Tag Archives: fadnoun plateau

Old Land Rover ~ Algerian Sahara – 2008

2a

Oxford, Portsmouth, Le Havre, Marseille, Tunis, Taleb Larbi, El Oued, Hassi Massoud, Illizi, Djanet, Mt Tiska, Erg D’Admer, Oued Sersouf, Mt Tazat, Amadror, Garet El Djenoun, Tefedest East, Tam, Ain Salah, Ghardaia, Taleb Larbi, Tunis, Marseille, Oxford.

Land Rover Series 2A 1970 109 Petrol 2.25 • December 2007 – January 2008

Richard Washington

The last time I was in Algeria was in late 2002 on a round trip of the south in the fuel-dump stage of the Desert Riders trip. The kidnappings in March 2003 in the Algerian Sahara led to a bit of a wait-and-see approach for me but provided the opening for desert trips to the Gilf (2003/4), Chad (2005) and Morocco (2005/6). The combination of time-elapsed-since-kidnappings and a relative disappointment (I was warned) with Morocco’s desert (though not the country), resulted in a return to Algeria. To be fair, the decision was more than helped along by our extended Australian family’s curiosity with the Sahara and their idea that we all get together there in the winter of 2007/8. Happily we did, making it my 6th visit to Algeria. The desert there is better than ever.

Our Route and Our Group
We followed the usual route down to Djanet in the south-east via the sealed roads from the Tunisian-Algerian border at Taleb Larbi, taking about 4 days from the Tunisian border. There’s more on this part of the trip, including the state of the road, status of the check points and so on later in this S-File. We spent a good two weeks knocking around the Djanet region, including both day and overnight trips. Djanet is a great setting for this sort of thing – the landscape within 100 km is astonishingly varied. We went up the Tassili escarpment on an overnight walk with donkeys, out to Mount Tiska a couple of times – including a brief visit to the great northern Tenere plain, several nights in the canyons west of Djanet (Sersouf), a day in the Erg D’Admer as well as a few evening braais (South African for bbq) in scenic spots around Djanet. During this time we either camped out in the desert or stayed in the Hotel Tenere – a break from the usual Hotel Zeriba. Actually we did spend a couple of nights there. The Zeribas are all but gone and the nights pretty noisy (dogs go from 11-2, chickens from 2-5, and then the Mosque wakes up the truck drivers). But Zeribas is still a nice location in the heart of town. Hotel Tenere was a pleasant surprise. Working out at about 10 euros per person for a 4 person bungalow, we enjoyed the peace and quiet, awesome views on the breakfast balcony, and freedom to cook up our suppers in the quiet hotel gardens. The place had always been a ghost town when I passed by on previous trips. It was this time too, apart from the nights when aircraft landed in Djanet – then it was fully booked for a few hours (the flights arrive after midnight).

Our Djanet to Tam route took in the pass just north of Mount Tazat  on A7 in Sahara Overland, two nights at a beautiful spot just west of Tazat, a day driving up the old truck piste from Djanet (A7 in Sahara Overland) and on to the centre of the Amadror plain (a striking camp in the middle of nowhere), on through to the Tefedest East valley, a couple of days on a detour north to Garet El Djenoun from where we headed south to Hirafok back along the Tefedest east and then west across the corrugated piste to the sealed road to Tam. It was a purposefully slow drive, taking a full 7 nights to do what many parties would want to cover in three days. But this part of the Algeria trip was the highlight of the holiday and, increasingly, the pace at which I enjoy moving through the desert. On the days when we did drive we got going at 10am and finished by 2 or 3pm –  some days a lot earlier.

For the leg from Marseille to Djanet I was joined by Spook. Meg, our two children, Josh (7) and Kate (4) flew into Djanet via Paris and Algiers, along with Meg’s sister (Clare), her husband (Mike) and their children James (about to start uni), Nic (16) and Rob (12). The age range coupled with it being Clare and Mike’s family’s first desert trip made me wonder how we’d fair, especially for things like the Tassili escarpment walk.

fam

Kate and Josh are probably amongst the younger tourists to have made it up the Tassili escarpment. Josh made sure he walked up and down while Kate took advantage of Meg’s fitness with long piggy back rides. Kids this young tend to focus on the very small scale. This became obvious to us when looking through the extremely detailed diary that Josh kept during the trip. He seldom commented on the grand views or the expanse of the desert but wrote a lot about our camp sites, cooking on the fire, the Algerians who were with us and so on.  Josh was absorbed for hours looking for bones, old pottery, fossils and unusual rocks around the camps and, towards the end, went off with Kate on longer walks up surrounding hills. Having a camera also kept him busy. We also took a rugby ball and cricket bat which kept us all entertained for hours. Kate was perhaps less interested in the desert itself. For her, having the company of an extended family for 24 hours a day was a great treat. One indulgence we took with us was a portable DVD player. Kate watched the Sound of Music often enough to learn the words to most of the songs. There is no doubt that this helped us through some of the longer driving days. The children slept some nights in a tent, some nights under the stars and many nights on the mattress in the back of the Land Rover. This provided them with a cosy and familiar setting which was marginally warmer and certainly less windy than outside. There was never any hint in the time we were there that the children were not having a great time. Without exception, the Algerians were simply great with the kids, and Mike and Clare as uncle and aunt, were very helpful and attentive which no doubt helped.

kt

A question the people I work with always ask when they hear I am heading for Algeria goes along the lines of “so what do you do all day when you’re in the desert?” I think there is a general concern that you’ll be bored out of your mind. Funnily enough, we were all too busy in Algeria for the question to arise. The desert just seems to soak up your time in a nicely passive kind of way.

