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. About 20m in diametre, 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 it on Google.
I’ve not been there but have known of it for years. Some like to speculate that it’s a pre-historic marker associated with prime meridians and ancient knowledge, marking the ‘middle of North Africa’ (right). I tend more to the belief that it’s a less ancient aviation landmark from the colonial era, one of many located in the Sahara. Fellow Saharaholic, Yves Rohmer confirms this fact. Not so mysterious after all but you do wonder, with the distinctive 20-km-long massif angled NW/SE and the AUir to the west, what value the tiny circle actually added to navigation.
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.
Here a fascinating 1960s vintage film (45mins; French) on the work it took IGN to produce their brilliant 1:200,000 scale Sahara maps from thousands of aerial photos, sonar readings and laborious ground surveys.
Loads more in Yves R’s Sahara website and some stills below.
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.
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.
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!
High 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. I 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.
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.
Not 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.
Even 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)
Built 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 it’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.”
The 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.
Perhaps 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.
Part of an occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
… I had reason to believe that there existed, in the Western Sahara, a vast depression which might be submerged by the waters of the Atlantic, thus opening a navigable way to [Timbuktu]…
Visit Tarfaya on Cape Juby and just offshore you will see the curious Casa del Mar fort (left), beyond the St Exupery monument. Port Victoria or Mackenzie’s factory are other names for the trading post of the North West Africa Trading Company, established by Scotsman, Donald Mackenzie in 1882 during the ‘Scramble for Africa’.
Mackenzie’s venture hoped to capitalise on the recent westward swing of the trans-Saharan caravan trade emanating from Timbuktu, by intercepting caravans before they reached the terminus at Wadi Noun (near today’s Guelmin). In fact in a decade or more the NWAT Co barely covered its costs after compensation was finally agreed against an earlier raid and to abandon it in favour of the Moroccan sultanate.
It reminds you that colonisation at the time wasn’t purely a state affair, where armies marched off to conquer distant lands. Ahead of them strode adventurer-entrepreneurs with funds raised from venture capitalists and who gambled everything on striking it rich. It was their reports, or better still, a government charter to supply a commodity or service, which preceded more cautious colonisation, very often spurred by other European rivals nosing around for an as yet unclaimed slice of the cake.
It’s hard to find out much about Donald Mackenzie, but in 1877, a few years before he set up the North West Africa Trading Company, he had a far more radical idea to capitalise on the trans-Saharan trade.
He proposed nothing less than flooding the interior of the Sahara from the Atlantic so that, with the addition of a few canals which had proved so successful in Britain prior to the age of rail, ships could sail directly to Timbuktu and the Niger river in a matter of days, avoiding the arduous overland journey of weeks. As a side benefit the flooding would ‘green’ the Sahara, enabling agriculture to thrive on the wind-blown sands.
This was the era of grand engineering projects like the Suez Canal (completed 1869) and the Panama Canal (first serious attempt 1881). A canal to the trading heart of West Africa could be a similar commercial coup.
It’s hard to think what gave Mackenzie this idea, other than conflating lurid traders’ descriptions of El Djouf (left) with the small depressions or sebkhas near Cape Juby. The biggest of these is the Sebkha Tah, some 55m below sea level and just 15km from the Atlantic, but still no bigger than Malta. For some reason he believed that the vast El Djouf (part of the million-square-kilometre Majabat al Koubra or ‘Empty Quarter’) was a huge depression which had once been connected to the Atlantic via the Seguia el Hamra or some such, but had become cut off and dried out.
Mackenzie had never actually travelled in this area (other than a camel tour up to Port Consado – present day Khenifiss – and down to Layounne during the NWAT Co era; map right) but had read of other larger desert depressions in Tunisia and Egypt, similar to those near Cape Juby. All these basins held seasonally dry salt lakes which may have suggested that flooding was plausible. He believed an inland sea the size of Tunisia or Oklahoma would soon be formed, paving an inland seaway to Timbuktu.
Mackenzie diligently read up on all your great 19th-century Saharan explorers: Barth, Rohlfs, Caille, Duveyrier, Clapperton, and in 1877 published an exhaustive proposal [available online] to ‘The Presidents and Members of the Chambers of Commerce of Great Britain‘ stressing ‘the importance of holding commercial intercourse with the interior‘.
