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, and there are more, original maps below.
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 less than a decade earlier during a camel trek along Libya’s eastern borders. 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) as well as 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. Short bio of Ralph Bagnold.
In 1986, long before the current fat-bike fashion (left), 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 (below) 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. 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) 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.
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 (below) 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 (left; 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.
“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 this postby Oliver Boulwhere you’ll find lots more interesting stuff.
When the Sahara was more accessible, lateral crossings, all of them west to east, used to capture the imagination of adventure seekers, both private and corporate. Although such transits aren’t what it’s about to me, I wrote a box for the last edition of Sahara Overlandabout the four best-known vehicular transits which, broadly speaking, set out with this goal in mind:
As I suggested in the book, a true, unbroken, all-desert lateral crossing of the Sahara with vehicles had yet to be achieved and as things stand, probably never will be in our time. If you combined the British route across Mauritania and Mali, then follow the French or Germans to Dirkou in Niger and the French or Belgians east of there, you have a pretty good line. As it is, even with a lot of road-driving in Algeria, I’d say from Tan Tan 9000km east to Port Safaga near Hurghada on the Red Sea, the Belgies get the nod (map below but note the oddly misaligned borders, not least Niger-Chad).
The chances of achieving a true Saharan traverse are currently about as slim as they’ve ever been. Much of the Sahara of Mali, Libya, Niger and Egypt are unsafe or off-limits. Eastern Mauritania is said to be the same, and much of southern Algeria between Bordj towards Djanet (as we did in 2006) is now restricted.
Northern Chad always presented difficulties from the mountainous terrain, let alone permissions and security issues. Meanwhile, people smuggling convoys still roll into Libya across northern Sudan above Darfur and are preyed on by bandits.
In southern Egypt the Gilf has so many access regulations that few bother any more. Even in the west-east expedition era, permissions played a part: the Belgians had to enter Algeria from Spanish Sahara, not Morocco; the Brits couldn’t enter Algeria at all which kiboshed their planned route; the Hanomagers bounced for over 16,000km between the Maghreb and the Sahel like pinballs, but did a whole lot of classic desert routes; and the French seemed to dodge Algeria and Chad.
The Saviems of 1997 made a pretty good job of it once they left Mali, planting at least 25 of their distinctive blue and white balises across the desert is a bid to establish a new lateral trade route across the width of the Sahara. The value of that is clearly rather dubious, but it was a good excuse to promote the lorries and have a big Sahara nadventure, using trials bikes and even parascenders to help recce the route ahead.
In my travels I’ve come across remnants of Saviem #16 in Niger, as well as an intact Saviem #22 east of the Gilf Kebir (below). And there’s a photo here of Saviem #10 just a couple of years after it was installed.
Of the four expeditions mentioned here, the three continental ones produced illustrated books in French and German (below). If you don’t read either language any better than me, the big-format Croisiere des Sables is a good one to get – mostly pictures and under a tenner on abebooks last time I looked.
Coup d’Eclat au Sahara, Jean Stasse (2011, available new) Trans Sahara – vom Atlantik zum Nil, Gerd Heussler (1978) Croisiere des Sables, Christian Gallissian (1977)
Even though Tom Sheppard has published a couple of lavish Sahara picture books on his own travels, it looks like we’ll never get a full account of the JSE 101 crossing. There was an appropriately dry expedition report for the Geographical Journal in 1976 which you can read on JSTOR (map below). He also wrote a well illustrated summary in the winter 2016 issue of the quarterly Overland Journal (right).
My own lateral crossings
A while back, before things really got bad in the Sahara (right) it occurred to me that, with one small effort I could link up my own lateral crossing of the Sahara between the Nile and Atlantic. Of course it would have taken me several years, but mainly across three trips: Libya 1998 (researchingSahara Overland);Egypt 2004 and our big SEQ 2006 crossing (below) I’ve covered all bar around 800km of the distance.
All that remained was a short, 70-km gap in the far eastern Algerian oilfields near In Amenas to the Algerian Tree (visible on Google sat and pictured left in 1998). It was whereRoute L2 from Sahara Overland (below right) strayed briefly into Algerian territory to avoid the worst of the Idehan Ubari’s dunes. Some may recall Michael Palin visited this very tree for his Sahara TV show in 2002 and on arriving proclaimed:
‘this spare, uncluttered, beautiful spot was one of my favourite places in the Sahara‘. Well, he’s easy to please!
