Desert Travels paperback reprint

DT15Less than 20 years after it was originally published Desert Travels has been reprinted as a creamy, 242-page paperback.

DT-fullcoverIt’s around on amazon kindle  for a couple of quid of course, but if you prefer the feel of low-chlorine paper fluttering in your hands, plus a nice double-page map to refer to without having to scroll maddeningly, order the paper DT below. The book may get to some UK bookshops eventually, but won’t be sold on amazon.

Scanned at www.Exposure22.comScanned at www.Exposure22.comIt tells the story of my first few Sahara motorcycle trips widely referred to on this website, but mostly covers the tale of a bike tour I led through Algeria at the end of the 1980s.

when2booksOr, if you fancy a full 1980s retro moto overdose, you can order DT and my new book, Adventures in Motorcycling describing London despatch riding and other anti-social behaviour during the same era (more here). The two ppalbooks more or less cover the same time period but are quite different and have no overlap.

jackyDesert Travels • UK orders £6.99 + £1 P&P
Desert Travels + Adventures in Motorcycling • UK orders £15.98 FREE P&P

notukOVERSEAS ORDERS
Desert Travels • Overseas £6.99 + £3 P&P
Desert TravelsAdventures in Motorcycling • Overseas £15.98 + £3 P&P

ALL ORDERS DESPATCHED ON NOVEMBER 5 OR SOONER

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N is for Nemadi, dog hunters of eastern Mauritania

While reworking DT ahead of a small reprint, I came across this video from 2005 about an Italian expedition that set out from Bamako for Oualata north of Nema. Oualata was once as celebrated as nearby Timbuktu for being a place of Islamic learning, and the video spends a lot of time depicting the intricate bas-relief patterns for which the houses of Oualata are famous. As DT recalls, when I was there in 1989, no time was allowed to have a good look around, far less stay over.

nem1songhaiThen, amazingly to me at least, the Italians manage to track down a surviving Nemadi family, a survivor of the pariah-like tribe of dog hunters mentioned in Bruce Chatwin’s semi-fictional Songlines study of nomads. They live in what the vid calls the ‘Sarakolle’ desert. Not heard that designation before, but it seems Sarakolle also means Soninke, a tribe who live along the Malian border but who are indigenous to Africa and not Moors. Some sources attribute or connect them to the Imraguen fish catchers north of Nouamghar, also outsiders in Mauritania’s Moorish culture. Wiki makes a link for the etymology of ‘Nemadi’, something to do with Azer or dog master, but I just assumed it means ‘people from around Nema‘, like Saharawi.
As you can see, the guy doesn’t wear the usual blue robe and his tent is not a Moorish raima, but more of a bent wood humpy. His camel too has no saddle to speak of and it looks like he sits behind the hump. But other items like the three-legged tea table are also used by Moors. At no point in the vid is Nemadi man separated from his ancient rifle.

nemadiI thought the Nemadi used to live along the Dhar Tichit beyond Oualata. There is a place call Aguelt Nemadi (Ogueilet en Nmadi) about a hundred miles NNE of Tidjikja or 300 miles NW of Oualata. That might mean ‘Nemadi waterhole’ but lost in the dunes, it looks a pretty lonesome spot on the map, perhaps a watering hole on the old caravan route between Tichit and Ouadane.

The video has no commentary, a few Italian subtitles and some great music. It looks like they set out to cross the 400km to Araouane in their Sixty-series Tojos, but something broke so they came back. The Nemadi guy appears at about 25m.

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H is for Hot: Staying cool in the Sahara

An MCN feature I contributed to about hot weather riding.

You can buy MCN digitally here.

mcnhot

Posted in Desert Babbles (blog)

The Red Plateau ~ Libya 1998

Republished with added pics
A 2008 BMW 650X is my current project bike

ambh3

In 1998 author of the Adventure Motorbiking Handbook (right), Chris Scott, decided to take a leaf out of his own book and headed for Libya on a BMW F650 Funduro. As usual, things turned sour.

gaddafi1998Go to most embassies and at the very least you’ll find a few tourist pamphlets and a poster of a couple frolicking by a fountain. There was no such noncing about at the Libyan Interests Section in London’s Harley Street in the late 1990s. Down in the grubby basement mean-looking guys ground another fag into a Brit passport and ignored you purposefully. Tourist literature was limited to a defiant newsletter commemorating the ‘drawing of the Line of Death’ against imperial aggressors. Charming. Just the spot to enjoy a spring break on a bike.

