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.
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.
I had not even contemplated travelling the world until Kae and I went on our first date to a Chinese restaurant in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1969, when Kae opened my eyes to the possibilities as she outlined her ideas and dreams. At the time Kae was 18, and I was 19, and we were married a few years later. We both knew that, before contemplating an extensive trip, we had to complete our education first. It was 1977, after we had both graduated from the University of Canterbury with science degrees, and I had completed my M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in Biochemistry, that we finally left our New Zealand homeland to backpack through Asia to England.
This blog is based on diaries Kae kept during the journey, and letters we wrote to our parents in New Zealand. The letters were mailed to family members who then kept them for our records. My contribution to the journey was mainly to drive, to keep the vehicle on track and to take photos, although we took turns with the camera. Kae concentrated on food supplies and cooking, navigating and dealing with the mountains of paper work such as the passports, visas, Carnet de Passage, insurance and much more. Without her enthusiasm for travel, perseverance and determination to make it work, none of this would have happened.
I kept a log book of technical details before, during and after the journey and will use that to write a few notes. Readers who aren’t interested in technical details may want to skip over some of my ramblings, but keeping the vehicle going was a major concern!
Our Katy (as we affectionately named the Volkswagen Kombie campervan, based on her licence plate KTY494P) performed remarkably well and literally took us around the world. We lived in her for a total of two years over the eight years we owned her.
We were living in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in the north of England near the Scottish border from 1977 until February 1980. We were working at the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, both of us were involved with research into various aspects of renal dialysis when one of our Newcastle friends gave us a book called “Desert Taxi”. Her inscription in the book reads:
“To Evan and Kae, Good Luck and my admiration.”
Hearing our stories and plans, our British co-workers already thought we were completely crazy Kiwis and could hardly believe we were even considering going to darkest Africa. But here was one lady who had confidence in us.
The book is about a couple who travelled across the Sahara Desert in the 1950’s in an old London Taxi. After we had read it, we thought,
“If they could do it, we can do it too”.
Mind you, they nearly perished in the process. However, for me, that was the moment that the possibility of going to Africa really became a reality. However, it was to be three years later before we were to set foot and tires on African sand and soil.
Why did we choose a VW? Well we did look at other options. We were not looking for a London Taxi, and could not afford a reliable Land Rover with its four-wheel-drive. Then we found a newspaper advertisement for a large second hand Mercedes Benz camper which seemed ideal. The ad said it had some body damage, the price was great, but it was located in Kent. Neither of us were able to take any time off work, and so we drove the whole length of England and back, a total of 700 miles, in two days. Unfortunately, we found that the Mercedes had too much damage for us to be able to repair it.
Then we looked at a VW Kombie van that had been owned by an Indian restaurant. It smelled so strongly of curry that we thought we would never get rid of the smell. We often laughed about the curry wagon we nearly bought. Finally we found Katy and fell in love. She was a 4 year old VW Kombie that had been used as a meat delivery van, meaning there were no interior camper fittings. We bought her on the eighth of February 1979.
So, why a VW? They were in common use in most African and European countries at the time. This meant that new or used parts were reasonably priced and readily available everywhere. The VW Kombie design has some interesting and almost unique design features.
The engine is small at 1600cc, which means it is a bit underpowered, but on the other hand, it does not take a lot of space and is quite economical. It is a rear-mounted, flat horizontal four-cylinder engine designed originally by Porsche. Being air-cooled, like a small motorcycle, you don’t have to carry water for a radiator, nor worry about leaks or boiling. The London Taxi story was full of problems caused by the radiator leaking and using up their precious drinking water supply in the Sahara Desert. These VW engines can overheat, and it was difficult to monitor the temperature, so I replaced the dipstick with an oil temperature gauge and watched it like a hawk. It had a manual 4 speed gear box operated by mechanical linkages from the floor mounted gear lever.
The suspension is also interesting and played a significant role in our travels. Both the Kombie van and VW Beetle car use torsion bar independent suspension. This consists of two suspension assemblies bolted to the chassis – one for the front suspension and one for the rear. Each assembly consists of two large steel tubes about 3 inches diameter (8cm) running across the width of the vehicle. Inside each tube is a steel torsion bar. One end is connected to the inside of the tube and the other end to a drop-arm with the wheel mounted on its bearings. When the vehicle is lowered to the ground, the drop-arm rotates and the torsion bar twists like a spring producing enough force to hold up the vehicle. While travelling over rough ground, the wheel moves up and down, causing the torsion bar to twist. The tension in the rear suspension can be adjusted which has the effect of raising or lowering the vehicle.
This suspension has a huge advantage over the conventional straight axle used on nearly all vehicles of that era, and many vehicles even today, generally only providing about 6 to 9 inches (15 to 22 cm) of ground clearance in the middle of the back axel. The torsion bar system has considerably greater ground clearance and performed incredibly well in deep sand ruts where the wheels could drop down deep into the ruts without dragging in the sand. This compensated for the lack of four-wheel drive (4WD) but more about that later.
