Category Archives: Sahara Reviews

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

Part of the Sahara A to Z series

In the last decade France’s colonial era in North Africa, their part of Sahara was divided between Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco (‘AFN’); ‘AOF’ (French West Africa) from Mauritania to Niger, and ‘AEF’ or French Equatorial Africa which included present-day Chad.
One could travel the pistes across the desert between the Mediterranean coast and the Sahel, and even scheduled bus services traversed these ‘Imperial Routes’ to the sub-Saharan capitals.

Just a couple of years before these colonies were dissolved and became the independent countries we know today, Shell released its fifth and final edition of the Guide du Tourisme Automobile au Sahara. The 345-page book is in French and there are still plenty around; mine cost me €25 from France, but the lovely map is often missing from the inside back cover sleeve.
Originally published way back in 1934, just seven years after Shell started distributing fuel in Algeria, it must have been the first guidebook of its kind, preceding my own Sahara Overland by nearly seven decades.

The three pre-war editions (1934-5, 1936 below and 1938) were thinner books but also covered aerial tourism: presumably fuel and landing strip information. Perhaps back then private planes were still seen as comparable or superior to with cars for getting to remote places. When, the mid-50s commercial flying had taken off across the world, flying around the desert was no longer a thing unless you were very rich.


Even if it was nothing more than fully funded exercise in self-promotion, it’s still odd that an Anglo-Dutch oil company produced such a presumably prestigious project to showcase an important French colony, especially as it had the feel of an official handbook. In the 1930s Shell became well known for their illustrated guidebooks to Britain but perhaps publishing was not a thing that interested French oil companies like Total and Elf. Only Shell produced guidebooks, but road maps were widely branded by some of the oil companies of the era.

You can imagine the three French women (France Degand, Janine Delbert and Michèle Cancre d’Orgeix) had a copy of a Shell in the glovebox of their Peugeot 206 wagon before setting out their double crossing of the Sahara in 1956 (video below).

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

The 1950s were the apogée of the colonial era when even in the Belgian Congo, trains ran across the jungle on time and roads drivable by regular cars snaked across the equatorial escarpments.
In the Sahara pistes were well maintained, regularly patrolled and for the most part, well marked too. The Sahara still had its rough edges and expansive voids, but had been effectively tamed by the colonial administration, including a desert-wide network of Shell stations: ‘In the Sahara, as in your garage‘ the guidebook boasts.
It was the vestiges of this investment in desert infrastructure which we inherited in the 1970s and 80s by which time the whole region had seen 15-20 years of independent rule. The Shell emblem was long gone, replaced by nationalised fuel companies distributing the commodity with had become integral with global progress and development.

The Guidebook

Until 1939… the book starts… conditions for the harmonious development of winter tourism were coming together in the Sahara. Excellent temperatures, admirable sites, distant horizons, interesting populations, verdant palmeries [and] distinctive architecture: behold the country.

It then goes on to introduce the Sahara, using a flowery style which I’ve read in more recent French guides to the Sahara. The book doesn’t miss a chance to include an exposition of the magnificent French achievements in the Sahara since 1919.

A year after this edition was published, after decades of searching (during which time French explorer and geologist Conrad Killian mysteriously met his death) prospectors finally struck oil in Edjeleh near In Amenas, and a short time later in Hassi Messaoud. By the end of the next decade Algeria became a major oil producer in North Africa.

It’s interesting to see how the content of the guidebook conforms with a modern day equivalent: a geographical breakdown of the desert’s geology, relief and topography, river courses and wells; ethnicities add up to either Arab or Berber, with pre-colonial history leading to exploration, colonisation and pacification right up to the period of the automobile and the aeroplane.

Short sections cover local artisans and the souvenirs they made, a bibliography, recreation and sports and not least hunting for hides, heads, horns and ivory. Happy days!


As for vehicle choice, the guide advised not to worry about using touring cars, by which I think then meant a regular RWD sedan or estate like the Peugeot 206, above. Rightly it said the 4x4s of the time: Land Rover, Jeep, Willys and the near identical Delahaye V.L.R were significantly less comfortable.

