Tag: Overland Travel

Chapter 11: Central Africa Republic (C.A.R.)

by Kae Lewis

Although the border between Cameroon and C.A.R. was relatively easy to cross, we were stopped at four or five road-blocks in the first 50 km of C.A.R roads. These police checks were thorough and involved the painstakingly laborious task of writing all the details from our carnet, passports and visas, driver’s license, insurance papers and car registration document into a master ledger. This was repeated at each road block.

Map of southern Central Africa Republic. From the border (marked in yellow) with Cameroon in the west, we followed the main road eastward to Bangui, the capital. We the continued northeast, following the southern border with Congo (marked in yellow) towards Bambari.
Source: Michelin Map 741, Africa: North & West.

We were now traveling along with the long-wheelbase Landrover driven by two English people, a Scot and an American, all of whom we had previously met at the quarry in Yaoundé. They had left a day and a half before us, and we had caught up with them. The four-wheel-drive that the Landrover offers is certainly an advantage should the track become really rough or turn to mud. However on the roads that we had met with so far, the VW Kombie can travel faster, more economically and with considerably more comfort than the Landrover.  

While waiting at some roadworks for a bulldozer to clear a track for us, we saw a tiny mouse on a bank. One of the workmen bounded after it,  the mouse froze, and he had it. He proudly brought it back to us as a gift. It seems mouse is a local delicacy, along with monkey and the great favourite, boa constrictor. In the market places, we saw boa constrictor steaks as thick as a man’s waist for sale.

The road workman catches a mouse and presents it to us. We were stopped waiting for the bulldozer to clear a track through the mess so we could pass. There was so little traffic on the roads that road gangs seldom bothered to keep the road open as they worked.
Roadside inactivity
Roadside activity: selling firewood.

The road-making was an European Economic Community project. We spoke to the Belgian foreman who told us that the people of the district are very superstitious. Before he could proceed with the road construction, it had been necessary to carry out a ceremony to appease the spirits of the mountain over which the road would cross. The company had been obliged to buy the salt, sugar and eggs used to placate the gods.

We camped on a riverbank with the English group and were joined later by the Swedish boys who slowly manoeuvred their monstrous bus down onto the parking area that we had found. The bus’s hydraulic system, comprising brakes and clutch were practically non-functional but there were no spare-parts available in Africa for this Swedish-manufactured vehicle. The motor was overheating, and for some reason this also boiled the container filled with waste water from the toilet. We began to realise that the choice of a suitable vehicle is an important factor leading to the success of an expedition in Africa. A wrong decision can lead to months of depressing and futile effort.  

We still had not had any punctures so that carrying five spare tyres was beginning to seem a bit excessive. Although we had a mounting for two of them on the front bumper, we found that carrying them there placed an added strain on the fragile front axle and springs. We now stored all heavy items as far back in the van as possible, and on the whole this meant putting them on our bed. We were satisfied that this definitely improved the ride but was a major inconvenience to us. During the day, our bed was a mountain of heavy tyres and jerrycans which had to be shifted onto the front seats at night. So when an African conveniently had a puncture right outside our camp, we offered him one of our more worn tyres. He was delighted and paid us a good price.

The English couple taking a swim in the river, sharing their shampoo with the local boys who were highly delighted.
Kae watches the swimmers, unconvinced that this river was free of bilharzia and crocodiles.

Soon everyone was swimming in the river. Because it was now extremely hot, it had taken a great deal of will power not to jump in with them. However, I remained unconvinced that this river was free from bilharzia, a disease caused by parasitic fresh-water worms found in tropical rivers such as this one. The worm penetrates the skin and enters the blood stream to migrate to the liver and intestines. Bilhazia is the cause of much misery and sickness amongst Africans. Evan went in briefly to wash off some of the dust and grime he had accumulated when lying on the ground under the van checking the undercarriage several times a day.

We were hustled away early the next morning because we had parked by the river where the road gangs obtained their truckloads of water. We left the others at their morning ablutions in the muddy water. Because we were able to travel much faster than them, this was to be the last time we saw either the English or the Swedish groups. 

In Eastern C.A.R., round houses were the fashion, as we had seen in Cameroon.

Between the stands of stumpy trees, we passed through areas of grassland.  There were many small villages with crowds of children, chickens and goats all over the road. Often the massed pedestrians seemed unaware that it was a road down which they sauntered. We had been warned many times that should a motorist run over and kill a villager, the witnesses feel it is their duty to kill the motorist in return. This had happened to a taxi driver in Yaoundé. Within minutes of causing the death of a pedestrian, he had been dragged from his car and battered to death by an angry crowd of revengeful bystanders. We now passed through villages blasting our raucous air-horns. We hated to disturb the peace and startle people but if they were carrying out such impromptu executions after an accident, then we were leaving nothing to chance.  

Dugout canoes were the main means of transport for villagers living along the river banks.

We were constantly being stopped at police road blocks but their offices were closed for two and a half hours at midday. During this siesta, the barrier across the road was down and firmly locked. We were obliged to sit and wait for their return. The roadblocks were so numerous that we sometimes waited several times during one siesta period.

Towards late afternoon, the air became hotter than ever, the sky blackened and a fierce wind whipped up the dust and dried leaves on the road. We found a place to camp in a roadside quarry just as the sky was being torn apart by fearsome streaks of lightening that decorated the entire sky above us, like tinsel on a Christmas tree. As each flash plunged earthwards, our ears were filled with the agonising roar of the thunder. Finally buckets of water dropped from an inky sky.

The pounding of the rain on the roof and the loud rumbling of the thunder kept us awake for most of the night but in the morning, we reveled in the cool crisp air. The jungle around us looked green and shiny, being no longer covered in red dust. 

Kae goes for a walk in the jungle while Evan is doing car repairs.
The jungle of Central African Republic is sparse, dry and extremely hot. A violent thunderstorm provided welcome relief.

We drove on to Bangui, the capital of C.A.R., on a tar-seal road that morning.  We had heard that this city is a haven for thieves and decided against staying the night. We went directly to the carpark of The Rock Hotel which was the meeting place for overlanders in Bangui. It is beside the massive Ubangi (or Oubangui) River where we stood looking over to the Democratic Republic of Congo on the opposite bank. When we were there in 1982, Congo had been named Zaire at the whim of the despot-in-charge, Mobutu. However once he died in 1997, it was decided to revert to the traditional name of Congo. For clarity, I will call the country Congo from now on.

We had been warned that Congo currency should be obtained in Bangui because there would be few other opportunities in the jungle, and it is needed for paying for ferries. We had also been informed that petrol-driven vehicles should buy a few liters of diesel for the ferries who would most likely have none of their own.  

A car ferry operated here at Bangui but we intended crossing over to Congo further upstream at Bangassou. The further north you can travel, the drier the climate, and we hoped to avoid, at least for a little while longer, entering the soggy jungles of the Congo. Also the roads in C.A.R. have apparently been better maintained than those of the Congo. So far, they had been good, thanks in part to the E.E.C.

We went to the central market-place where I bought some tomatoes, a cabbage and some carrots. The local ladies had made little piles of their produce on the rickety outdoor stalls, and since they have no scales, I was supposed to barter for the price of a pile. I usually paid whatever they asked, if I could understand what that was. Vegetables were scarce but not very much in demand. Some people spoke French but even then, I could not always understand. Nothing was written down. There was so little produce available that, if twenty people had bought as much as I had, the entire market would have been emptied. 

Kae bartering for a cabbage in the Bangui Market place. There were some piles of tomatoes on the table that I hoped to get too.

There was absolutely no meat for sale, and I had long since given up even expecting to see it. Bread was very expensive, and there did not appear to be any raw eggs. I always found it difficult, without a common language, to ascertain if the eggs were cooked or raw. Because most are sold hard-boiled as midday snacks, I looked for the scoop of salt which would often be part of the deal in this case. However, despite my vigilance, when we broke an egg into the frying pan, it might be either hard-boiled or, worse still, rotten. With the hens unpenned, the eggs are collected in a very haphazard manner and can be weeks old before they reach the market. However, with our virtually meatless diet, I had to persevere, buying eggs in twos and threes at stalls along the road.  

