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Proposed route
What we planned ...and what we did

We did a dry run to Marrakech and across the Atlas to Ouarzazate at the same time last year and felt quite pleased with ourselves to have survived Africa.  However, a cursory glance at the map will reveal that it is a very long way from Marrakech to Timbuktu!

We then spent half this year working out the best way to go.  Sadly, most of the trans-Sahara routes are impassable due to border disputes, so we took Hobson's choice and are heading down the Atlantic coast through Morocco, Western Sahara, and Mauritania, then East to the Mali border and fumbling our way across to Timbuktu.  From there to Douentza and the Bandiagara escarpment, the unmissable mud mosque at Djenne, then Bamako and back up to Mauritania and the same route home again.  However, this being Africa, we may well change our plans en route depending on how long it takes, how often we break down, get lost, robbed, hospitalised.... the event we followed our planned route without significant difficulty or mishap and almost exactly to schedule.  The whole trip took 35 days, but we frequently regretted having to keep driving to meet deadlines rather than taking a more relaxed approach.  If we repeat the trip, we may opt to leave the car there and fly back so we have enough time; about 2-3 months would have been ideal, perhaps?

Nema-Nampala.jpg (51306 bytes)We would also take the ferry to Spain as the last (and first) 1000km or so through France is really tiresome and it is also probably no more expensive by the time you include motorway tolls, fuel and en route expenses.

For more detail, see the itinerary page.

What we planned ...and what we did

Difficult one this!  Although priding myself on being able to find my way through just about any major European conurbation, we were severely challenged in Marrakech where the almost total absence of signs made navigation something of a hit and miss affair.  So we are aiming to use GPS and some clever software from Touratech who have scanned some old French and Russian military maps onto CD.  Still not convinced if total dependence on laptop and satellite navigation based on 20 year old colonial maps is such a good idea.  Failing which we have a ridiculously small scale (Michelin 741) 1:4,000,000 and my old orienteering compass!

Lere-Sambani (11).jpg (32806 bytes)

...well we got all the way to Nema (the end of the asphalt on the route d'espoir) without resorting to any of the large scale maps, getting lost only in Bilbao and Guelmim.  We had a crisis of confidence from there to Oualata as we had naively assumed that the large scale maps were more or less accurate.  At least Oualata was in the right place, but the piste had migrated up to 10km Westwards in places.  We discovered that it is virtually impossible to use the Touratech software in on-line mode when moving and indeed singularly failed to get the GPS unit to talk to the laptop.  Quelle surprise!

We made it back to the road at Nema and were all for finding a proper road into Mali (yes we did think there might be one) until we met a couple of French guys at the fuel station.  They had recently done the route we intended direct from Nema to Tombouctou via Léré, and we asked which route they had taken.  He pulled out Michelin 741, much faded and ripped, marked with highlighter pen and showed us.  He said just use your GPS as a compass, mark waypoints often (so you can go back if you do get lost) and you will get there...eventually.  And that is more or less what worked best, using the 741 with occasional reference to some of the large scale printouts for reassurance.

If you write down the co-ordinates of each days destination and watch your GPS you can get a pretty good idea if your piste is going in the right direction, its just a bit disconcerting when the piste spreads in all directions and you wonder what would happen if you were to break down.

Vehicle selection
What we planned ...and what we did

Infinite scenarios depending on budget, whether we really need 4WD or just limit the areas we visit, sell the car there and fly back, etc., etc.  In the end we decided on the safe option of a well-built, serious off-road vehicle with air conditioning (her indoors just wouldn't go without it!!).  Despite the fact that I loathe the smell of diesel and that we will have to have at least a couple of spare jerry cans of the stuff in the car, the unavailability of lead-free petrol made it Hobson's choice again.  

Everyone would have us believe that spare parts are most readily available for Land Rovers and Land Cruisers, and as the prospect of driving a Defender more than 3,000 miles on tarmac before we even started on the hard stuff left me reeling, that narrowed the choice to just one vehicle.  Unfortunately, with our budget that means a 1991 Toyota.  I suppose I had better learn how to change a wheel!

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Excellent choice it turned out.  Whenever we asked about road conditions ahead, people would suck their teeth, tell us the horrors and then add..."but that will be no problem for your Land Cruiser".

1991 is comparatively new for Land Cruisers in that part of the world, with good reason...they live for ever.  The carrying capacity was excellent and allowed us to take everything inside, so less risk of theft or things falling off.  Also better stability and less wind resistance without roof rack.

It gave the impression of complete indestructibility (and bull bars do have their uses, particularly when faced with a flock of sheep at high speed) and it also feels as if you can go anywhere.  Generally effortless progress through soft sand, only used low ratio twice on whole trip.

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Limited range when driving fast in Europe, but range remained at up to 400 miles even on grotty pistes.  Two jerry cans gave us sense of security and were used twice for convenience.  Glad we chose diesel as even leaded petrol is not widely available.

What we planned...and did

We were led to believe we would need sand ladders, high lift jack, 300 spare wheels and assorted axles, gearboxes and lubricants.  Due to budgetary constraints I decided to take a pair of pliers, a coil of fencing wire (New Zealanders swear by it), a set of spare bulbs (to appease the French police), a roll of gaffer tape and an assortment of high lift jack and sand ladders.  However, even this was total overkill in the spare parts department and, although the wire came in handy to stop the rear stabiliser bar falling off entirely, the only essential spare part was a 15A fuse for the starter motor!

Got the local garage to check for leaks and perished rubber components before we left and fitted a new set of tyres, but it may just be that driving cautiously over the rough stuff avoided anything serious.  With hindsight, the best safety net would have been a second vehicle just in case we were to break down in the middle of nowhere.

We decided to take plenty of food and water; enough food to have a choice of meals every day and water for the duration of the non-European bit.  We returned with 80 of the 160 litres of Tesco mineral water and enough tinned curry to last weeks.  Local food was generally good and cheap and safe water available everywhere.  Only problem was booze, but we did not want to risk taking any into (or through) Mauritania as neither of us relished having the car confiscated and having to walk home ... or worse.

The tent was completely unnecessary and was the last thing we needed at the end of a long day.  The temperature was fine for sleeping outside (or in the car) and no problem with bugs.

Camping gas stove was a pain in even a slight breeze, so was used only for coffee in the end, with tinned tuna featuring heavily on the menu for lunch or when no local food available.

Perhaps most important apart from documentation (you must take oodles of photocopies of "fiche" unless you want to spend all day filling in forms at police checkpoints) is a selection of appropriate gifts...for children, guides, helpful people and the police.  We are not talking serious bribery and corruption here, it is just nice to be able to give something of value to the recipient and which really does not cost much.  Our most popular items were biros for police (0.5€ for pack of 10!), cast off clothing and an old towel.  


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© Jeremy Harrison 2005-2020