Book review: Gandini Jebel Sagho off-road guide

In a line
Packed with intriguing routes to amazing vistas but unapologetically expensive and hard to visualise the potential without maps or the tracklog download (for another €20).

  • Price and description
  • £34 on amazon (€36)
  • Jaques Gandini with Houcine Ahalfi
  • 140 pages with loads of colour and one map.
  • Extrem’ Sud Editions; 2022
  • ISBN 9782864106746

What they say
The “Jacques Gandini [Jebel Sagho] Roadbook” [is a] lighter version[s] of the French ” Guides 4×4 J. Gandini” (without the historical or ethnographic boxes present in the French edition): all the itineraries, all the waypoints and their comments are included. Abundantly illustrated, they are printed on strong 170g/m2 paper and bound with a metal spiral for better handling on the trail. They are published in 4 languages: Spanish, English, German and Italian.

Jacques Gandini and Hoceine Ahalfi have explored in detail the Jebel Sagho, this magnificent wild region of southern Morocco, with its breathtaking landscapes, situated to the east of Warzazat and to the south of the Dades valley, and have put together 59 itineraries totalling 2,500 kilometres and 1,100 waypoints.

  • Thick, quality paper and spiral bound
  • Amazing Jebel Sagho deserves its own guide
  • There can’t be many routes left in Jebel Sagho!
  • The author is not without a GSOH
  • A little of the historical and cultural background seeps in from the full French edition
  • Expensive, even for a specialist guide
  • Just as with previous Gandinis, it’s an effort to engage with the book’s content, even in English
  • Better off just getting the tracklogs for €20?
  • Design/format too dense and basic
  • Scores of extraneous waypoints for every passing creek, etc
  • Just one map!
2500km, 1100 waypoints, 1 map

Review
I first came across Jacques Gandini’s Sahara guides over 20 years ago when that was all that was available for Libya (apart from German). The books were loaded with well researched historical and cultural background but as practical piste guides for the early GPS era I found them hard work. I may have bought one of his early Morocco books too, but was further put off.
Since that time I’ve written similar books like Sahara Overland (op) and Morocco Overland and like to think I know what it takes to make a piste guide user-friendly for two- and four-wheelers. In the meantime the prolific JG has concentrated mostly on Morocco, producing 11 routes guides to various regions as well as other travel books and histories, assisted by his Berber-speaking local guide, Houcine Ahalfi. The books were all in French until this English edition for Jebel Sagho was released in 2022 (also in Spanish, Italian and German), alongside the new French version. A sign that more translations will follow?
The blurb clearly states this is a ring-bound, stripped down ‘roadbook’ of the full French version which is well over twice as long. And they’re not exaggerating. You usually get one line intros for routes squeezed between masses and masses of photos. A few of these are amazing (not hard on Jebel S), some a bit so-what-y, as if filling space.

The pistes are categorised using Gandini’s scale, shown left. ‘Tufna’ are easy, well-maintained tracks like MZ1, ‘Beldi’ are ancient winding village routes, some possibly abandoned for regular use (locals on 125s can go anywhere); ‘DPM’ I think is meant to signify ‘Dedicated Piste Merchant’ or somesuch. ‘Orangina’ is a bone shaker and ‘AFA’ is Absolutely F-ing Amazing.
Most are listed from A to T but these refs are scattered all over the hard-to-read map (tip: don’t used dark red text on a brown background). In between are sub-routes Ba, Cd, etc, plus the aforementioned five AFAs.

