An informed but personal interpretation of travel access across the Sahara, believed to be correct at the date of updating and notwithstanding current Covid border closures.
For Saharan travel in a specific country click ‘Country Info’ above or visit the forum.
Updated September 2022
For centuries crossing the Sahara has been limited to a handful of routes. In the old days camel caravans followed a string of reliable wells, while circumventing difficult terrain like mountain ranges or sand seas (left). Prevailing routes also shifted according to political alliances and the activities of bandits.
It’s not an exaggeration to say the situation today is broadly similar. The Sahara remains by and large, a huge unpoliced wilderness where the risks to the traveller are not to be underestimated. Following the desert tourist-kidnapping era, foreign overland travellers and tourists are now rare outside of Morocco.
The map above shows the current Atlantic Route, uncertain Tindouf Route and two Nile Routes in green. These border crossings are the only way motor tourists can cross the Sahara. Formerly safe tourist routes are in red, none have been used for at least a decade. Right now there are four definite desert border crossings on these routes:
• Morocco–Mauritania Guergarat – Nouadhibou on the Atlantic Route
• Algeria–Mauritania Tindouf – Bir Mogrein – Zouerat
• Egypt-Sudan Argeen (Nile west)
• Egypt-Sudan Wadi Halfa (Nile east)
Government Travel Advisories
UK FCO • US DoS • French MAE
Click links above for official government travel advice, but note some maps and advice exaggerate limitations and risks. For example, the French MAE map (below) correctly suggests access between Moroccan Western Sahara and Mauritania. At the time of this update, the British FCO version still does not. Then again, the last version of the French MAE map below exaggerates the lack of access in Algeria, while the current British FCO map could not be more different. Remember, these are travel advisories, not rules.
Nile Route: Egypt – Sudan
In the 1970s, crossing the Nubian desert from Egypt right through Sudan to Uganda was the main route to East Africa until the Sudanese civil war put an end to that. A war now rumbles along in South Sudan which separated from Sudan in 2011 and, at the date of this update, it seems civil war in Ethiopia has blocked the route to East Africa. See here.
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. Reports from 2018 mention the ferry still runs the full length of Lake Nasser from Wadi Halfa to Aswan but maybe only for passengers and trucks
Private cars and buses using Argeen or Qustul. In 2017 Argeen was used without the former extortionate fees and so as predicted, this may finally be an all-land crossing between Sudan and Egypt, though one gets the feeling the Wadi Halfa crossing prevails. Report and costs here (got to latest post).
With the current situation in Syria, Egypt is no longer accessible via Turkey, far less via a transit of Libya from Tunisia. The current solution is a ferry to Israel then Jordan and ferry to Nuweiba, Sinai (Egypt). The ability to do so comes and goes: more here (go to latest post). Plus there is the Ethiopia situation, as mentioned.
Atlantic Route: Morocco – Mauritania
When Algeria initially closed to tourism in the 1990s, the flow of trans-Saharan traffic, both commercial and touristic, shifted west via Morocco and Western Sahara to Mauritania. This is now a sealed road across the desert, barring a few kilometres of piste through No Man’s Land (technically, Polisario territory, not NML). I rode nearly all of it in 2020 and unless you slow down in Morocco, or head inland once in Mauritania, the Atlantic Route can be an unsatisfactory run if you’re looking to experience the real Sahara. Fuel and lodgings are no more than 250–300-km apart.
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 1980s 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.
In 2009 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 it ever was. But further south the Route d’Espoir running east from Nema may be less safe.
The Tindouf Route: Algeria – Mauritania
During the French colonial era this was the main trans-Sahara route linking Algeria with St Louis or Dakar, without leaving French West African territory.
It closed in 1963 by which time Algeria and Mauritania were independent. Up till then, today’s Atlantic Route was in Spanish-controlled territory (see map left). This 1965 book dramatically describes the inland transit in 1959.
Following the announcement in 2018 of the re-opening of this 900k off-road route between Tindouf and Zouerat, by the winter of 2019 a couple of southbound tourists had crossed the reopened border, although it’s since said to be officially not open to tourists and the groups that have used it are in single figures. Permits are now required from Algeria and Mauritania. Last known crossing February 2022.
Because of Algerian visa and escort issues, it’s easier in a southerly direction, but you may find difficulties in getting an Algerian agency to provide invitations and escort – most won’t know anything about this border.
So it is important to state on your Algerian visa application (in your home country) that you’re exiting via Tindouf. Then your agency’s previously submitted itinerary will have been approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (or not) and will be linked to your application. You’ll also need a similar permit from the Mauritanians; best from an embassy, or while you wait via your embassy in RIM (if there is one and they’re helpful). It may be days.
It’s about 960km from Tindouf in western Algeria to Zouerat in RIM where the road network resumes. Expect to have to join a military escort at Abadla (700km east of Tindouf) near Bechar (some have dodged this). Once out of Tindouf buy your €55 RIM visa at ‘Hassi 75‘, just below the cut line 75km from Tindouf (left; no money changing). With your Mauritanian authorisation, your vehicle is written into your passport alongside the visa and they issue a free vehicle importation permit (TVIP). No vaccination evidence required (Feb 2022).
From Hassi 75 it’s 885-km of piste to Zouerat. In December 2019 a Norwegian tourist who cut across the PFZ had quite a lot of bother from military checkpoints, but got to Bir Mogrein eventually.
In November 2021 three Algerian trucks were bombed and drivers killed near Bir Lahlou, north of Ain Ben Tili in the northern PFZ (Polisario Free Zone). Algeria blamed Moroccan drones. Algerian truckers were bombed again in April 2022 near Ain Ben Tili. One presumes Morocco is careful to bomb Algerian truckers when only when they cut across the PFZ between Algeria and Mauritania, and where an outcry would be minimal.
Tourists are advised not to cut across the PFZ as most locals may have done, but to work their way south, then turn west at the ‘corner’ towards the fort at Ain Ben Tili (above left; water) – a sandy region with no defined tracks. With other traffic now diverting this way following the bombings, you may no longer be alone on this 310km stage from Tindouf. You will need a 550km fuel range to reach Bir Mogrein, followed by another 410km to Zouerat.
At Ain Ben Tili (ABT; no fuel officially) you rejoin what was the ‘main route’ where the PFZ shortcut came in from the north. There are confusing cross tracks to Bir Mogrein (240km from ABT; fuel, hotel, resto, money change). On the way you’ll pass only nomad tents, some selling fuel.
From Bir Mogrein the southbound piste 410km to Zouerat (fuel, hotels, restos, money change, train to NDB) is well-defined. And from Zouerat you’re on the Mauritanian road network. All distances estimates from online maps. For track-and-tree level aerial imagery, Bing in much better than Google in this part of the Sahara.
Trans-Sahara Highway: Algeria – Niger
The TSH is now sealed from Algiers 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.
In February 2021 Algeria boldly announced that this final section would be completed by the summer, but it’s unclear how they can make this claim in Niger.
No tourist has crossed this way since before the Libyan revolution of 2011 and escorts were required in Algeria when it was last done, plus 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. The isolated border post of Assamaka has been attacked several times, most recently in June 2021.
Tanezrouft Route: Algeria – Mali
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 a war zone, and for years north Mali has been where most hostages ended up in the hands of AQIM or similar groups. Now French and other forces are engaged in regaining that territory.
There are other trans-Saharan routes that you might think possible, but for tourists these routes are marginal, dangerous or…
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