Category Archives: Cars

Rare film of Ralph Bagnold in the Libyan Desert

bagcarA few months ago the bagnolds-expeditionsBritish Film Institute released 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 film is 49 minutes long and describes the first 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 dunes.

baggpushA 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 Jalo in Libya. At Ain Dalla camels brought in extra fuel, and the cars continued bagcarrto Jebel Kissu 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.

The maps on the left and below show the routes of all these trips and Bagnold’s book, Libyan Sands (right) covering all these expeditions and more and is well worth reading. Reviewed here.


2 is for: the 2CV Motorcycle Survival Story

Pictures from Emile Leray’s website and the web

2cvcartIn 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.
And now, five years later, a video has just appeared on youtube (below) where the aged and batty-looking adventurer again recounts his incredible desert caper.


Back in 2012 full details and motivations were skimmed over, but the story goes that in March 1993, 43-year-old Frenchman Emile Leray set off from Tan-Tan to drive his Citroen 2CV east to Zagora – more or less MW2 from the book (right), 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.
2cvmapJust 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-road, 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 down to a rudimentary motorcycle and ride out as if nothing much happened. The powertrain and suspension of a 2CV makes such a conversion plausible.

2cv1The way the story was initially reported in English – using images shot in a quarry (left) – Saharan know-alls like myself were initially sceptical. If it really happened why not just walk back half a day to the road? But while researching the yarn more closely for the Morocco book, reading his own account published in a 2CV enthusiasts’ magazine a decade after the events , a faint ring of truth came through. Perhaps he did make the 2CV bike, but not in quite the circumstances he claimed.
As the TV show, Mythbusters proved for themselves, his contraption was 2cvbustbarely rideable (left) and within a day Lalay says he was caught by a desert patrol 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 tax for driving a  vehicle which did not conform to the one he originally imported to Morocco a few weeks  earlier. vehicle, even though he’d taken pains to tack on his ‘Steel Camel’s’ original plate.

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 told it like it was, but it may have been the original version. My feeling is the 2CV bike was indeed built in the desert, much as Leray claims, but that he set out with the explicit intention of performing this task. Otherwise he’d have walked out like any normal person in such a situation. His unease about leaving the stricken car seems disingenuous. All experienced Saharan travellers accept that if there’s absolutely no choice, their vehicle is a disposable asset.

2cvthenIn 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, it strongly discourages 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 passengers 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 …
2cvpantsÉmile 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.
2cvdriveThe most surprising thing about this 2CV motorcycle is the transmission. It was inspired by the Vélosolex moped idea: the engine drives a drum which in turn turns the tyre by friction, and which, by 2cvvelosothe 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.
2cvvThe 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 benefit greatly from 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 string. Émile poses in the middle of a place that in March 1993 was the theatre of his unusual feat.

2cvdezHe 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 …
2cv2In 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 …
2cvmailThe 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

2cvmbotIn 2006 Leray went on to build a 2CV boat in Mali. He clearly likes mucking about with 2CVs.

Sahara 1912: the batty Sauterelle takes to the sands

saturmap“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.


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.


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 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, 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.

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.

The Last Roadbook – Lisbon-Dakar 2007

Dakarlogojpgdak0Some 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.

marlborodakarteamThe 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 dak86earlier 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.



Fuel Caching in Algeria – HJ61 – 2002

trippy2002Tunis – Hassi Messaoud – Illizi – Fadnoun – Afara junction – Mt Toukmatine – back to Djanet – Tazat – Toukmatine – Erg Tiodane – Amguid piste – Foum Mahek – Sli Edrar inselberg – Arak – Tam – Taghrera – Erg Killian – Monts Gautier – Balise Line – Djanet – Erg Bouharet (Desert Driving base camp)

TLC HJ61 – Nov-Dec 2002

HJ61“It’s never over till it’s over” I’ve learned to say to myself over the years but it had barely begun when at Tunis port they whipped away my newly illegal GPS “telephone” unless I chose to arse about getting a permit from the Ministry of Stupid Ideas. I deposited it in a room full of CBs (fair enough) and what-nots while others did the same, a bit stunned about how to navigate down south. Luckily my real sat phone (which I had the presence of mind not to declare) had a rudimentary GPS.

