Author Archives: Chris S

Algeria Camel Trek 2020 ~ FAQ

Two-week camel trek, Algerian Sahara
£1695 + flight to Algiers + visa
Departs Algiers Sun 29th Dec 2019 – Returns Sat Jan 11

Availability • FAQ
February 2019

tas18-headerWhat am I actually paying for?
Algerian invitations and permits before departure.
Internal return flight from Algiers to Djanet
.
All transfers, food and lodgings in Algeria, except snacks at Algiers airport.
The services of the crew and guides during the trek.

What expenses are not included?
• Visas. Applications will need to be made two months before departure.
• Flying to Algiers airport from where you live.

• Travel insurance.
• Leaving the caravan early and waiting for us in town or flying home early (most probably for health reasons).

• Tips for the crew (optional).

What is the estimated cost of the expenses not included?
• Visas fees in the UK are currently £85, plus agency fees (if used). For other nationals it may be more or less. Living in London, I can apply to the consulate on behalf of Brit passport holders for a token fee.
• Getting to Algiers airport before 6pm on Day 1. An Air France flight from London via CDG is currently well under £200 return. If coming from outside Europe with no direct flights to Algiers (Air Algerie schedule), it may cost you less to fly there via Madrid, Paris or Frankfurt.

skyscan.jpg
• Travel insurance. About £50.
• Leaving the caravan early (this may be difficult to organise).
The costs of hanging out in town waiting for us to return, or rescheduled flights home, if possible.
• Optional tips for all the crew, about €10 per crew member or whatever we decide.
• Spending money down south. Won’t add up to much or indeed anything, unless you can find souvenirs to buy.

Is Algeria safe?
Algeria is a huge country and our region is the only province that is currently open to desert tourism. Our itinerary is a route approved by the security authorities and we will be travelling with an accredited local agency with many decades experience in the area.
Have a read of the British FCO advice on Algeria or the equivalent of where ever you’re from. If you don’t feel comfortable with what you read there then this tour is not for you. There is a threat of terrorism in Algeria as there is all over Europe, but our trek is about as low profile as it gets.

For you information
I have never hesitated to cancel fully subscribed tours to the Sahara when the situation changes for the worse, as it can happen these days.

What is our route?
I no longer give exact details of route on the internet, but it will be a circuit starting and ending near Djanet.

Can I get travel insurance?
Yes, especially now that the FCO has lifted their blacklisting on Algeria.

I’m not from the UK, or even the EU. Is that a problem?
Anyone is welcome, as long as you are eligible for an Algerian visa (Israeli nationals are not eligible). I expect at least half the applicants to be non-Brits and an equal spread of men and women. Be warned, it can take weeks to apply for an Algerian visa, which will be based on an invitation supplied by the local agency. Sometimes these applications are unsuccessful because your country may be at odds with Algeria. I will apply for Brits in the London in late October. Your passport will be with the consulate at this time for up to two weeks.

What is the maximum size of the group
Maximum 10 + me
.

What will the weather be like?
In January it won’t be more than 28°C (82°F) by day, while the nights may get down to freezing in the dunes. It is faintly possible it will rain, but not hard and not for long. Full blown dust storms are also unlikely in the middle of winter.

Do I need to be fit?
You certainly want to have experienced walking up to 20kms a day, but as long as you’re in good shape, whatever your age – 27 to 72 – you will get fit on the trail after a few days, and by the end will probably be fitter and leaner than you’ve been for years.
The good thing is this trek is not like backpacking when you have to worry about the weather and nav, carry all your gear and then do all the chores like cooking and so on. The desert, the camels and the crew see to all that so we get the all-important time to recover in the evenings.

How far do we walk a day?
I’m guessing between 10 and 20 kilometres – some days may be longer. Our walk will be largely on a sandy plain below the plateau with no rocky ascents, but it may involve crossing some big dunes.

I want to ride a camel
Most like to have a go to say they’ve done it and got a photo, which they’re happy to return to walking.

