Part of the Sahara A to Z series
In just about the geographical centre of the Sahara lie the Hoggar mountains. Compared to the tawny Tassili N’Ajjer further east, it’s a harsh landscape of basalt buttes erupting vertically from the barren landscape.
In the heart of the Hoggar massif is a dramatic cluster of eroded volcanic cores overlooked by the 9000-foot high Assekrem Pass, part of the Ahaggar National Park. Some maps call it the Atakor.
There are three ways to get to Assekrem: the regular 85-km eastern route up from Tam via Iharen peak. A gnarlier and slightly shorter western route which starts near the airport, though is usually taken as the decent from Assekrem to make a loop back to Tam as it’s easier to follow going down. Another route comes in from the north from Hirhafok over the Tin Teratimt Pass (above).
Or you can follow a network of camel tracks (above). It takes a week or more, depending where your start.
Assekrem is the best known of the many wonders of southern Algeria. A lodge sits on the saddle of the pass (above) where tourists spend the night to enjoy the stunning sunset and sunrise across the brooding volcanic monoliths from the plateau above the Pass.
Though he spent most of his time in Tam, early in the early 20th century Charles de Foucauld, a French bon viveur and soldier turned missionary, built a crude stone hermitage on this plateau (above).
Among other things, Foucauld was responsible for the first Tamachek-French dictionary, and his house still stands in Tam. It was in Tam in 1916 that Foucauld was assassinated as a suspected French spy, during the Senussi uprisings in Libya and Egypt. Je was beatified in 2005 anf the hermitage is still tended today by a couple of aged members of the order of Les Petites Frères de Jésus, who were inspired by Foucauld’s life.
Que dit Mohamed?Garet, first ascent, 1935. Carnets Saharienes by Roger Frison-Roche
Mohamed, il dit qu’il accepte de vous conduire ou vous voulez, du Tenere, aux Azzjers, du Mouydir aux Iforas, il crevera s’il le faut son chameau pour vous plaire; mais vous accompagner a la Garet, jamais!… Il y a des Djenouns mon Captan… Pas un homme du Hoggar ne vous accompagnera sur les flancs de la Garet…
November 2005. Photos me, Jon and Nick
Jon, me and Nick-the-Cam flew into Tam to shoot Mountain of Spirits (MoS), another ageing idea of mine brushed down, spruced up and slotted into the ‘let’s do it’ category.
Unable to find a cast, Jon and I worked through our inherent modesty and decided to be in it ourselves. In 2003 Desert Riders ended with me crashing out as Jon and I neared Garet with the intention of climbing it. So our film had a theme. Indeed my interest in Garet ran back to my first Saharan trip in ’82.
Tam airport car park 3am and a whole bunch of French and German fly-ins dispersed with us into the desert, to regroup a fortnight later for the flight back, some limping, some in slings, most with suntans and chi-chi headwear.
By the skin of our teeth we managed to slip thousands of pounds of camera gear and other restricted items through the scanners and past Customs, and spent the night in a house in Tam. Wanting to keep it simple and being hard men of the desert (or attracted to that idea on film!) the original plan had been to do it all out the back of a pickup; us three in the back, the crew up front. But the permit people were appalled at the idea: “Tourists are NOT goats” they exclaimed, so a station wagon was roped in. Just as well, the brief sessions filming in the back proved it would have been a rough fortnight indeed.
We headed up to Tahat (2908m), Atakor west side, for a warm-up slog into the Saharan Death Zone. It should have been an easy walk but luck – or was it the djenouns? – was against us. Lots of rain in 2005 and amazingly streams were still running out of the Hoggar. Tahat base camp we could have made at a pinch, but on up to Assekrem was washed-out (never easy at the best of times). Not wanting to lose time, we grabbed a few shots, scooted back to town and took the regular way up to Assekrem for a cozy night in the lodge and the dramatic sunset/sunrise.
The descent to Hirafok is still a spring-munching crawl at times. In places smoother than when I last did it in 2000, elsewhere cut up by the recent run-off. Still, as I was already finding, you sure notice a whole lot more when you’re not driving. Nevertheless, I was reminded that the Atakor is a grim and rough place where you’re jammed on the pistes. If it wasn’t for Assekrem being a ‘must-do’, I wouldn’t bother when you compare it to the lovely sandstone and granite ranges nearby.
By now I was gripped by le grippe and with time lost, was not fired up enough to shoot over to Telertheba (2455m) to see how far we’d get up that one. Almost certainly we would not have made the summit, first climbed by Conrad Killian in the 1920s, but it would have been fun trying. So we thought, let’s head straight for Garet and get stuck in; it was the focus of the film after all. Filming properly and not in my practiced fast-and-loose style, was taking a whole lot more time, but part of the project’s purpose was a curiosity to appraise the results of shooting a film with proper attention to detail.
We took the Hassi Dehine piste, camping near the well. Being end of Ramadan I bought a goat off some nomads and our crew spent the the rest of the night tearing it to bits and cooking it up. The liver (or some such organ) grilled in fat-wraps was very tasty. We met up with the nomads next morning and gave them a lift to another nearby camp for some festive socialising. They all knew Mohamed our guide – or his late father, a nomad of note from the In Salah area.
It’s a lovely drive up the Tefedest west side as always and after a while the distinctive turret of Garet juts up from the ridge line. Over the next few days we ended up driving right round the Tefedest, and Garet is always prominent, even 100kms away. It may not be the highest point but, like the Matterhorn or Ayers Rock, its elemental presence casts a spell of its own.
But the pesky djenoun were still trifling with us. We proceeded to spend half a day pushing into dead end oueds, failing to locate the point which I stumbled on easily with my 2000 tour group, close to the mountain’s foot. We did have an actual waypoint for a base camp attainable by vehicle, but could not get nearer than an adjacent valley, 2km away, due to flood-washed banks. Two clicks was near enough though, so that evening we set off on foot over the pass with all the water we could carry plus Abdelsalaam with another waterbag on his head. Even then, I had a suspicion water was going to be an issue and when we got to the base camp waypoint we texted for another bag to be brought up. Water was low but Mohamed knew of a well on the other side of the Igharhar valley.
As darkness fell the crescent moon emerged from behind Garet’s flanks, hanging directly below Venus – a diabolical alignment considered inauspicious since before the days of Babylon.
We loaded up and set off around dawn, up the boulder-chocked east oued, hoping we were following an Italian route description I’d found in a climbing magazine. It quickly reminded me of our attempt on Jebel Uweinat early in 2004 where the broken terrain at the end of a much longer approach walk has worn us down. Here on Garet. we were soon hogging the shade, detesting our overnight backpacks and stopping for breathers every 20 mins. Clearly our recent colds and lack of exercise on other mountains was having an effect, added to the suspicion that this was not going to be the pleasingly videogenic cakewalk we’d imagined.
Between filming and panting it took us most of the day to get just 400m above the plain. Another 1000m of ascent over less than 2km remained including, as far as we knew, a pitch of roping up a chimney and a traverse followed by a scramble up a cleft onto the summit plateau. A big French party had come through in April, on the 60th anniversary of Roger Frison-Roche’s first ascent (his, via an obsolete western route) so how hard could it be for a lightweight alpine-style crew? The problem (or my excuse) was we’d misunderstood the translated Italian and French descriptions: a ‘bivouac’ to which the French party had portaged water was probably the 400m height we’d just attained, not our base camp that morning. It was from the bivi, rested and replete with water, that one set out to summit and return to base in a long, 14-hour day.
