Sahara – blanks on the map

walesBelow, a series of French 1:200,000 maps of the Sahara – from Mauritania to the western frontier of Chad. Though the maps date from the 1950s it’s very unlikely that Google Earth would reveal any more detail today. A couple of sheets from the central Mauritanian plateau and an eastern Algerian erg are included to show the mapmakers weren’t just being lazy – there really was nothing to show.
Each map covers one ‘square degree’ of the Earth’s surface, which in Saharan latitudes adds up to over 12,000 km2. Two of these maps would cover Wales (right).

U is for Uweinat: the Marchesi Mission 1933

cima-6L’Universo is a journal of the Italian Istituto Geografico Militare in Florence and the current 160-page special edition features the 1933 expedition to Libya led by Captain Oreste Marchesi.

Sahara specialist Michele Soffiantini organised a special visit to the Uweinat area from the Libyan side in 2010 while researching the Marchesi expedition in detail. The journal includes an in-depth analysis of the mission’s objectives in reaching to the southernmost corner of Libya, most probably to gain a foothold at the strategic landmark of Jebel Uweinat mountain, beyond the oases of Kufra  which itself had only been occupied by the cima-1Italians in 1931. The cartographical aspects of the survey are also described as well as a study of the mission’s surveying equipment.

It’s all in Italian of course, so I’m not much the wiser but it’s interesting to parallel it with the better known explorations of around the same time by Ralph Bagnold from the Egyptian side, as well as Laszlo Almasy. The glossy journal reproduces some great archive photos by Giuseppe Tschon from the ground and the air, as well as some fine maps produced as a result of the expedition.

6_17_1Uweinat expert Andras Zboray of FJ Expeditions was part of 2010 trip with Michele and describes their finds here, along with scores of great photos – some of which also appear in the journal. On that occasion Michele and a pal climbed  the 1251-metre Cima Marchesi, a peak on the very western edge of the Jebel Uweinat massif (1934m) and therefore well inside Libya, then and now.


Further information from: Istituto Geografico Militare
casezcomm  AT

G is for Gilf Kebir

A short photo and video commentaryDD2-front-med of
this trip appears on the Desert Driving dvd
Additional maps at the bottom of the post

To most people one part of the Sahara must be very much like any other, but some corners are more ‘Sahara’ than others. One such place is the Libyan Desert, the eastern third of the Sahara, covering not only Libya, but western Egypt and northern Sudan too.

gg-2004-headerWhat sets the Libyan Desert apart is that it is ten times more arid than the rest of the Sahara: the Libyan Desert is the über Sahara. In an area the size of the UK through which we’d be travelling there is just one usable well and that single well outnumbers the permanent population. Looking out my window I can see more trees than we saw in two weeks and 2500km of travel. Even by Saharan standards, the Libyan Desert is extreme.

ggbag-crewAbbreviated to ‘the Gilf’, the Egyptian part of the Libyan Desert is a mini Sahara in itself, encapsulating all the archetypal desert landforms. The Great Sand Sea lived up to its name, a dune field 200 kilometres wide and 600 long with dunes 200-feet high. It was here where the earliest experiments in driving cars on sand were made in the 1920s by the likes of Clayton and Bagnold (left). Its southern edge spilled over the massive Gilf Kebir plateau only discovered by Egyptian explorer Kemal el Din in 1922 using Citroen half-tracks. South of the Gilf a sand sheet led to the isolated mountain of Jebel Uweinat which sits right across the borders of Egypt, Sudan and Libya. Our 2003-4 expedition was to last a fortnight and cover some 2500 kilometres. The plan was to pass down the east side of the Sand Sea to the Gilf, explore its eastern valleys and push on south to gilf-in-saharaUweinat mountain which we hoped to climb. From there we’d head back up to the southern cliffs of the Gilf, visiting the real Cave of the Swimmers made famous in the English Patient movie, and then skirt up the western edge of the plateau and plough through the heart of the Sand Sea for a couple of days to the oasis of Siwa, famed since the visit of Alexander the Great.

Our crack team of Saharaholics included photographer Toby Savage who co-presents my Desert Driving dvd, Dr Kevin White who’d worked with Toby on the Fezzan Project in Libya over several seasons searching for prehistoric lake beds, and Oxford climatologist Richard Washington whose bedtime reading included Applied Principles of Arid Zone Aeoleonics, or ‘dust storms’ to you and me.

We’d all travelled in the Sahara with our own four-wheelers, but shipping them to Egypt was never an option: too far, too expensive and, for the three weeks we’d given ourselves, bureaucratically maddening. Better by far to get Toby’s Egyptian mate Mahmoud to lay on three vehicles for the 2500km trip. Mahmoud already had plenty of experience exploring the area himself in his old Series III. For all of us used to looking after ourselves on our own desert trips, being pampered in this way was a bit luxury. Normally navigation, the vehicle, cooking and everything else would be down to us; on this trip we could sit back, enjoy the desert scenery and let someone else carry the load for a change.

pyramid1920A week before Christmas, Mahmoud met us at Cairo airport in a suped-up minibus and whisked us off for lunch on the Nile before we set off for the 400-km slog south to Bahariya oasis where the vehicles awaited us. On the way we speculated as to what those machines might be because, as I knew myself from a recce tour three years earlier, the ‘Gilf’ was tough on cars. Six hundred litres of fuel – 130 gallons per vehicle – was a typical payload, let alone food and water for a fortnight. We’d expect to see no one during out travels, with only the wadis around Jebel Uweinat offering the chance to replenish the single resource: firewood.

SaddatureDriving desert highways at night is always a spooky experience. Small dunes shone in the moonlight and up ahead a cluster of lights signalled a lonely roadhouse, surrounded by trucks and vans serving the towns of the Western Oases. We pulled over for a brew to find everyone on both sides of the counter huddled around a dusty TV screen, On it a hirsute and spaced-out Sadaam Hussein was getting his gums probed by Special Forces, having just been dragged out of his lair.

gg-redNext morning in Bahariya we met up with Mahmoud’s pumpkin-bellied mate Loutfi who ran a local hotel and tourist excursions into the desert and nearby hot springs. Mahmoud and the vehicles were down the road a way: he had left before dawn for Dakhla to pick up the military escort which every tour in the Gilf requires. So we bundled into Loutfi’s 60-series Land Cruiser for the drive south to Abu Mungar and a rendezvous with Mahmoud in the desert.

All around us lay barren desert sands rimmed by the arching 600km escarpment that defines the Western Oases of Bahariya, Farafra Dakhla and Kharga.

In Pharaonic times what lay beyond was known as the Land of the Dead and even today, 5000 years later, the wilderness of dunes, sand sheet and rocky plateaux is still unpopulated, with just half a dozen towns of any size lay between ourselves and the Atlantic, 2000 miles to the west.

gg-inparaLoutfi’s 60 had just had an engine transplant, a grunty 12HT 4-litre turbo diesel, but by lunchtime it was getting distinctly hot. The needle was sitting in the red, there were burning rubber smells coming through the vents and the turbo was making an audible whine. Maybe this wasn’t the machine we’d be wanting in the Gilf after all. Our quartet of backseat drivers watched the needle and muttered, waiting for the turbo or head gasket to blow. Loutfi pulled over to let the machine cool down and, once satisfied the needle had backed off, headed on south. Again the Tojo was cooking itself but Loutfi then confounded us by pulling off the road into the desert. None of us knew quite what was going on but heading solo off-road with overheating problems seemed unorthodox. We churned over a few sandy passes, stopped off at the famous White Desert chalk outcrops and then bundled on to who knows where.

Presently we got back to the highway where Loutfi seemed unsure whether to turn left or right. He drove down the road a bit, looking out west, then turned back north. He spoke no English so we had no idea what was going on; had he lost something? Then he turned round once more, looking hard out to the west. He slammed on the brakes and did a U-ey. Ah ha, there it was: a hooned-out sand circle, a small cairn and three sets of tracks leading out into the void. Following these, within a few clicks we came upon a desert camp, the cars locked in the customary Gilf ‘U’ formation against the northerly wind. Mahmoud was there to greet us with smiley Ibrahim in his Bedouin head-dress, our ‘guard’ Hamed in a snazzy maroon shellsuit, Faraq the mechanic and Aisa, a cool dude in a pair of knackered cowboy boots and matching hat who was to be our cook for the next fortnight.

The identity of our three desert machines was revealed: Mahmoud’s Series III-bodied Toyota, a 110 Land Rover, which also had a 3.5 litre Tojo bus engine and gearbox, and Loutfi’s other car, a red HJ45, the old squared-off Land Cruisers from the late Seventies, but also with a newer six-cylinder 12HT turbo engine crammed under the lid. With potentially the best engine, the 45 was the load carrier; inside it, three 200-litre drums of diesel were lashed down with rope while on the roofs of all cars were additional jerries of fuel which, with the full tanks, added up to 2000 litres, more than enough for as many kilometres over the next fortnight. But with no car running an original engine or less than two decades old, we could see that spannerman Faraq wasn’t going to have a holiday.

That evening, in the cozy shelter of the U-camp, Richard and I keyed in our sat phones with Mahmoud’s so we’d have some sort of comms if we got separated and things turned pear-shaped. Mahmoud outlined tomorrow’s route: we were in the very edge of a series of parallel dunes running north-south; crossing the dunes would be impossible with the cars in their current overloaded state, but we could hopefully run down the 500m-wide corridors between the dunes as far as possible and ease over any low passes to gain ground to the west.

gg-red-car-embededNext morning, knowing that things would get off to a slow start, Toby, Wash and I set off for a wander into the dunes to let the cars catch us up. After an hour there was still so sign of them, so we sat down on a high dune and scanned to the east, ears primed. Finally about 10am they turned up, having had problems getting one of the engines to fire up. We all hopped in and set off down the nearest corridor to see how far we could get. I was in the white 110 which inside looked like it had been a prop in The Birds, with every surface pecked to bits and wires hanging off the dash like splashed spaghetti. Still, the engine sounded good and it carried its weight well.

It didn’t take long before one of the vehicles struck trouble: the 45 had brake problems, but whatever it was Faraq fixed it in a jiffy and we moved on until the next: Mahmoud’s ‘Lanyota’ could not shift into low range. Faraq crawled in and tightened up the linkage with a bit of wire. The rack was also sinking in the gutters which on Defenders and the like means you can’t open the doors. (You couldn’t anyway as the door handles were buggered.) And the air bags which were backing up the rear parabolics were squeezing out like bars of wet soap.

These were fixed as best they could be and we moved on. Even in dune corridors the sand can change imperceptibly; one minute you’re clawing along at a decent pace, next thing the car sinks like a stone – but if you’re fast with the shifting and accelerator you’ll get through it. Momentum is the key to dune driving; once you’ve lost it you may as well pull up and put the kettle on. All of the vehicles got mired in soft patches several times and we all got stuck into pushing the cars back out, the quickest way of getting going if the driver has stopped early enough.

gg-creatPart of the problem was that the Totoya gearboxes in the two Land Rovers were not optimised to the Land Rover axles, creating gaps in the gear ratios big enough to frighten Evel Kineval. Mahmoud’s Land Rover had an even more alarming habit of getting on two wheels while cornering hard, something which Mahmoud tended to do with gusto; I sure was glad I wasn’t in his car. By comparison, Ibrahim in the white 110 was a steady and smooth driver, never taking risks while struggling with the same mixed-up gearing and, it turned out later, no power steering.

gg-stuckBy late afternoon we needed to get west, but high dunes were blocking the way. Mahmoud was nosing about for a way through but the heavy vehicles were struggling in the corridors, let alone trying to get up the sand banks. At one point Mahmoud took an oblique blast at a low dune but his angle was all wrong: halfway up, the wheels on the low side hit a soft patch and the vehicle keeled over to within a couple of degrees of tipping (it’s the front cover of Desert Driving). I knew from personal experience that these sort of recoveries where very tricky. Loufti’s 45 blasted up the dune to help and got mired too, but Ibrahim managed to get the 110 into position to fix a rope on the high side of the Leaning Rover. By backing up, the Series III was heaved up to a less jaunty angle and then, after a bit of digging and with Ibrahim holding it in tension, Loufti pulled it back down onto level ground. Back on the flat, Mahmoud spun round for a good run up, this time getting the wheels a foot in the air, and made it over. Me, I was happy to be in the car with Ibrahim behind the wheel.

