On the far side of Niger’s Tenere Desert lies the Djado Plateau, a frayed maze of low escarpments, sand-choked canyons and wind-carved outcrops, geologically contiguous with Algeria’s Tassili N’Ajjer and Libya’s Akakus (right).
This is Tubu and Kanuri country. The latter are an ethnically related group originating from Kanem or Kano in northeastern Nigeria. Tubu nomads best known in northern Chad and, unlike the arriviste Tuareg, are the Sahara’s original inhabitants. When I first listed this area the Tubu of far-eastern Niger where in revolt and a ‘checkpoint’ at Orida took tribute from passing tour groups, all Tuareg led and from Agadez. East of here was a no-go area and was mined, by either the rebels or the Niger army. On old IGN maps the topographic names are derived from the Tuburi language: a peak or hill is ‘Emi’ rather than the Tuareg ‘Adrar’ or Arabic ‘Jebel’, and ‘Enneri’ is a valley, like a ‘oued’ or ‘wadi’.
Perched on an outlying outcrop at the plateau’s edge, like something out of a Tolkein novel is the ruined citadel of Djado (21.016 12.308), a mudbrick warren of passages and collapsed chambers worn ragged by the weathering of passing centuries. Below the fortress, a shallow seasonal pool of brackish water is ringed by reeds and palms.
Such fortified ksars are not unusual in many old Sahara towns like Djanet, Ghat, Dakhla in Egypt and Ouadane in Mauritania. But all are adjacent to a modern town which has since grown up around them. That such a large citadel should located hundreds of miles from the nearest town appears an enigma. Djado personifies the Sahara’s romantic mystique, a Lost City crumbling into the sands. Who lived here, what did they do and where did they all go?
It’s origin may well date back to the late Kanem-Bornu Empire as a station on the trans-Sahara trade route which evolved between Lake Chad and Tripoli. Any place in the Sahara where the groundwater reaches the surface becomes important. By the 17th century, Tripoli – the capital of Ottoman Tripolitania – became the Mediterranean’s busiest slave market. From Lake Chad a line of wells and oases run north via Agadem to the salt mines of Bilma, Aney and on to the smaller salines of Seguedine. Here the route split: the busier arm led northeast to Tumu and the famed slave trading post of Murzuk. The other branched northwest towards Ghat. All of these places would have had a fortified ksar similar to Djado, though not so dramatically isolated.
Around the 18th century it’s probable the inhabitants of ‘Djebado’ (as it’s called on the 1888 map, above) either gradually lost out to the dominant Murzuk trade route, were harassed by Tuareg or Tubu raiding parties, or just succumbed to the growing infestations of malarial mosquitoes which still inhabit the reedy lake today.
The Djado plateau, and more especially the Aïr mountains on the far side of the Tenere, are rich with ancient petroglyphs (left) and other rock art, some 6-8000 years old. At this time the Sahara was a savannah widely populated by the last of the nomadic hunters or early pastoralists. Many show animals long since extinct in the desert: bovids, crocodiles, giraffes or elephants (left). But it is a mistake to conflate the medieval ruins of Djado with the relics of the prehistoric era. The ksar is no more than a 1000 years old and much more likely, half that. To the north is a smaller are more intact ruins of Djaba (below) and beyond that, the well at Orida, 500km from Ghat.
Today the Kanuri whose ancestors were said to have inhabited Djado, live out on the desert plain in the nearby village of Chirfa, though annually they return to harvest the dates which grow alongside the ruins.
Below: an excerpt from the film of the 1960 Berliet Tenere Expedition. An accompanying helicopter surveys ‘Le Mont Saint Michele du Tenere’.
Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
The original 1996 paperback edition of Desert Travels (and now the ebook, left) featured us camped below a striking cathedral-like formation. I’d always wondered where that place actually was. The relevant chapter in the book is called The Cathedral, referring to the spires and church-like ‘portal’ of the pinnacle-clad outcrop. It was shot by Mike Spencer who had a proper camera and slide film.