As on Uweinat, water was the problem, along with the fatiguing terrain. Here, I did not want to take a similar chance and plough on regardless to the point where we’d run out of water and food to stagger back. A braver attitude perhaps, and one that can get results, but the reality of an accident up here would be tiresome at the very least; knowing when to turn back was something I’d learned on my first Saharan trip. Better to accept it as a recce and use what time we had left to nip up north to the equally intriguing Amguid crater trek.
So we bounced back down from rock to rock in half the time, picking up what we’d left on the way. There were a few gueltas and next time I’d take a chance and tap them with a good water filter to save carrying the stuff. Back at the base camp it was getting dark and our water hadn’t been delivered, although there was a pot of still-warm rice. After a breather we loaded up and hiked back to the cars in the dark. Turned out the well on the far side wasn’t usable and now water was a priority.
Next morning we headed for the reliable nomad’s wells on the edge of the Gharis or Immidir escarpment in whose canyon’s Group 1 of the 2003 hostages had been stashed and then released in a raid. We had a good wash at the Tabariq well as a quick rain shower passed over, let some nomads use the Thuraya to get their tea on, and that night, halfway to the Foum Mahek fuel dump, the far distant profile of Garet loomed in the dusk, like a passing submarine. The djenoun were not finished with us yet.
We headed for a fuel cache I’d left among some rocks in 2002 for the Desert Riders (we never got that far). I like to think I may have even recognised it without GPS. The six jerries were mostly full – some had leaked under pressure and a plastic water bottle cracked at the first touch. This stuff had endured three summers, including the notoriously hot summer of 2003 which spread as far as Europe (41°C in London, remember…). Fuelled up and with a nice ‘cache recovery’ shot in the bag, we set off towards Foum Mahek, at last some new terrain for me.
As we ate lunch under a shade tree a pickup pulled up fast on seeing us. Smugglers said Mohamed. As is often the case, they were more alarmed by us then we by them (same story at Kemal al Din in the Gilf in 2004). Their new Tojo pickup – bought from the proceeds of cig smuggling – still had the dockside stock numbers scrawled on the windscreen, but they were actually just ‘searching for a lost camel’. The news they had was that a checkpoint at a pass on the way to the crater was making passage difficult for travellers and was turning back tourists. A day or two getting official permission may have brought them round, but time was short and the fact that we were also carrying clearly non-amateur filming gear may have got us into trouble.
OK, forget that idea too. Looks like it was becoming one of those trips… I suppose I was overdue for one. We trudged back south along the edge of the scarp and curved round towards the highway. Next day near Asseksam well we were mirror-flashed by some nomads. No souvenir-n-scrounging ploy this, but a request to transport a sick old man to the daily Tam bus at Moulay Lahsene. No probs, it was right on our way, passing through the rounded inselbergs and bright granite sands west the Tidikmar which reminded me of our memorable ride through the Taffassasset down to Erg Killian in 2003.
At Moulay they still circle the old marabout’s tomb three times for good luck. When I first spotted people doing that in the 80s I thought they were merely hoons. For us though, it was getting too late to invoke the blessings of the saintly Lahsene to save our project. Hoping to shake off the djinns, we headed west round the back of Tesnou through more exfoliating granite domes and camped near ‘Elephant Rock’, so named by some Italian climbers who’d pegged up the sides.
Here we were free of the corrugations and run-off channels of the Hoggar and Tefedest, out in the open and felt the much better for it. Nothing for it now but to take an idle 3-day drive back south to In Amguel oued and Tam; 10 o’clock mornings, 3 o’clock evenings, exploring, lazing about, filming, even some rock climbing. It was a nice spin down to a frustrating trip.
Though there seemed little point, we shot what was to have been the spine-chilling opening sequence of MoS where a fire-lit nomad (Mohamed in a blanket) spookily recounted the legend of the lost boys of Garet, lured to their deaths by a mendacious mouflon (barbary sheep or waddan; ‘Oudane’ is the Tuareg name for Garet). Their trapped spirits were symbolised by Garet’s twin turrets.
One day near a lunchtime hill Jon found a carefully-engraved Tuareg spear head, and another day we dozed in a broad oued sprinkled with lighter-than-water pumice, flushed out of the Hoggar by the recent floods. Despite the strict protocols laid out in my book, a rounded piece of aerated lava now sits alongside the bath at home.
Another sunny evening in the dunes west of Ouassdert well, Jon and I even managed to get the dunes ‘singing’, a phenomenon I’d read and written of but never experienced. Indeed it sounded like the passing rumble of a distant propeller plane, but was clearly caused by out feet disturbing the sands. With a couple of new intros for the Desert Driving 2 dvd caught on tape, we rolled back into Tam, had a great feed and hopped on the 3am redeye back to Paris.
Bit of an expensive flop, this one, but you got to try these things and as always there was a positive side. We saw some nice new desert in the last few days west of the Highway and I was impressed with Mohamed’s enthusiasm for exploring – not the usual quick-buck/tramline guide mentality. We’ve since cooked up a couple of meaty tours for the coming year, and though a film about not climbing a mountain through lethargy and disorganisation is probably not worth the effort of editing, doubtless Garet will be in touch for another crack.
Marseille – Tunis – Nefta – El Oued – Grand Erg Oriental – Deb Deb – Illizi – Djanet – Essendilene – Bordj el Haouas – Tazat – Amadror – Tourha – Tefedest east – Ideles – Tahifet – Tamanrasset – Assekrem – Tam – In Ecker – Amguid – Erg Tifernine – Gara Khanfoussa – Bordj Omar Driss – HbG – El Oued – Tunis – Genoa
Land Cruiser HJ61, Land Cruiser HDJ80 auto, Defender 300 Tdi
With just a couple of cars booked on the March tour, I planned to make the most of a small group and explore new areas that would be problematical with a bigger group. At Marseille Lucy and I met up with Ian and Elke from Wales in a well set-up Defender, and retirees Peter and David in an auto 80 TLC with nothing more than a second spare and a box for the jerries. Peter had bought the 80 just for the tour and preferred the low key ‘school run’ look.
The Marseille crossing was deserted and as flat as it gets. And better still, filling out the Tunisian immigration forms took just 20 minutes, whereas on the more popular Genoa run it can take six tedious hours. I guess it’s because Genoa is a funnel for the hoards of German-speaking Saharans, and of course that crossing costs 25% less.
But Marseille has other advantages apart from less crowds: it leaves earlier in the day so it gets in to Tunis early too, making a daylight run to the Algerian border possible. Rural traffic in Tunisia may not be so mental, but if it’s your first African driving experience you don’t want to be doing it in the dark. So after a hot, windy day we arrived at Nefta just on sunset and early next morning got through the borders in a couple of hours.
My plan was to avoid the long schlep south down past Hassi Messaoud and try one of the lately ‘fashionable’ pistes that cut through the northern Grand Erg Oriental down to the El Borma Road. These routes have the attraction of getting off the highway early, but involve traversing the northern Oriental Erg’s notorious small dunes. The problem with small dunes – as we were soon to find out – is that they have no clear form, being just a chaotic jumble of akle, rather like driving through a very heavy swell. Big dunes (as found in the southern Oriental) may have more scary descents but at least form into regular ridges (seifs) separated by gassis or corridors. You roll along a corridor and once in a while hop over a ridge of dunes to the adjacent gassi. If only…
Planning to get all the way to Hassi bel Guebbour through the Grand Erg (500km), we fuelled up at El Oued and turned off the highway near Oued Allenda village. By then a hot wind was blowing from the south reminding us the hot season was on its way. I had a dozen waypoints from a friend and soon we were in the dunes, riding through the swell.
