Tag Archives: fulgarite

G is for Gilf Kebir

A short photo and video commentaryDD2-front-med of this trip appears on the Desert Driving dvd. Additional maps at the bottom of the post
Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set

What sets the Libyan Desert apart is that it is ten times more arid than the rest of the Sahara: the Libyan Desert is the über Sahara. In an area the size of the UK through which we’d be travelling there is just one usable well and that single well outnumbers the permanent population. Looking out my window I can see more trees than we saw in two weeks and 2500km of travel. Even by Saharan standards, the Libyan Desert is extreme.


Abbreviated to ‘the Gilf’, the Egyptian part of the Libyan Desert is a mini Sahara in itself, encapsulating all the archetypal desert landforms. The Great Sand Sea lived up to its name, a dune field 200 kilometres wide and 600 long with dunes 200-feet high. It was here where the earliest experiments in driving cars on sand were made in the 1920s by the likes of Clayton and Bagnold (left). Its southern edge spilled over the massive Gilf Kebir plateau only discovered by Egyptian explorer Kemal el Din in 1925 using Citroen half-tracks.


South of the Gilf a sand sheet led to the isolated mountain of Jebel Uweinat which sits right across the borders of Egypt, Sudan and Libya. Our 2003-4 expedition was to last a fortnight and cover some 2500 kilometres. The plan was to pass down the east side of the Sand Sea to the Gilf, explore its eastern valleys and push on south to Uweinat mountain which we hoped to climb. From there we’d head back up to the southern cliffs of the Gilf, visiting the real Cave of the Swimmers made famous in the English Patient movie, and then skirt up the western edge of the plateau and plough through the heart of the Sand Sea for a couple of days to the oasis of Siwa, famed since the visit of Alexander the Great.

Our crack team of Saharaholics included photographer Toby Savage who co-presents my Desert Driving dvd, Dr Kevin White who’d worked with Toby on the Fezzan Project in Libya over several seasons searching for prehistoric lake beds, and Oxford climatologist Richard Washington whose bedtime reading included Applied Principles of Arid Zone Aeoleonics, or ‘dust storms’ to you and me.


We’d all travelled in the Sahara with our own four-wheelers, but shipping them to Egypt was never an option: too far, too expensive and, for the three weeks we’d given ourselves, bureaucratically maddening. Better by far to get Toby’s Egyptian mate Mahmoud to lay on three vehicles for the 2500km trip. Mahmoud already had plenty of experience exploring the area himself in his old Series III. For all of us used to looking after ourselves on our own desert trips, being pampered in this way was a bit luxury. Normally navigation, the vehicle, cooking and everything else would be down to us; on this trip we could sit back, enjoy the desert scenery and let someone else carry the load for a change.

A week before Christmas, Mahmoud met us at Cairo airport in a suped-up minibus and whisked us off for lunch on the Nile before we set off for the 400-km slog south to Bahariya oasis where the vehicles awaited us. On the way we speculated as to what those machines might be because, as I knew myself from a recce tour three years earlier, the ‘Gilf’ was tough on cars. Six hundred litres of fuel – 130 gallons per vehicle – was a typical payload, let alone food and water for a fortnight. We’d expect to see no one during out travels, with only the wadis around Jebel Uweinat offering the chance to replenish the single resource: firewood.


Driving desert highways at night is always a spooky experience. Small dunes shone in the moonlight and up ahead a cluster of lights signalled a lonely roadhouse, surrounded by trucks and vans serving the towns of the Western Oases. We pulled over for a brew to find everyone on both sides of the counter huddled around a dusty TV screen, On it a hirsute and spaced-out Sadaam Hussein was getting his gums probed by Special Forces, having just been dragged out of his lair.


Next morning in Bahariya we met up with Mahmoud’s pumpkin-bellied mate Loutfi who ran a local hotel and tourist excursions into the desert and nearby hot springs. Mahmoud and the vehicles were down the road a way: he had left before dawn for Dakhla to pick up the military escort which every tour in the Gilf requires. So we bundled into Loutfi’s 60-series Land Cruiser for the drive south to Abu Mungar and a rendezvous with Mahmoud in the desert.
All around us lay barren desert sands rimmed by the arching 600km escarpment that defines the Western Oases of Bahariya, Farafra Dakhla and Kharga.

In Pharaonic times what lay beyond was known as the Land of the Dead and even today, 5000 years later, the wilderness of dunes, sand sheet and rocky plateaux is still unpopulated, with just half a dozen towns of any size lay between ourselves and the Atlantic, 2000 miles to the west.


Loutfi’s 60 had just had an engine transplant, a grunty 12HT 4-litre turbo diesel, but by lunchtime it was getting distinctly hot. The needle was sitting in the red, there were burning rubber smells coming through the vents and the turbo was making an audible whine. Maybe this wasn’t the machine we’d be wanting in the Gilf after all.
Our quartet of backseat drivers watched the needle and muttered, waiting for the turbo or head gasket to blow. Loutfi pulled over to let the machine cool down and, once satisfied the needle had backed off, headed on south. Again the Tojo was cooking itself but Loutfi then confounded us by pulling off the road into the desert. None of us knew quite what was going on, but heading solo off-road with overheating problems seemed unorthodox. We churned over a few sandy passes, stopped off at the famous White Desert chalk outcrops and then bundled on to who knows where.

Presently we got back to the highway where Loutfi seemed unsure whether to turn left or right. He drove down the road a bit, looking out west, then turned back north. He spoke no English so we had no idea what was going on; had he lost something? Then he turned round once more, looking hard out to the west. He slammed on the brakes and did a U-ey. Ah ha, there it was: a hooned-out sand circle, a small cairn and three sets of tracks leading out into the void. Following these, within a few clicks we came upon a desert camp, the cars locked in the customary Gilf ‘U’ formation against the northerly wind. Mahmoud was there to greet us with smiley Ibrahim in his Bedouin head-dress, our ‘guard’ Hamed in a snazzy maroon shellsuit, Faraq the mechanic and Aisa, a cool dude in a pair of knackered cowboy boots and matching hat who was to be our cook for the next fortnight.


The identity of our three desert machines was revealed: Mahmoud’s Series III-bodied Toyota, a 110 Land Rover, which also had a 3.5 litre Tojo bus engine and gearbox, and Loutfi’s other car, a red HJ45, the old squared-off Land Cruiser from the late Seventies, but also with a newer six-cylinder 12HT turbo engine crammed under the lid. With potentially the best engine, the 45 was the load carrier; inside it, three 200-litre drums of diesel were lashed down with rope while on the roofs of all cars were additional jerries of fuel which, with the full tanks, added up to 2000 litres, more than enough for as many kilometres over the next fortnight. But with no car running an original engine or less than two decades old, we could see that spannerman Faraq wasn’t going to have a holiday.

That evening, in the cozy shelter of the U-camp, Richard and I keyed in our sat phones with Mahmoud’s so we’d have some sort of comms if we got separated and things turned pear-shaped. Mahmoud outlined tomorrow’s route: we were in the very edge of a series of parallel dunes running north-south; crossing the dunes would be impossible with the cars in their current overloaded state, but we could hopefully run down the 500m-wide corridors between the dunes as far as possible and ease over any low passes to gain ground to the west.