It had hydraulic disc brakes on the front wheels and hydraulic drum brakes on the back, with cables for the hand brake. The clutch and accelerator pedal were mechanical, operated by long cables going from the cab to the engine and transmission unit at the back. The steering was mechanical, with no power-steering. Katy lacked air conditioning but we were not used to using AC and found in Asia that going from cold to hot locations made us feel sick. In addition, AC would only burn extra fuel. There was no radio but that was no real concern as we had our portable radio with shortwave bands so that we could to listen to the BBC World Service. Now all we had to do was convert it into a camper.
The Sahara Hand Book by Simon and Jan Glen, which Kae mentioned, was the best source of information about desert travel that we had. They had used a two-wheel-drive VW Type 2 bus, just like ours and provided a lot of useful advice. I was able to implement many of their suggestions, such as an oil bath air filter, while some were too expensive for us, such as a limited slip differential and electric winch.
My personal log book includes an amazing array of plans and preparation for the trip to Africa, and we will not be able to mention them all. There is another book full of proposed budgets, distances, fuel consumption and costs, ferry and border fees, for many alternative routes and much more.
At the time we left for Africa in 1981, the Volkswagen Company had completely scrapped the whole design of the Types 1 and 2 VW Kombie and changed to a water-cooled engine with conventional wishbone coil spring suspension. What a shame that they became just like any other brand. The die-hard VW enthusiasts were disgusted. The VWs are now made with 4WD but the great torsion bar suspension never returned. The newer models can be recognized by the rectangular corners which replaced Katy’s elegant curves.
The key to trans-African travel for us was Zaire. (Today it is called the Democratic Republic of Congo but for us, in 1982, it was Zaire.) This country is so large and occupies such a central position on the map of Africa, that to try to plan a route around it is almost impossible. There was a route passing through Chad but we had been told at the time that this is definitely the worst road in Africa, and like most others in central Africa, would be closed during that April to November rainy season as well. To add to the difficulties, the newspapers at the time were full of stories of Colonel Gaddafi’s relentless move southwards into Chad and the continuing civil war. The Chad embassy in Paris was understandably not issuing visas for tourists either.
At this stage, the jungles of Zaire seemed to be the obstacle in our path but all we could do was plan to be there at a time when the elements would not be working against us and hope for a more stable political situation. Many previous expeditions had foundered here because the Zaire Government had a tendency to close the border at short notice. In any event, when we enquired at a Zaire Embassy in Europe about the possibilities of trans-Zaire travel, we were told that all borders are closed at all times and the only entry port is via Kinshasa airport. This is the kind of obstacle that douses the hopes of even the most determined traveller.
In the following months of 1981, using often sketchy newspaper reports, we attempted to piece together information about the political climate of all the countries we intended passing through. We felt this was important, to avoid blundering into an out-of-control situation. At the time, we knew that these can flare up overnight as some would-be empire-builder touches his torch to the tinder dry chaos that is the everyday state throughout most of Africa. However, we could try to be aware of the possibilities, which at the time seemed to be a reasonable approach. However, with hindsight, we realise that no Westerner reading his newspaper can possibly understand all the undercurrents, crosscurrents and outright torrential floods which make up life on the African scene.
We had already owned a 1974 Volkswagen Kombi campervan for several years and had had the inside fitted to make a tiny living space for two. We had spent seven months the previous summer circling around the European side of the Mediterranean from Spain and Portugal through France, Italy and the Balkans to Greece. During this time, we had come to love the van and the life she allowed us to lead. We camped high on the bald rocks of the Pyrenees mountains and amongst the cork plantations of Portugal, on the cliffs and beaches of the broody blue Mediterranean or on the edges of timeless Greek villages with the tangy scents of wild thyme drifting in the door. We camped in the hills and passed an hour with an old goatherd or in the yard of a tiny white-washed Greek Orthodox chapel, built for whom? . . . by whom? . . . for it had stood alone in the solitary hills for generations. We camped deep in the forests beneath the majestic red cliffs of the Dolomites in Italy, among the apple trees of an ancient French farmyard, and in the green mountain pastures of the Swiss Alps, listening to the tinkle of cowbells as we ate our evening meals. It was little wonder that we were now making plans to start a journey which would allow us to camp endlessly in the wild once more.
The first important decision to be made was whether to use the Kombie for Africa. The alternative was to buy a four-wheel drive vehicle, like a Landrover, which would presumably be able to handle the bad roads more successfully. However this would mean that we would be sleeping in a tent each night, and this rather daunting prospect quickly tipped the balance back to taking the Kombie. Besides, she, our Katy, was like home to us. We had already owned her since 1978 and lived in her on the road with no other home for nearly a year. We felt we knew Katy well enough to know she would give of her best. The big advantage was that we were already well aware of where her weaknesses lay and could attend to them before setting out.