What gear will I need?
Most enjoy sleeping outside so you’ll need a good sleeping bag if you feel the cold. A thin foam mattress is provided and tents may be available (I will check), otherwise bring your own or don’t bother and enjoy the shooting stars.
On top of that you want boots or trail shoes that are not so much broken in, as well used and therefore reliably comfortable. The terrain will mostly be firm sand or soft sand – lighter than what I’m used to and so lighter footwear like trail shoes or even sturdy trainers will do. The ankle support of boots is not necessary as you’re not carrying a heavy load and lighter footwear is less tiring.
IM555My feeling is most blisters occur between toes which get squeezed and rub against each other over rough terrain, possibly as the foot expands over the days. A soft, trainer-like shoe may constrict a foot less than a stiff leather boot, but of course such a shoe won’t last as long on rough rocky terrain. Another good thing with trainers is that they’re not lined with an unneeded waterproof Gore-tex-like membrane. This better ventilation may assist foot comfort. If you wear thick socks bring, a thin pair to accommodate expanding feet. And bring some back-up footwear to walk in should your regular choice be uncomfortable. There is more on footwear in the ebook.
You’ll also want a water bottle or hydrator; 2 litres will last a day. A change of clothes as well as a waterproof cag or poncho in case of a shower. A torch, plus a wash bag and all the usuals that don’t add up to more than 15kg. A suggested kit list will be sent later.
By day your main bag (soft bag, not a hard suitcase) will be roped to a camel packsaddle and will not be accessible, so you’ll need a small daypack or satchel to carry your day items, including water. I recommend bringing old holdalls and old clothes as it will all get ground down by the desert.

What happens if I get tired?
In my experience people don’t get tired as we walk steadily and rest frequently. And anyway, they realise this isn’t a ride from which it’s easy to get off. People do strain muscles or get painful blisters which can wear them down. In a couple of cases old sports injuries have also disabled otherwise fit young people. Trekking poles are a good idea. I prefer a long, 3-part staff. Pain killers might also be useful for general muscle soreness, as well as undertaking stretching exercises in the mornings.
If you do feel you need a break the only option is to ride a camel, but as you will find, it’s not so relaxing until you get a feel for it, which takes a few weeks. If you can’t walk another step we can call in a car on the sat phone to take you back to town. It’s never happened yet.

…or I become ill or have a serious accident?
The route will be about half a day’s drive to Djanet where there is a hospital. There an air evacuation under the terms of your travel insurance can be organised, if necessary. I do not carry a full medical kit; you ought to carry your own, including blister plasters. If you or I don’t have what is needed, someone else will. I have found Compeed or similar work very well for blisters. Apply them at the very first sign of soreness.

What happens to our tour in the event of such a delay?
We carry on walking, though we may lose a couple of days or have to rush to catch up.

What will we eat?
Breakfast will be real coffee and UK tea bags (brought by me) with bread and jam or cheese triangles. Milk will be dried powder. If you need more energy in the mornings bring your own granola or similar.
Eventually the town bread will run out and we will eat flat bread baked on embers.
Lunch (left) is often a highlight: fresh salad with cold pasta or rice or beans and maybe tuna. There will be a jug of drink and an orange or dates for afters, plus very sweet mint tea.
Dinner can take a while to cook so on arrival we get served tea or coffee and biscuits or some other snack. The meal might be a soup followed by a meat-based stew with pasta or rice or potatoes. Fruit will follow and more mint tea.
With strict vegetarians it gets a bit complicated but you can be accommodated. Once the cook gets his head around the concept he can prepare a meat-free side dish, but you may not eat as well as the meat eaters.
No daytime walking snacks are provided so bring energy bars, nuts, sweets, dried fruit and the like. Or do as I do and just eat what your given. One thing that’s worth using are sports rehydration tablets like Nuun or Zero (right). Put these in your day drinking water or add half a tab to a big cup. A tube of Zeros does 6 litres so 3–4 tubes will last you. Gatorade powder is the same. I will also carry sachets of Dioralyte (pharmaceutical rehydration salts; Rehydrat is another one) for when people need reviving after a hard, hot day, but you may like to bring your own.

