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Family camping & homeschooling adventure in Africa.  Sahara Desert crossing with children in Jeep & tent trailer.  Travel in Morocco, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Ghana, & west coast. Exploring, safari, backcountry, backroads, overlanders.
The Blickley Family's
African Camping 
We are in the process of updating our African story and photos
(Page two)
Ghardaia is the largest town  between Algiers, Algeria and Niger. We had been thinking that no one could live in such a barren area except the nomads when we crested a hill and saw Ghardaia in its  green glory, along a river flood plain.  The photo below does not do justice to true colors.  A  real oasis in the desert comprising a town about the size of Sparta, Michigan.
     South of this mini-metropolis in the Sahara the road became even more desolate without a trace of life except for a few goats, cattle and their herders searching out the rare clumps of dried grass.   A sign before the village of El Golea states, "All those traveling south must register with the police before proceeding. This is for your personal safety, Failure to do so will be punished to the fullest extent of the law."  Although from a distance the area was brilliant green compared to the rest of the countryside, he streets of El Golea were dry and dusty and few people moved about in the heat. We checked with the police  who informed us that the sign was out of date and no registration was necessary at that point.   In El Golea we expected to stock up on food supplies for the more difficult-to-travel portion of the Sahars Desert.  What we found however, was a very limited supply of food that we could expect to travel with us and not spoil, even with our small gas powered refrigerator that we had in the camper. 
    We reached InSalah from ElGolea on a one lane asphalt road. There is very little traffic but it is necessary to drive with two wheels off the road when you encounter any on-coming vehicles. Bill's grand father told him that roads in Michigan were once only one lane and used just like this.     
    The sand blows much like a light snow in Michigan, in wispy patterns and swirls across and along the edge of the road.  InSalah is a small desert town situated forty miles north of the end of the blacktop. 
Normally travelers buy gasoline for the next five hundred miles here and visit one of the two local ovens for a last bit of fresh bread.  We spent almost all of our money for gasoline here.  There was no bank available after Ghardaia until Tamanrasset, but since we had a sufficient food supply for this part of the trip, we felt
equipped to register with the police and proceed.

    When we came to the end of the narrow, paved portion of the trail, we could see that many vehicles had become stuck where the trail became light soil/sand/gravel.  The advice given to us was that we should stop and walk to investigate the trail's surface whenever we encountered a questionable driving surface ahead. After walking the trail ahead of us we felt that we could proceed, but after going about 200 yards we found ourselves stuck and shoveling the first of about sixteen times during the next fourteen hundred miles of desert.

    The first twenty miles off the asphalt were very bad.  The Algerian government was extending the blacktop and along their work area there was no replacement trail to travel on.  Each traveler  had to find their own way along the edge of the road construction "cross country".  Keeping track of the main trail blocked off in preparation for paving became an art of navigation.   We only got stuck once in this stretch and after thirty minutes of shoveling and then with some help from the friendly Algerian road crew we were on our way again.

    The trail across the Sahara has severe corrugations as large as US speed bumps placed in a continuous sequence one after the other. The land surrounding the trail is barren from InSalah to Tamanrasset, and covered with rock out-croppings.  There are stretches where the surface of the land where we drove was powder  that was about 12" deep covering rocks.  This powder was stirred up into clouds that surrounded the vehicle and entered the Jeep and trailer through every opening and crack as we drove through it.  In places there were shale rocks that was turned on edge like thousands of knives threatening to shred our tires.  As we traveled through the mountain passes and in the big boulder fields it was necessary to use the main trail going up, over, and down each corrugation while knowing that each stress lowers the chance of completing the journey with a vehicle intact. Lightly loaded Land Rovers and Volkswagen vans generally speed along  riding the tops of the bumps.  Shock absorbers can rarely stand the strain.   Other problems are obvious given the many car bodies abandoned along the trail.  In some volcanic rock and sand areas,  parallel trails are available and using these we sometimes attained the speed of 15 mph. In the first three days we averaged 12-15 mph. using the parallel tracks as much as possible and also by making our own trails cross country.
