06th April 2009

The tour of the axis of evil has begun. So far, I have crashed, been robbed, got stuck in sand, got stuck in mud, been arrested for speeding and ran out of fuel in the desert. Having a great time.

I had an introduction to the kind of bureaucratic nightmare I can expect in north Africa when I arrived at the port in Oran - six hours of form-filling and grinding my teeth with frustration.

After that, northern Algeria was a breeze. Oran and Tlemcen are beautiful and I get the feeling they could become popular weekend getaways if Algeria ever hits the tourist radar. A thriving local music scene, outdoor cafes in little squares and lovely old colonial buildings. Not at all the image I had in my mind. It's like being in southern Spain but without the drunk Brits.

It wasn't until I got to Bechar that I got what I was expecting. I opened the windows on the first morning and the hot, garbage-scented air went straight for my throat like a starving weasel.

'Africa at last', thinks I.

Some Numbers
33 days.
14 nights in hotels
4 nights on top of the car
15 nights on the ground in the desert
27 consecutive days without speaking English
8 consecutive days speaking less than ten words a day in any language
5 days wearing the same T-shirt, underwear and socks. I think it's a record, although that might belong to Thailand 1997. If the guide isn't going to wash, then damn it neither am I.

Algerians are an attraction in themselves. Like people in many countries that are hyped as too dangerous to visit, they go out of their way to be welcoming. I was asked endless questions about what people in Europe think of them. By necessity my answers were a combination of noncommital nods and outright lies.

Everyone I met had a dig at Bush and Americans generally. Half the time they gave me a full list of things "that need to change", as though I had influence in Washington.

The hospitality is incredible. I was invited to dozens of peoples' houses and had coffees bought for me everywhere. There is a real culture of interdependence here. People with good jobs are expected to support their huge extended family and to invite half the neighbourhood round for lunch once a week.

When I was done for speeding, the policeman explained to me that this was a very serious offence and that the next time I would be locked up. A long pause, then - "And now perhaps you would do me the honour of coming to my house for dinner".

Another case in point. I was camping out in the middle of nowhere next to my fully jazzed-up Landcruiser, with a fridge full of food and every luxury item imaginable. As the sun went down, the local Tuareg nomads sent over a little chap of about six with some camel milk and their good wishes. A touching gesture, especially since their worldly possessions amounted to a camel, 10 goats and some plastic bags. If you want to be cynical you could argue that the culture of hospitality in the desert has developed out of necessity. Still.

The Food
When at home, Algerians eat delicious cous-cous and tagine. These are almost never available in restaurants. Only bachelors ever go to them and the offer is generally limited to the following five items:

Poulet-frites: A quarter chicken that's been sitting there for 4 days and some cold chips.
Frites-omelette: 2 eggs cracked over some chips and fried.
Viande en sauce: Goat meat in gravy.
Kef Zitoun: Olive soup. Actually better than it sounds.
Kef Lubia: Broad bean soup.

And that is IT.

The Desert
The Sahara was stunning. It has incredible variety – white dunes, red dunes, craggy mountain ranges, high plateaux, forests of volcanic plugs, boulder fields and vast canyon-lands. Algeria has the full range of the best that the Sahara has to offer. I was awed, bored and terrified in equal measure.

I quickly adjusted to sleeping on the sand after a couple of restless nights. Those were down to my guide, Jaffar. The lying bastard had me convinced that the desert was infested with scorpions, tarantulas and "sand cobras". He even went to the trouble of drawing scorpion tracks with a stick around my sleeping bag on the first night.

I have great memories of the weeks in the desert. Struggling to get out of my sleeping bag in the cold mornings; dozing in the shade during the endless baking-hot lunchtimes; watching my guide say his prayers and smiling as he got the direction of Mecca wrong yet again; setting up camp in the beautiful late afternoon light, then cooking dinner as the sun went down and going to bed under the stars.

They say that once you have been to the Sahara, you will always want to go back there - it will live in your dreams. I read two books on the subject while I was there – Wind, Sand and Stars by Saint-Exupery and Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. Both recommended. Certainly the silence and the constant evidence of geological timescales does make you a bit reflective.

I've paid my dues. After 5000 miles sharing the road with the worst drivers on earth and 3 weeks in the desert, I am no longer a beginner. I am totally used to the flow of African traffic - overloaded trucks, donkeys pulling carts, people pulling carts, old men on bicycles and all manner of crappy old bangers held together with gaffer tape and bits of string.

One thing you see constantly is truck-loads of black Africans getting stopped by the police. More than a hundred thousand, mostly from Ghana and Nigeria, cross the Sahara every year hoping to make it to Europe. Little do they realise the mess that currently awaits them.

I had a brief insight into what overlanding by public transport would be like when I took the bus from Bechar to Ain Sefra. Jesus. It reminded me of the old adage – "How many people can you fit on an African bus?" Answer: "Two more". It would be a totally different experience, arguably more authentic. On the other hand, I have total control over where I go and when I go there. I'll settle for that.

I loved driving in the desert. I favour a rally-style approach, taking corners sideways and jumping dunes. I dread to think the beating that the suspension has taken - I often didn't see drops until too late. The sun has a habit of reaching round the edge of your sunglasses and poking you in the eye at the worst possible time.