That evening we camped at the cairn of Regenfeld, built by the German explorer Gerhard Rholfs in 1872, the first European to venture west into the Libyan Desert. It was here that his party gave up and turned north with their camels, weeks later reaching Siwa by the skin of their teeth. Rholfs left a message in a bottle in the cairn, and since then it’s been the custom for the few passing travellers to do likewise. We left our regards to whoever came next and then spent the night by the dunes as Rholfs and his crew had done 140 years earlier.

gg-gilfNext morning we carried on south and emerged from the dune corridors into a sandy plain dotted with cone hills; outliers of a long-since eroded plateau. One of these cone hills was Abu Ballas, or Pottery Hill. In 1912 the British explorer Ball discovered a cache of smashed clay urns at the foot or the hill and the truth behind an ancient local myth was revealed. Legends had it that for centuries the people of Dakhla suffered raids from “the black raiders from the west” even though everyone knew that ‘west of Dakhla’ was a waterless sea of sand, well beyond the range of a camel caravan. One day the Dakhlans decided to follow their tormentors into the feared desert. They never caught them but their tracks led to Abu Ballas hill and the stash of water urns. They smashed all the urns, destroying the vital water cache, and the raiders never returned, probably dying of thirst on their next raid. Today the remains of urns still litter the base of the outcrop while on its flanks delicate engravings of Ancient Egyptian deities survive.

Well out of the dunes by now, from Abu Ballas we turned west, following what might be called the only track in the Gilf, a braided network of ruts use by the occasional military patrols and exploratory tours like ours.

gg-kamilAt one point we passed a perfectly straight line of 5-gallon Shell petrol tins, half a kilometre long. Marking a temporary WWII landing strip, these flimsy fuel containers date from the 1930s before the superior ‘jerrican’ was pinched from the Germans (hence “gerry can”) and adopted by the Eighth Army, LRDG and Halfords. Like the AK-47 or Douglas Dakota, the original jerrican is a functional design classic, unchanged and unimprovable sixty years on.

Negotiating our way around low outcrops, isolated hills and small dunes ranges, our next destination was the Gilf Kebir plateau. By that evening we were close and camped in the lee of a dune close to Saviem Balise 22. Balise is French for marker post and in 1975 Saviem (later Renault) sponsored an expedition that tried to establish a new trans-Saharan route from the Atlantic to the Nile (see Sahara: West to East). About as useful as a fridge to an Eskimo, the Piste Saviem ‘from nowhere to nowhere’ was never used. All that remains today are the blue and white beacons they left to posterity along the way.

gg-millLeaving the lone marker post, we continued west and slowly, from the horizon’s haze, the low ramparts of the eastern Gilf began to rise. By mid-afternoon we were driving up Wadi Bakht, one of the three major valleys that drain their sands onto the plain. Six thousand years ago, during the brief humid phase before the Sahara reached its current state of desiccation, this valley was occupied by Neolithic hunter-gatherers, much gg-bifacelike the Bushmen of the Kalahari. We camped that night at the site of a major Neolithic occupation, where we kicked up stone tools (right) and grinding stones (left) left by the ancestors of the pharaohs. It was a cold, windy night so Ibrahim grabbed an empty jerry and got a Bedouin singalong underway while we wrapped ourselves in everything we had and eyed-up Aisa’s bubbling stew longingly.

gg-approHaving spent the previous night in one of the valleys winding into the Gilf Kebir plateau, we rounded a spur and powered up the sand banks to the dissected summit of the plateau. Some of the cars had trouble getting a good clear run and so to lighten the load we walked while they took a few runs. Approaching the plateau top required some hairy driving over nasty wavelets of sand and Mahmoud’s Land Rover was again getting on two wheels. We discussed what the cause gg-powerupmight be and decided the vehicle was way over-sprung at the front. Throw in the more flexible parabolics plus a heavy roof load and it didn’t take much cornering force to get some air under the tyres.

We parked up near the summit where a cave looked out to the south like a gun emplacement. Inside, the ceiling was adorned with finely drawn beasts which would have grazed here 6000 years ago, something that was hard to imagine as we gazed out across the arid landscape of isolated hills and the distant sand sheet.

From the cave we descended the west side of the plateau and made our way south towards the Prince Kemal el Din Monument, a cairn built in 1932 by the real English Patient, the Hungarian explorer Laszlo Almasy, to honour this Egyptian royal who gave up the Egyptian throne for a life of freedom and desert exploration.

gg-kemal-el-Din-monumentThe monument is tricky to find, hidden among low hills, and as darkness encroached we blundered around looking for a way through. Suddenly our cars stopped; up ahead the drivers had spotted some lights below the cliffs that had gone out as soon as they saw our group.

gg-suddThe Sahara is still a wild enough place to be unnerved when you see other vehicles and in places banditry prevails as it always did, but such encounters are unknown in the hyper remote Gilf. This lot appeared more nervous of us than we were of them; they were almost certainly smugglers. A lot of trafficking goes on between Libya and Sudan, avoiding the Libyan border posts around Uweinat by slipping through far to the south via Chad or around the Egyptian Gilf.

Mahmoud flashed his lights to draw them out and eventually a Toyota pick-up drew up out of the dark with a bunch of people perched on stack of drums in the back, wrapped up in blankets. Mahmoud had to coax them into talking as they were clearly edgy and wanted to press on, but once they realised we were just tourists and our military escort was packing nothing more than a notebook and a woolly hat, they relaxed a bit. The other two or three vehicles stayed out of sight and it transpired they were Sudanese guest workers taking a short cut home from Libya with more duty-free items than the transit lounge at Dubai airport. As soon as they could, they sped off into the dark to regroup with the other vehicles and moved on out of sight.

Next morning Richard and I walked the few kilometres to the monument on a GPS bearing and got there just as the cars arrived. Inside, just as at Regenfeld, an old tin contains notes from passers-by, including one of the old promotional stickers for my Sahara guidebook. We turned southwest now for Jebel Uweinat, 150-km away, passing isolated volcanic craters poking out of the sand sheet like blisters. As we neared the mountain Mahmoud decided to skirt round the east side into Sudan to pay a visit to the Ain Murr well as our guard seemed OK about it. We spotted a long-abandoned border post right on 22°N, some old portacabins and other junk, and crawled through the rubble foothills until we were back on the sand sheet, with the fin-like outcrop of Jebel Kissu a few miles away. We turned west again and soon located the entrance to the shallow valley below the southern cliffs of Uweinat. As the valley narrowed and got stonier we passed some stone ruins and a stripped-out aeroplane fuselage. Once the cars could not continue, we walked on to discover the distinctly manky, algae-rimmed soak that was Ain Murr well – not a water source to rely on out here.

gg-breadThe bones of a dead Barbary sheep lay by the track and Ain Murr was the
only place we heard the buzz of flies on the whole trip. Rubbish left by previous visitors underlined how much better it always is to camp out in the wild desert. That night Aisa took even longer than usual to serve the meal, by which time some of us had turned in. But then again, he was up till 1am making his delicious flat breads, rolled out with a jack handle and fried on the lid of an old oil drum. gg-girafSlow though he was some nights, Aisa managed to serve fresh food for the entire two-week trip, pulling it out from his various roof rack crates. I had endured miserable food on my previous visit to the Gilf with FJ and Aisa’s far superior offerings reminded me that, just like an army, an expedition also travels on its stomach.

Near the camp we found a jerrican stamped ‘WD 1945’ and a pair of engine cowlings, probably part of the fuselage that later research revealed to be an Italian Savoia bomber sabotaged in 1942 during an LRDG raid when the place had been an Italian base.

gg-talhWe drove back round to the Egyptian side next day and into the much bigger valley of Karkur Talh. The valley is half blocked by a minefield, though why mine a dead-end valley with no water was anybody’s guess. Keeping a wide berth between us and the skull and crossbones signs, we powered over the sandy banks as Toby clung on in the back of the red Cruiser, doors flapping, to get some full-frontal action shots of the Rover-bodied cars.

ggrokart2Around here it rains about once a decade and the valley of Karkur Talh drains the entire eastern side of Uweinat mountain, the only haven of vegetation and talh or acacia trees in the entire arid expanse of the Libyan Desert. It wasn’t only us that appreciated it. Several thousand years ago Neolithic people grazed his animals here and, as at similar sites elsewhere in the Sahara, evidence of his life survives in the painted and engraved rock art on the cave walls and the odd stone tool.

A couple of us were hoping to have a crack at climbing to the 1900m-summit of Jebel Uweinat, a demanding two-day trek along whatever route the mountain offered. In a bit of a strop with his car, Mahmoud needed some persuading to continue up the valley far enough so we could have a shot at it, but as the sky lightened next morning, Richard and I strode up the dry creek bed with three bottles of water and a sleeping bag, soon followed by Toby and even Mahmoud who decided to come along too.

One of the big frustrations on this trip had been the slowness of the crew to pack up and get going in the morning. In the desert it’s customary to get up just after dawn and move off an hour or so later, parking up to enjoy some daylight before sunset. On this trip the drivers were still snoring away at 9am and, with regular problems getting one vehicle or another to fire up, it was always mid-morning before they set off. On Uweinat we were determined to seize the day!

gg-satimageThis was all before the miracle of Google Earth so I carried a pixelated print of a sat photo showing a route taken a year or so earlier by another group which followed a likely looking valley up to the summit plateaux. Unfortunately I’d failed to lay an accurate long-lat grid onto this image and so, even with GPS, our position was just an estimate. In the end we started the day in Sudan, wandered north in to Egypt and, after an agonising late-afternoon up a boulder-filled valley, camped in Libya, about 500m below but still three kms from the summit – quite possibly the first people to camp there since the late Holocene! On the way up Mahmoud had discovered a new art site and our clearing even came with a bit of firewood. We were all knackered from staggering around all day on the rubble slopes and as the route onward was no less clear and would get much steeper, we returned to base next morning, getting back to the cars on the last dregs in our water bottles. The mountain would be there next time.

gg-whoodUweinat was our southernmost point and from here it was north all the way, around the Gilf Kebir plateau to Siwa, still about 1000 miles away. We headed for the Gilf and the Wadi Sora cave, made famous as the ‘Cave of the Swimmers’ in the English Patient movie. As we neared the cave later that day we passed some clothes scattered in the sands, the remains of Somalian refugees who’d been dumped here by unscrupulous people traffickers while on their way to Benghazi and a new life in Europe. Loutfi had come across their bodies some months before. Besides the old favourites of guns and drugs, right across the Sahara it is now illegal migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and Asia who made money for the smuggling mafias. I’d passed a similar group in Algeria a year earlier, dumped the night before on a plateau, 100km from the nearest town.

The famous ‘swimming’ figures in the cave at Wadi Sora are nothing special compared to the wonders in Karkur Talh, but the cove scooped into the south-facing escarpment of the Gilf made a great place to camp. It was Christmas Eve and from my suitcase I pulled out a pyramid of Ferrero Rocher chocolates to pass among the ambassadors settled around the fire.

gg-stickyBefore I’d left the UK I’d been given a mysterious waypoint, said to be for an intriguing and at that time secret new rock art site discovered nearby, just a year earlier. Not knowing quite what to expect, we were amazed at what we found when we located the point: an overhanging shelter 30 feet wide covered in layers of rock paintings and engravings, both mundane and obscure and all like nothing I’d seen before. We sat back in amazement, snapping away, again and again finding new detail and connections. Mysterious headless creatures shared the wall with handprints,gg-hands rows of dancing figures and long-vanished beasts. Said to be the most significant rock art discovery in the Sahara in 40 years, it shows that the Sahara has many secrets to give up yet.

We were now heading around the west side of the Gilf, at times creeping over the Libyan border on to easier terrain, not that there was anyone there to stop us. Without the plateau’s protection, the north winds blew down on us and chilled the day and next morning Mahmoud’s Land Rover was so poorly it needed a good session with the gas stove under the sump before being towed reluctantly into life.

We curved back east towards the edge of the Gilf and found ourselves on a trail of camel bones: the old raiding route from Kufra in Libya to Dakhla (via Abu Ballas, see above). By mid-afternoon the plateau receded and before us the pale dunes emerged: the final run through the Great Sand Sea to Siwa which, even with the now lightened cars, would be the most difficult part of the route.

ggglass-cupWe came upon a group of cairns marking an entry point to a northbound corridor which led to the so-called Silica Glass Field, discovered in the 1930s by one of Bagnold’s chums. The origin of the pale green silica glass (left) is still a mystery: was it the result of melted sand following an extra-terrestrial impact, or a more prosaic flint-like concretion of sediments? Kevin had his ideas as we strolled around the gravel corridor like beachcombers, unearthing fragments of glass. Some bits gg-tuthad even been carved into Neolithic tools, and a few years ago it transpired that an emerald-like gem in a piece of Tutankamun’s jewellery (right) was in fact silica glass, suggesting the pharaohs (or people they traded with) roamed further west of the Nile than was originally thought.