This was before the GPS era and at the time I was too preoccupied keeping track of the bikes and my Landrover’s numerous issues to attempt to follow our progress on a map with dead reckoning. Our guide, Chadli, knew his stuff but was rather reticent – they teach them that in guide school. I knew the vague location within 50 square miles – the photo credit in the book says ‘near Tin Tarabine’ which is true enough, but that area, if not the whole Tassili-Hoggar southeast of Tam, is famed for unusual rock formations.
I had a rough idea the cathedral (above, with my crumby camera) was somewhere after Tadant canyon well and before Tin Tarabine oued. Then in 2006, coming towards the end of our epic traverse from Mauritania across Mali and Algeria towards the Libyan border (see: Sahara: The Empty Quarter) we passed through that area. I’d not been there since 1988, but anyway coming at it from a different direction, it was all new to me.
As we’d crawled steeply out of Tin Tarabine oued and away from the famous Youf Ehakit – an amazing area of eroded rocks and bizarre, neo-Celtic engravings (left) – our escort’s car needed the clutch repaired yet again.
They pulled up onto a flat rock shelf to to a proper job this time, while I and the others dispersed for a wander. Climbing the outcrop up above the cars, I spotted some intriguing spire-like formations across a plateau a few kilometres to the north. Could I have stumbled on the location of the original DT cathedral cover after all these years?
I grabbed a water and the GPS and set off cross-country, passing pre-Islamic tombs (right), then dodging down into little canyons and over outcrops as the terrain became rougher. On this occasion I didn’t have a copy of DT with me, but the huge, hand-like pinnacles in the far distance looked very familiar.
After about an hour and a half I was running out of daylight to get back, but got close enough to the weathered spires. I took a few hurried shots (left) and the following waypoint which I see now is actually just a kilometre from the formations. But when I got home and looked at the book’s cover closely, I realised they were similar and most unusual but were not the Cathedral, even if I was looking at them from behind.
I forgot all about it for a few years then began to wonder again if the Cathedral could be tracked down now that we have masses of imagery of everything everywhere and any time. I scanned people’s Panoramio and Flicker albums as well as the embedded photos on Google Earth (often irritatingly misplaced, as we all know…). There were plenty of amazing rock formations in the Tassili-Hoggar vicinity, but no distinctive Cathedral.
In the end I knew the best people to ask were the Germans –der uber-Saharans. I may know the Sahara well, but in Germany there are hundreds more experienced and better travelled Saharans than me. In the good years they explored every corner of the desert, but most didn’t feel the need to write guidebooks about it afterwards.
I posted my question with a picture on Wuestenschiff, one of the main German Sahara forums. Within a couple of days I had a name for my location: the Cathedrals of Tin Eggoleh and the waypoint: N22°21’6.75″ E007°5’12.20″. About 50km to the northeast of the ‘false-sprires’ of 2006.
Mystery solved and somewhere good to aim for next time…
Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
Out in Niger’s Tenere desert, east of the Aïr mountains lies the isolated massif of Adrar Madet. About 2.5 kilometres directly west of the 20-km long massif’s northern tip, a perfect stone circle lies in the sand. The circle is about 20m in diametre and some 600m from the circle and more or less at each cardinal point is a small arrow. You can see all five points here on Bing. You won’t see them on Google.
I’ve not been there but have known about it for years. Some speculate that it could a sacred pre-historic marker associated with prime meridians and ancient Egyptian knowledge, marking the ‘middle of North Africa’ (left). It is a huge coincidence that the circle is – within a few kilometres – exactly halfway between the equator and Ras Angela near Bizerte in Tunisia, the northernmost point of Africa. And it’s nearly directly south (178.4°) of Ras Angela, too. (Fwiw, it’s 64km west to the actual point directly south of Ras Angela, just south of Arakao on the edge of the Aïr.)
I err more towards the idea of a much less ancient aviation landmark from the colonial era, one of many located in the Sahara, including less ambiguous examples where names of nearby outposts are stencilled inside the circles. Fellow Saharaholic, Yves Rohmer confirms this fact. Rubbish from that era: tin cans, bottles of Pastis and so on, litter the Madet site. A similar circle exists in nearby Fachi, with that name stencilled in it and close to an old airstrip. Another plausible explanation made in the discussion linked above was a drop zone for parachute or bomb training.