Houses with stalls set up along the road would sell eggs, and perhaps some bananas, papaya or pineapples.
The houses were now square, usually with a door and two windows.
A village with a round meeting house.

On the way out of town, we stopped to collect water at a village watering place which was a pillbox-shaped fountain from which water could be siphoned. All the water used by the family is carried back to the house on the heads of the mother and her daughters. Little girls of five or six years can balance a heavy bucket of water on their heads, often without even a steadying hand being necessary. 

The village women clustered around the fountain laughed at our efforts to siphon out the water and then kindly helped us to fill our containers. We always added our own chlorine to our water containers, using a bottle of chlorox and a measuring syringe. Then we filtered our drinking water with the dialyser as well (See Chapter 1, Part 5). This kept us healthy throughout the trip, no matter where we obtained the water.

We camped beside the road to Bangassou where the rains had prompted the termites to begin flying, with wave after wave of massed insects passing along the road. On the lookout for a location to build a new ant-hill, they appeared to be attracted to the exposed soil of the road. When they find a suitable place, they descend to the earth and drop their wings. By morning, we were driving on a dense carpet of gossamer termite wings. We saw several large ant-hills constructed right on the road. These are dangerous for vehicles because they are high and baked as hard as rock in the sun.

A termite mound.
A field of termite mounds.

Before we left our camp the next morning, we were visited by a large group of children, each of whom carried a heavy hoe to till the soil. This was 8.00 a.m., and they were returning from the fields where they had been working since dawn. They were on their way to school now but lingered to help Evan grease the front axle, handing him tools and asking complicated questions in French. They were delighted with some elastic we gave them for their slingshots. One of them had a splendid one made with carving on the wooden parts and a leather sling.  

Children returning from weeding the fields with their heavy hoes.
Children on their way to school after working in the fields since dawn.

Later we met two ladies returning from the river with their chopped, washed and dried cassava. This plant, imported from the Americas, now forms the basis of the West African diet and from it are derived tapioca and semolina. Unfortunately the root contains large concentrations of benzoic acid which is poisonous. The women must carefully wash the pieces of white flesh or they will poison their families. 

Cassava root is a staple food in Central Africa Republic but it is poisonous unless it is thoroughly washed before eating. Here they are at the river, washing and drying cassava.
Shredding it finely, thoroughly washing, and then drying cassava in the sun is a time-consuming and very necessary occupation for the women of Central African Republic.
A woman taking her chopped and washed cassava home from the river. She has a machete for shredding the roots balanced on the top of her load.
Not all the children were getting enough to eat. This child shows the distended belly of Kwashiorkor caused by protein deficiency. There is little or no protein in cassava.

We watched the slash and burn farming technique being carried out all along the road as we passed by. The men cleared a patch of forest by lopping the trees and burning the debris. It was then left to the women and children who, it is estimated, carry out three quarters of the farming work in Africa. They plant maize seeds and cuttings of cassava, yams, pineapples and bananas. One clearing can be used for several seasons before the jungle takes it back, and thus restores fertility to the thin leached soil. This form of cultivation can support a small population but should population numbers increase, the fallow periods will not be sufficient to renew soil fertility, and crops will fail. 

The jungle encroaches on this, the main road from Bangui to Bangassou. Unless the dirt road is frequently graded, the jungle quickly takes it back.

We stopped in Bambari and met a French expatriate family who invited us to camp that night in their garden. The husband was the Manager of a cotton mill, and they lived in a house on the estate. We had seen the mill trucks on the road that day collecting cotton from the villages where each house had its bale or two ready for collection. This gives the family a small cash income to buy the things such as cooking pots, utensils, tools, dishes and clothes that they are unable to make themselves. Their cotton fields are in the jungle clearings up to five km from the road. The factory separates the fibres from the seeds and then bales the cotton for transportation by truck to Bangui. From there, it is taken by riverboat to the coast for shipping to Europe.  

The manager’s house was built in a colonial style with wide verandahs and completely surrounded by wide green lawns, gardens and shady palm trees. The rooms were cool, having extremely high ceilings and many open windows. It was pleasant to sit in this room on a deep comfortable sofa drinking coke with ice-cubes clinking in a crystal glass. After months of camping in the heat and dust, these small luxuries had taken on a new meaning. We realised that we had quite forgotten what we had been missing.

Suddenly our peace was disturbed when their small son came rushing in shouting that the termites were coming. A swarm such as we had seen the previous evening was descending on the house. Everyone leapt to their feet, shutters were crashed to and doors slammed shut to secure the house against invasion.   

Map of the road from Bambari to Bangassou along the southern border with Congo (marked in Yellow).
Source: Michelin Map 741, Africa: North & West.

The next day we were once more traveling on unsealed roads through village communities that were often only five km apart. The chickens and goats, both on the road and beside it, would shy as we approached and in their panic, rush straight into the path of the van. Many of the people too would panic once they saw the van looming towards them as they walked down the road. We were going dead slowly but the trucks and van-taxis travel through the villages at breakneck speeds, forcing the people to leap off the road. In their excitement at seeing our rather unusual vehicle approaching them, the women would spin around and upset their precariously balanced burdens on their heads.

The papaya tree is everywhere in Central Africa and, along with pineapple forms an important part of the diet. They certainly formed an important part of ours as they were usually for sale at most markets we visited.
Palm tree harvesting is hard work.

The houses are all small mud creations with a door and two windows. Each is surrounded by a well-swept beaten-earth yard with the family hearth in the centre. This was Sunday, and the most popular leisure-time occupation was to lounge in the yard in front of the house. Several of the groups were singing and dancing to the accompaniment of drums.  

There are many mission churches, some built with red brick and others in the traditional mud-walled style. Since it was Palm Sunday, there were several church processions along the road. The women parishioners throughout the country wear a uniform of teal-blue and canary-yellow. In some villages, the churches were packed with an attentive congregation while in others, the church had been abandoned to be reclaimed by the jungle. The villagers swing to the traditional power of the Witch Doctor and local Chief when not directly under the influence of the missionary with his powerful white magic.

Towards evening, we crossed the Kotto River on a very large bridge which overlooked the magnificent Kembé Falls. When we stopped on the bridge to view the Falls in the late afternoon sun, we were astonished to see a very blonde European girl standing all alone at the top of the falls. 

The magnificent Kembé Falls on the Kotto River, near Bangassou.
We were astonished to see a very blonde European girl standing alone at the top of the Kembé Falls.
The Kotto River below the Falls.

A rough vehicle track led off the road and around to the edge of the lake that fed the falls. While driving down it, we grounded the bottom of the van on the rocks before reaching the place where we could see two vehicles camped. The four people, three Swiss and the blonde Dutch girl we had seen at the top of the falls came over to help push us from our perch atop a large rock. They then invited us to camp with them in this delightful spot with the falls thundering beside us. The tranquil waters of the lake slumbered in the shade of the encircling jungle, as yet uninfluenced by the cataract down which they would presently be hurtled. 

As the sun set over the water, and the light began to fade, the Dutch-South African girl, Johanna led me back up to her perch at the top of the falls to view the maelstrom. Small fish played in the deep water at the edge of the lake, hopefully keeping a safe distance from the pull of the plunging water.  There was no question of taking a dip in this cool clear water, bilhazia or not.

Johanna and her Swiss-German husband Jürg both spoke excellent English but the other couple, Hubie and Brigitte spoke only their native Swiss-German. Their strong dialect made it difficult for us to understand them in their normal conversation but they could both also speak the more formal High German that we understood somewhat. They were all going to South Africa, crossing through the Congo to Kenya.  

