Category Archives: Sahara Historical

‘B’ is fo Azalai – the Bilma Salt Caravan

Sahara Overland camel contributor Alistair Bestow
gives an account of the Bilma salt caravan in Niger.
See also the Sahara Trekking ebook

For a few years now, on my office wall at work I have had a Jean-Luc Manaud calendar, with evocative images of Niger, particularly of the Tenere Desert. It is well out of date, and has been stuck on the image of Fachi for months. I had resolved to get there this winter, and to see both Bilma and Fachi, by camel if that was possible.

I arrived in Agadez on 30th December 2005, after having travelled from Niamey by bus, and hunted down one of the guides recommended by Lonely Planet. Moussa Touboulou was in town and available to be my guide, if we could work out an itinerary for such a trip at a reasonable price. I was told that it was only really possible to travel both to, and from, Bilma by camel caravan, if I arrived in Agadez in October. There is apparently an ‘October Rush’ being the most favourable time to go for the camels. Therefore it would be possible to go to Bilma by vehicle, and then wait for a caravan to leave Bilma for Agadez.

tenere-map
sahara-camel-trekking

We nutted out a deal, whereby Moussa would organise the travel by truck to Dirkou (600+km), and then 4WD from Dirkou to Bilma (40km) and then by camel from Bilma back to Agadez. He would travel with me for the full distance, organise the permit -still required for travel in this area- food, water and accommodation, if needed in Dirkou and Bilma. His fee was CFA55000 per day (approx £55 per day). We worked out a daily rate, because the number of days to undertake the travel was not certain, and I have had experience in a guide wildly over-estimating the number of days for a journey, thereby making the daily cost quite expensive. It proved to be the case here too, -Moussa estimating 30 days, but in fact the trip took only 20 days in all.

There was a few days to wait in Agadez before a truck was going to leave for Dirkou, but one was located, and on Wednesday 4th Jan 2006, we went by taxi to the edge of town where indeed a large Mercedes truck was waiting. We climbed aboard on top of the goods, along with 30 or so others for the journey to Dirkou. It proved to be nearly two days travel, the truck being overloaded, and lumbering along quite slowly over the flat, flat desert. It was quite an experience to travel this way, being crushed in with everyone else, but was thankful that it was only 2 days, and that we were not as overloaded as some of the other trucks that we saw en-route.

We arrived in Dirkou, being a surprisingly large town, on the morning of Jan 6th. We stayed overnight at a ‘friends’ house, which left me time to explore the markets under the shady trees, and to marvel at the flat absolute desert to the west. Moussa organised a lift in a 4WD the next day for Bilma, and we arrived there on Jan 7th.

Bilma is everything I had imagined of an oasis, but being larger than I expected. There are shady sandy streets -large trees I think which may have been planted by the French, groves of date palms, watered gardens of fruit and vegetables, an aging, crumbling fort, and a Grand Source of water, being a large pool of water inhabited by small fish, and frequented by birds including a spoonbill. To the north west of the oasis, are the salt works, where pools of saline water are created to allow the salt to crystallise on the surface. The workers then disturb the crystals on the surface, sending them to the bottom from where they are collected and dried. These crystals are then broken up by a hammer, have water added to them, and than are placed in moulds of one shape or another. The moulds are either a basin or two sizes, or a cone, made from the truck of a palm tree and covered with leather. The salt is turned out, and then dried into the robust forms which are carried by caravan to Agadez and beyond.

I was in Bilma for 2 days, before the caravan Moussa had located and negotiated with, was due to leave. The day before our departure, I went to the salt works where the caravan was located, and watch the parcels of salt being made ready for transport. Generally two or three cones, were packed with several basin forms of salt, in damp palm matting, and tied up with rope. The large parcels were barely able to be lifted by a man. The salt is supported, when on the camel by goat skins filled with dates -also being sent to Agadez and beyond.

On Monday 9th Jan, we joined the caravan, and at 1.00pm said farewell to Bilma. It is noted that in contrast to the caravan travel I have done in Mali, to Timbuktu-Taoudenni, that this trip saw us rent some capacity from the caravan itself, rather than having our own camels. This meant that Moussa and I were ’embedded’ in the caravan. On the Timbuktu-Taoudenni trips it has been difficult sometimes to convince the guide to travel with the salt caravans, because it is easier and faster to travel with the guides own camels.

