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Desert Driving: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Overlanding the Sahara

Text and photo by Chris Scott

Around this bend, a dry riverbed runs beside a fertile palm grove. Around that one, an ancient kasbah looms above a village. A few kilometers further, a group of villagers are washing dishes and clothes in an unlikely stream and on the horizon, a caravan of camels makes its ancient way across the sands as the sun dips below the dunes.

Driving in the Sahara is top on many romantic adventurers' travel lists. Images of explorers traversing silent dunes, camping among Bedouin villagers, watching mirages turn to caravans of camels and back again make the imagination of the intrepid desert lover swoon.

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And yet, countless other stories of stranded travelers drinking radiator fluid to stave off thirst scare many would-be desert rovers off. While it is true that the Sahara can be unforgiving to the unprepared, driving in the Moroccan Sahara and other North African countries can be exhilarating and safe, if travelers take proper precautions.

There are two choices for overlanding the Sahara: renting a four-wheel drive vehicle in your destination or bringing your own car from Europe. Obviously, if you plan a short trip in Morocco, Tunisia or Egypt, you should consider renting. Many companies offer weekly rentals of Land Rovers, Land Cruisers and Rav4s. Consult GoNOMAD's Explorer Guides to the Moroccan and Tunisian Sahara for more information on routes and attractions.

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But if you plan to GoNOMAD in the desert for a longer period or across borders, you need to bring your own car. And that takes planning and preparation and a bit of expense. However, once you're actually in the desert, you'll spend very little money, and the experience of clear desert nights, towering dunes and oasis campsites will be worth the effort to get there.

GETTING THERE

Getting to the Sahara is simpler than people imagine. Nevertheless, it's what accounts for most of the cost of touring the Sahara (aside from vehicle acquisition or rental and preparation). If you are flying and planning to rent a vehicle, flights to Casablanca and Tunis are available. Connecting flights will take you closer to the desert and vehicles can be rented in major towns and cities.

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If you are planning a longer trip and thinking of shipping your vehicle from North America, you'd be much better off transporting it to the U.K. first and crossing via boat, than to try to import it directly into any North African port.

Mediterranean ferries from southern Europe

There are two main RoRo ferry routes used to access the Sahara from southern Europe: one goes to Morocco and the other to Tunisia. The Spanish connections serve Morocco and Mauritania through to West Africa, but for Algeria, Libya, Niger and Egypt the routes to Tunis are best.

Across the Straits of Gibraltar

In the west, the short link from the Spanish ports of Algeciras to northern Morocco across the Straits of Gibraltar is the most convenient. Journey times to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta can take just 20 minutes by hydrofoil, while a conventional boat takes two hours to get to Tangiers.

Ceuta is by far the preferred route if you are bringing a vehicle: fuel is duty free here (cheaper than Morocco) and the border with Morocco, just a couple of miles south of the port area, is much less hassle than Tangiers. Remember, early encounters in Morocco can be intimidating, so make it easy on yourself: go via Ceuta and follow the quiet roads south from there.

There is no need to book with this service, just turn up at Algeciras and buy a ticket from the countless agencies you'll spot long before you get to port area (prices are the same everywhere). In the port, you may meet hustlers trying to be your "guide" or offer to buy you a "special ticket", but just say you have one already and continue through to embarkation.

One-way fare from Algeciras to Ceuta on the hydrofoil runs about 9000pts ($62) for a car, 1850pts ($13) per person. Ten per cent discount, if you buy an open return.

Other Spanish ports and Sete (France)

Ferries also run three to five times a week from Malaga and Almeria (both east of Algeciras) to Melillia, another Spanish enclave on the North African coast. Booking a set time is advisable, especially in August and at Christmas or Easter. But with the doubled cost of the Algeciras connection, it's hard to see the advantage of these routes for a Sahara-bound traveler.

The 26-hour crossing from Sete near Montpellier in southern France to Tangiers is another option, but it only runs once a week and costs around $800. The only advantage is that it might save you the two-day drive across Spain.

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To Tunis

Boats leave almost every other day from Marseille in southern France and Genoa, 200 miles further east in northern Italy, to Tunis. Both crossings take 24 hours, but prices vary by up to 30%, with Genoa being less expensive. Booking, especially in the busy period up to and including Christmas, should be done well in advance.

Many people expect the passage to be on rusty old banana boats, but nothing could be further from the truth. In 1999, the Swedish-built "MV Carthage" started operation, and it is as modern and well equipped as a cruise liner. Most Europeans travel in first class cabins: four berth affairs with en suite bathrooms and a sea view. You have a choice of restaurants on board with reasonable prices. All in all, you won't want to get off.

But arriving at the Tunis port can be a nightmare to the uninitiated. Sometimes immigration procedures are done on board--it saves time, but means hours of exhausting queuing for one form and another and frayed tempers.

Prices from Genoa for two people and a car including cabin but not meals: 4560FF ($684). Prices from Marseilles for two people and a car including cabin but not meals: 5790FF ($900).

