By Kae Lewis
In the desert, as on the wide sea, the voyager is frequently impeded by storms; a furious wind lifts whirling sand over a plain lacking vegetation, filling the mouth and eyes of the voyager; in this event, it is necessary to halt the journey.Sallus (97 B.C.)
Early the next morning, after we had obtained the required immigration stamp in our passport, we were on our way across no-man’s-land to Assamaka, the Niger border-post. However, five minutes later we were stuck fast in the sand, still within sight of In Guezzam. We had failed to choose the correct set of tracks to lead us safely around a hill of sand. Instead we had gone towards the high ridge in the center, to come to a halt in the deep sand halfway up the steep slope. Although we dug ourselves out and laid the sand-ladders in front of the wheels, we were unable to pick up enough speed on the hill to launch the van off the sand. We dug out the wheels time and time again before we finally reached a stony patch where the tyres could grip and take the van to the top.
At first, the terrain was rocky with patches of deep sand which had caught in the hollows. The tyres were still soft for traveling in the sand, and as we bumped and thumped on the sharp rocky ridges, it was remarkable that they were not punctured. Soon we were traveling on another wide sandy plain where the wind began to fling flurries of sand against the side of the van with an increasingly loud tattoo. It was not long before our vision became limited to the sand immediately in front of us.
Although we knew it was only 35 km from In Guezzam to Assamaka, we had soon driven about 65 km without seeing any sign of the border-post. We were still following a well-used piste with many vehicle tracks which we could still see clearly despite the blowing sand. However we should have found Assamaka by now, and it seemed we were lost.
The prospect of being lost or broken-down in the Sahara is terrifying, and was something we had done everything we could to avoid, including carrying large numbers of spare parts and excess water. Michael Marriot and his wife, Nita were lost in this same region of the Sahara and ran very short of water. Their main problem was that their elderly London taxi cab kept overheating, and the radiator needed constantly topping up. They carried far less water than we did, and the taxi cab engine used almost all they had. Eventually, they decided to stop and wait for a passing truck to rescue them, rather than risk driving in circles:
The Sahara is trying hard to claim us. We have already broken the strictest rule, and drunk water in the heat of the day; it is a relief for a few moments, then the raging thirst returns, infinitely worse than before. We can no longer smoke, and our lips and eyelids are swollen and painful. It is impossible to talk without great effort. I tell Nita to get under the cab; the heat had caused her to vomit. It has affected me similarly. Now I moisten my wife’s lips with a little water to freshen her mouth. The trickling water is torture to my ears, and the tempatation to drink the remains right away is agony to resist.Desert Taxi by Michael Marriott. Panther Books, 1956.
We came upon the five French cars that had left In Guezzam just after us and had overtaken us at speed half an hour before. They had stopped to talk to a truck driver who was having a picnic in the whirling sand. He confirmed that we had all missed Assamaka by waving vaguely northwards, the direction from which we had come. Because our distance vision had been blocked by the sand, we had driven straight past it.
Since the truck driver was giving detailed instructions in French which we could not understand, we decided to try to keep up with the Peugeots. They drove at an incredible pace, and it was almost beyond the capability of the van to stay with them. We were careering over bumps at such a speed that our large sliding door began to come off. I hung grimly on to it for as long as I could but eventually we had to stop to repair it and allow the engine to cool. The Frenchmen immediately stopped too, and it transpired that they knew no more than us about the precise location of Assamaka. They were relying on us to lead them to it.
During this pause while Evan reattached the sliding door, the wind dropped slightly so that the sand was being whisked up only to knee level, and we could see more clearly into the distance. As we drove further on, this time with us setting the pace, we saw a distant white mass reflecting the sun and shimmering through the dust and haze. As we came closer, the square white buildings of the border-post slowly materialized from this mirage.
Because it lies about one km from the piste that we had been driving on, we left the track to drive straight towards it. This whole experience illustrates the distinct disadvantage of navigating by using the tracks of others; you have to assume that their destination was the same as your own, and in this case it had obviously not been. During the frequent sandstorms, there must be many travelers searching for Assamaka as we had done. Assamaka is the only official border-crossing point along the border between Algeria and Niger, although the Touareg and other local travellers cross anywhere they happen to be along the border. There is no-one to stop them.
