For travellers who don’t expect to be making a lifetime of Sahara travel and haven’t got limitless funds, jerricans provide the simple answer to increasing your vehicle’s range. Available sometimes still unused from military surplus outlets for around £10, they make reliable and robust fuel containers.
The standard steel jerrican is a German design (hence the name) from the late 1930s, developed to support their blisteringly effective blitzkrieg invasions. The fact that the design remains unchanged today shows how well they succeeded with the ergonomics of carrying, pouring, sealing and storing fuel. During the war in North Africa, the LRDG prized the discovery of any jerricans, while the Germans were ordered to destroy them on retreat.
A jerrican holds 20 litres (4.45 gallons; 5.28 US gallons) when filled in the upright position. This leaves an air gap just below the handles which shouldn’t be filled with fuel (by tipping the can backwards) unless you’re really desperate. The air pocket, as well as the X-shaped indentations on the sides, enable the can’s sides to bulge as fuel expands; especially the case with petrol which is more volatile than diesel. Once warmed and shaken on your roof, take care to open the cap very slowly (the cap’s clamp design makes this easy) to avoid a spurt of fuel, which, besides being dangerous, is messy and wasteful.
A clamp-on spout (some with an integral gauze and breather tube) should make topping-up while holding a heavy can easier. But I find these clamp-on spouts often don’t seal well, fuel runs down your leg and their internal gauze slows down the flow rate, prolonging the effort in holding them up. A wide-bore funnel takes half the time. Rigid funnels get messy with diesel and are awkward to stow, so I prefer the ‘collapsible’ vinyl items with the end snipped off to make the hole bigger. Store them in a plastic bag or flat lunch box. Cutdown mineral water bottles will also do the job.
Better still, leave the can where it’s stashed on the car and siphon the fuel into the tank either with a simple tube or a manual siphon-pump. Until mastered, the mouth-sucking method to get a siphon going is understandably unpopular with motor fuel. If you have no siphon pump bury the whole hose into a full jerrican (a flexible, clear, thin-walled hose is best). With the other end fully submerged, put your thumb over the end and draw out the tube which should stay full of fuel. Poke the tube into the fuel tank filler and the weight of the dropping fuel will create a siphon.
Jerricans themselves can be knocked about for years: I’ve never seen a welded seam leak, though cap seals do leak. You can buy spare seals or, failing that, a chopped-up inner tube clamped across the mouth will work.
Once rust or flaking paint begin to come out of a jerry, either make sure you use a fine pre-filter or get another jerrican. Neat ten-litre versions are available and even mini five-litre models, all using the same clamping cap. They can also be robust containers for spare motor oils and other fluids and make good jack stands when working under a car.
There is said to be a small risk from static electricity in the dry desert atmosphere when refuelling vehicles, especially petrol. Earth the car by touching it before opening the cap and pouring in the fuel.
‘Jerricans’ copied in plastic should never be used for long-term fuel storage. The soft slab sides and screw-on caps are unsuited to the expansion and will swell like a balloon before splitting, leaking or bursting. I once drove a car carrying nearly three dozen cheap plastic jerries on the roof. Within a couple of days fuel was running down the sides of the car as the liquid expanded and caps leaked; I even had to use the wipers as it ran down the windscreen. It was very messy and bad for the rubber components.
In the last decade France’s colonial presence in North Africa, their part of Sahara was divided between Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco (‘AFN’); ‘AOF’ (French West Africa) from Mauritania to Niger, and ‘AEF’ or French Equatorial Africa which included present-day Chad. One could travel the pistes across the desert between the Mediterranean coast and the Sahel, and even scheduled bus services traversed these ‘Imperial Routes’ to the sub-Saharan capitals.
Just a couple of years before these colonies were dissolved and became the independent countries we know today, Shell released its fifth and final edition of the Guide du Tourisme Automobile au Sahara. The 345-page book is in French and there are still plenty around; mine cost me €25 from France, but the lovely map is often missing from the inside back cover sleeve. Originally published way back in 1934 (link to pdf) and just seven years after Shell started distributing fuel in Algeria, it must have been the first guidebook of its kind, preceding my own Sahara Overland by nearly seven decades.
The three pre-war editions (1934-5 pdf; 1936 below and 1938) were thinner books but also covered aerial tourism: fuel and landing strip information. Perhaps back then private planes were still seen as comparable or superior to with cars for getting to remote places. By the mid-50s commercial flying had taken off across the world, and flying around the desert was no longer a thing, unless you were very rich.
