Tenere Troubles (2001)

Richard Washington
  • Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso
  • December 2000 – January 2001
  • Landrover Series 2A 4 cyl. petrol

Tunis

We left Marseille on 10 December ferry to Tunis. The ferry was only about 1/3 full making the loading in Marseille uneventful compared with our trip a week closer to Christmas in 1999. The ship docked in Tunis at noon with clearance through Tunisian immigration and customs taking a mere 30 minutes (compared to 5 hours in 1999) allowing us to reach the salt pan of Chott El Jerid near Nefta (Algerian frontier) shortly after dark. We camped on the salt pan, leaving early for the border crossing the next morning.

Algeria

Clearance out of Tunisia took about 30 minutes but entry into Algeria just over 4 hours. In that time the officials processed only 3 cars, two of which were Algerian. The officials were nevertheless friendly. Two German bikers were crossing into Tunisia as we were leaving. They had ridden a loop from El Oued to Djanet then onto Tam and back along main route through In Salah (which included a convoy).

The Algerian border formalities correspond exactly with those described elsewhere on the STI site (immigration, customs, compulsory money change and car insurance). The only problem we had was with customs insisting on us filling in the form to reflect ‘Landrover’ as the type of car but ‘Toyota’ as the make. I guess this finally signifies the death of the British automotive legend, in this part of North Africa at least. [It was the same story with one of the LRs on my tour, too – but caused no probs. CS]

From the Algerian border we headed on towards El Oued. There seemed to be few camping possibilities along this stretch given the awkward hummocky dunes lining the road and the proximity of villages. About 20 or 30km from El Oued, while entering one of the small villages, a group of youngsters aged less than 10, stoned the Landrover. No windows were broken but a bit more topography was added to the body work – never a serious issue in a 30-year-old vehicle with an aluminium body. We were welcomed into El Oued by the police and local businessmen alike. El Oued was calm and the streets clean and quite empty. We changed money at one of the banks.

That night we slept on the south side of the road 60km short of Hassi Messaoud. A strong north-easterly was drifting sand in a conveyor about 1m deep so we were looking for shelter behind south-facing hills. There is a small escarpment out of view of the road (N32° 10′ 37” E5° 52′ 23”) which served the purpose on a stretch that offered few alternatives. We arrived in Hassi shortly after 8am the next day. Here the military checkpoint issued our laissez passer in about 20 minutes. It was valid for a month. We were waved through the south side of Hassi en route to Hassi Bel Guebbour. The next check point was at Gassi [Gassi Touil, I think]. Here the military spoke very little French, but seemed to want us to return 3km and wait at the side of the road. We went back, found nothing at the road side and so returned to the checkpoint. After a bit of discussion amongst themselves we were eventually waved through. We now know that a convoy operates on this stretch and may entail a delay of several hours until the convoy leaves.

If you have ever looked out of the window of a 747 on a night time trans Africa flight and seen two tiny pin pricks of light in the insanely massive blackness of the Sahara, the chances are that you are looking at somewhere like Hassi Bel Guebbour – with the two lights shared between the fuel station and the shop, this being the first fuel after Hassi M. It has a great sense of isolation and the interdune corridor that the tarmac follows south from Gassi is stunning.

Some 50km east of Bel Guebbour (28 36′ 10”N, 7 5′ 27”E) we passed large pools of water in an otherwise dry river bed. Although it was fairly early in the day we couldn’t pass the opportunity by and so set up a pleasant camp a few kms clear of the road out of the still strong north-easterly. A piste runs south to Bordj Omar Driss which starts parallel to the road [I have been told to avoid this piste – plenty of oilfield security].

The next day we called in at In Amenas (the bakery was selling awesome custard slices) and headed south through the huge dune field which seems to be the far western limb of the Ubari sand sea, eventually camping off the road in a sand field in the lee of a shady glade of trees (N26° 56′ 23″ E8° 41′ 54″). Firewood was plentiful. From our campsite we drove early the next day to Illizi for fuel and then on across the Fadnoun Plateau. The new road is a bonus but twists sharply without warning. It is rather like a pub video game where a blind rise could be followed by a sharp left, u-turn or a stranded truck jack-knifed across the road. The whole route from Illizi to Djanet is beautiful. We camped about 100km short of Djanet in a large dry river bed (N24° 54′ 56″, E8° 45′ 87î”). It was a stunning setting and well worth a few weeks stay. In Djanet we had a pleasant stay at Hotel Zeribas, camping in the far corner under the reed shelters. Djanet offered a great selection of fresh veggies, telephones which work given a bit of patience and pleasant temperatures. South of Djanet the daily temperatures were well over 30 degrees.