We had already spent a good deal of time and thought in designing the interior of the van the previous year, before our trip through Europe and while we were living in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in northern England. Evan had cut away most of the solid floor-to-ceiling steel wall that separated the front cab from the back of what had originally been a delivery van when we bought it in 1979. This left enough steel wall on each side to support the new front seats but opened up the entire van as one space and left us with an access hatch so that we could move forward and jump into the front driving seats without going outside.
The original delivery van had a hard bench 3-person seat across the front cab. Evan removed this and utilized the space to make a large water storage tank. He welded thick sheets of PVC plastic into a tank with very odd shapes to make use of every available space under the seats for water storage. Once it was complete and no longer leaking, he mounted two very comfortable bucket seats, second-hand from a Fiat car, on top. I sewed tough new woven fabric seat covers which would not heat up in the sun or become sticky like a plastic one would.
We had a carpenter who specialised in camper conversions fit the rear with a comfortable bed which folded up into a seat during the day. We had a tiny cooker with two propane top burners, a grill and an oven. Running along beside the stove was a work bench and tiny sink with running cold water coming up from the sixty litre storage tank under the front seats. In a side compartment, we had enough bottled propane gas to last us about five months. I sewed fabric covers for the bed and thick curtains, including mosquito nets.
There was about one square metre of standing space in front of the cooker and sink bench. Many people would feel cramped in such a tiny space but we found this unimportant when we had a grand dining room and living room always just where we chose and decorated to perfection by Mother Nature herself.
We had designed the van to have plenty of storage areas, because, even when we built it back in 1979, we had planned to take the van on long safaris. The bed base lifted up, and there was a large storage compartment underneath. As well, we had fitted a fixed high fiberglass roof so that there was a circle of storage cupboards above our heads. This had the advantage that there was headroom in front of the sink bench so we could stand in front of it without the necessity of raising a pop-top roof. All this original part of the van, which we had used in 1980 to tour of Europe, was now very familiar and homey to us and needed very little work doing on it.
Evan was excited by the technical challenge of coaxing a standard two-wheel-drive vehicle across the African continent. He has always been an enthusiastic amateur mechanic who had grown up in a small town called Te Puke in New Zealand where his father was the local High School engineering and mechanics teacher. When he was a teenager, Evan had worked with his father on many engineering projects at home, including the complete restoration of a vintage 1935 Austin 7 car. This had taught him all the mechanical skills that were to stand him in good stead in Africa.
During each and every spare weekend during 1981 in Ulm, southern Germany, Evan prised off every nut, bolt and moving mechanical part on the van. In most cases, he replaced all the vulnerable parts, packing the old original part amongst our ever-growing pile of equipment to take with us. We could not afford to buy too many new spares to take with us but in many cases, the original still had plenty of life left in it. As it was, our spare cash was all disappearing into the local VW agency who must have wondered why our van needed so many repairs, and why we did not just give up on it.
Evan and I did not speak much German. We had had four months of full-immersion instruction in the German language at the Goethe Language Institute the previous year, followed by a year of living and working in Ulm. This meant that everything we needed to buy was obtained with great difficulty using very basic German, our trusty dictionary and punctuated with exuberant sign language. This situation was not helped by the fact that much of what we needed to buy for a long-term expedition was not your every-day supplies. Evan had to learn all the German jargon for car parts and vehicle maintenance. Trying to explain our particular requirements to baffled German shopkeepers and car-parts dealers certainly taxed our poor abilities with the German language to their fullest.
For about 18 months, our neighbours in the immaculate streets of Erbach, near Ulm, bore with us as Evan clanged and banged at rusted suspension bolts well into the night, spreading his greasy tools in front of our house and onto the footpath. They called him the ‘black devil’ (‘Schwarzer Teufel‘) because as they strolled past taking their Sunday constitutional, they invariably saw him covered in grease peering from under the van.
Evan replaced the engine with a factory-reconditioned ‘short block’, just to give us that extra margin of safety. With the help of our kindly neighbour, Herr Wilderotter, he welded on some strengthening to the chassis and fitted a thick stainless steel plate over the gearbox to protect it should the vehicle ground underneath. Other standard VW plates were obtained from wrecked vehicles and bolted under the long steel girders of the chassis. This left a convenient space where long heavy spare parts were secured with U-Bolts. These parts included axels, springs, constant velocity joints and shock absorbers. He constructed another steel chamber in the rear engine compartment for small heavy parts.
There are in fact several manuals which instructed the amateur expeditioner in matters mechanical, and Evan knew their contents almost by heart. He often had to weight the merits of their excellent advice with the size of our ever-diminishing bank balance and try to find a compromise. At the end of that summer, we really felt that the van could face anything put in front of it. Little did we know what that would be.
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: