I recently received this interesting graphic from Austrian desert traveller, Peter R. In the winter of 1983-4 he and three others set off to cross the Sahara from west to east, and on Christmas Eve 1983 found them here, about 200km southwest of Aguelhok in northern Mali. On that trip, which included a lot of driving off-piste, they used laborious astro-fixing to establish their position, when needed. The IGN maps of the era were (and still are) very good, and identifying distinctive isolated peaks or similar formations from maps helped with orientation. Decades later Peter was able to pinpoint his festive position much more accurately combining high-resolution aerial Bing Maps imagery and the angles of the distinctive hills around them from photos taken on that day. Doing so revealed their astro fix position was about 600 metres off to the southeast, and their initial Dead Reckoning estimate was only about a kilometre to the SSE. Not bad at all.
I’ve never tried astro-nav nor met anyone who did it, even for a laugh. By the time I was exploring the desert away from pistes (where an accurate position is more useful), civilian GPS was available. Pre-GPS, I did occasionally use prominent landmarks for orientation by taking a bearing with a sighting compass, though my bike’s odometer (trip meter) was by far the most useful navigation aid, telling me how far I’d gone along a track; a form of dead reckoning which was easily estimated on a 1:1m scale IGN map where a 1mm equalled a kilometre on the ground.
Looking at Peter’s graphic makes me realise astro-fixing might also be a form of triangulation as one would use on land in a 2D plane. Except astro is in 3D and also requires accurate times combined with precise angles (declination) and bearings (azimuth) of easily found ‘landmark’ stars (above: Capella, Betelgeuse and Deneb) to triangulate a position on the ground. To measure these angles you need a tripod-mounted theodolite – as Peter’s group used for greater accuracy – or a classical hand held sextant (left). You then need tables to convert you timing and other data into a terrestrial position. Around this time I remember certain calculators – you might even call them mini computers – became available which halved the time it took to secure a position from about 90 minutes to 45. I suspect there’s probably a lot more to it than that. Here’s a lengthy report about experimenting with sextant positioning in the Sahara. The user averaged an error against GPS of 4km which makes Peter R’s reading all the more impressive (though it wasn’t done with GPS but photo orientation and triangulation)
I never knew so many stars were named. For example Orion’s Belt (which I’ve always seen as one side of an arrowhead pointing just west of north) is composed of Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak. And the two ‘pointer stars’ on the end of the Plough (aka: Ursa Major; Big Dipper) which lead to Polaris, are called Dubhe and Merak. (More here about how Polaris works). All these names sound Arabic. I remember Stanfords used to sell star maps, and on one camel tour ages ago, someone’s smartphone had an app to point at the night skies and identify constellations and maybe star names too. I dare say these apps are even cleverer now.
I also learned that estimating you N-S latitude (in the northern hemisphere at least) is as easy a taking an angle off Polaris – the North Star around which all stars rotate. You can do this roughly with a baseplate compass. I remember an old Silva Ranger compass had a clinometer which makes this a bit easier. Now I think about it, Polaris is usually quite low in the Sahara sky; about 25° above the horizon which sounds about right. That’s been done by navigators for millennia, but some may remember Dava Sobel’s popular 1995 book Longitude which described the Longitude Act of 1714 to egg on the invention of very accurate clocks or chronometers to help mariners calculate E-W longitude, the missing link and handy for crossing the Atlantic. Like so much else, I’ve forgotten most of the Sobel book, but the video below explains the principl very clearly around 5:25. With a chronometer set at Solar noon at Greenwich, clocking midday anywhere else and working out the time discrepancy at 15° to the hour, gives a number of degrees of longitude (and so a distance) off the Prime Greenwich Meridian, north or south of the equator.
I looked on YT for a video which might summarise astro-fixing succinctly, but many were aimed at mariners and stretched on for hours. This snappy video, complete with a jaunty soundtrack, gives you the basics on orientating yourself (finding north). That’ll do me for now.
Anyone who’s taken the RN3 down to Djanet in southeastern Algeria will remember the Tin Taradjeli Pass. By the mid-1980s the tarmac may have reached Illizi, but from here a bone-shaking 200-km crossing of the Fadnoun plateau was so rough, steep and bendy, bigger trucks had to take a long detour and there were warning signs at each end of the plateau: Attention; Dangerous Track.
Part of the Tassili N’Ajjer escarpment which stretches over into the Libyan Akakus, the Fadnoun was a notorious, vehicle-wrecking barrier. Suspension problems were common and on various trips I came across a 2CV and a Hilux which were gradually breaking in half and needed the chassis braced.
As I write in Desert Travels, crossing the Fadnoun with a Landrover 101 and a group of bikes in 1989, they’d ride for an hour and then wait hours for me to catch up.
On the left, the 1983 edition of the Paris-Dakar crossed the Fadnoun on its way to Djanet and the Tenere beyond.
A map and few shots of Tin Taradjeli over the years.
Book Chapters: 16 Arak 17 Bad Day at Laouni 18 The Far Side 19 A Blue Man 20 The Hills are Alive
After my batty Benele excursion of 1984 I brushed my hair, straightened my tie and bought a sensible XT600Z, just like I always knew I would. This was the slightly better 55W version of the original kick-only Tenere, distinguishable by sloping speedblocks on the tank (more here). All I did was add thicker seat foam and fit some Metzeler ‘Sahara’ tyres – a rubbish choice for the actual Sahara, as I was to learn. Using no rack was another mistake which nearly cost me the bike. My learning curve was still as steep and loose as a dune slip face. In fact, there was so little to do to the Yahama that I moved the oil cooler from down by the carbs up into the breeze over the bars. And I painted it black because I still hadn’t shaken off my juvenile Mad Max phase.