It’s worth recalling that many regular cars of that era had bigger wheels and better ground clearance – garde du sol – ‘an important factor in vehicle choice‘… ‘Consider fitting bigger tyres, but not too much or you’ll stress the transmission and steering.’ ‘Power to weight is also a factor for tackling soft passages.’ …’avoid dual rear wheels…’ It’s interesting to see all these strategies were well known, even back then. It does however list a long and very heavy list of spare parts. Durability must be one thing that’s improved over the decades. In a way today’s SUVs have similar characteristics, but of course no one would consider taking one somewhere as outlandish as the Sahara, not least because 4x4s have improved to become much less utilitarian.

Code Saharien de la Route
In that time of French control a detailed list of safety protocols needed to be followed before before setting off along a piste. ‘Pour votre securite‘ as they used to say in Algeria where the system endured into the 1980s (but without any actual back-up or support; you were on your own). The Code was a check on whether you were equipped to tackle what lay ahead, followed by the requirement to check on on arrival. If you followed the rules and were overdue, they’d come and look for you. You also needed some sort of contract with a local recovery service in case of a breakdown. The last 40 pages of the book detail the full list of these requirements for each of the three territories.

The Itineraries

The route guide breaks down the Sahara into four sections: southern Morocco along tracks which are now mostly roads. Then came the grandly named Imperial Tracks, starting with N°1: the Mauritania Line (above) which was recently reopened by Algeria. Back then this was the direct route through all-French territory from Tiznit in Morocco or Colomb Bechar in Algeria to St Louis or Dakar which circumvented the Spanish Rio de Oro colony on the Atlantic coast. Closed between June and mid-October, this was also the ‘Forgotten Path‘ which David Newman followed in his Ford Corsair touring car in 1959, just as the territories were breaking up.

The route description for the 2550km from Tiznit to St Louis goes on for 15 pages including a few photos and plain maps. It left Moroccan territory south of today’s Foum el Hassan, a small town between Akka and Assa on what I call the Desert Highway in the Morocco guide. I noted a passing reference to ‘Merkala‘; an escarpment watchtower marking the border between Morocco and Algeria which still features as the ‘Tour de Merkala’ on the Michelin 741 map.
In Tindouf we learn that prior to the French establishing a garrison in 1934, the settlement, had been abandoned for three decades due to persistent raids by the nomadic Reguibat. The Berbers must have welcomed a bit of law and order.
From here the lonesome track led to Ait ben Tili on the Spanish Sahara (today’s PFZ) border, with balises (marker posts) every 5km, but plenty of tole ondulee: ‘corrugated iron’ or washboard/corrugations to you and me. Like today, there’s nothing much for the traveller at AbT. back then wild game added up to gazelles and long gone ostriches. Once you got to Fort Trinquet (Bir Mogrein) you could add moufflon and leopards to that list.

From here it was 405km south to Fort Gouraud (Fderik) and the piste was poorly marked, sandy and rutted. The old route another 310km from Fort Gouraud via Char fort to Atar didn’t get any less sandy, and the iron ore railway was still another 8 years away. Maybe a touring car, even with good clearance, wasn’t such a good idea after all.

Imperial Track N°2 was the Tanezrouft Line from Colomb-Bechar to Gao on the Niger river. This was the route chosen by the first cars to cross the Sahara in the 1920s. It’s interesting to see how quickly the commercial drive towards tourism follows what was once terra incognita. You could say we’re seeing the same today in space; something which would have been hard to imagine in the middle of the Apollo programme.
It was on this desolate route that Bidon V (‘Oil drum 5’, below) made a name for itself as a desolate travellers way-station between Reggane and Tessalit in present day Mali. At one point the lighthouse shone into the night, planes could land for a refuel and a couple of bus bodies where parked up on oil drums to provide lodgings for passengers the Mer-Niger bus route.

The book continues with other well known routes in the Algerian Sahara though not exactly what we have today. Imperial Route 3; the Hoggar Line – today’s Trans Sahara Highway – ran further east between El Golea to In Salah, and again on to the Arak Gorge where a friendly Shell bowser (left) stood by at your service.

