It’s only the middle-west side of Algeria that is widely open to unrestricted off-highway driving at the moment. Just as well as it coincided with my interest in that area, having done most of the canyon-bound routes in the Tassili N’Ajjer. Great though the Tassili is, the more open Ahnet and western Tefedest also have their attractions, primarily the granite monoliths and the surrounding glare of the white sands shed by those rounded outcrops. You can pretty much point your car in any direction and drive to that place across a trackless, sugary sand sheet.
My group was composed of 7 Scottish off-roaders who’d done a self-organised trip in Libya as well as the usual Morocco. The fifth car was a Dutch guy and mate who were going to come on a similar tour I’d pulled a year earlier in what was probably an over-reaction to security worries at that time. Now, things aren’t looking so good in southern Algeria while the Maghreb goes through political upheavals.
A different last-minute panic this time: big changes in obtaining Algerian visas in London (full details here). Luckily the guy there recognised me from previous years so I got our visas in days rather than weeks and the passports got delivered to the Brit contingent as they headed for the Eurotunnel while I lay in a bed with an ear infection, throwing up, dizzy and unable to walk straight. A week later it had mostly cleared and I caught to group up in Adrar, four days in, flying in over the Grand Erg – you would not want to drive in there. On this trip I was sitting in the agency escort’s Hilux. There’s an 8-minute movie above, a gallery at the bottom of the page and a write up in the July 2011 issue of 4×4 magazine.
I wanted to try the Oran crossing as an alternative to petty shake downs in Tunis, slow processing in Algiers and high prices on both routes. Of course you pay more in fuel to get down to Alicante, but my route in Algeria was down the west side through Taghit, Timimoun and Adrar; so it seemed worthwhile.The El Djazair II ferry works out around £700 for 2 people in an en suite first class cabin with dinner and breakfast included, and driving a <2.3-metre high 4×4. The ferry is comparable with any sub-Carthage ferry serving Tunis or Algiers. It leaves Alicante 7pm 2-3 times a week and returns from Oran at 6pm. Of course you can count on it leaving from 2 to 5 hours late, but on both stages it arrived on time about 7am.
Oran is about the size of Ceuta and once there, it’s a police form per person and one for the car, a TVIP, customs declaration, money exchange (10eu = 1 dinar official) and insurance – 3000d for a month. All listed here. On the way back they asked about diesel but those with up to 4 jerries got away with it. Either play dumb or say it’s only 60L, no big deal. In Alicante a token bag per car was put through a scanner but there was no jerry grief. In both directions we were the only 4×4 tourists on a half-full boat of Algerians.
Calais to Alicante is 1000 miles; it’s the same distance from Oran to In Salah before you can get on the piste. The Tanezrouft agency car was 2 hours late arriving in Oran and without me there to reassure the police and so on, the group speculated that this delay may have given the police the idea that they needed an escort. Then again, there had been rioting in Oran a few weeks earlier and perhaps as a result of the whole North African situation, the group ended up with escorts all the way to Adrar where I caught up with them. And on that day the news of the Italian woman’s kidnapping hit the local papers which made things worse.
On the way down the group stayed in Saida (rough hotel) then late to Taghit camping, short village tour next morning then slow gendarmerie green & white (G&W) escort to Beni Abbes (overpriced hotel), then Timimoun camping, then very slow escort to Ardar where they met me for lunch, by now all thoroughly fed up with Algeria.
We carried on to Aoulef where we met Mohamed and our desert guide but were then told we had to go on to In Salah, another 160km, to get permission from the brigade to go into the desert. It was arriving in In Salah in the dark or camp by the Aoulef police station in the cold wind. Luckily Mohamed had a mate with an auberge for the night (see below).
I had heard that there were G&W escorts around Adrar with slow and frequent change overs, but to get led down 1000 miles from Oran for 5 days and told where to stay was not in the plan and was not helped by me not being there to at least try and manipulate things in our favour. Unfortunately the group never got over it.
