Today, my tour group is flying from Algiers, on to Timimoun in the middle of the Algerian Sahara. The plane of the moment is a 72 seater ATR and we’re delayed for 45 minutes in the bus, waiting for two more passengers. It turns out the missing pair are Alec and Alison, the Australians who couldn't come on the tour. Fortunately, the weather is good and it’s a fairly smooth flight, once ground control take the off the manifest, so not too much Rescue Remedy is called for. The clouds begin to part and reddish brown rocky sand with patches of rippling dunes is increasingly visible. I’m sitting next to Riva, an extremely entertaining 78 year old, who still practices equalities psychotherapy. As Martin points out, ‘There’s only one more Riva to cross.’ The flight takes two hours and we’re only half way into the largest country in Africa.
The latest FCO bulletin on Algeria:
‘Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Algeria, including kidnappings. Terrorist attacks have focussed on the Algerian state, but attacks could be indiscriminate and include foreigners. There’s also a risk that lone actors could target foreigners. You should be vigilant at all times and take additional security precautions, especially in: towns and cities; the southern, Libyan and Tunisian border areas; rural and mountainous areas in the north; and the Sahara.
The Algerian authorities devote considerable resources to the safety of foreign visitors. In cities there’s a clear security presence, which can feel intrusive. Authorities will want to know your travel plans when travelling outside major cities and may assign police or gendarmes to protect you.’
So far, we’ve avoided any security convoys. There’s been a heavy police presence in the cities, but apparently this is because the gendarmerie are busy with important football matches. Robbie deems this a good thing. He says they slow everything up and the bus is often required to wait for ages at changeover points. However, they are ready for us at the airport and escort us the five minutes’ drive into town. Disappointingly, they are aboard a Nissan 4WD. I was hoping for an open top truck and muscly men with AK47s perched on the back. They have demanded to know all our plans and will be with us tomorrow when we go into the desert. Though we are allowed to go on, into Timimoun on our own.
Today's walking tour of Timimoun is more than a little chaotic. We trail after Robbie who keeps losing his way, exclaiming that things have moved since his last visit and blaming his confusion on the heat. And it's only Spring. The temperature gets up to 45 Celsius, on average, in July. It’s a typical oasis town in that there are gates, fortresses and stockades with pointy crenellations and plenty of date palms. But it’s very different from those in the UAE. For example, the walls (except for the newest constructions) are made of red mud. This area was once part of the Sudan.
Most of the sand strewn streets are eerily quiet. We’re unsure why, until we come across all the women gathered under one awning, dressed in their most gorgeous finery. There’s a wedding taking place. Unsurprisingly, the villagers are not keen for us to participate. The darker skinned peoples of this isolated desert outpost are far more reserved than their coastal cousins and very few are keen to be photographed. One little boy runs away, terrified, at the sight of a camera.
So we decamp to the main street, where there are some photogenic beehive shaped structures and a little market. The large hive shapes, known as marabouts, are saints’ tombs, liberally sprinkled across the desert. There are a lot of holy men. Some of the tombs in town, like the walls, are fake, built purely for aesthetic reasons. Our hotel is wonderfully located with views across the palmerie to the sandstone formations and dunes of the Grand Erg Occidental (Western Sand Sea). It’s an excellent place to watch the sun go down.
Today, we are once more way down the police priority list. We have been instructed to venture out on our own and take one of the hotel employees with us. Robbie is ecstatic, but I’m less sure. I don’t think, ‘We haven’t needed them so far’, quite cuts it. Briham, the designated escort, looks the part in his flowing white djellaba, (clothing here is much more traditional than that worn up north) but he isn’t armed. At least it’s an opportunity for too many Life of Briham jokes, with Middle Eastern type scenery as props.
And we aren’t going to be able to rely on the dynamic duo who are our leaders either. George has a nose bleed and looks fetching with cotton wool stuffed up his nostrils. Jamie has turned his finger septic by picking at a splinter. Martin’s theory is that this all a ploy to enable them to plunder the pristine first aid kit. (At this point I should say that they are actually both very good at their jobs and they take all the ribbing in good part). In addition, Robbie has produced a very battered straw hat from his bag and proceeded to try and unflatten it, restoring it to some of its (very ancient) former glory. I’m wondering if we should have left it in the tiny museum. But it suits him.
