Category Archives: Sahara Historical

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

Part of an occasional series: Sahara A to Z 

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]

Part of the Sahara A to Z series

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 Mysterious Circles: Adrar Madet, Timetrine

Part of the Sahara A to Z series

Out in Niger’s Tenere desert, east of the Aïr mountains lies the isolated massif of Adrar Madet.
About 2.5 kilometres directly west of the 20-km long massif’s northern tip, a perfect stone circle lies in the sand.
The circle is about 20m in diametre and some 600m from the circle and more or less at each cardinal point is a small arrow. You can see all five points here on Bing. You won’t see them on Google.

I’ve not been there but have known about it for years. Some speculate that it could a sacred pre-historic marker associated with prime meridians and ancient Egyptian knowledge, marking the ‘middle of North Africa’ (left).
It is a huge coincidence that the circle is – within a few kilometres – exactly halfway between the equator and Ras Angela near Bizerte in Tunisia, the northernmost point of Africa. And it’s nearly directly south (178.4°) of Ras Angela, too. (Fwiw, it’s 64km west to the actual point directly south of Ras Angela, just south of Arakao on the edge of the Aïr.)

I err more towards the idea of a much less ancient aviation landmark from the colonial era, one of many located in the Sahara and still being found, including less ambiguous examples where names of nearby outposts are stencilled inside the circles. Fellow Saharaholic, Yves Rohmer confirms this fact. Rubbish from that era: tin cans, bottles of Pastis and so on, littered the Madet site. A similar circle exists in nearby Fachi, with that name stencilled in it and close to an old airstrip. Another plausible explanation made in the discussion linked above was a drop zone for parachute or dummy bomb training.

Not so mysterious after all then, but you do wonder, with the distinctive and isolated 20-km-long Madet ridge angled NW/SE and the Aïr massif to the west, what value the tiny 20-m stone compass actually added to aerial navigation? And why put an airstrip there if anywhere flat in the Sahara can be an ’emergency airstrip’. And would they have spent days building a parachute or bomb drop zone circle when a ring of smoking oil drums would have sufficed?

Another possibility I like to entertain is of a playful or geographically inclined Colonel stationed in the Sahara. He’d spent his lovelorn honeymoon in Bizerte and, looking at his Michelin map one hot day, noticed Adrar Madet’s central position. He decided it would be a good morale-building (or time-killing) exercise to have the circle and cardinal points marked in the desert for posterity. But as Adrar Madet is far from any route or useful resource, the purpose and meaning of his enigmatic earth sculpture has been lost in the sands of time.

That’s as may be, but what about the other similar but smaller cobbled stone circles I’ve seen in the mountains of southern Algeria (below)? Neither could be described as aviation markers. ‘Tombs’ said the guides, but they’re not like the usual pre-Islamic tombs of the desert.

Timetrine, Mali

Here’s another curious circle, spotted by a mate in the remote wastes of Timetrine, northern Mali, coincidentally one place where AQIM kept European kidnap hostages up to a few years ago.

19.455065, -0.422889; It’s a lot clearer on Bing Maps than Google. According to the old 200k IGN map, this is actually the brackish (saumâtre) well of T-in Kar (wrongly positioned on Bing), so marking it for pilots may make sense for emergencies.

You will see four points a couple of hundred metres from the circle set in the middle of a distinctively rectangular clay pan covering about half a square kilometre. But they seem so vaguely positioned as to be pointless. Some have speculated the four points may mark the fringes of a smooth landing strip.

The clay pan is on a more-or-less direct line between Timbuktu and Tessalit where there is also a ‘TES’ marker by the current airfield (left). In those days (pre-War) they would have navigated as much by landmarks as a bearing.
Since around 2013 this whole area has been a war zone between mostly French forces under Operation Barkhane, having it out with AQIM and the like. So far this intervention has been as successful as similar operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Uweinat, Gilf Kebir and the Great Sand Sea (2000)

See also:
Libyan Desert Master Map
G is for Gilf

Palm trunks burn poorly, we learned

In 2000 I joined a two-week tour visiting the Egyptian part of the Libyan Desert, or the ‘Western Desert’. The trip was organised by Andras Zboray and his new FJ Expeditions. He’s since become an expert on this fascinating region and back then contributed the ‘Egypt’ section to my Sahara Overland book.
Even though I’d only just come back from Libya researching the book, part of the appeal of Egypt was that this was then a very rarely visited corner of the Sahara. FJ had problems with permits to visit this ‘military’ or more correctly border area, but once there, we saw no one, let alone a well or a regular piste for the entire two weeks.

Our three locally hired Toyota Troop Carriers left Cairo sharing a ton of water and half a ton of food, along with fourteen (mostly German) passengers and three Egyptian drivers. Two days later we left Dakhla with another half-ton of fuel on each car’s roof. Amazingly the Toyota 75s handled this mind-bending payload without a whimper.

