The road southwards for the first 40 miles was newly sealed and in beautiful condition but all too soon we came to the place where the Algerian Army were hard at work rebuilding the road. They seemed to have learnt from their past mistakes and were building a high base of coarse shingle above the desert floor on which to lay the seal. Meanwhile we found ourselves unceremoniously launched onto a rough track which followed the partially completed road for many miles.
We left the Hoggar Mountains behind us and began to follow the Oued Tin Amzi. Soon we were driving on pistefor the first time. Piste is a French word used to describe a desert track which has never been bulldozed. Instead there are the tyre tracks of other vehicles across the sand, and you must assume that these vehicles have been traveling to the same destination as you yourself wish to go. This method of desert navigation works only until the next sandstorm when sand could blow across the tracks and completely obliterate them. We did see a few marker posts here and there but there were long stretches with nothing at all.
The confusion of wheel tracks can spread out across the desert for several kilometers as thousands of drivers have each chosen a route which they feel will get them round the obstacle ahead. There is a feeling that nothing could be worse than the sand seen directly ahead, with each vehicle driving further out across the desert. Large sand dunes or rocky outcrops are the only features that limit this spread.
The piste was very sandy, and it was not long before we were stuck in the middle of a large patch of sand. It was so common for a car to be stuck in sand in the Sahara that the locals have a name for it: ensablement. We had been traveling quite fast as we had learnt to do in the Arak gorge but this patch had defeated us. The drag of sand on the underside of the van had gradually slowed us down until we had come to a halt and sunk down into it.
We discovered it was important not to rev the engine and spin the tyres in an effort to get out. The wheels only sink further into the sand, requiring more digging to extract them. By immediately stopping the wheels from turning when we got stuck, we found we were still virtually sitting on top of the sand with a small mound of sand in front of each wheel. After shoveling this aside, we placed the aluminium sand-ladders in front of the back wheels. We had two stretches of old rubberized conveyor-belt about 4 meters long which we laid before the front wheels. This gave us a short length of solid surface on to which we could drive, picking up speed before launching once more onto the sand. This extra speed usually (but not always) prevented us from sinking immediately, and thus we could reach solid ground. Then came the hard work of dragging the heavy equipment back to the van.
Evan decided to let some of the air out of the tires because the low pressure allows them to float on top of the sand more easily. While we were working on these tasks, four Peugeot 404 saloon cars sped through the sand beside us, going about 60 m.p.h. by our estimate. One of the cars was being driven by a girl who struggled to control the wildly vibrating steering wheel. It was rattling her whole body as though she were in the grip of a giant pneumatic drill.
There are often deep holes in the sand dug by an unfortunate traveler whose wheels have sunk deep into the sand. As he shovels his way out, he leaves a mound of sand beside his pit. If a Peugeot car traveling at the speed of the four we saw hits the mound with one wheel and the pit with the other, it usually overturns. Many of these wrecks burn out, probably caused by carrying spare petrol in plastic containers that leak. When the petrol heats up in the back of the car, there is no expansion space or extra wall strengthening, and the petrol explodes. We saw many wrecks of Peugeot 404 saloon cars along the desert trail.
The piste continued to be alternately sandy and then stony or corrugated, necessitating fast changes in driving tactics. We were continually on the watch for rocks or holes, especially when we were traveling fast. If we saw them in time, we were able to slow down which usually meant that we were immediately stuck in the sand. Alternatively we sometimes hit these obstacles when traveling too fast to see them in time. The van would leap wildly about, and it was only our seatbelts that prevented us from being thrown from our seats. We had to be careful because with our tyres let down to a very low pressure, a sharp rock could easily rip a hole in the sidewalls which are the weak points of radial tyres.
There was also the danger of deep ruts in the sand caused by large trucks going through. The high center between the ruts would hit the underneath of the van until we were virtually ploughing it down to our level. The drag would eventually bring us to a halt, stuck once more in the sand. The underside of the engine (at the rear of the van) was fully exposed to allow cooling, and so a large rock hidden in the sand could damage the engine permanently. Although there was a guard protecting the underside in the front of the van, it was already very battered, and Evan had to bang it back into shape and retie it on with string every day.
Evan, who had been driving through all this, had to make many quick decisions about the speed to travel on the holes and ruts immediately in front of him. While he concentrated on this, I searched ahead on each side of us to see if there was a better way round an obstacle ahead. Often the best policy was to drive on the left (eastern) side of a sandy area because the wind was coming from this direction, blowing the sand away. However there was often no choice because large rocks or other obstacles had forced all the vehicles into a narrow sandy chasm. Then I was forced to lead Evan straight through the middle of a huge mound of sand. In these cases, we would often stop to survey the situation on foot first but would eventually launch ourselves in, sure that this patch would soon ensnare us in its clutches. The faithful VW motor would give a throaty roar as it worked to full capacity to push us through, and against all odds, we would make it to the other side.
Sometimes the tracks of a lone truck would lead off into virgin sand, and hoping to learn from these professional desert drivers, we would confidently follow them. However we would have to be wary that he was staying parallel to the rest of the piste, not wanting to be led off to some lonely oasis that he might be heading to. Eventually we would lose his tracks as, thankfully, he led us back on to the piste again.
Later that same day, we met some Swedes, two boys and a girl riding two huge motorbikes. The bike with the girl riding pillion pitched over while they were bumping through the sand beside us. When we stopped to check that they were unhurt, they nonchalantly explained that this was a frequent occurrence for them. Their bikes were fully laden with equipment but even so, they had been able to bring only five liters of water which had heated up in the sun. With their mouths full of sand, they each gratefully accepted a drink from our bounteous supply of cool mineral water from ‘The Source’.
They had enough petrol to reach In Guezzam, at the border with Niger, and were relying on buying more there. We had been warned by the Germans we met at ‘The Source’ that there was no petrol at In Guezzam and had therefore taken on enough to reach Arlit in Niger. The motorcyclists were not pleased to hear our gossip and no doubt hoped we were wrong. However when we reached In Guezzam later the next day, there was still no petrol available. We were traveling faster than them and did not see them again.
The temperatures were still moderate. We did not have a thermometer but were around 20 – 25 degrees C. The sun shining into the cab was hot but outside in the cool air, we often needed woolen jerseys. We were stuck for a second time before the end of that day. The sand seemed to be thicker, and the patches closer together as we went. The sun began to sink in a blaze of orange, and we looked for a campsite.
The piste was very wide at this point. We drove off to look for a campsite, but soon discovered that we could not drive off the piste where other vehicles were driving without getting bogged in more sand. Of course we also knew it was no use looking for a caravan park with the trees, hot showers and spa pool in this deserted and isolated spot. Eventually we found a giant rock planted in the sand and parked behind it. The piste passed on both sides, and several trucks rattled by in the night.
We were not able to use our precious water for washing off the dust with which we were liberally coated because we could not be sure when next we would be able to obtain water. We wanted to be sure we would have enough if we were delayed several days in the desert with a breakdown. I thought of the Swedes with their meager supplies as I used about a liter to wash the worst from my face and hands.
