Trans-Saharan Trip - Algeria to Gao (Mali)

We pushed our truck over the Morocco-Algeria border, after a six-hour hassle of paperwork, and our reduced group of travellers set out from Oujda, south to the Sahara. We've arranged to wait in Taghit for the Brits, who hoped to fly into Algeria, having been refused entry overland.

The most noticable difference between Morocco and Algeria is the womens' dress. They are more covered here, with lacey little handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths; they remind us of frilly billy-goat beards, and its hard not to find it funny. Further south we will see women fully veiled, with a single eye peering out of the black shroud, and there are fewer women on the streets at all.

The route winds its way up into the hills, with spectacular views looking back towards the Med and over to Morocco. We are driving more-or-less parallel to the border, and the road is lined with rolls of rusted barbed wire, souvenirs of the last war between Morocco and Algeria, and a reminder that this area is often under dispute. There is even an old tank, abandoned down a gully. There are no trees or other vegetation, and the barbed wire rolls are the only shelter if you need to have a pee. Our camps provide amazing photographs - tiny tents lost in a barren, stony emptiness. One night we camp within range of the Army, still active in this region, and are subjected to close inspection at 4am, when they do their PT around our tents, chanting and singing in the cold morning air.

I have hurt my back, badly, slipping in the shower some days ago, and I'm seriously thinking of leaving the trip. I've got to the point of not being able to sleep, and spend the days laying on the rear seat of the truck, shivering in shock, despite the heat. On arrival in Bechar I decide it is 'do-or-die' time - either I get something fixed now, or I go back to Europe. I try the pharmacy, but my french doesn't stretch to this sort of situation, and despite the incredibly helpfull staff, only lumbago cures are on offer. Eventually, I find a woman, standing in the door of her home, and ask her where I can find a doctor. She takes me to a doctor, and using mime and a mixture of broken french and english, we sort out what is wrong and what to do about it. The doctor reassures me that I don't have to give up the trip, and prescribes high-strength pain killers to get me over the worst of it. All the medication comes as suppositories - I guess she was trained in France. I spend the next few weeks stuffing things up my rear end, but they work, and, eventually, my back recovers completely.

We reach Taghit, an oasis at the northern edge of the Grand Erg Occidental. This is a huge area of sand dunes, about the same size as Ireland, starting dramatically out of the flat desert. I'm still non-ambulatory, but the rest of the group go to the far end of the oasis, to view rock carvings dated at 10000-7000 years BC. They also climb the sand dunes, just beyond the campsite fence. When I'm a bit more able to walk, Geoff and I go up to the old French Foreign Legion fort at the other end of town; we meet up with a family travelling south in a 2CV, and discover that they come from West Aust, only a couple of suburbs from our home. The group waits in Taghit, uncertain as to the whereabouts of the missing Brits. After five days they phone a message through from Bechar, and arrive with tales of an amazing border crossing. They flew into Algiers from Casablanca, and weren't given entry. However, just as things were getting a bit tense, the city was struck by an earthquake; all the officials fled the buildings, and our fellow-travellers were evacuated into Algiers.

Reunited, we set off across and along the southern edge of the Grand Erg. Amazingly, for this sandy desert, we run into a flood at Saoura, and at Timimoun I finally get to climb one of the giant sand dunes. Looking for extra stores, we head off the main road to M'Guiden, and find a road spiralling into the middle of town, with nothing there, and no other recourse but to turn around and spiral back out again. Near Hi Marraket there is a group of trucks laden with firewood; thinking they are commercial gathers, we stop to buy some wood, but discover that this is a group of Saudi Arabians, part of a party travelling with members of the Saudi royal family flying falcons against desert bustards for sport. The vet is an Englishman, who comes over to explain the situation to us, and interpretes for his companions. They travel in style, 150 men and 40 trucks, with their own power plant, petrol tanker, TV satelite dish...we leave with a generous gift of wood.