After a few kilometres the tracks veered west but I made the mistake of heading directly for the next waypoint (this route was to be a reminder in reading the terrain first, then a GPS!). Twenty minutes of that saw me battling the Land Cruiser from one dune to the next. I knew this route was no cake-walk, but 200kms of this made 600kms of tarmac to HbG extremely alluring. We returned to the tracks (easier said than done) and I recce’d ahead with Ian in the Land Rover to discover the tracks did indeed turn our way after a few kilometres.
That night scorpions visited our camp. No one was more surprised or repelled than me, having never seen one in 20 years of desert travels. Yellow and only about an inch or two long, they put the dampers on our first desert camp as those of us in bare feet tiptoed gingerly towards their footwear. Lucy had lately read about Lhote killing 168 scorpions on the Tassili plateau in one sitting so Peter and David postponed sleeping out and put up a tent.
Next morning the hot south wind continued to blow, obscuring the sky and horizon and offering me another novelty; static electricity. On some days, every time I got out of my car I got zapped.
The tracks we’d recce’d the previous evening led into a tussocky flat area (as gassi as
it gets around here) which circumnavigated the dunes I’d tried to plough though yesterday. Presently they led to the well of Thleth el Biar where some Chaamba nomads were watering their herds. Compared to affable (or more tourist-trained) Tuaregs down south, these guys didn’t have much to say and indifferently took a bag of clothes we left by their car.
Nearby Ian spotted some sand roses growing in the sand. Being more humid than the deep south, the northern Erg is famous for these unusual crystalline gypsum formations which at best can resemble a pink rose. Firstly scorpions and now static and wild sand roses, what other novelties awaited?
None I cared for. From the well the sand was trackless so we muddled south into dunes, passing another well surrounded by nomads. For me the dilemma was: get stuck in to whatever led to the next waypoint, or follow the easier ground and risk getting led off route. Often we’d work our way into a mass of dunes only to see the preferred flat tussocky area half a kilometre to either side but still 20 minutes low ranging to get there. On the flat ground, such vantage points were not possible.
I’d driven in terrain similar to this, but never as the lead car, a big difference. Following someone takes a bit of concentration but is easy: whatever the lead car gets through you can usually follow, and where it gets stuck you have time to think and find a better way.
Both Ian and Peter thought this was all brilliant, real desert driving! but I just chewed my lip and wondered how bad it would get. I’ve never been keen on dune driving, it’s no surprise that it’s where all accidents happen and dunes are hard on the transmission and your nerves. In the Nefta hotel we’d met a Belgian guy who’d rolled his 80 in the Grand Erg near HbG. He was hanging out there while they replaced all the windows and bashed it back into shape…
Not only was the driving demanding but the terrain was pretty dull too, not helped by the dreary visibility and hot winds. Dunes tussocks, dunes tussocks. Occasionally we’d come across a gravel patch with clear tracks which confirmed we were on target, even if we felt lost most of the time.
Luckily both Ian and Peter (who’d never driven off-road before) seemed to manage it fine. I assured them this sort of driving was not the norm, but it being the start of the trip, they didn’t seem to mind being thrown in the deep end. My idea to come this way with six bikes a couple of months earlier would have been a disaster for sure.
We covered just 100km that day and another 100 the next, getting close to the El Borma road. And by the afternoon of the second day the dunes where getting higher, more spaced out and more regular, which made the terrain easier to negotiate. But not that easy. At one point I was working my way through a pile of dunes en route to the next putative waypoint. Trying to keep moving in Low 2nd, I rode from one crest through a bowl to the next, higher and higher until it was clear it wasn’t going to work out. There seemed no order or pattern, I was just a cork bobbing around in a pail of boiling water. I found myself doing something I’d only discussed hypothetically in the book: “wall of deathing” around the rim of a bowl in an attempt to maintain momentum and height while trying to work out what next. In the end I fell off the tightrope, almost willingly, with the car beached diagonally near a crest at a jaunty angle. And again. from this skewed vantage point one could spy the flat valley of t••••••s just half a click to the east.
We extracted ourselves and worked our way round, but a while later the same happened and I found myself mired in a bowl of custard powder with no room to move forward or back. Having never used them in three years, I’d left my sand plates at home but even Ian’s sand ladders couldn’t give the 61 the lift it needed. Towing merely pulled both cars into the sand, so we resorted to dragging the sunken Cruiser out by the arse with Ian’s winch. Handy thing in this situation, a winch!
With the weather almost brightening up and the dunes now rising into impressive formations, we counted the kilometres to the road and decided to leave the southern 300km stage to HbG for another time. Unused to his car, Peter had kept the auto in Low Range rather too much and would not have had enough fuel anyway. And we didn’t want to risk another 2 days in the dunes and get behind schedule.
But instead of scurrying back to Hassi Messaoud, we turned east along the pipeline to El Borma and then down towards Deb Deb, another new route for me and one which I’d heard was notoriously buried in sand. South of Sif Fatimah the buried road section began. Bulldozers and JCBs were working to clear the side track and one amazing articulated 6×6 machine with ex-747 tyres gently pulled me through a bank. The tarmac is built on an embankment through huge dunes, but for kilometres at a time it disappears under the sand, with the side piste not always being much easier. Peter was eyeing his fuel gauge but we made it into the nice-looking border town of Deb Deb next morning, filled up with water, fuel and bread, and trundled on down the dull highway through the eastern oilfields to Illizi and a hotel.
Over the Fadnoun the weather was still overcast and dull, to be expected as the seasons change in springtime, but still disappointing. Lack of blue skies really does dampen one’s impression of the desert. Near Tin Taradjeli where the plateau ends we turned off to check out the Sleeping Antelope engravings in Oued Dider, but were content to stop by a two-tier guelta for lunch.
We also decided not to spend a night in a Tassili canyon and pressed on for Djanet and a rest day before a planned 4-day plateau walk. Just as well as what is usually a wonderful drive along the Tassili’s southern scarp soon became lost as an afternoon sandstorm swept in from the south, obliterating the tarmac itself.
In Djanet I set to changing my back springs. I’d been given a set of parabolics to try out. The fronts seemed to work OK but the back ones (fitted just before I left) were clearly not up to it, especially if I was to return home with enough Algerian diesel to last the summer. Expecting such problems, I’d brought along my trusty Old Man Emus and Hey Presto! the Tojo had some air in the wheel arches again. I flogged the back paras to the car spares shop near the market. Djanet is chock-a-block with erstwhile TLC 60s, though those mushy back springs will be as much use to most Djaneteers as fishing lessons.
It became likely that the guide I’d booked for the plateau walk was not going to turn up – oh well, that’s Africa, none of us really minded. And for me, four extra days meant less rushing around the desert. I’ve waiting 20 years to see the plateau, it will be there next time.
We popped down next afternoon to check out the Crying Cow and again another mid-afternoon storm blew in. I tried out the auto 80 and I must say I was not that enamoured. It felt like a heavy slug, very comfy and quiet of course, and featuring a lot of dashboard action. Pete was not that impressed either, finding the lack of pick-up at very low speeds (a feature of 80 engines, compared to earlier 12HTs) in dunes a problem. But either way Ian and I assured Peter just 20-30 seconds in either the Tdi or my 61 would soon highlight the 80s overall appeal.
Although the campsite guys were keen to offer us a plateau deal, we decided to move on and left Djanet under blue skies. On the recommendation of a couple of French guys, we took off up Essendilene Canyon (80-odd kms from Djanet, not 30 as in the book, p. 406), a lovely drive into the Tassili’s interior ending at a fern-lapped guelta.
