Sahara!

 

In the 1970David Bowers travelled the Sahara in (or on!) a selection of decrepit vehicles. Herejust a few of his stories.

Come to the sunny Sahara for your holidays,”was the humorous comment that one of the guests had scrawled on an ink blotter at the reception desk of the Hotel Tin Hinan in Tammanrasset, which is a tiny isolated settlement located deep in the worldlargest desert. A smiley sun radiating beams of light accompanied the script, which neatly summed up the starkly oppressive, 120 – degree plus temperatures which I had encountered when hopping from oasis to oasis over the desert for the last 700 miles towards Tammanrasset, of which the last 400 – mile stretch from Ain Salah had been the worst by far. Hell on wheels!

In 1976, travelling by truck was the only way that independent travellers could reach the Hoggar, home of the warrior Tuaregs, the very last tribe to be subjugated by colonial powers in Africa after they lost a battle with the Foreign Legion in 1902.

For centuries, the Tuareg were cut off from the rest of the world in their inaccessibly remote fiefdom high in the Hoggar Mountains; a lunar – like landscape of sawtoothed peaks that rise almost sheer from the baking hot plains of the desert. A fact that wasndifficult to comprehend after spending the last four days travelling by truck across endless miles of sand and rocky debris at a breakneck speed.

Think of the Sahara and endless wastes of sand dunes spring to mind, although after passing through the Grand Erg Occidental in the north, the scenery held more in common with a cowboy movie than one about Beau Geste! This leg of the journey was achieved in an ancient ex – French Army Renault 4×4 truck, with the corrugated rear body section of a Citroen H van mounted on the back, which almost came to grief when travelling at night when it hit a hard – packed ridge of sand that the desert winds had picked up and deposited in a wave formation across our path!

The last stage of my desert journey to Tammanrasset began with a walk of a mile or two out into the desert from the oasis of Ain Salah, which took place at dawn accompanied by three Italian backpackers in conditions of the utmost secrecy. The reason for this was that foreigners werenallowed to travel by truck through the desert on account of the dangers of this inhospitable region. Another reason was security measures, which had been imposed due to the occurrence of sporadic desert war fought out by Politsario freedom fighters against neighbouring Moroccan forces, which arose from a dispute over who should govern a swathe of desert after Spain abandoned its colony on the distant Atlantic coastline.

As instructed by the truck driver whoagreed to take us to Tammanrasset, we awaited his arrival just beyond sight of the oasis after spending a few languid days in the palm – fringed oasis at Ain Salah trying to find someone who was prepared to defy the authorities and take us south to Tam. Twenty dollars was the asking price, some of which would have found its way into the pockets of a couple of Algerian soldiers who travelled with us, who would then turn a blind eye to our presence on the truck should we come across any of their compatriots out on patrol, a number of which were encountered driving Magirus – Deutz army trucks.

Blue men

Our lorry was a Saviem 340 VT artic powered by a 335bhp V8 coupled to a tilt frame bodied trailer with steel drop – sides. This was partially loaded with cardboard boxes that had been securely battened down, which was just as well, as we soon found out on hitting the rough stuff, of which there was plenty! In addition to four foreigners plus two soldiers riding in the cab, the back of the trailer was occupied by a number of Arabs, also Touregs dressed from head to toe in indigo tribal dress; hence the name Men’. There was also a placidly stupid donkey, for which everyone soon developed an abiding hatred as it blindly stumbled around the load bed!

In the days of colonial occupation the French Foreign Legion manned a string of desert forts along the camel trade routes of the Sahara. Following the introduction of motorised transport, the passage of heavy vehicles soon resulted in the unsurfaced tracks degenerating into an undulating switchback of humps, which went by the name of ’according to the French troops. To resolve this problem, soldiers would drive lorries at speed over the desert towing heavy truck tyres on ropes, which was an effective way of levelling out the bumps. However, no such activity appeared to have taken place since the mid – 60s, and the trucks plying the route towards Tammanrasset, a few of which ventured even further down to West Africa, had chewed up the piste into a deeply rutted obstacle course: a corrugated surface that often extended for miles on either side of the original route as drivers attempted to find a less bone – jarring ride by taking to untrammelled ground.

Travelling in the back of the bucking tilt was a nightmare, as on the rough sections of piste the going was so bad you had to lie flat on the wooden floor, as sitting, let alone standing, was impossible. As the rear axle bogie hit each sand ridge, everyone was thrown up into the choking, dust-laden air. And before you landed, the trailer bed then bucked up again as it hit the following ridge, delivering a hard blow, full-length across your back as you landed! A punishing ordeal that was repeated every few seconds for hours on end!

Adding to the discomfort, the aforementioned donkey, which had its legs hobbled together, would teeter most alarmingly, threatening to fall over on anyone unfortunate enough to be in its proximity as the trailer shook at each jolt: a beast that was roundly cursed, especially in view of the frequently repeated discharges from its rear end!

Overheating

Over the next two days, the driver of the Saviem kept his foot hard down on the accelerator, with only a short break through the hours of darkness and a brief respite during the hottest hours of the day. The journey was to be broken at a remote oasis that lies halfway between Ain Salah and Tammanrasset, although that wasnto be after the truckradiator overflow spouted a cloud of steam some ten miles short of our destination for the day – Tadjmout oasis.