With driving conditions the next day much the same, we were stuck almost immediately. A passing truck kindly stopped to help us. The Targui driver stood resplendent in a turquoise and gold trimmed robe and white turban while he rapped out the orders to his underlings. Sand flew high in the air as they dug furiously at the high ruts that had brought us to a halt. There was no need to bring out the sand mats. When the driver was satisfied that all the sand had been removed, he lined everyone up behind the van and then harangued them all until they had pushed it on to solid ground. All we had to do was steer the van, and even reving the engine was superfluous. When he was quite satisfied that we were safely on our way again, this Good Samaritan leapt into his cab in a flourish of turquoise and roared off with all his underlings clinging frantically to the top of the load.
A little later, we stopped at the ruins of Fort Laouni, a French Foreign Legion outpost which sits in a desolate, sandy basin behind some high black granite outcrops. The building is now a mere shell of crumbling walls with no roof, windows or door. While we were there, two four-wheel-drive vehicles pulled up, and one of the European occupants asked us about road conditions to Tamanrasset and how long it would take them to reach it. They seemed in an extraordinary hurry, covering us with dust as they raced off.
We set off at a more sedate pace in the opposite direction, gradually learning more about driving on the rough terrain. We were stuck five times between Tamanrasset and In Guezzam during those two days. Each time it required only one stop before we were back on solid ground. It made all the difference having the heavy conveyor belts for the front wheels, as well as the sand ladders for the back wheels. We had picked up the old conveyor belt washed up on a remote beach at John O’Groats, Scotland, near the Arctic Circle so they were well travelled by the time we were finished with them.
With all this hard work, we were so lucky to be crossing the Sahara in the winter with its mild, and sometimes downright cool temperatures. Michael Marriott and his wife were not so lucky when they crossed the Sahara in March 1953 in their London Taxi. What a difference a few months makes:
Tuesday 31st March 1953, South of Tamanrasset:
The desert envelops us. We continue over the sandy waste until 11 a.m. – by this time, the radiator is almost at bursting point -and we are forced, much against our will, to stop. Once more, we try to stave off the worst of the sun’s heat by sheltering underneath the cab; but one cannot escape from flames when within the fire. Today, we are shrivelled and baked until the mind screams out: stop! But just when the breaking point is reached – and I cannot see how we can lie prostate and gasping any longer – the sun begins its decline, and we are given another chance. Another period of rest and coolness. It is surprising what the human body can withstand.
Desert Taxi by Michael Marriott. Panther 1956.
Just before we came to the Gara Ekar mountain range, a Saharan truck stopped in front of us. The Touareg driver climbed out of the cab to hail us. When we stopped, a young French girl who was riding up on the tray of the truck began to tell us her story. Early that morning, she and her girlfriend had left their cars on the piste to go for a walk in the mountains. They had returned about three hours later just in time to see a white four-wheel-drive vehicle driven by Europeans pull away, taking one of the girls’ cars with them. They had smashed the windows of their other car, taking a large drum of diesel, all their money, passports, food and water.
The description she gave fitted the boys who had asked us for information about the route that morning, and this would explain why they were in such a desperate hurry and had seemed so breathless. They had had two vehicles, one of them being white with a large drum of diesel filling the entire back seat. It had been three or four hours now since we had seen them, and she translated this information to the driver in French. She was naturally very upset as she related her tale to us. We were glad she had the assistance of the kindly truck-driver who grimaced as he swung back up into his cab to race off in pursuit. The French girl waved forlornly to us as she was thrown violently back onto the tray floor by the acceleration of the truck.
We had already formed the habit of having one of us always remaining in the van when parked either in the town or the desert. It is tempting to lock up and go off exploring but it is obviously a dangerous practice. It was difficult to make the decision however, because if we restricted ourselves to remaining always near the van, there was much we would miss seeing and experiencing. The alternative, having our van disappear or be ransacked, would spell the end of our expedition, and this would be an even bigger disaster. We now knew that it was important to continue with this policy, leaving the van only on those rare occasions when we were sure the risk was worth it or where we could find a safe place to park it.
In the Gara Ekar Range, we passed down a narrow sandy valley between high granite knobs. They looked decidedly top-heavy, with their bases eroded away. Later, when the valley gradually opened out onto a gigantic plateau covered in soft dust, we were able to drive quite fast, kicking up a giant column of dust behind us. Then, unexpectedly, there was a dark green smudge on the horizon in front of us and from this, as we approached, the palm trees of In Guezzam gradually took shape. This was the border between Algeria and Niger. It was now the 26thJanuary, just twelve days since we had arrived in Algeria.
Since it was still one hour before sunset when the border would close, we decided to try to complete the border formalities that evening. The piste led us straight down through the dusty little village to the border-post but unfortunately, five Frenchmen, each driving a Peugeot 404 car zipped past us at the last moment to join the queue ahead of us. These French entrepreneurs obtain the cars in France, drive them to western Africa where they can sell them at a good profit to super-rich African politicians and businessmen. For them, crossing the Sahara is a business, and the faster they can get the cars to West Africa, the greater their profit. Most of them will return, taking multiple vehicles across through the winter months and perhaps even into the summer as well.
Although we received our customs clearance that evening, we still did not have a stamp from the immigration office when the sun sank over the sand and the border was closed. We camped the night on the sand between the palmerie and a well-frequented café, as did many other travelers. There was a huddle of squat mud-walled cottages lined up along the wide dusty wind-swept street. Goats wandered in and out of the doorways, and naked children were playing in the dust.
Camped nearby that night was an Irish girl who, together with her fiancé was driving a Landrover to Ghana. It was now a week since the Landrover had broken down here, and her fiancé had accepted a lift to Arlit where he had hoped to obtain a new water pump. In the meantime, she had become disillusioned with life in In Guezzam and was anxiously awaiting his return. They were going to Ghana, her fiancé’s homeland to see if she would want to live there after they were married. We heard not long after this that the borders of Ghana were temporarily closed due to civil strife. I fear she had a long wait and a difficult decision ahead of her.
Evan summaried driving in the Sahara in a letter to his father:
We got stuck in soft sand only about ten times, had no tyre trouble, only slight trouble with the front suspension. It’s never boring driving here, every 100 meters of desert is different. First 100 meters of soft sand, 50 meters of flat rock (pick up speed here for the next patch of soft sand), sharp bumps (hit the brakes), speed up to 30 m.p.h. with maximum revs in second gear for sand. Search the horizon for the best route ahead (that’s Kae’s job). Hit the brakes again for corrugations. Glance at the scenery if possible.
We were about to leave Algeria and cross the border into the country of Niger. We had been only twelve days on the road and come about 1500 miles (2312 km) on bad roads (or no roads) the whole way.
Tamanrasset lies in the middle of the Hoggar Mountains at a height of 1600 meters (5250 feet) above sea level. It has been built on either side of a large dry oued which on rare occasions can become a roaring mass of water coming down off the mountains. For the rest of the time, the oued is a large dusty common-area often used by squatters and refugees. The town is the seat of Amenokal who is the supreme chief of the Kel Rela Touaregs. He has a residence in Tamanrasset but is more commonly found in an encampment of camel skin tents in the desert nearby.
There are approximately 3000 Touareg living in Tamanrasset. Originally these tribes were strictly nomadic, dependent on the caravan trade, brigandage and their sheep and camels. They kept slaves and relied heavily on their labor. They were truly ‘masters of the desert’, as they always maintained.
