GRAND ERG ORIENTAL
The Grand Erg Oriental is much larger than its western counterpart, and shares its mass of rolling dunes with neighbouring Tunisia. The main draw of this region is the town of El-Oued, an oasis close to its northern edge. Its domed-roofed splendour is at the heart of the Souf region a series of oases dotted throughout a small triangular area and one of the hottest regions of the Sahara. The people of the Souf region have an ingenious way of growing dates and other fruits in the desert, digging pits deep in the sand and planting date palms and other fruit trees at the bottom from where their roots can reach the subterranean water. It is not uncommon to see just the tip of a palm tree sticking out of the top of one of these pits. Many of the women of this region sport garments similar to those you see in Ghardaïa a single robe that covers everything except for one eye. Touggourt is another oasis town, right on the western edge of the Sahara El-Oued. The road that connects the two towns passes through some magnificent sand dune country where it’s a constant struggle to prevent the dunes from swallowing the road. Further south again is the centre of Algeria’s oil industry, the source of most of Algeria’s export income. The beating heart of this area is Hassi Messaoud, although Ouargla on the edge of the erg is as close as most people need to go, unless they are heading for the Route du Tassili and Djanet.
El-Oued has been dubbed ‘the town of a thousand domes’ and it doesn’t take long to work out why: the great majority of buildings come crowned with vaults and domes, initially conceived as a way of dealing with the intense summer heat. Temperatures have been known to rise as high as 50°C here and can reach 45°C for days on end. From the correct vantage point, the view out over the shimmering curved roofs to the encroaching sands beyond can be dazzling. El-Oued is also one of the busiest towns of the region and its streets are dirty, chaotic and full of life, especially around the large market where donkey carts vie for space on the streets with cars and pedestrians.
The town is also famous for its carpets, many of which bear the brown Cross of the Souf motif on a white background and you can find these on sale all over the country.
There’s an internet café (per hr DA100 8am-1am) opposite the Hotel du Souf. There’s more internet access (per hr DA70;7am-5pm) next to the Restaurant Oasis but the connection is not as fast.
L’Hopital d’El Oued (032 218891/8041) On rue Mohammed Khemisti near the town’s main roundabout.
POST & TELEPHONE
The post office is just down the road from the Hotel de Souf and it has an ATM and phone booths.
The tourist office is in the Direction du Tourisme on av Taleb Larbi near the corner of rue Mohammed Khemisti, and has information on local sights as well as a map of El-Oued. There’s an ONAT office on the same road but it serves mostly as a booking agent for flights to other North African countries and can’t offer useful advice on El-Oued.
The daily market in the old part of the town is a colourful and animated affair. It is at its busiest on Friday. Most stalls sell food and everyday items, but a few cater to the tourist trade. In the centre of the market is the Mosque of Sidi Salem. You can climb to the top of the minaret here for a view over the town’s domed rooftops and the desert beyond, although the effect is marred somewhat by the number of satellite dishes and construction sites. Just ask for the caretaker and he’ll let you in to walk up to the top. Similar views are also to be had from the roof of the Hôtel du Souf.
The museum (8.30am-noon & 3-6pm, closed Thu& Fri)
opposite the tourist offices consists of just one room. However, it has some good displays, including old aerial photos of the area, a collection of the various insects and animals of the region, and some good roses de sable and other geological curiosities.
There are also a couple of traditional rugs, and a pair of special wool-and-camel-hair soles which are used to walk on the burning hot sand. The whole thing is a bit dusty and moth-eaten but is worth a quick look.
The range of accommodation is not great in El-Oued, and while there’s a fair amount in the midrange section, there is little for the budget traveller. What little budget accommodation there is tends to be below par.
Hôtel des Dunes (032 246795; av Taleb Larbi; s/d DA250/500)
The most central lodgings in El- Oued are housed in a traditional domed building on av Taleb Larbi. It has basic rooms with bars on the windows and the facilities only include toilets, so you’ll have to go to the public showers behind.
Hotel Central (av Taleb Larbi; s & d DA600)
Next door to the Hôtel des Dunes this is also a seriously budget place. It has very basic doubles with balcony, sink and fan and like the Hôtel des Dunes, there are toilets but no bathrooms so you’ll have to use one of the many public showers in the vicinity.
