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.
High up on the side of a remote High Atlas valley is an engineering marvel – hewn through the cliff face a spiral tunnel manages to curl down through the rock and emerge underneath itself.
I was told about this curiosity in 2012 by the chap at the cozy Chez Moha auberge (right) in Aït Youb while researching the second edition of Morocco Overland. Riding a BMW F650GS, I followed his directions with the usual route-finding issues and then, beyond the last village, hacked up a stony disused track to the 2250-m (7340′) Tagountsa Pass. From the cliff edge I recall the timeless view stretching east up the Plain d’Amane valley towards Rich, pictured below and on p128 in the current book. A short distance later I spun through the tunnel and rolled down a series of switchbacks back to the valley floor and a tasty tajine back at the auberge.
Spiral tunnels have been a long-established solution to constricted route building challenges across mountains. You could even say that your typical complex freeway intersection where the road winds back under itself to change direction tightly is the same thing in flyover form. But you must admit that hacking out any type of tunnel – let alone one where there’s no room to dig out a regular switchback – is an impressive task.
Not for the first time on this website, I’m able to benefit from research of Yves Rohmer (right) on his always fascinating collection of old Saharan curiosities at Saharayro, including the Tagountsa tunnel. Viewed on Google Earth, the big picture is more vividly rendered setting View > Historical Imagery back a few years.
Even then it’s hard to visualise what’s happening until you look at the old plan, right. You can see the anticlockwise descent of the bore and just work out that it starts with a short separate concrete bridge over the lower mouth of the tunnel. The daylight streaming down the gap can be seen in the image repeated on the left (and as a slim shadow in the round inset, above)
Built in 1933 over a period of just three months by some 3000 labourers from local and French regiments, few realise that at this time the French were still fighting to subdue renegade Berber tribes in the mountains of Morocco.
As you can see on Yves pages, the engineers, sapeurs and legionnaires passed their spare time commemorating their achievement by engraving regimental emblems in and around the structure. I was told the motivation for all this effort was to enable a secure, high transit of the valley, so avoiding protracted Berber ambushes at the narrow Imiter Gorge (left; ~KM70) with it’s Mesa Verde-like dwellings.
The same crew probably built the better known 62-metre Tunnel de Legionnaires five years earlier at Foum Zabel now on the main N13 highway north of Errachidia. A plaque there boldly states:
“The mountain barred the way.
Nonetheless the order was given to pass…
The Legion executed it.”
The Tagountsa tunnel the Legion helped build is at KM102 on Route MH13 in the book, though if you reverse the route it’s only a 10-km off-road drive off the Rich road just east of Amellago, turning north onto the dirt at KM113. Depending on storm damage, an ordinary car or a big bike should manage it, but note that you’ll be negotiating all those hairpins on the Google image above. From the west side (as Route MH13 describes the loop) it was a rougher and slightly more complicated ride on the BMW up to the pass.
Perhaps because trains can’t negotiate hairpins or climb very steep grades, it seems that spiral or helicoidal tunnels have been a much more common feature on mountain railways than roads, particularly in the Rockies.
Norway’s Drammen Spiral (left), some 50km southwest of Oslo is a notable example, dug we’re told, as an alternative to disfiguring effects of open quarrying on the landscape back in the 1950s while at the same time producing a revenue-producing tourist attraction in the process.
A few months ago the British Film Institute released an archive film of the early motor expeditions of Ralph Bagnold and his crew, exploring deep into the Libyan Desert. (Click BFI if youtube below gets deleted). The map top right shows all his expedition in the 1930s.
The 49-minute-long film describes the original recce in 1929 into the Great Sand Sea of the Western Desert via Ain Dalla spring. It was here that Bagnold’s group found lowering tyre pressures, as well as using sand plates and rope ladders, enabled heavy vehicles to traverse soft dunes.
A year later they set off towards Jebel Uweinat, a massif located by Ahmed Hassanein Bey less than a decade earlier during a camel trek from Jalu in northeastern Libya. At Ain Dalla camels brought in extra fuel, and the cars continued to Jebel Kissu in today’s Sudan and south of Uweinat, then east for the Nile via Selima oasis.
In 1932 they based themselves again at Jebel Kissu where they refuelled from Selima, then explored the Sarra Triangle (now in Libya) and northeastern Chad.
Heading south to El Fasher, they passed herds of ostrich and oryx, since shot out by rifle hunters, before heading north for Merga, back to Selima and home via Wadi Halfa for a tot of rum.
Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
Pictures from Emile Leray’s website and the web
… so makes a decision which is to say the least, amazing: from his wreck, he will build a two-wheeled machine!
In July 2012, a couple of years before fake news had become a thing, online media tripped over itself to syndicate a compelling Saharan survival story evoking the gripping 1965 desert drama, Flight of the Phoenix.
Then, five years later a video appeared on youtube (below) where the aged and batty-looking French adventurer again recounted his incredible desert caper.
Back in 2012 full details and motivations were skimmed over, but the story goes that back in March 1993, 43-year-old Frenchman Emile Leray set off from Tan-Tan on the Moroccan coast to drive his Citroen 2CV east to Zagora – more or less Route MW2 from my Morocco guidebook (below), followed by MS8 from Tata.
But with the Polisario ceasefire just 18 months old and frequently being broken, at Tilemsen the Moroccan army stopped him from continuing south towards Mseid, the former Polisario front line. Leray turned back towards Tan-Tan, but not before incurring some animosity from the army by refusing to give a soldier a lift back to town – a common request at remote Saharan checkpoints.
Just west of Tilemsen, Leray ‘had an idea’. He decided to circumvent the checkpoint to the north (see MW1 KM22), and rejoin MW2 eastwards. But once on the piste (or ‘off-piste’, as claimed) one of the 2CV’s suspension arms broke after hitting a hole too hard. With ten days’ provisions on board but reluctant to easily walk-out and leave his car vulnerable to theft, he decided to strip his crippled Citroen and rebuild it into a rudimentary motorcycle, then ride out as if nothing much happened. The unusual powertrain and suspension arrangement of a 2CV makes such a conversion plausible.