Can’t see the route for the waypoints

Page upon page is packed with distances, waypoints, short descriptions and photos. According to the blurb, with over the 59 routes there is on average a waypoint every 2700 metres. Many of these waypoints are merely names of passing creeks extracted from a local shepherd or an old map. In the picture left, the right page has just six directional waypoints. I think this is too much distracting information, much of it unnecessary. Perhaps Gandini is a writer who likes to throw everything in (a common flaw with many ‘under-edited’ self-published books): loads of waypoints, loads of photos, but loads of routes too. Also, I believe we are now firmly in the era of the less error-prone decimal degrees format: simply 00.0000, -00,0000, not N00° 00.00′, W00° 00.00′. My next Morocco edition will use DD which I believe is the default in mobile phones.
You’d do well scrutinising the book or prefered routes with a highlighter, marking the waypoints that actually matter. In my Morocco book I decided ages ago that waypoints weren’t needed for every single passing feature which may be noted with a distance, especially when on a section of track you can’t get lost on. I have to add the condensed font is not to my taste either. For me legibility and ease of use are key; on the piste and with the Orangina fit to burst you have enough on your plate if the time comes when you need to refer to your guidebook.

It can’t be a mere oversight that the book has just one overview map on the inside front cover (above and online), tightly packed in the 2500 kilometres of routes. I feel that in books like this additional maps are an essential part of breaking down long lists of waypoints or tangled routes into something you can visualise. You get the feeling you’re being pushed into buying the tracklogs for another €20 (but of course not share them beyond your immediate family on pain of the guillotine). This is a current quandary to the intellectual property of all digital publishers. As it is, a canny user of Google Maps could easily locate the pistes shown above and trace them off satellite imagery to make their own tracklogs.
Finding online ‘OSM’ maps maddeningly unreliable and inconsistent, that’s what I’ve been doing these last few weeks in search of new routes in southern Morocco. There are many places I’ve long wondered ‘Hmm, where might that go?’. The best answer is on a WYSIWYG aerial image; zoom in close enough and you’ll find a dense lattice of tracks leading to lonely homesteads and hamlets all over Southern Morocco; just don’t expect these tracks to all to be passable. That is the value of guidebooks; the routes have been systematically ‘curated’ for you.

Some anomalies I chanced upon: he calls my MH14 route ‘new’ which seems odd. Yes there are new mines up here but I was told of this piste way back in 2011, it’s a long-established Sagho route. I also note he draws 120km out of my MZ1 route, when my tracklog recorded 102. That’s quite a discrepancy on a route which must be identical.
Other than that, there’s masses of information based on years of experience, it’s just a shame Gandini hasn’t got better at laying it out because it’s hard to easily take in what you actually need to know. Maybe, like any new guidebook, spending more time with it will make it easier to use.

Aguinane cascade in spate

If you been on one of my Morocco Fly & Ride tours you’ll doubtless remember our overnight stop in Assaragh after our steep ride from Aguinane up along the cliffside overlooking the dry cascade – and perhaps a walk we took to the cliff edge later that afternoon.
Here is a clip found by one of the riders recently, shot by a local in late 2018 of the usually dry waterfall in full spate. Aguinane

G is for Gara Medouar – popular film location in southern Morocco

Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set

People ask: where is the front cover of your Morocco Overland book?
Gara Medoaur, I say, though I’ve never actually been there. A distinctive outcrop just north of the N12 to Rissani, the epic cover was shot by desert trucker Marc Heinzelmann with a drone, something that’s tricky to smuggle in these days.
Despite appearances, Gara is not an ancient volcano – the near-horizontal sedimentary strata give that away. Time and again I hear or read of people attributing the desert’s dramatic formations to igneous processes, though you get those too.
But Gara sure looks good and like so many isolated hills in Morocco, large and small, it was used as a strategic natural fortress and observation post from a time a millennium ago when nearby Sijilmassa, was a northern terminus of the medieval caravan trade from Timbuktu.

Inside Gara’s ‘crater’, shallow ravines were dammed to collect water and there are long eroded remains of dwellings (above). In later years it’s said it was a Portuguese prison, a similar enclosure for slaves, or just a storehouse.
The site rose to fame with the release of the 1999 film, The Mummy for which a ramp was built up through the ancient breached wall on the southern side. Thereafter, it grew to become a destination for tourists as well as other films and commercials – as the current Wiki page laments. ‘Been there 15 days ago, we couldn’t stop, just turn back and go. A tourist trap unfortunately…’ says a recent comment. Looks like I’ve missed my chance again.