From Tamanrasset, excursions up to Assekrem along today’s route were already established (fold out map included), and the now paved way to the border via Laouni was the same,, but once in AOF the track went straight to Agadez via In Abangarit to the south. It was on this route that the drama vividly described in Trek, met its climax. There was no Arlit until uranium was discovered there about 15 years later. Zinder, close to the Nigerian border, was the end of that road.

The Ajjer and Tibesti Line was Imperial Route 4: from Biskra all the way to Fort Lamy (N’djemana) in Chad. From Djanet the route dropped down to Bilma, the long established administrative capital of the eastern Tenere, before you back-tracked north to Seguedine to head east for Zouar, Faya and even Fada before turning down to Abeche and Fort Lamy. This was the route which the lavishly equipped Berliet expeditions of 1960 sought to open up for trade, just as France’s overt control over the Sahara slipped away.

Back then getting to Djanet meant dodging the Fadnoun Plateau (Tassili N’Ajjer). From Fort Flatters (today’s Bordj Omar Driss) you headed over the sands southwest to Amguid, then southeast along the base of the plateau. Right up to the 1980s this was truck route to Djanet until they sealed the winding road over the Fadnoun which to this day still catches some truckers out.

If you could get to Fort Polignac (Illizi) a car route did actually cross the Fadnoun. You left Polignac to the east then either pitted yourself against the very sandy Imirhou gorge (left) , or all the way to Tarat fort on the Libyan border, before turning south to join today’s route at Dider.
On bikes for Desert Riders in 2003 (the full movie is on YouTube), this was a tough but epic ride across the tumbled escarpments of the Tassili which took us two hard days. But the time we reached the final descent from the plateau at the Tin Taradjeli Pass,, we couldn’t wait for the sands of the Tenere.

From 1943 up to 1951 the French administered the Fezzan province of Libya and may have had had hopes of annexing it. But by the time this edition was published, growing calls fro independence put an end to that idea. Meanwhile. the northern deserts of Chad remained as obscure and little visited as they are today.

The Map

The Shell guide includes a 1:4m scale map folded into the back cover. It’s more or less Michelin’s 152 of 1948 which to some may alone be worth it the price of the guide.
It doesn’t have the full coverage of the 153 North & West Africa which came later, but shows the routes described and much more. This detail has long made the Michelin map indispensable in the Sahara, even if it is a rather skimpy navigation aid to setting off along one of the Imperial routes.
The Mauritanian Line gets a 1:9m inset (below left) while in Libya (never a French territory) the map proudly shows the routes of General Leclerc’s desert campaign during WW2 which ended in the famous raid on Murzuk in co-ordination with the Long Range Desert Group.

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

Part of an occasional series: Sahara A to Z 

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.

Palin ‘Sahara’ TV reminiscences (BBC)

I recently watched Michael Palin looking back on his Sahara TV series of 2002. I think it was the last of his big travel shows for the BBC.

I remember thinking there was more ‘Sahara’ in the show’s title than the actual programmes, and watching what they chose to use in the recap, it looks again like he – like most people – was more at home in cities like Fez, St Louis and Algiers, or places like Gibraltar than in the desert.

I must admit I never fell for the Palin ‘nicest-man-on-TV’ schtick, though I haven’t watched his other travel series. Palin was born in 1943 so it could be a generation thing: many encounters felt set-up and shallow. Perfect Sunday Night telly, then and now. I remember him bristling a bit when this necessary fakery came up as an audience question at a talk he gave in London to promote the Sahara show.
Similar TV travel presenters like Bruce Parry (what happened to him?) and even Simon Reeves were among some fawning luvvies wheeled on to shower accolades. Both of them come across as equally genial and far more intrepid, immersive and engaged in their similar TV travels But all this is a bit like complaining about the Long Way… Ewan & Charlie motorbiking shows relying heavily on back-up vehicles. It’s a mainstream TV show, not Storyville.

As for Sahara, I can’t help thinking he didn’t like the actual desert. Fair enough; not everyone does. During the Niger episode (as deep into the Sahara as he got, afaik: a night or two in the Tenere and just after 9/11) he sits on a stool and sleeps in a tent rather than. getting down with the Tuareg. Disingenuously or not, over a snack he assumes they’re mocking him while teaching him local words. I’ve commonly experienced this ribbing and take it as no more than that.
He gets his own back later by getting them to repeat ‘bottom’ – as in ‘Bottoms Up’ which all Brits say several times a day when having a cuppa.