Roads, Borders and Ferries
The sealed roads through Tunisia were excellent, better than I remember them on previous trips when there was a lot of construction going on either side of Gafsa, The good roads allowed us to reach the Algerian border from the port in Tunis on the same day.

We arrived at Taleb Larbi (Algerian border) at about 10:30 pm having docked in Tunis shortly after noon. That night we slept near the Algerian immigrations building having exited through the Tunisian border. Unusually, the Tunisians kept us waiting about an hour before stamping our exits. They checked and re-checked our papers while heading off to the Land Rover a few times without doing very much when they got there. It wasn’t ever clear what the problem was though we speculated that arriving in Tunis port and then checking out of Tunisia a few hours later had scared the horses a bit – especially when we’d asked for a 12 day stay – as you do in case the Land Rover wrapped itself round a camel on the way passed Gafsa.

Processing through the port in Tunis wasn’t too bad – taking just under 2 hours, slower than it might have been because Spook needed to get a visa for his S African passport. It continues to amaze me though, that there is no readily apparent system for dealing with immigrations and customs in Tunis port. The ensuing madness of cars, converging lanes and hooting makes it seem like its all happening for the first time. That said, getting on to the Ferry in France was little different. First we were sensibly shuffled into two lines, one for Algiers and one for Tunis. A little later on the lines converged from 10 to 1 as we went through immigration but not before the cars were put through an S-bend carefully calculated to be too tight for most 4X4s. Its not easy reversing in an S-bend with 5 lanes converging to one. Getting off the ferry from Tunis in Marseille on the way back had its own surprises too. Lanes of cars were dealt with in order by immigration officials in booths – a sensible approach given that cars at least stay in order that way. A key problem at the Tunis end is that drivers are processed away from their cars. Needless to say, people from the back of the car queue can be dealt with before those whose cars are ahead of them in the queue – so lines of cars tend to become a jam of angry drivers who can’t move in any direction because many of the drivers are still on foot in the queues. It was good to see that the French had this part of the production line sorted out. But French customs instead had something in the pipeline for us. They were stopping cars in the lanes and searching through them so that the entire queue of cars had to wait until the cars in front had been cleared. We watched in amazement as a panel van was unloaded in front of us and every bag and hiding place in the van thoroughly searched. After that we were waived through in a second. But why not pull these cars out of the queue first – and then dismantle them? That would save everyone a couple of hours and there was plenty of room to do so.

Algerian sealed roads are a mixed bag. The Taleb Larbi to Djanet and Tam to Taleb Larbi (trans-Sahara highway) sealed roads seemed to be in a much worse state than in any of my previous visits to Algeria. In particular, the road at the south end of the Fadnoun plateau (between Illizi and Djanet to within about 50km of Djanet) is badly broken up and cost us a good tyre and tube, even with slow and careful driving. I was also surprised at the condition of the road south of Hassi Massoud to Hassi Bel Gebour. This stretch takes a lot of oil traffic now and is a pretty poor state. With the oil price having trebled since I was last in Algeria and with the industry making heavy use of these roads, one wonders where the cash is going.

Likewise, the sealed road between Tam and Ain Salah, apart from a new section 100 km north of Tam, is full of deep pot holes. It is particularly bad around Arak where the problem of the river and the road sharing the same valley still hasn’t been sorted out. It looks like they are having a serious go now though, with some complicated elevated sections under construction. But then they were busy with this in 2002.

Our drive north took us from Ain Salah to Ghardaia and from there on to El Oued and Taleb Larbi. At Dahaj (from Tanezrouft’s) recommendation, we took the road 40km north of Ghardaia before turning east through a string of pretty Berber towns via Guerrara on a smooth, quiet and very scenic alternative to the Ouargla route through from the Trans Saharan Highway to El Oued and Taleb Larbi. This route is not only more interesting but cuts out that demoralising southward dogleg west of Ouargla on the way to El Oued. There were also no military checkpoints between Ghardaia and Toggourt.

Its still all Toyota, Toyota in Algeria. The shops in Djanet and Tam seem to have more spares than ever. Fuel queues  in Tam were back – or never went away. Luckily we had the range to get north to Arak on Djanet fuel otherwise it would have been about 2 hours or more of waiting for us.

A marked change from 2002 is the amount of traffic on the roads at night. We slept about 3km off the road about 15 km south of Hassi Massoud but could hear the trucks on the road throughout the night. I remember the traffic pretty much stopping at sunset on these stretches before. We also drove at night, leaving Ain Salah at midnight (for reasons that I will explain later) and arriving in Ghardaia at about 9am. This all seemed OK with the checkpoints along the way and we passed traffic throughout the night.

