Updated: Nov 9
By Ken Potter
Life is like an ocean of sand. It will always slip through your fingers and always slip away from you. There will, however, be a small part that stays in the palm of your hand. Be thankful for that.
(The following article was originally published in Mountain Biking UK June 1995)
"But they will kill you!" said the border guard. He looked serious.
"Who?" I asked. His answer, in Arabic, was lost on me, but his colleagues smiled.
Moments later I set off from Ben Ounif to cycle the Algerian Sahara. The guard's words echoed in my head. Did I really know what I was doing?
Jumping the lights
It had all seemed straightforward months before, when I decided to go on a cycle trip. Travel. Freedom. Adventure. It was no kind of life driving round in circles as a London cabbie, chasing my exhaust. I was fast becoming a sad man. I wanted to get away from it all.
But where to go? I chose the Sahara – basically because it is nine million square kilometres without a single traffic light.
"The Sahara's closed," said the man at the Africa Travel Centre.
"There's been trouble with the Touregs."
"What's a Toureg?"
The Touregs, it turns out, are desert nomads. In recent years they've been holding up tourists and depriving them of four-wheel drives, money, and belongings. But I thought a cyclist with little or no cash would not be very appetising for bandits. I decided to go against the advice of the Africa Travel Centre.
To warm up for the journey, I planned to cycle down through France and Spain. That way I could visit friends en route and ease myself into the art of cycle touring before getting to Africa.
Because of the troubles in Northern Algeria, I didn't cross at the usual crossing point of Oujda. Instead I travelled south to Figuig, and headed straight into the open desert where things were pretty cool and there was less likelihood of insurrection.
I arrived in North Africa in December, two-and-a-half months after leaving London.
From the port of Ceuta an easy 40-kilometre ride brought me to the Moroccan town of Tétouan.
I sat in tea salons, sipping sugar-sweet tea alongside Moroccan men. In the Arab world the funkiest refreshment is non-alcoholic and tea-salons replace bars as social meeting places.
The strangest thing about them is that no women are present. Islamic customs forbid it.
Cash for questions
While meandering in a souk, a young Moroccan befriended me. He took me on a tour of the Old City, a labyrinth of narrow, winding passageways with carpet shops and artisans working at every turn.
I was soon disorientated but was enjoying the cultural insight provided by my new found 'friend'.
Cycling through Morocco on the way to Algeria.
The delightful town of Chechaoen in the Rif Mountains is a favourite with travellers. The air is cool and clear and the people a lot more relaxed than in other parts of Morocco.
After three hours he invited me to meet his family. I was shown into a room where two men smoked hashish. There was no family. The door was locked and my 'friend' demanded money for his services as a guide.
Be warned. Scams like this are commonplace in Morocco.
"Salaam al laikhoum..." Peace be with you. The carpet trader touched his breast and kissed his fingers after shaking my hand. He poured tea and asked me about England. An assistant rolled a huge carpet across the shop floor.
"My friend," the trader began. "Is beautiful carpet, yes? Feel quality. You, friend, I give very small price."
I explained I was travelling by bicycle and couldn't carry a carpet. The assistant rolled out a one-by-two metre rug.
"For carry on bicycle. Very small price." said the trader.
'No' is a word that doesn't figure in an Arab's reckoning.
The words of the tongue should have three gatekeepers:
Is it true?
Is it kind?
Is it necessary?
– Arabian proverb
Time for desert
I reached Fes without incident, but then my doubts surfaced. Since leaving England I had learned of troubles in Algeria over and above the Toureg problem. Terrorist activity was destabilising the country.
Foreigners had been killed by Islamist extremists and Western governments were advising their citizens to get the hell out. To cross the desert I had to go through Algeria.
I began to monitor the situation and locate trouble spots on my 1: 4,000,000 Michelin map. They appeared to be confined to the densely populated north of the country above Laghouat.
If I ignored the usual border crossing at Oujda and entered at Figuig/Beni Ounif, 400 kilometres to the south, then maybe I could avoid the conflict. Maybe? I couldn't be sure.
The Moroccans were paranoid about Algeria, and suggested that I go through south Morocco. But a niggling little voice inside said:
"What are you up to mate? Are you an adventurer or what?"
