Here a fascinating 1960s vintage film (45mins; French) on the work it took IGN to produce their brilliant 1:200,000 scale Sahara maps from thousands of aerial photos, sonar readings and laborious ground surveys.
Loads more in Yves R’s Sahara website and some stills below.
The N9 is the main highway crossing the High Atlas between Marrakech and Ouarzazate, topping out about halfway at the 2260-m Tizi n Tichka pass where a superb range of clay souvenirs and vibrantly coloured ‘gems’ are permanently on display. Being the main road, traffic can be relatively heavy and slow, and the hundreds of bends make cycling a bit stressful and overtaking tricky in a vehicle, especially when climbing or away from the recently widened ‘race track’ which uncoils a few kilometres north of Tichka (below). But even on this recently improved section, landslides and subsidence are already taking their toll.
Short of the usual floods and storm damage, both the diversions outlined below are doable in a regular 2WD rental car, on big motorcycles as well as sturdy bicycles.
On the warmer, south side of Tichka, the alternative route (right) via Telouet was well known, even before it became largely sealed a few years ago. It starts just 4km south of the Tichka col, where the final roadworks on the P1506 are nearing completion on the 20km to Telouet with its famous Glaoui kasbah.
From here the P1506 soon drops off a plateau to follow a long, oasis-lined ravine (below) all the way down to the Aït Benhaddou tourist trap, rejoining the N9 10km later at Tazentout, 23km west of Ouarzazate.
On the north side of Tichka, road widening disruption has currently spread down the valley over 17km north of Tadart, the first village below the col. But once you get to Zerkten village, signed and 33km below Tichka by a red and white telecom mast, there’s an easily missed side road to the west. See map above.
As pictured below, it leads steeply 6km up to a 1750-m col to an impressive view 60km southwest to the 4167-m mass of Jebel Toubkal. It’s one of the few points on a sealed road that gives a full view of North Africa’s highest mountain (picture, top of page).
From here the road drops down through apple orchards recalling the Aït Boumengueze valley further east, below the Mgoun massif (MH18. MH19). It levels out along the Oued Zat at the town of Tighoudine in the Oued Zat valley where, in late November, you’ll detect the strong aroma of olive oil being produced in roadside presses (right).
The side route rejoins the N9 after 35km, just before a green Winxo fuel station on the north side of the road, 46km from Marrakech.
Part of an occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
… I had reason to believe that there existed, in the Western Sahara, a vast depression which might be submerged by the waters of the Atlantic, thus opening a navigable way to [Timbuktu]…
Visit Tarfaya on Cape Juby and just offshore you will see the curious Casa del Mar fort (left), beyond the St Exupery monument. Port Victoria or Mackenzie’s factory are other names for the trading post of the North West Africa Trading Company, established by Scotsman, Donald Mackenzie in 1882 during the ‘Scramble for Africa’.
Mackenzie’s venture hoped to capitalise on the recent westward swing of the trans-Saharan caravan trade emanating from Timbuktu, by intercepting caravans before they reached the terminus at Wadi Noun (near today’s Guelmin). In fact in a decade or more the NWAT Co barely covered its costs after compensation was finally agreed against an earlier raid and to abandon it in favour of the Moroccan sultanate.
It reminds you that colonisation at the time wasn’t purely a state affair, where armies marched off to conquer distant lands. Ahead of them strode adventurer-entrepreneurs with funds raised from venture capitalists and who gambled everything on striking it rich. It was their reports, or better still, a government charter to supply a commodity or service, which preceded more cautious colonisation, very often spurred by other European rivals nosing around for an as yet unclaimed slice of the cake.
It’s hard to find out much about Donald Mackenzie, but in 1877, a few years before he set up the North West Africa Trading Company, he had a far more radical idea to capitalise on the trans-Saharan trade.
He proposed nothing less than flooding the interior of the Sahara from the Atlantic so that, with the addition of a few canals which had proved so successful in Britain prior to the age of rail, ships could sail directly to Timbuktu and the Niger river in a matter of days, avoiding the arduous overland journey of weeks. As a side benefit the flooding would ‘green’ the Sahara, enabling agriculture to thrive on the wind-blown sands.
This was the era of grand engineering projects like the Suez Canal (completed 1869) and the Panama Canal (first serious attempt 1881). A canal to the trading heart of West Africa could be a similar commercial coup.
