The mysterious Tour de Merkala

merkala-1I’ve always been curious about the Tour de Merkala, identified on the Michelin 741 Sahara map (and left) on the Algeria-Morocco border south of Foum el Hassan.
tourdraaWas it some ancient caravanserai or watchtower, like the one right, alongside the Oued Draa north of Zagora, which guided caravans in along the 52-days road from Timbuktu? Or perhaps just a French observation post from the colonial era?
No surprise that this time I searched, it was Yves Rhomer’s a little dishevelled but still encyclopaedic Sahara pages where the answer lay, and there’s more here. In the 1930s the French were still busy subduing tribal resistance in the southern mountains of Morocco in the region between Tata and Assa, and while there decided Tindouf far to the south needed occupation too. But between southern Morocco and Tindouf lay the Jebel Ouarkaziz which still serves at a natural border today between the two countries.
berlietvudbA column consisting of Berliet VUDB light armoured cars (right – note the big roll of chicken wire to use for sand boggings) set out from Akka and wound their way through the foums or gaps in the ranges until they came to the impenetrable cliff below Jebel Merkala. Here they spent a few days enlarging an abandoned camel trail into a ramp to carry their armoured cars, over two kilometres and 220m up the escarpment to the Hammada du Draa plateau on top. Once here the way to Tindouf was clear and a fort was established at Merkala.
Even if there was a tower (unnecessary on top of a pass, you’d think), why they didn’t call it Fort or Bordj Merkala? Or Fort Commanding-officer’s-name, as was the custom at the time? Many former French forts in Algeria – Fort Lapperine, Polignac or Flatters – became villages and even cities (Tamanrasset, IIlizi, Bordj Omar Driss). I’ve yet merkalabingto find an old picture of the actual fort at Merkala and there’s nothing much to see on Google. But as is sometimes the case, Bing has better resolution and shows faint traces of skewed-rectangular fort-like foundations at the top of the pass (right), as well more modern ramparts pushed up nearby. Click the Flatters link above to see what a fort from this era may have looked like.
newmanmapVery soon this route was extended and improved to become part of the primary imperial N1 highway from Morocco into the AOF French colonies to the south, running from Agadir via Foum el Hassan over Merkala to Tindouf, then down via Bir Mogrein, Atar and eventually Dakar.
the-forgotten-pathThe Atlantic Route we know today wasn’t an option for the French back then as the Spanish colony of Rio de Oro. – today’s Western Sahara – was in the way (left).
It was the N1 inland highway which David Newman took in his Ford Zephyr in the late Fifties, vividly described in The Forgotten Path, a somewhat unhinged account of his drive to Nigeria. He’d tried to go via Foum el Hassan and the Merkala tower, but to his fury was turned back as the area was harbouring the FLN who were battling the French in Algeria at the time.
The Tour de Merkala became a battleground again a few years later during the so-called 1963 War of the Sands between newly independent Morocco and Algeria. No fixed border line across the barren desert had been thought necessary between the two nations until valuable minerals were discovered (you’ll see no border defined on the late 1940s Michelin 153 at the top of the page). For some reason Algeria attempted to annexe the village of Iche near Figiug, as well as a creek called Tindoub and the nearby well of Hassi Beida, some 35km south of Mhamid. The Moroccans responded by trouncing the Algerians, so  establishing an enmity that fed into the Polisario war a decade or so later and which remains entrenched today with closed borders. You can still see the Hassi Beida bump in the border today.
hbgGetting back to Merkala’s prominence on maps. Perhaps it’s just an anomaly not unlike Hassi bel Guebbour in Algeria. Looks like an important place on the map – once you get there it’s nothing but a checkpoint at an albeit strategic crossroads with a couple of chip-omlette cafes (right).

 

The Last Roadbook – Lisbon-Dakar 2007

Dakarlogojpgdak0Some time ago someone kindly gave me the official ASO roadbook from the 2007 Lisbon-Dakar Rally, the last one to be held in the Sahara. Following the murder of a French family in Mauritania just before the Rally (actually thought to be criminals not terrorists) additional threats saw the 2008 event cancelled at the last-minute. The following year the Rally moved to South America where it continues to thrive with less controversy.
dak86marlborodakarteamThe longest stage in 2007 was across the top of the Western Sahara from Tan on the Atlantic Tan to the mauritanian mining town of Zouerat – 817km via Smara with a tea break at Bir Mogrein. The shortest was still 500km through the light jungles of western Mali and Senegal where I  limped into Senegal some thirty years earlier on two flat tyres (right). I passed plenty of Dakar racers that year too and eventually ended up in Dakar myself (above left), but not on any sort of podium.
Below some snapshots from the Last Roadbook from what many still feel was the last real Dakar.