‘Visa?’ I asked meekly. ‘Hello? Visa?’

It has taken me months to get to this point. In November 1997 with the third edition of AMH completed, I decided it was time to practice what I preached. Libya sounded interesting and BMW’s Funduro trailie would make a nice change from another Yamaha XT600Z Ténéré.

Buying a ‘94 F650 (my 47th bike) was easy; getting a Libyan visa involved countless dead-end faxes to various Libyan tourist agencies for the required invitation. Eventually a mysterious internet connection provided an invite at a price and my permit was telexed from Tripoli in early April. A week later I was walking down Harley Street with the requisite stamp. There was no going back now.

funduroeI may have been nervous about my destination but I was less uncertain about the bike. I’d always fancied trying the Funduro. They came out in 1993, a trusty combination of Rotax engine and BMW build quality plus a naff name and a look unlike anything else. No one had anything bad to say about them other than being a bit heavy for off-roading. The revvy engine took a bit of getting used to after torquey XTs, but with the right tyres I was sure the 650 would be up for some piste bashing.

sf-red1As I was hard up modifications were kept to a minimum. A fat Michelin Desert squeezed on the back after a bit of sawing at the outer knobs. The front end took a ‘rear’ 19” Pirelli MT21 with a lot more knob-chopping and a Honda VT500 mudguard to get it to fit. Road riding on these tyres was initially unnerving, especially the ‘marbles-on-glass’ front MT, but I soon got used to it. The bike had come with a new o-ring chain, some brand I’d never heard of, but I figured it would last the trip. The 27-litre Acerbis tank looked barely bigger than the original unit but promised a useful 500km range. To help work out distances in kilometres, BMW UK gave me a metric speedo which saved on possible errors when converting from miles to kms. A chunky alloy Touratech GPS bar mount held my new Garmin 12 firmly in place and a cheapo ball compass was screwed on the dashboard. Lastly, I put on an in-line fuel filter, a cig’ lighter plug for the GPS, fork gaiters and a high screen. It was March now, high time to head South.

To save my knobs I took the overnight Motorail from Paris to Marseille and then caught a boat to Tunis where ensued five hours of messing around from one counter to the next. If this was Tunisian immigration what would Libya be like? And another thing troubled me: had I left it too late? By now temperatures were climbing steeply right across the Sahara and with it expected water consumption and a host of other problems.

A New Year’s meet up with a guy who worked in the Libyan oil fields actually put me off the whole idea. He warned me about the enervating ghibli winds which blew in April and melted strong men’s brains. A story of a guy who’d driven out into the storm sounded especially grim.

About a month after the guy had gone missing a nomad came into the camp and asked if we wanted to know where our Toyota was? We said yes and it cost us. Then he asked did we want our body back – it cost us some more. Turns out the guy had just parked up with the engine running and walked out into the sandstorm.’

With a weather eye out for the ghibli, by the next afternoon I was close to the Libyan border with a wodge of illicitly bought Libyan currency stuffed down my crotch. At the border I was resigned to hours of shuffling from one hangar to the next filling out forms and getting stamps. But by chance one of the many Libyan travel agents I’d given up on recognised me and whisked me through the formalities in just twenty minutes (and only a hundred quid!). Stunned at my good fortune, I set off towards Tripoli in the fading light and soon pulled over to fill the tank up for just 60p. That’s right sixty pence. Super petrol works out at 2.5p a litre, or if I you’re feeling stingy, regular costs 2p.

sf-red-broledDozens of the roadside wrecks traffic along Libya’s main coast road testified to the lethal mixture of ‘get-out-of-my-way’ gangsters in blacked-out Merc and lopsided farmyard bangers piloted by granddad in coke-bottle specs. So after a night in the bushes, I was relieved to turn off the death highway south towards Ghadames, 550km away. Now the roadsides were only marked by posters of the Brother Leader, hands raised in a ‘we’re in this together!’ salute.

