Trans Sahara (Algeria to Gabon, 2003)

Sian Pritchard-Jones and Bob Gibbons

It was Jan 1st when we left the shores of GB for our long expedition to the Sahara. The journey to Genoa was much quicker than it would have been a week later, when France was covered in snow, according to the television in the Marhaba Hotel in Nefta. It was our first trip on the Carthage, as our last foray into the Sahara had been in 1993 on the old Habib ferry, just before the FIS warned all foreigners to keep out. But the Carthage exceeded our expectations and was a comfortable way to start an exciting journey across the equator and back again.

At the border we were excited to be driving in Algeria after such a long time away. But on arriving in El Golea we heard a horrible noise from the gearbox. This should not have happened, as it had been completely rebuilt in England, along with the engine. We returned to Ghardaia for repairs and ended up spending almost a week in the home of the uncle of our agent in Tamanrasset. The work was completed at 5 pm on the day before the twice-weekly convoy from El Golea to Tamanrasset, so we had to get moving that night. At 7 am the next day we were at the barrier outside El Golea, waiting and waiting for the gendarmes to arrive. All day we waited, without any concrete information from the police there. At 5 pm we gave up and returned to town. “Come back tomorrow, you will definitely go then,” they said.The next day we were there again in the darkness, eating breakfast at the police post and hoping. We gave one of the policemen an orange from the garden of the garage in Ghardaia; in return he gave us a bottle of Orangina from Algiers! And sure enough, at 8.23 am they let us go, but there was no sign of any convoy. Once we had left the barrier we were on our own. And then the rain started. All day long we had the windscreen wipers going.

We crossed raging rivers below the Tademait Plateau, past golden sand dunes surrounded by vivid pink flowers, into the muddy town of In Salah, where children played excitedly in the swimming pools that the streets had become.The following day we were at the In Salah barrier before dawn. We left at 7.23 am as the sun was rising, and were then on the road all day and almost all night it seemed, arriving at Tam at 9.30 pm. It’s a beautiful but at times rough potholed drive. The dramatic Arak Gorge is about half way. Then there are the dramatic outcrops between Moulay Hassan and In Ecker before the magical Hoggar Mountains appear near Tamanrasset. It was a surprise to see such a huge city, at least in comparison with any other settlements we had seen in the desert. But the architecture is still attractive and the city is buzzing with life, admittedly mostly male, in the tea shops around the square and on the street corners. The Hotel Tinhinane, although fairly primitive, is a friendly place where they are trying to install workable hot showers and already provide delicious fresh bakery produce for breakfast. We tried the campsites too, but they were all out of town, more expensive and empty.

spbj-Algeria-Hoggar-03-LR-north-AssekremLeaving Tamanrasset for Djanet a couple of days later, we were with our small group of British tourists, who had arrived just 15 hours after us. We headed first for the Assekrem hermitage high in the Hoggar Mountains, a wonderful place with stunning views across the mountain ranges. The journey across to Djanet was fun in convoy. We spent nearly a week trekking on the Tassili plateau, and came down to meet none other than Chris Scott and his motorbike team at the Djanet campsite.

The following week we travelled back to Tam with our six American clients, who had started out from Agadez, and been driven to Bilma, then on to Djado to meet us in Djanet. Quite a story in itself.

After our clients departed, we headed south on the main piste. Three local smugglers’ vehicles interrupted our sleep in the rocks near Gara Ecker; some heart-stopping and hair-raising moments as we froze on the roof of our vehicle while they got out a few hundred yards away and started to make lots of noise. They had surely seen us; they were so close. But luckily they left us alone and we had no further problems reaching In Guezzam.Border formalities over after some bakshish in Assamaka, we had a trouble-free run to Agadez. The road south to Zinder is still not tarmac for the middle 100 miles, but a good fun piste, with no traffic to speak of. We stayed with some British missionaries in Zinder; a great welcome, a touch of home cooking and a hot shower. They were stunned to see a British-registered vehicle driving through Zinder and came following us to see who we were and what on earth we were doing!

