We drove slowly across the bridge that spanned the border between Nigeria and Cameroon and could see the deep waters of the Cross River far below us. As we bounced off the far end of the bridge, the Cameroon border post was immediately in front of us. We presented our passports, carnet, insurance documents and health certificate to the border guards who studied them all very carefully. Our visas were in order but what about our insurance policy? At first, they said that our ‘worldwide’ policy was not valid since it did not mention Cameroon. This gave us a sinking feeling as we envisaged another day spent waiting in their office until our papers were in order. Then very fortunately for us, one of the other guards announced that he had heard of the ‘Worldwide Christian Mission’, and he totally understood the principle involved. On the advice of this learned colleague, the guard finally agreed to stamp us into the country.
We immediately set off towards Yaoundé, the capital city of Cameroon, where once more we needed to visit the Embassies, this time for Gabon and Zaire (now called Congo) to obtain visas for our onward travel through central Africa. We knew exactly what we had to do because it had all been carefully explained to us by the German tour guide back in the camping yard at Kano.
The road was narrow, and the rampant growth of trees, bushes and vines that formed the jungle closed us in on both sides. We were in low gear most of the time because the rains had washed away the surface of the road, leaving large potholes and ditches. We caused a sensation as we passed through the villages, and our arms began to ache with waving to the cheering friendly crowds of people.
At about six, we arrived at the village of Bakebe where we hoped to stay the night. The whole village was deserted because they were all attending a wake in honour of someone’s dead brother. When we stopped at the community centre in a large park surrounded by palm trees, we were offered a half pint mug of palm wine. Later, the village chief gave us his permission to camp in the village school yard nearby.
After we had set up camp, we were visited by the headmaster and his wife who very kindly invited us to stay at their house. We declined because it would have been a lot of work to dismantle our bed again and then reload the jerrycans and tyres back onto the bed, and we were already very tired. Nevertheless we stood chatting in English to these kind and hospitable people for some time. It was somewhat disconcerting though that neither of them smiled, not even when inviting us to their house. This was a trait that was widespread amongst the villagers at the wake, and was presumably a measure of their grief for their recently departed friend.
We parked by the classrooms which were open to the breeze from about waist-level on all sides, to keep the pupils cool in the torrid climate. They sat together in the tiny classrooms on long forms with no desk to write on. The classrooms were empty when we saw them, and we left early next morning before they had a chance to invade their playground. We would certainly have caused a distraction from the lessons had we lingered.
The road gradually became wider although it was still only clay with no shingle or tarmac at all. Wherever it was wet, it as very slippery, and we had very little traction. Crowds of children were walking to school along the road that morning, and we passed them at a crawl, creating a stir wherever we went. Throughout the region, the children all wore very smart blue and white school uniforms.
At each village along the way, there was a Presbyterian or Catholic church and sometimes a hospital or school built by the missionaries. I remembered that as a child, we were issued with small boxes in which to collect our pennies for the African Missionaries. These edifices in the jungles throughout Africa were the result of several hundred years of such collections in Sunday Schools all over the western world.
One of the teachers approached us while we were stopped and asked us for medicine to give his feverish pupils. It was probably malaria from which they suffered, and we did not have any spare anti-malaria tablets. We were taking a small dose each day ourselves, as a preventative measure. Children who already had fevers would require much larger doses to cure them. I gave the teacher a packet of aspirin I had, helping him read the doses for children. We were sad to realise that this was only a drop in the ocean of suffering that was about us. Even if we had brought a lorry-load of malaria tablets, we would have made no impression on it.
We finally reached the main road which was sealed, but with the faster pace and steep climbs in the very hot humid air, the engine began to overheat. We stopped frequently to wait for it to cool, and so progress was no faster than on the unsealed track. For this reason, just passed Bafoussam, we made the decision to turn off the main road. We would cross the central highland area to Yaoundé, rather than follow the main road down to the coast. This had the added advantage of avoiding the port city of Douala and its inevitable traffic jams.
After turning off the sealed road, we stopped in a village market-place where Evan began, as usual to talk to a group of villagers while I prepared some food in the back of the van. My task was difficult because in the crowded village square, we dared not take any of the petrol cans out of the van for fear they would be stolen. This meant I dared not light the gas burner to cook a hot meal. Nor could I open many of the floor-level food storage and utensil cupboards which were jammed shut with heavy jerrycans up against them. However we had to eat, and I had several carefully laid contingency plans for preparing a meal under such conditions.
One of the villagers that Evan had started talking to was the French master at the school, a very jovial Cameroonian. Since his name was Lewis, he was delighted to learn that ours was also and immediately invited his newly found kin to visit his home on the other side of the square. We packed up and followed him to his house, a nice bungalow in a leafy street. He introduced us to his wife, Madame Lewis, a tall girl with a beautiful smile. She made us welcome with a glass of wine, and we sat in their comfortable lounge seats surrounded by such refinements as a well-stocked bookcase, writing desk, polished coffee table, carpet and colourful wall-hangings. We were surprised to find such sophistication but it was mixed with the genuine friendliness and hospitality we had found so many times already since we had been in Africa.
We camped the night in their driveway, and the next morning, at their insistence, breakfasted with them on a freshly baked French baguette, coffee and bananas. When I presented our gift of a jar of my home-made apple jelly, the meal took on the atmosphere of a carnival as they savoured this new taste.
In colonial times, the house had been supplied with running water by a pump from an artesian well, and the plumbing was still in place. However when the Europeans departed, the running costs had proved too great, and they had reverted to drawing the water with a bucket and rope from the well near the back door.
We wanted to replenish our supplies of clean water while we had the opportunity. Madame Lewis took Evan out to the well, and when he started to draw some water, she was shocked that a man would carry out this back-breaking work. She felt it was definitely her place to draw up the heavy bucket for us. In the end, Evan had to insist that he was going to do it because we needed quite a lot. She very reluctantly stood and watched. All too soon we were saying goodbye to these very kind folk.
As we continued on our way that morning, the road was unsealed, very narrow and very dusty. The soil was bright red, and the dust soon coated the van, both inside and out. We were soon to discover that this rusty red dust stains clothes most stubbornly, stuck as we were with hand scrubbing them in a bucket of cold water each evening. It had been a long time since we had seen a washing machine, and our clothes were starting to look worse for wear. We had become acutely aware of this when being entertained by the immaculately dressed Madame Lewis.
We stopped to photograph a Chief’s house which Monsieur Lewis had told us about. This proved a costly mistake because a boy emerged from the bushes to demand 2000 Central African Francs (C.F.A.), about US$10, for taking a photo of it. Since we had been unable to locate a bank in any of the villages we had so far been through, we had been unable to change the traveler’s cheques we had. Thus we were penniless and had to refuse to pay his extortionist charges. We roared off in a cloud of dust just as a crowd was gathering to back up his claims.
We were finally able to change some money later that day at a town nestled in a jungle clearing. After a long day spent dodging pot-holes on the road, we stopped at a small country bar on a plantation where the proprietor gave us permission to camp in the grounds beneath some tall rustling palm trees.
We were not far from Yaoundé when the next morning, we crossed the great Sanaga River on a long bridge. Beneath us, the river passed over some rapids in a churning white froth. It was after this river crossing that we were unsure about our route because, although the main road went straight on, there was a shorter route which actually sported a rare rickety old signpost to Yaoundé. However the Michelin Map, which was undoubtedly out-of-date, showed this road to be third grade, recommending it as suitable for four-wheel-drive vehicles only. Since this was practically the first signpost we had seen since arriving in Africa, we were reluctant to ignore it. When we inquired at the café on the corner, we were assured that it was indeed the road to Yaoundé.
It quickly became apparent that our Michelin map had been correct because the road was very bad. There had been some rain, and already the heavy red clay was turning to a gluey mud. Deep chasms had been washed down the centre of the unsurfaced road by fast torrents of water while the trucks had worn steep-sided ruts in the mud.
We stopped to look in dismay at a steep narrow ravine down into which we must drive. The road, which was almost completely washed away, went steeply down into the ravine and was just as steep going up the other side. The soft, slippery mud would give us little traction, and we began to imagine ourselves trapped at the bottom, able to go neither forward nor back up the sticky inclines.
