Tunisia to Agadez
November 2003. Information dates from February-March 2003.
Crossing the Sahara via Algeria without your own vehicle is neither as difficult nor dangerous as some imagine. As big as the Sahara is, the access points and the routes across it are few for the solo traveller, meaning that getting lost or stranded is unlikely. In towns, there is usually some infrastructure in the way of accommodation, food, and onward transport to support you, and a little preparation and a lot of patience should get you through any tight spots. Moreover, the people are generally friendly and helpful, and there is little of the hassle that you encounter in some parts of North Africa.
Shared taxi: On paved roads (north of In Salah) shared taxis are usually rattletrap yellow Peugeot 504 station wagons carrying 7 passengers. On the piste, (from In Salah south), the shared taxis are 4 wheel drive Toyotas. In most places, shared taxis leave from a central station (gare routiere). Upon arriving at the taxi station, just ask for your destination, and you will soon be taken in hand by the next driver headed that way. Since shared taxis have no set schedule but leave when full, you may leave within minutes, hours, or if unlucky, you could end up waiting a whole day. The drivers will almost never leave without a full complement, although they will often offer to leave immediately if you (the foreigner) pay the outstanding fares. Sometimes, all the passengers will agree to split the remaining fare when it looks as if the wait will be futile, which is fair enough. The best time to go is early in the morning, when most Algerians travel (at least in winter). On routes where there is a convoy (as of February 2003 this was El Golea-In Salah and In Salah-Tam), you have to book the taxi in advance and get police permits.
Bus. Slower than taxis and less frequent, but cheaper and some are air-conditioned. Buses run as far south as Tam.
Hitch-hiking: Useful for short distances, say from a town to a nearby village, and necessary for certain stretches without any other means of transport &endash; for example, crossing from In Guezzam&endash;Assamaka&endash;Arlit. Otherwise, police/military checkpoints may make drivers reluctant to pick up foreigners.
For all land travel, buy a cheche to keep the dust out of your mouth and always carry a bottle of water and something to eat. Biscuits, chocolate, and cigarettes are good icebreakers or for reciprocating generosity.
By air: internal Air Algerie flights are ridiculously cheap (30 euros Tam-Djanet). If you buy at the Air Algerie offices, they will send you to the bank to change the exact amount required and bring back a special stamped receipt (as opposed to the normal stamped receipt). Niger Air exists only on paper &endash; they have no planes. I did see fliers advertising flights between Agadez and Niamey, but that is probably wishful thinking since the Agadez airport is still being rebuilt.
Orientation, communications, banks
Orientation: None of the towns in the Sahara are large enough to require a map. Just ask and you will be pointed in the right direction. Except for Tam, tourist offices in the Algerian Sahara seem to be shut down. If the one in Tam is anything to go by, it’s no loss.
Communication: Every town I stayed in (except Djanet) has at least one internet cafe, although the connections are often slow. Telephone centres abound as well. Post offices can be found in all towns.
Banks: Offers to change money are frequent. There is a currency declaration that must be filled in when entering Algeria; no one looked at mine, but there is always a chance. Before leaving Tam towards Niger, check the going rate for CFA, and try to change with someone before crossing; ask around in the market, as many vendors are from Niger. Assamaka is not the most promising place to arrive without local currency.
Authorities: By the end of your trip, you may feel as if your passport details and other assorted trivia are recorded in every police station and military outpost in Algeria. There are several different varieties of police, but I found most to be surprisingly professional and helpful. There was never even a hint at a bribe request. Niger was the same story &endash; the police were professional. Respect, a smile and a few friendly words open a lot of doors. Algerian border police in particular helped me get reliable rides. South of El Golea/El Mineaa to Tam, independent travellers need a written permit – “laissez passer” – from the police, which they are for some reason reluctant to provide. Insist politely, otherwise it is likely that you will be turned back at the first police or military checkpoint. From Tam south, no permit is needed (as of Feb 2003).
Other Comments: One of the advantages of travelling by public transport is the opportunity to talk to local people you would be unlikely to meet travelling in your own vehicle. The main disadvantage is that, unfortunately, it is entirely possible for the solo traveller to cross the Sahara and see nothing of the desert apart what can be seen from the road. That would be a shame, since part of the Sahara’s interest is the sense of vastness and solitude that you won’t get in town. Hiring a guide for a long excursion is expensive for one person, but well worth it if you can afford to do that for even two or three days. Joining a group is cheaper, but not necessarily easy to do, since someone else’s pre-planned trip may not fit your schedule or budget. Going out to little villages outside the towns is worthwhile, as is hiring a taxi driver for a few hours and having him to show you around.
