Africa

Chapter 6: Southern Sahara to the Niger Border.

By Kae Lewis

The road southwards for the first 40 miles was newly sealed and in beautiful condition but all too soon we came to the place where the Algerian Army were hard at work rebuilding the road.  They seemed to have learnt from their past mistakes and were building a high base of coarse shingle above the desert floor on which to lay the seal. Meanwhile we found ourselves unceremoniously launched onto a rough track which followed the partially completed road for many miles.

 We left the Hoggar Mountains behind us and began to follow the Oued Tin Amzi.  Soon we were driving on piste for the first time.  Piste is a French word used to describe a desert track which has never been bulldozed.  Instead there are the tyre tracks of other vehicles across the sand, and you must assume that these vehicles have been traveling to the same destination as you yourself wish to go.  This method of desert navigation works only until the next sandstorm when sand could blow across the tracks and completely obliterate them.  We did see a few marker posts here and there but there were long stretches with nothing at all.  

Piste consists of the tyre tracks of other vehicles across the sand, and you must assume that these vehicles have been traveling to the same destination as you yourself wish to go. 

The confusion of wheel tracks can spread out across the desert for several kilometers as thousands of drivers have each chosen a route which they feel will get them round the obstacle ahead.  There is a feeling that nothing could be worse than the sand seen directly ahead, with each vehicle driving further out across the desert.  Large sand dunes or rocky outcrops are the only features that limit this spread.  

The piste was very sandy, and it was not long before we were stuck in the middle of a large patch of sand.  It was so common for a car to be stuck in sand in the Sahara that the locals have a name for it: ensablement. We had been traveling quite fast as we had learnt to do in the Arak gorge but this patch had defeated us.  The drag of sand on the underside of the van had gradually slowed us down until we had come to a halt and sunk down into it.

The piste ahead was very sandy, and we had to keep making a snap decision about which direction was the best route for us to take. We had to keep up our speed so could not stop and mull it over.
Once we were on it, it was too late to change our minds as we needed to travel as fast as possible to get through the deep sand.

 We discovered it was important not to rev the engine and spin the tyres in an effort to get out.  The wheels only sink further into the sand, requiring more digging to extract them.  By immediately stopping the wheels from turning when we got stuck, we found we were still virtually sitting on top of the sand with a small mound of sand in front of each wheel.  After shoveling this aside, we placed the aluminium sand-ladders in front of the back wheels.  We had two stretches of old rubberized conveyor-belt about 4 meters long which we laid before the front wheels.  This gave us a short length of solid surface on to which we could drive, picking up speed before launching once more onto the sand.  This extra speed usually (but not always) prevented us from sinking immediately, and thus we could reach solid ground. Then came the hard work of dragging the heavy equipment back to the van.  

Kae digging the loose sand away from rear wheel so that we could place the sand ladder on a level surface. We had a shovel each and worked furiously for half an hour or so each time we got stuck. The winter temperature was cool, about 20 degrees C.

Evan decided to let some of the air out of the tires because the low pressure allows them to float on top of the sand more easily.  While we were working on these tasks, four Peugeot 404 saloon cars sped through the sand beside us, going about 60 m.p.h. by our estimate.  One of the cars was being driven by a girl who struggled to control the wildly vibrating steering wheel.  It was rattling her whole body as though she were in the grip of a giant pneumatic drill.

There are often deep holes in the sand dug by an unfortunate traveler whose wheels have sunk deep into the sand.  As he shovels his way out, he leaves a mound of sand beside his pit.  If a Peugeot car traveling at the speed of the four we saw hits the mound with one wheel and the pit with the other, it usually overturns.  Many of these wrecks burn out, probably caused by carrying spare petrol in plastic containers that leak.  When the petrol heats up in the back of the car, there is no expansion space or extra wall strengthening, and the petrol explodes. We saw many wrecks of Peugeot 404 saloon cars along the desert trail.

Wrecks of a bus and a Peugeot were lying beside this particular sand trap. Both vehicles had been stripped almost bare for spare parts, something that we ourselves were having to do because there is no other source of spare parts in the Sahara. In the foregorund is a closeup of our sandladders (upside-down) that we had been using to extracate ourselves from the sand.

The piste continued to be alternately sandy and then stony or corrugated, necessitating fast changes in driving tactics. We were continually on the watch for rocks or holes, especially when we were traveling fast.  If we saw them in time, we were able to slow down which usually meant that we were immediately stuck in the sand.  Alternatively we sometimes hit these obstacles when traveling too fast to see them in time.  The van would leap wildly about, and it was only our seatbelts that prevented us from being thrown from our seats.  We had to be careful because with our tyres let down to a very low pressure, a sharp rock could easily rip a hole in the sidewalls which are the weak points of radial tyres.  