Following another couple of tips I decided to concoct a new route to Ideles. First through a pass north of Mt Tazat which Richard Washington had found over Christmas, and then across the Amadror plain directly to the Tefedest and down A6 to Ideles.
I made a bit of a mess getting to the Tazat Pass, coming too much from the northeast across all sorts of rubble which slowed tyre-twitchy Peter down to glacial speeds. But by sundown we were 10kms from the mountain and a recce up a nearby hill showed a likely way in.
That night was clear but soon after we went to bed a gale blew in from the east and kept up the whole night. It’s one of the advantages of sleeping in a car as Ian and Elke did. Our tent flapped annoyingly all night while Peter and David rose after a night on the sand like a pair of crustaceans.
Stout old cairns marked the way into the pass next morning. Who knows why the French bothered establishing this route while the main piste passed south of Tazat. Whatever, it was a lovely, quiet drive and nice to be off the corrugated piste, even if it had now become oddly cold for mid-March. On the far side I returned to Borne junction after many years to find the old orange drum long gone and a chunky stone monument in its place. From here we took the route northwest towards Amguid, passing a nice Pre-Islamic tomb on a hillside. At a cone mountain south of Toukmatine we then cut out across the Amadror plain where Colonel Flatters and his crew met their end in 18 seventy whatever. It was a weird sensation driving across the flat plain with distant mountains bobbing on the horizon’s mirage. Slowly, as the afternoon wore on the Tourha range rose in the west, a bit like Adrar Bous as you come across the Tenere. There’s even a lone tree at KM321. Ian was leading for a change (he found trailblazing hard work too) and came across a gang of gazelles which inhabit this relatively secluded region.
As the day ended we reached the ‘Tourha Pass’ on a lovely evening and camped by a sun-warmed outcrop. Before dinner Lucy and I went for a wander into the hills and watched a little nervously as three cars drove past our camp without seeing it. Smugglers, locals or tourists? Who knows but we were glad they missed us. It being Mother’s Day, Peter could not resist my extortionate fee for the sat phone and called his mum in Surrey.
Even though we were only at 1000m, it froze that night to minus 2 or 3 and next day we carried on through the lovely pass and cut down towards the Tefedest proper, stopping frequently just to admire the grandeur of it all in the clear, crisp weather. On the far side of the Oued Igharghar we picked up A6 which I’d done with some bikes a few weeks earlier, met some smiley Targuias and their goats and followed this picturesque route to lunch at the green sign.
It’s interesting reversing a route you know well – you see so much more; new pistes and unusual rocks and even a new way into Ideles past a well I never knew about.
Ideles for me was the usual run around town trying to find the Tazrouk junction. I know where it is but never know how to get there from the west.
We were now on the outer ring road via Tahifet (A4) which I’d done for the first time in years with the bikes in January. Up to Tazrouk it’s a great track and this time Ian and I half-climbed the 150-metre old radio mast near Azrou to affirm that our arms and legs still worked after 2500km of driving.
But after Tahifet the wide track becomes Corrugation Central and we were glad to get to the highway south of Tam, pass the dozens of trans-Saharan trucks queuing for fuel and reached Agence Tarahist’s gite near Hadriane mountain. We’d just missed Moktar going out that morning with Jeremy Keenan (a controversial figure) and a group of no less than nine Brits, surely a record!
Tamanrasset merely reminds you how nice Djanet is, through it’s a good place to get stuff. Elke and I had had a running joke (well, it was to me) that the Hoggar was not worth visiting and we should spend more time in the wonderful Tassili. It’s a preference I’ve established on previous tours, but one that can only be made once one has seen both places. And Elke had been wanting to visit the Hoggar since she was a teenager.
So we trundled out of Tam next afternoon, chattering over the corrugations to the ever more dramatic ascent to Assekrem, seemingly smoother than when I last came this way in ’86. Up at the pass, we checked in full-board into the overpriced lodge and hiked up to the plateau. While the others primed their lens caps and took positions I went over to the north side of the plateau, having read of an alternative view in Sahara Man. In the end, it was nothing special but it was nice to get away from the others for an hour or so.
Evenings in the lodge follow a standard pattern. A faux Tuareg twatted about and took the piss out of a Chinese family. On a world tour, they’d tried to go to Egypt, settled for Tangiers but ended up in Algiers which sounded the same to their travel agent. What to do in Algiers but get sent down to Tam for the Assekrem Experience.
I’ve never seen dawn at Assekrem. The bikers (whose cutting limerick about my tour I’d uncovered in the lodge’s guest book the previous evening) had told me it was the one to watch. And they weren’t wrong. A little light cloud made for an amazing sight, even as the chill pre-dawn wind riffled through our blanket.
We returned to Tam the same way as Peter was worried about the tough western decent on his low and already dune-bashed 80. In Tam we had a bit of argy-bargy getting fuel. Peter’s row of empty jerries did not go down well at the back of the queue, even if other guys we’re rocking up with 50-gallon drums in the boot of their Renault 12s. A sack of bread and some veggies and it was off to In Ecker for another new piste.
On this stage Peter and I achieved a faintly phenomenal 36-40 mpg while Ian’s Tdi got it’s best at 26. The Tdi’s mediocre mpg puzzled me, although my experience on other tours is Tdis are usually the same as my 61. Was it Ian’s heavy tyres and rims and all those tanks, or the alloy roof wedge? Not likely. Overall, apart from in the Grand Erg, Peter’s cushy auto was usually tops: 5% better than my 61, with the Tdi around 25% below.
At In Ecker mountain we took off onto the Amguid piste, but I soon lost the track and wandered around most unprofessionally, while Lucy got to grips with reading waypoints off a map. Still, it all ended happily at a lovely campsite below a hill a few kilometres off the piste overlooking In Ecker mountain, still fenced off after a nuclear accident in the 1960s.
Up to Amguid the going was fast, passing the odd Dakar Rally wreck and the mysterious village of Abdemezeh where a German biker tour was having a cuppa. But by lunchtime a south wind was blowing again, hazing the sky.
At Ain Kerma well we barged in on the local Gendarmeries’ weekly wash and then headed for Amguid, Years ago I recall reading (in the Sahara Handbook?) that Amguid was populated by obnoxious children, not normally found in Algeria. I joked about this to the others who noted that these children would have grown up by now. How wrong we were. We stopped in the dilapidated once abandoned village to hand out the last of our clothes and were immediately besieged by clawing hands. This was not the exuberant ‘toubabery’ of West Africa but manic desperation. The adults pulled back the youngsters only to snatch into the cars themselves and it all got faintly scary as they surrounded Peter’s car where all the goodies were. We raced off, left our cadeaux on the ground and moved on as the crowd ripped into the bags.
Just north of Amguid we crossed over a pass onto the ‘Graben Piste’ which I’d wanted to do for many years. But that night another sandstorm blew up, this time from the west, and kept blowing all next day. It was dreary driving over rocky tracks with little to see, but that’s the desert: not every day’s a winner and some days are worse than others…
At Hassi Ntsel a band of dunes ran across the track. Unable to see an alternative route clearly, the dunes, no more than a kilometre wide, looked no worse than those we’d driven over in the Grand Erg. So rather hastily I got stuck in, got stuck, backed up, recce’d a way on foot using the others to stand as markers and bundled the cars through. On the final dunelette my car came down hard on the front corner: result, both front leaves (there are only two with parabolics) snapped though. With sand blowing all around, getting under the car was uncomfortable, but Ian and I managed a good bodge from a block of wood and a spare bump stop, a chain and a ratchet strap. I doubt the block lasted more than a few kilometres, but with the axle lashed to the chassis with chain and strap, we carried on at a much slower pace while I tried to visualize various meltdown scenarios and how I’d deal with them.