The next morning, the first day of March 1982, we set off in a convoy of three vehicles with this friendly team. They seemed happy for us to join them, and we decided that it would be better to travel with others in the Congo where we expected the roads to be bad.  

Hubie and Brigitte were driving a very large Mercedes Benz Unimog truck, the back of which had been outfitted with their living quarters. Hubie owned several dry-cleaning shops in Switzerland, and they seemed set on traveling the world. Hubie had had many adventures in his attempts to cross Africa, having started out in a VW Kombie. He had come as far as El Oued, a Saharan oasis town and was stopped at a garage to refuel. They were putting petrol into a large drum that he had in the back of the van.  The garage attendant lit a cigarette which resulted in an immediate explosion. Although the vehicle was already on fire, Hubie drove it off the garage forecourt. While trying to retrieve $7000 in cash that he had stowed under the dashboard, he was caught in the van when it finally became engulfed in flames. He was flown back to Switzerland critically ill with burns and required extensive skin grafts. His Swiss insurance company denied liability so that he was not paid any compensation for the loss of his vehicle. He also lost his $7000 cash.  

On his second attempt, he had brought the Unimog from Switzerland. In Tunisia, it was broken into and everything of value removed. This included expensive photographic equipment, a stereo tape recorder and 16 channel short-wave set. However he was able to replace his losses at a nearby shop that miraculously had items in stock that were identical to those he had lost.

Later, while crossing a particularly hazardous stretch of desert near Djanet, they found a German couple whose Mercedes Benz saloon car was buried deeply in the sand and broken down. Hubie towed them for several days to a garage, arriving there with a burnt-out clutch himself. At the garage, when the Unimog was hoisted up to repair the damage, the mechanic turned on the electric winch and then left it running when he disappeared for lunch. Unattended, the seven tonne truck rose to the ceiling and when the cable eventually broke, came hurtling to the ground. There was serious damage to the chassis, hydraulics, diesel tanks and electrical system but the garage denied liability. Hubie paid the normal charges for the extensive repairs necessary. Even now, he was still finding damage to parts which had been weakened by the fall.  

Johanna and Jürg were newly married and driving their new Toyota Hiace campervan to South Africa where they had both previously lived. We were to find that the performance of the Toyota was similar to that of our VW although the Toyota was closer to the ground, a distinct disadvantage when the roads were rough. We were pleased to hear that Jürg was an experienced VW mechanic while Johanna spoke seven languages fluently, having worked at a Swiss airport as Interpreter and Information Officer. We were to use her expertise in French many times over the next few months as we grappled with border guards, police, army officers and other officials.  

We discovered during that first day that they traveled more slowly than we normally did. The Unimog with its twisted chassis and heavy weight was slow and lumbering while Jürg had to be more careful about scraping the Toyota’s undercarriage than we did. However we decided that with road conditions deteriorating rapidly, it would be prudent for us to reduce speed in any case.  

On the other hand, they rose earlier than we normally did, and this proved a more difficult adaptation for us to make. We had grown used to making a slow start with a leisurely breakfast before facing the rigours of the day. We had always liked to take this time to enjoy the sounds and sights of Africa that surrounded us. The birds, insects and strange plant life were difficult to see as we drove passed them at speed.

However we soon dropped our bad habits, and on the second day, were ready to leave when they were. We discovered that by rising early and traveling more slowly during the day, there was little difference in our overall distance covered in a day. We had the cooler morning hours traveling and often stopped for lunch in the heat of the day. It was definitely worth it to us to have the company of friends as we faced the journey ahead. All of us were very apprehensive as we were inexorably being engulfed in the vast, dark and mysterious jungle of central Africa. 

At about midday on the day we left the waterfall in convoy, we arrived at Bangassou. It was here that we intended finally crossing the extraordinarily wide Mbomou River to the Congo. The road lead us straight down to the river bank where of course there was no bridge. The muddy and deep waters of the river lapped across the road, bringing us to a rapid halt. As we all climbed out of our vehicles, we could see the ferry berthed far over on the opposite bank of the river, about 1km away. There was no sign of life over there, and it seemed there never was going to be until we went over to consult with them. 

A very persistent man was circling around us, vigorously offering his dugout canoe (called a pirogue) for hire, for this very purpose. After waiting patiently for some time, and still seeing no sign of life across on the other side, we decided that one person from each vehicle would have to go across the river in this fragile-looking canoe to negotiate the business with the Captain. Johanna was to go as interpreter as the negotiations would inevitably be conducted in French. Evan and Hubie went with her while Jürg, Brigitte and I stayed with the vehicles.

Hubie (rear), Johanna and Evan cross the Mbomou River in a hired dugout canoe to fetch the ferry from the Congo side of the river.

It was several hours later before the canoe eventually brought them back safe and sound, much to our relief.  They told us that, after some furious bargaining by Johanna in French, it had been decided that we would pay 6000 C.F.A. (about US$30) for each vehicle. This was extremely expensive, and we recalled that to cross the Straits of Dover with our van recently, we had paid $30 for our return ticket. The Straits of Dover are some 50 km wide while the Mbomou River was 1km wide at most.

Map showing the Mbomou River and our crossing point at Bangassou. Once we had crossed the river, we would be in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (known as Zaire when we were there.) Source of the map: Wikipedia.

The ferry was owned and operated by the government of the Congo and was supposed to be free. The operators allege that the motor would not go, and that we must pay for a team of punters to pole us across. In reality, we suspect that the diesel provided by the government for the operation of the ferry is expropriated to be sold on the black market at a handsome profit for the operators. The punters on the other hand would be lucky if they saw a few C.F.A. of the 6000 we paid. This is an example of the corruption which cripples African economies. 

Now that we had ascertained that the ferry, at a price, was available, we had next to return to the police station to obtain exit stamps in our passports. We discovered that the Customs Office was closed for the day at 1.30 PM. We had only just missed it but now we would have to wait until the next day to have our carnets and passports stamped. This was an important step because it was our only proof that we had exported the van, and without it we would be liable for import duty. We resignedly camped under the trees beside the river to wait.  

The next day, we were all up early to be at the custom’s post when it opened, and were duly stamped out of Central Africa Republic. Later, back at the harbour, some of us had to return to the other side in the canoe to arouse the ferryman. Eventually, he did bring his ferry across to us, more than 24 hours after we had first arrived at the river’s edge to make our crossing. It is not a good idea to ever try to be in a hurry in Africa. We were by now well-adjusted to Africa-time in which a wristwatch is superfluous, and all that is required is great patience and endurance (and, in our case, a good book or two).  

The ferry consisted of three quite small boats lashed together and a wooden platform laid across the top of all three. It was decided that the Unimog would cross first. A ramp of several pieces of rather narrow timber was laid from the beach up to this platform on top of the boats. The ramp looked steep and flimsy but to our amazement, it held the weight of the Unimog. 

The ferry consisted of three quite small boats lasted together and a wooden platform laid across the top. The man in the pink shirt in the centre of the boat is the Captain, shouting and gesticulating at his men as usual.
The Captain, after much shouting finally had the boat moored and ready to load the Unimog.

The crossing went well, and the ferry was back to get us within about half an hour. The Captain of the ferry was a short stout man, in contrast to the long lean African we had become used to. He decided that he would take both our van and the Toyota together in one run. As Evan drove the van up the ramp, the back end of the vehicle grounded and scrapped on the river bank. We were all shouting and waving instructions to Evan to try to keep all four wheels on the narrow pieces of timber which wobbled and buckled precariously as they took the weight. Then with one last lurch, the van was safely up on the deck of the ferry. 

Our van being loaded on to the ferry at Bangassou. The photo taken was by Hubie with our camera over on the Congo side of the Mbomou River.