Next morning, knowing that things would get off to a slow start, Toby, Wash and I set off for a wander into the dunes to let the cars catch us up. After an hour there was still so sign of them, so we sat down on a high dune and scanned to the east, ears primed. Finally about 10am they turned up, having had problems getting one of the engines to fire up. We all hopped in and set off down the nearest corridor to see how far we could get. I was in the white 110 which inside looked like it had been a prop in The Birds, with every surface pecked to bits and wires hanging off the dash like splashed spaghetti. Still, the engine sounded good and it carried its weight well.


It didn’t take long before one of the vehicles struck trouble: the 45 had brake problems, but whatever it was Faraq fixed it in a jiffy and we moved on until the next: Mahmoud’s ‘Lanyota’ could not shift into low range. Faraq crawled in and tightened up the linkage with a bit of wire. The rack was also sagging in the alloy roof gutters which, on Defenders, means you can’t open the doors. (You couldn’t anyway as the door handles were buggered.) And the air bags which were backing up the rear parabolic springs were squeezing out like bars of wet soap.

These were fixed as best they could be and we moved on. Even in dune corridors the sand can change imperceptibly; one minute you’re clawing along at a decent pace, next thing the car sinks like a stone – but if you’re fast with the shifting and accelerator you’ll get through it. Momentum is the key to dune driving; once you’ve lost it you may as well pull up and put the kettle on. All of the vehicles got mired in soft patches several times and we all got stuck into pushing the cars back out, the quickest way of getting going if the driver has stopped early enough.


Part of the problem was that the Toyota gearboxes in the two Land Rovers were not optimised to the Land Rover axles, creating gaps in the gear ratios big enough to frighten Evel Kineval. Mahmoud’s Land Rover had an even more alarming habit of getting on two wheels while cornering hard, something which Mahmoud tended to do with gusto; I sure was glad I wasn’t in his car. By comparison, Ibrahim in the white 110 was a steady and smooth driver, never taking risks while struggling with the same mixed-up gearing and, it turned out later, no power steering.


By late afternoon we needed to get west, but high dunes were blocking the way. Mahmoud was nosing about for a way through but the heavy vehicles were struggling in the corridors, let alone trying to get up the sand banks. At one point Mahmoud took an oblique blast at a low dune but his angle was all wrong: halfway up, the wheels on the low side hit a soft patch and the vehicle keeled over to within a couple of degrees of tipping (it’s the front cover of Desert Driving). I knew from personal experience that these sort of recoveries where very tricky. Loufti’s 45 blasted up the dune to help and got mired too, but Ibrahim managed to get the 110 into position to fix a rope on the high side of the Leaning Rover. By backing up, the Series III was heaved up to a less jaunty angle and then, after a bit of digging and with Ibrahim holding it in tension, Loufti pulled it back down onto level ground. Back on the flat, Mahmoud spun round for a good run up, this time getting the wheels a foot in the air, and made it over. Me, I was happy to be in the car with Ibrahim behind the wheel.


That evening we camped at the cairn of Regenfeld, built by the German explorer Gerhard Rholfs in 1872, the first European to venture west into the Libyan Desert. It was here that his party gave up and turned north with their camels, weeks later reaching Siwa by the skin of their teeth. Rholfs left a message in a bottle in the cairn, and since then it’s been the custom for the few passing travellers to do likewise. We left our regards to whoever came next and then spent the night by the dunes as Rholfs and his crew had done 140 years earlier.


Next morning we carried on south and emerged from the dune corridors into a sandy plain dotted with cone hills; outliers of a long-since eroded plateau. One of these cone hills was Abu Ballas, or Pottery Hill. In 1912 the British explorer, Dr John Ball, discovered a cache of smashed clay urns at the foot or the hill and the truth behind an ancient local myth was revealed. Legends had it that for centuries the people of Dakhla suffered raids from “the black raiders from the west” even though everyone knew that ‘west of Dakhla’ was a waterless sea of sand, well beyond the range of a camel caravan. One day the Dakhlans decided to follow their tormentors into the feared desert. They never caught them but their tracks led to Abu Ballas hill and the stash of water urns. They smashed all the urns, destroying the vital water cache, and the raiders never returned, probably dying of thirst on their next raid. Today the remains of urns still litter the base of the outcrop while on its flanks delicate engravings of Ancient Egyptian deities survive.
Well out of the dunes by now, from Abu Ballas we turned west, following what might be called the only track in the Gilf, a braided network of ruts use by the occasional military patrols and exploratory tours like ours.


At one point we passed a perfectly straight line of 5-gallon Shell petrol tins, half a kilometre long. Marking a temporary WWII landing strip, these flimsy fuel containers date from the 1930s before the superior ‘jerrican’ was pinched from the Germans (hence “gerry can”) and adopted by the Eighth Army, LRDG and Halfords. Like the AK-47 or Douglas Dakota, the original jerrican is a functional design classic, unchanged and unimprovable.

Negotiating our way around low outcrops, isolated hills and small dunes ranges, our next destination was the Gilf Kebir plateau. By that evening we were close and camped in the lee of a dune close to Saviem Balise 22. Balise is French for marker post and in 1975 Saviem (later Renault) sponsored an expedition that tried to establish a new trans-Saharan route from the Atlantic to the Nile (see Sahara: West to East). About as useful as a fridge to an Eskimo, the Piste Saviem ‘from nowhere to nowhere’ was never used. All that remains today are the blue and white beacons they left to posterity along the way.



Leaving the lone marker post, we continued west and slowly, from the horizon’s haze, the low ramparts of the eastern Gilf began to rise. By mid-afternoon we were driving up Wadi Bakht, one of the three major valleys that drain their sands onto the plain. Six thousand years ago, during the brief humid phase before the Sahara reached its current state of desiccation, this valley was occupied by Neolithic hunter-gatherers, much like the Bushmen of the Kalahari. We camped that night at the site of a major Neolithic occupation, where we kicked up stone tools (above) and grinding stones (left) left by the ancestors of the pharaohs. It was a cold, windy night so Ibrahim grabbed an empty jerry and got a Bedouin singalong underway while we wrapped ourselves in everything we had and eyed-up Aisa’s bubbling stew longingly.


Having spent the previous night in one of the valleys winding into the Gilf Kebir plateau, we rounded a spur and powered up the sand banks to the dissected summit of the plateau. Some of the cars had trouble getting a good clear run and so to lighten the load we walked while they took a few runs. Approaching the plateau top required some hairy driving over nasty wavelets of sand and Mahmoud’s Land Rover was again getting on two wheels. We discussed what the cause might be and decided the vehicle was way over-sprung at the front. Throw in the more flexible parabolics plus a heavy roof load and it didn’t take much cornering force to get some air under the tyres.


We parked up near the summit where a cave looked out to the south like a gun emplacement. Inside, the ceiling was adorned with finely drawn beasts which would have grazed here 6000 years ago, something that was hard to imagine as we gazed out across the arid landscape of isolated hills and the distant sand sheet.

