Marseille – Tunis – Nefta – El Oued – Grand Erg Oriental – Deb Deb – Illizi – Djanet – Essendilene – Bordj el Haouas – Tazat – Amadror – Tourha – Tefedest east – Ideles – Tahifet – Tamanrasset – Assekrem – Tam – In Ecker – Amguid – Erg Tifernine – Gara Khanfoussa – Bordj Omar Driss – HbG – El Oued – Tunis – Genoa.
Land Cruiser HJ61, Land Cruiser HDJ80 auto, Defender 300 Tdi.
With just a couple of cars booked on the March tour, I planned to make the most of a small group and explore new areas that would be problematical with a bigger group. At Marseille Lucy and I met up with Ian and Elke from Wales in a well set-up Defender, and retirees Peter and David in an auto 80 TLC with nothing more than a second spare and a box for the jerries. Peter had bought the 80 just for the tour and preferred the low key ‘school run’ look.
The Marseille crossing was deserted and as flat as it gets. And better still, filling out the Tunisian immigration forms took just 20 minutes, whereas on the more popular Genoa run it can take six tedious hours. I guess it’s because Genoa is a funnel for the hoards of German-speaking Saharans, and of course that crossing costs 25% less.
But Marseille has other advantages apart from less crowds: it leaves earlier in the day so it gets in to Tunis early too, making a daylight run to the Algerian border possible. Rural traffic in Tunisia may not be so mental, but if it’s your first African driving experience you don’t want to be doing it in the dark. So after a hot, windy day we arrived at Nefta just on sunset and early next morning got through the borders in a couple of hours.
My plan was to avoid the long schlep south down past Hassi Messaoud and try one of the lately ‘fashionable’ pistes that cut thorough the northern Grand Erg Oriental down to the El Borma Road. These routes have the attraction of getting off the highway early, but involve traversing the northern Oriental Erg’s notorious small dunes. The problem with small dunes – as we were soon to find out – is that they have no clear form, being just a chaotic jumble of akle, rather like driving through a very heavy swell. Big dunes (as found in the southern Oriental) may have more scary descents but at least form into regular ridges (seifs) separated by gassis or corridors. You roll along a corridor and once in a while hop over a ridge of dunes to the adjacent gassi. If only…
Planning to get all the way to Hassi bel Guebbour through the Grand Erg (500km), we fuelled up at El Oued and turned off the highway near Oued Allenda village. By then a hot wind was blowing from the south reminding us the hot season was on its way. I had a dozen waypoints from a friend and soon we were in the dunes, riding through the swell.
After a few kilometres the tracks veered west but I made the mistake of heading directly for the next waypoint (this route was to be a reminder in reading the terrain first, then a GPS!). Twenty minutes of that saw me battling the Land Cruiser from one dune to the next. I knew this route was no cake-walk, but 200kms of this made 600kms of tarmac to HbG extremely alluring. We returned to the tracks (easier said than done) and I recce’d ahead with Ian in the Land Rover to discover the tracks did indeed turn our way after a few kilometres.
That night scorpions visited our camp. No one was more surprised or repelled than me, having never seen one in 20 years of desert travels. Yellow and only about an inch or two long, they put the dampers on our first desert camp as those of us in bare feet tiptoed gingerly towards their footwear. Lucy had lately read about Lhote killing 168 scorpions on the Tassili plateau in one sitting so Peter and David postponed sleeping out and put up a tent.
Next morning the hot south wind continued to blow, obscuring the sky and horizon and offering me another novelty; static electricity. On some days, every time I got out of my car I got zapped.
The tracks we’d recce’d the previous evening led into a tussocky flat area (as gassi as
it gets around here) which circumnavigated the dunes I’d tried to plough though yesterday. Presently they led to the well of Thleth el Biar where some Chaamba nomads were watering their herds. Compared to affable (or more tourist-trained) Tuaregs down south, these guys didn’t have much to say and indifferently took a bag of clothes we left by their car.
Nearby Ian spotted some sand roses growing in the sand. Being more humid than the deep south, the northern Erg is famous for these unusual crystalline gypsum formations which at best can resemble a pink rose. Firstly scorpions and now static and wild sand roses, what other novelties awaited?