And in fact, I’ve since realised that when we treked with mules to Sefar on the Tassili plateau in 2013, I was within sight our 1998 route into the Libyan Akakus.
Up until the gas plant attack at Tigantourine that year, I could probably have knocked out my crossing to the Algerian Tree at any time. Either driving down to Edjeleh oil camp right on the Libyan border then scooting over the dunes as shown below).
I recall making contact with an oil worker based in Edjejeh one time, asking him about civilian access in the area but he wasn’t very forthcoming. Alternatively, one could just nail it 100km east from the N3 highway south of Erg Bourharet. The stony reg thereabouts is criss-crossed with oil exploration tracks, but, post-Tigantourine that area will now be closely watched.
Then there’s a much more substantial missing section to get my West-East certificate in eastern Libya: from Waw Namus crater which we visited in 1998 (below) …
I remember that Christmas well; we had more trouble than normal getting Mahmoud’s Toyota-engined Series III running, dragging it to life with the Land Cruiser (below) after setting a fire under the chilled engine. With us that time was Toby Savage (my Desert Driving dvd co-presenter) who in 2012 travelled through the Gilf with WWII-era Jeeps, while possibly outnumbered by escorts and soldiers.
No tourist has driven in southern Libya since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011. The south has now controlled by the Tuareg (with a bit of AQIM and IS) and the Tubu who battle it out for the control of lucrative people-trafficking and other commodities coming up from Niger. As things stand now in Libya, ticking off that final 720-km stage from Waw crater to Xmas Camp may have to wait for a rainy day in the Sahara.
Back in 1965 the pro-Western Kingdom of Libya was just fourteen years old. US and UK military bases used the desert for training and testing, then the discovery of high-quality, low-sulphur oil just 200km from the coast transformed Libya’s fortunes.
Gaddafi’s coup was still a few years away.
Like many former french colonies, Chad had gained independence in 1960 but, as has been the case on and off since then, France retained military and Foreign Legion bases there. In the film you’ll see a French tricolour still flying in Zouar.
And best of all, the Chadian civil war was still a few months away, so what better time for a bunch Oxford university students to drive 5000 miles to Zouar for their summer hols in a a couple of 88 Landies and a 2WD Ford D-series lorry loaned by Ford. This was a time when it was still common for truck manufacturers to prove their vehicles on Sahara expeditions.
The film includes episodes of Tubu horseplay, lashings of corned beef and a Landrover door that just will not shut!
Interestingly you’ll also see a woman making flour with a grinding stone of the sort still commonly found abandoned all over the Sahara, wherever people once lived. As the narrator says ‘in remote parts of the world it’s hard to tell when such [Neolithic] tools were last used.’ At 14:20 there’s also an engraving of what might be a Garamantean chariot. Germa, the former Garamantean capital in southern Libya, is not so far from Zouar.
The desert is ruthless It strips you of your vanities Your illusions Gives you the opportunity to see yourself for who you really are Character addressing Jesus figure in The Last Days in the Desert (2016)
More than other wilderness environments, the desert is commonly seen as a place for spiritual rebirth or just some contemplation. Some speculate that it’s no coincidence the world’s great monotheistic religions originated in the desert. Or perhaps it was the other way round: the Fertile Crescent along with timely wheat mutations and climatic cycles spawned great civilisations from which monotheism evolved. Anyway, just being in the desert it’s commonly thought one can be purged, cleansed and reborn. When striped of familiar surroundings and associations, you commonly hear travellers professing an awareness of their insignificance in the great scheme of things. Whatever, it’s always been seen as a good place to get away from it all, including other people.