SNCF are running a new ferry on the Marseille to Tunis line – the Danielle Casanova. She’s not exactly new, having served on some other route for a few decades – probably the run out to Corsica. But she’s bigger, most likely faster and quite a bit grander than the Liberte which used to ply the crossing to Tunis. A ‘new’ line is also running from Portsmouth to Le Havre (LD Lines) with fewer crossings per day (just one) compared with P&O.

Tanezrouft Voyages
The invitations, permits, two Toyotas (for the Djanet to Tam leg), drivers and guides necessary for an Algerian trip these days were all arranged by Tanezrouft Voyages. Our itinerary was complicated. It included two arrival dates for our party, one in our own car, three departure dates and several unique groups of names for the various legs (two arriving in Taleb Larbi, one leaving in Djanet, 8 arriving in Djanet, 7 leaving in Tam, 2 leaving in Taleb Larbi!). The paper work was taken care of by Yves at Tanezrouft and any changes, including a few that we had to make late in the day, were resolved very promptly. The Tanezrouft drivers (Dahaj and Moktar) were the best you get for these kinds of trips. Their outlook and temperament are very well suited to desert driving and desert trips. They obviously enjoyed being in the desert, were ever patient and unhurried, good with the kids, and sensitive to us wanting to drive slowly and take ages over the piste from Djanet to Tam. They were not once late.  Srouffi, the guide provided by Tanezrouft, stayed with us from Taleb Larbi to Tam. Srouffi is a lovely man who knows the pistes extremely well. He went the extra mile in looking after us in the camps, especially around the fire on cold nights. He is quite a character. Overall it would be a priority for us to work with Tanezrouft on our next visit to Algeria.

Cars
We took my old 1970 Series 2A 109 Land Rover (petrol 2.25L) from the UK but also had two Toyotas from Tanezrouft for the Djanet to Tam leg. The Toyotas were a pair of Landcruisers, a GX 80 series with 400 000+ km on the odo and an 80 VX with about 250 000 miles.

The VX did the job in a comfortable VX kind of way. It does sit like a frog when loaded though. The extremely cold weather led to an oil leak near the front pulley which was active for a few days but went away once the weather eventually warmed.

The Land Rover went fine, covering the 10 000 km return trip without any majors.
Only the routine manifold gasket job half way through the trip in Tam caused us to get the big box of tools out. I say routine because this bug crops up every 4 000 km or so – the back exhaust outlet burns through on the manifold gasket and it starts to sound like a Merlin engine after that. Anyone who knows what could be the cause, do let me know. I’ve changed the inlet and exhaust manifold itself (not just the gasket) twice now and three different people have been involved in doing the job. Anyway, its easy enough to do and gave us a bit of street cred at camping Dassine in Tam when our sleeves were rolled up.

tazat

We had two punctures on the Land Rover – the first on the Fadnoun plateau which ruined the tyre too. The second in the middle of the Amadror which we fixed that night. Like many others I have thought long and hard about the number of spares to take. For the last three Saharan trips in the Land Rover I have settled on one made up spare and one additional tyre with no rim (plus a few tubes). The reasoning is that its easy enough to fix punctures (providing one has some levers, patches and so on) but its very unlikely that a rim will become impossible to repair – especially steel rims. I carried 2 made up spares on over 70 000 km of piste on previous trips in the Land Rover, but never needed them.

The Land Rover had a couple of interesting and unique tricks too. One was a potent smell of petrol which was beginning to strip the last of the blue paint work off the doors it was so strong. The issue had started in Morocco on an earlier trip and I thought I had it sorted after changing the back tank (which was obviously leaking) and adding some additional seals to the fuel caps (the Land Rover has 3 on-board fuel tanks). Everything smelt like roses when I did the test drives round Oxford in the summer, but by Hassi Massoud it was clear that Spook’s eyes were starting to water in the passenger seat. We by-passed the complicated fuel delivery set up (involving tank switch and independent fuel pumps and filters) with new fuel line all the way from the rear fuel pump to the carb – and still it stank! We finally diagnosed the problem in Sersouf canyon near Djanet where we noticed that the stink was a lot stronger with a closed throttle than an open throttle – a bit counter intuitive really. It turned out that the new replacement Weber carb had some kind of an ill-fitting adapter collar where the air filter pipe joins it. When hot enough, the adapter collar becomes loose, allowing the entire air filter pipe to detach along with the collar from the carb top. Removing the collar made for the simple fix. It probably never got warm enough round Oxford in the summer for the problem to develop. So we’d spent all our efforts looking for leaks in the fuel line when the problem actually lay in the air feed. There’s something new on every trip and, as they say, its never over in a rover.

The Land Rover also developed a leak in the exhaust pipe just short of the silencer box. This was sorted out in Tam by the first set of fixers on the right hand side on the way in to Tam from camping Dassine. They are worth a mention because they took the pipe and silencer box apart, welded in a replacement piece of pipe (found on the roof of a house nearby) and welded it all up again over the course of 2 hours, asking only 8 euros for the job. There is nowhere I know of near Oxford that will do anything other than throw away as many sections of exhaust pipe as they can and bolt on new parts while some gum- chewing youngster with spots and a bolt through his eye rubs runs up an outrageous bill. No one welds exhausts where I live anymore. So hats off to the guys in Tam. That’s where I’m going next time the exhaust develops a leak and I find myself in the UK.