Standing looking at it was not going to get us to Yaoundé, and so we climbed apprehensively back into our seats. We went gingerly down, expecting the van to start sliding at any moment. Near the bottom, we had to pick up speed to give us the momentum for the climb up the other side. Evan floored the accelerator, and we slushed our way up without a falter. He had changed our tires to some with a deeper tread which fortunately for us held in the very slippery clay.
The quality of the bridges also rapidly deteriorated until we came to one where the surface planking had come off, leaving only the two tree trunks that had originally formed the bridge support. Fortunately our wheels fitted exactly across the span between the two logs and, after not a little procrastination, we gingerly edged the wheels onto the logs. As the van stood balancing on the two narrow supports, with the river raging below, we were reminded of a high wire act over Niagara Falls. When we were finally safely on firm ground on the other side of the river, we were standing congratulating ourselves on a magnificent effort when a van-taxi zoomed up and without hesitation bounced over the bridge as though it were not even there.
Later that same day, we arrived in Yaoundé where we would have to stay for some time in order to obtain the visas to continue our journey. That first night, we camped in a supermarket carpark but the next day found the place where other overlanders were camping in a disused quarry at the base of Mount Febe.
It was here that we met Heinz and Elaine, an Austrian couple who had just driven their VW Kombie from South Africa. We poured over maps together for hours as we exchanged information and talked about our experiences on the road. Between us, we had covered the length of the African continent, and we were all anxious to help each other to continue our journeys as safely and easily as possible. They patiently went over their route with us in great detail and were to have a profound effect on the rest of our expedition. Their journey had been so successful that we made the decision to follow their route exactly from then on. We felt extremely relieved by this, no longer feeling so much that we were plunging into the unknown all the time.
We made this decision despite having applied for and received a visa for Gabon which we would not need if we followed their route. Heinz convinced us that our original plan to travel to Kinshasa and from there, up the Congo River by ferry would be unwise. He had a feeling that the ferry operators would be able to charge us what they pleased, knowing that we had no alternatives. We heard later that this was indeed a correct assumption because passengers with vehicles were being charged a thousand dollars. Since we could not have afforded that, we had a lucky escape.
Before we could apply for any more visas in Yaoundé, we had to obtain new passports because the visa pages of ours were by now almost completely filled. All the border guards had stamped on a new page, both going in and leaving the country, as well as scores of police and military road blocks within each country taking up a page each. We had realized too late that we should have applied for new giant-sized passports before leaving home.
We were traveling on our New Zealand passports but there was no New Zealand Embassy in Yaoundé. We enquired at the British Embassy and explained our problem. They were kind enough to issue us with temporary British passports which in fact we traveled on for the rest of our time in Africa. We were delighted because with two passports, we could obtain visas twice as quickly, leaving one passport at each of two country’s embassies at one time. So then we began the never-the-less time-consuming task of obtaining visas for Central African Republic (C.A.R.) and Zaire.
While we waited, we spent the long hot days in the quarry doing maintenance on the van and washing the red mud out of our clothes. There were also pleasant interludes when we went swimming at the American Club pool in Yaoundé or shopping in the market. On the 18th February, we celebrated Evan’s birthday by a rare visit to a restaurant. This was all a very European interlude which contrasted starkly with the thoroughly African culture we had been immersed in since leaving France. It was a full week later before our new passports with the required visas were finally ready. On the 22nd of February, we at last set off on our journey to Central Africa.
Letter from Evan Lewis to his family in New Zealand
Feb 20th 1982
We have just driven across a hair-raising 4-wheel drive only track inland from Ekok to Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon where we have to get visas. But the road blocks in Nigeria had practically filled our New Zealand passports with stamps. There is no New Zealand Embassy here but the British Embassy was quite happy to issue us temporary British passports valid for six months.
With two passports each, we can get visas twice as quickly. Furthermore we do not need visas for many of the countries with a British passport. Until now we had planned to go from Cameroon to Gabon, then Congo and cross the river from Brazzaville to Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire so that we can get a visa for Rwanda (near Uganda). Rwanda is a problem for most tourists as there are very few Rwandan embassies, and a visa is required. From Kinshasa, we were going to take a river boat about 500 km to Kisangani. This takes about nine days and runs once a week but is rather expensive. We are not sure but it may be $1000. However there are private ferry operators which are cheaper but they may not be as reliable and often breakdown.
We got our visas for Gabon in our new passports yesterday but that evening we met a South African-Austrian couple going back to Europe. They had just come through Uganda and the northern route through Zaire and told us it was very easy and safe. They said it was a relatively fast road through Zaire.
With the British passport, we only need a visa for Tanzania and then we can go from Zaire to South Africa without any more visa problems.
So we have decided to change our route as follows: From Yaoundé, Cameroon, we will go north to Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic and visit game parks for water animals. From there, we go probably to Mobuyi, Buta, Bambesa, Isiro, Mambasa, Bunia, Mahagi and then southwest Uganda to get to Kenya and then on to Nairobi. From Kenya, we will probably go south through Serengeti National Park to Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa. We have heard that it is possible to put Katy (our van) in a container and ship her from Capetown to Perth ($2000?). We should arrive in Australia in the winter for driving to Alice Springs (Darwin also perhaps) and eventually ship across to New Zealand by roll-on roll-off ferry in the last quarter of 1982. All this is rather vague. The first thing is to get across Zaire, and the rest we can work out along the way.
Here in Yaoundé, we are parked in a quarry with a commercial tour company truck (Encounter-Overland). There are 20 people traveling on the back of this big truck and camping in tents. There is also a group from England we have become friends with. They are two very British Indian-born whites, a brother and sister. Brother Martin owns the Landrover and is a farmer in England. Sister Paulette is a temp secretary in London. Traveling with them are a Scotsman Ronny and an American Graham – all packed into the LWB Landrover. They are going North on the Bangui route, and we have decided to travel together. The vehicle owner reminds me of John Cleese and is apparently very protective about his Landrover, sometimes causing friction. But I guess it will work out OK. It is more secure for camping with two vehicles. So those are our plans.
Yaoundé is the most civilized city we have seen in Africa so far. There are many Europeans working here building a fantastic new road system for the city and running businesses. One third of the cars are driven by Europeans. In a way, it is a pity that it is not being run by Africans. But the fact is, in countries which have thrown out the Europeans and tried to run things themselves, it has failed miserably and collapsed under corruption and ignorance.
Unfortunately the cash seems to have come to Yaoundé, and the country areas are neglected. When we drove through the lush rainforests, we saw children with distended stomachs and occasionally people begging for food. They say the banana crop is bad, and there is nothing to eat. But the forest is incredibly fertile if they only bothered to plant some more banana palms, pineapples etc. They do not seem to know how to help themselves and expect to be able to subsist by gathering what they can from the jungle. It is difficult for us to understand. It could be a utopia.
Two days ago, it was my birthday. We went into Yaoundé and found a nice restaurant where we could sit on the balcony watching over Katy (van) parked in the street. We both had very tender Steak Garni – French style. During dinner, a man came selling ebony carvings of African figures. He wanted 10,000 CFA (£20), then 8000 CFA “last price”. I offered him 4000 (£8) for a pair and eventually he agreed. So I got myself a birthday present! (We have also bought a spherical cluster of ‘sand roses’ which are mineral crystals that grow in the Sahara, and some ancient stone tools, all from Touregs in the desert.)
Unfortunately the meal did not agree with me, and I suffered all night and the next day. I also got a good collection of sandfly bites for my birthday while fitting new rear brake linings.
The next day the Landrover group showed us how to get into the ‘American Club of Yaoundé’ where we spent the afternoon swimming in the pool and eating hamburgers and toasted sandwiches. The hot weather (90 degrees F and above) is rather pleasant sitting beside a pool, if not in our quarry. The others went to an American Forces dinner and movie in the evening but we decided to stay ‘home’ and re-plan our route through Zaire (as above). So that is more or less up-to-date. Bye for now, Evan.