What about drinking water?
Bottled water is not practical so we rely on wells or more commonly rock pools or gueltas (left) and sometimes even soaks or tilmas where you dig into a creek bed, just like in the movies. You want to carry at least two litres to drink by day. On this walk out on the sand plain there may be no natural water sources so we may be resupplied with town water by car.
Important: to purify natural drinking water for a bunch of people has proved to be too much work and not strictly necessary. You will be responsible for purifying your own drinking water if you feel it is necessary, using either pills or filters
. We have found that, while being occluded with silt and algae, natural water sources don’t cause stomach complaints. Filtering is more of a psychological aid as the appearance of natural water sources does not relate to the presence of harmful microbes. We have also found that handpump filters like the MSRs or Katadyn get clogged with silt within a litre or two. The fact is, after a couple of camel trips I just drank it as it comes and felt fine.

Can we expect stomach problems like diarrhoea?
Not in my experience. We are eating freshly cooked food
and not too much of it, but everyone’s intestines are different.

Is there enough water for washing?
Yes, but it’s good form not to waste water and learn to wash in just a bowlful with the aid of baby wipes. You will find the arid climate makes you feel less grubby and in need of a wash than elsewhere. At waterholes (if present) unless specified, it’s also good form to fill a bowl and wash away from the water source, not in it. A folding bowl an Ortlieb is a good idea.

Tell me about the crew
I don’t know this lot but in the past we had half a dozen Tuaregs including a cook, a guide and camel handlers. They’re desert nomads chosen for their skills but are used to interacting with tourists, even though most won’t speak much French, let alone English. In my experience the crew tend to keep themselves separate from the group. You can be sure they will spend the day discussing us and our odd ways, just as you will be intrigued by them.

What are the dangers
Aside from the usual perils of walking on rough ground, not many. Scorpions and snakes are dormant in winter. I’ve barely seen any in nearly 40 years. You’ll get sunburn if you don’t use head wear. Riding a camel may also not feel safe, although the animals themselves are selected for their docility.

Do I require any special inoculations?
No

What are the hotels like?
There are none. We will arrive early in the morning and probably head straight out into the desert. On the way back to catch the 3am plane, we may repose in one of the agency’s basic town houses.

Will my mobile work?
Probably not once we’re over the dunes beyond Djanet. If you need 24/7 comms rent your own Thuraya satellite phone for around £100/week.

How can we recharge electrical gadgets?
Short of battery packs, the only way I know of is with a solar charger like a gadget, right. A better, 3-panel one costs about £50.  Whatever method you choose, make sure it works before you get to the desert. A simpler alternative is to take enough spare batteries and switch off the phone. There’s no one to call.

What language do they talk out there?
Arabic, Tamachek, French and some English. Our crew won’t speak anything you know but the guide may speak French or English.

Can I leave the tour at any time?
Yes but this may be difficult to arrange promptly and all costs incurred will be your own.

Will I need maps and GPS?
In all cases the group walks together with the guide so keeping track of navigation is not necessary. Details of relevant maps will be issued on signing up. The IGN like the 1:200,000 (right) is your best bet. I can supply a full size digital file to print off.

Is ‘sahara-overland.com’ a registered tour company?
No, it’s just the name of my website. The booking form includes a disclaimer that you’re undertaking this tour at your own risk.

What legal guarantee do I have that you will not just run off with my money?
None, but with my prominence on the Internet and in travel publishing this would be a dumb move and I want to enjoy organising a few more tours yet!

My question is not addressed here?
All the info that I can think of is on these web pages, but they get updated from time to time. Please email me with any questions and I’ll do my best to answer them.

I’m keen to go, what do I do next?
Email me and I’ll email you a booking form. Send me your completed booking form, including details of your vehicle with the deposit of £395. If all is in order you’ll get a confirmation email, telling you when the balance of £1200 is due. Please note, I reserve the right to decline your booking and return your deposit without reason.
If you cancel late, your deposit can only be refunded if someone takes your place. If the tour is cancelled (most likely due to security issues) all the money you paid me will be refunded.

Why is the deposit so high?
In the past I have found requesting a small deposit has resulted in people booking tours on a whim, thinking there’s little to lose if they change their mind. This has resulted in a false impression of interest and late cancellations at a time when it’s too late to fill places. I now set high deposits on all my tours to discourage this. Doing it this way separates the dilettantes from genuinely interested clients with a real commitment to the tour – something which always improves the quality of the group, especially when things go wrong.