For the Sahara-bound, the most common point of entry from Tunisia is Hazoua, a short shared taxi ride from Nefta. There is no public transport between the Tunisian and Algerian border posts, but the Tunisian border police will ask someone to take you the couple of kilometres across. After formalities on the Algerian side, there should be a share taxi waiting to go to El Oued (about an hour), but it can be a long wait. Once there, ask the driver to take you to a hotel and save yourself a walk from the gare routiere on the outskirts of El Oued.
You can also fly into Algiers. Definitely intriguing, it is still probably not a safe place to linger. However, the solo traveller can quickly get from Algiers into the Sahara. A regular taxi from the airport to the city center (bus station; railway station; Square Port Said) costs about AD 600. There are a number of hotels around Square Port Said. Or, go directly to the bus or taxi station and head for Ghardaia (600 km). If you are flying into Algiers and looking to go to Tunisia, the overnight train goes as far east as Annaba, where various drivers will solicit you at the station for onward travel to Tunisia. The price of a first class couchette Algiers-Annaba is AD 1146, second-class couchette AD 866, and a normal fare is AD 627. There is no baggage storage at the station, but the people who run the newspaper kiosk will let you keep your bag there for the day. Crossing into Tunisia, your bags will be thoroughly searched.
There are at least 4 hotels. The Si Moussa is basic, cheap and clean enough for about 4.5 euro a night. About a 10 minute walk from the center; no hot water. The Hotel du Souf is the state-run-down tourist hotel; a bit more comfortable, centrally located, and costs about 10 euros a night for a single. Shared taxis to villages around El Oued leave by the post office in the center. A few hours in Rubbah or Nakhla will give a sense of the expanse of the sand sea surrounding El Oued. For onward travel, the station for shared taxis is a 20-30 minute walk from the center &endash; a local taxi is the best option. Taxis go to Ouargla, and from there to Ghardaia and possibly El Golea/El Mineaa. (El Oued-Ghardaia, approx 350 km).
The M’Zab is home to seven villages of the prosperous Mozabites, who retain traditional practices. Beni Isguin is the most famous of these villages, but the others (e.g., El Atteuf) are friendlier and equally as interesting. Most of the villages require that outsiders be accompanied by a guide, which costs about 1 euro. The taxi/bus station is just on the other side of the bridge across the oued, a five minute walk from the center. The are a few hotels in the center, but the Hotel du Gare, about 50 meters away from the taxi station, was relatively cheap (AD 1400), clean and secure. Hot water and heating in the winter. The owner of the hotel, Mr. Makhloufi Boumedienne, may be able to assist in getting a letter of invitation. Tel/Fax: 00 213 29 96 43 15. Email: email@example.com. An Internet cafe is between the hotel and the taxi station. Several restaurants. From Ghardaia taxis and buses are available north to Algiers and south to El Golea/El Mineaa (263 km). There are supposedly long distance buses that go all the way to Tam.
El Golea/El Mineaa
The section of the Trans-Saharan connecting this oasis town with Ghardaia is well-maintained. There are a couple of hotels: the Vieux Ksar is meant to be cheaper but is far from the center; and the Boustan, a state-run place about 5 minutes from the taxi station. A single in the Boustan costs 5 euros, and the staff are helpful and speak English. The town, on the eastern edge of the Grand Erg Occidental, boasts a lovely palmeriae, an old fort (the Vieux Ksar), a church and the grave of Charles de Foucauld. There is a tea place in the center with a small collection of exotic birds and other animals, which the staff are proud to show to visitors. There is a bar in the Hotel Boustan.
Getting out of El Golea/El Mineaa is a bit confusing. Although there are specific days for foreigners with their own vehicles to join convoys south, the independent traveller is an oddity and not necessarily tied to this schedule. Go to the police station on the road into town, about 300 meters north of the Hotel Boustan and ask for a laissez passer to leave by shared taxi or bus. Neither are inclined to take you without this document. Recent events may have restricted the relative freedom of the solo traveller.
Taxis leave from a dusty square a couple of blocks west of the Hotel Boustan. The road divides south of town, going south to In Salah (400 km) and west to Timimoun (350 km) and Adrar.
Timimoun is one of the most attractive towns in the Sahara, with its peculiar architecture in the old town, intricate irrigation schemes, and beautiful setting. Peaceful and isolated, with numerous places of interest in the surrounding area, Timimoun is recovering some of its tourist trade. There are flights from France. The town also has a small community of artists and intellectuals, some of whom are northeners who have sought refuge from persecution.
