Category Archives: Sahara Historical

‘S’ is for Shell’s Guide to Sahara Motor Tourism, 1955

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

In the last decade France’s colonial era 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, 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, 1936 below and 1938) were thinner books but also covered aerial tourism: presumably 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. When, the mid-50s commercial flying had taken off across the world, 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 but perhaps publishing was not a thing that interested French oil companies like Total and Elf. Only Shell produced guidebooks, but road maps were 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).

https://player.ina.fr/player/embed/CPF86641516/

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 across 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.

The Guidebook

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 read 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 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 Itineraries

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 features as the ‘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 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 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 way 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 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 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 fro independence put an end to that idea. Meanwhile. the northern deserts of Chad remained as obscure and little visited as they are today.

The Map

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.

‘C’ is for Chocolaterie Aiguebelle: a vintage Map of the Sahara

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

See also this
And this

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 Ziza waterhole 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.

‘D’ is for the Lost City of Djado [video]

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).

Approaching Orida from the Col des Chadeliers.

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’.

‘M’ is for the Mysterious Circle of Adrar Madet

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

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, 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, litter 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 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 the 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 very similar but smaller cobbled stone circles I’ve seen in the mountains of southern Algeria (below)? Neither could have been described as aviation markers. ‘Tombs’ said the guides, but not at all like the usual pre-Islamic tombs of the desert.

‘A’ is for Assekrem

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

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.

‘I’ is for IGN: How they made their Sahara Maps

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

See also:
Old Saharan Trade Routes Map
‘V’ is for Vintage Sahara Maps
Sahara – blanks on the map
Maps of the Sahara

Here a fascinating 1960s vintage film (45 mins; French) on the work it took IGN to produce their brilliant 1:200,000 scale Sahara maps from thousands of aerial photos, sonar readings and laborious ground surveys.
Loads more in Yves R’s Sahara website and some stills below.

Y is for: Land Yachting, Sahara, 1967

Part of an occasional Sahara A to Z series.
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set.
See also: 2WD trans-Saharan bicycle

Organised by French ex-army Saharienne, Jean de Boucher, in February 1967 twelve land yachts with pilots from half-a-dozen countries set off on a 2500-km rally from Colomb Bechar (then linked by rail from Oujda on the Mediterranean) to Nouakchott on the Atlantic coast, at times following today’s recently reopened Tindouf Route via Algeria. It seems the race element of the rally was abandoned after some 2000km in Zouerat following several DNFs, but some carried on down the coast, cutting across what was then Spanish Sahara (‘PFZ’), on to the beach at Nouamghar and down the beach to Nouakchott. At this time most of Mauritania’s population still lived in the desert as nomads. The rally was supported by a couple Land-Rovers, small planes and surviving French military garrisons with which General de Boucher presumably had good connections.

NG-sailsahara-cover
NG-sailsaharaDPS

The adventure featured in the November 1967 issue of National Geographic magazine (left, right, below). A couple of images are used here; read the full 30-page article scanned on the Extreme Kites website.
There are more reminiscences here by American competitor, Larry P featured on the magazine’s cover.

NG-sailsahara-map
cbb-yacht

Thanks to Dutch participant, Copijn Bruine Beuk for turning me on to this little-known story and sharing his own pictures of the event (below). Besides hundreds of punctures, as the article recalls, early on Copijn had a close shave with an overhead electricity wire – luckily it wasn’t live. The same happened to a few others who ended up with snapped masts.
Once it gets going, a land yacht can hit 60mph or more, but back then brakes added up to little more than a hinged footboard you pressed into the dirt (left), like pressing your feet on the ground to slow an out-of-control pushbike. So you can see why half the field DNF’d. Other hazards included side gusts blowing a land yacht over – February-March were chosen as the time of the strongest northeasterlies.
Note also the twin steering wheels: one to steer the front wheel and the other to adjust the sail’s trim: pressing on the footbrake for all your worth, that’s quite a lot to think about when hurtling towards a steep oued bank or into a small dune field.
Makes desert biking look positively benign!

The Spiral Tunnel of Tagountsa

spirtunaHigh up on the side of a remote High Atlas valley is an engineering marvel – hewn through the cliff face a spiral tunnel manages to curl down through the rock and emerge underneath itself.
spirmohaI was told about this curiosity in 2012 by the chap at the cozy Chez Moha auberge (right) in Aït Youb while researching the second edition of Morocco Overland. Riding a BMW F650GS, I followed his directions with the usual route-finding issues and then, beyond the last village, hacked up a stony disused track to the 2250-m (7340′) Tagountsa Pass. From the cliff edge I recall the timeless view stretching east up the Plain d’Amane valley towards Rich, pictured below and on p128 in the current book. A short distance later I spun through the tunnel and rolled down a series of switchbacks back to the valley floor and a tasty tajine back at the auberge.

tang

Spiral tunnels have been a long-established solution to constricted route building challenges across mountains. You could even say that your typical complex freeway intersection where the road winds back under itself to change direction tightly is the same thing in flyover form. But you must admit that hacking out any type of tunnel – let alone one where there’s no room to dig out a regular switchback – is an impressive task.

spirplakyvromNot for the first time on this website, I’m able to benefit from research of Yves Rohmer (right) on his always fascinating collection of old Saharan curiosities at Saharayro, including the Tagountsa tunnel. Viewed on Google Earth, the big picture is more vividly rendered setting View > Historical Imagery back a few years.