How to be safe in Morocco

Like most people, I am shocked by the brutal murders of the two Scandinavian women camping in the High Atlas this week. Sadly it is another attack being attributed to young men seeking to show solidarity with violent Islamist causes.
One assumes the two women were stalked by the perpetrators from Marrakech, and so the attack might as well have happened anywhere once an opportunity presented itself.
Morocco has been largely free of the types of the attacks which have become commonplace in western Europe in recent years, and yet tourists who’ve long been targets elsewhere in North Africa and the Sahara, are thick on the ground in all the usual places because they feel safe. The last reported terrorist attacks were a bomb targeting tourists in Marrakech in April 2011 and a bigger wave of bombings in Casablanca way back in 2003, mostly aimed at Jewish interests. Unlike the rest of the Sahara, to date no tourist has ever been kidnapped in Morocco.

firstimeHow to be safe in Morocco
As a tourist, maintaining your safety in Moroccan cities is no different to any other unfamiliar place. Hustlers are common in certain areas; traffic appears chaotic and driving erratic; pickpockets exist, cheap hotels may feel insecure and mountain roads are not velvet-smooth Alpine super highways. All these have long been far greater threats to visitors in Morocco than Islamist violence.
Being a Muslim country does give Morocco an edge to those unfamiliar with Islamic culture, particularly women, but the Islam practised here is a lot milder than that found in Saudi or Iran. Read the blue box, left, extracted from by Morocco guidebook published in 2017. Also read the sensible guidelines given on the British FCO website, to give one example. They spell out all how to avoid or be aware of the most common risks.

toubkaIn a crime sense, the popular hiking area below Mt Toubkal (right) where the women were murdered is not dangerous compared to a big Moroccan city. It is probably its popularity and proximity to Marrakech which made it an easy, adventurous destination.
Occasional unnerving but actually harmless encounters over the years have long led me to advise the following: when wild camping, do so unseen and completely out of sight if possible, and if not then camp close to or in a settlement. This way either everyone knows you’re there or no one does. I give similar advice in both my global overlanding books and act like this anywhere in the world, just for peace of mind.
In Morocco many have found undisturbed wild camping can be quite hard to achieve. Even in the desert, travellers commonly report someone popping up out of nowhere, usually a curious nomad or villager, or sometimes police checking up on you. It should be understood that in North Africa and the Sahara, camping alone in the middle of nowhere away from other people is regarded by locals as suspicious or odd.
m17-P1210574For us Euro-tourists camping has long been regarded as a money-saving adventure, but because hotels and auberges can be so numerous and inexpensive in southern Morocco (from <€10), I’ve long preferred the comfort and security they offer to all the clobber and faffing required with camping, especially if not travelling in a spacious car, or when travelling in the cool season when mountain nights get chilly and drag on for 12 hours. In a cozy auberge you get to meet local people or fellow travellers, eat well, rest properly and recharge your gadgets.

Another practise desert travellers like me have adopted since the deep Sahara became FUBAR’d, is not to share detailed travel plans with strangers or online, especially on publicly readable social media. I don’t do Facebook or Whatsapp, but by all means keep friends and family in a closed group appraised of your movements. In Morocco the reach of the mobile network is far greater than you’d expect, not least in remote rural areas where locals depends on it. A local SIM card costs from €2 which includes €2 of credit. You may need the vendor’s help in setting it up.

No one could have anticipated the appalling murders in the High Atlas any more than crossing a bridge in London, backpacking in New Zealand, visiting a market in Strasburg, attending a Baltic island retreat or a school or place of worship in the US. Morocco remains one of the few countries in North Africa where tourism continues to thrive despite anxieties about ‘Muslim countries’. It helps sustain the local economy, particularly in rural areas where the true level of poverty is much greater than it looks. Don’t let this tragic event unsettle your plans to visit a wonderful country, any more than any of the other places listed above.