The way the story was initially reported in English – using images shot in a quarry (above) – Saharan know-alls like myself were initially sceptical. If it really happened why not just walk back half a day to the road?
I researched the yarn more closely for my Morocco guidebook and came across his own account published in a 2CV enthusiasts’ magazine a decade after the events. A faint ring of truth came through. Perhaps he did build the 2CV bike, but not in quite the circumstances he claimed.
As the TV show, Mythbusters proved for themselves, his contraption was barely rideable (left) and within a day Leray says he was caught by a patrol while camping in the desert and instructed to lead them back to the car’s remains to corroborate his story. Ironically, he goes on to claim (with convincing documentary evidence) that he ended up paying a 4500-dh fine (about €450) for driving a vehicle which did not conform to the one he originally imported to Morocco a few weeks earlier, even though he’d taken pains to tack on his ‘Steel Camel’s’ original license plate.
I believe the 2CV bike was indeed built in the desert, much as Leray claims, but he set out from France with the explicit intention of performing this task. Otherwise he’d have walked out like any normal person in a similar situation.
His claimed unease about leaving his stricken car doesn’t ring true, let alone the spontaneous idea of making it into a two-wheeler. Tellingly, in 2006 Leray went on to build a ‘2CV boat’ in Mali. He clearly likes mucking about with 2CVs. Fair play to him!
Below is the translated story as posted on Leray’s website so you can form your own impression. Bear in mind there’s no reason to believe this account, but it may have been the original version.
In March 1993 Emile Leray set off to follow a route from Tan-Tan to Zagora. He left Tan-Tan with the required reserves of fuel and provisions as well as tools to keep his old 2CV on the road. As soon as the Royal Gendarmerie arrives, they strongly discourage him from continuing further because the zone beyond Tilemsem is prohibited, following new developments in the conflict between Morocco and Western Sahara. Emile must obviously turn around and the soldiers are asking him to take a passenger back to Tan-Tan.
Analyzing the situation, and seeing his project thwarted, Emile claims an insurance problem that does not allow him to take passengers, arguing that his 2 CV is already very loaded. He knows full well that in Africa it’s seen very badly to not take soldiers aboard his car in these circumstances. He claims naivety and misunderstanding in adopting the attitude of a tourist not familiar with local customs.
Emile then returns to Tan-Tan under the disgruntled and disapproving look of the soldiers. He starts off at a good pace as he’s afraid he will be followed and he wants to remain out of sight of those whom he has just left. His plan is to bypass the area off-piste and return to his original direction … After a few kilometres he leaves the track to the north and traverses uneven and rocky ground.
After bouncing more strongly, the car jumps and brutally strikes a rock. He must stop because the 2CV does not respond very well. And for good reason – a folded wheel arm and broken spar …
Émile organizes his encampment around the broken 2 CV and reflects on the situation. He is a few miles from Tan-Tan which he could reach on foot, but he runs the risk of leaving is car certainly in bad point but still able to attract theft, including its equipment. In the desert nothing is permanently lost, especially for the one who knows where to look.
He has enough food and water so makes a decision which is to say the least, amazing: from his wreck, he will build a two-wheeled machine! One by one he carefully considered all the technical obstacles that this entails, and this master of African bush mechanics has all the tools and the elements to succeed in the task.
The next morning he began to dismantle the 2CV, first removing the body which he will use as shelter against the cool nights and sandstorms. Having no long-sleeved shirts, against the burning sun he makes sleeves from a pair of socks. With what remains of the car, Emile Leray will try to build a motorcycle. Overnight he mentally reviewed all the stages and difficulties involved in this rather crazy project … A project that he had probably imagined for a long time but without having had the opportunity to realize it.
The wheel arms (to be removed with a hacksaw) are nested upside down on a reduced chassis of the front and rear side rails. The engine and the gearbox are then placed on the chassis in the center. Space should be reserved for the battery and the fuel tank and to keep space for luggage without neglecting the layout of the steering system.
The most surprising thing about this 2CV motorcycle is the transmission. It was inspired by the Vélosolex moped idea (right): the engine drives a drum which in turn turns the tyre by friction, and which, by the laws of physics and mechanics, obliges it to roll with the reverse. Disassembling the gearbox to reverse the differential would have been too risky in this universe of sand …
It seems unthinkable to assemble this machine in the desert without the help of a drill and welding station. All parts were assembled by screwing. When drilling, it will be done in the African way: the piece of metal is folded to 90 ° to form an edge. At a fixed point this edge is weakened by a hacksaw or round file. At the limit of the drilling, the piece must be replaced flat to perforate the filed point with a hammer or a needle. The assemblies were made as much as possible according to the original holes of the chassis or engine-box unit.
The rest is only a matter of time dependent on the quantity of his provisions. Émile believes he must spend three days building his bike – in reality it will take twelve …
There was a great deal of uncertainty to carry out this project and it wasn’t so easy to realize as one might think. The possibility of failure remained present throughout the adventure, giving some anguish to the stranded mechanic.
The 2CV motorcycle was obviously not conceived for the sake of comfort, it is a rather secondary notion that was not imperative in what we can call the specifications. The prototype has therefore not benefited from some desirable improvements. It should be noted that, for example, the exhaust is free, so the nose and the ears are affected greatly by the engine’s gases. The bike does not have a brake, nor does it have foot rests which allow some control of the trajectory with the feet, because the craft lacks stability. On the first test the bike fell over, causing a great scare to Emile, who almost found himself crushed under his 200-kilo machine.
