Category Archives: Sahara A to Z…

F is for Flooding the Sahara

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 flornwcopikswing of the floroutetrans-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.

flodonmac

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.

floder

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.
flodjoufIt’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.

flomwamap

floNWACmapMackenzie 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.

flotimboMackenzie 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, floAdcl-plakyou’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.

floflo

X marks the spot; the highest peaks in Mauritania

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-internetitum.

The tallest peak of Kediet ej Jill, rising above Zouerat mine site is well known; a metal mountain that’s slowly having its iron-rich core eviscerated and railed across the desert (right) to the port of Nouadhibou.

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).

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 Teniaggoûri would 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 and a couple of miles walk above the desert floor.

Of course it’s quite possible the local name for this entire ridge may be Teniaggoûri, so there may be no real need to rename the point. just the location. Know we know.

 

2 is for: the 2CV Motorcycle Survival Story

Pictures from Emile Leray’s website and the web

2cvcartIn July 2012, a couple of years before fake news had become a thing, online media tripped over itself to syndicate a compelling Saharan survival story evoking the gripping 1965 desert drama, Flight of the Phoenix.
And now, five years later, a video has just appeared on youtube (below) where the aged and batty-looking adventurer again recounts his incredible desert caper.

2cvtilemsin

Back in 2012 full details and motivations were skimmed over, but the story goes that in March 1993, 43-year-old Frenchman Emile Leray set off from Tan-Tan to drive his Citroen 2CV east to Zagora – more or less MW2 from the book (left), followed by MS8 from Tata.
But with the Polisario ceasefire just 18 months old and frequently being broken, at Tilemsen the Moroccan army stopped him from continuing south towards Mseid, the former Polisario front line. Leray turned back towards Tan-Tan, but not before incurring some animosity from the army by refusing to give a soldier a lift back to town – a common request at remote Saharan checkpoints.
2cvmapJust west of Tilemsen, Leray ‘had an idea’. He decided to circumvent the checkpoint to the north (see MW1 KM22), and rejoin MW2 eastwards. But once on the piste (or off-road, as claimed) one of the 2CV’s suspension arms broke after hitting a hole too hard. With ten days’ provisions on board, but reluctant to easily walk-out and leave his car vulnerable to theft, he decided to strip his crippled Citroen down to a rudimentary motorcycle and ride out as if nothing much happened. The powertrain and suspension of a 2CV makes such a conversion plausible.

2cv1The way the story was initially reported in English – using images shot in a quarry (left) – Saharan know-alls like myself were initially sceptical. If it really happened why not just walk back half a day to the road? But while researching the yarn more closely for the Morocco book, reading his own account published in a 2CV enthusiasts’ magazine a decade after the events , a faint ring of truth came through. Perhaps he did make the 2CV bike, but not in quite the circumstances he claimed.
As the TV show, Mythbusters proved for themselves, his contraption was 2cvbustbarely rideable (left) and within a day Lalay says he was caught by a desert patrol camping in the desert and instructed to lead them back to the car’s remains to corroborate his story. Ironically, he goes on to claim (with convincing documentary evidence) that he ended up paying a 4500-dh tax for driving a  vehicle which did not conform to the one he originally imported to Morocco a few weeks  earlier. vehicle, even though he’d taken pains to tack on his ‘Steel Camel’s’ original plate.

Below is the translated story as posted on Leray’s website so you can form your own impression. Bear in mind there’s no reason to believe this account told it like it was, but it may have been the original version. My feeling is the 2CV bike was indeed built in the desert, much as Leray claims, but that he set out with the explicit intention of performing this task. Otherwise he’d have walked out like any normal person in such a situation. His unease about leaving the stricken car seems disingenuous. All experienced Saharan travellers accept that if there’s absolutely no choice, their vehicle is a disposable asset.