From the cave we descended the west side of the plateau and made our way south towards the Prince Kemal el Din Monument, a cairn built in 1932 by the real English Patient, the Hungarian explorer Laszlo Almasy, to honour this Egyptian royal who gave up the Egyptian throne for a life of freedom and desert exploration.

The monument is tricky to find, hidden among low hills, and as darkness encroached we blundered around looking for a way through. Suddenly our cars stopped; up ahead the drivers had spotted some lights below the cliffs that had gone out as soon as they saw our group.


The Sahara is still a wild enough place to be unnerved when you see other vehicles, and in places banditry prevails as it always did, but such encounters are unknown in the hyper remote Gilf. This lot appeared more nervous of us than we were of them; they were almost certainly smugglers. A lot of trafficking goes on between Libya and Sudan, avoiding the Libyan border posts around Uweinat by slipping through far to the south via Chad or around the Egyptian Gilf, as was happening here.

Mahmoud flashed his lights to draw them out and eventually a Toyota pick-up drew up out of the dark with a bunch of people perched on stack of drums in the back, wrapped up in blankets. Mahmoud had to coax them into talking as they were clearly edgy and wanted to press on, but once they realised we were just tourists and our military escort was packing nothing more than a notebook and a woolly hat, they relaxed a bit. The other two or three vehicles stayed out of sight. It transpired they were Sudanese guest workers taking a short cut home from Libya with more duty-free items than the transit lounge at Dubai airport. As soon as they could, they sped off into the dark to regroup with the other vehicles and moved on out of sight.

Kemal al Din cairn


Next morning Richard and I walked the few kilometres to the monument on a GPS bearing and got there just as the cars arrived. Inside, just as at Regenfeld, an old tin contains notes from passers-by, including one of the old promotional stickers for my Sahara guidebook.
We turned southwest now for Jebel Uweinat, 150-km away, passing isolated volcanic craters poking out of the sand sheet like blisters. As we neared the mountain Mahmoud decided to skirt round the east side into Sudan to pay a visit to the Ain Murr well as our guard seemed OK about it. We spotted a long-abandoned border post right on 22°N, some old portacabins and other junk, and crawled through the rubble foothills until we were back on the sand sheet, with the fin-like outcrop of Jebel Kissu a few miles away. We turned west again and soon located the entrance to the shallow valley below the southern cliffs of Uweinat. As the valley narrowed and got stonier we passed some stone ruins and a stripped-out aeroplane fuselage. Once the cars could not continue, we walked on to discover the distinctly manky, algae-rimmed soak that was Ain Murr well – not a water source to rely on out here.


The bones of a dead Barbary sheep lay by the track and Ain Murr was the only place we heard the buzz of flies on the whole trip. Rubbish left by previous visitors underlined how much better it is to camp out in the wild desert. That night Aisa took even longer than usual to serve the meal, by which time some of us had turned in. But then again, he was up till 1am making his delicious flat breads, rolled out with a jack handle and fried on the lid of an old oil drum. Slow though he was some nights, Aisa managed to serve fresh food for the entire two-week trip, pulling it out from his various roof rack crates. I had endured awful food on my previous visit to the Gilf and Aisa’s far superior offerings reminded me that, just like an army, an expedition also travels on its stomach.


Near the camp we found a jerrican stamped ‘WD 1945’ and a pair of engine cowlings, probably part of the fuselage that later research revealed to be an Italian Savoia bomber sabotaged in 1942 during an LRDG raid when the place had been an Italian base.

We drove back round to the Egyptian side next day and into the much bigger valley of Karkur Talh. The valley is half blocked by a minefield, though why mine a dead-end valley with no water was anybody’s guess. Keeping a wide berth between us and the skull and crossbones signs, we powered over the sandy banks as Toby clung on in the back of the red Cruiser, doors flapping, to get some full-frontal action shots of the Rover-bodied cars.

Around here it rains about once a decade and the valley of Karkur Talh drains the entire eastern side of Uweinat mountain, the only haven of vegetation and talh or acacia trees in the entire arid expanse of the Libyan Desert. It wasn’t only us that appreciated it. Several thousand years ago Neolithic people grazed his animals here and, as at similar sites elsewhere in the Sahara, evidence of his life survives in the painted and engraved rock art on the cave walls and the odd stone tool.


A couple of us were hoping to have a crack at climbing to the 1932m-summit of Jebel Uweinat, a demanding two-day trek along whatever route the mountain offered. In a bit of a strop with his car, Mahmoud needed some persuading to continue up the valley far enough so we could have a shot at it, but as the sky lightened next morning, Richard and I strode up the dry creek bed with three bottles of water and a sleeping bag, soon followed by Toby and even Mahmoud who decided to come along too.

One of the big frustrations on this trip had been the slowness of the crew to pack up and get going in the morning. In the desert it’s customary to get up just after dawn and move off an hour or so later, parking up to enjoy some daylight before sunset. On this trip the drivers were still snoring away at 9am and, with regular problems getting one vehicle or another to fire up, it was always mid-morning before they set off. On Uweinat we were determined to seize the day!

This was all before the miracle of Google Earth so I carried a pixelated print of a sat photo showing a route taken a year or so earlier by another group which followed a likely looking valley up to the summit plateaux. Unfortunately I’d failed to lay an accurate long-lat grid onto this image and so, even with GPS, our position was just an estimate. In the end we started the day in Sudan, wandered north in to Egypt and, after an agonising late-afternoon up a boulder-filled valley, camped in Libya, about 500m below but still three kms direct from the summit – quite possibly the first people to camp there since the late Holocene. On the way up Mahmoud had discovered a new art site and our clearing even came with a bit of firewood. We were all knackered from staggering around all day on the rubble slopes and as the route onward was no less clear and would get much steeper, we returned to base next morning, getting back to the cars on the last dregs in our water bottles. The mountain would be there next time.


Uweinat was our southernmost point and from here it was north all the way, around the Gilf Kebir plateau to Siwa, still about 1000 miles away. We headed for the Gilf and the Wadi Sora cave, made famous as the ‘Cave of the Swimmers’ in the English Patient movie. As we neared the cave later that day we passed some clothes scattered in the sands, the remains of Somalian refugees who’d been dumped here by unscrupulous people traffickers while on their way to Benghazi and better opportunities in Europe. Loutfi had come across their bodies some months before. Besides the old favourites of guns and drugs, right across the Sahara it is now migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and Asia who made money for the smuggling mafias. I’d passed a similar group in Algeria a year earlier, dumped the night before on a plateau, 100km from the nearest town.

The famous ‘swimming’ figures in the cave at Wadi Sora are nothing special compared to the wonders in Karkur Talh, but the cove scooped into the south-facing escarpment of the Gilf made a great place to camp. It was Christmas Eve and from my suitcase I pulled out a pyramid of Ferrero Rocher chocolates to pass among the desert ambassadors settled around the fire.


