After exploring the Grand Ergs, we drove south towards Adrar, another mud-red city whose unique color reminded us of Timimoun. We drank tea in the massive town square (complete with carpets laid out beneath the starry night), and listened as hundreds of birds stormed the Hotel Touat, noisily claiming the hotel courtyard garden as their own. We were slightly mortified to have an armed escort of several police vehicles from Adrar to In Salah, but they did get us to In Salah in one piece. South of In Salah, we bivouacked for a few days in the desert, seeing our first glimpses of the phenomenal cave art that Algeria is so famous for. We also came across our first of many gueltas, a natural spring found in the desert. And finally, we found ourselves surrounded by the massive sand dunes of our dreams, the quintessential image of a perfectly formed and footprint free dune after dune rolling as far as the eye can see was a dream come true on one of our most unforgettable camping nights. To round out this phase of our trip, we drove as far south as Tamanrasset, where we tackled the tortuous road to Assekrem to visit the remote hermitage of Charles de Foucauld. Here, we gazed in wonderment as the sun set and rose again the next morning, over one of the most magnificent vistas in the world. A definite highlight!
13 Oct, Wed: After refueling the truck, it was a relatively short trip to Adrar, our next destination. Salim had initially tried to check us in at the Complexe Touristique Mraguen, located about 10 km outside of the city. However, it looked rundown and a security guard with sidearm scowled at us as we drove up to the locked gates, so we can only assume that the bungalows are temporarily out of commission or else the hotel has been shut down completely. Our backup plan was a drive to the city center, where we checked into the Hotel Touat on Place des Martyrs. A large room with AC, toilet and hot water…we were very happy. We agreed to take an afternoon siesta, with plans to meet for dinner at 7 pm. After a few hours in the room, we got restless and decided to walk around the massive Place des Martyrs. Adrar must be a university town, as we were greeted by super friendly young men who welcomed us to Algeria and Adrar. The plaza is actually quite scenic, with rows of wells (now obsolete but still very deep) built on the outer perimeter of two sides of the square. There are four large mud built gates that lead in and out of the plaza, and the entire city has the same color scheme as that of Timimoun, dirt red. Palm trees have been planted in the square, making for a shady spot to enjoy a café or mint tea and pass the day away. When we met up with the guys for dinner, Salim surprised us by remembering our request to have pizza. We had dinner at a nearby pizzeria, and shockingly, the pizza was quite tasty, exceeding our expectations. Robby was so happy with his pizza that he asked for a second pie, and devoured it in minutes (with Becky’s help of course). Afterwards, we joined hundreds of locals who camped out on the plaza on makeshift carpets, sipping mint tea while gazing at the star lit night. The temperature was perfect, and a slight breeze kept away any insects. We were quite pleased that we had a chance to stop in Adrar, as it was a very pleasant stop.
14 Oct, Thurs: Little did we realize that today we would have an armed escort of about a dozen police officers in several SUVs to ensure a secure journey from Adrar to In Salah. Salim had complained bitterly to the police chief that the white glove service wasn’t necessary, but immediately after breakfast and checking out of our hotel, we saw two police cruisers patiently waiting outside for us. The only bonus about having a police motorcade was that the security checkpoints were a breeze for us to past through…our escorts barely stepped on the brakes as they went through the heavily armed checkpoints, while the curious guards saluted our vehicle hesitantly, as if they were trying to figure out who the VIP was. Our lunch stop was at the next major town past Reggane, and consisted of a meat stew and couscous. Interestingly, our police escorts had coordinated a hand off at each jurisdiction beyond their control, with the next set of cruisers and officers waiting patiently on the side of the road for our vehicle to appear. Everything was going like clockwork and we were making good time until the next to last hand off before In Salah. For some reason, we had to wait in the heat for about an hour while Salim was being drilled on our itinerary and our paperwork was being scrutinized. Finally, the escort appeared and for some unknown reason they decided to drive at a snail’s pace. Yousef was having none of it, so at one point in the journey, he pulled over to splash water on his face and when the lead police vehicle made a U-turn to figure out what was going on, Yousef jumped back into our truck and sped onward, leaving our escort in the dust. We were in shocked disbelief, as we couldn’t believe that we would get away with ditching our escort like that so easily with no repercussions. Sure enough, at the In Salah handoff, the chief of police pulled up in a rage, and cussed Yousef out for taking off with little regard for the escort. We thought he was going to get hauled off and questioned by the angry officer, but the In Salah police soothed things over and got us on our way again. It was a long day, and we finally pulled into In Salah at around 5 pm. Our first choice hotel was the Hotel Tidikelt, but it was fully booked. The LP guidebook mentioned Camping Tidikelt as an option, but Salim told us it was closed, so our last resort was at Camping Palmier, which while basic, had clean rooms with AC. The toilets were squat style, shared facilities, and we hoped that neither of us would have recurring stomach problems! Dinner was supposed to be at 7:30 pm, so we had time to watch a movie and rest before linking up with the guys. Around 8 pm, they showed up and Yousef informed us that tonight was his last night of driving for us. We really liked Yousef a lot and were sad to hear that we would be getting a new driver tomorrow morning to take us down to Tamanrasset. Dinner was good, and we enjoyed BBQ lamb in a gardened courtyard. Salim knew everybody there, since he had grown up here in In Salah and it is a small town. We traded emails and addresses with Yousef and promised to send some photos to his family the first chance we got. The showers at Camping Palmier did not have hot water, but it was pleasant enough taking a cold water shower. We made plans to link up at 8 am for breakfast, with a departure of 10 am for our first bivouac in the desert.