2cvthenIn March 1993 Emile Leray set off to follow a route from Tan-Tan to Zagora. He left Tan-Tan with the required reserves of fuel and provisions as well as tools to keep his old 2CV on the road.As soon as the Royal Gendarmerie arrives, it strongly discourages him from continuing further, because the zone beyond Tilemsem is prohibited, following new developments in the conflict between Morocco and Western Sahara. Emile must obviously turn around and the soldiers are asking him to take a passenger back to Tan-Tan.
Analyzing the situation, and seeing his project thwarted, Emile claims an insurance problem that does not allow him to take passengers, arguing that his 2 CV is already very loaded. He knows full well that in Africa it’s seen very badly to not take passengers aboard his car in these circumstances. He claims naivety and misunderstanding in adopting the attitude of a tourist not familiar with local customs.
Emile then returns to Tan-Tan under the disgruntled and disapproving look of the soldiers. He starts off at a good pace as he’s afraid he will be followed and he wants to remain out of sight of those whom he has just left. His plan is to bypass the area off-piste and return to his original direction … After a few kilometres he leaves the track to the north and traverses uneven and rocky ground.
After bouncing more strongly, the car jumps and brutally strikes a rock. He must stop because the 2CV does not respond very well. And for good reason – a folded wheel arm and broken spar …
2cvpantsÉmile organizes his encampment around the broken 2 CV and reflects on the situation. He is a few miles from Tan-Tan which he could reach on foot, but he runs the risk of leaving is car certainly in bad point but still able to attract theft, including its equipment. In the desert nothing is permanently lost, especially for the one who knows where to look… 
He has enough food and water so makes a decision which is to say the least, amazing: from his wreck, he will build a two-wheeled machine! One by one he carefully considered all the technical obstacles that this entails, and this master of African bush mechanics has all the tools and the elements to succeed in the task.
The next morning he began to dismantle the 2CV, first removing the body which he will use as shelter against the cool nights and sandstorms. Having no long-sleeved shirts, against the burning sun he makes sleeves from a pair of socks.
With what remains of the car, Emile Leray will try to build a motorcycle. Overnight he mentally reviewed all the stages and difficulties involved in this rather crazy project … A project that he had probably imagined for a long time but without having had the opportunity to realize it.
The wheel arms (to be removed with a hacksaw) are nested upside down on a reduced chassis of the front and rear side rails. The engine and the gearbox are then placed on the chassis, in the center. Space should be reserved for the battery and the fuel tank and to keep space for luggage without neglecting the layout of the steering system.
2cvdriveThe most surprising thing about this 2CV motorcycle is the transmission. It was inspired by the Vélosolex moped idea: the engine drives a drum which in turn turns the tyre by friction, and which, by 2cvvelosothe laws of physics and mechanics, obliges it to roll with the reverse. Disassembling the gearbox to reverse the differential would have been too risky in this universe of sand …
It seems unthinkable to assemble this machine in the desert without the help of a drill and welding station. All parts were assembled by screwing. When drilling, it will be done in the African way: the piece of metal is folded to 90 ° to form an edge. At a fixed point this edge is weakened by a hacksaw or round file. At the limit of the drilling, the piece must be replaced flat to perforate the filed point with a hammer or a needle. The assemblies were made as much as possible according to the original holes of the chassis or engine-box unit.
The rest is only a matter of time dependent on the quantity of his provisions. Émile believes he must spend three days building his bike – in reality it will take twelve …
There was a great deal of uncertainty to carry out this project and it wasn’t so easy to realize as one might think. The possibility of failure remained present throughout the adventure, giving some anguish to the stranded mechanic.
2cvvThe 2CV motorcycle was obviously not conceived for the sake of comfort, it is a rather secondary notion that was not imperative in what we can call the specifications. The prototype has therefore not benefited from some desirable improvements. It should be noted that, for example, the exhaust is free, so the nose and the ears benefit greatly from the engine’s gases. The bike does not have a brake, nor does it have foot rests which allow some control of the trajectory with the feet, because the craft lacks stability. On the first test the bike fell over, causing a great scare to Emile, who almost found himself crushed under his 200-kilo machine.
The arrangement of the clutch and accelerator controls were particularly tedious. It was necessary to dismantle, adjust and reassemble the parts for optimum operation. Similarly, the tests were punctuated by frequent falls. To lift the two-wheeled steel camel proved particularly physically difficult … All these circumstances contributed to prolong Emile stay in the desert. The final day was be spent adjusting and testing and cleaning the bivouac site.
It was an occasion to immortalize the moment thanks to a small camera with the trigger connected by a long string. Émile poses in the middle of a place that in March 1993 was the theatre of his unusual feat.