Coming off the boat I’d met David Lambeth coming back from supporting a bike rally – he was not keen on lending me his bells and buzzers Garmin 5 but some geezer in a pink 110 kindly lent me an eTrex to back up the untried sat phone navigator.

Then, trying to call g-friend down the road it turned out my PAYG Thuraya had expired its SIM (don’t use it much in London you see). This undermined the security of my solo route plans somewhat until my rendezvous with the esteemed Prof. Nimbus in Djanet in 10 days time. I was beginning to wonder was this going to be “one of those” trips – after all all had gone remarkably to plan these past couple of years …

A fax to g-friend from Nefta saw some new SIMs on the way to Nimbus. Until then I was out of comms. Part of my job on this trip – my first solo venture into the dz in a car it transpired – was to dump food and fuel for my Desert Riders caper planned for early 2003. D Rider Jon had gone shopping for food just before I left and had been called by DR Andy asking him to buy one more of everything. I then spent a night by the Grand Erg scoffing at their taste in food and sorting the stuff out into packages we would be able to carry on a bike from the fuel drops.

Next morning more probs. After fueling up for 1500km plus half a dozen petrol jerries to bury, HbG checkpoint made me take a soldier to Bordj Omar Driss but failed to tell me the piste from there was closed to Amguid (otherwise I would not have bothered with the lift of course!). I’d heard this piste had been closed (due to smugglers he told me on the way back) and a barrier was pushed up against the piste at 4 Chemins. It was the direct route to my planned fuel dump south of Amguid but anyway the weather was – oddly hot, windy, hazy and even spitting rain. If nothing else my 3 Alg trips this year have confirmed the seasonal unpredictability of Saharan weather. It boded ill for our much-postponed filming of Desert Driving in a couple of weeks…

I’d half expected a closed piste so had plans to hit Amguid from the Djanet truck piste side. I had a hot/cold, windy/rainy night near Ohanet in the back of the car, and with time to kill before meeting Nimbus, soon got to savour the relaxed non-tour-leading pace driving alone in the dz. I checked out the hotel at In Amenas (a dump, fyi) and explored Erg Bouharet as a great location for some planned DD scenes. We camped here in 1988 on my first bike tour (described in Desert Travels) and I was amazed to see my so-called “apostrophe dune” pictured on my g-friend’s wall unchanged in 14 years. As I suspected, the myth of some dunes’ mobility is much exaggerated.

That night I popped out to Oued Djerat past Illizi, the site for some rock art it is said. Clear tracks lead into the canyon and after it got narrow I parked up but found nothing but a quiet night out. Next morning a Tuareg cameleer creeped up on me as they do while I was finishing off Michael Palin‘s book. I’d left a colourful array of kids clothes hanging from the nearby trees. He helped himself to the booty and told me the art was a bit further up the canyon where I’d spotted an encampment earlier on. Now that I knew where, it was one for next time.

A UK call from a taxiphone in Illizi was a pound a minute, fyi (a Thuraya is a dollar). Over the Fadnoun the weather was still hot and windy from the south. I washed the car in a guelta and recced a D Riders route along which we planned to emerge from Oued Samene (to Ifni) – it looked good, as the TPC suggested. Down the road at Afara junction I headed onto the piste. I did this route in 1989 and some images remained: the nice dune/outcrops where I camped that night and a very steep rocky descent to the Afara plain which I managed to negotiate without a scrape next morning, despite the half ton of fuel on board. I even had the presence of mind to film the undercarriage with a bullet cam taped to the chassis to use in the film later.

Afara north is pretty amazing – like Monument Valley without Indians, and the south bit coming onto the ‘Borne’ plain is nice too, but in between it’s a basalt bashing butt-jabber (something that had not affected me on a bike in 89). Still, at least the weather was as blue as.

I came off this slow route in mid-afternoon trying to find the sandy pass on Route A7 KM195 with my sat phone GPS (Sam’s eTrex could not do a “go to” it transpired, or I could not work it out how to do it). I’d been here a few months earlier on a tour, but still stumbled around until I found the pass. Then, again I got off track not concentrating on the compass or GPS but finally picked up A7 and with the sun setting, dumped the cans on a outcrop for collection later with Nimbus. I then retraced the route back east, enjoying the 120kgs missing off the roof.