Another one of those periodic ‘I want to cross the Sahara by camel’ posts popped up on the forum the other month. The OP ‘…thought to myself ‘I want to have a life changing experience’ and thought this would be just that adventure.’ Across the width of the Sahara from Atlantic to Red Sea. There followed some clarification, good advice and some scorn, and within a few days the thread blew itself out. What is it about crossing the Sahara? Why do ordinary individuals get fixated on the idea of ‘crossing the Sahara’ at all costs? I know when I first went there the Sahara was something that was on the way to where I thought I was going, but so was France and the Mediterranean. I didn’t see crossing the Sahara as a life-affirming achievement or any sort of event – I was more looking forward to the simple challenge of some desert biking. Perhaps the words ‘cross’ + ‘sahara’ add up to a compelling soundbite that anyone anywhere will get instantly, like ‘climbing Everest’ or ‘rowing the Atlantic’, but perceived as a whole lot easier. I received a similar enquiry. A chap wanted to cross the Sahara with camels – it didn’t really matter where, it was the crossing that mattered. He suggested some catchy start and end points like Casablanca to Dakar without really thinking it through – padding alongside Morocco’s busy N1 highway with a troop of dromedaries strung out nose to tail. I made what I thought were some better suggestions that would give a real sense of travelling in the desert with camels while dodging the worst of the current political complications. I even sent him the camel chapter from the book (short version of this). I never heard back.
Above is my answer to another enquiry which boldly stated the intention to pull off a hare-brained scheme so I’d have no doubt of the total commitment. ‘Nothing is impossible!’ Never heard from her again, either. Maybe I am too blunt but I keep these emails as evidence of ‘well, I did warn them’ should they ever crop up in the news. It seems that people hungry for adventure lose something of their reason when it comes to crossing the you-know-what. They’re carried away by the concept which ignites the dream and set about with a steely determination to make it happen. To my mind camel crossing the Sahara north to south and especially laterally requires a solid background of experience which is why I respect the achievement of Michael Asher and Mariantonietta Peru when they did it in the 80s and went on to write Impossible Journey. At least they had a good idea of what they were taking on. These days the journey is a whole lot more impossible.
There must be something about camel trekking across the Sahara that makes it sound relatively uncomplicated and easily done alone. You traverse the wilderness with the unspoken companionship of your caravan and maybe a nomad guide whose language you don’t speak: ‘horses with no names’ who won’t question insecurities or flakey motivation.
Aside from the practicalities or logistics of such a monumental task, what irks me is that very often there’s little curiosity about the environment or the cultures they’re passing through. The conquest trounces all, and the empty Sahara is just a backdrop for a monumental vanity project, as it was for Geoffrey Moorhouse back in the 70s and several others before or since. As I was told recently by an individual who came close to death in his quest: It was a bad time and I made poor decisions. I desperately wanted it to be “me and the desert” and to have my own experience in solitude. I’m wiser now.
Once I get used to it and feel comfortable I like to be alone out there too, and in the desert that’s not hard to do. If anything it helps you re-evaluate human companionship which may be part of the catharsis some seek out there. But I find there’s no need to go to extremes to do this. One memorable desert camp is all that’s required to consolidate a feeling of well being. For me the image below sums it up nicely. Only a mile off the track to Djanet in 1988. For the moment the bike was running well and so was I. It was nice spot for the evening – comfortably alone. There have been many more nights like that out in the Sahara, with or without other people.
Usually though I’ve found travelling alone with a vehicle tends to extinguish any mystical retrospection. On a bike you’re totally preoccupied with keeping upright, not getting lost and all the rest – and in a car it’s the same plus the noise and the shaking. It is the evenings that are a blessed respite from the task, the heat and the wind and when the appeal of the desert is easily felt. In a group, walking with camels and crew is a far more satisfying way to enjoy the desert day or night, most probably because there’s so very little to worry about. You don’t have to know any more than how to walk, sleep and eat. It’s the very simplicity of such desert travels that strikes the chord, even if this is a fantasy enabled by the hired crew of desert nomads. The actual practicalities of making it happen and sustaining camelling independently get quite complex as many accounts that I’ve read have shown. And now you have to account for the unglamorous and unromantic political overlay.
I suppose the hope is that when one gets to the Other Side one is reborn or cleansed or at the very least feels a sense of achievement which ought to trump all insecurities. But no account I’ve ever read has admitted to that. Or perhaps midway through the journey there is some sort of epiphany with a closure and acceptance and an understanding that life must go on, at which point the epic challenge may lose its purpose.
After nine days, I let the horse run free, ‘Coz the desert had turned to sea.
Me, I just like being in wild places including the desert. It doesn’t have to get complicated.
I’ve always been curious about the Tour de Merkala, identified on the Michelin 741 Sahara map (and left) on the Algeria-Morocco border, south of Foum el Hassan. Was it some ancient caravanserai or watchtower, like the one right, alongside the Oued Draa north of Zagora, which guided caravans in along the 52-days road from Timbuktu? Or perhaps just a French observation post from the colonial era?