sf-red-fuel

As I rode into the desert on super smooth highways I wondered when the real heat would begin. I didn’t have to wait long. By mid-afternoon the temperature had risen to the high thirties and out of the blue the bike started spluttering. Surely I haven’t got through the tank already, I thought? Undoing the cap revealed plenty of gas. The bike started up but a few miles later cut out again. I got off, had a look at things and guessed at a cause. A combination of half empty tank and minimal throttle at cruising speed added to the afternoon heat saw the trickling petrol evaporate in the fuel filter and cause vapour lock – cutting off the fuel supply. Stopping cooled things down and got the petrol flowing again. Later on, when pouring cooling water over the filter body I saw the petrol level rise instantly, I knew I’d guessed right.

sf-ham-camper

Knowing the problem was as good as solving it so I filled up first chance and carried on to Ghadames, arriving zonked out at the empty campsite just as the sun set. Slumped out on the sand, I had a think. If it was reaching nearly 40°C this far north, how hot would it be further south? The vapour lock was easily fixed with a cardboard heat shield, but I was keen to get the BM on the dirt. Was I taking too great a risk riding alone? From here my plan was to ride across the Hamada el Hamra plateau and then cut over the edge of the Ubari Sand Sea down to the Akacus Mountains near the Algeria/Niger border, altogether about a week’s riding.

My French guidebook claimed the route across the plateau was a straightforward 450km gravel track with a well half way. Just about within my range, though in these temperatures water consumption was another matter. I checked over the bike, wrote myself a road book and planned to leave early next morning.

That night at 2am a rising gale woke me and I dozed fitfully as the tent wobbled and the palms flapped overhead. Dawn revealed an orange sky and a thick dusty haze. Was this the ghibli I’d been warned of? I postponed my departure, hoping it would die down, but in the end set off back to the village of Derj where the plateau track began. I’d reassess there.

Filling up again at Derj junction, I was on the verge of heading back to Tunisia. As I sat there mulling over ‘dare I’ with ‘should I’ the attendant leaned out the door and said
‘Eh, la mangeria?’
La what?
‘Mangeria!’ He made the universal mime for chow.
Ah oui, merci. In the desert I slip automatically into French mode but Libya had been an Italian colony where this slang for food had come from.
As I ate my bowl of oily stew a little German Isuzu pulled in and, as always in the desert, we sized each other up. A brief chat revealed that Rainer and Katja were also heading across the Hamra and would be happy to have another vehicle along for safety.

The Hamada el Hamra is aptly named the Red Plateau, a barren, undulating prairie of rust-coloured gravel cut by dry water courses. Rising to 800m, my oilfield mate hadn’t  much good to say about it: a pitiless void that was either freezing or baking and criss-crossed with enough tracks to confuse even the wily nomads.

sf-hambikeEnjoying the security of another vehicle, it felt great to be back on the dirt. By myself I’d have been gnawing my lip into a pulp. With th uncompromising tyres the BM handled the 40-50kph pace well enough, and it was fun concentrating on the riding instead of sitting on the blacktop. As expected, I was a lot quicker than Rainer’s ex-trans African Isuzu, but I didn’t mind stopping, their very presence made this whole excursion much less tense. But there was one thing which bothered me…

‘Rainer, shouldn’t we be at Bir Gazell well by now?’ According to my speedo the landmark should have been close.
‘Bir Gazell? No, that is on the direct route, we are taking the southern route.’
‘The southern route?’
‘Ya. Here, look. It goes down into the Ubari Sand Sea, turns east and follows the dunes to Idri. My guide book says it’s much more scenic than the direct route.’
‘How far is it?’
‘Oh, about six hundred kilometres.’
‘I doubt I’ve got enough fuel to go that far, especially if the piste gets sandy.” 
We paused for a moment to consider the implications.
‘Well, I have some spare petrol, about six litres.’ said Rainer whose Isuzu was diesel,
Topping up the bike’s tank we decided to take a gamble and press on.

sf-ham-backduneBut by late afternoon we’d got ourselves lost. The next GPS waypoint was through the hills to the south, but our track was now heading west, the wrong way. This is all part and parcel of Sahara travel so, not unduly worried, we made camp in a oued and resolved to head directly for the waypoint next morning.

sf-ham-roxCross-country riding may sound fun on a trail bike, but in the desert it can be incredibly slow. Once you ride off tracks, however bad they are, you find yourself walking the bike down rocky slopes, blundering up dead-end valleys or edging towards drops. Even with an early start and the bike reconnoitring a way through the hills, it still took us till noon next day to cover the 14km to the waypoint and the route.