The arrangement of the clutch and accelerator controls were particularly tedious. It was necessary to dismantle, adjust and reassemble the parts for optimum operation. Similarly, the tests were punctuated by frequent falls. To lift the two-wheeled steel camel proved particularly physically difficult … All these circumstances contributed to prolong Emile stay in the desert. The final day was be spent adjusting and testing and cleaning the bivouac site.
It was an occasion to immortalize the moment thanks to a small camera with the trigger connected by a long wire. Émile poses in the middle of a place that in March 1993 was the theatre of his unusual feat.
He leaves the next afternoon leaving the parts that he will not use in the body shell of the 2CV. He takes with him the rest of his food (more than a litre and a half of water), the bed, the tool box, not forgetting maps and compass. A small foam mattress and a towel sewn together will serve as a tent.
After a bumpy ride and a few stops for mechanical improvements, he encamped and slept at the edge of a track. In the night, he is awakened by three soldiers in 4×4, one of which immediately recognizes the “tourist” of Tilemsem. Very irritated to find him in the forbidden zone, he strongly doubts Emile Leray’s explanations; an accident followed by the transformation into a motorcycle. Intrigued by the machine, but totally incredulous, the soldier demands to see the carcass of the 2CV to have proof of this incredible story.
The officer puts an armed guard by the tent and the motorcycle, then embarks with Émile in the 4×4. After an hour of research in the dark, the remains of the 2 CV cannot be found. Back at the camp, Émile is allowed to rest near the motorcycle until dawn, guarded a hundred meters away by the military in their 4×4. The next day, the carcass was found and the soldiers relax. Émile will learn later that his interlocutor wanted to recover the abandoned pieces for his brother-in-law …
In the early morning, Emile was ordered to take his motorcycle back, and ride in front of the 4×4. The convoy sets off slowly towards Tan-Tan but several falls seriously annoy the soldier, pestering against this unstable machine. Eventually the soldier calls by radio for another 4×4 to come to recover the 2CV motorcycle.
Arriving at Tan-Tan on April 6th, things get complicated with a lot of bureaucratic hassles. At the provincial governor’s office, a report is drawn up, as well as by the Royal Gendarmerie. The vehicle is impounded
Emile has the disagreeable surprise of learning that he has to pay a tax of 4500 dirhams. He is very unhappy because the customs officers had spoken to him on the eve of mere formalities. The vehicle is regarded as dangerous and no longer corresponds to the description of the registration documents.
“Delay in importing a non-conforming vehicle” is the charge, and by paying the fine he can regain his freedom and recover his contraption, but not be allowed to drive it.One could say a lot from this misadventure about the complicated relations between Africans and Europeans on the issue of money ...
The next day Emile is summoned to sign the forms to exit the territory, and leave for France. He thinks he should come back as soon as possible to get the bike back, but by then he must find a place to park it. There is no question that he leaves her in the pound, it may cost him dearly, and the place is not guarded. A customs officer who is more sympathetic than his colleagues offers to take the steel camel home while waiting for him to return to Morocco.
A month later Emile made the 3500-km journey between Rennes and Tan-Tan with another 2CV to pick up his motorcycle, now dismantled in three parts …
Since then, the steel-motorcycle camel has enjoyed the honors of the press and participated in a few events such as the Aventure and the Inventors of Rennes, the fiftieth anniversary of the 2 CV in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, Without forgetting the Motards have heart.
Émile returned several times to Africa, and in 2006 took a new opportunity for the Doctor of African mechanics to exercise his transformational talents on the steel camel [below]…
For more information: full story and technical details in 2 CV Magazine March-April 2003.
Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
“We left Biskra with Corporal Dewoitine as a mechanic, and took hours to reach Touggourt, averaging 50kph, despite a trail of frightful ruts. Our arrival was all the more sensational than in an airplane because I drove right down the main street in a torrent of dust, skimming past walls and passers-by with with my propeller, causing burnous, guenours and chèches to fly in all directions. It was a beautiful panic!
The two adventurers quickly left Touggourt in a cloud of dust, heading for Ouargla, but the infernal locust began to show its first signs of fatigue: sand gnawed the leading edge of the propeller and the engine dropped to half power. De La Fargue ordered Dewoitine to head for Square Bresson, a junction and small oasis 50km away.”
Just 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.
An ingenious combination of airplane landing gear with a cab stuck on top, the distinctive propeller car was one short-lived solution to enable rapid communication across the desert. Invented by Corporal Gustave Cros, the chassis was 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.
This 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…
Early models, like the one right, were considered too light to be stable but nevertheless 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 De La Fargue 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.
You 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.
By 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 this post by Oliver Boul where you’ll find lots more interesting stuff.
Austrians in VW Kombis 1983-4 (soon)
When the Sahara was more accessible, lateral crossings, all of them west to east, used to capture the imagination of adventure seekers, both private and corporate. Although such transits aren’t what it’s about to me, I wrote a box for the last edition of Sahara Overland about the four best-known vehicular transits which, broadly speaking, set out with this goal in mind:
• Belgians – Unimog, 1964-5
• Brits – Land Rover 101, 1975
• Germans – Hanomag, 1975-6
• French – Saviem, 1977
As I suggested in the book, 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 below but note the oddly misaligned borders, not least Niger-Chad).
The chances of achieving a true Saharan traverse are currently about as slim as they’ve ever been. Much of the Sahara of Mali, Libya, Niger and Egypt are unsafe or off-limits. Eastern Mauritania is said to be the same, and much of southern Algeria between Bordj towards Djanet (as we did in 2006) is now restricted.
Northern Chad always presented difficulties from the mountainous terrain, let alone permissions and security issues. Meanwhile, people smuggling convoys still roll into Libya across northern Sudan above Darfur and are preyed on by 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 Brits couldn’t enter Algeria at all which kiboshed their planned route; the Hanomagers bounced for over 16,000km between the Maghreb and the Sahel like pinballs, but did a whole lot of classic desert routes; and the French seemed to dodge Algeria and Chad.