P1310022

Tichka–Marrakech: alternative roads

toubviewThe N9 is the main highway crossing the High Atlas between Marrakech and Ouarzazate, topping out about halfway at the 2260-m Tizi n Tichka pass where a superb fakefossilsrange of clay souvenirs and vibrantly coloured ‘gems’ are permanently on display. Being the main road, traffic can be relatively heavy and slow, and the hundreds of bends make cycling a bit stressful and overtaking tricky in a vehicle, especially when climbing or away from the recently widened ‘race track’ which uncoils a few kilometres north of Tichka (below). But even on this recently improved section, landslides and subsidence are already taking their toll.
Short of the usual floods and storm damage, both the diversions outlined below are doable in a regular 2WD rental car, on big motorcycles as well as sturdy bicycles.

tichkawide

Telouet-routeOn the warmer, south side of Tichka, the alternative route (right) via Telouet was well known, even before it became largely sealed a few years ago. It starts just 4km south of the Tichka col, where the final roadworks on the P1506 are nearing completion on the 20km to Telouet with its famous Glaoui kasbah.
From here the P1506 soon drops off a plateau to follow a long, oasis-lined ravine (below) all the way down to the Aït Benhaddou tourist trap, rejoining the N9 10km later at Tazentout, 23km west of Ouarzazate.

aitbenvalley


 

N9-Toubkal

On the north side of Tichka, road widening disruption has currently spread down the valley over 17km north of Tadart, the first village below the col. But once you get to Zerkten village, signed and 33km below Tichka by a red and white telecom mast, there’s an easily missed side road to the west. See map above.
As pictured below, it leads steeply 6km up to a 1750-m col to an impressive view 60km  southwest to the 4167-m mass of Jebel Toubkal. It’s one of the few points on a sealed road that gives a full view of North Africa’s highest mountain (picture, top of page).

tichcolclimb

From here the road drops down through apple orchards recalling the Aït N9-Tichka-viewBoumengueze valley further east, below the Mgoun massif (MH18. MH19).
oliverIt levels out along the Oued Zat at the town of Tighoudine in the Oued Zat valley where, in late November, you’ll detect the strong aroma of olive oil being produced in roadside presses (right).winxo
The side route rejoins the N9 after 35km, just before a green Winxo fuel station on the north side of the road, 46km from Marrakech.

highatlashighway

The Spiral Tunnel of Tagountsa

spirtunaHigh up on the side of a remote High Atlas valley is an engineering marvel – hewn through the cliff face a spiral tunnel manages to curl down through the rock and emerge underneath itself.
spirmohaI was told about this curiosity in 2012 by the chap at the cozy Chez Moha auberge (right) in Aït Youb while researching the second edition of Morocco Overland. Riding a BMW F650GS, I followed his directions with the usual route-finding issues and then, beyond the last village, hacked up a stony disused track to the 2250-m (7340′) Tagountsa Pass. From the cliff edge I recall the timeless view stretching east up the Plain d’Amane valley towards Rich, pictured below and on p128 in the current book. A short distance later I spun through the tunnel and rolled down a series of switchbacks back to the valley floor and a tasty tajine back at the auberge.

tang

Spiral tunnels have been a long-established solution to constricted route building challenges across mountains. You could even say that your typical complex freeway intersection where the road winds back under itself to change direction tightly is the same thing in flyover form. But you must admit that hacking out any type of tunnel – let alone one where there’s no room to dig out a regular switchback – is an impressive task.

spirplakyvromNot for the first time on this website, I’m able to benefit from research of Yves Rohmer (right) on his always fascinating collection of old Saharan curiosities at Saharayro, including the Tagountsa tunnel. Viewed on Google Earth, the big picture is more vividly rendered setting View > Historical Imagery back a few years.

spir

spirplanspirtunaEven then it’s hard to visualise what’s happening until you look at the old plan, right. You can see the anticlockwise descent of the bore and just work out that it starts with a short separate concrete bridge over the lower mouth of the tunnel. The daylight streaming down the gap can be seen in the image repeated on the left (and as a slim shadow in the round inset, above)

spirimitBuilt in 1933 over a period of just three months by some 3000 labourers from local and French regiments, few realise that at this time the French were still fighting to subdue renegade Berber tribes in the mountains of Morocco.
As you can see on Yves pages, the engineers, sapeurs and legionnaires passed their spare time commemorating their achievement by engraving regimental emblems in and around the structure. I was told the motivation for all this effort was to enable a secure, high transit of the valley, so avoiding protracted Berber ambushes at the narrow Imiter Gorge (left; ~KM70) with legionit’s Mesa Verde-like dwellings.
The same crew probably built the better known 62-metre Tunnel de Legionnaires five years earlier at Foum Zabel now on the main N13 highway north of Errachidia. A plaque there boldly states:
The mountain barred the way.
Nonetheless the order was given to pass…
The Legion executed it.”