My heart was set on the oh-so-dangerous Algerian Sahara: the trip was turning into a psychological drama.
I met an Africa Trails truck bound for Kenya with 20 overlanders on board. Surprisingly, the driver intended taking the same route through Algeria as me. He couldn't see that terrorists would journey hundreds of kilometres into the desert when they could easily pop off foreigners in the northern cities. It made sense.
It was Christmas '93. The overlanders had everything – hampers of food and bags of enthusiasm. I joined in their festivities. It did wonders for my spirit. When we parted company, I felt ready for anything. Anything that is, until...
"But they will kill you!" said the border guard as I entered Algeria.
Overland trekkers who were travelling through Africa in the Africa Trails truck in the picture get down to the basics of washing clothes and preparing food at a campsite in Morocco. I joined them for Christmas. It did wonders for my spirit but when we parted company and I continued the lone bicycle ride, the paranoia regarding Algeria returned.
Unhappy new year
It was New Year's Eve. I cycled into the desert mulling over his words. I felt strangely light-headed.
From Beni Ounif the road led through desolate no man's land with rocks rising at a distance on either side.
Occasionally, a truck would pass, its occupants looking fearsome, with their high cheekbones and heads swathed in cherches (turbans). I studied them closely. In the middle of the desert a man on a bicycle is highly vulnerable.
After a day's ride I arrived at the pre-Saharan town of Bechar. If Christmas had brought good cheer, New Year's Eve brought the opposite.
At midnight I sat alone in the worst hotel imaginable. There was no running water. My food hung in bags on the wall in case of rats. I toasted myself with a water bottle from the bicycle. Happy New Year.
Bechar is a busy metropolis, the last major town before the Sahara. In a souk (market) I bought a cheche (turban) to go with the Egyptian shirt and baggy Moroccan trousers I already had. The cool and loose fitting Arab clothing was ideal for cycling in.
I also bought dates, baby food, and cans of sardines. Remarkably, this diet, combined with a plate of couscous when available, kept my body in fine fettle. The only nutrient lacking seemed to be calcium. After a while my nails became brittle.
From Bechar I followed a road that led to the sky. With the bustle of people far behind, my mind opened out to encompass a new concept of distance. Space and desolation – I came to love those long open stretches. But every time a vehicle passed, the border guard's words came back to me...
The first night that I camped in the desert I set up the tent behind boulders out of sight of the road.
For a while I sat on a rock studying the surroundings. There was absolute silence. Not a whisper of wind not evidence of life anywhere. And the sky was cram packed with stars.
(Story continues below under 'Wakey, Wakey')
One of the first things I did when I arrived to North Africa was to obtain some Arab clothing. In a souk (market) I bought a cheche (turban) and baggy Moroccan shorts to go with an Egyptian shirt I already had. I also traded a Marks and Spencer pullover for a gandola (long tunic). The cheche protected my head and the loose-fitting shirt and trousers were extremely comfortable when cycling under the hot sun.
In towns, the gandola was ideal for walking about in. (Above) I'm taking a stroll in the dunes at Beni Abbès, a beautiful oasis town on the southern edge of the Grand Erg Occidental.
I set out on a road that led to the sky. My experience of the Australian Nullarbor helped in the adjustment to vast distances but here the number of kilometres between settlements was even greater.
As well as the bicycle water-bottles, I carried two 5-litre orange juice containers full of water in an attempt to have enough to last between oasis towns. The occasional truck would stop and the driver would invariably top up my water. Drivers travelled vast distances and always carried plenty.
Sometimes,when walking into the desert a short distance in order to eat or to camp, it's easy to lose sight of the road. The road is flat like the desert and is on the same level. It often happens that, without the aid of a compass, you can become disorientated and it can be quite frightening. In which direction do you walk in order to regain the road?
In the picture there is an old, discarded truck tyre abandoned at the roadside near the bike. I kept seeing these old tyres, always in a similar place at the roadside. Then I realised something.
If you are off in the desert, even though you can't see the road, you can still see the tyres. Consequently, it's easy to find your way back again. I've had no confirmation on this, but it seemed to me that truck drivers place them there for a strategic reason.
Sometimes it gets hazy. Distant terrain appears grey and ghost-like in the enveloping haze.