15 Oct, Fri: As promised, the guys pulled up at 8 am, and we went in search of breakfast. The first few restaurants were closed, so we swung by the bus station so that Yousef could check on his bus to El Golea. To our surprise, he ended up hopping out after coordinating a seat on the bus leaving soonest, so we had to say goodbye earlier than expected. Robby handed Yousef a small envelope with tip money to show our gratitude, but Yousef actually appeared upset, asking “what is this?” and trying to refuse it. We insisted, as we knew the extra money would come in handy for Yousef’s large family, and he very reluctantly accepted it but we knew that it would be appreciated. With promises of sending photos to his family once we got a chance, we bid our kind driver goodbye and were off to search for breakfast, which was a simple affair of coffee, croissants, and juice. Salim informed us he had a lot of work to do before we could depart on our bivouac/camping trip, so we were dropped off at the Camping Palmier and had a few hours to kill. Once Salim returned, the truck was laden with supplies (camping, food, beverages, cooking materials and extra fuel). We met our new driver, Abdel Sahlem, (“Abdslem”) and loaded our backpacks onto the truck. Lunch was a quick stop at the same restaurant we had dinner at last night. We opted for BBQ chicken, and were on the road by 1 pm, driving on the highway at first, and then off roading for several hours on a small piste road (unpaved desert road). Our destination was Tiguelguemine, (“Tlhgemn”), about 300 km south of In Salah where there was a guelta and plenty of greenery in the midst of the desert. The scenery was gorgeous, and the sunlight was hitting the landscape perfectly, when we saw a lone figure sprinting in the distance. Upon closer examination, we discovered the creature to be a mouflon (feral sheep) and it immediately headed for the mountains when it caught sight of us. Abdslem gave chase, and we were able to track the mouflon for a few minutes before it finally headed up the hills and beyond our gaze. Very cool! Our campground site was in a protected area, with a hilly section on one flank to minimize the effects of the wind. Salim and Abdslem immediately set to the priorities, boiling a pot of tea and setting up camp. It was so very relaxing, to be virtually in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest sign of civilization. We watched as the sun set, and eventually the stars starting lighting up the sky. Dinner was fantastic, as Salim had some hidden culinary skills showcased when he whipped up couscous and a lamb stew with mixed vegetables…yummy! Endless cups of mint tea ensured, and it was late before we ended up setting up the sleeping tent and not a moment too soon, as the rain pitter pattered all around us and soaked everything in sight. We left the tent flap completely open to allow the fresh breeze to flow in, but were a bit paranoid about a desert scorpion deciding to make our tent its new home. Nonetheless, it was a great first night camping in the Sahara desert.