Not so mysterious after all then, but you do wonder, with the distinctive and isolated 20-km-long Madet ridge angled NW/SE and the Aïr massif to the west, what value the tiny 20-m stone compass actually added to aerial navigation? And why put an airstrip there if anywhere flat in the Sahara can be an ’emergency airstrip’. And would they have spent days building the drop zone circle when a ring of smoking oil drums would have sufficed.
Another possibility I like to entertain is of a playful or geographically inclined Colonel stationed in the Sahara. He’d spent his lovelorn honeymoon in Bizerte and, looking at his Michelin map one hot day, noticed Adrar Madet’s central position. He decided it would be a good morale-building (or time-killing) exercise to have the circle and cardinal points marked in the desert for posterity. But as Adrar Madet is far from any route or useful resource, the purpose and meaning of his enigmatic earth sculpture has been lost in the sands of time.
That’s as may be, but what about the other very similar but smaller cobbled stone circles I’ve seen in the mountains of southern Algeria (below)? Neither could have been described as aviation markers. ‘Tombs’ said the guides, but not at all like the usual pre-Islamic tombs of the desert.
Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
In just about the geographical centre of the Sahara lie the Hoggar mountains. Compared to the tawny Tassili N’Ajjer further east, it’s a harsh landscape of basalt buttes erupting vertically from the barren landscape.
In the heart of the Hoggar massif is a dramatic cluster of eroded volcanic cores overlooked by the 9000-foot high Assekrem Pass, part of the Ahaggar National Park. Some maps call it the Atakor.
There are three ways to get to Assekrem: the regular 85-km eastern route up from Tam via Iharen peak. A gnarlier and slightly shorter western route which starts near the airport, though is usually taken as the decent from Assekrem to make a loop back to Tam as it’s easier to follow going down. Another route comes in from the north from Hirhafok over the Tin Teratimt Pass (above).
Or you can follow a network of camel tracks (above). It takes a week or more, depending where your start.
Assekrem is the best known of the many wonders of southern Algeria. A lodge sits on the saddle of the pass (above) where tourists spend the night to enjoy the stunning sunset and sunrise across the brooding volcanic monoliths from the plateau above the Pass.
Though he spent most of his time in Tam, early in the early 20th century Charles de Foucauld, a French bon viveur and soldier turned missionary, built a crude stone hermitage on this plateau (above).
Among other things, Foucauld was responsible for the first Tamachek-French dictionary, and his house still stands in Tam. It was in Tam in 1916 that Foucauld was assassinated as a suspected French spy, during the Senussi uprisings in Libya and Egypt. Je was beatified in 2005 anf the hermitage is still tended today by a couple of aged members of the order of Les Petites Frères de Jésus, who were inspired by Foucauld’s life.
Recently I rode Morocco’s 2300-kilometre Atlantic Highway nearly all the way to the southern border and nearly all the way back. I last came this way in 2006 heading for our Empty Quarter crossing. I knew it then, I know it now: scenically, mile for mile, the Atlantic Highway is pretty dull by Saharan standards – a drab limestone plain where, encounters aside, sea-cliff viewpoints and a few barchan dunes are as good as it gets. If you’re on a mission to get to Mauritania – as I was on this occasion – here’s what I found.
Up north, use the autoroutes to dodge the N1 and speed traps
It’s a long way so coming from the northern ports, I recommend sitting on the A1 and A7 motorways all the way to Agadir where the A7 ends, even though you pay tolls (about £30 for a moto/car). South of here traffic gets thinner and thinner. The alternative coastal N1 trunk road is slower, less safe and is commonly staked out by cops with radar guns, especially around Essaouira and Agadir. Otherwise, there are any number of great ways of exploring inland Morocco, across the Atlas mountains and all the way east and south to the Desert Highway along the Algerian border.