But unlike nearby Todra Gorge, you can see why it’s uniquely compelling. Not only does it resemble an impressive natural ‘volcanic’ fortress – a Bond producer’s dream – but from the rim you get a great view across an arid desert plain as well as a killer viewpoint spot perched on the exposed crag.

Photo: Neil Burns

Besides The Mummy (1999), off the top of my head Gara has featured in several films and product promo videos seeking to evoke the arid Saharan wastes.
Here’s my list with vid clips below. Did I miss some? Probably.

  • Spectre (Bond movie, 2015)
  • Zero Zero Zero (Sky, 2018; Better than average drug cartel drama)
  • The Forgiven (2022; dire yuppie nightmare set in the desert)
  • Rouge Heroes (BBC, 2022; SAS desert origins)
  • KTM 790 Adventure (launch promo vid; 2019)
  • Yamaha XT700 Tenere (launch promo vid; 2019)
  • Land Rover Defender (TV advert 2022)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWBVcNFjaXI

Gallery: 2022 Morocco Fly & Ride

Morocco Fly & Ride

Just back from the first run of Morocco Fly & Ride tours in three years and it looks like we weren’t the only ones. Although my route dodges most tourist enclaves, there were loads more visitors than normal for November. I even saw three other bike tours over a few days. Normally we see none. It was a lot hotter than normal too; right up to my last day it was 30°C in Marrakech in late November.

Fuel and other costs are up by around 10% but other than that, nothing much appears to have changed apart from the usual spread of tarmac. As a result I’ve changed the penultimate day to a long, 100-km track across the hills. It adds a new level of subtle diversity to our one -week ride across the mountains and deserts of southern Morocco.

Includes pics by Robin T and others

Toyota Prado in Morocco

In October I had a recce job in Morocco and unexpectedly ended up driving a Toyota Prado TX. It’s been some time since I’ve driven a 4×4 – 2008 in fact: my Mazda in Algeria. Luckily I had an off road instructor alongside to remind me what to do.

The Prado TX is a commonly rented vehicle in Morocco – a 3-litre diesel automatic at around £150/day. Auto diesels were very rare in my day but make sense as rental vehicles. The cars had around 100,000km on the clocks but were in good shape. Part of the brief was to find some challenging tracks which I expected would get too much for the well-used and softly sprung TXs.

An auto fourbie is a new thing for me, but a great idea in that there’s no clutch to fry or gearbox to hammer. The Prado feels heavy and on the road is a bit of a sluggish overtaker, but off-road that ability to concentrate on wheel placement and braking was of course a better way of doing things.

One thing I did find was that Low Range 1st was still too high while coming down Route MA6 on Jebel Timouka. It was over patches of rocky terrain more than the steepness which needed easing over, but I constantly had to dab the brakes. I think I should have tried Hill Descent Control (or some such) to slow the car down, though that may have been excruciatingly too slow. The gearbox could also be slotted across into manual – ‘S’ – which also helped with control.

I’ve never scraped or thumped a 4×4’s underside so much as I did coming down MA6 in the TX at 5kph for two hours. They were all non-damaging hits but it’s not a good sound. The dash button would also not lock the central diff the one or two times we thought we might need it; traction-wise the car managed fine thanks to the fat tyres on soft springs and dry conditions.

I heard later that a couple of months back an HZJ78 Troopy fell over at the bottom end of this route where a wash-out requires driving steeply up/down the river bank. On a few occasions I had to be marshalled over rocks; following the guide’s hand signals to inch left or right. Not done that for years but it’s a system that works very well. Taking it easy, front and rear bumper clearance were not issues.

At one point I had a ‘Specsavers’ moment when a rock jumped out of nowhere and caught the nearside front wheel while driving out along MS9’s riverbeds towards Anezal. We stumbled across that route from another direction and which I’ve also not done since 2008 on an XT660. I’m pretty sure that thump tweaked the steering wheel 5° to the left, though there seemed no damage to the linkages or subsequent vibration in the steering. We also had the age-old problem of dust playing up with the tailgate release locks.