With my £5 ex-army panniers slung over the back, in December 1985 I set off for Marseille, bound for Dakar via Algeria, Niger and Mali. As I mention in the book, I was going to try a new ‘go with the flow’ strategy’. Instead of being ground down and resentful by the setbacks of my previous adventures, I’d just take the reversals on the chin, bounce back, and move on. On this trip that stoic philosophy was to get a thorough road test!
Recap: I’m taking a two-week touring holiday in Algeria, late summer 1984 and it has become very hot indeed. I’m riding a 200cc mash up of AJS, Honda CD200, VW and Yamaha with enough ground clearance to become an Olympic event but barely enough power to stir a tea bag.
Yesterday I rode through a tornado and right now I’m just south of the Tademait plateau: Day 3 in Algeria.
This is part two of a bonus chapter which does not appear in the book.
I got up before sunrise but it was still warm a hot summer’s day in the UK. I packed up and rode towards In Salah, a hour or so down the road. Soon I came across a French guy on a Z750LTD – that’s a Kawasaki early 80s mock-chop in case you’ve forgotten. Clearly 1984 was the year to ride the Sahara on dumb bikes. He was sat by the side of the road looking a bit how I felt: shell shocked. Yesterday on the Tademait, the satanic sand storms had also freaked him out and he was beginning to realise his bike, a spine-wrecking ‘factory custom’ (as was the fashion at the time) was not such a cool highway cruiser after all. He’d had enough and was heading back north.
I carried on south, passing the denuded outliers of the Tademait plateau. The old fuel station in In Salah was always fighting to keep its chin above the sands, and I pulled in to fill up for the next stage: 270km along the Trans Sahara Highway to Arak Gorge with not so much as a well on the way.
A short distance out of town I passed another fallen truck, as I’d done near here in 1982 in the XT, only that time it was flat on its back with its wheels were up in the air. As before, the road perfectly flat and straight. You presume the driver had dozed off in the heat of his cab and jack-knifed. It’s not the greatest picture I’ve ever taken but you’ll notice there’s someone camped by the truck – maybe the driver. He’s watching the wreck so it doesn’t get stripped bare before someone comes along with whatever it takes to get it back on its wheels.
Time for a quick pose why not. Young kids these days think they invented self obsession and selfies! We were doing that years ago! And probably our parents before us, if they had a camera.
I liked my trusty Bell Moto 3 but I’m sure glad I never had a crash in it. The padding inside was about as inviting as the inside of a cylinder head. I also see I’m wearing a natty nylon British Airways cabin steward’s scarf picked up in Laurence Corner’s army surplus ‘boutique’ in Camden, just up the road from our Blooomsbury squat.
They say the Beatles bought their Sgt. Pepper outfits there, and the likes of, Adam Ant, Kate Moss (possibly still in nappies at the time) and Jean-Paul Gaultier (older, but probably also in leopardskin nappies) have all rummaged around in the junk at LC, looking for something to cut a dash. As trendy despatchers looking for the ultimate outfit, we did too, and I think the scarf was an impulsive £1 purchase.
Back to the desert where the only fashion was to get from water to water before what you had ran out. The low elevation hereabouts meant it was becoming exceedingly hot. I’m guessing about 45°C or over 110 F. That’s nothing unusual at these latitudes I’m sure, but I’d never experienced temperatures hotter than I was. I was being baked alive by the air I was riding through and so I wrapped up tight to keep the blast from turning me into a shrivelled Peruvian mummy.
In this pre-Camelbak era, every half hour or so I just had to stop for a drink. I was getting through water at a rate of 2–3 gallons (10+ litres) a day which was all I could carry. As I rode along, by the time I could stand it no more I’d feel the desiccation creeping down my throat, and realised how fatal dehydration actually gets you from the insides out as you helplessly breath in air at well over body temperature (36°C). It was clear that the survival manuals were right all along: without water or shelter, consciousness could be measured in a matter of hours in this sort of heat.
At one point I thought I simply must cool myself down and poured a helmet’s worth of water into my Bell and put it on. The delicious effect soaked down through my clothes with a steamy hiss, but half an hour later I was again throat-parched and dry as a roadside baguette.
The Trans-Sahara Highway that had finally linked Algiers with Tamanrasset just a couple of years earlier was already breaking up, and in this heat, you could see why. Black tar which sizzled as you spat on it wouldn’t stand a chance as another over-loaded lorry hammered the scorching highway to a pulp. Diversions shoved traffic onto the sands so repairs could be undertaken, and I had my first chance to be forced to ride the Benele off road. All things considered it managed well enough, even with horsepower barely into double figures. The trials tyres and light baggage all helped.
Then, as I neared Arak something changed in the ride, the suspension seemed to tighten up. I hopped off, dreading some problem with the Honda motor which could surely not handle such heat for much longer. It was a simpering commuter hack brutally abused by being thrown into the deep end of a Saharan summer. A quick look revelled the chain was as tight as a bow string. On this trip I was experimenting running a non-o-ring chain dry to avoid oily sand wrecking the seals. I can tell you now that was a bad idea. years later rode a BM in Morocco with an o-ring that got plastered in sand and even with daily oiling it needed adjustment once in 4000 miles.