The speed cops are creeping south
Even though I was hyper-aware of the risk of radar cops, I still got caught leaving Tan Tan doing 80 in a 60. That would have been 300d but however I handled it, I handled it well and he let me off. All the way to Layounne and Dakhla, be wary of lurking speed cops as you approach or leave settlements and even out in the desert. Crossing solid white lines is another favourite and easily done when stuck behind a soot-spewing lorry crawling up an incline,
Western Sahara checkpoints and fiches
As ‘Western Sahara’ is a a military zone, checkpoints increase south of Tan Tan, and unlike up north, they don’t just wave foreigners through but want your passport details. Handing over a pre-printed ‘fiche‘ (French for ‘form’ – below) helps speed up the process. With one, they can log you in once you’ve gone. It seems they’re less needed these days; I got through only about six on the way down – the last one at Dakhla Junction. Some checkpoints will insist on seeing your passport anyway; others just want a chat.
On the Ni, subsidised fuel begins 92km south of Tan Tan
Along with a few other key commodities, fuel is subsidised by about 30% in Moroccan Western Sahara. The first discounted fuel station is just after you climb out of an inlet and causeway, right by a checkpoint.
Fish & Chips at Afknenir
Pull in for a poisson-frites in Afkhenir, 20 kms from the checkpoint above. For some reason streetside fish restos here are like casinos on the Nevada border. You may think there’ll be loads more down the coastal highway, but there aren’t. Perhaps the upwelling of nutrients from the cold Canary Current which gets funnelled by the Canaries themselves is more evident on this near-north-facing section of coast before Cape Juby. Or maybe local demand supports the informal shore-casting fishing economy. You’ll see loads of scooterists with rods as well as the crude clifftop shelters where they live.
They’re rebuilding the road
South of Guelmim a new, wider road is being built in stages, sometimes alongside the old one – certainly as far as Layounne. Around the dunes of the windy Khnifiss lagoon past Tan Tan, the roadwork embankments see sand cover the two-lane road – not a good place to meet an oncoming truck while checking your likes.
It’s very windy – day and night
They say March is especially bad, but south of Guelmim where the desert sets in, it’s windy day and night. Normally in the Sahara the wind stops at dusk but In late February a huge Saharan sandstorm (below) made the news when holidaymakers on the Canaries were stranded. On the coast fog (right) is also present, certainly between Guelmim and Tarfaya. The flat landscape can’t help, plus the whole 3000-mile width of the Sahara has been steadily heated by the rising sun before it reaches the Atlantic. On the move it’s OK but camping would be pretty miserable.
Within a kilometre of the coast the northerly sea breeze can also blow up to 10°C cooler than an easterly from the dry interior just a mile or two inland. But generally, the wind is behind you; on a pushbike (I saw a few), that’s important. But all this wind is good for the economy: Dakhla has long been a kiters’ resort (below) and there’s a huge installation of wind turbines south of Tarfaya, helping keep the lights on in Laayoune.
The monument at Tah
On the N1 for Laayoune you’ll pass through nondescript Tah with no fuel and barely a cafe and shop to rub together. In the middle of town is a granite monument covered in Arabic inscriptions. It marks the spot where, in November 1975, some 350,000 Moroccan civilians symbolically marched over the then border into Spanish Sahara.
This was the Green March (above left) three co-ordinated and tactical mass demos mobilised by the wily King Hassan in response to rumours of Spain considering handing over its marginal colony to the indigenous Saharawi and Polisario Front. The marches led to the 16-year Western Sahara War which Morocco effectively won by annexing most of the territory (above, right). It’s why the UN still hang out in Western Sahara and why masses of unmapped landmines are still a menace. Otherwise, not much appears to have happened in Tah since that glorious November day.
Laayoune is the provincial capital and biggest settlement in WS by far, with a prosperous frontier-town vibe to it. At least from what I percieved; the Saharawi shantytowns may not be so rosy and civil disturbances are not uncommon. Riot police lurk on standby in the town centre (below). The UN’s MINURSO mission is based here. Passing through the city, the transit is not an obvious single main road. Without a satnav, follow signs for the airport, or take the Laayoune bypass (see below).