Before I’d left the UK I’d been given a mysterious waypoint, said to be for an intriguing and at that time secret new rock art site discovered nearby, just a year earlier. Not knowing quite what to expect, we were amazed at what we found when we located the point: an overhanging shelter 30 feet wide covered in layers of rock paintings and engravings, both mundane and obscure, and all like nothing I’d seen before. We sat back in amazement, snapping away, again and again finding new detail and connections. Mysterious headless creatures shared the wall with handprints, rows of dancing figures and long-vanished beasts. Said to be the most significant rock art discovery in the Sahara in 40 years, it shows that the Sahara has many secrets to give up yet.

We were now heading around the west side of the Gilf, at times creeping over the Libyan border on to easier terrain, not that there was anyone there to stop us. Without the plateau’s protection, the north winds blew down on us and chilled the day, and next morning Mahmoud’s Land Rover was so groggy it needed a good session with the gas stove under the sump before being towed reluctantly into life.

We curved back east towards the edge of the Gilf and found ourselves on a trail of camel bones: the old raiding route from Kufra in Libya to Dakhla (via Abu Ballas, see above). By mid-afternoon the plateau receded and before us the pale dunes emerged: the final run through the Great Sand Sea to Siwa which, even with the now lightened cars, would be the most difficult part of the route.


We came upon a group of cairns marking an entry point to a northbound corridor which led to the so-called Libyan Desert Glass Field, discovered in the 1930s by one of Bagnold’s chums. At the time the origin of the pale green LDG (above) was still a mystery: the result of melted sand following an extra-terrestrial impact, or a more prosaic flint-like concretion of sediments? Kevin had his ideas as we strolled around the gravel corridor like beachcombers, unearthing fragments of glass. Even though no evidence of an actual crater has been found, since out visit shocked quartz has been detected in the bedrock of the LDG field. This supports the theory that it was indeed formed by a meteor impact some 28.5 million years ago, rather than an atmospheric airburst (passing airborne meteor) which can also melt the surface rocks. Similar green glass is found in heat-fused sand at nuclear bomb test sites. 

Some bits had even been carved into Neolithic tools, and a few years ago it transpired that an emerald-like gem in a piece of Tutankamun’s jewellery (left) was in fact LDG, suggesting the pharaohs (or people they traded with) roamed further west of the Nile than was originally thought.


We left the glass field, with 500km of dune driving ahead of us. The Great Sand Sea is composed of dunes that run in parallel lines for hundreds of kilometres from the Siwa Depression to the Gilf Kebir in the south. But the further north you go the more confused the dunes become; the easy corridors close up so that by the time you near Siwa the dunes are in a complex, non-linear jumble that makes progress very slow and dangerous, even with our greatly reduced payloads.
I’ve never been a fan of dune driving and was not looking forward to this section; besides the dangers, dune driving is hard on the cars and your nerves, and is not even that interesting. Although it’s exhilarating when you get it right, because of the need to maintain speeds or sink, it’s only a matter of time before you blow it.


It was my turn to be in Mahmoud’s car that morning and I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect. Over the previous few days, either the flexing body or the need to really slam the doors shut had cracked the windscreen which was now held together with stick-on shading. Then, when the back passenger door I was leaning on flew open as Mahmoud executed one of his signature swerving manoeuvres, I decided enough was enough – I would rather take my chances being brained by the oil drums in Loutfi’s Toyota than put up with Mahmoud’s erratic driving.

By the end of the day the gravel corridors closed up and filled with sand and we began to tackle the dune banks to reach the adjacent corridor leading north. We were all secretly pleased when Mahmoud decided against pushing on for the direct route to Siwa and instead chose to skirt around the less severe formations to the west, along the Libyan border. Even then, the cars regularly sank into unseen soft patches. We ended the day close to the Libyan border, knowing that tomorrow there was no choice and we’d have to head northeast, back into the Sand Sea, to reach Siwa.

A heavy dew covered us all the following morning, a sign that we were in the more humid Mediterranean climatic zone. The dune lines kept pushing us away as the drivers scanned for a low pass to make a hop to the east. At one point Mahmoud was on the very crest of a drop when a harsh gear change popped a half shaft – not surprising with a 3.5-litre bus engine turning the original Rover axle. In fact, it turned out to be only a stripped hub drive flange and was easily changed while we warmed ourselves in the sands over a quick brew.


With drive restored Tobe got into position to film the cars coming down the slope. Loutfi rolled down in the red Tojo then Mahmoud eased over the crest, but for some daft reason eased to the left where a slight hump pushed up the wheels and slowly tipped the top-heavy Land Rover on its side with a thump and a clatter.


For a few seconds the upside down engine turned over, sucking sand through the snorkel and oil into the cylinders. A few moments later it stalled and Mahmoud emerged from the capsized wagon unhurt and flopped down in the sand in shock, followed by Aisa and Faraq the mechanic. Luckily Mahmoud had had a cargo barrier fitted which had stopped gas bottles and the like bouncing off their heads, but the roof rack’s contents spilled down the side of the dune.


While these were collected, Ibrahim brought the white Rover down the dune with no drama and a rope was run from the fallen car to the powerful Tojo. The conspicuous silence from the crew made it clear that they too thought that Mahmoud had been an accident waiting to happen, though as it turned out it was his pride which received the biggest dent. Excuses that the parabolics sprang back and pushed him over were diplomatically dealt with as the car was dragged down the slope and pulled back onto its wheels (see video below). Faraq set about ejecting the oil from the cylinders and removed the sand-caked air filter which could be cleaned later. Just an hour after the tumble the Mahmoudmobile started with a puff of black smoke and settled down to a steady tickover.


Chastened by his experience, we continued cautiously northeast, now recce-ing possible passes on foot and easing gently down the slip faces, knowing that it wasn’t over until it was over. Limestone pavements protruded from the dunes and bits of vegetation popped up here and there. At one point we discovered some fulgarites (sand petrified by lightning into a glassy helix tube) as big as an arm. Our homesick crew could smell Siwa and were keen to press on, not least Ibrahim whose wife was expecting their seventh child any day. But by dusk we did the right thing and stopped a couple of hours out of Siwa on a chalky outcrop studded with fossilised sea-shells.


By mid-morning next day we’d worked our way through the dune maze and were looking down on the inky blue lake which led to Siwa, feeling like we’d finally come ashore from a long sea voyage. On his home turf now, Ibrahim led the way through the dunes to the hot spring of Bir Wahed (above) where were scrubbed off a fortnight of Saharan grime and ordered a string of Oranginas and crisps as if they were the very fruits of Eden.


This map show my three visits to the amazing Gilf gilf-routes-my

T is for Tenere: the Classic Tour

Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series

See also:
Tenere Eclipse 2006
Desert Riders 2003
Marlboro Piste 1999
Yamaha Teneres to the Tenere 1987
Mysterious Djado

Suntours 2001
Desert Riders 2003
Sahara Eclipse 2006

February-March 2001
Niamey – Agadez – El Meki – Timia – Assode – Zagado – Arakao – Agamgam – Oued Tanakom – Anakom – Arbre du Tenere – Fachi – Bilma – Dirkou – Yegueba – Seguedine – Chirfa – Djado – Orida – Djaba – Chirfa – Col de Chandeliers – Arbre Perdu – Grein – Adrar Bous – Temet – Izouzadene (Blue Mountains) – Adrar Chiriet – Tezirzek – Iferouane – El Meki – Agadez – Niamey (red route on map, left)

Update 20 years later: no one’s been here for years and years

My fascination with the Tenere probably started after reading the alluringly sparse route descriptions in the old Sahara Handbook in the early 1980s.