Coming back, the plan was always TSH from In Salah up to Ghardaia (8+hr), town tour then off to Laghouat and back roads via Aflou to Tiaret overnight (6hr) for Oran next day (5hr). Plenty of checkpoints (CPs), and up north, plus more traffic and speed humps at each village make it slow, but it took 2.5 days with only a few awkward CPs requiring a stack of fiches.
My advice: use Oran port if you like, but stay clear of the Bechar-Adrar axis. Instead, take our return route from Oran via Tiaret to the TSH at Laghouat.
Driving through north Algeria is pretty grim or just agriculturally dull. Don’t kid yourself that the appeal of this country is anything other than the desert in the deep south, far from half-built towns swamped in their own rubbish.
ACCOMMODATION (that I used)
Ibis hotel, £80 booked online from Expedia (same rate posted in reception). Free unmarked shuttle van for the 10-min drive to/form the airport. Room like anything in Europe for £50. Breakfast an extra 900d! The Mercure rates next door (same shuttle) are nearly double.
Aoulef. Unmarked auberge north end of town 26°58.568′ 1°05.159′
Walled compound, dorms, OK ablutions, 200d per car and about 200d? per person. Tidy enough.
Camping Dassine southeast end of town over the newly bridged oued. My usual place since 1982 and still a good spot. Plain, two-bed cabins are 1000d a night with nice breakfast next day in the salle. Car RTT camping 500d. Hot showers get hit and miss, sit down toilets and all clean enough. Good grocer 10 mins walk to town opposite a cheap cafe. Town itself is 25 mins walk. Traffic and parking is getting worse in central Tam.
Dorms at the auberge 600d pp. Toilets pretty good. No food to spare do we DIY’d. Tea and bikkies served at dawn from the monks up top.
Camping Palmerie. The same place it was in the 80s but with 30 years of added neglect; a semi-derelict scrap heap for 300d pp or 1000d for a 2-child bedded a/c cell. Smelly toilets, junk all around, but the auberge in town is always full I’m told and the Hotel Tidikelt on the highway is 6-7000ds.
IS itself is not exactly Palm Springs; the only reason you’d stay here is that it’s hundreds of kms to anywhere else, the desert around is pretty exposed and Tanezrouft agency are based here, change drivers and may offer a free dinner.
Hotel Atlantide in the town centre. 32°29.215′ 3°40.678′. A lovely old tiled joint from 1800ds or a bit more for en suites, all with TVs and heating. Small breakfast room plus plenty of restos on the street below. Secure garage parking 10 mins walk away for 100d a night (32°29.473′ 3°40.907‘).
Good unmarked resto leaving Ghardaia to the north at 32°31.501′ 3°40.237′ by a roundabout.
Hotel Bouazza (35°21.284′ 1°20.252′). Five storey, south end of town, can’t miss it. Single occupancy en suite with TV and wi-fi from 2020d. Resto dinner for 900d, breakfast buffet included and secure parking round the back. Probably the best value place we stayed in – almost normal but still with plumbing issues. Allow 4-5 hours for the 220km to Oran port.
Diesel still 13.7d, petrol 22-25d. A one-way flight to Adrar with an overnight in Algiers cost about £320 booked a week before with Trailfinders. At the airport btw, I was not asked for my escort as I’ve been done before, and walked straight through. Exchange was 100 dinar to a euro, or 113d to a pound.
Despite the talk of riots over ‘food prices’ up north, they seemed much the same down south as a year or three ago. In Tam imported things can cost more than in Europe. Up north not so bad. Lots of fresh fruit and veg in In Salah market (oranges 70d a kilo), bread 10d (great bakery in In Salah with more than the usual baguettes). Interestingly with desert bread, sealed in a bag it just goes dry but never moulds like bread back home which ironically is full of ‘preservatives’. Desert bread can last for up to 5 days sealed in a roll top dry bag.