Mehmet, our driver, was none too pleased, particularly as our reserves of water, which would have permitted the radiator to be refilled, had been reduced to nil. This was because some of the locals had brought along goatskin water bags that theyhung from the sides of the truck so that the passing airflow cooled the contents by evaporation as water percolated out of the pores in each goatskin. The downside of this being that lots of the precious liquid was lost, of course; which wasnvery smart and contributed to our current predicament of having no water to refill the radiator!

Further north, after leaving the Atlas Mountains, Icome across a similar situation when travelling with oil workers crammed into the back of a Peugeot 404 pickup truck. However, this was swiftly answered by opening the bonnet, removing the overflowing, steaming cap, and then everyone was instructed to take a turn at replenishing the radiator from his own personal, undrinkable supply! But peeing into a radiator wasngoing to work this time; so it was a matter of trudging through the baking hot desert sand towards the distant oasis fringed by palms, which seemed bewitchingly close due to the clear desert air, but certainly wasn! Each step soon became torture as the sun reached it zenith above the tall, red – rock escarpments of Arak Gorge.

It was bliss to finally enter the welcoming shade of the languid palms and plunge into a water cistern had been excavated in ancient times in the days of the camel trains! And what a joy it was to slake your thirst at a tap on the wall of a small hut, where a Toureg family resided in furnace – like conditions!

Over the next couple of days a few travellers passed through, which included many four – wheel – drive owners. Sadly, one carried the body of Belgian whodied after contracting a mysterious illness. Attempting to buy a few provisions wasntoo difficult, although there was someone who refused to sell any, who argued that this would have depleted his supplies; a poor excuse when he could have restocked shortly afterwards after Tammanrasset!

All looked well in the evening when MehmetSaviem was towed into the oasis by another truck that was also owned by the Algerian state transport firm, and the prospects of continuing our interrupted journey looked fine – or so we thought until the early hours before dawn when we heard the engine firing, and without any warning, it tore off across the sands, the beams of its headlights wildly bucking up and down underlining the haste with which it departed. So much for Mehmetpromise of honouring our agreement! This situation that was no doubt influenced by the carelessness of those whowasted the truckwater supply and the disappearance of the two soldiers whoaccompanied us so far: theytravelled on after securing a ride in another vehicle, and without their protection, this could have landed our driver in trouble. Or maybe it was just plain indifference to our fate?

Day two passed slowly and uneventfully, although a ray of hope was keenly felt when a pair of spiralling dust trails could be seen travelling towards the oasis, which slowly focused into a couple of Berliet five – tonners owned by the state transport company that were driven by an Arab and a Toureg respectively, who both resided in Tammanrasset.

Rescue

The probability of ten of us securing a ride on these trucks looked decidedly remote, as each was filled to capacity with bags of cement secured by ropes and a canvas sheet. Nonetheless, the drivers were keen to take us for a small fee. And despite our reservations, we were soon heading south once more, five on the back of each wagon; four hanging onto the securing ropes on top of the load of cement sacks for dear life, while the fifth sat in lordly splendour in the dish of the spare wheel that was also tied down by the ropes drawn over the canvas! Not the easiest way to travel for the next two hundred miles, but beggars canbe choosers!

In the interest of fairness, each took a turn at sitting in the tyre, although changing positions from the ropes to the wheel was a precarious business as the trucks raced along at full pelt, crashing through wadis where ancient rivers once ran, or charging across loose scree of razor – sharp rocks, where falling off the back of the truck could only mean one thing! This was tragically demonstrated partway through the second day when we came across an overturned Berliet that had thrown three of those riding on top to early graves, which had been dug immediately beside the wreck!

In contrast to the way that webeen left stranded hundreds of miles from anywhere by the surly Mehmet, our two drivers took every opportunity to help fellow travellers, such as digging out a Volkswagen camper from the sand, or helping the driver of a Mercedes artic to get going again after some of the engine mounts had sheered through on a particularly rough section: have you ever seen a huge diesel engine held in with a length of rope that could have secured an oil tanker to the quayside! Helping anyone out is what you can normally expect in such a hostile terrain, a policy that also extended to our bellies, as the drivers served up a large pot of couscous when a halt was called after the remorseless sun finally dipped beyond the far horizon.

Unbelievable as it seemed, the road, such as it was, grew even tougher as we neared our destination, the spiritual home of the Tuareg. With engines groaning in protest, and travelling in single file for the first time since leaving Tadjmout so that the following vehicle was engulfed in dust, we ascended into the fantastically shaped Hoggar Mountains, which locals maintain was where Allah dumped any material that was left over after he created the Earth.

Expectations rose as the two trucks started to gather speed on reaching a flat plateau, and no doubt recreating a race that theyrun many times, the drivers put their foot to the floor to see who would be first to reach the lonely town of Tammanrasset. As both vehicles drew level, ducking right and left to avoid any boulders, those clinging on to the humped backed load on the other truck called to mind a seriously overloaded racing camel going at full speed. However, the outcome of this exuberant competition would never be known, as the walls of the township finally came into view and the two Berliets abruptly came to a halt. It was time for the foreigners to dismount and walk the final mile to avoid any awkward questions from the Algerian gendarmerie, should they be watching our arrival, to which we could only lamely insist that wealso walked the last four hundred miles!

Over the years, I have travelled with truck drivers of various nationalities, and with the exception of this particular driver s behaviour in abandoning all of us in a Saharan oasis, this was the only bad experience which I ever encountered, over thousands and thousands of miles!