The Saviems of 1997 made a pretty good job of it once they left Mali, planting at least 25 of their distinctive blue and white balises across the desert is a bid to establish a new lateral trade route across the width of the Sahara. The value of that is clearly rather dubious, but it was a good excuse to promote the lorries and have a big Sahara nadventure, using trials bikes and even parascenders to help recce the route ahead.
In my travels I’ve come across remnants of Saviem #16 in Niger, as well as an intact Saviem #22 east of the Gilf Kebir (below). And there’s a photo here of Saviem #10 just a couple of years after it was installed.
Of the four expeditions mentioned here, the three continental ones produced illustrated books in French and German (below). If you don’t read either language any better than me, the big-format Croisiere des Sables is a good one to get – mostly pictures and under a tenner on abebooks last time I looked.
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 has published a couple of lavish Sahara picture books on his own travels, it looks like we’ll never get a full account of the JSE 101 crossing. There was an appropriately dry expedition report for the Geographical Journal in 1976 which you can read on JSTOR (map below).
He also wrote a well illustrated summary in the winter 2016 issue of the quarterly Overland Journal (right).
My own lateral crossings
A while back, before things really got bad in the Sahara (right) it occurred to me that, with one small effort I could link up my own lateral crossing of the Sahara between the Nile and Atlantic. Of course it would have taken me several years, but mainly across three trips: Libya 1998 (researching Sahara Overland); Egypt 2004 and our big SEQ 2006 crossing (below) I’ve covered all bar around 800km of the distance.
All 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 left in 1998).
It was where Route L2 from Sahara Overland (below right) strayed briefly into Algerian territory to avoid the worst of the Idehan Ubari’s dunes.
Some may recall Michael Palin visited this very tree for his Sahara TV show in 2002 and on arriving proclaimed:
‘this spare, uncluttered, beautiful spot was one of my favourite places in the Sahara‘.
Well, he’s easy to please!
And in fact, I’ve since realised that when we treked with mules to Sefar on the Tassili plateau in 2013, I was within sight our 1998 route into the Libyan Akakus.
Up until the gas plant attack at Tigantourine that year, I could probably have knocked out my crossing to the Algerian Tree at any time. Either driving down to Edjeleh oil camp right on the Libyan border then scooting over the dunes as shown below).
I recall making contact with an oil worker based in Edjejeh one time, 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 Bourharet. The stony reg thereabouts is criss-crossed with oil exploration tracks, but, post-Tigantourine that area will now be closely watched.
Then there’s a much more substantial missing section to get my West-East certificate in eastern Libya: from Waw Namus crater which we visited in 1998 (below) …
I remember that Christmas well; we had more trouble than normal getting Mahmoud’s Toyota-engined Series III running, dragging it to life with the Land Cruiser (below) 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.
No tourist has driven in southern Libya since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011. The south has now controlled by the Tuareg (with a bit of AQIM and IS) and the Tubu who battle it out for the control of lucrative people-trafficking and other commodities coming up from Niger. As things stand now in Libya, ticking off that final 720-km stage from Waw crater to Xmas Camp may have to wait for a rainy day in the Sahara.
Some time ago someone kindly gave me the official ASO roadbook from the 2007 Lisbon-Dakar Rally, the last one to be held in the Sahara.
Following the murder of a French family in Mauritania just before the Rally (actually thought to be criminals not terrorists), additional threats saw the 2008 event cancelled at the last minute. The following year the Rally moved to South America where it continued to thrive with less controversy until it moved again to Saudi in 2020.
The longest stage in 2007 was across the top of Western Sahara from Tan Tan on the Atlantic to the Mauritanian mining town of Zouerat – 817km via Smara with a tea break at Bir Mogrein. The shortest stage was still 500km long, through the light jungles of western Mali and Senegal where I limped over the border into Senegal some thirty years earlier on two flat tyres (right). I passed plenty of Dakar racers that year too, and eventually ended up in Dakar myself (above left), but not on any sort of podium.
Below some snapshots from the Last Roadbook from what many still feel was the last real Dakar.
Oxford, Portsmouth, Le Havre, Marseille, Tunis, Taleb Larbi, El Oued, Hassi Massoud, Illizi, Djanet, Mt Tiska, Erg D’Admer, Oued Sersouf, Mt Tazat, Amadror, Garet El Djenoun, Tefedest East, Tam, Ain Salah, Ghardaia, Taleb Larbi, Tunis, Marseille, Oxford.
Land Rover Series 2A 1970 109 Petrol 2.25 • December 2007 – January 2008
The last time I was in Algeria was in late 2002 on a round trip of the south in the fuel-dump stage of the Desert Riders trip. The kidnappings in March 2003 in the Algerian Sahara led to a bit of a wait-and-see approach for me but provided the opening for desert trips to the Gilf (2003/4), Chad (2005) and Morocco (2005/6). The combination of time-elapsed-since-kidnappings and a relative disappointment (I was warned) with Morocco’s desert (though not the country), resulted in a return to Algeria. To be fair, the decision was more than helped along by our extended Australian family’s curiosity with the Sahara and their idea that we all get together there in the winter of 2007/8. Happily we did, making it my 6th visit to Algeria. The desert there is better than ever.
