Warning: This post contains explict content and images that may offend some readers.
Algerian Border Crossing
Leaving Tunisia at Hazoua we simply filled in a disembarkation card upon arrival at the Tunisian border post, and our passports were duly stamped by a police officer. We were then directed to the customs desk in the same building. The customs officer noted down our date and place of arrival and departure, and asked no further questions. It took all of five minutes to exit Tunisia. They didn’t even ask any questions as to whether or not we had a visa for Algeria, although it is more than likely the police officer saw our Algerian visas as he flicked through the pages of our passports.
After a short ride across no-mans land and a quick photo of roaming camels by the road, we arrived at the Algerian border police post. I’m unsure if they were Tunisian or Algerian camels, either way their paperwork wasn’t in order or else they would’ve already crossed over. As we rolled up to the border post, we noticed a large number of cars about 20 or 30 already parked and knew we were in for a decent wait. First of all we were asked to complete a white entry card (carte d’entrée) with our personal details and a fiche d’entrée in green for the motorcycle.
Pascal exchanged friendly banter with the police officer, who also asked if we had a guide and where we were going, in particular if we were going to the south of Algeria. He checked our motorcycle registration papers, however he wanted our guide to arrive before he processed our paperwork. He tried to telephone our guide but of course no answer, and it was already half an hour after our scheduled rendez-vous at 9 am. Pascal went in search of our guide, and as the only white man in a fluro yellow t-shirt and grubby motorcycle gear he’s not hard to miss. We certainly should have asked for our guides mobile number to ensure that he is easily contactable. Luckily, we were only waiting in the shade for 10 minutes when Mohamed from Tanzerouft travel agency arrived and took care of the formalities. He had driven over 3000kms from the south to meet us at the Taleb Labri border near the Algerian town of El Oued. Mohamed was called inside the building and we are not sure as to the exact exchanges that took place, but it all took approximately 1 hour and photocopies were made of our passports and several copies of our trip itinerary and personal details were made.
We waited outside with the flies in the shade and snacked on biscuits, and fielded questions from curious onlookers. Before our guide returned, Pascal was directed to the next building along to obtain a TPD (Titre de Passage en Douaine) form to complete for the motorcycle. Pascal duly completed the forms that were barely legible having been photocopied repeatedly and now extremely faded. Increasingly tired of the wait and very hungry, I was short with Arja who wanted to take photos of the completed forms but was taking her time.
Arja: He gets stressed out far to easily by tedious beaurocratic procedures. Meanwhile, I successfully got to level 32 on space bubbles!
Street kids curious about the bike came up to have a closer look
Pascal: I went to the customs desk to get the additional forms for our motorcycle and to declare the amount of money we wish to exchange. The customs officers were friendly just as the police but preferred to speak English. Once the TPD was filled in I handed it back talking and learning a few words of arabic in the process from my improvised teachers. Once our guide returned, I had to go back with the guide to the customs office with our stamped passports. The customs officer went outside with us to check the motorbike and asked questions as to our luggage, such as what the sleeping mats were. The customs officers, new in their role, insisted on me taking everything off the bike except the hard luggage. As I was doing this, little to my knowledge, Arja was being quizzed on whether we had a GPS. Unwittingly she hinted that our tablet had a GPS but also needed a wireless internet connection to function. The over eager customs officers pounced on the word GPS just as I was coming back with the bags from the bike. It took some careful explaining using Arja as a scape-goat and the intervention of a senior colleague to make the customs officers understand that it wasn’t a GPS device but rather a big mobile phone. The only thing remaining was to exchange some Euros for Algerian Dinars and purchase 3rd party insurance for Francois. The insurance was 1400DZD valid for one month.
Approx three hours later, we were finally back on Francois with nothing but the open road ahead.
Welcome to Algeria
A quick stop in Oued el alennda to pick up supplies and some fresh lamb to go with couscous, for tonight’s camping dinner.
Restocking food and water in El Oued
On our very first night in Algeria we found ourselves camping off the road in the dunes; who would’ve thought it would be such an adventure! Half way between Oum ez Zebed and Touggourt we stopped to take a path over the dunes to find a campsite in the sand for the night.
