From Camels to Cows: An Overland Trip Through Algeria
By Tom Coote
As soon as we had crossed into Algeria, it was clear that something wasn’t right. Our shared taxi was slowing down and speeding up, and staggering from side to side on the winding hillside road, like an overloaded, drunken donkey.
To the side, lay a sharp, deep drop from the mountain to the surprisingly verdant valley. Nong Buff, my tiny Thai-born wife, and I, had managed to find a shared taxi leaving from just outside the Medina in Tunis. As we had been warned about Tunis taxi drivers, we were very careful to definitely agree the price before we left (60 Tunisian Dinars).
All the way from Tunis, and up the steep mountain road to the border post, the driver had seemed fine. Once we had finally cleared customs and officially entered into Algeria, he seemed to lose his mind. As we continued to veer from side to side, we received a good beeping from a car coming up from behind.
For a minute or so, the driver seemed to regain his senses but as soon as the other car had passed, it all went wrong again. While drifting around a bend – on the wrong side of the road – he suddenly swerved to avoid a dozing cow. I began to wonder if everybody simply went mental as soon as they entered Algeria.
This theory was starting to grow on me – it could go a long way to explaining the 100,000 or so killed in the nearly ten year long civil war – when we almost drove into a warning sign (with a picture of a cow on it). By now, I really felt like I ought to say something – I didn’t want to spend my holiday being dead.
As I leaned forward, I noticed that he had a mobile phone in pieces on his lap. He was struggling to put it back together – presumably with a new SIM card – and clearly had more important things on his mind than actually looking where we were going. As I was just about to suggest that we pull over while he sorted out his phone, he finally managed to put it back together.
Once we reached the bottom of the hill, scruffy buildings started to appear along the edges of the road. Although some appeared to be inhabited, many seemed to have been abandoned before they had even finished being built.
Bored looking young men hung around propping up the crumbling walls (this may have been a necessity). There hadn’t been anywhere to change money at the border post and it was the weekend (Friday and Saturday in Muslim countries) so the banks were closed.
The driver pulled up at the side of the road and asked us to change money with a rather shifty looking ’friend’ of his who suddenly appeared. We declined as we had no way of knowing what the exchange rate should be (we ended up leaving the country without ever finding this out – the hotels just phoned a money changer up on his mobile and we had to hope that we weren’t getting ripped off).
After another couple of hours of driving through unexpectedly green farmland and occasional outbursts of semi-built and semi-abandoned buildings, we arrived at the Mediterranean port city of Annaba. The driver made a point of parking and walking us up to the Hotel Saf-Saf.
We said no and started filling out the checking in form as best we could. He then asked for ten. I eventually gave him my remaining Tunisian coins (around six dinars) to get him to go away, and a big smile broke out on his face. ‘Good luck’ he said, in English, and cheerfully left us to it.We handed over the agreed sixty dinars but he wanted another forty.
I’m guessing that he took us up to the hotel reception so that he could pocket a commission but they weren’t having it. From what little French I could work out, he asked the hotel receptionist to tell us to give him another forty and they asked us if we could give him another twenty.
After dumping our bags in our surprisingly pleasant room, we wandered out into the small market in the square outside and down to the main walking street, the Cours de la Revolution. We strolled past the dozens of French-style cafes almost exclusively patronised by underemployed men who could seemingly nurse a single espresso for several hours.
We eventually decided to join them and attempted to order a regular coffee with milk. I did what I thought was a fair demonstration of a larger coffee mug and Nong Buff mimed milking a cow. The waiter nodded encouragingly and brought us some espressos.
A guy at the next table introduced himself to us. He lived in Canada but tried to come back to Annaba every year to visit his family. “I know Annaba very well” he said. “Don’t wander about here at night.” Being careful not to get too lost, we continued to explore. We had yet to see any other tourists and were attracting quite a lot of attention. Groups of idle young men would stare at us as we walked past.
Some would smile and say “bonjour.” As an extremely petite oriental lady, my wife was of particular interest. “I think they wonder what an oompa-loompa ching-chong girl doing here” said Nong Buff.
One of them plucked up the courage to ask us where we were from. He seemed willing to accept that I was English but wasn’t having it for Nong Buff.