It’s hard to think what gave Mackenzie this idea, other than conflating lurid traders’ descriptions of El Djouf (left) with the small depressions or sebkhas near Cape Juby. The biggest of these is the Sebkha Tah, some 55m below sea level and just 15km from the Atlantic, but still no bigger than Malta. For some reason he believed that the vast El Djouf (part of the million-square-kilometre Majabat al Koubra or ‘Empty Quarter’) was a huge depression which had once been connected to the Atlantic via the Seguia el Hamra or some such, but had become cut off and dried out.
Mackenzie had never actually travelled in this area (other than a camel tour up to Port Consado – present day Khenifiss – and down to Layounne during the NWAT Co era; map right) but had read of other larger desert depressions in Tunisia and Egypt, similar to those near Cape Juby. All these basins held seasonally dry salt lakes which may have suggested that flooding was plausible. He believed an inland sea the size of Tunisia or Oklahoma would soon be formed, paving an inland seaway to Timbuktu.
Mackenzie diligently read up on all your great 19th-century Saharan explorers: Barth, Rohlfs, Caille, Duveyrier, Clapperton, and in 1877 published an exhaustive proposal [available online] to ‘The Presidents and Members of the Chambers of Commerce of Great Britain‘ stressing ‘the importance of holding commercial intercourse with the interior‘.
Vividly detailing at third hand the riches, economy, geography and ethnicities in this corner of Africa, he firmly believed his northern route reaching down into the African interior was the key, avoiding the disease-ridden equatorial jungles and pagan tribes further south in favour of the more sophisticated vestiges of the West African Islamic states. Under his proposal land distances for the annual camel caravans from Timbuktu would be halved, with Cape Juby just nine sea days from Britain. De Lesseps himself, the force behind the Suez and original Panama canals, supported the idea of Saharan flooding, believing a side benefit would somehow improve the European climate while greening the desert for agriculture.
Mackenzie also thought that trade and communications would help liberate the sub-Sahran population from the slave trade. And this wasn’t just a ploy to appeal to investors’ morals or religious beliefs – Mackenzie’s later work in East Africa after the NWAT Company dissolved suggested he was always a genuine abolitionist.
According to his upbeat proposal (is there any other kind?) Mackenzie has it all worked out: do a recce to get the tribal chiefs on board at Cape Juby and Timbuktu, locate the channel in El Djouf and unplug that Atlantic cork. I have no doubt of the ultimate achievement of this project, he wrote in the proposal’s introduction. But investors seemed less keen and, were it even possible, you’d think in creating a shallow, hyper-saline lake, the only thing that would grow would be salt crystals. The fact is the interior of the Sahara, including the dune-filed expanse of El Djouf spanning the Mali-Mauritania border, is a low plateau some 3-500 metres above sea level. Someone ought to tell Conde Nast Traveler.
Mackenzie had slightly less difficulty finding investors for Port Victoria a few years later, and decade or three after that, Jules Verne fictionalised the idea in his last published book, The Invasion of the Sea, set in Tunisia.
I came across this old French map of the Saharan trade routes from 1889 [full-size source]. As always, it’s interesting to see where was prominent then and what has come since. Old spellings and some names differ.
Not a lot of people know that an earlier name for Marrakech was ‘Maroc’ or Morocco. Once this area was all known as ‘Mauretania’ – the Land of the Moors (Blacks) from which all these names derive. Mogador is today’s Essaouira.
Other well-known Moroccan towns are present, as well as the 52-days road to Timbuktu from Zagora or Sijilmassa (Rissani), all depicted with other names.
By this time most camel trade took the western route to Goulimim (Wadi Noun), which explains the vestiges of the tourist camel market there today. The original site is actually here.
Cap Juby (today’s Tarfaya) we’ll be hearing more about shortly, but inland from here a tough route from Tindouf led to Taoudeni and also Timbuktu.
Southwest from Tindouf another track leads to Mauritania, the old colonial overland route to Dakar mid-last century, as driven by this nutter.
Mauritania has many familiar places like Atar, Chinguetti (right), Ouadane (left, where we coninued east across the Majabat for Algeria in 2006) as well as Oujeft leading to the ruins of Ksar el Barka, Tidjikja, Tichit, and Oualata for Timbuktu. But no Nouadhibou (Cap Blanc) or Nouadhibou (Tiourourt) yet, far less Zouerat. And no Dakar back then; St Louis was the colonial capital of French West Africa.
In Mali Timbuktu is central, with trade routes leading north via Araouane, or Tim Missao well (left) in Algeria where we stopped in 2006 and 1989 (right). No Tamanrasset or Djanet – the two biggest towns in southern Algeria today, but In Salah, Amguid and Temassinin (Bordj Omar Driss) are present.