The Sebkha circuit is the sightseeing trip in Algeria. Our drive takes us, precariously (it’s not really bus country) along some very narrow tracks past abandoned villages and mud fortresses (ksars). One old Ksar has a network of caves underneath - still used by villagers to escape the extreme heat in the summer months. The route continues along the edge of the cliff with stunning views of the Sahara - arid land, flat-top hills, oases and of course the sand dunes
There are also more stretches of social housing. The accommodation is free, but unsurprisingly the Algerians are not very keen to take up residence. Most of the people in work in Algeria are hired by the government and there isn’t much employment available round the Algerian Sahara. There are also an irrigation system, a handicraft shop and an imagined view of the sebkha (salt lake), after which the circuit is named. The access track is 4WD country only. Thankfully, we can see it from the hotel instead.
Some of the village roads are closed, as the wedding is still going on when we wander out for dinner. The bridegroom is processing around on a panoplied horse, his expression changing in succession from sheepish to proud and back again. His friends also take turns riding his steed and bearing the ceremonial gun and sword that accompany him. We're having our own simultaneous celebration. It’s fellow traveller Wendy’s birthday today and Mohammed has obtained a fancy cake. Though he has to be really strongly persuaded before he will remove the numerals he has added, to celebrate her exact age. The bridegroom is posing on an island in the pond behind our outdoor table as we sing Happy Birthday. He lets off a gunshot to add to the air of excitement (and confusion).
It’s a stunning drive northwest to Taghit, through desert that turns all shades of yellow and gilt. There are perfect flat topped mesas, amazing huge dunes and more red ochre ksars. Today, we are travelling in convoy, police front and back. And I can now see why Robbie thinks our escort is a nuisance. Not only do we have to hang around at district boundaries while they change over, we also have to make our coffee stop at ‘my cousin’s café’ instead of the planned stop in the one town we traverse. This is despite Robbie’s vociferous remonstrations. The word ‘dickheads’ echoes down the bus. But at least AK47s have been flourished.
Beni El Abbas, our oasis lunch stop, is described in the itinerary as ‘The White City’. But its arched colonnades and casbah are perplexingly, yellow ochre, with cinnamon shading. ‘Well’, frowns Robbie. ‘I think it was white when I came ten days ago. They’ve redecorated’. It brings a whole new meaning to go out and paint the town, but not quite red in this case. We tour a tiny hospital hermitage (four monks, five nuns) founded by Charles de Foucault and a ramshackle museum stuffed with all manner of paraphernalia, documenting local history through the ages. From here, we skirt the Grand Erg Occidental with tantalising glimpses of dunes, until we reach the western most tip at Taghit.
I follow a camel track (hoof prints in the sand) up a steep and stony hillside past a lone marabout (they are cuboid with domes aloft in this region). On top of the mountain I’m king of the world for a short time, gazing out over the sand sea. The golden barchan crescents overlap into the rock of the hamada. There are whoops echoing from far down below, where more intrepid folk are teetering over the dunes in quad bikes - wadi bashing.
Other hardy souls are climbing the track to the top of the granddaddy dune. It towers 120 metres behind the village. Martin has pointed out that it’s a shame there isn’t a Terry in the group. Then we would have 'Terry and Dune'. Doh! The dune with the village, fortress and casbah spilling down the hill in front, would be impossibly picturesque, if it weren’t for the satellite mast placed strategically in the backdrop.
South to the coast again to Oran and Tipaza
Australian residents, Alec and Alison, who I met on the Golden Eagle Train across the Caucasus last year, were going to travel on this trip to Algeria with me, but their visa paperwork never arrived back from Algiers - no real explanation - and they had to rearrange their European trip. Our trip was supposed to be a party of 13, including George the English leader and Jamie from the office in England. So now we’re down to eleven, as we assemble in the airport arrivals area. Except we’re not, as Sarah, from the UK, has not been allowed to enter the country. None of us have even seen her get off the plane. Mind you, we don’t know what she looks like. Again, no explanation given. There’s much speculation of course. A journalist? A spy? Something more mundane, like the date missing from the visa?
