Category Archives: Desert Babbles (blog)

Sahara 1914: the batty Sauterelle takes to the sands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sahara – West to East Crossings

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

algerian-tree


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

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

east-west-sov

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

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Land Cruiser in the Libyan Akakus

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

taromajabat

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

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

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

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

crossers77

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

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

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

libya-gap

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

hanofaya

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

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

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

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

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

How to navigate by the stars

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

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

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

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

star

The mysterious Tour de Merkala

merkala-1I’ve always been curious about the Tour de Merkala, identified on the Michelin 741 Sahara map (and left) on the Algeria-Morocco border, south of Foum el Hassan.
tourdraaWas it some ancient caravanserai or watchtower, like the one right, alongside the Oued Draa north of Zagora, which guided caravans in along the 52-days road from Timbuktu? Or perhaps just a French observation post from the colonial era?
No surprise that this time I searched, it was Yves Rhomer’s dishevelled but still encyclopaedic Sahara pages where the answer lay, and there’s more here. In the 1930s the French were still busy subduing tribal resistance in the southern mountains of Morocco in the region between Tata and Assa, and while there decided Tindouf far to the south needed occupation too. But between southern Morocco and Tindouf lay the Jebel Ouarkaziz which still serves at a natural barrier today between the two countries.
berlietvudbA column consisting of Berliet VUDB light armoured cars (right – note the big roll of chicken wire to use for sand boggings) set out from Akka and wound their way through the foums or gaps in the ranges until they came to the impenetrable cliff below Jebel Merkala. Here they spent a few days enlarging an old camel trail into a ramp to support their armoured cars, over two kilometres and 220m up the escarpment to the Hammada du Draa plateau on top. Once here the way to Tindouf was clear and a fort was established at Merkala.
Even if there was a tower (unnecessary on top of a pass, you’d think), why they didn’t call it Fort or Bordj Merkala? Or Fort ‘Commanding-Officer’s-Name’, as was the custom at the time? Many former French forts in Algeria – Fort Lapperine, Polignac or Flatters – became villages and even cities (respectively: Tamanrasset, IIlizi, Bordj Omar Driss). I’ve yet merkalabingto find an old picture of the actual fort at Merkala and there’s nothing much to see on Google. But as is sometimes the case, Bing has better resolution and shows faint traces of skewed-rectangular fort-like foundations at the top of the pass (right), as well more modern ramparts pushed up nearby. Click the Flatters link above to see what a fort from this era may have looked like.
newmanmapVery soon this route was extended and improved to become part of the primary imperial N1 highway from Morocco into the AOF French colonies to the south, running from Agadir via Foum el Hassan over Merkala to Tindouf, then down via Bir Mogrein, Atar and eventually Dakar.
the-forgotten-pathThe Atlantic Route we know today wasn’t an option for the French back then as the Spanish colony of Rio de Oro. – today’s Western Sahara – was in the way (left).
It was the N1 inland highway which David Newman took in his Ford Zephyr in the late Fifties, vividly described in The Forgotten Path, a somewhat unhinged account of his drive to Nigeria. He’d tried to go via Foum el Hassan and the Merkala tower, but to his fury was turned back as the area was harbouring the FLN who were battling the French in Algeria at the time.
The Tour de Merkala became a battleground again a few years later during the so-called 1963 War of the Sands between newly independent Morocco and Algeria. No fixed border line across the barren desert had been thought necessary between the two nations until valuable minerals were discovered (you’ll see no border defined on the late 1940s Michelin 153 at the top of the page). For some reason Algeria attempted to annexe the village of Iche near Figuig, as well as a creek called Tindoub and the nearby well of Hassi Beida, some 35km south of Mhamid. The Moroccans responded by trouncing the Algerians, so  establishing an enmity that fed into the Polisario war a decade or so later and which remains entrenched today with closed borders. You can still see the Hassi Beida bump in the border today.
hbgGetting back to Merkala’s prominence on maps. Perhaps it’s just an anomaly not unlike Hassi bel Guebbour in Algeria. Looks like an important place on the map but once you get there it’s nothing but a checkpoint at an albeit strategic crossroads with a couple of chip-omlette cafes (left).

 

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 continues to thrive with less controversy.
dak86marlborodakarteamThe longest stage in 2007 was across the top of the Western Sahara from Tan on the Atlantic Tan to the mauritanian mining town of Zouerat – 817km via Smara with a tea break at Bir Mogrein. The shortest was still 500km through the light jungles of western Mali and Senegal where I  limped 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.

dakwins

 

The Algerian Berm

bermbermdakinbermIt’s well know that in the 80s the Moroccans pushed up a huge, 2000-km fortified and mined sand wall or berm (left and right) between their part of the Western Sahara and the remains of  the Polisario-controlled lands to the east. It stretches from the Atlantic border with Mauritania northeast towards Smara, on the way cheekily chopping off the desolate corner of Mauritania (not shown on all maps). After Smara it then runs up towards Zag until it reaches the natural barrier of the Jebel Ouarkaziz ridge – the southernmost outlier of the Atlas mountains – right around here and just 22 miles from southern Morocco’s N12 highwaymw1g
The periodic foums and oums (natural water-eroded breaks) in the range sometimes become locations for strategic forts or installations, like the abandoned one at KM227 on Route MW1 in Morocco (left) from the Polisario war.

It seems the Algerians have got the same idea and have been building an intermittent berm of their own along exposed sections of their border with Morocco where foums in the Ouarkaziz or later, Jebel Bani, would have allowed easy motorised passage.

berm-farClick on this point in Algeria some 40km southeast of Mhamid in Morocco, and you can follow the zig-zagging berm northeast for some 40km via a small erg, until it stops near a ridge where berm-ouednyberm-fortrough terrain resumes the job. Branch berms break off to make enclosures or to complicate scouting along the main berm for a gap, and every once in a while there’s some sort of installation, fort (left) or look-out hill pushed up berm-duneby the bulldozer. They even incorporated little gaps for the oueds to flow though (above right) and which are quite possibly mined. Any passages through the small erg are also blocked with a berm (right).
berm-railWay further east towards Figuig, a gap in the jebel there demarking the Moroccan border where the old Oran–Colomb-Bechar rail line used to run has been bermed too (left). lecmonustamp
Nearby, just to the south in Algeria is a monument to General Leclerc whose plane crashed near here in 1947 – it’s pictured on the commemorative stamp, right. Among other heroic wartime deeds, he’s famed for leading an armoured column lechadup though Chad to help the LRDG attack the Axis forces based in Murzuk, Libya. There are many more monuments to the WW2 liberator of Paris in North Africa and France.
It’s not fully clear what the Algerian berm is for – stopping n’er do wells from creeping south past similar Moroccan installations out into Algeria? You imagine any illicit traffic is northbound (as this article suggests) so perhaps it’s some EU or US funded initiative to limit the traffic of smuggled migrants, arms and drugs up from Algeria to Morocco. You imagine a berm is fairly easy to make once you order a conscript with a D6 to get on with it. There’s been bad blood with Morocco for as long as the two countries have existed. Despite Morocco’s wishes the border with Algeria has been closed to all for over 20 years.

More berm activity way down south at Bordj Moktar