My first time in sand dunes
As Arja rightly pointed out, it was my first time in the sand dunes, although not altogether my first time on sand as we were on the beach in Italy. But as I was soon to find out the flat sands of the beach are very different to the undulating sand dunes broken up by tufts of grass. Had my first experience been on wide open sand dunes with no vegetation, then it may have been better, or at least a little easier, like driving on an empty highway versus a busy street with traffic when learning to drive a car. The dunes busy with vegetation provided obstacles that were difficult to negotiate at minimum speed on sand which is about 40-50kph. With the tyres let down to 15psi front and rear but with tank panniers and rear panniers still on I leapt on Francois all but ready after a long day to tackle the loose soft white sand of Touggourt.
From the road it was easy to get speed up and the first 200m went well standing up on the footpegs but as I had to negotiate the knolls, pick my line well ahead, and keep up a fast pace to stop myself from getting bogged whilst also reading the sand all at the same time, I started to slow and with the throttle rolled off just a little the front wheel dug knee-deep into the soft sand, almost throwing me over the front as it brought Francois to a rapid halt. To get out of the sand bog, I laid Francois over on his side to let the sand fill back in the wheel tracks. This was only effective to a point as I still had the panniers on and it wasn’t possible to get Francois flat on his side. Back up and on Francois I started him up in second gear letting the clutch out all the way and keeping the revs up enough to keep him from stalling. Sand was flying high and the metzeler tourances were struggling to grab in the sand, only as the tyres started to translate to forward movement was it possible to sit and lift my feet up. When starting in sand, the bike is creating deep grooves and steering is virtually impossible, only once enough speed and momentum is gained does the bike lift up and ride, sort of float on the sand, and one can begin to steer. It was just before I had reached the point of being able to steer, or more correctly, to change direction with my weight when I realised I was headed straight for a big mound of grass and sand.
Smashing through the windscreen, Francois on his side after ploughing through a grassy mound of sand."What did you do to Francois?"
The mound came closer and closer until the unavoidable happened, I hit the big tuft of grass and sand. I was expecting the worst, bike and all we were flung over the first mound with a thump only to be greeted with another mound just as big glaring right at me head-on. Barely holding on the sudden halt of Francois ploughing into the second mound was too much and my momentum carried me forward, and I went head-over-heals smashing through the wind shield and landing on the other side of the sandy mound shoulder first. My descent from grace was all-in-all relatively soft as I immediately rose to turn and see Francois in a less than elegant position on his left hand side with the windshield in pieces and the right rear vision mirror bent and dislodged.
Recording the aftermath
Keen to document and record my accident I tried signalling to Arja and Mohamed to come back. As they were already well ahead of me by this stage they took a little while to turn around and drive back. Without a doubt it was a wise decision not to have attempted riding on sand with Arja as passenger. I sincerely doubt that we would have made it more than 20m if we tried.
I was angry but mostly disappointed that I had crashed, and pumped with adrenalin I was keen to jump back on Francois and try again. However, I held back the urge instead deciding to wait and document the ‘off’. The effect of the adrenalin meant it took a while until I calmed down enough to think and feel the effects of the impact fully, as Arja, Mohamed and Ali our driver pulled up I began to assess the damage. What I could see was a twisted rear vision mirror and broken windshield, what we heard when I got Francois upright and started him up again was like a broken or missing exhaust. The loud gutteral splatter sounded like the exhaust had been damaged, dislodged due to the noise. When I accelerated there was no power and Francois struggled almost stalling during harder acceleration and all the time blurting a deafening roar of pain. This wasn’t good. What have I done. Why did I ride on sand. What was I thinking!?
Starting sick Francois
It didn’t take long until we found the problem. The throttle body and air-intake had been dislodged allowing unfiltered air and god knows how much sand and dirt directly into the engine chamber. As soon as we saw this I got out my tools and went to work to re-seat the throttle body to the engine head. Still on a high I impatiently tried to fix the problem and bent the circular retaining clip holding the throttle body on. Damn it!
With a bit of tweaking and fiddling I could fix the bent clip and the throttle assembly and mustered up the courage to try again, but this time without any luggage whatsoever.
