Author Archives: Chris S

Algeria Timbuktu Mauritania 1990

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Chapter 23: Battle of the Saharans

In Chapter 10 of Desert Travels the cantankerous 101 leading my first desert bike tour was stranded at the Tin Taradjeli pass (above). As so often happens in the Sahara, the next person to turn up happened to be a diesel mechanic.
Steve soon got the 101 running and, long story short, the following year we decided to team up and do a big Sahara trip together: him in his Land Cruiser, me in an old Land Rover 109.

For both of us this was the desert trip we’d each been planning in our heads for years. When travelling together briefly with my bike tour the previous year, we’d quickly established a shared passion for exploring the Sahara and set about doing a big trip together, each with his own 4×4. Though I’d been keen to head for the Ténéré Desert in Niger, we’d settled on keeping off the tarmac where possible and decided to head down to the Guinea’s highland jungles and the Mauritanian Sahara. 

Nineteen ninety was not such a good year for me: post bike-tour debt, a bad crash leading to hospitalisation, followed by homelessness, a smaller bike crash which at least put an end to my dozen years of despatching. And finally my Land Rover, all set for a desert adventure with Steve, blew up in darkest Sussex at 2am, while I was doing some late deliveries.

As a way of keeping the tip on the rails Steve invited me to ride his XT600Z instead. I wasn’t that keen on bikes by that time, plus it would leave me dependent on him. But I accepted his offer and we met up in France, the bike towed on its back wheel with a similar arrangement I’d used on the 101.

Unfortunately, as so often happened in those days, all my films were lost on a flight in Mauritania. Since then I’ve learned: do not put things you cannot afford to lose in the hold baggage. What few photos I have were shot by Steve.

On the ‘closed’ piste between Fort Mirabel and Hassi bel Guebbour.
Steve’s XT was nicely set up and of course all the essential gear was carried by the car.
I’m wearing my airey, paper-thin Swedish Tenson jacket. Beyond wearing a lid, gloves and boots, the idea of wearing any sort of armour never occurred to me.
On the gnarly piste up from Hirhafok to Assekrem deep in the Hoggar.
I found this picture recently on the internet and am pretty sure it’s the same ancient Beetle we saw at Hassi Tabelbalet, just after the Gara Khanfoussa dune crossing on the Graveyard Piste.

“… A couple of hours later we reached Tabelbalet well on the far side of the erg and were dumbfounded to come across an eccentric German father and son in a ratty VW Beetle. Amazed that a forty-year-old 2WD had made it through the dunes, Steve confessed later that the Germans’ presence had soured his crossing…” 
One of the easier sections on the sandy trail along the Niger river from Bourem to Timbuktu.
Tooling around in the dunes somewhere near Timbuktu where our trip was about to unravel.

‘I think I’ll head off when we get to Ségou [the next major town]. I’m not really enjoying all this riding around after you. I want to go off and do my own thing.’
I was determined to salvage the trip for my own ends. The shared driving had not materialised, the pace was ridiculous (we’d done around 4000 kilometres in less than two weeks) and everything I did was wrong or not enough. I didn’t see such a separation as a failure, it was merely the right thing to do if I was not to end up feeling resentful. 
Somewhere near Timbuktu. Too much vegetation for my liking
Getting water in a village in the Malian Sahel.
Fuelling up in Nara, just before the Mauritanian border.
Digging out on the way to Adel Bagrou, the Mauritanian border post where we managed to talk our way in without a Carnet de Passages.
Trackside break on the way to Nema.
In Nema we picked up the Ghandi-like guide called Nani for the 800-km crossing to Tichit. Just as well; there is no way we could have found the way without him as most of the time there was no track (or he rarely followed it).
Steve and Nani have a brew near Oualata.
I remember this bit well – a steep sandy pass called ‘Enji’ about 300km from Nema by which time I was riding the unladen XT like a Dakar vet. When you’re good it feels like ski-ing.

Enji is the plateau at the bottom right. This 1960s map shows a track, but in 1990 most of the time there was nothing but sand and annoying tussocks.
Sunk down to the axle in the soft sands west of Tichit.

As agreed near Timbuktu, in Tidjika Steve went his way towing the XT, and I went mine. I met some American Peace Corps Volunteers and my travels in Mauritania took on a whole new direction.

Once in Tidjikja, I flogged my crash helmet to a delighted policeman. This time Steve didn’t even try to persuade me and drove off towards Nouakchott. 

