

Charles de Foucauld of Assekrem

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.

The Hermitage at the summit of Assekrem, built by Charles de Foucauld in 1910 and still occupied by monks when we visited in 1982.

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.

From the summit at Assekrem, Hoggar Mountains. Through the centre of the photo is the road we had attempted to climb up. We can see our van parked on the side of the road at the bottom of the hill.
The entire chain became emblazoned in a riot of color from orange to deep purple as the light from the sun slowly extinguished.  
Assekrem from the summit as the sun set rapidly behind us.
The spectacular scene at our feet is rapidly disappearing as the sun sets.

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. 

Climbing up the steep rocky path to Assekrem at sunset
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. 

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.  

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.

 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.

After the sun had disappeared, sinking as an orange orb behind a peak, the sunset had only just begun.
The horizon, consisting of these dramatic peaks, was silhouetted against the orange sky.

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.  

The sun suddenly appears at the tip of this gigantic spike and sprays the mountains of Assekrem with orange light.

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. 

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.
Assekrem in the cold light of dawn

Kae continues the story:

A map of the Hoggar Mountains, showing the loop road from Tamarasset to Assekrem, near the road to Djanet. We would have liked to go to Djanet at this stage but would have needed to find a convoy before the authorities at Tamanrasset would permit us to go. Besides we still had on our minds that we wanted to go to the Congo if we could, and the rainy season there would be on us if we delayed too much with side-trips. The main road marked in red, coming down from the north through Arak and In Amguel is the road we had just driven from Algiers to Tamanrasset. (Source: Michelin Map #174 Africa North and West.)

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.

A Tamanrasset street scene looking much as it does today, with Toureg traders with only a few women and large numbers of straying goats.
Source: Sahara Story, by Edward Ward 1962

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.

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

5 replies »

  1. It’s extremely interesting to read about your travels. I look forward to reading more. I must ask though if you were to go back today, do you believe anything would have drastically changed? For example do you think the attitudes of the people in the villages, the roads etc.

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    • Its a different world today, 38 years later. Civilization in this part of the world has gone backwards. The route we took all the way as far as Kenya is no longer open for overlanders due to kidnappings, violence and wars. Its very sad. Read my comments in the Introduction WHY A BLOG, WHY NOW. We decided to publish our experiences because the route is now closed to overlanders. Glad you like it.

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  2. Your experience of finding yourself cold and in the dark without flashlight or warm clothes reminded me of me making a similar mistake in the Australian outback. I climbed a shear 10m wall to a small shallow cave on the side of Uluru (Ayers Rock) to watch the sunset to realise I couldn’t descend in the dark. I stayed the night, fighting off mosquitoes and chills. Tiny bats appeared and picked off the mossies. I couldn’t see the bats very often but felt their flutter and heard their high pitched squeaks.

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