Modern chains are incredible, but back then I was worried my hyper-taught chain and bouncing suspension – three times longer than any CD200 had imagined in its worse malarial dream – might rip out the engine sprocket and ping it across the desert floor. I soothed the creaking chain with engine oil and watched it sag before my eyes. Now it was way too slack but the AJS frame had some nutty eccentric swingarm pivot like 1970s Ducatis which was a faff to adjust in the state I was in. I was out of water and the mercury was again pushing at the end of the dial. Just as I’d panicked when my XT500 had leaked away half its fuel on the way to Niger in ’82, I felt the compulsion to flee towards shelter so rode on to Arak just a few miles down the road, with a slap-slapping chain.
Relieved that I’d just caught the bike in time, I decided to remount the barred blacktop under repair to save any extra strain on the transmission. The gorge walls of Arak rose up ahead but then the tar suddenly took on a darker shine and I sunk into a sludge of thick, freshly laid bitumen as the gutless Benele lurched to a crawl. I yanked on the single carb to spur the slug onward, the tyres pushed a trench through the oily slush and bitumen sprayed across the mudguards with a clatter of sticky gravel. What a mess. I steered off the unset mush and continued to the roadhouse, hoping my tar trench would melt back smooth, like divided custard.
Now safely at the roadhouse I crouched in the shade clutching a drink and looked forward to a rest before the final stage on to the Cone Mountains, 100km down the road and just where the desert landscape begins to bet interesting. As I pondered my near miss with wrecking the bike, an army jeep pulled up, two guys jumped out and marched up to me.
‘Is this your moto?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Why did you drive on the closed road!’ I may have pathetically tried to play dumb until they pointed our the sticky black splat coating the undersides of my bike. ‘I am sorry. I was panicking. You see my chain was…’ ‘Did you not see the signs ‘Road Closed? and the stones blocking the road’ ‘Yes. Sorry. Look I will go back and repair it myself’, I reasoned, thinking I could smooth it all back with a plank of wood. ‘Shut up! You will pay for this. Give me your passport!’
One of them snatched it out of my had and they stormed off back to the fort in a flurry of wheel-spin. The other people in the roadhouse looked down at me with the pity of one who was rightly in the dog house, gagged up and tied down. Another heat-frazzled wannabe adventurer disrespecting locals regs. There began my three day ‘hut arrest’ in Arak.
Everything I had was hot all the time. Nothing had cooled down for days. As I unpacked my stuff I found candles had drooped into Dali-esque blobs and weirder still, opening a tin of luncheon meat or ‘Spam’, the contents poured out like water, flecked with pink particles of fat-saturated gristle. I’ve not eaten that stuff since! I spent the days reading J. P. Donleavy or chatting with other similarly heat-struck bikers passing through, while dust storms periodically ripped through the gorge. By night it was just too hot inside the hut, so I slept outside in what little breeze there was. Even then, I’d wake up once in a while with my lips and throat parched fit to crack, and struggle to remoisten my mouth from the water bottle.
As the days passed I knew I was running out of time to visit my goal: the mini massif I now know as Sli Edrar (left). Then one morning the jeep returned and my passport was returned with nothing more than an admonition no to do it again. Ashamed of my stupidity, I’d got off lightly and vowed to oil the chain as often as it damn well liked. I packed my ragged bags and set off on the 1000-mile ride back to Algiers port where a boat left in four days time
A day or so later I wasn’t feeling well. I got past In Salah and was lightheaded, stumbling and weak. Just up ahead was the climb back onto the dreaded Tademait plateau, not a place I wanted to tackle in the shape I was in. So halfway up the switchback climb I pulled off the road and crawled into the shade of a metre-high culvert. What was wrong with me? I was surely drinking enough: 10 litres a day and a couple more by night. Then it struck me. Water was not enough. I needed to ingest salt and other essential minerals flushed out in my sweat which evaporated unseen. That must be it. I made myself a salty-sugary drink and lay back while it took effect, wary that this was just the sort of place snakes and scorpions might also like to pass a siesta. Despite, or perhaps because of my dozy state, I clearly thought a picture of my other camera on a tripod would be a fitting souvenir of my in-culvert recuperation.
The drink did the trick and revived and I set off across the Tademait, tensed up in readiness for something bad to happen – a piece of the sky falling on my head, perhaps? Nagging me were the 1100km that still lay between me and the Algiers boat that left in two day’s time. It was time to put some miles in. For once the 400-km crossing of the the Tademait passed without event and which in itself felt creepy. I filled up in El Golea and another 250 clicks got me past Ghardaia, the gateway to the Sahara. Only now it was late afternoon, time for the headwinds to kick up. At times the feeble motor strained to reach 25mph while I crouched over the bars, crippled with stiffness, watching the odometer numbers click by in slow motion.
By now the UV had seen paper-thin Times delivery bag had fallen apart. I lashed it to the bike with a piece of plank and some nice 7mm climbing rope. Around Berriane the wind sucked in a dust storm and visibility dropped to a few feet. I edged to the side of the road, wondering what would be thrown at me next and if I should get off the road altogether, not least because cars still rushed past me, confident that whatever risk they took, it was OK because All Was Written. By Laghouat I’d caught up with myself and had taken a good 1000-km chunk out of the map. I unclawed my hands from the ‘bars and tracked down the only hotel in town. But the uppity ponce behind reception had no room for the likes of me, so I rode out to some edge-of-town wasteland more suited to my kind. As I slumped against a litter-strewn, shit-riddled ruin, an old guy living in a cardboard hovel I’d not even noticed hailed me over.