We left the glass field, with 500km of dune driving ahead of us. The Great Sand Sea is composed of dunes that run in parallel lines for hundreds of kilometres from the Siwa Depression to the Gilf Kebir in the south. But the further north you go the more confused the dunes become; the easy corridors close up so that by the time you near Siwa the dunes are in a complex, non-linear jumble that makes progress very slow and dangerous, even with our greatly reduced I’ve never been a fan of dune driving and was not looking forward to this section; besides the dangers, dune driving is hard on the cars and your nerves, and is not even that interesting. Although it’s exhilarating when you get it right, because of the need to maintain speeds or sink, it’s only a matter of time before you blow it.

gg-IdeciIt was my turn to be in Mahmoud’s car that morning and I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect. Over the previous few days either the flexing body or the need to really slam the doors shut had cracked the window glass which was now held together with stick-on shading. Then, when the back door I was leaning on flew open as Mahmoud executed one of his signature swerving manoeuvres, I decided enough was enough – I would rather take my chances being brained by the oil drums in Loutfi’s Toyota than put up with Mahmoud’s erratic driving.

By the end of the day the gravel corridors closed up and filled with sand and we began to take to the dune banks to reach the adjacent corridor leading north. We were all secretly pleased when Mahmoud decided against pushing on for the direct route to Siwa and instead chose to skirt around the less severe formations to the west, along the Libyan border. Even then the cars regularly sank into unseen soft patches. We ended the day close to the Libyan border, knowing that tomorrow there was no choice and we’d have to head northeast, back into the Sand Sea, to reach Siwa.

A heavy dew covered us all the following morning, a sign that we were in the more humid Mediterranean climatic zone. The dune lines kept pushing us northward as the drivers scanned for a low pass to make a hop to the east. At one point Mahmoud was on the very crest of a drop when a harsh gear change popped a half shaft – not surprising with a 3.5-litre bus engine turning the original Rover axle. In fact it turned out to be only a stripped hub drive flange and was easily changed while we warmed ourselves in the sands over a quick brew.

gg-fallenWith drive restored Tobe got into position to film the cars coming down the slope. Loutfi rolled down in the red Tojo then Mahmoud eased over the crest, but for some daft reason eased to the left where a slight hump pushed up the wheels and slowly tipped the top-heavy Land Rover on its side with a thump and a clatter.

gg-forafewFor a few seconds the upside down engine turned over, sucking sand through the snorkel gg-falenand oil into the cylinders. A few moments later it stalled and Mahmoud emerged from the capsized wagon unhurt and flopped down in the sand in shock, followed by Aisa and Faraq the mechanic. Luckily Mahmoud had had a cargo barrier fitted which had stopped gas bottles and the like bouncing off their heads, but the roof rack’s contents spilled down the side of the dune.

gg-rolloWhile these were collected, Ibrahim brought the white Rover down the dune with no drama and a rope was run from the fallen car to the powerful Tojo. The conspicuous silence from the crew made it clear that they too thought that Mahmoud had been an accident waiting to happen, though as it turned out it was his pride which received the biggest dent. Excuses that the parabolics sprang back and pushed him over were diplomatically dealt with as the car was dragged down the slope and pulled back onto its wheels (see video below). Faraq set about ejecting the oil from the cylinders and removed the sand-caked air filter which could be cleaned later. Just an hour after the tumble the Mahmoudmobile started with a puff of black smoke and settled down to a steady tickover.

Chastened by his experience, we continued cautiously northeast, now recce-ing possible passes on foot and easing gently down the slip faces, knowing that it wasn’t over until it was over. Limestone pavements protruded from the dunes and bits of vegetation popped up here and there. Our homesick crew could smell Siwa and were keen to press on, not least Ibrahim whose wife was expecting their seventh child any day. But by dusk we did the right thing and stopped a couple of hours out of Siwa on a chalky outcrop studded with fossilised sea-shells.

gg-hot-spring-siwaBy mid-morning next day we’d worked our way through the dune maze and were looking down on the ink blue lake which led to Siwa, feeling like we’d finally come ashore from a long sea voyage. On his home turf now, Ibrahim led the way through the dunes to the hot spring of Bir Wahed (below) where were scrubbed off a fortnight of Saharan grime and ordered a string of Oranginas and crisps as if they were the very fruits of Eden.

See also this map from a couple of years later in 2006Gilfer-small

And this map show my three visits to the Gilf

K is for Kidnapped in 2003

319KDM42WRL._SL500_lastpicTowards the end of Desert Riders in 2003, Jon and I met Rainer Bracht and his party in Tam (right), a couple of weeks before they were all abducted off the Graveyard Piste (Route A2 in the book) along with 27 other tourists.

Part of ‘Group II who did the full six months and ended up in far northern Mali, he co-wrote 177 Tage Angst (left) with his wife Petra. I considered having their book translated at the time, but in 2004 was told by my German reader (a bike rider but not a Saharan)  that is wasn’t so good.

2003routeThen I recently came across parts of their story archived on a German moto magazine’s website from 2004. Even reading it through Google translators helped fill in the many gaps in their baffling ordeal – not least how they got from a canyon near Illizi, right across Algeria to northern Mali as far as Taoudenni (see map right). You can try and start reading it all here:
• Part One
• Part Two
• Part Three

Or just follow it below. There’s a gallery at the bottom of the page.

The hostage drama in the Sahara, Part 1

The Nightmare

177 days of the Sahara driver Rainer Bracht was with 31 other hostages in the hands of Algerian terrorists. At home, his wife Petra experienced during its one of the most spectacular search and rescue operations in postwar history. In a multi-part documentary MOTORCYCLE now published the records of the two. What happens when a motorcycle vacation for inferno?