With the coming of the French administration, the Touareg were forced to abandon their raids on oasis villages and farms. They turned instead to trading desert salt for the millet they needed. Eventually the Arab merchants began to compete in the desert regions, and the traditional Touareg way-of-life had to change. When the Algerians from the north took over the administration in 1962, the Touareg were made to release their slaves who then merely squatted on the edges of towns in bewilderment. Many Touareg began to join in the co-operative farming that was beginning while others fled southwards with their flocks into Niger.
Today many of the drivers of trans-Saharan trucks are Touareg, and this is a modern adaptation of their old style of life. Trading goods from the North with those of the South forms the basis of their livelihood while they operate the black market with goods obtained along the way. The old yen for slaves is possibly satisfied by the large number of drifters who attach themselves to the truck. They sway and bounce high up on the top of the load and are obedient to the commands of the driver in return for their passage.
Since it was Friday when we arrived in Tamanrasset, the market-place was crowded. The merchants, who had spread their wares on the ground everywhere, were selling wool rugs and hand-beaten silverware along with household items such as tin pots, clay dishes and long shiny daggers. We bought some bread, a large sack of oranges and then treated ourselves to some delicious apricot doughnuts being sold hot from the pan.
Before leaving Tamanrasset, every traveler must obtain permission from the Police de Frontiere at the Diara.. Passports are checked and stamped, and later at the border, they are checked again. If the required stamp from Tamanrassat is not in the passport, the culprit faces a grueling 500 km trip back to Tamanrasset to obtain it. Without the ‘Saharan Handbook’, we would not have known this because there is no other way to find out about the various requirements of these meticulous authorities.
The Police also ask each traveler to outline his planned route. Although the attitude seems to vary from year to year, when we were there, there was no check made on the equipment of those proceeding directly to the frontier at In Guezzam. Only those wishing to travel eastward to Djanet or westward were required to have four-wheel drive vehicles, to form a convoy of at least three vehicles and to carry a certain minimum of survival equipment.
We were instructed by the Police to drive to the customs office on the outskirts of town. We finally found this unmarked building only to be told that we were not required for custom’s inspection at all. By now, we had become so accustomed to this kind of run-around, that we cheerfully accepted this news and drove off. Because it was now a few weeks since we had been working in the West, the attitude that all time-wasting must be avoided at all costs was slowly wearing off. We could now see just how tightly wound-up and stressed we had been. Clock ticking is our great god, and the results are plain to see in the overcrowded coronary-care units of every Western city.
Our experience with officialdom in Tamanrasset was simple in comparison to the experience of Micheal and Nita Marriott when they passed this way in March 1953 in their London Taxi, as described in this extract from Michael’s book “Desert Taxi”:
One week in Tamanrasset, and we are still far from ready to leave. True, Bertha (the 18 year old Austin taxi cab they were driving) is now very different from the poor wreck that limped into the town seven days ago, but now we are wading through red tape which seems more arduous than persuading an ancient London Taxi to cross the Sahara. We are well and truly entangled, and the opposition looks formidable indeed. Three times – or is it four? – I have visited the Commandant of the town and requested permission to continue our journey. Each time he has told me that without a suitable escort vehicle, he absolutely forbids us to leave.
So far, the only vehicles which might possibly have acted as escort have been in an almighty hurry, and the drivers have pointed out that they could not possibly wait for us, with our speed averaging only 20 miles an hour. Most of these trucks, either S.A.T.T. lorries or Arab-owned vehicles carrying merchandise and built specially for desert motoring, travel at double that speed and could not crawl along at our pace – and understandably so. I have approached about seven French and Arab drivers and always the first question is, “What sort of vehicle have you.”
When I tell them, well, we are right back where we started. Nita and I are about the only two people in Tamanrasset who think we are continuing southwards; everyone else is certain we shall be making a return journey to Algiers!
The Commandant is adamant in his refusal, and I can see no way round the regulations. His attitude is understandable: terrible stories are plentiful of lone travellers being lost, or dying of thirst because their vehicles fail them, and I suppose that it is for our own good – but when you have set your heart on anything, logic is rarely acceptable, and, after all, it is our lives which are at stake. There must be a way somehow.
In the afternoon, we hear rumours that a small Génie force (French military) may be going to In Guezzam within the next few days. …(Then) we heard the wonderful news, the rumour of their journey to In Guezzam has been confirmed. They are leaving in two days time, and the Commandant has at last relented and told the Génie officer that he is agreeable to let us go one day in advance of the trucks.
Realising that we had got off lightly in comparison to the situation 30 years before, we drove off back to town. We had begun to wonder where we could fill up our water tanks. Back in the main street, we stopped to talk to some German tourists who were driving two VW Kombies. They told us that they were camping out in the desert where it was possible to obtain water and invited us to join them there.
The artesian water lying beneath Tamanrasset is not sufficient for the needs of the ever-increasing population as well as tourists and other migrants. The airport and a grand new hotel brings foreign visitors who expect flushing toilets and twice daily showers.
The one public tap which we had seen in the market-place had a long queue of more than thirty people, each dragging along several large water containers. Once the containers were finally full, the householder then staggered off with the water slopping around his ankles. It did not seem fair that these unfortunate townsfolk should have tourists like us also joining their long queue, and so we were pleased to hear about ‘The Source’ for water in the desert.
The Source was 15 km north of Tamanrasset on the road to Assekrem. The very sandy road scraped from the desert floor took us past a beautiful steeple-shaped pinnacle, the weathered remains of an old volcano plug. As we slowly drew near, the sheer grey rock was transformed into a fiery orange by the setting sun. Just past this peak, we turned off the road and drove towards a mountain range. The auberge (guesthouse) named ‘The Source’ is a half-finished cottage built at the entrance to a gorge in the foothills. There is a tap in the yard, and it is possible to induce the proprietor to open the valve. We paid about US$1 for 50 liters of this naturally effervescent mineral water.
Together with the Germans, we camped a short distance away in the desert. They were returning from Niger along the same route that we were about to take and were able to pass on much valuable information. We were astounded and very grateful when they gave us their Michelin #153 map of the Sahara since they were now finished with it. Although out-of-date, it was virtually the only detailed map of the Sahara available at this time. When we had tried to get it in Europe, it was out-of-print. We were told that Michelin would not be reissuing it until the long-standing Western Sahara problem has been resolved and the disputed boundaries redrawn. In the meantime, this third-hand copy of the coveted ‘153’ was invaluable to us.
An update for 2019: Michelin have now published a new map of the Sahara, and it is called #741 Africa North and West. It comes with a warning written on the map in red, the same warning that was also on the old #153:
Crossing the Sahara is subject to special regulations. Apply to the appropriate authorities (usually the prefecture or sub-prefecture nearest the Sahara of each of the countries concerned.
Our German friends set off northwards to Europe early the next morning while we stayed to do some vehicle maintenance and get some much needed rest. Evan had discovered that the rubber bushes on the rear suspension of the Peugeot, wrecks of which littered the desert everywhere we went, were not much different to the VW model. He had to reshape the rubber using a pen knife to make it fit in the space available, and then find some other means of attaching a Peugeot bolt to the VW socket. However, the resulting arrangement held together for months under appalling conditions, and a true Kiwi like Evan had once more proved that a ‘number 8 wire’ fix can be invaluable. We were very glad that we would not have to order new VW bushes in Tamanrasset and wait around for them to arrive.
