2019: there are faint rumours that this route will reopen to all, including tourists. We shall have to go and see…
THE FORGOTTEN PATH
David Newman, 1965 (o/p)
This book is a cracker. In 1959, with the French Sahara convulsed with wars of independence, Newman, an engineer who’d failed to launch ‘a product two years ahead of its time’ jacks it all in to visit a friend in Nigeria. But unlike his friend, Newman decides to drive all the way across the desert – ‘the sort of adventure that had my nerve endings tingling’. And to make matters harder he choses to do it in his new Ford Zephyr.
“In a saloon car it’s impossible” his Nigerian friend urges him, having struggled there from Dakar in a Landrover. ‘I’ll see you in six weeks’ was Newman’s firm reply. Trouble was, he’d spent £3000 preparing the car, was running out on the HP, and was skint.
The romance sours and he’s turned back at the border near Foum el Hassan by the Moroccans where the FLN (sheltering in newly independent Morocco) and the French (clinging on to Algeria) were still battling it out. Infuriated by this reversal and convinced that his sheer determination and self-importance will win the day, he tries to bully people into overruling the decision, but eventually has to storm off to Oujda on the opposite side of the country. Here again he’s repelled and so decides to charge illegally into Algeria. ‘To hell with them. It was impossible was it? I’d show them whether it was!’ And so he and his Swiss hitcher muddle overnight through machine-gun fire into French/Algerian territory.
He gets interrogated at Bechar, loses his suspicious companion and eventually gets permission to go west to Tindouf, alone. But its August so he has a hard time of it; gets repeatedly stuck, gets lost, gets desperate and at times flips out. He shoots his soup can with his ’45 and chases gazelles to exhaustion though the night – but then fondles them lovingly. Arriving at Tindouf (then a military base) he’s treated as a hero, given much free hospitality, admiration and a guide to Bir Mogrein (“my big worry – that he would smell – was completely unfounded”). Then the poor old Zephyr begins to break up: first the drive shaft, then the clutch, he gets one shipped up from Dakar but the rally-spec engine blows up too. He flies to Dakar expecting the embassy or the Ford agents to bail him out, but merely gets repatriated ‘on bail’. Back home, he borrows some money from his mother, flies back out with a new companion and engine bits to then stagger down to Dakar, on the way exhausting his welcome with the French who now see him as an irresponsible scrounger.
His bad reputation rolls ahead of him like a bow wave and in the Gambia he’s been forced to stay in natives’ lodgings. The climate turns on them and at one point he threatens to shoot a ferryman who – of all things – requests payment to barge him across the Faleme river into Mali. Penniless and with his companion now struck down with fever, they lurch from village to lorry, scrounging fuel, tow starts and food. After Bamako it’s relatively plain sailing to Nigeria (another engine in Ghana), but his friend has long since left. With his car a wreck, the book ends with Newman boasting that he’ll return north via the Hoggar route in summer. It’s impossible, after all! If he did, there is not record of a book about it, The Forgotten Path was published five years later when he was 35.
Even allowing for the era, Newman puts himself across bluntly like some arrogant rich-boy/student thinking the world owed him and his ‘impossible’ undertaking, making even Geoffrey ‘Fearful Void’ Moorhouse look reasonable. Time and again he boils over when friends, strangers, hotel staff or – for pity’s sake! – his embassy refuse to bail him out, and yet he obviously started the trip nearly broke with plans of ‘selling film rights’ while bouncing cheques like a Haarlem Globetrotter.
It’s this breathtaking arrogance and the lively ‘what-on-earth-could-happen-next’ pace that drives you through this short book. One admires adventurousness of course, but in his own words Newman comes across as deeply obnoxious and who deserved everything he got. On another level it is a good warning on what to expect of the Sahara in a 2WD saloon in summer. Available on the web for a couple of quid used and I would say, highly recommended.