They put their borderpost in the middle of a trackless desert and expect everyone to find it. Woe betide anyone who enters Niger without first going through this border-post. The other problem of course was that we needed to make a ninety degree turn at Assamaka to reach our intended destination of Arlit and Agadez.
Around the base of the oasis hillock of Assamaka is a large area of deep sand. It is therefore essential to approach the border-post traveling fairly fast. All six vehicles charged into the compound of the border-post and screeched to a halt amid a great cloud of dust. There was a miniature palmerie beside the small cluster of white-washed buildings which are inhabited only by the border guards with no family dwellings.
One of the guards collected up all our passports and took them off to the office while customs officers began the treasure hunt. Each vehicle in turn was emptied entirely, with the contents being spread out on the sand. Then the customs officers began to ferret through it all. We had not rushed forward like our French companions had but stood back to watch the proceedings. However, all too soon, it was our turn.
“Take-everything-out,” spouted the guard in what proved to be the only sentence of English he knew. The sand storm was still raging, and our bedding, clothing and food was soon filled with sand. We watched as they diligently flipped through our books, peered into the honey pot and rifled through our underwear.
“Velly good,” said the boss-guard when I had finished taking everything from my handbag. Then they passed on to their next victims, leaving us to sort through the mound of our belongings lying on the ground and rapidly being buried in sand by the wind. We now had no clean clothes or bedclothes, and all our food supplies were gritty. And of course there was no water to remedy the situation.
While we waited for our passports to be returned, we noticed an English-registered Landrover nearby. The owner was occupied in trying to repack his belongings in the back. He introduced himself as Mark Milburn, an English ethnologist who specializes in Saharan prehistory. When we discovered that he had been here before, we asked him to point us in the direction of Arlit. He was going there also, and we accepted his invitation to join him for lunch a little way out from Assamaka.
Although the Frenchmen also asked us to travel with them, we tactfully declined as we were sure that the van would never stand the pace. We already knew that they were taking the cars to West Africa to sell on the black market there. But we had begun to suspect some skullduggery because some of the cars had no ignition keys and had recently been repainted, perhaps indicating that the Sahara had become a lucrative outlet for stolen cars from Europe. This might help to explain why they always seemed to be in such a hurry. And on their way back to Europe, did some of them steal vehicles from tourists who unsuspectingly left them in the desert to take a stroll for a few hours? We began to wonder.
Soon the immigration officers returned with the pile of passports. The Frenchmen grabbed theirs and disappeared over the horizon in a halo of dust. However, when we spoke to them again in Arlit, they told us that the guards at Assamaka had neglected to stamp one of their passports. The authorities in Arlit required them to travel the 200 km back to Assamaka to obtain the stamp. We dodged that bullet too because, by sheer good luck, our passports had the Assamaka stamp in each one. We did not know enough about the system at the time to check before we left Assamaka but we were learning fast.
The piste to Arlit was, of course, not signposted. It went at right angles to the route we had traveled on from In Guezzam and was clearly marked with an oil drum placed every kilometer. ‘Clearly marked’ that is to those who realized what the lone rusted drum signified. The wide flat waterless waste of sand and pebbles which surrounded us stretched both southwards, and westwards for a thousand kilometers. Over the centuries, many travelers have been swallowed up forever by the treacherous desert. This token rusted drum was all there was to prevent you going astray, as we had already done today.
The wind gradually dropped, and after the exertions and sheer terror of the morning’s driving, it was extremely pleasant to relax over lunch, listening to Dr Milburn talking about his work in the Sahara. Because he had just spent a fortnight alone in the desert between Tamanrasset and In Guezzam, he also appreciated our company. He told us that the entire Sahara had once been populated by stone-age cattle-herders and hunters between 10,000 and 2000 BC. Evidence of this can be found all around this area in the prehistoric rock-art of which the predominant subject is cattle. However they also drew horses, giraffes, ostriches, even elephant and rhino, and we tried to imagine a Sahara hospitable enough to support animals like these. It certainly must have been a wetter and more fertile place than it is today.