Evan also set the tappets. This is important for a VW motor which has a tendency to overheat when the air temperatures are high. Previously, when driving in Greece in mid-summer, we had not had a temperature gauge. Before setting out on that trip, a mechanic had told us that to prevent over-heating in the VW, the motor should be kept at high revs when climbing hills. The result was cracks in the heads which required an engine replacement on our return. Now that we had a temperature gauge, we had discovered that in fact the engine must be kept at low revs to minimize the temperature. Evan decided that we would never allow the oil temperature to rise above 120° C. Whenever it did, we stopped to allow it to cool. Setting the tappets frequently helped to prevent the engine from overheating as well.
Our Sahara Handbook recommended that we not miss Assekrem, 85 km north in the Hoggar mountains. Later that day we set off on a road passing down wide, stony plains between sharp peaks and towering volcanic plugs. There were no signposts, and when the road forked, we chose the road using compass directions only.
As we climbed up towards Assekrem, the road became very steep. At one particularly steep incline, we had to tip out some of our water before we finally made it to the top. However it was not until the last kilometer before Assekrem that we were finally defeated. It was just too steep for our 1600 cc engine. Even after unloading some of the heavier objects, we could not make it up to the summit carpark. Instead we parked at the bottom and prepared to hike to the top.
A group of Czechoslovakians in an old Landrover were coming down the hill and stopped to ask us for water. We gave them some of our diminishing stocks of lovely mineral water to pour into their rusty old radiator which was puffing clouds of steam. A spare water pump for the radiator would appear to be essential equipment for a Landrover in the Sahara because we met several groups in this predicament. Evan’s temperature gauge had demonstrated quite clearly to us that we could not climb this very steep incline without damaging our engine, and we were glad we had it, even if it did mean we had to hike the last leg to the summit.
The sun was sinking low in the clear blue sky, and we wanted to be at the summit to see the sunset. We climbed first to the Auberge at the top of the ridge and then on a steep footpath to the stony plateau above. We paused for a rest at the tiny stone Hermitage originally built by Charles de Foucauld in 1910. He was a French Benedictine monk who felt that this stark, lonely place was suitably conducive to a life of mediation and prayer. He also worked amongst the Touareg during times of upheaval.
There are two monks (Les petits frere de Foucauld) living there today, and we could hear them at their evening devotions in the chapel as we sat quietly outside. Their droning voices carried quite clearly through the unmortared stone walls, and I suspect the cold winds whistled in to them through the same gaps at night. During the day on this stark rocky mountainside, they had no trees to offer shade from the pitiless Saharan sun.
However they are certainly compensated somewhat by having one of the world’s most magnificent views at their doorstep. All around us were towering needles and conical peaks rising to a maximum height of 2750 meters (9170 feet). The entire chain became emblazoned in a riot of color from orange to deep purple as the light from the sun slowly extinguished. The crescendo came when the sun, looking like a huge round piece of glowing coal sank over the horizon, silhouetting the black mountains against a golden sky. Then the sky turned purple and filled with a solid mat of glittering stars so close that you felt as though you could reach up and pluck them out. It was easy to see now why a meditative monk had chosen this place to live. This is the universe in its naked reality where man and his petty ways are reduced to insignificance.
We had hardly time to catch our breath before the whole scene was plunged into inky darkness before our eyes. The wind suddenly blew strong and icy cold, biting into any exposed skin and causing numbness within minutes. We stumbled down the precipitous, rocky path in the dark and were thankful when we finally reached the shelter of the van. Next time we climb up a mountain to see the sunset, we will try to remember to take a flashlight and warm clothes with us, even if it is broiling hot and bright sunlight when we set out.
The following letter was written by Evan Lewis to his parents in New Zealand:
Assekrem, 85 km north of Tamanrasset in the Hoggar Mountains. 24 January 1982.
Assekrem is incredibly spectacular. Perhaps we will never go to the moon as tourists but this place must be the next best thing. Even the weather is a bit moon-like. It was below zero at dawn and windy with fine dust blowing through everything but the minute the sun appeared, it became quite warm. You can easily imagine that in summer temperatures must approach 40°C. But in winter it can snow here, despite being right in the middle of the Sahara Desert. There is virtually no vegetation, although rabbits, donkeys, birds, snakes and scorpions seem to survive somehow.
The Hoggar mountains must have been a highly active volcanic area a long time ago. But the dozens of closely packed volcanoes have long since had their outer coating of soil removed by wind erosion, leaving dramatic vertical plugs of lava projecting from plains strewn with volcanic rocks. These plugs have vertical faces with vertical fissures in the direction of lava flow. They are sometimes textured with bubble holes like Swiss cheese. There is even a vulture circling above us to add to the desolate atmosphere.
Yesterday we drove up here from Tamanrasset, 83 km away, to see the dramatic sunset and sunrise. It took over 4 hours to drive that distance in first and second gears with rock-strewn corrugated sand roads. We are carrying 100 kg of water and at one stage, we could not quite get to the top of a steep hill. We unloaded some water canisters near the top, backed down and took another run at it. We just made it over the top. Then we had to walk back for the water. The next time we tried that was about 1 km from the summit of the mountain of Assekrem which we had come to see. This time, the van reached within six meters of the same point on each of three runs. We decided we would have to strike camp there and walk the 1:3 gradient to the top.
Once we reached the top of the road, it was another half an hour’s steep climb to the summit overlooking the plain. The view was spectacular and impossible to describe adequately. There are hundreds of these volcanic plugs of all shapes and sized sprinkled over the landscape as far as the eye can see. The colors of the rocks range from deep red through all shades of purple and magenta with a few yellow ones thrown into the mix. They disappeared in shades of blue and mauve haze in the distance. The sky was a clear blue and cloudless, and as the sun set, the whole scene began to change color through all shades of orange and red.
After the sun had disappeared, sinking as an orange orb behind a peak, the sunset was really only just beginning. The horizon, consisting of these dramatic peaks, was silhouetted against the orange sky. As time went by, the orange faded into blue and deep purple with stars beginning to appear directly above us. You feel on top of the world with this huge ring of orange fire completely surrounding you. There is no longer any evidence of the western point where the sun had set, as the whole circular horizon is orange with an even intensity all the way round.
Eventually it became so cold that we thought we might be frost-bitten and made a hasty retreat for the van.
It is said that the sunrise is even more dramatic, so despite a body full of aching muscles, I dragged myself out of bed at 6.30 am, before dawn. Since it was too cold for Kae, I was alone as I began to pick my way once more to the top of the mountain. This time the view was more spectacular on the way up because the vertical landscape is closer and the plugs, one in particular, tower high into the sky. Eventually, after a similar display to the sunset in reverse, the sun suddenly appears at the tip of this gigantic spike and sprays the mountains of Assekrem with orange light and you can immediately feel its searing heat, despite air temperatures below zero.
Then back to the world of reality because my hands were suffering badly from the cold. The day before, I had set the tappets, points and timing of the engine before we set out, and in the process, had taken skin off the knuckles of two fingers on one hand and the thumb on the other, all with one slip of the screwdriver while trying to lever the tappet cover off. Normally that would not cause much trouble but sand blew into them, and they festered badly. Now they suffered from the cold, and I have both hands bandaged up like a boxer.