Our Route and Our Group
We followed the usual route down to Djanet in the south-east via the sealed roads from the Tunisian-Algerian border at Taleb Larbi, taking about 4 days from the Tunisian border. There’s more on this part of the trip, including the state of the road, status of the check points and so on later in this S-File. We spent a good two weeks knocking around the Djanet region, including both day and overnight trips. Djanet is a great setting for this sort of thing – the landscape within 100 km is astonishingly varied. We went up the Tassili escarpment on an overnight walk with donkeys, out to Mount Tiska a couple of times – including a brief visit to the great northern Tenere plain, several nights in the canyons west of Djanet (Sersouf), a day in the Erg D’Admer as well as a few evening braais (South African for bbq) in scenic spots around Djanet. During this time we either camped out in the desert or stayed in the Hotel Tenere – a break from the usual Hotel Zeriba. Actually we did spend a couple of nights there. The Zeribas are all but gone and the nights pretty noisy (dogs go from 11-2, chickens from 2-5, and then the Mosque wakes up the truck drivers). But Zeribas is still a nice location in the heart of town. Hotel Tenere was a pleasant surprise. Working out at about 10 euros per person for a 4 person bungalow, we enjoyed the peace and quiet, awesome views on the breakfast balcony, and freedom to cook up our suppers in the quiet hotel gardens. The place had always been a ghost town when I passed by on previous trips. It was this time too, apart from the nights when aircraft landed in Djanet – then it was fully booked for a few hours (the flights arrive after midnight).
Our Djanet to Tam route took in the pass just north of Mount Tazat on A7 in Sahara Overland, two nights at a beautiful spot just west of Tazat, a day driving up the old truck piste from Djanet (A7 in Sahara Overland) and on to the centre of the Amadror plain (a striking camp in the middle of nowhere), on through to the Tefedest East valley, a couple of days on a detour north to Garet El Djenoun from where we headed south to Hirafok back along the Tefedest east and then west across the corrugated piste to the sealed road to Tam. It was a purposefully slow drive, taking a full 7 nights to do what many parties would want to cover in three days. But this part of the Algeria trip was the highlight of the holiday and, increasingly, the pace at which I enjoy moving through the desert. On the days when we did drive we got going at 10am and finished by 2 or 3pm – some days a lot earlier.
For the leg from Marseille to Djanet I was joined by Spook. Meg, our two children, Josh (7) and Kate (4) flew into Djanet via Paris and Algiers, along with Meg’s sister (Clare), her husband (Mike) and their children James (about to start uni), Nic (16) and Rob (12). The age range coupled with it being Clare and Mike’s family’s first desert trip made me wonder how we’d fair, especially for things like the Tassili escarpment walk.
Kate and Josh are probably amongst the younger tourists to have made it up the Tassili escarpment. Josh made sure he walked up and down while Kate took advantage of Meg’s fitness with long piggy back rides. Kids this young tend to focus on the very small scale. This became obvious to us when looking through the extremely detailed diary that Josh kept during the trip. He seldom commented on the grand views or the expanse of the desert but wrote a lot about our camp sites, cooking on the fire, the Algerians who were with us and so on. Josh was absorbed for hours looking for bones, old pottery, fossils and unusual rocks around the camps and, towards the end, went off with Kate on longer walks up surrounding hills. Having a camera also kept him busy. We also took a rugby ball and cricket bat which kept us all entertained for hours. Kate was perhaps less interested in the desert itself. For her, having the company of an extended family for 24 hours a day was a great treat. One indulgence we took with us was a portable DVD player. Kate watched the Sound of Music often enough to learn the words to most of the songs. There is no doubt that this helped us through some of the longer driving days. The children slept some nights in a tent, some nights under the stars and many nights on the mattress in the back of the Land Rover. This provided them with a cosy and familiar setting which was marginally warmer and certainly less windy than outside. There was never any hint in the time we were there that the children were not having a great time. Without exception, the Algerians were simply great with the kids, and Mike and Clare as uncle and aunt, were very helpful and attentive which no doubt helped.
A question the people I work with always ask when they hear I am heading for Algeria goes along the lines of “so what do you do all day when you’re in the desert?” I think there is a general concern that you’ll be bored out of your mind. Funnily enough, we were all too busy in Algeria for the question to arise. The desert just seems to soak up your time in a nicely passive kind of way.
Roads, Borders and Ferries
The sealed roads through Tunisia were excellent, better than I remember them on previous trips when there was a lot of construction going on either side of Gafsa, The good roads allowed us to reach the Algerian border from the port in Tunis on the same day.
We arrived at Taleb Larbi (Algerian border) at about 10:30 pm having docked in Tunis shortly after noon. That night we slept near the Algerian immigrations building having exited through the Tunisian border. Unusually, the Tunisians kept us waiting about an hour before stamping our exits. They checked and re-checked our papers while heading off to the Land Rover a few times without doing very much when they got there. It wasn’t ever clear what the problem was though we speculated that arriving in Tunis port and then checking out of Tunisia a few hours later had scared the horses a bit – especially when we’d asked for a 12 day stay – as you do in case the Land Rover wrapped itself round a camel on the way passed Gafsa.
Processing through the port in Tunis wasn’t too bad – taking just under 2 hours, slower than it might have been because Spook needed to get a visa for his S African passport. It continues to amaze me though, that there is no readily apparent system for dealing with immigrations and customs in Tunis port. The ensuing madness of cars, converging lanes and hooting makes it seem like its all happening for the first time. That said, getting on to the Ferry in France was little different. First we were sensibly shuffled into two lines, one for Algiers and one for Tunis. A little later on the lines converged from 10 to 1 as we went through immigration but not before the cars were put through an S-bend carefully calculated to be too tight for most 4X4s. Its not easy reversing in an S-bend with 5 lanes converging to one. Getting off the ferry from Tunis in Marseille on the way back had its own surprises too. Lanes of cars were dealt with in order by immigration officials in booths – a sensible approach given that cars at least stay in order that way. A key problem at the Tunis end is that drivers are processed away from their cars. Needless to say, people from the back of the car queue can be dealt with before those whose cars are ahead of them in the queue – so lines of cars tend to become a jam of angry drivers who can’t move in any direction because many of the drivers are still on foot in the queues. It was good to see that the French had this part of the production line sorted out. But French customs instead had something in the pipeline for us. They were stopping cars in the lanes and searching through them so that the entire queue of cars had to wait until the cars in front had been cleared. We watched in amazement as a panel van was unloaded in front of us and every bag and hiding place in the van thoroughly searched. After that we were waived through in a second. But why not pull these cars out of the queue first – and then dismantle them? That would save everyone a couple of hours and there was plenty of room to do so.
