Sahara Overland camel contributor Alistair Bestow gives an account of the Bilma salt caravan in Niger. See also the Sahara Trekking ebook
For a few years now, on my office wall at work I have had a Jean-Luc Manaud calendar, with evocative images of Niger, particularly of the Tenere Desert. It is well out of date, and has been stuck on the image of Fachi for months. I had resolved to get there this winter, and to see both Bilma and Fachi, by camel if that was possible.
I arrived in Agadez on 30th December 2005, after having travelled from Niamey by bus, and hunted down one of the guides recommended by Lonely Planet. Moussa Touboulou was in town and available to be my guide, if we could work out an itinerary for such a trip at a reasonable price. I was told that it was only really possible to travel both to, and from, Bilma by camel caravan, if I arrived in Agadez in October. There is apparently an ‘October Rush’ being the most favourable time to go for the camels. Therefore it would be possible to go to Bilma by vehicle, and then wait for a caravan to leave Bilma for Agadez.
We nutted out a deal, whereby Moussa would organise the travel by truck to Dirkou (600+km), and then 4WD from Dirkou to Bilma (40km) and then by camel from Bilma back to Agadez. He would travel with me for the full distance, organise the permit -still required for travel in this area- food, water and accommodation, if needed in Dirkou and Bilma. His fee was CFA55000 per day (approx £55 per day). We worked out a daily rate, because the number of days to undertake the travel was not certain, and I have had experience in a guide wildly over-estimating the number of days for a journey, thereby making the daily cost quite expensive. It proved to be the case here too, -Moussa estimating 30 days, but in fact the trip took only 20 days in all.
There was a few days to wait in Agadez before a truck was going to leave for Dirkou, but one was located, and on Wednesday 4th Jan 2006, we went by taxi to the edge of town where indeed a large Mercedes truck was waiting. We climbed aboard on top of the goods, along with 30 or so others for the journey to Dirkou. It proved to be nearly two days travel, the truck being overloaded, and lumbering along quite slowly over the flat, flat desert. It was quite an experience to travel this way, being crushed in with everyone else, but was thankful that it was only 2 days, and that we were not as overloaded as some of the other trucks that we saw en-route.
We arrived in Dirkou, being a surprisingly large town, on the morning of Jan 6th. We stayed overnight at a ‘friends’ house, which left me time to explore the markets under the shady trees, and to marvel at the flat absolute desert to the west. Moussa organised a lift in a 4WD the next day for Bilma, and we arrived there on Jan 7th.
Bilma is everything I had imagined of an oasis, but being larger than I expected. There are shady sandy streets -large trees I think which may have been planted by the French, groves of date palms, watered gardens of fruit and vegetables, an aging, crumbling fort, and a Grand Source of water, being a large pool of water inhabited by small fish, and frequented by birds including a spoonbill. To the north west of the oasis, are the salt works, where pools of saline water are created to allow the salt to crystallise on the surface. The workers then disturb the crystals on the surface, sending them to the bottom from where they are collected and dried. These crystals are then broken up by a hammer, have water added to them, and than are placed in moulds of one shape or another. The moulds are either a basin or two sizes, or a cone, made from the truck of a palm tree and covered with leather. The salt is turned out, and then dried into the robust forms which are carried by caravan to Agadez and beyond.
I was in Bilma for 2 days, before the caravan Moussa had located and negotiated with, was due to leave. The day before our departure, I went to the salt works where the caravan was located, and watch the parcels of salt being made ready for transport. Generally two or three cones, were packed with several basin forms of salt, in damp palm matting, and tied up with rope. The large parcels were barely able to be lifted by a man. The salt is supported, when on the camel by goat skins filled with dates -also being sent to Agadez and beyond.
On Monday 9th Jan, we joined the caravan, and at 1.00pm said farewell to Bilma. It is noted that in contrast to the caravan travel I have done in Mali, to Timbuktu-Taoudenni, that this trip saw us rent some capacity from the caravan itself, rather than having our own camels. This meant that Moussa and I were ’embedded’ in the caravan. On the Timbuktu-Taoudenni trips it has been difficult sometimes to convince the guide to travel with the salt caravans, because it is easier and faster to travel with the guides own camels.
The desert here was quite different from that of Mali, the Tenere being much sandier, having less vegetation, and more dunes, but at the same time being less variable in its appearance, than the desert of Mali. It was four days of travel to reach Fachi,. There was plenty of time to admire the wonderful creamy dunes along the way, of which there are many. We travelled from 9 in the morning to about 10 at night non-stop. It was clearly well planned, as the caravan carried exactly the correct amount of feed for this sector, until they picked up another 4 days worth of feed that they had left in Fachi on the way to Bilma. After the eighth day, we reached the Arbre du Tenere monument, and there after there was sufficient feed to be found for the camels en-route for the last 7 days of travel to Agadez, making a total of 15 days by camel.
The last 6 days of travel was through stony desert, with frequent patches of vegetation for the camels to eat, and we passed a number of villages, and nomadic Tuareg with their sheep and goats. We also travelled for a few less hours per day than had been the case for the first 8 days.
The caravan actually was not going to finish its journey until Tahoua, some few hundred kilometers later. On the last night , I said my farewells to the camelliers whom I had got to know over the previous 2 weeks. They had made me feel very welcome, and it was a great journey.
