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.
Updated March 2016
Cross via Morocco and Mauritania to Senegal or west Mali. Or from Egypt to Sudan, getting to Egypt via Israel and/or Jordan. Click FCO maps for travel advice but note these maps (including French MAE below) tend to exaggerate travel limitations and risks.
Crossing the vast Sahara has for centuries been limited to a handful of routes linking the Mediterranean with sub-Saharan Africa. In the old days these camel caravan routes followed a string of reliable wells, while at the same time circumventing difficult terrain such as mountain ranges or sand seas.
Prevailing routes also shifted according to regional political allegiances and the activity of nomadic bandits 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 that the situation today is broadly similar, but with the added complications imposed by the current insurgencies and the lawlessness that brings. The Sahara remains by and large, a huge and unpoliced region where the risks to the traveller are not to be underestimated. This isn’t because the risks are great, but because foreign travellers and tourists have become rare outside of Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, and are therefore now overtly conspicuous.
The map above shows the former main routes through Algeria to Mali and Niger in red. For tourists the trans-Sahara routes between Libya and Chad have long been closed, as with Algeria to Mali or Niger. These days it’s either Atlantic Route or the Nile Route, both in green.
Looking at the thin lines which criss-cross Michelin’s 741 map or even the gaps in between, you might think there are an infinite number of possibilities for a trans-Saharan adventure. This isn’t the case and wasn’t even in the good days. No longer can you roam around the desert with impunity or lately, even 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. The Sahara Routes Map (above) shows the main routes.
One idea people used to come up with was travelling around the rim of the Mediterranean until they learn the Moroccan/Algerian border had been closed for years (despite talk of it opening in 2011). Add to that 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.
The trans-Sahara Highway (TSH) is now sealed from Algiers all the way to the Niger border at In Guezzam. From there it’s 150km of mostly hard sandy piste to Arlit on the south side where the tarmac resumes. But security issues still prevail in this part of Niger. At the time of this update no tourist has crossed this way since before the Libyan revolution of 2011. This route requires tourist escorts in Algeria and when it was last done, a military escort (convoys) in 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 joining this convoy.
When Algeria closed to tourism in the 1990s, the flow of trans-Saharan traffic, both commercial and touristic, diverted to the west via Morocco, ‘Western Sahara’ and Mauritania. This has now become a full-width all-sealed road across the desert, barring a few kilometres of piste through No Man’s Land.
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 has built a 2000-km long defensive Berm or sand wall.
In November 2009 three Spanish were kidnapped in Mauritania on the road to Nouakchott, and a few weeks later two Italians were kidnapped close to the Mali border south of Ayoun, and again just over the border in Mali in November 2012. All have since been 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.
Although it was never that popular, following the 1990s the Algerian stage of the Tanezrouft Route south of Reggane (and west of the TSH) 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 long out-of-bounds and for years was where most hostages ended up in the hands of AQIM or their affiliates. Now of course the French and others forces are engaged in regaining that territory.
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. That war is largely over after Sudan separated in 2011, though tourists aren’t exactly rushing into South Sudan.
The crucial Wadi Halfa ferry is still running, but in 2014 a new land border opened between Egypt and Sudan, though it still requires a short ferry crossing between Abu Simbel and Qustul port (right) on the lake’s east shore. Fees for a military escort between Abu Simbel and Aswan are said to add up to the same price as the ferry, though you can do Aswan to Wadi Halfa in a day.
With the situation in Syria, Egypt is no longer accessible via the Middle East. A few years ago half a dozen parties managed to transit Libya between Tunisia and Egypt but now that too has become way too risky. The only solution is a ferry to Egypt from Turkey or getting their via Israel and Jordan (ferry to Israel). The ability to do either of these comes and goes: more here or here (got to last posts).
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 impossible.
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