The desert here was quite different from that of Mali, the Tenere being much sandier, having less vegetation, and more dunes, but at the same time being less variable in its appearance, than the desert of Mali. It was four days of travel to reach Fachi,. There was plenty of time to admire the wonderful creamy dunes along the way, of which there are many. We travelled from 9 in the morning to about 10 at night non-stop. It was clearly well planned, as the caravan carried exactly the correct amount of feed for this sector, until they picked up another 4 days worth of feed that they had left in Fachi on the way to Bilma. After the eighth day, we reached the Arbre du Tenere monument, and there after there was sufficient feed to be found for the camels en-route for the last 7 days of travel to Agadez, making a total of 15 days by camel.

The last 6 days of travel was through stony desert, with frequent patches of vegetation for the camels to eat, and we passed a number of villages, and nomadic Tuareg with their sheep and goats. We also travelled for a few less hours per day than had been the case for the first 8 days.

The caravan actually was not going to finish its journey until Tahoua, some few hundred kilometers later. On the last night , I said my farewells to the camelliers whom I had got to know over the previous 2 weeks. They had made me feel very welcome, and it was a great journey.

Sahara – Blanks on the Map

Also interesting
Old Saharan Trade Routes Map

‘V’ is for Vintage Sahara Maps
Maps of the Sahara
I is for IGN and their Sahara Maps

wales

Below, a series of French 1:200,000 maps of the Sahara – from Mauritania to the western frontier of Chad. Though the maps date from the 1950s, it’s very unlikely that Google Earth would reveal any more detail today. A couple of sheets from the central Mauritanian plateau and an eastern Algerian erg are included to show the mapmakers weren’t just being lazy – there really was nothing to show.
Each map covers one square degree of the Earth’s surface, which in Saharan latitudes adds up to over 12,000 km2. Just two of these maps would cover Wales (right).

S is for Siwa ~ Engravings from 1890

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

Ritratto-autoreTaken from the book All’oasi Di Giove Ammone
(At the Oases of Jupiter Ammon)
by Luigi Robecchi-Bricchetti (right)

 

U is for Uweinat: the Marchesi Mission 1933

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

L’Universo is a journal of the Italian Istituto Geografico Militare in Florence and the current 160-page special edition features the 1933 expedition to Libya led by Captain Oreste Marchesi.

Sahara specialist Michele Soffiantini organised a special visit to the Uweinat area from the Libyan side in 2010 while researching the Marchesi expedition in detail. The journal includes an in-depth analysis of the mission’s objectives in reaching to the southernmost corner of Libya, most probably to gain a foothold at the strategic landmark of Jebel Uweinat mountain, beyond the oases of Kufra  which itself had only been occupied by the

cima-1

Italians in 1931. The cartographical aspects of the survey are also described as well as a study of the mission’s surveying equipment.

It’s all in Italian of course, so I’m not much the wiser but it’s interesting to parallel it with the better known explorations of around the same time by Ralph Bagnold from the Egyptian side, as well as Laszlo Almasy. The glossy journal reproduces some great archive photos by Giuseppe Tschon from the ground and the air, as well as some fine maps produced as a result of the expedition.

6_1
7_1

Uweinat expert Andras Zboray of FJ Expeditions was part of 2010 trip with Michele and describes their finds here, along with scores of great photos – some of which also appear in the journal. On that occasion Michele and a pal climbed  the 1251-metre Cima Marchesi, a peak on the very western edge of the Jebel Uweinat massif (1934m) and therefore well inside Libya, then and now.

cima

Further information from: Istituto Geografico Militare
casezcomm  AT   geomil.esercito.difesa.it

C is for Cards of the Sahara

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

You may also like… Chants du Hoggar – the artwork of Paul Élie Dubois
And this too

Some attractive cards featuring Saharan themes dating from around the middle of the 20th century. They’re being sold inexpensively by euro-cards on ebay. I have to say on the bottom one it looks like they have have got their tribal categories mixed up, but the Dutch ones (5 and 6) are especially attractive to an ex Tintin/Look & Learn fan.