All up, while it was fun to off-road in the Prado and the auto box make light work of the trails, it’s still a big fat, lumbering 4×4 which I’d have no use for elsewhere. I’d sooner do Morocco in a jacked up Audi estate or maybe a rented Duster.

Algeria Timbuktu Mauritania 1990

Desert Travels Index Page

Buy Desert Travels 2021 on Amazon

Book Chapters:

Chapter 23: Battle of the Saharans

In Chapter 10 of Desert Travels the cantankerous 101 leading my first desert bike tour was stranded at the Tin Taradjeli pass (above). As so often happens in the Sahara, the next person to turn up happened to be a diesel mechanic.
Steve soon got the 101 running and, long story short, the following year we decided to team up and do a big Sahara trip together: him in his Land Cruiser, me in an old Land Rover 109.

For both of us this was the desert trip we’d each been planning in our heads for years. When travelling together briefly with my bike tour the previous year, we’d quickly established a shared passion for exploring the Sahara and set about doing a big trip together, each with his own 4×4. Though I’d been keen to head for the Ténéré Desert in Niger, we’d settled on keeping off the tarmac where possible and decided to head down to the Guinea’s highland jungles and the Mauritanian Sahara. 

Nineteen ninety was not such a good year for me: post bike-tour debt, a bad crash leading to hospitalisation, followed by homelessness, a smaller bike crash which at least put an end to my dozen years of despatching. And finally my Land Rover, all set for a desert adventure with Steve, blew up in darkest Sussex at 2am, while I was doing some late deliveries.

As a way of keeping the tip on the rails Steve invited me to ride his XT600Z instead. I wasn’t that keen on bikes by that time, plus it would leave me dependent on him. But I accepted his offer and we met up in France, the bike towed on its back wheel with a similar arrangement I’d used on the 101.

Unfortunately, as so often happened in those days, all my films were lost on a flight in Mauritania. Since then I’ve learned: do not put things you cannot afford to lose in the hold baggage. What few photos I have were shot by Steve.

On the ‘closed’ piste between Fort Mirabel and Hassi bel Guebbour.
Steve’s XT was nicely set up and of course all the essential gear was carried by the car.
I’m wearing my airey, paper-thin Swedish Tenson jacket. Beyond wearing a lid, gloves and boots, the idea of wearing any sort of armour never occurred to me.
On the gnarly piste up from Hirhafok to Assekrem deep in the Hoggar.
I found this picture recently on the internet and am pretty sure it’s the same ancient Beetle we saw at Hassi Tabelbalet, just after the Gara Khanfoussa dune crossing on the Graveyard Piste.

“… A couple of hours later we reached Tabelbalet well on the far side of the erg and were dumbfounded to come across an eccentric German father and son in a ratty VW Beetle. Amazed that a forty-year-old 2WD had made it through the dunes, Steve confessed later that the Germans’ presence had soured his crossing…” 
One of the easier sections on the sandy trail along the Niger river from Bourem to Timbuktu.
Tooling around in the dunes somewhere near Timbuktu where our trip was about to unravel.

‘I think I’ll head off when we get to Ségou [the next major town]. I’m not really enjoying all this riding around after you. I want to go off and do my own thing.’
I was determined to salvage the trip for my own ends. The shared driving had not materialised, the pace was ridiculous (we’d done around 4000 kilometres in less than two weeks) and everything I did was wrong or not enough. I didn’t see such a separation as a failure, it was merely the right thing to do if I was not to end up feeling resentful. 
Somewhere near Timbuktu. Too much vegetation for my liking
Getting water in a village in the Malian Sahel.
Fuelling up in Nara, just before the Mauritanian border.
Digging out on the way to Adel Bagrou, the Mauritanian border post where we managed to talk our way in without a Carnet de Passages.
Trackside break on the way to Nema.
In Nema we picked up the Ghandi-like guide called Nani for the 800-km crossing to Tichit. Just as well; there is no way we could have found the way without him as most of the time there was no track (or he rarely followed it).
Steve and Nani have a brew near Oualata.
I remember this bit well – a steep sandy pass called ‘Enji’ about 300km from Nema by which time I was riding the unladen XT like a Dakar vet. When you’re good it feels like ski-ing.