Crossing the Sahara desert had long been an ambition of ours. In autumn 2001 we bought a Toyota HJ60 and arranged to take some time off work to do the trip. We wanted to cross the desert north to south, tarmac to tarmac, but didn’t want to do too much backtracking. We settled on attempting to head south through Tunisia and Libya to Agadez in Niger, returning north through Tamanrasset and the Hoggar to Tunis. This route had the advantages of enabling us to fully explore Libya, a country only just opening up to tourism, cross the remote Ténéré and make a return crossing via one of the classic trans-Saharan routes, itself only recently considered safe after the Algerian civil war and Tuareg rebellion. On January 10th 2002 we left home. Our first challenge was to replace a Michelin XS tyre which blew out on the French autoroute. We found one in Lyon at a considerable discount to what we had paid for new ones in the UK – we should have bought them all in France which would have saved us money and reduced the risks involved in driving on sand tyres on wet winter roads through Europe. The CTN Ferry, the Carthage, to Tunis was much less eventful and we rolled off at 4pm and spent the first night in Hammamet, 60 kms southeast of Tunis. Hammamet seems a good stopping point for people heading south. We got good value accommodation at the Résidence Hammamet (22 TD a double ~£11), had a large beer at the bar overlooking the Medina followed by a splash-out meal at Les Trois Moutons, reputably rated one of Tunisia’s top dozen restaurants. We then spent an enjoyable few days meandering down the east of Tunisia visiting the Roman ruins at El Jem, the Berber towns of Matmata, Chenini and Tataouine, the fort at Ksar Ghilane and the island of Jerba. Leaving Tunisia was reasonably straightforward although customs made us sit around for half an hour for no apparent reason before letting us leave. All the local cars heading to Libya were being pushed to conserve the last drops of fuel before they reached cheap Libyan supplies.
Libya Getting Libyan visas had been a rather tortuous and expensive affair. We hooked up with two other travellers, met through the Sahara-overland forum, and got Jamal Fteis of Arkno Tours to send an invitation for the four of us to the Libyan Embassy in London (US$100 per visa). Having got template stamps for an Arabic translation of our passports at the Passport Office, we got Hamed Kalifa to do the translations and manage the process through the Libyan Embassy (£130 per person for an Express Service). We got the visas back within five days, and given one of these was New Year’s day, we were pretty happy. We also used Arkno to help us get into Libya at the Raj Adjar border (US$270 – ostensibly 120 for the guide and 150 for the cost of paperwork). Nabil, our guide was excellent. He met us just after we left Tunisan customs and we waited while he did all the paperwork for us. This is all in Arabic and given the border officials weren’t especially welcoming and spoke very little English or French we were glad of his help. We got Libyan number plates, a carnet de passage with insurance, a permit which we assume is similar to a permit de conduire in Tunisia and a copy of the Arkno Tours invitation as well as stamps in our passport. Having paid Jamal in advance we had no money to pay and therefore did not change any money at the border. Customs was straightforward – no currency declaration and we were asked only to open the car doors and confirm that we weren’t carrying alcohol. The whole process took a bit over an hour. We then followed Nabil to Zuara (60km towards Tripoli), had a coffee with him, changed some money and said our farewells. The currency black market in Libya seems to have dried up. We had ignored the swarms of money changers waving wads of Libyan dinars in Ben Guerdane on the Tunisian side of the border offering 1.3 for a dollar. We got 1.45 with the money changer in Zuara. In Tripoli the money changers in the Medina wouldn’t go above 1.5 so we changed at the bank in the al Kabir hotel for 1.53. Despite what we had heard, we were surprised by how easy it was to get around Libya on our own. We were waved through most checkpoints and when asked to stop, it was only for the routine name, profession, father’s name etc. The only bureaucratic pain we encountered was the need to re-register with the police within five days. We ended up doing it on our own in Tripoli because we weren’t staying long enough at our hotel (the Qasr Libya) for them to do it for us. We followed the Footprint guide recommendation and got a taxi to the passport office (the Jawazat) – it would be impossible to find on your own. It was quite a palaver given the language difficulties but we eventually worked it out. You need to get two copies of two forms from a hut at the front gate (1 LD), have the forms filled in by a translator who sits under a tree outside the main building (2 LD) and then have your passports stamped in the office up the stairs round the side of the large building (5 LD). You can also get the registration done in Ghadames if you are going straight there and probably in most other major towns which may be more straightforward. We had stopped at the Roman ruins of Sabratha on the way to Tripoli and were keen to continue on along the coast to Leptis Magna before heading back to Ghadames. Both sets of ruins are really remarkable and definitely worth the detour however keen you are to get into the dunes. On the way to Ghadames we explored the ksour in the Berber villages of Yefren, Kabao and Nalut. Nalut’s ksar is a particularly fine example and has had some restoration work done recently. The Nalut Hotel, overlooking the ksar, is currently closed for renovations but should be a great place when it’s finished. We tried to get the Café Nassen el Jebel to put us up but although they were very friendly, they weren’t keen. We therefore had no option but to stay at Funduq Nasim (10 LD pp), which was disgusting. In retrospect, we should have driven on and camped. After exploring Ghadames, we crossed the Hamada al Hamra from