While the Land Rover threw up minor niggles to keep us entertained on the long sections, the GX had a more spectacular episode coded up in its DNA and ready to be unleashed at 426,515 km. About 100 km out from Djanet the GX transfer box shaft opted for its very last rotation. The car stopped so suddenly in front of us that we nearly absorbed the Toyota’s spare tyre in our front grill – it was all we could do to miss it. The box was terminal – actually Moktar had been struggling to find both first and second gear ever since the aging GX had arrived in Djanet. I was a bit surprised that it was the transfer box that finally finished it off. After we had disconnected the front and back props – which hilariously involved Srouffi – not much of a mechanic on a good day – as chief conductor and interpreter using all the 11 French words the team had by then worked up in common, the VX towed its work-horse counterpart to Djanet on a very short 4m strap I’d dug out of the Land Rover. With a delay of a week likely to replace the box (which eventually came via Tam from Ouargla), Dehaj set about finding a replacement car. This is where Isak from Djanet (not his real name) with a newer GX belonging to his brother, stepped in to help and Moktar, sadly, vanished from the scene for a couple of weeks. I have to say that Dahaj and Moktar alike did nothing but reassure us that everything would be fine and that our schedule would be unaffected – more than I would be capable of if my transfer box had just jammed solid such a long way from home. The substitution of cars and drivers led to a bit of an unusual situation because Isak was not in the employ of Tanezrouft, other than in an ad hoc sub-contract kind of way –as far as we could tell that was- and the car belonged to someone in his family. So when, during the rest of the trip, the day’s driving was done, he felt as though he was free to do what he liked with is families car. Which, in fairness, he was. At least until an event on the Amadror plain changed things a little.

Isak had been on a number of ‘drives’ on his own to go and ‘fetch firewood’ since he joined us in Djanet. He normally came back to camp with firewood although it had never been necessary to fetch any as we’d always camped next to trees where firewood was plentiful– as you so often do on these trips. We knew it wasn’t the real reason he went off, but it never resulted in anything more than a topic of curiosity amongst us. We arrived in the Amadror plain campsite at about 4pm – one of our longer drives. Within 5 minutes of getting there, Isak went off to find firewood. Anyone who has crossed the Amadror plain knows that there just isn’t any. We hadn’t seen a tree in about 100 km and the landscape is flat, empty and stark. When he wasn’t back 3 and a bit hours later, Srouffi began to worry in as much as Srouffi ever worried about things. Also James and Nic were without some of their kit as they’d been travelling with Isak that day and he’d left so smartly that it hadn’t occurred to them to remove everything from the GX. Now that it was dark, Srouffi walked a few 100 meters from the camp and waved a dying-yellow head torch about a bit, hoping that if Isak was lost, the head torch would draw him home. I also switched on my Thuraya sat phone, having swapped numbers with Isak before setting off on the trip.  Round about this time we spotted a number of vehicles, about 10 km away moving towards our camp. It was then that I decided to SMS our GPS position to third parties as we really weren’t sure what was going on. It turned out that Isak hadn’t been able to find our campsite in the darkness – he only found it when I switched on the headlights of the VX. Looking back, the cars we’d seen must have been on the piste from Illizi to Tam which crosses the Amadror (its not one I’d known about before). Over the days we got to know Isak better and he turned out to be a likeable guy that Josh and Kate, the youngsters in the group, were especially fond of. He didn’t come across as anything like the usual piste driver with his smart clothes, shades and leather Thuraya case.  But he did help us out of a spot in Djanet at a moments notice and for that we were grateful.

Taking a car down to southern Algeria from the UK is, when you add up the costs of a guide from the border, the ferries and the fuel through Europe, only marginally less expensive than spending 130 euros a day on a local vehicle. Given the wear and tear to your own vehicle, it probably works out to be a lot more expensive. But a number of things make it attractive to drive down. First, one can take a lot of things with you that are nice to have. We took camping chairs, a table, tents for nights when the wind was strong, food that you can’t get in the south (including coffee, tea, savoury biscuits, packet soup), Christmas presents for the kids, balls to mess about with, medical kit, water containers for the piste, a cooking stove, GPS, satellite phones, books for the children to read. All these things helped to smooth out the bumps but would have been difficult to include in the 20kg baggage allowance. Also, as mentioned earlier, the Land Rover was a home away from home for the youngsters. They really enjoyed sleeping in the back.

Algerian Security Situation
It was the Algerian consulate in Canberra who rang Clare up in Sydney and asked her if she knew what she was doing taking her children to Algeria. The London office was a bit more detached but a bomb killing nearly 70 people at the UNHCR in Algiers did manage to get on the news just before the party of 8 flew through the capital on the way to Djanet. Sleepy Djanet had its own share of action a few weeks before when a group of insurgents in 3 Toyotas fired RPGs at an Algerian military plane before fleeing on foot into the hills. All of this is good news when you are about to head off because the effort needed by the insurgents to mount such complicated raids normally means that the ensuing months will be much quieter while they regroup – and the security situation heightened. To be honest it didn’t seem to be round Djanet. The night Meg and the others flew in to Djanet, we took our 3 cars and cooked supper on a fire in the desert just 5 km from the airport fence. We might well have been the return party eyeing out the Mi-17s that sit on Djanet runway. No one seemed to be very bothered and we stayed there from sunset till the plane landed at about 3am.