Several stillborn attempts followed, resulting in a clearly inadequate description in my own Sahara Overland guidebook of 2000. I decided it was time to cough up two grand on a tour and enjoy a relaxed recce that wouldn’t put my own Toyota at risk (there was a high chance of losing your car in this area at the time).

No Brit operators covered this part of the Sahara and, looking at various itineraries and prices, I chose Suntours, a German operator long established in the region. I may have communicated better with a French-speaking group, but Suntours’ 22-day itinerary looked the most thorough, including the lost valley or Enneri Blaka deep in the Djado plateau, with its mysterious submarine formation. (Vintage helicopter video bottom of the page).
I met the group in Paris and we flew straight down the Tanezrouft (no window seat, alas…), reaching Niamey at sunset where it transpired half of the group of nine’s baggage was missing. We had to hang around next day in the hope that the bags might turn up from Abidjan that evening. Like most sub-Sahara capitals, Niamey isn’t what you come to Africa for, but for 20p, the museum was a bargain, while brochettes at sunset on the terrace of the Grand Hotel is the done thing.
That night a few more bags turned up and, with only three missing, it was decided to take the 1000-km drive to Agadez; the luggageless ones would have to make do. This long drive is a drag. Flying direct to Agadez from Paris would be ideal, though I can see why Suntours don’t trust the Le Pointe charters. The American tour that got robbed at Temet (more below) suffered a typical, late Le Pointe cancellation on the way out, then all had to pay up for a scheduled flight. Glad I missed that trip!
As it happens, the night drive in two minibuses wasn’t so bad as most of us could stretch out on a bench seat and get some sleep. Leaving around midnight, we got to Agadez thirteen hours later for lunch at Ewaden Voyages’, the local partner of Suntours. Soon after, two old Sixty-series Land Cruisers and a Patrol were loaded up and we headed for the hills.

I’d been warned that I might find the Aïr a rough and dull drive – not the real Tenere. In fact, it was quite satisfying on the way out at least, when it was all new. Out here Tuareg dudes really do wander around from village to village on camels with their takouba swords by their side! I’ve never encountered the semi-sedentary Kel Aïr Tuareg before, but now realise how much Tuareg mythology might be based on the colourful culture of this accessible clan.

Tuareg swordsmen

We camped in a oued (“never camp in a oued!”) where Ibrahim cooked the first of many spectacular meals. How long could this last I wondered, and sure enough, by the time we got to the Kaouar in the east, things got a bit plain, but his outstanding lunchtime salads were works of art, composed of fresh ingredients for much longer than you’d expect in fridge-free motoring.
Another great aspect of this tour was letting us loose on foot while the morning (and sometimes lunchtime) camp was packed up by the crew. With a bit of luck you could get a quiet couple of miles under your soles before the cars caught up.

Twin Peak mountain, near Timia.

No one could have complained too much time was spent cooped up in the cars, although the constant attention the old dogs needed added frequent cig’ breaks. On the whole trip I doubt if we drove more than half an hour without one car stopping to fix something. That said, it was soon clear these drivers drove their vehicles with great care; a first for me in Africa. I was in the Patrol where Madougou treated the machine like his own. I’d have been happy for him to drive my car (and if you know most desert drivers, that’s quite an admission!).
The southern Aïr is a Sahel of low reddish hills which darken and rise towards Timia and the volcanic extrusions thereabouts. Settlements and nomadic encampments focus round the gravely oueds, some with nearby gardens and enclosures. You’re never far from others in the Aïr.

Green route on the way out, blue on the return

With the frequent stops, I thought we were hung out to dry with the cadeau-crazed village kids a little too long for comfort, as if it was pre-arranged that we would crack and splash out on Tuaregobilia. By the time we got to Timia I sensed the group had had enough, and being sent off on a futile tour of this unremarkable village had us all pining for the desert.

The hand pump in Timia

“Do you know Alex Marr?” a young Timia boy asked me in French. Well, as it happened I did. I’ve never actually met him, Alex contributed to and was on the front cover of my fourth Adventure Motorcycling Handbook. He came through here on his way to Bilma in 1999, thinking he could ride from there to Lake Chad because of a black line on the Michelin map; not the first to make that mistake. (I noticed Alex also entered the Dakar Rally in 1988). I had the novel experience of receiving a cadeau to pass on to Alex. AMH4
While deflecting vendors’ parries I got talking with a French visitor to Timia and an elder Targui, and asked about the robbery at Temet dunes a couple of weeks earlier. Who were the culprits and had they been caught? The old Tuareg shyly slid behind his cheche at the mere mention of the event, while the French guy realised it was associated with the ‘Madame Tortoise’ (Turtle Tours) he’d heard so much about in the village. She used Dunes Voyages, an established Agadez agency, but you can see from that link, Irma Turtle’s customers were not a happy bunch, even when they weren’t being robbed.
I’d already asked Hans our guide about it, but he’d pretended not to understood me. I never found out if the rest of our group knew of the raid (known chiefly to the Saharan online community), and if they were bothered about it. Two months later another tourist group like ours was turned over close to where we’d spoken.

The waterdribble near Timia

The volcanic geology around Timia is interesting, including the cascade which reminded me of Mutujulu Springs running off Uluru (Ayers Rock). At this beauty spot an orderly line of vendors sat behind a line of rocks imposed by the European agencies on pain of dropping the stopover from their itineraries. Next day we visited the surprisingly substantial ruins of Assode, the old capital of the Aïr before Agadez became pre-eminent a few centuries ago. With that ticked off, by lunch time we watched the women watering their goats at Tchintoulous well, enjoying more relaxed shopping opportunities as they discreetly laid out their wares near us. Then, at the top end of the Zagado valley we spent out last night in the Aïr facing the Taghmert plateau (below).

Zagado facing the Taghmert plateau

We were now traversing the Neolithic borderlands of the western Tenere and soon pre-Islamic tombs became discernible on the hillsides. Stops hereabouts revealed the usual Neolithic artefacts and at one point I found four grinding stones (left), their easily found milling stone (or moule) plates having long ago been grabbed by collectors.
Some consider the collection of Stone Age artefacts tantamount to grave robbery, but to me they’re just non-degradable Neolithic relics that tell a story. Finding them is like beach combing and a lot more satisfying than haggling over a Tuareg cross. And it’s more acceptable that pinching Tuareg heirlooms like swords and camel saddles from impoverished villagers. But, although the collection of artefacts was not discouraged on our tour, I’ve changed my mind on this practice now. Leave these things in the desert. In many countries it has become illegal to remove them.

Arakao: the crab’s claw

A tongue of jumbled dunes spill through the mouth of the cirque of Arakao (above), dividing the easily visited south side from the less accessible northern half. We camped on the crest of the dune cordon and spread out to explore. As one would expect, a sheltered site like Arakao was inhabited during Neolithic times and probably long before that. We visited several tombs in the southeast corner and kicked about for more artefacts, usually made from the distinctively green flint-like jasperite found in this region.