Sahara hostages

Petra: Tomorrow is Sunday, the 9th March Rainer’s birthday. Slowly, I am in great trouble. For a week of Rainer and the other three boys no sign of life from Algeria. On 7 they wanted to be on the ferry. Something’s not right. Yesterday called on Christian’s friend Esther, totally excited. Christian was overdue for a week. I reassured her still, he was sure stayed with Rainer, Martin and Arjen longer. But the latest from Genoa to Tunis or Rainer would have reported it! He has frequently called by this tour. Said that I’m missing him. Normally we always travel together, but due to a surgery I’m not going this time. In his penultimate call from Djanet he raved about the beautiful dunes that told how well run everything, the mopeds, the tour. From Illizi he reported yet, that they have abandoned the planned route over Tarat or Qued Imirhou – the Tarat-east route is only an unattractive junk slopes and Qued impassable after heavy rains. There go to the graves runway tomorrow. As much as I would like! As much as I love myself on a previous trip to Africa into this landscape, the red sand with black stones and green bushes. And then he added that he call back from Tunisia! And would never go on vacation without me, because that would somehow nothing! Thanks, Rainer. I am glad that he missed me! Arjen friend Marten ringing through. Where is Arjen? In the night I call the emergency number of the embassy in Algiers. Everything in me is terrified! I feel that something has happened. Petra Bracht senses instinctively that Rainer can not stop calling. However, they do not know that he is being held by Islamist militants for the past two weeks. Approximately 24 hours after the call from Illizi was the holiday of four desert rider with one blow to end. Rainer: It is the evening of 23 February. We camp just before the fountain Ain el Hadjadj in the dunes. Suddenly bikes are heard. Really strange, because usually no one goes in the twilight. I look carefully and discover a convoy on the graves slopes. Several pick-ups with fitted machine guns, a red Toyota Hiace and three bikes. Back top long-bearded passenger with Kalashnikovs slung. Does not look good. When I turn around, I discover my passengers are visible from afar on a dune. Damn! The convoy promptly turn off in our direction, the armed men grouped around us. Strangely, I have no fear. If it were fundamentalists of the GIA, it would not have taken the other, but equal murdered. As it turns out, they belong to a Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, GSPC. We have nothing to fear, they assert. Once a few “little things” would be regulated, we could go again. But first we have to come. We pack and start each with a guard on the bike after a short runway graves to the south. These side slope is extremely difficult and the pillion-riding in the dark plus hairy. In a heavy rock passage Arjen crashes, dislocated his arm. He can drive, but has a lot of pain. At least the shoulder is not dislocated. Completely exhausted we camp at daybreak in hiding. We are to eleventh. The Swiss Toyota crew Marco Hediger, Reto Walter, Sibylle Graf and Silja Stäheli and Frank Gottlöber, Jürgen Matheis and Sascha Notter with two KTM and a Africa Twin. They were taken the night before us. Under cover of darkness, the convoy sneaks into the next night on. We build on the desert slopes just 20 km until dawn. Three nights is the way until we reach the final hiding place. We must be about 90 kilometers southwest of Illizi. Petra: On Monday, the 10th March Algiers confirmed that the four men did not leave the country. I totally messed up. What do you do now? The Foreign Office has been informed by Christian’s mother. The idea of going to the police, I reject. ‘m Afraid to hear my husband had grown up, and anyway, who go to Algeria would not be surprised. The sub-forum on the web! That are closer! Who has the four Endurists Martin Hainz, Christian Green, Rainer Bracht and the Dutchman Arjen Hilbers last? On the same day we put the members first demand the net. The Foreign Office to take the matter seriously, however, not really. They probably have their reasons, but at the moment I am almost mad. It will be better when we explain to assume the cost of cars and helicopters. Finally, the search begins. On the graves runway first. A friend of Tamanrasset reports by mail from previous heavy rains in the region. They may have difficulty getting by. Let there be progress but also bandits and raid possible. Esther thinks about flying to Illizi. She speaks fluent French and has a valid visa for Algeria. I ponder half the night: When the four a technical problem forced to stay in an unhappy place … We had Qued Imirhou years ago just such a situation. Nightmare! The idea of being surprised in the night by a half meter high mud avalanche … Meanwhile, more and more people are signing in forum Sahara give untold information. The nights I sit at the computer during the day often up to eleven hours on the phone. Can call, call: the information go back and forth. And Martin’s parents in Bad Tolz do not have an internet connection! I think they laboriously by phone to date. Martin was always of the view that the Internet is a waste of time killing machine. For me it has become the hub of the world. Rainer: By day, our hiding place turns out to be a partially covered with stone slabs crevice in a canyon of Tamelrik Mountains. Two meters wide and 20 to 30 feet long. »Hotel mujahedin,” as it is called our guards. Since October live some of them here, even built the connection to the graves slopes and managed everything you need for a hostage-taking approach. Within sight of the guards we can move relatively freely in the canyon, build a stone seating set and table out of my tent over a solar sail. Loamy brown water, there are a few holes in the bottom of the gorge. Some of us are disgusted, but I decided to drink and eat everything that is there. In the morning there is bread as much as we like, noon and night lentils, beans, rice, pasta and cereal in various combinations. Marc conveniently, nor can save jam, cereal and other goodies from his Toyota before the car was left on the road with motorcycles. We were allowed to take our luggage. Some even still cheat by camera and film, while GPS, maps and guidebooks migrate to the kidnappers stocks. The one needed for the jihad, the Holy Krieg.Petra: Search on the graves runway is terminated unsuccessfully! Meanwhile, the sub-forum announces another missed group: four Swiss Toyota driver, also overdue since the end of February. I’m in the greatest excitement. When the storm had passed through a disaster, but then you would have to find something! Garments, motorcycle parts, tents … something! One could certainly save themselves! It just can not be that all fall at the same time a mud avalanche victim. Arjen’s relatives say suddenly, our people had never arrived in Illizi! Arjen’ve only spoken of Tarat and Qued Imirhou and this is also stored in his computer. Ominously, provide neither tents nor sleep in Illizi proof of the group. Maybe the stupid registration forms were not merely been filled … I’m now almost crazy because it all depends on my memory of the last call. Rainer was Illizi – I’m sure. Repeatedly call people who were themselves in Algeria or tell me who might have seen her last. Including tour professionals like Gerhard Göttler, Axel Därr, Dieter Werner and Hoepfner Nöther. Especially they are important people! I do not know what I do without them würde.Rainer: Soon we come with our guards talking and find out that their organization GSPC, an offshoot of the Islamic FIS party was, who won the early 90s, the elections in Algeria. However, this was subsequently annulled by the military, after which the GSPC moved against the regime in Algiers in underground fights. A motley group sits around us, from the farmer to the university graduates, only united by the belief that an Islamic society is the solution to all problems. The GSPC is organized into nine divisions, each comprising 40 to 50 fighters and a commanding Emir. We are prisoners of the 5th Division with the Emir Abd el Razak Amaria Abu Haidara – as a former paratrooper and Army deserter also called Para el. He is regarded as extremely ambitious, experienced in abductions and manages our action supposedly alone. The troupe was apparently been on his way to Niger to buy weapons. As they hit the slopes the graves, they came up with the brilliant idea to fund their arms purchases by kidnapping tourists who are traveling on the slopes. Petra: A new motorcycle group is missing. Jürgen Matheis, Frank Gottlöber and Sascha Notter. They are not on the 14th for Booked ferry and arrived in March were also on the graves piste. In the opposite direction, from Bordj Omar Driss to Illizi. When I think of the German Embassy in Algiers by giving the new development Maas woman, she almost loses his composure. Now is finally clear that something very different is behind it as getting lost or mishaps. Rainer 9 March, today is my 46th Birthday. It’s pretty bad. Although Sibyl and Silja even muster a bouquet of desert flowers, I can not repress the thought of home. Normally, I would come home today, and we would have celebrated. Petra is now final for a certainty that something bad must have happened. I hope she keeps it by. The next day the Mudjahs appear with four other hostages. Accidentally discovered by our guards, as they sought an escape route for road Illizi Fort Gardel. A path through the deep canyons they did not, but the four Augsburger, who made their all-wheel Iveco’s on a guelta, a water point, pause. With Kurt and Erna Schuster and Michaela Spitzer and Witek Mitko we are now to the fifteenth. It is tight in the Felsspalte.Petra: To limit the search area, we ask Ms. Maas on scanned again that our people may have entered at a military outpost in Hassi Bel Guebbour, El Adeb or Larache In Amenas. The thing now seems to be taken more seriously. Zermürbenderweise are the Dutchman Arjen records unchanged for the view that our group had never arrived in Illizi! The chaos in my head is continually increasing. Why I remembered the last phone call not accurate? But who would ever have guessed how important this would not? The search is directed to the opposite direction. Esther has now finally flown to Algiers. Messed with the nerves she called. I do not get it right what she wants. Just that it is now looking even. With Mr. Zegri, the campground operator of Illizi, she drives two days long from the Tarat-piste, while helicopters and search there on Qued Imirhou from the air. Mr. Rainer Zegri knows, and I put all hopes on him. But the search has no result, after two days they returned with ruined tires back from driving too fast on the crummy slopes. So also on the route Tarat nothing. I am driven by the fear that we are looking in the wrong place. I express the Foreign Office to assume that they may have been arrested by the military near the Libyan border. Could not be, it is from Berlin, an incident should be reported within three days of the German authorities! Well, the good man has never been outside Europas.Rainer: With a small radio we hear German wave. Thus we learn that we are at least missing. Apparently, there are suspicions that we had lost our way, as the Americans would eventually shut off the GPS because of the early Iraq war. Or be drowned in a wadi or left lying without gasoline. No word of a Bekennerschreiben.Petra: In sub-forum, travelers who have obviously made the last picture of our boys report. It shows it on the afternoon of 21 On February Tin Taradjelli Pass. Tragically, the pass is before the crucial bifurcation Tarat slope or Illizi. So the key question remains open. Now all three groups. All disappeared between 23 and 25 February and must have been in the area of the dunes along the Oued By Stieges Samene. Arjen’s members have taken leave and research team. I find it even more difficult for alone, either friends or traveling far away. Finally I will make with our brothers and sisters the “free table everyday crisis.” We try to give each other and Rainer Kraft. Rainer: Finally! With the disappearance of the Augsburg seems to be clear that a crime exists. Algerian army helicopters circling suddenly over the region. We must now crevice day no longer leave. First, we are totally euphoric, try to enter characters, painting at night SOS in the sand. But they circle and circle, turn off again. They need to see us! Eventually, they stay away. Frustrated, we slump back into the now adopted lethargy. Almost a month it is now already. Up the smokes tobacco, read everything readable, already played the homemade card games list x times. Some shimmy from day to day, hoping constantly new, I’m trying rather to adjust to the situation. Worst of all, never to be alone. As the source dries up under the rock with the beginning of the summer, I volunteer to fetch water at a guelta. An hour way. Easy. But it’s a change of pace. But when others then wash with the high difficulty towed water hair or feet, it is difficult to remain friendly. X. will tablets. We have a few, but ration them for really severe pain. X. is depressed, it was probably before. An attempt to break the journey, which now went completely wrong. I do not know how you have to be built to endure this eternal waiting. Unstable anyway nicht.Petra: In sub-forum offer all people who wanted to continue for now to Algeria, their help! We ask them to warn other tourists, because so far hardly anyone knows about the matter. They distribute leaflets with messages Search on the ferry, beat them on the campsites in Tunisia and Algeria. However, in Algeria they disappear immediately. On 17 March brings PICTURE first little article. The beginning of an avalanche! Rainer: On the fiftieth day a helicopter lands near and burns down a pick-up of fundamentalists. They see us in the rugged terrain not? We must immediately leave the hideout and pull 500 meters into a cave. Petra: On 19 March flies Maas woman from the embassy with a Swiss colleague itself to Illizi. You rent cars at all, which can roll and provide Mr. Zegri commissioned to conduct the search operation. Weird is how I learn later that all search teams, 17 against clock every day back. Strange in the size of the area. I often wonder which side of the Algerians are actually. It was decided to send out a camel caravan that was to scour the area for two weeks. So you would see more than cars, they say. Luckily, the Swiss have money there. The people down there so far, all expenses on their cap. Sometimes I am speechless. On 24 March breaks up the caravan. Parallel to this increase helicopter with thermal imaging cameras. And by the night when Illizi there is still no evidence. Rainer: On 30 April 19th is our Wedding day. A day that we hardly register at home. Here it feel quite different. To me it goes bad, and I’m afraid Petra also. I think a lot of sie.Vor some time, the Emir has disappeared with 20 fighters, only runs via radio contact. Finally, the message is that this squad has taken 17 other tourists as hostages. Now there are 32 prisoners, but not claiming responsibility. Meanwhile, food is scarce, rationed the bread and the water content in the soup steadily larger. Christian tries to speed up negotiations by our release. As a result, our leader Osama comes to such useful things like new shoes, otherwise nothing will change. In my opinion we do not negotiate, but other than us. With this view I am quite alone. That would probably beyond my horizon of “wait and see”, they say. I hate illusions. But I’m pretty patient and keep good relations with ordinary warriors more important. Like Osama, who regularly zusteckt us something, or Abu Hafsa, who sometimes secretly bread for us backt.Petra: More and more tourists are reported missing! Now the authorities are wide awake, so many well-equipped teams can not just disappear. On 1 April is the Foreign Office a crisis. Slowly all understand what happened. But if it’s a kidnapping – why is there no demands? Police report, I must now make a missing persons report. Note Rainer’s personal information. And take fingerprints and hair for DNA analysis … I hope that you will not ever need. I know they live! Part 2 follows in MOTORCYCLE 25/2003

The hostage drama in the Sahara, Part 2

The Wait

In the second diary part of the 177 days’ duration abduction by the mujahedin Rainer Bracht depicts the liberation of the hostages and the first subsequent grueling run through the Algerian desert. Meanwhile, his wife Petra followed the increasingly complex rescue attempts by the German government. And both try to survive the months of anxiety and waiting. He in Algeria, they in Detmold.

