The next morning, we changed $100 and escaped after dodging having to give our landlord a 'cadeaux' as well as our payment for a night in his hovel and doing some shopping. We paid a local to take us across the last 15 kilometres of sand to the border with Niger in his pick-up.
The border post was quite busy. We arranged a lift with a Nigerien and had our papers looked at by the Algerian border officials at 2.30pm. Dan hid the money for the lift we had arranged in his socks right under the nose of a policeman. From our experience coming into Algeria we were not going to let these officials have any opportunity to get any freebies from us.
At one point, our driver came in and spoke to one of the policemen. They looked over at us. Thoughts shot through my mind that we had been compromised by the driver who had brought us to the border post. I thought that our valuable taxi money was going to be stripped from us.
But, soon, we were passed onto the customs officials. We produced our currency declaration forms which were checked and stamped, and we were motioned to another desk. Here, we were told to bring our bags and bikes through, which we did lying them down outside the main hall in which the customs officials desk were sitting. Then ,we waited.
A customs man came up to us but did not say anything. Then, a policeman came up a customs official and started to talk to him and to look at us/ Blown again, we thought. Dan went to a different customs man and asked him if there was a problem. This seemed to confuse them and we were waved on. Perhaps, we looked as though we were more trouble than we were worth.
At once, we grabbed our bags and bikes, and headed for our lift. We secured the bikes to the inside of the Toyota pick-up and our bikes next to them. Soon after, we were speeding across 'No Man's Land' towards the Niger border post at Assamaka, which, at that point, was a clump of trees on the horizon. Dan and I were standing up in the back of the pick-up holding onto the rail just behind the drivers' cab.
We noticed the change between Algeria and Niger almost immediately. We were heading out of the Arabic and Berber world and into Black Africa. It was an amazing difference. We could see gun toting sporting mirror sunglasses. There was loud music blaring out and people lounging around waiting to cross the border or to trade. There piles of sacks and oil drums dotted about the place. The border officials were less officious than they looked and we were checked through quickly.
Our Tuareg driver filled up with fuel and we headed off across the desert to the Assamaka-Arlit stage of our journey into Niger. We were crossing 200 kilometres of 'bandit country' where several 'overlanders' had been attacked by them, having their vehicles and money stolen. (We later met some friends from Tamanrasset who had this happen to them crossing this part of the desert).
Fortunately, this part of the journey in the back of a pick-up was far better than the stage we had experienced from Tamanrasset. We stopped after a short while at a spring for a brief rest. We ate dates and drank milk made up from a powder. At 5pm, we set off and carried on driving as the sun went down. We came to a halt when it was dark where there was a lorry which was coming in the opposite direction on the piste. The lorry's Algerian occupants were very friendly and asked us to join them for some mint tea. That tea was so refreshing and they were charming.
We pushed on again into the night and arrived at Arlit at 11.30pm where the driver dropped us off at the campsite which was no more than a large, walled sand pit with a few trees for shade. We actually stayed in a bungalow rather than camp that night. We also bought some beer from a little shop, made supper and crashed out.
The next day, we started off well but soon hit a valley of soft sand. I was not happy. Prior to this test, a Toyota, which was heading south, pulled up beside me. The driver was a Tuareg man and the passenger was a young woman. She introduced herself as Marianne and she was Swiss. She was working for a tourist agency in Tamanrasset. She had been following our tracks for a while and was amazed to see two mad Englishmen cycling through the desert. She gave me water, bread and oranges; wished us good luck and left.
The rest of the day was exhausting. We saw little traffic because it was a Friday, the Arabic holy day, but we managed to get some water from an Algerian lorry we saw heading north some way away.
Finally, at 5pm, we pulled into In Guezzam feeling drained. We were at the ramshackle petrol station and looked a state. There were three Germans filling up their dusty Mercedes and they spoke to us. One of them pulled out two cans of beer and presented them to us. It was an amazing feeling after the last two days of sweating over the sand.
We had to change some money. A scrawny man said we could stay at his house if we changed some money with him. We accepted, probably out of sheer exhaustion. We pushed our bikes into his ‘restaurant’, a dingy room with dirty mats on the floor. There was the smell of the meat grilling over a small fire.
