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Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Algeria


Day 1 – 28/9/12
After a very smooth Mediterranean crossing we arrived in Oran either on time at 07:00 or 1 hour later at 08:00. We were thoroughly confused by the time zone and much to Avril’s chagrin, got up an hour early. Turns out it is the same as UK summer time.
Algerian immigration was completed very quickly at the vehicle on the docks. One of the Immigration officials took us into his care and got everything done poste haste. Customs took a bit longer. We may well have been the 1st Australian registered vehicle to enter Algeria/Oran in a long time. Also, they normally deal with the French style “Carte Griese” (?). We have a Carnet de Passage and this took some time to work through the various officials. The good news is that everyone was trying to be helpful and they were all friendly: apologising for the delay as they got the paperwork in order. All in all the whole process was less than 2 hours, so well below our longest wait.

Given all the security and other warnings about Algeria, we decided to be very cautious and organised a guide to accompany us all the way. Our guide, Safia was in the customs hall ensuring that there were no problems. We then checked into the Sheraton hotel (points!) and set out on a city tour. The views from the mountain overlooking the city were spectacular. We saw the main civil and religious buildings and passed by the WWII Operation Torch landing areas. We had delicious paella for lunch – the chef said it was due to the fresh fish. This area had been occupied by Spain for some time a few hundred years ago and they have kept the paella tradition alive.

In the departure hall at Alicante, Ray had been chatting to an Algerian chap, who then assisted us in filling in the paperwork and chatting to immigration in Oran etc. Kadia was a resistance fighter during the fight for independence and proudly showed us a newspaper article written about him. He invited us to his home for tea and we were delighted to go there in the afternoon. His daughter had prepared some lovely sweets to go with tea. Interestingly his son- in-law is the instructor for the pilot instructors in the Algerian airforce. But his passion is to somehow organise a team of pilots and planes to fight major bush fires around the globe.

Sheraton Hotel: N 490 52’ 55.2’’ E 0040 46’ 32.1’’

Day 2 – 29/9/12
After a casual start to the day we headed to Tipasa. We elected to take the coastal route and it was a great decision. We had a very good drive along some amazing coastal scenery. The road hugs the coast and we were fortunate with the weather and had a brilliant, deep azure/turquoise Mediterranean Sea on our left all the way. The mountains come to the sea in the latter part of the drive and the road is very reminiscent of the Great Ocean Road (without the 12 Apostles) but much longer.
There were many security checks along the way, but we were only stopped twice. And, the officer apologised for delaying us – very courteous.
Saturday seemed to be wedding day. We passed or were intermingled with a number of weddings along the way. The public part of the event consisted of a convoy of cars, the lead car elaborately decorated. Follow-on cars make as much noise as possible and delay any through traffic!
Did we mention, diesel is ~ A$ 0.15/l. Dinner was some lovely, fresh, BBQ fish.

Ray driving; 354 km; 9 hrs; Hotel Torquoise (€ 50 and was pleasant and clean). N 360 35’ 33.2’’ E 0020 27’ 01.8’’. Today marked our last day of the trip in the west. From now on we should be east of Greenwich.

Day 3 – 30/9/12
In the morning we had a look at the Tipasa Roman ruins. They are well sited on the coast. There is still a lot of excavation to be carried out. Entrance was only $ 0.40, so it is hard to see how they can maintain the site. We drove along the coast, visiting the tomb of Juba II & Cleopatra (daughter of Mark Anthony &  Cleopatra I) on the way to Algiers.
We booked into the Sheraton (points again) and went into central Algiers and looked at the Kasbah.  In the past this was partially destroyed by the French and what is left has not yet been renovated. A couple of palaces/riads have been restored and they are quite stunning.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the catholic Basilica which has recently been renovated.

Avril driving; 62 km; 2 hrs; N 360 45’ 45.2’’ E 0020 52’ 30.7’’

Day 4 – 1/10/12
Our guide got stuck in the terrible traffic, so we go a latish start. Algiers seems to have a reasonable freeway system, but now, it seems that the volume of traffic in peak times is way too much. We stopped off for breakfast at a fuel station and the kind folks changed the TV station to English. Again, very courteous.
We headed out of Algiers on a newish, well designed and built 6- lane freeway. This took us through a fertile valley that appeared to be a fold in the Altas Mountains, to Bouria. We then headed south over the mountain foothills, through a wheat-growing area and into an arid region. Our objective for the day was Bou Saada. Along the way we made a detour to visit Beni Hamaad, the site of the capital of a 10th century dynasty capital city. Unfortunately all that remains today is some columns and the minaret of the mosque (apparently the Moors and Marrakech based their minarets on this one).
Overnight was at Hotel Kerdada (€ 41)

Ray driving; 433 km; 8 hrs; N 350 12’ 39.8’’ E 0040 11’ 01.8’’

Day 5 – 2/10/12
In the morning we were greeted by a number of policemen.  As events transpired, we travelled in convoy (just for us) and had a police escort all day. It was well organised and when we exited a district, the new district police were waiting for us.
In the morning, we had a quick tour of Bou Saada including the Ferrero mills (unfortunately there is very little remaining) and the museum of the French artist Nasreddine Dinet (he was based in this town). We left town with sirens wailing and the road cleared for us.
On the way to Ghardaia we visited the Zaouia El Hamel. Apparently over 70% of Algeria’s clerics are trained at this mosque/college. They can get students to memorise the Koran in less than 9 months!
We also visited the Zaccar Neolithic (?) rock art site.

