Category Archives: Sahara A to Z…

C is for Cards of the Sahara

Part of an occasional series: Sahara A to Z
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set.

Some attractive cards featuring Saharan themes dating from around the middle of the 20th century. They’re being sold inexpensively by euro-cards on ebay. I have to say on the bottom one it looks like they have have got their tribal categories mixed up, but the Dutch ones (5 and 6) are especially attractive to an ex Tintin/Look & Learn fan.

You may also like… Chants du Hoggar – the artwork of Paul Élie Dubois.

Sahara plant







T is for Tenere: the Classic Tour

Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set

Niamey – Agadez – El Meki – Timia – Assode – Arakao – Agamgam – Oued Tanakom – Anakom – Arbre du Tenere – Fachi – Bilma – Dirkou – Yegueba – Seguedine – Chirfa – Old Chirfa – Djado – Orida – Djaba – Chirfa – Col de Chandeliers – Arbre Perdu – Grein – Adrar Bous – Temet – Izouzadene (Blue Mountains) – Adrar Chiriet – Tezirzek – Iferouane – El Meki – Agadez – Niamey (brown route on map, left)
February-March 2001
Sadly, my film camera packed up on this trip.

href=”” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>tenere-mapMy fascination with the Tenere probably started after reading the alluringly sparse route descriptions in the old Sahara Handbook in the early 1980s. After several stillborn attempts resulting in a clearly inadequate description in my own book I decided it was time to cough up two grand and take a tour – enjoying a relaxed recce that would not put my nice Toyota at risk (there appears to be a currently increasing risk of losing your car in this area). Looking at various itineraries and prices I chose Suntours, a German operator long established in the region. Although I may have communicated better with a French-speaking group (I don’t speak German), Suntours’ 22-day itinerary looked the most thorough (although this itinerary, featured on their web page, did not match the actual one offered, missing out Enneri Blaka).
I met the group at Paris and we flew straight down the Tanezrouft (no window seat, alas…), reaching Niamey at sunset where it transpired half of the group of nine’s baggage was missing.
Next day we had to hang around in Niamey on the hope that more bags might turn up from Abidjan that evening. Like most sub-Sahara capitals, Niamey is not what you come to Africa for, but for 20p the museum was a bargain, while brochettes at sunset on the terrace of the Grand Hotel is the done thing among toubabs in the know.
That night a few more bags turned up and with three missing, it was decided to take the 1000-km drive to Agadez overnight – the luggageless ones would have to make do. This part of the trip is a drag. Flying direct to Agadez from Paris would be ideal though I can see why Suntours don’t trust the Le Pointe charters. The American Tour that got nabbed at Temet (see below) suffered a late Le Pointe cancellation on the way out and they all had to pay up for a scheduled flight (though Agadez’s runway – since rebuilt at Libya’s expense) could have been to blame here).
As it happens the night drive in two minibuses was not so bad as most of us could stretch out on a bench seat and get some sleep. Leaving around midnight we got to Agadez thirteen hours later for lunch at Ewaden Voyages, the local partner of Suntours. Soon after, two old Cruisers and a Patrol were loaded up and we headed out of town for the hills of the Air.

I’d been warned that I’d find the Air a rough and dull drive – not the real Tenere. In fact, it was quite satisfying – on the way out at least. Tuareg activity is prolific, these dudes really do wander around from village to village on camels with their takouba swords by their side! I’ve never encountered the semi-sedentary Kel Aïr Tuareg before but now realise how much of the Tuareg mythology might be based on the colourful culture of this accessible clan.
We camped in a oued (“never camp in a oued!”) where Ibrahim cooked the first of many truly spectacular meals. How long could this last I wondered, and sure enough by the time we got to the Kaouar settlements in the east, things got a bit plain, but the presentation of his outstanding lunch time salads were works of art, composed of fresh ingredients for much longer than you’d expect in fridge-free motoring.
Another great aspect of this tour was letting us loose on foot down the track while the morning (and sometimes lunchtime) camp was packed up by the crew. With a bit of luck one could get a quiet couple of miles under one’s soles before the cars caught up.
No one could have complained too much time was spent cooped up in the cars, although the constant attention the old dogs needed added frequent cig’ breaks. Indeed on the whole trip I doubt if we drove half an hour without one car stopping to fix something. That said it was soon clear these drivers drove their vehicles with care – a first for me in Africa. I was in the Patrol where Madougou treated the machine like his own and I’d have been happy for him to drive my car (and if you know most desert drivers, that’s quite an admission!).
The southern Air is a Sahel of low reddish hills which darken and rise towards Timia and the volcanic extrusions thereabouts. Settlements and nomadic encampments focus round the gravely oueds, some with nearby gardens and enclosures. You’re never far from others in the Air.
With the very frequent stops I got the impression we were hung out to dry with the cadeau-crazed village kids a little too long for comfort, as if it was pre-arranged that we would crack and splash out on Tuaregobilia in these places. By the time we got to Timia I sensed the group had had enough, and being sent off on a futile tour of this unremarkable village had us pining for the desert.

ten-011“Connais-vous Alex Marr” one young boy asked me. Well, as it happened I did. Although like most people, I’ve never actually met him, Alex contributed to my recent books and came through here on the way to Bilma in ’99, thinking he could ride from there to the Lake because of a black line on the Mich map. I had the novel experience of receiving a cadeau from Cona to pass on to Alex.
While deflecting vendors’ parries I got talking with a French visitor to Timia and an elder, and enquired about the robbery at Temet dunes a couple of weeks earlier. Who were the culprits and had they been caught? The old Tuareg shyly slid behind his cheche at the mere mention of the event while the French guy realised it was associated with the ‘Mme Tortoise’ he’s heard so much about in the village. I’d already asked Hans our guide but he’d pretended not to understood me (it happened sometimes). I never found out if the rest of our group knew of the raid (known chiefly to the Saharan web community) and if they were at all bothered about it. Two months later another tourist group in local cars was attacked close to where we spoke – at that time bad news for Niger tourism.
The volcanic geology is interesting around Timia, including the cascade which reminded me of Mutujulu Springs running off Uluru. At this beauty spot an orderly line of vendors sat behind a line of rocks imposed by the European agencies on pain of eliminating the site from their itinerary. Next day we visited the surprisingly substantial (horizontally, that is, not vertically) ruins of Assode, the old capital of the Air before Agadez became pre-eminent a few centuries ago. With that ticked off, by lunch time we watched the women watering their goats at Tchintoulous well, enjoying rather more tranquil vending opportunities as they discreetly laid out their wares near us. At the top end of the Zagado valley (picture, top of the page) we spent out last night in the Air facing the Taghmert plateau and the dune fields beyond.