“No you’re not” he insisted “you Japanesey.” When she replied that she was, in fact, from England, this seemed to confuse him. “No” he said again, more hesitantly, “you Japanesey”. We eventually agreed with him and headed back through the market to Hotel Saf-Saf for a meal of couscous before it got too dark.
The next morning we got a taxi to the Roman ruins of Hippo Regus. This is the city where St Augustine, the influential Christian thinker, was the Bishop just up until its fall in 430. The driver misunderstood us and actually took us to the Basillica St Augustine, a big colonial era church on the hill. It was all locked up but from there you could look down on the ruins.
We eventually arrived at the gates to Hippo Regus, were let in by the guards and greeted by the museum’s curator. I asked him if they had many British tourists. He said yes - they had had one only last week. The museum featured the usual mosaics and old pots but the ruins were really just a field with a load of old stones and the occasional pillar. Maybe you need to know more about Roman history to really appreciate it.
When we had finished at the ruins we headed over to the local bus station and were on our way to Constantine within minutes. After a couple of hours, we started to rise up from green pastures into rockier mountain territory towards the city at the cliff top. The few pictures we had seen of Constantine had failed to prepare us for just how spectacular it actually is.
The two halves of the city cling on to either side of a massive gorge and are united by a number of spectacular bridges and the newly-built cable car system. The roads wind up the mountainside through tunnels carved into rock and look down over almost sheer drops to green fields far down below.
If Constantine existed in almost any other country than Algeria, then it would be crawling with thousands of tourists. As it is, there is virtually no tourist infrastructure. There is remarkably little choice in hotels for a city of its size. Our first choice, the Hotel des Prince was full, its only real competitor had closed down and we didn’t want to pay for the single expensive business hotel.
That left us with the two cheap hotels, just off the centrally located Plaza des Martyrs. The first we tried was also full but luckily the (not so) Grand Hotel still had a room. After checking in, we went in search of the presumably shared bathrooms.
More Women Around
As we went out to explore, we noticed that there were more women around than in Annaba. All the cafes were still filled exclusively by men, but there were plenty of clothes shops for women and many of the younger ones went without headscarves.It was easy enough to find the slightly smelly squat toilets but the showers were harder to find.
There was a good reason for this – they didn’t have any. There was a sink in the room and a bidet (with no water) –we would just have to improvise as best we could.
It may just have been us, but the atmosphere seemed less edgy than Annaba and everybody seemed friendly and welcoming. We made our way up through the busy, narrow shopping streets towards the impressive Sidi M’Cid suspension bridge, overhanging the spectacular gorge. Apparently, this is a very fashionable place for young Algerians to commit suicide.
If you were going to splatter your shattered body across a pile of rocks you might as well do it in style. More bored looking young men hung around, dangling their legs over the precipe. Some of the houses closest to the edge seemed to be slowly sliding into it and had clearly been abandoned.
Other houses in equally precarious positions still had laundry hanging out the windows. As we walked on to the bridge itself we were slightly taken back to see our first and only other tourists. There were maybe ten of them, all seemed to have large expensive-looking cameras around their necks, and none looked under fifty. We had seen advertisements for organized tours like these – they were ridiculously expensive and included armed escorts.
They neither acknowledged us nor anybody else.
After taking the obligatory photos from the Sidi M’Cid Bridge we crossed over to the other side of the gorge and traipsed up to the Monument of the Dead. This seemed to be a popular area for young couples to sit together, hold hands and have a cuddle. They might even have lifted back the veils for a quick snog.
Leaving them to it, we wandered along the edge of the gorge towards the newly-built cable car. Nong Buff was approached by three schoolgirls (two with veils and one without) who seemed particularly curious and friendly. After the usual questions in broken English and a quick photo together, they joined us in queuing for the cable car.
It only cost a few pence and seemed to make sense as public transport in such a mountainous city. We joined another unveiled girl in the cable car. She looked more French than North African, had long curly blonde hair and wore tight fitting fashionable clothes. As we were pulled away and hung out over the abyss, she caught my eye.
“Do you think this is funny?” she said.
I began to worry that she might think I was laughing at them.
“No” she said, “do you think this is fun?”
Slightly relieved, I told her that Constantine had spectacular views and that the people were very friendly. This seemed to please her.
“I love England”, she continued.
“Oh” I said, surprised, “have you been there?”
“I love Princess Diana”.
“I love the Queen. She has hair like mine.”