Camping behind a fin of rock just past the KM195 pass, I decided to re-erect the fallen balise (steel post) to assist others. Even first time last March it had been tricky finding our way here. I excavated an old truck tyre and dragged the fallen balise over to the pass “gateway”. The balise had three sticky-out feet and by hoicking the truck tyre over the balise, it rested on the feet and, once filled with sand, held up the balise, sort of, now at KM 195 on A7, (N24° 40.38 E07° 38.41).

That night I was freaked out by a car coming off the pass at 2am. It did not spot me behind my fin, but seeing the new balise, circled it and swept me in its lights. By then I was already dressed and poised for a locked-in get away, but the Patrol carried on back the way it came …. phew … and then came back! I was now slinging stuff into the car and ready to move out when it turned north before reaching me. I watched it trundle away for half an hour to make sure. Turns out they were probably as lost as I had been earlier – maybe a lot of driving goes on at night in Ramadan. Or maybe it was to do with the mass kidnappings that were to occur near here a few months later.

One the way back to Djanet I explored north of Tazat, looking for a possible pass to Bordj el Haous (Zaoutallaz) as indicated on the TPC-H3D fantasy map. Climbing an outcrop and surveying the Tehe-N-Essegh pass. it was all sanded up, no way from this side but maybe up the east with a slide down. I then slipped through the Tazat corridor and followed a clear track almost all the way to Bordj, dumping the rest of my old clothes with some hyena-like Tuareg kids.

The run from Bordj El H’ to Djanet is one of the loveliest drives in the Sahara, even if it is now sealed. Even though I’d done it several times over the years it still looks amazing and I enjoyed doing most of it on the sands along the north side, looking for new camps and generally marvelling at the scenery.

A couple of days later Prof. Nimbus, laden with Thuraya SIMs arrived at Djanet airport and I gave him the bad news – our double deep southern run to Tam and back had been changed to a run up to Amguid then down to Tam and then back to Djanet, dropping fuel and food along the way. Naturally he was not bothered, it was all desert to him, and we camped at Tazat that night, on the way trying out my airbag jack for the first time when I got sunk on a knoll of soft stuff. “I’ve never seen a car sink so deep” observed Nimbus without sarcasm. Turns out his petrol 2A hasn’t got the poke to sink itself like my tractor-engined TLC: an interesting advantage of a modestly powered machine, but not quite enough to chuck in my 61 for a 2A with ears. The airbag was nifty in the extreme, as you can see in Desert Driving dvd next summer.

tazat-mountainNext day we tried to climb Tazat mountain (2165m), but things got as complicated as they looked near the summit so we satisfied ourselves with some low-angled shots that looked as good. Far below ribbons of oueds rolled off to the hazy horizon and the Tojo was but a speck. A picture Nimbus took out there turned out to be the cover of the current blue edition of Sahara Overland.

We carried on along A7, eventually locating the jerries I’d dumped a few days ago without doing a GPS (all hillocks look the same it seems…) and on up a new track to me – A5 up past Toukmatine ridge and Tiodane Erg. We lost the balises for a while but it was fast going until the complicated hills and knackered tracks which jam the entrance to the Amguid valley. Clouds rolled in that night and a mini sandstorm hit next day as we emerged onto the valley and set course for Foum el Mahek on the other side. What a trucking slog this former route to Djanet would have been in the old days!

The Foum emerged from the haze, bigger than I’d imagined and – bollocks – a family of Tuaregs camped by the mouth. Not a good spot to dump fuel then, so we blundered around and that night, 28 degrees C at 8pm – crawled up a stony hill to stash 120 litres and a bottle of Dubonet, followed by a hot, windy night.

Sli Edrar
On my very first trip to the dz in 1982 I’d photographed a distinctive cluster of cone mountains near Moulay Lahsane on the highway, and always vowed to go back one day for a look around. Nimbus reckoned he’d visited ‘Death Trip Mountains’ [as we shall name them], last year, so we set course alongside Tefedest west. Other granite inselbergs proved to be decoys, but when we finally rolled up to the DTMs it was nearly clear that my 20-year old aspiration was about to be fulfilled. The flies were a pain and curious caterpillars were crawling all around and dying in the sands, fullfilling their own death trips it seems. I went for a wander and found some Neolithics in the crunchy granite, including a nice bone cruncher, and for sunset we climbed up to spot an unnoticed old camp in our hidden valley below.