spirtunThe Tagountsa tunnel the Legion helped build is at KM102 on Route MH13 in the book, though if you reverse the route it’s only a 10-km off-road drive off the Rich road just east of Amellago, turning north onto the dirt at KM113. Depending on storm damage, an ordinary car or a big bike should manage it, but note that you’ll be negotiating all those hairpins on the Google image above. From the west side (as Route MH13 describes the loop) it was a rougher and slightly more complicated ride on the BMW up to the pass.

spirdramPerhaps because trains can’t negotiate hairpins or climb very steep grades, it seems that spiral or helicoidal tunnels have been a much more common feature on mountain railways than roads, particularly in the Rockies.

Norway’s Drammen Spiral (left), some 50km southwest of Oslo is a notable example, dug we’re told, as an alternative to disfiguring effects of open quarrying on the landscape back in the 1950s while at the same time producing a revenue-producing tourist attraction in the process.

Morocco Overland, new route: MH20

M3acoverTrans Atlas: MH20 • Talat n Yacoub > Ouneine > Ouaougdimt > Aoulouz • 88km
April 2018 – BMW G310GS, Honda XR250 Tornado


Description
mh20Another High Atlas piste crossing to try alongside MH19 (also in addition to the guidebook). This one only rises to 2200m, climbing some 500m in 8km after leaving the road SE of Ijoukak. (below right). From the pass the incline abates and the track smoothes out as it rolls down towards the villages of the Ouneine basin and the P1735 whose nearly finished extension eastwards may be open by the time you get here (red line on map). You carry on SW along the P1735 and at Sidi ali ou Brahim village swing sharp left off the road, cross the stream and follow the Ouaougdimt valley piste 24km SE (not fully shown on most paper maps) to join MH6, the road coming down from Aguim on the N9 Marrakech–Ouarzazate road.
If you’re in a rush or heading towards Taroudant, at Sidi ali ou Brahim carry on 23km south on the P1735 to ‘Sidi Ouaaziz’ (according to Google) on the N10. Otherwise, it would be a shame to miss out on the scenic Ouaougdimt valley stage, as it rises onto a terrace high above the valley floor.

mhh20Mapping
Parts of the route are just about legible on paper maps, least badly on the inset ‘High Atlas’ panel on the Michelin. But none show the full Ouaougdimt valley route. It’s all on Google, Olaf and the OSM digitals.

Off Road
The climb up to the 2200-m Tizi n Oulaoune pass from KM11 is a little steep and loose and about as hard as it gets, but we saw local 125s two-up and minivans, albeit heading the other way (ie: descending). From the pass a310-7the gradient eases off while you’ll find the Ouaougdimt valley stage no harder than anything you’ve just done. Carefully ridden, a big bike could manage the loose hairpins; so could a 2WD with clearance, though as always these mountain tracks require concentration. On an MTB it will be a slog if not a push up to the Tizi n Oulaoune, followed by your freewheeling reward and no more steep grades.

Route finding
mh20-igliEasy enough. We winged it just by studying Google satellite imagery carefully beforehand, jotting down some distances between junctions. That’s now all listed below. Download MH20kml file.
At the old ‘Afra’ sign at KM23 you may like to try the 46-km track running east. Looks like it leads to Igli on MH6; see map right. Presumably the new road now in the valley is replacing this high-level route which rises to over 2550m or 8300 feet, although I hear it’s sealed from this high point down to Igli.

Suggested duration
Half day will do you.


Route Description
0km (88) Talat n Yacoub fuel station on the R203 Tizi n Test road. Head north to Ijoukak.

3 (85) Pass through Ijoukak, cross the bridge and turn right up the side road. Soon you’ll pass a nice-looking auberge.

11 (77) At the fork before a village turn right, drop down over a bridge and carry on. Soon there’s a sign right: ‘Ouadouz/Ouneine? 24km’ (it’s something with ‘O’). The 500m climb to the pass begins.