    Camping next to a large pile of boulders one evening, we  noticed that the left brake line on the trailer had broken off and the seal on the front axle of the jeep was leaking.  We made repairs but also noticed that one trailer axle/spindle was bent slightly.  The next morning, traveling over a rather smooth surface,  we heard a loud thud and LaVerne saw a trailer wheel roll past us. She wondered aloud "whose wheel is that?"  We were 250 miles south of InSalah and 200 miles north of Tamanrasset, the closest inhabited places!   We saw that the wheel and brake drum had completely broken off the axle and the trailer frame was resting on the ground.  There seemed to be nothing that could be done to repair the problem where we were located. We saw sand, rocks, and nothing that could be of use to repair the disabled rig. The situation looked very grim and we thought that perhaps our equipment would join the other abandoned hulks. 
    After looking the problem over we thought that the axle shaft/spindle could never complete the journey into Sub-Saharan Africa without special help.
     Our only possible hope was to either securely weld the axel/wheel spindle or install another axle and suspension system under the trailer. The problem now was that we were in the "middle of nowhere" Sahara desert and without electricity, a welder, or any of the necessary parts.  Looking around, still all we saw were rocks and sand.  We needed a miracle badly!!  Our water supply would not last long and we were days from a well.  We prayed to God for His guidance and recalled the promise in scripture " In all your ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct your paths". Within the next ten minutes an Algerian Government Land Rover approached and stopped.  We had not been able to speak to anyone speaking a language that we could understand for several days.  When the driver got out of his vehicle, he spoke French which  we could understand and asked if we needed help.  We showed the man the problem and told him that we needed electricity and a welder. 
   Electricity and a welder in the middle of the Sahara Desert!!??  What an answer to the question about what we needed, but that is what we told him.  If an angel had come to us, that is also what we would have said.  The man's response was that he would provide what we needed if we would do something that was very difficult and unusual !  He told us that we had to take this trailer with only one wheel 16 kilometers ( about 12 miles) back North to a specific "mileage" post.  He told us that near this "mileage" post there was a surveying team's camp site where we could find help and repair our trailer with a welder that he would bring to us.  We had passed the spot that he was sending us to earlier and did not see any such encampment across the whole horizon..  Believing that God was guiding out efforts, and remembering a story in the bible (2 Kings 5: 1-14) requiring unusual instructions to get a blessing, we wrote the instructions on a small piece of paper and told him that we would do our best to get to where he told us to go.
      The next ten hours were a very difficult experience!  We had to drag a fully loaded ( aprox. 2000 pound) American tent camper over a sandy, gravely, rocky trail with only one usable wheel.  Under the broken side without a wheel, we placed a piece of metal 12" wide and 6' long under the axle, as a skid,  where the wheel should have been.  Desert travelers carry these pieces of metal ( called "sand tracks") to be used to put in front of their vehicle's wheels to help get out of deep sand after they get stuck.        
     Now, on top of the metal plate we placed a piece of carpet ( that was "left"  to us by Gypsies in the Paris,  France camp ground which they had surreptitiously  exchanged  for our water coupler ) and then a rock to lift up the axle off the ground, tying the whole thing together with a piece of rope.  During the next ten hours the metal plate kept wearing through making it shorter and shorter, and the axle kept falling off the rock and carpet, both problems requiring us to jack up the trailer and reposition the broken axle onto the skid.
    At around midnight we were met on the trail by two large desert freight trucks heading south towards us, following the trail that we were on.    The drivers of these trucks stopped, got out and yelled at us in anger!  They told us that by driving on the trail at night we could have been hit by their trucks and killed.  We told them our story and were told that they drive this trail every week and that there was no surveyors encampment  where we were headed.  After they left, since we had only about a mile to go, we continued on our way believing that the instructions we were given were valid.  