We then started the procedure again with the Toyota, and soon both vans stood side by side on the boat. In his preoccupation with the launching proceedings, Jürg dropped his car keys which slipped between the timbers of the platform and disappeared forever into the deep muddy waters of the Mbomou River. We were pleased to hear that they had a spare key. 

The Captain cast off and steered us upriver at first so that we could catch the current down when we reached the fast-flowing centre of the river. At least this was normally the procedure. Then a brisk wind sprung up, and with the two vans acting very efficiently as sails, the boat was pushed further and further upstream. The Captain berated the punters unpityingly to encourage them to an all-out effort. Several times, the boat gave a terrible lurch as we hit rocks in the centre of the river, threatening to precipitate us all into the muddy waters beneath us. 

Here is an eye-witness account of what happens when you fall into a river here, in this case an African had dived off a boat into the River Congo, not far from where we now were:

Actually the swimmer was now quite close to the shore, but apparently he could not find a place in the dense thicket where he could land. The boat was quickly gaining on him, the whole pursuit would be over in two minutes. At that moment, two dark shadows suddenly emerged from the reeds. A trail like that left by a submarine appeared on the surface of the water. Another loud cry broke out on board. Everyone knew what those lines of of furrows meant – crocodiles! The swimmer heard the wild cry and looked behind him. He raised his arms and opened his mouth to utter a last cry for help. At that same moment, he disappeared straight under the water as if he had been drawn down with a cord. For a few seconds, little waves and bubbles rose from the spot where the negro had disappeared. Then all was quiet again.”

From Through the Sahara to the Congo by Louis D.C. Joos 1961.
With the two vans acting as sails, the wind pushed us further and further upstream, and it was obvious that the Captain had lost control of his boat.
Although the punters were using very long poles, they could not always reach the bottom in the centre of this deep river, and we circled helplessly for over an hour. 

With the men tired and mutinous and several of their poles broken, the Captain began to head back to the bank from which we had come. His performance in the centre of the River had us wondering if this “Captain” had much prior experience. 

We circle around helplessly for several hours.

We were told that we would wait until the wind dropped which sounded to us to be a splendid idea. However, inevitably, when they had obtained some more very long and stout bamboo poles from the river bank, we set off once more for the opposite bank. This time, the poles were long enough to reach the bottom, and, inch by inch, we approached the other side. We had by that time been afloat for two and a half hours which in fact compared favourably with the time taken to cross the Straits of Dover. 

After the broken poles were replaced with longer ones, we slowly began to make headway against the current and the headwind.
Unloading the van on the other side was fraught with more problems. First the Captain (standing at the bow) had to moor the boat. This apparently was easier said than done.
Then the two flimsy planks of wood had to be aligned so that the tyres would fit on them. Evan is at the wheel while Kae and Jürg are trying to make sure that the tyres were going to stay on the narrow planks. Once the front wheels were on the planks, it was too late to try to align the back wheels. So we had to make sure that all four wheels were aligned before we started.
With the back wheels still on the timber ramps, the van was grounding both at the back and the front. If the front of the van had grounded before we got the back off the boat, we could have been in real trouble. It missed hitting the ground in front by less than a mm. These photos were taken by Hubie with our camera.

Once both vans were again on terra firma, the busy little Captain immediately presented himself for his 6000 C.F.A. from each of us. He made it known that he felt that this was not enough, no doubt because of the fiasco in the middle of the river. Hubie had had the foresight to bring some old clothes which he had in a storage box on the roof of the Unimog. He climbed up and began tossing down trousers and shirts until eventually the Captain indicated rather grudgingly that he was satisfied.

By the time we had unloaded the vans up onto the steep bank, there were three more vehicles waiting to cross. We heard later that 1000 vehicles a month pass this way. Once the rainy season started in a few weeks, the river would be much higher and faster flowing, making crossing with these flimsy poles even more dangerous than it had been for us.

Dugouts moored on the Mbomou River, on the Congo side.

Letter from Evan Lewis to his father in New Zealand.


Central African Republic

                                                                        27th Feb 1982

Dear Dad and family,

We have been driving frantically for the last six days trying to get ahead of the rainy season. We met a group in a Landrover in Yaoundé, and they left on Sunday morning, a day before us. After we had driven for two days, we met them again. Their Landrover actually travels at the same speed as us but they start late, stop early and stop for lunch. We spent an afternoon and evening with them and a bus owned by seven Swedish students.  

We get up about 6.00 am, have a cooked breakfast (eggs which are plentiful here) and leave about 8.30 am. We then seldom stopped until about 6.00 PM which is just on dark. We generally camp on our own, on the roadside or in a clearing in the jungle.  It’s a bit spooky but seems safe enough. Better than in the cities where people get robbed. 

When we were traveling with the Landrover, we met a French-speaking Belgian who was working for a German construction company financed by the EEC to maintain the roads in the Central African Republic. He told us about a river where we could camp, swim, wash and get water. He claimed it was free of bilharzia so I went in for a dip with the local boys. Later the Belgian and his Thai wife joined us, bringing along some welcome wine and cool beer. Soon the busload of Swedish boys arrived too, so we had quite a party by the river.  

Meanwhile an African came asking the Landrover people and then us if we had any inner tubes for sale. I suggested my oldest spare wheel. I started bartering at £30 which is what I paid for it new three years and 34,000 miles ago. After haggling with the help of a Scotsman for about an hour, we came down to £16 and a liter of wine. Then he wanted the bottle back and some valves and patches thrown in. Meanwhile his friends immediately went back to their Japanese van, which had a flat tyre, and fitted my wheel directly on. I was rather surprised that it fitted.  

The following evening, we camped in a disused quarry on our own. We parked in a deep trench they had carved with a bulldozer, in order to get out of sight from the road. At about sunset, a vigorous thunderstorm circled around us and then kept us company for the night. It was the first heavy rain we have seen and signals the beginning of the rainy season. It poured all night, and I thought we would be stuck in this trench filled with water.  Fortunately it had all disappeared into the dry clay ground by the morning.  

Tonight, we arrived in Bambari at 5.00 PM, and as usual had to stop and ask someone where to go. There are no signposts anywhere, so asking people is the only way to navigate in Africa. Meanwhile a French family came and asked us if we had a problem. They then invited us to park for the night in the spacious grounds beside their colonial bungalow. On the other side was a noisy cotton factory.  We have just been in for a beer and a coke. He is an agronomist employed by the French government to aid the cotton industry.  His wife’s father is the Director of the nuclear reactor at Grenoble. They also live in Grenoble and seem to know a lot about New Zealand.

Suddenly our hosts all leapt up to shut all the doors and windows against a hoard of flying termites. We had seen a similar swarm the night before, when we were camping in the jungle. They explained to us that the termites always fly the first night after rain.  As soon as they land, they drop their long wings. I started writing this letter under the lights in their summerhouse but gave up because I was surrounded by these termites, spiders, centipedes and other creepy crawlies all trying to eat each other.  

We have seen two snakes in the last few days. Both were slim shiny black things between 1 and 2 meters long. One appeared to have grey stripes across it and a small head held above the ground level. Both slithered across the road as we approached in the van. You can buy 8 inch diameter pythons in the market for eating – a delicacy apparently.  The Belgian road engineer told us that they pulled one several meters long out of the bulldozer tracks recently.  

The people eat anything and everything here, including the termites which live either in anthills up to 5 meters high or in structures that look like huge mushrooms about 50 cm high. The Africans are basically hunter-gatherers although they have permanent houses, a few cotton fields and sometimes a herd of cattle. I could not understand why we keep seeing small bush fires that burn for a km or so and then stop. Apparently they do this deliberately just to get an easy supply of ready-cooked snakes, birds, rats and other small animals.  After the fire, the fertile soil can be used to cultivate some crops or banana palms before the soil is exhausted. Then it quickly reverts back to jungle again.  

