Motorcyclist Illustrated November, 1975 - Northern Algeria

Motorcyclist Illustrated November, 1975

part 3

by Fergus & Sharyn Reilly

Northern Algeria
1891 klms

Oujda, Morocco
November 1st, 1974
(day 59 - 11763 klms)


Tadjemout, Algeria
November 12th, 1974
(day 70 - 13654 klms)

Oujda, Morocco to Tadjemout, Algeria

It was November 1, the anniversary of the revolution, when we rode into Algeria. Even the smallest towns were crowded with people and flags. We saw old men on horseback. probably veterans of the war, bedecked in flowing robes and sporting huge rifles. When we stopped for the night in a ruined house, the bullet holes peppering the walls further reminded us of past hostilities.

We traveled directly south and onto the plain of Traff, where the wind was bitterly cold. When we stopped for frequent cups of goat's milk coffee the whole village would turn out to view the bikes. We had found a bitumen road, not marked on the map. which led us directly to Aflou and by-passed the larger towns. It seemed to be an area of horsemen and often we would pass a lone rider on the almost desolate plain, invariably carrying a rifle.

On finally reaching Aflou we were confronted by confusion. A signpost to Laghouat indicated left, but the road deteriorated into a dirt track. which promptly vanished into a field whose sole "crop" was 15 no entry signs! Eventually we found a footpath which led us into the midst of multitudes of men fiercely haggling over horse trappings, and who grimly watched us and our cumbersome loads as we passed and finally regained the tarmac. The road wound down from the plateau and into more hilly terrain. We decided to camp in a dried up river bed; wood was scarce but donkey dung abundant. so we made an enormous fire with the two to ward off the cold, much to the amusement of an old Bedouin cattle owner whose tent was pitched on the nearby hill.

Wadi camping in Algeria - complete with camel dung cooking fire
Our first vies of Ghardaia, Algeria - where the Sahara begins

As we moved further south, sheep, goats and donkeys gave way to camel herds. The vegetation grew sparser until we reached Ghardia, set in a huge sand bowl carved out of the plateau. About five small villages are clustered round mosques perched on different hilltops, with the commercial centre in the middle.

We decided to stay a few days and prepare the bikes for the desert, and have my luggage carrier welded. Carried away with our efforts, we cleaned the bikes as well, much to the jeering of those who had come from the desert and were traveling northwards. The director of the campsite applauded our work and would come over, with mint tea and dates as welcome distractions.

We spent the remaining days wandering round Ghardia. The town has an air of serenity, not even marred by the busy market. Often during the day and evening the prayer callers cry from the mosques, confirming the town's history as an enclave of orthodox Muslims. One day we heard loud shouting and roars, which I was convinced must be a horse spectacle - so much for romantic notions; when we located the source a riotous football match was in progress, with police controlling the excited crowd. It could have been Easter Road on an off-day, except the spectators were all wearing long djellabahs.

Ghardaia market square

 determined to take a close-up of a camel

When it started to rain we decided to move south in search of the sun! The sand increased as we traveled, at first the occasional small dune, then larger and larger until the bitumen road was sometimes almost buried beneath a drift. It was hairy riding the loaded bikes through thirty yards of 6 inches to a foot-and-a-half of sand, what would it be like later on?

Fergus was determined to take a close-up of a camel. After seeing several herds in the distance he suddenly left the road and went riding off into the middle distance. Having herded the five bemused camels into a tight group by driving in crazy circles over the rocky plain, he gained his shot, plus the usual arrogant stare from the lordly camels!

Huge signs had been warning us of the penalties involved if we did not report to the authorities in El Goleah and declare our intention of traveling further south. The authorities seemed pleased to have us stop by, but only for curiosity as In Salah is now the first check point. I found the market to buy food for the next stretch, only to return and find Fergus and the bikes lost in a sea of people five deep. Even on the road as we moved further south, kids would come running and waving to the road side, seemingly from out of nowhere.

The road cuts through the middle of a huge, flat plain with sand dunes whipped into fantastic shapes on the very edges. Unable to resist their temptation, we left the road and heeded towards the horizon. After bumping over rocks and falling into sand holes we finally made it. Beautiful yellow razor-backed dunes began abruptly and stretched away from us as far as we could see and we exhausted ourselves running up and down.

El-Golea last warning

Next morning when we awoke after a freezing night, the ridges were coated with ice and Fergus rode his loaded bike up and down the solid dunes with ease.

After following our tracks, and, in my case, falling down the same sand holes, we made it back to the road. We soon lost sight of the dunes where upon all we could see apart from the tarmac was grey gravel and rocks on all sides. It gave us a weird feeling to ride mile after mile through an unchanging landscape, whose edges were impossible to define as the horizon seemed to be a sea of water!

It was a relief to come down off the plateau onto the desert floor and soon to see the palm trees of Ain Salah in the distance. Whereas further north the towns are almost invariably white, Ain Salah is an amazing homogeneous collection of brown mud houses, all with ornate open work and decorated with white paint. We found, or perhaps more correctly, the local official tourist guide found us in the market and offered to show us to the free camp site in a nearby palmerie.

