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Monday, 22 March 2010

To Camels from Cows: Algeria Overland - Page 3

Written by Tom Coote
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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.

This conversation didn’t really seem to be going anywhere but we exchanged email addresses with everybody in the cable car before departing. 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. There seemed to be remarkably few places to eat and even less entertainment. 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 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. Our solution was filling up a mineral water bottle from the sink and then pouring this over each other while standing over the bidet. As clean as we were likely to get, we packed 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 learned a bit of French (‘How much is it?’, ‘What’s your name?’, ‘Where is the toilet?’ etc). 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 we hoped that we really were on the right bus. We laughed about how dreadful it would be if we weren’t and ended up in the middle of nowhere (or in one of those places it’s 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 - it means ‘river bed’ in Arabic. 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. I quickly got out my rather slim Algeria Lonely Planet guide 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).

Three hours later we arrived at Biskra bus station and the 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 Algerian junk food, we were off again. 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 had some more green bits again. Then further down the road, it returned to sand. 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’. Our bus driver dropped us off right at the door of our hotel, 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.

To Camels from Cows: Algeria Overland, Mediterranean port city of Annaba, Hotel Saf-Saf, travel Algeria, travel Constantine,  Sidi M’Cid suspension bridge, Constantine, Saharan oasis of El-Oued, The Grand Hotel du Souf, Roman ruins of Hippo Regus, Tom CooteAfter 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 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 started 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.

To Camels from Cows: Algeria Overland, Mediterranean port city of Annaba, Hotel Saf-Saf, travel Algeria, travel Constantine,  Sidi M’Cid suspension bridge, Constantine, Saharan oasis of El-Oued, The Grand Hotel du Souf, Roman ruins of Hippo Regus, Tom Coote

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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