Even if it was nothing more than fully funded exercise in self-promotion, it’s still odd that an Anglo-Dutch oil company produced such a presumably prestigious project to showcase an important French colony, especially as it had the feel of an official handbook. In the 1930s Shell became well known for their illustrated guidebooks to Britain; perhaps publishing was not a thing that interested French oil companies like Total and Elf. Only Shell produced guidebooks, but road mapswere widely branded by some of the oil companies of the era.
You can imagine the three French women (France Degand, Janine Delbert and Michèle Cancre d’Orgeix) had a copy of a Shell in the glovebox of their Peugeot 206 wagon before setting out their double crossing of the Sahara in 1956 (video below).
The 1950s were the apogée of the colonial era when, even in the Belgian Congo, trains ran across the jungle on time and roads drivable by regular cars snaked over the equatorial escarpments. In the Sahara pistes were well maintained, regularly patrolled and for the most part, well marked too. The Sahara still had its rough edges and expansive voids, but had been effectively tamed by the colonial administration, including a desert-wide network of Shell stations: ‘In the Sahara, as in your garage‘ the guidebook boasts. It was the vestiges of this investment in desert infrastructure which we inherited in the 1970s and 80s by which time the whole region had seen 15-20 years of independent rule. The Shell emblem was long gone, replaced by nationalised fuel companies distributing the commodity with had become integral with global progress and development.
Until 1939… the book starts… conditions for the harmonious development of winter tourism were coming together in the Sahara. Excellent temperatures, admirable sites, distant horizons, interesting populations, verdant palmeries [and] distinctive architecture: behold the country.
It then goes on to introduce the Sahara, using a flowery style which I’ve seen in more recent French guides to the Sahara. The book doesn’t miss a chance to include an exposition of the magnificent French achievements in the Sahara since 1919.
A year after this edition was published, after decades of searching (during which time French explorer and geologist Conrad Killian mysteriously met his death) prospectors finally struck oil in Edjeleh near In Amenas, and a short time later in Hassi Messaoud. By the end of the next decade Algeria became a major oil producer in North Africa.
It’s interesting to see how the content of the guidebook conforms with a modern day equivalent: a geographical breakdown of the desert’s geology, relief and topography, river courses and wells; ethnicities add up to either Arab or Berber, with pre-colonial history leading to exploration, colonisation and pacification right up to the period of the automobile and the aeroplane.
Short sections cover local artisans and the souvenirs they made, a bibliography, recreation and sports and not least hunting for hides, heads, horns and ivory. Happy days!
As for vehicle choice, the guide advised not to worry about using touring cars, by which I think then meant a regular RWD sedan or estate, like the Peugeot 206, above. Rightly it said the 4x4s of the time: Land Rover, Jeep, Willys and the near identical Delahaye V.L.R were significantly less comfortable.
It’s worth recalling that many regular cars of that era had bigger wheels and better ground clearance – garde du sol – ‘an important factor in vehicle choice‘… ‘Consider fitting bigger tyres, but not too much or you’ll stress the transmission and steering.’ ‘Power to weight is also a factor for tackling soft passages.’ …’avoid dual rear wheels…’ It’s interesting to see all these strategies were well known, even back then. It does however list a long and very heavy list of spare parts. Durability must be one thing that’s improved over the decades. In a way today’s SUVs have similar characteristics, but of course no one would consider taking one somewhere as outlandish as the Sahara, not least because 4x4s have improved to become much less utilitarian.
Code Saharien de la Route In that time of French control a detailed list of safety protocols needed to be followed before before setting off along a piste. ‘Pour votre securite‘ as they used to say to us in Algeria where the system endured into the 1980s (but without any actual back-up or support; you were on your own). The Code was a check on whether you were equipped to tackle what lay ahead, followed by the requirement to check on on arrival. If you followed the rules and were overdue, they’d come and look for you. You also needed some sort of contract with a local recovery service in case of a breakdown. The last 40 pages of the book detail the full list of these requirements for each of the three territories.
The route guide breaks down the Sahara into four sections: southern Morocco along tracks which are now mostly roads. Then came the grandly named Imperial Tracks, starting with N°1: the Mauritania Line (above) which was recently reopened by Algeria. Back then, this was the direct route through all-French territory from Tiznit in Morocco or Colomb Bechar in Algeria, to St Louis or Dakar which circumvented the Spanish Rio de Oro colony on the Atlantic coast. Closed between June and mid-October, this was also the ‘Forgotten Path‘ which David Newman followed in his Ford Corsair touring car in 1959, just as the territories were breaking up.