16 Oct, Sat: A slight breeze kept us comfortable all night long, and the sunlight was just creeping on the horizon when we were awoken by a cellular phone ring tone…seriously, we have reception in the middle of the desert? Breakfast was waiting for us after we completed our morning rituals, and armed with a full stomach, we helped pack up our gear and were on the road by 9 am. Our first stop was actually quite close to the campsite, where we parked the truck under a shady tree and continued on foot. It took us about 20 minutes to hike up the stony hill to reach the lush, green guelta (natural pool), truly a sight for sore eyes in the middle of the desert. What an oasis! Water trickled down all around us, and palm trees had sprouted near the edge of the watering hole. Salim told us that the guelta was quite deep, and the water very cold but we took his word for it. Neither of us had brought swimsuits and the thought of jumping in with all our clothes on was not very appealing. This was a nice stop, and we enjoyed finding and enjoying our very own oasis in the middle of nowhere. We drove onward for a few hours before pulling over to a shady spot to set up for lunch just before 1 pm. The tree was a thorny one, so we were on the lookout for the sharp barbs that littered the ground beneath us. Lunch was delicious, consisting of a salad and tuna fish, topped with olive oil/vinegar dressing…yum. Mint tea followed, and we got restless from our long siesta so we wandered around taking photos of the incredibly massive sand dunes in the horizon. Just after 4 pm, we rolled up our sleeping mats, packed up the campsite and drove to another nearby site where we had to hike for about 15 minutes to reach a cave with ancient rock art. We were amazed to discover that the drawings were completely exposed to the elements, yet they still possessed fine detail for paintings over 1000 years old! Salim laughed at our eagerness in making out each figurine, and said if we were impressed with today’s drawings, just we wait until we saw what he had in store for us tomorrow! After hiking back and loading up into the truck, we could make out a camel train in the distance. We cruised around the desert for a bit, reaching a spot that was soft sand (unlike the packed sand we had been driving on). Abdsahlem gunned it, and the sensation was one of being on a magic carpet ride, with our truck flying over the soft sand. It was a really amazing sensation, and probably the most fun desert ride we’ve been on. Our campsite (near Arak) was at the base of a sand dune, which offered us picturesque 360 degree views all around. Setting up our campsite was easy, and our sleep tent was erected in mere minutes. Salim and Abdsahlem immediately went to work getting us tea and preparing a feast for dinner. Tonight we were dining on Taguila (bread and sauce cooked in the sand), a traditional meal for visitors to the Algerian Sahara. Tonight’s breeze was not as strong as last night’s, so we contemplated sleeping in the great outdoors under the stars, sans sleeping tent. Another great day in the desert!
17 Oct, Sun: Thankfully we had both opted to sleep under the stars last night, as it got stifling hot when the breeze stopped blowing. Waking up to the sun’s rays creeping over the horizon is a pleasant experience, and we had a fantastic view to behold. After breakfast, we climbed up a nearby sand dune for some photo ops before helping to pack up the campsite. We were on the road by nine (it was already hot!), and Abdsahlem expertly navigated us through the sand dunes and past some glorious scenery. This is truly the stuff that comes to mind when we dream about the Sahara…massive sand dunes that seem to stretch skyward and dominate the landscape as far as the eye can see. Wild camels scurried off as our 4×4 approached, and we learned that if they are unbranded, anyone can claim them as their own (no wonder they sprint away in fear of being caught!). A brief stop by a deep well to refill our water bottles was in order, followed by lunch and a short siesta. By 2:30 pm, we were on the road again, and Abdsahlem spotted some fellow Tuaregs with their camel train in the distance. We stopped to pay them a visit, and found them to be busy retrieving water from a super deep well with the assistance of one of their camels which was bearing the brunt of the weight of the water. We were invited to take photos, and enjoyed this unexpected stop. Afterwards, we drove a short distance to see the rock art of Tamgs Kis. This was a highlight of this region, as we wandered through a stone canyon that must have been created by a gushing river at some point in history. Tucked away in one of the caves were some vividly painted rock art, perhaps even better than the ones we saw yesterday. Without a local guide to showcase this area, we absolutely would have missed out, and we were very happy with Abdsahlem’s vast experience here. While we were soaking in the atmosphere, Robby asked Abdsahlem to show him the proper way to tie his Tuareg turban (taguelmoust), and a simple, step by step tutorial ensued, with Becky taking photos for a helpful future reminder. Turban tied, we took some silly photos pretending to hold up a massive rock that perched precariously atop some other rocks…looking as if the entire structure could come tumbling down at a moment’s notice. Next, we had a roller coaster ride on some steep sand dunes, and would gasp in consternation as to whether we’d tip over or not (we didn’t thanks to our driver’s phenomenal skills)…it was brilliant, especially when we pulled up into the giant sand dunes of Mhajeba and found out we were camping here for the night! It doesn’t get any better than this. With free time to watch the sun set, we scampered around our new playground like excited kids, and reveled in the incredible scenery around us. Who knew sand dunes could be so beautiful? This was even better than we had imagined, and today definitely goes down as one of our more memorable days in Algeria. Dinner tonight was vegetarian and delicious, followed by mint tea. We fell asleep to some of the world’s most spectacular scenery, content and filled with bliss.