In the villages, which are almost continuous through the jungle in this area, we often see carcasses hung up for sale beside the road:  things that look like opossums, small deer or gazelles and often monkey. No wonder we have not seen any wildlife in the jungle so far. Near rivers, you see fish, fresh, dried and/or smoked and many other indescribable objects for sale.  They also sell woven baskets, wooden stools etc.

The people all live in mud or straw huts of various types. We often see children with swollen bellies which I thought was caused by malnutrition.  This is very surprising considering the abundance of food all through this area. The land is very fertile but could be used much more productively. There is very little evidence of cultivation, or of work of any kind for that matter. There are only the cotton fields here, and they are not visible from the main road. There is the occasional coffee or banana plantation or rarely rubber trees. You can buy pineapples and bananas everywhere so we have been living on them. We bought four pineapples one day for about $1 each and are busy trying to eat them. They are very sweet and juicy. Tomatoes, cabbage and eggs are also relatively easy to buy although the chickens are free-ranging (all over the road!) and consequently we have had some rotten eggs.  

It is rather dangerous driving through the villages because people, children and animals are liable to run in front of you. If you kill one of them, they assume it was deliberate and attack you with machetes, killing the driver and possibly the passengers too. They all carry these big knives, even the small children. They also often carry spears, bow and arrows or slingshots.  None-the-less, everyone drives like madmen, including African, Arab and French taxi and truck drivers. But they are not as bad here as in Niger and Nigeria. Apparently the drivers are often drunk and are very frequently killed in numerous crashes – either head-on collisions during overtaking or failing to take corners. Back in Nigeria, on one bad winding stretch, we saw a rolled, burned out petrol tanker on nearly every corner. Life is cheap in Africa. 

                                                                                    3rd March 1982

After Bambari, it took us two days instead of the expected one to get to Bangassou. In the first evening, we came across a fantastic waterfall on a big river, and beside it were camped two Swiss vehicles. We had already been told about them by a German traveling in the opposite direction. We drove down the track and grounded on big rocks twice in 200 meters. 

We have been traveling with these two Swiss couples ever since. They are nice friendly people, and all help each other. One couple have a Mercedes Benz Unimog  which is a 7 tonne, 4 wheel drive, short wheelbase military-type vehicle which has at least 0.5 meter ground clearance. It is ideal for trans-Sahara travel except for the high fuel consumption:  about 4 mpg for the petrol version and 12-14 mpg in the sand with diesel. They cost 135,000 Deutsche Mark new for the chassis only but he got his with a 4 tonne caravan conversion. The owner, Hubie, is very kind-hearted, ‘sehr lustig’ (enthusiastic) and a lot of fun. 

A traditional dugout canoe. Photo taken near Bangassou in 1906

© Copyright Kae & Evan Lewis 2020. All rights reserved.

Chapter 4: The Sahara: Ghardaia to Tamanrasset

By Kae Lewis

As we began the long climb out of the valley of Ghardaia, the sky was clear and sunny. The long, flat, featureless plains ahead were crossed by a sealed, well-maintained road.  The ground was still dotted sparsely with coarse grasses.  

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

We reached El Golea by midday, and it is here that the Sahara Desert really began for us.  The town lies in the heart of the Grand Western Erg region which is an ocean of sand stretching the rest of the way across Algeria.  El Golea has a large date palmerie which is fed by a good water supply but the sand blows in unceasingly from the desert and inundates the palm groves.  Life is a relentless struggle for the farmer who must dig the sand away or his palms will soon die.  There are many different types of dates, from the large succulent deglet noir  to the humble ghars  which are the soft sweet date that forms the basis of the desert nomad’s diet. They were for sale in great black piles in all the markets we saw in the Sahara.

An ocean of sand surrounds a desert oasis of date palms

El Golea has a distinctly colonial atmosphere with wide sandy boulevards shaded by pine and eucalyptus trees.  There are no twisted alley-ways with square houses cluttered along the length but instead each villa is surrounded by a high-fenced garden  The women appeared to be permitted to have both eyes unveiled. We bought a long French loaf from a pile in the sand at a market and filled up the van with petrol.  For the first time, we filled an extra jerrycan with petrol because it was 400 km to In Salah where we could next expect to obtain petrol and water.

The Kiwis have arrived in town looking for bread, petrol and water

Everywhere we went in Algeria, we were being constantly approached by black-marketeers who wanted to buy virtually anything we had.  They always recited a standard list: whiskey, cigarettes, radios, jeans, jerrycans and what-have-you?  Whiskey, which is prohibited in this Muslim country, sells on the black market for up to twenty times the price in Europe. Unfortunately we did not bring any but even if we had, we would never have got it through customs at the Algiers port.

Everywhere we went in Algeria, we saw moques.

When we arrived in Africa, we had three batteries, two of which were new and one with about half the life left in it.  We would use the two new ones in the van, one at night to run the lights and water pump leaving the second one fully charged to start the engine in the morning.  If we did not have this back-up battery, we could easily run one flat in an isolated campsite far from the road.  It is a problem which is almost impossible to remedy without the help of another vehicle.

This left us with a third half-used battery surplus to our requirements, and we sold it for a good price to a very eager garage owner.  Harsh import restrictions have starved these people of the essential spare parts they need to operate their rapidly emerging nation.  Such conditions generate a thriving black-market, and it is the middlemen who make all the money.

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

On the way out of town, we were hailed by some boys selling ‘desert roses’.  These beautifully shaped crystalline calcium stones which are found beneath the desert sands, sometime grow to the size of a coconut or more. As their name suggests, the crystals form the shape of the petals of a sand-colored rose.  Looking for them would be a dangerous operation for these boys because the deadly sand vipers have a nasty habit of lying just below the surface of the sand with only the pair of horns protruding.  They are small, the color of sand and move in a peculiar unsnake-like manner involving a wave that passes down the length of the body.  This somehow propels them sideways and leaves a characteristic pattern of parallel lines in the sand to warn the would-be victim. 

Just south of El Golea, the repair gangs had moved in and ripped up the road for many miles across the desert.  No attempt had been made to provide an alternative detour roadway.  Instead we had to drive on the desert beside the road, searching for a way as best we could.

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

Once we were finally back on the road again, we began to climb up through the sand dunes to the Plateau of Tademait which is about 150 km in width.  Up on the plateau, all signs of vegetation of any kind were now gone and in every direction around us was hard, flat stony ground which was as black as asphalt. Each stone was flint grey on the top surface and when picked up, was sand-colored underneath.   Whenever we stopped, we could see the curve of the horizon uninterrupted for the full circle around us. It was like standing on the top of a large beach-ball.

Suddenly, we came to a deserted little tin shack standing all on its own in the middle of this dismal place.  The word Cafe  had been scribbled on its side many years before.  I wondered if any thirst-crazed pilgrims had seen this crude little sign shimmering in the distance and thought that their eyes were playing a cruel trick.

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

The sealed road, our trusty engine, a tank full of petrol and plenty of food and water all combined to give us a false sense of security.  One has to stop and face the harsh truth that here on this hellish plateau, man without his survival equipment is a frail thing indeed.

Although the road was still tar-sealed, it had rapidly deteriorated and was was now very badly pot-holed.  We were reduced to a crawl as we weaved around trying to avoid falling into any of the deeper holes.  It was often unavoidable because the hole took up the whole width of the road.  Then we would stop and in first gear, carefully lower the wheels down into the ditch and climb back out again. 

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

It was easy to see how these holes had developed such elephantine dimensions when several large trans-Saharan trucks driven by maniacal Arab drivers roared past us, their wheels thumbing in and out of the potholes at an incredible rate.  As we slept near the road at night, we were woken by these vehicles torturing every nut and bolt beyond endurance as they crashed on through the night.  To survive in this spare-parts deprived area, these drivers must double as bush mechanics. They replace expensive and probably irreplaceable shock absorbers with large blocks of wood which allow the trucks to keep up this speed on the potholes undeterred by breakdowns. 