No surprise that this time I searched, it was Yves Rohmer’s encyclopaedic Sahara pages where the answer lay, and there’s more here. In the 1930s the French were still busy subduing tribal resistance in the southern mountains of Morocco in the region between Tata and Assa, and while there decided Tindouf far to the south needed occupation too. But between southern Morocco and Tindouf lay the Jebel Ouarkaziz which still serves at a natural barrier today between the two countries.
A column consisting of Berliet VUDB light armoured cars (left – note the big roll of chicken wire to use for sand boggings) set out from Akka and wound their way through the foums or gaps in the ranges until they came to the impenetrable cliff below Jebel Merkala. Here they spent a few days enlarging an old camel trail into a ramp to support their armoured cars, over two kilometres and 220m up the escarpment to the Hammada du Draa plateau on top. Once here the way to Tindouf was clear and a fort was established at Merkala.
Even if there was a tower (unnecessary on top of a pass, you’d think), why they didn’t call it Fort or Bordj Merkala? Or Fort ‘Commanding-Officer’s-Name’, as was the custom at the time? Many former French forts in Algeria – Fort Lapperine, Polignac or Flatters – became villages and even cities (respectively: Tamanrasset, IIlizi, Bordj Omar Driss). I’ve yet to find an old picture of the actual fort at Merkala and there’s nothing much to see on Google. But as is sometimes the case, Bing has better resolution and shows faint traces of skewed-rectangular fort-like foundations at the top of the pass (right), as well more modern ramparts pushed up nearby. Click the Flatters link above to see what a fort from this era may have looked like.
Very soon this route was extended and improved to become part of the primary imperial N1 highway from Morocco into the AOF French colonies to the south, running from Agadir via Foum el Hassan over Merkala to Tindouf, then down via Bir Mogrein, Atar and eventually Dakar.
The Atlantic Route we know today wasn’t an option for the French back then as the Spanish colony of Rio de Oro. – today’s Western Sahara – was in the way (left). It was the N1 inland highway which David Newman took in his Ford Zephyr in the late Fifties, vividly described in The Forgotten Path, a somewhat unhinged account of his drive to Nigeria. He’d tried to go via Foum el Hassan and the Merkala tower, but to his fury was turned back as the area was harbouring the FLN who were battling the French in Algeria at the time. The Tour de Merkala became a battleground again a few years later during the so-called 1963 War of the Sands between newly independent Morocco and Algeria. No fixed border line across the barren desert had been thought necessary between the two nations until valuable minerals were discovered (you’ll see no border defined on the late 1940s Michelin 153 at the top of the page). For some reason Algeria attempted to annexe the village of Iche near Figuig, as well as a creek called Tindoub and the nearby well of Hassi Beida, some 35km south of Mhamid. The Moroccans responded by trouncing the Algerians, so establishing an enmity that fed into the Polisario war a decade or so later and which remains entrenched today with closed borders. You can still see the Hassi Beida bump in the border today.
Getting back to Merkala’s prominence on maps. Perhaps it’s just an anomaly not unlike Hassi bel Guebbour in Algeria. Looks like an important place on the map but once you get there it’s nothing but a checkpoint at an albeit strategic crossroads with a couple of chip- omelette cafes.
Some time ago someone kindly gave me the official ASO roadbook from the 2007 Lisbon-Dakar Rally, the last one to be held in the Sahara.
Following the murder of a French family in Mauritania just before the Rally (actually thought to be criminals not terrorists), additional threats saw the 2008 event cancelled at the last minute. The following year the Rally moved to South America where it continued to thrive with less controversy until it moved again to Saudi in 2020.
The longest stage in 2007 was across the top of Western Sahara from Tan Tan on the Atlantic to the Mauritanian mining town of Zouerat – 817km via Smara with a tea break at Bir Mogrein. The shortest stage was still 500km long, through the light jungles of western Mali and Senegal where I limped over the border into Senegal some thirty years earlier on two flat tyres (right). I passed plenty of Dakar racers that year too, and eventually ended up in Dakar myself (above left), but not on any sort of podium. Below some snapshots from the Last Roadbook from what many still feel was the last real Dakar.