As we set off alone from Yaoundé towards the border with Central Africa Republic, we were driving with a definite goal in mind for the first time. We intended crossing the continent of Africa here at its widest point to reach Kenya. From there, we would drive southwards to South Africa.
We hoped the low cloud and steamy humidity did not herald the rains that we so dreaded. When the short piece of battered tar-sealing on the road came to an end, we were driving on a deeply corrugated surface where the van began literally to shake to pieces. After the roof mountings and the brake adjustment had both simultaneously jiggled loose, we stopped for several hours for Evan to repair them.
Every evening since we had arrived in Africa, Evan had climbed under the van on his endless quest for loose bolts or faulty parts. He regularly maintained the engine so that it gave us its peak performance and minimum fuel consumption. While driving, our ears were attuned to the sounds of the engine and suspension. If there were any strange noises, Evan was crawling in the dust under the van or poking his head in the engine compartment in the rear of the van.
At sunset we found a track leading into the forest where we camped in an idyllic valley filled with the sounds of the night birds calling and the crickets endlessly chirping. However as we were eating our breakfast the next morning, a team of giant flies came in for the attack, buzzing noisily in our ears. They persisted until we had packed and fled their valley.
A road gang was at work in the forest, churning up the surface of the road so that now it resembled a newly ploughed field. Once through this, we hit dust which was lying up to ten cms deep on the road. We were enveloped in a dense choking cloud as the dust was tossed into the still air. That night, we found that the dust had infiltrated right through the van, even into supposedly sealed cupboards. Little did I know as I shovelled the dust out of the food compartment, that we would be permanently in this dust-clogged state for many months to come.
We paused to chat to seven Swedish University students who were driving a commodious bus. It was equipped with sleeping and seating space for them all as well as a toilet and bathroom that we eyed enviously. They had had an accident in Morocco, and there was a large hole in the front of their deluxe bus. They had sealed it with sheets of plastic and tape. The bus was so large that they had been forced to park it here in the middle of the road for their lunch. It was this lack of manoeuvrability that was eventually to doom their expedition.
The next day, it was bees that disturbed our leisurely start. As the sun came up, they descended on us rank upon rank in an organised invasion. We had to close up the van and spray with insecticide before we could call the place our own again.
Our hurried departure brought us to the border early that morning. Before crossing from Cameroon into Central African Republic (C.A.R.) we topped up our jerrycans because we knew that petrol would be more expensive across the border.
Soon we were at the border office, once more awaiting the pleasure of the authorities. Our passports by this time were becoming rapidly filled, mainly with internal police stamps. At the Nigerian border-post, the guards greeted us in perfect English which quickly reminded us that Nigeria was once a part of the old British Empire. We had heard only French, Touareg and Arabic until now. The Nigerian customs officers asked for and stamped our carnet-de-passagesen douane which was the first time we had needed it in Africa. However other travelers that we had spoken to had been asked for it in Algeria.
Once in Nigeria, we were driving across open savannah with dried well-chewed grass and a park-like scattering of leafy green trees. We stopped at the walled city of Katsina to change money but found that the banks would not accept traveler’s cheques. Although we had some cash, we decided to wait until we reached Kano to conserve our supplies. We had come to realise by this time that to bring exclusively traveler’s cheques to Africa would be a mistake. They are accepted only at banks in the main cities. To change money in the countryside, it is essential to have a supply of banknotes, French francs for the old French colonies and American dollars everywhere else. We had brought some francs but no cash dollars, and we were to regret this more as time went by.
Nigerian roads, although mostly in good condition, were a nightmare. Suicidal taxi drivers operating grossly overcrowded minibuses bore down on us from every direction. If they wanted to overtake a vehicle on the road, there was nothing that would hold them back. Often we were forced to swerve rapidly in the direction of the ditch as one careered towards us on our side of the road.
There is a well-thought-out philosophy amongst Muslim drivers. Theological teachings dictate that our fate is controlled by Allah and that there is nothing we can do to influence our ultimate destiny. Hence careful and considerate driving is felt to be not only a waste of time but perhaps to be some hindrance to Allah as he tries to carry out His will. At least that was the only explanation we could think of as we were constantly swerving to dodge the kamikaze drivers coming towards us.
We were checked frequently by police road blocks where one arrogant fellow, his ego over-inflated by the khaki uniform and rusty gun, rudely demanded our papers.
“What’s this for?”
“Where did you get that?”
“Why have you got this?” he demanded as he picked through our belongings in the van. We began to wonder if perhaps it had been better in Algeria and Niger where we had been unable to understand the questions and had just shrugged in reply. At least then, we did not have to control rising anger at the arrogance of the questioning. He eventually had to let us go because we had all the required stamps from the previous checkpoints, and he could think of no other reason to delay us further.
We arrived in Kano that afternoon, becoming immediately ensnarled in a chaotic traffic jam. It was a slow grind through the honking traffic down the main street to the camping ground near the Kano Club. The campsite was a dusty yard surrounded by a very high stone wall. A few hardy tourists were camped around it and we parked beside them under the shade of a tall leafy Jacaranda tree.
A derelict concrete building in the yard held some showers which did not work due to lack of water pressure. By now, we had come to accept life without this Western defilement of pure natural living, and I had even stopped dreaming about soaking in a hot steamy tub. Out in the yard, there was a tap that produced a dribble of water most of the time, and we were unbelievably grateful for that. A watch guard was kept on the gate night and day to keep the scavengers away while the high wall around the yard was topped by pieces of jaggedly broken glass, an inexpensive way of discouraging intruders. We were pleased to have found this haven away from the chaotic streets just outside the gates and surprisingly, were not charged camping fees.
The corrugations, ruts and holes in the Saharan sand had caused cracks in several places in the front axle of the van. Evan decided to replace it here before proceeding any further because he wanted to avoid having it break in some remote village where we would be unable to buy a replacement. The VW axle is gigantic and not practical to take along as a spare part. Our camping yard however was within easy walking distance of the main centre of Kano with its stocks of spare parts, and so was ideal for carrying out the repairs.
The next morning, we walked down to the bank to change some money. Here we met with a good dose of “tranquility” (not to be confused with lethargy), finally managing to obtain our money in just over an hour. While Evan, with his pocket full of money, went off in search of his axle, I walked to the post office to collect our mail. The streets were crowded with a bustling humanity but I felt reasonably safe walking alone, as many other women were doing the same. It was so nice to see the friendly smiling faces of the ladies on the streets of Kano after the all-enveloping black veils of the Sahara. I had hated the veils so much, especially all that they represented in the absolute repression of human rights, freedom of movement and enjoyment of life for Muslim woman.
I finally reached the post office about three long dusty blocks away. We had arranged with friends and family to write to us care of the Kano post office because it had been the one place we were fairly sure we should reach. The mail was addressed to Evan Lewis, Poste Restante, Kano, Nigeria and was held by them until we arrived. We had given everybody a list of post offices where we could be reached, subject to the proviso that our route could be changed without further notice and that they should not include anything of value since we may never receive it. I also posted off some letters which in fact took three or four months to arrive in New Zealand. In the meantime, our families had no idea whether we were dead or alive so it was an anxious time for them.
The footpaths were cluttered with rickety little stalls selling an infinite variety of useful and not so useful items. One stall was entirely devoted to selling plastic bicycle seat covers. Pretty cotton print fabrics predominated, together with a mixture of locally-made crafts and cheap plastic nick-knacks, probably imported. I also saw many fruits and vegetables and canned goods for sale.
I found that nearly everybody spoke English but when I enquired about prices, everything was too expensive for us. This was because we had changed our money at the bank at the official government rate which had been set too low. In the end, I bought a dozen eggs and walked back to the van, deciding that for now we would live on our imported food.
Evan had to buy a second-hand axle and springs because the only garage stocking new parts was closed for a week for stocktaking. Prices were higher than in Europe, and he was skeptical about the quality of the axle he had bought but it was all he could find. It was to be delivered later that day but now began the long task of dismantling the front suspension. It would be nearly a week before we would once again see the true color of Evan’s skin as he generously coated himself in grease and powdered it with dust and flakes of rust.
