Author Archives: Chris S

The Spiral Tunnel of Tagountsa

spirtunaHigh up on the side of a remote High Atlas valley is an engineering marvel – hewn through the cliff face a spiral tunnel manages to curl down through the rock and emerge underneath itself.
spirmohaI was told about this curiosity in 2012 by the chap at the cozy Chez Moha auberge (right) in Aït Youb while researching the second edition of Morocco Overland. Riding a BMW F650GS, I followed his directions with the usual route-finding issues and then, beyond the last village, hacked up a stony disused track to the 2250-m (7340′) Tagountsa Pass. From the cliff edge I recall the timeless view stretching east up the Plain d’Amane valley towards Rich, pictured below and on p128 in the current book. A short distance later I spun through the tunnel and rolled down a series of switchbacks back to the valley floor and a tasty tajine back at the auberge.

tang

Spiral tunnels have been a long-established solution to constricted route building challenges across mountains. You could even say that your typical complex freeway intersection where the road winds back under itself to change direction tightly is the same thing in flyover form. But you must admit that hacking out any type of tunnel – let alone one where there’s no room to dig out a regular switchback – is an impressive task.

spirplakyvromNot for the first time on this website, I’m able to benefit from research of Yves Rohmer (right) on his always fascinating collection of old Saharan curiosities at Saharayro, including the Tagountsa tunnel. Viewed on Google Earth, the big picture is more vividly rendered setting View > Historical Imagery back a few years.

spir

spirplanspirtunaEven then it’s hard to visualise what’s happening until you look at the old plan, right. You can see the anticlockwise descent of the bore and just work out that it starts with a short separate concrete bridge over the lower mouth of the tunnel. The daylight streaming down the gap can be seen in the image repeated on the left (and as a slim shadow in the round inset, above)

spirimitBuilt in 1933 over a period of just three months by some 3000 labourers from local and French regiments, few realise that at this time the French were still fighting to subdue renegade Berber tribes in the mountains of Morocco.
As you can see on Yves pages, the engineers, sapeurs and legionnaires passed their spare time commemorating their achievement by engraving regimental emblems in and around the structure. I was told the motivation for all this effort was to enable a secure, high transit of the valley, so avoiding protracted Berber ambushes at the narrow Imiter Gorge (left; ~KM70) with legionit’s Mesa Verde-like dwellings.
The same crew probably built the better known 62-metre Tunnel de Legionnaires five years earlier at Foum Zabel now on the main N13 highway north of Errachidia. A plaque there boldly states:
The mountain barred the way.
Nonetheless the order was given to pass…
The Legion executed it.”

spirtunThe Tagountsa tunnel the Legion helped build is at KM102 on Route MH13 in the book, though if you reverse the route it’s only a 10-km off-road drive off the Rich road just east of Amellago, turning north onto the dirt at KM113. Depending on storm damage, an ordinary car or a big bike should manage it, but note that you’ll be negotiating all those hairpins on the Google image above. From the west side (as Route MH13 describes the loop) it was a rougher and slightly more complicated ride on the BMW up to the pass.

spirdramPerhaps because trains can’t negotiate hairpins or climb very steep grades, it seems that spiral or helicoidal tunnels have been a much more common feature on mountain railways than roads, particularly in the Rockies.

Norway’s Drammen Spiral (left), some 50km southwest of Oslo is a notable example, dug we’re told, as an alternative to disfiguring effects of open quarrying on the landscape back in the 1950s while at the same time producing a revenue-producing tourist attraction in the process.

Morocco Overland, new route: MH20

M3acoverTrans Atlas: MH20 • Talat n Yacoub > Ouneine > Ouaougdimt > Aoulouz • 88km
April 2018 – BMW G310GS, Honda XR250 Tornado


Description
mh20Another High Atlas piste crossing to try alongside MH19 (also in addition to the guidebook). This one only rises to 2200m, climbing some 500m in 8km after leaving the road SE of Ijoukak. (below right). From the pass the incline abates and the track smoothes out as it rolls down towards the villages of the Ouneine basin and the P1735 whose nearly finished extension eastwards may be open by the time you get here (red line on map). You carry on SW along the P1735 and at Sidi ali ou Brahim village swing sharp left off the road, cross the stream and follow the Ouaougdimt valley piste 24km SE (not fully shown on most paper maps) to join MH6, the road coming down from Aguim on the N9 Marrakech–Ouarzazate road.
If you’re in a rush or heading towards Taroudant, at Sidi ali ou Brahim carry on 23km south on the P1735 to ‘Sidi Ouaaziz’ (according to Google) on the N10. Otherwise, it would be a shame to miss out on the scenic Ouaougdimt valley stage, as it rises onto a terrace high above the valley floor.

mhh20Mapping
Parts of the route are just about legible on paper maps, least badly on the inset ‘High Atlas’ panel on the Michelin. But none show the full Ouaougdimt valley route. It’s all on Google, Olaf and the OSM digitals.