None I cared for. From the well the sand was trackless so we muddled south into dunes, passing another well surrounded by nomads. For me the dilemma was: get stuck in to whatever led to the next waypoint, or follow the easier ground and risk getting led off route. Often we’d work our way into a mass of dunes only to see the preferred flat tussocky area half a kilometre to either side but still 20 minutes low ranging to get there. On the flat ground, such vantage points were not possible.
I’d driven in terrain similar to this, but never as the lead car, a big difference. Following someone takes a bit of concentration but is easy: whatever the lead car gets through you can usually follow, and where it gets stuck you have time to think and find a better way.
Both Ian and Peter thought this was all brilliant, real desert driving! but I just chewed my lip and wondered how bad it would get. I’ve never been keen on dune driving, it’s no surprise that it’s where all accidents happen and dunes are hard on the transmission and your nerves. In the Nefta hotel we’d met a Belgian guy who’d rolled his 80 in the Grand Erg near HbG. He was hanging out there while they replaced all the windows and bashed it back into shape…
Not only was the driving demanding but the terrain was pretty dull too, not helped by the dreary visibility and hot winds. Dunes tussocks, dunes tussocks. Occasionally we’d come across a gravel patch with clear tracks which confirmed we were on target, even if we felt lost most of the time.
Luckily both Ian and Peter (who’d never driven off road before) seemed to manage it fine. I assured them this sort of driving was not the norm, but it being the start of the trip, they didn’t seem to mind being thrown in the deep end. My idea to come this way with six bikes a couple of months earlier would have been a disaster for sure.
We covered just 100km that day and another 100 the next, getting close to the El Borma road. And by the afternoon of the second day the dunes where getting higher, more spaced out and more regular, which made the terrain easier to negotiate. But not that easy. At one point I was working my way through a pile of dunes en route to the next putative waypoint. Trying to keep moving in Low 2nd, I rode from one crest through a bowl to the next, higher and higher until it was clear it wasn’t going to work out. There seemed no order or pattern, I was just a cork bobbing around in a pail of boiling water. I found myself doing something I’d only discussed hypothetically in the book: “wall of deathing” around the rim of a bowl in an attempt to maintain momentum and height while trying to work out what next. In the end I fell off the tightrope, almost willingly, with the car beached diagonally near a crest at a jaunty angle. And again. from this skewed vantage point one could spy the flat valley of t••••••s just half a click to the east.
We extracted ourselves and worked our way round, but a while later the same happened and I found myself mired in a bowl of custard powder with no room to move forward or back. Having never used them in three years, I’d left my sand plates at home but even Ian’s sand ladders couldn’t give the 61 the lift it needed. Towing merely pulled both cars into the sand, so we resorted to dragging the sunken Cruiser out by the arse with Ian’s winch. Handy thing in this situation, a winch!
With the weather almost brightening up and the dunes now rising into impressive formations, we counted the kilometres to the road and decided to leave the southern 300km stage to HbG for another time. Unused to his car, Peter had kept the auto in Low Range rather too much and would not have had enough fuel anyway. And we didn’t want to risk another 2 days in the dunes and get behind schedule.
But instead of scurrying back to Hassi Messaoud, we turned east along the pipeline to El Borma and then down towards Deb Deb, another new route for me and one which I’d heard was notoriously buried in sand. South of Sif Fatimah the buried road section began. Bulldozers and JCBs were working to clear the side track and one amazing articulated 6×6 machine with ex-747 tyres gently pulled me through a bank. The tarmac is built on an embankment through huge dunes, but for kilometres at a time it disappears under the sand, with the side piste not always being much easier. Peter was eyeing his fuel gauge but we made it into the nice-looking border town of Deb Deb next morning, filled up with water, fuel and bread, and trundled on down the dull highway through the eastern oilfields to Illizi and a hotel.
Over the Fadnoun the weather was still overcast and dull, to be expected as the seasons change in springtime, but still disappointing. Lack of blue skies really does dampen one’s impression of the desert. Near Tin Taradjeli where the plateau ends we turned off to check out the Sleeping Antelope engravings in Oued Dider, but were content to stop by a two-tier guelta for lunch.
