Author Archives: Chris S

Sahara 1914: the batty Sauterelle takes to the sands

propcarJust before WWI, at the motor era matured on land sea and air, various self-propelled contraptions came to be tested as a means of penetrating France’s vast Saharan territory. Lacking the railways which by then traversed America and southern Asia, up to that time columns of men had to trudge alongside huge camel caravans, making them vulnerable to still hostile desert tribes.

Part plane, part buggy, the distinctive propeller car was one short-lived solution to enable rapid communication across the desert. Invented by Corporal Gustave Cros, the chassis sg-satbokwas an elongated triangle on three axles, each carrying twin wheels, while a propeller directly fixed to a 50-hp motor thrust the vehicle forward. It’s said an ingenious form of highly articulated independent suspension allowed each of the wheels to track the terrain, however rough.

satThis curious but surely deafening machine proceeded in a series of jumps which supposedly allowed it to cross large sand dunes, hence the name Sauterelle or ‘grasshopper’. You’d hope seat belts were mandatory, less an unexpected lurch while climbing a steep dune launched you backwards…

heliceEarly models progressed from two to four to six blades. Capable of 60kph, in the summer of 1914 the Sauterelle left the rail terminus at Biskra for a 200-km test run to Touggourt. The main difficulty was said to be slowing down and stopping, but that didn’t stop a chap called Lafargue modifying a 60-hp Brasier car; his six-bladed ‘Aerosable’ hopped its way to Touggourt in just two hours. Encouraged by this achievement, he went on to consider an amphibious vehicle whose wheels could be replaced by a wooden hull for sliding over the salty Saharan chotts where even camels feared to tread.

renaulthalftrakYou do wonder what they were thinking. Presumably it was a solution to the problem of powered axles digging in to soft terrain. Perhaps pneumatic tyres were crude and couldn’t reliably be run at low pressures to  elongate the footprint and so increase flotation, or that idea was not yet known (in Libyan Sands Ralph Bagnold wrote of discovering this technique in the 1920s). Hence, doubled wheels all round, like the Renault (above left), or the Citroen half-track desert taxis (right) which were also used on epic trans-continental proving expeditions, long after the Sauterelle had hopped itself  into the scrapheap of automotive dead-ends.

modeltBy the end of the 1920s, this period of wacky inventions had run its course while several esteemed French Saharans died in lonely desert plane crashes, But from as early as 1916, on the other side of the Sahara, the British Light Car Patrols were successfully deploying conventional but stripped-down Model T Fords  deep across the Libyan Desert, and all without trailing a deafening sandstorm wherever they went.

Translated and adapted from Oliver Boul’s post here. Lots more interesting stuff there.

Sahara – West to East Crossings

sahara smugglingsahara-west-east-mapA while back, before things really got bad in the Sahara (see map right) it occurred to me that, with one small effort I could link up a lateral crossing of the Sahara between the Nile and Atlantic. Of course it would have taken me several years, but across three trips: Libya 1998 (researching Sahara Overland); Egypt 2004 and SEQ 2006 it looks like I’ve covered about 90% of the distance.
l2All that remained was a short, 70-km gap in the far eastern Algerian oilfields near In Amenas to the Algerian Tree (visible on Google sat and pictured below in 1998) on Route L2 from Sahara Overland (right). Some may recall Micheal Palin visited this very tree for his Sahara TV show and proclaimed ‘this spare, uncluttered, beautiful spot was one of my favourite places in the Sahara‘. Well, he’s easy to please!
tin-alkoumAnd in fact, when we treked with mules to Sefar on the Tassili plateau in 2013, I was even closer to our 1998 route into the Libyan Akakus. On the right, Wadi Tin Alkoum demarking the Libyan-Algerian border, south of Ghat.

algerian-tree


When the Sahara was more accessible West to East used to capture the imagination of adventure seekers, and although such a transit isn’t what it’s about to me, I wrote a box for the book (at the) about the four best-known vehicular transits which broadly speaking, set out with this goal in mind:

• Belgians in Unimogs, 1964-5
• Brits in Land Rover 101s, 1975
• Germans in Hanomags, 1975-6
• French in Saviems, 1977

east-west-sov

mogmapAs I suggested there, a true, unbroken, all-desert lateral crossing of the Sahara with vehicles had yet to be achieved and as things stand, probably never will be in our time. If you combined the British route across Mauritania and Mali, then follow the French or Germans to Dirkou in Niger and the French or Belgians east of there, you have a pretty good line. As it is, even with a lot of road-driving in Algeria, I’d say from Tan Tan 9000km east to Port Safaga near Hurghada on the Red Sea, the Belgies get the nod (map left but note the oddly misaligned borders).