Off Road
The climb up to the 2200-m Tizi n Oulaoune pass from KM11 is a little steep and loose and about as hard as it gets, but we saw local 125s two-up and minivans, albeit heading the other way (ie: descending). From the pass a310-7the gradient eases off while you’ll the Ouaougdimt valley stage no harder than anything you’ve just done. Carefully ridden, a big bike could manage the loose hairpins; so could a 2WD with clearance, though as always these mountain tracks require concentration. On an MTB it will be a slog if not a push up to the Tizi n Oulaoune, followed by your freewheeling reward and no more steep grades.

Route finding
mh20-igliEasy enough. We winged it just by studying Google satellite imagery carefully beforehand, jotting down some distances between junctions. That’s now all listed below. Download MH20kml file.
At the old ‘Afra’ sign at KM23 you may like to try the 46-km track running east. Looks like it leads to Igli on MH6; see map right. Presumably the new road now in the valley is replacing this high-level route which rises to over 2550m or 8300 feet, although I hear it’s sealed from this high point down to Igli.

Suggested duration
Half day will do you.


Route Description
0km (88) Talat n Yacoub fuel station on the R203 Tizi n Test road. Head north to Ijoukak.

3 (85) Pass through Ijoukak, cross the bridge and turn right up the side road. Soon you’ll pass a nice-looking auberge.

11 (77) At the fork before a village turn right, drop down over a bridge and carry on. Soon there’s a sign right: ‘Ouadouz/Ouneine? 24km’ (it’s something with ‘O’). The 500m climb to the pass begins.

19 (69) Tizi n Oulaoune 2200-m high point. The track now eases off as it descends. (Photo, bottom of the page.)

23 (65) Fork with sign (photo below). Left at this fork is the old track to Igli as mentioned above. Keep right to continue descending to the villages in the Ouneine basin visible to the west. Eventually at a junction around KM35 you join the new extension of the P1735 which is continuing E probably towards Igli following a lower route. The P1735 crosses the basin to the SW and threads through a small pass back into the hills.

mh20km23

mh20ouaval54 (34) Sidi ali ou Brahim. Turn sharp left, drop down to the stream and up the other side. The track is a bit rough to the first village, but that’s why they invented suspension. It then eases off as it rises above the valley on a terrace (right) with great views down to the villages below. You could be in the Cevennes or the Pyrenees, but you’re in the High Atlas. It could be worse.

78 (10) Join the tarmac (MH6) by the reservoir.

83 (5) Roundabout on the N10.

88 Aoulouz fuel station/s.

mh20desc

 