The route description for the 2550km from Tiznit to St Louis goes on for 15 pages including a few photos and plain maps. It left Moroccan territory south of today’s Foum el Hassan, a small town between Akka and Assa on what I call the Desert Highway in the Morocco guide. I noted a passing reference to ‘Merkala‘; an escarpment watchtower marking the border between Morocco and Algeria which still survives as the enigmatic ‘Tour de Merkala’ on the Michelin 741 map. In Tindouf we learn that prior to the French establishing a garrison in 1934, the settlement, had been abandoned for three decades due to persistent raids by the nomadic Reguibat. The Berbers must have welcomed a bit of law and order. From here the lonesome track led to Ait ben Tili on the Spanish Sahara (today’s PFZ) border, with balises (marker posts) every 5km, but plenty of tole ondulee: ‘corrugated iron’ or washboard/corrugations to you and me. Like today, there’s nothing much for the traveller at AbT. Back then wild game added up to gazelles and long-gone ostriches. Once you got to Fort Trinquet (Bir Mogrein) you could add moufflon and leopards to that list.
From here it was 405km south to Fort Gouraud (Fderik) and the piste was poorly marked, sandy and rutted. The old route ran for another 310km from Fort Gouraud via Char fort to Atar didn’t get any less sandy, and the iron ore railway was still another 8 years away. Maybe a touring car, even with good clearance, wasn’t such a good idea after all.
Imperial Track N°2 was the Tanezrouft Line from Colomb-Bechar to Gao on the Niger river. This was the route chosen by the first cars to cross the Sahara in the early 1920s. It’s interesting to see how quickly the commercial drive towards tourism follows what was once terra incognita. You could say we’re seeing the same today in space; something which would have been hard to imagine in the middle of the Apollo programme. It was on this desolate route that Bidon V (‘Oil drum 5’, below) made a name for itself as a desolate travellers way-station between Reggane and Tessalit in present day Mali. At one point the lighthouse shone into the night, planes could land for a refuel and a couple of bus bodies where parked up on oil drums to provide lodgings for passengers the Mer-Niger bus route.
The book continues with other well known routes in the Algerian Sahara, though not exactly what we have today. Imperial Route 3; the Hoggar Line – today’s Trans Sahara Highway – ran further east between El Golea to In Salah, and again on to the Arak Gorge where a friendly Shell bowser (left) stood by at your service.
From Tamanrasset, excursions up to Assekrem along today’s route were already established (fold out map included), and the now paved track to the border via Laouni was the same, but once in AOF, the track went straight to Agadez via In Abangarit to the south. It was on this route that the drama vividly described in Trek, met its climax. There was no Arlit until uranium was discovered there about 15 years later. Zinder, close to the Nigerian border, was the end of that road.
The Ajjer and Tibesti Line was Imperial Route 4: from Biskra all the way to Fort Lamy (N’djemana) in Chad. From Djanet the route dropped down to Bilma, the long established administrative capital of the eastern Tenere, before you back-tracked north to Seguedine to head east for Zouar, Faya and even Fada before turning down to Abeche and Fort Lamy. This was the route which the lavishly equipped Berliet expeditions of 1960 sought to open up for trade, just as France’s overt control over the Sahara slipped away.
Back then getting to Djanet meant dodging the Fadnoun Plateau (Tassili N’Ajjer). From Fort Flatters (today’s Bordj Omar Driss) you headed out over the sands southwest to Amguid, then southeast along the base of the plateau. Right up to the 1980s this was truck route to Djanet until they sealed the winding road over the Fadnoun which to this day still catches some truckers out.
If you could get to Fort Polignac (Illizi), a car route did actually cross the Fadnoun. You left Polignac to the east then either pitted yourself against the very sandy Imirhou gorge (left) , or all the way to Tarat fort on the Libyan border, before turning south to join today’s route at Dider. On bikes for Desert Riders in 2003 (the full movie is on YouTube), this was a tough but epic ride across the tumbled escarpments of the Tassili which took us two hard days. But the time we reached the final descent from the plateau at the Tin Taradjeli Pass, we couldn’t wait for the sands of the wide open Tenere.
From 1943 up to 1951 the French administered the Fezzan province of Libya and may have had had hopes of annexing it. But by the time this edition was published, growing calls for independence put an end to that idea. Meanwhile. the northern deserts of Chad remained as obscure and little visited as they are today.
The Shell guide includes a 1:4m scale map folded into the back cover. It’s more or less Michelin’s 152 of 1948 which to some may alone be worth it the price of the guide. It doesn’t have the full coverage of the 153 North & West Africa which came later, but shows the routes described, and much more. This detail has long made the Michelin map indispensable in the Sahara, even if it is a rather skimpy navigation aid to setting off along one of the Imperial routes. The Mauritanian Line gets a 1:9m inset (below left) while in Libya (never a French territory) the map proudly shows the routes of General Leclerc’s desert campaign during WW2 which ended in the famous raid on Murzuk in co-ordination with the Long Range Desert Group.