Compared with 2002 there are certainly more barrages (military road blocks) on the sealed roads, although our passage through them was faster than before owing to the paper work (names, passport numbers, date of birth etc of all in the party) Tanezrouft dished out at every stop.

Our time in Tam coincided with the President’s visit and sharp shooters on street corners and roof tops. We’d thought we’d escaped the fuss in Tam but rolling in to Ain Salah we noticed the familiar flags and hurried look on the painters tarting up the town. Our afternoon in Ain Salah on the way north was meant to be followed by an early exit the next morning but later that night rumours spread around town that the road either way out of Ain Salah was closed for 24 hours. This made me think for the first time about my own timing (having been carefully aware of everyone else’s flight dates) and it soon occurred to me that my 30 day visa was to expire in 24 hours time. A trip to the Police (guys with the blue cars) with Dahaj confirmed the road closure as well as the fact that they weren’t willing to give us a letter explaining that the road had closed and that we’d been delayed by the official Presidential visit. Whilst on the phone to Yves that night from Dahaj’s family’s house, Yves recounted the story of a party of tourist who had overstayed their visa and ended up in court. So we visited the Gendarmerie (the guys with the green cars) who explained that the road was closed but would open 100 km from Ain Salah (the big checkpoint on the way up the Tademait plateau) at 5am. This sounded unlikely given that a hit and run/bomb planter was designed to be delayed by the road closure until the president had safely left town, but it was enough of an opening for us and Dahaj kindly agreed that we could leave town at midnight on the Monday/Tuesday change over. I felt bad because he’d been away from his family and home town for weeks and here we were snatching him away a few hours later. That night was a real stinker with a blistering northerly gale, dust storms and temperatures near freezing. But we were waived through the check point 100 km from Ain Salah and all others that night too. In the end I drove from Arak (250 km north of Tam) to Nefta in Tunisia in one go. A 37 hour stretch at the wheel of the old Land Rover was enough for reality to parse through my head in strange, interrupted packets of information rather than the normal steady stream we know. It was like the jangly world had adopted a 1-3-4-2 firing order on a point gap that was way too big. Tunisian immigration were unusual helpful that night. Just as well.

Weather
Mid-winter in southern Algeria normally brings warm, cloud free days and cold to cool nights. We had some of those. But almost all the nights in the south were below freezing and many nights much more windy than average. Several of the days were very dusty too. A cold, northerly wind tended to spin up the dust.

frost

On Guides
I have already commented on how pleasant Dahaj, Moktar, Isak (once we got to know him) and Srouffi were in the desert. And just how helpful Tanezrouft were. So these comments go beyond Tanezrouft to the general case of guides in the desert and come, in part, from the fact that I’ve been to the Algerian desert several times on my own trips without guides, sometimes into uncharted territory well off piste.

There certainly are times when having a guide adds to ones enjoyment of the desert substantially. An example is the pass west through mount Tazat which we’d done once on our own by accident a few years before. I had the GPS points for the route as well as those in ‘Sahara Overland’ (part of A7). But that afternoon we were in the mood to hand over to Srouffi and set sail for the pass knowing that he’d find the smoothest way through – which he did. Yet other times I was up for a bit of my own exploring and that becomes difficult to do because the guide loses the mojo for a while and doesn’t like not being in charge or understand what we are trying to do. It is genuinely difficult to explain an intended route to someone who doesn’t do maps, route descriptions or a GPS. Exploring is a very real part of the enjoyment of a trip like this and I keenly felt the loss of what is an important component for me. Perhaps its possible to strike a deal with a tour company in the beginning where one pays for a guide that is happy enough to take a back seat (literally and figuratively) for the trip. On the other hand maybe Saharan guides are just part of the irreversible shift towards the taming of the desert and removal of the isolation that draws one to the desert in the first place. The trips I’ve done where the desert was the closest companion for us all was when we went off-piste in one vehicle with no satellite phone or GPS. The days of heading off without a GPS or sat phone are over now but there may be a way round the personality of the guide.

daha

Best campsites: Mount Tazat (couldn’t leave – stayed two days), Mnt Tiska (always a favourite of mine)
Worst days: Figuring out Isak’s antics on the Amadror
Best days: Climbing mount Tiska with Spook and just about all the days with family.
Wish I’d brought: a blanket – those seriously cold nights would have been better with a blanket both round the fire and over a frozen sleeping bag.
Didn’t need: used just about everything bar a fairly long list of spares (water pump, alternator, carb, distributor, fuel pump….)
Cheapest supper: Chicken and chips for 9 in Tam: 24 euros.