Shell tin

On reaching Bir Terfawi we left the tarmac and set off west across the Selima Sand Sheet, arriving at the isolated landmark of Jebel Kamil after a day and a half. This cone-shaped hill was a wartime fuel dump from the Sudan Defence Force convoys supplying Kufra from the Nile, and is still littered with Shell petrol tins. I was invited to drive one of the 75s, Andras having had not such good experiences with local drivers off road. I was told under no circumstances to use the air-con; there being some urban myth about revs rising dramatically as the pump kicks in. But the risk of an overburdened, 130-hp 70-series lurching uncontrollably off a dune lip seemed far fetched.

Shaw’s Cave

From Jebel Kamil we headed northwest on a GPS bearing to Eight Bells on the eastern edge of the Gilf Kebir from where Andras had a written description to a cave of paintings discovered by Shaw in the 1930s. We drove over a pass into the stunning Wadi Wassa and followed it west, crested another pass with little difficulty.

After locating the cave, we continued cross-country into a hot south wind over broken country to Karkur Talh, a clearly mined wadi which cuts into the 1934-metre-high massif of Jebel Uweinat. That evening, on a tip from Bagnold, Andras located some beautifully preserved Cattle Period paintings on the west side of the well-known cove. The quality was the best I’ve encountered (which isn’t much!) and showed similarities to the ‘Cave of the Swimmers’ or Wadi Sora style, we were to see a few days later.

The next day we continued further down Karkur Talh on foot, over the Sudanese border (passing a spoof CCTV camera, left) and, with the aid of Rhotert’s ‘The Rock Art of the Jebel Uweinat’ (Graz, 1978), soon found an rich trove of engravings and paintings spread along the walls of the wadis first discovered by Ahmed Hassanein in the 1920s and fully recorded by a Belgian expedition in the 1960s. It’s unlikely many other tourists have got this far since that time, and for all of us this wonderful day of discovery was the highlight of the trip.


We enjoyed it so much we came back into Sudan next day to find more rock art, including an amazing tableaux dubbed ‘Red Cow Cave’. We also spotted an amusing engraving possibly showing man’s failed attempt in giraffe domestication as mentioned in the Lutz’s book on the Libyan Messaks, as well as the foundations of Tubu dwellings who lived here up until the 1930s. A few very old waddan (mouflon, or Barbary sheep) horns were spotted, as well as a perfectly preserved cadaver tucked under an overhang. Tools were very rare, but right on top of our campsite back in Egypt, I found a milling stone, grinder and pottery.

Left Google (years later)’ right, in real life

From Karkur Talh we headed back north, overnighting at Clayton’s Craters where an afternoon was spent climbing or circumnavigating the barren craters. Out of the big wadis the Libyan Desert really is utterly bereft of vegetation to an extent you rarely see in the Sahara further west. I spotted more Stone Age tools, another milling stone and just as I’d hoped, a very worn biface or hand axe, the original multi-tool which may be tens of thousands of years old.

We moved north again, making the obligatory pilgrimage to the Kamal El Din monument (left) built by Almasy on the southern tip of the Gilf. Messages are still left in a bottle by passing travellers; a custom started by Rohlfs at the cairn of Regenfeld, further north.
We now followed the southern edge of the Gilf to the northwest, past an old American SDF truck from the war and more Shell tins. We stopped at the Three Castles landmark where one of the group found one of Almasy’s water tins as accurately described in his ‘Unknown Sahara’ book. In case you don’t know Laszlo Almasy was the basis of the ‘English Patient’ character in that very fictional book and movie, and a contemporary of Bagnold, Shaw and Clayton. For me the famous Wadi Sora discovered by Almasy and romanticised in the movie was nothing special; the ‘cave’ has flaked badly but the swimming figures are still very distinctive.


We headed back east to the dreaded Aqaba Pass, an unmined five kilometre sand ramp providing access into the central rift of the Gilf. Foot on the floor in Low 2nd and rocking hard on the steering wheel, I just scraped through to the summit, much to my surprise. Werner, driving the other heavy car got himself mired near the top and we all made a meal of getting the ‘fuel mule’ to the summit. Along with the other-worldly panoramas surrounding Clayton’s Craters, the central Gilf north of the Pass was one of the most beautiful landscapes we encountered – we’d obviously hit it at the right time of day.

We camped in a valley bizarrely dammed by a perfectly dune of sand 200 feet high and now clearly visible online. We rose early next day to attempt to cross the cordon of dunes blocking access to the northwestern Gilf valleys, dryly annotated as ‘Difficult Crossing’ on the 1942 British Survey map, still one of the best for the area. They were first crossed in 1935 by WB Kennedy Shaw and his group using Model A Ford.