Trekking in Mauritania

Just back from a two-week camel trek in Mauritania, walking with a mostly French group of 14 from Chinguetti (‘la Sorbonne du desert’) to Terjit (map, left), about 150km. For the first two days over the rim18 - 11dunes we were accompanied by a crew filming a report for a French TV station on the return of tourism to Mauritania (see below).
Of course tourism never really stopped for independent travellers (compared to Algeria)  and despite the killings and kidnap
pings of a few years ago (including an rr21entire French family in 2007, right). But the recent resumption of charter flights bringing much bigger groupsrimadvmaps from Paris directly to Atar (not via Nouakchott) was something for local tour operators to celebrate. It is probably the result of revised travel advice issued by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (left). You’ll see they critically (and imo, correctly) extend the ‘if you must’ orange imontheplanezone further east compared to the Brit FCO. It makes all the difference for local tourism because in that orange zone most of what most people want to see in Mauritania is easily accessible. Our weekly plane chartered by Le Point (with seats sold on to other operators) was packed out.
rim18 - 53The Vallee Blanche is the longest trek Le Point offer, but in terms of landscape and pace, maybe not their best depending on your previous experience. Horror des horreurs, we even walked along a road for a bit. Our guide recommended the 8-day Amatlich Erg walk – fewer interminable rocky plateaux he said, but then that’s all part of the deal in the desert. Wherever you go, it’s a variety of sand, rock and landforms that’s the key. I got the feeling that by day 8 or 9 most were counting the days, partly because the 25km/day pace had dropped by over 50% (as planned) by which time the 6-hour lunch breaks were exceeding walking times.
The fact it was unseasonably hot, with temperatures of over 40°C in the shade, may have tempered enthusiasm, but actually the morale and ambience of our group was very good; most had done previous tours with Le Point, including Chad which can be a tougher call. rimshaderThe Adrar at this time is usually in the low 30s – as it was on our very last day to Terjit, but most days it really was too hard to move or even stay awake for long while lying under an acacia between noon and 3pm.
The plus side was that being on the trail before dawn was great fun, although I’m not sure what shape I’d have been in had we walked 25km/day for the full two weeks. So in fact the long siestas were the right thing to do. We’re not all huddled round that meagre shade tree on the left just because someone has cracked open their stash of Haribo Yellow Belly Jelly Snakes. Much depends on the terrain of course – is dodging trackless rubble worse than sinking into ankle-deep sand? They’re about the same once you add your daily endowment of aches, pains and cumulative fatigue.
All this was eased by a hard-working crew (left) plus our guide Mohamed who, it must be said, was feeling the strain after a busy season tramping around the desert with us nasranis. (There was no French-domiciled accompagnateur, not a need for one; with a Brit group it might need to be different.) I was just relieved I had a fully charged Kindle to help pass the long hours hotmaninching along with the shade from 11am till 4 or 5pm. By then it wasn’t going to get hotter, or the remainder of the day’s walk was short enough to not matter so much. One night it felt like it didn’t drop below 30°C and after a week of this everything, even your toothpaste buried in your bag, is hot and stays hot. I’ve not been in such heat for so long since an early-80s moto trip to Algeria, rim18 - 22mistakenly taken in September fun-hot-libwhen it was hotter still. Oh, and Libya in April 1998 (right); also very hot. Both were quite shock and yet watching our Mauritanian camel crew stride along in their flip-flops from camp-to-camp without rests and after spending over an hour locating and laboriously loading over a dozen camels makes you wonder what you’re whining about. You got to take your cheche off to these guys.
As it was, a couple in the group chose to ride when weary, and another couple had reserved camels to ride whenever possible. If you take this option, good saddle padding is essential, especially on the backbone. Me, I like to walk – some days more than others.
Sleeping out, I was a bit concerned that le chaleur might bring out the spiders and snakes everyone talks about in the desert. I heard later that the guides had indeed spotted a snake on night one, and again at Berbera guelta, but I never even saw any tracks. I suppose the good thing is that, besides being too big to eat, at night a reposing human is not much warmer than the surrounding desert and so not that alluring.
rim18 - 47Compared to my Algeria camel trips (here and here) I have to say the service was as good if not better; it’s only a shame the fresh lunchtime salad couldn’t last beyond day one out of Chinguetti. After that it was cous cous/rice/pasta with tinned fish and hard veg at lunch, and the same but with veg stew in the evenings, plus soup and tinned fruit for afters. That said, rim18 - 39we got two goats (right) which we didn’t have to buy, sandbread baked every night and pancakes every morning. And there was never a shortage of water, even for washing. After a while you do crave fresh fruit and veg as well as cool, clear water, but despite what you might call a ‘high-carb’ diet I managed to lose 4kg which I happened to have going spare. Heat kills the appetite which is why I’m currently dressed in three ski suits while doing Hot Yoga next to the radiator.
giftshopOne thing that spoils the Mauritanian desert vibe for me is the endless ‘gift shops’ unrolled at many desert stops and every nomad camp. In this way Algeria feels more sauvage; on the Immidir treks we might come across a family  of feral goat nomads in 11 days and never ever see car tracks. But as I recall from the late-90s, wayside trinket markets were always the way in the Adrar, as it was in the Aïr of Niger. And anyway, not everyone may have as replete a collection of cheches, stone tools, teapots and other desert souvenirs like me. At one place I noticed a women selling an unusual fulgarite necklace among her collection of silver jewellery.
The large group size didn’t really bother me, perhaps because much of the chat went over my head, but probably because it was a good group and anyway – resting or on the move there is plenty of space, it’s not like comfychairbeing stuck in a bus. Plus you imagine people who choose to take a two-week walk in the desert in March aren’t going to be complainers. Having said that, you do wonder if Homo Sapiens’ mysterious Great Leap Forward; the so-called advent of behavioural modernity 40,000 years ago is attributable to the invention of the comfy chair. Or maybe that’s where it all went wrong.
cropped-cam2dins.jpgIt’s interesting to observe how the Frenchies (and the few Belges) are much more casual about desert walking than some Brits brought up on the exploits of tormented ex-public school masochists like Thesiger, Lawrence and maybe Michael Asher. Le Sahara to them is just a holiday destination like Vanuatu, not necessarily a place to pit yourself against the elements to within an inch of your life.