Rainer: For nearly three months, we are now sitting in the holes of the rocks Tamelrik Mountains, and nothing moves. The search helicopter not come for a long time, the food is scarce and nothing more depressing. We just doze off in front of us. The Constitution in our group is different. I, by nature, more patient, it is quite good, the other is our captivity to pretty. Some are depressed. The heat is more extreme. It’s almost May soon as the summer begins. Some time ago, the boss of the kidnappers has gone to a second group hostage, holding only by radio contact. Petra: The matter has now reached the highest levels. Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Schily were in Algiers, Chief Federal Prosecutor Kay participants initiated an investigation against an unknown terrorist organization, GSG 9 is located in Algiers on standby as well as officials from the Federal Criminal Police Office and Interpol. No one would have ever expected such a thing! One suspects a daunting logistics behind it all. There are now 31 people disappeared, including vehicles. 15 German, ten Austrians, four Swiss, a Swede and a Dutchman. And to hide and care for them is not so easy in the Sahara. It is now convinced that the disappeared live. But there is still no claim of responsibility. Rainer: On 5/13/03 added a radio and a radio message saying our guards into euphoria: the other 17 hostages were free. They congratulate us, in three to four days was safe for us all over. Our group is in high spirits. Only Martin and I remain skeptical. We believe that only if the Mudjas without us disappear on the horizon, we are truly free. The hiding place we have to evacuate in haste and join the rest of the remaining troops. After four days of runway wild ride we meet the emir (commander) in Erg Issouane, north slope of the graves. What we learn is disillusioning: Non negotiations had our fellow redeemed, but the Algerian military. The hostages were unharmed, but some of it Mudjas to-come. Now there’s danger, the kidnappers are now on the run. Spread over several pick-ups, a new hiding is searched. Petra: Meanwhile, the detectives take care of the matter in Germany. Twice a week they come over, are quite touching. With them, everything will be better. I finally contact. The previously competent Foreign Office moved out voluntarily not a syllable. The officials also help me as mundane things like Rainer’s work situation, to regulate the health insurance and pensions. The absences are always longer, and besides, no one knows what state he comes back … Thank god Rainer employer behaves extremely fair.Rainer: After a few days we find a small and steep dunes boiler, which is available only from the air. By radio Mudjas order the food and spare parts that a little later – brought – presumably by members of the base of supporters. The kidnappers are well organized. Already on the way here we passed depots with fuel and food. We remain five days to repair the dilapidated and battered car accidents. Since Arabs only screws, if properly what is broken, there are regular periods. To pass the time we help. Missing a hole somewhere, it is promptly shot into the Kalashnikov. The heat is bad. We only have one side attached to one of Toyota’s plans, under which we crowded together like sardines squat. The water is transported in 200 liter barrels that previously fuel, oil or chemicals contained, thus affecting the taste impact is not always positive. One of the women prisoners, the question arises whether it is possible for the drink, but it was a health hazard. Leave it, I tell her, then you’re thirsty tomorrow, or drink it, then you might get in 30 years Krebs.Petra: We have an appointment at the Foreign Office! He-wait, I was not too much of it. However, I’m getting ready for the day as much as possible. We learn to work with the Algerians course good, everyone give his best. But it was a lot of tact necessary in order not to bite on granite. Even if we had trained hostage rescue teams like the GSG 9th From the family circle, I’m the only one who was ever in Algeria and can not imagine working with African authorities halfway. Rainer: Finally we leave, head north-west through the erg, again crossing the graves in the north runway and pass the dunes of Erg Tifernine. From there it goes through the slopes of Bordj Omar Driss to Amguid, direction Arak. Sometimes we are on the go 36 hours without a break, the day in the meantime mercilessly scorching sun. The pace is grueling, often we can just cling to the open shop space. Multiple roll over the pick-ups, but miraculously no one is seriously injured. It is really bad when the Mudjas see gazelles. Gazelle meat tastes delicious, like deer. With up to 100 km / h then rush yourself otherwise level-headed driver with us through the terrain, firing wildly until the animal killed ist.Petra: The press has finally added weather and reporters stationed in Illizi. As they get little information as soon circulate more audacious speculation. In general I can put away the things. But if in local stations now and leaves strangers any bullshit about Rainer tell me sometimes go through the nerves. On 5/16/03 we are in-vited to Berlin again. The atmosphere is more relaxed than last time I trust gradually, that everything possible is being done to rauszuholen our people there. In the evening I write a letter to the Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, thank him for his cooperation with Germany, hit him my trust and hope from. Maybe it helps. Meanwhile, another German is still missing. Klaus Bockelmann, Archaeologist. I ver-seeking, endure with Arab peace. Oddly enough, I am convinced that the hostages are not abused. As past kidnappings in Yemen have shown that. I know Rainer is alive and strong in crisis situations. This also makes me strong! He is with me every second, we are one. Rainer: After a few days we will reach a water point in the Mouydir mountains, north of Arak. But all around is Kamelkot, the water is contaminated by urine. Hassan, with 72 of the elders assured, the Qur’an says, camel urine is healthy … Maybe rub the warts, but to drink? Two days later, we prefer to walk another hour to three beautiful lakes. Paradise we call this place, where we will stay for three weeks. There are water without end, we can even swim. In addition, we are out of sight of Mudjas and may move freely. Only at mealtimes, we come together to see about three months finally almost like privacy. How we have longed for it! Each dozing in a corner, up to 16 hours a day. However, there are poisonous vipers horn. Their tracks are visible in the morning sometimes 20 to 30 inches from the head end of the sleeping bag. In three weeks, we killed nine pieces. But since we are not on the menu for the Vipers, only danger is when one enters or proposes to one. But probably not affect us anyway too viel.Petra: On 13/05/03 logs suddenly by 21 clock the Cid Bielefeld. There had been a hostage rescue in Algeria. But not all are free. Whether they are still likely to come over? Course. Keep calm! It does not feel as if it would be Rainer. Confirm it when they arrive. There were two groups, and one had been freed by the military. All the hostages alive. One officer stayed here. No one knows what will happen in the next few hours. As of now, there is a news blackout – no info, even to close family members no longer. The next morning, it’s the top news on the radio, the freed Austrian ex-hostages texteten it euphoric in the mics at the airport, all are free. Unfortunately, only all Austrians. The phone is ringing is hot – endless calls and congratulations I must reject, no, Rainer is not there. Despite a news blackout, I now inform the next of kin. Rainer: The Mudjas were shopping. In addition to clothing and food they bring a large bottle of perfume for each of the women. Touching! In the ver-western clothes we suspect that it is the “estate” of the freed hostages. A camel is killed, which greatly improved the supply situation again. Only our vegetarian feels weak because he refuses even pasta and rice that have been cooked with the meat. Poorly comprehensible principles. As an avowed hater now I would eat carrots and carrots. Petra: 05/15/03. The Austrian newspaper Krone sold the expedition leader Gerhard winter dish exclusively the terrible experiences of the ten Austrian hostages under the scorching desert sun, Michaela and Andrew Joubert Kiehlechner also report on the weeks in the hands of the Mujahideen and their happy deliverance. It is almost unbearable. At 16.5. We are once again loaded into the Foreign Office. The relatives of the freed hostages no more. Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer talks about his recent visit to Algiers and a long conversation with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Again, they emphasize the loading hutsamkeit, which must be negotiated with. The following Sunday, I write one more time to Bouteflika, but also to Joschka Fischer, Gerhard Schröder and Schily. I am now convinced that everything conceivable is done to bring back the remaining hostages unharmed. Wait, wait again. I grit my teeth. The rest I can do also, definitely. I have to stay strong! Rainer will take me when he comes back. In the evening, I ask the police to talk to Rainer’s parents. I think she does not trust me anymore. The cops can something beruhigen.Rainer: On 06/25/03 our guards shoot a video and write a letter of confession with our help. Addressed to the Swiss and the German Embassy. Arjen gets nothing because his Dutch representative is not in the guide. When we read that the Emir calls for 45 million euros for us, we are horrified. His confidants reassure us. Firstly, three million per person would be clear, on the other hand it was indeed only the basis for negotiation. Originally, he had wanted to extort 150 million and the release of Algerian GSPC members from custody. Of which they would have dissuaded him. We also have the opportunity to write a personal letter. Sybille my translated into French, so that it can be controlled. I report that we have no worries, because our “tour guide” takes care of everything. Even the weather was good, no one would freeze. With such stupid jokes Petra will notice that I hale and hearty bin.Petra: On Monday, 05/19/03, chaos breaks out again! The remaining hostages were on their way home, it trumpeted from all channels. The phone is not standing still. But again, it’s not true. An unconfirmed report, many of which could be carried away. Even Claudia Roth announced that four Augsburg were on their way home. It is their constituency. The children have decorated the apartment. A day later we can see in “Beckmann” Family Bleckmann in the ARD. At 21.5. Family Rupping on ZDF in “Johannes B. Kerner.” Day after, there is a major earthquake in the near Algiers. But I’m sure the hostages are far enough away. On Friday, 5/23/03, there are 90 days! I am getting tired, which is not to describe. The moment at which we can take us back into the arms will come. And only ours. Our 19 Wedding day! Somehow I pack also. Send love letters friends. Rainer: When the written letter of confession and our belongings stowed in the car, nor will quickly patched the tire, then we leave. Add up to 48-hour marathon stages we race towards the southwest. To Mali, as we suspect. The water supplies are replenished way. In a former French nuclear test site. No problem, the secretary of the Emir claiming radioactivity is washable. Petra: Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer Schily have meanwhile written back. I have read several times Mr. Schilys letter. It is very personal and helps me badly. Meanwhile, soon is Pentecost. With the Africa Festival in Lißberg to which we have been going for many years. Since I can not away, I pray, read a message. Also, in the Sahara Club and the “DÄRR ‘meeting. There they even want to take a minute of silence for the hostages. I can not put into words how I am pleased that! Thank you that it is people like you! Soon available on my second hip replacement surgery. I’m afraid not to be there at the crucial moment and have to force myself not to cancel the surgery. Today is the 113th Day since the last time we talked. We have not seen us already four and a half months. At that time there was snow. The almond tree that Rainer so like, he did not see bloom. Meanwhile, we already harvest the cherries. Rainer: The Sahara summer is upon us, and the heat becomes increasingly worse. Often prevail loose 50 degrees in the shade. It exists only rarely. With us on the open shop space, the kidnappers chase through the desert südalgerische. As the water points are far apart, they ration the water. Sometimes two liters per day. I share it in, every hour a sip, the chewing and long in the mouth for. It is grausam.Petra: On 17.6.03 I have to go to the hospital. A serious way. I explain the situation in which I am, and it shields me, as much as possible. The operation runs smoothly, and I’m recovering surprisingly quickly. One less problem! The last day I treat myself to a visit to the hairdresser. It is glorious. After two weeks, I’m back home with crutches. Everyday life is arduous. I learn that a member wishes to be self initiative now, with an Austrian expedition and without professional police force. I hold my breath, people do not know this country. The parents of Martin and Arjen put him gently back against it. It should go well and it will turn out good, everything possible is being done – I leave no other thoughts. And I am convinced Rainer also nicht.Rainer: The 29.6.03 is one of those unbearably hot days. On an ongoing basis wältigen me obsessions of cold drinks – beer, water, milk shakes. Afternoon we rest scattered in sparse shade of acacia and tamarisk. Suddenly, someone hears a scream. Sascha, paramedic by profession, Michaela found before in a coma. Together with Abd el Aziz, the chef and physician, they give her a bag of saline infusion. More is not there. To save them, two to three liters would have been necessary. After an hour she dies, having obtained without consciousness. We buried her at night in the headlights of Iveco. It is awful. The Mudjas affected. Even completely exhausted, comes to me for the first time, the idea that our abduction could take a bad end. Not by violence of the fundamentalists, but I do not know how long we the heat and still withstand inhuman driving around. Not death scares me, Michaela died peacefully and without pain, but not afford to let alone the feeling of Petra. I feel that she needs me, waiting for me. Charged me very much that I could not help her with her surgery. The next day we reach a What-serstelle. So we could have had enough reserves to prevent Michaela’s death. Sasha is not about long hinweg.Petra: In Berlin letters have been received! The abductees re-port that they go well and they were well treated. I am infinitely glad Rainer buy new shoes. At 26.7. notify the police with me, there was a call. In Esther, Green Christian friend: all are healthy, have reported on a French. Not more. But it is enough. The police is preparing for further calls. The 155 Day. I have completely retired. Think of experiences that Rainer and I had together. Also funny that I have to laugh again. Presumably, they tell each other stories in the desert also. Three days later, on 7/29/03, the police shows up again. Michaela Spitzer was dead apparently died of heat stroke before some time. I’m as stunned. The rumor of a death already circulated a while. Christian Schuster, the son of the elderly couple Augsburg is, almost by-shot it. I have said repeatedly, without confirmation, I do not believe it. Now it is there. I’m hard to get over. Once again I call the family to free daily crisis table together. I would love to scream so loud that they can hear it to the Sahara: Stop finally on! It is enough to come to an end Rainer: We race on towards Mali. The kidnappers hoped to better negotiate there, the government is more cooperative. On the radio I get the message, the Algerian military would consider a corridor open to allow our passage to the neighboring country. Someone caught a glimpse of a GPS – we are located 35 kilometers south of Timiaouine. We did it, we are on Malian territory. First part and last part 23/2003.Dritter MOTORCYCLE MOTORBIKE in 26/2003

The hostage drama in the Sahara, Part 3 (archive version)

The exemption

In the last diary of the nearly six-month kidnapping by Algerian terrorists Rainer Bracht portrays the grueling escape through Mali. Petra Bracht persecuted under which the struggle of the German Government to a breakthrough in the negotiations. As on 17th August finally the saving “You are free,” sparks through the airwaves, it can no longer really believe.