We also decided not to spend a night in a Tassili canyon and pressed on for Djanet and a rest day before a planned 4-day plateau walk. Just as well as what is usually a wonderful drive along the Tassili’s southern scarp soon became lost as an afternoon sandstorm swept in from the south, obliterating the tarmac itself.
In Djanet I set to changing my back springs. I’d been given a set of parabolics to try out. The fronts seemed to work OK but the back ones (fitted just before I left) were clearly not up to it, especially if I was to return home with enough Algerian diesel to last the summer. Expecting such problems, I’d brought along my trusty Old Man Emus and Hey Presto! the Tojo had some air in the wheel arches again. I flogged the back paras to the car spares shop near the market. Djanet is chock-a-block with erstwhile TLC 60s, though those mushy back springs will be as much use to most Djaneteers as fishing lessons.
It became likely that the guide I’d booked for the plateau walk was not going to turn up – oh well, that’s Africa, none of us really minded. And for me, four extra days meant less rushing around the desert. I’ve waiting 20 years to see the plateau, it will be there next time.
We popped down next afternoon to check out the Crying Cow and again another mid-afternoon storm blew in. I tried out the auto 80 and I must say I was not that enamoured. It felt like a heavy slug, very comfy and quiet of course, and featuring a lot of dashboard action. Pete was not that impressed either, finding the lack of pick-up at very low speeds (a feature of 80 engines, compared to earlier 12HTs) in dunes a problem. But either way Ian and I assured Peter just 20-30 seconds in either the Tdi or my 61 would soon highlight the 80s overall appeal.
Although the campsite guys were keen to offer us a plateau deal, we decided to move on and left Djanet under blue skies. On the recommendation of a couple of French guys, we took off up Essendilene Canyon (80-odd kms from Djanet, not 30 as in the book, p. 406), a lovely drive into the Tassili’s interior ending at a fern-lapped guelta.
Following another couple of tips I decided to concoct a new route to Ideles. First through a pass north of Mt Tazat which Richard Washington had found over Christmas, and then across the Amadror plain directly to the Tefedest and down A6 to Ideles.
I made a bit of a mess getting to the Tazat Pass, coming too much from the northeast across all sorts of rubble which slowed tyre-twitchy Peter down to glacial speeds. But by sundown we were 10kms from the mountain and a recce up a nearby hill showed a likely way in.
That night was clear but soon after we went to bed a gale blew in from the east and kept up the whole night. It’s one of the advantages of sleeping in a car as Ian and Elke did. Our tent flapped annoyingly all night while Peter and David rose after a night on the sand like a pair of crustaceans.
Stout old cairns marked the way into the pass next morning. Who knows why the French bothered establishing this route while the main piste passed south of Tazat. Whatever, it was a lovely, quiet drive and nice to be off the corrugated piste, even if it had now become oddly cold for mid-March. On the far side I returned to Borne junction after many years to find the old orange drum long gone and a chunky stone monument in its place. From here we took the route northwest towards Amguid, passing a nice Pre-Islamic tomb on a hillside. At a cone mountain south of Toukmatine we then cut out across the Amadror plain where Colonel Flatters and his crew met their end in 18 seventy whatever. It was a weird sensation driving across the flat plain with distant mountains bobbing on the horizon’s mirage. Slowly, as the afternoon wore on the Tourha range rose in the west, a bit like Adrar Bous as you come across the Tenere. There’s even a lone tree at KM321. Ian was leading for a change (he found trailblazing hard work too) and came across a gang of gazelles which inhabit this relatively secluded region.
As the day ended we reached the ‘Tourha Pass’ on a lovely evening and camped by a sun-warmed outcrop. Before dinner Lucy and I went for a wander into the hills and watched a little nervously as three cars drove past our camp without seeing it. Smugglers, locals or tourists? Who knows but we were glad they missed us. It being Mother’s Day Peter could not resist my extortionate fee for the sat phone and called his mum in Surrey.
Even though we were only at 1000m, it froze that night to minus 2 or 3 and next day we carried on through the lovely pass and cut down towards the Tefedest proper, stopping frequently just to admire the grandeur of it all in the clear, crisp weather. On the far side of the Oued Igharghar we picked up A6 which I’d done with some bikes a few weeks earlier, met some smiley Targuias and their goats and followed this picturesque route to lunch at the green sign.