2cvdezHe leaves the next afternoon leaving the parts that he will not use in the body shell of the 2CV. He takes with him the rest of his food (more than a litre and a half of water), the bed, the tool box, not forgetting maps and compass. A small foam mattress and a towel sewn together will serve as a tent.
After a bumpy ride and a few stops for mechanical improvements, he encamped and slept at the edge of a track. In the night, he is awakened by three soldiers in 4×4, one of which immediately recognizes the “tourist” of Tilemsem. Very irritated to find him in the forbidden zone, he strongly doubts Emile Leray’s explanations; an accident followed by the transformation into a motorcycle. Intrigued by the machine, but totally incredulous, the soldier demands to see the carcass of the 2CV to have proof of this incredible story.
The officer puts an armed guard by the tent and the motorcycle, then embarks with Émile in the 4×4. After an hour of research in the dark, the remains of the 2 CV cannot be found. Back at the camp, Émile is allowed to rest near the motorcycle until dawn, guarded a hundred meters away by the military in their 4×4. The next day, the carcass was found and the soldiers relax. Émile will learn later that his interlocutor wanted to recover the abandoned pieces for his brother-in-law …
2cv2In the early morning, Emile was ordered to take his motorcycle back, and ride in front of the 4×4. The convoy sets off slowly towards Tan-Tan but several falls seriously annoy the soldier, pestering against this unstable machine. Eventually the soldier calls by radio for another 4×4 to come to recover the 2CV motorcycle.
Arriving at Tan-Tan on April 6th, things get complicated with a lot of bureaucratic hassles. At the provincial governor’s office, a report is drawn up, as well as by the Royal Gendarmerie. The vehicle is impounded.
Emile has the disagreeable surprise of learning that he has to pay a tax of 4500 dirhams. He is very unhappy because the customs officers had spoken to him on the eve of mere formalities. The vehicle is regarded as dangerous and no longer corresponds to the description of the registration documents.
“Delay in importing a non-conforming vehicle” is the charge, and by paying the fine he can
 regain his freedom and recover his contraption, but not be allowed to drive it. One could say a lot from this misadventure about the complicated relations between Africans and Europeans on the issue of money …
2cvmailThe next day Emile is summoned to sign the forms to exit the territory, and leave for France. He thinks he should come back as soon as possible to get the bike back, but by then he must find a place to park it. There is no question that he leaves her in the pound, it may cost him dearly, and the place is not guarded. A customs officer who is more sympathetic than his colleagues offers to take the steel camel home while waiting for him to return to Morocco.
A month later Emile made the 3500-km journey between Rennes and Tan-Tan with another 2CV to pick up his motorcycle, now dismantled in three parts …
Since then, the steel-motorcycle camel has enjoyed the honors of the press and participated in a few events such as the Aventure and the Inventors of Rennes, the fiftieth anniversary of the 2 CV in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, Without forgetting the Motards have heart.
Émile returned several times to Africa, and in 2006 took a new opportunity for the Doctor of African mechanics to exercise his transformational talents on the steel camel [below]… For more information: full story and technical details in 2 CV Magazine March-April 2003

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

Z is for Zouar – Oxford Uni Expedition 1965

Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set

oxchadmapBack in 1965 the pro-Western Kingdom of Libya was just fourteen years old. US and UK military bases used the desert for training and testing, then the discovery of high-quality crude just 200km from the coast changed Libya’s fortunes. Gaddafi’s coup was still a few years away.
oxchad13Chad had gained independence in 1960 but, as has been the case on and off since then, France retained military and Foreign Legion bases. In the film you’ll see a French tricolour raised at Zouar.

oxchad12And best of all he Chadian civil war was still a few months away, so what better time for some Oxford university students to drive 5000 miles to Zouar for their summer hols in a a couple of new 88 Landies and a 2WD Ford D-series lorry loaned by Ford. This was a time when it was still common for truck manufacturers to prove their  vehicles on Sahara expeditions.

oxchad1The film includes episodes of Tubu horseplay, lashings of corned beef and a Landrover door that won’t shut. Interestingly you’ll also see a woman making flour with a grinding stone of the sort still commonly found abandoned all over the Sahara, 46-grinderwherever people once lived. As the narrator says ‘in remote parts of the world it’s hard to tell when such [Neolithic] tools were last used.’ At 14:20 there’s also an engraving of what might be a Garamantean chariot. Germa is not so from Zouar.

S is for ‘Sahara’ ~ the mystique of the desert

The desert is ruthless
It strips you of your vanities
Your illusions
Gives you the opportunity to see yourself for who you really are
Character addressing Jesus figure in The Last Days in the Desert (2016)

sol-tazatMore than other wilderness environments, the desert is commonly seen as a place for spiritual rebirth or just some contemplation. Some speculate that it’s no coincidence the world’s great monotheistic religions originated in the desert. Or perhaps it was the other way round: the Fertile Crescent along with timely wheat mutations and climatic cycles spawned great civilisations from which monotheism evolved. Anyway, just being in the desert it’s commonly thought one can be purged, cleansed and reborn. When striped of familiar surroundings and associations, you commonly hear travellers professing an awareness of their insignificance in the great scheme of things. Whatever, it’s always been seen as a good place to get away from it all, including other people.