We were regularly visited in the yard by hawkers, the first of whom brought a tray laden with hokey pokey. Perhaps teaching the cook boy how to make hokey pokey was one of the better aspects of English colonial influence. In any case, we relished this caramelized sugar candy, just like our mothers used to make back home in New Zealand, another English colony.
During the day, we were pursued by long quick-footed Agama lizards: the males had red heads, blue abdomens and yellow tails while the females sported only a yellow head and tail. They would creep up on us until they deemed it a safe distance and then, at a flick of an eyelash, would dart off with a loud rustling of dried leaves. There were thirty or forty of these creatures living with us in the yard that week, and there was always a couple on the ground near the van.
At night, the bats soared amongst the branches above our heads. Each evening, we sat talking to the other tourists while munching hokey pokey and ducking to avoid the large black leathery bats that were careering straight at us. We gained valuable information about routes, road conditions and visas from these sessions with other tourists, speaking for the first time with someone who knew about road conditions in central Africa. He was a German operating tours through the area and was confident that we would make it through. This news came as a relief to us because it was the first time we had heard first-hand that our hair-brained scheme of driving from London to South Africa was feasible.
We had understood from our guidebook that visas for Cameroon were available at the border but another group told us that this was no longer the case, and we would have to go to Calabar or Lagos for them. Calabar is on the west coast of Africa, near the Cameroon border, and we made up our minds to try there first. Because Lagos had a reputation for being one of the dirtiest, most dangerous cities in the world, we would try to avoid it at all costs.
As Evan had suspected, the replacement axle was faulty but somehow, he managed to arrange for it to be exchanged for another one. It was expensive, and although the dealer had insisted it was nearly new, the bearings were badly worn. So Evan hammered the bearings out of our original axel and then fitted them carefully into the replacement one.
By now, he had discovered that as well as a cracked axle, we had several broken springs. It was indeed fortunate that we had decided to stay in Kano to repair it, and that Evan had some spare springs bolted on the underside of the chassis. All this was heavy and time-consuming work, and a struggle for Evan as he fought for hours to undo rusted bolts. It was oppressively hot in the dusty yard, made worse by the high wall that surrounded us, keeping out any stray breezes there may be.
Before reassembling the suspension, Evan took a well-deserved afternoon off, and we walked into the city centre. We were almost overcome by the stench coming from immense piles of rotting refuse dumped on all the footpaths, gutters and traffic islands. In fact in places the road was narrowed down to one lane due to piles of garbage encroaching on both sides. A dead rat the size of a well fed tom-cat was lying amongst the muck in the street.
The market-place where Evan had bought his axle was a maze of jerry-built shacks stacked high with merchandise, especially mechanical bits for cars, bicycles and motorbikes. In the little back streets, there were dozens of small factories, back-yard mechanics, repairmen, butchers and craftsmen such as weavers and cloth dyers, mat-makers and leather workers. Their premises, usually just a square of beaten earth in the market place, were a hive of activity. We were fascinated by the cloth dyers whose vast cauldrons of blue dye were set in rows in the open. When they stamped in the cauldrons to mix the dye with the cloth, their legs were stained permanently blue.
Since it was Friday, the people were crowding into the mosque for prayers, and near the entrance we found a number of fruit and vegetable stalls. They were selling large juicy pineapples very cheaply but perhaps we would not have been so enthusiastic if we had realized that this was only the beginning of an almost continual diet of pineapple for months to come. Once we were well stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables, we thankfully made our way back to the haven that our dusty old camping yard had become
We were six days at the campsite before the van was mobile once more. On the advice of the other tourists there, we had bought three more jerry cans for petrol, giving us a total of eleven. We would need the extra capacity because of the long distances between petrol stations in central Africa. We also bought some extra 20 liter plastic canisters for water just incase, although they had been expensive.
We filled all our jerry cans with petrol and at last were on our way once more. As before, we were at once caught up in a gigantic traffic jam. With the sun beating on the vehicle roofs and turning the interiors into ovens, the drivers were invariably impatient and prone to fits of anger which they took out on their horn buttons. At one large intersection, a roundabout was proving itself totally inadequate to control this volume of traffic. As we edged around it, the gaps between the cars became less and less until eventually one hit us from behind. The driver immediately jumped out to accuse Evan of having braked too hard. It looked as though Evan was about to receive a punch on the nose when suddenly a gap in the traffic opened up before us, and we were able to make a dash for freedom.
Once out of the Kano traffic, we traveled southwest towards the Nigerian coast. We climbed above the open savannah and into a thickly wooded mountainous region. The road was sealed but full of gargantuan potholes. Most of the traffic was over-crowded van-taxis with kamikaze drivers who were overtaking as needed, with no regard what-so-ever to whether or not they could see the oncoming traffic.
It made travel extremely dangerous for us with van-taxis constantly coming straight at us at high speed on our side of the road while others passed us willy nilly at the same time. Several times, there were four vans, ours included, driving four abreast on a two lane highway, two going one way and two the other. As one van-taxi raced towards us, it hit a pothole which bounced it right into our path, missing us by inches as the driver fought to regain control.
This all happened at high speed. We drove at 50 mph but we were the slow ones and were constantly being overtaken. In this heat, our van would travel no faster without overheating, and with the potholes and oncoming traffic to avoid, we felt this was quite fast enough.
The results of all this recklessness could be seen along the side of the road which was littered with totally wrecked van-taxis and trucks. One truck we saw had had the top of its cab neatly sliced off just below the steering wheel and a body lay headless beside it. Since life is cheap in Africa, bodies are not always taken away in the first week or so after an accident but can be found nonchalantly thrown in the bushes beside the road.
The villages were crowded with people walking on the roads. The ladies all wore long sari-like skirts with matching turbans in gay floral prints. We saw large numbers of children walking to school dressed in their emerald green and white school uniforms. The people lived in little round hat-box shaped huts with pointed thatched roofs. They kept goats and long-horned cattle and harvested cassava, carrots, millet and bananas.
Traveling was difficult for us in this area, and we did not like it. We could not find a place to camp at night because the countryside was so densely populated. Also we had been warned not to camp alone because there were bandits about. We discovered that even a large town like Jos did not have a camping ground. It was after dark when we decided to park for the night in the grounds of the Jos Hotel without consulting the management.
The next morning, we were still traveling in the mountains with the vegetation now definitely tropical jungle. Since there were no signposts, we had to stop at every major intersection to ask for directions. This was certainly made easier for us because all the young people spoke good English. Although we found them very friendly and obliging, we discovered that, in their eagerness to please, they would answer “yes” to all our questions about the correct direction.
If we asked, “Is this the road to Makurdi?”
“Yes, yes!” they would assure us. And many miles later, we would find ourselves back-tracking to find the correct road.
Instead, we learnt to phrase our question in such a way that they would have to admit that they did not know the correct road, if that were the case. We would ask,
“Which is the road to Makurdi, please?”
“Where?” he replies
“Ah, Makurdi! Makurdi is far from here. Too far for you to go there.”
In fact it was 150 km, a couple of hours away on our scale, half a world away on his.
The road deteriorated as we drove on that day, and we were stopped every 50 km by police road-blocks. They were interested mainly in where we were going and where we had come from. Had we replied that we had come from London and were going to Capetown, we would have been immediately arrested for having such a ludicrous plan. Instead, we told them that we had come from Makurdi and were going to Calabar. Some of the police were aggressive, some friendly and welcoming, some drunk and some just plain stupid but all had their fingers on the trigger. We were asked for cigarettes and food, sometimes politely while others made it plain that a bribe payment of some sort was expected before we would be permitted to proceed.
“What have you got that you’re proud of?”
“What have you got that I can remember you by?”
These were the opening gambits for the more polite ones. We were seldom asked to produce papers to establish our identity as always happened in Niger. Some wanted to see our carnet to check that it had a Nigerian stamp in it. As we handed the carnet or our passports over to them, it was always with some anxiety since we knew we would not get far if they did not give them back.
Some of the more rascally villagers had caught on to the brilliant idea of operating checkpoints of their own. They had guns but no uniforms and forced the traffic to stop by putting boards filled with nails across the road. We were all too aware that this was an extremely dangerous situation for us, being unarmed and fairly vulnerable. We could now see why we had been warned not to travel after dark in Nigeria. As frightening as these checkpoints were during the day, they would be lethal at night.