spir

spirplanspirtunaEven then it’s hard to visualise what’s happening until you look at the old plan, right. You can see the anticlockwise descent of the bore and just work out that it starts with a short separate concrete bridge over the lower mouth of the tunnel. The daylight streaming down the gap can be seen in the image repeated on the left (and as a slim shadow in the round inset, above)

spirimitBuilt in 1933 over a period of just three months by some 3000 labourers from local and French regiments, few realise that at this time the French were still fighting to subdue renegade Berber tribes in the mountains of Morocco.
As you can see on Yves pages, the engineers, sapeurs and legionnaires passed their spare time commemorating their achievement by engraving regimental emblems in and around the structure. I was told the motivation for all this effort was to enable a secure, high transit of the valley, so avoiding protracted Berber ambushes at the narrow Imiter Gorge (left; ~KM70) with legionit’s Mesa Verde-like dwellings.
The same crew probably built the better known 62-metre Tunnel de Legionnaires five years earlier at Foum Zabel now on the main N13 highway north of Errachidia. A plaque there boldly states:
The mountain barred the way.
Nonetheless the order was given to pass…
The Legion executed it.”

spirtunThe Tagountsa tunnel the Legion helped build is at KM102 on Route MH13 in the book, though if you reverse the route it’s only a 10-km off-road drive off the Rich road just east of Amellago, turning north onto the dirt at KM113. Depending on storm damage, an ordinary car or a big bike should manage it, but note that you’ll be negotiating all those hairpins on the Google image above. From the west side (as Route MH13 describes the loop) it was a rougher and slightly more complicated ride on the BMW up to the pass.

spirdramPerhaps because trains can’t negotiate hairpins or climb very steep grades, it seems that spiral or helicoidal tunnels have been a much more common feature on mountain railways than roads, particularly in the Rockies.

Norway’s Drammen Spiral (left), some 50km southwest of Oslo is a notable example, dug we’re told, as an alternative to disfiguring effects of open quarrying on the landscape back in the 1950s while at the same time producing a revenue-producing tourist attraction in the process.

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, 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’.

floroute

Mackenzie’s venture hoped to capitalise on the recent westward swing of the trans-Saharan caravan trade emanating from Timbuktu, by intercepting caravans before they reached the terminus at Wadi Noun (near today’s Guelmin).
In fact, in a decade or more the NWAT Co barely covered its costs after compensation was finally agreed against an earlier raid and to abandon the post 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 and bring back the spoils. 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, securing 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.

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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 across the wind-blown sands.

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This was the era of grand engineering projects like the Suez Canal (completed 1869) and the Panama Canal (first serious attempt 1881). A canal to the trading heart of West Africa could be a similar commercial coup.
It’s hard to think what gave Mackenzie this idea, other than conflating lurid traders’ descriptions of El Djouf (left) with the small depressions or sebkhas found 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 one huge depression which had been connected to the Atlantic via the Seguia el Hamra or some such, but had become cut off and dried out.

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Mackenzie had never actually travelled in this area (other than a camel tour up to Port Consado (present day Khenifiss) and down to Layounne during the NWAT Co era (map above and 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 long after the NWAT Company dissolved suggested he was always a genuine abolitionist.

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According to his upbeat proposal (is there any other kind?) Mackenzie has it all worked out: do a recce to get the tribal chiefs on board at Cape Juby and Timbuktu, locate the channel in El Djouf and unplug that Atlantic cork.
I have no doubt of the ultimate achievement of this project, he wrote in the proposal’s introduction. But investors seemed less keen and, were it even possible, you’d think by 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 of a flooded Sahara in his last published book, The Invasion of the Sea, set in Tunisia.

Present-day Tarfaya or Cape Juby, with Mackenzie’s fort visible offshore.

T is for Trans-Saharan Trade Routes Map

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

See also:
‘V’ is for Vintage Sahara Maps
Sahara – Blanks on the Map
Maps of the Sahara
I is for IGN and their Sahara Maps

I came across this old French map of the Saharan trade routes from 1889 [full-size source]. As always, it’s interesting to see where was prominent then and what has come since. Old spellings and some names differ.

Not a lot of people know that an earlier name for Marrakech was ‘Maroc’ or Morocco. Once this area was all known as ‘Mauretania’ – the Land of the Moors (Blacks) from which all these names derive. Mogador is today’s Essaouira.
Other well-known Moroccan towns are present, as well as the 52-days road to Timbuktu from Zagora or Sijilmassa (Rissani), all depicted with other names.
By this time most camel trade took the western route to Goulimim (Wadi Noun), which explains the vestiges of the tourist camel market there today. The original site is actually here.

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Cap Juby (today’s Tarfaya) we’ll be hearing more about shortly, but inland from here a tough route from Tindouf led to Taoudeni and also Timbuktu.
Southwest from Tindouf another track leads to Mauritania, the old colonial overland route to Dakar mid-last century, as driven by this nutter.

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Mauritania has many familiar places like Atar, Chinguetti (right), Ouadane (left, where we coninued east across the Majabat for Algeria in 2006) as well as Oujeft leading to the ruins of Ksar el Barka, Tidjikja, Tichit, and Oualata for Timbuktu. But no Nouadhibou (Cap Blanc) or Nouadhibou (Tiourourt) yet, far less Zouerat. And no Dakar back then; St Louis was the colonial capital of French West Africa.

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In Mali Timbuktu is central, with trade routes leading north via Araouane, or Tim Missao well (left) in Algeria where we stopped in 2006 and 1989 (right). No Tamanrasset or Djanet – the two biggest towns in southern Algeria today, but In Salah, Amguid and Temassinin (Bordj Omar Driss) are present.

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In Libya little seems to have changed: Ghat and Ghadames are there, as well as Germa (Ubari)  and Murzuk on the route for Lake Chad via Bilma (left). To the east the oases making up Kufra lead down to the Ounianga lakes in northern Chad. And east of there is the Darb al Arbain (Road of Forty Days) from El Fasher in Sudan, via Selima across the sand sheet (right) towards Kharga and Asyut on the Nile.