tik
Straight out of Atar into the desert.
rim18 - 26Great value at €1200 + €55 airport visa
Pre-dawn starts. Feels like a proper desert trip
Sand-baked goat
A shady acacia just when you need it
Great crew from Mauritanie Voyages
Wheat flour sandbread, not heavy tagela
Afternoon at Berbera oasis
You’ll get plenty of dune walking in

cros
luncharnLack of prolonged remoteness (to be expected in the Adrar)
Flatish landscape out east
Trinket stalls every day
Pace slowed too much (but just as well)
Nescafe – in the end, undrinkable whatever you try
Missed fresh lunch salads and fruit, too
Oued Abiod; the better places were off it

You can watch the 4-minute French TV report here. We didn’t encounter the army patrols featured in the film – they were up north shot later (so to speak). But it reminds me how brilliant drones are for desert filming. Makes me want to do more walking in the Sahara, but maybe not in a springtime heatwave.

J is for Jebel Hagar – Christmas in No Man’s Land

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

 

Climbing the highest mountain in Africa’s last unclaimed territory

birginGinge Fullen (right) is a Guinness-record holding mountaineer and adventurer who among other things, has climbed the highest peak in every African country. Bir Tawil has long been on his radar and the recent division of Sudan sees him planning to visit the Deriba caldera in Darfur in the near future.