I’d never actually met a regular Algerian civilian before. He invited me in and we chatted as well we could while his unseen wife prepared a meal. He proudly told me how he’d fought in the recent Western Sahara war against Morocco (Algeria lost that one), and when the time came I was invited to sleep on his living room carpet. Sadly, it turned out to be agonisingly flee-ridden and try as I might, I could not drop off as another bug took a jab. I moved out into the donkey yard but it was too late, the fleas had latched on and in turn went on to infest my lovely old mattress back in my London squat for many months. I did everything I could to delouse it, repeated dousing of flea powder and even gently torching it with hairspray and a lighter. But as the flames licked over it, those Algerian bloodsuckers just yawned and sharpened their mandibles. Eventually I had to chuck it.
Thanks to the killer, 12-hour, day from Arak, only 400kms remained. I was well on target for the boat the day after tomorrow,. After a week of relentless day and night heat, the temperatures finally began to drop as I rose back into the Atlas mountains north of Ain Oussera. Unready to face the congested capital, I bought myself a roadside melon and bounced over some roadside scrub down into a ditch, stalled the bike, and passed the night there.
Another big mistake. I’d carelessly left the ignition on (something I’ve caught myself doing since, when dirt camping). Next morning the battery was as dead as roadkill and, try as I might, no amount of jump starting could get the Benele going.
It was just 100km to the port and hours before the ferry left. I pushed the bike into a layby, made a sign ‘Alger port SVP’ and eventually two kind blokes responded to my plea and loaded the Benele into their pickup. ’What’s with all this tar all over the bike?’ Don’t ask, mon brave… Following a battery acid transfusion and a cafe noire injection in Medea, I was good to go. I spun down the Atlas bends into Algiers and blundered my way to the port gates. I was late but so was the ferry.
Even today I can tell you: nothing beats the feeling of a ferry steaming away from a North African port. Did I say that already about the 1982 trip? Well it was even more true in 1984 and on most years since. Let Somali pirates steal us to their thorny lairs; let sudden storms hail down brimstone and flip the ferry. I was out of Algeria. Yippey–I-yay!
A day later the boat docked in Marseille. It was probably Friday, I had to be back at work on Monday. So I’m still not sure what possessed me to make a casual visit to the Bol d’Or 24-hour endurance race set for that weekend nearby, at Le Castellet raceway, except that Bike magazine had enshrined it as a biker’s rite of passage – France’s one-day equivalent of the Isle of Man or Daytona, as much a moto-carnival as a race spectacle. I rode in and watched the 3-man teams flip their slick tyred UJM’s from bend to bend and also enjoyed some baffled looks at my odd bike, battle scarred from its recent desert detour. The trail-bike loving Frenchies who went on to buy more Ténérés than anyone at least would get some like Le Bénélé.
I even had the presence of mind to check out #53 on an RD500LC popping in for a fill up. I bet the team spent more time filling that tank than he did on the track.
But my abiding memory from the ’84 Bol was a vision of my desert biking future. In fact it was a future that was already two years old, and its name was Yamaha. XT600Z. Ténéré. On the Sonauto Yamaha stand was TT-Z Dakar factory racer looking slick in the sexy, pale blue Gauloise livery which we never got in the UK. It has it all: 55-litre tank, discs all round, 12-volt lights and a side stand as long as a pool cue. Even if the road-going XT-Z was less extreme, what was not to like? My Bénélé joke-bike had been a cocky imbecile’s two-fingers flicked at the Yam. Why? Search me but 30 years later I found myself engaged in a similarly pointless project.
OK, I concede. The Tenere ticked all the boxes, but it had been fun doing it my way. I’m sure there’s some pithy Armenian proverb that spells it all out, something like: ‘The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn from the crow‘. Actually that’s William Blake as quoted in Dead Man movie.
Anyway, a Tenere could (and did) come later, right now It was time for the final haul, another 1100 clickety-clicks to Calais and a boat back to the UK. I spent that night in some slug-riddled fores and Sunday morning saddled up bright and early to get a good run up for the ferry ramp. Tonight I’d be back home, but as I’ve learned so well over the years: it’s never over till it’s over. I don’t know where I was – the middle of France somewhere – but within an hour or two of setting off a slate-grey death cloud crawled up onto the horizon, unzipped itself with a shrug and proceeded to empty its bladder straight in my face. My desert desiccated leathers soaked up what they could, before dutifully passing it onto my next layer of clothing, until within just a few minutes I was a sodden spongebag of saturated rags.
Splashing through a village, I overcame my reserve, swung into a farmyard and rode the bike into a barn. Inside was an old steam powered lettuce thrasher. There I slumped, dripping on a workbench, exhaustion welling up from the previous fortnight’s moto mania. I was dropping off and ready to tip over in a heap when the farmer wandered in and said coolly: ‘Fatiguée, eh?’ Damn right mon ami. I perked up with glazed eyes and luckily looked the part of a road-weary, waterproof-scorning wayfarer, rather than some deviant trespasser. He let me be.
By late afternoon the P&O disgorged me at the end of the A2 which reeled me back into London. Spinning along at 45-50, clogging up the inside lane, I snapped this defiant shadow shot as I went by.
Back home, what the Germans call the durchfall began to form, as my shrunken stomach reacted violently with longed-for snacks. My drenched leather coat fell to the floor with a thud and I was surprised to see there were still dry patches on some parts of my clothes. I had just enough energy left in me to glare at the camera and snarl like an alcoholic on New year’s Day: No more sodding motorbikes! Ever again! Well, not until 8am tomorrow, that is.
This is part one of a bonus chapter which does not appear in the book.