18 Oct, Mon: Sunrise was accompanied by the sounds of crows croaking their presence. Apparently, Salim had disposed of the leftovers of last night’s stew near our camp site, and the crows were fighting over the feast. The dunes were gorgeously lit up by the early morning sun rise, but it was too much effort to run for our cameras so we just laid in our warm sleeping bags and enjoyed the beautiful view. It was freezing last night, and we were hoping to stay warm for a few minutes longer before commencing with our morning rituals. Salim was the first one out of bed, boiling milk for our morning coffee. We enjoyed breakfast, and soaked up the magical aura of this special campsite before packing up and heading out. We had a long drive ahead of us today, with about 400 km to reach Tamanrasset. The only noteworthy event on our drive was passing through the scenic gorge in Arak, where we had to meet the chief of police personally as he quizzed us on our passport details before finally granting us permission to continue on our journey. Our lunch stop in In Ekker was brief, but needed as it was already 2 pm by the time we finally ate. Arriving into Tamanrasset around 5 pm, Salim received a call from the police station requesting our presence to register in person. The police proceeded to quiz Salim and Abdsahlem but did not interview either of us to our surprise. Eventually, our passports were returned and we were allowed to continue. Our hotel tonight was at the very pleasant Camping Dassine, where our simple room had a nice breeze (no A.C.), and the shared facilities had scalding hot water for our wonderful showers. Washing some laundry was in order, and we agreed to meet at 8 pm for dinner. The sunset was spectacular, with the perfect cloud formations turning gorgeous shades of pink and purple. We can only pray that we have a similar sunset tomorrow at Assekrem’s Charles de Foucauld’s hermitage.
19 Oct, Tues: The call to prayer woke us early, as did the camping site’s dog whose relentless barking served as an early morning alarm clock. The receptionist for Camping Dassine offered us breakfast, but since we were supposed to link up and have breakfast with Salim at 8 am, we opted to wait and see what would be best. He also showed us several pieces of jewelry, which looked good but originated from Niger. The prices weren’t good however, as the items were priced in Euros and seemed quite expensive. We politely declined to buy anything, but did settle on breakfast in the campsite’s restaurant (awesome interior decorations) after Salim told us he still needed to stop by the market to pick up some supplies for tonight’s stay at Assekrem. We also found out that we were having an extra passenger with us, Abdel Hamid, who was a friend of Salim’s. It took forever to get organized but by 10:30 am, we were finally on the road, driving several hours to our first stop at a guelta in Afilal. There, we pulled over to check out the guelta and have lunch, which was a delicious concoction of salad, freshly grilled lamb chops, and French bread. Good eats, but our afternoon siesta was cut short when Salim told us we’d have to hit the road again to reach Assekrem in time for sunset. The piste was extremely rough, and as a result, our truck suffered its first casualty when the rear tire was punctured. Thankfully, Abdsahlem was able to whip out the jack and replace the tire in about 5 minutes flat, so we didn’t have too long of a delay. He drove cautiously on the increasingly worsening road to the hermitage, and we arrived to the 76 km signpost and realized we had another excruciating 6 km uphill to reach the campsite. The road was the worse we had seen in Algeria to date, and Salim had advised that this route is considered the better of the two options to reach Assekrem! Since it was nearing 6 pm by the time we reached the campsite, Salim urged us to hurry or we’d miss the sunset. Armed with our cameras, flashlight, jackets (it was already windy and cold) and scarves, we headed up the steep path to the hermitage. It took about 15 minutes to reach the summit, and what incredible views all around…definitely worth the effort to visit here! We met a friendly French brother (he has been at the hermitage for nearly 40 years) who gave us an informational booklet in English to learn about the history of the hermitage. At the hermitage, we met the only other tourist who was here to catch the sunset, a French adventurer named William. We learned that William is a civil engineer, who is part of a scout program, where he volunteers his services in return for free food and lodging with local families. What a cool way to see the country! The French brother showed us the interior of the chapel and told us that morning service would be held at 8 am. He also advised us to be at the summit at 0630 in the morning to catch the sunrise. William joined us in watching the sunset, and it was truly spectacular, with the clouds turning amazing shades of colors. We had been told that we were lucky to have visited today, as the group yesterday had been disappointed due to the excessive cloudiness. We had to use the flashlight to scramble back down to the campsite in the dark, and we offered William to join us for some coffee before dinner. An Algerian television/radio crew was interviewing visitors and we were invited to the main living room area to participate in a taped interview. As a result of our fireside chats, dinner was late (10 pm), and we crashed to get a few hours of sleep before rising early for the sunrise tomorrow.
