of man and machine negotiating high passes
between France and Italy.
our trusted Land Rover Discovery and the
off-road driver was Kit Constable Maxwell.
Newsflash - Far horizons, Portugal off-road
The tents are packed, the desert dinners in stock and the route plotted on 'Google Earth'. Navigator Raymond Bird and photographer Kit Constable Maxwell depart for Portugal on May 7th
We take the Brittany ferry to Santander, then drive to Bragança, Portugal.
From this point we follow tracks and trails, camping en-route, crossing upland country, nature reserves and national parks.
We will live off local produce supplemented by soya stew and vac-packed ingredients from the Kitmax TwinTop Tuckbox.
We carry recovery skids, a hi-lift winch, extra fuel and water, two tents and sleeping bags. Maximum altitude will be around 6,000ft. There will be rivers to cross and steep sided gorges to negotiate.
The trip will be the subject of an illustrated talk later in the year. Check this website www.kitmax.com for updates.
The stillness of the desert at the campsite was only disturbed by a
dog's concert that night, where every canine in the countryside joined
We left that morning for Erg Chebbi, near Merzouga, an isolated
offshoot of the Great Western Erg across the border in Algeria.
The route led east across a wide stony desert, wretchedly lifeless,
with only the occasional wadi sustaining a few goats and the odd
We were convinced from our research that there was a fairly strong
piste to be found around the east side of the Chebbi dunes, but all
our waypoints and two gps navigators failed to reveal the unmarked
trail we sought.
After a long drive we arrived unexpectedly at the dunes, a majestic
and spectacular formation. This isolated sand sea rises unannounced
from a flat stony desert, a great golden erg stretched into the desert
haze. Whispering winds sculpt the sand into a maze of crests and
curves, hollows and heights all basking in the morning sun.
We were at the northernmost tip. Across the sand, Raymond assured me,
lay our trail. However we were travelling alone and I didn't want to
enter the sands without a backup car.
And while we discussed the options, unfortunately the Disco made the
decision for us. Reaching for the low ratio gearing, the selection
lever failed to engage, indicating a broken linkage. Sand requires
power and the right gearing is essential, and now we didn't have it. A
quick check revealed the link was inaccessible without extensive
stripping down. We were now in a deep trough of sand and I had to
apply serious shunting, clutch slipping and engine overheating to get
That marked the end of that particular sand crossing and we re-routed
across the gravel plain to Merzouga, and drove the easier west side of
the dune instead.
The Mongol leader, Khara Bator, soon realised his fate. He dug a deep well which failed to supply water. Fearful of capture, he killed his own family before throwing his treasures down the well and running on his sword. The Chinese entered the town and slaughtered the occupants 'like cattle' and left the bodies unburied in the main square.The city was never reoccupied and gained a ghostly reputation. It became known as the 'Black City' and is shunned by the Chinese and Mongolians alike.
The city was claimed by the desert sands and is now only distinguishable by it's 30ft ramparts, crumbling temples and many bleached bones.
The Taklamakan is a vast desert plateau with an average elevation of 4,250 feet. It is the largest expanse of barren sand in Central Asia, covering 200,000 square miles. Stony desert forms an outer ring at the edge of the basin; a soil-covered plain dotted with occasional vegetation forms another ring between the stony desert and the vast sandy interior of the basin. The basin is the most remote place on earth from any sea. Climate is extremely dry with annual rainfall less than three inches. 85 percent of the interior Takla Makan is composed of sand dunes from 300 to 600 feet high. In some places a growth of tamarisk stabilizes dunes. Groves of poplar grow along rivers that cross the basin, and forming a striking contrast to the surrounding hot, dry sandy desert.
We drove across the desert and arrived at theTefedest mountains, a traditional Touareg stronghold.
The range is dominated by Mt Garet and we camped at the foot of the mountain.
Next day we visited a lone pinnacle of rock far across the sands and discovered a charming canyon where we spent half the day. The pinnacle soared above the flat valley floor and the walls of the canyon were sprinkled with huge boulders. Little fox paw-prints scurrying about told of much nocturnal activity.
The Tefedest range is quite small, very remote and proved to be our guide's homeland. In the afternoon he took us on an amazing journey, up a wadi which got smaller and steeper and more barren.
It was a very difficult drive indeed and I was beginning to wonder for our guide's sanity, when the mountain opened up into a small valley with a few reed houses and, surprisingly, a green and verdant plantation.
"My garden" announced Mohammed, proudly, and there, fed by a year-long water source, was a verdant garden with figs, dates, herbs, greenery and plants . It was an extraordinary sight in this most barren of all mountain passes.
We left in the evening and returned to the plain and were passed by three racing camels in full colours, all of them known to our guide. Their riders joined us later for tea around the campfire.
At dawn an old camel drover turned up in camp - I should have guessed, Mohammed's father. It was a great privilege to be among so many traditional Touareg and to share with them a glimpse of their unique and secretive lifestyle.
We arrived back at In-Salah after a most colourful, rewarding and fulfilling trip. We were greeted by our agent's family and had a traditional goat and couscous stew, seated on the floor in considerable discomfort and eating with our right hands. Delicious!
We are now wending our way back to Europe. It is a long way...
Towns are about 500 miles apart down here, and we have a few towns to reach on our way back to Tunis and the ferry Mediterranee
Photographs will be posted on the website after I get home in December.