Derj to Idri. Apart from straying onto a newer more southerly piste soon after leaving the tarmac which required a bit of slow cross-country to get back to the old piste, navigation was straightforward. Traffic was light and we didn’t see another vehicle the first day and only a couple of local cars on the second. The army at the remote Uweinat Whin checkpoint were particularly friendly, especially as we were able to lend them a 12mm spanner which enabled them to get one of their Land Cruisers going again! After a night in Sebha, we went on to the Dawada lakes in the Erg Ubari. We should probably have taken a guide here as this was our first real session in the dunes. Our first day was pretty eventful with 3 hours of digging and we strayed into the wrong gassi while trying to get to Gabraoun al Jadid and ended up driving directly to Um al Ma. The upside was a night at Um al Ma lake, a magical place. We returned the following morning and got the right gassi and made it to Gabraoun without further problem. The tracks to the northern side of Um al Ma from Gabraoun had been covered over by the wind but we found the route after a walk and held our breath down the steep descents to the lake. When we finally got back to the Africa Tours campsite that night, we were exhausted but exhilarated at what had been a remarkable introduction to dune driving. The following day we went on to see the prehistoric rock art at the Wadi Mathendous. We asked the caretaker of the Germa museum about permits for the site and he sold us two tickets for 6 LD. The police at the Km 128 checkpoint didn’t recognise these and wanted us to have a permit from the Germa police but they let us through anyway. We shared the Wadi with a pair of howling jackals that night. We motored on to Ghat for a tour of the Jebel Akakus. The road to Ghat is very fast with the exception of the last 50 km which is broken up. The Akakus was the only place we used a guide in Libya. It is compulsory and would be very difficult to do solo given the numerous control posts in the mountains. We did a three day circuit with a guide from Awiss tours, based at Mohammed’s campsite in Ghat. Awiss Tours are a family of Tuareg who clearly know the area well and entertained us royally. Camel tours appear to be their specialty. The landscape was stunning and we think we saw most of the highlights but four days would have been more comfortable. Our only gripe was that our guide, Cheick, the youngest brother, wouldn’t stop talking and he became very irritating. We really enjoyed Libya. The desert scenery was fantastic. We felt perfectly safe driving on our own, camping where and when we wanted. The people were exceptionally friendly and despite the difficulty of getting visas and getting across the border, we didn’t feel the bureaucracy too stifling. The downsides are soulless hotels, a lack of vibrancy in the towns and difficulty in communicating in languages other than Arabic.
Al Gatrun to Agadez – the Marlboro Piste Throughout our time in Libya we had been trying to gather information on the safety of the border areas and routes south. It was difficult to get reliable information and we received a whole range of advice on the security of the Marlboro piste. We also had the option of crossing the border to Djanet in Algeria or, allegedly, even going directly to Agadez across the Northern Ténéré from Ghat. However, we resolved to stick to our plan and returned to Sebha before heading south to Murzuk. Turning off the main Murzuk-Timsah road, we knew we were heading into frontier territory. The tarmac roads in Libya are generally in good condition but this section is appalling and after a few kilometres we took to the sand to save our suspension – the eastern side of the road was easiest to drive on. It took us nearly 3 hours to get the 150 kms from the junction to Al Gatrun. We arrived in Al Gatrun to find there was no fuel there or further south in Tajarhi and no prospect of any arriving in the near future. Although we could have got a few jerries from truck drivers in the town, we decided to do a return trip the following day to Zuweila to get the additional 150 litres we required – another day on the road from hell. In Al Gatrun, we were soon directed to Mohammed Tager who lives in the old Italian fort on top of the hill in the centre of town. Mohammed has done a good job keeping the place in good repair and caters for the few tourists visiting the town. He put us up in the fort and charged us 17 LD per night (5 LD per person and 7 LD for the car). Mohammed also helped us with the exit formalities which were as convoluted as the entrance. We managed to negotiate three different sets of police, customs and immigration in about three hours. The Tourist police required two photocopies of our passport and visas (Libyan and Nigerienne) which we were able to do in town. We didn’t get our 50 LD deposit for the car number plates back from customs despite our protestations. We were even forced to sign forms to say we had received the money! Whilst in Al Gatrun we received a formal warning from the Tourist Police that we could have problems as a single vehicle, hardening our resolve to find a travelling companion. With very few tourists in Libya as a whole, let alone Al Gatrun, it quickly became apparent that going with a big Mercedes 6×6 truck was our only option. These huge trucks usually leave in the early evening as it takes them a whole day to unload, have their cargo inspected by customs, and reload. We introduced ourselves to the driver of one and he was very happy for us to join them as if it was the most natural thing in the world for two tourists in a TLC to want to travel with his truck. We rolled out of town at 4pm but didn’t get more than 10km before stopping. We waited until nightfall and then the lorry was repacked with further cargo loaded on, beyond the view of customs. Packing continued through the night and we eventually headed off the following morning to Tajarhi. The going was painfully slow. We averaged 30 kph as the Mercedes groaned under the weight of its load and