In the desert you can remember your name
Coz their ain’t no one for to give you no pain

Another one of those periodic ‘I want to cross the Sahara by camel’ posts popped up on the forum the other month. The OP ‘…thought to myself ‘I want to have a life changing experience’ and thought this would be just that adventure.’ Across the width of the Sahara from Atlantic to Red Sea. There followed some clarification, good advice and some scorn, and within a few days the thread blew itself out.
sol-boaWhat is it about crossing the Sahara? Why do ordinary individuals get fixated on the idea of ‘crossing the Sahara’ at all costs? I know when I first went there the Sahara was something that was on the way to where I thought I was going, but so was France and the Mediterranean. I didn’t see crossing the Sahara as a life-affirming achievement or any sort of event – I was more looking forward to the simple challenge of some desert biking.
Perhaps the words ‘cross’ + ‘sahara’ add up to a compelling soundbite that anyone anywhere will get instantly, like ‘climbing Everest’ or ‘rowing the Atlantic’, but perceived as a whole lot easier.
I received a similar enquiry. A chap wanted to cross the Sahara with camels – it didn’t really matter where, it was the crossing that mattered. He suggested some catchy start and end points like Casablanca to Dakar without really thinking it through – padding alongside Morocco’s busy N1 highway with a troop of dromedaries strung out nose to tail. I made what I thought were some better suggestions that would give a real sense of travelling in the desert with camels while dodging the worst of the current political complications. I even sent him the camel chapter from the book (short version of this). I never heard back.
sol-rep1On the right is my answer to another enquiry which boldly stated the intention to pull off a hare-brained scheme so I’d have no doubt of the total commitment. ‘Nothing is impossible!’ Never heard  from her again, either. Maybe I am too blunt but I keep these emails as evidence of ‘well, I did warn them’ should they ever crop up in the news.
It seems that people hungry for adventure lose something of their reason when it comes to crossing the you-know-what. They’re carried away by the concept which ignites the dream and set about with a steely determination to make it happen.
impjorTo my mind camel crossing the Sahara north to south and especially laterally requires a solid background of experience which is why I respect the achievement of Michael Asher and Mariantonietta Peru when they did it in the 80s and went on to write Impossible Journey. At least they had a good idea of what they were taking on. These days the journey is a whole lot more impossible.

There must be something about camel trekking across the Sahara that makes it sound relatively uncomplicated and easily done alone. You traverse the wilderness with the unspoken companionship of your caravan and maybe a nomad guide whose language you don’t speak: ‘horses with no names’ who won’t question insecurities or flakey motivation.

Aside from the practicalities or logistics of such a monumental task, what irks me is that very often there’s little curiosity about the environment or the cultures they’re passing sol-camthrough. The conquest trounces all, and the empty Sahara is just a backdrop for a monumental vanity project, as it was for Geoffrey Moorhouse back in the 70s and several others before or since.
As I was told recently by an individual who came close to death in his quest: It was a bad time and I made poor decisions. I desperately wanted it to be “me and the desert” and to have my own experience in solitude. I’m wiser now.

sol-xtOnce I get used to it and feel comfortable I like to be alone out there too, and in the desert that’s not hard to do. If anything it helps you re-evaluate human companionship which may be part of the catharsis some seek out there. But I find there’s no need to go to extremes to do this. One memorable desert camp is all that’s required to consolidate a feeling of well being. For me the image below sums it up nicely. Only a mile off the track to Djanet in 1988. For the moment the bike was running well and so was I. It was nice spot for the evening – comfortably alone. There have been many more nights like that out in the Sahara, with or without other people.

djanet88

Usually though I’ve found travelling alone with a vehicle tends to extinguish any mystical retrospection. On a bike you’re totally preoccupied with keeping upright, not getting lost  and all the rest – and in a car it’s the same plus the noise and the shaking. It is the evenings that are a blessed respite from the task, the heat and the wind and when the appeal of the desert is easily felt.
In a group, walking with camels and crew is a far more satisfying way to enjoy the desert sahara-camel-trekkingday or night, most probably because there’s so very little to worry about. You don’t have to know any more than how to walk, sleep and eat. It’s the very simplicity of such desert travels that strikes the chord, even if this is a fantasy enabled by the hired crew of desert nomads. The actual practicalities of making it happen and sustaining camelling independently get quite complex as many accounts that I’ve read have shown. And now you have to account for the unglamorous and unromantic political overlay.

I suppose the hope is that when one gets to the Other Side one is reborn or cleansed or at the very least feels a sense of achievement which ought to trump all insecurities. But no account I’ve ever read has admitted to that. Or perhaps midway through the journey there is some sort of epiphany with a closure and acceptance and an understanding that life must go on, at which point the epic challenge may lose its purpose.

After nine days, I let the horse run free,
‘Coz the desert had turned to sea.

Me, I just like being in wild places including the desert. It doesn’t have to get complicated.

sol-edg