Entering Nigeria was a very polite affair but the road to Kano was guarded every couple of miles by different officials, police, customs, road safety officials, forestry patrols, first aid informers, random debt collectors, vehicle safety, road safety again and so on. All hoping for a tip, but none actually putting much effort into collecting. At the Kano State Tourist camp there were no other tourists but lots of willing helpers; Hussein could find black market diesel, since the fuel stations were shut by one of many frequent strikes. Others wished to clean the Land Rover, our clothes, our shoes, our mudguards and probably us if we’d asked.

Our route took us across sultry hot northern Nigeria to Maiduguri and then into Cameroon. After spectacular rocky outcrops and reasonable roads, we soon arrived in hilly Ngaoundere, a nice town. There was nowhere to camp, but we were able to park discretely outside the hotel and creep surreptitiously into the back of our vehicle, giving the gardener a shock in the morning when our legs swung out of the back! From here the road became reasonably acceptable dirt to Garoua Boulai at the border of the Central African Republic, where rebellions were in progress as usual. After Garoua Boulai we cruised along on a 150-mile section of fabulous brand new wide tarmac, with about two trucks an hour for company. We camped in the forest but didn’t sleep a lot, with so many unnerving noises in the undergrowth. Not long after Bertoua the new road suddenly came to an abrupt and very rough end. Barely 10 miles an hour was possible from here, over massive corrugations virtually all the way to Yaounde.

But we didn’t make it that far that evening, as night fell while we were still many miles away. We lay as we had done many times before on the open roof, until 3 am when it suddenly started to rain. Within minutes we were soaked by a torrential downpour, so we dashed hurriedly inside and started to move before the roads were closed by the rain barriers. But the road was so rough that the engine died, still in the blackness of the night, just as a great thunderous storm enveloped us on our lonely jungle track. It was a scary couple of hours sitting immobile in the dark (our torch of course chose this moment to fail), fiddling with fuel lines and everything else before finding a loose wire that took power to the ignition solenoid. This jungle was actually more remote in terms of outside help than the Sahara, even though there were a few villages. They of course were poor and had no power or mechanical facilities.

After Yaounde the road south was good all the way to the border town of Ambam. Then again the road ended suddenly and became a tiny narrow muddy track through dense forest to the Gabon border river. Some terrible rotten wood bridges almost barred our way as well. By the time we reached the river it was too late to cross, so we were invited by the Customs officials to spend the night outside their office. After a hassle-free ferry crossing the next morning we were in Gabon. Friendly border people again, but then decidedly unfriendly checkpost officials after Bitam. The road was excellent to begin with, but again gave way to terrible rutted corrugated dirt as the foreign aid dried up. Spectacular mountain jungle scenery though, with a great canopy of trees and cliffs. At Ndjole we stayed at a small auberge, which would have been just as much at home on the banks of the Loire as on the Oogue river. French expats obviously kept it going, though they all seemed to feel they would rather be somewhere else – “I’d rather be in Eritrea,” said one!

And so across the equator to our destination of Libreville, a hot sweaty melting pot, and the first Internet cafÈ we had seen since Ngaoundere. A ridiculously expensive hotel at a marina was full of expat yachts, but could we search any more at that time of night in that heat? With a new outbreak of Ebola and rebels in the Congo, no way could we contemplate going on in that direction (“I’d rather have AIDS than Ebola. At least with that you can take drugs to help you live longer, whereas with Ebola you’re dead in a week,” said a young man who came to watch Bob under the Land Rover doing his usual maintenance tricks). And we were unable to get the Sudan visa that would have allowed us to cross to Kenya as originally planned.

So all that remained now was to get back to Tunis in four weeks for the ferry. We turned back from Lambarene, our most southerly point, having visited the Schweitzer hospital. Taking a different route in Cameroon, we passed the volcano Mount Cameroon and drove through some picturesque forested hills on the way to Mamfe, on a mixed dirt and new tarmac route. Then via the Ekok border to Makurdi, Abuja and Kano, before returning to the desert. But that was yet another story.