MH23 – New Jebel Saghro crossing

MH23
Nekob > Skoura • 104km

October 2021 – Honda CRF1000L

Description
The southern sections of MH14 and 15 have offered challenging crossings of the western Saghro mountains for years. This newish route provides an easier way to access the range, following a well-maintained haul route west into the hills and out the other side.
You get all the distinctive drama which make the volcanic ranges of Jebel Saghro so unique, but can manage it in any vehicle, including a pushbike. As with the other two routes, the drama subsides once on the north side of the ranges around KM70 and heading towards Bou Skoura, but in that time, above 1600m you’ll have passed several epic vistas that make it all worthwhile. Thanks to local geologist Saad B for pointing out this route. In 2017 I came up MH15 and to the new haul road at KM34 and wondered where it went to the east. I assumed some mine; now I know it’s all the way down to Nekob.

Away from either end, the only village of substance is Tagmout (KM43), a few smallholdings strung along the oued and overshadowed by the gold/copper excavation just to the north. This new mine must be why the eastbound part of the track got built; it’s not like there are a string of lonesome Berber hamlets up here needing a link to the outside world. The whole of the Saghro massif is especially rich in high-value minerals and cross-crossed with dead-end prospecting tracks.

Mapping
There’s nothing on paper of course, unless you print it yourself, but you can track it clearly on Google satellite and Apple Maps, as well as free digitals like the particularly good GarminOpenTopo and less clearly on the better-known OSM. There were only a few scraps of trail showing on my v3 Garmin Topo (v4 is current).

Off-Road
Because it is used by mining dump trucks (I saw three just as I left Nekob), at least east of Bou Skour or Tagmout, this track is in great shape and so remains doable with any car or bike. On an Africa Twin I did find the countless switchbacks – ground down to powder by trucks’ scrubbing tyres – needed to be inched around, but that was alone on a heavy bike. A 4×4 will barely break into a sweat.

Route finding
After studying Google satellite I traced a putative kml along what looked like the clearest route, and it all panned out fine with no wrong turns. Westbound, you can’t go wrong up to the blue sign in the Tagmout basin (KM42) and beyond here most forks are right turns passing north of Bou Skour village and mine site (which you don’t see) to the big village of Sidi Flah.
I saw no other traffic bar the three dump trucks rolling into Nekob.

Suggested duration
From three hours non-stop on a bike to half a day in a car.

Route Description
0km
 (104) Nekob west Afriquia fuel. On the other side of the main road, 200m to the west, a side road leads north to villages. Follow it; the tarmac ends in 2km.

6 (98) Track forks, stay left (the red, righthand piste soon joins up anyway). Soon you cross a oued and enter a small palm gorge after which the climb begins.

19 (85) Col at 1420m.

25 (79) Approach some impressive buttes to the southwest (below). More noteworthy vistas follow.

33 (71) Reach the junction where MH14 and 15 come up from the south and which you now follow north for 9km. Soon you pass the 2004-m high point and may have great views of the snowy High Atlas (below), if the season and conditions are right.
You then swing round above the Tagmout basin with a mine on its northern flank and where tracks diverge.

Looking over the Tagmout Basin (March 2017)

42 (62) Blue sign junction just east of Tagmout village, such as it is. Turn left for both Kelaa (as signed; MH14/15) and almost immediately, turn left again up to the Tachbouft Pass (KM45; 1805m) visible to the southwest for the run west to Bou Skour (no sign).
Over the next 20km the track rises and drops over the ranges and several impressive viewpoints (below).

65 (39) Fork right. (Left leads down to Bou Skour village south of the mine). The most dramatic part of the crossing is over as the terrain loses elevation and eases up.

69 (35) Fork right again north of Bou Skour mine. In a kilometre keep right again near some machinery, and soon (around KM70) the main track from the mine (P1514 on Google) joins up from the left (south). You now follow the P1514 north then west.

79 (25) Fork. Keep left on main track.

86 (18) Converge with a minor track coming from your left and where a red sign says ‘Bouskour 18,4km’ (pointing the way you’ve come from).

88 (16) Track joins from your right.

91 (13) Just after a sandy passage alongside a farm fence, you cross a tributary of the nearby Oued Dades and swing north. Soon you pass through the small town of Sidi Flah. In 3km cross a bridge over the Oued Dades.