dakwins

 

The Algerian Berm

bermbermdakinbermIt’s well know that in the 80s the Moroccans pushed up a huge, 2000-km fortified and mined sand wall or berm (left and right) between their part of the Western Sahara and the remains of  the Polisario-controlled lands to the east. It stretches from the Atlantic border with Mauritania northeast towards Smara, on the way cheekily chopping off the desolate corner of Mauritania (not shown on all maps). After Smara it then runs up towards Zag until it reaches the natural barrier of the Jebel Ouarkaziz ridge – the southernmost outlier of the Atlas mountains – right around here and just 22 miles from southern Morocco’s N12 highwaymw1g
The periodic foums and oums (natural water-eroded breaks) in the range sometimes become locations for strategic forts or installations, like the abandoned one at KM227 on Route MW1 in Morocco (left) from the Polisario war.

It seems the Algerians have got the same idea and have been building an intermittent berm of their own along exposed sections of their border with Morocco where foums in the Ouarkaziz or later, Jebel Bani, would have allowed easy motorised passage.

berm-farClick on this point in Algeria some 40km southeast of Mhamid in Morocco, and you can follow the zig-zagging berm northeast for some 40km via a small erg, until it stops near a ridge where berm-ouednyberm-fortrough terrain resumes the job. Branch berms break off to make enclosures or to complicate scouting along the main berm for a gap, and every once in a while there’s some sort of installation, fort (left) or look-out hill pushed up berm-duneby the bulldozer. They even incorporated little gaps for the oueds to flow though (above right) and which are quite possibly mined. Any passages through the small erg are also blocked with a berm (right).
berm-railWay further east towards Figuig, a gap in the jebel there demarking the Moroccan border where the old Oran–Colomb-Bechar rail line used to run has been bermed too (left). lecmonustamp
Nearby, just to the south in Algeria is a monument to General Leclerc whose plane crashed near here in 1947 – it’s pictured on the commemorative stamp, right. Among other heroic wartime deeds, he’s famed for leading an armoured column lechadup though Chad to help the LRDG attack the Axis forces based in Murzuk, Libya. There are many more monuments to the WW2 liberator of Paris in North Africa and France.
It’s not fully clear what the Algerian berm is for – stopping n’er do wells from creeping south past similar Moroccan installations out into Algeria? You imagine any illicit traffic is northbound (as this article suggests) so perhaps it’s some EU or US funded initiative to limit the traffic of smuggled migrants, arms and drugs up from Algeria to Morocco. You imagine a berm is fairly easy to make once you order a conscript with a D6 to get on with it. There’s been bad blood with Morocco for as long as the two countries have existed. Despite Morocco’s wishes the border with Algeria has been closed to all for over 20 years.

Cabinet of Saharan Curiosities

mepCome see my collection of Saharan curios at the Adventure Travel Film Festival next weekend at Mill Hill, north London.
curiosOver the years I’ve picked up numerous artefacts on the desert floor – from the tiniest, finely chipped arrowheads in the Bilma Erg to grinding stones on the Admer Plain, Palaeolithic hand axes in the Gilf Kebir, bizarre hematoidal concretions inarchers the Libyan Desert, salt cake from the lost salines of Seguedine, fulgarites from the Tenere and the Great Sand Sea, and stone-age tools spanning eons of homo sapien activity from the Mauritania’s Adrar plateau to the Akakus and Jebel Uweinat beyond.
Lots of other great stuff to see at the ATFF too.

curio

‘V’ is for Vintage Sahara Maps

 

 

Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
A look at some old Sahara Maps to see what obscure places or routes were once conspicuous, as well as which ancient places survive today.

Medieval-saharaThe earliest old map I have looks like it’s from the medieval era, but was probably based on Herodotus’ Histories which was getting on for 2000 years old by this time. It was he that brought terms like ‘Libya’ (North Africa) and ‘Aethiopia’ (sub-Saharan Africa) into common usage.
On this map ‘Mauritania’ is today’s Morocco, while the chariot-riding Garamanteans are correctly located around present day Germa in the Libyan Fezzan. It’s probably coincidental, but the ‘Barditi Montef’ (mountains) could be the Tibesti around Bardai – actually only 700km southeast of TimMissaoChariotancient Garama. (Left: rock art depicting chariots at Tim Missao well, 1200km southwest of Germa on the way to Mali. The Garamanteans are said to have got around.)
This map may have been the best that Moorish wanderer, Leo Africanus’ (BBC doc) had to go on Jonathan-Swiftfor his 16th-century travels across the region, venturing as far as Timbuktu, Cairo and possibly even Mecca. Along with Ibn Battuta’s travels a couple of centuries earlier, it was Africanus’ Description of Africa (1550) which expanded knowledge of the Sahara. But despite the efforts of Africanus, even by 1700 or so, satirists like Jonathan Swift (right) were said to have quipped:
                       So Geographers in Afric maps 
                       With Savage Pictures fill their Gaps