19 (69) Tizi n Oulaoune 2200-m high point. The track now eases off as it descends. (Photo, bottom of the page.)

23 (65) Fork with sign (photo below). Left at this fork is the old track to Igli as mentioned above. Keep right to continue descending to the villages in the Ouneine basin visible to the west. Eventually at a junction around KM35 you join the new extension of the P1735 which is continuing E probably towards Igli following a lower route. The P1735 crosses the basin to the SW and threads through a small pass back into the hills.

mh20km23

mh20ouaval54 (34) Sidi ali ou Brahim. Turn sharp left, drop down to the stream and up the other side. The track is a bit rough to the first village, but that’s why they invented suspension. It then eases off as it rises above the valley on a terrace (right) with great views down to the villages below. You could be in the Cevennes or the Pyrenees, but you’re in the High Atlas. It could be worse.

78 (10) Join the tarmac (MH6) by the reservoir.

83 (5) Roundabout on the N10.

88 Aoulouz fuel station/s.

mh20desc

 

Fortnight’s camel trek in Mauritania

Just back from a two-week camel trek in Mauritania, walking with a mostly French group of 14 from Chinguetti (‘la Sorbonne du desert’) to Terjit (map, left), about 150km. For the first two days over the rim18 - 11dunes we were accompanied by a crew filming a report for a French TV station on the return of tourism to Mauritania (see below).
Of course tourism never really stopped for independent travellers (compared to Algeria)  and despite the killings and kidnap
pings of a few years ago (including an rr21entire French family in 2007, right). But the recent resumption of charter flights bringing much bigger groupsrimadvmaps from Paris directly to Atar (not via Nouakchott) was something for local tour operators to celebrate. It is probably the result of revised travel advice issued by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (left). You’ll see they critically (and imo, correctly) extend the ‘travel if you must’ orange imontheplanezone further east compared to the British FCO. It makes all the difference for local tourism because in that orange zone most of what most people want to see in Mauritania is easily accessible. Our weekly plane chartered by Le Point (with seats sold on to other operators) was packed out.
rim18 - 53The Vallee Blanche is the longest trek Le Point offer, but in terms of landscape and pace, maybe not their best depending on your previous experience. Horror des horreurs, we even walked along a road for a bit. Our guide recommended the 8-day Amatlich Erg walk – fewer interminable rocky plateaux he said, but then that’s all part of the deal in the desert. Wherever you go, it’s a variety of sand, rock and passing landforms that’s the key to a satisfying experience. I got the feeling that by day 8 or 9 most were counting the days, partly because the 25km/day pace had dropped by over 50% (as planned) by which time the 6-hour lunch breaks were exceeding walking times.
The fact it was unseasonably hot, with temperatures of over 40°C in the shade, may have tempered enthusiasm, but actually the morale and ambience of our group was very good; most had done previous tours with Le Point, including Chad which can be a tougher call. rimshaderThe Adrar at this time is usually in the low 30s – as it was on our very last day to Terjit, but most days it really was too hard to move or even stay awake for long, while lying under an acacia between noon and 3pm.
The plus side was that being on the trail before dawn was great fun, although I’m not sure what shape I’d have been in had we walked 25km/day for the full two weeks. So in fact the long siestas were the right thing to do. We’re not all huddled round that meagre shade tree on the left just because someone has cracked open their stash of Haribo Yellow Belly Jelly Snakes. We’re gagging to cool down a bit. Much depends on the terrain of course – is dodging trackless rubble worse than sinking into ankle-deep sand? They’re about the same once you add your daily endowment of aches, pains and cumulative fatigue.
All this was eased by a hard-working crew (left) plus our guide Mohamed who, it must be said, was feeling the strain after a busy season tramping around the desert with us nasranis. (There was no French-domiciled accompagnateur, not a need for one; with a Brit group it might need to be different.) I was just relieved I had a fully charged Kindle to help pass the long hours hotmaninching along with the shade from 11am till 4 or 5pm. By then it wasn’t going to get hotter, or the remainder of the day’s walk was short enough to not matter so much. One night it felt like it didn’t drop below 30°C and after a week of this everything, even your toothpaste buried in your bag, is hot and stays hot. I’ve not been in such heat for so long since an early-80s moto trip to Algeria, rim18 - 22mistakenly taken in September fun-hot-libwhen it was hotter still. Oh, and Libya in April 1998 (right); also very hot. Both were quite shock and yet watching our Mauritanian camel crew stride along in their flip-flops from camp-to-camp without rests and after spending over an hour locating and laboriously loading over a dozen camels makes you wonder what you’re whining about. You got to take your cheche off to these guys.