Meals: omelette frites with loubia (chick peas in sauce) plus drinks was <200d pp, roadside in Outoul. Chicken and chips 400d in a ‘workers’ café in Tam – all with bread. Same price for an evening meal in Tam with drinks and salad – and meat stew or chops with pasta or rice or potatoes in Ghardaia. Salad in Ghardaia 150d.
The Brits in my group were very enterprising with cooking and bought frozen chickens and meat to make great stews. We even had bruscetta one night with dry bread – as well as dry bread soaked in eggs (250d for a tray of 30) and fried for breakfast – a trick I picked up on the camel tours. A young goat bought from desert nomads was 3000d and lasted the guides a few days.
Internet. From In Salah south don’t bother. In Ghardaia it was 50d an hour of which at least 15 mins was waiting.
We had it all. The group had snow over the Atlas, then we had windy nights, days up to 30° and nights down to -2°, an all-day dust storm from In Ziza with viz down to 20m. There was a 10-minute dawn shower in Tam which did not quite clean the cars, and a howling gale up at Assekrem as well as pristine clear blue wind-free days. On the way back there was usual dust haze near Laghouat, more rain over the Atlas and a lot of wind in general. The guides said March and April were the worst months for winds.
We spotted gazelles on at least three occasions up to four at a time. Then driving up one canyon in the Ahnet we came close on four mouflons. Two managed to dash vertically up the cliff side and the other two along it, giving me a chance to shoot some pics.
We also saw a few small lizards here and there, on another occasion one of the group came across a small snake and one night by a dry well was pierced by the howl of jackals.
The feral donkeys are still there in the Hoggar. There is a running joke in south Algeria right now that the Chinese pipeline builders are eating them all. lls mangez tout, tout! The drivers joked that they’d offer to fix up the Hirafok-Assekrem track for free just to get to the donkeys.
SECURITY & ESCORT EVASION
Recent events across North Africa including Algeria did not seem to make the police jumpy down south, but the announcement of the Italian kidnapping did not help us, especially as we were probably one of very few self-drive tourist groups in the country. I arrived on that day and most of the group seemed to appreciate it was a single event on the far side of a very big country. Our planned route through the Ahnet and western Tefedest was as good as it could be in terms of safety while following an unobvious itinerary. I had visions of sleeping with a SPOT and Thuraya in hand, but though kidnapping worries were soon forgotten, getting bogged down with more escorts and being told to stick to the highway would have ruined the tour.
In Aoulef we could not head into the Ahnet until we got permission from the brigade in In Salah. Another 2-hour escorted drive next morning, but at least IS was Tanezrouft agency’s home town with presumably good relations with the G&Ws and the Ahnet was their home turf. Eventually permission was granted without any conditions. G&W tourist escorts off road are unknown – these guys are not set up for desert camping and are more a highway and frontier patrol while police cover the towns and the army does the rest.
A week later, once back in mobile range at Abalessa I got a text that the kidnappers were after a group (of Italians) not a single person so we decided to spend only one night in Tam and walk- not drive around. As it was, arriving at lunchtime and leaving same time next day for Assekrem was enough to catch up on chores. Anyway, a grab in Tam would be pretty hard to pull off, packed as it is with various barracks and compounds and with choppers stationed at the airport. Doing the same south of Djanet – 10 times smaller than Tam – gives a fast run to the unmanned Niger border in 2 hours.
The same goes for the run up and down from Assekrem – predictable sure, but a hard place to set up an ambush unnoticed. And beyond the Hoggar we were making it up day by day and often off piste, so even if we’d been spotted we’d be hard to find.
Checking in with the brigade was required in either Ideles or In Amguel on the TSH. I chose In Amguel to save having the group wait for the guide to do Ideles. In retrospect maybe not a good decision as at least in Ideles we were far from the TSH and so could not be told to stay on it (though they may have asked where we were going which would have been awkward – I had an off piste stage in the western Tefedest lined up).