Of a night time, for security, I'd pitch tent behind sand dunes or boulders, out of sight of the road. There was hardly any passing traffic but you never know. On the boulder to the left I scratched a calling card, leaving my mark among some nine million square kilometres of sand. I wonder if it's still there.
The Algerians were incredibly hospitable. I would occasionally see truck drivers parked the roadside, kneeling in prayer or preparing food. Often they'd invite me to join them. It's an Islamic tradition.
Thwack! At 3.30am I awoke with a start. There were footsteps outside the tent.
I froze. Listened. There was more than one person. Sniff! Sniff! There was also a dog. Perhaps more than one. No! Wait! I couldn't be sure. Men? Dogs? Both? How in the world had they found me here?
I waited for shots or daggers or fangs to rip through the tent. If they were going to kill me, why not get it over and done with? Finally, I could stand the tension no longer. I burst out of the tent to find...nothing.
There was now a wind and the fly sheet had ripped loose. It was slapping and scuffing against the tent, making sounds exactly like the ones I'd imagined.
After this I endeavoured to contain my paranoia. The hospitality of the Algerians helped. Many times the occasional truckers would wave, stop, have a chat, top up my water. They were transporting commodities and food produce huge distances and they were well prepared.
Sometimes I would see them parked in the desert, kneeling in prayer or preparing food. Often they'd invite me to join them. Even at the odd military checkpoints across the Sahara, once the soldiers had sighted my passport, we exchanged smiles and handshakes.
I left the main drag to take a secondary road through Taghit. People in Bechar had told me it was a tourist spot with wonderful historic engravings. For hours I saw no one. The brush became sparse. I pedalled into Taghit at sunset.
My first sighting of an oasis town came as quite a surprise. What greeted me was a mud-brick village with no signs whatsoever. Streets were gaps between buildings. A nondescript hole in the wall led into a den that served as a shop.
There were no banks, no tourists, no camping, and few people. In the fading light, Taghit looked decidedly gloomy.
There were no tourists because of the political strife. The camping was closed because of the lack of tourists. A night in the only hotel still open would cost a hefty twenty quid, almost all of the cash I had.
The Taghit episode prompted questions. Safe accommodation in towns and access to cash were important priorities. Would all the campsites be closed? Where was the next bank?
(Story continues below under 'When In Rome')
The road continuously breaks up under the hot sun. As distances are so vast, the army is working constantly, repairing it from region to region.
At times the road ran out. It's difficult trying to cycle on pure sand. The trick then is to follow truck tracks where the compressed sand is more firm.
A campsite. This is typical of the huts that were available to sleep in on the sites.
Making the most of some rare facilities. Getting down to doing the chores – let's get the washing done!
When in Rome
The answers came 140km into the desert at Beni Abbes, an oasis town at the edge of the Grand Erg Occidental. There was a bank and the campsite was open. And it was more than just a campsite; to a beleaguered, travel-worn cyclist it was paradise.
It nestled on an escarpment overlooking a sea of palms spread across the valley. In the distance the dunes rose, immense and majestic. There was even a swimming pool fed with crystal clear water running from La Source.
"Salaam al laikoum...labass...hamdullah..." The way in which people greeted each other became even more elaborate.
When I arrived a man performed the traditional tea ceremony, pouring from pot to glass and back to pot a few times before serving.
He dowsed me in perfume and gave me a gandola (long tunic) in exchange for a Marks and Spencer's pullover.
My Arab wardrobe was now complete.
(Story continues below under 'Sand Gliding')
The occasional trucks rumble through the desert, carrying produce great distances.
I freewheeled down the Tademait plateau at sunset. Shadows cast on the rocks gave an eerie effect. Far below, haunting peaks jutted skywards. The moonscape made for a spectacular descent.
Nature creates her own art-form. Weird rock-formations, the result of wind and sand erosion, presented an intriguing part of the trip. There was something surrealistic and Daliesque about this one.
Believe it or not, this is a cafe where you can usually get tea and very basic eats. They are few and far between. Unfortunately, because of the troubles and the resultant lack of travellers, some of the cafes like this one were closed. Damn! After 150 kilometres of peddling I was just primed for a cuppa!