Riding on to our camping spot behind the bigger dunes I think I started to get a feeling for the sand. Exhausted I sat on the sand with Arja as our guides cooked dinner over the campfire. Beautiful night sky with a crescent moon and countless stars. It was only at this point that I had relaxed enough to feel that I was sore from the crash. Firstly my shoulder and neck from the impact and my upper thigh, presumably from the windshield and lastly my chest where I had my keys on a lanyard around my neck. Due to the fall the keys had dug into my chest and caused a few minor lacerations and bleeding. All considered a small price to pay for what could’ve been a lot worse.
Sore and bruised but not beaten, enjoying mint tea as we prepare to camp in the dunes
Impromptu service in Touggourt
From our campsite in the dunes we continued to Touggourt about 20kms to perform an oil change due to the accident in the sand having opened up the air intake at the throttle body. As I had started the bike with the throttle body dislodged I thought it prudent, almost essential to change the oil as there would’ve been a lot of unfiltered air with sand entering the engine directly, hopefully most of it was ejected cleanly via the exhaust but better to take the preventative measure now than wreak havoc later. It was great to have Ali and Mohamed as they could easily find a garage and ask if we could do the oil change there rather than by the roadside in the dust and dirt. Just next door was a shop selling oil and tyres, I bought four litres of 5W40 engine oil for 2200dinars. I was carrying a spare oil filter and all the tools necessary to do the job so i got to work. Meanwhile Mohamed and Ali were doing some maintenance on their pickup and buying new tyres.
The service took the best part of an hour interrupted only by chit-chat with the mechanic keen to know more about our bike and where we had travelled. From Touggourt to Guerrara, an oasis town, for lunch of chicken, stewed vegetables and french fries. There are married women in town who are only able to show one eye when outside on the street, and look like they simply rolled out of bed with the bed sheets on and went shopping. It is a strict sect of Islam and the women alternate the eye shown to avoid weakened eyesight. Bizarre what men can get away with! The medina of Guerrara certainly looked worth exploring but we unfortunately have many kms to do and too little time.
Camping in Ahmed’s Oasis
The day was long and when we finally arrived at our campsite in amongst date palms we were tired and hungry. The owner of the oasis showed us the way in, through the gate, past the truck stop restaurant, in between the palm throngs and through the mud created from irrigation. His makeshift house of one room with ensuite, if you could call it that, was a mess, piled with junk and out back an animal coup with plenty of live mutton and goat. At the back of the restaurant a cook was preparing goats heads for a broth of sorts. To prepare them he first needed to remove the hair from the face and head of the decapitated goats. To do this he used a blow torch burning low with a yellow flame, this singed and burnt the hairs without cooking or burning the skin. The very distinctive smell of burnt hair stunk out the entire area but didn’t do much for the flies!
Restauranteur preparing goat heads for a stew
For dinner Mohamed brought a try of lentils and lamb chops and chips to our outdoor lounge room under the date palms. The lounge room was just a rug laid on the red sandy soil with a small fire for making tea.
We left Oued Toulid and Ahmed’s oasis at about 10am. We were 195kms north of El Meneea, also know as El Golea on the N1 heading south. The terrain has kept changing gradually, with slight changes every passing kilometre. At first the sand was a light yellow-beige with undulating plains of rocky terrain interspersed by tufts of bracken and thickets with the odd eucalyptus or palm. As we passed through small enclaves in the desert we noticed a lot of building going on, all in the typical reinforced cement pillars then the walls are built with very fragile clay bricks filling in the gaps between the pillars spaced at 2-3m intervals and rendered with cement and painted to hold it altogether.
Over one hill and into the next shallow basin we rode, onwards deeper and deeper into the Sahara and further south towards El Meneea and eventually Ain Sallah. The shallow basins at first coloured by light yellow sand and dark grey rocks, a few kilometres across and a matter of 20 or so metres deep began to give way to more sandy soil until the sand overtook the rocks and with the exception of a few flat spots the rest of the landscape was covered in small dunes and shrubs.