Hans, always energetically scanning the sands, found me an amazing rod of fulgarite in the dunes: a brittle, pencil-thin tube of petrified sand caused by a lightning strike. Since I first found some on the edge of Algeria’s Oriental Erg years ago (without then knowing what it was), this stuff has always amazed me: lightning turned into stone: a true wonder of nature. Walking back from a dune summit I found Hans’ spot and excavated another slender undisturbed twig over half a metre long. Who knows how deep it went.

Desert pizza

Traditionally Ibrahim always baked a pizza at Arakao we were told, keeping up the circular theme. A thick and chewy Margarita the size of a Land Cruiser wheel is quite an achievement using just enamel trays and embers, and while we all gave him full marks for audacity and presentation, sadly the dough didn’t quite rise.


We cruised down the east side of the Aïr, stopping to admire the amazingly and bizarre engravings at Oued Tanakom and Anakom, at times driving continuously over stones all fashioned into tools over the millennia. One can visualise the Neolithic settlements spread out by a long-gone river running out of the mountains, while wild game and herds grazed on the plains of the Tenere, now covered in sand.
At ‘Long Stones Pass’ we could make out the mass of Adrar Madet and the Erg Brusset to the east, and later that afternoon finally shook off the Aïr’s margins and headed across the serir for the Tree.

Or is it Anakom?

To finally see the Arbre du Tenere after reading about it over the years was quite a buzz. These days there’s a lot more there than just a bad well and the old metal tree (the original is in Niamey Museum looking as interesting as a bag of crisps). Some Japanese recently built a wacky pylon, and there’s the usual litter, other structures and a water tank. There are even a couple of new trees (“tropical species, pah!” exhorted our biologist guide, Hans) which you’re asked to water when you are there. As Tony Gastel reported in 2000, the water is far from ‘tres mauvais’ as the Michelin map states, but it is very deep, taking three men to haul up the bucket nearly 150 feet. While they watered the cars, we had a chance to wash and then headed along the dune corridors towards Fachi.

Deep well at the Arbre du Tenere
Bilma this way

At first we drove over irritating tussocks and I had the impression we were going south. A lunchtime GPS check validated my preternatural sense of direction; Abdullai the local guide having deliberately dropped a few parallel corridors to pick one which lead directly to Fachi.

Soon the vegetation disappeared and we were passing among the low, pale yellow dunes of the northern Tenere Erg with very few tracks and no balises. To me, sat in the passenger seat, the driving and navigation of this famous route appeared relatively easy, with the odd bogging easily reversed. Occasionally we came across an old azelai camp with masses of camel dung and other rubbish, and a little later some abandoned kantus (salt pillars) with the dead camel nearby. But we encountered no actual caravans as Tony had last October: the azelai season.

Salt pillars fallen off the back of a camel

Some gravel pans in the corridors harbour the odd patch of Neolithic chippings,. We found tiny arrowheads, something I thought all but impossible with casual fossicking. The fine craftsmanship and variety of these centimetre-long spikes is nothing short of amazing. They may only be a century old of course, but are probably much older. I imagine like moules, they were found and reused for centuries and centuries.

We camped in the lee of a dune. Next morning we approached Fachi – lovely in Jean Luc Manaud’s famous image, but well camouflaged below the Agram escarpment. The sand-filled streets and tamarisk trees give Fachi a nice, ex-colonial appearance. This was Kanuri country, not Tuareg, though Hans suggested that Kanuri are merely Tubus of the Kaouar region of eastern Niger. I have read that Kanuri (‘from Kano’) like to deny this. We got watered at the well, checked in with the sultan who was entertaining a Spanish TV crew, and then went for a look around the old town escorted by the sulky sultan’s son. Although I find old ksars as emblematic of the Sahara’s romance as anyone, the giant urns inside the old fort was about as interesting as Old Fachi got.

Fachi High Street

Back by the cars, we were left to stew among the cadeau kids until nice and tender. I went for a wander up a street, looked down an avenue and got spotted whereupon a tidal wave of kids surged towards me. I wouldn’t be surprised if each of us was asked 50-100 times for bics or whatever. It’s all part of being a tourist in Africa, but what was the delay? Having had a quiet time since Timia a few days ago, it was clear that the group was getting irritated by this.

After a visit to the salt evaporation pits (salines) round the back, and lunch in the palms north of town, we headed up a sandy pass in the Agram escarpment where the sand softened noticeably. All the cars struggled and Kaiou’s red HJ60 – which at the best of times smoked like a Ukrainian steelworks – started frying its clutch. We could smell it burning from our car, but he kept pushing and eventually it disintegrated down to bare metal. Luckily Abdullai has a spare and, with the aid of ropes, two jacks and some legs, Kaiou’s Cruiser was running again four hours later.

The cars drove in strict formation. Abdullai up front, Madougou with us in the Patrol and Kaiou last. But Madougou was a bit slow and sometimes Kaiou got ahead, belching his unburned black puke all over us. Sensing our latest irritation, they halfheartedly tried to fix it later, but the car ran so what’s the matter? Worn diesel injector pumps are a problem in the Sahara, and the mixture on his car was far too rich. Kaiou ran out of fuel before Bilma.
With the ridge of the Kaouar behind it, Bilma is easy to spot. I had the impression that crossing from the Tree was relatively easy. The corridors line up just right and in good visibility you can’t miss the Agram or Kaouar escarpments. Finding the Tree without GPS if coming from the east would not be so easy, but even then, grasses and converging tracks would be a clue that you’re close.
Hans described Bilma as a dead town and I find Tony’s figures of 12,000 population rather unlikely (for the massive Bilma district, maybe). We stopped at a garage for water. An HJ75 was getting fresh oil and a 109 Land Rover waited outside: thwo classic Saharan cars. On this side of the Tenere you also find plenty of Nigerians washed up on the road to Libya and so English is spoken, but as in much of West Africa, everyone speaks several languages. Our guides chatted in a mixture of Tamachek, Arabic, French, Djerma, Hausa and Tuburi (or ‘Kanuri’).
With the jerries full, we drove round to the fort to hand in our passports and pay the provincial tax. Out here you officially need stamps in Bilma, Dirkou and Chirfa which takes up a good page or two of your passport. Near the fort are a couple of market stalls full of Nigerian goods and junk sold by Hausas who I get the impression, are the ‘trading Moors’ of this side of the Sahara. Knowing this, it made sense to learn that the famous Bilma salt caravans or azelais are organised and managed by Hausa or Peul, not Tuareg, though Tuareg camels and guides are hired for the job. And the good news is that these caravans are far from the dying tradition many think. Tony’s reports of seeing several caravans was no fluke.

Next day we hit Dirkou, a thriving frontier town that’s the true capital of the Kaouar. Nigerians and other desperadoes head north on top of Mercedes lorries to a life of slavery in Libya, only to get sent back following one of Gaddafi’s purges, sat on the piles of subsidised or stolen goods on the same Mercedes gros porteurs that pass daily through Dirkou.