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

Another problem seems to lie in the road-building itself.  I cannot profess to be a road engineer but when the road is looked at closely, it is plain that the desert sand and fine gravel form its base.  The desert has simply been scraped flat, and a thin layer of asphalt laid on top.  Now the seal crumbled away like biscuit when touched with a finger.  The Algerian government, in proposing to seal the trans-Sahara route has set itself a mammoth task.  When they spent all this money on roads, they failed to take fully into account the effects of the ruthless Sahara climate and the heavy truck traffic which has developed as a result of the improved road conditions and an expanding economy.  The sad fact is that they are pushing on, having now begun to seal south of Tamanrasset, while behind them the desert is rapidly reclaiming over 1000 km of road that they have not been able to maintain adequately.

When night eventually caught up with us, we were still on the plateau surrounded by the same black stony landscape while the road continued to be incredibly pot-holed.  We had scarcely been out of first gear all day as we inched around these continuous gaping holes in the road, most of them now more than a meter wide.  

We drove out into the desert in search of a nook for a campsite but there was nothing.  All we could do was to park on the stones in the middle of it all.  When the fiery red sun sank away, we were the only blob on the endless 360 degrees of horizon.  It was a bitterly cold night but we were cozy in our New Zealand-made goose-down sleeping bags.  The van was insulated beneath the wooden wall trim; we had seen to that when we built it.  Our foam rubber mattresses, clean sheets and soft pillows gave us all the luxury of home and yet here we were alone in the middle of the vast emptiness of the Sahara.

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

When the sun rose again on the other side of the van, we immediately began to bake beneath its unrelenting rays. We had only an hour’s drive on the plateau before we reached Ain El Hadjadj where the road suddenly plunged down between high granite peaks to another sandy yellow plain at a lower level.  

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

The road was still full of potholes, and in fact it became worse as we crept towards In Salah.  We saw this oasis long before we reached it because the vivid green of its date palms contrasted so starkly with the sandy yellow wastes that encircled it.

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

In Salah means ‘brackish source’ although we found the water available at the garage to be sweet and palatable.  We filled our containers with this precious liquid and took on a lot more petrol.  We had managed the distance from El Golea without using our reserve jerrycan.  However, after some careful calculations using the map and his calculator, Evan decided that we should fill four jerrycans for the stretch ahead. It was nearly 700 km to Tamanrasset and, although our map indicated that there were petrol stations ahead, we could not be sure that these tiny oases would have supplies on hand. 

In Salah is a town of flat red mud-walled houses.  An eternal wind whisks around the streets and endeavors year after year to engulf the town in desert sand.  There were a few sleepy shops but since all the signs were in Arabic, we had to peer into each dark doorway to see what was for sale.  Many of the men wore the traditional full-faced turban of the Touaregs, with only their eyes exposed.  The cloth they used for their clothes was often a deep azure blue, and when the dye tinted their skin, they became known as the ‘blue men’.  The turban is never removed in front of others, even for eating.

On the other hand, the women of In Salah were not as heavily veiled as they had been further north in Algeria.  A young girl of about ten years old spoke to us in French and with a big toothy smile, asked us for writing paper.  We gave her a note-pad in a blue plastic folder and a pen.

“Oh la la!” she exclaimed as she danced off to show her mother who was unveiled and had the same toothy smile as her daughter.

The sand dunes that relentlessly try to engulf In Salah

The potholes continued as we bounced across the forbidding plains that still lacked any form of vegetation.  Every once in a while, we would cross an oued, a dry riverbed with possible subterranean water.  Consequently a few short acacia trees and tufts of dry grass were able to cling to life in these isolated spots.  There was also a creeping melon-type plant on which a magnificent crop of green and yellow striped melons were ripening in the sun. These plants were all growing in extremely poor sandy soil conditions.  They must develop a complex root system which grows deep into the riverbed gravel to tap the underground moisture.  There would be little more than one rainstorm a year, and in times of drought, even that fails to come year after year.  The fierce wind and sand storms that rage for most of the year will tear all but the most tenacious plants out by the roots.  Sand dunes that ‘walk’ across the desert in front of the wind will soon engulf the tiny plants.  Some of the acacia trees have evolved a system of transferring their root system to escape the devastating advance of a dune.

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

We reached Arak gorge in the late afternoon on the same day.  The tiny settlement of Arak stands at the entrance to the gorge.  It consists of a road-workers’ camp and several dilapidated shanty-type shacks.  

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

Once we had passed into the gorge, the tall red cliffs rose breathtakingly around us as we weaved our way through pot-holes down the narrow ravine. The late afternoon sun burnished the rock until it glowed in a kaleidoscope of scarlet, orange and purple. Although the temperatures on this January afternoon were chilly, we could easily imagine that this gorge would be a burning hell-hole in the summer.  

Tall granite cliffs surrounded us on all sides.

The road through the gorge had been built on the riverbed itself, and when the river had flooded, it had been inevitable that the road would be washed away.  Although fairly rare, rain storms in this region can be severe with rushing torrents of water suddenly filling the oueds.  It seemed foolish in the extreme to build a road here, and we could only assume it was done shortsightedly for reasons of economy.  The result was vast washouts where, in some cases, the road had been carried right away.  There had been little effort made to repair the chasms in the road, probably because the repair gangs already knew the futility of it all.  

It is more than a little disconcerting to come round a corner and find, instead of a sealed road, that only a gaping black hole confronts you.  No signpost or barrier warns the motorist, and it was certainly fortunate that the potholes had forced us to travel so slowly.  Since potholes did not slow the Arab truck drivers, they must know the exact location of all these obstacles, especially when they traveled at night.  Rough tracks had been bulldozed around the obstacles but it was not always absolutely clear just where we were expected to go.  We suspect the road-maker had left this ambiguous because he was not too sure himself.

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

In the valley, there were trees and a few dense thorn bushes which made a pleasant change from the desolate expanses that we had camped on for the previous few nights. The valley floor was covered in loose sand, and while searching for a camp-site, we became slightly bogged.  By this time, we were so tired that we decided this had to be a problem for the morning.  As the orange sun sank down behind the cliffs, the cold desert wind soon had us looking for our woolen jerseys.

We began the nightly ritual, unloading jerrycans, tyres, water containers and sand-ladders so that I could access the kitchen area to prepare a meal.  To avoid accidents, we never lit the gas-cooker inside the van when the jerrycans of petrol were also there.  Burnt-out hulks of numerous Kombies lying in the desert had already convinced us of the foolhardiness of this practice. Far from civilization, as we now were, was no place to have the van burn out.  

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

Because it had been many days since we had been in Ghardaia and able to buy any fresh vegetables, we were by now relying almost entirely on rice and tinned meat.  We were dining on this humble fare and trying not to think too much about fresh salads or roast beef when a young Touareg girl appeared from behind a bush.  She was dressed in rags and was dragging a large piece of corrugated iron behind her.  She, like us, had thought this place was deserted and was too frightened to approach us when we waved.

We were joined later by a French couple who were driving their Peugeot 504 saloon car to Upper Volta.  They were sleeping in their car and camped near us that night.  Before going to bed, Evan had to load the jerrycans and other equipment into the front cab area to prevent them from being carried off by scavengers.  The next morning, before we could begin cooking our breakfast, all the equipment was stacked back on the sand again.  Once we had eaten and washed up, we stowed it all in the back.  It was heavy work, and care was required to pack them in so that they would not bounce loose on the rough track. 

The stars in the Sahara were amazing. I do not know whether it was because we were at a high altitude, or the air was clear, or both but the sky is a carpet of stars so dense, its difficult to tell one from another, let alone pick out any familiar patterns. The old “porridge pot” stood out because the stars making it up are much larger and brighter than the myriad of dots behind them. No doubt that’s why we can see it through all the murk and smog we usually have to look through.