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Land Cruiser in the Libyan Akakus

SEQrouteThe chances of achieving a true Saharan traverse are currently about as slim as they’ve ever been since the invention of desert driving. Much of the Sahara of Mali, Algeria, Libya, Niger and Egypt are unsafe or off-limits. Eastern Mauritania is said to be the same, and southern Algeria from Bordj towards Djanet (as we did in 2006 – left) is restricted.

taromajabat

VW Taro in the dunes of the Majabat al Koubra – and just hours away from total engine failure ;-(

Northern Chad always presented difficulties from the mountainous terrain, let alone permissions as well as security issues now that the brakes are off in southern Libya. Meanwhile,
people smuggling convoys still roll into Libya from northern Sudan above Darfur and are preyed on by Zaghawa bandits. In southern Egypt the Gilf has so many access regulations that few bother any more. Even in the West-East expedition era permissions played a part: the Belgians had to enter Algeria from Spanish Sahara, not Morocco, the Joint Services couldn’t enter Algeria which kiboshed their route, the Hanomagers bounced around the Sahara like pinballs and the French seemed to dodge Algeria and Chad.

British Joint Services 101s in Sudan, 1975. More here

A few years ago when ‘snow‘ was falling over the southern Sahara, it was reported that cocaine was landing in narco-state Guinea Bissau to be transported up to Mauritania from where smugglers lit off east in their V8, twin-turbo Land Cruisers right across the Sahara kurt-peldato Egypt (left). Bribing or intimidating their way across the desert in just a few days, on their way they doubtless passed close to the 1977 Saviem Balise #22 east of the Gilf (right). At the Suez ports the coke was said to get stashed aboard a container bound for southern Europe. So these days the ultimate Sahara expedition may well be being knocked out, but not by the sort of people too bothered about getting into the Guinness Book of Records or Facebooking about it with live Spot tracking.

crossers77

Saviem TP3 vans and SM8 trucks in Egypt, 1977. Short Saviem film.

saviem1977Up until the gas plant attack at Tigantourine in January 2013, I could probably have knocked out my crossing to the Algeria Tree at any time. Either driving down to Edjeleh oil camp right on the Libyan border (map right), then scooting over the dunes as shown on Google Earth (Sahara Overland Route L2’s Algerian stage). A few years ago I recall making contacttree-region1 with an oil worker based in Edjejeh, asking him about civilian access in the area but he wasn’t very forthcoming. Alternatively, one could just nail it 100km east from the N3 highway south of Erg Bouharet. The stony reg thereabouts is criss-crossed with old oil exploration tracks, but as I say, post-Tigantourine that area will now be very closely watched.

wawnamusThen there’s the more substantial missing section from my West-East in eastern Libya: from Waw Namus crater which we visited in 1998 (right) to a place east of Kufra where we spent Christmas in 2004 on our Gilf trip based out of Egypt.

libya-gap

towxmasI remember that day well; we had more trouble than normal getting Mahmoud’s Toyota-engined Series III running, dragging it to life with the Land Cruiser (right) after setting a fire under the chilled engine. With us that time was Toby Savage (my Desert Driving dvd co-presenter) who in 2012 travelled through the Gilf with WWII-era Jeeps, while possibly outnumbered by escorts and soldiers.

hanofaya

Unimog in Faya, 1965. Below right: arriving in Tangiers

mogtanmedNo tourist has driven in southern Libya since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011.  The south has now controlled by the Tuareg (and maybe a bit of AQIM) and the Tubu who battle it out for the control of the lucrative people-trafficking routes and other commodities coming up from Niger. As things stand now in Libya, ticking off that final 1000-km stage from Waw crater to Xmas Camp may take a while – something to save for a rainy day in the Sahara.

westeastbookseastwestbooksOf the four expeditions mentioned here, the three continental ones produced illustrated books in French and German. If you don’t read either ojwin16language, the big-format Croisiere des Sables is a good one to get – mostly pictures and under a tenner on abebooks.

Coup d’Eclat au Sahara, Jean Stasse (2011, available new)
Trans Sahara – vom Atlantik zum Nil, Gerd Heussler (1978)
Croisiere des Sables, Christian Gallissian (1977)

Even though Tom Sheppard publishes his own Sahara picture books, it looks like we’ll never get a full account of the JSE 101 crossing, although he wrote a pretty good illustrated summary in the winter 2016 issue of the quarterly Overland Journal (right).