Hôtel Si Moussa (032 272838; rue Mohammed Khemisti; d DA800)
It’s on rue Mohammed Khemisti near the fancy roundabout, complete with pavilion, at the intersection with the Touggourt road. It is a 15-minute walk from the town centre but is a little closer than some other hotels to the bus station for early-morning departures, and there are also shuttles from town. Hôtel Si Moussa has clean and basic rooms with shower, and it’s also possible to sleep on the roof here.
Hôtel Louss (032 210079/99; fax 218755; s/d DA1500/2000)
‘Nothing special’ is the best way to describe this hotel. The rooms, service and international restaurant are acceptable.
Grand Hôtel du Souf (032 247320; s/d/ste from DA1500/2000/4700)
This is the nicest place to stay in El-Oued. The entrance is impressive full of arched hallways and domed ceilings covered in green-and-white mosaic. The rooms are pretty nondescript but there are some swish suites that come with padded faux leather doors, huge bathrooms and domed ceilings done out in the prerequisite mosaic. The hotel comes complete with its own tower; and the views from the top match those from the town’s minaret. At time of writing a traditional tented area for taking tea and traditional meals was being constructed.
Ritane Palace (032 201539/201885; Daira d’El- Oued; s/d DA2553/2957)
Ten kilometres from the city centre, it’s only worth staying here if you want to be near the airport. It’s a large hotel that wants to be the ritziest in the area (and certainly charges as if it were) and it does try hard it has very attentive staff and plusher-than-average rooms, and the communal areas are embellished with bold displays of art yet, because of its isolation, it lacks customers.
Food is expensive in El-Oued and there isn’t a great deal to choose from. For something other than the usual couscous or chicken and chips you’ll have to try one of the hotel restaurants, all of which have more varied menus with European as well as Algerian specialities and rather more upmarket surrounding.
Restaurant Oasis (rue El-Amara Bachir; 11am-9pm)
This is a good choice although it has pretty bland surroundings it has a good selection of grills and stews.
Restaurant Handa (rue El-Amara Bachir; 10am-9pm)
Some 100m further west on the same road as Restaurant Oasis, Handa is very similar.
Getting There & Away
The Air Algérie (032 248686; 8am-noon &1-2.30pm Fri-Wed, 8am-noon Thu) office is on rue El-Amara Bachir in the centre of town. The airport is at Guemar, 19km to the north, and can be reached by local bus. There are three flights a week to Algiers (DA4800, one hour 20 minutes).
The main bus station is about 1.5km north of the town centre a 20-minute walk; or there are local minibuses which take you to or from the centre of town.
There are departures to Algiers (DA950, 10 hours), Annaba (DA520, six hours), Constantine (DA470, five hours), Ghardaïa
(DA520, six hours) and Ouargla (DA300, three hours).
Yellow long-distance taxis leave when full from opposite the main bus station to Toug- gourt (DA400, 1½ hours), Ouargla (DA600, three hours) and towns in the Souf area.
Local bus and taxi services for the town and surrounding villages leave from next to the museum. Short journeys cost DA15.
A totally unremarkable oasis town, Touggourt is perhaps most famous as the starting point of the first motorised crossing of the Sahara. The Citroën half-track vehicles of the Haardt and Audouin-Dubreuil expedition set off from here in 1922 for Timbuktu via Tamanrasset. The event is marked by a simple pillar in the town square. The town was also once a key stop on the trans-Saharan trading route, and the seat of a dynasty of kings called the Ouled Djellab.
Today the town is a regional administrative centre. There are a couple of banks, a post office and an Air Algérie office. If you have a day to spare you could do worse than spend it here, but don’t lose any sleep if you miss it. Shared taxis also travel to the Tunisian border (DA400, 1½ hours) when full. There’s a 4km walk between the two border posts but some people find a car to take them.
From the main square, the road to the right curves past the cinema to the marketplace, taxi and bus station. The road straight ahead leads past the old hotel on the left to the Hôtel Oasis and Temacine.
There’s a Banque Nationale d’Algérie and a Banque d’Agriculture et du Développement Rural in the town centre. There’s an internet café in the town centre opposite the Banque d’Agriculture et du Développement Rural building.
There’s a large palmeraie outside town and a couple of old, vaguely interesting mud-brick villages to the south.
Market day is Friday; in winter especially, the town is full of itinerant merchants who have come for the market. The marketplace is just off the road to El-Oued, near the taxi station.
