In and Out of Africa
Second Time Lucky
In the cold light of dawn we reviewed our list of failed or missing equipment and realised how woefully ill-prepared we were for the journey ahead. Although the equipment had been chosen carefully (and correctly) it was completely untested. The tent leaked and the base of unsealed wood was beginning to go mouldy. We had left without fuel for the 'multi fuel' stoves and had needed to use our 'emergency' solid fuel stoves. When we finally got some fuel and tested out the stoves one of them was broken anyway. There was a problem with the charge circuit for the reserve battery and fridge. The ladder for the tent had broken and the fitting for the outside light was a joke.
We phoned the Landrover dealer. "Hello, I'm the guy with the grey county",
"Yes", "The one where you replaced the timing belt, and mislaid the drain hole
cover", "er, yes", "and where the diff lock light stopped working", "Oh yes".
He was beginning to remember us. "How can we help you" he asked, "The clutch
is slipping", I replied, "It is probably a worn clutch plate, they do wear
out you know. I'm afraid the workshop is fully booked at the moment, we could
look at it next week for you?", he said politely. "You replaced the clutch
two months ago", I replied.
The clutch was replaced, the brakes adjusted and the truck steam cleaned. No money changed hands and it was ready the next day. The service manager was all smiles when we went to collect it, although I suspect there had been harsh words used in the workshop.
The rest of the equipment was also repaired and thoroughly tested. We even filled the Landrover with ballast, searched the map for steep hills and tested the clutch very thoroughly. Not that we didn't trust them or anything...
It was three weeks before we were ready to leave again. This time we left quietly and without ceremony. There was no flat champagne to bring us 'luck' and I think everyone quietly expected to see us back again in another months time. Even though the 'Gulf Conflict' was over the idea of driving through Spain, which our minds had filled with robbers and bandits, followed by the risk of getting stoned in Morocco still held little appeal. We decided to take a ferry from Marseilles to Oran (in Algeria) instead. There is less likelihood of rioting in a small port like Oran than in a big city like Algiers and 36 hours on a ferry sounded much more relaxing than driving all that way through Spain and Morocco.
We were much more relaxed and confident now. The Paris Peripherique was like an old friend and we had a list of campsites already prepared. The temperatures were much warmer (only just below zero!) and the drive to Marseilles was a good one.
We found the port easily and went searching for the ferry. Fiona had learned French at school and was the official interpreter. With a little difficulty she discovered that the ferry was along the wharf in the direction of some shiny white French ferries with SNCM written on them. SNCM was also written on our tickets so these looked promising. We passed a rather rusty looking hulk adorned with Arabic script as we drove towards the gleaming ferries and were very glad that we wouldn't be travelling on that. Eventually we found the queue. Our large Landrover seemed out of place in this line of rather dubious looking Peugots and Renaults, each loaded to the brim with electrical goods. One even had a satellite dish on the roofrack. Some of these vehicles could barely move, they were so overloaded. Fortunately the ferry looked very robust and easily capable of handling these loads. The queuing system was unlike any other and I still don't know quite what was supposed to happen. People would drive at will from one line to another whenever there appeared to be a gap in the line. Others would drive right from the back of the hall and move in to the front of the queue. No one seemed in the least bit disturbed by this. At least we were slowly getting closer to the gleaming comfortable ferries. After finally clearing customs we followed the line of cars moving slowly towards the white ferry, which looked more and more appealing as we got closer. Then we came to the jetty where the big ships were berthed, fully expecting to see the queue disappear into the gaping doors of a gleaming white ferry. The queue, however, had other ideas and continued along the wharf, finally stopping at the rusty hulk we had seen earlier. As one heavily laden vehicle after another struggled up the ramp I wondered if this boat had gunwales to be loaded up to. If it did they were probably below the water line by now. With a feeling of foreboding we parked the truck in the hold, padlocked the doors and went upstairs to explore.
I suppose we should have realised that the French wouldn't run a shiny modern ferry on this route, which catered for itinerant Algerian workers rather than wealthy European tourists. At this time we had no knowledge of French imperialist history or their relationship with Algeria and our experience of racial intolerance was limited to being put at the worst tables in a restaurant in Singapore because we were white (much to the chagrin of our Chinese hosts, who were regular customers).