It took us about ten minutes to extricate ourselves from the sand we had camped in.  We were just reloading the sand mats when trucks, vans and cars suddenly converged on our peaceful valley from every direction. There were several more Frenchmen with Peugeot saloon cars, another VW Kombie and some Algerian trucks.  An articulated lorry came towards us from the back of the valley, far from the road. The driver obviously knew what lay ahead and had found his own route around it.  

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

Soon we were all standing despondently around the patch of road ahead.  It was a  hill of sand over which the road passed in a series of ruts cut deep into the soft surface. On the other side of this, there was a good section of road which had been blasted into the rock of the cliff face and would at last take us out of the oued. But the cliff had caught the whirling sand at its base, leaving us with this deep patch to negotiate before we could reach that beautiful road ahead.

We all walked along the cliff base to where the tracks indicated that other drivers had ventured across.  However, the general (very international) consensus of opinion was that this was worse than the first place we had looked at.  Because on the previous evening, our van had become bogged on a relatively firm surface at the campsite, Evan and I were very apprehensive about going through this lot.

While I stood on the side of the road and watched, Evan backed the van up the road for some distance.  He then approached the sand-pit at about 40 mph in second gear and, without hesitating, drove headlong into the sand.  When the front wheels hit the first hole, they thumped down into it, flinging the van skywards.  Then the back wheels went down into the same hole, bucking the van violently while Evan continued to grip the steering wheel like a determined cowboy mounted on a very reluctant broncho. Heedless to the pitching van, he pushed the accelerator pedal to the floor but the soft deep sand dragging on the underside of the van slowed it down rapidly.  However the extra momentum at the beginning was just enough to carry the van through, and it struggled slowly out at the other end.  Evan’s long experience with driving his old Austen 7 on the sands of the Papamoa Beach in his hometown in New Zealand had certainly paid off.  

We were relieved that we had successfully negotiated our first major obstacle.  For a long time now, we had worried that perhaps the Kombie would baulk at the first sign of adversity but here, with road conditions worse than we had ever imagined, she had not let us down.  However we did wonder just how much of this kind of treatment she would be able to stand up to.

We did not have long to relax because at the top of the hill, the road had been washed out on both sides so that it was narrowed down to a width of just a few meters. The alternate track was through another mire of sand.  After careful measurements showed that the road was just wide enough to take the Kombie, we drove gingerly towards it.  With Evan still at the wheel, I was outside to check that the wheels did stay on hard ground, knowing that one false move would topple the van over the cliff which was almost has high as the van itself on either side.  I called Evan forward and, inch by inch, we reached the other end safely. We knew we were lucky that the sheer edges of the washout had held and not collapsed under the weight of the van.

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

Later, as the van picked up speed, we noticed a terrible scraping noise in the front wheels. While all the other vehicles went on past us, Evan had to take off both front wheels to remove stones from the brake discs.  An Arab truck driver kindly stopped to offer help.  When we assured him that all was well, he started on his usual list of jeans, jerrycans, whiskey etc that he wanted to buy from us.

We were on a higher level now but were still slowed by potholes, washouts and make-shift deviations. There were some high peaks in the distance, our first view of the Hoggar Mountains, although the road was to take us through a sandy region between them.

There were some high peaks in the distance, although the road would take us through a sandy region between them.

Much later, we slowly approached In Ecker, the site of the French nuclear tests in the 1950s. The resulting debris was scattered for miles over the desert: rolls of barbed wire, empty oil drums, the remains of several large buildings and a large concrete structure built in a granite inselberg, probably a radiation-proof shelter.  And yet all this can be only a mere fraction of what was originally abandoned. For almost 30 years, useful pieces have been carried off by truck drivers and desert nomads, as well as people living in the nearby village.  This was no doubt where the Touareg girl we had seen the night before had obtained her large sheet of corrugated iron.

Bearing in mind the state of the ‘art’ in the 1950’s, one wonders just how safe it all is. How many houses in the area have been built with radioactive materials from this site?  This act must have been one of the last great atrocities that the French committed against the people of the Sahara.  After they left here, the French began to do the same thing to the people of the south Pacific, including our home in New Zealand. 

When we stopped in the village of In Ecker, we found that there was petrol available, despite our fears.  Beside the cluster of mud-walled huts was a small café built in the shantytown shack design, probably using material from the nuclear test site.  There was also an old S.A.T.T. rest-house that was well preserved and now being used by the Algerian Army.  It had an outer compound wall with corner watch towers and a wide-verandahed house in the middle. 

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

In the book DESERT TAXI written by Michael Marriott in 1953, this outpost was already abandoned:

We pull up at some dilapidated mud buildings. They are surrounded by a high wall to keep out the wind. We had arrived at a S.A.T.T. rest-house called Iniker. Inside the mud walls, we find a compound with a central octagonal building of mud and thatch. There are several gaping holes in the walls and daylight streams through, lighting up a sandy floor and one rickety table with three legs. Close by is a row of ‘bedrooms’, completely bare, with doors open and sagging sadly from their hinges. The roof is of corrugated iron, and seems more serviceable than the centre building. We appear to have the place to ourselves. Most importantly, there is a well with a rope already attached. We shall have a pleasant stay here.

S.A.T.T Bus-truck 1930s

S.A.T.T. stands for the Société Algerienne des Transports Tropicaux, a private transport company offering a trans-Saharan bus and truck service from 1933 to 1952. They ran between Algiers and Kano during the winter months and had converted these outposts into rest-houses along their route. Later the company was called Société Africains des Transports Tropicaux. Even in the heyday of S.A.T.T, their rest-houses were often unfurnished, and the passengers slept huddled together on the floor.

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

We saw a number of these abandoned and derelict out-posts throughout the Sahara and many were initially built and occupied by the French Foreign Legion. The compound walls were hollow where doors led into the barrack rooms where the legionaires slept on iron bedsteads. 

French Foreign Legion Troops circa 1920

The Legionaires were foreign volunteers in the pay of France. Amongst their ranks were fugitives in hiding from police, victims of vendettas, noblemen living under assumed names, hotheads in search of adventure and many other misfits of society.  The officers were mostly French citizens but the legionaires, after serving for five years, became eligible for French citizenship.  Since its foundation in 1831, this highly disciplined professional army has been in almost continual combat.  It is said that there is scarcely a valley, mountain, gorge or oasis in North Africa where bodies of legionaires do not lie. As well as fierce fighting to subdue the native tribes, they also built roads, bridges, forts and towns.  However more legionaires died of heat, exhaustion and dysentery than at the tribesmen’s hands.

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

There is a story that in 1900, the Legion went on a route march in the area of El Golea, Ghardaia and Lagouat, the area we had just come through.  They covered 1140 miles in 72 days, an average of 16 miles a day. This march was through hostile country, and there was a daily risk of attack.  There was no accurate information available about the locations of wells and waterholes.  The men, wearing thick woolen uniforms, floundered on through deep sands while temperatures soared above 40 degrees C.  The Touareg, mounted on their racing camels, tormented the men beyond endurance. They would range ahead and fill the wells with sand so that the weary Legion would face another thirsty trek to find water before they could rest.  Any legionnaire who could not keep up was left to die in the desert.

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

Another 70 km of potholes brought us to In Amguel where we were pursued by a crowd of young boys pestering us for bonbons and, less optimistically, jeans.  Their domain was yet another collection of squat red mud-walled huts surrounded by a small date palmerie.  

In Amguel
In Amguel

Just past the village, there has been a new track made beside the road to provide an alternative to the potholes.  This track was not sealed and consequently had become badly corrugated. These parallel waves on the road surface look like corrugated iron and are caused by vehicles bouncing at speed on the fine gravel or sand.  The corrugations do not slow the overloaded trucks any more than potholes do.  In fact, many of them have modified suspension so that the wheels tramp in pairs in the hollows to allow them to travel faster. At the same time, their speed and weight digs the corrugations deeper.