‘Such a lovely scene…’ chirps Parry.
‘That’s what you get when you put the time in.’

He observes that the locals in Agadez seemed barely moved by 9/11 (or were less exposed to saturation news coverage) and resented this insensitivity.
You get the feeling that like so many with a list to tick off, he was attracted by the romance of the desert: its mysterious veiled nomads and shimmering front-of-a-date-packet oases. Then he got there and found it hot and dusty, poor and dirty, with tiresomely chauvinistic guides, begging children, toilets from hell and all gradually exhausting. To his credit, the online diary certainly doesn’t hold back as the book (as I recall it) and especially the TV show had to do.

Oddly skipped in the show and the book is the fact that he travelled with Polisario escorts 1000-km overland from Tindouf down to Zouerat, partly along a route which has only recently re-opened. It was perhaps played down to appease the Moroccans, but also our man had a bad se of the runs which, as we all know, can make life miserable. Then he took the train to Choum and carried on to West Africa. Even with regular breaks back in the UK, by the time he got to Niger (‘in temperatures of up to 55°C…’), he must have had enough.

l2

It’s a bare, dispiriting place.

So it can be if you’re there in the wrong season with a busy agenda of encounters to record. As mentioned elsewhere, I was struck that the Algerian Tree on Route L2 from my old book (visible on Google sat and pictured above in 1998) epitomised the essence of the desert for Michael Palin.
He proclaimed:

‘… this spare, uncluttered, beautiful spot was one of my favourite places in the Sahara‘.

Well, he’s easily pleased!

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!

B is for Bagnold: Rare 1930s film in the Libyan Desert

Part of the Sahara A to Z series

bagcar
bagnolds-expeditions

A few months ago the British Film Institute released an archive film of the early motor expeditions of Ralph Bagnold and his crew, exploring deep into the Libyan Desert. (Click BFI if youtube below gets deleted). The map top right shows all his expedition in the 1930s.

The 49-minute-long film describes the original recce in 1929 into the Great Sand Sea of the Western Desert via Ain Dalla spring. It was here that Bagnold’s group found lowering tyre pressures, as well as using sand plates and rope ladders, enabled heavy vehicles to traverse soft dunes.

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bagcarr

A year later they set off towards Jebel Uweinat, a massif located by Ahmed Hassanein Bey less than a decade earlier during a camel trek from Jalu in northeastern Libya. At Ain Dalla camels brought in extra fuel, and the cars continued to Jebel Kissu in today’s Sudan and south of Uweinat, then east for the Nile via Selima oasis.

In 1932 they based themselves again at Jebel Kissu where they refuelled from Selima, then explored the Sarra Triangle (now in Libya) and northeastern Chad.

Heading south to El Fasher, they passed herds of ostrich and oryx, since shot out by rifle hunters, before heading north for Merga, back to Selima and home via Wadi Halfa for a tot of rum.

The maps on the left and below show the routes of all these trips and Bagnold’s book, Libyan Sands (right) covering all these expeditions and more and is well worth reading. Reviewed here.

Sahara by 2WD Fat Bike

Some images and info from Cyclo Long Cours and Blida Nostalgie
fatfat

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.

naud-bob

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.

His bike may still be on display at the Museum of Sport in Paris

Garmin TOPO North Africa Light map review

mapv4

This review compares Garmin’s Topo North Africa v3 Light map with easily downloaded and free OSMs, Garmin’s basic global base map and other digital maps, where available. Topo North Africa V4 is now available.