Rainer: Finally we have crossed the border to Mali and may a few days to rest near a fountain. For weeks we have been in the now red-hot South Algeria with our kidnappers on the run. At the well succeeds Sascha, unnoticed to make a Tuaregs attention to our situation. In fact, the message a little later reached the mayor of Tessalit. There comes a radio message that we should contact you. But not as hoped by the German authorities, but the mayor of Illizi in Algeria. The kidnappers are now back on his feet! Way immediately! The limit is still too close to prevent access to the Algerian army. Petra: On 29 7 03, the 158 Day at 20.30 clock calls to the police. I would have the opportunity to write a letter Rainer. In half an hour they would fax it to Berlin. In my mind, chaos breaks out – there’s so much to ask and tell. And now find the right words in a hurry …. Actually ringing half an hour later a police officer to pick up the letter. Shortly after, it occurs to me that I have not even thought about kissing mitzuschicken! Rainer: A grueling long-distance journeys further phase begins. Up to 36 hours we will be shaken up in the SUV without a break. After a few days we arrive exhausted a dry river bed, where we stayed for some time. Fighters of 9 Rebel Division are with us for a while. You should support the action because they know here and allegedly have connections in Mali. Eventually a young Tuaregs marched boldly with his camel through our warehouse. Only when he has all greeted with a handshake, discover the Mudjas him and send him away. Petra: Only a day later he receives a letter from Rainer. It is overwhelming! Amazingly, he is exactly the questions that I have answered yesterday. I call on parents and siblings and I read each and every one before the letter. Our parents come immediately want to see the list with your own eyes. He reassures her, even if he spent five weeks old ist.Rainer: The kidnappers turn again a video. First a group shot, then everyone should greet his family. In a written statement, they explain that Michaela Spitzer’s death was a tragic accident bedauerter by themselves and we were well treated. We must all sign. We fervently hope that Michaela’s death was at least the sense to clarify the seriousness of our situation. As the kidnappers set we now all hopes for the Malian government. It is regarded as cooperative as the Algerian and could finally get things moving. Even I am cautiously optimistic. The next day, the emir (commander) breaks up with a squad to negotiate. Our fellow Christian Green take them with you. He and his girlfriend in Berlin fluent in French, so that the Mudjas hope to establish direct contact with the German government. Petra: On 31 7 03 announces the police a video of the hijackers. I am extremely anxious and drum up the rest of the family together. Nobody knows what to expect. How will they look like? I’m afraid. By 18 clock are all there. Also the police. We can not imagine the band would leaked to the media. It was eleven days old, all the hostages are to see it, and everyone says a short sentence. »Rainer Bracht, Allemagne, many greetings to the family and to Petra,” Then said Christian, that they needed medication, the extreme heat and the food supply are problematic and they mourn Michaela Spitzer’s death. And hoped for a speedy end. You see relatively good, are neatly dressed and not emaciated. But tired and annoyed. When the family is away, I am a completely hedgehogs, need rest, absolutely. My thoughts are with Rainer. Rainer: is brought to Bamako Even during the film to the German Embassy, we set off. 36 hours non-stop, it goes in the northwest Mali. A total of 600 miles. For the first time it starts to rain and we have water in abundance can swim and even do laundry. Petra: On Friday, the first 8 03, an interview with me, which I have never been displayed in the “world.” I think you can not sink deeper in journalism. Over the weekend I try to find my energy and patience again. I succeed, but there is also no other way. Hopefully Rainer and the others have not yet lost their. In Heiligenkirchen a memorial service for the hostages will be held, and a lady of a sect called already for the third time. You have written poems and wanted to help with the proceeds of the hostages … In the evening, the PC crashes. Diagnosis: disk is destroyed and all data gone. So start from scratch and re-enter everything. On Tuesday, the computer has made so far that you can work on it. My navel to the world. A day after another goes by, and I fall into a depression for a week, want to talk to anyone because I just constantly erupting into tears. Feel empty, tired and beaten. I mobilize all forces to get out of the hole. The only one who could comfort me, sits in Mali. Rainer: After two weeks of popping a few faithful of the Emir on again. Together with the SUV of the Malian government. Now what really seems to move. We are almost euphoric. They not only medicines and bottled mineral water, but letters from home! Petra! She answered my questions. How they survived the operation, which make the family and especially my ailing grandmother, as my pay comes without ends meet and so on. Only much later did I learn that at that time they had not even my letter. They just knew what would move me. I’m happy how close we stehen.Petra: On 9 8 03 held another meeting at the Foreign Office. Since I am handicapped by the operation, it sent me home a summary of the conversation. This finally the persistent rumor is denied, some hostages were sick. Only sciatic pain from a few hard chairs seem to plague, otherwise all are ok. Furthermore, Christian Green has apparently made telephone contact between the kidnappers and the German government, and the negotiations that have been conducted, a Tuareg leader named Iyad Ag Agaly, now governs the governor of Gao. A military action may not be remembered in Mali in order not to endanger the life of the 14th I sometimes think that Rainer and this fate will never leave me. Rainer: The Islamists are now as excited as we constantly have the radio on the ear, so not to miss a message. Partial several times daily sparked with the Emir. However, I am now experiencing the only threatening the entire hostage situation that emanated from the kidnappers themselves: When we want to look during the rain in one of the SUVs protection as agreed, trying to stop us because a fighter. Angrily, I reminded him of our agreement, which he in turn uses a Kalashnikov furiously and loaded by in front of me. Fortunately, his colleagues overwhelm him in time. What had happened? Amazingly, they believe my statement and apologize for their quick-tempered buddy. Why I was not afraid? With a joke I Wiegele the thing ab.Petra: State Chrobog flies on 12 8 03 to Algiers and then on to Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure in Bamako. The talks take hours, but then Chrobog expressed very optimistic. It will not be long. A few weeks, maybe even days. I hangele me from one branch to another. Chrobog send a postcard with the image of a rusty padlock. Feel the need to thank him. Rainer: After two weeks, we set off again, roaring back in a southwesterly direction. Something seems to have changed, because the kidnappers not to hide, but to use for the first time normal slopes. However, they continue until a fatigued driver overlooks a wave and the car almost rolls over. Only then slept. And then repaired the Toyota. Mostly it would go faster if they drive a little slower, but that contrary to Arab mindset. Petra: The 175 Day I suddenly feel that something is happening. And my feeling has always been the most reliable indicator. I know Chrobog get the thing out. How difficult the negotiations must be, can be only guessed. In Algeria, the government could be dissuaded with difficulty by a second military operation. Then – as should all arrive intact to Mali? And there will be rebuilt trust between kidnappers and negotiating partners? As a transfer can take place without the kidnappers fear of being shot immediately? The Algerian military had reluctantly an escape corridor for terrorists held open – but they are still on the Mali border on the lookout. I’m afraid that in the end even use weapons is commanded. But I was assured that just should not happen … Rainer: We stock at an agreed meeting point, wait for the Emir. It is the same place where we had parted from him two weeks ago. A good sign. I just bring in the Mudjas to eat, sounds as motor noise. They immediately jump into their battle vests and shoot into the air. Intended for professional reception Emir Abd El Razak, who returns with his negotiating team. Personally, he appears to us prisoners, and solemnly declares that everything is regulated, we would be free! Petra: On Saturday evening, 16 8 03, a journalist friend informs me that the release was at hand, probably in the night from Sunday to Monday. It would be nice, but for me, it’s just THE call. The police asked me to now be available continuously. I can feel it tingle formally. Then it happens, on 17 8 03 calls to the CID at 22.37 clock – they are free! Berlin just have it officially confirmed. I weep with happiness. Rainer: We have to pack up and merged a few miles away with a group of Malian military and Tuareg. Including Ag Agaly, a legendary leader of the Tuareg rebellion in the early nineties. They had taken over the role of mediator, and to them we are now passing. It’s really over. Most fundamentalists say goodbye with Arab courtesy and friendly pats on the back from us, invite us even like to come back to Algeria, nothing would happen to us. However, other travelers threaten our fate, they emphasize the same time. Express, the driver with lenses like glass blocks, thinking about my health and forcefully admonished me not to smoke and to avoid pork and alcohol in the future. I promise to do my best, but suspect that I will not succeed. Recently, the Emir still want my email address to let them know, if they had recovered my BMW, if the Algerian military to take care not drum. The situation is grotesque. I’m not even angry them – they probably do not even know what they did to us haben.Petra: at 22.45 clock, it comes in the news. I stare numbly at the screen where Chrobogs is to see happy face in front of the cameras – he has really come, the moment. After 177 days and nights. I just celebrate a little with Andrew and Steffi from our house, as once again the phone is ringing at midnight. Who is calling now for? “Hello,” “Hello, it’s me, Rainer” In my mind there is complete emptiness? “Rainer, which Rainer” “Yes, Rainer, your husband,” Then I break into tears, immediately followed by croaking connection together!. He was, THE call. And I do not even know Rainer vote! Incredible! When he calls shortly afterwards a second time, I am aggregated. He says that he’s fine, if they had just eaten and went to sleep right now. For some reason, I wonder if he still had his sleeping bag. No, long gone. They slept so in the sand. Out of sheer noise I understand very little, but it’s overwhelming. Rainer: With the onset of darkness, we set off on our last trip. Around midnight stop the Tuaregs at a water point with dry wood to make tea. By satellite phone we can call home. Petra’s turn, but stunned, probably did not expect me. But it is wonderful to hear them. Petra: A little later, the first journalist to dive in front of the house, there’s no dodging, “How do you feel, how’s your man, you already had contact” day they assail Steffi in going for shopping right at the seventh?. She takes with Andreas incessantly bimmelnde the phone that can not be stopped because of possible further calls by Rainer. The next morning, the aircraft is expected to arrive in Cologne. Two CID officers want to go with me. I am pleased when I hear who it is: it all started with these two, they had made contact with me and helped more than once, to prevent the worst. Rainer: At dawn we set off, to Gao is 500 kilometers to go. Lunch will be served up in a village tea, milk and cookies, then it goes on as soon as possible. At dusk we reach the city and a little later the governor’s palace. After several speeches, during which I yearn mainly after a beer, it goes on by plane to the president in the capital, Bamako. He was instrumental in our release, as I hear from people mitfliegenden by the Foreign Office in Berlin. They tell me of Petra, what great job they made in Germany, how much optimism and replaced it had spread. Petra! Thankfully, I lean back. My worry about them falling off with talents seriousness, I am happy and a little proud. She seems to have moved a lot for us. Petra: With a pocket full of clothes, pipes, gummy bears, chocolate and the shoes that I had bought a few weeks ago, we set off at dawn to the airport. When we arrive, there is still enough time, and I watch the window, as the machine from Bamako lands. Now there are no search images on TV, now it’s reality. The moment when Rainer comes through the door, finally overwhelmed me. Very narrow and deep brown, he has become, has trained as a marathon runner. A mattress and a bag he still has one left not left of his possessions. Therein some clothes that never belonged to him, two stones from the desert, half a bangle and a small fossilized spine … When I take him in the arm, I still smell the dust and the dry air of the Sahara. “Finally,” I do not bring out more. I will never forget is his happy laughter at this moment. It is vorbei.Rainer: Now it’s finally back home to Germany. Of sleep is not to think of many conversations the night passes literally flew by. Suddenly a final conflict among us surges 14 – one of the Swiss do not want to pass on to the police, the coordinates of Michaela’s grave. Only needs to be discussed in the group what to do with it. My God! I am infinitely glad that it is over. But before I can really upset me, I discover Petra. And everything else faded to nothingness. I have arrived.


It is my great desire to thank all the people and agencies whose work ultimately led to our rescue. I’m overwhelmed solidarity and support that Petra has received from the Sahara Club, the company Därr and countless private individuals members. If I had all of this would be even suspected, I liked my odyssey easier. Is difficult to accept, however, that local agencies and tour guides, months before the kidnapping of “peculiar people” did to the graves runway, but did not pass on the information. In addition, the Algerian military ignored the Tuareg messages in Tamelrik Mountains camps would create. And despite great gratitude that there later everything possible was done for us – the Federal Foreign Office travel warning for southern Algeria was definitely too late. The Sahara Club had already on 19 3 03 pointed out some missing.
Rainer Bracht

C is for Cards of the Sahara

Part of an occasional series: Sahara A to Z
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set.

Some attractive cards featuring Saharan themes dating from around the middle of the 20th century. They’re being sold inexpensively by euro-cards on ebay. I have to say on the bottom one it looks like they have have got their tribal categories mixed up, but the Dutch ones (5 and 6) are especially attractive to an ex Tintin/Look & Learn fan.

You may also like… Chants du Hoggar – the artwork of Paul Élie Dubois.

Sahara plant







T is for Tenere: the Classic Tour

tenere-mapNiamey – Agadez – El Meki – Timia – Assode – Arakao – Agamgam – Oued Tanakom – Anakom – Arbre du Tenere – Fachi – Bilma – Dirkou – Yegueba – Seguedine – Chirfa – Old Chirfa – Djado – Orida – Djaba – Chirfa – Col de Chandeliers – Arbre Perdu – Grein – Adrar Bous – Temet – Izouzadene (Blue Mountains) – Adrar Chiriet – Tezirzek – Iferouane – El Meki – Agadez – Niamey (brown route on map, left)

February-March 2001

My fascination with the Tenere probably started after reading the alluringly sparse route descriptions in the old Sahara Handbook in the early 1980s. After several stillborn attempts resulting in a clearly inadequate description in my own book I decided it was time to cough up two grand and take a tour – enjoying a relaxed recce that would not put my nice Toyota at risk (there appears to be a currently increasing risk of loosing your car in this area). Looking at various itineraries and prices I chose Suntours, a German operator long established in the region. Although I may have communicated better with a French-speaking group (I don’t speak German), Suntours’ 22-day itinerary looked the most thorough (although this itinerary, featured on their web page, did not match the actual one offered, missing out Enneri Blaka).

I met the group at Paris and we flew straight down the Tanezrouft (no window seat, alas…), reaching Niamey at sunset where it transpired half of the group of nine’s baggage was missing.

Next day we had to hang around in Niamey on the hope that more bags might turn up from Abidjan that evening. Like most sub-Sahara capitals, Niamey is not what you come to Africa for, but for 20p the museum was a bargain, while brochettes at sunset on the terrace of the Grand Hotel is the done thing among toubabs in the know.

That night a few more bags turned up and with three missing, it was decided to take the 1000-km drive to Agadez overnight – the luggageless ones would have to make do. This part of the trip is a drag. Flying direct to Agadez from Paris would be ideal though I can see why Suntours don’t trust the Le Pointe charters. The American Tour that got nabbed at Temet (see below) suffered a late Le Pointe cancellation on the way out and they all had to pay up for a scheduled flight (though Agadez’s runway – since rebuilt at Libya’s expense) could have been to blame here).

As it happens the night drive in two minibuses was not so bad as most of us could stretch out on a bench seat and get some sleep. Leaving around midnight we got to Agadez thirteen hours later for lunch at Ewaden Voyages, the local partner of Suntours. Soon after, two old Cruisers and a Patrol were loaded up and we headed out of town for the hills of the Air.


I’d been warned that I’d find the Air a rough and dull drive – not the real Tenere. In fact it was quite satisfying – on the way out at least. Tuareg activity is prolific, these dudes really do wander around from village to village on camels with their takouba swords by their side! I’ve never encountered the semi-sedentary Kel Aïr Tuareg before but now realise how much of the Tuareg mythology might be based on the colourful culture of this accessible clan.