The 32 hours were long, especially when the wind came up and the waves demonstrated what they could do in the absence of modern gyroscopic stabilisation. Everyone else on the ship wandered through our area at least once on a desperate mission to the side of the deck. Perhaps if we'd had more to eat or drink we'd have been sick too. Our food and water supplies were locked away deep in the hold of the ferry and all we had to eat and drink was a litre and a half of water and some day old French bread. Eventually we were forced to fill our water bottle from the tap in the toilets, something we would regret later.
Eventually, our first view of Africa poked itself through the haze on the horizon. It was overcast inland and it looked like rain. The boat docked at 18:00, a mere two hours late. Finally we would set foot on African soil, or at least African concrete. Getting off the ferry was a far cry from the orderly exit in Plymouth. People were shouting, honking their horns, starting, trying to start and failing to start their engines all at the same time. The hold was slowly filling up with exhaust fumes and we were parked in the convenient ventilation free area at the back of the hold with all the other big vehicles.
Everyone was trying to get through customs at once. Movement forward was made even more difficult when people would suddenly get out of their vehicles and start to pray in the middle of the wharf in front of us. One man began to put down his mat then looked up at us (and the bull-bars), smiled and moved to one side. Someone came up and asked for cigarettes. We had bought several cartons of cigarettes duty free for the purpose of giving away to officials and thus smoothing our way through borders and check points. This man looked suitably official and Fiona found a packet, meaning to give him one - he took the whole packet. Neither of us are smokers ourselves so the packets would invariably be full when someone asked for one. We lost a lot of cigarettes that way.
Another man, this time in uniform wandered past. "Ca va" he said. We looked blank and said "Hello".
So we crawled into the back of the Landrover, closed our curtains and settled down for the night. Tired, confused, still only 20 metres from the wharf and desperately in need of a wash, we were finally in Africa. It was a good feeling.
In the morning we changed our clothes and some money, bought our 'assurance' (with no idea of what affect this assurance would have in the event of an accident) and got our official wharf exit stamp. Africa at last! I had always expected to drive off under deep blue African skies and a sweltering sun. As we drove through the gates onto the open road the sky was overcast and heavy with rain.
Soon we came across our first African road block. This would always be a nerve racking experience. There are several types of road blocks ranging from official government 'revenue gathering' roadblocks to murderous bandits and there is very little practical distinction between them.
They fall into the following categories.
a) You must stop so they can check your papers, search your vehicle and try and separate you from money, cigarettes or ball point pens. If you don't stop they will shoot you and throw you in jail. If you stop but your papers are not in order they will throw you in Jail and/or shoot you. If your papers are in order they may let you proceed.
Roadblocks come with or without barriers, where a barrier may be fierce looking nails in a piece of camouflaged wood laid across the road, or a precariously balanced pole. There will usually be several listless looking men with AK47 assault rifles hanging around flexing their index fingers. To make your decisions even more complicated there will usually be three men waving you on and one indicating that you should stop. The trick is to know who to believe. They seem to derive some form of amusement from making you do the wrong thing. I suspect this is because a wrong decision on your part allows them to use the 'automatic fire' setting on their treasured AK47s.
This was our first experience of roadblock and we didn't know what to do. We decided to drive through slowly. The loud shouting suggested to us that we should really stop. Fortunately for us the Algerian police didn't seem to have the same fascination for AK47s as they do in the rest of Africa.
A vehicle drove past going the other way with a yellow light on the top. It turned around and started following us. We weren't sure whether the yellow light meant police, army, ambulance or road maintenance. As It passed us the occupants indicated that we should pull over. One of them came over. "Ca va", he said. We shook hands and smiled. He then said something we didn't understand so we started to show him all our documentation. He was now looking as puzzled as we were. Then his face brightened. He said something to his friends which included the word "Gendarmes". They all laughed heartily. They were far from being gendarmes and were in fact simply wondering if we wanted to sell any of our tyres or other equipment. We decided we needed the tyres more than they did and after some more smiling and shaking of hands continued on our way.
The next day the slow dry slope continued on. The plain was still rocky and dune free. Even though I had been taught in school that most of the Sahara was 'rocky' desert and I could see the yellow patches on the map falling many kilometres to either side of our route, I still couldn't help thinking of rolling dunes with French Foreign Legionaries on camel back. The hill dragged on for several more slow, soporific hours until solid rock walls arose around us to form the Arak Gorge. The sheer sandstone cliffs had been sculpted by many centuries of hot desert wind howling along its length. The enveloping walls of the gorge fell away once more to be replaced by the open wastes of the central Sahara. We were on the edge of a plateaux, looking out over a vast open plain. On the other side of this was another plateaux and then in the distance yet another plateaux again. The stark beauty of the landscape washed away the anger of the robbery, the disappointment of the return and the mind numbing quality of the last few days. In a way the trip started for me on the edge of the Arak gorge as I watched the road ahead fade away into infinity across the desert plain.