ten-016We were now traversing the Neolithic borderlands of the western Tenere and soon pre-Islamic tombs became discernible on the hillsides. Stops hereabouts revealed the usual Neolithic artifacts and at one point I found four grinding stones, their easily found milling-stone (or moule) counterparts having long ago been grabbed by collectors. Some consider the collection of Stone Age artifacts tantamount to grave robbery but to be me they’re just non-degradable Neolithic relics that tell a story and can be aesthetically pleasing. Finding it is a lot more satisfying than haggling for a Tuareg cross of doubtful authenticity and more acceptable that pinching Tuareg heirlooms. But, although the collection of artifacts was not discouraged on our tour, I’ve changed my mind on this practice now. Leave these things in the desert – in many countries it has become illegal to remove them.
A tongue of jumbled dunes reach through the mouth of the cirque of Arakao, dividing the easily-visited south side from the less accessible northern half. We camped on the crest of the dune cordon and spread out to explore. As one would expect, a sheltered site like Arakao was heavily inhabited during Neolithic times and probably long before that. We inspected several tombs in the southeast corner and kicked about for more artifacts, usually made from the distinctively green flint-like jape rite found in the region. Hans, always energetically scanning the sands, found me an amazing rod of fulgarite in the dunes – a brittle, pencil thin tube of petrified sand caused by a lightning strike (see the book, p.374). Since I first found some on the edge of Algeria’s Oriental Erg years ago (without knowing what it was) this stuff has always amazed me – a wonder of nature. Walking back from a dune summit I found Hans’ spot and excavated another slender undisturbed branch over half a metre long – who knows how deep it went.
Traditionally Ibrahim always bakes a pizza at Arakao we were told, following the circular theme. A thick and chewy Margarita the size of a Land Cruiser wheel is quite an achievement using just enamel trays and embers, and while we all gave him full marks for audacity and the result looked incredible, sadly the dough did not quite rise.

ten-013We cruised down the east side of the Air, stopping to admire the amazingly prolific engravings at Oued Tanakom and Anakom, at times driving continuously over stones all fashioned into tools over the millennia. One can visualise the Neolithic settlements spread out by a long gone river running out of the mountains, while wild game and herds grazed on the plains of the Tenere now covered in sand.
At ‘Long Stones Pass’ we could make out the mass of Adrar Madet and the Erg Brusset to the east, and later that afternoon finally shook off the Air’s margins and headed across the serir for the Tree.

To finally see the Arbre du Tenere after reading about it over the years was quite a buzz. These days there’s a lot more there than just a bad well and the old metal tree (the original is in Niamey Museum looking as interesting as a bag of crisps). Some Japs recently built a wacky pylon and there is the usual litter, other structures and a water tank. There are even a couple of new trees (“tropical species, pah!” exhorted our biologist Hans) which you’re asked to water when you are there. As Tony Gastel reported, the water is far from ‘ tres mauvais’ as the 953 map states, but it is very deep, taking three men to haul up the bucket nearly 150 feet. While they watered the cars we had a chance to wash and then headed into the gassis towards Fachi.

ten-015At first we drove over irritating tussocks of vegetation and I had the impression we were going south. A lunch time GPS check proved my preternatural sense of direction correct, Abdulai the local guide having deliberately dropped a few gassis to pick one which lead directly to Fachi.

But soon the vegetation disappeared and we were along among the low, pale yellow dunes of the northern Bilma Erg with very few tracks and no balises. To me, sat in the passenger seat, the driving and navigation of this famous route appeared relatively easy, with the odd stickage easily reversed. Occasionally we came across an old azelai camp with masses of camel dung and other rubbish, and a little later some abandoned kantus (salt pillars) with the dead camel that could no longer carry this load nearby. But we encountered no actual caravans as Tonyhad last October – the azelai season.
Some gassis harbour the odd patch of Neolithic chippings and here we found tiny arrowheads – something I thought all but impossible with casual fossiking. The fine craftsmanship and variety of these centimetre-long spikes is nothing short of amazing. They may only be a century old of course. Measuring time in terms of progressing civilisation depends on where you are – one of our driver’s father used stone arrowheads to hunt while at the same time in Algeria they were using bullets.
We camped in the lee of a seif dune. Next morning we approached Fachi – lovely in Jean Luc Manaud famous postcard/calendar but well camouflaged below the Agram falaise.
The sand-filled streets and tamarisk trees give Fachi a nice, ex-colonial appearance. This was Kanuri country, not Tuareg though Hans suggested that Kanuri are merely Tubus of the Kaouar region of eastern Niger. I have read though, that they like to deny this. We got watered at the well, checked in with the sultan who was entertaining a Spanish TV crew, and then went for a look around the old town escorted by the sulky sultan’s son. Although I find old ksars as emblematic of the Sahara’s romance as anything, the giant urns inside the old fort was about as interesting as Old Fachi got.

ten-012Back by the cars we were left to stew among the cadeau kids until nice and tender. I went for a wander up a street, looked down an avenue and got spotted whereupon a tidal wave of kids surged towards me and I chuckled. I would not be surprised if each of us was asked 50-100 times for bics or whatever. It’s all part of Africa of course (though not the true desert one likes to think) but what was the delay? It was clear that the group was irritated by it, having been unmolested since Timia a few days ago.
After a visit to the salt evaporation pits (salines) round the back and lunch in the palms north of town, we headed up over a sandy pass through the Agram where the sand softened noticeably. All the cars struggled and Kaiou’s red Cruiser – which at the best of times smoked like a Ukrainian steelworks – started frying its clutch. We could smell it burning in our car but he kept pushing it and eventually it disintegrated to bare metal. Luckily Abdulai has a spare and with the aid of ropes, two jacks and some legs, Kaiou’s Cruiser was running again four hours later.
The cars drove in strict formation. Abdulai up front, Madougou with us in the Patrol and Kaiou last. But Madougou was a bit slow and sometimes Kaiou got ahead, belching his unburned black puke all over us. Sensing our irritation they halfheartedly tried to fix it later, but after all, the car ran so what’s the problem? Worn diesel injector pumps are a problem in the Sahara and the mixture on his car was far too rich and Kaiou ran out of fuel before Bilma.
Bilma is easy to spot with the ridge of the Kaouar behind it. In fact I had the impression that crossing from the Tree was relatively easy. The gassis line up just right and in good visibility you can’t miss the Agram or Kaouar falaises. Finding the Tree without GPS if coming in the other direction would not so easy, but even then, grasses and converging tracks would be a clue that you’re close.
Hans described Bilma as a dead town and I find Tony’s figures of 12,000 population rather unlikely (for the whole massive Bilma arrondisement [district] maybe). We stopped at a garage for water. An HJ75 was getting fresh oil and a 109 Land Rover waited outside with its lid up. On this side of the Tenere you find plenty of Nigerians washed up on the road to Libya and so English is spoken, but as in much of West Africa, everyone speaks several languages. Our guides chatted in a mixture of Tamachek, Arabic, French, Djerma, Hausa and Tuburi (or ‘Kanuri’).
With the jerries full we drove round to the fort to hand in our passports and pay the provincial tax. Our here you officially need stamps in Bilma, Dirkou and Chirfa which takes up a good page or two of your passport. Near the fort are a couple of market stalls full of Nigerian goods and junk sold by Hausas who, I get the impression, are the ‘trading Moors’ of this side of the Sahara. Knowing this, kit made sense to discover that the famous Bilma salt caravans are organised and assisted by Hausa or Peul, not Tuareg, though Tuareg camels and guides are of course hired. And the good news is that these caravans are far from the dying tradition many think. Tony’s reports of seeing several caravans was no fluke.