With the help of the internet I can affirm that the Chocolaterie Aiguebelle was founded by a medieval order of French Trappist monks in the mid 19th century to make a bit of money on the side. As explained here, they also got into producing advertising cards to entertain, educate and inform. It’s unclear whether these cards came with your chocolates or were distributed from hot air balloons. Probably the former, as that’s what drove me to collect inducements in the 60s and 70. You”l find loads of Chocolaterie Aiguebelle cards on ebay.
The operation shipped out to North Africa at some point where it’s still around today and which may explain the card below. Yes it’s another interesting map of the Sahara. No date is given but it looks like the state of colonial expansion in the late 19th century.
As always it’s interesting to see what is shown and what is not. Ancient Timbuktu seems an odd omission (though it’s mentioned on the back as a worthwhile destination for the trans-Sahara railroad). Tamanrasset was just a village at this time so gets skipped and Timassin is Timassinin, later Fort Flatters under the French and today Bordj Omar Driss (BoD). Not far to the west, Messagem and El Biodh were nothing but wells on the caravan route from In Salah to Ghadames, but it seems if early European explorers were led through these places by their guides, then they acquired a cartographic life of their own. They’re all on the map below from 1898. In the late 1980s we travelled this ‘forbidden’ piste from Fort Mirabel to below the westernmost ribbons of the Grand Erg, coming out at the checkpoint of Hassi bel Guebbour, just north of BoD. By the post war era these obscure wells had slipped off the maps and back into obscurity.
Interesting that remote In Zizawaterhole features, even though it’s not on any trade route, while Taoudenis was then still an important point on the 52 Days Road between Morocco and Timbuktu. East of there, it’s hard to think of today’s lonely well of Mabrouk being any sort of piste junction. Although the wiki waypoint matches the map below, today there aren’t any tell tale vehicle tracks, even though it’s not far from Timetrine where western hostages got shuffled around during their long captivities with AQIM.
On the Atlantic coast Tarfaia is there with more about it here. Never heard of Groha near or maybe Smara, not Djorf el Asfar near present day Bir Lehlou in the PF Zone. Further east in present day Niger, the Oasis of Djebado is the old name for Djado looks as important as Bilma and the other Kaour oases, but not enough get a marker point. It’s hard to know what Yat might be other than Seguedine or a misplaced and misspelt Ghat, or Tao which appears on other old maps (maps often repeat their predecessors mistakes).Maybe it’s Dao Timni, today a military base in the middle of nowhere.
On the far side of Niger’s Tenere Desert lies the Djado Plateau, a frayed maze of low escarpments, sand-choked canyons and wind-carved outcrops, geologically contiguous with Algeria’s Tassili N’Ajjer and Libya’s Akakus (right).
This is Tubu and Kanuri country. The latter are an ethnically related group originating from Kanem or Kano in northeastern Nigeria. Tubu nomads best known in northern Chad and, unlike the arriviste Tuareg, are the Sahara’s original inhabitants. When I first listed this area the Tubu of far-eastern Niger where in revolt and a ‘checkpoint’ at Orida took tribute from passing tour groups, all Tuareg led and from Agadez. East of here was a no-go area and was mined, by either the rebels or the Niger army. On old IGN maps the topographic names are derived from the Tuburi language: a peak or hill is ‘Emi’ rather than the Tuareg ‘Adrar’ or Arabic ‘Jebel’, and ‘Enneri’ is a valley, like a ‘oued’ or ‘wadi’.
Perched on an outlying outcrop at the plateau’s edge, like something out of a Tolkein novel is the ruined citadel of Djado (21.016 12.308), a mudbrick warren of passages and collapsed chambers worn ragged by the weathering of passing centuries. Below the fortress, a shallow seasonal pool of brackish water is ringed by reeds and palms.
Such fortified ksars are not unusual in many old Sahara towns like Djanet, Ghat, Dakhla in Egypt and Ouadane in Mauritania. But all are adjacent to a modern town which has since grown up around them. That such a large citadel should located hundreds of miles from the nearest town appears an enigma. Djado personifies the Sahara’s romantic mystique, a Lost City crumbling into the sands. Who lived here, what did they do and where did they all go?
It’s origin may well date back to the late Kanem-Bornu Empire as a station on the trans-Sahara trade route which evolved between Lake Chad and Tripoli. Any place in the Sahara where the groundwater reaches the surface becomes important. By the 17th century, Tripoli – the capital of Ottoman Tripolitania – became the Mediterranean’s busiest slave market. From Lake Chad a line of wells and oases run north via Agadem to the salt mines of Bilma, Aney and on to the smaller salines of Seguedine. Here the route split: the busier arm led northeast to Tumu and the famed slave trading post of Murzuk. The other branched northwest towards Ghat. All of these places would have had a fortified ksar similar to Djado, though not so dramatically isolated.