BirmapIn the northern Nubian desert between Egypt and Sudan lies Bir Tawil, an unoccupied 800-square mile quadrangle claimed by neither state. It’s a bureaucratically difficult and potentially dangerous place to reach but has been on my list for some time.
Terra Nullius is a Latin expression for ‘nobody’s land’; it was how Cook described Australia in 1770. Here in the Nubian Desert, it originates from a bizarre situation stemming from the simplest of borders: a straight line along the 22nd parallel drawn in 1899 when Britain formed Anglo-Egyptian Sudan following Kitchener’s campaigns in Sudan. In 1902 Britain sought to modify that boundary to reflect the actual use of the land by the region’s tribes. It counters a complaint commonly made these days about Foreign Office officials blithely marking maps with rulers and in part causing the current grief in the Middle East and Africa.
birlookmapBir Tawil lies below the 22nd parallel but the land was traditionally grazd by the Ababdu tribe from Aswan in Egypt. Similarly the adjacent Halaib Triangle, a much bigger area to the east and above the parallel was placed under British Sudanese control as its Beja inhabitants were culturally and ethnically closer to Sudan. Today Egypt resolutely claims the 1899 border including the Halaib Triangle, whilst Sudan sticks to the administrative border of 1902. As a result both claim the Halaib Triangle with its 130 miles of Red Sea shore, but neither are interested in the barren wastes of Bir Tawil.
Bir Tawil is not an easy place to reach, requiring permission from either government to visit; a two-day trip into the desert risking encounters with armed gangs or smugglers. I opted for Sudan as I wanted to get a feel for the country to which I plan to return to climb the highest peak in the troubled Darfur region. (In 2004, before Sudan divided to form South Sudan, I climbed Mount Kinyeti, then the highest point in that country).
In Khartoum I organised everything through Tour-Sudan agency. The owner Midhat Mahir was by far the most pro-active individual I contacted and as it turned out, the best connected. In Sudan government permits are required for everything from registering lodgings outside Khartoum to photography and even permission to buy a detailed map from the Surveyor’s Office. The Sudanese clearly like their paperwork as well as keeping track of you. I needed a dozen copies of my travel permit to hand out to checkpoints along the way.
The plan was a week’s trip leaving me two days in Bir Tawil to locate and climb the highest point. Midhat’s brother Moez would accompany me with two drivers on the 500-mile trek north of Khartoum, around half of it on tarmac the rest across the Nubian desert.
Forget snakes and scorpions or the possibility of breakdown and never being found, the road to Abu Hamed felt like the most dangerous part of this little adventure. Terrible driving and being forced off the road by unlit vehicles was the nearest brush with death I’ve had in a while.
birrailIn Abu Hamed we filled up with fuel and water and a few miles north of town left the road and crossed over the railway lines for the last time. I input some coordinates from Grant, my go-to person when tackling unclimbed peaks in dodgy countries. You can’t beat the thrill of heading into a remote place with little available information.
We headed north along flat desert towards the Wadi Gabgaba which would bring us to within 20 miles of our objective. Very soon we started to pass gold miners and for the next hundred miles found the desert had been turned upside down. A gold rush was underway and several thousand men were working hundreds of excavators while individuals were trying their luck with metal detectors. All unlicensed and unregulated, with tons of litter blew across the desert it looked very ugly indeed.
Hoping to keep a low profile, that night we camped well off the main route and away from the miners. In Khartoum I’d gotten hold of a colonial-era 1:25,000 map from the National Survey and the next morning we found ourselves on old routes marked as ‘fair going’ by surveyor W Jennings-Bramley back in 1925. By camel he might have covered 20 miles a day; we did the same distance in just an hour.
birpeakerOur initial destination was the 609-metre peak of Jebel Bartazuga marking the southernmost corner of the Bir Tawil quadrangle. It came into view, very prominent in the otherwise flat desert. I thought we had left the last of the gold miners but I was wrong; a camp had set up here too on the very boundary of Bir Tawil.
birtrigOn my return leg I climbed Jebel Bartazuga, topped with an old trig point by the British to mark the boundary when they surveyed the area. Flags have also been placed here from others who’ve recently been laying claims to the territory, but they’ve all long since blown away.
Probably the first westerner here in recent times was former Guardian journalist Jack Shenker in 2011. American Jeremiah Heaton followed in 2014, claiming the area as the ‘Kingdom of North Sudan’, thus delivering on a promise to make his daughter a ‘princess’. He’s in dispute with a Russian called Dmitry Zhikharev who made similar claims, and in 2017 Indian adventurer Suyash Dixit planted a tree and put up yet another flag. There are other claimants including the ‘Kingdom of the State of Bir Tawil’ with its own national anthem and the ‘Empire of Bir Tawil’. I wasn’t interested in such claims but was of course intent on climbing Bir Tawil’s highest peak which I believed had yet to be done.

biroldmap
Once over the border we headed towards the eastern end of the territory and Jebel Hagar el Zarqa. On the 1925 map it was shown as the highest point in the land at just 705m (2313’), but one man’s hill is another man’s mountain. It lay some 30 miles away and we headed straight for it; in reality zigzagging through a maze of sandy wadis. Just five miles away our target came in sight and, as I’ve said before on my travels in Africa, once I was so close it would take an army of natives riding a herd of wild elephants and throwing landmines to stop me. Given that we saw no one during our time in Bir Tawil, I felt confident. We weaved our way nearer and nearer and by mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve parked up at the base of the mountain.
birMoezMy aim was to sleep on summit but Moez my guide warned it might be chilly. It may the mid-winter but this is still the Sahara so I replied I’d probably survive but suggested he took his big down jacket. Around 4pm, as the sun’s heat diminished we set off, following the edge of a gully until we met a ridge about half way up. Here it was mostly scree but in less than an hour we were on the summit. With a new African peak ticked off, Moez and I shook hands.
Low hills surrounded us and Egypt’s actual border was just eight miles to the north. There was a cairn here so I was not the first, but probably the first in a very long time. Moez suggested we drop down a little out of the wind but he knew what my answer would be: we would build a windbreak right on the summit. We set about clearing an area for our wall and once done, even Moez seemed reassured. The wind did pick up later but our wall did its job.