Next day we hit Dirkou – a thriving frontier town that is the true capital of the Kaouar. Nigerians and other desperadoes head north on top of the lorries to a life of slavery in Libya, only to get sent back following one of Ghadafi’s strops, sat on the piles of subsidised or stolen goodies that pass daily through Dirkou.
By the compound where Andy and Richard enjoyed their Dirkou detention is a Tubu gun carrier shot to smithereens and left as a reminder that the government won the rebellion. Passports handed in, I had a choice to go see Jerome or check out the town. Lively though Dirkou looked (and free of hassle I was told later) I went up to pay my respects to the late Diesel Prince of the Tenere, finding a friendly old man instead of the money grabbing Shylock I’d expected. He can afford to smile of course, selling Libyan fuel at a 1000% mark up but still a tad less than the official Nigeran price. A big Merc was unloading and I got talking with the driver who originally came from Djelfa in northern Algeria, while his two boys bounced oil drums off their heads, Tubu daggers tucked in their belts. He was full of praise for ‘Le System Mercedes’ but didn’t have much to say about the run down from Sebha that I could understand – some diesel may have seeped into his brain over the years.
Although now 75 years old, Jerome was more lucid and delighted to meet a Brit – claiming to have fought for Monty at El Alamein and all the rest. He rolled off a whole string of generals’ names and dates which sounded plausible, but later Hans suggested had I been German it would have been the same story under Rommel. In fact a mate who has since met Jerome found out he is indeed an Anglophile, proudly showing an old WWII photo of himself in a Brit uniform. Another S-Files Tenere contributor, Gerbert interviewed Jerome for a Dutch paper a year or two ago. He died in 2003.
Back with the group, Luggageless Erich had bought himself a Hausa outfit, complete with hat. Erich was a penny short of a pound following a bungled operation in his early forties, and was quite a laugh in a subversive, boyish way. Vendors zoned in on his naivete and he ended the trip, grinning and draped in Nomadobilia.
The landscape of the Kaouar is a bit grubby and grey for my liking. We dropped into the salines north of Dirkou where natron salt was mined. I noticed Madougou took some with his chewing tobacco as they do in these parts. By the time we got to Yeguebba – the northern end of the Kaouar escarpment – the colour of the sand was a pleasing orange. We stopped to collect some firewood (there’s plenty of firewood here and masses in the Air) and drove across the soak where the last car mired. What a mess, the quicksands wobbled like jelly and it makes you appreciate how easy and clean dry desert sand is to get out of. But with sand plates and a tow he was out and we spent the night nearby in the rocks where a fennec (desert fox, sort of) popped in for a visit.
Since Bilma it was clear that our drivers were getting tired and probably anxious at being out on the far side of the Tenere in their old bangers. Their banter was restrained and you could see they longed to be back in their own territory. We were having an easy time of course, waited on hand and foot and with nothing to worry about other than, for some, getting the best camp spot for the night. I could not join in the evening chatter much but it didn’t bother me, though I can now say ‘spoon’ in German. Anyway, with time to myself I had a fresh batch of hare-brained schemes to nurture through their delicate development stage.
Years ago I recall reading in the Sahara Handbook about the importance of finding Pic Zumri to get to Seguedine and now, there it was and the village laid out in the dip below. Here the Adadez truck piste splits, heading northeast behind the Djado plateau for Tumu and Libya. Following a visit to Seguedine’s checkpoints, multi-coloured salines, and gentle bartering with wily Tubu women, we set off northwest across stony plains, passing petrified wood, the landmark of Oleki peak, and stopping for lunch at Sara ‘oasis’. A hot wind was blowing from the southwest today, hazing the sky and raising the temperature to the high 30s. But lunch with Suntours was never less than a shady two-hour siesta finished off with three glasses of ‘chai’. On this occasion Abdulai resoldered his burst radiator on the fire. Earlier I noticed he’d tried to use clay dust as we’d done in Algeria years ago. I can report the bodge is no less effective at the hands of a wizened Tuareg desert driver than in mine…
Hans was a great guide and had a good way of melting the ice at checkpoints by bringing photos from previous visits. At the Chirfa control post, where the guys in their football kit always have a gun close by, the photos caused much delight, as they did in Chirfa village where we picked up some water and veggies from the garden. All through this trip it was clear that Suntours has developed a close rapport with many communities and individuals over the years. At many places Hans discreetly handed over medicaments to the village pharmacy (eye drops and aspirins were much in demand).
I’d been urged to make sure our tour visited Old Chirfa (aka ‘Tebeza’) a short distance from Chirfa village, and sure enough, it was on our itinerary. The old citadel is part of a string of medieval fortified towns that run up from Seguedine and maybe once even Bilma and beyond, tracing a defunct trading route which explorers Clapperton and Oudney followed in the 1820s down to Lake Chad, later followed by Hans Vischer in 1906 (see Shadows Across the Sahara). Strolling around Old Chirfa was amazing but for me the true highlight of the trip, as expected, was Djado, the following morning.