A lot has happened since our last blog. We had a good journey to Tamanrasset, bouncing down the Assekrem mountain was slightly easier than bouncing up it.
We collected our escort back-up car and set out for the weirdly eroded rocks of Targrera. The back-up car was leaking fuel all the way and we sent it back with our guide for repair.
We spent a happy 24 hours exploring a remote desert canyon . At night we were surrounded by jackals, their plaintive calls wafting across the starlit plain at the foot of our canyon.
The car arrived back a day later and then broke down again, and then had a succession of problems after which I voted it unusable.
We dumped it in the desert and drove back to Tamanrasset. To give our agent his due, backed up by a couple of satellite calls to Switzerland (the Euro liaison team), a replacement car arrived and our trip continued.
We had now lost 4 days and had to cancel our trip to Djanet and Mount Tazat:
However, all clouds have a silver lining and we then proceeded to have an unscheduled tour of some of the finest desert scenery North of Djanet and across the Amadror plain.
On the way we passed 150 or more camels at a watering hole. They were being saddled up by a team of cameleers. The camels snort and roar, grunt and bellow, generally in good humour as the workers saddle up loads of water and feed for the journey ahead. A very colorful scene, traditional desert life unchanged for centuries.
We reached the saltpans at Tissemt which was an important trading site. The salt was loaded onto camels and then taken to far-away Niger and traded for grain.
The night was very cold and we were now over 9,000ft altitude. Oxygen was in short supply too and we felt quite breathless after exertion.
Raymond and I pitched our tents on a rough patch of gravel. I cooked a dinner of vac-packed veal with spuds and onions from In-Salah.
I awoke at dawn and set out to climb to the summit, 1,000 ft above us, to visit the Hermitage of Père Foucould.
It was the incomparable Foucould, a Viscompte in his own right, a cavalry officer and latterly a committed hermit, who settled on this magnificent site to devote his life to prayer and meditation... and also to write a dictionary of the Tuaregs entire Tamashek language.
I puffed my way up the precipitous incline and reached, almost an hour later, the summit. The view is spectacular, unparalleled and showed a skyline bedecked with unworldly red-rock pinnacles, each one catching their first light of a new day.
The Hermitage, built in 1910 is a small stone rectangle harbouring a tiny chapel. A stone altar is perched on three natural stone columns. A simple cross hangs on the end wall, and prayer mats are gazelle skins.
Each of the two to three hermits lives alone in crude rocky shelters, and come together for communal prayer in the chapel.
20 years ago I met one of the hermits and he gave me his last cup of coffee. I vowed then that I would return one day to replenish his small stock. So it was with the greatest pleasure that I found the Padre hermit, reminded him of our meeting and presented him with coffee, sugar, milk and... two slices of Lyn's cake. He was thrilled and we chatted happily. He looked hardly a day older. Clearly a lift of hi-altitude abstention beckons - but who...
The random pistes on the upper plains converge into a single snaking trail which wound it's way across the rising terrain. Here and there flash floods had swept away whole sections of the trail. Circuitous routes beckoned and the Land Rover bounced stoically across boulders, shale and steep inclines.
After 3 hours we had achieved 30km, not much above walking speed. After a brief stop we continued, we still had 45km and 4,000 feet to go. The trail got steeper and the landscape gave way to pinnacled ramparts enclosing secluded valleys, their entrance blocked by tumbled rocks the size of houses.
We left the piste and drove up a steep narrow wadi to cross a saddle between two towering pinnacles - it was a hair raising ascent as first one wheel lost grip on the slippery river bed and then another. Beside was a 100 ft drop and we had already passed one wrecked car in a ravine far below.
The wadi could now be called more accurately a dry waterfall and had to be approached with carefully planned momentum and maximum traction. We made it, just and stopped on the saddle to admire the scenery. Great pointed monoliths of fluted red rock thrust skywards and gave the landscape a quite surreal appearance.
We arrived at Assekrem late, watched the setting sun spotlighting first one great towering pinnacle and then another.
We drove to In-Amguel where we left the Tamanrasset road and struck east for the mountains. The piste wandered across fertile wadis separating rocky plains, and all the time rising.
We reached the little village of Hirafok, little changed since my last visit here 20 years ago. I recognised the tea house in the village centre, and those inquisitive kids must be the offspring of the inquisitive kids I met all that time ago.
We passed several groups of donkeys, strong animals and well marked in grey and black outline - quite unlike the working donkeys we saw in the towns.
We camped in a soft sandy wadi. The night was cold and Mohammed lit a fire, with a single match, and we sat around it toasting our toes.
We arrived at In-Salah early enough to spend a relaxed morning shopping for vegetables, dates and other supplies for our journey south.
We met our guide, a tall welcoming Touareg called Mohammed. His wide winning smile augured well and his desert knowledge is unsurpassed.
Next morning his chief, M Haffoui appeared. A distinguished man, carrying dignity and style, a great welcome and good language skills.
We left with Mohammed to drive the long route south. The road was well marked but badly deteriorated in parts. We reached Arag gorge, a tortuous and spectacular land fall and the scene of many battles in days past. We stopped to refuel and then pulled off into the desert to make camp for the night. We nestled into a hollow of the dunes and cooked up canned chicken accompanied by In-Salah vegetables.