Sli Edrar is just a few clicks off the highway, but hearing of fuel probs in Tam, we turned north 100km to Arak and tanked up there with 250 litres of diesel plus another 120 of petrol and rolled down the highway to Tam, arguing bitterly whether In Ecker mountain was visibly shaken by its nuking in the early 1960s. In Tam cars where indeed queuing into the hills for fuel – not due to washed out roads (all OK apart from Arak canyon), but because of local politics (since resolved, one hears).

From Tam we were taking on an ambitious route to Djanet – 900kms via Erg Killian deep south with a 20-year-old route description (RD) in German including five Nav Star (pre-GPS) waypoints. Nimbus was worried about my fatalistic Zen-like attitude to spares and safety “I can’t believe you wrote that book” he said in horror as he trapped me in an arm lock and forced me to buy an engine’s worth of motor oil. It began an interesting branch to the erstwhile LR/TLC debate. Nimbo carries a complete change of undies for his pre-Cambrian 2A. Me, I’ve long forgotten what I stashed in the back wings of my Eocene 61 many years ago. Radiator hoses and Pocket Cluedo spring to mind.

Seriously though, we were much encouraged by our Thurayas. If the Tojo soiled itself we could ring any agency in south Alg or even get a message on the web for an eventual rescue. A pre-deptarture check revealed the 61’s front wheels were pretty floppy. I’m sure I had them done once – or was that the TLC before? We tried to tighten them but some poxy ‘cone washers’ in the hub made it too hard. Destiny it seems wanted them left untouched. Anyway, the other 60s in Moktar’s stable were all as loose and in the end the car got all the way here with only a tad of shimmy @ 101kph.

We’d used a lot of water on the Amguid truck piste and with no known wells till Djanet, four unknown days away, we stocked up with plenty and some fizzy drinks besides. Down out of town, past the south gas station queues, people were running amok. Good tarmac led to bad and then none right up to the ancient In Azaoua sign right on cue. From here it was fast SE past a Dakar truck wreck down to a hook where we crossed a pass into the Taghrera (green sign) and headed north over grassy power-sapping sands with the classic Taghrera mushroom outcrops beyond. With half a mind to check out In Ebeggui well, we eventually found a little outcrop of our own, changed the TLCs oil for Algerian honey and enjoyed a nice desert camp.

dr-flingNext day, into the unknown. We weaved through some barchans and got stuck in a nasty sandy/rocky pass (our RD was not too specific) where you have to choose soft sand or tyre-shredding rocks. Further south we found a better crossing and headed west from ridge to ridge to ridge very nice and quiet, cutting across masses of north-south tracks (some even DR-digcorrugated!) by what must be contrabanders. A full RD will follow (this is Route A14) but several passes later we turned up for Killian Erg and headed for a good spot to dump a barrel of nosh and a pile of jerries for us to dig up in Jan 2003.

West over Taffassasset oued to the balise line was eerily fast until we spotted some striking mountains unnamed on any map I’ve got of the area (the TPC J3B is particularly crap, btw). Were they the Gautiers? Who knows, we tucked up under the cliff in this spectacular setting, satisfied that we had broken the back of the Deep South link from Tam to Djanet.

2002-baliseHeading for the Niger Balise Line (Route A15) we got stuck again, filmed it for posterity and hit the Line (over a 1000 markers planted every half km all the way to Chirfa!) just below Berliet 21. If anyone’s still listening, note that I have left a Special Object in the drum at Balise 112, a bit south of Berliet 21. Retrieve it or present evidence of it and you can claim a prize.

Hitting the Balise Line after so many years was a seminal Saharan experience for me. Nimbus had rolled down it and into a whole lot of bother a couple of years back and at the famous Berliet Balise 21 we took some commemorative pics and met a tooled-up Austrian G-Wagen with a nice 16mm Bolex retracing our route to Tam.

Nim had buried water along the Line in 2000 and we were interested to see if his GPS location worked 40 paces east off the balise. No such luck, After much digging about at 2 locations we decided in a featureless area like to north Tenere (as some philistines like to call it!) you need a bit of stone marker or something to pull off a fuel dump with any hope of retrieval.