Navigating the Sahara
Having used them since before the advent of GPS, I’ve got to know my Sahara paper maps well. Then, when GPS came along, I could pinpoint my position on the map with an accuracy that was more than adequate for desert travel. Some of these colonial-era maps such as the IGN 200s are cartographic works of art, and unlike current nav technology, in the deep Sahara topography changes at geological speeds.
In other words a Sahara paper map from 1960 will still be accurate today. Tracks may become roads and villages become towns, but the desert itself remains relatively unchanged. Is there a benefit in having a tiny map on your GPS rather than simply a waypoint to aim for or a tracklog to follow, even if your position on the map is displayed live? That’s essential for navigating a busy city with a Nuvi. But the Sahara is more like the sea where more often what you want is…

garminmap

… the big picture
A typical handheld device like my Garmin Montana (left) has a screen a little bigger than a playing card and which is hard to read on the move – especially on a bike. 
For me a ‘GPS’ (as opposed to a ‘satnav’ like a Nuvi – see below) is best at displaying simple data like how far, how fast, how high or which way, not fine topographic detail. A paper TPC map can display six square degrees over some 18 square feet – what you call ‘the big picture’. That’s what you need travelling with a vehicle in an expansive area like a desert, while at close range concentrating on negotiating the terrain.

mush

On top of excellent paper mapping (now widely digitised), we also have the wonder of Google or Bing sat imagery (Bing is often better) providing a clarity that varies from stunning (being able to follow car tracks) to a brown mush (both shown left).
Google sat is great when planning, and now for a reasonable annual subscription, Garmin offer Birds Eye satellite imagery for the whole globe; the long-sought after ‘Google sat in your GPS’. With all these resources navigating in the Sahara couldn’t be easier.

satnavorgps

Garmin Topo North Africa v3 Light

garmin-coverage

Short version
Even though old Olaf still measures up well, the similar topographic detail of the Garmin means it’s well worth the £20, certainly over the plainer, but also free OSMs. In 2018, following a refurb/repair of my Montana, the v1 2016 version of this map was lost or could not be reloaded. I had to buy the v3 version for another £20. A quick scan shows that not much changed, but if it has (based on OSM user updates), it will be in Morocco – the place where most users of this map will visit.

gar-atar

Long version
You download the Garmin Topo map directly into your device (takes about an hour) and only when your GPS device is plugged into a computer, will it display on BaseCamp. Unplug the GPS and the map disappears from BaseCamp.

Switching BaseCamp between Olaf, OSMs and even the Garmin base map which comes free with a GPS unit, it soon becomes clear that the Garmin Topo has a level of detail and refinement that’s superior to the next best thing: Olaf.

Occasionally at village level the OSM’s street-by-street detail is better, but that’s hardly vital. In towns and cities the extra shading distinguishes the Garmin from the plainer OSM, as shown for Tan Tan, left.

gar-tantan
Tan Tan

The chief difference is in the desert where the Garmin depicts relief and surface with more detail and clarity using shading, contours and colour where OSMs only use colour and Olaf only used contour lines which can be distracting.
Look at the Atar region (RIM) above right – an area of escarpments, canyons and dunes – all are reasonably accurately shown on the Garmin Topo. There’s an anomaly on the Topo map on the left (bottom panel) in that the (presumably automatically recorded) elevation variation in dunes depicts them as lots of small hills (which in a way, they are), but only once they’re above a certain height. Identifying dunes with contours is not helpful nor a cartographic convention. Shade and colour is best.

gar-msd
Garmin Top wins: that’ll be 20 quid please.

The piste and road detail on the Topo is pretty good: yellow for national highways, twin lines for secondary roads or piste, and a single line for a less used piste. A quick check in Morocco shows they’re all there; most of the ones I know are there in Mauritania too. In southern Algeria only a few main pistes are shown and certain ‘national highways’ are actually remote pistes never likely to be sealed. The Topo map would not be so useful here.
In any country dashed lines may well be walking trails, but as far as I can see, there is no key or legend with the Topo map. Some POIs are there too – just fuel stations and post offices as shown on the Tan Tan map, above.

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In places the Garmin copies the OSM’s annoying habit of again, marking high points (automatically?) as mountains which is a distraction, let alone inaccurate – for example when an escarpment gets shown as a string of peaks. If you drop the detail level enough notches on BaseCamp, these peaks (left) only disappear once all the useful tracks and place names have gone too. It’s great (and a bit puzzling) that this stuff is produced for free at all by OSM supporters, but the quickest flip to sat imagery would reveal the true nature of the relief.