The Laayoune bypass
At Tarfaya (former Cap Juby) you can turn into the town, head for the shore past the St Exupery museum, his monument, and the 19th-C curiosity of Mackenzie’s Factory). Following the coastal road 90km to Foum El Oued (‘river mouth’) brings you back to the N1 just south of Laayoune city. It would be nice to report this is a quiet byway passing tranquil beaches, but the wind is ever-present and trucks use this narrow road to avoid Laayoune. Dunes also get bulldozed off the road, especially south where the road gets narrower. I suppose it might be cooler than the inland route and the beached Armas ferry is a site to behold. There’s more here.
The longest fuel range is 162km but may be 250km
This is between Tchika (Imlili) near some big white barchans on the north edge of the Gulf of Cintra and: Bir Gandouz, the last town, 80km from the border. There is nothing at all along this section except the howling wind. However, the Tchika station and the two similarly grubby Atlas Sahara stations to the north near El Agroub (see map right) may be empty. Stations may get upgraded, but for the moment this means from Dakhla Junction roundabout (two fuel stations) to Bir Gandouz is 252km (via the Tropic of Cancer). I covered that distance northbound and into the wind and go in with a pint left in the tank.
Is Dakhla worth the 90-km round trip?
No so sure, but then I took the cheap hotel thing a bit far in the old town. Next time it might be more fun to check out the kiters’ resorts at the head of the lagoon. On the other hand, up north, Boujdour was a fun stop for an evening wander.
Plan a break at the Hotel Barbas in Bir Gandouz
Maybe it was just me on the day, but the Hotel Barbas was an oasis in a duststorm. And once inside shimmered into a veritable mirage. We stayed here in 1997 but the place has been transformed to the point of incongruity. They built a two–storey U-shaped bank of rooms around a planted courtyard but then, ingeniously, draped the entire thing in a huge shade-net. Result: a large, cool space where courteous waistcoated waiters flit about at your service. Rooms are good, prices are normal, food is good too and so is the wi-fi. Tourist, traveller or trader, some of the characters that roll through add to the place’s edgy ambience. The south end of Morocco, not the north coast, marks the true border with Africa. Bir G is an easy day from Boujdour which itself is an easy day from Tan Tan. An early start and you’ll be at the border with RIM within an hour.
What is ‘La Gouira’ you see on the road signs?
The ‘Lagouira’ you’ll see listed on some old Atlantic Highway road signs indicates the short-lived Spanish base at La Agüera on the Ras Nouadhibou peninsula opposite today’s Nouadhibou. See map inset below. Effectively it indicates the distance to Nouadhibou which is not always listed. Abandoned at the turn of this century, today it’s a collection of ruins which are actually in the Polisario Free Zone, a No-Man’s-like band of territory which separates Morocco from Mauritania. Some have managed, but the Mauritanians won’t allow casual visits from the Nouadhibou side.
Here a fascinating 1960s vintage film (45 mins; French) on the work it took IGN to produce their brilliant 1:200,000 scale Sahara maps from thousands of aerial photos, sonar readings and laborious ground surveys. Loads more in Yves R’s Sahara website and some stills below.
Organised by French ex-army Saharienne, Jean de Boucher, in February 1967 twelve land yachts with pilots from half-a-dozen countries set off on a 2500-km rally from Colomb Bechar (then linked by rail from Oujda on the Mediterranean) to Nouakchott on the Atlantic coast, at times following today’s recently reopened Tindouf Route via Algeria. It seems the race element of the rally was abandoned after some 2000km in Zouerat following several DNFs, but some carried on down the coast, cutting across what was then Spanish Sahara (‘PFZ’), on to the beach at Nouamghar and down the beach to Nouakchott. At this time most of Mauritania’s population still lived in the desert as nomads. The rally was supported by a couple Land-Rovers, small planes and surviving French military garrisons with which General de Boucher presumably had good connections.
The adventure featured in the November 1967 issue of National Geographic magazine (left, right, below). A couple of images are used here; read the full 30-page article scanned on the Extreme Kites website. There are more reminiscences here by American competitor, Larry P featured on the magazine’s cover.