Z is for Zouar – Oxford Uni Expedition 1965

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

oxchadmapBack in 1965 the pro-Western Kingdom of Libya was just fourteen years old. US and UK military bases used the desert for training and testing, then the discovery of high-quality crude just 200km from the coast changed Libya’s fortunes. Gaddafi’s coup was still a few years away.
oxchad13Chad had gained independence in 1960 but, as has been the case on and off since then, France retained military and Foreign Legion bases. In the film you’ll see a French tricolour raised at Zouar.

oxchad12And best of all he Chadian civil war was still a few months away, so what better time for some Oxford university students to drive 5000 miles to Zouar for their summer hols in a a couple of new 88 Landies and a 2WD Ford D-series lorry loaned by Ford. This was a time when it was still common for truck manufacturers to prove their  vehicles on Sahara expeditions.

oxchad1The film includes episodes of Tubu horseplay, lashings of corned beef and a Landrover door that won’t shut. Interestingly you’ll also see a woman making flour with a grinding stone of the sort still commonly found abandoned all over the Sahara, 46-grinderwherever people once lived. As the narrator says ‘in remote parts of the world it’s hard to tell when such [Neolithic] tools were last used.’ At 14:20 there’s also an engraving of what might be a Garamantean chariot. Germa is not so from Zouar.

How to navigate by the stars

ahbI recently hasbey24mapread Ahmed Hassanein Bey’s 1924 National Geographic article about his six-month camel journey from Saloum on the Mediterranean coast to El Obied in the Sudan. (You can read an online version here). Two years earlier he’d travelled as far south as Kufra, then the centre of the xenophobic Senussi sect. And in 1925 he published The Lost Oases which the NG article summarises and which is still available in print at normal prices.
hblo
On that 2200-mile journey he located the ‘lost oases’ of Jebel Arkenu and Uweinat (see map). At Jebel Uweinat he speculated correctly that the ahbjurock art depictions of animals he saw there must pre-date the 2000-year-old camel era which were not present.

northstarAt one point in the latter half of the trip when the caravan is forced to travel at night to avoid the intense heat, he interestingly describes how their guide navigated by the stars when there were no faint landmarks to aid orientation. It surprised me by being rather less intuitive than I thought.

The manner in which a Bedouin guide find his way across the desert at night is a source of wonder to the uninitiated. In a region which provides no familiar landmarks he depends solely on the stars. As we were proceeding in a south-westerly direction during most of our night trekking the pole star was at the guide’s back. He will glance over his shoulder, face so that the pole star would be behind his right ear, then take a sight on the start of the south in that line. He would march for perhaps five minutes with his his eye riveted on this star, then turn and make a new observation of the pole star for of course the star to the south was constantly progressing westward. He would then select a new staff of guidance and continue. 

He goes on to explain that the technique floundered around dawn and dusk when the stars weren’t visible and at which point he took over with his compass.

star

Garmin Topo North Africa Map Reviewed

garmintopThis review compares Garmin’s Topo North Africa Light map with easily downloaded and free OSMs, Garmin’s basic global base map and other digital maps, where available.

Navigating the Sahara
Having relied on them since before the advent of GPS, I’ve got to know my Sahara paper maps. well. Then when GPS came along, I could pinpoint my position with an accuracy that was more than adequate for desert travel. Some of these colonial-era maps such as the IGN 200s are cartographic works of art and unlike current nav technology, in the deep Sahara topography changes on a millennial scale. Tracks may become roads and villages become towns, but the desert itself remains relatively unchanged. Is there a benefit in having a tiny map on your GPS rather than simply a waypoint to aim for or a tracklog to follow, even if your position on the map is displayed live? That’s essential for navigating a busy city with a Nuvi. But the Sahara is more like the sea where more often  what you want is…

… the big picture
garminmapA typical handheld device like my Garmin Montana has a screen a little bigger than a playing card and which is hard to read on the move – especially on a bike. For me a ‘GPS’ (as opposed to a ‘satnav’ like a Nuvi) is best at displaying simple data like how far, how fast, how high or which way, not fine topographic detail. A paper TPC map can display six square degrees over some 18 square feet – what you call ‘the big picture’. That’s what you need travelling with a vehicle in an expansive area like a desert, while at close range concentrating on negotiating the terrain.
mushOn top of excellent paper mapping (now widely digitised), we also have the wonder of Google sat imagery (among others) providing a clarity that varies from stunning (being able to follow car tracks) to a brown mush (both shown right).
Google sat is great when planning, and now for a reasonable annual subscription, Garmin offer Birds Eye satellite imagery for the whole globe; the long-sought after ‘Google sat in your GPS’. With all these resources navigating in the Sahara couldn’t be easier.