Just beyond Tamanghasset was the beginning of the Saharan Piste and the Algerian police insist that you travel in convoy unless you are very experienced. Our intention was to find some other tourists to travel with. However we were almost the first to arrive from Europe since the unpleasantness in the gulf had finished. Most of the other people at the campsite were driving Mercedes saloons or Peugot 504's. There is a small but thriving trade buying (or perhaps stealing) these cars in France very cheaply, driving them through the desert and selling them in West Africa. There is not a lot of profit in this venture and it is fraught with problems. Even new these vehicles are not exactly ideal for a Saharan crossing. Most of the examples here would be deemed unroadworthy in Europe and yet they are about to drive through some of the harshest road conditions in the world. Travelling across the desert with some mad entrepreneur in cars with one tyre in the scrap yard was not our preferred option. Frank however met up with some Germans in Mercedes saloons and decided to head off with them. They left in a hurry while we were in town shopping when they left so we never really had time to say goodbye.
A large petrol tanker pulled into the campsite and eventually curiosity got the better of us and we went over to talk to the Dutch couple driving it. They were also on an entrepreneurial venture. The E.E.C. were in the process of changing the regulations regarding the width of tanker side walls and there were old tankers for sale very cheaply all over Europe. Jan and Trudie had already crossed the desert many times, originally in a Peugot 205 (which they ended up giving away), graduating to buses full of fridges (they still called him Mr Fridgidaire in Niger) and now tankers were a new avenue to explore. They seemed a nice couple and had a very different attitude to most of the other entrepreneurs. Jan did several trips a year and Trudie came at least once a year simply because she loves the desert. They were waiting for a (German!) friend of theirs called Detlef who was driving a large Mercedes 4 Wheel drive truck with a Mercedes saloon on the back and a diesel generator in tow. These were sensible people with vision who knew the desert. Exactly the kind of people to travel through the Sahara with.
As we were about to leave the campsite a large blue overland tour truck arrived laden with assorted tourists, predominantly English and Australasians. We had a long chat with a friendly easygoing Australian called Trev and briefly considered travelling across with them. They had been having trouble with their driver or courier who kept disappearing to telephone his girlfriend and was generally miserable the rest of the time. So we decided to continue with Jan and Trudy after all.
After filling up with as much diesel as we could carry (this might be the last chance for cheap Algerian diesel), we drove to the end of the tar seal 30 km South of Tamanghasset and camped for the night. This would allow us to reach the first sand dunes (yes, sand dunes!) while they were still cool and hard. Out of the darkness beyond out neon light some people appeared. They were Algerian soldiers who were camped not far away. They had seen our lights and came over for a chat. The Algerian army seemed to be employed mostly in Herculean road building projects extending the tar seal into the desert. Every year they extend a few more kilometres into the desert and every year the desert reclaims a few kilometres from somewhere else on the road. At least it gives them something to do instead of getting fixated on AK47s.
The first job of the day was to reduce the pressure in the tyres on the vehicles. This gives the tyre a larger footprint area and helps spread the load on soft sand. Camels have wide flat feet for exactly the same reason. This done we were ready to leave the road and head into the untamed desert. The first thing we see is a group of stripped and sandblasted cars on the side of the road. Obviously many Saharan crossings end in failure. However, I decided not to start worrying until I saw the first stripped and sandblasted Landrover.
The Piste (which is French for ill-defined track) is supposed to be marked by ballises (French for pole stuck in an oil drum). In reality most of these are either missing, covered in sand or have fallen over. To make things even more complicated some people have constructed their own. Which probably have "Party at Mohammed's - do not bring a bottle" written on them in Arabic. It is not a good idea to follow them or any other random vehicle tracks. These are produced by either locals (who could be going anywhere, although probably Mohammed's place), other travellers who were completely lost or (occasionally) by someone going the direction you want to go. In come cases the tracks making up 'the piste' can stretch over a width of 15 km and navigation can be hard. This is why we chose to travel with experienced drivers. Even Jan had got lost on his tenth trip across so it's not simple even for the experts.