Around the 18th century it’s probable the inhabitants of ‘Djebado’ (as it’s called on the 1888 map, above) either gradually lost out to the dominant Murzuk trade route, were harassed by Tuareg or Tubu raiding parties, or just succumbed to the growing infestations of malarial mosquitoes which still inhabit the reedy lake today.
The Djado plateau, and more especially the Aïr mountains on the far side of the Tenere, are rich with ancient petroglyphs (left) and other rock art, some 6-8000 years old. At this time the Sahara was a savannah widely populated by the last of the nomadic hunters or early pastoralists. Many show animals long since extinct in the desert: bovids, crocodiles, giraffes or elephants (left). But it is a mistake to conflate the medieval ruins of Djado with the relics of the prehistoric era. The ksar is no more than a 1000 years old and much more likely, half that. To the north is a smaller are more intact ruins of Djaba (below) and beyond that, the well at Orida, 500km from Ghat.
Today the Kanuri whose ancestors were said to have inhabited Djado, live out on the desert plain in the nearby village of Chirfa, though annually they return to harvest the dates which grow alongside the ruins.
Below: an excerpt from the film of the 1960 Berliet Tenere Expedition. An accompanying helicopter surveys ‘Le Mont Saint Michele du Tenere’.
The original 1996 paperback edition of Desert Travels (and an earlier version of the ebook, left) featured us camped below a striking cathedral-like formation. I’d always wondered where that place was. The relevant chapter in the book is called The Cathedral, referring to the spires and church-like ‘portal’ of the pinnacle-capped outcrop. It was shot by Mike Spencer who had a proper camera and slide film.
This was before GPS and at the time I was too preoccupied keeping track of the bikes and my Landrover’s numerous issues to attempt to follow our progress on a map with dead reckoning. Our guide, Chadli, knew his stuff but was rather reticent – they teach them that in guide school. I knew the vague location within 50 square miles – the photo credit in the book says ‘near Tin Tarabine’ which is true enough, but that area, if not the whole Tassili-Hoggar southeast of Tam, is famed for unusual rock formations.
I had a rough idea the cathedral (above, with my crumby camera) was somewhere after Tadant canyon well and before Tin Tarabine oued. Then in 2006, coming towards the end of our epic traverse from Mauritania across Mali and Algeria towards the Libyan border (see: Sahara: The Empty Quarter) we passed through that area. I’d not been there since 1988, but coming at it from a different direction, it was all new to me.
As we’d crawled steeply out of Tin Tarabine oued and away from the famous Youf Ehakit – an amazing area of eroded rocks and bizarre, neo-Celtic engravings (left) – our escort’s car needed the clutch repaired yet again.
They pulled up onto a flat rock shelf to to a proper job this time, while I and the others dispersed for a wander. Climbing the outcrop up above the cars, I spotted some intriguing spire-like formations across a plateau a few kilometres to the north. Could I have stumbled on the location of the original DT cathedral cover after all these years?
I grabbed a water and the GPS and set off cross-country, passing pre-Islamic tombs (left), then dodging down into little canyons and over outcrops as the terrain became rougher. I didn’t have a copy of DT with me, but the huge, hand-like pinnacles in the far distance looked very familiar.
After about an hour and a half I was running out of daylight to get back, but got close enough to the weathered spires. I took a few hurried shots (above) and the following waypoint which I see now is actually just a kilometre from the formations. But when I got home and looked at the book’s cover closely, I realised they were similar but were not the Cathedral, even if I was looking at them from behind.
I forgot all about it for a few years then began to wonder again if the Cathedral could be tracked down now that we have masses of imagery of everything everywhere and any time. I scanned people’s Panoramio and Flicker albums as well as the embedded photos on Google Earth (often irritatingly misplaced, as we all know…). There were plenty of amazing rock formations in the Tassili-Hoggar vicinity, but no distinctive Cathedral.
In the end I knew the best people to ask were the Germans – der uber-Saharans. I may know the Sahara well, but in Germany there are hundreds more experienced and better travelled Saharans than me. In the good years they explored every corner of the desert, but most didn’t feel the need to write guidebooks about it afterwards.
I posted my question with a picture on Wuestenschiff, one of the main German Sahara forums. Within a couple of days I had a name for my location: the Cathedrals of Tin Eggoleh and the waypoint: N22°21’6.75″ E007°5’12.20″. About 50km to the northeast of the ‘false-sprires’ of 2006.