Using from NASA satellite imagery [this was all pre-Google Earth] and the British Survey map, Andras led us through the erg’s seven-kilometre width in six hours, notwithstanding a freak out by one of the Egyptians who, along with a wheel brace, grabbed the keys from two cars and yelled “We’re all going to die if we go there”.
Discussing this with Reinhart Mazur on my return, he observed that most Egyptians are river dwellers very much not ‘of the desert born’, unlike the Tubu, Tuareg or Moors further west. Ahmed was eventually calmed but later, navigating the Sand Sea, this was to be a recurring problem.
Exhausted after the digging and pushing of the crossing, we headed south deep into Wadi Hamra, then spent another very enjoyable day walking over the tool-scattered plateau to the adjacent Wadi Abdel Malik, spotted by Almasy and others from a biplane in the early 1930s and named after the last Tubu grazer who lived there. Almazy also believed this to be a most likely location of the ‘lost oasis’ of Zerzura, used by Tubu raiders who set off to attack Dakhla oasis.

The Lost Oasis of Zerzura?

Our next destination was the Silica Glass Field located in a 100km circle around N25° 18′ E25° 32′, among the parallel dune lines of the Great Sand Sea. We all spent a satisfying few hours picking out pieces of this clear green glass, ranging from the size of a penny to a grapefruit. I also found some Palaeolithic nick-nacks and on a dune crest one of the others found several pencil-thin tubes of fulgarite: sand grains vitrified by lightening.

For me, our fossiking was overshadowed by the long dune lines running north-south alongside the pebbly flats. An inspection on foot confirmed that these were not simple ‘up and down’ barchans but a complex, weaving band of crests and troughs a few hundred metres wide and clearly beyond the ability of the still heavy Land Cruisers. The original plan to drive up to Siwa had been abandoned, but a no less ambitious decision was taken to try and cross the dunes to the northeast up to Ammonite Hill and on to the well at Ain Dalla, near Farafra, just as Bagnold, Shaw and there chums used to do in the 1930s with stripped-down 2WD Fords.

In Werner’s and my opinion, such a task is best left to lighter vehicles and, lacking a decent compressor, proper tyre deflation was not allowed, leading to inevitable boggings. I‘d let mine down at Shaw’s Difficult Crossing a few days earlier, but even then, every eastbound cordon was hard won, with the aid of hand held radios, foot recces and passengers strung out as markers to guide the white-knuckle driving around the soft spots. After an exhausting day, more arguments and attempted sabotage of the tyre valves by the nervous Egyptians, the idea was dropped and we headed back south towards the northern banks of the Gilf to pick up the track to Abu Ballas. All of us were very relived to be out of the dunes.

Apart from the food, for me the trip was a great experience. It was the first time I’d driven entirely off piste which I found surprising easy. I was merely following a lead car of course, but the almost complete lack of wadis in the hyper arid Libyan Desert makes cross country travel using GPS and maps or satellite imagery straightforward.
Day walks away from the car where also a novelty to me. Near pistes I’d always been nervous about leaving the ‘mother ship’, be it car or bike. But here there was no one for hundreds of kilometres in any direction and there’s no doubt that the desert is best appreciated at walking pace.
Interestingly Werner and I both recognised that even though we were as a far out as we’d ever been in the Sahara (certainly for me), we didn’t feel the remoteness. The fact that the organisation was Andras’ responsibility reduced the impression of deep wilderness experienced when you do it independently, at of course, some cost to your nerves. In this instance we were both happy that someone else – and better still, someone else’s car – where carrying that heavy loads.

A is for Assekrem

Part of the Sahara A to Z series

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: the making of Sahara Maps

Part of the Sahara A to Z series

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. Direct link to video.

Y is for: Land Yachting, Sahara, 1967

Part of the Sahara A to Z series
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!

Tis the Spiral Tunnel of Tagountsa

Part of the Sahara A to Z series

spirtuna
spirmoha

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.

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.

spirplak
yvrom

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.

spir
spirplan
spirtuna

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)

spirimit
legion

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.”

spirtun

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.

spirdram

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.

F is for Flooding the Sahara

Part of the Sahara A to Z series

… 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.

flodonmac

It’s hard to find out much about Donald Mackenzie, but in 1877, a few years before he set up the North West Africa Trading Company, he had a far more radical idea to capitalise on the trans-Saharan trade.
He proposed nothing less than flooding the interior of the Sahara from the Atlantic so that, with the addition of a few canals which had proved so successful in Britain prior to the age of rail, ships could sail directly to Timbuktu and the Niger river in a matter of days, avoiding the arduous overland journey of weeks. As a side benefit the flooding would ‘green’ the Sahara, enabling agriculture to thrive across the wind-blown sands.

floder
flodjouf

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.

flomwamap
floNWACmap

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.

floAdcl-plak

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 Sahara A to Z series

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.

flocapjuby1880

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.

ouadane

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.

101
tim-missao

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.

bilma2006
gilf-55

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.