There was also the danger of deep ruts in the sand caused by large trucks going through.  The high center between the ruts would hit the underneath of the van until we were virtually ploughing it down to our level.  The drag would eventually bring us to a halt, stuck once more in the sand.  The underside of the engine (at the rear of the van) was fully exposed to allow cooling, and so a large rock hidden in the sand could damage the engine permanently.  Although there was a guard protecting the underside in the front of the van, it was already very battered, and Evan had to bang it back into shape and retie it on with string every day.

Evan panel-beating the guard that protected the underside of the van in the front. It was taking a real hammering as we ploughed through the sand and rock. Consequently he was doing this every day and retying it back on. He was also constantly checking the suspension, the rubber bushes, axels and tightening up the numerous bolts. All this required him to lie in the sand under the vehicle, and he was always covered in dirt, oil and dust. We had had no spare water to wash our clothes, or even ourselves for weeks. Notice the dressings on all his poor battered fingers.

Evan, who had been driving through all this, had to make many quick decisions about the speed to travel on the holes and ruts immediately in front of him.  While he concentrated on this, I searched ahead on each side of us to see if there was a better way round an obstacle ahead.  Often the best policy was to drive on the left (eastern) side of a sandy area because the wind was coming from this direction, blowing the sand away.  However there was often no choice because large rocks or other obstacles had forced all the vehicles into a narrow sandy chasm.  Then I was forced to lead Evan straight through the middle of a huge mound of sand.  In these cases, we would often stop to survey the situation on foot first but would eventually launch ourselves in, sure that this patch would soon ensnare us in its clutches.  The faithful VW motor would give a throaty roar as it worked to full capacity to push us through, and against all odds, we would make it to the other side. 

Sometimes the tracks of a lone truck would lead off into virgin sand, and hoping to learn from these professional desert drivers, we would confidently follow them. However we would have to be wary that he was staying parallel to the rest of the piste, not wanting to be led off to some lonely oasis that he might be heading to. Eventually we would lose his tracks as, thankfully, he led us back on to the piste again.  

The piste took us over a wide sandy plain with mirages, always off in the distance.

Later that same day, we met some Swedes, two boys and a girl riding two huge motorbikes.  The bike with the girl riding pillion pitched over while they were bumping through the sand beside us.  When we stopped to check that they were unhurt, they nonchalantly explained that this was a frequent occurrence for them. Their bikes were fully laden with equipment but even so, they had been able to bring only five liters of water which had heated up in the sun.  With their mouths full of sand, they each gratefully accepted a drink from our bounteous supply of cool mineral water from ‘The Source’. 

They had enough petrol to reach In Guezzam, at the border with Niger, and were relying on buying more there.  We had been warned by the Germans we met at ‘The Source’ that there was no petrol at In Guezzam and had therefore taken on enough to reach Arlit in Niger. The motorcyclists were not pleased to hear our gossip and no doubt hoped we were wrong.  However when we reached In Guezzam later the next day, there was still no petrol available.  We were traveling faster than them and did not see them again.

A Swedish couple on a motorbike pitched over in front of us. We stopped to check they were unhurt but they explained that this was a frequent occurance for them.
Notice in the distance is one of the official maker posts that mark out the piste. We seldon saw one because the piste was so wide.
There were three of them travelling on two bikes. Since they were carrying only 5 liters of water, we offered them each a glass of our mineral water from ‘The Source’. They were delighted and savoured every mouthful.

The temperatures were still moderate.  We did not have a thermometer but were around 20 – 25 degrees C. The sun shining into the cab was hot but outside in the cool air, we often needed woolen jerseys.  We were stuck for a second time before the end of that day.  The sand seemed to be thicker, and the patches closer together as we went. The sun began to sink in a blaze of orange, and we looked for a campsite. 

Map of our route from Tamanrasset to Agadez via the border post at In Guezzam in Algeria and Assamaka in Niger. From In Guezzam to Assamaka is only 35 km but we managed to get lost here. The distance from Tamanrasset to Agadez via Arlit is 533 miles (859 km).
Each cross in blue represents a place where we were stuck in the sand, sometimes several times for each X.
Bit = Bitumen. Pist = sandy track
Map taken from the book: Sahara Handbook by Simon and Jan Glen 1980

The piste was very wide at this point. We drove off to look for a campsite, but soon discovered that we could not drive off the piste where other vehicles were driving without getting bogged in more sand.  Of course we also knew it was no use looking for a caravan park with the trees, hot showers and spa pool in this deserted and isolated spot.  Eventually we found a giant rock planted in the sand and parked behind it.  The piste passed on both sides, and several trucks rattled by in the night.