Kae continues the story:
Assekrem lies on a loop road to Tamanrasset but because we had not been able to reach the summit with the van, we had to return the next day the way we had come. About halfway back, a middle-aged European lady came dashing over the stones waving frantically at us. Strangely, she was coming from what appeared to be a native encampment with camels and skin tents. We stopped as we wondered if she wanted some help. We soon learnt that she was a French journalist working for a glossy travel magazine, and they had hired native guides with camels to take them to out-lying villages for photographic material. She was endeavoring to produce pictures which did not show plastic bottles and other signs of Western decadence or people with bad teeth or dirty hair.
“So that the readers can dream,” she explained to us.
The Parisian suburbanite who flipped through the pages would not wish to see anything nasty. Unfortunately the reality of the situation is that even in the remote areas far from any vehicle track, European influence permeates the entire fabric of life. Also she had found that the people were almost all in bad health, as we ourselves had already observed, even on the main road.
Her other problem was that the people, being Muslim, did not wish to be photographed. Their religious teachings forbid depiction of the human body in pictorial form, a situation that every tourist with a camera in an Islamic country is rapidly made aware of. Since the journalist had a letter of introduction from the Algerian Minister of Information, she was now proposing to return to Tamanrasset to ask the authorities there to send back an official who could force the people to pose for her camera. She was asking us for a ride into town but when she and her team discovered that we were stopping overnight 15 km before Tamanrasset at ‘The Source’, they changed their minds. There would be others passing shortly, and as we waved them goodbye, we could only hope that the authorities in Tamanrasset would see reason and refuse to pander to their preposterous demands.
It was for this same reason, that the Algerians on the whole did not like to be photographed, that we have only a few photos of local people in our collection. This was also the reason why we took no photos in the streets and marketplace of Tamanrasset.
Back at ‘The Source’, we filled right up with their marvellous effervescent mineral water in preparation for leaving Tamanrasset. Since we were expecting to be driving on sand from now on, Evan changed the four tyres to the sand tyres he had ready. These are wide and had very little tread. By keeping the air pressure in them very low, they were less likely to dig into the sand and get us stuck. They bulged out on each side, and were now very vulnerable to stone damage.
The next day, we went to Tamanrasset to buy petrol and, as well as filling the van tank, we filled eight jerry cans, making a total of 220 liters. We spoke later to some tourists who had passed through Tamanrasset a month before us when petrol had been in short supply. The garages would fill only vehicle tanks and not jerry cans. They had been forced to make several trips out into the desert to siphon petrol from the tank into jerry cans, a dangerous operation. We were fortunate to be there at a time when petrol was plentiful. Before finally leaving town that day, we bought bread, fruit and vegetables in the Tamanrasset marketplace. There was no fresh meat or eggs available but by now we had grown accustomed to doing without them.
As we drove out of Tamanrasset, we felt tense and very apprehensive. Ahead of us lay over 500 miles (860 km) of sandy piste before we would reach the next main town, Agadez in Niger. Navigation would be by following the tracks of other vehicles in the sand. We would be crossing the trackless desert where there were few, if any settlements and certainly none that could provide any petrol, water or food, let alone help in emergencies. There would be no medical care or even mechanics and spare parts until we reached Agadez. We were on our own.
As we began the long climb out of the valley of Ghardaia, the sky was clear and sunny. The long, flat, featureless plains ahead were crossed by a sealed, well-maintained road. The ground was still dotted sparsely with coarse grasses.
We reached El Golea by midday, and it is here that the Sahara Desert really began for us. The town lies in the heart of the Grand Western Erg region which is an ocean of sand stretching the rest of the way across Algeria. El Golea has a large date palmerie which is fed by a good water supply but the sand blows in unceasingly from the desert and inundates the palm groves. Life is a relentless struggle for the farmer who must dig the sand away or his palms will soon die. There are many different types of dates, from the large succulent deglet noir to the humble ghars which are the soft sweet date that forms the basis of the desert nomad’s diet. They were for sale in great black piles in all the markets we saw in the Sahara.
El Golea has a distinctly colonial atmosphere with wide sandy boulevards shaded by pine and eucalyptus trees. There are no twisted alley-ways with square houses cluttered along the length but instead each villa is surrounded by a high-fenced garden The women appeared to be permitted to have both eyes unveiled. We bought a long French loaf from a pile in the sand at a market and filled up the van with petrol. For the first time, we filled an extra jerrycan with petrol because it was 400 km to In Salah where we could next expect to obtain petrol and water.
Everywhere we went in Algeria, we were being constantly approached by black-marketeers who wanted to buy virtually anything we had. They always recited a standard list: whiskey, cigarettes, radios, jeans, jerrycans and what-have-you? Whiskey, which is prohibited in this Muslim country, sells on the black market for up to twenty times the price in Europe. Unfortunately we did not bring any but even if we had, we would never have got it through customs at the Algiers port.
When we arrived in Africa, we had three batteries, two of which were new and one with about half the life left in it. We would use the two new ones in the van, one at night to run the lights and water pump leaving the second one fully charged to start the engine in the morning. If we did not have this back-up battery, we could easily run one flat in an isolated campsite far from the road. It is a problem which is almost impossible to remedy without the help of another vehicle.
This left us with a third half-used battery surplus to our requirements, and we sold it for a good price to a very eager garage owner. Harsh import restrictions have starved these people of the essential spare parts they need to operate their rapidly emerging nation. Such conditions generate a thriving black-market, and it is the middlemen who make all the money.
On the way out of town, we were hailed by some boys selling ‘desert roses’. These beautifully shaped crystalline calcium stones which are found beneath the desert sands, sometime grow to the size of a coconut or more. As their name suggests, the crystals form the shape of the petals of a sand-colored rose. Looking for them would be a dangerous operation for these boys because the deadly sand vipers have a nasty habit of lying just below the surface of the sand with only the pair of horns protruding. They are small, the color of sand and move in a peculiar unsnake-like manner involving a wave that passes down the length of the body. This somehow propels them sideways and leaves a characteristic pattern of parallel lines in the sand to warn the would-be victim.
Just south of El Golea, the repair gangs had moved in and ripped up the road for many miles across the desert. No attempt had been made to provide an alternative detour roadway. Instead we had to drive on the desert beside the road, searching for a way as best we could.
Once we were finally back on the road again, we began to climb up through the sand dunes to the Plateau of Tademait which is about 150 km in width. Up on the plateau, all signs of vegetation of any kind were now gone and in every direction around us was hard, flat stony ground which was as black as asphalt. Each stone was flint grey on the top surface and when picked up, was sand-colored underneath. Whenever we stopped, we could see the curve of the horizon uninterrupted for the full circle around us. It was like standing on the top of a large beach-ball.
Suddenly, we came to a deserted little tin shack standing all on its own in the middle of this dismal place. The word Cafe had been scribbled on its side many years before. I wondered if any thirst-crazed pilgrims had seen this crude little sign shimmering in the distance and thought that their eyes were playing a cruel trick.
The sealed road, our trusty engine, a tank full of petrol and plenty of food and water all combined to give us a false sense of security. One has to stop and face the harsh truth that here on this hellish plateau, man without his survival equipment is a frail thing indeed.
Although the road was still tar-sealed, it had rapidly deteriorated and was was now very badly pot-holed. We were reduced to a crawl as we weaved around trying to avoid falling into any of the deeper holes. It was often unavoidable because the hole took up the whole width of the road. Then we would stop and in first gear, carefully lower the wheels down into the ditch and climb back out again.