the 75 returning immigrant workers perched precariously on the roof. The sand fields beyond Tajarhi were a graveyard for trucks. We passed four that had been broken down for days. The occupants of our truck enjoyed throwing cigarettes and dates to the stricken passengers and watching the ensuing scramble. We had to choose between driving in the firm truck tracks with the risk of bottoming out or making our own tracks in the sand and getting stuck. We used both methods and got through needing only two quick recoveries. Once through the sand fields we kept driving along a rockier piste before stopping at midnight for the night. We continued our slow progress the following day on a much more westerly route than the piste shown on the IGN map. By lunchtime we reached a Libyan military base with a temporary airstrip (N22° 47.8 E14° 01.3). Customs officers were in evidence and serious negotiations were required to prevent the Mercedes being unloaded for a further inspection. By early evening we reached a further Libyan army checkpoint right on the border (N22° 39.2 E14° 05.4) where we were warned of local bandit activity and were advised to stop for the night. We pulled up just off the piste within sight of the army base and were joined by a further Mercedes – other trucks however continued past us during the night. We finally reached Madama by lunchtime the following day and formally entered Niger a full three days after leaving Libya. In Madama, a convoy of five empty cigarette lorries and two military Toyota pickups had just left for Seguedine. We were keen to join this faster group and tried to get through the formalities as quickly as possible. Customs charged us 20,000 CFA for a laisser passer – with no exchange facilities, they let us pay US$30. The police gave us an arrival stamp and we ended up giving them US$10 in lieu of a random demand for 10,000 CFA so we could get away and catch up with the convoy which we did after a frantic 12km dash. The terrain here was much easier and the lorries charged south at high speed quickly losing the army escort after one of the Toyotas got a puncture. We regrouped at the Mabrous well and then it was the turn of the Toyotas to tear off, leaving us behind when we stopped to make repairs to one of the lorries. We were left wondering whether there was any logic to the escort at all. After a lengthy stop to fix an ailing lorry transmission, we kept going through the night to arrive at the Dao Timmi military base at 2am. The piste between Mabrous and Dao Timmi is rough and heavily rutted with lots of risks of bottoming out. The lorries were pushing on in terrain that was much easier for them. We narrowly escaped being shunted from behind by a brakeless lorry several times. We descended to the picturesque oasis at Seguedine, with small fort and saline, around lunchtime on the fifth day. There we were forced to employ a local Tubbu guide, Laouel Barka, in line with the current stipulation that all tourists should be accompanied by a guide when traveling in the Ténéré (15,000 CFA per day). Although initially exasperated by this demand, given we already had an escort and only wanted to continue for a further half day to Dirkou with the same convoy, we decided to use it as an opportunity to explore Djado and we waved goodbye to the trucks. The local army chief, Lieutenant Ahmoudou Bossi, who had tried to help us reach a compromise with Laouel, invited us to spend the night in his compound and arranged for us to do a day trip to Djado without obtaining the requisite “feuille” in Dirkou. The following day we set out with Laouel to Chirfa, Djado, Djaba and Orida. The hassle factor seemed high in Chirfa and we were glad of having a local guide. Even though Djado is the most famous sight, we thought it definitely worth the extra effort to make it to Djaba and Orida and were disappointed we could not spend more time here. The army say that this area is now free of rebel activity and the Tubu checkpoint before Orida has gone – they wanted to make sure we weren’t going up to the plateau though. We bought two jerries of diesel in Chirfa on the way back (US$26 in lieu of 17,000 CFA), continued on to Seguedine for another night with the Lieutenant, and on to Dirkou with Laouel. In Dirkou, we got a “feuille” to cover the rest of the journey to Agadez for 20,000 CFA – the price seems absolutely random. We stayed at Jerome the fuel seller’s compound. Jerome died in late 2001 and the place is now run by his son, Sergeant Boubacar Mohamed. We paid 65,000 CFA for a meal, a place to sleep and 200 litres of diesel. We thought this was generous as our friendly Libyan trucks had by now turned up in town and were willing to sell us a drum of diesel for 45,000 CFA. We also took the opportunity to grab a beer at Mariama’s Bar, our first for weeks. Laouel, who had turned out to be somewhat mercurial, decided he did not want to continue to Agadez and we were also happy to be rid of an unstable character. Sergeant Boubacar arranged a new guide for us and we visited Bilma and then continued to Agadez via Achegour and the Arbre (50,000 CFA for the guide for however long it took). We were taken on a route that followed the balises between Kafra and Achegour. The sand was pretty soft and the going was slow at high revs and high fuel consumption. 50km after the Achegour well we came across a broken-down truck with 70 people who had run out of water. In exchange for some diesel we did a return trip to the well and brought them 250 litres of water. After spending the night with the truck, we continued on to the surreal Arbre de Ténéré. The section between the dunes just southeast of Adrar Madet and the vegetation-covered dunes close to the Arbre was very fast on hard flat sand. We spent the final night at the small Tuareg settlement at Barghot. We had bought a gazelle during the day so feasted on gazelle stew, a great change from tuna pasta. Arriving in Agadez, it had taken us ten days to cover the 2200 kilometres from Al Gatrun with remarkable traveling companions and fantastic scenery. We were tired but triumphant.