Our instructions were to turn left at the 300 kilometer marker post and go west 500 yards.
    Reaching the "mileage" post we saw no evidence of any encampment.  Since the soil was loose, and would have left evidence of any vehicle, human or animal traffic Bill took out a flashlight and walked along the trail looking for any exit tracks.  No evidence of traffic could be found, therefore Bill started walking up into the surrounding hills looking for any evidence of life.  Because we had heard of people being lost in the desert, Bill kept the lights of the jeep always visible.  Walking through the terrain within sight of the Jeep Bill finally saw around a little hill down in a small hidden valley several camp fires with people and tents nearby.    Upon his approach, the people around the fires were surprised to see an American, and find out about his struggling family.  They quickly invited us to come into their encampment. 
When we finally  pulled into camp, and set up our tent camper, we literally collapsed asleep after eating a bowl of rice. That would be a new pattern as we  were down to rice, potatoes and macaroni. before long.
The hilly terrain in the photo above is the surveyors encampment that we found in the middle of the night where we were invited to set up camp.  
     After a couple of days camped among the friendly Algerian workers in this desert place, the man who had promised to bring a welder came to help us.  The encampment had a generator that was set up to run a lighting system and things that required electricity, but was not set up for a welder!  The crew had a man that was an experienced welder, and as soon as the equipment was set up he welded our axle/spindle back together.  While the workman was fixing the axle we observed that the other side of the axel was also starting to bend, probably preparing to break too and the sand shield for the wheel bearing was inoperable..  Now we had a more complicated problem.  Our axle was not capable of carrying our trailer through the desert!  When we purchased this trailer, we picked it up where it was assembled and requested a heavier axle than was normally installed on these trailers but was told by the engineers at the factory that these axels were the "latest-and-greatest".  Well....now broken down in the desert, we had only two options: we could hire a truck to carry the trailer north back to the blacktop and a mechanic to install a heavier axel. or we could find an axle somewhere there in the desert. 
    Since the original axle was not going to help us cross the rest of the desert, the next plan was to find another axle.  Early one morning Bill took all the money we had and sat by the trail waiting for anyone to come along who would allow him to  ride 200 miles South to Tamanrasset a small town  that might have an axle for sale that would fit under the camper trailer. The first vehicle that came along was a VW mini-bus with a couple from California who consented to have Bill ride with them to Tamanrasset.  This area in the desert was one where the trail was so rough that most vehicles traveled off the trail on a surface that was somewhat smoother.  That night the VW mini-bus stopped next to the trail to spend the night.  , Without enough room in the mini-bus for all to sleep, Bill dug a trench in the soil next to the vehicle to get away from the cold wind and covered himself with a small tarp hoping to get warm.  During the night Bill heard a freight truck coming towards them! Bill hugged the ground in the trench hoping to evade the trucks wheels if it happened to travel near the VW , and over the spot where he was trying to sleep.  The truck went by very near the VW but didn't actually drive over the spot where he was half-buried in the sand.
 There were no axles in Tamanrasset for sale so Bill purchased tools that he thought would help him remove an axle from under a junk Jeep Wagoneer, among other junked vehicles, that he had noticed stuck back in the mountains before the breakdown. 
While Bill was gone, an old Islamic man checked on the well-being of LaVerne and the boys twice a day to see if they needed anything.  Each time the man would leave them he said to LaVerne,  Ain ch'Allah.  (God's blessing to you)  and she reploed.
While in Tamanresset, waiting for someone to hitch-a-ride with back to the encampment where LaVerne and the boys were with the Jeep and trailer, Bill waited outside a building for a trucker who was said to be headed North that day.  It was still dark at about 4 am when Bill arrived outside where the trucker was staying, because he didn't want to miss a possible ride.  As he waited, finally the sun began to shed a little light on the upper parts of the building and he could hear the sounds of roosters crowing and what sounded like people praying.  These human sounds were like the familiar sounds that Bill had grown up with in church prayer meetings. It was the sounds of people seeking God's blessings on their lives as they started their day. It was a comfort and an inspirational way to continue his search for parts. 