sf-ham-dunerHaving lost some altitude coming off the plateau, the day began to burn and, as I feared, the plateau’s firm gravel turned into plains of sand. As all you beach racers know, soft sand has to be attacked standing on the pegs with a nailed throttle and eyes firmly fixed on the ground ahead. There is no easy option: back off and you’re off – go too fast and you risk crashing. I did my share of both and finished the day exhausted by more types and shades of soft sand than the Cote d’Azur.

sf-ham-hotBy now I was already cutting into Rainer and Katja’s water reserves, so we needed to find a well. Their German guidebook identified a source 40km away. We located what seemed the right place and ploughed into the sands where the Isuzu soon mired. While they shovelled I headed over the dunes, riding the sandy banks in all directions just to keep from getting stuck. After a while I found the well – bone dry and full of sand, just like in the movies. This little excursion had cost us two hours, a heap of energy and still more water. We flopped out under some meagre shade. No one said anything.

sf-ham-drinkWe moved on, at one point encountering the vile surface-crusted powder known as feche-feche. Regular bull dust is often mistakenly called feche-feche, but this was one of only two occasions I’ve ever been on it. Often found on the edge of large sand seas, a hard crust like a pie forms and might support a vehicle. Or it might break though into the flour-like blancmange beneath. I spotted it too late, the gnarly tyred Funduro cracked the crust and sank in, engine screaming in first gear as a 20-foot roost spurted up vertically from the back wheel. By paddling madly I just managed to regain firmer ground in time to grab yet another desperate slug of water.

sf-ham2Now every minor exertion demanded a drink and these exhausting conditions went on for hours. In this sort of terrain the Funduro was just plain old Duro. Sure, the engine was amazingly zippy on the highway, but it lacked the plonk needed to chug through soft sand. And as I’ve found before, the super stiff Desert tyre might do the trick on a hefty Dakar racer, but at even just 7 psi and with the tyre creeping round the rim (I was trying the self tapers through the rim trick), it didn’t flatten out enough to provide traction. Result: lots of wheelspin and wasted fuel for not much forward progress.

sf-ham-wellAt dusk we located a proper well with a bucket and trough – the whole thing. We filled up everything with water while camels mobbed us for a hand out. Then, fit only to quickly cook up some grub, the three of us  crashed out for the third night running. We all knew we’d bitten off a bit more than we could chew, but the end was surely in sight.

sf-ham-tentWe got going early but by nine next morning the bike was halfway down a dune and out of gas. We’d seen no other vehicles since we left the highway at Derj so there was nothing for it but to lug out twenty litres of water and watch the Isuzu chug off over the sands in search of fuel. With a bit of luck they’d be back tomorrow. I knew that lying still in shade was the best way to limit water loss, so I crawled under a make shift lean-to and waited.

sf-ham3The burning sun inched across the sky and the scorching wind peppered me with sand. Then, just as I began thinking ‘What if…’ a toot-tooting heralded the early return of the little Trooper. They’d chanced across a date plantation where a guy had tapped off a jerrican’s worth from his pickup’s oil drum.

I poured the fuel into the tank and we were on the move again, but now the riding became really hard as the track squeezed between the dunes and rocky outcrops. Again we found ourselves searching for wind-erased tracks or taking repeated blasts up boulder-strewn slopes that even the nimble bike couldn’t manage. We covered just 40kms, when the Isuzu got stuck on a dune we’d all had enough and called it a day. Hopefully an early start on firmer night-cooled sand would finally get us to Idri. The Hamra wasn’t letting us go without a fight.

sf-ham-tree

With a 6am start and another four hours driving we finally rolled into Idri, caked in dust and all absolutely shattered. I felt like I’d done a four day enduro on a heavy loaded bike in 40-degree temperatures – hang on, I just did that – and a week later I was still aching.

At Idri I bade farewell to the tough German couple and headed north, butt-, leg-, arm-, hand- and back sore after the 600km pummeling. Heavy winds prolonged my retreat and at one point I had the distinctly novel sensation of leaning out round a bend while braced against a 50mph crosswind. By the sf-ham-roadrideTunisian border that cheap chain was on the way out – and when o-ring chains go they go fast. Back across Tunisia, back across the Med, another Motorail to save the chain and a quick coffee in Paris.