Agadez to Tunis We celebrated our successful desert crossing by booking into the Pension Tellit. This Italian-owned small hotel with only five rooms overlooking the Grande Mosque is beautiful and was a great escape from the stresses of travel – we paid 30,000 CFA per night for Room 4. The linked Restaurant Pillier is also excellent and equally expensive. We used our time in Agadez to rest up and prepare for the next leg. We were able to refill a Camping Gaz 907 cylinder in the market but the internet has yet to come to town – the tour agencies are supposedly trying to organise the establishment of a connection. We were aware of recent robberies, including the armed carjacking of a TLC from an Italian woman in the centre of Agadez in January, and felt nervous about security. There were unsavoury characters hanging around both the Hotel d’Aïr and Pension Tellit wanting to “buy” our car. The hotel organise a couple of policeman to sit outside to keep husslers away from their guests so they are also clearly concerned. We stored the car in the hotel’s secure compound on the outskirts of town. We also used the well-established French-run Dunes Voyages to get us a Tuareg guide for a two-and-a-half day trip in the Aïr through Timia and Iferouane, ending in Arlit (70,000 CFA including feuille) and left discretely early one morning. We were a little disappointed with the Aïr mountains. The driving was hard over slow rocky terrain – it took 8 hours to do the 235km to Timia. The mountains and irrigated gardens were beautiful however and maybe we were just tired. We were told of continued bandit activity in parts of the Aïr, but our guide, Issaka, was excellent and we felt fine – maybe we just got lucky though. We arrived in Arlit on the morning of the third day and didn’t stop. Entering town, we were hassled by a policemen because we hadn’t bought any insurance but the police in the centre were more friendly and let it pass given we were on our way out. We were now on our own again. The piste to the Assamaka border post was fast and easy to follow and we breezed through the exit formalities. There was one money changer selling Algerian dinar and euros. The border area here is annoyingly off the edge of the Agadez and Tamanrasset IGN maps and with no waypoint we just headed north following tracks. We ended up missing the border post and drove straight into In Guezzam unchallenged. With the help of a local we tracked back the 10 or so kms and found the checkpoint (N19° 28.9 E05° 47.5). Entering Algeria was easy with very friendly officials. We got the usual stamps, certificate and did a currency declaration. Customs asked us about cigarettes and “red” (whisky), but only wanted to check the chassis tied up with the number on our Vehicle Registration Certificate and didn’t do a full search. We were told to buy insurance in Tamanrasset which we subsequently did at CIAR near the Tourist Office (2,112 Algerian Dinar for 10 days). There was no fuel at In Guezzam but we could have got some at the police station if we needed it – this time we were prepared and had enough to get us to Tam. There is lots of evidence of roadbuilding between In Guezzam and Tam with three different companies working on different sections. We didn’t find any ready to drive on and used the piste until 40 kms before Tam. We found route finding and driving very easy and we did Arlit to Tam in under two days including a night on the piste in Algeria. In Tamanrasset we stayed at the Gite Saharienne run by the Bahedis. We had used their agency, Agence Tarahist, to get a certificate d’herbegement faxed to the Algerian Consultate in London so they would issue our visas. We had tried just a straight faxed reservation from a hotel but the Consulate wanted a certificate. Agence Tarahist charged us 330 CHF (205 Euros) for the invitations and a night’s dinner, bed and breakfast at the their lodge. This seems expensive in retrospect, but at the time, we were quite happy to pay for Agence Tarahist’s efficiency when we needed it. The lodge is also a great retreat and the food exceptional. There were long queues for diesel in town but we were ushered to the front, afterwards leaving to do the Assekrem circuit, up by the Afîlal guelta and down via Ilâmane. Sunset and sunrise at Assekrem was fantastic and we had to adjust to being part of a group of tourists for the first time on the trip. The way down was very slow on an atrocious track but it was just about manageable (5 hrs). One of our side bars broke off but we put it down to 3,500 km of piste. After a four hour delay waiting for diesel in Tam, we set off the next day on the easterly piste via Temékerest to Ideles. We got only a little beyond the Temékerest “waterfalls” before our exhaust began to give us major trouble, presumably another casualty of the return from Assekrem. Makeshift repairs the following morning didn’t last so we returned to Tam to get a new section brazed on. When we finally got going, we found the piste to Djanet very enjoyable. We passed through Ideles (diesel available, no petrol) and we spent a stunning evening by a small dune bank under Telertheba mountain. We made Djanet the following day via the Erg Admer. Driving in the erg was pretty easy but we were glad of 1.2 bar to get up the first ascent. We stayed in the Hotel Zeriba in Djanet (1,200 AD for double with breakfast). The place was full of tourists which seemed to reflect lack of alternatives rather than the quality of the accommodation. Short of time we got the Zeriba to organise a one day walk on the Tassili Plateau to Jabbaren, supposedly the second most important site of prehistoric rock art (5,700 AD for the two of us with a guide). The walk was beautiful and if you are time-constrained, there is a lot of art in a small area. One day was manageable – we left at 0600 and were back by 1730, tired but certainly not shattered. We didn’t want to spend another night at the Zeriba so camped in the dunes just outside Djanet. We then headed north via Illizi and the piste to HBG. Driving out of Illizi, we found it hard to locate the piste and found ourselves too close to the dunes which ended up in difficult terrain. We tracked back and once we found the piste the route was obvious all the way. We found the driving slow on day one but enjoyed the opportunity to spend more time in the dunes. We sped through the Gassi Touil and after a night in Hassi-Messaoud went on to the Tunisian border. Stone-throwing kids were well in evidence all the way from Touggourt to the border. We avoided damage through a combination of speed and screaming at kids about to hurl rocks. The police are well aware but don’t seem to want to do anything about it. Leaving Algeria was slow with incompetent immigration and customs officers but we made it through in an hour and were back to the comparative civility of Tunisia. We mosied back to Tunis and reflected on our travels at Restaurant Dar el-Jeld in the medina, a fittingly grand place to end what was a remarkable and unique journey.
We left Marseille on 10 December ferry to Tunis. The ferry was only about 1/3 full making the loading in Marseille uneventful compared with our trip a week closer to Christmas in 1999. The ship docked in Tunis at noon with clearance through Tunisian immigration and customs taking a mere 30 minutes (compared to 5 hours in 1999) allowing us to reach the salt pan of Chott El Jerid near Nefta (Algerian frontier) shortly after dark. We camped on the salt pan, leaving early for the border crossing the next morning.