    A couple days and about 50 miles before the break down, we came through a small group of huts in the mountains that had several junk cars near them that had been abandoned by other travelers crossing the Sahara.  One morning, after returning from Tamanrasset with money and tools,  Bill and Adam headed North with the jeep, leaving behind Eric and Laverne, to see if they could purchase the axlel from the owner of the Jeep Wagoneer.  They took all the clothes that were not essential to them and could be traded for an axle, and $300 local currency that Bill had gotten from the bank in Tamanrasset. 
    When they were in the mountains, before getting to where the Wagoneer was,  They were met by a Jeep Wagoneer followed by a tour bus!  Yes, amazingly a tour bus from Austria was taking a group of tourists to Kenya East Africa.  These tourists thought that it would be a European type first-lass tour, but they found that it was dusty, dirty, uncomfortable, and inconvenient!  These tourists never before had to squat behind a bush or a slight hill to relieve themselves, they thought that they would have a five -star bathroom along the route. . 
    We explained to the tour leader, who was leading the bus in the Wagoneer, what had happened to us. We were allowed to measure the axle on their vehicle to see if a Wagoneer axle would fit under our trailer.  It turns out that the width of the Wagoneer axle was the same as the outside width of our trailer frame, so it would possibly work for us!  Before we left the leader of this tour group, we managed to purchase his extra jeep wheel and mounted tire.  Now, with our extra Jeep wheels and tires we would have wheels for new axle if we could purchase the one we were headed for.
    It was about noon when we arrived in the little mountain collection of huts and junked cars.  Bill had already discussed with Adam how we would bargain for the vehicle that we wanted the axle from.  We would seek to purchase the whole vehicle as scrap and not let it be known that we desperately needed the axel, thinking that the price would not then go up higher than we were prepared to pay that way.   The owners of the scrap vehicles had a small business of selling food and drink so we stopped and purchased something for lunch and acted as if we were not in any hurry.  While eating our light lunch with them we exchanged pleasantries speaking in French and shared with them that we purchased junk vehicles.  Finally we said that we had to go on our way but before we left asked if they would be interested in selling any of the junk vehicles that they had laying around. We were asked how many we were interested in and we responded that maybe we would be interested in buying all that he had if the price was right.  We told him that we just wondered what he needed to get for what he had.  He asked how we would be able to transport them and we told him that we had a truck up North.  We didn't say Northern Michigan!   
    When we started towards the Wagoneer as the first one to discuss, he asked how much we would offer. Bill said that he needed to tell us how much he had to have, and when he replied "$200" we laughed and asked if that price included all the junk vehicles.  When the seller also laughed, we knew that we could make a deal.  We ended up paying $100 and wrote out a sales agreement in both French and English to formalize the deal, with the understanding that the seller would keep our purchase secure until we could return to pick it up later.  We also made a deal with a local man, standing nearby, to watch our purchase if we gave him one of the side windows to be used in his "house".  We told the seller that we would take some of the most important parts with us then.
   After the formalities of the transaction, we hooked a chain from our Jeep onto the Wagoneer, and rolled it onto its top so we could more easily remove the axle, leaf springs and any other hardware that we might need to install the axle onto our trailer.  We also were able to remove some critical engine parts what would also fit on our Jeep.  Using the hack saw, hammer and chisel that we had with us, we completed the disassembly job as quickly as we could,  saying that we needed to take these parts so as not to looe them to some thief.   When we were done we headed South, leaving a seller that must have had some questions about us heading South instead of North, where we had been heading.  Several months later, when we were in Nigeria, we gave the written agreement to someone headed on our same route back across the desert with a Jeep like ours so they could get any parts that they needed from the wreck and then give the paper back to the seller saying he could sell it again.