Mystery solved and somewhere good to aim for next time…
Out in Niger’s Tenere desert, east of the Aïr mountains lies the isolated massif of Adrar Madet. About 2.5 kilometres directly west of the 20-km long massif’s northern tip, a perfect stone circle lies in the sand. The circle is about 20m in diametre and some 600m from the circle and more or less at each cardinal point is a small arrow. You can see all five points here on Bing. You won’t see them on Google.
I’ve not been there but have known about it for years. Some speculate that it could a sacred pre-historic marker associated with prime meridians and ancient Egyptian knowledge, marking the ‘middle of North Africa’ (left). It is a huge coincidence that the circle is – within a few kilometres – exactly halfway between the equator and Ras Angela near Bizerte in Tunisia, the northernmost point of Africa. And it’s nearly directly south (178.4°) of Ras Angela, too. (Fwiw, it’s 64km west to the actual point directly south of Ras Angela, just south of Arakao on the edge of the Aïr.)
I err more towards the idea of a much less ancient aviation landmark from the colonial era, one of many located in the Sahara and still being found, including less ambiguous examples where names of nearby outposts are stencilled inside the circles. Fellow Saharaholic, Yves Rohmer confirms this fact. Rubbish from that era: tin cans, bottles of Pastis and so on, littered the Madet site. A similar circle exists in nearby Fachi, with that name stencilled in it and close to an old airstrip. Another plausible explanation made in the discussion linked above was a drop zone for parachute or dummy bomb training.
Not so mysterious after all then, but you do wonder, with the distinctive and isolated 20-km-long Madet ridge angled NW/SE and the Aïr massif to the west, what value the tiny 20-m stone compass actually added to aerial navigation? And why put an airstrip there if anywhere flat in the Sahara can be an ’emergency airstrip’. And would they have spent days building a parachute or bomb drop zone circle when a ring of smoking oil drums would have sufficed?
Another possibility I like to entertain is of a playful or geographically inclined Colonel stationed in the Sahara. He’d spent his lovelorn honeymoon in Bizerte and, looking at his Michelin map one hot day, noticed Adrar Madet’s central position. He decided it would be a good morale-building (or time-killing) exercise to have the circle and cardinal points marked in the desert for posterity. But as Adrar Madet is far from any route or useful resource, the purpose and meaning of his enigmatic earth sculpture has been lost in the sands of time.
That’s as may be, but what about the other similar but smaller cobbled stone circles I’ve seen in the mountains of southern Algeria (below)? Neither could be described as aviation markers. ‘Tombs’ said the guides, but they’re not like the usual pre-Islamic tombs of the desert.
Here’s another curious circle, spotted by a mate in the remote wastes of Timetrine, northern Mali, coincidentally one place where AQIM kept European kidnap hostages up to a few years ago.
19.455065, -0.422889; It’s a lot clearer on Bing Maps than Google. According to the old 200k IGN map, this is actually the brackish (saumâtre) well of T-in Kar (wrongly positioned on Bing), so marking it for pilots may make sense for emergencies.
You will see four points a couple of hundred metres from the circle set in the middle of a distinctively rectangular clay pan covering about half a square kilometre. But they seem so vaguely positioned as to be pointless. Some have speculated the four points may mark the fringes of a smooth landing strip.
The clay pan is on a more-or-less direct line between Timbuktu and Tessalit where there is also a ‘TES’ marker by the current airfield (left). In those days (pre-War) they would have navigated as much by landmarks as a bearing. Since around 2013 this whole area has been a war zone between mostly French forces under Operation Barkhane, having it out with AQIM and the like. So far this intervention has been as successful as similar operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In just about the geographical centre of the Sahara lie the Hoggar mountains. Compared to the tawny Tassili N’Ajjer further east, it’s a harsh landscape of basalt buttes erupting vertically from the barren landscape.
In the heart of the Hoggar massif is a dramatic cluster of eroded volcanic cores overlooked by the 9000-foot high Assekrem Pass, part of the Ahaggar National Park. Some maps call it the Atakor.
There are three ways to get to Assekrem: the regular 85-km eastern route up from Tam via Iharen peak. A gnarlier and slightly shorter western route which starts near the airport, though is usually taken as the decent from Assekrem to make a loop back to Tam as it’s easier to follow going down. Another route comes in from the north from Hirhafok over the Tin Teratimt Pass (above).
Or you can follow a network of camel tracks (above). It takes a week or more, depending where your start.
Assekrem is the best known of the many wonders of southern Algeria. A lodge sits on the saddle of the pass (above) where tourists spend the night to enjoy the stunning sunset and sunrise across the brooding volcanic monoliths from the plateau above the Pass.