We had a very large bag of simply delicious French bonbons (hard boiled wrapped candy) which we handed out in twos and threes to all the men who brandished their guns at us. The more they snarled or the closer they poked their gun at us, the more they got. In this way, we somehow managed to get safely from one end of Nigeria to the other without once handing over any cash for bribes. We were sure that that was what they really wanted but, while savouring our fruity bonbons, they did not have the heart to detain us further and good-naturedly handed us back our papers and waved us on.
We spent a whole day negotiating a section of roadworks because they had ripped up the entire road for hundreds of kilometres at a stretch. The motorists were left to pick their way over rough tracks, up and down banks and across newly ploughed dirt. Then we came up behind some trucks stopped in the centre of the road where the work-gangs had dumped truckloads of dirt in piles for several miles along the road. The result was that a long section of the road had been narrowed down to a single lane. The northbound traffic had come face to face with the southbound, and apart from honking their horns, there was little anybody could do but sit in the hot sun and wait.
Over the next few hours, a monumental row developed where the two opposing sides faced each other, with neither side being willing to back up and let the other side through. In the meantime, the traffic was building up behind us until it would have been impossible to back up, no matter which side finally won the argument.
Eventually, some Europeans arrived on the scene. They were the Italians who were supposedly in charge of rebuilding the road, and they quickly organised a bulldozer to make us a bypass track. This newly bulldozed track went down the centre of a large ditch running along beside the road. The soft brown soil was difficult to negotiate but at least we were progressing away from the bottleneck where we had sat for hours in the broiling hot sun.
The old potholed surface alternated with sections of this road-working chaos for the next two days as we struggled towards Calabar. Finding a safe place to spend the night was irksome, and we usually ended up camping in the grounds of a hotel. This meant however that we could not empty all our surplus equipment out onto the ground for cooking and sleeping, and we spent several uncomfortable nights jammed in with it. With all the petrol in jerry cans inside the van, we dared not light the gas to cook out meals and ate raw fruit and biscuits. The evenings were cold, and we would have been pleased to have a hot drink or vegetable soup.
We finally reached Calabar in the late afternoon about a week after leaving Kano, and found the streets were just as clamorous as in Kano. We fought our way through the traffic to the Cameroon Consulate which was marked on a small sketch map we had. The friendly policeman on guard-duty there offered to go with us to lead us to the visa office on the other side of town. Because the van had seating for only two, and there was no room in the back, I stayed behind. As they left, the policeman shouted that I should make use of his chair, and since it was likely to be a long wait, I gladly took up his offer.
No one seemed surprised to find a white woman sitting in the policeman’s box, least of all the Chief Inspector when he arrived to mark the roll. Since I was able to vouch for him, our policeman guide was marked present and correct. The thought did occur to me that should the embassy come under siege, I would be completely in charge of mounting the defence. When people arrived at the gate expecting their papers to be checked for security purposes, I just blithely waved them through.
When they finally returned, Evan was still very confused about just where he had been through the maze of little streets. With night now falling, we would have to begin searching for somewhere to camp. There was no camping ground, and we had already been warned that it was not safe to be on Calabar streets at night. Even if we could afford to stay in a hotel, we dared not leave the van unattended in the carpark all night. In the end, we parked in the grounds of a large hotel where we were undisturbed.
The next morning, we waited outside the Consulate visa office for it to open. Other tourists began arriving but five hours later it was still closed. Eventually someone telephoned the Consulate Residence where we had been the previous day, to be told that today was the Cameroon “Fete Nationale,” so we should come back tomorrow.
“Maybe it would open tomorrow, maybe it would not.”
Rather despondently, we drove to the shade of a nearby tree. Calabar was hot, dusty, crowded, dirty and very sultry. It was not a place where we would wish to stay, especially since there was nowhere to camp. However stay we must because we needed that visa for Cameroon if we wanted to continue on through Africa. At this stage, we were at the point of no return. We were so far from Europe now, and the desert winds in the Sahara would be starting in earnest soon. We already knew how these could obliterate the track and had no wish to face that again.
While we sat in the van wondering what to do, a cheerful young Nigerian lad on a motorcycle drew up and asked if he could help. We must have looked conspicuous, being the only Europeans parked in the crowded street. We thanked him and explained our difficulties with the Consulate at the end of the street. He immediately invited us to his house.
“Follow me,” he called, “it’s not far.”
It was a bit risky to trust a complete stranger like this but we were pretty desperate by then. The alternative of staying there on the crowded street was probably just as risky. Indeed his house was just around the corner, and we parked the van beside his room, one of many in a single-story complex of ramshackle flats. There was only a tiny space to park the van but we had a tree to shade us from the blazing equatorial sun and privacy from the teeming, dusty streets. The greatest luxury of all was a shower, the first we had seen since Mohamed’s in Guardaia all those weeks before.
Our kind benefactor’s name was Sunday, and he was very insistent that we should make ourselves at home or “feel free” as he put it. We quite fell under the spell of his simple, kindly nature. He explained to us that he was a Christian and, we soon realised, a very devote one. We shared our meal with him, talking on into the night with the sounds of frogs croaking in unison in the next-door pond.
We were woken at dawn as each of the flats turned their radios up to full volume. The Consulate proved to be in a working mood, saying our passports would be ready that afternoon. We spent the day washing our clothes and relaxing after the long and arduous journey from Kano.
The small piece of land on this suburban street had about twenty crudely-built wooden flats squeezed onto it, with each two-roomed flat being home for a family of five or six or more. They were served by one outside tap, one shower and a toilet for the entire complex. This was considered to be a luxury since most of the dwellings in Calabar had no water, and it had to be carried from the public tap, often several blocks away.
All wastes from these communal facilities at the flats ran in an open drain along the length of the section and dropped into a large open ditch in the street. The drain had been dammed up beside Sunday’s room where it was filled with festering sewage. There were millions of mosquito larvae floating on the surface. This pond was also the home of the frogs whose deafening chorus blared on through the night.
The women were fastidious with their housekeeping however. Babies and children were always being dunked in buckets of cold water in the communal courtyard where the tap was located. Clothes hung everywhere drying, and the well-used bathroom and toilet was always very clean. They invariably welcomed us with smiles when we came into the courtyard with our bucket to fill with water or to use the bathroom.
Later that day, we met Sunday’s sister who was a nurse-in-training at the local hospital. She told us that malaria was their greatest problem. Although the adults eventually build up an immunity to this debilitating disease, thousands of babies and young children were dying from it. Adults suffered periodic attacks of fever which weaken them and prevented them from carrying out their normal work.
Open drains, such as the one we were sitting beside and could smell constantly, allow the mosquitoes to breed. The community is well aware of this but unfortunately the massive sewerage and drainage works the city requires is quite beyond the limits of the available finances, while corruption in high places will ensure that this situation continues. It is a never-ending cycle because the constant malaria attacks debilitate the people and prevent them from making the all-out effort required to carry out these mammoth tasks.
I asked her about the masked men I had seen in the country-side one afternoon a few days before. Three girls had been carrying water containers on their heads and walking along the edge of the road. When they had seen these masked monsters coming towards them, they had flung off their burdens and run screaming into the jungle, with the boys in hot pursuit. She said this was a masquerade and was a frequent ritual, performed also in Calabar. She told me that the boys would beat the girls and worse when they caught them. She seemed most surprised when I explained that boys who beat and rape girls in the West would be put in prison.
“You mean it’s a kind of law?” she asked. “Oh I wish we had such a law here.” During the masquerade season, she never leaves her home to go to work.
While I spoke to his sister, Sunday was introducing Evan to his cousin who was trying to start a business repairing radios and other electronic gadgetry. Evan tried to help him and explained the basics of Ohm’s law to him. Much later, he mailed him a bundle of basic books on electrical theory and a multi-meter. Evan never received a reply, and it is likely the parcel never reached its destination.