Hôtel Essaada (029 674545; s/d/tr/q DA300/500/600/800)
This place overlooks the market and has very basic rooms and shared facilities. There’s a hammam (bathhouse) underneath that’s open from 7am to 9pm.
Hôtel de la Paix (s/d/t/q DA700/900/1400/1800)
Between the market and the main street is this is a simple little place with average rooms and shared bathrooms. It’s rather dark and noisy though and we got a frosty reception. The only advantage is its central location.
Hôtel Oasis (029 681050/5050; fax 029 682645; s/d DA1500/1950)
Located about 500m south of the town centre this is without a doubt the best place to stay in town. It has good rooms, the usual mosaic hallways and a palm-surrounded pool. In the lobby is a useful (although rather old) sketch map of Touggourt as well as some information on stuff to do in the vicinity
There are many restaurants between the taxi station and the market as well as around the main square.
Getting There & Away
There’s a bus station right on the western edge of town, on the route to Biskra, and one in the centre of town next to the large main market place. Both have buses to long-distance destinations.
Daily bus services include Algiers (DA950, 10 hours), Biskra (DA350, three hours), Constantine (DA480, five hours), El-Oued (DA200, two hours) and Hassi Messaoud (DA300, three hours).
The shared-taxi station is next to the mar- ketplace just off the main El-Oued road, five minutes’ walk from the town centre.
There are departures for Biskra (DA500, three hours), El-Oued (DA300, 1½ hours) and Ouargla (DA650, four hours), but very little happens after about 1pm.
The train station is close to the centre of town but is currently only served by goods trains.
Local buses for Tamelhat and Temacine leave from a stop just outside the main bus station, next to the market.
On the edge of the palmeraie about 10km from Touggourt is Temacine. At its centre are the remains of a traditional mud-brick village built around a ksar at the top of a small hill. Rains destroyed the village in the early 1990s, and its inhabitants had to move to the new housing which now surrounds the village. Even though the houses are no longer intact, it’s still nice to wander round and the ruins exude a romantic air. The mosque and minaret partly survived and have now been rebuilt.
If you can find the caretaker, it’s possible to climb up to the top of the minaret for a view over the ruined village, the nearby salt lake and the palmeraie. Next to Temacine is the ‘sea’, a small salt lake, which holds little interest itself, but has some good ruins – those of Boha Mar, a thousand-year-old vil- lage, and the mausoleum which stands next to it. Coming from Touggourt, take the Ouar- gla road past the Hôtel Oasis. After about 10km you’ll find Temacine on your right.
A couple of kilometres further on is Tamelhat, which was also destroyed by the rains in the early 1990s. There are large open spaces where buildings have collapsed completely and now the town is made up mostly of new buildings. In the centre of the town is the mosque and mausoleum of Sidi el-Hadj Ali; the cupola above the mausoleum is decorated with coloured tiles and stucco. There are local buses from the main bus station in the centre of Touggourt and these will drop you directly in the centre of Temacine or Tamelhat.
The town of Ouargla has slightly more to offer than Touggourt. It has a better range of accommodation, an interesting museum and a nice old town. It’s not worth making a special trip here, but if you’re passing through it’s not a bad place to spend a day. The town’s origins lie in the 10th century at Sedrata, about 15km south of Ouargla’s present-day location. Sedrata was once a capital for the Ibadis before the city was razed in 1072 and they were forced to flee further south to the M’Zab Valley
The town’s main street is rue 1 Novembre where you’ll find the main banks, restaurants and hotels. Another good reference point is quatre chemins, the crossroads at rue 1 Novembre and the rte de Rouissat, which many locals will use when giving directions.
There are several banks and an Air Algérie (029 761195) office along rue de 1 Novem- bre and there’s a post office opposite the casbah. To use the internet try the youth hostel on rue 1 Novembre.
Sights & Activities
A few hundred metres south of quatre chemins you’ll find the old casbah. There’s nothing of particular significance here but it’s nice to wander the narrow, sandy streets with their pretty beige and rose-coloured buildings. There’s also a mosque and circular central market place selling fruit and vegetables as well as deliciously fragrant baskets of fresh herbs. In between the quatre chemins and the casbah is the Musée du Sahara (9am-noon& 2-4pm Sun-Wed), which has interesting information on the geology and plant and animal life of the Sahara and has some prehistoric artefacts and stuffed animals on display.