The two of us were led by the toothless man to his bedroom, a small room with a sleeping mat on the floor, a pile of sand with onions d potatoes on top of it, plus a few boxes and other containers on the floor. What a hovel but we were too polite and tired to change our minds.
After leaning the bikes with our kit against the wall, Dan and I went across the dirt road to a more decent looking restaurant carrying our cans of beer. In the restaurant, we ordered an omelette and a bowl of pasta each followed by a second bowl each. The beer was almost a strange sensation but it was all the more satisfying. I was now so full that I had to go outside and lie down for a while! Back inside, we drank tea for a while, talking, relaxing and taking on the last three days in a state of disbelief.
Back in our room for the night, my English politeness got the better of me and the last three days became a little bit weirder. In the Arabic tradition of their hammam's, I was offered a massage by our host and accepted. Why? I just felt like one. I was expecting a short 'beat-up' massage from our wiry landlord which he, in fact delivered. But, then, I found him straddling my upper thighs while he doled out the massage and gradually crawling up my legs and onto my bum. Dan was in the room laughing his head off at the site of his brother about to be raped. I was close to hitting the man when he stopped and got off. I slept badly that night, especially as our landlord was in the same room.
Dan on the piste between Tam & In Guezzam
We checked out of Tamanrasset with the police and jumped onto the back of the white Nissan pick-up. We headed down the tarmac south towards the piste on the back of the vehicle with two men from Mali. The pick-up was packed with sacks of grain and other goods for trading at the border.
As soon as we were off the tarmac, the hell started. The driver drove at speed over the sandy and rocky track we were following. Our bikes were packed at the sides of the pick-up and were battered with each bump.
On several occasions, we had to get out of the vehicle to push it out of the sand with the aid of sand ladders. It was shattering experience. After several hours of this pounding, we shouted at the driver to stop. We were 100 kms short of In Guezzam and had decided that we wanted no more of this pasting. We took off all of our kit, much to the amazement of the driver, paid him 200 dinars and took some water from him.
Dan and I sat down after the pick-up left and made some hot chocolate and then looked at the damage that had been done to our bikes and bags. My front rack was bent and distorted but not broken. Dan’s bike computer had stopped with all of its data lost. The pump on my fuel bottle for the stove was smashed. Our bags had holes in several places and our handlebars were out of line.
I was relieved to be off the back of the pick-up but now we were in the middle of nowhere. That’s was quite a feeling. We pushed off after straightening ourselves up and were soon bogged down in deep, soft sand.
Pushing, dragging and cursing became regular features of our lives for the next two days. We went into a routine of cycling a bit over firm, rocky ground until we got bogged down we bogged down and had to push and drag again.
Despite the physical slog, I managed to think about home and Penny for much of the time. I felt quite worried out in the desert. The rest of each day was spent grunting, shoving, and aching, swearing, thinking, worrying, and feeling homesick, sweating and drinking. Many different feelings were passing through my head.
At times, I admit it may have been little feeling of panic at being out in the desert with only our will and determination to get us through to In Guezzam. However, there was, fortunately, a regular amount of traffic along the piste if we should have ever had any problems. The problem would have been if we had strayed off the route across the desert.
We camped out after achieving 43 kms across the sand. Before we struck camp, we met a couple of shepherds whose goats were feeding off the sparse vegetation, some of which looked like melons in the sand. We gave them a couple of cigarettes each and moved up to some rocks overlooking the piste. Dan fetched some firewood which was a surprise. We lit a fire as it became dark and noticed other fires glowing in the dark in the near distance.
The morning after, Dan saw the three, Bob, Jackie and Caroline, in the Land Rover we had seen at the Algerian border and who had helped me get back into Figuig. Bob gave me a Lomitil (like Immodium) tablet for my guts which had no effect whatsoever. They said there was another, better campsite on the other side of town. They were moving and, apparently, Eddie and Harriet were over there. Also, we saw Erik and Evelyn and went over to give them a surprise. None of them had expected to see us so soon.