Algerian sealed roads are a mixed bag. The Taleb Larbi to Djanet and Tam to Taleb Larbi (trans-Sahara highway) sealed roads seemed to be in a much worse state than in any of my previous visits to Algeria. In particular, the road at the south end of the Fadnoun plateau (between Illizi and Djanet to within about 50km of Djanet) is badly broken up and cost us a good tyre and tube, even with slow and careful driving. I was also surprised at the condition of the road south of Hassi Massoud to Hassi Bel Gebour. This stretch takes a lot of oil traffic now and is a pretty poor state. With the oil price having trebled since I was last in Algeria and with the industry making heavy use of these roads, one wonders where the cash is going.
Likewise, the sealed road between Tam and Ain Salah, apart from a new section 100 km north of Tam, is full of deep pot holes. It is particularly bad around Arak where the problem of the river and the road sharing the same valley still hasn’t been sorted out. It looks like they are having a serious go now though, with some complicated elevated sections under construction. But then they were busy with this in 2002.
Our drive north took us from Ain Salah to Ghardaia and from there on to El Oued and Taleb Larbi. At Dahaj (from Tanezrouft’s) recommendation, we took the road 40km north of Ghardaia before turning east through a string of pretty Berber towns via Guerrara on a smooth, quiet and very scenic alternative to the Ouargla route through from the Trans Saharan Highway to El Oued and Taleb Larbi. This route is not only more interesting but cuts out that demoralising southward dogleg west of Ouargla on the way to El Oued. There were also no military checkpoints between Ghardaia and Toggourt.
Its still all Toyota, Toyota in Algeria. The shops in Djanet and Tam seem to have more spares than ever. Fuel queues in Tam were back – or never went away. Luckily we had the range to get north to Arak on Djanet fuel otherwise it would have been about 2 hours or more of waiting for us.
A marked change from 2002 is the amount of traffic on the roads at night. We slept about 3km off the road about 15 km south of Hassi Massoud but could hear the trucks on the road throughout the night. I remember the traffic pretty much stopping at sunset on these stretches before. We also drove at night, leaving Ain Salah at midnight (for reasons that I will explain later) and arriving in Ghardaia at about 9am. This all seemed OK with the checkpoints along the way and we passed traffic throughout the night.
SNCF are running a new ferry on the Marseille to Tunis line – the Danielle Casanova. She’s not exactly new, having served on some other route for a few decades – probably the run out to Corsica. But she’s bigger, most likely faster and quite a bit grander than the Liberte which used to ply the crossing to Tunis. A ‘new’ line is also running from Portsmouth to Le Havre (LD Lines) with fewer crossings per day (just one) compared with P&O.
The invitations, permits, two Toyotas (for the Djanet to Tam leg), drivers and guides necessary for an Algerian trip these days were all arranged by Tanezrouft Voyages. Our itinerary was complicated. It included two arrival dates for our party, one in our own car, three departure dates and several unique groups of names for the various legs (two arriving in Taleb Larbi, one leaving in Djanet, 8 arriving in Djanet, 7 leaving in Tam, 2 leaving in Taleb Larbi!). The paper work was taken care of by Yves at Tanezrouft and any changes, including a few that we had to make late in the day, were resolved very promptly. The Tanezrouft drivers (Dahaj and Moktar) were the best you get for these kinds of trips. Their outlook and temperament are very well suited to desert driving and desert trips. They obviously enjoyed being in the desert, were ever patient and unhurried, good with the kids, and sensitive to us wanting to drive slowly and take ages over the piste from Djanet to Tam. They were not once late. Srouffi, the guide provided by Tanezrouft, stayed with us from Taleb Larbi to Tam. Srouffi is a lovely man who knows the pistes extremely well. He went the extra mile in looking after us in the camps, especially around the fire on cold nights. He is quite a character. Overall it would be a priority for us to work with Tanezrouft on our next visit to Algeria.
We took my old 1970 Series 2A 109 Land Rover (petrol 2.25L) from the UK but also had two Toyotas from Tanezrouft for the Djanet to Tam leg. The Toyotas were a pair of Landcruisers, a GX 80 series with 400 000+ km on the odo and an 80 VX with about 250 000 miles.
The VX did the job in a comfortable VX kind of way. It does sit like a frog when loaded though. The extremely cold weather led to an oil leak near the front pulley which was active for a few days but went away once the weather eventually warmed.
The Land Rover went fine, covering the 10 000 km return trip without any majors.
Only the routine manifold gasket job half way through the trip in Tam caused us to get the big box of tools out. I say routine because this bug crops up every 4 000 km or so – the back exhaust outlet burns through on the manifold gasket and it starts to sound like a Merlin engine after that. Anyone who knows what could be the cause, do let me know. I’ve changed the inlet and exhaust manifold itself (not just the gasket) twice now and three different people have been involved in doing the job. Anyway, its easy enough to do and gave us a bit of street cred at camping Dassine in Tam when our sleeves were rolled up.
We had two punctures on the Land Rover – the first on the Fadnoun plateau which ruined the tyre too. The second in the middle of the Amadror which we fixed that night. Like many others I have thought long and hard about the number of spares to take. For the last three Saharan trips in the Land Rover I have settled on one made up spare and one additional tyre with no rim (plus a few tubes). The reasoning is that its easy enough to fix punctures (providing one has some levers, patches and so on) but its very unlikely that a rim will become impossible to repair – especially steel rims. I carried 2 made up spares on over 70 000 km of piste on previous trips in the Land Rover, but never needed them.