We stopped just outside of El Meneea at a truck stop for petrol and lunch. As this was the last petrol station until Ain Salah we also took an extra 10 litres of 96 unleaded petrol in a jerry can in case we couldn’t make the 393km + 15km stretch with one tank.
Authentic Sahara Experience
South of Ghardaia and all the way to Niger, is the real Sahara, ever-changing desert terrain and unforgiving. With the countless years of experience accumulated by our guides from hundreds of trips between Mali, Niger and Algeria we knew we were in good hands. So I lent on the knowledge and experiences of Mohamed to help guide me on how to read the sand dunes and picking the best line to avoid the soft sand. Dinner was a specialty of the desert, sand cooked bread resembling damper and then broken up in small pieces and mixed with stewed vegetables.
Desert camp fire
The choice of campsite was made, and we climbed up the highest dune to get a view of the sunset. There is something comforting about having warm sand between the toes and fresh air that made us feel nostalgic towards the beaches in Australia, so much so that we were half expecting to see the ocean over the next sand dune. It’s funny how the mind works sometimes.
Endless dunes of the Sahara
Conquered the Sand Dunes, Pascal & Francois celebrate
From the red dunes 300kms north of Ain Salah we rode 200kms south over an enormous plateau of red earth and black volcanic looking rocks. To the locals the plateau and its black stones is known as the black desert.
Lunch under an Acacia tree
Lunch under the acacia tree surrounded by 7 billion stones and a million flies chewing on maccaroni and sand. The wind picked up and every breath felt like we were inhaling spoonfulls of sand.
A last dash through the wind and desert and we made it on one tank the whole 404kms to Ain Salah. I couldn’t help but mull over in my mind different ‘what if’ scenarios as we ran through the reserve tank and then some 30 odd kilometres past the indicated ’empty’ tank warning. What if we didn’t have a guide carrying extra fuel…
As we descended from the plateau, the flat arid treeless plain fell away into a gorge and opened out into a new basin leaving a few hills with a flat plateau height top resembling a canyon and pinnacles shrouded in sand and fallen rock. The town of Ain Salah, is surrounded by sand dunes and the ever encroaching sand often takes over parts of the town and from every street we could see at the end a sand dune.
Typical street of Ain Salah with sand dunes at the end
At Mohamed’s home we felt very welcome but craving some western creature comforts after four days of no showers or running water, we were not only out of clean clothes but we really did smell and just out of personal hygiene we needed a shower and we wanted to relax a little. As warm and welcoming as Mohamed and his family were we both secretly wanted, needed, some space and alone time. We first checked with Mohamed that it wouldn’t be a problem to move about town by ourselves. He confirmed it wasn’t a problem and that no one would stop us. So we decided to go to a hotel, much to the disappointment of his wife who was busy preparing dinner. We agreed to thus check-in to our hotel and return at 8pm for dinner.
Bonne fête! We partook in the traditional sacrificial slaughter of two goats just after our breakfast at 9am the day of Eid. The sacrifice of the animals was very unceremonious in all, but the ordeal of butchering two goats in the front yard on sand was performed with minimal fuss with the guidance of an experienced hand. Mohamed had a bet on with his friend to see who would be the first to prepare the Boulfaf, a delicacy found in Algeria and Morocco is usually eaten for breakfast. It is the cooked liver of the goat or sheep wrapped in the layer of fatty tissue surrounding the abdominal cavity of the animal then then placed on skewers and lightly grilled over the wood fire. Boulfaf is served hot and doesn’t by any stretch of the imagination look appetising, well not to either of us in any case. As Arja doesn’t eat meat, the four large pieces were all for me. Still feeling unwell from the chicken the evening before, I really had to force myself to eat the Boulfaf. It wasn’t very special and as I don’t particularly like liver, even on a good day I would’ve found it difficult to swallow.
Cutting the neck of a chicken, offered to us for lunch.
Preparation of the Algerian Boulfaf, liver wrapped in caul fat, the abdominal lining.
Caul the fat used in the preparation of Boulfaf
Tripe with chips, oh how delicious full of grit and very fatty. Coke never tasted so good, and I’ve never had so much in all my life, a god send, to help us wash down the tripe and cure or thirst if only temporarily. The trouble is we can’t leave until we’ve eaten!