Whilst settling down for a quiet brew of tea in our campsite at Hotel Zeribas, Andy Pag drew up in a blast of diesel from the old Datsun he had brought down from Belgium. By this stage he was travelling alone and therefore keen to join us across the Northern Tenere to Chirfa and Dirkou. This was the planned next leg of the trip. We were glad for his company because the piste from Djanet to Dirkou is a lonely 850km stretch (we passed no traffic on this entire route).

Although our time in Algeria was much shorter than planned (for reasons explained later), we found the country calm and enjoyable to travel in. The only military checks we passed through were at Hassi M {Gassi Touil} and Hassi Bel Guebbour. Apart from this stretch we were free to come and go as we pleased. Whenever we encountered police we found them very helpful and accommodating. From a tourist perspective, everything is in place for Algeria’s recovery – all that is missing is the tourists. We saw none between the Tunisian border and Agadez (about 5000km) except for Andy in Djanet.

After some time to rest and check out Djanet we took off for Niger, leaving by the piste to Libya (a left turn off the new airport road past the old aerodrome). We turned off this mildly corrugated piste about 35km from Djanet, taking tracks through a gap in the mountains towards Mount Tiska. Once the tracks join, the piste is surprisingly well formed. After about an hour (roughly 40km) the piste turned east of Mount Tiska. The area is very beautiful with just about every spot a perfect campsite. We spent the night here with Andy cooking up a great veg stew. During the night we saw three vehicles approaching the Mount Tiska foothills some 10km to the south. They stopped when in view of our fire although we couldn’t be sure they saw us. They set off again well after midnight once the moon was up, passing within a few kilometres of us with their lights off. This all seemed to point to smugglers taking Marlboro into Algeria possibly via a piste through the Djado plateau.

We continued on the well-formed piste the next day. Within an hour it was obvious that the piste would pass well east of the Adrar Mariaou mountains. The piste is not marked on the Michelin or the TPC maps. Since we wanted to hook up with the balise line across the northern Tenere (which lies west of Adrar Mariaou) we left what seems to be a smugglers piste, taking a drainage line out onto the flat northern Tenere. The surface was better than any tarmac we had driven since France. While the route sounds complicated, the desert is very open with the Mount Tiska and Adrar Mariaou mountains clearly visible all the time. All the driving was easy. Within an hour we had gained the Tenere and found the first balise. There we several old (and a little indistinct) tracks along the balise line. Our GPS position showed us to be on the eastern most of the two pistes entering the Tenere which are marked on the TPC J 3B map. As the balise line piste appeared to be the western most piste on this map, we seemed to be on the wrong line, and so headed south-west to see if we intersected any other piste (although we were sure that there was only one balise line across the Tenere and that the TPC marked piste was wrong – but the check was easy to make and the surface pretty hard). It turned out that the piste marked on the TPC is wrong.

After about half an hour four Toyota Land Cruiser pick-ups could be seen driving straight at us from the northern base of the Adrar Mariaou mountains. They were travelling at speeds up to 160km/hr. The group turned out to be the Algerian police. After making their AK-47s clear to us and checking our papers (carte de grise, visas, insurance etc) they waved us on cheerfully. We should point out that it is not possible to leave Algeria officially along the northern Tenere route south of Djanet. While the police don’t mind, the Algerian customs do not permit official exit.

The northern Tenere is simply awesome. It is difficult to put words to the vastness of the place. It is impossible at times to tell whether you can see 50m, 500m or 50km off the piste. There are three wrecks (above right) on the balise line, 2 from the 1988 Paris-Dakar race. The shot blasted dark silver chassis gleaming in the bleached light. For the most part the Northern Tenere is very easy driving. The first few hundred kilometres out of Djanet were softer, the Landrover not being powerful enough to plane over the surface. Immediately south of Berliet balise 21 the sand is deep and powdery. It was the only time between Djanet and Agadez that we needed low range. The soft sand persists for 40km south of Berliet Balise 21. In a newish Toyota the northern Tenere could probably be crossed in a day. We took two days of driving, but three days altogether.