birset
That night the stars were bright as they always are in the desert and some 100,000 light years away The Milky Way beamed over us like a highway to another world. I envied the future explorers and slept well in our starlit bedroom.
As often, the desert brings on reflective thoughts. I was now 50 years old; where had all the time gone? It’s scary that you’re over half way through your life and find yourself looking more to the past than the future. When you’re young the world is infinite and filled with mystery – immortality beckons. As years roll on the world remains thankfully mysterious but feels less big and the impression of immortality slips through your hands. Death was something that only happened to other people and time was unlimited so you don’t push yourself or do the things you promised you would. But once you grasp mortality good things can result – the ticking clock helps you focus on new challenges.
birsumitThe sun rose around six and was all ours to see; our bivi on top of Jebel Hagar had served us well. After a few more photos we headed down for our Christmas breakfast of coffee, porridge and eggs. I spent the next two days exploring wadis I’m sure no one has seen in decades and hiking a few other peaks to make sure there was nothing higher. With my short visit to Bir Tawil coming to an end, we headed back to Jebel Bartazuga for our last desert night.
I enjoyed my time back in the Sahara; it reaffirmed my view that there’s still adventure to be had in this world, you just have to get out and find it. The greater the effort, the more worthwhile the journey.
A good friend of mine who died on Everest in 1997 certainly lived his life that way. Mal Duff was old enough to be wise yet far too young to die. His gravestone bears the following words from a poem by fellow Scot, James Graham and twenty years on, it feels a good time to remember his epitaph:

He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
That dares not put it to the touch 
To win or lose it all
Midhat Mahir
249 (0) 912253484
tour-sudan.com

F is for Flooding the Sahara

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

 

… I had reason to believe that there existed, in the Western Sahara, a vast depression which might be submerged by the waters of the Atlantic, thus opening a navigable way to [Timbuktu]…

Visit Tarfaya on Cape Juby and just offshore you will see the curious Casa del Mar fort (left), beyond the St Exupery monument. Port Victoria or Mackenzie’s factory are other names for the trading post of the North West Africa Trading Company, established by Scotsman, Donald Mackenzie in 1882 during the ‘Scramble for Africa’.

Mackenzie’s venture hoped to capitalise on the recent westward flornwcopikswing of the floroutetrans-Saharan caravan trade emanating from Timbuktu, by intercepting caravans before they reached the terminus at Wadi Noun (near today’s Guelmin). In fact in a decade or more the NWAT Co barely covered its costs after compensation was finally agreed against an earlier raid and to abandon it in favour of the Moroccan sultanate.

It reminds you that colonisation at the time wasn’t purely a state affair, where armies marched off to conquer distant lands. Ahead of them strode adventurer-entrepreneurs with funds raised from venture capitalists and who gambled everything on striking it rich. It was their reports, or better still, a government charter to supply a commodity or service, which preceded more cautious colonisation, very often spurred by other European rivals nosing around for an as yet unclaimed slice of the cake.

flodonmac

It’s hard to find out much about Donald Mackenzie, but in 1877, a few years before he set up the North West Africa Trading Company, he had a far more radical idea to capitalise on the  trans-Saharan trade.
He proposed nothing less than flooding the interior of the Sahara from the Atlantic so that, with the addition of a few canals which had proved so successful in Britain prior to the age of rail, ships could sail directly to Timbuktu and the Niger river in a matter of days, avoiding the arduous overland journey of weeks. As a side benefit the flooding would ‘green’ the Sahara, enabling agriculture to thrive on the wind-blown sands.

floder

This was the era of grand engineering projects like the Suez Canal (completed 1869) and the Panama Canal (first serious attempt 1881). A canal to the trading heart of West Africa could be a similar commercial coup.
flodjoufIt’s hard to think what gave Mackenzie this idea, other than conflating lurid traders’ descriptions of El Djouf (left) with the small depressions or sebkhas near Cape Juby. The biggest of these is the Sebkha Tah, some 55m below sea level and just 15km from the Atlantic, but still no bigger than Malta. For some reason he believed that the vast El Djouf (part of the million-square-kilometre Majabat al Koubra or ‘Empty Quarter’) was a huge depression which had once been connected to the Atlantic via the Seguia el Hamra or some such, but had become cut off and dried out.

flomwamap

floNWACmapMackenzie had never actually travelled in this area (other than a camel tour up to Port Consado – present day Khenifiss – and down to Layounne during the NWAT Co era; map right) but had read of other larger desert depressions in Tunisia and Egypt, similar to those near Cape Juby. All these basins held seasonally dry salt lakes which may have suggested that flooding was plausible. He believed an inland sea the size of Tunisia or Oklahoma would soon be formed, paving an inland seaway to Timbuktu.