You’d think I’d have learned something after my 1982 Saharan fiasco on the XT500. Well I did. Despite it all, I was still fascinated by the Sahara and wanted to go back and do it properly this time. When it was good it was epic and other-worldly, and if you came from one of the less edgy suburbs of South London, the Sahara made quite an impression: nature stripped back to its raw bones of sand and rock. Across it lay the frail ribbon of road they called the Trans Sahara Highway which I’d ridden off the very end of a couple of years earlier on the XT.
By 1984 I’d settled for an easy way of despatching for a living: working long but steady hours for a London typesetting outfit, delivering advertising copy on the one mile between Holborn and the West End. (You can read all about that and a whole lot more in The Street Riding Years.) There was no longer a need to ride an IT250 or a 900SS should you get sent to the other side of the country on a wet Friday evening. For this job a dreary commuter bike was sufficient. And none came drearier than Honda’s CD200 Benly twin (below left), a single-carbed commuter ridden by stoical Benlymen. Riding up to 12 hours a day on a hyper-dull CD can drive you a bit crazy at 24 years of age.
Knowing I was into dirt bikes, a mate put me on to a mate flogging an AJS 370 Stormer (right) for fifty quid. The Stormer was a vile, shin-kicking British two-stroke motocrosser that was the polar extreme of the Benly. In a flash of brilliance which years ago had given birth to the Triton cafe racer cult, I figured I could marry the two and make something more desert rideable and less boring: a Benly-engined, MX-framed desert racer!
Over the summer of 1984 the machine took shape in my artfully appointed bike design studio in London’s literary Bloomsbury district. It took two goes to get a bike shop to correct the engine alignment mistakes of the former. But here it was, suspended by some Honda XL250S shocks as long as truncheons, and silenced by VW Beetle tailpipes, a cunning, lightweight trick you may recall from the BMW I rode with in Algeria in 1982.
Later on, the job was finished off with gearing more suited to horizontal applications, and an RD250 tank with a sexy ‘Moto Verte’ sticker so there’d be no mistaking what an international, Franchophilious guy I was. I took it out to the woods near Addington to see what it could do. The answer was similar to dragging a dead dog around on a lead. The VW pipes reduced the power at the rear wheel to quite possibly single figures. The foot of clearance needed a running jump to get on the bike. And the AJS conical hub brakes where a requirement by the then powerful Ambulance Drivers’ Union to ensure their members were never without work scraping Stormer riders off the sides of buildings.
I dubbed the bike a ‘Bénélé‘ in envious recognition of Yamaha’s near-perfect XT600Z Ténéré which I’d spotted in a Sydney bike shop a year earlier, and which was itself based on Yamaha’s Dakar Rally desert racers. More about them, later.
So what do you do with a dumb-arsed desert racer? You ride it to the Sahara of course, in a little less time than was available. You pack a 3500-mile trip to North Africa into two-weeks and you schedule it for September when you imagine peak summer temperatures are on the wane. This time there’d be no fear of enduring the mid-winter transit of Europe and the northern Sahara, as in 1982.
My goal that year was a mysterious massif of conical peaks which I’d passed by, south of Arak on my way to Tamanrasset in 1982 and which I’ve since learned is called Sli Edrar. The Bénélé’s top speed was no more than 53mph, and even at that speed it felt unsafe, should a squirrel run out in front of me. So to get a good run-up I rode straight from work on Friday night down to a mate’s in Canterbury, close to the port of Dover, ready to catch an early Dover ferry next morning.
By maintaining momentum, Monday night found me camped back among the magical limestone outcrops of Cassis, near Marseille, ready to hop on the ferry to Algiers the following morning.
You can see I had an all-new soft luggage set up. No more sawn-off chemical tins poorly lashed to Dexion racking. This time I had a small canvas pannier hanging on one side where a 10-litre jerrican slipped in; a thin cotton Times newspaper delivery bag dangling off the other with 10 litres of water, and an over-huge tank bag which sat on the flat-topped RD tank. A sleeping bag in front of the headlight – Easy Rider style – kept the bugs off the Benly headlight. Cunningly, I lashed a tool bag with other heavy items under the lofty engine. If my mass had been any more centralised I’d have become a Black Hole right there and then.
My first memory of Algeria that year was being a little unnerved that as far north as El Golea it was already 35°C by 9am. If you live in Yuma that’s probably no big deal in September, but for a South London boy it was a bit of a shock. I filled up in in town and set off across the Tademait plateau which had spooked me on my first transit in ’82. The town (or anything) was 400km away. I buzzed along at 9.8hp/hour and by early afternoon dust devils or mini tornadoes were whipping across the baking gibber to either side. I recalled how a mate said he’d been knocked off his XS650 by one in Turkey earlier that year.
I was already tired, thirsty, sore and hot when up ahead what looked like a huge wall of sand hundreds of feet high hurtled right across the blacktop. Only as I neared it did I realise it was the mother of all whirlwinds, a huge cauldron of rotating sand. I turned the wick up and and the motor droned as I punched the Benele into the sand wall. Inside, all visibility was lost as grains pelted me from all directions and I struggled to keep upright or even know which way it was. And then, as I slipped into the windless eye of the maelstrom, the sand grains briefly turned into pelting raindrops. WT jolly old F was going on!? Search me but before I knew it, I’d blasted out of the tornado’s far wall, this time shoved left onto the roadside gravel. Now I knew how those roadsigns got flattened into the dirt…
Just as in 1982, the Tademait had terrorised me and I vowed I’d ride into the dark to be off the plateau before stopping. I rode into the dusk, pulling up briefly with the engine running to remove the sleeping bag off the headlight, before pushing on into the big switchback descent from the Tademait to the desert floor.