We eased past Adrar Mariaou checkpoint w/o being machine gunned to bits and hit the very soft sands near Djanet which, I like to think, killed the kpl down to a pretty poor 5.8 since topping up at Killian. We blundered around all sorts of unknown back tracks (including Djanet’s clandestine bitumen depot) until we hit the Libyan piste and rolled into Djanet for some fish and chips.

With a couple of days to spare we had a day off and then organised a day out to Jabbaren with the Zeriba guys – only 30 euros and well worth it. A pre-dawn drive to the Tassili’s edge is followed by a lung-stretching slog up to the plateau – leaving smoking bikers Ahmed and Ian T (and the guide) far below. I’ve never actually been on the plateau but some of the rock art at Jabaren (let alone the weird rock shapes) is amazing – even if you do get “cattled out” after a couple of hours.

Nimbus flew back to his day-job next day and I rolled back out to the Tassili plateau, exploring some nice canyons and slowly over the Fadnoun to Erg Bouharet camp, south of In Amenas, where I was set to meet Toby Savage and a cam called Rich to film the long-awaited sequel to Lawrence of Arabia: Desert Driving.

Desert Dealers 2 ~ Mali

My mission this time: to hand over a desirable 80 series Land Cruiser to Mohamed in return for guiding and other duties on my forthcoming big Sahara crossing. He can’t buy the car in Algeria, even by shifty means – no one outside le pouvoir can. So it needed me the owner to drive it just over the border into Mali where it could get ringed and brought back into Algeria under some other Algerian documentation. Selling cars is an old game in West Africa, though not quite like this. I’d joined a similar run flogging old Mercedes in Mauritania a decade ago. With me along for the ride to Mali, Zander and Martin.

qwik-01At Algiers port they were a bit bemused by a tourist car (we were the only foreigners on the boat), but despite 4-5 hours queuing, we got to In Salah the next afternoon and from there took a great run along the Old Hoggar piste east of qwik-04the TS highway, past old Hassi el-Khenig to a camp and a splash at the lovely guelta of Tiguelguemine (right). Next morning a little scorpion ran out from under the mattress to be nabbed in seconds by a pair of moula moula birds.


qwik-09qwik-11Just down the track is Tadjemout fort and source, (left), a place I’d use to launch camel tours a few years later. Then on to Arak Gorge (right) where I got in trouble in 1984 and which now has a bridge or two over the creek,. Down the TSH to Elephant Rock behind Tesnou and past In Ecker and into Tam.
We’d missed a whole lot of rain by a couple of days and only on one night among some Tanezrouft dunes did the night-time temperature drop below 24°C. Even though I expected a humdrum run along mostly known routes, as always the desert delivered and we saw many unusual things and had some interesting encounters.


qwik-14We took the high route to Bordj out via Abalessa, through the still-muddy oued and out onto the wide open Tanezrouft, passing a pre-Islamic tomb (right) on an isolated hill. It’s funny how I can spot these easily now. On my first Sahara trips just hanging onto the bike was hard enough. The hot run out across the Tanezrouft unrolled, and a day later dusty Bordj didn’t seem to have changed much over the years. We checked out of Algeria. We’d be checking back in shortly, but – ahem… – sans voiture.

A few clicks south of town, Ikhalil (In Kalil; El Khalil; not on any paper map) is home of the Ambassade, a chummy contrabanders compound – one of a few here in No Man’s Land which is seemingly tolerated by the nearby towns. Goods pass in and out of here: fuel, cigs and other subsidised commodities from Algeria southwards. And from Mali goat meat and cloth. As for the heavy stuff, it seemed impolite to ask.

