An informed but personal interpretation of travel access across the Sahara,
believed to be correct at the date of updating.
For Saharan travel in a specific country click ‘Country Info’ above or visit the forum.
Government Travel Advisories
UK FCO • US DoS • French MAE
Updated March 2018
Cross via Morocco to Mauritania for Senegal or west Mali. Or from Egypt to Sudan, getting to Egypt via Israel and/or Jordan. Click links above for official government travel advice, but note some maps and advice exaggerate limitations and risks. For example the French MAE map (left) correctly identifies the open crossing between Western Sahara and Mauritania. At the time of this update, the British FCO version still does not. Then again, the French MAE map below greatly exaggerates the lack of access in Algeria, while the current British FCO map could not be more different. Politics influence these advisories.
For centuries crossing the Sahara was limited to a handful of routes linking the Mediterranean with sub-Saharan Africa. In the old days these caravan routes followed a string of reliable wells, while circumventing difficult terrain like mountain ranges or sand seas.
Prevailing routes also shifted according to political alliances and the activities of nomads who’d offer to guide a caravan across the desert for a fee, pillage it, or engage in a bit of both.
It’s not an exaggeration to say the situation today is broadly similar, but with the added complications imposed by current Islamist insurgencies and the lawlessness which that brings. The Sahara remains by and large, a huge unpoliced region where the risks to the traveller are not to be underestimated. This isn’t because the risks are necessarily huge, but because foreign travellers and tourists have become rare outside of Morocco and Egypt and are therefore all the more conspicuous.
The map above shows the current Atlantic Route and Nile Routes in green. Former routes are in red. There are three desert border crossings on the current routes:
• Guergarat – Nouadhibou on the Atlantic Route
• Argeen (Nile west)
• Wadi Halfa (Nile east)
These border crossings are the only ways to cross the Sahara overland.
Looking at the thin lines which criss-cross the map above, or even the gaps in between, you might think there are an infinite number of possibilities for a trans-Saharan adventure. Not anymore, and not really in the good days. No longer can you roam around the desert with impunity or lately, in many places without an official escort or guide. As with Antarctica, it’s an irony that legitimate recreational access to such a vast wilderness is limited by human intervention or restrictions.
One idea people still come up with is travelling around the rim of the Mediterranean until they learn the Moroccan/Algerian border had been closed since 1995 (despite talk of it opening in 2011). Add the complications in getting Algeria visas, and the dire situation in Libya (right), let alone Syria and the Middle East, and the whole idea is a non-runner and will remain that way for years.
Morocco to Mauritania
When Algeria first closed to tourism in the 1990s, the flow of trans-Saharan traffic, both commercial and touristic, shifted west via Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania. This is now a sealed road across the desert, barring a few kilometres of piste through No Man’s Land (technically, Polisario territory which in 2017 Morocco partly sealed).
But unless you slow down in Morocco, or head inland in Mauritania, the Atlantic Route (right) is a relatively boring and unsatisfactory run if you’re looking to experience the real Sahara.
Note that despite what many maps show, ‘Western Sahara‘ is not a country but a name applied to the former colony of Spanish Sahara, part occupied since the 1970s by Morocco to the west and the Algerian-supported SADR (‘Polisario’) inland. Between the two Morocco built a 1500-km long defensive Berm or sand wall.
A few years ago there was a spate of kidnappings in Mauritania. All were released and the road from Nouadhibou to Nouakchott is now well patrolled with checkpoints and is as safe as can be expected. But further south the Route d’Espoir running east from Nouakchott to Nema may be less safe. In 2016 tensions rose between Morocco and Mauritania, though tourists were not be affected.
However in Mali a series of attacks, IEDs, kidnapping and assassinations from Sevare and Mopti northwards seemed to go off the scale in early 2018, presumably as the now diverse factions (listed left, map right; source) take it out on each other, locals and the Malian state.
Nile Route: Egypt – Sudan
In the 1970s, crossing the Nubian desert from Egypt to all of Sudan and Uganda was the main route to East Africa until the escalation of the Sudanese civil war put an end to this. A war now continues to rumble along in South Sudan which separated from Sudan in 2011.
They say the two-day Wadi Halfa ferry stopped running in 2017, most probably because in 2014 a land border finally opened between Egypt and Sudan, though it still requires a short ferry crossing between Abu Simbel and Qustul port (see map above) on the lake’s east shore. Then again, reports from 2018 mention a ferry from Wadi Halfa. This is set to become a truck route, with private cars and buses using Argeen west of the Nile. In 2017 it was used without the former extortionate fees and so as predicted, this is finally the all-land crossing between Sudan and Egypt. Report and costs here.
With the current situation in Syria, Egypt is no longer accessible via the Middle East, nor via a transit of Libya between Tunisia and Egypt. The current solution is a ferry to Israel then Jordan and ferry to Sinai (Egypt). The ability to do so comes and goes: more here (got to latest post).
Trans-Sahara Highway – closed beyond Tam
The TSH is sealed from Algiers all the way to the Niger border at In Guezzam. From there it’s 150km of mostly firm sandy piste to Arlit on the south side, where the tarmac resumes. But security issues prevail in this part of Niger; no tourist has crossed this way since before the Libyan revolution of 2011. This crossing requires tourist escorts in Algeria and when it was last done, a military escort (convoys) in the northeast of Niger. It’s now said that army escorted commercial convoys leave Tam for Agadez every 15 days, swapping at In Guezzam or Assamaka for a Niger army escort to Arlit and Agadez. I’ve not heard of any tourists being able to join this convoy.
Tanezrouft Route – closed
Although it was never that popular, following the 1990s the Algerian stage of the Tanezrouft Route south of Reggane (and west of the TSH, left) got closed to tourists, and even trying to get to Bordj Moktar from Tam became risky or forbidden. The north Malian portion of the Tanezrouft route is now a war zone, and for years this was where most hostages ended up in the hands of AQIM or their affiliates. Now French and others forces are engaged in regaining that territory.
There are other trans-Saharan routes that you might think possible, such as northern Mauritania, Libya to Chad or Sudan, or Egypt away from Lake Nasser. But for first timers or even experienced Sahara tourists these routes are marginal, dangerous or closed.
For recent information visit the Sahara Forum or follow the links at the top of this page.