Clearance out of Tunisia took about 30 minutes but entry into Algeria just over 4 hours. In that time the officials processed only 3 cars, two of which were Algerian. The officials were nevertheless friendly. Two German bikers were crossing into Tunisia as we were leaving. They had ridden a loop from El Oued to Djanet then onto Tam and back along main route through In Salah (which included a convoy).
The Algerian border formalities correspond exactly with those described elsewhere on this website (immigration, customs, compulsory money change and car insurance). The only problem we had was with customs insisting on us filling in the form to reflect ‘Landrover’ as the type of car but ‘Toyota’ as the make. I guess this finally signifies the death of the British automotive legend, in this part of North Africa at least. [It was the same story with one of the LRs on my tour too, but caused no probs. CS]
From the Algerian border we headed on towards El Oued. There seemed to be few camping possibilities along this stretch given the awkward hummocky dunes lining the road and the proximity of villages. About 20 or 30km from El Oued, while entering one of the small villages, a group of youngsters aged less than 10, stoned the Landrover. No windows were broken but a bit more topography was added to the body work – never a serious issue in a 30-year-old vehicle with an aluminium body. We were welcomed into El Oued by the police and local businessmen alike. El Oued was calm and the streets clean and quite empty. We changed money at one of the banks.
That night we slept on the south side of the road 60km short of Hassi Messaoud. A strong north-easterly was drifting sand in a conveyor about 1m deep so we were looking for shelter behind south-facing hills. There is a small escarpment out of view of the road (N32° 10′ 37” E5° 52′ 23”) which served the purpose on a stretch that offered few alternatives. We arrived in Hassi shortly after 8am the next day. Here the military checkpoint issued our laissez passer in about 20 minutes. It was valid for a month. We were waved through the south side of Hassi en route to Hassi Bel Guebbour. The next check point was at Gassi Touil. Here the military spoke very little French, but seemed to want us to return 3km and wait at the side of the road. We went back, found nothing at the road side and so returned to the checkpoint. After a bit of discussion amongst themselves we were eventually waved through. We now know that a convoy operates on this stretch and may entail a delay of several hours until the convoy leaves.
If you have ever looked out of the window of a 747 on a night time trans Africa flight and seen two tiny pin pricks of light in the insanely massive blackness of the Sahara, the chances are that you are looking at somewhere like Hassi Bel Guebbour – with the two lights shared between the fuel station and the shop, this being the first fuel after Hassi M. It has a great sense of isolation and the interdune corridor that the tarmac follows south from Gassi is stunning.
Some 50km east of Bel Guebbour (28 36′ 10”N, 7 5′ 27”E) we passed large pools of water in an otherwise dry river bed. Although it was fairly early in the day we couldn’t pass the opportunity by and so set up a pleasant camp a few kms clear of the road out of the still strong north-easterly. A piste runs south to Bordj Omar Driss which starts parallel to the road [I have been told to avoid this piste – plenty of oilfield security].
The next day we called in at In Amenas (the bakery was selling awesome custard slices) and headed south through the huge dune field which seems to be the far western limb of the Ubari sand sea, eventually camping off the road in a sand field in the lee of a shady glade of trees (N26° 56′ 23″ E8° 41′ 54″). Firewood was plentiful. From our campsite we drove early the next day to Illizi for fuel and then on across the Fadnoun Plateau. The new road is a bonus but twists sharply without warning. It is rather like a pub video game where a blind rise could be followed by a sharp left, u-turn or a stranded truck jack-knifed across the road. The whole route from Illizi to Djanet is beautiful. We camped about 100km short of Djanet in a large dry river bed (N24° 54′ 56″, E8° 45′ 87î”). It was a stunning setting and well worth a few weeks stay. In Djanet we had a pleasant stay at Hotel Zeribas, camping in the far corner under the reed shelters. Djanet offered a great selection of fresh veggies, telephones which work given a bit of patience and pleasant temperatures. South of Djanet the daily temperatures were well over 30 degrees.
Whilst settling down for a quiet brew of tea in our campsite at Hotel Zeribas, Andy Pag drew up in a blast of diesel from the old Datsun he had brought down from Belgium. By this stage he was travelling alone and therefore keen to join us across the Northern Tenere to Chirfa and Dirkou. This was the planned next leg of the trip. We were glad for his company because the piste from Djanet to Dirkou is a lonely 850km stretch (we passed no traffic on this entire route).
Although our time in Algeria was much shorter than planned (for reasons explained later), we found the country calm and enjoyable to travel in. The only military checks we passed through were at Hassi M, Gassi Touil, and Hassi Bel Guebbour. Apart from this stretch, we were free to come and go as we pleased. Whenever we encountered police we found them very helpful and accommodating. From a tourist perspective, everything is in place for Algeria’s recovery – all that is missing are tourists. We saw none between the Tunisian border and Agadez (about 5000km) except for Andy in Djanet.
After some time to rest and check out Djanet, we took off for Niger, leaving by the piste to Libya (a left turn off the new airport road past the old aerodrome). We turned off this mildly corrugated piste about 35km from Djanet, taking tracks through a gap in the mountains towards Mount Tiska. Once the tracks join, the piste is surprisingly well formed. After about an hour (roughly 40km) the piste turned east of Mount Tiska. The area is very beautiful with just about every spot a perfect campsite. We spent the night here with Andy cooking up a great veg stew. During the night we saw three vehicles approaching the Mount Tiska foothills some 10km to the south. They stopped when in view of our fire although we couldn’t be sure they saw us. They set off again well after midnight once the moon was up, passing within a few kilometres of us with their lights off. This all seemed to point to smugglers taking Marlboro into Algeria possibly via a piste through the Djado plateau.