Sahara plant
sahara-nestle
saharracard
Saharalap
sahara-cards
Saharaacard
$aharamixte

N is for Nemadi, dog hunters of eastern Mauritania

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

While reworking Desert Travels ahead of a small reprint, I came across this video from 2005 about an Italian expedition that set out from Bamako for Oualata north of Nema. Oualata was once as celebrated as nearby Timbuktu for being a place of Islamic learning, and the video spends a lot of time depicting the intricate bas-relief patterns for which the houses of Oualata are famous. As DT recalls, when I was there in 1989, no time was allowed to have a good look around, far less stay over.

nem1
songhai

Then, amazingly to me at least, the Italians manage to track down a surviving Nemadi family, a survivor of the pariah-like tribe of dog hunters mentioned in Bruce Chatwin’s semi-fictional Songlines study of nomads. They live in what the vid calls the ‘Sarakolle’ desert. Not heard that designation before, but it seems Sarakolle also means Soninke, a tribe who live along the Malian border but who are indigenous to Africa and not Moors. Some sources attribute or connect them to the Imraguen fish catchers north of Nouamghar, also outsiders in Mauritania’s Moorish culture. Wiki makes a link for the etymology of ‘Nemadi’, something to do with Azer or dog master, but I just assumed it means ‘people from around Nema‘, like Saharawi.
As you can see, the guy doesn’t wear the usual blue robe and his tent is not a Moorish raima, but more of a bent wood humpy. His camel too has no saddle to speak of and it looks like he sits behind the hump. But other items like the three-legged tea table are also used by Moors. At no point in the vid is Nemadi man separated from his ancient rifle.

nemadi

I thought the Nemadi used to live along the Dhar Tichit beyond Oualata. There is a place call Aguelt Nemadi (Ogueilet en Nmadi) about a hundred miles NNE of Tidjikja or 300 miles NW of Oualata. That might mean ‘Nemadi waterhole’ but lost in the dunes, it looks a pretty lonesome spot on the map, perhaps a watering hole on the old caravan route between Tichit and Ouadane.

The video has no commentary, a few Italian subtitles and some great music. It looks like they set out to cross the 400km to Araouane in their Sixty-series Tojos, but something broke so they came back. The Nemadi guy appears at about 25m.

P is for Plane wrecks in the Sahara: two stories

Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
Phoenix4

On page 350 of Sahara Overland II I wrote a box titled ‘If we’re done for we’re done for and that’s all there is to it‘ about some of the better known plane crashes in the Sahara. Anyone who’s seen the stellar cast at work in original 1965 movie, Flight of the Phoenix (left, not the dreadful 2004 remake) will know what a compelling story the tragedy of a plane crash in the desert can be.

memair
bbc1989

Last week a rather belated article appeared on the BBC where it trended for a day; the tale of how a victim’s relative from the September 1989 UTA 772 plane crash over Niger’s southern Tenere organised the construction of a striking memorial at the crash site to his father and the other 169 who perished.

UTA-772-Cockpit

Less than a year after a similar event over Lockerbie in Scotland, a bomb – said also to have been set by Libyan agents – saw the DC10 break in the sky some 450km east of Agadez, close to the Termit massif. One still of what looks like the cockpit (right) bears a  resemblance to the similar well known image from Lockerbie.

tenerememo

Libya’s rather implausible motive was said to have been revenge for France’s support for Chad in the last stages of their border interventions into northern Chad’s Aouzou Strip between 1978 and 1987. This was a little-known Saharan war which had ended when they were roundly defeated first at Wadi Doum near Faya in the Tibesti, and then routed at Maaten al-Sarra, right in Libya itself. However, in July 2011, Gaddafi defectee and former Libyan foreign minister Abdel Rahman Shalgham, told a newspaper ‘The Libyan security services blew up the plane. They believed that opposition leader Mohammed al-Megrief was on board‘.
With part of the £104m compensation gradually handed out by the Gaddafi family, Guillaume Denoix de Saint Marc set about building the huge memorial sculpture close to the crash site. It was completed in 2007 and appears on Google maps today.

dgv
lanclast

The other tale concerns an Avro Avian biplane which crashed in April 1933 between Poste Weygand and Bidon V in Algeria’s Tanezrouft. Featuring biplanes, romance and death in the desert, the story resonates with the popular but very fictional English Patient movie and book. But this tory is all true and a film-making  descendant of the loan pilot, Bill Lancaster, is close to completing a documentary about his forebear titled: ‘My Great Uncle; The Lost Aviator‘.

lancaster-letters
lanctabs

Bill Lancaster was a pioneering British aviator who found fame by flying from London to Darwin in 1927. Despite leaving a family back home, on route he fell for his co-pilot and financial supporter, Australian aviatrix Jessie ‘Chubbie’ Miller (not a nickname you’d think most women would covet).