This conversation didn’t really seem to be going anywhere but we exchanged email addresses with everybody in the cable car before departing (I have yet to receive any emails from any of our new friends but I did write down the email addresses in quite a hurry and my writing is quite bad).
The fact that young women would come and talk to us was actually quite encouraging. In some Islamic countries you only ever speak to men and many of the women remain hidden away.
Later in the evening we ventured out again to find somewhere decent to eat and something to do. This wasn’t wildly successful. There seemed to be remarkably few places to eat and even less entertainment. When the trendy young things in Constantine weren’t throwing themselves off Sidi M’Cid Bridge there seemed to be very little for them to do.
There didn’t seem to be anywhere to go apart from a few terrible fast food places. We eventually settled on one of these places – it looked no better or worse than the others – and ended up with greasy undercooked grilled chicken and some anaemic, greasy chips.
Most of our fellow diners – all men, of course – continued to stare at the old TV in the corner (showing what looked like Series 3 of Prison Break) while we unenthusiastically picked at our ‘fast food’. Other than in hotel restaurants, I have to say that most of food in Algeria was rubbish.
The next morning we had to decide how to deal with the absence of any showers in the ‘Grand’ Hotel. We improvised a reasonable solution by filling up a mineral water bottle from the tap in the room and then pouring this over each other while standing over the bidet.
I made a point of first pouring a small amount of water into the bidet to make sure that it was actually plumbed in (following an unfortunate incident with a urinal in China, I’ve become quite wary of incongruous bathroom fixtures).
As clean as we were likely to get, we backed our bags and attempted to get a taxi to the bus station. Thinking that we had done quite a good job of explaining where we wanted to go, we were surprised to end up at the cable car station.
Nong Buff then attempted to mime driving a bus and when that failed drew a picture of a bus on her hand. By now, I was thinking that it might have been a good idea to have learnt a bit of French (‘How much is it?’ ‘What’s my name?’ ‘Where am I?’ etc).
It’s all very well for Girls Aloud to just ‘let the funky music do the talkin’ but that won’t help you find the toilet. The taxi driver eventually dropped us right next to the bus to El-Oued - handing back the extra money we gave him to make up for wasting his time – and within minutes we were on our way to the Sahara.
As we left the outskirts of Constantine behind and the conductor came around to collect the fares, Nong Buff hoped that we really were on the right bus. We laughed about how dreadful it would be if we really were on the wrong bus and ended up in the middle of nowhere (or in one of those places we were strongly advised to avoid!).
When we asked for two tickets to El-Oued the bus conductor looked at us blankly. We held up two fingers and tried saying ‘El-Oued’ very slowly - I’m not sure how you would mime ‘El-Oued’ (it means ‘river bed’ in Arabic) and drawing a recognisable picture of a specific town on our hands seemed a little over ambitious.
Someone on the bus was tracked down who spoke a little English and it was explained to us that this bus was going to Biskra. By now, we had left Constantine well behind and were driving through potato fields in the middle of nowhere. Our hearts began to sink.
Three hours later we arrived at Biskra bus station and the bus driver actually drove us right around to the mini bus that left for El-Oued every day at 2.30. It was now 2.25. After a quick - and very much needed – visit to the toilets, and some stocking up on rubbish Algerian junk food, we were off again.
I quickly got out my rather slim Algeria lonely planet and looked up Biskra. It wasn’t even in the index. I then started frantically searching on the map and was relieved to see that Biskra was actually about half way to El-Oued. I just hoped we wouldn’t get stuck there as there wasn’t likely to be much in the way of tourist facilities such as hotels (let alone hotels with showers).
By now the greenery was becoming increasingly patchy and the sand, rocks and gravel were starting to take over. It wasn’t long before we were driving through shimmering salt fields that looked like giant puddles from a distance. Closer up it looked more like snow. The cow warning signs were replaced by camel warning signs. At one point, you could quite clearly see where all the greenery ended and the real desert began.
After miles and miles of flat, featureless sand we then had some more green bits again. And then it was just sand again. And then it went a bit bumpy and it looked like were going to get some real sand dunes. And then it went back to just being flat again. We got bored with looking out the window and read our books instead.
After seven hours on local buses we arrived in the Saharan oasis of El-Oued, ‘the town of a thousand domes.’ Again, the driver was exceptionally friendly and helpful and actually dropped us off right outside the door of The Grand Hotel du Souf.