The Plateau du Tademait is possibly the most desolate, stoney, stark place we have camped to date. Coming down off the plateau, we pass through a strange, surreal landscape, and get to In Salah. The unpleasantness on the truck is even worse, and those of us finding things difficult opt to stay in a hotel in town, while the kiddies camp with the truck. This is the first time the rest of us have openly discussed the situation and how it is affecting the trip, and it becomes obvious that things can't go on as they have. Geoff and I have been increasingly happy with the fact that we are to leave the truck in Togo, and have even thought about splitting from the group as soon as we get to Gao, the first large town in Mali. Some of the boys are thinking of leaving as well, despite the fact they have paid a lot money to get to Kenya. We decide to bring things out in the open, and ask Mark and Frank to organize a meeting to allow everyone to have their say and to try to clear the air. The meeting is a partial success, and the kiddies do agree that they have been a bit over the top. At least it never gets this bad again, but everyone still has to live with the problem.

On the way to Tamanrasset the road passes through Arak gorge, where a tiny, decrepid shack declares itself to be the local cafe. One very old man sits inside, stewing bitter tea. Lunch is taken off the road, among huge boulders sculpted by the wind, and, as we pick our way along the badly defined road, Mark suddenly steers us off on an even worse track, and we head across the desert to Maribu Moulan Hassu. This is the tomb of a holy man who died on his way to Mecca, and it is considered propitious to circumnavigate the monument clock-wise three times, which we do, before heading back on the route to Tam.

Tamanrasset should be exciting and fantastic, located in the middle of the Sahara, but it is just another rather pleasant town, with a supermarket as empty as those in the old USSR, and a real market over on the riverbed, with a wide range of products including full Edam cheeses, selling out of the back of a refridgerated truck. The Hogar mountains, on the other hand, are fantastic. We hire 4-wheel drives and head out for an over-night stay at the Hermitage, set up by Pierre de Foucault. The Hogars are like something from the front cover of a science fiction novel - old volcanic necks, shimmering violet in the heat haze. There is still a chapel up at the hermitage, but the real attraction is the sunrise, which finds us up high on the mountain, looking out over the peaks and valleys, ethereal in the morning mist.

Back to Tam, where we are about to leave the conventional route through the Sahara, and take to the piste. Rather than head to Agadez, in Niger, our route will cut across the desert to Tessalit, in Mali. We clear our departure with the police, fill up with water, and back-track a little to pick up the start of the route. There is a clear track to Silet, the last town before the start of the piste. Trying to find the start of the route we get lost, and spend a night camped a short distance out of Silet. In the morning Mark drives around in circles for an hour or so, still trying to find the markers, until one of the passengers spots an orange drum in the far distance, and we are back on track.

The piste is marked by these drums, raised up on mounds of sand, about a km apart. I'd always imagined that we would religiously drive from one marker to the next, always having a marker in sight. Not so; the piste is really the sum of lots of tracks made by vehicles travelling in the area, over time. Eventually the sand gets torn up in parts, becomes soft and undrivable, and people move off to some other part of the desert where the sand is hard and the going is easy. We try to drive on the most promising of the various tracks, sometimes on one side of the drums, sometimes on the other, and most often out of sight of the line of markers. We have a compass, and the occasional glimpse of orange in the distance re-assures us that we heading in the right direction. Every now and again the driver makes a bad choice of route, and the truck grinds to a halt. After the first couple of these we have the routine down pat: out of the truck, get out the spades, off with the sand mats (bolted to the sides of the truck), and we dig out the wheels, lay down the sand mats, and drive by laying down the mats in front of the wheels until they are back on solid ground. Then bolt the mats back onto the truck, all pile back in, and drive off. When the route is good the truck can get up a good speed - around 90km/hour isn't unusual. However, on the down side, once we get into loose sand our vehicle can get bogged with monotonous regularity, and the passengers have the job of digging out the sand, laying down the mats, then bolting the mats away, only to have to repeat the performance 100 metres further down the track. There is a surprising amount of wildlife out here, including butterflies in the most unexpected of places. Turning over rocks also reveals huge scorpions and lots of lizards.