Garmin Topo North Africa Light

garmin-coverageShort version:
Even though the free Olaf still measures up very well, the similar topographic detail of the Garmin means it’s well worth the £20, certainly over the plainer but also free OSMs.

Long version:
You download the Garmin Topo map directly into your device (takes about an hour) and only once your GPS is plugged into a computer, will it display on BaseCamp. Unplug the GPS and the map disappears from BaseCamp.
gar-atarSwitching BaseCamp between Olaf, OSMs and even the Garmin base map which comes free with a GPS unit, it soon becomes clear that the Garmin Topo has a level of detail and refinement that’s superior to the next best thing: Olaf. Occasionally at village level the OSM’s street-by-street detail is better, but that’s hardly vital. In towns and cities the extra shading distinguishes the gar-tantanGarmin from the plainer OSM, as shown for Tan Tan, right.
The chief difference is in the desert where the Garmin depicts relief and surface with more detail and clarity using shading, contours and colour where OSMs only use colour, and Olaf only uses contour lines which can be distracting. Look at the Atar region (RIM) above left – an area of escarpments, canyons and dunes – all are reasonably accurately shown on the Garmin Topo. There’s an anomaly on the Topo map on the left (bottom panel) in that the (presumably automatically recorded) elevation variation in dunes depicts them as lots of small hills (which in a way they are) – but only once they’re above a certain height. Identifying dunes with contours is not helpful, nor a cartographic convention. Shade is best
gar-msdThe piste and road detail on the Topo is pretty good: yellow for national highways, twin lines for secondary roads or piste, and a single line for a less used piste. A quick check in Morocco shows they’re all there; most of the ones I know are there in Mauritania too. In southern Algeria only a few main pistes are shown and certain ‘national highways’ are actually remote pistes never likely to be sealed. The Topo map would not be so useful here and in Libya is thinner still.
In any country dashed lines may well be walking tracks, but as far as I can see, there is no key or legend with the Topo map. Some POIs are there too – just fuel stations and post offices as shown on the Tan Tan map, above.
gar-pxIn places the Garmin copies the OSM’s annoying habit of again, marking high points (automatically?) as mountains which is a distraction, let alone inaccurate – for example when an escarpment gets shown as a string of peaks. If you drop the detail level enough notches on BaseCamp, these peaks (right) only disappear once all the useful tracks and place names have gone too. It’s great (and a bit puzzling) that this stuff is produced for free at all by OSM supporters, but the quickest flip to sat imagery would reveal the true nature of the relief.
So does the Topo map mean I’ll stop using Google Earth imagery in the planning, or paper maps on the piste. I don’t think so. In places like Morocco the extent of marked pistes can be (hopefully) converted into accurate tracklogs, but with better surrounding detail than OSMs. And, unlike Olaf, there’s no aggro importing into a modern, touch-screen GPS. When I want to quickly verify where I am, a glance at the Topo map may be adequate.

I’ve been using the Garmin Topo map quite heavily on Basecamp last couple of days, preparing a new edition of Morocco Overland. It’s an intuitive-reading map and I’ve found one benefit of using a Garmin map on Garmin software, is that when stringing out a track with the ‘create a route’ tool, it automatically snaps onto even the thinnest track on the map just like Google maps. But the Basecamp tool won’t do that with other installed maps like OSM or Olaf, or even the basic Garmin base map. Sometimes you have to trick the tool to go the way you want, but it makes stringing together hopefully accurate routes (as well as distances) very easy. Occasionally only Olaf will show a route you want to follow, in which case you make the route with lots of short, straight lines. No so hard.

navnav.jpg

S is for ‘Sahara’ ~ the mystique of the desert

The desert is ruthless
It strips you of your vanities
Your illusions
Gives you the opportunity to see yourself for who you really are
Character addressing Jesus figure in The Last Days in the Desert (2016)

sol-tazatMore than other wilderness environments, the desert is commonly seen as a place for spiritual rebirth or just some contemplation. Some speculate that it’s no coincidence the world’s great monotheistic religions originated in the desert. Or perhaps it was the other way round: the Fertile Crescent along with timely wheat mutations and climatic cycles spawned great civilisations from which monotheism evolved. Anyway, just being in the desert it’s commonly thought one can be purged, cleansed and reborn. When striped of familiar surroundings and associations, you commonly hear travellers professing an awareness of their insignificance in the great scheme of things. Whatever, it’s always been seen as a good place to get away from it all, including other people.