Fuel Caching in Algeria – HJ61 – 2002

trippy2002Tunis – Hassi Messaoud – Illizi – Fadnoun – Afara junction – Mt Toukmatine – back to Djanet – Tazat – Toukmatine – Erg Tiodane – Amguid piste – Foum Mahek – Sli Edrar inselberg – Arak – Tam – Taghrera – Erg Killian – Monts Gautier – Balise Line – Djanet – Erg Bouharet (Desert Driving base camp)

TLC HJ61 – Nov-Dec 2002

HJ61“It’s never over till it’s over” I’ve learned to say to myself over the years but it had barely begun when at Tunis port they whipped away my newly illegal GPS “telephone” unless I chose to arse about getting a permit from the Ministry of Stupid Ideas. I deposited it in a room full of CBs (fair enough) and what-nots while others did the same, a bit stunned about how to navigate down south. Luckily my real sat phone (which I had the presence of mind not to declare) had a rudimentary GPS.

Coming off the boat I’d met David Lambeth coming back from supporting a bike rally – he was not keen on lending me his bells and buzzers Garmin 5 but some geezer in a pink 110 kindly lent me an eTrex to back up the untried sat phone navigator.

Then, trying to call g-friend down the road it turned out my PAYG Thuraya had expired its SIM (don’t use it much in London you see). This undermined the security of my solo route plans somewhat until my rendezvous with the esteemed Prof. Nimbus in Djanet in 10 days time. I was beginning to wonder was this going to be “one of those” trips – after all all had gone remarkably to plan these past couple of years …

A fax to g-friend from Nefta saw some new SIMs on the way to Nimbus. Until then I was out of comms. Part of my job on this trip – my first solo venture into the dz in a car it transpired – was to dump food and fuel for my Desert Riders caper planned for early 2003. D Rider Jon had gone shopping for food just before I left and had been called by DR Andy asking him to buy one more of everything. I then spent a night by the Grand Erg scoffing at their taste in food and sorting the stuff out into packages we would be able to carry on a bike from the fuel drops.

Next morning more probs. After fueling up for 1500km plus half a dozen petrol jerries to bury, HbG checkpoint made me take a soldier to Bordj Omar Driss but failed to tell me the piste from there was closed to Amguid (otherwise I would not have bothered with the lift of course!). I’d heard this piste had been closed (due to smugglers he told me on the way back) and a barrier was pushed up against the piste at 4 Chemins. It was the direct route to my planned fuel dump south of Amguid but anyway the weather was – oddly hot, windy, hazy and even spitting rain. If nothing else my 3 Alg trips this year have confirmed the seasonal unpredictability of Saharan weather. It boded ill for our much-postponed filming of Desert Driving in a couple of weeks…

I’d half expected a closed piste so had plans to hit Amguid from the Djanet truck piste side. I had a hot/cold, windy/rainy night near Ohanet in the back of the car, and with time to kill before meeting Nimbus, soon got to savour the relaxed non-tour-leading pace driving alone in the dz. I checked out the hotel at In Amenas (a dump, fyi) and explored Erg Bouharet as a great location for some planned DD scenes. We camped here in 1988 on my first bike tour (described in Desert Travels) and I was amazed to see my so-called “apostrophe dune” pictured on my g-friend’s wall unchanged in 14 years. As I suspected, the myth of some dunes’ mobility is much exaggerated.

That night I popped out to Oued Djerat past Illizi, the site for some rock art it is said. Clear tracks lead into the canyon and after it got narrow I parked up but found nothing but a quiet night out. Next morning a Tuareg cameleer creeped up on me as they do while I was finishing off Michael Palin‘s book. I’d left a colourful array of kids clothes hanging from the nearby trees. He helped himself to the booty and told me the art was a bit further up the canyon where I’d spotted an encampment earlier on. Now that I knew where, it was one for next time.

A UK call from a taxiphone in Illizi was a pound a minute, fyi (a Thuraya is a dollar). Over the Fadnoun the weather was still hot and windy from the south. I washed the car in a guelta and recced a D Riders route along which we planned to emerge from Oued Samene (to Ifni) – it looked good, as the TPC suggested. Down the road at Afara junction I headed onto the piste. I did this route in 1989 and some images remained: the nice dune/outcrops where I camped that night and a very steep rocky descent to the Afara plain which I managed to negotiate without a scrape next morning, despite the half ton of fuel on board. I even had the presence of mind to film the undercarriage with a bullet cam taped to the chassis to use in the film later.

Afara north is pretty amazing – like Monument Valley without Indians, and the south bit coming onto the ‘Borne’ plain is nice too, but in between it’s a basalt bashing butt-jabber (something that had not affected me on a bike in 89). Still, at least the weather was as blue as.

I came off this slow route in mid-afternoon trying to find the sandy pass on Route A7 KM195 with my sat phone GPS (Sam’s eTrex could not do a “go to” it transpired, or I could not work it out how to do it). I’d been here a few months earlier on a tour, but still stumbled around until I found the pass. Then, again I got off track not concentrating on the compass or GPS but finally picked up A7 and with the sun setting, dumped the cans on a outcrop for collection later with Nimbus. I then retraced the route back east, enjoying the 120kgs missing off the roof.

Camping behind a fin of rock just past the KM195 pass, I decided to re-erect the fallen balise (steel post) to assist others. Even first time last March it had been tricky finding our way here. I excavated an old truck tyre and dragged the fallen balise over to the pass “gateway”. The balise had three sticky-out feet and by hoicking the truck tyre over the balise, it rested on the feet and, once filled with sand, held up the balise, sort of, now at KM 195 on A7, (N24° 40.38 E07° 38.41).