I made it to the Channel but after over 2000 miles or riding, just 20 miles from London the sprocket turned into a greasy disc. There was nothing for it but to hire a van and drive home.

sf-lib98map

Previously published in Trail Bike MagazineOverland Journal and Wyprawy 4×4 (Polish)
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Saharan plane wrecks: two stories

Phoenix4On page 350 of Sahara Overland II I wrote a box titled ‘If we’re done for we’re done for and that’s all there is to it‘ about some of the better known plane crashes in the Sahara. Anyone who’s seen the stellar cast at work in original 1965 movie, Flight of the Phoenix (right, not the dreadful 2004 remake) will know what a compelling story the tragedy of a plane crash in the desert can be.

memairLast week a rather belated article appeared on the BBC where it trended for a day; the tale of how a victim’s relative from the September 1989 UTA 772 plane crash over Niger’s southern Tenere organised the construction of a striking memorial at the crash site to his father and the other 169 who perished.
bbc1989Less than a year after a similar event over Lockerbie in Scotland, a bomb – said also to have been set by Libyan agents – saw the DC10 break in the sky some 450km east of Agadez, close to the UTA-772-CockpitTermit massif. One still of what looks like the cockpit (left) bears a  resemblance to the similar well known image from Lockerbie.

Libya’s rather implausible motive was said to have been revenge for France’s support for Chad in the last stages of their border interventions into northern Chad’s Aouzou Strip between 1978 and 1987. This was a little-known Saharan war which had ended when they were roundly defeated first at Wadi Doum near Faya in the Tibesti, and then routed at Maaten al-Sarra, right in Libya itself. However, in July 2011, Gaddafi defectee and former Libyan foreign minister Abdel Rahman Shalgham, told a newspaper ‘The Libyan security services blew up the plane. They tenerememobelieved that opposition leader Mohammed al-Megrief was on board‘.
With part of the £104m compensation gradually handed out by the Gaddafi family, Guillaume Denoix de Saint Marc set about building the huge memorial sculpture close to the crash site. It was completed in 2007 and appears on Google maps today.

dgv

lanclast

The other tale concerns an Avro Avian biplane which crashed in April 1933 between Poste Weygand and Bidon V in Algeria’s Tanezrouft. Featuring biplanes, romance and death in the desert, the story resonates with the popular but very fictional English Patient movie and book. But this tory is all true and a film-making  descendant of the loan pilot, Bill Lancaster, is close to completing a documentary about his forebear titled: ‘My Great Uncle; The Lost Aviator‘.

Bill Lancaster was a pioneering British aviator who found fame by flying from London to Darwin in 1927. Despite leaving a family back home, on route he fell for his co-pilot lancplaneand financial supporter, Australian aviatrix Jessie ‘Chubbie’ Miller (not a nickname you’d think most women would covet).
The adventuresome duo’s romance soon became the Posh & Becks of its day and the couple set up house in Miami. Their relationship then rose to become an outright cause célèbre when,  in April 1932 Lancaster was tried for shooting his love rival, Chubbie’s biographer and some say fiancé, Haden Clarke, at their Miami home.
lanctabsCleared of the charges despite the compelling evidence, Lancaster set off to rebuild his reputation by flying across the Sahara.
While following what may have been the Tanezrouft beacons used by the Citroen motor crossing of 1922-3, his plane went down some 400 kilometres from the Mali border.
lancaster-lettersAfter eight days of suffering Bill Lancaster died one year to the day after Clarke’s unsolved murder. His body lay undiscovered by the wreckage of his Avro until lancwreck1962 where a recovered diary revealed his agonising last days (‘… the heat of the sun is appalling … my constant craving – WATER‘) as well as his undying love for Chubbie Miller.

denvolThe story was fictionalised in 1985 as an Australian mini-series, The Lancaster Miller Affair and again in French in 2009 getting what looks like an exceedingly unsuccessful ‘English Patient’ makeover as Le Dernier Vol (The Last Flight, right) with Marion Cotillard. It sounds like the documentary based on true story may be much more interesting.

More on the Lost Aviator doc here and here and more pictures here.