As it was, a couple in the group chose to ride when weary, and another couple had reserved camels to ride whenever possible. If you take this option, good saddle padding is essential, especially on the backbone. Me, I like to walk – some days more than others.
Sleeping out, I was a bit concerned that le chaleur might bring out the spiders and snakes everyone talks about in the desert. I heard later that the guides had indeed spotted a snake on night one, and again at Berbera guelta, but I never even saw any tracks. I suppose the good thing is that, besides being too big to eat, at night a reposing human is not much warmer than the surrounding desert and so not that alluring.
rim18 - 47Compared to my Algeria camel trips (here and here) I have to say the service was as good if not better; it’s only a shame the fresh lunchtime salad couldn’t last beyond day one out of Chinguetti. After that it was cous cous/rice/pasta with tinned fish and hard veg at lunch, and the same but with veg stew in the evenings, plus soup and tinned fruit for afters. That said, rim18 - 39we got two goats (right) which we didn’t have to buy, sandbread baked every night and pancakes every morning. And there was never a shortage of water, even for washing. After a while you do crave fresh fruit and veg as well as cool, clear water, but despite what you might call a ‘high-carb’ diet I managed to lose 4kg which I happened to have going spare. Heat kills the appetite which is why I’m currently dressed in three ski suits while doing Hot Yoga next to the radiator.
giftshopOne thing that spoils the Mauritanian desert vibe for me is the endless ‘gift shops’ unrolled at many desert stops and every nomad camp. In this way Algeria feels more sauvage; on the Immidir treks we might come across a family  of feral goat nomads in 11 days and never ever see car tracks. But as I recall from the late-90s, wayside trinket markets were always the way in the Adrar, as it was in the Aïr of Niger. And anyway, not everyone may have as replete a collection of cheches, stone tools, teapots and other desert souvenirs like me. At one place I noticed a women selling an unusual fulgarite necklace among her collection of silver jewellery.
The large group size didn’t really bother me, perhaps because much of the chat went over my head, but probably because it was a good group and anyway – resting or on the move there is plenty of space, it’s not like comfychairbeing stuck in a bus. Plus you imagine people who choose to take a two-week walk in the desert in March aren’t going to be complainers. Having said that, you do wonder if Homo Sapiens’ mysterious Great Leap Forward; the so-called advent of behavioural modernity 40,000 years ago is attributable to the invention of the comfy chair. Or maybe that’s where it all went wrong.
cropped-cam2dins.jpgIt’s interesting to observe how the Frenchies (and the few Belges) are much more casual about desert walking than some Brits brought up on the exploits of tormented ex-public school masochists like Thesiger, Lawrence and maybe Michael Asher. Le Sahara to them is just a holiday destination like Vanuatu, not necessarily a place to pit yourself against the elements to within an inch of your life.

tik
Straight out of Atar into the desert.
rim18 - 26Great value at €1200 + €55 airport visa
Pre-dawn starts. Feels like a proper desert trip
Sand-baked goat x 2, merci beaucoup
A shady acacia just when you need it
Great crew from Mauritanie Voyages
Wheat flour sandbread, not heavy tagela
Afternoon at Berbera oasis
You’ll get plenty of dune walking in

cros
luncharnLack of prolonged remoteness (to be expected in the Adrar)
Flatish landscape out east
Trinket stalls every day
Pace slowed too much (but just as well)
Nescafe – in the end, undrinkable whatever you try
Missed fresh lunch salads and fruit, too
Oued Abiod; the better places were off it

You can watch the 4-minute French TV report here. We didn’t encounter the army patrols featured in the film – they were up north shot later (so to speak). But it reminds me how brilliant drones are for desert filming. Makes me want to do more walking in the Sahara, but maybe not in a springtime heatwave.