The Ecphorizer

Trucking the Sahara
George Towner

Issue #34 (June 1984)

Steerage was never like this

Agadez, in northern Niger, is connected by bus service along paved roads to Niamey and Kano, and thence to all of tropical Africa. Similarly, Tamanrasset in southern Algeria is connected to Algiers, Tunis, and Tangier, and thence to all the Mediterranean coast

It is ragout de chevre aux pates -- goat stew with macaroni shells.

of Europe.

[quoteright]Between Agadez and Tamanrasset, however, lies a thousand kilometers of roadless desert, including some of the most forbidding landscape on this planet. Wells are infrequent, villages nonexistent. There is a track of sorts across this wasteland, marked principally by the stripped skeletons of vehicles that have died along the way. This is the route that Christine and I took in late March [1984], traveling from West Africa to the Mediterranean.

There is no public transport between Agadez and Tam. Adventurous Europeans make the trip in four-wheel-drive vehicles loaded to the roof with spare tires and cans of water and fuel. Backpackers like us are left with the only alternative: we buy seats in one of the half-dozen or so trucks that make the journey each day. Here is our diary of this trip. In my experience, it is one of the last great travel adventures around.

Tuesday. We arrive in Agadez early in the morning after an all-night bus trip from Niamey. It is a city built entirely of mud, including the hotel. We have been given a name to contact — Mr Mano Dayak, a general knower of people and arranger of things. We find his hangout near the market and are delighted to discover that he speaks some English. He sends his man out to search for a suitable ride.

We are scarcely settled in the hotel when we get results! Hamed, a Tuareg driver, has just unloaded a cargo of Algerian dates and is ready to return empty to Tam. I inspect his truck. It is a ten-ton Berliet with an open box, quite well maintained. The tires are all good. We negotiate in English and Arabic through Mr Dayak. The going rate for the three-day trip, including food and water, is 20,000 African francs ($50) each for seats in the cab. But having experienced Africans’ predilection for inviting all their friends and relations to join them, we insist that at no time shall the cab be occupied by more than Hamed, Christine, and me. This includes animals. More negotiations. We finally agree to pay an additional 10,000 francs and Hamed agrees to disappoint the six cousins he was planning to invite to share our seats. We shake hands. Hamed proposes to leave at six this very evening, insh’Allah.

Although the deal includes food, we scour the market and lay by some emergency supplies—tins of sardines, canned fruit juice, concentrated milk, etc. We also top off our bidons, our plastic jerrycans of water. We arrange our packs so that sleeping bags and flashlights are on top. We go to the police station and get our passports cleared for the trip.

We assemble at the truck at six. No Hamed. His friend says he is at the police station. Nobody knows what is happening, a condition I have come to name “African mush.” Finally it appears that the police won’t let Hamed start so late. All is rescheduled for the next morning. We return to the hotel, just in time to have dinner up on the roof. We eat heartily and sleep soundly.

Wednesday. Up early and back to the truck. Preparations are well advanced. Bulging water skins, looking very hairy, are slung under the frame. A hindquarter of goat hangs behind the cab. In the back are bedrolls and firewood. Two black helpers will ride in the back: Abdul is from Niger, Turay is from Mali. They are both Hausa and speak some French.

At nine we finally roll. Here we get our first lesson in Tuareg etiquette. Christine sits in the middle, so when I hand Hamed the money she passes it on, using her right hand. Hamed indicates that she is to place it on the seat. A minute later he picks it up and pockets it. Taureg men never accept money from women.

Thirty-five kilometers out of Agadez the paved road curves right, toward the uranium mines at Arlit. We leave it and head across the desert north by west. We will not see tarmac again for 900 kilometers.

The landscape is still fairly friendly, with a few trees and dry scrub. The track is identified by a maze of tire marks across the sand. Our Michelin map shows four water holes between us and the Algerian border, 450 kilometers ahead. The first is marked puits artésien bonne; here we stop for lunch. Sure enough, the water bubbles under its own pressure into a trench in the ground, creating a patch of green in the desert. The first part of the trench has been excavated into a bathing hole for people; the next part is a shallow trough for camels to drink from; the last part empties into a kind of marsh for the goats. While we rest, trains of camels plod in from all directions. They drink and make disgusting noises while their drivers gossip.

While Hamed takes a bath, Abdul and Turay prepare lunch. It is ragout de chèvre aux pâtes—goat stew with macaroni shells. Into the pot go onions, tomatoes, potatoes, oil, salt, peppers, and pieces of goat. Everything boils for twenty minutes over the wood fire and then the macaroni is added. We sit on a straw mat, the pot in the center, each of us with a spoon. But first Abdul picks out the pieces of goat and sets them aside; as we reach the bottom he judiciously throws them back in so every-one gets an equal share.

After lunch, Turay prepares tea. lt is very strong and very sweet, served in 2-ounce glasses. The preparation ceremony involves much pouring from one container to another, raising the pot each time so the stream of tea arcs through the air. A certain amount of tea disappears into the sand, but it is fun to watch. Meanwhile, Hamed has been off doing business with one of the camel caravans, He returns carrying a surveyor’s telescope, for which he paid 10,000 francs. The fate of the surveyor to which it belonged is not mentioned. Hamed will sell it in Tamanrasset at a good profit, whence it will probably go to the market in Algiers.