103 (1). At the pylons keep right to reach the N10 visible up ahead. Once there, turn right for the Inov roadhouse on the eastern outskirts of Skoura. Left is for Skoura town and the N10 to Ouarzazate. Straight across and a leads up to Amzeria (Amerzi; see update Update 3.0.14 – May 2019)

104 Inov roadhouse.

Sahara West–East with VW Vans, 1984 • Part 8/8

See also:
Sahara West-East Crossings
Astro Navigation in the Sahara

Reports by Peter Reif
Photos by Peter Reif and Arike Mijnlieff

OSEWO Index Page

The final instalment of Peter Reif’s report and maps recalling ÖSEWO: an Atlantic-to-Red Sea crossing of the Sahara in 1983-4 with VW T2 Kombis. From Aswan the foursome visit the temple of Abu Simbel, passing Sudanese camel meat caravans on the way. Then, after six months and some 12,000km from the Atlantic, they cross the Nile and take a well-earned dip in the Red Sea.
For earlier parts, click the Index Page.

Sahara West–East with VW Vans, 1984 • Part 7/8

See also:
Sahara West-East Crossings
Astro Navigation in the Sahara

Reports by Peter Reif
Photos by Peter Reif and Arike Mijnlieff

OSEWO Index Page

Part Seven of Peter Reif’s report and maps recalling ÖSEWO: an Atlantic-to-Red Sea crossing of the Sahara in 1983-4. After having to divert around Libya via the Mediterranean, the flat-four foursome are back in the desert to tackle on of the hardest stages so far. But not before they conduct a desert survival experiment to see how far one of the team can walk with what they can carry (above left).
For other parts, click the Index Page.

Final instalment

Sahara West–East with VW Vans, 1984 • Part 6/8

See also:
Sahara West-East Crossings
Astro Navigation in the Sahara

Reports by Peter Reif
Photos by Peter Reif and Arike Mijnlieff

OSEWO Index Page

Part Six of Peter Reif’s report and maps recalling ÖSEWO: an Atlantic-to-Nile crossing of the Sahara in 1983-4. Despite their best efforts to acquire Libyan visas in Djanet, Algiers and Tunis, an escalation in the Libyan war with Chad means they can’t cross overland to Egypt and so have to ferry around across the Mediterranean.
For other parts, click the Index Page.

Next stage

Sahara West–East with VW Vans, 1984 • Part 5/8

See also:
Sahara West-East Crossings
Astro Navigation in the Sahara

Reports by Peter Reif
Photos by Peter Reif and Arike Mijnlieff

OSEWO Index Page

Part Five of Peter Reif’s report and maps recalling ÖSEWO: an Atlantic-to-Red Sea crossing of the Sahara in 1983-4. The team have arrived in Tamanrasset where they meet many other desert overlanders, as well as the Dakar Rally and three VW friends from Austria who’ve brought spare passports for Libya.
The four vans tick off the Hoggar Loop, then headed east for Djanet, close to the Libyan border.
For other parts, click the Index Page.

East to Djanet

Next stage

Sahara West–East with VW Vans, 1984 • Part 4/8

See also:
Sahara West-East Crossings
Astro Navigation in the Sahara

Reports by Peter Reif
Photos by Peter Reif and Arike Mijnlieff

OSEWO Index Page

Part Four of Peter Reif’s report and maps recalling ÖSEWO: an Atlantic-to-Red Sea crossing of the Sahara in 1983-4. Following the tough, three-week crossing of the Majabat al Koubra to Timbuktu, the two VWs head northeast back into the desert for the Algerian border they crossed two months earlier on the way down.
For other parts, click the Index Page.

Next stage

Sahara West–East with VW Vans, 1983 • Part 3/8

See also:
Sahara West-East Crossings
Astro Navigation in the Sahara

Reports by Peter Reif
Photos by Peter Reif and Arike Mijnlieff

OSEWO Index Page

Part Three of Peter Reif’s report and maps recalling ÖSEWO: an Atlantic-to-Red Sea crossing of the Sahara in 1983-4. The VWs load up and tackle the big 1500-km dune crossing of the Majabat al Koubra or Empty Quarter from Atar to Timbuktu.
For other parts, click the Index Page.

Next stage

Sahara West–East with VW Vans, 1983 • Part 2/8

See also:
Sahara West-East Crossings
Astro Navigation in the Sahara

Reports by Peter Reif
Photos by Peter Reif and Arike Mijnlieff

OSEWO Index Page

Part Two of Peter Reif’s report and maps recalling ÖSEWO: an Atlantic-to-red Sea crossing of the Sahara in 1983-4. The team get in position for the first big desert crossing.
For other parts, click the Index Page.

Next stage