ten-017Djado (photo Klaus W.) is a huge complex which must have housed thousands a few centuries ago. In winter it’s surrounded by a lake of brackish water which – oddly – disappears in the rainy season. In autumn the whole of Chirfa moves here to harvest the dates from the many palms; their zeriba huts ring the evocative ruins. Exploring the crumbling town was incredible, every corner revealed a stunning view of distant escarpment, sands and waving date palms. My camera had passed out in Fachi but luckily Klaus had a bag full of lenses and film and agreed to keep shooting for me.
Hans poured scorn on the theory of pseudo archeopologist Uwe George who found a room with a cross relief (now called the ‘eglise’) and who went on to claim that Christians migrated here from Ethiopia in the first millennium. I’m all for interesting theories but it does indeed sound rather implausible and has diminished my respect for Geo magazine who employ him (I’m sure Geo are quaking at the very thought!).
We were about to cross the line and enter a region controlled [at that time] by unreconstructed Tubu outlaws – an anomaly tolerated by the Niger government who let them have the remote Djado plateau to themselves. No longer did our guides stop to chat with every passing car, mumbling a string of greetings. Now it was just ‘get out of my way’ crabbiness you’ll find in any city. We crossed a sandy ridge near the no less photogenic ksar of Djaba and stopped at a Tubu checkpoint where Abdulai gruffly handed over a 5000 CFA tax without so much as a “Sallam alei…”
Ahead of us rose the massive monolith of Orida prominent since yesterday, and behind it the arch of Orida and the alluring rim of the plateau beyond. The landscape and colours evoke the tassilis of the N’Ajjer and Akakus with which the Djado plateau is contiguous. Most Ewaden guides won’t come this far into Tubu territory [at that time], let alone the intriguing Enneri Blaka, but if you don’t happen to make it to the arch on your visit you’ve not missed much.
Lunch was under the palms near the wonderful aforementioned Djaba. Some Tubu girls parked up and set up their trinkets on a mat. This sort of souveniring was always much more agreeable and relaxed than the outnumbered hectoring we got in the villages.
We returned to Chirfa to pick up more water and our passports and then headed out along the Djanet track to the Col de Chandeliers (aka ‘Pass de Orida’). A cozy camp was set up among the rocks while to the west the plain of the Tenere du Tafassasset spread out like a becalmed ocean. It’s a corny simile for the desert I know, but this is the first place I’ve seen in the Sahara where it was appropriate. This was the real Tenere – a word usually used to describe the whole of northeast Niger and the Tamachek translation of the Arabic ‘Sah’ra’ or empty quarter.

The awe of this emptiness was lessened again next day by the clear twin tracks running west to Arbre Perdu and on to the isolated hills of Grein. But further on, beyond the northern outliers of Erg Capot Rey, even the tracks and wind-aligned ripples disappeared until it was hard to tell we were moving at all apart from the drone of the engine as it hit a soft patch. Running at these high speeds caused a new set of problems for the aged Toyotas and while a puncture was fixed, Ibrahim prepared a quick lunch in the shade of the cars. We continued west through the void and in the late afternoon the profile of Adrar Bous mountain loomed out of the haze 45km away.
Bous is well known as a locality of Neolithic knick-knacks and we parked up by a Stone Age ‘chip pan’ and shuffled around for more arrowheads, then camped in a sheltered creek – an old Tuareg hide-out from the days of the rebellion. All of our crew were former rebels who’d fought in the bitter war of the early 1990s. Since then the Tuareg of the Air have won some concessions on the organisation of tourism – the whole of Niger’s tourism depends on their kudos after all – but in the poor villages of the Aïr, aid still struggles to make much impact. All the better then is tourism like this where our money goes straight into the hills.
From Adrar Bous we were back on the tramlines of the Loop which winds down the east side of the Air into the dunes of Temet where the Austrian and American groups had been robbed a couple of weeks earlier. I’ve since got the full story from one of the people involved and it was no hit and run raid, but a thorough and thoroughly intimidating robbery of all involved, and in which the drivers of the American group from Dunes Voyages excelled themselves in stopping all the cars being taken. It’s no surprise to hear that it may have been renegade Malian Tuareg who were the culprits – they’ve been behind most of the tourist (and rally) raids over the last couple of years. I’ve since read the ‘leader has been caught’ – hopefully not just any old Tuareg in the wrong place at the wrong time. Since then there has been another raid of a German group in Timia in March. We had lunch at the site of the robbery and I probed our drivers, but did not get much of a response so left it and walked up the huge dune with the rest.
A winding gassi led east out of the dunes and we spent the evening at Izouzadene, the striking outcrop of marble veined with cobalt salts known as the Blue Mountains. From a distance they do have a distinctive pale blue hue but close up the grey veins look less impressive and the masses of tracks in the area could almost make it Morocco.
From here we drove south through the dunes to Chiriet, visible from the summits of Izouzadene, and providing the classic east Air panoramas of dunes lapping against a backdrop of purple-grey plateaux. Driving into the massif, Ibrahim stopped to grab a bunch of wild grass to concoct a herbal infusion for later – a change from the endless Tuareg tea we drank daily. North of Chiriet a rocky track led to Tchou-m Adegdeg well – we were now very near the point at Kogo where we’d emerged from the Air nearly a fortnight ago. Here Tuareg nomads watered their herds and a camel sipped from the bowl in which my shirt stewed in detergent.
Between here and the nearby Tezerzik well is a lovely scenic drive through dunes featuring a distinctive lip below their crests. At Tezerzik the drivers bought a sheep for a tenner and slung it on the roof. At the nearby camp in the dunes I watched them slaughter and butcher it with the same casual effortlessness they’d employed to repair the clutch a few days earlier. Interestingly there’s not much blood when the throat is cut and once the hide has been peeled back the thing in hung on a stake, its ribs pulled apart and the innards removed for the drivers subsequent delectation; we got the tender meat in a cous cous. Normally I find cous cous an over-rated North African ‘must-eat’, but the way Ibrahim prepared it, both the millet and the sauce were as good as it gets.

From here the desert section of the tour was over and we had a dreary three-day drive back down through Iferouane and the main track via El Meki to Agadez. The nights were irritatingly windy, but the drivers were brightening up, pleased that the run was nearly over. I had the feeling that these last days to Agadez were strung out with unnecessary stops to fill the time. The third night in yet another creek full of thorns and dung and just a couple of kms out of Agadez seemed unnecessarily stingy. In my experience a tour should end on an upbeat note if possible, not dribble away over successive days. I gather the others also complained about this retracing through the Air – for fresh vegetable they were told, but our last lunch in the bush was all tinned. I’m sure Suntours have developed their itinerary carefully over the years, but leaving the desert at the very last minute – along the track from the Tree to Agadez for example, would have been more satisfying.
We had an option for a hotel in Agadez that night and wanting to check the town out in my own time, I took up the offer with the two couples and spent the night the Hotel Tidene near the mosque. I checked out some other agencies but as advised, Agadez itself does not have much to offer. Next day the tour regrouped and set off for the long hot slog back to Niamey, getting home by the skin of our teeth following an Air Afrique strike and cancelled flights.
Should I return with my own vehicle I think I’d repeat the recent tour of an Italian friend: leave Djanet without checking out and with stacks of diesel and a Niger visa and do my own thing in the northern Tenere around Grein, Adrar Bous and down as far as Chiriet maybe. If you get caught at least you have a visa and if you don’t, no one knows any better and you slip back into Algeria. If anything an independent tour is perhaps less prone to getting hijacked than the local tours which follow timetables and routes which make them predictable targets. But it is of course, still a risk that will probably never go away.