That night I stripped off and lay in the dirt by the bike, listening to what sounded like the oil boiling in the crankcases, hours after switching off.
I wasn’t hungry but I drank and drank and soon fell asleep where I lay. Tomorrow I was heading past In Salah, the hottest town in Algeria, before heading deeper into the Sahara.
Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
In the last decade France’s colonial era in North Africa, their part of Sahara was divided between Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco (‘AFN’); ‘AOF’ (French West Africa) from Mauritania to Niger, and ‘AEF’ or French Equatorial Africa which included present-day Chad. One could travel the pistes across the desert between the Mediterranean coast and the Sahel, and even scheduled bus services traversed these ‘Imperial Routes’ to the sub-Saharan capitals.
Just a couple of years before these colonies were dissolved and became the independent countries we know today, Shell released its fifth and final edition of the Guide du Tourisme Automobile au Sahara. The 345-page book is in French and there are still plenty around; mine cost me €25 from France, but the lovely map is often missing from the inside back cover sleeve. Originally published way back in 1934, just seven years after Shell started distributing fuel in Algeria, it must have been the first guidebook of its kind, preceding my own Sahara Overland by nearly seven decades.
The three pre-war editions (1934-5, 1936 below and 1938) were thinner books but also covered aerial tourism: presumably fuel and landing strip information. Perhaps back then private planes were still seen as comparable or superior to with cars for getting to remote places. When, the mid-50s commercial flying had taken off across the world, flying around the desert was no longer a thing unless you were very rich.
Even if it was nothing more than fully funded exercise in self-promotion, it’s still odd that an Anglo-Dutch oil company produced such a presumably prestigious project to showcase an important French colony, especially as it had the feel of an official handbook. In the 1930s Shell became well known for their illustrated guidebooks to Britain but perhaps publishing was not a thing that interested French oil companies like Total and Elf. Only Shell produced guidebooks, but road maps were widely branded by some of the oil companies of the era.
You can imagine the three French women (France Degand, Janine Delbert and Michèle Cancre d’Orgeix) had a copy of a Shell in the glovebox of their Peugeot 206 wagon before setting out their double crossing of the Sahara in 1956 (video below).
The 1950s were the apogée of the colonial era when even in the Belgian Congo, trains ran across the jungle on time and roads drivable by regular cars snaked across the equatorial escarpments. In the Sahara pistes were well maintained, regularly patrolled and for the most part, well marked too. The Sahara still had its rough edges and expansive voids, but had been effectively tamed by the colonial administration, including a desert-wide network of Shell stations: ‘In the Sahara, as in your garage‘ the guidebook boasts. It was the vestiges of this investment in desert infrastructure which we inherited in the 1970s and 80s by which time the whole region had seen 15-20 years of independent rule. The Shell emblem was long gone, replaced by nationalised fuel companies distributing the commodity with had become integral with global progress and development.
Until 1939… the book starts… conditions for the harmonious development of winter tourism were coming together in the Sahara. Excellent temperatures, admirable sites, distant horizons, interesting populations, verdant palmeries [and] distinctive architecture: behold the country.
It then goes on to introduce the Sahara, using a flowery style which I’ve read in more recent French guides to the Sahara. The book doesn’t miss a chance to include an exposition of the magnificent French achievements in the Sahara since 1919.
A year after this edition was published, after decades of searching (during which time French explorer and geologist Conrad Killian mysteriously met his death) prospectors finally struck oil in Edjeleh near In Amenas, and a short time later in Hassi Messaoud. By the end of the next decade Algeria became a major oil producer in North Africa.
It’s interesting to see how the content of the guidebook conforms with a modern day equivalent: a geographical breakdown of the desert’s geology, relief and topography, river courses and wells; ethnicities add up to either Arab or Berber, with pre-colonial history leading to exploration, colonisation and pacification right up to the period of the automobile and the aeroplane.
Short sections cover local artisans and the souvenirs they made, a bibliography, recreation and sports and not least hunting for hides, heads, horns and ivory. Happy days!
As for vehicle choice, the guide advised not to worry about using touring cars, by which I think then meant a regular RWD sedan or estate like the Peugeot 206, above. Rightly it said the 4x4s of the time: Land Rover, Jeep, Willys and the near identical Delahaye V.L.R were significantly less comfortable.
It’s worth recalling that many regular cars of that era had bigger wheels and better ground clearance – garde du sol – ‘an important factor in vehicle choice‘… ‘Consider fitting bigger tyres, but not too much or you’ll stress the transmission and steering.’ ‘Power to weight is also a factor for tackling soft passages.’ …’avoid dual rear wheels…’ It’s interesting to see all these strategies were well known, even back then. It does however list a long and very heavy list of spare parts. Durability must be one thing that’s improved over the decades. In a way today’s SUVs have similar characteristics, but of course no one would consider taking one somewhere as outlandish as the Sahara, not least because 4x4s have improved to become much less utilitarian.
Code Saharien de la Route In that time of French control a detailed list of safety protocols needed to be followed before before setting off along a piste. ‘Pour votre securite‘ as they used to say in Algeria where the system endured into the 1980s (but without any actual back-up or support; you were on your own). The Code was a check on whether you were equipped to tackle what lay ahead, followed by the requirement to check on on arrival. If you followed the rules and were overdue, they’d come and look for you. You also needed some sort of contract with a local recovery service in case of a breakdown. The last 40 pages of the book detail the full list of these requirements for each of the three territories.