Vividly detailing at third hand the riches, economy, geography and ethnicities in this corner of Africa, he firmly believed his northern route reaching down into the African interior was the key, avoiding the disease-ridden equatorial jungles and pagan tribes further south in favour of the more sophisticated vestiges of the West African Islamic states. Under his proposal land distances for the annual camel caravans from Timbuktu would be halved, with Cape Juby just nine sea days from Britain. De Lesseps himself, the force behind the Suez and original Panama canals, supported the idea of Saharan flooding, believing a side benefit would somehow improve the European climate while greening the desert for agriculture.
Mackenzie also thought that trade and communications would help liberate the sub-Sahran population from the slave trade. And this wasn’t just a ploy to appeal to investors’ morals or religious beliefs – Mackenzie’s later work in East Africa after the NWAT Company dissolved suggested he was always a genuine abolitionist.
According to his upbeat proposal (is there any other kind?) Mackenzie has it all worked out: do a recce to get the tribal chiefs on board at Cape Juby and Timbuktu, locate the channel in El Djouf and unplug that Atlantic cork. I have no doubt of the ultimate achievement of this project, he wrote in the proposal’s introduction. But investors seemed less keen and, were it even possible, you’d think in creating a shallow, hyper-saline lake, the only thing that would grow would be salt crystals. The fact is the interior of the Sahara, including the dune-filed expanse of El Djouf spanning the Mali-Mauritania border, is a low plateau some 3-500 metres above sea level. Someone ought to tell Conde Nast Traveler.
Mackenzie had slightly less difficulty finding investors for Port Victoria a few years later, and decade or three after that, Jules Verne fictionalised the idea in his last published book, The Invasion of the Sea, set in Tunisia.
I came across this old French map of the Saharan trade routes from 1889 [full-size source]. As always, it’s interesting to see where was prominent then and what has come since. Old spellings and some names differ.
Not a lot of people know that an earlier name for Marrakech was ‘Maroc’ or Morocco. Once this area was all known as ‘Mauretania’ – the Land of the Moors (Blacks) from which all these names derive. Mogador is today’s Essaouira.
Other well-known Moroccan towns are present, as well as the 52-days road to Timbuktu from Zagora or Sijilmassa (Rissani), all depicted with other names.
By this time most camel trade took the western route to Goulimim (Wadi Noun), which explains the vestiges of the tourist camel market there today. The original site is actually here.
Cap Juby (today’s Tarfaya) we’ll be hearing more about shortly, but inland from here a tough route from Tindouf led to Taoudeni and also Timbuktu.
Southwest from Tindouf another track leads to Mauritania, the old colonial overland route to Dakar mid-last century, as driven by this nutter.
Mauritania has many familiar places like Atar, Chinguetti (right), Ouadane (left, where we coninued east across the Majabat for Algeria in 2006) as well as Oujeft leading to the ruins of Ksar el Barka, Tidjikja, Tichit, and Oualata for Timbuktu. But no Nouadhibou (Cap Blanc) or Nouadhibou (Tiourourt) yet, far less Zouerat. And no Dakar back then; St Louis was the colonial capital of French West Africa.
In Mali Timbuktu is central, with trade routes leading north via Araouane, or Tim Missao well (left) in Algeria where we stopped in 2006 and 1989 (right). No Tamanrasset or Djanet – the two biggest towns in southern Algeria today, but In Salah, Amguid and Temassinin (Bordj Omar Driss) are present.
In Libya little seems to have changed: Ghat and Ghadames are there, as well as Germa (Ubari) and Murzuk on the route for Lake Chad via Bilma (left). To the east the oases making up Kufra lead down to the Ounianga lakes in northern Chad. And east of there is the Darb al Arbain (Road of Forty Days) from El Fasher in Sudan, via Selima across the sand sheet (right) towards Kharga and Asyut on the Nile.
A few months ago the British Film Institute released an archive film of the early motor expeditions of Ralph Bagnold and his crew, exploring deepinto the Libyan Desert. (Click BFI if youtube below gets deleted). The map top right shows all his expedition in the 1930s.
