Algeria 1988

What I always find most difficult in the Sahara is the direction-finding. Its a large space, as you may know, with surfaces of sand, dust, gravel and rock – and it is, by turn, dead flat, hilly or mountainous. And you really really don’t want to get lost there.


I am experienced and sturdy, like many 4- wheel-drive Land Rovers, and like all vehicles in the Sahara I accept all the help I see. First, there are some road signs – but not many. Second, there are tracks: these show you where it is safe to go, and where others have gone–  they don’t however tell you where you are going. Third, there are the stars, or a compass, and landmarks like a mountain. Fourth: cairns and bitons. These are piles of stones or jerry-cans placed at strategic points, often crossroads, in the desert, and they are often marked on maps.

I gave the bearded stranger a ride across the Sahara, south from Algiers to Tamanrasset, east to Djanet and up to Hassi Messaoud. There’s a lot of things the stranger wanted to see. Oases like Touggourt and Djanet, the extraordinary Mzab Valley towns, the high mountains of the Hoggar (high enough to give the stranger altitude sickness), Foreign Legion forts, the sand-dunes of course. He really wanted an encounter with the Touareg, the exotic Tamachek-speaking natives of the southern desert in their blue scarves, known as tagelmust, and well-known masters of Saharan travel.

We had our fair share of excitement during the three weeks we were together. Serious engine problems overcome, personality problems in a confined space, and we once ran out of petrol. Anyway it was finally in a remote part of the desert, in the Hoggar, that the stranger finally met some Touareg who weren’t trying to sell him trinkets in a market. We had been following tracks, and keeping a particular mountain to our left, when we came across a car stationary in a secluded gully. About ten Touareg spilled out of it as we drove up, very pleased to see us. They were lost.