That night I was freaked out by a car coming off the pass at 2am. It did not spot me behind my fin, but seeing the new balise, circled it and swept me in its lights. By then I was already dressed and poised for a locked-in get away, but the Patrol carried on back the way it came …. phew … and then came back! I was now slinging stuff into the car and ready to move out when it turned north before reaching me. I watched it trundle away for half an hour to make sure. Turns out they were probably as lost as I had been earlier – maybe a lot of driving goes on at night in Ramadan. Or maybe it was to do with the mass kidnappings that were to occur near here a few months later.

One the way back to Djanet I explored north of Tazat, looking for a possible pass to Bordj el Haous (Zaoutallaz) as indicated on the TPC-H3D fantasy map. Climbing an outcrop and surveying the Tehe-N-Essegh pass. it was all sanded up, no way from this side but maybe up the east with a slide down. I then slipped through the Tazat corridor and followed a clear track almost all the way to Bordj, dumping the rest of my old clothes with some hyena-like Tuareg kids.

The run from Bordj El H’ to Djanet is one of the loveliest drives in the Sahara, even if it is now sealed. Even though I’d done it several times over the years it still looks amazing and I enjoyed doing most of it on the sands along the north side, looking for new camps and generally marvelling at the scenery.

A couple of days later Prof. Nimbus, laden with Thuraya SIMs arrived at Djanet airport and I gave him the bad news – our double deep southern run to Tam and back had been changed to a run up to Amguid then down to Tam and then back to Djanet, dropping fuel and food along the way. Naturally he was not bothered, it was all desert to him, and we camped at Tazat that night, on the way trying out my airbag jack for the first time when I got sunk on a knoll of soft stuff. “I’ve never seen a car sink so deep” observed Nimbus without sarcasm. Turns out his petrol 2A hasn’t got the poke to sink itself like my tractor-engined TLC: an interesting advantage of a modestly powered machine, but not quite enough to chuck in my 61 for a 2A with ears. The airbag was nifty in the extreme, as you can see in Desert Driving dvd next summer.

tazat-mountainNext day we tried to climb Tazat mountain (2165m), but things got as complicated as they looked near the summit so we satisfied ourselves with some low-angled shots that looked as good. Far below ribbons of oueds rolled off to the hazy horizon and the Tojo was but a speck. A picture Nimbus took out there turned out to be the cover of the current blue edition of Sahara Overland.

We carried on along A7, eventually locating the jerries I’d dumped a few days ago without doing a GPS (all hillocks look the same it seems…) and on up a new track to me – A5 up past Toukmatine ridge and Tiodane Erg. We lost the balises for a while but it was fast going until the complicated hills and knackered tracks which jam the entrance to the Amguid valley. Clouds rolled in that night and a mini sandstorm hit next day as we emerged onto the valley and set course for Foum el Mahek on the other side. What a trucking slog this former route to Djanet would have been in the old days!

The Foum emerged from the haze, bigger than I’d imagined and – bollocks – a family of Tuaregs camped by the mouth. Not a good spot to dump fuel then, so we blundered around and that night, 28 degrees C at 8pm – crawled up a stony hill to stash 120 litres and a bottle of Dubonet, followed by a hot, windy night.

Sli Edrar
On my very first trip to the dz in 1982 I’d photographed a distinctive cluster of cone mountains near Moulay Lahsane on the highway, and always vowed to go back one day for a look around. Nimbus reckoned he’d visited ‘Death Trip Mountains’ [as we shall name them], last year, so we set course alongside Tefedest west. Other granite inselbergs proved to be decoys, but when we finally rolled up to the DTMs it was nearly clear that my 20-year old aspiration was about to be fulfilled. The flies were a pain and curious caterpillars were crawling all around and dying in the sands, fullfilling their own death trips it seems. I went for a wander and found some Neolithics in the crunchy granite, including a nice bone cruncher, and for sunset we climbed up to spot an unnoticed old camp in our hidden valley below.

Sli Edrar is just a few clicks off the highway, but hearing of fuel probs in Tam, we turned north 100km to Arak and tanked up there with 250 litres of diesel plus another 120 of petrol and rolled down the highway to Tam, arguing bitterly whether In Ecker mountain was visibly shaken by its nuking in the early 1960s. In Tam cars where indeed queuing into the hills for fuel – not due to washed out roads (all OK apart from Arak canyon), but because of local politics (since resolved, one hears).

From Tam we were taking on an ambitious route to Djanet – 900kms via Erg Killian deep south with a 20-year-old route description (RD) in German including five Nav Star (pre-GPS) waypoints. Nimbus was worried about my fatalistic Zen-like attitude to spares and safety “I can’t believe you wrote that book” he said in horror as he trapped me in an arm lock and forced me to buy an engine’s worth of motor oil. It began an interesting branch to the erstwhile LR/TLC debate. Nimbo carries a complete change of undies for his pre-Cambrian 2A. Me, I’ve long forgotten what I stashed in the back wings of my Eocene 61 many years ago. Radiator hoses and Pocket Cluedo spring to mind.

