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.
In 1986, long before the current fat-bike fashion, Jean Naud, a 55-year-old Frenchman set off to ride his three-wheeled bicycle 3200-km across the Sahara from Algiers to Timbuktu.
Brought up in Blida, just south of Algiers at the foot of the Atlas mountains, Jean Naud had made two previous cycle tours in the Sahara. One, as a 23-year-old way back in 1954, from Algiers as far as Ghardaia where he was born in 1931. And another in 1980 from Zinder in Niger, north via Agadez and across the Sahara to Tamanrasset – a distance of some 1300-km. This time he was riding a bike running prototype, low-pressure Michelin fat tyres (below left). At that time this route would have been just about all piste, but he recalls passing some Brits stuck in the sand near the Algerian border in their Peugeot 404, as he cycled silently past.
Although the Sahara isn’t all a wasteland of soft sand dunes, the thin tyres of a regular bike would easily sink or damage the rims on rocks under the required loads needed for desert travel.
I’ve met the odd cyclist in the Sahara. The big problem with off-highway pushbiking is the load needed to maintain autonomy, not least, water. On a conventional bike it’s barely possible without relying on passing traffic, because the tougher the terrain the greater your water consumption. Even in winter in the central Sahara, I’d guess you’d need five litres to cover about 60 kilometres on a sandy piste. And that would be a long day.
An automotive engineer, Jean Naud’s initial solution was to run fat tyres in 1980 in NIger. This time he added a second driven rear wheel to improve traction and aid flotation at pressures as low as 7psi. He then went one step further and devised a hefty hinged subframe (above right) which could both raise and disengage drive from the middle wheel to reduce the drag and pedalling effort on firmer surfaces, or when running lighter loads. Mechanically, disengaging axles (as well as hubs) was commonly done on pre-electronic 4x4s in the 1980s, for the same energy-saving reasons. And today on lorries we commonly see lifting axles (right). Using the modern Bob trailer on a fat bike (left) is a similar and probably more efficient solution. The added effort in towing the loaded-down third wheel, rather than powering it as Naud’s 2WD bike could have done, is negated by the weight savings and the lower centre of gravity. You get the feeling Naud was merely experimenting with novel engineering solutions, as he discusses in the video below.
Naud’s three-wheel ride to Timbuktu (left) included at least 2000-km of piste. The route he took to the Mali border across the Tanezrouft is actually a firm gravel plain, about as easy surface to ride or drive as you get in the Sahara. Naud reckoned 20kph was easy. Beyond that, it gets progressively rougher and sandier down towards the Niger River and, having ridden it on a moto in 1989, it’s hard to believe he managed to cycle the final section west along the Niger’s north bank to Timbuktu. It’s very sandy.
Even then, the Tanezrouft was the preferred route of the earliest Saharan motor crossings from the 1920s onwards by Citroen and Renaults (right; also using a ‘double-wheel’ idea to spread loads). The only problem in Naud’s time, was the Tanezrouft route lacked regular wells compared to the sandier but shorter Hoggar Route which Naud rode in 1980.
After visiting his childhood home in Blida, early in the trip while still unfit, it took Naud no less than eight hours to cover 14km on the climb to the 1300-m Col de Medea where the N1 tops out in the Atlas, before descending to the Saharan peneplain. Once fully loaded with 72 litres of water and another 60kg of gear, his 50-kilo monotrack three-wheeler weighed in at 180 kilos.That’s at least three times more than a modern touring bike, or five or six times heavier once fully loaded. Or, about the same as a small lightly loaded motorcycle ready for the desert. Imagine pedalling that!
Jean Naud died in 2011 aged 80. You can find his 1987 book covering all his Saharan cycling adventures, on amazon France for €11.
His bike may still be on display at the Museum of Sport in Paris.
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.