We had our passports with the Cameroon visa that afternoon, as promised, and then spent a long time explaining to Sunday that we could not stay for the weekend as he wanted us to. He was very concerned about our plans to cross Africa and could not see how such a journey could be possible. It was now only six weeks until the rains were due in Central Africa, and we wanted to keep ahead of them if we could. In fact, if the rains came before we had crossed the African continent, then Sunday’s predictions about our eventual fate may well come true.
We were terribly grateful to him and his family for their welcoming hospitality but we had to leave. I found a small gaily painted tablecloth amongst our belongings and gave it to Sunday as a departing present. I had brought it along for just such an occasion. He was delighted and immediately put it on the tiny wooden table in his front room. Early the next morning, he stood waving forlornly as we backed the van out of the yard and set off down the street.
We then had to travel back up the 100 km of eternal Italian roadworks to reach the Cameroon border crossing. Travel was just as hot, dusty and slow as before, and it was not long before we were as dusty and dirty as we had been when we had arrived at Sunday’s place earlier in the week. A fine hot mist enveloped the jungle around us, and the heat and humidity was oppressive. It was a huge contrast to the cool dry winds we had experienced in the Sahara.
After turning off the main road to go towards Ikom and the border, we passed through a village which was in the midst of festivities, and there were processions of gaily dressed singers on the road. I suspected this was one of the masquerades that Sunday’s sister had spoken about although saw no further evidence of masked men chasing terrified girls that day.
Some of the men were uniformed in military style complete with brass miner’s lamps on their foreheads. Many of them had old blunderbusses which gave off a cloud of smoke as they fired at the trees to test their aim. Others were armed with agricultural implements such as rakes and hoes to brandish menacingly. It was all in good fun. They were extremely proud of themselves and lined up with broad toothy grins for Evan to take a photo.
The younger girls were dressed in red bikini tops and short skirts, with calf-length socks made up of a densely-packed array of shiny brass rings. Their frizzy hair was expertly twisted into a beautiful arrangement of curls. Red was definitely the theme of the day, throughout the procession.
The older ladies looked more refined in white blouses, red beads, brightly printed long skirts (known as a wrapper) with blue and white head ties and usually carrying a clutch purse. Some of the fabrics were hand-printed batik. There were about six groups of women, each singing a different haunting melody while stepping along the road in time to the beat.
Suddenly, a masked man with two assistants stepped out of the crowd and began chasing the laughing spectators. When we asked the purpose of the festivities, we were told that they were honouring the visit to the village of the Minister of Communications. They pointed him out to us, and there he was resplendent in a white jumpsuit covered with multi-coloured pompoms. He had a matching white feather in his black bowler hat.
We reached Ikon just before dark and bought a very juicy pineapple in the market-place. After presenting a large chunk to the night-watchman of the best hotel in town, he gave us permission to camp in the grounds.
Early next morning, we were serenely breakfasting beside the van, seated as usual outside the sliding door of the van on our folding chairs. We were enjoying the cool morning air that we knew would not last much longer as the relentless tropical sun crept higher in the sky. Before we were finished our breakfast however, we were horrified to discover that the staff of the hotel were intending to slaughter a goat right in front of us. It gasped its last with a blood-curdling scream and a gurgle just as I bit into my toast and marmalade. Within seconds, they had it strung over a fire to burn off the hair. By the time we had finished our coffee, the chops, steaks and entrails were spread out for sale on a nearby table. The mother of the young goat continued to wail for her lost youngster right up until we had packed up and left the scene of the carnage.
We filled up all our jerry cans again because we had been told that petrol was more expensive in Cameroon than in oil-rich Nigeria. While we were at the petrol station, we met two boys from Finland who were driving a large truck. They had already tried to get into Cameroon but had been sent back to obtain a visa and some vehicle insurance. They were now waiting until the end of the weekend to buy the insurance.
Fore-warned is fore-armed but we decided to risk crossing the border with the papers we had. Our international vehicle insurance policy did not give third-party coverage but it was an impressive certificate nonetheless, and the fine print was very small indeed. We also knew that the third party insurance bought on the borders offered no cover either. They collect your premiums but simply refuse to pay out on all claims. We felt that bluff would probably be our best weapon.
We reached the Nigerian border-post to begin the exit formalities. This was very time-consuming as the border-guard looked for something wrong on every paper. He indicated that he was willing to accept a bribe, and that this would certainly speed things along a little. We had to produce all our money, most of which we kept hidden away in the woodwork of the van. We had done the same when we had entered into Nigeria, so as far as they were concerned, we were a lot poorer on their records than we actually were. We then had to account for the difference between the money we had had when we entered Nigeria and what we had left now, with certificates given to us by the banks when we had exchanged our money.
We presented the border-guard with the required amount of unspent money still in French francs, and he spread it all over his table, as though he was playing monopoly. He then discovered that we were short by 17 cents on what we should have had. When we refused to hand over any bribes to mollify him, we were simply ignored while he passed on to the others. We sat patiently with the other stoic travelers on the wooden seats in the open-sided hut surrounded by the thick jungle that encroached on all sides. The hut was perched high on the bank of a deep river gorge which the road to Cameroon crossed by a large bridge.
We noticed that each traveler was handing over his passport with a bank-note between the pages and realized that our failure to do so was the reason that we were sitting on the bench in the hut instead of being on our way. It soon became obvious that the criteria for obtaining an exit or entrance stamp in the passport was not the validity or otherwise of the document but the value of the bank-note inside it. If it was not sufficient, the passport was snapped closed and handed back with a loud protest from the border-guard:
“What are you wasting my time for?”
Two Swedish boys on motorbikes were having the same problems as us. The guard had stamped one of their carnets but maintained that the other identical carnet was not valid. The boys had been there all morning refusing to bribe the guard.
We sat on the benches in the open-sided office, talking with the Swedish boys who had just traveled through Zaire (Congo). They had gone most of the way through the country on a ferry that runs between Kinshasa and Kisangani. They had enjoyed the trip so much that we began to think that perhaps we would also travel this way. It would certainly save us weeks of rough driving. However, they had heard some horror stories about the time that the ferry had broken down indefinitely somewhere up river. Tourists with vehicles had been forced to land on the river-bank and drive off into the trackless jungle. They had eventually found a mission station where they had been given enough petrol to complete their journey. On the strength of that, we decided not to commit ourselves to going this way in the meantime.
We and the Swedish boys were finally dealt with by the surly border-guard. The boys lent us 17 cents for a few minutes, and he grudgingly stamped all our papers. And while he was in a stamping mood, he also stamped the boy’s carnet. The border-guard had been sure that he would receive a large bribe from these Europeans who are usually in such a hurry. However, in our case, he had failed to reckon with our patience. Besides we had enjoyed the conversation with our fellow travelers who had gained as much from hearing about our recent experiences in the Sahara as we had gained from hearing about their time in Zaire. We climbed back into the van and started toward the high bridge that spanned the jungle-clad banks of the Cross River. This large deeply canyoned river formed the border between Nigeria and Cameroon.
A letter written by Evan on 12 February 1982 to his father in New Zealand gives more details, especially of the repairs needed for the van:
50 Mayne Road
I have not had a moment to write since we were in Tamanrasset, and there is so much I should have told you about. Actually it has been more like a motor rally and an exercise in bureaucratic gymnastics than a leisurely tourist route. We were three weeks ahead of schedule at Kano, and consequently, Kae did not get any mail from her mother. However there were two cards from you for our birthdays. Thanks for getting them away so early. Actually they arrived while we were there. It is certainly a highlight and a moment to look forward to, to get news from home. Sometimes we wish we were in New Zealand too!
The Saharan crossing itself was not as difficult as we had expected and was really quite a lot of fun. I think I told you about the ethnologist we met at Assamakka (the Algeria – Niger border post) in the short note I scribbled at Arlit. Later we discovered that we had a book in our ‘Library cupboard’ in the van, written by the same ethnologist – Dr Mark Milburn – called “Secrets of the South Sahara” about his work there over the last ten years. It is a pity we did not discover it earlier and ask him to sign it for us. We spent two days with him, and he invited us to join him on one of his expeditions.