Youth hostel (029 713301; rue 1 Novembre; dm DA100)
Located on the Ghardaïa road about 300m from quatre chemins, this is a good clean hostel, one of the nicest in the south, and has a cafeteria, internet café and clean bathrooms.
Hotel El-Boustane ( 029 713591; rte de Rouissat; s/d/apt from DA900/1200/2600)
About 700m past the Hotel El-Anssar also on the right, this place is a multicoloured explosion; the lobby, with its swirly patterned sofas, clashing carpets and giant fish tank, leads to an orange-floored hallway off which there are smallish rooms with thick maroon carpeting and faux-wood-panelled walls.
Hotel le Tassili (029 763004; fax 761361; Quartier Résidentiel d’IFRI; s/d DA2450/3300)
Look for the blue neon signs opposite the Mosque de Ifri just east of the town centre. This is an old hotel dating from the colonial era. It has good rooms with fridges and big mirrors and there’s a large, fully equipped suite in a grass hut at the bottom of the garden. There are some nice areas to hang out too – there’s a lively terrace where the locals come for a cold drink in the evening; a romantic fabric swathed, tented area for drinking mint tea, and a cosy lobby with cave-painting repro- ductions on the walls and a nook with comfy sofas and a big fireplace for chilly winter nights. The car park has a hole-in-the-wall bottle shop and alcohol is served in the bar.
Grand Hotel Touristique el-Anssar (029 763745; s/d DA1500/2600; rte de Rouissat)
Rooms here are large with balconies but feel rather dark; thankfully they are enlivened by such delights as giant glossy waterfall posters and plastic flowers. There’s a restaurant, salon de thé (tea room) and parking. It’s about
200m north of quatre chemins on the right hand side.
On rue 1 Novembre between quatre chemins and the SNTV bus station. This is a sparklingly clean place and the swishest digs in Ouargla. The large rooms have high ceilings, plenty of light and seriously comfortable beds. Suites are equipped with computers which will soon be connected to high-speed internet. There’s a massive roof terrace with views over town where parties are held in good weather, and there’s even a resident pastry chef to knock up goodies for breakfast.
You’ll find plenty of basic restaurants serving chicken and chips along the rue 1 Novembre. Other than those your best bet is the hotels. The excellent Hotel Lynatel restaurant (noon-2.30pm & 7-11pm) serves top- quality North African and European food and scrummy desserts. There’s a salon de thé at the Hotel El-Anssar, where you can get a nice variety of herbal teas, good coffee and fresh pastries; and the Hotel le Tassili restaurant specialises in French cuisine.
Getting There & Away
The bus station is at the eastern end of town on the Ghardaïa road, about 1.5km from the town centre, and is where the private bus companies are based. There are buses to Algiers (DA920, 12 hours), Constantine (DA620), Illizi (DA950), the Libyan border (DA1450, 14 hours) and Oran (DA1000, 14 hours).
The SNTV (state-run) buses operate out of an office across the street from the main bus station. Destinations include Ghardaïa (DA200, two hours), Algiers (DA800, 12 hours), Oran (DA915, 14 hours) and In Amenas (DA1300, 12 hours).
Long-distance taxis wait 400m east of the bus station on the Ghardaïa road. They go to Ghardaïa (DA500, two hours), El-Oued (DA600, three hours) and other places.
There are five taxi services a week to Al- giers (DA5500, one hour 20 minutes), two to Oran (DA6600, two to five hours), and weekly services to In Amenas (DA5500, 1½ hours), Adrar (DA6500, two hours), Djanet (DA8600, 1½ hours), Illizi (DA6000, one hour) and Tamanrasset (DA9200, four hours).
The airport is on the Touggourt road about 8km out of town on the right.
Situated 85km southeast of Ouargla, this is solely a service town for surrounding oil operations there are about 800 oil wells within a 25km radius of the town. There is absolutely nothing of interest, but you will find yourself coming through on the way south on the Route du Tassili N’Ajjer. Driving in the region at night, you’re sure to notice a strange orange glow in the night sky these are the 00burn-off flames from the oil refineries which can be seen from many kilometres away.
The only decent accommodation in town in 3km from the center at the northern end of town, and its expensive at 2000DA for a single.
Getting there and away
There are regular buses between here and ouargla, and a daily service to In Amenas, although you will need luck to get a seat on it as it comes from ouargla and is likely to be full.
There are 10 flights a week to Algiers DA 6000 one hour as well as direct international flights to paris and London.