In In Amguel the driver was formally instructed to stay on the TSH all the way to In Salah (via Arak) but had his own ideas about that, and after a fill up and a staggered dash up the highway, he found a gap in the water pipeline (which limits entry points to the west) and we headed back into Ahnet for another great week, avoiding Arak. There were no consequences of doing this once we got to In Salah, so it seems the G&W brigades are not in serial contact with each other up the road; it’s just a commander playing it safe.
Back on the highway north of In Salah some police or G&W CPs let us though, some asked a few questions, some called someone for confirmation that we could proceed and some sour-faced jobsworths asked where was out escort. All wanted a copy of our fiche. The good thing was we were leaving the ‘dangerous desert’ so got away with it right the way into Oran which showed no signs of any post riot tension.
With fewer and fewer tourists heading to Algeria, the biggest restriction on self drivers is not so much the risk of kidnapping. As things stand now the danger areas are well known. It’s the possibility of escorts limiting you to highways, as well as further regional closures which could ruin your holiday. With a 1000-km range, a maze of routes can be followed in the relatively secure Ahnet for up to a week. and out here there is no one. Until AQIM start coming up deep from Mali, you’re safe from a chance grab and safe from the G&Ws too. My original route had us going down to Tim Missao and even Tin Rerhoh, but was pulled back months ago. Just as well, the piste to Bordj Moktar from Tam has recently proven to be no longer safe.
To reassure the group’s people back home I used aSpot Tracker on this trip, sending in locations twice daily which appeared on a password-protected Google Map as well as alerting selected contacts by email and SMS. Short version: it was unreliable in sending an SMS even when a location appeared on the map and it became inconsistent in even logging locations on the online map. If you need to reliably record a daily position with someone back home, just call them on a sat phone or mobile where possible, with a waypoint read off a GPS. With a Thuraya you can get a lat/long on the phone and forward it as an SMS. Of course this means work for someone at home to spread the word. The good thing with a SPOT is it’s easy to use and is automated – but it can’t be relied on. I go on more about it in this interesting discussion on GPS tracking devices.
See the big map up top for the off-highway stage. Basically we took a 1000-km run out of in Salah to Abalessa as far at 2°W and via in Ziza canyon, making it up with the help of the guide day by day and more or less as fuel and water required.
From Tam we went up to Assekrem (track missing on the big map) – piste in the usual condition – and down to Hirafok – piste in as good condition as it gets, with clearly defined deviations around the many wash outs. Hirafok to the TSH looks like it may be getting sealed as far as Ideles.
North of In Amguel we went back into Ahnet via, Tesnou, Assouf Melloul and the back of Erg Mehajebat. All great but undemanding off roading through some fantastic landscapes.
We only saw one other tourist car – a Swiss couple in Tam with a Santana who I’d met before in Algeria – and also travelling with Tanezrouft.
- VEHICLES (oldest first, all vehicles had high mileages)
- Early TLC 80 on big tyres and heavy bumpers, no RTT
- Discovery 1 manual (since sold for £400). Most economical with Colombus RTT
- Discovery 1 auto, Jap import, with Colombus RTT
- Late 24v TLC 80 with canvas RTT
- Suped-up Land Rover Td5 110 with canvas RTT
- Hilux 2.8D aspirated (2005). The agency car which I rode in.
No serious vehicle problems – a split PAS hose on the old 80 at Assekrem took a couple of hours to fix, mostly due to difficult access.
At Abalessa it was calculated that after some 950km the manual Discovery was the most economical at 7.8kpl/22.5mpg and the old TLC was worst at 5.2kpl/15mpg (pretty bad but as the driver expected). The other three were within 5 litres of each other at around 6.9kpl/20mpg. The Hilux was not measured but may have been more economical still, doing the trip on the tank plus 40 litres (100L in total? = 9.5kpl/27mpg).