Having convinced him it was crazy to run so fast so as to keep in front of the bikes. we elicited directions and arranged to meet him there. We pitched our tent inside one of the palm branch cabins for protection against the cold. and watched the sun go down behind the palms, whilst sharing wine with the not so orthodox Muslims in this part of the country.

We changed the tyres back to knobbies on the bikes in preparation for the ‘piste’ on which all and sundry in the town gave us their opinion. The general impression however was uniformly bad, so it seemed essential to have our baggage carried and have our bikes back to trial riding capabilities. We also took this opportunity to give the bikes a thorough service and clean as well as sand-proofing them as best we could.

The free camp site in the Ain Salah palmerie

We met a local guide who offered to find a truck to carry the baggage. That night he duly arrived with a lorry driver who, after about four hours sitting round the fire, settled on a price and time. At 4.30 the next morning we were packed and ready, though I must confess, not raring, to go. Six hours later the truck had not arrived, so our intermediate, to whom we had paid the money, went off in search, only to return to state the obvious that the truck had left without us. Off we trooped to the military post in the unique hope of retrieving our money, which had depleted our supply to barely enough for petrol to Tamanrasset.

The chief of the post was totally unsympathetic both because we were stupid enough to hand over money beforehand, and also because he was convinced that we with our wealth would not miss such a paltry sum!

We rode back to the local cafe and sat on the verandah munching dry bread and wondering what to do. We solved our money problem with a local proprietor who took pity on us, and at a big percentage changed some money. So at least now we could eat and smoke!

The trans-Sahara Highway

Three guys in a Land Rover came over and. after listening to our tale of woe, offered to take the baggage and accompany us all the way! So at 5 the next morning we were duly ready. But, when the Land Rover appeared it was obviously fully loaded and the three men studiously ignored us. We decided that ‘perhaps’ luck was against us in In Salah and totally depressed set off before dawn for the south fully loaded and with a jerry can of petrol to get us to the nearest pump.

The tarmac abruptly ended and chaos began. A new layer of tar stretched ahead, but it was crossed with lines of boulders at regular intervals. At first we tried dodging the stones. but gave that up when we realised we were driving so slowly our petrol would probably not last the distance. We plunged down to the side of the new road into a sea of dust, gravel and sand.

Tracks were leading off into all directions, and having not seen each other when we passed within 20 yards, we decided to stop and gather our wits. It seemed the best solution was for Fergus to go in front as my sense of direction is nil and for me to follow his tracks.

I suppose the only way to learn dirt riding is to do it, but I suddenly wished I had at least tried out riding on sand on some pleasantly cool Scottish beach! The nightmare grew worse till I fell with one leg caught underneath the bike and Fergus disappearing off into the distance in a cloud of dust. Still, I knew he would come back and sure enough, soon the bike and I were back hammering over the track again, with rocks waiting in every stretch of sand to catch the wheel and throw me over. By now paranoia had really set in!

We stopped to rest under the only available thorn bush for miles, which happened to be two kilometres off the track. While panting in the shade a Land Rover made the huge detour to us with a local work crew - just to make sure we were all right. This was our first introduction to the unwritten law of the Sahara, viz that one always checks other travelers’ welfare. Such a different attitude to the predatory ingratiation we had been subjected to in Ain Salah.

This introduction to sanity calmed me down so we hit the piste once more, but after falling again the attachment points on my luggage carrier broke. After looking around and seeing nothing but an expanse of sand and rock, we removed the luggage and sat down to wait.

We had passed others on the road and we could only hope they could carry the load to Tadjemout, the nearest oasis. A Swiss Land Rover arrived and immediately offered us assistance.

at the Tadjemout Oasis between Ain Salah and Tamanrasset

at the Tadjemout Oasis between Ain Salah and Tamanrasset

Now the only problem was to hang onto the bike, which took the tracks well, but fitted with the heavy springs for the baggage did not really offer my light weight a comfortable ride. We camped that night totally exhausted, but hoping to reach the oasis next morning.

After leaving at crack of dawn all went well until Fergus's carrier broke in the identical place after he had fallen. He managed to tie it up with wire and limped on in a din of tortured metal.

Tadjemout, a tiny oasis comprising one house, a petrol pump and a source of water which collects in a 6 foot square, 3 foot deep reservoir called the swimming pool, seemed like paradise. We said goodbye to our benefactors and then. I promptly collapsed and spent the day prostrate under a palm tree after my bruising on the heavy duty springs.

Fergus meanwhile, stripped the bikes. changed over springs, and explained to all the kindly truck drivers who offered help that we weren't yet ready to move on.

Ceuta, Spanish enclave in Morocco - Oujda, Morocco

previous leg

Ceuta, Spanish enclave in Morocco
Oujda, Morocco
October 19th, 1974
October 31st, 1974
day 46 to day 58


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next leg

Tadjemout, Algeria
Arlit, Niger
November 13th, 1974
December 17th, 1974
day 71 to day 105
Tadjemout, Algeria - Arlit, Niger