Thanks to Dutch participant, Copijn Bruine Beuk for turning me on to this little-known story and sharing his own pictures of the event (below). Besides hundreds of punctures, as the article recalls, early on Copijn had a close shave with an overhead electricity wire – luckily it wasn’t live. The same happened to a few others who ended up with snapped masts. Once it gets going, a land yacht can hit 60mph or more, but back then brakes added up to little more than a hinged footboard you pressed into the dirt (left), like pressing your feet on the ground to slow an out-of-control pushbike. So you can see why half the field DNF’d. Other hazards included side gusts blowing a land yacht over – February-March were chosen as the time of the strongest northeasterlies. Note also the twin steering wheels: one to steer the front wheel and the other to adjust the sail’s trim: pressing on the footbrake for all your worth, that’s quite a lot to think about when hurtling towards a steep oued bank or into a small dune field. Makes desert biking look positively benign!
Part of an occasional Sahara A to Z series Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
‘Free Solo’ is a documentary covering Alex Honnold’s mind-boggling, rope-free ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite, California in 2017 (left). If you’ve seen it you may recall that, among other places, Honnold practised on a hidden cirque of cliffs surrounding the scattered hamlet of Taghia, buried about as deep in Morocco’s High Atlas as you can get. A couple of rudimentary gites cater for visitors but, even among Moroccan know-alls, unless you’re a rock climber you’ll have never heard of Taghia. The only way in is a four-mile mule trek through a canyon from the valley head at the equally obscure outpost of Zuweiat Ahansal, an hour or two’s ride south of Rocher de Mastfrane, better known as the ’Cathedral’ (below).
I rocked up at Zuweiat one lunchtime just as a group of young American climbers were spilling out of a taxi, and continued over the bridge to the edge of the old town. I pulled over for a snack and, unsure of the way and not wanting to blunder on, asked a passing local whether it was possible to ride a bike to Taghia and if yes, which way?
‘Oh no’ said the old man. ‘You can only get there on foot.’
I finished my snack and thought it over. Back by the bridge, I sought a second opinion from some more worldly looking dudes hanging out outside the post office. They were eyeing up the new, North Face-clad arrivals and one spoke good English.
‘Yes, I saw you pass and was going to say, you can’t ride your moto to Taghia.’
It turned out he’d worked on the Honnold doc as well as other National Geographic features and, reading his manner with my finely tuned bullshit detector (which they now hand out free at the border), it didn’t sound like the usual bragging. After that, he switched seamlessly into sales mode, offering lodgings and guides.
‘Maybe next time’, I said. I genuinely did hope to visit the mysterious valley, but the weather forecast was a bit shaky for the next couple of days. I wanted to get out of the mountains, not stuck in them.
A year or two earlier a bike-riding climber who’d visited Taghia suggested to me that a small bike (like my Himalayan) could probably reach the cirque following the riverside mule path.
While that may be true, I figured just because I could, did I have to – or even, should I? The local guide may merely have been protecting his mule-trekking services, but I like the idea of leaving some of the world’s wild corners unspoiled by the putter of mechanized transport. As I was about to be reminded, there’s plenty to see in Morocco on a bike or in a 4×4, but there are many places in the world which are best reached by less intrusive human-powered transportation. That’s what makes them special.
Set off with a mission to join some dots for my spring tour in a couple of weeks.
Mission accomplished. Dots joined.
More about the bike here.
High Atlas village
Another new road from nowhere to nowhere much. I suppose it helps stir up the local gene pool.
One of these days I’m going to watch a youtube doc on how they build mountain roads.
Above the clouds at 2500m or about 8300′ in old money.
An isolated juniper tree that’s managed to dodge the village wood burners.
Checking the link route to Map Junction above Ijoukak.
1970s Transit. One of the only vehicle’s I saw today once off the main roads. The other was a Trannie too.
Another photogenic village somewhere.
Resting outside a village north of Sidi Ouazik, a relocated Reguibat (Saharawi) ends up giving me some meteorites from the Hammada du Tindouf (St Expert mentioned these in WS).
Never knew Saharawi were relocated way up here – 45 families, he said.
I tell him I’m on my way to Reguibat country. About 5 days ride from here to #thedigtree