This part of trip involves several days of following the markers. When the route turns south it gets more difficult, as the signs are now only small lumps of grey concrete, about 5 km apart. We are heading for the official post at Timiouine, to be stamped out of Algeria; it is also a source of water.

Timiouine is holding a donkey market the day we arrive, and there are lots of people in town. We clear the border formalities, and top up our water tank from the well, with the help of the local Tuaregs. All through this region everyone uses the same methods of well construction, and the 'buckets' are either goat skins or car tubes. The wells are very deep, and hauling water is quite hard work. We leave town twice; the first time with a guide, to show us the start of the track, then, after bringing him back to town, we set out alone, knowing where to go.

The border crossing into Mali is made at some unmarked place and time; the only reason we know we are in Mali is because we meet an army truck, and the soldiers are Malian. We have to go to Tessalit, to complete border formalities, but that is still two days ride away. The desert is less stark here - there is some vegetation, and there are hills and large rock outcrops. However, the markers have disappeared altogether, and navigation is by guesswork. We camp in a pleasant area, with stunted trees and a rocky ridge off to one side. A climb up onto the ridge reveals ancient carvings on the rocks - elephants, giraffe, ostrich, cattle of some sort, and men. The style dates them to 10000 BC. These carvings are undocumented in any of the numerous books in the extensive communal library, and we are probably the first people to see them for a long time, since by now we are lost, and well off the route to Tessalit.

Navigating purely by compass, we eventually get to a road, and find a single shack with a man living there. He tells us that Tessalit is about 70km north-west, but he wouldn't mind going there; he jumps into the truck and guides us back to the border post. We have plenty of time to look at the small town, since it takes hours to get through the formalities. There isn't a lot to see, but there is a little round market right in the centre of the town. The change from north to west Africa is dramatic. I fall in love with Mali instantly - this is black Africa, with friendly people, little children hanging off my plaited hair, swinging off my hands, voices calling "Ca Va? Ca Va!!" I can't believe this is me: Kaye, notorious disliker of small (and not so small) children, surrounded by little kids and loving it. Geoff threatens to take a photo to send back to work, but I figure they simply wouldn't believe it!

The route to Gao is along an old river course, with increasing vegetation as we head further south. At times, during the trip, we have stopped the truck for a drinks break and let anyone who wanted to stretch their legs walk or run off down the track, to be picked up later. Geoff and I take advantage of one of these breaks to wander off, and are soon out of sight of the truck, expecting them to be along any minute. About 5 kilometres later, still no truck, but a Tuareg on a camel appears from the west, and comes over to investigate us. "Ca va?", looking astonished to find two foreigners wandering around the desert, apparently alone. "Ca va", we reassure him, and he rides off ahead. A couple more kilometres and we find a tiny village, really only two or three huts. I'm wearing shorts, and am reluctant to enter the village so badly dressed, but soon a man comes out from the huts with his sons, and they invite us to their home. The Tuareg is there, still up on his camel, complete with sword, tassles, and embroidery - very regal. The women are fascinated by me - my hair, which is long and light, and my exposed legs. We explain where we have come from, and sit and talk to them while waiting for the truck. After a while, the man leads us around the back of his mud hut, and there is a Mercedes sedan! It has a huge hole in the radiator, and has been left here by a party of German travellers, who have gone off to Niger to arrange replacement parts.

Back on the truck, we are travelling over one of the desolate stoney sections of desert when we see movement - it is a Ruppel's sand fox, rapidly becoming scarce in these parts. Finally, there are signs of a town ahead, and drive slowly into Gao, accompanied by an entourage of little boys, all anxious to escort us to the police check point, where we have to register with the authorities.

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