It’s interesting reversing a route you know well – you see so much more; new pistes and unusual rocks and even a new way into Ideles past a well I never knew about.
Ideles for me was the usual run around town trying to find the Tazrouk junction. I know where it is but never know how to get there from the west.
We were now on the outer ring road via Tahifet (A4) which I’d done for the first time in years with the bikes in January. Up to Tazrouk it’s a great track and this time Ian and I half-climbed the 150-metre old radio mast near Azrou to affirm that our arms and legs still worked after 2500km of driving.
But after Tahifet the wide track becomes Corrugation Central and we were glad to get to the highway south of Tam, pass the dozens of trans-Saharan trucks queuing for fuel and reached Agence Tarahist’s gite near Hadriane mountain. We’d just missed Moktar going out that morning with Jeremy Keenan and a group of no less than nine Brits, surely a record!
Tamanrasset merely reminds you how nice Djanet is, through it’s a good place to get stuff. Elke and I had had a running joke (well, it was to me) that the Hoggar was not worth visiting and we should spend more time in the wonderful Tassili. It’s a preference I’ve established on previous tours, but one that can only be made once one has seen both places. And Elke had been wanting to visit the Hoggar since she was a teenager.
So we trundled out of Tam next afternoon, chattering over the corrugations to the ever more dramatic ascent to Assekrem, seemingly smoother than when I last came this way in ’86. Up at the pass we checked in full-board into the overpriced lodge and hiked up to the plateau. While the others primed their lens caps and took positions I went over to the north side of the plateau, having read of an alternative view in Sahara Man. In the end it was nothing special but it was nice to get away from the others for an hour or so.
Evenings in the lodge follow a standard pattern. A faux Tuareg twatted about and took the piss out of a Chinese family. On a world tour, they’d tried to go to Egypt, settled for Tangiers but ended up in Algiers which sounded the same to their travel agent. What to do in Algiers but get sent down to Tam for the Assekrem Experience.
I’ve never seen dawn at Assekrem. The bikers (whose cutting limerick about my tour I’d uncovered in the lodge’s guest book the previous evening) had told me it was the one to watch. And they weren’t wrong. A little light cloud made for an amazing sight, even as the chill pre-dawn wind riffled though our blanket.
We returned to Tam the same way as Peter was worried about the tough western decent on his low and already dune-bashed 80. In Tam we had a bit of argy bargy getting fuel. Peter’s row of empty jerries did not go down well at the back of the queue, even if other guys we’re rocking up with 50-gallon drums in the boot of their Renault 12s. A sack of bread and some veggies and it was off to In Ecker for another new piste.
On this stage Peter and I achieved a faintly phenomenal 36-40 mpg while Ian’s Tdi got it’s best at 26. The Tdi’s mediocre mpg puzzled me, although my experience on other tours is Tdis are usually the same as my 61. Was it Ian’s heavy tyres and rims and all those tanks, or the alloy roof wedge? Not likely. Overall, apart from in the Grand Erg, Peter’s cushy auto was usually tops: 5% better than my 61, with the Tdi around 25% below.
At In Ecker mountain we took off onto the Amguid piste, but I soon lost the track and wandered around most unprofessionally, while Lucy got to grips with reading waypoints off a map. Still, it all ended happily at a lovely campsite below a hill a few kilometres off the piste overlooking In Ecker mountain, still fenced off after a nuclear accident in the 1960s.
Up to Amguid the going was fast, passing the odd Dakar Rally wreck and the mysterious village of Abdemezeh where a German biker tour was having a cuppa. But by lunchtime a south wind was blowing again, hazing the sky.
At Ain Kerma well we barged in on the local Gendarmeries’ weekly wash and then headed for Amguid, Years ago I recall reading (in the Sahara Handbook?) that Amguid was populated by obnoxious children, not normally found in Algeria. I joked about this to the others who noted that these children would have grown up by now. How wrong we were. We stopped in the dilapidated once abandoned village to hand out the last of our clothes and were immediately besieged by clawing hands. This was not the exuberant ‘toubabery’ of West Africa but manic desperation. The adults pulled back the youngsters only to snatch into the cars themselves and it all got faintly scary as they surrounded Peter’s car where all the goodies were. We raced off, left our cadeaux on the ground and moved on as the crowd ripped into the bags.