SOME ADDITIONAL ROUTE NOTES

The tarmac south of Tam lasts about 20 miles before becoming broken and rough. Once into the sandy oued draining the southern Hoggar, the piste is much faster and widens out as the route passes between some isolated hills and outcrops. Although there are quite a number of balises, the more recent and well used tracks (and there are many, often kilometres apart) do not always stay within sight of these markers. For comfort we tried generally to keep within sight of the markers, but the clearer tracks often strayed away for an hour or more at times. After an open area south of the outcrops, the piste is fast and clear. Then one crosses a sandy region with small rocks and ancient eroded slate patches where getting stuck in deeper sand is just a possibility. Late in the day the route encounters the dramatic outcrops of the Tassili du Hoggar and here a new road is being built in various often discontinuous sections. About 80 km before In Guezzam are the dramatic rocky towers near Gara Ecker, which make for good camping places. Smugglers also use this area at night (we had some heart-stopping moments as three vehicles drove past us just a few metres away at 2 am), so plan to drive well out of sight of the road, but watch out for the deeper sand near the rocks. Road construction is going on just south of here and the last 15 km is tarmac to In Guezzam.

Fuel is sometimes available in In Guezzam, but don’t leave Tam expecting it. Leave In Guezzam by following the route south from the fuel station and turn left at the end here on a track that is sandy then climbs up on to a made-up embankment. Just before the customs immigration is an area of soft sand, where it may be necessary to lower tyre pressures. From the immigration the truck piste is fairly obvious to Assamaka. (When coming north from Assamaka, it’s best to ask the locals for the truck piste as it is not clear. There are hundreds of other well-defined tracks made by smugglers – yes, we got lost and stuck here for nearly 2 hours following clear tracks into a range of low hills. The truck piste is a bit east and then north from Assamaka, and is very clear after a kilometre or so from Assamaka.)

It’s pot luck at Assamaka whether the officials will ask for a lot of bakshish, a little or none. Continuing from Assamaka we took the obvious piste to Arlit. This piste goes east and does a turn to the southeast not far from Assamaka, with signs. There is virtually no traffic on this piste, just a couple a trucks each day or two, but it’s a fun piste. We camped about 50 km before Arlit on the south side of the piste in some scrub and low acacias, the only cover all the way. Arlit is a rather flyblown spot and we had to get the insurance here at the UGAN office, but not until after the manager had slaughtered his sheep for the Eid festival. We also visited the police for a stamp here, but nowhere else in Niger; it wasn’t too much hassle.

We found fuel in Arlit, but it may not always be available. Agadez still retains its great and colourful atmosphere, particularly if a festival is underway. The road south to Zinder is tarmac except for about a hundred and sixty kilometres before Tanout. For the main road to Kano follow the route via Matamey to Kongolam, not the one marked on the Michelin map, which is slower. The Kano State Tourist Camp is just about functioning and the locals are friendly. Ask Hussein for any mechanics or black market fuel if required.

We continued as far south as Libreville and Lambarene in Gabon, before turning around for home, having failed to get a Sudanese visa in London prior to the trip. We met a motorcyclist and some Austrians with visas who had already been, or were planning to go, via Chad to Sudan. Nigeria was memorable for hundreds of police checkposts and a complete lack of fuel; power cuts and hotels with only bucket water. Cameroon was generally pleasant, except for police in Yaounde, but a great swathe of the central areas still doesn’t have tarmac roads, just shockingly corrugated mud tracks. A new 200 kilometre section of empty tarmac road does exist between Garoua Boulai and Bertoua, with terrible roads north to Ngaoundere and south to Yaounde itself. South of Yaounde a good road runs to Amban, where one can go via a narrow swampy track in the forest to the border or via a new road towards Equatorial Guinea and then east to Bitam. Both routes involve ferry crossings of varying amounts of hassle. The eastern one is free and friendly, the other a big hassle and possibly expensive, depending on your patience levels and whether you arrive on a Sunday as we did, when the main ferry is out of action.

Once in Gabon the good road extends to Lalaya then becomes dirt and again very slow until near Ndjole. This section is however magnificent for its combination of forests and mountains. Police are again a big hassle at checkposts.

Perhaps one of the biggest problems we had on this trip was money. Not the cost of things, but actually changing hard currency into something usable! Travellers cheques were almost impossible to change anywhere, and cash dollars became harder and harder to do anything with as the threat of war increased. It is still likely to be much better to have cash Euros in the francophone areas and perhaps dollars and sterling pounds in Nigeria.

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