02 Feb 92 - Tamanrasset, Algeria


I am more than a hundred letters behind, so I am finally following Caroline duPont's advice and writing one of these. I am very sorry not to have been writing more, but as you might have guessed I'm in way over my head, and I would like to try to keep you up-to-date.

Africa, at last. I'm now just south of the Hoggar Mountains in Tamanrasset. There is a crashed C-130 aircraft at the airport and behind that another crashed Navajo. I am having a very interesting time trying to get a flight clearance for Niger. None of the phones, faxes, telexes or anything seems to work, and what's even better, no one really seems to care.

I have been joined by my friend Larry Norton, who met me in Morocco. Larry is a wildlife artist from Zimbabwe and will be doing the illustrations for my book. In many ways it is good to have someone who knows me along to keep and eye on me and to ask the kind of though-provoking questions that can sometimes be avoided when one is alone. The only problem is that I am now no longer just responsible for myself. The morning we departed from Ouarzazate, Morocco, the plane was carrying 880 pounds of fuel, 400 pounds of equipment, and the two of us. It is a good plane. It had been much heavier in Greenland, but then I was alone.

My French is passable; Larry's non-existent, and off we went for Algeria. It had been a little frustrating waiting for a flight clearance through Algeria, but with the Polisario and their SAM-7 missiles in Western Sahara and Libya on the other side, it was really the only way.

I finally succeeded in using my HF radio to contact Adrar in Algeria, and I found out that they did not have fuel. I found out the names of lots of places that did not have fuel, but finally discovered Ghardaia which had fuel and customs.

I have never seen so many posters, pictures, and key rings of Saddam Hussein, and the walls and rocks as you drive into town are covered with four-letter words referring to President George Bush. I had one small problem: while waiting for a flight clearance, my Algerian Visa had expired. There was also another problem: the morning we took off from Ouarzazate, the airport manager told me the military had taken control of Algiers, or maybe all of Algeria, since the President had resigned. This was confirmed by listening to our little short-wave "BBC" radio.

I think these things made me a little nervous, so I was extra polite with Gendarmes, Police and Customs in Ghardaia. Naiveté can be a wonderful thing, so when I was questioned about why I was here, I handed them my little Bush Pilot card. This raised some eyebrows. "You are a pilot for George Bush?... You are a CIA?" they said. I think these things caught me a little off-guard, but I then began a long dissertation on what a bush pilot was, complete with photographs of bush pilots in Greenland and Iceland. Larry was busy sketching a particularly ominous-looking Customs officials, with his permission, of course, and I think we were soon regarded as harmless fools.

The Visa has caused some problems. In Tamanrasset, I was told I could only stay for 48 hours, but that was two weeks ago. The key seems to be to smile and agree with everything, but that you must wait until you have clearance from the next place. Bush pilot expedition stickers also help. They are distributed liberally and end up on the walls of the police office and the Customs desk as well as various fuel trucks and taxi cabs. They seem to be the source of a certain amount of pride amongst our new friends at the airport.

Some days are better than others. Larry was doing an oil painting of the crashed C-130 last week. He was surrounded by various police complimenting him and describing the sandstorm that caused the crash 3 years ago. They waited until Larry had finished, then confiscated the painting. Apparently, it was "interdit" (forbidden). After much discussion, Larry was allowed to keep the painting, but then the head policeman said to Larry that since he had been the one responsible for allowing Larry to keep the painting, Larry should now give it to him. He settled for a bush pilot sticker instead.

Another day, we were hauled into the Customs office. A man wearing sunglasses sat behind a desk and stared at us. "Who is this bush pilot?" he said. He was more concerned if we had been changing money on the black market or selling cameras. "If you don't have the same camera as you came into Algeria with, then you can't leave," he said. "What is this book," he demanded. Larry showed him his sketch book. The Customs man leafs through it without looking, then hands it to the policeman at his side. North of here is a place where the French tested an atomic bomb in the late 50's. Left behind were fantastic formations of vitrified rock and sand. The policeman's eyes shot open, "what is this atomic bomb?" he demands. I had the feeling it was going to be a long afternoon. It was, but we still have our sketches of vitrified rock.

Tamanrasset is a strange oval-shaped town with a dried dusty riverbed running through one side. Men walk down the main street with heads wrapped in delicate white or black sheets of cloth leaving only their eyes exposed. Next to the taxis, Mercedes and Peugeots, on their way south to be sold in Niger, loom magnificent camels with ringed ropes through their noses and beautiful brass and decorative leather pointed "howdahs" on their back. We walked from Assekrem and the Catholic Hermitage to Jebel Tahat in the Hoggar Mountains and came across a train of camels with Turareg nomads on their backs returning with goat skin "girbas" full of water to their camp. Further south along the border with Niger, the Tuareg are stealing Toyota Land Cruisers at gun-point. Two days ago the border was closed, and there is now a pile up of Mercedes and Peugeots in town.

The desert is all around us. As we flew from Ghardaia to El Golea, In Sahah and Tamanrasset. The rocky hard flat became long stretching pillows of sand, wavy like the sea. Then further south, the sand began to flow like rivers between rock walls and into sand lakes with rock pinnacles in odd places. It was wonderful to see this from above. It becomes very fluid and alive at a distance. In Arak, we landed on a dry riverbed and met some geologists looking for gold. The people are friendly; it's just the officials you have to watch out for.

I wish this could be longer and more personal. Sometimes, I have so much on my mind, I can't even think. I am sorry. Thank you very much for your help. I will try to do another one of these newsletters in Niamey, and if you have any strange desire to write me, I would be so incredibly grateful. Letters can be sent care of my home address. Thank you again.

       Tom Claytor