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.
We left Taghit after two nights at the camp site. We had got to know Eddie, Harriet, Erik and Evelyn quite well. On the final night, all of us ate in the café on the camp site. It was great fun swapping stories and joking around with them. Harriet had a wicked sense of humour and Eddie was very entertaining. Erik was very funny too, waving his arms around and pulling faces.
Also, we met two Belgians riding a motorbike and sidecar into Algeria. Later, we learned that they hit a rock and put a hole in their casing and had to ship it back from the Hoggar Mountains.
Dan and I set off early and were later passed by everyone in their vehicles at different stages. Erik and Evelyn drove alongside in their VW camper van and handed us some packet soups.
The rest of that day was very hard work, pushing on through some very desolate areas which sent my mind reeling when thinking about anything but the lack of things to look at. We cycled into Beni Abbes and its camp site which had a lovely swimming pool, fed by constant mineral spring water. We swam in it and cooled off after a tough day of riding.
Also there, were two Land Rovers and a motorbike containing five English people who had travelled from South Africa and were heading back to Britain. They looked very dirty and scruffy. We were not too impressed with their state of morale. They looked as though they had been through some rough times and could not wait to get home to clean clothes and sheets. We had a beer in the tourist hotel in the evening which felt like a treat.
(Photo caption: Dan in Taghit looking over the Sea of Sand (notice the man on the bottom left of the picture. He was trying to change money with us.)
The first stage of the day up to the junction with Taghit was fast, a breeze blowing us along nicely. The ride was fairly dull but it enables to think about many things. A red Land Rover passed us hooting and waving in the morning that day. After lunch, it became quite hot.
At last, we approached Taghit. The road rose to a cut in the rock and, in front of us, we saw our first view of the ‘Sea of Sand’ or the ‘Grand Erg Occidental’. Wow! What a sight. It was an enormous area of huge, orange sand dunes. We sped down the hill, taking a couple of pictures lower down, and went into the palm grove at the bottom.
We shot past a group of Czech’s, who waved, and we pulled into a bar on the hill the other side of the small valley. We had a couple of drinks and went off to find the camp site. There, we saw the red Land Rover from earlier parked up. After checking in at reception, we went up to the couple in the Land Rover to say hello.
Eddie and Harriet were very friendly Brits and amusing with it. Eddie gave us a beer to share, which was lovely. We talked for a while and then set up our tent in the shade and settled in.
In the evening, we walked up the edge of the erg and met Eddie, Harriet plus Erik and Evelyn, a fun Dutch couple. Eddie had found a pair of skis and boots and was trying his luck skiing down the sand dune. He had a reasonable amount of success but no steerage!
The sight of the ‘Sea of Sand’ was magnificent, breath-taking. We took some photos of us in various poses with view in the background. Dan and I went to the top of the highest sand dune to get a better view. Unfortunately, an Algerian man with a pair of binoculars and trying to appear like a tourist himself kept pestering us to change money.
Erik and Evelyn came up to join us and we swapped cameras and took photos of each other. We sat up there for a while talking and watched the sun set over the desert. It became quite cold very quickly, so we moved down, running down the sand dune for most of the way, which was great fun in the half light. Dan and I cooked up on our own that night and crashed out early.
On the road by 0830am after taking some pictures of the sun coming up. The ride that day followed the line of old barbed wire and observation towers. It was a pretty dull ride through fairly featureless terrain, along a busy road (by Algerian standards).
At one point, with Dan behind me, I noticed a car had come up beside him. The same car then came up beside me. Inside a man was driving with fat and jolly wife next to him in the passenger seat. She offered me dates and bread but I refused because it was a bit awkward to take their kind offerings on the move. I thanked them and then moved on.
Dan called me and we stopped. He’d got some bread and shared it with me. That was good for morale. These Algerians seemed to be a lot friendlier than their Moroccan neighbours. The rest of the day was pretty boring.
We pulled up outside Bechar and put our trousers on after seeing a sign saying “It is strictly forbidden to wear indecent clothing in Bechar”! We’d picked up a tout on a moped who we soon lost. We looked around for a long time for hotel but they were all full. Hell!
We found a market. Dan waited with the bikes while I shopped. We filled up with water given to us by a shopkeeper and headed out of town as the light went. We had trouble with a few kids on bikes on the way out, one of whom I thumped. But, soon, we were out of range of the town lights and into a place to camp.
We had a hot drink but could face cooking up food so we ate our lunch for the next day. It was quite cold. We got into the tent and fell asleep. My sleep was disturbed by someone footsteps outside on a nearby track. Our kit was untouched. Nothing happened.
Distance 81.13 kms Average speed 14.6 kmh Time 5 hours 31 minutes
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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