20 Oct, Wed: The cats at Assekrem must love tourists as one of them was extremely persistent in trying to get into our room all night, finally succeeding sometime early morning. Surprisingly, we slept great and were cozy warm, despite the freezing temperature plummet at night. Our alarm sounded way too early at 0530, but we awoke and were clambering up the hillside before sunrise, reaching the hermitage well before the rays started creeping over the horizon. The French brother owns a friendly black cat, and she immediately accosted Becky for some body heat and cuddling, purring happily once she got settled in Becky’s lap. We could see flashlights bobbing up the hill, and were soon joined by William and the funny Algerian TV/Radio crew. Together, we braved the frigid temperatures and marveled at the landscape before us. The rising sun kept playing tricks on our eyes, and the gnarled peaks looked amazing as they were slowly exposed to the morning light. This was mentioned in both guidebooks as one of the highlights to Algeria and it did not disappoint, living up to all of our expectations. The French brother waited until our cameras were put away and we were all just reveling in the vista when he invited us to join him on a short tour of the hermitage, showing us how the rainwater is collected and stored. A pot of hot tea awaited us at the end of the tour, and we gratefully accepted, warming up our cold hands in the process. After thanking the brother for his kind hospitality, we joined the TV/radio crew in heading downhill to the campsite, with one of the crew members smiling broadly and welcoming us to Algeria in halting English. Just another small gesture that occurs on a daily basis that makes us love this country so much…the people here really are just amazing and kind hearted. We really love Algerians. Back at the campsite, the guys were awake and had fixed us up some breakfast. It didn’t take long for us to chow down, and we were packed and on the road by 9 am. Since we had a flat tire already and were already using our spare, Abdsahlem was cautious in driving over the worst parts of the piste. Nevertheless, we still had to pull over twice to pump air into a tire that seemed prone to going flat. We eventually pulled into Tamanrasset shortly after 1:30 pm, and were happy to see that we were heading back to Camping Dassine. Lunch was great (roasted lamb and fries) and we had a chance to do laundry and take a shower before relaxing the rest of the day. Salim told us he could show us the highlights of the city (the market and souq) but we declined, opting for free time before dinner at 8 and the airport at 10 pm (for our onward flight to Djanet, since the road is not an option for tourists anymore due to heightened security concerns). Dinner was at the best pizza joint in Tamanrasset, and boy was it good! Salim had saved the best restaurant for last, and afterwards, we drove around town trying to kill some time before heading to the airport for check-in at 2245. Since Salim and Abdsahlem were heading to In Salah after dropping us off at the airport, we didn’t want them to get too late of a start, so immediately after checking in and getting our boarding passes, we bid them farewell and gave them a tip for their services. The airport was full of mosquitoes (we hadn’t experienced them elsewhere in Algeria) and it was a long, hot wait for our plane to arrive. When the boarding gate finally opened, it was a free for all, with everyone pushing and shoving to the front of the line. We finally got through, and were surprised to learn that we had to not only claim our checked in luggage, but to put it on the correct cart (one was headed to Algiers and the other to Djanet)…otherwise the plane would leave without our luggage! The flight was full, and there wasn’t enough overhead space for everyone’s carry on luggage (hence the pushing and shoving), and we opted to fall asleep for the short flight to make it a bit more bearable. Arriving at 2:30 in the morning, we met our new guide, Abdallah, and had to wait to retrieve our luggage. The police immediately handed us tourists cards to fill out, and they dutifully collected all of our passport information, registering our plans while in Djanet. Once our bags arrived, a short drive to our campsite ensued (it was in the desert a short ride away) and we set up our sleeping bags and crashed, sleeping well with the cool desert air.