From Arlit (where there is a big uranium mine), the French had built a good road south. Not like the Algerian Army’s attempts at building roads across the Sahara, that fall apart with heavy lorry traffic within months of completion. These deeply pot-holed tarsealed roads are more lethal than good unsealed roads.
It was several day’s drive on this good road through Agadez to the Niger/Nigeria border. In the camping ground at Agadez and at the Police checkpoint, we met many other tourists, including a couple in an English-registered Landrover. Alison was English and Roberto an Italian doctor working in England. She was brought up in Kenya and lived there for nine years. We spent one night with them, and we were all very keen to travel together through Zaire to Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya but unfortunately they did not have a visa for Nigeria and we did. They had to go in the opposite direction to Naimey and then to Upper Volta to find a Nigerian Embassy. We have left messages for them by Poste Restante and were a full week in Kano but have not heard from them again.
We also met a German group who were all chemical engineers working for Fresenius on artificial kidneys. They asked us to join them but we had to travel south from Kano to Calabar to get visas for Cameroon. Germans do not need visas for Cameroon so once again we split up but arranged to leave messages for each other.
Coming south from Arlit, the change from absolutely barren desert though sparse to dense tussock and thistles to occasional trees and eventually thick rain forest with bananas, palms, cocoa, coconuts etc is very gradual. In Niger and all over Nigeria, there are police or army road-blocks every 50 – 100 kms. They stop you and demand to see the myriads of documents we have to carry. They look through all 40 or so visas in our passports, pass the time of day and ask for or demand gifts or bribes. Some are roaring drunk with pistols in their hands or perhaps high on drugs. We have got away with paying no bribes and cheekily palming them off with a handful of bonbons. They are generally just trying you on to see what they can get. We had heard stories of police raiding vans at night on road blocks and confiscating everything, so we did not travel after dark. We tried to park in safe spots in towns rather than in isolated countryside in Nigeria which seemed especially dangerous to us. We often parked in hotel carparks or beside banks which had security guards.
Although we did not have to do any major emergency repairs in the Sahara, we had troubles with the front suspension. We discovered too late that the VW’s front suspension can only take the punishment of these bad roads if it is left completely unladen. Eventually I moved all five spare wheels on to our bed at the back of the van, along with 50 kg of water. This left 160 liters of petrol in 20 liter canisters on the floor amidships.
When we got to Kano, Nigeria, I saw a burned out brand new VW on the side of the road with a good front axle. Unfortunately I could not trace the owners (it was a the Federal Government of Nigeria vehicle) and had to leave it. Our front axle had several serious cracks in the torsion bar tubes where they are welded onto mounting brackets. These are caused by the drop-arms hitting rubber stoppers and pivoting on them, causing a reaction force on the torsion tube. Exactly the same cracks occurred in the original axle on our last trip, and I replaced the whole axle, together with springs, before leaving Germany. However a new axle would have cost 500 Deutsch Marks (DM) plus extras so I bought a complete second hand axle including spare hubs etc for 250 DM. That was a mistake because I ended up having to pay 1200 DM for a very old second hand axle in Kano!
When I took the two axles apart, I found all four springs were broken or cracked. So I bought ‘new’ springs from the same man. Actually the first axle he delivered to the camping place for me had worn out drop-arm bearings so he replaced it with another which he insisted had done only 2000 km. I suspect it was more like 200,000 km because the steering bearings were worn out. They sure know how to rip off tourists. They were charging other tourists 16 Nigerian Dinars for filling camping gaz bottles until we found that the correct price was 4 Dinars if you take it to the filling station just down the road!
The new springs I paid new price for turned out to be reconditioned ones. I had to pay the full price for the axle even though the springs turned out to be broken. Anyway now I have 3 spare springs and some spare rubber mounts which also collapse under the load. This process took a whole week. During this time I also made a makeshift sump-guard out of the old torsion-bar leaf springs, as well as a special spanner for removing the primus jet when it has sand in it.
Kano – and all of Nigeria for that matter – is an incredibly filthy place. They say Lagos is 100% worse. Streets here are lined with ramshackle junk stalls and everyone throws their rubbish onto the streets which are never cleaned. They are literally shoulder-high in stinking rubbish. Open sewers with inadequate flow run down each side of the street and breed mosquitoes which no doubt inject all sorts of bugs into your bloodstream. There are the most incredibly huge rats. It is no exaggeration to say that the rats are as big as cats, over one foot long not including the tail, and very fat.
Less gruesome are the lizards which frequent every nook and cranny and scuttle over your toes when you disturb them. The larger ones are nearly a foot long with yellow head and tail, brilliant blue body with a lime green stripe down the back. Although they make you jump sometimes, they are quite harmless. We have only seen one snake in the wild in Africa, and that was dead on the road.
After leaving Kano we spent nearly half a week driving the length of Nigeria. The police got worse the further south we went. Then the day we arrived in Calabar on the southern coast of Nigeria, we went straight to the Cameroon embassy to get our visas for Cameroon. This turned out to be a Cameroon holiday so we had to wait another day to make our application.
Meanwhile a Nigerian chap in his early 20s saw us parked on the roadside and invited us to park in the compound beside his house and use his shower, toilet and water supply. This was a great relief as we were worried about free camping (There are virtually no campsites in this part of Africa) and it was very hot. Maximum temperature was 37 degrees C and so humid that the washing would not dry. The temperature drops to 25 or 30 degrees in the evening and is about 20 degrees in the morning. There is generally a thick haze of steam over everything from the surrounding jungle so you do not get sunburnt but it spoils the photographs.
“Sunday,” the chap we stayed with, is a devout Christian (Assembly of God) and was sure we would fund the founding of a new church in his suburb. He said they needed it although there was a church literally on nearly every street corner. He was also sure that we would arrange for him to emigrate to New Zealand to train as an engineer although he has a limited high school education. None-the-less, he was very kind to us, and we appreciated it. We gave him a New Zealand souvenir table-cloth before we left. His sister seemed much more intelligent and was in her final year of training as a nurse. Everyone speaks English in Nigeria which is a nice change although it is often difficult to understand.
After three nights in Calabar (quite enough), we retraced our route north along the terrible road-works and then turned east to Ikom on the Cameroon border. In a village on the road between Calabar and Ikom, we came across a traditional African procession. The road was full of people and dancers in fancy costumes. We pulled over and parked in the village to watch the fun. Many of the men were carrying very ancient loaded blunderbusses and were shooting the branches off the trees. I was hesitant to get my camera out but then I saw a press photographer. I joined him and the people crowded around wanting their photos taken. As usual, they were all very friendly and congenial. I went through about one and a half rolls of film in a matter of minutes. I am supposed to be conserving film, not being sure when I will be able to replenish supplies along the way.
We were told that the procession was in honour of the Minister of Communications who was visiting the village. We saw him and he was wearing a white jumpsuit covered in multi-coloured pompoms. The music and chants were fantastic but our tape recorder has died. The radio also has a broken switch, and the winder on my camera has been jamming periodically since the Sahara, all probably caused by the sand and dust that has permeated everything. Everything grinds and scrapes as a result.
But at least the van is still chugging along. The fiberglass roof is gradually unzipping itself from the body of the van. The cabinets inside are getting scratched with jerry cans (I now have 11), plastic water jugs and 5 tyres (3 on rims), all inside on the bed. You can imagine the amount of packing and unpacking we have to do four times per day for cooking and sleeping.
We spent the last night in Nigeria in a hotel carpark and witnessed the slaughter of a goat during our breakfast. The hotel gave us water, and we filled up 11 20L jerrycans with very cheap Nigerian petrol at 20c/liter before heading to the border.
On the outskirts of Arlit there is a modern uranium mine surrounded by gigantic piles of tailings. This is a French enterprise, and to serve the mine, they have built a bitumen road on which we were to travel in style to Agadez. However the streets of Arlit were unpaved, dusty and full of holes. The cool Saharan winter wind was not blowing in town, and it was now very hot and sultry for the first time since we had arrived in Africa.