We camped in a oued (“never camp in a oued!”) where Ibrahim cooked the first of many truly spectacular meals. How long could this last I wondered, and sure enough by the time we got to the Kaouar settlements in the east, things got a bit plain, but the presentation of his outstanding lunch time salads were works of art, composed of fresh ingredients for much longer than you’d expect in fridge-free motoring.

Another great aspect of this tour was letting us loose on foot down the track while the morning (and sometimes lunchtime) camp was packed up by the crew. With a bit of luck one could get a quiet couple of miles under one’s soles before the cars caught up.

No one could have complained too much time was spent cooped up in the cars, although the constant attention the old dogs needed added frequent cig’ breaks. Indeed on the whole trip I doubt if we drove half an hour without one car stopping to fix something. That said it was soon clear these drivers drove their vehicles with care – a first for me in Africa. I was in the Patrol where Madougou treated the machine like his own and I’d have been happy for him to drive my car (and if you know most desert drivers, that’s quite an admission!).

The southern Air is a Sahel of low reddish hills which darken and rise towards Timia and the volcanic extrusions thereabouts. Settlements and nomadic encampments focus round the gravely oueds, some with nearby gardens and enclosures. You’re never far from others in the Air.

With the very frequent stops I got the impression we were hung out to dry with the cadeau-crazed village kids a little too long for comfort, as if it was pre-arranged that we would crack and splash out on Tuaregobilia in these places. By the time we got to Timia I sensed the group had had enough, and being sent off on a futile tour of this unremarkable village had us pining for the desert.

ten-011“Connais-vous Alex Marr” one young boy asked me. Well, as it happened I did. Although like most people, I’ve never actually met him, Alex contributed to my recent books and came through here on the way to Bilma in ’99, thinking he could ride from there to the Lake because of a black line on the Mich map. I had the novel experience of receiving a cadeau from Cona to pass on to Alex.

While deflecting vendors’ parries I got talking with a French visitor to Timia and an elder, and enquired about the robbery at Temet dunes a couple of weeks earlier. Who were the culprits and had they been caught? The old Tuareg shyly slid behind his cheche at the mere mention of the event while the French guy realised it was associated with the ‘Mme Tortoise’ he’s heard so much about in the village. I’d already asked Hans our guide but he’d pretended not to understood me (it happened sometimes). I never found out if the rest of our group knew of the raid (known chiefly to the Saharan web community) and if they were at all bothered about it. Two months later another tourist group in local cars was attacked close to where we spoke – at that time bad news for Niger tourism.

The volcanic geology is interesting around Timia, including the cascade which reminded me of Mutujulu Springs running off Uluru. At this beauty spot an orderly line of vendors sat behind a line of rocks imposed by the European agencies on pain of eliminating the site from their itinerary. Next day we visited the surprisingly substantial (horizontally, that is, not vertically) ruins of Assode, the old capital of the Air before Agadez became pre-eminent a few centuries ago. With that ticked off, by lunch time we watched the women watering their goats at Tchintoulous well, enjoying rather more tranquil vending opportunities as they discreetly laid out their wares near us. At the top end of the Zagado valley (picture, top of the page) we spent out last night in the Air facing the Taghmert plateau and the dune fields beyond.



The following morning the cars caught us up as we took our morning stroll and led us through a narrow chasm and out into the open. Our destination was the crab’s claw formation of Arakao nearby, though to get there required heading out into the dunes and approaching the entrance from the east. On the way we came across several other tour cars; our drivers always took the opportunity to stop, light up and swap news. We were following the well-carved tram lines of the Standard Tenere Loop which remained evident for much of the tour. Almost every day we encountered other groups which made me appreciate how wild the Sahara of the Gilf really was.

ten-016We were now traversing the Neolithic borderlands of the western Tenere and soon pre-Islamic tombs became discernible on the hillsides. Stops hereabouts revealed the usual Neolithic artifacts and at one point I found four grinding stones, their easily found milling-stone (or moule) counterparts having long ago been grabbed by collectors. Some consider the collection of Stone Age artifacts tantamount to grave robbery but to be me they’re just non-degradable Neolithic relics that tell a story and can be aesthetically pleasing. Finding it is a lot more satisfying than haggling for a Tuareg cross of doubtful authenticity and more acceptable that pinching Tuareg heirlooms. But, although the collection of artifacts was not discouraged on our tour, I’ve changed my mind on this practice now. Leave these things in the desert – in many countries it has become illegal to remove them.

A tongue of jumbled dunes reach through the mouth of the cirque of Arakao, dividing the easily-visited south side from the less accessible northern half. We camped on the crest of the dune cordon and spread out to explore. As one would expect, a sheltered site like Arakao was heavily inhabited during Neolithic times and probably long before that. We inspected several tombs in the southeast corner and kicked about for more artifacts, usually made from the distinctively green flint-like jape rite found in the region. Hans, always energetically scanning the sands, found me an amazing rod of fulgarite in the dunes – a brittle, pencil thin tube of petrified sand caused by a lightning strike (see the book, p.374). Since I first found some on the edge of Algeria’s Oriental Erg years ago (without knowing what it was) this stuff has always amazed me – a wonder of nature. Walking back from a dune summit I found Hans’ spot and excavated another slender undisturbed branch over half a metre long – who knows how deep it went.

Traditionally Ibrahim always bakes a pizza at Arakao we were told, following the circular theme. A thick and chewy Margarita the size of a Land Cruiser wheel is quite an achievement using just enamel trays and embers, and while we all gave him full marks for audacity and the result looked incredible, sadly the dough did not quite rise.

ten-013We cruised down the east side of the Air, stopping to admire the amazingly prolific engravings at Oued Tanakom and Anakom, at times driving continuously over stones all fashioned into tools over the millennia. One can visualise the Neolithic settlements spread out by a long gone river running out of the mountains, while wild game and herds grazed on the plains of the Tenere now covered in sand.

At ‘Long Stones Pass’ we could make out the mass of Adrar Madet and the Erg Brusset to the east, and later that afternoon finally shook off the Air’s margins and headed across the serir for the Tree.


To finally see the Arbre du Tenere after reading about it over the years was quite a buzz. These days there’s a lot more there than just a bad well and the old metal tree (the original is in Niamey Museum looking as interesting as a bag of crisps). Some Japs recently built a wacky pylon and there is the usual litter, other structures and a water tank. There are even a couple of new trees (“tropical species, pah!” exhorted our biologist Hans) which you’re asked to water when you are there. As Tony Gastel reported, the water is far from ‘ tres mauvais’ as the 953 map states, but it is very deep, taking three men to haul up the bucket nearly 150 feet. While they watered the cars we had a chance to wash and then headed into the gassis towards Fachi.

ten-015At first we drove over irritating tussocks of vegetation and I had the impression we were going south. A lunch time GPS check proved my preternatural sense of direction correct, Abdulai the local guide having deliberately dropped a few gassis to pick one which lead directly to Fachi.

But soon the vegetation disappeared and we were along among the low, pale yellow dunes of the northern Bilma Erg with very few tracks and no balises. To me, sat in the passenger seat, the driving and navigation of this famous route appeared relatively easy, with the odd stickage easily reversed. Occasionally we came across an old azelai camp with masses of camel dung and other rubbish, and a little later some abandoned kantus (salt pillars) with the dead camel that could no longer carry this load nearby. But we encountered no actual caravans as Tonyhad last October – the azelai season.

Some gassis harbour the odd patch of Neolithic chippings and here we found tiny arrowheads – something I thought all but impossible with casual fossiking. The fine craftsmanship and variety of these centimetre-long spikes is nothing short of amazing. They may only be a century old of course. Measuring time in terms of progressing civilisation depends on where you are – one of our driver’s father used stone arrowheads to hunt while at the same time in Algeria they were using bullets.

We camped in the lee of a seif dune. Next morning we approached Fachi – lovely in Jean Luc Manaud famous postcard/calendar but well camouflaged below the Agram falaise.

The sand-filled streets and tamarisk trees give Fachi a nice, ex-colonial appearance. This was Kanuri country, not Tuareg though Hans suggested that Kanuri are merely Tubus of the Kaouar region of eastern Niger. I have read though, that they like to deny this. We got watered at the well, checked in with the sultan who was entertaining a Spanish TV crew, and then went for a look around the old town escorted by the sulky sultan’s son. Although I find old ksars as emblematic of the Sahara’s romance as anything, the giant urns inside the old fort was about as interesting as Old Fachi got.

ten-012Back by the cars we were left to stew among the cadeau kids until nice and tender. I went for a wander up a street, looked down an avenue and got spotted whereupon a tidal wave of kids surged towards me and I chuckled. I would not be surprised if each of us was asked 50-100 times for bics or whatever. It’s all part of Africa of course (though not the true desert one likes to think) but what was the delay? It was clear that the group was irritated by it, having been unmolested since Timia a few days ago.

After a visit to the salt evaporation pits (salines) round the back and lunch in the palms north of town, we headed up over a sandy pass through the Agram where the sand softened noticeably. All the cars struggled and Kaiou’s red Cruiser – which at the best of times smoked like a Ukrainian steelworks – started frying its clutch. We could smell it burning in our car but he kept pushing it and eventually it disintegrated to bare metal. Luckily Abdulai has a spare and with the aid of ropes, two jacks and some legs, Kaiou’s Cruiser was running again four hours later.

The cars drove in strict formation. Abdulai up front, Madougou with us in the Patrol and Kaiou last. But Madougou was a bit slow and sometimes Kaiou got ahead, belching his unburned black puke all over us. Sensing our irritation they halfheartedly tried to fix it later, but after all, the car ran so what’s the problem? Worn diesel injector pumps are a problem in the Sahara and the mixture on his car was far too rich and Kaiou ran out of fuel before Bilma.

Bilma is easy to spot with the ridge of the Kaouar behind it. In fact I had the impression that crossing from the Tree was relatively easy. The gassis line up just right and in good visibility you can’t miss the Agram or Kaouar falaises. Finding the Tree without GPS if coming in the other direction would not so easy, but even then, grasses and converging tracks would be a clue that you’re close.

Hans described Bilma as a dead town and I find Tony’s figures of 12,000 population rather unlikely (for the whole massive Bilma arrondisement [district] maybe). We stopped at a garage for water. An HJ75 was getting fresh oil and a 109 Land Rover waited outside with its lid up. On this side of the Tenere you find plenty of Nigerians washed up on the road to Libya and so English is spoken, but as in much of West Africa, everyone speaks several languages. Our guides chatted in a mixture of Tamachek, Arabic, French, Djerma, Hausa and Tuburi (or ‘Kanuri’).

With the jerries full we drove round to the fort to hand in our passports and pay the provincial tax. Our here you officially need stamps in Bilma, Dirkou and Chirfa which takes up a good page or two of your passport. Near the fort are a couple of market stalls full of Nigerian goods and junk sold by Hausas who, I get the impression, are the ‘trading Moors’ of this side of the Sahara. Knowing this, kit made sense to discover that the famous Bilma salt caravans are organised and assisted by Hausa or Peul, not Tuareg, though Tuareg camels and guides are of course hired. And the good news is that these caravans are far from the dying tradition many think. Tony’s reports of seeing several caravans was no fluke.


Next day we hit Dirkou – a thriving frontier town that is the true capital of the Kaouar. Nigerians and other desperadoes head north on top of the lorries to a life of slavery in Libya, only to get sent back following one of Ghadafi’s strops, sat on the piles of subsidised or stolen goodies that pass daily through Dirkou.

By the compound where Andy and Richard enjoyed their Dirkou detention is a Tubu gun carrier shot to smithereens and left as a reminder that the government won the rebellion. Passports handed in, I had a choice to go see Jerome or check out the town. Lively though Dirkou looked (and free of hassle I was told later) I went up to pay my respects to the late Diesel Prince of the Tenere, finding a friendly old man instead of the money grabbing Shylock I’d expected. He can afford to smile of course, selling Libyan fuel at a 1000% mark up but still a tad less than the official Nigeran price. A big Merc was unloading and I got talking with the driver who originally came from Djelfa in northern Algeria, while his two boys bounced oil drums off their heads, Tubu daggers tucked in their belts. He was full of praise for ‘Le System Mercedes’ but didn’t have much to say about the run down from Sebha that I could understand – some diesel may have seeped into his brain over the years.