We arrived in Ghardaia late in the day and in need of a bit of rest. We stayed at a traditional house, the “Hotel” Enteg (€ 30)

Avril driving; 447 km; 12.5 hrs; N 320 27’ 39.8’’ E 0030 41’ 11.0’’

Day 6 – 3/10/12
We spent the day in the M’Zat valley. The community there is based on 5 walled/fortified towns. We visited the oldest, El Ateuf. The towns are built on hills, with the mosque at the highest point and the rest of the complex cascading downhill from there. The effect is rather like a mini Kasbah/Medina, with houses built together in a complex set of streets. In order to preserve privacy, one door in not allowed to be opposite another door. To all accounts they have preserved their traditional social structure with the elders making decisions etc. In addition, through a system of giving, the poor are looked after by the community. 

The folks here are renowned for being very conservative. The women wear white; a flowing under dress and a long head scarf/veil that extend to ~ their knees. They close the front of the head dress. Married women only show one eye through a small triangle in the scarf. The unmarried women can show all their face.
The blokes wear pants like the Thai fishermen pants, but with pleats.
In the afternoon we visited the irrigation/water distribution system which is based on a system of tunnels. One’s water allocation is based on the number of date trees in one’s garden.

Day 7 – 4/10/12
Again we had a police escort the whole way. And, again, the changes between police areas were basically seamless. We spent the day driving to El Oued via Ouargla and Touggourt. The drive is through typically Saharan landscape. Initially we drove through a windswept stony plain. South of El Oued the landscape changed to an erg, but without big dunes. There are a couple of impressive dune sets outside El Oued. Unfortunately a local business has decided to commercialise the area and “beautify” the dunes by adding statues of gazelles on the dune tops. But really, the scenery was not spectacular; rather we got a small idea of the vast, immenseness of the Sahara.
We attempted to have a picnic with our police escort outside Ouargla, near a palm grove. Unfortunately the flies were in plague proportions. Apparently this is due to the dates being ready to harvest. We have noticed since we left the north that the flies have been very bad. Anyway, the picnic was not all that pleasant and we will think of this when complaining about Australian flies in the future.
At El Oud we visited the Zouaia Tidjania. Algeria has started to collect and catalogue its old Koranic books and they are stored here. The dome of the mosque is UNESCO listed, more for its double skin construction than the painting . We spent some time in the mosque listening to some very restful chanting of Koran verses. The school has an academic bent and is trying to ensure a moderate version of Islam is propagated and that non-Muslims understand the non-violent and non-discriminatory nature of Islam.

The temperature, even as the northern hemisphere goes into autumn was hot. It peaked in the high 30s. The fridge in the cab comes in particularly useful at time such as these.

Our hotel, Hotel Souf (€ 40) was interesting. It was built in the socialist style and you could recognise the same design as in Vietnam. More interesting though, were the young ladies in very revealing modern dress. MMmmm.

Ray driving; 477 km; 4 hrs; N 330 21’ 36.9’’ E 0060 51’ 44.4’’

Day 8 – 5/10/12
We started the day visiting one of the palmeries in El Oued. With our police escort we get to run all the red lights and take priority through roundabouts and road blocks! We then drove to Batna. Initially the road is in the desert and at Mendi, along the way, there are salt lakes. The salt is mined and apparently the lakes get and retain sufficient water in winter to act as a stop on the bird migration route from Europe.
We stopped off at a petrol station for a convenience break and Ray went to the cafeteria to get a baguette. The folks there would not accept money for the bread, quite generous.
With the consent of our escort we drove through the middle of the Massif de L’Aures, instead of taking the main road. The route is green on the Michelin map and worth the acclamation. The scenery was superb, with a broad valley cut in the middle by a deep gorge. This was most spectacular at Rhoufi. The gorge has sheer sides here, the bottom is covered with palms and half way up the cliff face there are deserted houses.

We arrived early at Batna. Our guide was quite sick so after we checked into the Hotel Hazem (€ 71, including dinner) we went for a walk around the local area. Icecream for Avril and some fruit.