ten-018This tour indeed proved to be a great reconnaissance of the famous Tenere I had long wanted to visit. I found the Air and its Tuareg life a little more interesting than I thought, and the run in both directions across the Tenere rather less impressive than I imagined. The whole Djado region is of course amazing, as are parts of the eastern Tenere bordering the Air, but the Tenere is no longer the wild Sahara of my imagination. TV crews and tours have put the place firmly on the map and beautiful though it is in its entirety, getting off the tracks would have been more fun, something that you can only do yourself and in good vehicles. While our crew were all great, no money seems to be invested on the basics of the agency vehicles. A Tenere fly-in tour demands a good half ton to be carried much of the time which asks a lot of a new 4×4, let alone one 15 years old and with a quarter of a million on the clock.


I found this nice IGN half million map of the Air in Niamey. Dating from 1991, it’s a similar style to the Niger country map from IGN but I can’t say I’ve ever seen this one in Paris. In many ways it’s superior to the one million IGNs which are pretty old now and don’t show recent roads. Mine cost me 50FF, an old paperback and a small argument from the side of the Grand Hotel.

I returned to the Tenere for the eclipse of 2006

M is for Marlboro piste: Libya to Agadez – 1999

 Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set

marlborodakarteamI met Belgian couple Luc and Catherine in Sebha last November where they were planning to cross the Ténéré to Agadez and then sell their old BJ40 Land Cruiser in Togo. Had it not been for the fortune I’d spent just getting that far myself I’d have gladly joined them. As we parted Luc and Catherine were heading up to Ghadames to meet some friends for the drive down to Ghat. Here they hoped to continue south. Five months later I got this message…

Ghat did not seem to be a good place to travel to Niger via Algeria, so we decided to return to Sebha to get more information about the conveys going to Dirkou. The advice was that we should go to Al Gatrun and wait there for the trucks going to Niger. Arriving in Al Gatrun, little more than a desert village with one filling station and a Niger consulate we soon met Mohammed Tager of the Wadi Alhikma Travel & Tourism Agency (Tel/Fax: 0735-2901). He ran a camping ground in the old Italian Fort which is very nice. Mohammed offered to organise guides for Chad ($600) or Niger ($400). This was much too expensive for us so we decided to do it our own way. We went to Tajarhi, 80km south of Gatrun to wait there for the convoys that did not come. The only traffic was Niger-bound smugglers passing through at night.

We waited patiently in Tajarhi for four days during which time we got talking with people in the village. We met some Toubous who were planning to drive to Niger with four Toyotas. They were smuggling stuff that they get almost for free from the government: rice, flour, diesel. We also saw a brand new car covered on a truck. They invited us to join them.

Like everyone else it seemed, we left one evening at 9pm. The first part of the piste was terrible, about 100 km. of very soft sand. After one hour we had only covered about 500 metres and could still see the lights of Tajarhi behind us. The others seemed unruffled and unbelievably navigated following a single star. There were no tracks.

After two hours the conditions improved so were able to keep moving. Suddenly, while we’d stopped to check the engines five military Toyotas pick ups fitted with machine guns tore out of the darkness and surrounded us. Catherine and I nervously listened to them talking over the radios and at this moment thought our trip was at an end. But after a brief talk with the others and some shaking of hands we were allowed to continue. Clearly some arrangement had been made. In fact the army knew the smugglers, because we saw one of the soldiers the day before taking money from the Toubous. The reason stopping us in the night was in my opinion to show they could find us anyway, even in the middle of the desert at night. So leaving without their permission would be impossible.

The drive to Madama unfolded exceptional landscapes and every day we met yet another overloaded truck taking Africans to Libya. It’s not a highway but there is traffic anyway We ended the next day just before Madama where we spent the night with the Toubous. In the morning we drove up to the military post and handed over our passports. At long last, after several weeks we were officially in Niger! At Madama we met up with a big Slovenian truck carrying eight tourists and we decided to continue with them as we still had another 500 km to get to Dirkou. Their truck was an old military TAM, about the size of a new Unimog, but with only 120 PS for 10 tonnes! On the way south we passed through two more military check points in Dao Timmi and Dirkou.

In Dirkou we met the famous fuel dealer Jerome the Libyan who sold us diesel in 205-litre drums. Luckily we were able to share it with the Slovenian truck as we had no room for so much fuel. Jerome is a very strange and funny man, he is about 84 years old and tells stories about the second World War during the battle with Rommel and Montgomery in Tobruk. He has lived in Dirkou since 1958. We rested two days in Dirkou during which time we checked over our vehicles and visited the very nice market.

Eventually we managed to find a guide to take us across the Ténéré to Agadez. Mohammed Toufoutou was very good but expensive, charging 1500FF for the 650km trip no matter how long it took. The Ténéré seemed to us very easy driving. We had the impression that it was very flat and only once in a while did we hit patches of soft sand. Some of the parts were so flat and featureless it was hard to keep in a straight line. The guide was incredible. We drove 250 km straight to the Arbre du Ténéré which we found a very dirty place, but anyway we saw it. On our way to Agadez we passed many Africans going north to Libya to find work, perched on the top of big 6×6 trucks overloaded to the hilt.

Very impressive were the salt caravans, some of more than 200 camels heading for Bilma via Arbre du Ténéré and Fachi: 450 km in just fifteen days. At one stage they have to cover about fifty kilometres a day through the dunes to get between the wells of Arbre du Ténéré and Fachi.

When the camels leave Tazolé (160 km east of Agadez) apparently they can become nervous. We saw many dead beasts that did not make it to the next well abandoned by the piste.

The second day, about 200 km from Agadez, the Slovenian truck’s alternator expired. Three times I had to tow-start it to get the engine running. Later when I noticed the whole roof of the BJ shaking, I realised pulling the 10-ton truck over the sand had torn away the rear chassis cross-member.

Arriving in Agadez there was a good ambience but as we were the only tourists, they all jumped on us to sell something.

Having made our repairs the Slovenians found someone to drive with them to Arlit and on to Tamanrasset. From there they planned to continue back up to El Oued and Tunisia. We were going south to Togo, so we said our goodbyes. How they did work out, I don’t know, but I knew that together we had done something special. We were very pleased with our achievement, to have crossed the Sahara and the famous Tenere from Libya to Agadez. I surely want to do it again sometime!