It was easy to see how these holes had developed such elephantine dimensions when several large trans-Saharan trucks driven by maniacal Arab drivers roared past us, their wheels thumbing in and out of the potholes at an incredible rate. As we slept near the road at night, we were woken by these vehicles torturing every nut and bolt beyond endurance as they crashed on through the night. To survive in this spare-parts deprived area, these drivers must double as bush mechanics. They replace expensive and probably irreplaceable shock absorbers with large blocks of wood which allow the trucks to keep up this speed on the potholes undeterred by breakdowns.
Another problem seems to lie in the road-building itself. I cannot profess to be a road engineer but when the road is looked at closely, it is plain that the desert sand and fine gravel form its base. The desert has simply been scraped flat, and a thin layer of asphalt laid on top. Now the seal crumbled away like biscuit when touched with a finger. The Algerian government, in proposing to seal the trans-Sahara route has set itself a mammoth task. When they spent all this money on roads, they failed to take fully into account the effects of the ruthless Sahara climate and the heavy truck traffic which has developed as a result of the improved road conditions and an expanding economy. The sad fact is that they are pushing on, having now begun to seal south of Tamanrasset, while behind them the desert is rapidly reclaiming over 1000 km of road that they have not been able to maintain adequately.
When night eventually caught up with us, we were still on the plateau surrounded by the same black stony landscape while the road continued to be incredibly pot-holed. We had scarcely been out of first gear all day as we inched around these continuous gaping holes in the road, most of them now more than a meter wide.
We drove out into the desert in search of a nook for a campsite but there was nothing. All we could do was to park on the stones in the middle of it all. When the fiery red sun sank away, we were the only blob on the endless 360 degrees of horizon. It was a bitterly cold night but we were cozy in our New Zealand-made goose-down sleeping bags. The van was insulated beneath the wooden wall trim; we had seen to that when we built it. Our foam rubber mattresses, clean sheets and soft pillows gave us all the luxury of home and yet here we were alone in the middle of the vast emptiness of the Sahara.
When the sun rose again on the other side of the van, we immediately began to bake beneath its unrelenting rays. We had only an hour’s drive on the plateau before we reached Ain El Hadjadj where the road suddenly plunged down between high granite peaks to another sandy yellow plain at a lower level.
The road was still full of potholes, and in fact it became worse as we crept towards In Salah. We saw this oasis long before we reached it because the vivid green of its date palms contrasted so starkly with the sandy yellow wastes that encircled it.
In Salah means ‘brackish source’ although we found the water available at the garage to be sweet and palatable. We filled our containers with this precious liquid and took on a lot more petrol. We had managed the distance from El Golea without using our reserve jerrycan. However, after some careful calculations using the map and his calculator, Evan decided that we should fill four jerrycans for the stretch ahead. It was nearly 700 km to Tamanrasset and, although our map indicated that there were petrol stations ahead, we could not be sure that these tiny oases would have supplies on hand.
In Salah is a town of flat red mud-walled houses. An eternal wind whisks around the streets and endeavors year after year to engulf the town in desert sand. There were a few sleepy shops but since all the signs were in Arabic, we had to peer into each dark doorway to see what was for sale. Many of the men wore the traditional full-faced turban of the Touaregs, with only their eyes exposed. The cloth they used for their clothes was often a deep azure blue, and when the dye tinted their skin, they became known as the ‘blue men’. The turban is never removed in front of others, even for eating.
On the other hand, the women of In Salah were not as heavily veiled as they had been further north in Algeria. A young girl of about ten years old spoke to us in French and with a big toothy smile, asked us for writing paper. We gave her a note-pad in a blue plastic folder and a pen.
“Oh la la!” she exclaimed as she danced off to show her mother who was unveiled and had the same toothy smile as her daughter.
The potholes continued as we bounced across the forbidding plains that still lacked any form of vegetation. Every once in a while, we would cross an oued, a dry riverbed with possible subterranean water. Consequently a few short acacia trees and tufts of dry grass were able to cling to life in these isolated spots. There was also a creeping melon-type plant on which a magnificent crop of green and yellow striped melons were ripening in the sun. These plants were all growing in extremely poor sandy soil conditions. They must develop a complex root system which grows deep into the riverbed gravel to tap the underground moisture. There would be little more than one rainstorm a year, and in times of drought, even that fails to come year after year. The fierce wind and sand storms that rage for most of the year will tear all but the most tenacious plants out by the roots. Sand dunes that ‘walk’ across the desert in front of the wind will soon engulf the tiny plants. Some of the acacia trees have evolved a system of transferring their root system to escape the devastating advance of a dune.
We reached Arak gorge in the late afternoon on the same day. The tiny settlement of Arak stands at the entrance to the gorge. It consists of a road-workers’ camp and several dilapidated shanty-type shacks.
Once we had passed into the gorge, the tall red cliffs rose breathtakingly around us as we weaved our way through pot-holes down the narrow ravine. The late afternoon sun burnished the rock until it glowed in a kaleidoscope of scarlet, orange and purple. Although the temperatures on this January afternoon were chilly, we could easily imagine that this gorge would be a burning hell-hole in the summer.
The road through the gorge had been built on the riverbed itself, and when the river had flooded, it had been inevitable that the road would be washed away. Although fairly rare, rain storms in this region can be severe with rushing torrents of water suddenly filling the oueds. It seemed foolish in the extreme to build a road here, and we could only assume it was done shortsightedly for reasons of economy. The result was vast washouts where, in some cases, the road had been carried right away. There had been little effort made to repair the chasms in the road, probably because the repair gangs already knew the futility of it all.
It is more than a little disconcerting to come round a corner and find, instead of a sealed road, that only a gaping black hole confronts you. No signpost or barrier warns the motorist, and it was certainly fortunate that the potholes had forced us to travel so slowly. Since potholes did not slow the Arab truck drivers, they must know the exact location of all these obstacles, especially when they traveled at night. Rough tracks had been bulldozed around the obstacles but it was not always absolutely clear just where we were expected to go. We suspect the road-maker had left this ambiguous because he was not too sure himself.
In the valley, there were trees and a few dense thorn bushes which made a pleasant change from the desolate expanses that we had camped on for the previous few nights. The valley floor was covered in loose sand, and while searching for a camp-site, we became slightly bogged. By this time, we were so tired that we decided this had to be a problem for the morning. As the orange sun sank down behind the cliffs, the cold desert wind soon had us looking for our woolen jerseys.
We began the nightly ritual, unloading jerrycans, tyres, water containers and sand-ladders so that I could access the kitchen area to prepare a meal. To avoid accidents, we never lit the gas-cooker inside the van when the jerrycans of petrol were also there. Burnt-out hulks of numerous Kombies lying in the desert had already convinced us of the foolhardiness of this practice. Far from civilization, as we now were, was no place to have the van burn out.
Because it had been many days since we had been in Ghardaia and able to buy any fresh vegetables, we were by now relying almost entirely on rice and tinned meat. We were dining on this humble fare and trying not to think too much about fresh salads or roast beef when a young Touareg girl appeared from behind a bush. She was dressed in rags and was dragging a large piece of corrugated iron behind her. She, like us, had thought this place was deserted and was too frightened to approach us when we waved.
We were joined later by a French couple who were driving their Peugeot 504 saloon car to Upper Volta. They were sleeping in their car and camped near us that night. Before going to bed, Evan had to load the jerrycans and other equipment into the front cab area to prevent them from being carried off by scavengers. The next morning, before we could begin cooking our breakfast, all the equipment was stacked back on the sand again. Once we had eaten and washed up, we stowed it all in the back. It was heavy work, and care was required to pack them in so that they would not bounce loose on the rough track.