In the end, renewing the ratchet strap ever day or so, the car got all the way back to London on the bump stop with the broken leaves flapping. Whatever rubber they use to make Tojo bump stops, you’d better hope you have some on your parabolic car… The break was not a total surprise as the same happened to Yves’ parabolicked 109″ a couple of months earlier.
Thankfully next day the storm had blown itself out, just in time for us to round the rocky spur of Erg Tifernine, the most spectacular sections of this route where the stunningly red dunes flow over an old colonial track winding through the rocky hills.
From there right up the east flank of the Erg to Gara Khanfoussa was smooth sand, ideal for three-leafed Land Cruisers as well as a good place to spot Neolithic detritus.
Like I said, reversing known routes can be interesting, but it can also get confusing. Having come down through Khanfoussa a couple of times recently, coming back was a whole new game, especially with all traces blown away by yesterday’s storm. At one point I got to a huge dip that I didn’t recall and doubted I could get through. I tried to keep high and ride round one side, a possible way out. But with the car tipping ever further and Lucy getting ready to lower the lifeboat, I gave in just as we neared the crest, and swerved down into the pit. In fact getting out was not so hard, but watching Ian come through, a tiny Land Rover rolling down a 40-metre slope was scary.
Getting into Gara Khan’ hill, the halfway point in the dune crossing, had been easyish, getting out was not. I followed what faint tracks there were, tried to visualize the route in reverse, but soon got in a muddle and ended up following day-old tracks to another thought-provoking slip face. An overdue check on the GPS proved that we’d overshot the western exit by 10kms. Worn out by nursing the car and irritated by my confusion, we set course for a known waypoint at the western entry and rolled over the hills and dunes to a sheltered camp nearby.I was in no hurry to drive my limping car along the rubble track to Quatre Chemins and so next day, out of necessity and a bit of curiosity, we took the piste directly into Bordj Omar Driss along the base of the escarpment. Some nasty soft sand apart, it was a nicer route, passing by an amazing cliff of red, green and white interlaced strata that would have geologists drooling.
With every mile it seemed likely that the bump stop would not disintegrate and once we got back on the tarmac near BoD, I was sure the 61 would make it back the 1500kms to Tunis, and beyond.
On the boat I met up with some bikers including a Lido who’d come up from SA with a mate in a troublesome Td5. La Goulette had been packed out with 10 times the vehicles we’d seen coming out of Marseille. The Tunisians were making even more of a meal of boarding than usual and we didn’t leave until 11pm. As the boat eased into Genoa next day, Lido and his mate congratulated each other on making it across Africa to Europe. Me, I felt sorry for them. What were they going to make of Europe after nearly a year in the bush? They’d been given some skimpy directions for a campsite that might be open nearby. They reminded me of my own early Saharan rides. Bugger that I thought. Lucy and I said our goodbyes to Ian, Elke, Pete and David and attacked Genoa’s one-way system like a band of small dunes in search of the Novotel.
Genoa – Tunis – Nefta – El Oued – Hassi Messaoud – Hassi bel Guebbour (HbG) – Quatre Chemins – Gara Khanfoussa – Ain el Hadjadj – Illizi – Iherir – Djanet – Tadrart (Oued In Djerane, T-in Merzouga) – Bordj el Haouas – Serenout – Ideles – Hirafok – Assekrem – Ideles – Tefedest east (Garet el Djenoun) – Erg Amguid west – HbG – El Oued – Tunis.
About 2500km off-road
Land Cruiser HJ61, Land Cruiser HDJ80, Discovery Tdi and three 110 Defenders.
The film of this tour, Algeria 2000
(as seen on Sky TV), is featured
on the Desert Driving dvd.
Ferry and Tunisia
It’s still the same story on the Carthage as described in the book, hours of queuing for forms. Not all of us got our Permit de Conduire before the ship docked, but they were quickly obtained from the Customs booths once in the port.
Before that, at the police booths in the first shed it helps not to imply you’re transiting Tunisia fast for Libya or Algeria. To keep them happy make out you’re spending some time (and money) in Tunisia too. One of our group got tricked on the exchange; led to a certain bureau de change by one of the orange boiler-suited guys. Be alert, they’ll get you if they can. And another was told to pay 10 dinars for his Permit de C. (it’s officially 1d or free on the boat).
Fuel prices in Tunisia: Diesel 41d, petrol about 70d.
We covered the 470km from Tunis to Nefta in about 8 hours and stayed at the Hotel Marhala in the zone touristique west of town, opposite the Caravanserai. Half board was around 40d for two people. It’s a clean new hotel with unusually good food (but what isn’t after the Amilcar in Carthage?).
We set off at 8.30am hoping to get a good start into Algeria but the border still took most of the day. The Tunisian frontier at Haouza was pretty straightforward. At Taleb Larbi on the Algerian side things move slowly. You do police forms for you and your car (white and green forms), move on to the Customs declaration (currency and valuables like video cameras or whatever you profer/they find). I was aware of the binoculars (jumelles) ban but was careless in hiding them and so they were confiscated with a receipt and returned on the way out. The others hid their binoculars better.
Each car was searched with a few suggestive jokes about whisky, but bury it deep and they won’t find it because you don’t get taken apart as can happen to locals. With your carte gris (vehicle logbook) you then fill out a Titre de Passage en Douane (TPD) form which eventually gets printed out.
Next is money changing. This seems to be a problem at Taleb Larbi. As Yves found, they claim not to have enough in the office and there’s no bank at Taleb. In our case I got 400FF’s worth but the others got only enough to buy insurance (about 200FF) and the last lot had none. It then transpired that the guy in the insurance office (‘SAA’) took FF anyway. This is probably best paid out of your declared FFs, not your stash.
While I was waiting, taxis drivers just past the gates offered to buy clothes and exchange black market money, offering around 10-20% more. If you’ve arrived low on fuel and you have insufficient official dinars you may need to buy some black to move on. The fuel station is just down the road. We left Taleb round 3pm.
At some stage of course you must buy official dinars (it looks good on your declaration – keep receipts). We did this at the bank in Debila, the first main town after the border. It had just closed but the guy saw the ten of us and generously opened up again to do a quick change for us all.
Stone throwing kids
I’d read about the stone throwing villages west of the border on sahara.info.ch and sadly the reports were true. For once I was spared but the Discovery at the back got hit hard two or three times. Most of the kids wave but the ones who throw mean business as the heavy dents in the Discovery’s door proved. Had it gone through a window and struck the driver it would have been nasty. The last car is usually the target because there are no following cars to see who throws it, I suppose.
Unless you’re lucky, trying to catch the culprits or going to the police is a waste of time, but I guess that some irate tourist with a smashed window will do this some day soon and hopefully something will be done. On the ferry back I spotted a tourist car with a smashed window and heard of serious stone throwing in Kufra (Libya) and even at a local guide’s car in Dakhla (Egypt).
Laisser Passer and Gassi Touil convoy
We spent the first night in Algeria in the sands just south of Touggourt (although there is the Hotel Oasis in town somewhere).
At Square Bresson (just a junction) there are masses of sand roses laid out for display. Soon after, at a checkpoint just before Hassi Messaoud we had to get our permit for the south – about an hour of writing everyone’s details down in Arabic. But the laisser passer was only requested a couple of times in the Gassi Touil over the next day or two. No one bothered with it or even passport checks south of the oil zone.