Enji is the plateau at the bottom right. This 1960s map shows a track, but in 1990 most of the time there was nothing but sand and annoying tussocks.
Sunk down to the axle in the soft sands west of Tichit.

As agreed near Timbuktu, in Tidjika Steve went his way towing the XT, and I went mine. I met some American Peace Corps Volunteers and my travels in Mauritania took on a whole new direction.

Once in Tidjikja, I flogged my crash helmet to a delighted policeman. This time Steve didn’t even try to persuade me and drove off towards Nouakchott. 

MZ1 – New Jebel Saghro crossing

MZ1 (formerly MH23)
Nekob > Skoura • 104km

Last ridden: November 2022 – KTM 890 Adventure R; BMW 310GS

Description
Now that the once classic MH4 from Nekob to Tinerhir (or Dades) is fully sealed, the southern sections of MH14 and MH15 still offer challenging off road crossings of the western Saghro mountains. A little too challenging for some on MH14.
This ‘new’ route offers an easy way to access the range, initially following a well-maintained haul route west into the hills and down the other side on a regular but still good mountain track.
You get all the distinctive drama which make the volcanic ranges of Jebel Saghro so unique, but can manage MH15.2 in any vehicle, including a pushbike over two days. As with the other two routes, the drama subsides once west of the ranges around KM70 and heading towards Skoura, but in that time, above 1600m you’ll have passed several epic vistas that make it all worthwhile. Thanks to local geologist Saad B for pointing out this route. In 2017 I came up MH15 to the new haul road at KM34 and wondered where it went to the east. I assumed to some mine; now I know it’s all the way down to Nekob.

The whole of the Saghro massif is especially rich in high-value minerals and cross-crossed with dead-end prospecting tracks.

Away from either end, the only ‘village’ of substance is Tagmout (KM43), a few smallholdings strung out in the basin and overshadowed by the gold/copper excavation just to the north. This mine must be why the eastbound part of the track got carved out of the hills; it’s not like there are a string of others lonesome hamlets up here needing a link to the outside world. West of Tagmout – geologically quite different in character – a few Berber shepherds live out in the wilds.

Mapping
There’s nothing on paper of course, unless you print it yourself, but you can track it clearly on Google satellite and Apple Maps, as well as free digital maps like the particularly good GarminOpenTopo. There were only a few scraps of trail showing on my v3 Garmin Topo (v4 is current).

Off-Road
Because the east section is used by mining dump trucks (I saw three just as I left Nekob in 2021; one in 2022), east of Tagmout this track is wide and in great shape and so remains doable with any car or bike. On an Africa Twin in 2021 I did find the countless western switchbacks – ground down to powder by the trucks’ scrubbing tyres – needed to be inched around. A more stable KTM 890 (with a group) made easier work of these in 2022, and a week later 310GSs were easier still to manage. A 4×4 will barely break into a sweat or low range.

Route finding
After studying Google satellite I traced a putative kml along what looked like the clearest route, and it all panned out fine with no wrong turns. Westbound, you can’t go wrong up to the blue sign in the Tagmout basin (KM42; Berber women selling trinkets) and beyond here most forks of substance are to the right on the downward section, passing north of Bou Skour village and mine site (which you don’t see) to the big village of Sidi Flah.
I saw no other traffic bar the three dump trucks rolling into Nekob in 2021 and in 2022 we saw a couple of Berber shepherd 125s and a lorry.

Suggested duration
Allow half a day in a car or 4 hours on a bike with scenic stops.