    Once we got back to the surveyors encampment with the "new" axle we found that even though the axle would fit on the trailer, when the tires and rims were installed onto the axle ,it didn't fit.  When the rims and tires were installed, the rims protruded over the brake drums and made the whole axle unit narrower that the trailers frame.  Now what!?    Back in Michigan we had experience in the sand dunes near Lake Michigan, where we saw VW buggies set up for sand with wheel rims that were altered to make them wider by removing the center of the rim and re-installing it onto the outside edge of the rim.  If we could do that in this remote place, the Wagoneer axel would work.   Since Bill had experience welding snow plowing equipment in Michigan he started carefully pounding out the rim center welds and rivets with a cold chisel and hammer, and re-welding them back onto the outside edge of the rims.  This was a very hard task since the encampments electrical system would trip its overload breaker after about five seconds of welding.

    While we were working on our own breakdown we saw that other travelers had left their damaged Toyota Landcruiser in the encampment because too much weight had been loaded on the top of the vehicle and on uneven terrain it had rolled over.

    After  installing a Jeep axle on the trailer we headed south again.  When we got to Tamanrasset we arranged with a local mechanic and welder to take our old, repaired axel in trade for the opportunity of using his equipment and welding rod to do some finalizing work on our newly installed axle.  The desert installation was holding so far but needed a lot of reinforcement if it was to hold together traveling the rest of the way across the desert.  While completing the work on our trailer, we again met the bus tour leader with his but but without the tour members.  The tour members had abandoned the tour and made arrangements to fly from the small military airport in the town back to Europe.  The trip was much too difficult for them. Now the tour was left with an empty bus with supplies meant to support the dozen or so people on the tour.  When the tour's leader asked us if we were interested in purchasing the food he had for the same price he had paid for it in an Austrian supermarket we were more than delighted!   We were able to purchase food as if we were in our own supermarket at home.  It was wonderful!  We spent a week in Tamanrasset recovering from exhaustion, sleeping in a  hut equipped with beds and other services provided for its guests.  We thoroughly enjoyed the camel meat and local vegetables in a local restaurant with a table on the sidewalk.
     When we resumed our trek south, we were in the company of two Italian couples who drove a Land Rover and a Toyota Land Cruiser. We slowly made our way to Guezzam, the Algerian frontier, and followed a very bad trail to Assamaka, the border post of Niger. The road from here to the French Uranium mining town of Arlit was really exciting.  This is the route that we were told weeks earlier by the person, coming North from the desert, working on a Jeep similar to ours that this route would be our undoing
.  There is no trail to the village of Arlit, just tracks spread out across the desert.  The way is marked by barrels every kilometer.  Using field glasses, each successive barrel was spotted and careful choice of ground brought us through. You can believe that we did not move out of sight of one barrel before we had sighted the next one on the horizon! From Arlit we traveled to Agadez.  In this picturesque town we met a peace corps worker from Boston who was helping dig wells in Niger. It also was in Agadez that we learned from a British traveler how to cut through a leaf spring to make it fit on our refitted trailer to strengthen it.  He assured us that we could make it shorter to fit by cutting it with a hand hacksaw.  He told us, "you have the need and you have the time" , take your time and you can cut through.  Amazingly, he was right.  Now we had a trailer with leaf springs that could carry its load securely.

While in the southern part of the Sahara, in Niger, we stayed for a couple days next to a rather fancy restaurant, with courtyards, and all the looks of a good country club.  When I asked to refill our five gallon water tanks I was directed to the kitchen where we found that all the cooking for the restaurant was being done over an open fire on the floor.  We filled our water tanks from a faucet that came out of the wall.  Here we were surprised to have young men come to our camper selling what our Dutch grand parents call Oleballen; fried  rounded sweet  dough that we dipped into sugar.
    In the area between villages, where the land was dry and desolate, people earned a living by cutting and bundling bushes and small trees for sale to truck drivers passing on their way to a local village of distant city. 

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