qwik-18Ikhalil looked like a Van Damme movie set where, if you let your imagination off the leash, a dusty cover gets pulled back off a Merc truck to reveal a shiny Russian Vympel A-350 missile for sale to the highest bidder. The guys here were all Mohamed’s mates, Berabish traders from Timbuktu doing direct runs there and back and even across to Zouerat with cigs and other contraband. Their qwik-21welcome was warm and we discussed my forthcoming crossing of northern Mali from Mauritania. To get bossman Bou on my side I’d brought him a nice solar panel and a couple of Thuraya sat phones – the iPhones of the Sahara. He and his cohorts will prove to be a useful contacts if we got in trouble in Mali next month [we did and they were…] as well as being a source of much-needed fuel after our 2000-km crossing from Atar. Ikhalil 2010 – not so rosey


qwik-23Tessalit (left) also looked the same after 15 years or more. Apparently it was ransacked and abandoned during the 1990s Tuareg rebellion and never really recovered. I let the guides sort out the laisser passez with the help of a big box of dates for the police chief. But up on the hill fort the gendarme could not wait to get his bite out of our cake and played all the usual power games once he clocked what was going on (flash car – quick sale).

bertoOu est mon cadeau!” he roared as he feigned an inspection of the back of the car. The nearest thing to hand was a jar of Bertolli sauce which he snatched disinterestedly.

Back up on the terrace we sweated it out and it was a relief to leave most of the grubby negotiations to Omar who was taking the Tojo away to recondition its identity. In the end, despite a visit to the mayor, Tessalit proved too greedy for Omar to complete the transfer so I signed a bit of paper back up at the Ambassade next day and left it with Omar to take down to his home town of Gao to get re-registered. We turned back for Tam in his 600,000-km-old Tojo 60 which I soon christened Le Chien. And that was before I even drove it…


On the way back through Bordj the Algerian police sort of knew what had gone on but could do nothing about it as my car had left Alg legitimately. As we waited, some shifty-looking foreign guys with beards turned up off a Timbuktu truck and put me in mind of an desert GSPC training camp (actually that may not be so far fetched). A week earlier nearby some GSPC had reportedly been shot up by Malian Tuareg. These were the days when the Kel Iforghas put up a fight against the incoming jihadists. Kidal continued to be tense after the events of the summer and now is in the war zone. Of course the guys at Bordj may have been nothing more than devout students coming back from some Koranic school – but this is how the mind whirs these days on seeing bearded Asians at an outback border post.

qwik-25ifaleghOut of Bordj we spent the night among the dunes near Ilafegh wells where we saw a large camel train leaving after being watered. As always, Mohamed can’t resist his nomad’s instincts and chatting up the camel herders to see what and where and so on. I never imagined camels out in the utterly barren Tanezrouft but the recent rains (there were pools here and there) had driven the nomads down in anticipation of a feed. It was to be our only cool night and a real tonic after the unrelenting heat and associated locusts, mozzies, small scorpions and other irksome bugs. Hot days are fine I decided, but hot nights are a drag.


On the way up we came across an old M.A.N tanker and ever-chummy Mohamed got out for a chat, having run such a lorry himself once. The shady guys were taking Algerian fuel down to Ikhalil or somewhere like that and when I got out to stretch my legs and eye up the front of the truck, the edgy driver gunned the engine and slipped the clutch as a warning to clear off and get back in the car.
qwik-32We spent the next night among some granite hills near Abalessa where I finally got round to experimenting with making bread in preparation for SEQ. And for a first go it turned out pretty well – a very passable combination of burned dough cooked in a tin on the embers.

Next morning we visited a crater hill. Years ago I remember reading an article by Tom Sheppard about his quest to reach a curious crater formation he’d spotted northwest of Tam. ‘Journey to the Round Mountain‘ he called it, riding there on his XT600 Tenere. That was probably Adrar Tihaliouine to the northeast, and this similar crater reminded me of it. A good place to stash rustled camels!


qwik-36In Abalessa Moh’ led us to the tomb on Queen Tin Hinan (right). Interesting little museum with the rocky tomb round the back, but only pics of the treasures remain; everything was pinched by Prorok and his cohorts in the 1920s (link review of his book, Mysterious Sahara).

All that remained was a bone shaking ride back into Tam in the no-brakes, clockwise-only power steering Chien followed by two days idling in the old Camping Dessine – the original campsite I used to use in the 1980s. It’s still home of the old Trans Saharienne bus (left), rusty away slowly by the reception.


We killed time by following the shade, watching our clothes dry before our eyes, waiting for Ramadan cafes to open up and cruising around town in the Chien, logging a GPS map for future use. Then, when the time came we flew up to Algiers, Europe and home.

October 2006. Some pics by Martin and Zander.