The route guide breaks down the Sahara into four sections: southern Morocco along tracks which are now mostly roads. Then came the grandly named Imperial Tracks, starting with N°1: the Mauritania Line (above) which was recently reopened by Algeria. Back then this was the direct route through all-French territory from Tiznit in Morocco or Colomb Bechar in Algeria to St Louis or Dakar which circumvented the Spanish Rio de Oro colony on the Atlantic coast. Closed between June and mid-October, this was also the ‘Forgotten Path‘ which David Newman followed in his Ford Corsair touring car in 1959, just as the territories were breaking up.
The route description for the 2550km from Tiznit to St Louis goes on for 15 pages including a few photos and plain maps. It left Moroccan territory south of today’s Foum el Hassan, a small town between Akka and Assa on what I call the Desert Highway in the Morocco guide. I noted a passing reference to ‘Merkala‘; an escarpment watchtower marking the border between Morocco and Algeria which still features as the ‘Tour de Merkala’ on the Michelin 741 map. In Tindouf we learn that prior to the French establishing a garrison in 1934, the settlement, had been abandoned for three decades due to persistent raids by the nomadic Reguibat. The Berbers must have welcomed a bit of law and order. From here the lonesome track led to Ait ben Tili on the Spanish Sahara (today’s PFZ) border, with balises (marker posts) every 5km, but plenty of tole ondulee: ‘corrugated iron’ or washboard/corrugations to you and me. Like today, there’s nothing much for the traveller at AbT. back then wild game added up to gazelles and long gone ostriches. Once you got to Fort Trinquet (Bir Mogrein) you could add moufflon and leopards to that list.
From here it was 405km south to Fort Gouraud (Fderik) and the piste was poorly marked, sandy and rutted. The old route another 310km from Fort Gouraud via Char fort to Atar didn’t get any less sandy, and the iron ore railway was still another 8 years away. Maybe a touring car, even with good clearance, wasn’t such a good idea after all.
Imperial Track N°2 was the Tanezrouft Line from Colomb-Bechar to Gao on the Niger river. This was the route chosen by the first cars to cross the Sahara in the 1920s. It’s interesting to see how quickly the commercial drive towards tourism follows what was once terra incognita. You could say we’re seeing the same today in space; something which would have been hard to imagine in the middle of the Apollo programme. It was on this desolate route that Bidon V (‘Oil drum 5’, below) made a name for itself as a desolate travellers way-station between Reggane and Tessalit in present day Mali. At one point the lighthouse shone into the night, planes could land for a refuel and a couple of bus bodies where parked up on oil drums to provide lodgings for passengers the Mer-Niger bus route.
The book continues with other well known routes in the Algerian Sahara though not exactly what we have today. Imperial Route 3; the Hoggar Line – today’s Trans Sahara Highway – ran further east between El Golea to In Salah, and again on to the Arak Gorge where a friendly Shell bowser (left) stood by at your service.
From Tamanrasset, excursions up to Assekrem along today’s route were already established (fold out map included), and the now paved way to the border via Laouni was the same,, but once in AOF the track went straight to Agadez via In Abangarit to the south. It was on this route that the drama vividly described in Trek, met its climax. There was no Arlit until uranium was discovered there about 15 years later. Zinder, close to the Nigerian border, was the end of that road.
The Ajjer and Tibesti Line was Imperial Route 4: from Biskra all the way to Fort Lamy (N’djemana) in Chad. From Djanet the route dropped down to Bilma, the long established administrative capital of the eastern Tenere, before you back-tracked north to Seguedine to head east for Zouar, Faya and even Fada before turning down to Abeche and Fort Lamy. This was the route which the lavishly equipped Berliet expeditions of 1960 sought to open up for trade, just as France’s overt control over the Sahara slipped away.
Back then getting to Djanet meant dodging the Fadnoun Plateau (Tassili N’Ajjer). From Fort Flatters (today’s Bordj Omar Driss) you headed over the sands southwest to Amguid, then southeast along the base of the plateau. Right up to the 1980s this was truck route to Djanet until they sealed the winding road over the Fadnoun which to this day still catches some truckers out.
If you could get to Fort Polignac (Illizi) a car route did actually cross the Fadnoun. You left Polignac to the east then either pitted yourself against the very sandy Imirhou gorge (left) , or all the way to Tarat fort on the Libyan border, before turning south to join today’s route at Dider. On bikes for Desert Riders in 2003 (the full movie is on YouTube), this was a tough but epic ride across the tumbled escarpments of the Tassili which took us two hard days. But the time we reached the final descent from the plateau at the Tin Taradjeli Pass,, we couldn’t wait for the sands of the Tenere.
From 1943 up to 1951 the French administered the Fezzan province of Libya and may have had had hopes of annexing it. But by the time this edition was published, growing calls fro independence put an end to that idea. Meanwhile. the northern deserts of Chad remained as obscure and little visited as they are today.
The Shell guide includes a 1:4m scale map folded into the back cover. It’s more or less Michelin’s 152 of 1948 which to some may alone be worth it the price of the guide. It doesn’t have the full coverage of the 153 North & West Africa which came later, but shows the routes described and much more. This detail has long made the Michelin map indispensable in the Sahara, even if it is a rather skimpy navigation aid to setting off along one of the Imperial routes. The Mauritanian Line gets a 1:9m inset (below left) while in Libya (never a French territory) the map proudly shows the routes of General Leclerc’s desert campaign during WW2 which ended in the famous raid on Murzuk in co-ordination with the Long Range Desert Group.