Luc DE WULF and Catherine THOMAS

PS. The Slovenians arrived home safely after their trip through Algeria


Gerbert Van der Aa (see Chad with Mercs) also did this route in October, 1999

Last October I travelled from Libya to Niger with my girlfriend. We had a 15 year old Nissan Patrol diesel. We bought our Niger visa in Sebha (100 dinars each). It took just half an hour. We did not take the carnet as we thought 250 dinars was too expensive. In Gatrun we stayed in the old Italian fort which is something of campsite now. Some bad stories circulate about the owner Mohamed Tahar, but I think he’s really okay. We paid 35 dinars search for the formalities. Staying at the fort was free. Mohamed Tahar offered to organise a guide for the trip to Niger, but did not bother when we said we didn’t need one.

We left Gatrun alone, two people in one car. The sandfield just after Tajarhi is easy with 0.5 bar in the tyres. We drove on the truck piste and saw about four other cars every day. We did not follow the old Marlboro-piste, but drove 20km further west. We reached Tumu in two days and then drove on to Madama, where we were met by some nervous soldiers who initially seemed to think we were Tubu rebels.

We bought insurance for 450 FF. Still alone we continued to Dao Timni, Seguedine and Dirkou.

The piste was clear. Only shortly after Madama we took a wrong branch, and probably arrived on a smugglers piste. We did not really know if the real piste was to the west or to the right. We decided to stop for the night and watch for trucks. In the night it’s much easier to see cars passing by. At the beginning of the night we saw them miles away to the west. So then we knew we had to go west in the morning. We slept well.

We arrived in Dirkou early in the morning, two nights later. We met Jerome and bought petrol with loads of sand in it. We ate something and left in the afternoon. No one told us to take a guide. If we had stayed in town longer, things may have turned out differently. We crossed the Tenere on the truck piste via Achegour. A lot of soft sand, but our Patrol did not have any problems, even without sand tyres (we had 215 R 16 Bridgestones M&S!).

Agadez was calm. We bought a carnet for 50 FF and continued south. We drove to Niamey, Gao and Bamako There we wanted to sell the car, but no one was interested. So we decided to continue to Nara, Nema and Nouackchott. Finally we sold the car in Dakar for 12.000 FF (the same price we paid in the Netherlands).

I don’t think it was dangerous to do Libya-Niger with just one car. Local truck-drivers do the same. As long as you stay on the tracks nothing can go wrong. Tuareg-rebels do not seem to be a problem anymore. Although I wonder what’s going to happen to the Paris-Dakar when they travel through the north of Niger in January 2000. I suppose some people will get robbed. The target is just too easy.

Gerbert Van der Aa

D is for Dust: In Search of the Saharan Climate

Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set

Saharan-dusterConsidering its influence on global weather patterns, very little data exists about the climate of the Sahara. Dust plumes from summertime sand storms can reach right across the Atlantic, having a bearing on the formation of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, saharan dust in ukand in western Europe we are familiar with occasional reports on  ‘Sahara dust rain’ that settles on smooth surfaces like car bodies. In March 2014 the Daily Mail reported on the outrage of Saharan dust settling on Prime Minister Cameron’s car in Downing Street (right).


bookmaproadssahara automated weather stationIn 2011 and 2012 Project Fennec set out to expand the knowledge of this area by gathering climatic and aerosol data across the arid ‘Empty Quarter’ of the western Sahara. Covering northern Mauritania, northern Mali and western Algeria, it’s known to meteorologists as the ‘Saharan Heat Low’ (SHL) and is the world’s largest source of airborne dust. Manned weather stations were established in Zouerat, Mauritania and Bordj Moktar (‘BBM’) on the Algeria-Mali border (see map above left), while automated weather stations (AWS, above right) were planted across the 1000 miles between the two bases, in the remote Erg Chech region.
SEQrouteIn 2006 we traversed the southern edge of this ‘empty quarter‘ between Ouadane and BBM, crossing only the infrequently travelled Timbuktu-Taoudenni piste in some 2000 km of off-piste driving. On the way we collected dust samples for what became Fennec.

ewfwef3In the summer of 2012 the Fennec ground observations were backed up by a series of flights at high and low altitude across the region using aircraft crammed with recording instruments (above right).

Below is a short film about the Fennec project.


N is for Nemadi, dog hunters of eastern Mauritania

Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set

While reworking Desert Travels ahead of a small reprint, I came across this video from 2005 about an Italian expedition that set out from Bamako for Oualata north of Nema. Oualata was once as celebrated as nearby Timbuktu for being a place of Islamic learning, and the video spends a lot of time depicting the intricate bas-relief patterns for which the houses of Oualata are famous. As DT recalls, when I was there in 1989, no time was allowed to have a good look around, far less stay over.

nem1songhaiThen, amazingly to me at least, the Italians manage to track down a surviving Nemadi family, a survivor of the pariah-like tribe of dog hunters mentioned in Bruce Chatwin’s semi-fictional Songlines study of nomads. They live in what the vid calls the ‘Sarakolle’ desert. Not heard that designation before, but it seems Sarakolle also means Soninke, a tribe who live along the Malian border but who are indigenous to Africa and not Moors. Some sources attribute or connect them to the Imraguen fish catchers north of Nouamghar, also outsiders in Mauritania’s Moorish culture. Wiki makes a link for the etymology of ‘Nemadi’, something to do with Azer or dog master, but I just assumed it means ‘people from around Nema‘, like Saharawi.
As you can see, the guy doesn’t wear the usual blue robe and his tent is not a Moorish raima, but more of a bent wood humpy. His camel too has no saddle to speak of and it looks like he sits behind the hump. But other items like the three-legged tea table are also used by Moors. At no point in the vid is Nemadi man separated from his ancient rifle.

nemadiI thought the Nemadi used to live along the Dhar Tichit beyond Oualata. There is a place call Aguelt Nemadi (Ogueilet en Nmadi) about a hundred miles NNE of Tidjikja or 300 miles NW of Oualata. That might mean ‘Nemadi waterhole’ but lost in the dunes, it looks a pretty lonesome spot on the map, perhaps a watering hole on the old caravan route between Tichit and Ouadane.

The video has no commentary, a few Italian subtitles and some great music. It looks like they set out to cross the 400km to Araouane in their Sixty-series Tojos, but something broke so they came back. The Nemadi guy appears at about 25m.