We continued on the well-formed piste the next day. Within an hour it was obvious that the piste would pass well east of the Adrar Mariaou mountains. The piste is not marked on the Michelin or the TPC maps. Since we wanted to hook up with the balise line across the northern Tenere (which lies west of Adrar Mariaou) we left what seems to be a smugglers piste, taking a drainage line out onto the flat northern Tenere. The surface was better than any tarmac we had driven since France. While the route sounds complicated, the desert is very open with the Mount Tiska and Adrar Mariaou mountains clearly visible all the time. All the driving was easy. Within an hour we had gained the Tenere and found the first balise. There we several old (and a little indistinct) tracks along the balise line. Our GPS position showed us to be on the eastern most of the two pistes entering the Tenere which are marked on the TPC J 3B map. As the balise line piste appeared to be the western most piste on this map, we seemed to be on the wrong line, and so headed south-west to see if we intersected any other piste (although we were sure that there was only one balise line across the Tenere and that the TPC marked piste was wrong – but the check was easy to make and the surface pretty hard). It turned out that the piste marked on the TPC is wrong.
After about half an hour four Toyota Land Cruiser pick-ups could be seen driving straight at us from the northern base of the Adrar Mariaou mountains. They were travelling at speeds up to 160km/hr. The group turned out to be the Algerian police. After making their AK-47s clear to us and checking our papers (carte de grise, visas, insurance etc) they waved us on cheerfully. We should point out that it is not possible to leave Algeria officially along the northern Tenere route south of Djanet. While the police don’t mind, the Algerian customs do not permit official exit.
The northern Tenere is simply awesome. It is difficult to put words to the vastness of the place. It is impossible at times to tell whether you can see 50m, 500m or 50km off the piste. There are three wrecks on the balise line, 2two from the 1988 Paris-Dakar race. The shot blasted dark silver chassis gleaming in the bleached light. For the most part the Northern Tenere is very easy driving. The first few hundred kilometres out of Djanet were softer, the Landrover not being powerful enough to plane over the surface. Immediately south of Berliet balise 21 the sand is deep and powdery. It was the only time between Djanet and Agadez that we needed low range. The soft sand persists for 40km south of Berliet Balise 21. In a newish Toyota the northern Tenere could probably be crossed in a day. We took two days of driving, but three days altogether.
The exit from the Northern Tenere to Chirfa is clearly marked – nearly all the balises are in place across the Northern Tenere. On arrival in Chirfa we drove directly to the military checkpoint. They stamped our passports while looking over the vehicles, asking if we had any sat phones, short wave transmitters as so on. We helped the commander with his GPS as he had no manual for it. We left our passports with the military overnight, thinking that this was routine practice in Niger. We drove through the village and checked out the impressive Djado ruins. The next day we returned to the military post for our passports. By then the mood had changed and we were ordered to drive directly to Dirkou, not to leave the piste and to arrive there no later than 4pm. As it was already getting on to 10am it was a tall ask in our old vehicles. We assumed Dirkou was the first official border post (as marked on the Michelin map) on this route and hence the requirement that we shouldn’t linger on the piste. We found the piste south of Seguedine very sandy. Again it would be very difficult to get lost on this route – in fact we hardly bothered with the GPS. We arrived in Dirkou a little after 4pm, handed over our passports (which were again kept overnight), met with Jerome and drove off to town for the night. The military checkpoint was pretty chaotic as several 10-wheel-drive Merc trucks loaded to the hilt were about to leave for Libya.
We returned to the military post early the next day, waited around before asking for and being given back our passports (they now had stamps from both Dirkou and Chirfa). From there we headed up the hill to refuel (we had used about 220 L of petrol since Djanet; that’s 3.7kpl or 10.4mpg) at Jerome’s fuel dump. Make sure you take your own pipe / 12V pump as Jerome’s assistants seem to have sucked too much fuel through their brains over the years. They are several sandwiches short of a picnic!
Whilst we were refueling the military drove up in a Landcruiser and took back our passports and vehicle papers. Once we had finished refueling the military impounded our vehicles. We now had no passports, no vehicles and no vehicle papers. Things weren’t looking good. No explanation was given but we were told to wait until 3:30pm. We waited in a barbed wire area between the passport shack and the military base. This is a stinking hot, dusty, shadeless area surrounded by feche feche that we grew to hate over the next few days. At 5pm were we told that there was a problem and that we would have to wait until 9am the next morning. We later found out that the Minister of Defence in Niamey had already phoned the French Ambassador in Niamey to say that European nationals were being held in the north. The French Embassy in Niger deals with all European nationals in Niger.
The next morning we were told to wait until 3:30 pm as the commander of the military base in Dirkou was waiting for instructions from Niamey. Most of our dealings had been with the Chef de Transit at the passport shack on the outskirts of the military base. He had been telling us all sorts of lies about why we were being held and when we would be released. He was a very difficult person to deal with – at one point gesturing to me that he would tear up my passports if we didn’t leave him alone. Our main effort at this stage was to speak to the Military commander of Dirkou. Of course we could get nowhere near his office. Our vehicle papers, passports and visas were all in order and we wanted to know what we were being held for.