The ancient peoples who lived in this tropical paradise have also left behind their stone tools but, unlike in conventional locations, archeology in the Sahara usually does not involve digging. Instead, the continuously shifting sands are eternally burying and subsequently exposing the old surfaces when the ancient stone tools and burial sites are to be found merely lying on top of the sand. Mark was particularly excited that day about some large stone gourds he had just found. They were flat rocks which had been hollowed out to use either as a water receptacle or as a base for grinding meal.
Mark was on the lookout for a ‘likely dune’ to check for more tools that afternoon, and he invited us to go with him. Later, as we were driving south-eastward towards Arlit, he waved us to follow him as he left the piste and headed towards a distant clump of trees. Once we were off the piste, the sand was soft with a hard crusty layer over the top. We dared not stop until we reached harder ground or the wheels would have sunk in immediately. However the engine was working very hard to push us through the spongy layer of sand, and the temperature of the oil rose to 130°C for the second time that day. I remembered this crusty layer on top of the sand from my childhood in New Zealand, as it had always formed on the beach following a heavy rainstorm. As a young child, I loved the feel of the crust breaking with every step I took across the surface in my bare feet. I knew such crusts formed on the sand after rain, and so it seemed likely to me that it had rained recently in this part of the Sahara too.
We finally reached the tiny uninhabited oasis which was completely encircled by inhospitable desert. We were surprised to see that there were spindly grasses growing amongst the scattering of acacia trees. The vegetation indicated that there was subterranean water beneath the sands, and it may have always been there. As we looked around us, we tried to imagine a time when this slight depression was a deep crystalline pool shaded by tall pines, with the long reeds dipping in the cool water. In any case, water will always attract human habitation, and it was on this premise that Mark hoped to find the debris of an ancient dwelling-place.
Long ago, when the Sahara was still green, the not-yet-desert was lively, in all senses of the word. There were forests in the gullies, and on the mountain slopes, massive stands of cypress and pine. The plains were grasslands, as lush as the American praire at the time of the buffalo; reeds, papyrus, and water lilies filled the ponds, and mosses lined the streams. As the desert dried up, and the water supply shrank, growing things retreated to a few specialized habitats. First the cultivated crops like millet disappeared, then the forage, the tough wild grasses. Some grasses, shrubs and trees survived in the wadies, salt-tolerant plants hung on to life on the periphery of the former lakes…The acacia tree has both tap root and a lateral root system to maximize its search for water. The tap root can descend to extraordinary depths.(From “The Tenacity of Life” in “Sahara” by Marq de Villiers & Sheila Hirtle. Bloomsbury 2002.)
On the Michelin map above, it can be seen that this area, between Assamaka and Artlit, west of the Air mountain system, forms part of an ancient river system that drains this entire region. Today it consists mainly of dry wadies that will fill with water following a rare rainstorm. 4000 – 10,000 years ago however, this region would have formed the drainage area of a huge river system which originally would have linked up with the Niger River far to the south. No wonder Mark had headed straight to this area to look for evidence of ancient human habitations.
We wandered amongst the acacia trees, peering at the carpet of scattered stones in search of any unnaturally-shaped ones. It was so peaceful and relaxing after the stresses of desert travel that we have faced. This was the first ocassion that we had taken the time to wander around the desert. Without the safety of another vehicle travelling with us to pull us out of the sand if needed, we had been unable to leave the piste and explore before this.
Soon we were finding smooth edged chips from the edges of clay gourds and plates, along with pieces of stone which had obviously been worked but the original shape was no longer recognizable. I picked up a huge pancake-shaped, smooth round stone which our expert-on-the-spot told us was part of a mortar and pestle set used for grinding cereals. The pestle was lying nearby.