Though he spent most of his time in Tam, early in the early 20th century Charles de Foucauld, a French bon viveur and soldier turned missionary, built a crude stone hermitage on this plateau (above).
Among other things, Foucauld was responsible for the first Tamachek-French dictionary, and his house still stands in Tam. It was in Tam in 1916 that Foucauld was assassinated as a suspected French spy, during the Senussi uprisings in Libya and Egypt. Je was beatified in 2005 anf the hermitage is still tended today by a couple of aged members of the order of Les Petites Frères de Jésus, who were inspired by Foucauld’s life.
In March 2020 I rode Morocco’s 2300-kilometre Atlantic Highway nearly all the way to the southern border and nearly all the way back. I last came this way in 2019 (as far as Gueltat Zemmour) but have not done the whole crossing into RIM since 2006 heading for our Empty Quarter transit. I knew it then, I know it now: scenically, mile for mile, the Atlantic Highway is pretty dull by Saharan standards – a drab limestone plain where, encounters aside, sea-cliff viewpoints and a few barchan dunes are as good as it gets. If you’re on a mission to get to Mauritania – as I was on this occasion – here’s what I found.
Up north, use the autoroutes to dodge the N1 and speed traps
It’s a long way so coming from the northern ports, I recommend sitting on the deserted A1 and A7 motorways all the way to Agadir where the A7 ends, even though you pay tolls (about £30 for a moto/car). South of here traffic thins right out. The alternative coastal N1 trunk road is slower, less safe (in a driving sense) and is commonly staked out by cops with radar guns, especially around Essaouira and Agadir. Otherwise, there are any number of great ways of exploring inland Morocco, across the Atlas mountains all the way south to the Desert Highway along the Algerian border.
The speed cops are creeping south
Even though I was hyper-aware of radar cops, I still got caught leaving Tan Tan doing 80 in a 60. That would have been 300d, but deploying the usual techniques – basically: humility in the face of the obvious – he let me off. All the way to Layounne and Dakhla, be wary of lurking speed cops, especially as you approach or leave settlements but even out in the desert too. Crossing solid white lines is another favourite trap; easily done when stuck behind a soot-spewing lorry crawling up an incline,
Western Sahara checkpoints and fiches
As ‘Western Sahara‘ is a Moroccan military zone, checkpoints increase south of Tan Tan, and unlike up north, they don’t just wave foreigners through but want your passport details. Handing over a pre-printed ‘fiche‘ (French for ‘form’; below) helps speed up the process. Hand one over and they can log you into the ledger once you’ve gone. It seems fiches are less needed these days; I got through only about six on the way down – the last one at Dakhla Junction. Some checkpoints will insist on seeing your passport anyway; others just want a chat.
On the N1, subsidised fuel begins 92km south of Tan Tan
Along with a few other key commodities, fuel is subsidised by about 30% in Moroccan Western Sahara. The first discounted fuel station is just after you cross a causeway and climb out of a sea inlet, right by a checkpoint.
Fish & Chips at Afknenir
Make sure you pull in for a poisson-frites in Afkhenir, 20 kms from the checkpoint above. For some reason streetside fish restos here are like casinos on the California-Nevada border. You may think there’ll be loads more down the coastal highway, but there aren’t. You can thank the upwelling of nutrients from the cold Canary Current which gets funnelled by the Canaries themselves onto this near-north-facing section of coast before Cape Juby. Or maybe local demand supports the informal shore-casting fishing economy. You’ll see loads of scooterists with rods as well as the crude clifftop shelters where they live.
They’re rebuilding the N1
South of Guelmim a new, wider road is being built in stages, sometimes alongside the old one – certainly as far as Layounne. Around the dunes of the windy Khnifiss lagoon past Tan Tan, when I was there roadwork embankments see sand get blown across the two-lane road – not a good place to meet an oncoming truck while checking your likes.
It’s very windy – day and night
They say March is especially bad, but south of Guelmim where the desert sets in, it’s windy day and night. Normally in the Saharan interior the wind stops at dusk. In late February 2020 a huge Saharan sandstorm (below) made the news when holidaymakers on the Canaries were stranded. Close to the coast the cold current produces fog (right), certainly between Guelmim and Tarfaya. Within a kilometre of the coast a northerly sea breeze can also blow up to 10°C cooler than an easterly from the dry interior – which might be just a mile or two inland. But generally, the wind is behind you; on a pushbike (I saw a few), that’s important.