The stars in the Sahara were amazing. I do not know whether it was because we were at a high altitude, or the air was clear, or both but the sky is a carpet of stars so dense, its difficult to tell one from another, let alone pick out any familiar patterns. The old “porridge pot” stood out because the stars making it up are much larger and brighter than the myriad of dots behind them. No doubt that’s why we can see it through all the murk and smog we usually have to look through.
It took us about ten minutes to extricate ourselves from the sand we had camped in. We were just reloading the sand mats when trucks, vans and cars suddenly converged on our peaceful valley from every direction. There were several more Frenchmen with Peugeot saloon cars, another VW Kombie and some Algerian trucks. An articulated lorry came towards us from the back of the valley, far from the road. The driver obviously knew what lay ahead and had found his own route around it.
Soon we were all standing despondently around the patch of road ahead. It was a hill of sand over which the road passed in a series of ruts cut deep into the soft surface. On the other side of this, there was a good section of road which had been blasted into the rock of the cliff face and would at last take us out of the oued. But the cliff had caught the whirling sand at its base, leaving us with this deep patch to negotiate before we could reach that beautiful road ahead.
We all walked along the cliff base to where the tracks indicated that other drivers had ventured across. However, the general (very international) consensus of opinion was that this was worse than the first place we had looked at. Because on the previous evening, our van had become bogged on a relatively firm surface at the campsite, Evan and I were very apprehensive about going through this lot.
While I stood on the side of the road and watched, Evan backed the van up the road for some distance. He then approached the sand-pit at about 40 mph in second gear and, without hesitating, drove headlong into the sand. When the front wheels hit the first hole, they thumped down into it, flinging the van skywards. Then the back wheels went down into the same hole, bucking the van violently while Evan continued to grip the steering wheel like a determined cowboy mounted on a very reluctant broncho. Heedless to the pitching van, he pushed the accelerator pedal to the floor but the soft deep sand dragging on the underside of the van slowed it down rapidly. However the extra momentum at the beginning was just enough to carry the van through, and it struggled slowly out at the other end. Evan’s long experience with driving his old Austen 7 on the sands of the Papamoa Beach in his hometown in New Zealand had certainly paid off.
We were relieved that we had successfully negotiated our first major obstacle. For a long time now, we had worried that perhaps the Kombie would baulk at the first sign of adversity but here, with road conditions worse than we had ever imagined, she had not let us down. However we did wonder just how much of this kind of treatment she would be able to stand up to.
We did not have long to relax because at the top of the hill, the road had been washed out on both sides so that it was narrowed down to a width of just a few meters. The alternate track was through another mire of sand. After careful measurements showed that the road was just wide enough to take the Kombie, we drove gingerly towards it. With Evan still at the wheel, I was outside to check that the wheels did stay on hard ground, knowing that one false move would topple the van over the cliff which was almost has high as the van itself on either side. I called Evan forward and, inch by inch, we reached the other end safely. We knew we were lucky that the sheer edges of the washout had held and not collapsed under the weight of the van.
Later, as the van picked up speed, we noticed a terrible scraping noise in the front wheels. While all the other vehicles went on past us, Evan had to take off both front wheels to remove stones from the brake discs. An Arab truck driver kindly stopped to offer help. When we assured him that all was well, he started on his usual list of jeans, jerrycans, whiskey etc that he wanted to buy from us.
We were on a higher level now but were still slowed by potholes, washouts and make-shift deviations. There were some high peaks in the distance, our first view of the Hoggar Mountains, although the road was to take us through a sandy region between them.
Much later, we slowly approached In Ecker, the site of the French nuclear tests in the 1950s. The resulting debris was scattered for miles over the desert: rolls of barbed wire, empty oil drums, the remains of several large buildings and a large concrete structure built in a granite inselberg, probably a radiation-proof shelter. And yet all this can be only a mere fraction of what was originally abandoned. For almost 30 years, useful pieces have been carried off by truck drivers and desert nomads, as well as people living in the nearby village. This was no doubt where the Touareg girl we had seen the night before had obtained her large sheet of corrugated iron.
Bearing in mind the state of the ‘art’ in the 1950’s, one wonders just how safe it all is. How many houses in the area have been built with radioactive materials from this site? This act must have been one of the last great atrocities that the French committed against the people of the Sahara. After they left here, the French began to do the same thing to the people of the south Pacific, including our home in New Zealand.
When we stopped in the village of In Ecker, we found that there was petrol available, despite our fears. Beside the cluster of mud-walled huts was a small café built in the shantytown shack design, probably using material from the nuclear test site. There was also an old S.A.T.T. rest-house that was well preserved and now being used by the Algerian Army. It had an outer compound wall with corner watch towers and a wide-verandahed house in the middle.
In the book DESERT TAXI written by Michael Marriott in 1953, this outpost was already abandoned:
We pull up at some dilapidated mud buildings. They are surrounded by a high wall to keep out the wind. We had arrived at a S.A.T.T. rest-house called Iniker. Inside the mud walls, we find a compound with a central octagonal building of mud and thatch. There are several gaping holes in the walls and daylight streams through, lighting up a sandy floor and one rickety table with three legs. Close by is a row of ‘bedrooms’, completely bare, with doors open and sagging sadly from their hinges. The roof is of corrugated iron, and seems more serviceable than the centre building. We appear to have the place to ourselves. Most importantly, there is a well with a rope already attached. We shall have a pleasant stay here.
S.A.T.T. stands for the Société Algerienne des Transports Tropicaux, a private transport company offering a trans-Saharan bus and truck service from 1933 to 1952. They ran between Algiers and Kano during the winter months and had converted these outposts into rest-houses along their route. Later the company was called Société Africains des Transports Tropicaux. Even in the heyday of S.A.T.T, their rest-houses were often unfurnished, and the passengers slept huddled together on the floor.
We saw a number of these abandoned and derelict out-posts throughout the Sahara and many were initially built and occupied by the French Foreign Legion. The compound walls were hollow where doors led into the barrack rooms where the legionaires slept on iron bedsteads.
The Legionaires were foreign volunteers in the pay of France. Amongst their ranks were fugitives in hiding from police, victims of vendettas, noblemen living under assumed names, hotheads in search of adventure and many other misfits of society. The officers were mostly French citizens but the legionaires, after serving for five years, became eligible for French citizenship. Since its foundation in 1831, this highly disciplined professional army has been in almost continual combat. It is said that there is scarcely a valley, mountain, gorge or oasis in North Africa where bodies of legionaires do not lie. As well as fierce fighting to subdue the native tribes, they also built roads, bridges, forts and towns. However more legionaires died of heat, exhaustion and dysentery than at the tribesmen’s hands.
There is a story that in 1900, the Legion went on a route march in the area of El Golea, Ghardaia and Lagouat, the area we had just come through. They covered 1140 miles in 72 days, an average of 16 miles a day. This march was through hostile country, and there was a daily risk of attack. There was no accurate information available about the locations of wells and waterholes. The men, wearing thick woolen uniforms, floundered on through deep sands while temperatures soared above 40 degrees C. The Touareg, mounted on their racing camels, tormented the men beyond endurance. They would range ahead and fill the wells with sand so that the weary Legion would face another thirsty trek to find water before they could rest. Any legionnaire who could not keep up was left to die in the desert.
