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Day 72: Assekrem to Hassi-Messaoud

Michael Palin - SaharaHe also asks if we wouldn't mind taking down to Tamanrasset a Korean acolyte, who has just spent forty days and nights on his own up here. We pick him up later in the car park, an incessantly smiling, patient man, jauntily dressed in fishing hat, windcheater and jeans. It looks more like he's spent four hours in Banana Republic than forty days in solitary.

We're back in Tamanrasset by midday. Snatched rudely from the sublime to the ridiculous, we find ourselves struggling to negotiate forty-odd bags through an overcrowded airport with 'Feelings' playing over the Tannoy. Nor does the culture shock end there. We are soon aboard a 737 bound for Hassi-Messaoud. It has taken us four hours to drive the 40 miles from Assekrem; the next 700 miles of our journey will take less than ninety minutes.

As we take to the air I can't take my eyes off the panorama of peaks spread out below me like tombstones, and even when the Hoggar Mountains slip away to the south, the desert landscape remains hypnotically beautiful. A series of round black circles, the traces of spent volcanoes, cover the surface like blisters, before giving way to a wide flat tableland eroded into a series of long twisting terraces. This in turn gives way to the glorious salmon pink of the Grand Erg Oriental, part of the sand sea that swirls across the centre of Algeria in long languid curves.

As we begin our descent the unbroken stretch of virgin sand becomes increasingly tarnished. Straight black lines cross the landscape below, connecting up a series of tiny installations, making the surface of the desert look more like a printed circuit board. The lower we get the more depressing it becomes. The sand sea is riddled with roads, pipelines, clusters of low huts surrounded by smeared black pits, at the centre of which, like the totems of some ancient religion, are towers spouting flame. This is Algeria's Aladdin's Cave. Within a 300-mile radius of the rapidly approaching oasis of Hassi-Messaoud are sufficient reserves of oil and gas to make this embattled country the third richest (after Libya and Tunisia) in the Sahara.

In an already security-obsessed country the oil and gas production facilities are fortresses in themselves. No vehicles are allowed up to the airport buildings, and we have to carry all our equipment 300 yards down the road, through a narrow checkpoint and across into a car park surrounded by a 10-foot-high razor-wired steel fence. Behind the bars of the car park are more white faces than I've seen on our entire journey. They stare out from minibuses and four-wheel drives, company coaches and private saloons, their gazes neutral and incurious as they wait to be driven away. These are not the faces of people glad to be here; they're the faces of people who have to be here. They're the oil men.

We are in turn collected and driven to our accommodation in bâtiments durs, long low huts, like grey steel tents, put up by the French in the 1950s. A television is on in a small communal area just inside the door of the hut and a rugby match between Ireland and England is playing.

The crew, lured by beds and bathrooms, crash out in their rooms, and I'm the only one to witness England's defeat and Eamonn O'Brien's unconfined joy.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 72
  • Country/sea: Algeria
  • Place: Hassi-Messaoud
  • Book page no: 202

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