Unusually, we are all solo travellers, three men and five women (two of the ladies are American, everyone else is at least part British) plus George and Jamie. Our passports have all been re-examined and collected (my own exchange with the immigration officers was very amicable), so now we’re all waiting with trepidation to see if we are to be deported too. After an hour or so we are sent on our way. All is well. Except we are now ten. It’s like an Agatha Christie novel.
Algiers, the capital of Algeria, is a sprawling seaport (30 kilometres of coastline) with (unsurprisingly) a very French feel. It was founded in the year 960 on the ruins of the ancient Roman city Icosium by Bologhine Ibn Ziri, the old Ottoman city stretches for about thirty kilometres. It's nickname is 'El Bahdja' (the joyful) or Algiers the White, That's because most of the buildings are white and curly balconie. It's, dominated by a huge concrete Monument to the Martyrs and a soaring tower (it's going to be the tallest minaret in the world) of a new Great Mosque, under construction. The shop fascias are written in French, but there is some Arabic signage too.
Our Algerian guide, Robbie, is a dead ringer for Alan Rickman and a polyglot. He’s been to university in Plymouth, Algeria, France and Spain. He’s been at sea as an officer and has dabbled in all manner of business. So we have an extremely knowledgeable and cultured commentary, even if it is a little hard to follow at times.
Robbie leads us on a shamble, rather than a ramble, along 500 steps, through the ancient city of the deys, The labyrinth of the casbah (reconstructed form the Ottoman by the French). climbs the steep hill behind the modern town, 122 metres above the sea. Fortunately, we're going downhill.
Algiers is situated on the west side of the Bay of Algiers, on the Mediterranean Sea. The modern part of the city is built on the level ground by the seashore and the two quays form a triangle with the casbah. The esplanade here is reminiscent of Brighton (if you squint). Past the seventeenth century whitewashed Kipouache Mosque, with its two towers, to the famous ornate post office (now a museum). The route back to the hotel takes us along the Algerian boulevard equivalent of Oxford Street. Then, through various vibrant squares and by the renovated Milk Bar, notorious for being bombed twice by terrorists. Robbie ambles along in front talking mainly to himself, while George and assistant Mohammed mop up the stragglers.
We stop for a bracing al fresco lunch, in the botanical garden, on high ground, next to the zoo. We can see right across town from here and a prized exhibit is the huge fig tree that featured in the Johnny Weissmuller version of Tarzan. Crocodiles of small children snake around, their teachers dancing and chanting.
In the west, there’s another stop to look across from the far side of town, on a clifftop terrace, surrounding the imposing Catholic basilica of Notre-Dame d'Afrique. It’s a fascinating mix of European and eastern orthodox architecture, grandly described as Byzantine revival. It features a large silver dome and mosaics.
The traffic is terrible and we’re moving at a crawl, so we’re spending more time in the bus than off it. That’s not a problem. Everyone is sleepy, due to our early start, and the bus resonates to the sound of gentle snoring. I’ve enjoyed the views, but I haven’t the slightest idea how to find my way anywhere. And at least I can find out about what I’ve seen by reading my guide book
Dinner on our first night is a riot. We’ve found a restaurant that serves alcohol, and gin and tonic to boot. What’s more, the sole and lamb is excellent too. Guide Robbie hits the whisky and Martin, one of the three guys, (who have formed a lad’s alliance –I’ve dubbed it the Northern Powerhouse), is on good form. He’s already gained an admirable reputation for awful risqué conversation and really bad puns.
Robbie’s notion of a suitable restaurant for our final meal is a sleazy smoke filled bistro, with scantily dressed women. We escape to buy ice creams, balancing our cartons of ice bubble, as we make our way back to the hotel down the illuminated streets. It’s a lively city, with a shabby chic charm. So, it's a good place to begin and end a tour in a diverse and intriguing country. In between we've been along the coast in each direction to Constantine and Oran/Tipaza and out into the Algerian Sahara.
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