Mercedes gros porteur. Underneath all that stuff is a full tanker of Libyan diesel

By the compound where Andy and Richard spent their Dirkou detention, is a Tubu technical shot to smithereens and left as a reminder that the government won that rebellion. Passports handed in, I had a choice to go see Jerome or check out the town. Lively though Dirkou looked (and free of hassle, I was told later), I went to pay my respects to the late Diesel Prince of the Tenere, finding a friendly old man instead of the money grabbing Shylock I’d expected. He can afford to smile, selling Libyan fuel at a 1000% mark up, but still a tad less than the official Nigerien price.
A big Mercedes was unloading and I got talking with the driver who originally came from Djelfa in northern Algeria, while his two boys bounced oil drums off their heads, Tubu daggers tucked in their belts. He was full of praise for ‘Le System Mercedes’ but didn’t have much to say about the run down from Sebha that I could understand; some diesel may have seeped into our brains over the years.

Although 75 years old, Jerome was lucid and delighted to meet a Brit, claiming to have fought for Monty at El Alamein and all the rest. He rolled off a string of generals’ names and dates which sounded plausible, but later Hans suggested had I been German it would have been the same story under Rommel. In fact, a mate who has since met Jerome found out he is indeed an Anglophile, proudly showing an old WWII photo of himself in a Brit uniform. Gerbert van Der Aa, another S-Files Tenere contributor, interviewed Jerome for a Dutch paper a year or two ago before he died in 2003.
Back with the group, Luggageless Erich had bought himself a Hausa outfit, complete with hat. Erich was not all there following a bungled operation in his early forties, and was quite a laugh in a subversive, boyish way. Vendors zoned in on his naïveté and he ended the trip, grinning and draped in Nomadobilia.

Bilma and the Kaouar

The landscape of the Kaouar was a bit grubby for my liking. We dropped into the salt works north of Dirkou where natron salt was mined. I noticed Madougou took some with his chewing tobacco, as they do in these parts. By the time we got to Yeguebba – the northern end of the Kaouar escarpment – the colour of the sand was a pleasingly orange again. We stopped to collect some firewood (there’s plenty of firewood here and masses in the Aïr) and drove across the soak where the last car mired. What a mess, the quicksands wobbled like jelly and it makes you appreciate how easy and clean dry desert sand is to get out of. But with sand plates and a tow, the car was out and we spent the night nearby in the rocks where a fennec (desert fox, sort of) popped in for a visit.
Since Bilma it had become clear our drivers were getting tired and probably anxious at being out on the far side of the Tenere in their old bangers. Their banter became restrained and you could see they longed to be back in their own territory. We were having an easy time of course, waited on hand and foot and with nothing to worry about other than, for some, grabbing the best camp spot for the night. I couldn’t join in the evening chatter but it didn’t bother me, though I can now say ‘schpoon’ in German. Anyway, with time to myself I had a fresh batch of hare-brained schemes to nurture through their delicate development stage.
Years ago, I recall reading in the Sahara Handbook about the importance of finding Pic Zumri to get to Seguedine from the north and now, there it was and the village laid out in the dip below. Here, the Adadez truck piste from Achegour splits, heading northeast behind the Djado plateau for Tumu and Libya or even east for Chad – a long closed route. Following a visit to Seguedine’s checkpoints, multi-coloured salines, and some gentle bartering with the wily Tubu women, we set off northwest across stony plains, passing petrified wood, the landmark of Oleki peak, and stopping for lunch at Sara ‘oasis‘. A hot wind was blowing from the southwest today, hazing the sky and raising the temperature to the high 30s.
But lunch with Suntours was never less than a shady two-hour siesta, finished off with three glasses of ‘chai’. On this occasion Abdullai resoldered his burst radiator on the fire. Earlier, I noticed he’d tried to use clay dust as we’d done in Algeria years ago. I can report that bodge is no less effective at the hands of a wizened Tuareg desert driver than in mine…
Hans was a great guide and had a good way of melting the ice at checkpoints by bringing photos from previous visits. At the Chirfa control post, where the guys in their football kit always have a gun close by, the photos caused much delight, as they did in Chirfa village where we picked up some water and veggies from the garden. All through this trip it was clear that Suntours has developed a close rapport with many communities and individuals over the years. At many places Hans discreetly handed over medicaments to the village pharmacy (eye drops and aspirins were much in demand).

Djado plateau

I’d been urged to make sure our tour visited Old Chirfa (aka ‘Tebeza’) a short distance from Chirfa village, and sure enough, it was on our itinerary. The old citadel is part of a string of medieval fortified towns that run up from Seguedine and maybe once even Bilma and further south, tracing a defunct trading route which explorers Clapperton and Oudney followed in the 1820s down to Lake Chad, later followed by Hans Vischer in 1906 (see Shadows Across the Sahara). Strolling around Old Chirfa was thrilling but for me the true highlight of the trip, as expected, was Djado, the following morning.

Djado from the air

Djado (photo Klaus W.) is a huge complex which must have housed thousands a few centuries ago. In winter it’s surrounded by a lake of brackish water which I’m old oddly, disappears in the rainy season. In autumn the whole of Chirfa moves here to harvest the dates from the many palms; their zeriba huts ring the ancient ruins. Exploring the crumbling town was incredible, every corner revealed a stunning view of distant escarpment, desert sands and waving date palms. My camera had passed out in Fachi, but luckily Klaus had a bag full of lenses and film and agreed to keep shooting for me.
Hans poured scorn on the theory of pseudo archeologist Uwe George in Geo magazine. He’s discovered a room with a cross relief (now called the ‘eglise’) and who went on to claim that Christians migrated here from Ethiopia in the first millennium. I’m all for interesting theories but it does indeed sound implausible if not an outright publicity stunt which some publicity-savvy academics are fond of pulling off.


We were about to enter a region controlled [at that time] by unreconstructed Tubu outlaws – an anomaly tolerated by the Niger government who let them have the remote Djado plateau to themselves (and maybe pull off the odd tourist and car robbery on the edge of the Aïr?). No longer did our guides stop to chat with every passing car, mumbling a string of greetings. Now it was just ‘get out of my way’ crabbiness you’ll find in any city. We crossed a sandy ridge near the no less photogenic ksar of Djaba and stopped at a Tubu checkpoint where Abdullai gruffly handed over a 5000 CFA tax without so much as a “Sallam alei…

Djaba in winter

Ahead of us rose the massive monolith of Orida prominent since yesterday, and behind it the arch and the forbidden rim of the Djado plateau beyond. The landscape and warm colours evoke the tassilis of the Ajjer and Akakus with which the Djado plateau is contiguous. Most Ewaden guides would not come this far into Tubu territory, let alone reach out towards the intriguing Enneri Blaka (which was on our itinerary but we didn’t visit).
Lunch was under the palms near Djaba. Some Tubu girls parked up and set up their trinkets on a mat. This sort of ‘silent trading’ was much more agreeable and relaxed than the bombardment we got in the Aïr villages. But it works both ways: Tuareg tend to make more agreeable company than grouchy Tubu.