The 49-minute-long film describes the original recce in 1929 into the Great Sand Sea of the Western Desert via Ain Dalla spring. It was here that Bagnold’s group found lowering tyre pressures, as well as using sand plates and rope ladders, enabled heavy vehicles to traverse soft dunes.
A year later they set off towards Jebel Uweinat, a massif located by Ahmed Hassanein Bey less than a decade earlier during a camel trek from Jalu in northeastern Libya. At Ain Dalla camels brought in extra fuel, and the cars continued to Jebel Kissu in today’s Sudan and south of Uweinat, then east for the Nile via Selima oasis.
In 1932 they based themselves again at Jebel Kissu where they refuelled from Selima, then explored the Sarra Triangle (now in Libya) and northeastern Chad.
Heading south to El Fasher, they passed herds of ostrich and oryx, since shot out by rifle hunters, before heading north for Merga, back to Selima and home via Wadi Halfa for a tot of rum.
The maps on the left and below show the routes of all these trips and Bagnold’s book, Libyan Sands (right) covering all these expeditions and more and is well worth reading. Reviewed here.
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.
Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
“We left Biskra with Corporal Dewoitine as a mechanic, and took hours to reach Touggourt, averaging 50kph, despite a trail of frightful ruts. Our arrival was all the more sensational than in an airplane because I drove right down the main street in a torrent of dust, skimming past walls and passers-by with with my propeller, causing burnous, guenours and chèches to fly in all directions. It was a beautiful panic!
The two adventurers quickly left Touggourt in a cloud of dust, heading for Ouargla, but the infernal locust began to show its first signs of fatigue: sand gnawed the leading edge of the propeller and the engine dropped to half power. De La Fargue ordered Dewoitine to head for Square Bresson, a junction and small oasis 50km away.
Just before WWI, at the motor era matured on land sea and air, various self-propelled contraptions came to be tested as a means of penetrating France’s vast Saharan territory. Lacking the railways which by then traversed America and southern Asia, up to that time columns of men had to trudge alongside huge camel caravans, making them vulnerable to still hostile desert tribes.
An ingenious combination of airplane landing gear with a cab stuck on top, the distinctive propeller car was one short-lived solution to enable rapid communication across the desert. Invented by Corporal Gustave Cros, the chassis was an elongated triangle on three axles, each carrying twin wheels, while a propeller directly fixed to a 50-hp motor thrust the vehicle forward. It’s said an ingenious form of highly articulated independent suspension allowed each of the wheels to track the terrain, however rough.
This curious but surely deafening machine proceeded in a series of jumps which supposedly allowed it to cross large sand dunes, hence the name Sauterelle or ‘grasshopper’. You’d hope seat belts were mandatory, less an unexpected lurch while climbing a steep dune launched you backwards…
Early models, like the one right, were considered too light to be stable but nevertheless progressed from two to four to six blades. Capable of 60kph, in the summer of 1914 the Sauterelle left the rail terminus at Biskra for a 200-km test run to Touggourt. The main difficulty was said to be slowing down and stopping, but that didn’t stop a chap called De La Fargue modifying a 60-hp Brasier car; his six-bladed ‘Aerosable’ hopped its way to Touggourt in just two hours. Encouraged by this achievement, he went on to consider an amphibious vehicle whose wheels could be replaced by a wooden hull for sliding over the salty Saharan chotts where even camels feared to tread.
You do wonder what they were thinking. Presumably it was a solution to the problem of powered axles digging in to soft terrain. Perhaps pneumatic tyres were crude and couldn’t reliably be run at low pressures to elongate the footprint and so increase flotation, or that idea was not yet known (in Libyan SandsRalphBagnold wrote of discovering this technique in the 1920s). Hence, doubled wheels all round, like the Renault (above left), or the Citroen half-track desert taxis (right) which were also used on epic trans-continental proving expeditions, long after the Sauterelle had hopped itself into the scrapheap of automotive dead-ends.
By the end of the 1920s, this period of wacky inventions had run its course while several esteemed French Saharans died in lonely desert plane crashes, But from as early as 1916, on the other side of the Sahara, the British Light Car Patrols were successfully deploying conventional but stripped-down Model T Fords deep across the Libyan Desert, and all without trailing a deafening sandstorm wherever they went.
Translated and adapted from Oliver Boul’s post here. Lots more interesting stuff there.