This little fella left the herd and came up to me. What he was looking for I have no idea. I didn't know what to give him so eventually he returned to his mum.
Behind Beni Abbes there's a huge dune. From the top the views are breath-taking. It was so steep a couple of local lads were bombing down it on skies.
I relaxed there at Beni Abbes for five days, and then, fully refreshed, lit out on the road south.
There were some long flat stretches. For two days I cruised like Miguel Indurain, then the tail-wind became a headwind, and that put an end to that.
En route to Timimoum I saw a new road sign:
DANGER sur 10km
Sand on the road for 10km. It was the first of many such signs. Not without reason. At times the asphalt was submerged beneath a bank of sand.
Not that it bothered me on a mountain bike – I could push if I couldn't cycle. But for a trucker hammering the pistons, a sudden obstacle could prove fatal.
Timimoum was an enchanting oasis town built in the red-mud Sudanese style. I located another campsite, the Vieux Ksar, set in a small glade amid the palms. The site was run by eight Algerian brothers.
In the evenings we'd sit on mats in the salon, take tea, chat, and watch French and Arabic TV programmes beamed down from Algiers. During the days we'd wander the town.
In Algeria I saw none of the blatant begging commonplace in Morocco. In keeping with strict Islamic principles, humanitarian ethics pervade the national character. It is accepted practice for workers earning above a yearly minimum to donate to the poor. In Timimoum, I saw restaurant staff give a free meal to a homeless man.
The journey to the next road junction proved a toughie. It took me four days to cover 280km. It was cold.
One morning I ducked out the tent to see the bicycle covered in frost. Jee-sus! It was mid-winter and I was only 30 degrees latitude from the equator.
And the winds raged. No matter which way the route took there was always a headwind. My spine felt it would snap.
The road led up onto the Tademait plateau. I turned right; the winds were behind me and I made good progress.
But it was still pretty bleak. During the days the winds whipped up the sand and dust. Even if the sky was clear, distant terrain became grey and ghostlike because of the enveloping haze.
One day in the distance I saw a thin tornado of sand spiralling into the sky and moving steadily across the desert. It looked strange, weaving and bending almost as if it had a mind of its own. It traced a path for some distance, then disappeared in a cloud of dust.
After 300kms I freewheeled down from the Tademait plateau at sunset. Shadows cast on the rocks gave an eerie effect. Far below, haunting peaks jutted skywards. The moonscape made for a spectacular descent.
I took an extended break at Ain Salah, then set about tackling the last stage of my journey to Tamanrasset. During the Sahara trek each new stage proved more formidable than the last. Distances between human habitation increased: it was now 658kms to Tamanrasset, with just the odd tiny settlement in between.
The road, which previously had been broken up in sections under the hot sun, now on occasion ran out completely. I sometimes had to follow truck tracks through the desert, taking a spill here and there in soft sand, but for the most part revelling in being improvisational.
For a week I stayed in the town and explored the Hoggar Mountains. Then I hitched back across Africa with two Germans in a Volkswagen combi.
It was good to be in the company of Europeans again, but I spent much of the time reliving the memories of my lone cycle trek.
This is a principle street in Ain Salah. In this region, especially during February and March when the winds rage fiercest, sand covers everything. One night, sitting and eating in a darkened, gale-lashed tent, I began munching on grit. Sand was blowing in through the mosquito netting.
Potter of Arabia
The sun slipped beyond the horizon. In the twilight, for safety, I set up camp behind mounds of gravel, the only cover for miles, a hundred metres from the road. It had been a lonely day's trek. No vehicles. Nothing. Silence.
Sometime later, the silence was broken by the sound of motors. What's that? I was taken aback. Peeking over the mounds I saw three juggernauts grinding slowly through the desert. They left the road and came my way. What?
Perhaps they were working with the gravel? I had to let them know I was camped there.
In the fading light I ran toward them, my Arab robes flowing in the wind. The lead driver was black, but his face turned white. His eyes almost popped from their sockets.
Arabs generally have a belief in all things metaphysical. He thought I was a ghost. Later, over a bowl of couscous, we laughed about the incident.
"Vous ressemblez à Lawrence d'Arabie," he said.
I savoured the thought, chewing couscous and beaming broadly.
© Ken Potter 1995
I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams...
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry