THE CURSE OF THE TRAVELLER

All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience.                                                                                                 – Mao Zedong.

On September 3rd, 1988, my girlfriend Linda and I set off overseas. We intended to be away for two years. As it turned out, by the time we returned home for the final time, six years had passed by. In that time we had visited 35 countries on five continents, taken thousands of photographs and written home dozens of times. We had also found time to become engaged in Vienna and get married in New Zealand. IMG_6625

These are my diaries from those years. They chronicle our journey from a couple of naive country kids from the South Island of New Zealand to hardened world travellers and adventurers. They also chart my emergence as a writer, beginning with farmer-style notes in a 1988 New Zealand Farmer’s Diary, to long, descriptive entries as our adventures unfolded out in the world.

There will be occasional gaps in the narrative: times when we were settled somewhere and I didn’t keep up with my entries. There will also be letters we wrote home, letters we received on the road, photographs, maps and other bits and pieces.

Where it is necessary, I will add relevant explanations in the form of annotations at the bottom of each entry. And although I will reproduce these diaries as they were written, occasionally, I may omit details that are too personal or sensitive. But rest assured, all swearing and offensive material will be left intact and included for your delectation!

So, if you want to travel with us…read on!

14/11/89

Somehow, in the confusion of borders and time zones out there in the desert, Tuesday November 14th, 1989, disappeared from my diary! The entry headings from the 15th onwards have been Twinked over and the dates advanced by one day. I suspect I did this later on, back in London when we were living at The Red Lion pub in Lambeth, the place where we worked for five months over the winter of 1989/90. Those adventures are yet to come. In the meantime, take a break for a day….our journey continues tomorrow!

13/11/89

DAY EIGHTY-THREE We were up before dawn to cook breakfast then packed up and drove off. The day was overcast and cold with a stiff breeze blowing.

It took about six hours to drive up to the border with our only stop being in a little town for coffee and cake to use up our last few Dinahs.¹

We got to the bleak Algerian frontier at 1:30 and sat round for 2 hours while the officials checked out our passports and currency declarations and searched the truck. One of the guards, as he was looking through our collection of books asked hopefully, “any sex?” 

About a kilometre separated the offices of Algerian Customs from the tents of Moroccan Customs. As soon as we pulled up a man asked to see the truck’s “insurance” and promptly pronounced it invalid. Scotty would have to take a bus up to the other Algerian/Moroccan frontier post at Oujda to buy some.

So, once again stuck in no-man’s-land between borders, we pitched our tents in the sand beside the road and spent a cold night. 

When scones go wrong!! Algeria/Morocco border.
When scones go wrong!! Algeria/Morocco border.

¹The Algerian currency is the Dinah.

12/11/89

DAY EIGHT-TWO After a tasty breakfast of fried spud, left over from last night’s meal of spuds, peas and frankfurters, we hit the road about 7:30. First stop was for repairs to the truck in a largish town, which took about an hour and which turned out to be no good anyway. The fault was in the oil pressure sender line which had a hole in it so when we stopped for lunch later on Mike and Scotty fixed it. 

Later on, as we neared a range of golden sand dunes, we stopped at a wayside shack that sold coffee and Limonade (lemonade). A little old lady with a face like tanned leather, dressed in bright red and green shawls, laboriously made us coffees and fussed around about how much we all owned, all the while keeping an eye on some ragged children playing beside the road outside.

Bogged in sand.

Half an hour on form the café we pulled off the road to look at some sand-dunes and got stuck!! The sand-dunes weren’t even very interesting , certainly not worth getting stuck for  for, but there we were!

It took about an hour to dig and sand-mat¹ it out and it was another experience, like getting bogged in the Congo Jungle, that no African trip would be complete without. 

Sand-matting.

We camped the night under a full moon a few miles further down the road.

¹Sand-mats are narrow steel panels, about two metres long and with round perforations in them. They are laid under the wheels of a stuck vehicle to spread its weight out over a greater area than the mall surface area of the tyres.

Hands-on Adventures. Sand-matting in the Sahara.
Hands-on Adventures. Sand-matting in the Sahara.

11/11/89

DAY EIGHTY-ONE The morning was bitterly cold as we had breakfast and packed up the truck. We bounced and jolted our way along the rough track stopping every now and then for piss-stops or to take photos. At about 9:30, with the sun up and warming us, we stopped at the top of a small rise beside the petrified remains of huge trees from a long-dead forest¹.

Petrified wood in the northern Sahara. (Photo supplied)

It was an eerie and mysterious place, there in the vast, empty desert, pieces of what had once been towering forest trees similar to those we had seen in the jungle. The grain and knots of the wood was faithfully preserved in stone that wind, sun (and passing tourists) were reducing to sand. In a few thousand years, not a trace of the forest will remain.

We moved on from the petrified trees and later in the morning we stopped at a wind-swept mill pumping cold, clear water into a tank. The windmill was set amongst the nothingness of the desert with only sun and wind to keep it company. The water was good.

Around lunch time we drove into a small town and had lunch at a café before pushing on northwards, once again on tar seal which Mike reckoned would last until London.

That night, we camped in a quarry for the first time in ages, stopping just before the sun touched the horizon. Scotty and I watched its passage out of sight: a shimmering ball which disappeared in less than a minute, leaving only the blue haze of dusk behind.