After a happy few hours of wandering around this ancient oasis, we headed back to the distant piste. Soon we hit a large hole which rocked the van unmercifully. The piste became more sandy as we drove on through the afternoon until suddenly there ahead of us was an immense pile of sand which stretched endlessly at right angles to our path. We plunged the van into it but the soft coarse sand quickly overwhelmed us. Out came the shovels and sand ladders but with each attempt, we jumped only a few meters. As soon as we came to the end of the sand ladders, the van would instantly sink back into the sand again. In the end, it required seven attempts before we were finally back on terra firma again. It was not until later that evening that Dr Milburn told us that this abyss is aptly named ‘The Valley of the Dead’. He had refrained from telling us this whilst we had been firmly caught in its grasp.
As the sun began to go down, it was difficult to distinguish a hard surface from a soft one. The hollows in the sand became large bottomless shadows, making it impossible to judge their depth, and adjust our speed to suit. We set up camp on the sandy plateau, and Mark Milburn joined us for a dinner of tomato pasta supplemented with potatoes and onions which were the only fresh vegetables we had left. There were still some oranges left for dessert, and with a plastic mug of French brandy (undiscovered by the customs officials for all their diligence), we talked on into the night about the stone-age men and women who had walked these plains before us.
That night Dr Milburn slept, as was his habit, under the stars beside his Landrover. Several nights previously, he had woken to find the prints of a large wolf-like animal which had padded around his pillow. Dr Milburn left us the next morning as he had business appointments in Arlit. We expected to be stuck in the sand again that day and did not wish to delay him any further. He spoke of his admiration for our unhurried and calm attitude towards getting unstuck, and he had great confidence that he would see us again in Arlit in a few days. As we stood and waved him farewell, we could only hope he was right.
Just as he left, a young Touareg girl with a large herd of camels came wandering over the horizon and, surprisingly, came to visit us just as we were clearing away our breakfast dishes. She was very hungry, wolfing down two slices of what was now very stale bread that I had liberally spread with strawberry jam. After I had given her the rest of the loaf and shown her how to spread the jam with a knife, she began ladling jam and munching steadily until all the bread was gone. Then she poured the last of the jam directly into her mouth from the pot. She looked longingly at the stainless steel table knife I had given her to spread her jam before carefully handing it back to me.
Having breakfasted so well, she was in no hurry to leave. She was now able to concentrate on all the other gadgets that accompanied this amazing vehicle. She was entranced by a musical calculator we had until we showed her a felt-tip pen. She then set about decorating her arms using bold geometric designs until suddenly Evan’s shiny padlock and chain caught her eye. In all cases, she scrupulously handed each article back after she had experimented with it. We were able to communicate a little in French, and she told us her parents lived several kilometers south of the piste. Presumably their village must lie in a small unmapped oasis similar to the one we had visited with Mark Milburn the day before.
During all this time, her camels were straying off, and she kept casting them a furtive eye. Eventually she could leave them no longer. We gave her matches, the felt-tip pen and some socks. We hoped the socks might keep her bare feet warm on these chilly evenings. As we set off, our dear little desert maiden was near to tears. Even a parting gift of a few sweets did not console her and bring back her lovely smile. It is indeed a lonely life for a teenage girl who, like young animal herders everywhere, should be in school. With her lively intelligence, dogged inquisitiveness and natural charm, she would do well in the modern world. Instead she is destined to wander the desert, bringing up more children in poverty and ignorance.
That morning, we were stuck in three sand piles, each of which was nearly as wide as the Valley of the Dead and took seven or eight jumps before we were finally out. The sand was of much coarser grain than further north, and the van seemed to sink more deeply and be more difficult to extricate. This was definitely the worst stretch of desert we had encountered so far.
Suddenly the piste led us on to a hard-packed stony plain on which grew increasingly more coarse grass. We were hailed by a Touareg woman who had a baby and three other older children. They were holding out a small plastic container for water which we stopped to fill for them. Their piteously small animal-skin tent was pitched on the stones nearby. They were almost certainly victims of the droughts which had afflicted this area in the past.
One of the children raced over to the marker post where they kept their belongings, returning with a bag of stones. On examining them, we became convinced that they were stone-age arrowheads and cutting tools which Dr Milburn had described to us the previous evening. When we bartered for them, we soon discovered that her lifelong struggle for existence had made the mother into a hard business woman. Although they were now in Niger, she asked for Algerian Dinars. The Touareg know no boundaries in the desert and wander without passports from one country to another. She also asked for food, clothing and matches, and we tried to help her from our rapidly diminishing supplies. However the stone-age tools we acquired from her were later confirmed as being genuine.