After a breakfast tuna fish and rice, we packed up to move to the other newer campsite. As we were doing this, Jackie came up in their Land Rover and offered us a lift over to the site. In my weakened state we accepted. I shoved my bike on the roof and Dan cycled into town to get money.
At the other site were, as said, Eddie and Harriet plus the three Australians in ‘Mule’. What a collection of people. Jackie made some lunch and offered me some. I accepted, gratefully. Eddie and Harriet were surprised to see us but understood when they saw the state I was in. Dan arrived back and we told them about the writing on the back of a road sign we had seen. Eddie and Harriet laughed and said it was their handiwork.
The campsite was new and brand new tents each of which contained six bunk beds. Dan and I were in one of them and it was a mighty relief to be able to sleep on a bunk bed for a couple of nights.
Soon, the Swiss bikers turned up and we talked with them a lot. There was a Frenchman in the same tent as us who had been working in Rwanda for three years. He was interesting. During the rest of our stay in Tam, we went to a local doctor and got antibiotics for our guts. We met a Togolese guy who asked us to deliver some letters for him on our journey through there.
Also, we went on a jaunt into the desert on a tour to visit Assekrem. A French priest lives in the Hermitage de Foucauld in the mountains there. It was a bumpy and dusty ride up with Jackie, Bob and Caroline, plus some other tourists. When we arrived in the evening, we dropped our kit in a basic hostel in the saddle between the hills beneath the hermitage before walking up the rocky path to the priests’ house.
The hermitage is built into the rocky ground and it blends in superbly. The French priest was a very friendly man in his late fifties. We had brought him up supplies which we had been handed in Tam. He accepted them gratefully and invited us to look into his house. It was surprisingly civilised and comfortable. We chatted with him for a bit and then went outside again to wait for the sunset on the mountains in front of us.
The sunset was stunningly beautiful on those mountains. It was just a pity that we did not have the excellent digital cameras we now own to take more photographs. Before it was too dark, we went back down to the hostel and ate supper with the other tourists. It was cold outside but warm in the building.
The next morning we were up very early before dawn so we could see the sunrise. We clambered up the hill again to watch the sun come up over the mountains. I had never seen anything so beautiful before. The clear desert sky made for beautiful tones of blue and orange emerge behind the volcanic mountains in front of us. It was stunning. Unfortunately, Bob, the Australian with Caroline and Jackie, piped up that it was not as beautiful as the sunset he had seen in the Grand Canyon. It was one of those moments when I think most of us would have like to have told him to shut up.
Back in Tam, we found a few places which sold decent sandwiches, patisseries and yoghurt. Food was now an obsession with us. Eating tinned tuna and rice was becoming our staple diet and anything we could find to brighten it up we devoured.
We visited the Nigerien consulate because we had been told by someone travelling in the back of an overland lorry that the British needed a visa for Niger. It turned out to be untrue (probably something that person had read in one the numerous guide books available and which you could people walking around the town as if they could not find anything without it). We had a certain amount of disdain for the ‘trippers’ in the back of the overland lorries. They were just coaches without the comfort and it seemed that people on them lacked the adventurous spirit and self-reliance of the independent travellers.
After much discussion, Dan and I had decided that we needed to put our bikes on the back of a vehicle to get to the Nigerien border at In Guezzam. The road from Tamanrasset south over the Sahara and into the Sahel turned from tarmac into sandy piste a short distance out of the town. The piste was marked by concrete posts until it came to the border some 390 kms to the south.
We weren’t certain about the ground and whether we could carry enough water over this stretch, so taking a ride on a pick-up seemed the wise option. It took us a couple of days to find a driver who was heading south and who was willing to take us. Little were we to know that the following 24 hours on the back of the pick-up was going to be bone crunching nightmare.
Tam in 1990 Photo courtesy of Tigermuse
The next morning, we caught another taxi from In Salah, a rickety old Toyota, to Tamanrasset. We were still feeling too ill to ride and wanted to press on. The Toyota went through its two spares tyres when it was still 60 kms from Tamanrasset, so the rest of that stage was relying on luck to not burst another tyre. We stopped a lot to help other Algerians who had run out of petrol, broken down or had bad luck.