We push onward. The desert is now rocky hardpan with a covering of sand. There are occasional stunted trees. Before we leave the trees altogether, we gather more firewood. Hamed runs over trees with the truck and Abdul and Turay toss them into the back. At the third water hole, Hamed meets some friends and buys a live goat. It too goes into the back.

At the last water hole, a place called In-Abangarit, there is a Tuareg encampment. Hamed acquires another goat, a young one, and hands it to Abdul. Abdul sharpens his best knife. The Tuareg children dance around with delight, making throat-cutting pantomimes. Abdul kneels over the goat. There is a last gurgling bleat, and blood spurts into the sand. Half an hour later the carcass is dressed and hanging on the truck.

At In-Abangarit we stop for dinner. The menu features goat stew again, but this time instead of macaroni it is served with fresh bread. While the stew is cooking, Abdul kneads a large flat loaf of salt bread and bakes it in hot ashes from the fire. It is delicious.

Here we learn more about Tuareg etiquette. It appears that we are below the salt, if not below the stairs. While Hamed is being entertained in camp, we dine with the servants. Hamed spends considerable time in the women’s tent. Maybe he is courting? Anyway, it is plain that he finds our presence in his truck slightly embarrassing.

Hamed returns to the truck late and we all turn in, spreading our bags in the sand on the downwind side. The goat in the back is brought down and tethered, where it bleats all night. Maybe it is reminiscing about its late brother. Well, it’s a goat’s life.

Thursday. Up at dawn, to breakfast on fresh tea and bread left over from last night. As we leave the Tuareg camp, Hamed acquires two more goats.

The map shows 275 kilometers of complete nothing between us and the border. Actually, we see several varieties of nothing. Sometimes we cross an utterly flat, featureless hardpan; other times we drive through fields of black volcanic rock. At one point we pass a series of sand dunes. Most of the landscape is totally devoid of life.

I learn to wrap a cheiche—a desert head cloth—which covers everything but my eyes. Besides protecting my skin from the sun, it strains out dust and helps trap moisture from the breath. Christine covers her face with a towel and wears a hat she bought in Togo. We think we look strange, but the locals begin to treat us more normally.

Hamed fancies himself a Great Tuareg Pathfinder. Even where the track is well-defined he frequently leaves it and goes hot-dogging across the desert. We leave new tire marks where none existed before. When we get stuck in the sand, Abdul and Turay lay steel tracks under the tires and we crawl out.

Just before noon we see a cluster of trees on the horizon and soon pull into the Niger customs post at Assamakka. There are rows of cars with European plates parked there. Some have obviously sat there for months, presumably because their papers were not in order. Our documents are all OK, however, and we are soon headed north again.

Halfway to the Algerian customs post, a thorn tree materializes in the wilderness. We park beside it and have lunch. Surprise! Goat stew again! Christine and I walk a hundred yards or so to examine the bones of a camel laid out in the sand. That much exertion in the noon sun is quite enough—we spend the rest of lunch-time napping under the tree.

The Algerian customs post at In-Guezzam is the only man-made structure for the next 400 kilometers. It also has the only well and the only petrol. We top off the truck and refill our goatskins and bidons. The plan is to drive right through, hoping to make the police barrier on the outskirts of Tamanrasset by 2 a.m. Hamed regards it at “trop dangereuse” to sleep in the open desert. We clear customs at the same time as another truck and travel with them in convoy.

From here on the landscape is even bleaker than before. The sun beats down like a hammer. Nothing in its right mind would try to live here.

At dusk we pull the trucks together and make dinner. Guess what’s on the menu! The two crews sit around the fire and talk shop. Although they converse in Arabic, they use enough foreign terms that we can follow the thread. It is all about border posts, and which officials can be bribed and for how much.

Later, we are dozing in the bouncing cab when we are awakened by the cry “Hey, touristes!” The two drivers are tired and have decided to stop for the night anyway. We park the trucks parallel behind some rocks and sleep between them. The stars are extraordinary—I have never seen so many before. The goats huddle together and remain silent all night.

Friday. During the morning we struggle up into the Hoggar mountains. The rock formations are weird and forbidding. Sixty kilometers from Tam we finally climb onto tarmac and finish the ride in relative comfort.

The truck is not allowed to go into town. So Hamed drops us off as close as he can get, which is about half a kilometer from the Tamanrasset tourist hotel. By this time, our normally compact backpacking equipment has degenerated into a pile of food bags, bidons, and miscellaneous packages. Three locals happen to be wandering by; after a bit of haggling we recruit them to help carry our stuff to the hotel.

Our entrance into the Hotel Tahat is magnificent. I am wearing my cheiche and a four-foot sword that I bought in Niamey. Christine is wearing her Togolese hat. Behind us winds a train of bearers with our baggage. We are dirty but triumphant. A French tour group which has been flown down from Algiers goggles at us in the lobby. They must have never seen real travelers before. 

So far none of trekker George Towner's letters have shown signs of hardships (sand in the envelopes, signs that some hungry person has nibbled at the edges, bullet holes) from which we might suppose that he and Christine are all right.  nevertheless we think that Club Med might not be so overpriced after all. You can read about George's latest book here!

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