With the help of the internet I can affirm that the Chocolaterie Aiguebelle was founded by a medieval order of French Trappist monks in the mid 19th century to make a bit of money on the side. As explained here, they also got into producing advertising cards to entertain, educate and inform. It’s unclear whether these cards came with your chocolates or were distributed from hot air balloons. Probably the former, as that’s what drove me to collect inducements in the 60s and 70. You”l find loads of Chocolaterie Aiguebelle cards on ebay.
The operation shipped out to North Africa at some point where it’s still around today and which may explain the card below. Yes it’s another interesting map of the Sahara. No date is given but it looks like the state of colonial expansion in the late 19th century.
As always it’s interesting to see what is shown and what is not. Ancient Timbuktu seems an odd omission (though it’s mentioned on the back as a worthwhile destination for the trans-Sahara railroad). Tamanrasset was just a village at this time so gets skipped and Timassin is Timassinin, later Fort Flatters under the French and today Bordj Omar Driss (BoD). Not far to the west, Messagem and El Biodh were nothing but wells on the caravan route from In Salah to Ghadames, but it seems if early European explorers were led through these places by their guides, then they acquired a cartographic life of their own. They’re all on the map below from 1898. In the late 1980s we travelled this ‘forbidden’ piste from Fort Mirabel to below the westernmost ribbons of the Grand Erg, coming out at the checkpoint of Hassi bel Guebbour, just north of BoD. By the post war era these obscure wells had slipped off the maps and back into obscurity.
Interesting that remote In Zizawaterhole features, even though it’s not on any trade route, while Taoudenis was then still an important point on the 52 Days Road between Morocco and Timbuktu. East of there, it’s hard to think of today’s lonely well of Mabrouk being any sort of piste junction. Although the wiki waypoint matches the map below, today there aren’t any tell tale vehicle tracks, even though it’s not far from Timetrine where western hostages got shuffled around during their long captivities with AQIM.
On the Atlantic coast Tarfaia is there with more about it here. Never heard of Groha near or maybe Smara, not Djorf el Asfar near present day Bir Lehlou in the PF Zone. Further east in present day Niger, the Oasis of Djebado is the old name for Djado looks as important as Bilma and the other Kaour oases, but not enough get a marker point. It’s hard to know what Yat might be other than Seguedine or a misplaced and misspelt Ghat, or Tao which appears on other old maps (maps often repeat their predecessors mistakes).Maybe it’s Dao Timni, today a military base in the middle of nowhere.
I recently watched Michael Palin looking back on his Sahara TV series of 2002. I think it was the last of his big travel shows for the BBC.
I remember thinking there was more ‘Sahara’ in the show’s title than the actual programmes, and watching what they chose to use in the recap, it looks again like he – like most people – was more at home in cities like Fez, St Louis and Algiers, or places like Gibraltar than in the desert.
I must admit I never fell for the Palin ‘nicest-man-on-TV’ schtick, though I haven’t watched his other travel series. Palin was born in 1943 so it could be a generation thing: many encounters felt set-up and shallow. Perfect Sunday Night telly, then and now. I remember him bristling a bit when this necessary fakery came up as an audience question at a talk he gave in London to promote the Sahara show. Similar TV travel presenters like Bruce Parry (what happened to him?) and even Simon Reeves were among some fawning luvvies wheeled on to shower accolades. Both of them come across as equally genial and far more intrepid, immersive and engaged in their similar TV travels But all this is a bit like complaining about the Long Way… Ewan & Charlie motorbiking shows relying heavily on back-up vehicles. It’s a mainstream TV show, not Storyville.
As for Sahara, I can’t help thinking he didn’t like the actual desert. Fair enough; not everyone does. During the Niger episode (as deep into the Sahara as he got, afaik: a night or two in the Tenere and just after 9/11) he sits on a stool and sleeps in a tent rather than. getting down with the Tuareg. Disingenuously or not, over a snack he assumes they’re mocking him while teaching him local words. I’ve commonly experienced this ribbing and take it as no more than that. He gets his own back later by getting them to repeat ‘bottom’ – as in ‘Bottoms Up’ which all Brits say several times a day when having a cuppa.
‘Such a lovely scene…’ chirps Parry. ‘That’s what you get when you put the time in.’
He observes that the locals in Agadez seemed barely moved by 9/11 (or were less exposed to saturation news coverage) and resented this insensitivity. You get the feeling that like so many with a list to tick off, he was attracted by the romance of the desert: its mysterious veiled nomads and shimmering front-of-a-date-packet oases. Then he got there and found it hot and dusty, poor and dirty, with tiresomely chauvinistic guides, begging children, toilets from hell and all gradually exhausting. To his credit, the online diary certainly doesn’t hold back as the book (as I recall it) and especially the TV show had to do.
Oddly skipped in the show and the book is the fact that he travelled with Polisario escorts 1000-km overland from Tindouf down to Zouerat, partly along a route which has only recently re-opened. It was perhaps played down to appease the Moroccans, but also our man had a bad se of the runs which, as we all know, can make life miserable. Then he took the train to Choum and carried on to West Africa. Even with regular breaks back in the UK, by the time he got to Niger (‘in temperatures of up to 55°C…’), he must have had enough.
‘It’s a bare, dispiriting place.‘
So it can be if you’re there in the wrong season with a busy agenda of encounters to record. As mentioned elsewhere, I was struck that the Algerian Tree on Route L2 from my old book (visible on Google sat and pictured above in 1998) epitomised the essence of the desert for Michael Palin. He proclaimed:
‘… this spare, uncluttered, beautiful spot was one of my favourite places in the Sahara‘.