Avril driving; 383 km; 7 hrs; N 350 33’ 22.9’’ E 0060 10’ 44.0’’

Day 9 – 6/10/12
A Roman day. Again our police escort was on time and at 08:00 we set off for the Timgad ruins. On the outskirts of Batna you pass by the ruins of Lambaesis, the Roman military camp. Timgad is an extensive site. It has all the typical characteristics of a Roman town, however not many of the great structures have survived. Ray found the “sweet spot” in the theatre (not hard as it was marked) and we found the “advertising” on the market stalls interesting (the 1st time we have seen this?).
Next we drove to the Royal Mausoleum of the (a) Numidian: Medracen. This massive structure, a cylinder surmounted by a cone, was the model for Cleopatra & Juba’s tomb near Tipassa.
Our final stop for the day were the impressive Roman ruins at Djemila. Though smaller than Timgad, a lot more of the site is intact and includes a long road colonnade, temple, baths, victory gate etc.
The museum on the site has an incredible collection of mosaics. Our resident mosaic critic/connoisseur (Avril), thinks they may be better than those in the Bardot Museum in Tunisia, the benchmark up to this point. But she will double check when we visit Tunis in a few days! We were again surprised at the very low level of the entry fee, $ 0.40, to get into the sites.

The scenery along the way made the drive very interesting. We travelled along/through large hills, with some long vistas from the high points. This area has been known for its wheat since Roman times and the farmers were out busily preparing for their winter crops.

We finally drove to the very busy town of Setif. The original hotel that had been booked did not have secure parking, so our guide decided to change to one that did. With our police escort, it was a simple matter to get there! Hotel Hidhab (€ 55. The most expensive hotel so far and a little worse for wear and a bit dirty). We walked into town for a nice dinner at a kebab café.

Ray driving; 285 km; 4 hrs; N 360 11’ 37.1’’ E 0050 24’ 31.8’’

Day 10 – 7/10/12
Museums. We began the day with a walk to the Setif Museum. The main attraction is the mosaic of the legend of Bacchus. Suffice to say, our resident mosaic critic/connoisseur says this is the best she has seen. It is truly extraordinary, with very small pieces and the different colours and shades making it more like a painting. There was an interesting collection of Roman artefacts. The resident manager showed us around and a couple of students, keen to practice their English, assisted.
We then took the freeway to Constantine, the 3rd largest city in Algeria. The river Rhumel makes a very deep gash through the hills here and in the past the city has made use of this in its defence. The deep chasm means the city relies on bridges and we saw most of them; from the remains of the Roman bridge (built on older constructions) to the modern French- built. We visited the spectacular Emir Abelkader Mosque, opened in 1992 and then the local museum, which again had an enviable collection of Roman artefacts.

Our local police escort did well to guide us through the complex local streets and Avril did a marvellous job not hitting anything in the ancient, narrow streets. To thank the police, we had a bite of lunch with them.
We then drove to  Annaba, on the sea. The El Mouna Hotel (€ 40)

Avril driving; 286 km; 9 hrs; N 360 55’ 10.4’’ E 0070 45’ 49.3’’

Day 11 – 8/10/12
A restful day. We visited the local museum, with the now familiar mosaics and collection of Roman remains and the adjacent ruins of Hippo Regis. The “highlight” here is St Augustine’s Basilica. St Augustine was a local lad who learnt his philosophy and theology here before becoming a preacher and proceeding to higher things in Rome. We went for a drive through the hills surrounding Annaba, with great views of the cost and surrounding area.
We then had a lazy afternoon.

Day 12 – 9/10/12
We set off at 08:00 with our police escort for the Tunisian border. Again, the drive along the north highway was very pleasant, with hills and some fantastic seascapes.
We reached the border after 2 hours and crossed into Tunisia with a minimum of fuss.

Algeria Summary
We found the Algerians to be unfailingly courteous, considerate and generous. Quite often people would shout a greeting as we drove through towns etc. There also seems to be a good smattering of English spoken throughout the country. The police would always try to chat and folks in the street, shops etc would have a quick natter.
After pleasantries are exchanged and we have a bit of a chat, talk would often turns to the West’s view of Islam. Overwhelmingly there is a sense of frustration (definitely not anger) at what they perceive is the West’s (unfortunately, read USA)  inability to understand what they believe is the true nature of Islam.

As mentioned, we decided to take a local guide. This seems to be essential  i.e. independent overland travel (with your own vehicle) would be difficult without a guide. Our route needed to be communicated with the police and where deemed appropriate, by the police, an escort was arranged.
Currently there are no campgrounds in Algeria so we were “forced” to stay in hotels. If we had have asked or planned in advance, it may have been possible to camp in the grounds of one or two of the hotels. Given the police escort and the reported security situation, bush camping does not seem to be an option in the areas we travelled to. All this meant that Algeria is an expensive place for Overlanders.
At no point did we feel threatened or was there a security or safety issue. This could have been due to the police escort, but we did not feel any issues when walking around cities at night.
A big thanks to the Algerian police. Travelling in convoy could have been tedious and painful. However, the police were super helpful and flexible, adjusting their arrangements to suit any change in our plans. We never had to wait for them to arrive at a change-over point etc. 
The roads generally are in good condition, however there is a large volume of traffic which can make going slow. Also, Algeria must take 1st prize for the number of traffic bumps.

The big negative, as with the rest of Africa, is the rubbish left everywhere.
We hope to return and visit the desert areas in the south of Algeria. These are still considered too risky for independent overlander travel

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