We got caught up in a military escort at the Gassi Touil checkpoint, halfway between Hassi Messaoud and Hassi bel Guebbour (HbG). It meant waiting until 3pm (or 9am) for a 100 km drive to another checkpoint or base and continuing the next morning at 10am to HbG. We were told only ‘Toyotas and fuel tankers’ must join the convoy as these have been preyed on by bandits (from ‘Mali’ or course). But while waiting plenty of Toyotas and tankers went through so who knows… It delayed us by about half a day so schedule this into your plans or go via Deb Deb (Libyan border route).
Unlike many other towns in Algeria, HbG is still the one-camel truckstop it was ten years ago. Just a couple of cafes and a checkpoint. There was no problem with us heading down to Bordj Omar Driss (stopping for a wash at the warm spring 2km from Hassi).
On the piste at last
We left the tarmac at Quatre Chemins (checkpoint) and headed west along the very rough Amguid track, leaving it early down a sandy ramp towards the Gara Khanfoussa dune crossing and the 410-km-run (fuel to fuel) to Illizi. Once you find the entry point for GK and the old piste rising up over the dunes, with 1.5 bar the crossing is very easy (in our case perhaps helped by the recent heavy rains). There are many recent tracks winding their way over the easiest dunes and by following them you encounter no dangerous crests to speak of. After the first section you drive into the Gara Khan clearing and then keep on the west side to head directly south (a mistake we made when I did it ten years ago). Beware of sharp ‘crests’ as you drive back onto the old orange built-up piste on the way out of the dunes.
Once in the valley we passed Tabelbalet well (good water at 6m), tried to drive along the dunes on the east side (as advised because of flood damage on the track). But the dune banks were tiresome and we found the track OK. Next day we passed Ain el Hadjadj (ruins, good water) and followed the track right to the point where you cross the strip of dunes at around N26 38′. It helps to walk these first to work out the way through. Once you know which way to go it can be done in 10 minutes. No one got stuck except me!
From here east to Illizi is one of the most beautiful pistes in these parts, with the rosey dunes of the Erg Issaouane glowing to the north, a clear track and plenty of nomads camelling around. Just when you think it’s all over there is a steep sand slope to ascend about an hour from Illizi (waiting for GPS info). You’ll need to degonflate to get up this one – watch out for the rocks on top.
If you’re heading south via HbG then this piste certainly beats the tarmac to Illizi.
Illizi to Djanet
In Illizi we were lucky enough to get fuel, water, bread and even a restaurant lunch (250d each) without getting hauled in to the police and army as Yves reports on point 11. If they don’t ask don’t offer. From here it was tarmac all the way to Djanet, covering in two hours what took a gruelling day a decade ago. We visited the village of Iherir (basic camping at the north end of the settlement – introduce yourself to the teacher, Ibrahim Kadri). The road to this canyon oasis is much improved (30 mins) and may well be tarmaced by next year.
We did the Tuareg tea thing with Ibrahim that evening and next morning went for a walk with a guide up the valley to see the guelta, gardens, rock art and the old Turkish fort (700D for our group of ten). We also left some old clothes with Ibrahim for the villagers.
Down the road, Dider looks as lovely a lunch/camp spot as ever and there is now fuel at what has become the small refugee town of Bordj el Haouas (checkpoint). You could do Illizi – Djanet in a day.
The new tarmac makes a lovely drive into Djanet – now you can look around at the countryside instead of the piste. There was no checkpoint on entering Djanet (though there were frequent night time roadblocks) or need to get permits for fuel, as before. We stayed at the only place in town: Hotel Zeribas (250d to camp per person, cars free, basic rooms around 500d) right in the town centre next to the post office. I was told the place was dump a year ago but it looked fine to me, with hot water, plenty of shade and good security. They’ll try and rope you in for a cous-cous meal in their restaurant, nothing special and overpriced at 500d pp. There are restaurants just out the door. The Hotel Tenere, miles south out of town, appeared to be closed or waiting for the Xmas charters. There’s a shadeless campsite near it, but it looked deserted too.
Guided excursion to the Tadrart
I organised a guide with Agence Essendilene for a tour of the Tadrart (SE of Djanet) and Alidemma arch. We were advised that my proposed route would take much longer than planned (although a friend did the full tour a year ago in 4 days). It was a guide’s ploy to get more days out of us (a new one me!). In the end we settled on 4 days, Tadrart only at 1200FF a day. We also paid 25d per person per day in the national park at the park office/museum in town. Once we got to the Tadrart it was clear the guides were stringing out the route to fill 4 days, crawling along at times at 10kph. We would have rather driven at a normal speeds and camped early to enjoy time out of the cars, which we later did.
I was looking forward to the Tadrart but to be honest I was disappointed. The sandy drive out towards Mt Tiska and following oueds south of the corrugated Ghat piste was great (and driven at normal speeds). But Oued In Djerane was very dusty and for the price I paid, the region did not quite have the edge over the very similar (and contiguous) Akakus in Libya. Of course, unlike the Akakus, the Tadrart has zero tourists. The ochre dunes at T-in Merzouga were the highlight. Our guides Ahmed and Slimane were a good bunch of guys and, with an email contact in Germany, I may hire them again directly, at a more normal price.
Unfortunately one of our group was injured an accident on Day 3 and we had to return directly to Djanet. Amazingly the Defender nearly made it back in 2WD, at which point the severely traumatised transmission finally gave up the ghost. The doctors at Djanet hospital were extremely helpful and confidence inspiring. The injured driver eventually flew back to the UK via Algiers, with the aid of his travel insurance and looks like making a full recovery. The car was a write-off. There are no modern Land Rovers in Algeria, only ancient Series IIIs. Recovery to the coast was not worthwhile and so it had its contents and components ‘optimised’ and was left with the Customs. Vehicles cannot be sold in Algeria. The Douane huffed and puffed a bit about parts missing from their new ‘present’ (what a nerve!), but once they realise it’s more wrecked than it looks they won’t be quite so thrilled.
Telephoning from Djanet
Trying to organise the repatriation exposed the near impossibility of telephoning out of Djanet, even just to the next town. The problem seems to be many new private telephones but just one inadequate satellite/radio dish. I was on the verge of driving 400km to Illizi (linked by land lines and therefore much more reliable), but had one more go at sundown – Ramadan eating time when all goes quite. However the insurance never managed to call back. So despite what I say in the book on p.276, a sat phone would have been useful here. (incidentally the hypothetically described Medevac procedure on the opposite page – outlined to me by a Loss Assessor – proved to be pretty accurate. Getting to a town/phone/hospital is the key. However, the insurance insist on proof that the claimant cannot continue the tour as well as a doctor’s report to prove they are safe to fly. This is what cost us days and why we gave up in Djanet – they could not get through).
Not surprisingly, GSM mobiles don’t work in Algeria (they do in Tunisia), but I was told that next year they will, even down in the south.
Route A2 to the Hoggar
With the injured driver slowly on the mend, two cars from the group offered to help assist his recovery to the UK while I continued with the VX and Discovery to the Hoggar. We managed to get diesel at Bordj el Haouas (Ramadan shuts everything down at 3pm) and then headed south along the chain of mountains that end in the landmark of Tazat (an interesting area to explore for another time I think). Mistakenly thinking we needed to move fast to catch up for lost time, we drove from Tazat almost to Assekrem in a long 400km-day. As described in the book the junction at ‘Borne’ is still confusing and we dithered around a bit before heading resolutely SSW over confusing tracks with another lost G-Wagen crossing out bows. Soon we found the crucial cairns and balises that lead into the valleys all the way to Serenout fort (quick passport check) and on past Telertheba. Despite what it says on p.397, the southern route from Serenout (as marked on the IGN) seems to be the main way and is a lovely drive with the 2455m Telertheba looming ever larger up ahead. The sandy sections mentioned on A2 in the book didn’t cause any problems – one wonders if a flat sandy track improves with little passing traffic.