The piste was very wide, and there was nowhere to camp away from the traffic.
We could occasionally see distant sand dunes where we would have liked to go to camp. However, if we drove off the piste, we were soon bogged down in deep sand.

We were not able to use our precious water for washing off the dust with which we were liberally coated because we could not be sure when next we would be able to obtain water.  We wanted to be sure we would have enough if we were delayed several days in the desert with a breakdown. I thought of the Swedes with their meager supplies as I used about a liter to wash the worst from my face and hands.  

 With driving conditions the next day much the same, we were stuck almost immediately. A passing truck kindly stopped to help us.  The Targui driver stood resplendent in a turquoise and gold trimmed robe and white turban while he rapped out the orders to his underlings.  Sand flew high in the air as they dug furiously at the high ruts that had brought us to a halt.  There was no need to bring out the sand mats.  When the driver was satisfied that all the sand had been removed, he lined everyone up behind the van and then harangued them all until they had pushed it on to solid ground.  All we had to do was steer the van, and even reving the engine was superfluous.  When he was quite satisfied that we were safely on our way again, this Good Samaritan leapt into his cab in a flourish of turquoise and roared off with all his underlings clinging frantically to the top of the load.  

A little later, we stopped at the ruins of Fort Laouni, a French Foreign Legion outpost which sits in a desolate, sandy basin behind some high black granite outcrops.  The building is now a mere shell of crumbling walls with no roof, windows or door.  While we were there, two four-wheel-drive vehicles pulled up, and one of the European occupants asked us about road conditions to Tamanrasset and how long it would take them to reach it.  They seemed in an extraordinary hurry, covering us with dust as they raced off.  

The ruin of Fort Laouni, a French Foreign Legion outpost.
Fort Laouni in a sandy basin beside some black granite outcrops.

We set off at a more sedate pace in the opposite direction, gradually learning more about driving on the rough terrain.  We were stuck five times between Tamanrasset and In Guezzam during those two days.  Each time it required only one stop before we were back on solid ground. It made all the difference having the heavy conveyor belts for the front wheels, as well as the sand ladders for the back wheels. We had picked up the old conveyor belt washed up on a remote beach at John O’Groats, Scotland, near the Arctic Circle so they were well travelled by the time we were finished with them.

Once we had dug all the sand away from the wheels, we set the metal sand ladders in front of the rear wheels and the old conveyor belt in front of the front wheels, forming what we hoped would be a perfect roadway across the deep sand we were bogged in. In this photo is a glimpse into the rear of the van showing the jerry cans full of petrol which took up all the floor space of the camper. And as you can see, the air was cool as the sun went down, and certainly not at all what you would be expecting the Sahara to be.
Evan with his foot hard on the accelerator as he took off with the tyres on the sand ladders. Often, as the tyres went back onto the deep sand, the van came to a stop again. We would retrieve the sand ladders and start the process all over again until eventually we were back on firm piste. In this area, we managed to get started again with only one stop each time.

With all this hard work, we were so lucky to be crossing the Sahara in the winter with its mild, and sometimes downright cool temperatures. Michael Marriott and his wife were not so lucky when they crossed the Sahara in March 1953 in their London Taxi. What a difference a few months makes:

Tuesday 31st March 1953, South of Tamanrasset:

The desert envelops us. We continue over the sandy waste until 11 a.m. – by this time, the radiator is almost at bursting point -and we are forced, much against our will, to stop. Once more, we try to stave off the worst of the sun’s heat by sheltering underneath the cab; but one cannot escape from flames when within the fire. Today, we are shrivelled and baked until the mind screams out: stop! But just when the breaking point is reached – and I cannot see how we can lie prostate and gasping any longer – the sun begins its decline, and we are given another chance. Another period of rest and coolness. It is surprising what the human body can withstand.

Desert Taxi by Michael Marriott. Panther 1956.

Just before we came to the Gara Ekar mountain range, a Saharan truck stopped in front of us. The Touareg driver climbed out of the cab to hail us.  When we stopped, a young French girl who was riding up on the tray of the truck began to tell us her story. Early that morning, she and her girlfriend had left their cars on the piste to go for a walk in the mountains. They had returned about three hours later just in time to see a white four-wheel-drive vehicle driven by Europeans pull away, taking one of the girls’ cars with them.  They had smashed the windows of their other car, taking a large drum of diesel, all their money, passports, food and water.

