An Algerian adventure

The border crossing

Getting out of Morocco is just as difficult as getting into Algeria. All guards are in camouflage gear with submachine guns. The van check – drawers, suitcases, cupboards and more, follows form filling and passport checks. But wait, there’s more!

The guard sees our diary and as Dana says:

He continues his read … flip, flip, flip. After a long while he finishes and decides we can go. What was he looking for?

We cross 20 metres to the Algerian side and it’s on again! More forms to fill, passport checks, and another van search. You have guns? “No,” Hashish? “No.” We need lots of patience!

After a couple of hours we are finally on our way, but further along the main road is flooded. An alternative route takes us towards the coast and we free camp by the roadside. Another eventful day!

No petrol

We pass through Oran, a seaport on the Mediterranean and the second largest city in Algeria. It appears very European-French. We don’t think much of the place and move on. The main highway is filled with potholes and winds its way along the coast towards the capital, Algiers. Ursula says, “Very pretty scenery but a shithouse road.”

Read: The 1974 travel chronicles of Max Williams: Woohoo we’re off!

We are in Tenes, a small coastal tourist town 200km short of Algiers, and have just run out of petrol. The only service station in town has no fuel left. Bloody fuel crisis! Luckily our emergency 10 litre jerrycan saves the day. It’s not enough to get us to Algiers, but enough to get us 50km south to El Asnam. We fill up there. Phew, close call!

There’s more picturesque and hilly countryside along this alternative route to Algiers – but again potholed. The capital is known for its whitewashed buildings and steep winding streets. We arrive late afternoon and find the tourist office.

We have run out of cooking gas, so it’s pizza on the run. Italians would consider these pizzas inedible, but we are hungry and scoff them down. Some US dollars are exchanged for Algerian dinars before heading out of town to look for a camp spot. A track into some isolated bush looks perfect – well maybe not!

Military base camping – a bad idea!

We are all just about set up and hear loud thumps on the door. We are confronted by weapon carrying, uniformed Algerian soldiers. They order us out, check our passports, then take us to their headquarters a few hundred metres along the track, where we are told to sit at a table and are questioned at length – in French.

It’s lucky that the others have enough high school French to pick up the gist of the conversation. It seems that we are in a prohibited military zone.

After a while they realise we are not a threat and let us go with a stern warning. They escort us back to camp. We are allowed to stay overnight. As Michael says, “So here we are in a ‘guarded’ camp site and all for free.” The incident has left us rather shaken.

Read: Here’s why Algeria should be top of your destination wish list

The road is windy, and the terrain hilly and scenic to Bejaia, further along the coast. I write, “Strange to see so many villages situated on the apex of mountains.” There’s a ship that has run aground near where we free camp. Unusual scene!

Again, at our camp we are host to many local boys, who are delighted with our gifts of Moroccan pamphlets. Our drive south next day is over spectacular mountains and gorges. Our free camp on a barren plateau is shared with sheep and their herders.

Sprung at a Roman ruin

We are in Constantine, ‘the city of bridges’. It is spectacular and built on hills connected by picturesque bridges, ravines and gorges. At the not so spectacular Roman ruins of Tiddis, 30km north of Constantine, “there were many bits of pottery and mosaics lying around,” writes Ursula. We pocket a few of them. However, we are sprung!

The ‘shepherd’ at the gate is actually a guard, who tells us in angry French tones that it is a criminal offence to souvenir the relics. Oops! There are no official signs around, but I guess we should know better. We get off with a warning. 

There are issues trying to extend our Algerian visas, so we head south into the desert before our current visas expire. We restock our supplies and find a public bath (an expensive A$0.50 each!) in Constantine.

The next day we find a free camp further south near Timgad. The Roman ruins here are very impressive. A big shout out to the architects and town planners of 2000 years ago. Amazing!

We drive on and climb up to 5000ft. There are patches of snow here. The terrain changes dramatically from barren plateaus to gorges to rugged eroded landscapes. We arrive at the oasis of Biskra, a dust and sand laden city and the gateway to the Sahara Desert.

There’s nothing of interest here for us and no suitable camping spot, so we head out of town and find a river to camp by – and get bogged in the sand. Bugger! We’ll wait until tomorrow to dig it out. The wind is howling and stirring up the sand. It’s getting stronger. This is going to be one hell of a night.

Read: Max explores Morocco

The sandstorm

Our van shakes violently all night. The howling sounds of the wind and sand hitting the van is rather unsettling. We get little sleep. Overnight, sand finds its way into the van. It’s even in our mouths, eyes and ears.

We rise early and eventually get out of the bog, watched curiously by a herd of camels and their herders. We head to El Oued via Touggourt, a some 320km drive – in a bloody sandstorm!

By the time we reach Touggourt, the desert has lost its romantic charm for us. We have a decent lunch at a fancy hotel. The drive to El Oued is scary but exciting – past the towering sand dunes of the Grand Oriental Erg, which surround this ancient city. Dana continues, “Visibility at times was 10 metres. Strange sights of Bedouins sleeping by the roadside, or a solitary figure standing on the crest of a dune. Never-ending stretches of sand and sand dunes, but still an incredible worthwhile experience.”

None of us want to sleep in the sandy van tonight. Bugger the expense – we check in to El Oued’s Grand Hotel du Souf for a hot bath, swim, hotel dinner and a bed with clean white sheets. Such luxury after 62 consecutive nights in the van. Tomorrow, we will drive 80km to the Tunisian border. Algeria has been one doozey experience.

Our journey continues next time into Tunisia and Sicily. Then our final run as a foursome up the leg of Italy to its kneecap, Rome. Find out what everyone is searching for in Tunis whilst waiting for the ferry to Trapani in Sicily.

If you enjoy our content, don’t keep it to yourself. Share our free eNews with your friends and encourage them to sign up.

Written by MaxWilliams