There is diesel only at Ideles from where a corrugated track leads to Hirhafok. At Hirhafok we turned south for Assekrem.
I knew this piste would be washed-out, but the closer we got to Assekrem the worse it got, to the point where one could barely believe anything less tha a Unimog could drive it. The last 50kms took 4 hours in Low Range with extremely slow and rocky going up to and beyond the Tin Teratimt Pass. From here on it was so damaged one could hardly work out the original track among the many deviations.
We had Assekrem to ourselves but there is a whole menu of prices there: parking, parking more than an hour, breathing, etc. The ‘chatty’ guy in charge tried to charge us for camping, too… To be fair it can’t be cheap to run the place and the lovely lodge is well worth an overnight (even at nearly 1000ds demi-pension) so you can see dawn over the plugs.
We returned down the track from hell (not so bad this time but I doubt any local would use it), fuelled up at Ideles, getting caught up with the bored police opposite the pumps for a tiresome “what’s your job, address, mother and father’s name” check. Backtracking, the turn off north for Mertoutek is clear if you’re looking for it and the track unrolls clearly, passing through some lovely spots to a turn-off at a big green sign a few kilometres before Mertoutek (as marked on the TPC). From here twin ruts lead north to Dehine and continue all the way along the east flank of the Tefedest range past the distinctive peak of Garet el Djenoun at its northern end.
The Discovery’s rear radius arm broke, probably as a result of the exertions of the previous day, and with me taking on the car’s fuel and water payload, my 61’s rear main spring also snapped a day later. The flat helper springs had also snapped off I discovered, but the second spring sort of winds round the mount so I could carry on without much problem. The other rear main spring has since broken. I never rated these two-year-old Ironman rear springs for heavy load carrying (front are fine) and will be getting some heavy-duty OMEs.
We had a day off by Garet and then continued north along the west of the Amguid erg, through the pass and northwest back to HbG, a clear if corrugated track marked with oil drums much of the way.
This is a lovely way back north, easy to follow with no GPS needed – 710kms from Ideles to HbG. The last 150km are a flat and dull and after the final rise, the eastbound track back to 4 Chemins is very rough but can be avoided by going via Bordj Omar Driss, I’m told.
We just about managed to wangle our way out of a return convoy north, and continued slowly with the four-wheel steering Discovery all the way from Gassi Touil to Nefta in one very long day. Getting out of Algeria took two hours with no searches or money checks (the same as years ago), just very slow-witted officials at Taleb. At Haouza they asked for Green Card insurance (a first) so those without had to buy a week’s worth for 10Td. After 1200km of hairy handling with just a winch cable and a chain holding the axle in place, the Discovery got its radius arm welded in Nefta and we met up with the rest of the group at La Goulette for the ferry back to Genoa.
Following the severe October rains west of Illizi, we were blessed with no daytime wind and amazing clarity the like of which I’ve never seen in the Sahara. You just could not help staring in amazement at the crisp profiles of the ergs and the mountains. Temperatures were mild too, even at 1800m in the Hoggar it only dropped to 7C.
We also saw plenty of dorcas gazelles which I’d never noticed before and of course thriving Tuareg nomad activity here and there which, along with the famously diverse landscape, is what makes Algeria so special.
While it was a shame not to be able to complete the tour with the whole group, Algeria is as good as I remembered: the desert has plenty of tracks, as easy or as hard as you want, and all without excessive hassles with guides or permits. I would not choose to visit the Tadrart again, instead I’d rather explore places like Erg Tifernine and Tihodaine, and the Tazat and Tefedest mountains, as well as more southern routes linking Djanet with Tam. This will be the basis of my 2001 tour.
The most tiresome element is, as always, border stuff on the Carthage and at Taleb, but then if it was easy everyone would go here! I met Gerhard Gottler on the ferry back, updating an old Algerian guide and preparing a new Sahara-wide guide (in German). He agreed the southeast of Algeria is the ‘fillet mignon’ of the Sahara. With one easily obtained visa you get a lot for your money in Algeria, and you can always spice things up by pushing further south to the Tenere in Niger.
While the north and the far west may be risky, security in the southeast was never an issue. The gendarmes bombing around in their green Land Cruisers (a cut above the average army and police) inspired confidence and greeted us warmly, as did everyone.
It was a full, two-day drive from Bit Outene at the end of our 12-day Immidir trek to the base camp east of Tam airport for our walk up to Assekrem (map right) and down again.
On the way we overnighted at Erg Mehajibat (left) and stopped off for some wafers and fizz at Arak where we said goodbye to Mohamed our Immidir guide. As always, these are curt, brief affairs, but he knew we’d all had a great time with him and his crew who were now trekking back from Bit Outene with the caravan, about a week’s journey.
Just before Tam airport we were met by Ben Kada’s boss, another Mohamed, who had more juice and biscuits for us – a nice touch. He invited me into his pickup and within an hour we were dropped in a oued to meet the new Kel Ahaggar camel crew and set off scratching around for firewood which would be lean in the Hoggar. As expected, it was a freezing night at 1550m (left) and we set off next morning along a oued leading north towards a piton of rock alongside a massif, one of the many column-clad volcanic plugs which give this central core of the Hoggar – the Atakor – its distinctive look. After an early lunch (left) we continued our climb onto the evocatively named Plateau of the Sky Wind, composed of basalt rubble the size of baby’s heads. As with many mountain treks, we gained our altitude in sudden steps rather than a gradual ascent. The Sky Wind in turn led to our camp for the night (left), a nest of tan, granite boulders overlooking the cone of Adrar Hedjrine. Compared to basalt, granite is a much friendlier rock to spend time on. Once our pitches were set and with little firewood, we hunkered down under blankets, solved problem of Middle Eastern politics once and for all, and waited for another great dinner.
We stayed on the granite next morning as Honi our guide led us up, over and down into a basin called The Palm (left), from which we scrambled back out to rest under a smooth-lipped cave adorned with pre-historic cattle images. I can’t say I recall seeing rock art painted on coarse granite before, but supposing it was at least 5000 years old, it had lasted well. I always understood that ochre and other pigments survived so well on sandstone because of a chemical bond with the rock surface – could it be the same on less fine and less porous granite?
We continued our scramble and emerged on another ankle-testing basalt plateau at 2000m (left). Below us the caravan passed along an easier route and led us to a palmy spring of Tin Amelout in the Oued Amsa for lunch.
As we washed and waited to be fed, a group of camels including a mother and her calf wandered by. The young animal was duly snared, knocked down and trussed up with much commotion, and then branded with a bar. Initially I thought this was an opportunistic grab of an unbranded ‘cleanskin’, but it turned out the mother shared the brand of our caravan’s camels, so the crew were just marking what was theirs.
Back in the Immidir I’d mentioned to the group that our Ahaggar crew might be more tourist savvy or weary than the Ahnet bunch, because in the good years this route would have been frequently taken by tourists. Honi, his young son, brother and brother in law were old timers with the agency (unlike the Arak crew), but for some reason they remained a reserved and occasionally unfriendly bunch, as in sneering: ‘Are you looking for something?’ as I helped unpack a heavily-loaded camel at the end of a day. Even Tayub who was from around here, knew the crew and had done this route 40 times, was more reserved. The cause of all this perplexed us but was either low pay or just tourist fatigue and boredom. It certainly wasn’t us who, after a fortnight in the desert, were an undemanding and acclimatised group. As on previous occasions, it was clear that they got the gist when we talked about this [in English] and occasionally made an effort, but really their heart wasn’t in it, unlike the Ben Kada agency itself or the guys from Arak.