R is for The Red Plateau ~ Libya 1998

Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
Republished with added pics
A 2008 BMW 650X was my 2014 project bike


In 1998 author of the Adventure Motorbiking Handbook (right), Chris Scott, decided to take a leaf out of his own book and headed for Libya on a BMW F650 Funduro. As usual, things turned sour.

gaddafi1998Go to most embassies and at the very least you’ll find a few tourist pamphlets and a poster of a couple frolicking by a fountain. There was no such noncing about at the Libyan Interests Section in London’s Harley Street in the late 1990s. Down in the grubby basement mean-looking guys ground another fag into a Brit passport and ignored you purposefully. Tourist literature was limited to a defiant newsletter commemorating the ‘drawing of the Line of Death’ against imperial aggressors. Charming. Just the spot to enjoy a spring break on a bike.

‘Visa?’ I asked meekly. ‘Hello? Visa?’

It has taken me months to get to this point. In November 1997 with the third edition of AMH completed, I decided it was time to practice what I preached. Libya sounded interesting and BMW’s Funduro trailie would make a nice change from another Yamaha XT600Z Ténéré.

Buying a ‘94 F650 (my 47th bike) was easy; getting a Libyan visa involved countless dead-end faxes to various Libyan tourist agencies for the required invitation. Eventually a mysterious internet connection provided an invite at a price and my permit was telexed from Tripoli in early April. A week later I was walking down Harley Street with the requisite stamp. There was no going back now.

funduroeI may have been nervous about my destination but I was less uncertain about the bike. I’d always fancied trying the Funduro. They came out in 1993, a trusty combination of Rotax engine and BMW build quality plus a naff name and a look unlike anything else. No one had anything bad to say about them other than being a bit heavy for off-roading. The revvy engine took a bit of getting used to after torquey XTs, but with the right tyres I was sure the 650 would be up for some piste bashing.

sf-red1As I was hard up modifications were kept to a minimum. A fat Michelin Desert squeezed on the back after a bit of sawing at the outer knobs. The front end took a ‘rear’ 19” Pirelli MT21 with a lot more knob-chopping and a Honda VT500 mudguard to get it to fit. Road riding on these tyres was initially unnerving, especially the ‘marbles-on-glass’ front MT, but I soon got used to it. The bike had come with a new o-ring chain, some brand I’d never heard of, but I figured it would last the trip. The 27-litre Acerbis tank looked barely bigger than the original unit but promised a useful 500km range. To help work out distances in kilometres, BMW UK gave me a metric speedo which saved on possible errors when converting from miles to kms. A chunky alloy Touratech GPS bar mount held my new Garmin 12 firmly in place and a cheapo ball compass was screwed on the dashboard. Lastly, I put on an in-line fuel filter, a cig’ lighter plug for the GPS, fork gaiters and a high screen. It was March now, high time to head South.

To save my knobs I took the overnight Motorail from Paris to Marseille and then caught a boat to Tunis where ensued five hours of messing around from one counter to the next. If this was Tunisian immigration what would Libya be like? And another thing troubled me: had I left it too late? By now temperatures were climbing steeply right across the Sahara and with it expected water consumption and a host of other problems.

A New Year’s meet up with a guy who worked in the Libyan oil fields actually put me off the whole idea. He warned me about the enervating ghibli winds which blew in April and melted strong men’s brains. A story of a guy who’d driven out into the storm sounded especially grim.

About a month after the guy had gone missing a nomad came into the camp and asked if we wanted to know where our Toyota was? We said yes and it cost us. Then he asked did we want our body back – it cost us some more. Turns out the guy had just parked up with the engine running and walked out into the sandstorm.’

With a weather eye out for the ghibli, by the next afternoon I was close to the Libyan border with a wodge of illicitly bought Libyan currency stuffed down my crotch. At the border I was resigned to hours of shuffling from one hangar to the next filling out forms and getting stamps. But by chance one of the many Libyan travel agents I’d given up on recognised me and whisked me through the formalities in just twenty minutes (and only a hundred quid!). Stunned at my good fortune, I set off towards Tripoli in the fading light and soon pulled over to fill the tank up for just 60p. That’s right sixty pence. Super petrol works out at 2.5p a litre, or if I you’re feeling stingy, regular costs 2p.

sf-red-broledDozens of the roadside wrecks traffic along Libya’s main coast road testified to the lethal mixture of ‘get-out-of-my-way’ gangsters in blacked-out Mercs and lopsided farmyard bangers piloted by granddad in coke-bottle specs. So after a night in the bushes, I was relieved to turn off the death highway south towards Ghadames, 550km away. Now the roadsides were only marked by posters of the Brother Leader, hands raised in a ‘we’re in this together!’ salute.


As I rode into the desert on super smooth highways I wondered when the real heat would begin. I didn’t have to wait long. By mid-afternoon the temperature had risen to the high thirties and out of the blue the bike started spluttering. Surely I haven’t got through the tank already, I thought? Undoing the cap revealed plenty of gas. The bike started up but a few miles later cut out again. I got off, had a look at things and guessed at a cause. A combination of half empty tank and minimal throttle at cruising speed added to the afternoon heat saw the trickling petrol evaporate in the fuel filter and cause vapour lock – cutting off the fuel supply. Stopping cooled things down and got the petrol flowing again. Later on, when pouring cooling water over the filter body I saw the petrol level rise instantly, I knew I’d guessed right.


Knowing the problem was as good as solving it so I filled up first chance and carried on to Ghadames, arriving zonked out at the empty campsite just as the sun set. Slumped out on the sand, I had a think. If it was reaching nearly 40°C this far north, how hot would it be further south? The vapour lock was easily fixed with a cardboard heat shield, but I was keen to get the BM on the dirt. Was I taking too great a risk riding alone? From here my plan was to ride across the Hamada el Hamra plateau and then cut over the edge of the Ubari Sand Sea down to the Akacus Mountains near the Algeria/Niger border, altogether about a week’s riding.

My French guidebook claimed the route across the plateau was a straightforward 450km gravel track with a well half way. Just about within my range, though in these temperatures water consumption was another matter. I checked over the bike, wrote myself a road book and planned to leave early next morning.

That night at 2am a rising gale woke me and I dozed fitfully as the tent wobbled and the palms flapped overhead. Dawn revealed an orange sky and a thick dusty haze. Was this the ghibli I’d been warned of? I postponed my departure, hoping it would die down, but in the end set off back to the village of Derj where the plateau track began. I’d reassess there.

Filling up again at Derj junction, I was on the verge of heading back to Tunisia. As I sat there mulling over ‘dare I’ with ‘should I’ the attendant leaned out the door and said ‘Eh, la mangeria?’ La what? ‘Mangeria!’ He made the universal mime for chow. Ah oui, merci. In the desert I slip automatically into French mode but Libya had been an Italian colony where this slang for food had come from. As I ate my bowl of oily stew a little German Isuzu pulled in and, as always in the desert, we sized each other up. A brief chat revealed that Rainer and Katja were also heading across the Hamra and would be happy to have another vehicle along for safety.