Soon afterwards, we were hailed for water again, this time by a young Touareg goatherd who informed us that we were only 10 km from Artlit. There were stubby trees scattered all over the desert here while his goats were finding plenty of wiry grass to eat. It began to look as though we had successfully crossed the Sahara Desert. The journey had taken us just two weeks of unhurried driving and digging.
Letter written by Evan Lewis:
Well its 28 January 1982, and we made it across the Sahara, despite getting lost in a sandstorm in the most dangerous part of the desert near the Niger customs post. With the sand blowing across the tyre tracks that we were following, we missed the ones going at right angles towards the custom’s post. After driving another 30 miles, we realized – in the midst of a huge sea of blowing sand – that we had surely missed it. Out there, we came across six car-loads of mad Frenchmen in the same predicament, and raced back along our tracks which were rapidly disappearing. We drove at a dangerous breakneck speed to keep up with them, risking wrecking Katy’s suspension.
We eventually tracked down the customs post, an old army fort, in the no-man’s – land between Algeria and Niger. There we met a refreshingly sane Englishman in a Landrover who joined up with us. He was an ethnologist, Dr Mark Milburn who spoke French and helped us through the formalities with the border guards. This process involved taking everything out of the van in a sandstorm for the custom’s agents to sort through.
That night, we camped beside Dr Milburn in the middle of a huge expanse of empty sand between In Guezam and Arlit. The next day, far out in the Sahara Desert, he showed us where to find stone tools.
In some places, the moisture in the sand varied during the day so that at each hour, its qualities changed. Feche-feche is very soft sand with a hard crust over the top. As long as you keep going at least 30 mph, you do not sink through the crust. However, the rolling resistance is high, and the engine reached 130 degrees C twice (the maximum allowable is 127 degrees C ) but we could not stop without sinking. This happened once when Mark Milburn took us off the track to go looking for stone-age artifacts in a distant grove of straggly trees. This ancient oasis formed an island in the middle of a sea of feche-feche.
Once there, Mark began to pick up pieces of mortars and pestles from the Stone Age. Kae found a smooth flat disc which had been used for grinding grain against stone mortars. Mark told us it was only the second one he had seen. It was a pity we did not meet up with him earlier because he had been visiting cave and rock drawings of hundreds of cattle. Thousands of years ago, the Sahara had been lush pastures for man and his cattle. The artifacts were coming to the surface near ancient sand dunes which were once fertile and populated lands. They are exposed by the shifting sands for only a short time before being buried again in the next sand storm. They lie around in fantastic abundance.
Mark left us early in the morning of the second day, our pace being a little slow for him as he had an appointment in Artlit. With his 4-wheel drive Landrover, he was not getting stuck at all.
Soon after that, a young girl appeared out of nowhere with a herd of camels. The camels happily wandered off over the horizon while she passed some time with us. Kae gave her half a loaf of bread and part of a jar of strawberry jam which she hurriedly gulped down in its entirely.
The Touareg often stop cars asking for water but sometimes they are obviously camping on the road especially for that purpose. At one stage, we were in complete isolation in a huge expanse of sand where every vehicle takes a different route when we saw camels silhouetted against the sky over a shimmering mirage lake. I stopped for photos and in no time at all, the Touareg herder arrived to pose for photos. He then asked for sugar which is a great luxury to them. Bonbons are also popular, and fortunately we had a good supply. We were continually being pestered by children in Algeria demanding cadeaux (gifts) – an unfortunate side-effect of tourism.