Niger

The exit from the Northern Tenere to Chirfa is clearly marked – nearly all the balises are in place across the Northern Tenere. On arrival in Chirfa we drove directly to the military checkpoint. They stamped our passports while looking over the vehicles, asking if we had any sat phones, short wave transmitters as so on. We helped the commander with his GPS as he had no manual for it. We left our passports with the military overnight, thinking that this was routine practice in Niger. We drove through the village and checked out the impressive Djado ruins (left). The next day we returned to the military post for our passports. By then the mood had changed and we were ordered to drive directly to Dirkou, not to leave the piste and to arrive there no later than 4pm. As it was already getting on to 10 am it was a tall ask in our old vehicles. We assumed Dirkou was the first official border post (as marked on the Michelin map) on this route and hence the requirement that we shouldn’t linger on the piste. We found the piste south of Seguedine very sandy. Again it would be very difficult to get lost on this route – in fact we hardly bothered with the GPS. We arrived in Dirkou a little after 4pm, handed over our passports (which were again kept overnight), met with Jerome and drove off to town for the night. The military checkpoint was pretty chaotic as several 10 wheel drive Merc trucks loaded to the hilt were about to leave for Libya.

We returned to the military post early the next day, waited around before asking for and being given back our passports (they now had stamps from both Dirkou and Chirfa). From there we headed up the hill to refuel (we had used about 220 L of petrol since Djanet) at Jerome’s fuel dump. Make sure you take your own pipe / 12V pump as Jerome’s assistants seem to have sucked too much fuel through their brains over the years. They are several sandwiches short of a picnic!

Whilst we were refueling the military drove up in a Landcruiser and took back our passports and vehicle papers. Once we had finished refueling the military impounded our vehicles. We now had no passports, no vehicles and no vehicle papers. Things weren’t looking good. No explanation was given but we were told to wait until 3:30pm. We waited in a barbed wire area between the passport shack and the military base. This is a stinking hot, dusty, shadeless area surrounded by feche feche that we grew to hate over the next few days. At 5pm were we told that there was a problem and that we would have to wait until 9am the next morning. We later found out that the Minister of Defence in Niamey had already phoned the French Ambassador in Niamey to say that European nationals were being held in the north. The French Embassy in Niger deals with all European nationals in Niger.

The next morning we were told to wait until 3:30 pm as the commander of the military base in Dirkou was waiting for instructions from Niamey. Most of our dealings had been with the Chef de Transit at the passport shack on the outskirts of the military base. He had been telling us all sorts of lies about why we were being held and when we would be released. He was a very difficult person to deal with – at one point gesturing to me that he would tear up my passports if we didn’t leave him alone. Our main effort at this stage was to speak to the Military commander of Dirkou. Of course we could get nowhere near his office. Our vehicle papers, passports and visas were all in order and we wanted to know what we were being held for.

The commander finally agreed to see us late that afternoon. It was rather like meeting Kurtz. We were shown into this darkened, blue room with padded doors. The commander greeted us and asked what our problem was as he had heard we were anxious! We explained that our vehicle papers, passports and visas were in good order and that we were uncertain what the problem was. He explained that the situation in the north is difficult, that tourists coming into Niger from the north were a problem and that the only way to enter this region was through Agadez where all the necessary paper work was available and where guides could be hired. He assured us that he was working on a solution for us. We asked if it was possible to simply deport us from Niger and we would leave immediately back to Djanet the way we had come (this had been our plan all along).

Fortunately we had managed to get permission to be taken to Bilma (45km to the south) to phone our embassies. With our vehicles still impounded we had to find a way of getting there. The distinction between who was military and who was a tour operator was extremely blurred. We were charged 30 quid one way for the trip although we returned with a tour operator anxious for our business. They were an unpleasant mafia-like gang and things turned sour shortly after they dropped us off. Interestingly we were taken to the military commanders office in the military base in the same tour operators Landcruiser. In Bilma we managed to call the German consulate in Niamey (there is only an unofficial representative for British nationals who is a businessmen in Niamey – he didn’t want to know our case!). I managed to get a line out to Megan who was in Cape Town at the time. Megan phoned the German and British Embassies in S Africa as well as the German Consulate in Niamey, eventually being put on to the French Embassy in Niamey. This helped our case enormously, although we had no way of knowing she had achieved all this until our problems were nearly over.