The others in the convoy knew where they were going so we followed along getting into the swing of driving along the stony flat desert. We could go quite fast, about 80 km/h which was great fun. During the last few days I had perfected my pothole avoidance skills on tar seal and felt like an expert driver. Africa, however, knew better and had a series of obstacles stored up which it would use throughout the trip whenever I got complacent. This was the first (and most complacent) of those moments. We were doing about 80 km/h when I saw a deep rut at 90 degrees to our direction of travel. I started braking, bounced out of the first trough and did a nose dive into the second. As we emerged from the second hole onto the flat desert a poorly secured 20 litre jerry can of water, swung downwards and cracked the windscreen. The windscreen was a very tough laminated one and didn't shatter even with a twenty kilo weight thrown against it. It did sort of spoil the view of the desert though (where are we going to get a new windscreen from? And how much is it going to cost? Aaaaaagh).
We stopped and re-tied the jerry can. Detlef had stopped with us and waited. In this type of convoy, to avoid eating each others' dust, you might be travelling with quite a distance between vehicles and Jan was nowhere in sight. He had realised we weren't following and had stopped to wait for us. When we caught up he was just turning round to investigate. This is correct convoy procedure. The following is an example of poor convoy procedure. It is the story of 'the boys' and should be treated as a cautionary tale by any would-be Saharan entrepreneurs.
We had been in the desert for about an hour and a half when Jan, from his high vantage point, spotted a car about a kilometre in the distance with two figures waving furiously. He started heading towards them but turned away when he realised the sand was too soft for the tanker. We stopped and drove across there in the Landrover. The figures turned out to be two French boys, in their late teens, wearing boxer shorts. They had a burst radiator, no food, no water, no tools and no mechanical knowledge. The fan had gouged a hole in the radiator of their old Peugot 504. Apparently this is common problem when soft sand blocks the radiator and the fan gets sucked towards it. Jan repaired the radiator with some pliers and body filler, this was obviously not the first time he or Detlef had performed this particular repair. He also modified the fan and we filled the radiator with water from my destructive Jerry Can. The starter motor no longer worked so we use the Landrover to push start the Peugot (so that's what the bull bars are for!). The car starts and then stalls almost immediately. On closer inspection there is now more oil than water in the radiator reservoir. They have a cracked head gasket or worse, which we cannot repair. They hadn't noticed the temperature gauge move into the red, or the changing note of the engine. Instead they had carried on until the car stopped.
They stand around looking puzzled. We gave them the option of coming with us or staying behind. They were still unable to make up their minds until we gave them 20 litres of water and started our engines. When they realised we weren't bluffing they strip the radio from the car, collect their bags and decide to come with us.
They were part of a convoy of four vehicles bound for sale in Niger. One of the other vehicles had the water, food and even a spare radiator but didn't stop and wait for them. They didn't seem to have expected it too.
We stop for the night in the desert and the boys realise that their passports stated that they had entered the country with a vehicle. The Algerian police don't accept that you have left it in the desert and assume you have sold it illegally and for immense profit. They therefore fine you heavily or throw you in prison. The boys then attempt to hitch a ride back to car (in the dark). We don't see any more of them until morning (even though some of the night was spent helping some locals through the patch of soft sand the tanker had been stuck in for half an hour before we stopped for the night). The next day they are still waiting by the piste and decide to carry on with us. We stopped for lunch at an amazing place called Gara Ekar. Here the wind and sand have sculpted bizarre shapes out of the sandstone cliffs. There is even a real sand dune for us to climb! At this point the boys see a car in the distance (2+ kilometres) and wander to investigate. Later they return with a man from another broken down vehicle. It turns out to be the FATHER of one of the boys. He joins our merry band and half an hour later we come across a very long sand field full of the carcasses of cars which never made it through.
In the middle of this sand field there is a woman in another Peugot with a broken tow rope in front of her. She is in the third vehicle of the convoy and is the girlfriend of the father. The fourth vehicle, driven by the only member of the party to have travelled the Sahara before, presumably made it through.
This leaves you to wonder what type of person would leave their son in the desert, perhaps to die (they may have survived two days without water in march - less than 1 day a month later) for the sake of the profit on one old Peugot - which never made it out of the desert anyway!
Apart from this, driving through the desert was a magical experience. There is an immense sense of freedom about not being restricted to a narrow strip of tar and a sense of closeness to the environment. Driving in these conditions requires constant vigilance, yet seems less tiring than Motorway driving - until you stop and realise that you are completely exhausted, but happy.