Compared to the last ‘Grand Hotel’ we stayed in, this was real luxury and at a fraction of the price you would pay in Europe. It featured an impressive lobby with elaborate tiling, a decent bar and restaurant, and even its own tower.
Further in, the central court featured elegant arches, luxuriant palm trees and a large, well-maintained swimming pool. On the down side, there wasn’t any water in it.
We weren’t going to let small things like that bother us, so after a quick shower (‘excellent, they’ve got showers!’), we clambered up the tower to look down on the town of a thousand domes. The domes help the buildings to stay cooler during the brutally hot summers and are often elaborately tiled.
From the tower we had a fine view of the town’s mosques, markets and domed rooftops. I climbed up over the tower’s doorway to better see the desert beyond. Before it got too dark, we went off to explore the town, but by now everything was starting to shut down.
Each of the three cities we had visited seemed very different. El-Oued seemed far more African that either Annaba or Constantine. The people were darker, more women were fully covered and the buildings were more Arabic than European in style. Although we got stared at quite a bit, everybody seemed welcoming.
The following morning we got up quite early to explore the busy, labyrinthine market. It had a great atmosphere and was a pleasure to get lost in, but they didn’t seem to have a lot that I would actually want to buy. Still, if I’m ever in the Sahara again and need to buy a wide selection of brightly coloured plastic buckets then I’ll know where to go.
There’s also a small museum. It’s only in one room but it’s free – or at least I think it was – and gives you a bit of background information on the town. There aren’t really any great tourist attractions, as such, in El-Oued but the town has a special feel and atmosphere and is a pleasure to wander around.
Having very little time, we now needed to figure out how to get back to Tunisia. At the bus station we found a shared taxi going to the border. There was a young, trendily dressed Algerian guy waiting in the taxi. He spoke a bit of English and helped us to sort things out with the driver and change our last Algerian dinars to Tunisian dinars.
He was on his way to Libya for ‘business.’ On the back seat there was a traditionally dressed young man with a full beard and his even more traditionally dressed wife. We had been in the taxi for several minutes when something startled Nong Buff - she hadn’t realised that there was another woman in the car and had been shocked when what looked like a pile of bags on the back seat had suddenly moved.
As we got out of the taxi to let them out, the strong wind blew sand in our eyes, ears and mouths (I would be finding sand in unusual places for days to come). There were no trees or shade of any kind in the village to provide protection against the sand or the sun and I wondered how they could actually earn a living.
After more driving through featureless desert and scrubland we arrived at what was possibly the most unappealing village I have ever seen. It consisted of a few ugly bungalows surrounded by gritty sand. It was where the couple on the back seat lived.
I asked the young Algerian guy why they lived there and he just shrugged. Soon after, we arrived at the exit point for Algeria and were subjected to the usual pointless waiting around.
While in line for the customs check a guy in front asked how we were getting to the Tunisian border. Naively I had assumed it was just next to the Algerian border. I was wrong. Between the Algerian border post and the Tunisian border there is 4 km of desert and no buses or taxis. Oh dear.
He told us not to worry – he was driving and offered to give us a lift all the way to Tozeur in Tunisia (along with our new friend from the shared taxi). If not for his kindness, we could have been left waiting in the desert for a long, long time.
During our short time in Algeria, virtually everybody we met was incredibly friendly and helpful and despite the usual warnings we never seriously felt at risk. It may well be a while until their first 18-35 resort opens up but it can’t be long until more independent travellers and backpackers are making their way into this huge, friendly and diverse country.
About Tom Coote
Tom’s original plan in life was to become an international rock megastar. Unfortunately, nobody understood his art. After over ten years as a guitarist in failed heavy metal bands and dozens of shit jobs all over the world, he eventually went to University as a mature student to do a degree in Third World Studies. Read Tom's Blog
This also failed to get him anywhere at all but after another couple of years of traveling and temping, he eventually won a scholarship to take a Masters Degree in IT.
Tom is currently taking a sabbatical from his job as a computer programmer to travel around the world (again) and pursue other interests. At the moment, he is living in Krabi in Thailand, but he will soon attempt to travel overland from Thailand to Turkey along ‘The Silk Road’. If all goes according to plan he should have visited over a hundred countries by the time he returns to England in June, 2010