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Algerian Sahara Camel Trek (video)

I was back in Tamanrasset, this time with a small group of camel trekkers. Year by year it gets more difficult to travel out here and a few weeks earlier Algeria cancelled all tourist visas to the desert– most probably due to weapons slipping out of Libya west towards Mali where some kind of rebellion has already broken out. As a result three missed out and only 7 got visas: 3 Americans: Diane and Steve from Tuscon and Patrick (later just ‘Rick’) from NYC, plus Rob from Bermuda, Hannah from Alderney, Rob from Bristol and Mike from Staffs who’d been on a 2006 Gilf trip I’d led for a tour agency.

It’s nice to drive cars and ride bikes in the desert, but these days that can feel rather conspicuous as you come down from the north. With camels you slip into Tam on the midnight plane from Algiers, and 24 hours later are out in the sticks, largely unnoticed. Any anxieties I had about the ‘Grand Sud’ being closed and us getting stuck- or sent back from Tam came to nothing. And I knew once we were out bush all would be fine.

I’d originally planned a meaty 4-week trek from Tam to Djanet, but decided mid-ye that left us exposed along the Niger border where an Italian woman had been grabbed a year ago. She’s now one of 12 Europeans (as well as local police and others) in the hands of AQIM in north Mali. I’ve just started reading this book about the history behind these events and if nothing else, it underlines how dire it would to be dragged around the oueds of northern Mali for months at a time, suffering injuries and other ailments, with no shelter, terrible food and dirty water.

So, with Tam-Djanet a bit sketchy, the plan boiled down to repeating the reliable Amguid Crater trek I’d done a couple of times over the years for Simoon, then drive back down to the Hoggar and spend a week walking up to Assekrem and back (report on that later). I was using a new agency this time, Ben Kada, an established operator recommended by a friend of a friend and so, along with all the other unknowns, I was hoping they were going to deliver – which in the end they did better than I’d expected. Last November a fake guide who’d infiltrated a well-known agency in Tam to set up a kidnap had been sent down, so it’s hard not to be a little paranoid these days, even if the Algerian security services are on it.

Next evening ee arrived at the same camp south of Arak (left) which we’d used on the recce tour in 2007 with Simoon. The first day kicked off a stiff climb around midday which had been tough on the fully loaded camels, but this time our caravan managed fine. New Year’s Day followed, a spectacular amble through the box canyons of Tissadout, with lunch under a lone tree, a guelta swim and a rock art cave all ending at a great camp spot in the Adjror valley (home of Beetle guelta; these names established on the 2007 recce). Here we met the only other tourists in Algeria who were taking a two-weeker out of Arak. There followed a long haul to Igharghar valley, past the Haribo Tree, the Lunch Cave and the desert mosque, before diverting to a deep slot canyon and tombs which I’d missed on previous visits. Interestingly the deep cleft (left) is actually the river which breaks out through the gap in the ranges at Tadjemout, where we’ve started the tour on previous occasions. Once at camp I got rather lost in the dark while looking for firewood, returning to the camp from the opposite direction, but no one seemed to notice.

Next day I asked to Mohamed, our genial 72-year old guide, to visit the impressive three-tiered gueltas (rain-fed waterhole) we’d lunched at in 2007, but which had been skipped by subsequent guides. On the way there ‘Rick’ lost us while engrossed in the manual of his new Nikon Tankbuster, but did the right thing by getting onto high ground and was back on our trail by the time Moh had backtracked to find him. The same had happened to me hereabouts a tour or two ago when I’d stopped off and ended up chasing half-burned toilet paper in the breeze. Now Rick also knew that chilling feeling when you lose sight of the group, any trace of their tracks, and haven’t got a clue which way is up.

As it happens the many tiered gueltas of Tin Karabatine were very low on water – as were many other rock pools in the region this year – but we managed to launder and wash anyway, while Moh instructed us to follow the canyon’s right rim upstream for 30 minutes to meet him and Tayeb the cook with the lunch camel later, in the valley above. It seemed a bit of a leap of faith, but we passed the test and met up close to the ever-serendipitous acacia which crops up at these times. Later on Tayeb was similarly tested by Mohamed, with less success.