We returned to Chirfa to pick up more water and our passports and then headed out along the Djanet track to the Col de Chandeliers (aka ‘Pass de Orida‘). A cozy camp was set up among the sun-warmed rocks while to the west, the plain of the Tenere du Tafassasset spread out like a becalmed ocean. It’s a corny simile for the desert I know, but this is the first place I’ve seen in the Sahara where it was appropriate. This was the real Tenere – a word usually used to describe the whole of northeast Niger and the Tamachek translation of the Arabic ‘Sah’ra’ or empty quarter.

The awe of this emptiness was lessened next day by the clear tracks running west to Arbre Perdu (which we rode to on bikes in 2003) and on to the isolated hills of Grein. But further on, beyond the northern outliers of Erg Capot Rey, even the tracks and wind-aligned ripples disappeared until it was hard to tell if we were moving at all, baring the drone of the engine as it hit a soft patch. Running at these high speeds caused a new set of problems for the aged Toyotas and while a puncture was fixed, Ibrahim prepared a quick lunch in the shade of the cars. We continued west through the void and in the late afternoon the profile of Adrar Bous mountain loomed out of the western haze.

Only 200km from somewhere

Adrar Bous is well known as a locality of Neolithic knick-knacks, and we parked up by a Stone Age ‘chip pan’ and shuffled around for more arrowheads, then camped in a sheltered creek; an old Tuareg hide-out from the days of the rebellion. All of our crew were former rebels who’d fought in the bitter war of the early 1990s. Since then, the Tuareg of the Aïr have won some concessions on the organisation of tourism; the whole of Niger’s tourism depends on their kudos after all. But in the poor villages of the Aïr, aid still struggles to make much impact. All the better then is tourism like this where our money goes straight into the hills.
From Adrar Bous we were back on the tramlines of the Tenere Loop which winds down the eastern side of the Aïr into the dunes of Temet where the Austrian and American groups had been robbed a couple of weeks earlier. I’ve since got the full story from one of the people involved (see link above) and it was no hit and run raid, but a thorough and thoroughly intimidating robbery of all involved, and in which the drivers of the American group from Dunes Voyages excelled themselves in stopping all the cars being taken. One hears it may have been renegade Mali Tuareg behind it; they’ve been behind most of the tourist (and rally) robberies over the last couple of years, though such events are always blamed on foreigners. I’ve since read the ‘leader has been caught’, hopefully not just any old Tuareg in the wrong place at the wrong time. We had lunch at the site of the robbery where I probed our drivers, but didn’t get much of a response so left it and walked up the huge dune with the rest of the group. Since then, there was another raid of a German group in Timia in March.
A winding corridor led east out through the dunes and we spent the evening at Izouzadene, the striking outcrop of marble veined with cobalt salts known as the Blue Mountains. From a distance they do have a distinctive pale blue hue, but close up the grey veins look less impressive and the masses of tracks in the area could almost make it Morocco.

From here we drove south through the dunes to Adrar Chiriet, visible from the summits of Izouzadene, enjoying the classic east Aïr panoramas of dunes lapping against a backdrop of purple-grey plateaux. Driving into the massif, Ibrahim stopped to grab a bunch of wild grass to concoct a herbal infusion for later; a change from the endless Tuareg tea we drank daily. West of Chiriet, a rocky track led to Tchou-m Adegdeg well. Just on the other side of the Teghmert plateau was the point at the Zagado valley where we’d emerged from the Aïr nearly a fortnight ago. Here Tuareg nomads watered their herds and a camel sipped from the bowl in which my shirt stewed in detergent.

Two axes and a few thousand years in between

Between here and the nearby Tezerzik well is a lovely scenic drive through dunes featuring a distinctive lip below their crests. At Tezerzik the drivers bought a nomad’s sheep for a tenner and slung it on the roof. At the nearby camp in the dunes I watched them slaughter and butcher it with the same casual effortlessness they’d employed to repair the clutch a few days earlier. Interestingly, there’s not much blood when the throat is cut and once the hide has been peeled back the thing in hung on a stake, its ribs pulled apart and the innards removed for the drivers subsequent delectation; we got the tender meat in a cous-cous. Normally I find cous-cous an over-rated North African ‘must-eat’, but the way Ibrahim prepared it, both the millet and the sauce were as good as it gets.

From here the desert section of the tour was over and we had a dreary three-day drive back down through Iferouane and the main track via El Meki to Agadez. It was March now and the nights were irritatingly windy, but the drivers were brightening up, pleased to be on home turf.
I had the feeling these last days to Agadez were strung out with unnecessary stops to fill the time. The third night in yet another creek full of thorns and dung, just a couple of clicks out of Agadez seemed unnecessarily stingy. In my experience a tour should end on an upbeat note if possible, not dribble away the final days. I gather the others also complained about this retracing through the Aïr – ‘for fresh vegetable’ they were told, but our last lunch in the bush was all tinned. Despite the day lost in Niamey, maybe we could have nipped out to Enneri Blaka, after all, but I know well you do need to keep a few days in hand, especially somewhere edgy like the Tenere. I’m sure Suntours have developed their itinerary carefully over the years, but leaving the desert at the very last minute – along the track from the Tree to Agadez for example, would have been more satisfying.

Agadez mosque

We had an option for a hotel in Agadez that night and, wanting to check the town out in my own time, I took up the offer with the two couples and spent the night the Hotel Tidene near the mosque. I checked out some other agencies but as advised, Agadez itself doesn’t have much to offer. Next day the tour regrouped and set off for the long hot slog back to Niamey, getting home by the skin of our teeth following an Air Afrique strike and cancelled flights.
Should I return with my own vehicle I think I’d repeat the recent tour of an Italian friend: leave Djanet without checking out and with stacks of diesel and a Niger visa, then do my own thing in the northern Tenere around Grein, Adrar Bous and down as far as Chiriet maybe. If you get caught at least you have a visa and if you don’t, no one knows any better and you slip back into Algeria (as we did in 2003 on Desert Riders). If anything, doing it this way is less prone to getting hijacked than the local tours whose timetables and routes make them easy targets. But it’s a risk that will probably never go away (and within two years got very much worse).

This tour indeed proved to be a great recce of the famous Tenere I had long wanted to visit. I found the Aïr and its Tuareg life more interesting than I thought, and the run in both directions across the Tenere less impressive than I imagined.
The whole Djado region is of course amazing, as are parts of the eastern Tenere bordering the Aïr, but the Tenere is no longer the wild Sahara of my imagination. TV crews and tours have put the place firmly on the map and, beautiful though it is in its entirety, getting off the tracks would have been more fun, something that you can only do yourself and in good vehicles.

I found this nice IGN half million map of the Air in Niamey. Dating from 1991, it’s a similar style to the Niger country map from IGN but I can’t say I’ve ever seen this one in Paris. In many ways it’s superior to the one million IGNs which are pretty old now and don’t show recent roads. Mine cost me 50FF, plus old paperback and a small argument from the side of the Grand Hotel.

I returned to the Tenere with my own tour for the Eclipse of 2006, and visited many of the same amazing places with another great crew (and ran into Abdullai in Chirfa). Our two-weeker was a perfect Saharan adventure.

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Me at the Tree