DIE ERSCHLIESUNG DER SAHARA DURCH MOTORFAHRZEUGE 1901-1936
[Opening up the Sahara by Motor Vehicle, 1901-36]
Werner Nother (try amazon.de)
I would not normally review German books here, even if some of the best material may be in that language, but hardcore Saharans may be interested in this huge book, a breeze block three times the size of Sahara Overland.
Werner Nother is one of a handful of German-speaking uber Saharans known to me and a registered ergoholic. Among his many Saharan achievements are mapping every last lake and paleo-lake in the Ubari Sand Sea years before they appeared on the tourist trail (his Hilux is pictured on p.82 of Sahara Overland).
I heard it took him ten or twenty years to complete this massive book – a record of every pioneering expedition by motor car and bike trip into the Sahara in the first third of the last century. I can’t understand a word of it but the many archive photos and crystal clear maps are good enough to illustrate the advent of the automobile in the Sahara. Some of the early solutions to the problem of soft sand traction are ingenious – they cottoned on to giant caterpillar/belt drives pretty early, though the propeller cars look like they may have had pilot suction problems. And our strange friend Byron Prorok (see other reviews) is in here too.
Interestingly, one sees that all the main pistes as depicted on the Mich 741 and including the Libyan Desert were all established by the mid-30s. And yet took them another 70-odd years to finally seal the Sahara (followed by an eternity of maintenance…). The many maps also highlight places and routes that may have slipped from the contemporary Saharan radar, offering endless opportunities for historic trips ‘in the wheel tracks of’. I suspect this is a fascinating account of early motoring in the Sahara.
EGYPT, CIVILISATION IN THE SANDS
Pauline and Phillipe de Flers (Konemann, 2000, (o/p)
Thankfully not another ‘pharaohs and fellucas’ job. The first half covers the Western Oases (Siwa, Farafra, Dakhla, etc), the second the Sand Sea, Gilf and Uweinat: the history, rock art, inter-war explorers, geology, etc, all with great photos and interesting boxed asides. This sort of book would normally be 30-40 quid, but at Stanfords was remaindered at £9.99. I should have bought them all. Scarce on the web.
Geographically authentic, fast-paced thriller set in the Hoggar, Tenere and Tassili of the central Sahara. This is Tintin for grown-ups, where laconic heroes like Burne say “what the hell…” a lot and casually swap diffs’ during sandstorms while chased by mysterious assassins. Women are usually somewhere else and “strangely attractive”. Compulsively entertaining departure lounge stuff and ten times better than Cussler’s terrible Sahara (see review). I loved it!
Sorry to say, Clive Cussler’s 1992 book, Sahara was a load of implausible crap with a feeble eco-message. I found it easily unfinishable and a waste of a good title.
The film from 2005 (now on dvd) gives a jokey ‘Indiana Jones’ take on the absurd caper because, one assumes, no other style was possible. Treasure hunter Dirt Pitt – unwittingly bringing to mind the Steve Zissou character in The Life Aquatic – jets up the Niger River in a speedboat with sidekicks Steve Zahn and another bloke to locate a long-lost ironclad battleship from the American Civil War which managed to end up the Malian Sahara. Meanwhile dedicated WHO doctor Penelope Cruz (who can’t quite summon the unself-conscious gusto of the US cast) also wants to get into war-torn Mali to investigate the source of a plague which could contaminate the whole planet and bring about the end of life as we know it. I won’t spoil your film by telling you that, with the guys’ help she saves the planet, they find the treasure, the put-upon ‘Tuaregs’ (horse-mounted no less) overcome the tank corps, the baddies get shafted and Dirk ends up frolicking with Penny in the Californian surf.