I knew well that the afternoon ahead was one of the nicest stages of the walk, made all the better by spotting a galloping mouflon (barbary sheep) as big as a donkey, as well as cheetah tracks (right), before we wound our way through the sandy outcrops down to woodless Camp IV. Next day was another long walk, 25km over to Tahaft; down into the big valley with a lazy lunch under a thorn-free tamarisk while the crew filled up from the soak. As on previous walks, we staggered in as the sun was setting behind us but very soon Tayeb had the tea and biscuits laid out while we waited for dinner. Up till that day, as with all that followed, there was very little wind until maybe the late afternoon which kept things warm, though it dropped to near-freezing most nights, and sometimes below.

Even with a waypoint, I blundered around next morning to locate our discrete 100KM marker from 2007, until Diane spotted it and we lined up for the now traditional photo (right). Mohamed diverted soon after to chat up a couple of bedraggled goat nomads about pasture and water up ahead. He’d been here once in the last 25 years if I understood him correctly, but knew all the spots and was still showing me new places and routes, even on my fourth visit here. After a splash in the Tahaft slot-guelta and another lazy lunch, Moh led us on a great cross-country scramble down to the ‘lost oasis’ of Tin Djerane (left) where birds twittered and jackal tracks set hard in the mud. We heard their yelps on a few nights, but I’ve never actually seen one out in the desert. Along the camel trails you’ll regularly find stone slabs laid up into conical ‘goat holders’ to protect them from the overnight jackals.

More sparkling gueltas and even flower-clad lawns led to Camel Branding Camp V along the south edge of the Tissadert escarpment. This place is surrounded by ancient tombs, many of which have been annotated on Google Earth by ‘Ken Grok’. There’s a ‘keyhole tomb’ a couple of minutes from camp (above left), another 700 metres away which we passed close by later, but the strikingly huge antenna tomb (right, on GE) I led us to with the GPS was so big it was hard to visualise at ground level.

Following another swim at a big guelta, we failed to meet up with Tayeb and the lunch camel. Tayeb was from Tazrouk down in the Hoggar and this was his first visit to the Immidir which Mohamed and his aged crew, Halil and Ahmed, knew well. So it was a bit of a reach asking him to meet us up ahead in a creek he’d never seen. We zig-zagged around while Moh tried to pick up the trail and at one point I strolled right across another huge keyhole tomb. Eventually Mohamed found fresh tracks and around 3pm we spotted Tayeb sat patiently alongside an acacia-lined oued. Ravenous by now, he got an unfair bollocking while we tucked into the heaped platters of salad which Tayeb prepared for us daily.

Moh had suggested that to get to the crater we take the next oued east after Tissadert, the Oued Taferekrak (according to the IGN map, below). Approaching the crater from this side was something I’d wanted to try for a while as the site lies just 500 metres from the canyon rim and ends up at the interesting Aguelman Rahla, surrounded by more pre-islamic tombs as well as dunes. This also happened to be along the approach route to the crater we’d planned on Desert Riders back in 2003, going as far as leaving a fuel and water cache at Foum el Mahek gap to the east a year earlier (see map, right). That trip did not end so well, but having now walked up it, I’m not so sure riding the lardy Honda XRLs would have been at all easy up here.

After a light overnight freeze, we set off up the wide canyon (right) and as expected, met some goat nomads who agreed to sell us an animal for a hefty €75. It had been the same price last year, but down in the Hoggar I was later quoted €50. Still, for a tenner each we ate well for three days and the crew got an unexpected treat too.

So, while the old men and Tayeb prepared to chop up the goat, we set off for the crater up the steep canyonside (left) with Salah, Mohamed’s 18-year-old son. After just an hour of huffing and puffing we looked down onto the crater (below), since sullied with stone-stencilled graffiti.

Some, including myself, thought it should be obliterated to return the crater (right) to its natural form, but as some of it was clearly the work of Algerians from Ghardaia, others argued that, as foreigners, it was not our place to be meddling with local ‘Kilroys’ wanting to lift their leg on the place. And at least the loose stones were not permanent. Maybe someone else will do the right thing.

A dust haze had drifted up the valley that day, reminding me of the near disaster (from a visibility PoV) we’d had on the Eclipse tour in Niger back in 2006. Undeterred, Salah leapt back down to the canyon floor like a rubber gazelle where sure enough, a fresh goat stew was bubbling on the coals.