medievalmonsFast forward a few centuries and there be no dragons or other medieval monsters (right) on this map of Africa dating from an atlas produced in 1803. It’s credited to William Kneass who later became Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. Instead, the advent of scientific enlightenment had brought us longitude, latitude and the ‘Equinoctial Line’.

Sahara-map-1803

The mariners of the era had succeeded in very accurately mapping the outline of the African continent, but the interior, including the ‘Zahara or Desert of Barbary‘, remained blanks. South of the Sahara the most notable inland incursions were made by the early European colonies around Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau, Angola, the Cape and Mozambique. In the north Egypt and the Nile are better mapped all the way into the Biblical lands of Abyssinia.
The Moroccan imperial cities are present: ‘New Salle’ being Rabat, with Marrakech labelled as ‘Morocco’. Never linked those two words before, but presumably they’re both based on ‘Moor’ so it makes sense.
52JSouth of the Atlas ‘Tatta’ appears to be close to Tata, with the Oued Draa known as the ‘Nun’. The 16th-century Portuguese trading post of ‘Mogodoro’ is Essaouira, and Tarfaya at Cape Bojador was then called ‘Tungarzall’. To the east you’d have thought that Sijilmassa near Erfoud might have got a mention. It was the northern terminus on the ’52 day’ caravan route from Timbuktu (left).
Further south in Western Sahara and Mauritania, ‘St Cyprian’s Bay’ became Golfe de Cintra after a Portuguese mariner and slaver got killed nearby at Arguin (also labelled). Inland from here, only ancient ‘Tisheet‘ gets a mention, on the old Dhar Tichit caravan route. I remember going to a talk in Nouakchott about the medieval glass trading links between Tichit tichitaand Venice. Tichit didn’t look like much when we were there in 1990 (right; it’s all in D. Travels), but it’s a historic settlement on a par Caillie_1830_Timbuktwith Timbuktu (left; as seen by Caillé in 1830), Oualata, Chinguetti and Ouadane. The latter may be the ‘El Waden’, misplaced way north of Timbuktu and not far from ‘Ensala’ which could be even more distant In Salah in Algeria.
At this point it was still a couple of years before the American sailor, Robert Adams briefly ended up a slave in Timbuktu. Among other things, his account helped kick off the race to reach this fabled Saharan ‘Shangri La’ and with that, the great age of European Saharan exploration as listed rather Francocentrically on the 1898 map below.
Eastwards on this 1803 map, many places in Algeria are recognisable: ‘Tuggurt’, ‘Guargala’, and over the border in present day Libya: ‘Godemashe’, ‘Mourzouk’ and ‘Ganat’. ‘Zeghen’ was less easy to pinpoint, visited by James Richardson while on the road from Tunis to Ghat and back up to Tripoli in 1845-6. At the time Richardson estimated Zeghen’s population at ‘200 men, GateotHarem-duNouy300 women, and 700 children and slaves‘. Our man Duveyrier (see below) locates it for us a short distance northwest of Sebha in the Wadi Ash-Shati, on the way to ‘Sockna‘. Here Richardson spent some time as a guest of the Turkish Caid and his comely concubines.
bilma2006Berdoa’ is the old name for Kufra in southeast Libya, and south of there, on the page’s fold, is the enduring salt oasis of ‘Belma’ (left) at the base of Niger’s ‘Kawar’ escarpment. The hyper-arid and largely uninhabited Libyan Desert around Jebel Uweinat wasn’t to be explored until the 20th century.


Fast forward a hundred and one years and the Saharan blanks begin to fill up. Below is the ‘Northern Africa’ plate extracted from a Bartholomew’s Handy Reference Atlas of the World dated 1904 (source) and which differs very little from my 1888 version.