Early in the afternoon of our fourth day in Dirkou we were told that we were being taken to Agadez. Remembering that the Commander of the military camp in Dirkou had told us that Agadez had all the services necessary to help us, we were relieved that the problems from their side seemed to be coming to an end. This soon changed when a Land Cruiser with a machine gun and live ammo chain mounted on the back rolled up. They were our escorts, so at least we didn’t have to take a guide! Our passports were still being held, so it was clear we were simply being transferred to Agadez. We protested that our 30-year-old series 2A was not up to the Dirkou to Agadez crossing of the Tenere, but we were told that there was no option – take the vehicle or leave it behind – do or die time for the 1950s transmission.

We left Dirkou at about 4pm. Although there was still problems to come it was good to leave that stinking hot, dust riddled, barbed wire camp. The military Land Cruiser drove in front but waved us past in frustration at our pace. We drove on to the wells at Achegour which we reached by about 7:30 pm. It was amazing to be crossing the central Tenere although it was a pity it was not in circumstances of our own choosing. We drove through the night, following a star but basically heading west south-west. Again we didn’t bother with a GPS. With no sign of the military we decided to savour our freedom and drove on into the morning light taking a dune corridor about 30km north of Arbre de Tenere (make sure you are in the correct corridor if you want to see this place otherwise you need to back track about 30km). The going in the central Tenere is much softer than the northern Tenere. Our consumption dropped to about 3km per litre [8mpg]. We hardly ever got out of second gear although we didn’t ever get stuck. Where the sand is very soft all the truck tracks merge. Apart from a very high median strip the going is OK on the tracks.

We emerged from the sandy desert at about noon the next day to find the military waiting for us. The piste is up to 50km wide in the Tenere so they must have passed us in the night. We drove on to Agadez arriving in the early evening. The commander of the military camp in Agadez then met with us. He simply said that after a day’s rest we would be taken on to Niamey 900km away. This was probably the low point of the trip! After a few days we had another military escort down to Niamey. We left on Christmas day at 9am and arrived in Niamey at about 8pm. We had a young soldier in our Land Rover but separated from the others over the distance. We were held at the outskirts of Niamey as our passport were in the other vehicle. Then we decided enough was enough and I negotiated for a passport substitute, giving them some paper with work letter heads. From there we basically made a run for the French Embassy – the soldier protesting from the back of the Land Rover while we made out we didn’t know what he wanted us to do. We arrived at the French Embassy at 11:30 pm Christmas night and were greeted by the French Ambassador, the head of the French Military attache in Niger and the Head of the Internationale Police in Niger. They were all amazingly helpful. Details began to emerge that we were suspected spies/gun runners. The piste from Djanet to Chirfa is never crossed from north to south these days and so our arrival out of the northern Tenere had aroused much suspicion. There was also a suggestion that we had been picked up by a military patrol in the Northern Tenere. This might have been the commander at Chirfa trying to win himself a promotion, but it was certainly not how it happened as we had driven directly to the military checkpoint at Chirfa and found them all lazing about in the sun.

A meeting was set up with the Niger Chief of Police for the next day. The arrangements were made from the French Embassy shortly after midnight. We were very surprised when the meeting went ahead as it was taking place at lunchtime on the Islamic equivalent of Christmas day. It was at that meeting that our passports were returned (left). We had been held for nine days and had been required to drive about 2000km for the ceremony. The Chief of Police of Niger pointed out to us that he didn’t know why we were being held by the Military.

From Niamey we took the shortest route out of Niger – to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso.

So if you want a trip across the Tenere from Dirkou to Agadez without the official guide, then just cross the northern Tenere from Djanet to Chrifa and the military is bound to oblige. The downside is that the trip goes at their pace! Our original trip had been planned to take in Libya, Niger and Algeria, so crossing the northern Tenere from south to north. Others have done parts of this route. Although the Niger military clearly don’t like tourists in the northeast, they seem to tolerate the route this way round. Our plans had to change when the Libyans refused our visas.

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