Just north of Amguid we crossed over a pass onto the ‘Graben Piste’ which I’d wanted to do for many years. But that night another sandstorm blew up, this time from the west, and kept blowing all next day. It was dreary driving over rocky tracks with little to see, but that’s the desert: not every day’s a winner and some days are worse than others…
At Hassi Ntsel a band of dunes ran across the track. Unable to see an alternative route clearly, the dunes, no more than a kilometre wide, looked no worse than those we’d driven over in the Grand Erg. So rather hastily I got stuck in, got stuck, backed up, recce’d a way on foot using the others to stand as markers and bundled the cars through. On the final dunelette my car came down hard on the front corner: result, both front leaves (there are only two with parabolics) snapped though. With sand blowing all around, getting under the car was uncomfortable, but Ian and I managed a good bodge from a block of wood and a spare bump stop, a chain and a ratchet strap. I doubt the block lasted more than a few kilometres, but with the axle lashed to the chassis with chain and strap, we carried on at a much slower pace while I tried to visualize various meltdown scenarios and how I’d deal with them.
In the end renewing the ratchet strap ever day or so, the car got all the way back to London on the bump stop with the broken leaves flapping. Whatever rubber they use to make Tojo bump stops, you’d better hope you have some on your parabolic car… The break was not a total surprise as the same happened to Yves’ parabolicked 109″ a couple of months earlier.
Thankfully next day the storm had blown itself out, just in time for us to round the rocky spur of Erg Tifernine, the most spectacular sections of this route where the stunningly red dunes flow over an old colonial track winding through the rocky hills. From there right up the east flank of the Erg to Gara Khanfoussa was smooth sand, ideal for three-leafed Land Cruisers as well as a good place to spot Neolithic detritus.
Like I said, reversing known routes can be interesting, but it can also get confusing. Having come down through Khanfoussa a couple of times recently, coming back was a whole new game, specially with all traces blown away by yesterday’s storm. At one point I got to a huge dip that I didn’t recall and doubted I could get through. I tried to keep high and ride round one side, a possible way out. But with the car tipping ever further and Lucy getting ready to lower the lifeboat, I gave in just as we neared the crest, and swerved down into the pit. In fact getting out was not so hard, but watching Ian come through, a tiny Land Rover rolling down a 40-metre slope was scary.
Getting in to Gara Khan’ hill, the halfway point in the dune crossing, had been easyish, getting out was not. I followed what faint tracks there were, tried to visualize the route in reverse, but soon got in a muddle and ended up following day-old tracks to another thought-provoking slip face. An overdue check on the GPS proved that we’d overshot the western exit by 10kms. Worn out by nursing the car and irritated by my confusion, we set course for a known waypoint at the western entry and rolled over the hills and dunes to a sheltered camp nearby.
I was in no hurry to drive my limping car along the rubble track to Quatre Chemins and so next day, out of necessity and a bit of curiosity, we took the piste directly into Bordj Omar Driss along the base of the escarpment. Some nasty soft sand apart, it was a nicer route, passing by an amazing cliff of red, green and white interlaced strata that would have geologists drooling.
With every mile it seemed likely that the bump stop would not disintegrate and once we got back on the tarmac near BoD, I was sure the 61 would make it back the 1500kms to Tunis, and beyond.
On the boat I met up with some bikers including a Lido who’d come up from SA with a mate in a troublesome Td5. La Goulette had been packed out with 10 times the vehicles we’d seen coming out of Marseille. The Tunisians were making even more of a meal of boarding than usual and we didn’t leave until 11pm. As the boat eased into Genoa next day, Lido and his mate congratulated each other on making it across Africa to Europe. Me, I felt sorry for them. What were they going to make of Europe after nearly a year in the bush? They’d been given some skimpy directions for a campsite that might be open nearby. They reminded me of my own early Saharan rides. Bugger that I thought. Lucy and I said our goodbyes to Ian, Elke, Pete and David and attacked Genoa’s one-way system like a band of small dunes in search of the Novotel.