Shot in Spain and Morocco, it has to be said the locations look good. Morocco really is not bad at all and the action sequences are as good as they get. Matthew McWhatever lacks Cruz’s embarrassment at the production and his sidekick Steve Zahn is funny. What always gets me is the huge amount of work it must take to produce such a mass of quivering tripe, with split-second cuts piled on top of each other like an espresso pop video, and lashings of SFX, DFX and FX-knows what, but all for such a truly lame script. Maybe it’s for kids but it seems to parody itself, not least when, after trekking across the dunes handcuffed to a pick-up tray, the duo come across a crashed plane and deftly convert it into a sand yacht. Just like the book then, a waste of a good title and as deserty films go.
This book is a cracker. In 1959, with the French Sahara convulsed by wars of independence, Newman, an engineer who’d failed to launch “a product two years ahead of its time” jacks it all in to visit a friend in Nigeria. But unlike his friend, Newman decides to drive all the way across the desert – “the sort of adventure that had my nerve endings tingling”. And to make matters harder he chooses to do it in his new Ford Zephyr.
“In a saloon car it’s impossible” his Nigerian friend urges him, having struggled to reach Nigeria from Dakar in a Landrover. “I’ll see you in six weeks” was Newman’s firm reply. Trouble was, he’d spent £3000 preparing the car, was running out on the HP, and was skint.
The romance sours and he’s turned back at the border near Foum el Hassan by the Moroccans where the FLN (sheltering in newly independent Morocco) and the French (clinging on to Algeria) were still battling it out. Infuriated by this reversal and convinced that his sheer determination and self-importance will win the day, he tries to bully people into overruling the decision but eventually has to storm off to Oujda on the opposite side of the country. Here again he’s repelled and so decides to charge illegally into Algeria.
“To hell with them. It was impossible was it? I’d show them whether it was!”
And so he and his Swiss hitcher muddle overnight through machine-gun fire into French/Algerian territory. He gets interrogated in Bechar, loses his suspicious companion and eventually gets permission to go west to Tindouf, alone. But it’s August so he has a hard time of it; gets repeatedly stuck, gets lost, gets desperate and at times flips out. He shoots his soup can with his ’45 and chases gazelles to exhaustion through the night – but then fondles them lovingly.
Arriving at Tindouf (then a military base) he’s treated as a hero, given much free hospitality, admiration and a guide to Bir Mogrein (“my big worry – that he would smell – was completely unfounded“). Then the poor old Zephyr begins to break up: first the drive shaft, then the clutch, he gets one shipped up from Dakar but the rally-spec engine blows up too. He flies to Dakar expecting the embassy or the Ford agents to bail him out, but merely gets repatriated ‘on bail’. Back home, he borrows some money from his mother, flies back out with a new companion and engine bits to then stagger down to Dakar, on the way exhausting his welcome with the French who now see him as an irresponsible scrounger. His bad reputation rolls ahead of him like a bow wave and in the Gambia he’s been forced to stay in natives’ lodgings. The climate turns on them and at one point he threatens to shoot a ferryman who – of all things – requests payment to barge him across the Faleme river into Mali. Penniless and with his companion now struck down with fever, they lurch from village to lorry, scrounging fuel, tow starts and food. After Bamako it’s relatively plain sailing to Nigeria (another engine in Ghana), but his friend has long since left. With his car a wreck, the book ends with Newman boasting that he’ll return north via the Hoggar route in summer. It’s impossible, after all! If he did, there is no record of a book about it, The Forgotten Path was published five years later when he was 35.
Even allowing for the era, Newman puts himself across like some arrogant rich-boy/student thinking the world owed him and his ‘impossible’ undertaking, making even Geoffrey ‘Fearful Void’ Moorhouse look reasonable. Time and again he boils over when friends, strangers, hotel staff or – for pity’s sake! – when embassy refuse to bail him out, and yet he obviously started the trip nearly broke with plans of ‘selling film rights’ while bouncing cheques like a Haarlem Globetrotter.
It’s this breathtaking arrogance and the lively ‘what-on-earth-could-happen-next’ pace that drives you through this short book. One admires adventurousness of course, but in his own words Newman comes across as deeply obnoxious and who deserved everything he got. Available online for a couple of quid.