In the desert you can remember your name
Coz their ain’t no one for to give you no pain

Another one of those periodic ‘I want to cross the Sahara by camel’ posts popped up on the forum the other month. The OP ‘…thought to myself ‘I want to have a life changing experience’ and thought this would be just that adventure.’ Across the width of the Sahara from Atlantic to Red Sea. There followed some clarification, good advice and some scorn, and within a few days the thread blew itself out.
sol-boaWhat is it about crossing the Sahara? Why do ordinary individuals get fixated on the idea of ‘crossing the Sahara’ at all costs? I know when I first went there the Sahara was something that was on the way to where I thought I was going, but so was France and the Mediterranean. I didn’t see crossing the Sahara as a life-affirming achievement or any sort of event – I was more looking forward to the simple challenge of some desert biking.
Perhaps the words ‘cross’ + ‘sahara’ add up to a compelling soundbite that anyone anywhere will get instantly, like ‘climbing Everest’ or ‘rowing the Atlantic’, but perceived as a whole lot easier.
I received a similar enquiry. A chap wanted to cross the Sahara with camels – it didn’t really matter where, it was the crossing that mattered. He suggested some catchy start and end points like Casablanca to Dakar without really thinking it through – padding alongside Morocco’s busy N1 highway with a troop of dromedaries strung out nose to tail. I made what I thought were some better suggestions that would give a real sense of travelling in the desert with camels while dodging the worst of the current political complications. I even sent him the camel chapter from the book (short version of this). I never heard back.
sol-rep1On the right is my answer to another enquiry which boldly stated the intention to pull off a hare-brained scheme so I’d have no doubt of the total commitment. ‘Nothing is impossible!’ Never heard  from her again, either. Maybe I am too blunt but I keep these emails as evidence of ‘well, I did warn them’ should they ever crop up in the news.
It seems that people hungry for adventure lose something of their reason when it comes to crossing the you-know-what. They’re carried away by the concept which ignites the dream and set about with a steely determination to make it happen.
impjorTo my mind camel crossing the Sahara north to south and especially laterally requires a solid background of experience which is why I respect the achievement of Michael Asher and Mariantonietta Peru when they did it in the 80s and went on to write Impossible Journey. At least they had a good idea of what they were taking on. These days the journey is a whole lot more impossible.

There must be something about camel trekking across the Sahara that makes it sound relatively uncomplicated and easily done alone. You traverse the wilderness with the unspoken companionship of your caravan and maybe a nomad guide whose language you don’t speak: ‘horses with no names’ who won’t question insecurities or flakey motivation.

Aside from the practicalities or logistics of such a monumental task, what irks me is that very often there’s little curiosity about the environment or the cultures they’re passing sol-camthrough. The conquest trounces all, and the empty Sahara is just a backdrop for a monumental vanity project, as it was for Geoffrey Moorhouse back in the 70s and several others before or since.
As I was told recently by an individual who came close to death in his quest: It was a bad time and I made poor decisions. I desperately wanted it to be “me and the desert” and to have my own experience in solitude. I’m wiser now.

sol-xtOnce I get used to it and feel comfortable I like to be alone out there too, and in the desert that’s not hard to do. If anything it helps you re-evaluate human companionship which may be part of the catharsis some seek out there. But I find there’s no need to go to extremes to do this. One memorable desert camp is all that’s required to consolidate a feeling of well being. For me the image below sums it up nicely. Only a mile off the track to Djanet in 1988. For the moment the bike was running well and so was I. It was nice spot for the evening – comfortably alone. There have been many more nights like that out in the Sahara, with or without other people.

djanet88

Usually though I’ve found travelling alone with a vehicle tends to extinguish any mystical retrospection. On a bike you’re totally preoccupied with keeping upright, not getting lost  and all the rest – and in a car it’s the same plus the noise and the shaking. It is the evenings that are a blessed respite from the task, the heat and the wind and when the appeal of the desert is easily felt.
In a group, walking with camels and crew is a far more satisfying way to enjoy the desert sahara-camel-trekkingday or night, most probably because there’s so very little to worry about. You don’t have to know any more than how to walk, sleep and eat. It’s the very simplicity of such desert travels that strikes the chord, even if this is a fantasy enabled by the hired crew of desert nomads. The actual practicalities of making it happen and sustaining camelling independently get quite complex as many accounts that I’ve read have shown. And now you have to account for the unglamorous and unromantic political overlay.

I suppose the hope is that when one gets to the Other Side one is reborn or cleansed or at the very least feels a sense of achievement which ought to trump all insecurities. But no account I’ve ever read has admitted to that. Or perhaps midway through the journey there is some sort of epiphany with a closure and acceptance and an understanding that life must go on, at which point the epic challenge may lose its purpose.

After nine days, I let the horse run free,
‘Coz the desert had turned to sea.

Me, I just like being in wild places including the desert. It doesn’t have to get complicated.

sol-edg