Another 70 km of potholes brought us to In Amguel where we were pursued by a crowd of young boys pestering us for bonbons and, less optimistically, jeans. Their domain was yet another collection of squat red mud-walled huts surrounded by a small date palmerie.
Just past the village, there has been a new track made beside the road to provide an alternative to the potholes. This track was not sealed and consequently had become badly corrugated. These parallel waves on the road surface look like corrugated iron and are caused by vehicles bouncing at speed on the fine gravel or sand. The corrugations do not slow the overloaded trucks any more than potholes do. In fact, many of them have modified suspension so that the wheels tramp in pairs in the hollows to allow them to travel faster. At the same time, their speed and weight digs the corrugations deeper.
Experts writing in desert travel books we had read advise that you should travel fast on corrugations so that the wheels fly from the top of each wave without going down into the troughs between. Since we were well versed in all this advice, we decided to give it a try. We went faster and faster until the van rattled like the workings of a rock-crusher. The whole structure of the van seemed destined to fly apart as we thumped down and back up each corrugation. We clung grimly on and pushed the van still faster, determined that we must eventually reach the critical speed when we would be traveling on a cushion of air.
We were hurtling along at maximum speed when the inevitable grinding sound came from the front suspension. We had broken a rubber bush on the front suspension, and we would be going no further until Evan could repair it. On closer examination, he found that we had also cracked the front axle (although he was not to tell me about that until we were on the other side of the Sahara, for fear I would want to go directly back to Europe.)
The problem with the theory of flying on air is that the corrugations have been created by 40 tonne trucks. Their wheels tramp at a different resonant frequency to a three tonne van, and consequently, no matter how fast we traveled, we always landed in the holes. It seems we had no alternative but to bump our way painfully over each wave at a walking pace.
Fortunately, Evan had two more rubber bushes for the suspension in his stock of supplies he had brought with him. Both were second-hand and not in very good condition but they at least offered us some chance of covering the 100 km to Tamanrasset. Just as the sun sank down over the distant Hoggar mountains, we were still parked on the side of the road where Evan was fitting on the best of the two rubber bushes. It had been a long and tiring day.
It was well after dark before we were mobile again and searching for a camping-place off the road. When the new track had been bulldozed beside the old one, the desert sand had been merely scraped to one side, forming a high barrier of sand down each side of the road. There was no verge, no tracks leading off and consequently we appeared to be trapped on the road in the dark.
After about an hour, we came to a connecting track which led us back onto the old pot-holed road still running parallel. We thought we would be undisturbed camping beside this road but some time later, it became apparent that both roads were operational, with drivers of light vehicles preferring to dodge potholes on the old road. We were camped right beside the road since it had been too risky to drive far off in the dark. At this stage, we were too tired to care, and we crawled into our sleeping bags as soon as we had had something to eat.
Here is an extract from a letter I wrote to my parents in New Zealand that night:
21 January 1982: Words fail me when I try to explain what we have seen and done in the last two days. Today was an experience for sure.. We will be in Tamanrasset soon, where I hope to find a post office so I will scribble a few lines to you for posting. We are both dead tired and a little discouraged. Our van is certainly too heavy because today we hit our first wash-board corrugations. After 20 km of that, we broke a rubber bush on the front suspension. Evan has two more but both are second hand and not in very good condition. It’s impossible to travel without these little rubber bushes in place in the suspension. We are going to have to buy some in Tamanrasset but do not hold out much hope that they will have any. Our hearts sink when we realise that we will not be able to leave Tamanrasset without them.
This morning was exciting from the very beginning. We had travelled 100 miles or more for the previous two days over dead flat plateau with nothing to see but stony black expanses as far as the eye could see. So you can imagine, it was marvellous to find ourselves in towering red granite peaks and we found a place to camp soon after that. A French couple in a Peugeot saloon car joined us later. They were going to Upper Volta, as they all are, to sell their Peugeot 404 and 504 saloon cars for a quick profit and return to France by air. They drive at top speed in great swarms across the desert.
We had got ourselves stuck finding a camp off the road but decided to just leave it until the morning. This morning we took about ten minutes to get unstuck using our trusty sand-ladders. No sooner had we finished when trucks and cars converged from nowhere into our peaceful valley.
Ahead was the worst bit of the road so far. The road has been under-mined and washed out all through mountains because they insist on building them in river valleys with no proper foundations. Inevitably there are floods in the dry riverbeds when the torrents of water and strong winds eat away the sand from under the tar-seal until the road just collapses. No-one comes to repair the road so everyone just has find a way across the rock and sand, to get around the great chasm in the road.
Where we had camped last night, there was a bad patch just ahead and the sand ruts were a foot or more deep. There were half a dozen French Peugeot saloon cars there, another VW van and a couple of Arab trucks. (The drivers of these trucks, when questioned, were usually Touareg or from a variety of other Muslim nations.) We all took it in turn to race though the huge dry sand mounds ahead of us. All made it without stopping but we got stones in both front tyres. Stopping to remove them slowed us up so we did not keep up with the bunch, although we passed some of them later, at lunch time.
The road deviated around chasms like that about a dozen times but we had no more real trouble. Then just when I had started to drive, we hit a road full of pot holes in old tar-seal, huge potholes like you would never believe, running one into the other. We travelled at 10 m.p.h. in first gear for at least another 100km, a slow grind indeed.
All day, we had driven through these huge mountains and rock piles, with no vegetation except a few scrubby bushes here and there in some of the oueds (empty river beds). A town consisting of a few mud huts (no petrol) came along about every 200km or so. We started from Ghardaia with 4 jerrycans of spare petrol, and we now have one left so have plenty to get to Tamanrasset tomorrow. Evan had made very careful calculations in Ghardaia to ensure that this would be so.
The rubber bushes worked well as next morning, we crept along the old road dodging potholes. There was only 60 kms to cover before we reached Tamanrasset but the road was still full of pot holes and in first gear, would take us half a day. Two couples riding pillion on two motor bikes roared past us with a cheery wave. Having only one set of wheels, they were able to weave around the holes and stay mostly on a firm surface. We, on the other hand, were dropping into a deep hole at least every car length.
We spotted the wreck of a late model Peugeot 504 car upside-down on the side of the road. There were several local trucks parked beside it, with the drivers busily stripping the vehicle of spare parts, like vultures on a carcass. They told us that it had been there only four days and yet now all that remained was the shell. Such are the perils of abandoning a vehicle in the desert, and it is possible that the owner had left it merely to obtain an essential spare part in Tamanrasset or to be taken off to hospital after an accident. Since it would appear that life here was a matter of ‘survival of the fittest’, Evan also joined the vultures and found that the rubber bushes on the suspension were still there, intact and best of all would fit the VW with minimal modification. It was a relief to us to have some spares to take along with us.
For centuries, travellers have paused in the desert city of Tamanrasset to replenish their supplies. Unlike in the days of old, we had followed a sealed road thus far, and although at times, we had cursed the bad road conditions, we at least had never been in danger of being lost, provided we stayed on the road. Only a few years ago, travellers were driving on unmarked desert between Ghardaia and Tamanrasset. In those days, Tamanrasset had been a half-way staging-post while now it is the starting point for those embarking on real desert travel.