The Hamada el Hamra is aptly named the Red Plateau, a barren, undulating prairie of rust-coloured gravel cut by dry water courses. Rising to 800m, my oilfield mate hadn’t  much good to say about it: a pitiless void that was either freezing or baking and criss-crossed with enough tracks to confuse even the wily nomads.

sf-hambikeEnjoying the security of another vehicle, it felt great to be back on the dirt. By myself I’d have been gnawing my lip into a pulp. With th uncompromising tyres the BM handled the 40-50kph pace well enough, and it was fun concentrating on the riding instead of sitting on the blacktop. As expected, I was a lot quicker than Rainer’s ex-trans African Isuzu, but I didn’t mind stopping, their very presence made this whole excursion much less tense. But there was one thing which bothered me…

‘Rainer, shouldn’t we be at Bir Gazell well by now?’ According to my speedo the landmark should have been close. ‘Bir Gazell? No, that is on the direct route, we are taking the southern route.’ ‘The southern route?’ ‘Ya. Here, look. It goes down into the Ubari Sand Sea, turns east and follows the dunes to Idri. My guide book says it’s much more scenic than the direct route.’ ‘How far is it?’ ‘Oh, about six hundred kilometres.’ ‘I doubt I’ve got enough fuel to go that far, especially if the piste gets sandy.”  We paused for a moment to consider the implications. ‘Well, I have some spare petrol, about six litres.’ said Rainer whose Isuzu was diesel, Topping up the bike’s tank we decided to take a gamble and press on.

sf-ham-backduneBut by late afternoon we’d got ourselves lost. The next GPS waypoint was through the hills to the south, but our track was now heading west, the wrong way. This is all part and parcel of Sahara travel so, not unduly worried, we made camp in a oued and resolved to head directly for the waypoint next morning.

sf-ham-roxCross-country riding may sound fun on a trail bike, but in the desert it can be incredibly slow. Once you ride off tracks, however bad they are, you find yourself walking the bike down rocky slopes, blundering up dead-end valleys or edging towards drops. Even with an early start and the bike reconnoitring a way through the hills, it still took us till noon next day to cover the 14km to the waypoint and the route.

sf-ham-dunerHaving lost some altitude coming off the plateau, the day began to burn and, as I feared, the plateau’s firm gravel turned into plains of sand. As all you beach racers know, soft sand has to be attacked standing on the pegs with a nailed throttle and eyes firmly fixed on the ground ahead. There is no easy option: back off and you’re off – go too fast and you risk crashing. I did my share of both and finished the day exhausted by more types and shades of soft sand than the Cote d’Azur.

sf-ham-hotBy now I was already cutting into Rainer and Katja’s water reserves, so we needed to find a well. Their German guidebook identified a source 40km away. We located what seemed the right place and ploughed into the sands where the Isuzu soon mired. While they shovelled I headed over the dunes, riding the sandy banks in all directions just to keep from getting stuck. After a while I found the well – bone dry and full of sand, just like in the movies. This little excursion had cost us two hours, a heap of energy and still more water. We flopped out under some meagre shade. No one said anything.

sf-ham-drinkWe moved on, at one point encountering the vile surface-crusted powder known as feche-feche. Regular bull dust is often mistakenly called feche-feche, but this was one of only two occasions I’ve ever been on it. Often found on the edge of large sand seas, a hard crust like a pie forms and might support a vehicle. Or it might break though into the flour-like blancmange beneath. I spotted it too late, the gnarly tyred Funduro cracked the crust and sank in, engine screaming in first gear as a 20-foot roost spurted up vertically from the back wheel. By paddling madly I just managed to regain firmer ground in time to grab yet another desperate slug of water.

sf-ham2Now every minor exertion demanded a drink and these exhausting conditions went on for hours. In this sort of terrain the Funduro was just plain old Duro. Sure, the engine was amazingly zippy on the highway, but it lacked the plonk needed to chug through soft sand. And as I’ve found before, the super stiff Desert tyre might do the trick on a hefty Dakar racer, but at even just 7 psi and with the tyre creeping round the rim (I was trying the self tapers through the rim trick), it didn’t flatten out enough to provide traction. Result: lots of wheelspin and wasted fuel for not much forward progress.

sf-ham-wellAt dusk we located a proper well with a bucket and trough – the whole thing. We filled up everything with water while camels mobbed us for a hand out. Then, fit only to quickly cook up some grub, the three of us  crashed out for the third night running. We all knew we’d bitten off a bit more than we could chew, but the end was surely in sight.

sf-ham-tentWe got going early but by nine next morning the bike was halfway down a dune and out of gas. We’d seen no other vehicles since we left the highway at Derj so there was nothing for it but to lug out twenty litres of water and watch the Isuzu chug off over the sands in search of fuel. With a bit of luck they’d be back tomorrow. I knew that lying still in shade was the best way to limit water loss, so I crawled under a make shift lean-to and waited.

sf-ham3The burning sun inched across the sky and the scorching wind peppered me with sand. Then, just as I began thinking ‘What if…’ a toot-tooting heralded the early return of the little Trooper. They’d chanced across a date plantation where a guy had tapped off a jerrican’s worth from his pickup’s oil drum.

I poured the fuel into the tank and we were on the move again, but now the riding became really hard as the track squeezed between the dunes and rocky outcrops. Again we found ourselves searching for wind-erased tracks or taking repeated blasts up boulder-strewn slopes that even the nimble bike couldn’t manage. We covered just 40kms, when the Isuzu got stuck on a dune we’d all had enough and called it a day. Hopefully an early start on firmer night-cooled sand would finally get us to Idri. The Hamra wasn’t letting us go without a fight.


With a 6am start and another four hours driving we finally rolled into Idri, caked in dust and all absolutely shattered. I felt like I’d done a four day enduro on a heavy loaded bike in 40-degree temperatures – hang on, I just did that – and a week later I was still aching.

At Idri I bade farewell to the tough German couple and headed north, butt-, leg-, arm-, hand- and back sore after the 600km pummeling. Heavy winds prolonged my retreat and at one point I had the distinctly novel sensation of leaning out round a bend while braced against a 50mph crosswind. By the sf-ham-roadrideTunisian border that cheap chain was on the way out – and when o-ring chains go they go fast. Back across Tunisia, back across the Med, another Motorail to save the chain and a quick coffee in Paris.

I made it to the Channel but after over 2000 miles or riding, just 20 miles from London the sprocket turned into a greasy disc. There was nothing for it but to hire a van and drive home.


Previously published in Trail Bike MagazineOverland Journal and Wyprawy 4×4 (Polish)