The loop running El Golea-Timimoun-Adrar-Reggane-In Salah is well paved, and it takes a taxi about 5 hours to get from El Golea to Timimoun. Taxis to Timimoun drop you near the market. The Hotel Ighzer, which is cheap and has friendly staff but is very basic, is about a 5 minute walk down the main drag from the market. The Hotel Gourara, state-run but decently maintained, is a 10-15 minute walk. It’s more expensive (20-25 euro a night for a single), but the rooms have spectacular views out over the palmeraie, the valley and the dunes beyond. A good restaurant and an occasionally lively bar. (Tel: 00 213 49 90 26 27 or 49 90 08 66. Fax: 00 213 49 90 02 62. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
The restored Hotel Oasis Rouge, the striking building in the center of town, was built in the 1920’s. No longer a hotel, it is now an exhibition center worth having a look around. The manager speaks English. Amar, the friendly owner of the restaurant a few doors down from the market on the main street also speaks English. There is an internet cafe several blocks east of the market.
There are several agencies in town organizing camel and 4×4 treks in the desert and nearby villages, but this is costly for one person. Another option is to hire a taxi for the day (20-30 euros); agree on an itinerary in advance. From the Hotel Gourara, you can walk out across the valley to the dunes of the Grand Erg Occidental.
Timimoun to In Salah via Adrar (575 km)
This trip can be done in a day, leaving early from Timimoun. Taxis run to Adrar (about 200 km), but once in Adrar, there is a different station for taxis heading south to Reggane or Aoulef. Either walk south to the T- intersection and turn left (at least 15 minutes) or take a normal taxi. In Reggane, I saw minibuses heading south towards Mali, but don’t know if it is possible for solo travellers to travel that way. Taxis and buses run to In Salah from Aoulef &endash; there is apparently no hotel in Aoulef should you get stuck there. I didn’t encounter any police checkpoints between Timimoun and In Salah, so hitchhiking may be an option.
A very neglected town belonging to the wilaya of far-off Tamanrasset. For accommodation, there is the state run hotel (Tidikelt) on the main highway (10-15 minute walk from the center) and not much else. A camping is advertised in the center, but it looked desolate when I passed by. Somewhat surprisingly, there is an internet cafe. The bus and taxi station is 5 minutes north from the hotel on the trans-Saharan Highway; some people sleep outside there.
You definitely need to make reservations for onward travel to Tam the day before. Most vehicles leave around 0400 &endash; 0500. Besides the official shared taxis (Toyota Landcruisers) and the buses, there are illegal taxis which run this route. Try to reserve the front seat in advance, even if you have to pay a bit extra &endash; sitting in the very back of a 4×4 for 12 hours at speed down a rutted piste loses its charm after the first 5 minutes. The military post on the southern edge of In Salah may turn you back if you don’t have a permit from the police station (center of town).
There are several hotels and campgrounds. The Hotel Ahaggar, across the oued from the center and near the market, is fine. Hotel Tinhinane is centrally located. Tam has pretty much everything you might want &endash; shops, restaurants, tour agencies, internet cafes, and consulates for Mali and Niger. A visa for Niger, single entry, costs 50 euros and is issued the same day. Definitely go to Assekrem, even if you have to go on your own; there is no public transport. The state-run agency ONAT, located on the main drag, has the cheapest prices for excursions.
Aside from hitching a ride with other foreigners or organizing a trip through an agency, it is difficult to go overland from Tam to Djanet. There are illegal taxis, but they are hard to find and seem reluctant to take foreigners. Fortunately, the flights are dirt cheap (30 euros).
South to In Guezzam-Assamaka-Arlit
For onward travel to In Guezzam from Tam, the taxi station is located at the southern edge of town, across from the customs terminal. I didn’t ask about getting a lift with a truck to In Guezzam or Arlit, but the customs terminal would be the best place to look. A 4×4 share taxi is AD 1200, about 10 hours. There is no place to stay in In Guezzam; the best option is to arrange something with the driver, if possible.
For a solo traveller without a vehicle, the short distance from In Guezzam to the Algerian border post is a nuisance, since the latter is now located a few inconvenient km south of town. In case your ride to In Guezzam is not going on to Niger, try waiting for a ride to the border post at the petrol station on the road south out of In Guezzam.
The Algerian border police helped me get a lift to Assamaka and Arlit in a local vehicle. In any event, traffic is fairly regular. Note that on the first of each month, the border police in Assamaka rotate back to Arlit, and you may be able to get a lift with them. I had no red tape or hassles at either border post. In Assamaka, I was told to check in with the police in Arlit, which I did not do and which did not cause any problems later. In a good vehicle, the trip from Assamaka to Arlit is about 4 hours. In my case, I left Tam about 1200 on one day and was in Arlit by 1600 the next, including a few hours wait at the Algerian border. Carry water and sufficient food in case the trip doesn’t go so smoothly.
From Arlit south, things are very straightforward. Buses run south to Agadez, Zinder, and Niamey. The Uranium Highway is good pretty much all the way to Niamey. In Agadez, there are trucks making the illegal run to Djanet. Theoretically one could get a truck from Djanet to Agadez, though this risks trouble with the police in both countries.
For a trip in the Tenere, I can recommend Touareg Tours in Agadez. run by Aghali Alambo.