At one point when we stopped at a shitty little building which was meant to be a café, I had to get out and go to the loo behind the inn. The bog consisted of two planks over a deep and wide pit. I was feeling dizzy and weak from the dehydration. It was the most disgusting crap I had ever had, which was saying something when I had spent five years in the British Army on operations or on exercise. I had to balance on the planks, squat, do my business and try to keep the swarm of flies off me that was feeding on the mound of excrement below.
I returned to the front of the café where Dan was sitting on the porch at a table. There were other Algerians sitting down and staring at me. Hanging from the roof of the porch was an animal skin which was full of water for washing your hands. Stupidly, in my daze, I put hands into it to wash them. I should have used the water jug to pour water over my hands and onto the floor. The café owner was incensed and grabbed the water skin off its hook and emptied it out onto the dust in front of us. He obviously thought I was some filthy European. I didn’t care. I was feeling terrible.
We got back into the battered four wheel drive. We were to spend eleven hours travelling in the Toyota that day before we arrived in Tamanrasset, the town in the centre of the Sahara and at the end of the tarmac before you get to Niger some 300 kms away.
Despite my weak state in the cramped, hot and bumpy Toyota, I stared out of the window at the vast empty. There were a few road signs along the way. I saw one ahead of us whose message was facing the other way so we were seeing only its dark grey rear. I saw some chalk writing on it. It read ‘Will and Dan! Porridge in Tam!’ I nudged Dan and we both laughed out loud. The other passengers though we were mad.
After unloading the bags and bikes from the top of the vehicle, we put all our kit back onto the bikes. Weak and tired, we cycled the short distance to the main campsite in the town and went in. I felt terrible and Dan virtually had to put me into my sleeping bag in the tent.
The following day, we went to the post office, both feeling weak and tired because of the stomach bug we had. At the post office, we could see a whole pile letters and packages for us. It raised our morale no end. There were letters from Penny, friends, and family. Penny had sent music on tapes, Christmas presents of T-shirts and boxer shorts. It was super to receive all of this when we were feeling so bad. We returned to the campsite for a good read.
That evening my bad guts hit me badly. I was in and out of our zeriba all night. Also at the campsite, three Australians in a battered up old Land Rover named ‘mule’ had turned up. They were Brian, his girlfriend, Sam and Damen. They had been up to their elbows in grease and oil the day before mending their vehicle. They were great fun.
The following day, we were still ill and decided that we could not stay where we were but were too ill to cycle. We found a taxi and tied our bikes to the top of its roof and chucked our kit in its boot. After a short wait while the taxi driver topped up with petrol, we sped our way to Aoulef. Here, we swapped taxis after an omelette sandwich for lunch.
The next taxi was a yellow, Toyota four wheel drive vehicle, its driver a very loud mouthed individual. We were soon hurtling along towards the piste, the sandy stretches through the Sahara where there is no tarmac on the route and which is marked by posts. Dan and I were sitting behind the rear axle and were thrown around in an alarming way. Our driver drove at speed with one hand on the wheel and the other hand waving around in the air in a mad way, with loud Arabic music blaring out. It was a sight to see. The other passengers were a mix of Algerian and Tuareg men. The Tuareg types were wearing turbans of light blue cloth. The Algerian men wore dark crimson turbans.
We arrived at a campsite at In Salah where the first thing we noticed were the Swiss bikers we had last seen in Figuig. We jumped out and said hello, smiles all over our faces.
Next, we had an argument with the driver over the cost of the journey. Once that was over (we lost), Dan and I put our bags in a ‘zeriba’ (a small hut built out of rushes) and went over to see the Swiss guys.
Danillo, Marco and Claudio were their names. They had had real problems getting into Algeria with visas and had only been issued with ’10 day visas’ which was not much for touring the country. That evening, we had supper at a local restaurant with them.
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Dan on the road to Adrar
The next morning, we were fully aware of it. We cycled the last 80 kms to Adrar through sandstorms blowing into our flanks at times, but gusting the two of us along for the remainder making it very easy cycling, despite our bad guts.