lancplane

The adventuresome duo’s romance soon became the Posh & Becks of its day and the couple set up house in Miami. Their relationship then rose to become an outright cause célèbre when,  in April 1932 Lancaster was tried for shooting his love rival, Chubbie’s biographer and some say fiancé, Haden Clarke, at their Miami home
Cleared of the charges despite the compelling evidence, Lancaster set off to rebuild his reputation by flying across the Sahara.
While following what may have been the Tanezrouft beacons used by the Citroen motor crossing of 1922-3, his plane went down some 400 kilometres from the Mali border.

lancwreck

After eight days of suffering Bill Lancaster died one year to the day after Clarke’s unsolved murder. His body lay undiscovered by the wreckage of his Avro until 1962 where a recovered diary revealed his agonising last days (‘… the heat of the sun is appalling … my constant craving – WATER‘) as well as his undying love for Chubbie Miller.

denvol

The story was fictionalised in 1985 as an Australian mini-series, The Lancaster Miller Affair and again in French in 2009 getting what looks like an exceedingly unsuccessful ‘English Patient’ makeover as Le Dernier Vol (The Last Flight, right) with Marion Cotillard. It sounds like the documentary based on true story may be much more interesting.

More on the Lost Aviator doc here and here and more pictures here.


E is for Saharan Eclipse 2006

Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
eclipse65

In March 2006 an eclipse sliced right across the Sahara, from Ghana to the Libyan-Egyptian border on the Med. On its way it passed close to the extinct volcano of Waw Namus in central Libya and it was clear that  everyone and his camel would be heading there. Sure enough the place turned into an Eclipse Babylon where tours ops from around the world sought to capitalise on a unique event.

eclipse-map

‘Clear skies or your money back’, I crowed confidentially when I pitched my tour. In my mind far better to take it to Niger, where the track of totality passed right between Dirkou and Bilma on the far side of the Tenere circuit. On the way we could take in the classic Tenere Loop (right), one of the best fortnight’s you can spend travelling in the Sahara. It includes the Aïr, Arakao, Adrar Chiriet, Temet dunes, east across the sands to the mysterious ruined citadels of Djado and Orida and the nearby salines of Seguedine and Bilma before heading back through the Bilma Erg and past the Tenere Tree to Agadez.

clipsebak

I secured ‘saharaneclipse.com’ in plenty of time and set up an enigmatic front page (left). Only those who moused over the eclipsed sun found their way to the back pages and further details. And so about eleven of us from seven countries shuffled across the tarmac of Agadez airport, paid the special ‘eclipse tax’, piled into the loaded jeeps and lit out into the Tenere to see what we could see.
Came the day I was nearly forced to eat my ‘Clear skies…’ boast but a great local crew, the international group and not least the fabulous deserts of the Aïr, Tenere and Djado made for one of my most enjoyable and trouble-free Saharan tours.

B is for Burial: pre-Islamic tombs in the Sahara

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

As on previous occasions, the route of our camel trek through the Immidir will rest a day at Aguelmam Rahla, a reliable waterhole at the mouth of the Oued Tafrakrek canyon (blue line on map, left) where the Tissedit plateau drops down to meet a band of dunes. I’d been wanting to make a diversion here since scanning Google Earth a few years back and noticing the innumerable pre-Islamic tombs (‘PIZ’) in the area (left).

aguelmam

Looking again on Google Earth some time later, less than an hour of nosing around revelled three dozen keyhole, antenna or crescent tombs within a few kilometres of the waterhole (snapshot left or zoom right in on the link above). I didn’t bother counting the less distinctive ‘mound’ tombs. In fact the proliferation of tombs here isn’t so unusual given the topographic features already listed: edge of a plateau, former river mouth, band of dunes – all common factors adding up to a Neolithic occupation site.

piztaskey
pizpot

On the first crater tour in 2007 we walked along the base of the dunes, northeast from Aguelmam Rahla, and discovered several grinding stones and other artefacts at the foot of the dunes. And in 2012 one of us came across a near intact pot (left) at the foot of a dune as well as napping (stone tool chipping) sites.