In Libya little seems to have changed: Ghat and Ghadames are there, as well as Germa (Ubari) and Murzuk on the route for Lake Chad via Bilma (left). To the east the oases making up Kufra lead down to the Ounianga lakes in northern Chad. And east of there is the Darb al Arbain (Road of Forty Days) from El Fasher in Sudan, via Selima across the sand sheet (right) towards Kharga and Asyut on the Nile.
A few months ago the British Film Institute released an archive film of the early motor expeditions of Ralph Bagnold and his crew, exploring deepinto 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.
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.
Part of an occasional Sahara A to Z series.
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set.
Search Google for the highest peaks in Mauritania, and the list on the left from Geonames pops up – and the same data gets propagated ad-internetum.
The tallest point is on the massif of Kediet ej Jill, rising above Zouerat mine site; a metal mountain that’s slowly having its iron-rich core eviscerated and railed across the desert (right) to the port of Nouadhibou. The actual high point is often erroneously pinpointed online.
Not here it isn’t! It’s quite hard to find on the old 200k IGN map, below.
The second highest peak is listed as Teniaggoûri at 815m. That’s 815m as probably copied from the French IGN 200k map surveyed in the 1960s (right and below). This time IGN got it a little wrong.
In the old days you curved round this flat-topped outlier of the Adrar massif on the way to the rough climb up the Amogjar Pass for Chinguetti and Oudane. The distinctive summit of Teniaggoûriwould have been a key landmark if coming round from Atar or in from the arid playa of El Beyyid to the east.
Now the newer and more direct Ebnou Pass (right) climbs straight onto the plateau out of Atar.
But a quick look at a French 200k map (left) shows an unnamed spot height, 7km to the southwest of Teniaggoûri and which is labelled at no less than 820m. Set in the middle of the ridge, it may not be a prominent prow and landmark like Teniaggoûri, but even Google Earth’s estimated elevation data shows comparative heights of 771m for Teniaggoûri and 786m for the dome cluster. From the Oued Amogjar valley to the south, either point is little over a hundred metres elevation and a couple of miles walk above the desert floor.
Left; just north of Zarga, the peaks on the horizon are what out guides called ‘Amogjar’ and what could be Teniaggoûri given the impression of additional elevation in the heat mirage.
Of course, it’s quite possible the local name for this entire ridge may be Teniaggoûri (as with Kediet). Nomads don’t give a toss about actual high points, but sure have a use for landmarks. So there may be no real need to rename the point, just the location. Now we know.
When the Sahara was more accessible, lateral crossings, all of them West to East used to capture the imagination of adventure seekers, both private or corporate. Although such transits aren’t what it’s about to me, I wrote a box for the last edition of Sahara Overlandabout 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
As I suggested then, 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 restricted.
Northern Chad always presented difficulties from the mountainous terrain, let alone permissions as well as 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 which totally 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.
A few years ago when ‘snow‘ was falling over the southern Sahara, it was reported that cocaine was landing in nascent 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 to Egypt (right).
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 (below).
At the Suez ports the coke was said to get stashed aboard a container bound for the mirrored surfaces of 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.
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, although he wrote a pretty good illustrated summary in the winter 2016 issue of the quarterly Overland Journal (right).
My own lateral crossing
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 a 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 (researchingSahara 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 whereRoute 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.
I recently read 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.
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 rock art depictions of animals he saw there must pre-date the 2000-year-old camel era which were not present.
At 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.
This review compares Garmin’s Topo North Africa v3 Light map with easily downloaded and free OSMs, Garmin’s basic global base map and other digital maps, where available. V4 is now available.
Navigating the Sahara Having used them since before the advent of GPS, I’ve got to know my Sahara paper maps. well. Then when GPS came along, I could pinpoint my position on the map with an accuracy that was more than adequate for desert travel. Some of these colonial-era maps such as the IGN 200s are cartographic works of art and unlike current nav technology, in the deep Sahara topography changes at geological speeds. In other words a Sahara paper map from 1960 will still be accurate today. Tracks may become roads and villages become towns, but the desert itself remains relatively unchanged. Is there a benefit in having a tiny map on your GPS rather than simply a waypoint to aim for or a tracklog to follow, even if your position on the map is displayed live? That’s essential for navigating a busy city with a Nuvi. But the Sahara is more like the sea where more often what you want is…
… the big picture A typical handheld device like my Garmin Montana (left) has a screen a little bigger than a playing card and which is hard to read on the move – especially on a bike. For me a ‘GPS’ (as opposed to a ‘satnav’ like a Nuvi – see below)) is best at displaying simple data like how far, how fast, how high or which way, not fine topographic detail. A paper TPC map can display six square degrees over some 18 square feet – what you call ‘the big picture’. That’s what you need travelling with a vehicle in an expansive area like a desert, while at close range concentrating on negotiating the terrain.