We had some touch-and-go moments in the Tassili Hoggar, especially on one steep descent. The Sahara Overland book, which has detailed descriptions of all the main pistes, had this to say: "You may feel more comfortable not wearing a seatbelt on this section – it makes jumping out of an out-of-control vehicle easier". Thanks.

Visited the ruins at Tipaza. "At springtime Tipaza is inhabited by the Gods, and the Gods speak in the sun and the odour of the wormwoods, the silver sea, the unbleached blue sky, the ruins covered with flowers and the light shining on heaps of stones" (Camus). Perhaps overcooking it, but some ancient sites are very evocative despite being poorly preserved. This is one of them.

The Algerian Economy
Thanks to its oil reserves, Algeria now has no foreign debt. Although the country is technically wealthy, there are few signs of it in the street. The houses are overcrowded and unemployment is incredibly high. The men just hang round all day in coffee shops. There have been few efforts to diversify the economy. Foreign companies just come in, extract the oil and give the government their cut.

The birthrate is stratospheric. When the French left in 1962, there were ten million people. Now there are thirty million and three quarters of the population is under 25. I talked to a number of people about the economy and there was a tangible sense of frustration. The government's challenge is to stimulate growth in new sectors of the economy and provide employment for the young. My guess is that otherwise the huge number of young men with nothing to do will start to cause problems.

Obama-mania has reached Algeria. Every second shop keeper was yelling 'Obama' and giving me the thumbs up. Yet more evidence that the world is doomed. How people can get this excited about a politician is beyond me. The last time there was this much hero-worship of an elected leader was Hitler in the 30s.

Obama is charismatic, intelligent and seems to be a stand-up guy. I would have voted for him in the absence of any real change being offered, but dimwits mistake him for the second coming. They watch his speeches with their mouths hanging open, not knowing a damn thing about any of his policies. Of course, a good deal of this is just relief that the other guy is finally out, but critical thinking has gone out the window. If you're not shaking your head, you should be. I am deeply cynical about the apparatus that surrounds the office of president in the US and the fact that, like his predecessors, he is beholden to the vested interests that funded his campaign.

We must convert them to the worship of Boris Johnson.

Public Service Announcements
In the interests of making Algeria a more agreeable tourist destination, I have a few words of advice for the locals:

  • Waiters. When a customer asks for a spoon, don't just take a used one out of someone else's bowl, wipe it on your trousers and put it in front of him.

  • If you lean on your horn for a full half minute when you can plainly see that two hundred goats are crossing the road just up ahead, don't be surprised if the foreigner in the car in front gets out and caves in your skull with a socket wrench.

  • When you decide to drive a knackered lorry at 90 miles an hour in the middle of the night, having your mate lean out of the passenger window and shine a torch in the eyes of passing drivers is not an acceptable alternative to working headlights.

  • Pizzeria owners. If all you serve is rotting goat meat in olive brine, please don't call your place a Pizzeria.

    Best Moments
  • Catching sight of the coast of Africa from the top deck of the ferry with dolphins swimming alongside.

  • Being invited to a Tuareg wedding in the desert.

  • Managing a hill start on a four foot slope after one of the batteries exploded in the desert. Only one chance.

  • Having a beer on the terrace at The Gourara hotel, overlooking the huge salt lake at Timimoun.

  • An all night boozy sing-along with Algerian sailors in the refuge at Assekrem.

    For the record, that guy is not holding my hand.

  • Cresting the first dune at Beni Abbes to see the great western sand sea stretching out into the distance.

  • The first night sleeping in the desert.

    Worst Moments
  • Abandoning the car stuck in the mud in the Sebka after two hours of fruitless digging. Then setting out across the swamp on foot in the middle of the night, clutching a machete, with the jackals howling in the distance.

  • Realising I'd left the keys in the ignition all night on my first night in Algeria. People who know me will be unsurprised by this genius move.

  • Dinner, most days.

    Culinary Highlights
  • Small yellow mangoes bought from Malian traders in Tamanrasset.
  • Delicious camel milk in the desert of the Ahnet.
  • Home-made cous-cous at a mechanic's house in Timimoun. The best I've had.
  • Dates from the palmeraie at In Salah.
  • Fresh calamari in Oran.
  • Camel tripe cous-cous in the Ahnet.

    Overall, I liked Algeria. The food mostly sucked and the tourist infrastructure was non-existent, but the people were amazingly friendly and the desert was a jaw-dropper.

    When you travel round the country, there is a certain smug satisfaction in knowing that you are one of the few to do so in recent years. The other tourists seem to be limited to a handful of Germans and Italians in the south who race through villages in air-conditioned 4x4s at a hundred miles an hour hurling handfuls of pens out of the window.

    My experimental media fast was a success. No use of the laptop, car stereo, mobile phone or ipod while in the desert (c.3weeks). I feel better for it.

    I miss most of the things I expected to miss – friends, doing sport and knowing what's going on the world. Not, strangely, drinking alcohol, although it's amazing how good a 70p bottle of rancid Algerian wine can taste after a month on the wagon.

    Tonight is my last night in Algeria. I am being taken to the cinema. Despite heavy government censorship and civil unrest, I can still watch the same Hollywood dross here in El-Oued as I can at the Shepherds Bush Odeon. That’s progress.