The flat landscape of Western Sahara can’t help, but when you realise the whole 3000-mile width of the Sahara has been steadily heated by the rising sun before it reaches the Atlantic coast, the wind has had plenty of time to get a good run up. On the move it’s not so bad, but outside of a car, camping can be pretty miserable. Even the trees are bent southwards.
All this wind is good for the economy: Dakhla has long been a kiters’ resort (below) and there’s a huge installation of wind turbines south of Tarfaya, helping keep the lights on in Laayoune. Soon they say that array of turbines (or one like it) will feed electricity to the UK via an undersea cable
The monument at Tah
On the N1 for Laayoune you’ll pass through nondescript Tah with no fuel and barely a cafe and shop to rub together. In the middle of town is a granite monument covered in Arabic inscriptions. It marks the spot where in November 1975, some 350,000 Moroccan civilians symbolically marched over the then border into Spanish Sahara.
This was the Green March (map left): three co-ordinated and tactical mass demos mobilised by the wily King Hassan in response to rumours of Spain considering handing over its marginal colony to the indigenous Saharawi and Polisario Front. The marches were followed by the 16-year Western Sahara War which Morocco effectively won by annexing most of the territory (see map,above). It’s why the UN still hang out in Western Sahara and why unmapped landmines are still a menace. Otherwise, not much appears to have happened in Tah since that glorious November day.
Laayoune is the provincial capital and biggest settlement in WS by far, with a prosperous frontier-town vibe to it. At least from what I perceived; life in the Saharawi shantytowns may not be so rosy and civil disturbances are not uncommon. Riot police lurk on standby in the town centre (below). The UN’s MINURSO mission is based here, monitoring the Polisario ceasefire. Passing through the city, the transit is not an obvious single main road. Without a satnav, follow signs for the airport, or back right up and take the Laayoune bypass (see below).
The Laayoune bypass
At Tarfaya (former Cap Juby) you can turn into the town, head for the shore past the St Exupery museum, his monument, and the 19th-C curiosity of Mackenzie’s Factory). Following the coastal road 90km to Foum El Oued (‘river mouth’) brings you back to the N1 just south of Laayoune city. It would be nice to report this is a quiet byway passing idyllic beaches, but the wind is ever-present and trucks use this narrow road to avoid Laayoune. Dunes also get bulldozed off the road, especially south where the road gets narrower. I suppose it might be cooler than the inland route and the beached Armas ferry is a site to behold. There’s more here.
The longest fuel range is 162km but may be 250km
This is between Tchika (Imlili) near some big white barchans on the north edge of the Gulf of Cintra, and Bir Gandouz, the last town, 80km from the border. There is nothing at all along this section except the howling wind. However, the Tchika station and the two similarly old and grubby Atlas Sahara stations to the north near El Agroub (see map right) may be empty. Stations may get upgraded, but for the moment this means from Dakhla Junction roundabout (two fuel stations) to Bir Gandouz is 252km (via the Tropic of Cancer). I covered that distance northbound into the wind and go in with a pint in the tank.
Is Dakhla worth the 90-km round trip?
No so sure, but then I took the cheap hotel thing a bit far in the old town. Next time it might be more fun to check out the kiters’ resorts at the head of the lagoon. On the other hand, up north, Boujdour was a fun stop for an evening wander.
Plan a break at the Hotel Barbas in Bir Gandouz
Maybe it was just me on the day, but the Hotel Barbas was an oasis in a duststorm. And once inside shimmered into a veritable mirage. We stayed here in 1997 but the place has been transformed to the point of incongruity. They built a two–storey U-shaped bank of rooms around a planted courtyard but then, ingeniously, draped the entire thing in a huge shade-net. Result: a large, cool space where courteous waistcoated waiters flit about at your service. Rooms are good, prices are normal, food is good too and so is the wi-fi. Tourist, traveller, refugee or trader, some of the characters that roll through add to the place’s edgy ambience. The south end of Morocco, not the Mediterranean coast, marks the true border with Africa. Bir Gandouz is an easy day from Boujdour which itself is an easy day from Tan Tan. With an early start and an hour to the border, you’ll easily get to Nouadhibou or on the road to Nouakchott.
What is ‘La Gouira’ you see on the road signs?
The ‘Lagouira’ you’ll see listed on some old Atlantic Highway road signs indicates the short-lived Spanish base at La Agüera on the Ras Nouadhibou peninsula opposite today’s Nouadhibou. See map inset below. Effectively it indicates the distance to Nouadhibou which is not always listed. Abandoned at the turn of the century, today it’s a collection of ruins which are actually in the Polisario Free Zone, commonly mistaken for No-Man’s-Land which separates Morocco from Mauritania. Some have managed, but the Mauritanians won’t allow casual visits from the Nouadhibou side.