On top of excellent paper mapping (now widely digitised), we also have the wonder of Google or Bing sat imagery (Bing is often better) providing a clarity that varies from stunning (being able to follow car tracks) to a brown mush (both shown left). Google sat is great when planning, and now for a reasonable annual subscription, Garmin offer Birds Eye satellite imagery for the whole globe; the long-sought after ‘Google sat in your GPS’. With all these resources navigating in the Sahara couldn’t be easier.
Garmin Topo North Africa v3 Light
Short version Even though old Olaf still measures up well, the similar topographic detail of the Garmin means it’s well worth the £20, certainly over the plainer, but also free OSMs. In 2018, following a refurb/repair of my Montana, the v1 2016 version of this map was lost or could not be reloaded. I had to buy the v3 version for another £20. A quick scan shows that not much changed, but if it has (based on OSM user updates), it will be in Morocco – the place where most users of this map will visit.
Long version You download the Garmin Topo map directly into your device (takes about an hour) and only once your GPS device is plugged into a computer, will it display on BaseCamp. Unplug the GPS and the map disappears from BaseCamp.
Switching BaseCamp between Olaf, OSMs and even the Garmin base map which comes free with a GPS unit, it soon becomes clear that the Garmin Topo has a level of detail and refinement that’s superior to the next best thing: Olaf.
Occasionally at village level the OSM’s street-by-street detail is better, but that’s hardly vital. In towns and cities the extra shading distinguishes the Garmin from the plainer OSM, as shown for Tan Tan, right
The chief difference is in the desert where the Garmin depicts relief and surface with more detail and clarity using shading, contours and colour where OSMs only use colour and Olaf only used contour lines which can be distracting. Look at the Atar region (RIM) above right – an area of escarpments, canyons and dunes – all are reasonably accurately shown on the Garmin Topo. There’s an anomaly on the Topo map on the left (bottom panel) in that the (presumably automatically recorded) elevation variation in dunes depicts them as lots of small hills (which in a way, they are), but only once they’re above a certain height. Identifying dunes with contours is not helpful nor a cartographic convention. Shade and colour is best.
The piste and road detail on the Topo is pretty good: yellow for national highways, twin lines for secondary roads or piste, and a single line for a less used piste. A quick check in Morocco shows they’re all there; most of the ones I know are there in Mauritania too. In southern Algeria only a few main pistes are shown and certain ‘national highways’ are actually remote pistes never likely to be sealed. The Topo map would not be so useful here and in Libya is thinner still. In any country dashed lines may well be walking trails, but as far as I can see, there is no key or legend with the Topo map. Some POIs are there too – just fuel stations and post offices as shown on the Tan Tan map, above.
In places the Garmin copies the OSM’s annoying habit of again, marking high points (automatically?) as mountains which is a distraction, let alone inaccurate – for example when an escarpment gets shown as a string of peaks. If you drop the detail level enough notches on BaseCamp, these peaks (left) only disappear once all the useful tracks and place names have gone too. It’s great (and a bit puzzling) that this stuff is produced for free at all by OSM supporters, but the quickest flip to sat imagery would reveal the true nature of the relief.
So does the Garmin Topo map mean I’ll stop using Google or Bing imagery in the planning, or paper maps on the piste. I don’t think so. In places like Morocco the extent of marked pistes can be converted into accurate tracklogs, but with better surrounding detail than OSMs. And, unlike Olaf, there’s no aggro importing into a modern, touch-screen GPS. When I want to quickly verify where I am, a glance at the Garmin Topo map may be adequate.
I’ve been using the Garmin Topo map quite heavily on Basecamp last couple of days, preparing a new edition of Morocco Overland. It’s an intuitive-reading map and I’ve found one benefit of using a Garmin map on Garmin software is that when stringing out a track with the ‘create a route’ tool, it automatically snaps onto even the thinnest track on the map just like Google maps. But the Basecamp tool won’t do that with other installed maps like OSM or Olaf, or even the basic Garmin base map. Sometimes you have to trick the tool to go the way you want, but it makes stringing together hopefully accurate routes (as well as distances) very easy. Occasionally only Olaf will show a route you want to follow, in which case you make the route with lots of short, straight lines. No so hard.
I’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. Was 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. A 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 to 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. Very 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 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. Getting 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).