FROM LIBYAN SANDS TO CHAD
Nigel Heseltine, 1960 (o/p)
Of the same era but less petulant than Newman, the author sets off on what turns out to be a vexatious journey across the Sahara through Libya to Lake Chad via the Tubu lands of the Tibesti and Ennedi. What makes this book so unusual in the era of unreviewably lame Travel Book Club adventures, is that the author is no fluffy travel writer, but a well-read if rather stroppy Theroux-esque character who does not spare those who irritate him.
His Jeep blows its gearbox south of El Gatrun and he is forced to travel on in a lorry and the chirppy M. Gautier in his Landrover. Having studied his Nachitgal and other material, the author explores the rarely seen Tibesti, Ounianga and the Ennedi and the customs of the wily Tubu. It’s a credit to the author’s detailed research that it was used to fill the huge gaps in that Saharan turkey, Sahara, The Life of a Great Desert (see other reviews). From Libyan Sands… is about the best book available in English on the little known Sahara of Chad.
Starting in Chad, a former BBC journalist alluding to a mid-life crisis, travels on and off for two years, tracing the bands of desert which ring the globe around each hemisphere. Leaving N’Djamena at the height of summer, he struggles up to Bardai in the company of war-grizzled Tubu, and then through the Air to Iferouane with similarly combat-fatigued Tuaregs, returning to Agadez to stagger around with a camel for a few days. Timbuktu is reached aboard a pinasse from Mopti, and in Mauritania he claims to climb Guelb er Richat with his newly wed wife, though it reads like they never got out of St Louis. The Guelb account is either invented or exaggerated for literary effect (the reality as some of us may know, is rather disappointing). Other deserts in southern Africa, Chile, Mexico and southwest America. Australia, China, India and the Middle East see the book finish up in Israel. What must have sounded like a cracking proposal to a publisher largely fails to satisfy desert lovers. Over a third of the book covers Chad and Niger, and in the Air one learns much about the disastrous failure of the Tuareg rebellion. However Timbuktu is reached but not described by a single word, while an extraordinary country like Mauritania spans just three paragraphs! (OK, it was his honeymoon but it would have been better deleted). Confessing to disapproval with materialist Western ways, the sanitised New World deserts are briefly, dutifully and at times scornfully described, and yet there is no doubt these places are as beautiful and alluring as the “quintessential” Sahara.
One gets the impression that, after burning himself out in Chad and Niger, the author loses enthusiasm and energy for the whole idea and, with a brief recovery in China and the Indian subcontinent, just does what it takes to complete his ambitious assignment. The result is another white middle-class romantic’s travelogue, cataloguing the familiar range of encounters with locals, sun-fried ex-pats and fellow travellers we know so well. Roll on the ‘Glasgow School’ of British travel writing!
Most of his visits are at the height of summer. The reasons for this timing are not fully explained, but one suspects a “narcissistic masochism” was at play, along with a belief that the full power (if not appreciation) of a desert must be experienced at its most extreme. What bollocks. I look forward to Ranulph Fiennes’ next book about walking to the South Pole in winter! We also get the familiar plea for the futures of beleaguered nomadic tribal peoples – but as Michael Asher puts it in conversation with the author, this is “a rich man telling poor people they are better off poor”.
But one thing Michael Buckley has a good crack at (improving greatly on Geoff Nicholson’s limp ‘Day Trips in the Desert’ which came before) is unravelling the desert’s paradoxical fascination on our skewed western imaginations, the “instinctive discomfort and fear alongside exhilaration, aesthetic ecstasy and awe.” Here, over a couple of pages, he succeeds in getting to the heart of the matter.
In the end any travelogue relies greatly on the reader’s empathy with the narrator, but also on their diligence, at best offering an expansion of the reader’s understanding of an exotic or familiar environment. After a promising start the ambitious concept of ‘Grains of Sand’ quickly slips through the fingers.