The following day we emerged from the Tafrakerk canyon at Aguelmam Rahla guelta (right) where we were in a little too much of a rush to wash off the dust of several days, much to the displeasure of Mohamed. He was quite right, we should have filled up and taken a bucket elsewhere, this waterhole is a key point for nomads topping off their goats prior to collection by Arab traders coming in from In Salah, two days drive northwest. A mile away, the terminal dune of the Erg aguelmamTeganet (right) made a great backdrop to our camp as well as a challenge for some next morning, while I wandered around looking for the tombs I recalled seeing clearly on Google Earth a while back (left). More on tombs here.

After lunch we continued for half a day up the sandy Teganet oued (right) in the direction of  Bir Outene at around 200km (see map). Here we had a day off waiting for the cars to arrive, as we’d saved a day taking the new route to the crater.

We sat around, moving with the shade while reading our books or Kindles until the late afternoon brought the distinctive hum of 4WDs churning up the river bed in low range. Too late to pack up now, one of the drivers had a guitar and later that evening around the fire we listened to him and Mohamed drumming on a plastic water can. Then as the sands sucked in the cold we headed for our dispersed camps. It was an early start next morning for the long run to Mehajibat dunes and another day’s drive down the TSH to our Hoggar base camp. More about that here.

From the back: me, RobUK, ‘Rick’, Steve, Sharif, Mohamed, Halil, Salah,
Ahmed, Rob, Mike, Hannah, Diane, Tayeb, Loukmane, Said.
Immidir practicalities
Tam-based Ben Kada agency had never run- or probably even heard of the crater route before, so I presume they took it upon themselves to travel up to Arak, track down Mohamed and his crew and ascertain that they could lay on the gear and knew the way. Ben Kada drivers dropped us off with the caravan and picked us up 11 days later, leaving it to the Arak guys to do the job.
We ate around 7.30, just around dawn and walked between 15 and 25km a day (10-15 miles), which was plenty given the terrain at times, although lunches were often 2 hours long. Most of the time we did not travel with the caravan and often took detours which the camels did not or need not follow. Sometimes we travelled with the kitchen camel and Tayeb the cook who prepared lunch, very often the best meal of the day. Breakfast was lean: tea or coffee, bread (baguettes or tagela), a solid block of marg, jam and Vache. As suggested beforehand, a couple BYO muesli or instant porridge. Once we had pancakes or French toast (eggy bread) or omlettes. Many carried day snacks, though I mostly went without as I had some weight to spare but was pretty hungry at most meals. Hot drinks, peanuts and biscuits were laid out soon after we arrived at the camp – most welcome – and dinner was ready 2 hours later: soup followed by a muttony stew, sometimes with pasta or cous cous or rice or bread, plus dates or oranges – and glasses of tea later. Most were asleep by 10pm.
Once water was taken from gueltas we filtered, though we all agreed it was more to get rid of unsightly sediment than microbes which might make us ill. We drunk enough untreated water from other sources and no one got ill. The sediment makes filters clog up within a litre or two so the uncleanable ‘squeeze bottle’ type got blocked early on, while the cleanable Katadyn and MSR ceramic core jobbies carried on working with regular cleaning.
Most of us had small blisters by the end and could do nothing about them except plaster them and keep them clean. No one’s walking was really affected; I had a really raw small toe but that recovered well enough on the 2-day drive to Hoggar. I had a feeling my feet swelled up after a few days which may have led to this – thinner socks did the trick until they wore out. Interestingly Bermuda Rob did the whole walk in a $70 pair of Nikes – they survived, were very comfy and he even had no blisters! There were no other injuries even though we worked out there had been no less than 4 million opportunities to miss a step and sprain an ankle
Most found it got pretty cold around 6am: the mats supplied were pretty thin but once I recalled we had them, the extra blankets laid on were a great help with warmth (under or over).
The cook spotted one small, harmless snake on the trail which he killed without thought. Some were surprised by this, but desert dwellers have a different attitude to these and scorpions (none seen).
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Tuareg documentary online at Al Jazeera

First in a three-part documentary on Al Jazeera online about the Tuareg of Niger and Mali following the fall of Libya from which many of them fled.

Can’t embed – the link is here or click image below. Well worth watching.

Also, an article by the film maker here. And another by Andy Morgan about the Tuareg cause.

Part Two ‘Rebellion‘ is online now too. Part 3 ‘Exile’ is in a week.
All also on Al Jazeera TV channel I presume.

aljt1

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