Seriously though, we were much encouraged by our Thurayas. If the Tojo soiled itself we could ring any agency in south Alg or even get a message on the web for an eventual rescue. A pre-deptarture check revealed the 61’s front wheels were pretty floppy. I’m sure I had them done once – or was that the TLC before? We tried to tighten them but some poxy ‘cone washers’ in the hub made it too hard. Destiny it seems wanted them left untouched. Anyway, the other 60s in Moktar’s stable were all as loose and in the end the car got all the way here with only a tad of shimmy @ 101kph.

We’d used a lot of water on the Amguid truck piste and with no known wells till Djanet, four unknown days away, we stocked up with plenty and some fizzy drinks besides. Down out of town, past the south gas station queues, people were running amok. Good tarmac led to bad and then none right up to the ancient In Azaoua sign right on cue. From here it was fast SE past a Dakar truck wreck down to a hook where we crossed a pass into the Taghrera (green sign) and headed north over grassy power-sapping sands with the classic Taghrera mushroom outcrops beyond. With half a mind to check out In Ebeggui well, we eventually found a little outcrop of our own, changed the TLCs oil for Algerian honey and enjoyed a nice desert camp.

dr-flingNext day, into the unknown. We weaved through some barchans and got stuck in a nasty sandy/rocky pass (our RD was not too specific) where you have to choose soft sand or tyre-shredding rocks. Further south we found a better crossing and headed west from ridge to ridge to ridge very nice and quiet, cutting across masses of north-south tracks (some even DR-digcorrugated!) by what must be contrabanders. A full RD will follow (this is Route A14) but several passes later we turned up for Killian Erg and headed for a good spot to dump a barrel of nosh and a pile of jerries for us to dig up in Jan 2003.

West over Taffassasset oued to the balise line was eerily fast until we spotted some striking mountains unnamed on any map I’ve got of the area (the TPC J3B is particularly crap, btw). Were they the Gautiers? Who knows, we tucked up under the cliff in this spectacular setting, satisfied that we had broken the back of the Deep South link from Tam to Djanet.

2002-baliseHeading for the Niger Balise Line (Route A15) we got stuck again, filmed it for posterity and hit the Line (over a 1000 markers planted every half km all the way to Chirfa!) just below Berliet 21. If anyone’s still listening, note that I have left a Special Object in the drum at Balise 112, a bit south of Berliet 21. Retrieve it or present evidence of it and you can claim a prize.

Hitting the Balise Line after so many years was a seminal Saharan experience for me. Nimbus had rolled down it and into a whole lot of bother a couple of years back and at the famous Berliet Balise 21 we took some commemorative pics and met a tooled-up Austrian G-Wagen with a nice 16mm Bolex retracing our route to Tam.

Nim had buried water along the Line in 2000 and we were interested to see if his GPS location worked 40 paces east off the balise. No such luck, After much digging about at 2 locations we decided in a featureless area like to north Tenere (as some philistines like to call it!) you need a bit of stone marker or something to pull off a fuel dump with any hope of retrieval.

We eased past Adrar Mariaou checkpoint w/o being machine gunned to bits and hit the very soft sands near Djanet which, I like to think, killed the kpl down to a pretty poor 5.8 since topping up at Killian. We blundered around all sorts of unknown back tracks (including Djanet’s clandestine bitumen depot) until we hit the Libyan piste and rolled into Djanet for some fish and chips.

With a couple of days to spare we had a day off and then organised a day out to Jabbaren with the Zeriba guys – only 30 euros and well worth it. A pre-dawn drive to the Tassili’s edge is followed by a lung-stretching slog up to the plateau – leaving smoking bikers Ahmed and Ian T (and the guide) far below. I’ve never actually been on the plateau but some of the rock art at Jabaren (let alone the weird rock shapes) is amazing – even if you do get “cattled out” after a couple of hours.

Nimbus flew back to his day-job next day and I rolled back out to the Tassili plateau, exploring some nice canyons and slowly over the Fadnoun to Erg Bouharet camp, south of In Amenas, where I was set to meet Toby Savage and a cam called Rich to film the long-awaited sequel to Lawrence of Arabia: Desert Driving.

Tenere Troubles (2001)

Richard Washington
  • Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso
  • December 2000 – January 2001
  • Landrover Series 2A 4 cyl. petrol

Tunis

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.

Algeria

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 the STI site (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 [Gassi Touil, I think]. 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 is the 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 (above right) on the balise line, 2 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.

Niger

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 (left). 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 10 am 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) 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 operators 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 S 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 – 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 (left). 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.

Return to Algeria (2000)

Route
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

upcruiser

Vehicles
Land Cruiser HJ61, Land Cruiser HDJ80, Discovery Tdi and three 110 Defenders.

dd2-front-med

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?).

The Border
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.

Djanet
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.

 leapo

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.

Tefedest East
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.

Back north
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.

Weather
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.

Conclusion
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.

1988 Sahara Motorcycle Tour

Most of Desert Travels is about my disastrous Sahara Motorcycle Tour of 1988: chapters 4-15 out of 25. Five left, only one came back riding…