Sahara-map-1904

citroen1922The interior is still sparse, but the proposed trans-Saharan railway gets a mention. Running across the flat plain of the Tanezrouft, in 1922 it was the actual route taken by the first cars – Citroen Kegresse autochenilles (half tracks; left) – to cross the Sahara north to south and back.
In the west ‘Shingit’ is a bit out of line with Atar and Wadan, but in the ball park. To the south is the ghost town of Ksar el Barka and ‘Portendik’ must be early Nouakchott, though you wonder what became of ‘Mufga’ near grubby Choum of today.
Ancient Taghaza (as visited by Battuta) never gets a mention on any of these maps, but it’s replacement, the newer salt mine at ‘Towdeni’ was a key point on the ’52 days’ caravan route to Sijilmassa.
In northern Mali, ‘Essuk‘ whch hosted millennial music festivals in those few good years and long predates today’s Kidal, and in Algeria the Amadror salt mines get one of their last calls. Wau crater in Libya gets a name check too, there’s brackish water there, but due to the mosquitoes it was never a settlement.
Meanwhile, up in the Mediterranean, Crete is oddly identified by its ancient name of Candia, perhaps intended as a poke at the despicable Ottomans?


North Sahara 1898Left we have Dufrenoy’s intriguing and detailed map from 1898, centred on the southern limits of French-controlled Algeria. The red lines identify the itineraries of that busy century’s wave of Sahara explorers, from Laing’s fatal excursion to Timbuktu in 1826, right up to Laperrine, who in 1898 set out to quell the southern Tuareg with his Méhariste Camel Corps and died in a plane crash southwest of Tam in 1920. Note too the zig-zaging return of Flatters’ disastrous second mission of 1881, (as described in Desert Travels) when the handful of harried survivors sought to out-run the Tuareg who’d trailed and picked them off one by one.


Henri Duvyerier Map 1864Back-tracking a bit, the 1881 Flatters Mission – partly intent on reconnoitring a railway route between the Maghreb and France’s territories in West Africa – wouldn’t have got half as far as it did without Henri Duveyrier’s amazingly detailed map of 1864. It was based on his journeys there a few years earlier, described in Les Touaregs du Nord.
Tamanrasset was merely a oued; Silet, In Amguel and tinhinIdeles on the other side of the Hoggar were established settlements. The tomb of Tin Hinan (right) even gets a mention, though it’s a bit misplaced from actual Abalessa.
Further out on the Tanezrouft the strategic well of Tim Missao (the chariots, above) and the waterholeinziza at In Ziza (right) are labelled, but in Libya the Murzuk sand sea is just an ‘unnamed hammada’ separating the Tuareg from Tubu. There’s plenty more mouth-watering detail if this area means anything to you, and Duveyrier’s inset helpfully lays the ancient geographical names alongside their modern counterparts.


Sahara-map-1933

How time flies. It’s now 1933 and France’s African colony encompasses half the Sahara and most of West Africa. Tamanrasset and Djanet, which even then must have been the biggest towns in southern Algeria, are still missed out, but then this isn’t a French map. In Mauritania Tidjikja makes an appearance, so does Iferouane in the Aïr and Tindouf up in Algeria. ‘Marakesh’ looks like it’s still ‘aka Morocco’ where the Spanish cling on to protectorates in western Sahara (Rio de Oro), Sidi Ifni and on the north coast, but not for long. Within 25 years the Sahara would take on the borders and principal towns with which we’re familiar today.


Who can resist the superb ‘Uweinat’ map originally published by the Survey of Egypt in 1945. One of the most fascinating corners of the Sahara, much of its detail was based on the sahara-maplidintrepid explorations of Ralph Bagnold in the 1920s, as well as later Brits, some of who were fictionalised in The English Patient movie.
The last time we travelled there, it was still the best paper map available for that area (right), notwithstanding the newer aeronautical TPCs.

Uweinat 2006


Old Saharan mapoholics will be familiar with the Austin TX university’s comprehensive online database of full-sized Saharan maps dating more or less from the early 1940s. Click this to get to the index pictured below and thank you Austin.

texasindexer


And finally, a forerunner to the famous 4-million scale Michelin 153 map (now the 741) that covered the French Sahara: an ageing Michelin 152 from 1948. It was the best photo I could manage – scanning will have to wait for a very rainy day.

leclerctibestiYou get the feeling that this may have been a commemorative special edition to celebrate General Leclrec’s heroic achievements in the Sahara during WWII, when a small column managed to take Kufra and then Murzuk from the Italians, and then push north to help expel the Axis forces from North Africa along with the 8th Army.

Like the LRDG map, the 152 has helpful detail like ‘piste tres difficile‘ as well as the famous info on water resources ‘tres mauvais a 50m‘, that we recognise from the later editions which covered the Sahara all the way to the Atlantic.

Mich 152

Too much information? Then this may interest you.
Want modern maps? Go here.