The odd staging, with early or very long lunches also took some getting used to. We concluded that we were following an easy, ‘starter’ circuit aimed at recently flown-in tourists, and not hardened desert vets like us. The glum crew, dearth of firewood, occasional rubbish and car tracks, plus the sometimes bleak surroundings took the edge off the walk, but as a well-bonded throng, we took it all without complaint because it sure was better to be walking out here in the Hoggar than most other things.
After lunch the guides hooked the mother and newly branded calf onto the caravan and tried to shoo away the other roaming camels who’d lost part of their troupe. Even that evening at our camp by a chilly guelta of Talmest, the herd stalked us from the ridge top, like Apache’s about to attack. At one point the young calf escaped its tether and made a dash for the ridge, but was chased and retrieved by Honi’s 18 year-old-son. As in the Immidir, the ways of camel trekking were being passed down to the next generation. With tourism crippled year by year, whether they’d get as much of a chance to put it into practise, like their aged fathers, was another matter.
Cooler, less arid and twice the elevation of the Immidir, there were a lot more flowers (left) up here in the Hoggar, even though we were told it had not rained since the summer. I don’t know what any of them were but we were told it was the reason the hobbled camels set off up the rubble clad hillsides for a nibble every chance they got. At one point, after burning some plastic rubbish he came across, Honi stopped at a bulge of sand and carefully dug up a dense mushroom which I realise now was a truffle (left). Within a few minutes he had a few more and pointed to where rabbits had been digging others up. Just as he said that, a big rabbit or hare broke its cover and dashed off. I’ve never seen one before out here. Grilled on coals, the mushies made a delicious snack in the lunch oued an hour or two later.
That night’s camp at around 2200 metres was a grubby oued just short of the Assekrem track. This time we scoured the vicinity for scrub to burn, and using the oued bank wall, managed to keep ourselves warm under blankets (left) until Tayub brought over the dinner. Once the tea was served, we all made a dash for our sleeping bags.
Jackals howled overnight but by lunchtime next day we were at a cleared patch of ground by a small ruin, just below the col of Assekrem. Clearly it wasn’t going to be too balmy here tonight so we figured we’d earned a night indoors up at the auberge on the pass – all the better positioned to strike out for sunset and sunrise duties, too.
Up on top (left and below) a rowdy bunch of Turkish tourists were also enjoying the spectacle. Some of the world’s well known touristic wonders can lose their magic or be over-rated, but for me, like Ayers Rock or Monument Valley, Assekrem is no less amazing, even if you’ve been here half a dozen times. As expected, the ordinary meal we got back down in the lodge underlined what a great job Tayub our cook was doing in feeding us off the back of a camel for weeks at a time.
We all bundled into one room while the Turks sang and hollered till the early hours – and then before 6am the dedicated hauled themselves up again to stake their claims on the dawn. I took off up the rock opposite the hermitage (the lump on the right of the picture, left) where most go, sat myself in an enclosure against the wind and fired the camera into the primeval scene emerging from the night. I can’t say this vantage point is any better then the usual one, except that you’ll probably be alone.
After brekkie in the lodge, we traipsed back down to the caravan camp as arranged, but they were having a slow morning and the camels were still all over the mountainside (right), looking for those flowers. Once they were eventually brought in and loaded, we backtracked from Assekrem and set off for the three day descent, along a steep valley peppered with more flowers. Narrow clefts led over thick pools of ice, and out onto a plain we passed a nomad camp. As the day ended we set down in another oued with the Atakor’s spires behind us (left) for another freezing night mitigated by a bush scrub fire. A changeable wind rose after sunset and by 4am it was howling a gale. The empty tent I was using as a windbreak flapped remorselessly, making a racket; in future I’d be better off just huddling down under a quiet blanket like the nomads.
The secret of a good group is that they remain cheerful even after a grim night where few had slept well. Some had crawled in to share tents, and others had their tents snap over them, making an even worse din. Breakfast was delivered with stuff flying past and we then set off down the valley. Soon we joined the main, eastern arm of the car track to Assekrem which we followed briefly and then turned off at the twin ‘Mac D’s’ arches for the guelta at Afilal.
I’d never stopped here before. I think I tried to once but was shooed away by the army. Even then, I assumed it would be a grubby, rubbish-strewn dump, especially if army were camped nearby. In fact the Ahaggar national park guardian based there in an old portacabin was thrilled to see tourists and grabbed a photo with us for his next newsletter while behind us volunteers (or possibly miscreants) lethargically collected rubbish scattered around the main guelta. In fact there’s a lot more to Afilal than that waterhole and with Tayub and the lunch camel alongside, we followed the source downstream past trickling waterfalls, deep green pools and smooth, flood-washed granite until we found a wind free corner for another great salad lunch. I’ve never seen so much running water in the Sahara.
That afternoon was one of the best of the walk, not least because we put in a good 15 clicks after lunch. We followed the Afilal valley until it petered out and then crawled over low ridges into adjacent valleys and basins separated by more hills. Away from the grim basalt plateaux, we explored the granite ranges, passing a cobbled stone circle (left) just like the one we saw in Tadant oued, some 200km east of here at the tail end of SEQ in 2006. What they are exactly is still a mystery. A tomb is the most obvious answer, as these are the structures which most commonly survive, but most tombs have a focal point like a mound; this was just a very finely set flat ring of stones. It may just have been a pilot’s marker like this, but they are usually much bigger and out on the plain. Nearby, less well made examples had broken up over the years and in a nearby guelta, a flood-carved basalt pavement (below) added a natural wonder to the scene.
The caravan had taken a more direct route, but Honi was unsure where they had made camp. He crissed crossed the terrain, looking for tracks just we were beginning to creak a bit after hours of walking. Eventually we backtracked (see the map track) and staggered into another perfect camp in a oued set among beige granite boulders. Here we managed to scrape together enough acacia to encircle a fire ahead of our last day of trekking. That night it was probably minus 5.
Another great morning led us through the boulders to Akar Akar mountain to cross over the car track and get back inside the Hoggar ‘loop’. Steve had chosen to ride a camel that morning, little did he know he would be sat on the acacia plank till lunchtime, but when we caught him up he was fine. To the south lines of cones marched across the horizon in the blue haze and by mid-afternoon one more basalt rubble ascent and descent brought us above the last oued camp near the distinctive cone of Adaouda where Patrick found a fine Tuareg dagger while looking for fire wood.
I’d long wanted to try this walk and the Hoggar trek had passed through some amazing country side. But we couldn’t help compare it with the wild Immidir we’d just visited where the most conspicuous signs of man were usually 6000-year-old tombs. Tayub kept us as well fed as before, but the grumpy crew too took the edge off the experience and the sun rising or dropping over Assekrem is no less amazing for having driven up there so I’m not sure I’d do this trek again.
So, after 200 miles walking and nearly three weeks of bush camping, all that remained was a long overdue hose down at Loukmane’s house in Tam, followed by a haircut, some interneting, shopping (left) and a non-goat based feed at a resto in town. The night plane flew us back to Algiers via Djanet which gave us an extended chance to doze. A few hours later we were all on our way home while I conjured up plans for next time.