Although now 75 years old, Jerome was more lucid and delighted to meet a Brit – claiming to have fought for Monty at El Alamein and all the rest. He rolled off a whole string of generals’ names and dates which sounded plausible, but later Hans suggested had I been German it would have been the same story under Rommel. In fact a mate who has since met Jerome found out he is indeed an Anglophile, proudly showing an old WWII photo of himself in a Brit uniform. Another S-Files Tenere contributor, Gerbert interviewed Jerome for a Dutch paper a year or two ago. He died in 2003.

Back with the group, Luggageless Erich had bought himself a Hausa outfit, complete with hat. Erich was a penny short of a pound following a bungled operation in his early forties, and was quite a laugh in a subversive, boyish way. Vendors zoned in on his naivete and he ended the trip, grinning and draped in Nomadobilia.

The landscape of the Kaouar is a bit grubby and grey for my liking. We dropped into the salines north of Dirkou where natron salt was mined. I noticed Madougou took some with his chewing tobacco as they do in these parts. By the time we got to Yeguebba – the northern end of the Kaouar escarpment – the colour of the sand was a pleasing orange. We stopped to collect some firewood (there’s plenty of firewood here and masses in the Air) and drove across the soak where the last car mired. What a mess, the quicksands wobbled like jelly and it makes you appreciate how easy and clean dry desert sand is to get out of. But with sand plates and a tow he was out and we spent the night nearby in the rocks where a fennec (desert fox, sort of) popped in for a visit.

Since Bilma it was clear that our drivers were getting tired and probably anxious at being out on the far side of the Tenere in their old bangers. Their banter was restrained and you could see they longed to be back in their own territory. We were having an easy time of course, waited on hand and foot and with nothing to worry about other than, for some, getting the best camp spot for the night. I could not join in the evening chatter much but it didn’t bother me, though I can now say ‘spoon’ in German. Anyway, with time to myself I had a fresh batch of hare-brained schemes to nurture through their delicate development stage.

Years ago I recall reading in the Sahara Handbook about the importance of finding Pic Zumri to get to Seguedine and now, there it was and the village laid out in the dip below. Here the Adadez truck piste splits, heading northeast behind the Djado plateau for Tumu and Libya. Following a visit to Seguedine’s checkpoints, multi-coloured salines, and gentle bartering with wily Tubu women, we set off northwest across stony plains, passing petrified wood, the landmark of Oleki peak, and stopping for lunch at Sara ‘oasis’. A hot wind was blowing from the southwest today, hazing the sky and raising the temperature to the high 30s. But lunch with Suntours was never less than a shady two-hour siesta finished off with three glasses of ‘chai’. On this occasion Abdulai resoldered his burst radiator on the fire. Earlier I noticed he’d tried to use clay dust as we’d done in Algeria years ago. I can report the bodge is no less effective at the hands of a wizened Tuareg desert driver than in mine…

Hans was a great guide and had a good way of melting the ice at checkpoints by bringing photos from previous visits. At the Chirfa control post, where the guys in their football kit always have a gun close by, the photos caused much delight, as they did in Chirfa village where we picked up some water and veggies from the garden. All through this trip it was clear that Suntours has developed a close rapport with many communities and individuals over the years. At many places Hans discreetly handed over medicaments to the village pharmacy (eye drops and aspirins were much in demand).

I’d been urged to make sure our tour visited Old Chirfa (aka ‘Tebeza’) a short distance from Chirfa village, and sure enough, it was on our itinerary. The old citadel is part of a string of medieval fortified towns that run up from Seguedine and maybe once even Bilma and beyond, tracing a defunct trading route which explorers Clapperton and Oudney followed in the 1820s down to Lake Chad, later followed by Hans Vischer in 1906 (see Shadows Across the Sahara). Strolling around Old Chirfa was amazing but for me the true highlight of the trip, as expected, was Djado, the following morning.

ten-017Djado (photo Klaus W.) is a huge complex which must have housed thousands a few centuries ago. In winter it’s surrounded by a lake of brackish water which – oddly – disappears in the rainy season. In autumn the whole of Chirfa moves here to harvest the dates from the many palms; their zeriba huts ring the evocative ruins. Exploring the crumbling town was incredible, every corner revealed a stunning view of distant escarpment, sands and waving date palms. My camera had passed out in Fachi but luckily Klaus had a bag full of lenses and film and agreed to keep shooting for me.

Hans poured scorn on the theory of pseudo archeopologist Uwe George who found a room with a cross relief (now called the ‘eglise’) and who went on to claim that Christians migrated here from Ethiopia in the first millennium. I’m all for interesting theories but it does indeed sound rather implausible and has diminished my respect for Geo magazine who employ him (I’m sure Geo are quaking at the very thought!).

We were about to cross the line and enter a region controlled [at that time] by unreconstructed Tubu outlaws – an anomaly tolerated by the Niger government who let them have the remote Djado plateau to themselves. No longer did our guides stop to chat with every passing car, mumbling a string of greetings. Now it was just ‘get out of my way’ crabbiness you’ll find in any city. We crossed a sandy ridge near the no less photogenic ksar of Djaba and stopped at a Tubu checkpoint where Abdulai gruffly handed over a 5000 CFA tax without so much as a “Sallam alei…”

Ahead of us rose the massive monolith of Orida prominent since yesterday, and behind it the arch of Orida and the alluring rim of the plateau beyond. The landscape and colours evoke the tassilis of the N’Ajjer and Akakus with which the Djado plateau is contiguous. Most Ewaden guides won’t come this far into Tubu territory [at that time], let alone the intriguing Enneri Blaka, but if you don’t happen to make it to the arch on your visit you’ve not missed much.

Lunch was under the palms near the wonderful aforementioned Djaba. Some Tubu girls parked up and set up their trinkets on a mat. This sort of souveniring was always much more agreeable and relaxed than the outnumbered hectoring we got in the villages.

We returned to Chirfa to pick up more water and our passports and then headed out along the Djanet track to the Col de Chandeliers (aka ‘Pass de Orida’). A cozy camp was set up among the rocks while to the west the plain of the Tenere du Tafassasset spread out like a becalmed ocean. It’s a corny simile for the desert I know, but this is the first place I’ve seen in the Sahara where it was appropriate. This was the real Tenere – a word usually used to describe the whole of northeast Niger and the Tamachek translation of the Arabic ‘Sah’ra’ or empty quarter.


The awe of this emptiness was lessened again next day by the clear twin tracks running west to Arbre Perdu and on to the isolated hills of Grein. But further on, beyond the northern outliers of Erg Capot Rey, even the tracks and wind-aligned ripples disappeared until it was hard to tell we were moving at all apart from the drone of the engine as it hit a soft patch. Running at these high speeds caused a new set of problems for the aged Toyotas and while a puncture was fixed, Ibrahim prepared a quick lunch in the shade of the cars. We continued west through the void and in the late afternoon the profile of Adrar Bous mountain loomed out of the haze 45km away.

Bous is well known as a locality of Neolithic knick-knacks and we parked up by a Stone Age ‘chip pan’ and shuffled around for more arrowheads, then camped in a sheltered creek – an old Tuareg hide-out from the days of the rebellion. All of our crew were former rebels who’d fought in the bitter war of the early 1990s. Since then the Tuareg of the Air have won some concessions on the organisation of tourism – the whole of Niger’s tourism depends on their kudos after all – but in the poor villages of the Aïr, aid still struggles to make much impact. All the better then is tourism like this where our money goes straight into the hills.

From Adrar Bous we were back on the tramlines of the Loop which winds down the east side of the Air into the dunes of Temet where the Austrian and American groups had been robbed a couple of weeks earlier. I’ve since got the full story from one of the people involved and it was no hit and run raid, but a thorough and thoroughly intimidating robbery of all involved, and in which the drivers of the American group from Dunes Voyages excelled themselves in stopping all the cars being taken. It’s no surprise to hear that it may have been renegade Malian Tuareg who were the culprits – they’ve been behind most of the tourist (and rally) raids over the last couple of years. I’ve since read the ‘leader has been caught’ – hopefully not just any old Tuareg in the wrong place at the wrong time. Since then there has been another raid of a German group in Timia in March. We had lunch at the site of the robbery and I probed our drivers, but did not get much of a response so left it and walked up the huge dune with the rest.

A winding gassi led east out of the dunes and we spent the evening at Izouzadene, the striking outcrop of marble veined with cobalt salts known as the Blue Mountains. From a distance they do have a distinctive pale blue hue but close up the grey veins look less impressive and the masses of tracks in the area could almost make it Morocco.

ten-016From here we drove south through the dunes to Chiriet, visible from the summits of Izouzadene, and providing the classic east Air panoramas of dunes lapping against a backdrop of purple-grey plateaux. Driving into the massif, Ibrahim stopped to grab a bunch of wild grass to concoct a herbal infusion for later – a change from the endless Tuareg tea we drank daily. North of Chiriet a rocky track led to Tchou-m Adegdeg well – we were now very near the point at Kogo where we’d emerged from the Air nearly a fortnight ago. Here Tuareg nomads watered their herds and a camel sipped from the bowl in which my shirt stewed in detergent.

Between here and the nearby Tezerzik well is a lovely scenic drive through dunes featuring a distinctive lip below their crests. At Tezerzik the drivers bought a sheep for a tenner and slung it on the roof. At the nearby camp in the dunes I watched them slaughter and butcher it with the same casual effortlessness they’d employed to repair the clutch a few days earlier. Interestingly there’s not much blood when the throat is cut and once the hide has been peeled back the thing in hung on a stake, its ribs pulled apart and the innards removed for the drivers subsequent delectation; we got the tender meat in a cous cous. Normally I find cous cous an over-rated North African ‘must-eat’, but the way Ibrahim prepared it, both the millet and the sauce were as good as it gets.



From here the desert section of the tour was over and we had a dreary three-day drive back down through Iferouane and the main track via El Meki to Agadez. The nights were irritatingly windy, but the drivers were brightening up, pleased that the run was nearly over. I had the feeling that these last days to Agadez were strung out with unnecessary stops to fill the time. The third night in yet another creek full of thorns and dung and just a couple of kms out of Agadez seemed unnecessarily stingy. In my experience a tour should end on an upbeat note if possible, not dribble away over successive days. I gather the others also complained about this retracing through the Air – for fresh vegetable they were told, but our last lunch in the bush was all tinned. I’m sure Suntours have developed their itinerary carefully over the years, but leaving the desert at the very last minute – along the track from the Tree to Agadez for example, would have been more satisfying.

We had an option for a hotel in Agadez that night and wanting to check the town out in my own time, I took up the offer with the two couples and spent the night the Hotel Tidene near the mosque. I checked out some other agencies but as advised, Agadez itself does not have much to offer. Next day the tour regrouped and set off for the long hot slog back to Niamey, getting home by the skin of our teeth following an Air Afrique strike and cancelled flights.


ten-018This tour indeed proved to be a great reconnaissance of the famous Tenere I had long wanted to visit. I found the Air and its Tuareg life a little more interesting than I thought, and the run in both directions across the Tenere rather less impressive than I imagined. The whole Djado region is of course amazing, as are parts of the eastern Tenere bordering the Air, but the Tenere is no longer the wild Sahara of my imagination. TV crews and tours have put the place firmly on the map and beautiful though it is in its entirety, getting off the tracks would have been more fun, something that you can only do yourself and in good vehicles. While our crew were all great, no money seems to be invested on the basics of the agency vehicles. A Tenere fly-in tour demands a good half ton to be carried much of the time which asks a lot of a new 4×4, let alone one 15 years old and with a quarter of a million on the clock.

Should I return with my own vehicle I think I’d repeat the recent tour of an Italian friend: leave Djanet without checking out and with stacks of diesel and a Niger visa and do my own thing in the northern Tenere around Grein, Adrar Bous and down as far as Chiriet maybe. If you get caught at least you have a visa and if you don’t, no one knows any better and you slip back into Algeria. If anything an independent tour is perhaps less prone to getting hijacked than the local tours which follow timetables and routes which make them predictable targets. But it is of course, still a risk that will probably never go away.


I found this nice IGN half million map of the Air in Niamey. Dating from 1991, it’s a similar style to the Niger country map from IGN but I can’t say I’ve ever seen this one in Paris. In many ways it’s superior to the one million IGNs which are pretty old now and don’t show recent roads. Mine cost me 50FF, an old paperback and a small argument from the side of the Grand Hotel.

I returned to the Tenere for the eclipse of 2006