The nights were peaceful, although there is always the incessant desert wind. The moon was still bright and magical all the time we were in the Sahara. The desert is an amazingly varied and beautiful environment, although we were still quietly (and unfairly) disappointed at the lack of sand dunes. One day I would like to return and spend more time in the desert travelling the less well used routes.
Jan was an amazing driver and only a driver of superb skill could take an articulated tanker through the desert. Our Landrover didn't get stuck so, to make sure we didn't miss the unique and character forming experience of digging a vehicle out, the tanker got stuck 5 times. Whenever Jan saw a sand field he would accelerate and power the big truck as far through the sand as possible, sometimes getting right through but other times ploughing to a stop only metres before the end. Each time we had to dig the sand from in front of the huge wheels, place the sand mats, drive forward maybe two metres, retrieve the now deeply buried sand ladders and start again.
We dropped 'the boys' and their 'parents' off at Ain Guezzam, a little town in the middle of the desert a few kilometres from the border post. We will never know if they found their guide or not, or if they managed to retrieve the hulks from the desert or just took their chances with the Algerian customs. Out of the four of them only one (the boy who was riding in our truck) bothered to say thank you. Anyway we were more concerned with using up our Dinars on a last fill of ridiculously cheap diesel fuel. The pumps were full but had been broken for a week and would remain so for a long while to come.
We arrived at the border post in plenty of time but they had randomly decided to close early. This was Africa after all. So we camped overnight at the border post. While we camped we chatted to another friendly Algerian official. I was more than a little surprised when he produced some Marijuana and asked us to join him. I always thought customs officials where supposed to confiscate such things, not offer you a smoke! Yet another preconception proved false. I asked him about the two rows of vehicles parked behind the customs post. "The Landcruisers, they are confiscated from smugglers", he said. "The other cars belong to people found dead in the desert". One of them was a late model VW Golf convertible. I can imagine some young people deciding one morning that it would be fun to drive through the Sahara. In a fast car they could have driven here from France in 3 days. The desert may be beautiful, but one should never forget that it is also deadly.
We were in the queue early and our friendly official had already processed our passports. A guard came across to search our vehicles with that, 'I wonder what I can get from these tourists' look on his face. Our official nodded at him and the search was reduced to looking vaguely in the direction of our vehicles. Detlef was less fortunate as he was delayed in the customs building. By the time he got through our friendly official had wandered off somewhere. The guard who searched his vehicle looked like he was working himself up to having a bad day. He found the 200 Litres of diesel which Detlef was carrying (diesel is nearly ten times the price in Niger so it was worthwhile smuggling). Detlef was standing on the back of his truck pulling out the cans of diesel. The guard was waving and shouting in Algerian. He waved his arms in what appeared to be international sign language for 'take the top off the can and pour the diesel onto the ground'. Detlef appeared concerned about the ecological consequences of this and did the international sign language for 'I don't really think that's a good idea'. The guard was insistent and Detlef removed the top and began to pour. The guard was now making a lot of gestures, many of them easily understandable. This was partly because he hadn't wanted the smelly diesel poured onto the ground in the first place. But mostly because the desert wind chose that moment for an almighty gust and the guard was sprayed from head to toe with diesel fuel.
Pouring diesel on a guard was a very bad thing to do, even if the guard seemed to be asking you to do just that. Even our friendly official couldn't repair this situation. We waited quietly to see the outcome. If nothing else we could inform the German embassy if he was whisked off to some Algerian jail (assuming we could do this without ending up in jail ourselves). Several hours of heated negotiation between Detlef and the guard ensued. Eventually two cans of coke and a cheap transistor radio changed hands. The official made a big thing of writing something on a piece of paper and then tearing it up to signify that they were friends again. In the end only 40 litres of diesel were 'confiscated'. We wondered if our staying and waiting had made a difference. Jan was sure that if we had just driven off and left him the outcome would have been different.
There were only about 30 km to go before the Niger border and the end of the desert. We crossed this without getting stuck and arrived at the Niger border post. This was more like a village than a border post and it was almost impossible to work out who was what and where we had to go. Fortunately Jan knew what to do and took us to the most important building first. As we walked through the door into the dark cool interior and I realised we were in a bar. I soon had a ceremonial glass of tepid Niger beer in my hand. We had crossed the Sahara.
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