Ferry contacts

For more information and to make ferry reservations, contact:

Southern Ferries
179 Piccadilly
London W1U 9DB
ENGLAND
Tel: 44 020 7491 4968
Fax: 44 020 7491 3502

Alternatively you can try emailing CTN

ctn.com.tn in Tunis for routes lines from Marseille or Genoa: tunisia.ferries@ctn.com.tn

VEHICLE CHOICE

Choosing a vehicle for a Saharan journey is vital. While many day-trippers who stick to paved roads can see the sights in a Fiat or Peugeot, for the rigors of the Sahara, locals, commercial operators and travelers choose Toyota's Land Cruiser. In a nutshell, the Land Cruiser provides quality and strength along with large engines that can keep a fully loaded machine moving in power sapping conditions.

Some romantics and enthusiasts still prefer the classic profile of the Land Rover, once the definitive 4x4. A Land Rover will look the part and do the job, but with niggling problems and less overall comfort.

Your chosen 4x4 will be traversing rough terrain in hot dusty conditions at near maximum payload for possibly weeks on end, so thorough preparation is vital. Transmission, suspension and tires will all get a hammering, with tires bearing the brunt. Specialized "sand tires" are unnecessary, but you should choose smooth tread patterns and tall sidewalls that maintain ground clearance at the reduced pressures needed for soft sand. Carry two spare tires, and if running tubeless, two spare wheels plus repair plugs. For reasons of safety, expense, mechanical reliability and widespread availability, diesel is the fuel of choice.

MAPS

Many maps of the region do not show pistes, tracks or other secondary roads. The best choices are the French IGN maps, which use a grid system. For a good introduction to and analysis of which maps to use when driving the Sahara, visit sahara-overland.com.

PACKING

Fuel and water will account for up to half of your payload and are best carried low in the car to enhance stability. Resist the temptation to overload roof racks. Also, consider day-to-day accessibility with the need to have everything securely mounted. Whatever you decide, you can expect your packing system to evolve in the early days of your trip.

Fuel

You can never carry enough fuel and water, but fuel is the more important as the car is your lifeline. Estimate your fuel needs as the maximum distance you plan to cover plus 25% and another 100km on top to cover detours. Base your estimates at 5 kilometers per liter for diesel and 3 kilometers per liter for a regular gasoline/petrol engine.

Water

You should bring adequate water to provide ten liters per person per day in winter--in reality you will use half of that, but the extra can make all the difference, if necessary. You should never finish a route with empty containers. Locally bought bottled water is a good way of gauging your rationing--otherwise use purpose-made tanks or strong plastic jerricans.

Water purification (with filters or chemicals) is not necessary in the Sahara north of the tropics. In the South--the warmer and more populated Sahel regions--bugs are more active: a ceramic-core filter pump which works off the car battery is most effective and worth the expense.

Food and cooking

Even without a car fridge (an expensive luxury), you'll be surprised how cool densely-packed fresh food can remain as long as you don't unload everything onto the hot sands every lunch time. In Tunisia and Morocco, you can pretty much stay in some kind of accommodation every other night, but in the larger countries covering the interior you must be self-sufficient. Dried foods need water to reconstitute, while canned foods save water and are quick to cook, but are heavy: generally a mix of these, plus whatever fresh food you can get works best.

In the desert, fruit and vegetables tend to be locally grown and scrawny or trucked in and expensive. One thing you can get in every village for a few pennies is bread--khobsa in Arabic. Don't overlook some sweet or savory snacks and bring your favorite quality foods. Meals will be the highlight of some possibly tiring days.

Bottled gas is the most convenient power source for cooking and available in larger towns. You won't get any Coleman fuel in the Sahara, let alone unleaded gas. A twin ring camping stove will do, plus a volcano kettle for a quick brew while the food cooks. A thermos flask filled at breakfast will provide a hot drink for lunchtime without the need to set the stove up.

Avoid huge bonfires using the scarce wood resources in the Sahara: nomads brew tea on just a few twigs and dry grass. But burn whatever garbage you can. Crush and bury the rest or dump it at edge of town trash dumps.

Clothes and sleeping

The simplistic idea of the Sahara baking by day and freezing by night has become exaggerated over the years. In the summer, it's hot around the clock and in winter at high altitudes, nights may reach freezing. It's a vast area, so much depends on the latitude, altitude and the season. But the important thing is protection from the sun and wind and repairing or recovering the car, plus a good night's sleep.

Short pants and dresses may be fine in the beach resorts, but are not acceptable in the more traditional desert communities. Cover up as locals do to protect your skin and get used to wearing headware for the same reason-especially on midday walks when a cooling breeze will disguise the burning sun.

You can sleep inside the car on a platform--secure, but a bit cramped--or on a roof tent, which is cool and convenient and safe. But lying under the stars with no tent is exhilarating--the risk from snakes and scorpions is also much exaggerated.

The important thing is a good sleeping bag (though a duvet or comforter is much more agreeable for couples) and a decent mattress. Thermorest-type inflatables are fine for space constricted backpackers but in a car you can afford a 4"-thick slab of foam in its own cotton case. Again, it comes down to avoiding the English mentality that "expeditions are all about suffering:" you'll get your share, don't worry, but a good night's rest from the exertions of the day is vital.

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