Route Description
0km
 (104) Nekob west Afriquia fuel. On the other side of the main road, 200m to the west, a tarmac side road leads north to villages.

5.5 (98) A track splits left off the tarmac. There was some roadworks here in late 2022; work your wat round towards the pass to the northwest. Soon you cross a oued and enter a small palm gorge at which point the climb begins.

19 (85) Col at 1420m.

KM19

25 (79) Approach the impressive buttes of Jebel Agoulzi to the southwest (below). More noteworthy vistas follow.

KM25 and Jebel Agoulzi

33 (71) Reach a junction with tyres on cairns which is a 3-km link SW to MH14. MH15 comes in about 3km later (KM36) up from the south. You now head north for 9km, on the way passing the 2004-m high point with great views of the snowy High Atlas (below), if the season and conditions are right.
You then work your way down sweeping bends into the Tagmout basin with a mine on its northern flank and where tracks diverge.

Looking over the Tagmout Basin (March 2017)
The Blue Sign at Tagmout

42 (62) Blue sign junction just east of Tagmout ‘village’, such as it is. Turn left for both Kelaa (as signed; MH14/15) and almost immediately left again (no sign) up to the Tachbouft Pass (KM45; 1805m) visible to the southwest for the run west to Bou Skour.
Over the next 20km the track rises and drops over the ranges with several impressive viewpoints (below).

65 (39) Fork right. (Left leads down to Bou Skour village south of the mine). The most dramatic part of the crossing is over as the terrain loses elevation.

69 (35) Fork right again north of Bou Skour mine. In a kilometre keep right again just before some trackside machinery, and soon (around KM70) the main track from the mine (P1514 on Google) joins up from the left (south). You now follow the P1514 heading north then west.

79 (25) Fork. Keep left on the main track.

86 (18) Converge with a minor track coming from your left and where a red sign says ‘Bouskour 18,4km’ (pointing the way you’ve come from).

88 (16) Track joins from your right. All these three side tracks over the last 10km are minor: the main track is clear.

91 (13) Just after a passage alongside a farm wall, you cross a tributary of the nearby Oued Dades and swing north. Soon you pass through the small town of Sidi Flah. In 3km cross a bridge over the Oued Dades.

103 (1) Near a power station, at a lone, unconnected orange pylon keep right to reach the N10 visible up ahead. Once there, turn right for the Inov roadhouse on the eastern outskirts of Skoura. Left is for Skoura and the N10 to Ouarzazate. Straight across leads up to the actual town centre and Amzeria (Amerzi; see update Update 3.0.14 – May 2019)

104 Inov roadhouse. (100km from Nekob on a 310GS odo).

Sahara West–East with VW Vans, 1984 • Part 8/8

See also:
Sahara West-East Crossings
Astro Navigation in the Sahara

Reports by Peter Reif
Photos by Peter Reif and Arike Mijnlieff

OSEWO Index Page

The final instalment of Peter Reif’s report and maps recalling ÖSEWO: an Atlantic-to-Red Sea crossing of the Sahara in 1983-4 with VW T2 Kombis. From Aswan the foursome visit the temple of Abu Simbel, passing Sudanese camel meat caravans on the way. Then, after six months and some 12,000km from the Atlantic, they cross the Nile and take a well-earned dip in the Red Sea.
For earlier parts, click the Index Page.

Sahara West–East with VW Vans, 1984 • Part 7/8

See also:
Sahara West-East Crossings
Astro Navigation in the Sahara

Reports by Peter Reif
Photos by Peter Reif and Arike Mijnlieff

OSEWO Index Page

Part Seven of Peter Reif’s report and maps recalling ÖSEWO: an Atlantic-to-Red Sea crossing of the Sahara in 1983-4. After having to divert around Libya via the Mediterranean, the flat-four foursome are back in the desert to tackle on of the hardest stages so far. But not before they conduct a desert survival experiment to see how far one of the team can walk with what they can carry (above left).
For other parts, click the Index Page.

Final instalment