The description she gave fitted the boys who had asked us for information about the route that morning, and this would explain why they were in such a desperate hurry and had seemed so breathless. They had had two vehicles, one of them being white with a large drum of diesel filling the entire back seat.  It had been three or four hours now since we had seen them, and she translated this information to the driver in French. She was naturally very upset as she related her tale to us. We were glad she had the assistance of the kindly truck-driver who grimaced as he swung back up into his cab to race off in pursuit.  The French girl waved forlornly to us as she was thrown violently back onto the tray floor by the acceleration of the truck.

Touareg truck drivers always seemed ready to help a tourist in distress.
Most of the Touareg truck drivers we met did not like their photo being taken but this young man did not mind.

We had already formed the habit of having one of us always remaining in the van when parked either in the town or the desert.  It is tempting to lock up and go off exploring but it is obviously a dangerous practice.  It was difficult to make the decision however, because if we restricted ourselves to remaining always near the van, there was much we would miss seeing and experiencing.  The alternative, having our van disappear or be ransacked, would spell the end of our expedition, and this would be an even bigger disaster.  We now knew that it was important to continue with this policy, leaving the van only on those rare occasions when we were sure the risk was worth it or where we could find a safe place to park it.  

We passed down a narrow sandy valley between high granite knobs. We saw another VW Kombie in the distance, a newer model than our own and water-cooled.
The Gara Ekar Range in the distance.

In the Gara Ekar Range, we passed down a narrow sandy valley between high granite knobs. They looked decidedly top-heavy, with their bases eroded away.  Later, when the valley gradually opened out onto a gigantic plateau covered in soft dust, we were able to drive quite fast, kicking up a giant column of dust behind us.  Then, unexpectedly, there was a dark green smudge on the horizon in front of us and from this, as we approached, the palm trees of In Guezzam gradually took shape.  This was the border between Algeria and Niger.  It was now the 26thJanuary, just twelve days since we had arrived in Algeria.  

The palm trees of In Guezzam gradually took shape in front of us.

Since it was still one hour before sunset when the border would close, we decided to try to complete the border formalities that evening.  The piste led us straight down through the dusty little village to the border-post but unfortunately, five Frenchmen, each driving a Peugeot 404 car zipped past us at the last moment to join the queue ahead of us.  These French entrepreneurs obtain the cars in France, drive them to western Africa where they can sell them at a good profit to super-rich African politicians and businessmen.  For them, crossing the Sahara is a business, and the faster they can get the cars to West Africa, the greater their profit. Most of them will return, taking multiple vehicles across through the winter months and perhaps even into the summer as well.  

This is what happens to many of the Peugeot cars driven at high speed through the Sahara. Evan was still raiding every wreck he saw to add to his pile of rubber bushes for our front suspension.

Although we received our customs clearance that evening, we still did not have a stamp from the immigration office when the sun sank over the sand and the border was closed. We camped the night on the sand between the palmerie and a well-frequented café, as did many other travelers.  There was a huddle of squat mud-walled cottages lined up along the wide dusty wind-swept street.  Goats wandered in and out of the doorways, and naked children were playing in the dust. 

A Saharan date palmerie: “Their feet in water, their heads in hell.”
From Sahara Unveiled by Patrick Turnball 1940.

Camped nearby that night was an Irish girl who, together with her fiancé was driving a Landrover to Ghana.  It was now a week since the Landrover had broken down here, and her fiancé had accepted a lift to Arlit where he had hoped to obtain a new water pump. In the meantime, she had become disillusioned with life in In Guezzam and was anxiously awaiting his return. They were going to Ghana, her fiancé’s homeland to see if she would want to live there after they were married. We heard not long after this that the borders of Ghana were temporarily closed due to civil strife.  I fear she had a long wait and a difficult decision ahead of her.  

Evan summaried driving in the Sahara in a letter to his father:

We got stuck in soft sand only about ten times, had no tyre trouble, only slight trouble with the front suspension. It’s never boring driving here, every 100 meters of desert is different. First 100 meters of soft sand, 50 meters of flat rock (pick up speed here for the next patch of soft sand), sharp bumps (hit the brakes), speed up to 30 m.p.h. with maximum revs in second gear for sand. Search the horizon for the best route ahead (that’s Kae’s job). Hit the brakes again for corrugations. Glance at the scenery if possible.

We were about to leave Algeria and cross the border into the country of Niger. We had been only twelve days on the road and come about 1500 miles (2312 km) on bad roads (or no roads) the whole way.

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

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