Mackenzie diligently read up on all your great 19th-century Saharan explorers: Barth, Rohlfs, Caille, Duveyrier, Clapperton, and in 1877 published an exhaustive proposal [available online] to ‘The Presidents and Members of the Chambers of Commerce of Great Britain‘ stressing ‘the importance of holding commercial intercourse with the interior‘.
Vividly detailing at third hand the riches, economy, geography and ethnicities in this corner of Africa, he firmly believed his northern route reaching down into the African interior was the key, avoiding the disease-ridden equatorial jungles and pagan tribes further south in favour of the more sophisticated vestiges of the West African Islamic states. Under his proposal land distances for the annual camel caravans from Timbuktu would be halved, with Cape Juby just nine sea days from Britain. De Lesseps himself, the force behind the Suez and original Panama canals, supported the idea of Saharan flooding, believing a side benefit would somehow improve the European climate while greening the desert for agriculture.

flotimboMackenzie also thought that trade and communications would help liberate the sub-Sahran population from the slave trade. And this wasn’t just a ploy to appeal to investors’ morals or religious beliefs – Mackenzie’s later work in East Africa after the NWAT Company dissolved suggested he was always a genuine abolitionist.

According to his upbeat proposal (is there any other kind?) Mackenzie has it all worked out: do a recce to get the tribal chiefs on board at Cape Juby and Timbuktu, locate the channel in El Djouf and unplug that Atlantic cork.
I have no doubt of the ultimate achievement of this project, he wrote in the proposal’s introduction. But investors seemed less keen and, were it even possible, floAdcl-plakyou’d think in creating a shallow, hyper-saline lake, the only thing that would grow would be salt crystals. The fact is the interior of the Sahara, including the dune-filed expanse of El Djouf spanning the Mali-Mauritania border, is a low plateau some 3-500 metres above sea level. Someone ought to tell Conde Nast Traveler.

Mackenzie had slightly less difficulty finding investors for Port Victoria a few years later, and decade or three after that, Jules Verne fictionalised the idea in his last published book, The Invasion of the Sea, set in Tunisia.

floflo

Old Saharan Trade Routes Map

See also:
V is for Vintage Sahara Maps
Blanks on the map

I came across this old French map of the Saharan trade routes from 1889 [full-size source]. As always, it’s interesting to see where was prominent then and what has come since. Old spellings and some names differ.

Not a lot of people know that an earlier name for Marrakech was ‘Maroc’ or Morocco. Once this area was all known as ‘Mauretania’ – the Land of the Moors (Blacks) from which all these names derive. Mogador is today’s Essaouira.
Other well-known Moroccan towns are present, as well as the 52-days road to Timbuktu from Zagora or Sijilmassa (Rissani), all depicted with other names.
By this time most camel trade took the western route to Goulimim (Wadi Noun), which explains the vestiges of the tourist camel market there today. The original site is actually here.

flocapjuby1880Cap Juby (today’s Taryaya) we’ll be hearing more about shortly, but inland from here a tough route from Tindouf led to Taoudeni and also Timbuktu.
Southwest from Tindouf another track leads to Mauritania, the old colonial overland route to Dakar mid-last century, as driven by this nutter.

ouadaneMauritania has many familiar places like Atar, Chinguetti (right), Ouadane (left, where we coninued east across the Majabat for Algeria in 2006) as well as Oujeft leading to the ruins of Ksar el Barka, Tidjikja, Tichit, and Oualata for Timbuktu. But no Nouadhibou (Cap Blanc) or Nouadhibou (Tiourourt) yet, far less Zouerat. And no Dakar back then; St Louis was the colonial capital of French West Africa.

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tim-missaoIn Mali Timbuktu is central, with trade routes leading north via Araouane, or Tim Missao well (left) in Algeria where we stopped in 2006 and 1989 (right). No Tamanrasset or Djanet – the two biggest towns in southern Algeria today, but In Salah, Amguid and Temassinin (Bordj Omar Driss) are present.

bilma2006In Libya little seems to have changed: Ghat and Ghadames are there, as well as Germa (Ubari)  and Murzuk on the route for Lake Chad via Bilma (left). To the east the oases making up Kufra lead down to the Ounianga lakes in northern Chad. And east of there is the gilf-55Darb al Arbain (Road of Forty Days) from El Fasher in Sudan, via Selima across the sand sheet (right) towards Kharga and Asyut on the Nile.