The Land Rover had a couple of interesting and unique tricks too. One was a potent smell of petrol which was beginning to strip the last of the blue paint work off the doors it was so strong. The issue had started in Morocco on an earlier trip and I thought I had it sorted after changing the back tank (which was obviously leaking) and adding some additional seals to the fuel caps (the Land Rover has 3 on-board fuel tanks). Everything smelt like roses when I did the test drives round Oxford in the summer, but by Hassi Massoud it was clear that Spook’s eyes were starting to water in the passenger seat. We by-passed the complicated fuel delivery set up (involving tank switch and independent fuel pumps and filters) with new fuel line all the way from the rear fuel pump to the carb – and still it stank! We finally diagnosed the problem in Sersouf canyon near Djanet where we noticed that the stink was a lot stronger with a closed throttle than an open throttle – a bit counter intuitive really. It turned out that the new replacement Weber carb had some kind of an ill-fitting adapter collar where the air filter pipe joins it. When hot enough, the adapter collar becomes loose, allowing the entire air filter pipe to detach along with the collar from the carb top. Removing the collar made for the simple fix. It probably never got warm enough round Oxford in the summer for the problem to develop. So we’d spent all our efforts looking for leaks in the fuel line when the problem actually lay in the air feed. There’s something new on every trip and, as they say, its never over in a rover.
The Land Rover also developed a leak in the exhaust pipe just short of the silencer box. This was sorted out in Tam by the first set of fixers on the right hand side on the way in to Tam from camping Dassine. They are worth a mention because they took the pipe and silencer box apart, welded in a replacement piece of pipe (found on the roof of a house nearby) and welded it all up again over the course of 2 hours, asking only 8 euros for the job. There is nowhere I know of near Oxford that will do anything other than throw away as many sections of exhaust pipe as they can and bolt on new parts while some gum- chewing youngster with spots and a bolt through his eye rubs runs up an outrageous bill. No one welds exhausts where I live anymore. So hats off to the guys in Tam. That’s where I’m going next time the exhaust develops a leak and I find myself in the UK.
While the Land Rover threw up minor niggles to keep us entertained on the long sections, the GX had a more spectacular episode coded up in its DNA and ready to be unleashed at 426,515 km. About 100 km out from Djanet the GX transfer box shaft opted for its very last rotation. The car stopped so suddenly in front of us that we nearly absorbed the Toyota’s spare tyre in our front grill – it was all we could do to miss it. The box was terminal – actually Moktar had been struggling to find both first and second gear ever since the aging GX had arrived in Djanet. I was a bit surprised that it was the transfer box that finally finished it off. After we had disconnected the front and back props – which hilariously involved Srouffi – not much of a mechanic on a good day – as chief conductor and interpreter using all the 11 French words the team had by then worked up in common, the VX towed its work-horse counterpart to Djanet on a very short 4m strap I’d dug out of the Land Rover. With a delay of a week likely to replace the box (which eventually came via Tam from Ouargla), Dehaj set about finding a replacement car. This is where Isak from Djanet (not his real name) with a newer GX belonging to his brother, stepped in to help and Moktar, sadly, vanished from the scene for a couple of weeks. I have to say that Dahaj and Moktar alike did nothing but reassure us that everything would be fine and that our schedule would be unaffected – more than I would be capable of if my transfer box had just jammed solid such a long way from home. The substitution of cars and drivers led to a bit of an unusual situation because Isak was not in the employ of Tanezrouft, other than in an ad hoc sub-contract kind of way –as far as we could tell that was- and the car belonged to someone in his family. So when, during the rest of the trip, the day’s driving was done, he felt as though he was free to do what he liked with is families car. Which, in fairness, he was. At least until an event on the Amadror plain changed things a little.
Isak had been on a number of ‘drives’ on his own to go and ‘fetch firewood’ since he joined us in Djanet. He normally came back to camp with firewood although it had never been necessary to fetch any as we’d always camped next to trees where firewood was plentiful– as you so often do on these trips. We knew it wasn’t the real reason he went off, but it never resulted in anything more than a topic of curiosity amongst us. We arrived in the Amadror plain campsite at about 4pm – one of our longer drives. Within 5 minutes of getting there, Isak went off to find firewood. Anyone who has crossed the Amadror plain knows that there just isn’t any. We hadn’t seen a tree in about 100 km and the landscape is flat, empty and stark. When he wasn’t back 3 and a bit hours later, Srouffi began to worry in as much as Srouffi ever worried about things. Also James and Nic were without some of their kit as they’d been travelling with Isak that day and he’d left so smartly that it hadn’t occurred to them to remove everything from the GX. Now that it was dark, Srouffi walked a few 100 meters from the camp and waved a dying-yellow head torch about a bit, hoping that if Isak was lost, the head torch would draw him home. I also switched on my Thuraya sat phone, having swapped numbers with Isak before setting off on the trip. Round about this time we spotted a number of vehicles, about 10 km away moving towards our camp. It was then that I decided to SMS our GPS position to third parties as we really weren’t sure what was going on. It turned out that Isak hadn’t been able to find our campsite in the darkness – he only found it when I switched on the headlights of the VX. Looking back, the cars we’d seen must have been on the piste from Illizi to Tam which crosses the Amadror (its not one I’d known about before). Over the days we got to know Isak better and he turned out to be a likeable guy that Josh and Kate, the youngsters in the group, were especially fond of. He didn’t come across as anything like the usual piste driver with his smart clothes, shades and leather Thuraya case. But he did help us out of a spot in Djanet at a moments notice and for that we were grateful.
Taking a car down to southern Algeria from the UK is, when you add up the costs of a guide from the border, the ferries and the fuel through Europe, only marginally less expensive than spending 130 euros a day on a local vehicle. Given the wear and tear to your own vehicle, it probably works out to be a lot more expensive. But a number of things make it attractive to drive down. First, one can take a lot of things with you that are nice to have. We took camping chairs, a table, tents for nights when the wind was strong, food that you can’t get in the south (including coffee, tea, savoury biscuits, packet soup), Christmas presents for the kids, balls to mess about with, medical kit, water containers for the piste, a cooking stove, GPS, satellite phones, books for the children to read. All these things helped to smooth out the bumps but would have been difficult to include in the 20kg baggage allowance. Also, as mentioned earlier, the Land Rover was a home away from home for the youngsters. They really enjoyed sleeping in the back.