I’m not sure if it was the tripe but even before I was going from bad to worse, it is beyond me how Mohamed was seemingly immune to the effects of the chicken, either that or he was doing a great job of hiding his discomfort. Back at the hotel my fever became unbearable, it may have something to do with the ground water I drank at lunch. What between the TV, my cold sweats and all the aches and pains, our decision not to return the Mohamed’s home for dinner was in my best interests. Especially given the 1400kms on bad roads we needed to cover in order to make our ferry in two and a half days leaving from Gazhouet.
I don’t know how Arja managed to put up with me between all the moaning, my demands and constant complaints. Perhaps the true test of a relationship is when we are ill, outside our comfort zone and in a foreign and inhospitable place. But whatever it is the truth is you do whatever you need to get through and we certainly need each other, it’s a cliché but we do pull together in tough times. Let’s be reasonable, it’s only food poisoning, travellers diarrhea, so given a little time it will pass, hopefully sooner rather than later.
We rose at the crack of dawn dispite my lack of sleep and queasy stomach to make haste north in direction Ghardaia. Forteen hundred kilometres lay between us and the coast then there were the police checkpoints located at entry and exit to every town and at major intersections. Not to mention all the speed bumps more like hitting a curb, forcing us to slow to a maximum speed of 15km/h. Two full days of riding and we rode into Tlemcen in the dark and looking for a hotel in peak hour traffic. Only 70kms for the following morning over the mountains and some very nice twisty roads and we arrived at the port. We said our goodbyes and proceeded to enter the port only to be turned away as we didn’t have authorisation to enter. A visit to the secretary of the captain of the port authorities and a long wait to get our boarding tickets due to computer system being down and finally we could enter the port.
Leaving Algeria by boat
Now on the boat to Spain and it is leaving 1hr and 41 minutes after scheduled departure.Why by boat? Well for the simple fact that the land border with Morocco is closed and has been for the best part of 30 years. So we are obliged to take the boat to Spain before descending into Morocco, ridiculous isn’t it.
The port of Ghazaouet, preparing to leave for Spain
It is very strange when complete strangers chase you down to give you an Algerian keyring as a present or when you stop to buy food and a man standing on the sidewalk gave us a handmade truck in a bottle. The man who gave us the keyring had been talking to Arja earlier and thought that we didn’t have a flag sticker for Algeria on our bike so went out especially in search of a sticker for our panniers. We passed him on the way to the port after we got our boarding passes, finally, as the system was down and we had to wait for over an hour. Arja didn’t recognise him but it was the same man coming back in his car after searching high and low for a sticker and turning up with a keyring instead. The man going the other way in his car was sounding his horn at us and shaking what looked like keys at us. We both thought he was signalling that we had lost some keys, but a quick check and it wasn’t that so perhaps it was Monsieur Ben Freed who was organised to look after us by the secretary of the port captain of Ghazahouet from the port authority.
Once we had our boarding pass from Trasmediterranea we were allowed to enter the port and go to the police check and customs. As with entry we also needed a form (read entry/exit card) each and one for Francois looking decidedly adventurous, loaded up and dirty. We completed the forms whilst being ushered forward jumping the queues and eating pizza that we had just picked up before to fill the lunchtime void in our stomachs. Everyone was very polite and the customs officers were especially friendly. At the passport check I handed in both passports with the exit cards filled in however it wasn’t to the liking of the police officer who rechecked them 3 times each and decided to rewrite Arja’s name and several other bits of information that were there already. My writing is not especially messy and the cards were written neatly so it was the police officer just taking especially long and being thorough. After our passports were stamped out we moved on to the customs inspection. They requested our TPD (Titre de Passage en Douaine) I showed them the typed form with a stamp for the customs at Taleb Larbi border and they refused saying that there was another form. I said no, that it was the only form apart from our insurance papers. They finally took the form when I showed them the stamp and the customs officer went to confer with a colleague. Perhaps they had not seen this form from the Taleb Larbi customs before. In any case, it was the last formality and we were through into the holding docks until our boat arrived and we were allowed board.