¹ For a description of how wood becomes petrified, you can read my story Forest of Stone, on my other blog, Travel Writer Life, about a petrified forest at Curio Bay on New Zealand’s South Island. Although the story is about a different place, vastly different to that forest we saw in the Sahara all those years ago, the processes which created the petrified wood are the same.

10/11/89

Linda and I got up at 5:30 AM, in the cold and windy dawn, and got breakfast going. We were away by 7:00 and drove the 120 KM to In Salah. Everyone slept or read on the way but there wasn’t much to see anyway except another area of huge sand-dunes, golden in the early morning sun.

We got to In Salah about 12:30 and went straight to the local Turkish bath-house where we scrubbed away 3 months of sweat and dirt in the wonderfully hot water.

After lunch at a local restaurant, we filled up the water tank and our water bottles then headed out of town. With the oasis of In Salah only 10 minutes behind us we got stuck in a patch of damp sand on a track which Scotty realised was the wrong one anyway. We dug the truck out, which was a minor job [compared to our all night efforts in the Congo Jungle earlier in the trip] then re-traced our steps back into town and went out again by a different route.

The truck’s engine mounts were becoming dangerously loose so we stopped at 4;30 to tighten them and made camp.

9/11/89

The whole day after we left camp consisted of driving. We stopped at about 9:00 at a wayside gas station in the middle of a bleak, windswept plain to pump the up tyres then at a little cafe 100 yards further up the road for a glass of sweet tea with a group of the local sheep looking on.

At 12:30 we arrived at the small memorial to a man who died on his way to Mecca and which tradition says you must derive around three times for good luck. A mile before the shrine, beside the road, lies the burnt-out remains of a VW Combi van that apparently exploded & caught fire after its two American occupants had drive past the monument without circling it 3 times! The shrine is set at the foot of some huge, rounded granite hills and surrounded by sand-blasted rock formations amongst which we had lunch.

The shrine you must circle three times, Sahara Desert, Algeria.
The shrine you must circle three times, Sahara Desert, Algeria.

The whole afternoon consisted of non-stop driving much of which was on the rough, dusty track right next to a brand new tar seal road which no one is allowed to drive on until it is finished which, if the rate things get done in Africa is anything to go by, will be a long time.

Mid-afternoon, we passed through a deep gorge, with sheer cliffs of layered rock rising on either side, thena few miles further on, our first glimpse of the huge, golden sand-dunes, the Grand Erg Occidental, presented itself.

The Grand Erg Occidental.

We camped the night amongst a patch of weathered granite boulders and watched a beautiful sunset beneath a cloudscape that looked exactly like the Nor’ West arch at home. The night was cold and breezy.

8/11/89

The annoying “beep” of the borrowed watch on my wrist woke me at 5:15 AM. I crept across the darkened room and looked out through the door. The sky was velvet black with the faintest trace of dawn lightening the eastern sky. I went back to the warmth of my sleeping bag and dozed until 5:50 when I got up and woke the others.

We dressed & readied our gear then went out into the cold air and walked over to the bae of the knob opposite the one with the Hermitage on it. The climb to the top only took 10 minutes and we reached the summit just in time for the beginning of the most awesome sunrise I have ever seen.

Waiting for sunrise, Hoggar Mountains, Algeria.
Waiting for sunrise, Hoggar Mountains, Algeria.

Silhouetted against a background of crimson and blue, three high peaks in a landscape of pillars and domes stood as mighty monuments to the horrific volcanic violence that formed the Hoggar Mountains millions of years ago. As we watched, the sky bled from crimson to pink then to orange until, finally, the great ball of the sun burst into view with incredible brilliance, bathing the whole visible world in warm, golden light.

As the sky lightened the far away ranges and plains took on various shades of blue and gold and then the clean, white sunlight blotted out the view with its impossible brilliance.

We stayed at the top of the peak watching that amazing spectacle for 2 hours and it is without doubt the highlight of the trip. We dropped back down to the huts for a breakfast of coffee, bread and marmalade then packed our gear into the two Toyotas.

l’Hermitage Locals

Linda and I spent a bit of time talking to the local donkeys then we headed down the mountain, stopping every now and then to take photos of the amazing landscape.

En route back we stopped at a little cafe in the middle of nowhere beside, surprise, surprise, a small river! We followed a track down to a deep and clear rock pool where we sat for a while watching a shepherd and his two dogs pass by with a herd of goats.

The cafe was run by an man who was as mad as you would expect someone who lived out there would be. We had fruit juice and some biscuits in the cool of the little stone building and Russ gave him a kangaroo stick pin which he put in his turban. Then Linda rummaged through her stuff and presented him with a postcard from London showing a Palace guard and a punk. The old boy went into raptures! We left him talking away to himself outside his little stone cafe & drove the bumpy and dusty road back to Tamanrassat.

Back at camp we packed up the truck & drove into town. I went to the Post Office &, lo, a letter for me from Joe, mysteriously filed under “F”. I posted some mail then we bought a supply of oranges, orange juice and chocolate then hit the road.

We drove the remainder of the afternoon away and camped beside the road about 100 km from Tamanrasset.