Algerian Security Situation
It was the Algerian consulate in Canberra who rang Clare up in Sydney and asked her if she knew what she was doing taking her children to Algeria. The London office was a bit more detached but a bomb killing nearly 70 people at the UNHCR in Algiers did manage to get on the news just before the party of 8 flew through the capital on the way to Djanet. Sleepy Djanet had its own share of action a few weeks before when a group of insurgents in 3 Toyotas fired RPGs at an Algerian military plane before fleeing on foot into the hills. All of this is good news when you are about to head off because the effort needed by the insurgents to mount such complicated raids normally means that the ensuing months will be much quieter while they regroup – and the security situation heightened. To be honest it didn’t seem to be round Djanet. The night Meg and the others flew in to Djanet, we took our 3 cars and cooked supper on a fire in the desert just 5 km from the airport fence. We might well have been the return party eyeing out the Mi-17s that sit on Djanet runway. No one seemed to be very bothered and we stayed there from sunset till the plane landed at about 3am.
Compared with 2002 there are certainly more barrages (military road blocks) on the sealed roads, although our passage through them was faster than before owing to the paper work (names, passport numbers, date of birth etc of all in the party) Tanezrouft dished out at every stop.
Our time in Tam coincided with the President’s visit and sharp shooters on street corners and roof tops. We’d thought we’d escaped the fuss in Tam but rolling in to Ain Salah we noticed the familiar flags and hurried look on the painters tarting up the town. Our afternoon in Ain Salah on the way north was meant to be followed by an early exit the next morning but later that night rumours spread around town that the road either way out of Ain Salah was closed for 24 hours. This made me think for the first time about my own timing (having been carefully aware of everyone else’s flight dates) and it soon occurred to me that my 30 day visa was to expire in 24 hours time. A trip to the Police (guys with the blue cars) with Dahaj confirmed the road closure as well as the fact that they weren’t willing to give us a letter explaining that the road had closed and that we’d been delayed by the official Presidential visit. Whilst on the phone to Yves that night from Dahaj’s family’s house, Yves recounted the story of a party of tourist who had overstayed their visa and ended up in court. So we visited the Gendarmerie (the guys with the green cars) who explained that the road was closed but would open 100 km from Ain Salah (the big checkpoint on the way up the Tademait plateau) at 5am. This sounded unlikely given that a hit and run/bomb planter was designed to be delayed by the road closure until the president had safely left town, but it was enough of an opening for us and Dahaj kindly agreed that we could leave town at midnight on the Monday/Tuesday change over. I felt bad because he’d been away from his family and home town for weeks and here we were snatching him away a few hours later. That night was a real stinker with a blistering northerly gale, dust storms and temperatures near freezing. But we were waived through the check point 100 km from Ain Salah and all others that night too. In the end I drove from Arak (250 km north of Tam) to Nefta in Tunisia in one go. A 37 hour stretch at the wheel of the old Land Rover was enough for reality to parse through my head in strange, interrupted packets of information rather than the normal steady stream we know. It was like the jangly world had adopted a 1-3-4-2 firing order on a point gap that was way too big. Tunisian immigration were unusual helpful that night. Just as well.
Mid-winter in southern Algeria normally brings warm, cloud free days and cold to cool nights. We had some of those. But almost all the nights in the south were below freezing and many nights much more windy than average. Several of the days were very dusty too. A cold, northerly wind tended to spin up the dust.
I have already commented on how pleasant Dahaj, Moktar, Isak (once we got to know him) and Srouffi were in the desert. And just how helpful Tanezrouft were. So these comments go beyond Tanezrouft to the general case of guides in the desert and come, in part, from the fact that I’ve been to the Algerian desert several times on my own trips without guides, sometimes into uncharted territory well off piste.
There certainly are times when having a guide adds to ones enjoyment of the desert substantially. An example is the pass west through mount Tazat which we’d done once on our own by accident a few years before. I had the GPS points for the route as well as those in ‘Sahara Overland’ (part of A7). But that afternoon we were in the mood to hand over to Srouffi and set sail for the pass knowing that he’d find the smoothest way through – which he did. Yet other times I was up for a bit of my own exploring and that becomes difficult to do because the guide loses the mojo for a while and doesn’t like not being in charge or understand what we are trying to do. It is genuinely difficult to explain an intended route to someone who doesn’t do maps, route descriptions or a GPS. Exploring is a very real part of the enjoyment of a trip like this and I keenly felt the loss of what is an important component for me. Perhaps its possible to strike a deal with a tour company in the beginning where one pays for a guide that is happy enough to take a back seat (literally and figuratively) for the trip. On the other hand maybe Saharan guides are just part of the irreversible shift towards the taming of the desert and removal of the isolation that draws one to the desert in the first place. The trips I’ve done where the desert was the closest companion for us all was when we went off-piste in one vehicle with no satellite phone or GPS. The days of heading off without a GPS or sat phone are over now but there may be a way round the personality of the guide.
Best campsites: Mount Tazat (couldn’t leave – stayed two days), Mnt Tiska (always a favourite of mine)
Worst days: Figuring out Isak’s antics on the Amadror
Best days: Climbing mount Tiska with Spook and just about all the days with family.
Wish I’d brought: a blanket – those seriously cold nights would have been better with a blanket both round the fire and over a frozen sleeping bag.
Didn’t need: used just about everything bar a fairly long list of spares (water pump, alternator, carb, distributor, fuel pump….)
Cheapest supper: Chicken and chips for 9 in Tam: 24 euros.