We did not intend stopping in Arlit, staying only long enough to take on supplies of petrol, water and any fresh food we could buy. We were to find throughout our time in Africa that the cities and large towns held little for us. The streets were invariably crowded, dangerous or dirty, often all three, and there was seldom a place for us to camp. To safeguard our belongings, we were usually restricted to one of us remaining with the van. We did not enjoy exploring alone, and in any case, the real Africa for us was to be found in the countryside.
Of course we had to pay our mandatory visit to the Police Station in Arlit. The Police sent us to the Custom’s house to have the van thoroughly searched again, and later that day, we were finally issued with papers allowing us to travel to Agadez. If we had requested to travel into the Air Mountains in search of rock art, we would have been denied unless we arranged a local guide. In any case, our Niger visa expired on the 19th Feb, just over two weeks away. This did not give us time to arrange a local guide, wait for permission to proceed, take at least a few days for the trip and then get back down to the border. It may have been possible to extend the visa but we did not ask. Everything seemed such a bother to these police officials who operated at a glacial speed with everything they did.
We went a short distance out into the desert to a place where we had been told there was water. This turned out to be true, and we found clean water gushing from a pipe into an animal trough in what was possibly an animal sale-yard surrounded by high wooden fences. We were lucky there were no animals in residence at the time to compete with us for our water. That would have been a trial we would prefer to avoid because there was only one pipe and one animal trough. We had to sweeten the guard with some bonbons before he would allow us to take our 60 liters.
Later, at the market-place, we were able to buy tomatoes, sweet-corn and onions but there were no eggs or bread available and of course no meat. We had totally given up expecting to find that by now.
It was now a long time since we had been able to relax while driving but the road to Agadez was sealed, straight and beautifully made. It crossed semi-arid country with thorn bushes and little tufts of grass here and there. Soon we stopped to camp just off the road beside a solitary thorn tree.
Since water was at last in plentiful supply, a hot and dusty Evan immediately decided he was going to try out his shower. Previously we had always been too tired to set it up, and also we had not been able to waste water while crossing the Sahara. The shower hung on the outside of the van behind a makeshift shower curtain, with the water-pump from the sink used to pump a bucketful of warm water up through the shower nozzle. Evan had finally got this all set-up, stripped off and turned on the pump. Weeks of Saharan dust, sweat and oily grime from repairing the engine were swished away with the stream of warm water and lots of suds. It was a luxury we had failed to appreciate until we had been deprived of it for so long.
The bucketful of water was about half gone when a group of nosey Touareg mounted on their camels rode slowly past. They were almost falling off their high perches as they peered over to see what in the world was happening. It was just at that moment that a stiff Saharan wind blew the flimsy shower curtain perpendicularly straight upwards, and then the Touareg gentlemen did fall off their camels with laughter. I decided instantly that I preferred the privacy of the van and my usual sponge bath.
The next day, as we continued to cross the endless tundra, we passed many oases where the tribesmen had brought their thirsty goats, camels, donkeys and oxen to the trough. The largest oasis of them all is Agadez where there is a row of crude mud houses and shops cluttered along a dusty main street. We searched at once for the Police Station to apply for passport stamp and papers to proceed to the Nigerian border.
While we were there, we met Alison, an English girl and her Italian doctor friend Roberto. They were driving their Landrover southwards but they did not have a visa for Nigeria and would have to go to Niamey, the capital of Niger to obtain it. Since we had obtained our visa for Nigeria in London, we could go directly to Kano in Nigeria. But we all agreed to travel together the next day until our paths divided.
The petrol station was closed but there was a long queue of people waiting with plastic containers. They wanted kerosene for cooking and lighting, and we all continued to wait patiently in the hot sun. When it finally opened, we bought enough petrol to take us the 700 km to Kano as this would safeguard against unreliable supplies in the towns and villages along the way. There was water available in the market-place but we had to pay for it.
The rest of the afternoon was spent talking to other travelers under a shady tree in front of a café. Two tourists had reputedly been fined 15,000 francs (about US$60 and a veritable fortune to us) the previous day for camping in the open. And as it happened, there was a camping ground at Agadez. Although its reputation amongst the other tourists was not great, we felt it would be wise to use it that night. Alison had a guide book which described it as a veritable paradise complete with swimming pool and a French restaurant. It was also recommended in our guide book, Sahara Handbook and as they pointed out, it was an opportunity to meet other overlanders.
Because it was not sign-posted and situated way out in the desert, night had fallen before we eventually found it. A German had originally established the place and had maintained it with great efficiency. Since his death, his wife and family had obviously reverted to the African way. Consequently the swimming pool was black and fetid, there was no running water in the camp and the restaurant sold Cokes only but nevertheless the camping fees were extraordinarily high. So both our guide books proved out-of-date in the recommendation. However, as with all overlanders, we were independant, self-contained and undaunted by whatever we were confronted with. We spent an enjoyable evening in the company of other overlanders.
We left Agadez the next day with Roberto and Alison following in their Landrover. Along the way, each village was a tidy cluster of perfectly round little huts with thatched roofs and set off the road in a field of dry spindly grass. Standing on stone stilts amongst the huts and almost as high as them were rounded clay pots for storing grain. However the soil in the vicinity seemed so dry and lifeless that we began to wonder how they were able to grow the grain to fill them. Niger is one of the hottest countries in the world although while we were there, it was pleasantly cool, and perhaps one would have thought, the best growing season. However there was no rain and no rivers for irrigation.
We were stopped every 100 km or less at police checkpoints for them to see that our travel papers and passports with border stamp were in order. It would have been trouble for us if we had failed to obtain the stamps from all the other police posts along our route. Our travel papers from Agadez gave us seven days to reach the Nigerian border. This paper was meticulously checked over and over again with all the details being recorded laboriously in a ledger.
Towards evening, we decided to visit the market town of Tohoua and with Roberto in his brand new Landrover leading the way, drove slowly down the crowded main street. Suddenly his back wheel went down into a large hole which seconds before had not been there. We all got out and found that he had driven over a man-hole cover hidden in the dust, and with the weight of the vehicle on one side of the cover, it had turned and tipped poor Roberto into the main sewer. He was quite flustered and angry when he saw what had happened. However with the powerful 4-wheel drive and not forgetting all the advice of the friendly cluster of villagers we had attracted, Roberto was able to drive out. The market was closed, and we went out of town to camp for the night in a field covered in dried grasses that relentlessly speared us with very long toothy thorns.
Using the extract from the Michelin map shown in the previous chapter (Chapter 7: From the Niger Border to Arlit), it can be seen that we followed a circular route from Assamakka to Tahoua and were now immediately south of Assamakka. We had circled around the low-lying area called the Vallée de Azaouagh which is subject to flooding and where there is no through road. This is where we would have ended up if we had not turned back in the sand storm to find Assamakka when we did. In any case, our permit only allowed us to travel via Arlit and Agadez on the official piste. Independant travel in Niger is permitted but very carefully controlled every inch of the way.
The next morning, we parted company with Alison and Roberto at the crossroads. Although we made tentative plans to meet up later, we were not to see them again. We heard several days later on the tourist grapevine that visas for Nigeria were not available in Niamey, and that they would have to go to Upper Volta over an almost impassable road to get them.
We were pleased that we had obtained our Nigerian visas in London because we were always conscious throughout this time of the need to keep going towards central Africa before the rains came. Although we did not break any records or drive for long hours at a time, we refrained from taking any side trips that could take days or weeks at a time. We were lucky because it was the extra effort at this stage which ultimately led to the success of our expedition.
The road was now filled with potholes, and once more, we were only crawling along. A strong wind tore across the land and was creating havoc. The overgrazed pastures had exposed the sand which was being blown across to cover what little fertile soil remained. The demands of an ever-increasing population for firewood and grazing was quite obviously encouraging the Sahara’s relentless spread southwards.
We reached Dan Issa, the Nigerian border town that night and camped beside the road just before it. Our very own garden boy (an elderly gentleman in fact) came uninvited and swept clear an area around our door so that there would not be any dried sticks for us to tread on. He received some bread for his trouble (and enterprise) although he quickly indicated that he would much prefer a shirt. We had by now made the transition from a predominantly Arab population to an area were the people were all Negroid. However the Muslim religion was still predominant.
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.
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 pistefor 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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kae continues the story:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.