We came into the rusty-red coloured town and soon had a cluster of kids around us before entering the main square. I went into a bank to change some money before going up to the ‘Hotel Touat’ (I’ll let you guess how that is pronounced).
We were filthy, tired, hungry and ill. The two of us heaved our kit upstairs to our room after putting the bikes away in a lock-up room. There was not water until 7pm, we were told, but it did not come on at all that night. Both of us had bad guts and were feeling very pissed off, especially because we could not flush our lavatory in the room.
We lay around on our beds the following day, feeling terrible. In the evening, we met an odd character, an Irishman, Felix, who was working on the oil rigs locally. He reminded me very much of a ‘Wilbur Smith’ character. He had a confident, hardworking but quietly spoken and keen on beer drinking and ‘women-chasing’ image. He was there for the money and not for the love of Algeria! We talked for a while before he headed out for a dinner date.
It's a cafe
The following day was full of some hair-raising cycling. We came into some very flat terrain and had a very strong wind with us. We stormed across some huge stretches, covering a large distance with very little effort. Coming over a small rise in the mid-morning, we saw that the sand was drifting over the road. Just over the brow of the rise there was a lone man with a spade shovelling sand off the road. We had not seen a vehicle or person in ages, yet, here was this man in the middle of the most desolate area of the desert keeping the road clear. We nodded as we approached and wished him a good day in French. He smiled, nodded back and we went past to leave him to his relentless, lonesome task.
At lunch, we arrived at the turn off from the Route du Tanezrouft (The Great Thirst) to Timimoun. At this junction, there happened to be a café-restaurant. It was small stone building set in a sandy, rocky backdrop. It was 30 kms from the nearest village. We were, firstly, confronted by several men who questioned us about our religion and what we thought of Islam. Dan and I were in no mood for this banter, so we pushed our bikes into the café.
Inside, there was a sandy floor, a few tables and another dark room off this main room. We ordered ‘un repas’ each which turned out to be pasta and little meat with bread. Stupidly, we drank the water on the table and also some sodas.
The cook came up and talked to us. I offered him a cigarette (we had bought some packets of cigarettes to help out at moments like this, never intending to smoke them ourselves). He offered to buy the rest of them from me. I said he could have them for the price of two sodas. In fact, he gave us four meals between us for the price of two. We ate gladly and were soon full.
A few kilometres down the road, we had to stop. We were feeling queasy. Something was not right in our guts. We camped out early on a stony plain, feeling weak and ill. We had picked up a dose of very bad diarrhoea but we weren’t aware of it then.
We were glad to go the next morning. In town, we searched for supplies and scraped a few things together from a supermarket whose shelves were mainly bare. However, that was to be the last ‘well stocked’ supermarket for the next three or four days of riding. We cycled on south towards Kersaz and camped out by some palm trees off the road that night.
The next day, we set off at about 0830 and arrived in Kersaz after picking up a ‘kling-on’ cyclist. Kersaz was very small and had only a few shops. We bought enough food to top us up for three days in total. Water was difficult to get. The supply had been shut off for the day but a shopkeeper helped us out which meant we had two full plastic jerry cans each. We now had fully loaded bicycles. We bought lunch in a small, rough restaurant and ate lentils and stew. It was pretty good despite the surroundings. We left after letting our food settle.
The cycling was hot for the first hour after lunch while we climbed through rocky valleys which eventually led onto more level stretches of nothing. We hardly saw any wildlife. There was the odd bird, lizard or camel but little else. There were few humans except in the odd vehicle which screamed past us. The environment was, of course, something which we were not used to, but we were beginning to get used to it, bit by bit.
A Frenchman pulled up ahead of us at one point. He stepped out of his Peugeot (one of the hundreds of them that drove old French cars to Niger or other West African countries to sell them for a profit) and waited for us to approach. We pulled up and talked to him. He told us he had cycled down from Algiers to Niamey the year before. He was full useful tips (a bit too many, in fact) and he gave us a French biscuit each, which made up for his slightly irritating presence! We camped behind a small dune that night.
Will Hawkins lives in Lincolnshire with his family, works in a technology company in London and does as many micro-adventures as he can.
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