pizeders

There’s something compulsive about Sahara tomb spotting on Google Maps, searching the featureless desert floor for the clear signs of prehistoric human activity. Once out there it gives a purpose to a journey that’s otherwise just agreeable recreation and adds a hint of treasure hunting. It reminds you that the Sahara of 6000 years ago was not a desert, but a much less arid savannah. As mentioned in the Mark Milburn book review, among others, KenGrok has spent hours and years scanning Google Earth’s imagery to identify unusual things, including pre-Islamic tombs in the Sahara. In 2019 Google erased his work but it seems his baton has been picked up by others.

pizant

pizarm

Often this fascination and excitement falls a little flat on actually finding a tomb on the desert floor. On the 2012 trip I was excited about finding a huge antenna tomb that lay close our path on Day 6 or so. On GE (above) the massive structure with a ring-angle span of over 300m looked amazing, but by the time we tracked it down it (left) was too big to appreciate from ground level. My group seemed to say… ‘and the purpose if this diversion was…?’. ‘Flying’ over these tombs on satellite imagery, like Peru’s Nazca lines, is how they’re best appreciated.

pizbrander
How old are these ‘pre-Islamic’ tombs? Well in the central Sahara I’d say the Islamic era began to have an impact a couple of hundred years after the Arab Conquest of North Africa between AD 647–709. I imagine this swept like a tide west along the south Mediterranean coast, down the Atlantic to present-day Mauritania and then ‘eddied’ back west towards places like Timbuktu. Other eddies may have spun off sooner to places like Ghadames in Libya, following trans-Saharan trade routes into the interior.

pizimi

Chances are these tombs, like the huge keyhole on the right in the Immidir (middle left of the picture; some 60m across), are only around two thousand years old, maybe double that. That means after the apogee of rock art some 6000 years ago following a climate changes which populated what is now the Sahara. By this time megalithic tombs became widespread across the ancient world, most spectacularly of course in ancient Egypt.

tem-orient

What’s interesting is the orientation of these tombs is almost always towards the east; you may have noticed that by looking closely at the link above. Be it a keyhole with a ‘walkway/slot’ or the open arms of an antenna, the orientation is always eastwards within the range of the rising sun, according to the diagram, left, with concomitant suggestions of ‘rebirth’ and afterlife.

You don’t have to venture into the deep Sahara to see keyhole tombs. In southern Morocco, just a short distance from Erg Chebbi and three miles west of Taouz, on the west side of the Oued Ziz are a cluster of tombs. Like Aguelmam Rahla they’re situated on the edge of a plateau and by a former big river as well as an erg – and not all with entrance ways pointing east.

pizkeykey

Below, a curious structure on the Oued Tagant valley midway between Tam and Djanet. And below that, another in the Hoggar, just southeast of Assekrem. I’ve seen these elsewhere in southern Algeria but their meaning is unknown. The guides and old Saharan expeditions just call them ‘tombs’ but they look different and newer than PIZs.

piztarabine
pizcircle

Marchesi Mission to Uweinat – 1933

cima-6L’Universo is a journal of the Italian Istituto Geografico Militare in Florence and the current 160-page special edition features the 1933 expedition to Libya led by Captain Oreste Marchesi.

Sahara specialist Michele Soffiantini organised a special visit to the Uweinat area from the Libyan side in 2010 while researching the Marchesi expedition in detail. The journal includes an in-depth analysis of the mission’s objectives in reaching to the southernmost corner of Libya, most probably to gain a foothold at the strategic landmark of Jebel Uweinat mountain, beyond the oases of Kufra  which itself had only been occupied by the cima-1Italians in 1931. The cartographical aspects of the survey are also described as well as a study of the mission’s surveying equipment.

It’s all in Italian of course, so I’m not much the wiser but it’s interesting to parallel it with the better known explorations of around the same time by Ralph Bagnold from the Egyptian side, as well as Laszlo Almasy. The glossy journal reproduces some great archive photos by Giuseppe Tschon from the ground and the air, as well as some fine maps produced as a result of the expedition.

6_17_1Uweinat expert Andras Zboray of FJ Expeditions was part of 2010 trip with Michele and describes their finds here, along with scores of great photos – some of which also appear in the journal. On that occasion Michele and a pal climbed  the 1251-metre Cima Marchesi, a peak on the very western edge of the Jebel Uweinat massif (1934m) and therefore well inside Libya, then and now.

cima

Further information from: Istituto Geografico Militare
casezcomm  AT   geomil.esercito.difesa.it