The commander finally agreed to see us late that afternoon. It was rather like meeting Kurtz. We were shown into this darkened, blue room with padded doors. The commander greeted us and asked what our problem was as he had heard we were anxious! We explained that our vehicle papers, passports and visas were in good order and that we were uncertain what the problem was. He explained that the situation in the north is difficult, that tourists coming into Niger from the north were a problem and that the only way to enter this region was through Agadez where all the necessary paper work was available and where guides could be hired. He assured us that he was working on a solution for us. We asked if it was possible to simply deport us from Niger and we would leave immediately back to Djanet the way we had come (this had been our plan all along).
Fortunately we had managed to get permission to be taken to Bilma (45km to the south) to phone our embassies. With our vehicles still impounded we had to find a way of getting there. The distinction between who was military and who was a tour operator was extremely blurred. We were charged 30 quid one way for the trip although we returned with a tour operator anxious for our business. They were an unpleasant mafia-like gang and things turned sour shortly after they dropped us off. Interestingly we were taken to the military commanders office in the military base in the same tour operator’s Landcruiser. In Bilma we managed to call the German consulate in Niamey (there is only an unofficial representative for British nationals who is a businessmen in Niamey – he didn’t want to know our case!). I managed to get a line out to Megan who was in Cape Town at the time. Megan phoned the German and British Embassies in South Africa as well as the German Consulate in Niamey, eventually being put on to the French Embassy in Niamey. This helped our case enormously, although we had no way of knowing she had achieved all this until our problems were nearly over.
Early in the afternoon of our fourth day in Dirkou we were told that we were being taken to Agadez. Remembering that the Commander of the military camp in Dirkou had told us that Agadez had all the services necessary to help us, we were relieved that the problems from their side seemed to be coming to an end. This soon changed when a Land Cruiser with a machine gun and live ammo chain mounted on the back rolled up. They were our escorts, so at least we didn’t have to take a guide! Our passports were still being held, so it was clear we were simply being transferred to Agadez. We protested that our 30-year-old series 2A was not up to the Dirkou to Agadez crossing of the Tenere, but we were told that there was no option: take the vehicle or leave it behind. It was do or die time for the 1950s transmission.
We left Dirkou at about 4pm. Although there was still problems to come, it was good to leave that stinking hot, dust riddled, barbed wire camp. The military Land Cruiser drove in front but waved us past in frustration at our pace. We drove on to the wells at Achegour which we reached by about 7:30 pm. It was amazing to be crossing the central Tenere although it was a pity it was not in circumstances of our own choosing. We drove through the night, following a star but basically heading west south-west. Again we didn’t bother with a GPS. With no sign of the military we decided to savour our freedom and drove on into the morning light taking a dune corridor about 30km north of Arbre de Tenere (make sure you are in the correct corridor if you want to see this place otherwise you need to back track about 30km). The going in the central Tenere is much softer than the northern Tenere. Our consumption dropped to about 3km per litre [8mpg]. We hardly ever got out of second gear although we didn’t ever get stuck. Where the sand is very soft all the truck tracks merge. Apart from a very high median strip the going is OK on the tracks.
We emerged from the sandy desert at about noon the next day to find the military waiting for us. The piste is up to 50km wide in the Tenere so they must have passed us in the night. We drove on to Agadez arriving in the early evening. The commander of the military camp in Agadez then met with us. He simply said that after a day’s rest we would be taken on to Niamey 900km away. This was probably the low point of the trip! After a few days we had another military escort down to Niamey. We left on Christmas day at 9am and arrived in Niamey at about 8pm. We had a young soldier in our Land Rover but separated from the others over the distance. We were held at the outskirts of Niamey as our passport were in the other vehicle. Then we decided enough was enough and I negotiated for a passport substitute, giving them some paper with work letter heads. From there we basically made a run for the French Embassy – the soldier protesting from the back of the Land Rover while we made out we didn’t know what he wanted us to do. We arrived at the French Embassy at 11:30 pm Christmas night and were greeted by the French Ambassador, the head of the French Military attache in Niger and the Head of the Internationale Police in Niger. They were all amazingly helpful. Details began to emerge that we were suspected spies/gun runners. The piste from Djanet to Chirfa is never crossed from north to south these days and so our arrival out of the northern Tenere had aroused much suspicion. There was also a suggestion that we had been picked up by a military patrol in the Northern Tenere. This might have been the commander at Chirfa trying to win himself a promotion, but it was certainly not how it happened as we had driven directly to the military checkpoint at Chirfa and found them all lazing about in the sun.
A meeting was set up with the Niger Chief of Police for the next day. The arrangements were made from the French Embassy shortly after midnight. We were very surprised when the meeting went ahead as it was taking place at lunchtime on the Islamic equivalent of Christmas day. It was at that meeting that our passports were returned. We had been held for nine days and had been required to drive about 2000km for the ceremony. The Chief of Police of Niger pointed out to us that he didn’t know why we were being held by the Military.
From Niamey we took the shortest route out of Niger – to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso.
So if you want a trip across the Tenere from Dirkou to Agadez without the official guide, then just cross the northern Tenere from Djanet to Chrifa and the military is bound to oblige. The downside is that the trip goes at their pace! Our original trip had been planned to take in Libya, Niger and Algeria, so crossing the northern Tenere from south to north. Others have done parts of this route. Although the Niger military clearly don’t like tourists in the northeast, they seem to tolerate the route this way round. Our plans had to change when the Libyans refused our visas.
I 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.