The terrain in the Sahara is surprisingly varied. We did not see much of the huge golden sand dunes which were to the east of our route in the Tenére. However we saw quite enough soft sand. We were stuck in soft sand a total of ten times. When you get stuck, you have to declutch before the vehicle stops moving forwards to avoid digging in. (Perhaps we have not mentioned before that the VW Kombie van has a manual transmission.) Then we did not have to dig so much to get the aluminium planks under the back wheels. We then laid our old rubber conveyor belts for about five meters in front of the front wheels. The aluminium sand ladders allow the back wheels to grip and climb out of the hole, and we could then gain some acceleration. The front wheels produced no friction on the rubber artificial road and when the back wheels came onto it, it allowed us to accelerate up to 10 – 15 mph before hitting the sand again. In certain types of sand, this speed was sufficient to prevent the van from sinking into the sand again. I could then drive right out of the bad patch – sometimes hundreds of yards but usually shorter. Then we had to drag the heavy metal sandladders and canvas conveyor belt all the way back to the van. Fortunately it was never very hot, one of the advantages of crossing the Sahara in the winter.
In the coarser round-particled sand between Assamaka and Arlit, this procedure only allowed the van to leap 30 – 40 meters before it sank back in again. We then had to repeat this up to eight times to get out of one ‘hole’ in this region. At that time, we were with Mark Milburn, and he complimented us on our driving technique and for keeping our cool, persevering until we eventually got out. Apparently many first-time tourists become very depressed and discouraged at this stage and want to turn around and go back. But we had known roughly what to expect before we started, as a result of reading several books about it. The reality was not as bad as we had expected in fact.
The most successful way of getting across the sand without getting stuck is to hit the soft patches at maximum revs in second gear at about 30 mph. You have to hope that you do not hit any big holes at that speed and flip over, or break the suspension! Often the only tracks have been deeply rutted by trucks. These ruts are too wide and deep for the VW, and the undercarriage drags on the sand hump in the middle, quickly bringing us to a halt. That then entails a lot of digging to clear the hump away for a good distance, both underneath and in front of the vehicle.
While digging in the sand, there was always a danger of snakes, although we never saw any. We saw some Saharan sand vipers in a zoo in Guardaia. They move like a sidewinder and lie under the sand without moving until you stand on them. Then they bite, and you are dead in ten minutes. They are the biggest worry in the Sahara.
While traveling at this speed, you also have to hope that the deep sand is not hiding any big rocks to smash the engine, gearbox or steering gear. You can tell how bad the sand is well in advance by the number of wrecked cars – nearly all Peugeots – around the hole. Sometimes we saw as many as seven or eight around one sand hole. Quite a few were burned out VW vans too.
The Sahara Desert is never boring as it is always changing. You drive across 100 yards of soft sand followed by perhaps 50 yards of flat rock where you pick up speed for the next patch of sand. There can be some sharp bumps which cause you to hit the brakes. Our speed was about 30 mph with the engine at maximum revs per sec because the sand was dragging on the tyres.
Kae played an essential role in navigating through these sand patches. While I was fully occupied with getting through the immediate obstacles, it was Kae’s job to scan the horizon for the best route around the soft sand which you could distinguish only by the deeper shadows from previous tyre tracks. Just as you started to speed up, you would hit the brakes again for corrugations. Sometimes I had time to glance at the scenery but not often.
We had expected tyre trouble, and other VW owners we had met had experienced three or four blow-outs or punctures. We have not had a single problem to date, despite carrying five spare tyres. This is probably because I bought new heavy duty 8-ply oversize truck tyres, steel-belted radials. This decreases torque but that did not seem to be a problem in second gear.
Often the hard patches have shingle or rock strewn over them or a bit of tussock growing while the soft sand has been dug up by other vehicles. Sometimes huge flat smooth rocks provide stepping stones or rather launching pads to project you from one patch of sand to the next. Eventually we learnt that it pays to follow the tyre tracks of the dual-wheeled trucks driven by Arab or Toureg who know the desert well. They often drive a long way off the beaten track to find hard ground and then return to the piste later. Often Kae successfully navigated us through virgin sand around very bad holes where everyone else had tried to barge straight through the centre. Most of the other VWs got stuck 6 to 10 times at each sand hole too.
I must go as the post office closes soon and I want to post this to let you know that we are alive. Heading for Kano, then Kenya? Evan and Kae.
© Copyright Kae & Evan Lewis 2019. All rights reserved.