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

Experts writing in desert travel books we had read advise that you should travel fast on corrugations so that the wheels fly from the top of each wave without going down into the troughs between.  Since we were well versed in all this advice, we decided to give it a try.  We went faster and faster until the van rattled like the workings of a rock-crusher.  The whole structure of the van seemed destined to fly apart as we thumped down and back up each corrugation.  We clung grimly on and pushed the van still faster, determined that we must eventually reach the critical speed when we would be traveling on a cushion of air.  

We were hurtling along at maximum speed when the inevitable grinding sound came from the front suspension.  We had broken a rubber bush on the front suspension, and we would be going no further until Evan could repair it.  On closer examination, he found that we had also cracked the front axle (although he was not to tell me about that until we were on the other side of the Sahara, for fear I would want to go directly back to Europe.)

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

The problem with the theory of flying on air is that the corrugations have been created by 40 tonne trucks.  Their wheels tramp at a different resonant frequency to a three tonne van, and consequently, no matter how fast we traveled, we always landed in the holes.  It seems we had no alternative but to bump our way painfully over each wave at a walking pace.

Fortunately, Evan had two more rubber bushes for the suspension in his stock of supplies he had brought with him.  Both were second-hand and not in very good condition but they at least offered us some chance of covering the 100 km to Tamanrasset.  Just as the sun sank down over the distant Hoggar mountains, we were still parked on the side of the road where Evan was fitting on the best of the two rubber bushes. It had been a long and tiring day.

Our campsite with the Hoggar Mountains in the distance.

It was well after dark before we were mobile again and searching for a camping-place off the road. When the new track had been bulldozed beside the old one, the desert sand had been merely scraped to one side, forming a high barrier of sand down each side of the road.  There was no verge, no tracks leading off and consequently we appeared to be trapped on the road in the dark.  

After about an hour, we came to a connecting track which led us back onto the old pot-holed road still running parallel.  We thought we would be undisturbed camping beside this road but some time later, it became apparent that both roads were operational, with drivers of light vehicles preferring to dodge potholes on the old road.  We were camped right beside the road since it had been too risky to drive far off in the dark.  At this stage, we were too tired to care, and we crawled into our sleeping bags as soon as we had had something to eat.

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

Here is an extract from a letter I wrote to my parents in New Zealand that night:

21 January 1982: Words fail me when I try to explain what we have seen and done in the last two days. Today was an experience for sure.. We will be in Tamanrasset soon, where I hope to find a post office so I will scribble a few lines to you for posting. We are both dead tired and a little discouraged. Our van is certainly too heavy because today we hit our first wash-board corrugations. After 20 km of that, we broke a rubber bush on the front suspension. Evan has two more but both are second hand and not in very good condition. It’s impossible to travel without these little rubber bushes in place in the suspension. We are going to have to buy some in Tamanrasset but do not hold out much hope that they will have any. Our hearts sink when we realise that we will not be able to leave Tamanrasset without them.

This morning was exciting from the very beginning. We had travelled 100 miles or more for the previous two days over dead flat plateau with nothing to see but stony black expanses as far as the eye could see. So you can imagine, it was marvellous to find ourselves in towering red granite peaks and we found a place to camp soon after that. A French couple in a Peugeot saloon car joined us later. They were going to Upper Volta, as they all are, to sell their Peugeot 404 and 504 saloon cars for a quick profit and return to France by air. They drive at top speed in great swarms across the desert.

We had got ourselves stuck finding a camp off the road but decided to just leave it until the morning. This morning we took about ten minutes to get unstuck using our trusty sand-ladders. No sooner had we finished when trucks and cars converged from nowhere into our peaceful valley.

Ahead was the worst bit of the road so far. The road has been under-mined and washed out all through mountains because they insist on building them in river valleys with no proper foundations. Inevitably there are floods in the dry riverbeds when the torrents of water and strong winds eat away the sand from under the tar-seal until the road just collapses. No-one comes to repair the road so everyone just has find a way across the rock and sand, to get around the great chasm in the road.

Where we had camped last night, there was a bad patch just ahead and the sand ruts were a foot or more deep. There were half a dozen French Peugeot saloon cars there, another VW van and a couple of Arab trucks. (The drivers of these trucks, when questioned, were usually Touareg or from a variety of other Muslim nations.) We all took it in turn to race though the huge dry sand mounds ahead of us. All made it without stopping but we got stones in both front tyres. Stopping to remove them slowed us up so we did not keep up with the bunch, although we passed some of them later, at lunch time.

The road deviated around chasms like that about a dozen times but we had no more real trouble. Then just when I had started to drive, we hit a road full of pot holes in old tar-seal, huge potholes like you would never believe, running one into the other. We travelled at 10 m.p.h. in first gear for at least another 100km, a slow grind indeed.

All day, we had driven through these huge mountains and rock piles, with no vegetation except a few scrubby bushes here and there in some of the oueds (empty river beds). A town consisting of a few mud huts (no petrol) came along about every 200km or so. We started from Ghardaia with 4 jerrycans of spare petrol, and we now have one left so have plenty to get to Tamanrasset tomorrow. Evan had made very careful calculations in Ghardaia to ensure that this would be so.

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

The rubber bushes worked well as next morning, we crept along the old road dodging potholes. There was only 60 kms to cover before we reached Tamanrasset but the road was still full of pot holes and in first gear, would take us half a day.  Two couples riding pillion on two motor bikes roared past us with a cheery wave.  Having only one set of wheels, they were able to weave around the holes and stay mostly on a firm surface.  We, on the other hand, were dropping into a deep hole at least every car length.

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

We spotted the wreck of a late model Peugeot 504 car upside-down on the side of the road. There were several local trucks parked beside it, with the drivers busily stripping the vehicle of spare parts, like vultures on a carcass.  They told us that it had been there only four days and yet now all that remained was the shell.  Such are the perils of abandoning a vehicle in the desert, and it is possible that the owner had left it merely to obtain an essential spare part in Tamanrasset or to be taken off to hospital after an accident.  Since it would appear that life here was a matter of ‘survival of the fittest’,  Evan also joined the vultures and found that the rubber bushes on the suspension were still there, intact and best of all would fit the VW with minimal modification. It was a relief to us to have some spares to take along with us. 

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

For centuries, travellers have paused in the desert city of Tamanrasset to replenish their supplies.  Unlike in the days of old, we had followed a sealed road thus far, and although at times, we had cursed the bad road conditions, we at least had never been in danger of being lost, provided we stayed on the road.  Only a few years ago, travellers were driving on unmarked desert between Ghardaia and Tamanrasset.  In those days, Tamanrasset had been a half-way staging-post while now it is the starting point for those embarking on real desert travel. 

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


This book is dedicated to my husband Evan who somehow gave me the courage to accompany him from one end of Africa to the other. His superb technical skills in driving and keeping our van mechanically sound was the key to our progress through the endless sands, jungles and bogs of Africa. 

This book is also in memory of Katy, our brave little 1974 Volkswagen Kombie campervan, registration number (GB) KTY494P. Despite her lack of 4-wheel drive and being grossly overloaded, she had the uncanny knack of rising up and over the deepest hole, the softest sand, the stickiest mud or the steepest incline like a ship rising above a wave. It broke our hearts after eight years of adventures with Katy to sell her and say goodbye.  

It is also dedicated to Johanna and Jürg, those other ‘crazy’ tourists who taught us so much about travel in Africa. This book has come about as the result of a reunion between Evan, Kae, Johanna and Jürg on a Swiss mountainside in August 2003, twenty years after we had first met beside a beautiful waterfall in the middle of Central African Republic in 1982.

And mostly it is dedicated to our son Craig in the hope that it will inspire him, not only to dream impossible dreams, but to actively and relentlessly carry them through.  In this way, and only in this way, will he be able to say at the end:

“I made the most of my life.” 

Kae Lewis              

Evan, Craig and Kae Lewis 1993, California USA

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