So does the Garmin Topo map mean I’ll stop using Google or Bing imagery in the planning, or paper maps on the piste? I don’t think so. In places like Morocco the extent of marked pistes can be converted into accurate tracklogs, but with better surrounding detail than OSMs. And, unlike Olaf, there’s no aggro importing into a modern, touch-screen GPS. When I want to quickly verify where I am, a glance at the Garmin Topo map may be adequate.

I’ve been using the Garmin Topo map quite heavily on BaseCamp last couple of days, preparing a new edition of Morocco Overland. It’s an intuitive-reading map and I’ve found one benefit of using a Garmin map on Garmin software is that when stringing out a track with the ‘create a route’ tool, it automatically snaps onto even the thinnest track on the map just like Google maps. But the BaseCamp tool won’t do that with other installed maps like OSM or Olaf, or even the basic Garmin base map. Sometimes you have to trick the tool to go the way you want, but it makes stringing together hopefully accurate routes (as well as distances) very easy. Occasionally only Olaf will show a route you want to follow, in which case you make the route with lots of short, straight lines. No so hard.

Morocco Maps

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Reviews below only relate to the ‘Morocco Overland zone’ (left) and only the most useful maps are mentioned. The north of Morocco is not considered, although you assume any map will be OK up there too.
Med ferries and Morocco port access maps here. For Sahara maps click this.

Short version:
Get the latest Michelin 742 map to use in a car, or a grided, more robust and waterproof 2019 Reise Know-How (RK-H) map for a bike. Then, for your GPS/satnav, import as much free OSM as you can bear, do the same with offline Google Maps, or get Garmin’s bargain North Africa Light  (£20).

About paper Morocco country maps

Get a paper map of Morocco: they’re inexpensive, light, compact, don’t need recharging and give you the big picture which is great for planning at home, or deciding where to go next once out there. You can’t do that on your smartphone or GPS, handy though they are.

MoroccoMountains

There are up to a dozen Morocco country maps in print and taking into account scale, price, clarity, date of publication, presence of a long/lat grid and so on, the maps below are recommended for on and off-highway travel in the south of Morocco.
One thing quickly becomes clear: while you won’t get lost and die of thirst relying these maps, they’re all surprisingly inaccurate and tend to copy each other’s mistakes. Some minor routes shown as sealed are in fact little-used pistes, and some pistes depicted identically on several maps do not match the orientation shown, or don’t exist at all.
What also becomes evident is how many more interesting and easily navigable pistes there are in Morocco which don’t appear on these paper maps. The same can be said for villages; many established settlements on a par with other locally depicted places are missing, while some towns are given excessive prominence for what you’ll find there. This inconsistency with road and place ‘hierarchy’ is probably as old a complaint as mapping itself.
For navigating along the main ‘N’ highways in a motorhome the recommended maps are fine. But using them for reliable navigation and accurate position-finding on more obscure southern Moroccan back roads or tracks may be a hit and miss affair. For that a GPS or phone with a map is better (see below). Once you accept these limitations paper maps not so bad.

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Reise Know-How 1:1m 2019
Best for regular use and motos – £9.95

The 11th edition published in 2019 may have the same ‘old man in the mountains’ cover but appears to be a genuine update while retaining the usual errors.

The main changes:
• New Moroccan road numbers given alongside old ones. Nice touch
• Many more red RN roads added, finally
• Provincial names and boundaries shown (not so useful)

Flaws
• Fuel station info inconsistent (unless they mean ‘village fuel‘)
• Many tracks (grey) are easy-to-drive gravel roads/pistes (white)
• Many well-established pistes are missing; others are sealed roads (yellow or red)
• Some sealed roads are tracks (eg: RN14; off-limits, anyway)
• Some villages missing or misaligned

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In the end, recognising all these paper maps are flawed in some way, the German RKH was the one I use most. Why? Because unlike the Michelin, it won’t fall apart after less than an hour’s accumulated use, the accuracy and clarity are good enough once you know the pitfalls, and the double-sided printing makes it compact and easy to use in a crowded lift, shove in a bike’s tank net (right) or open out in a gale. I also find the intuitive 1:1m scale good for quick distance estimates (1mm = 1km) and the grid lines work well for estimating a position on the map off a GPS. They even squeeze an index round the edges and now, some pretty, touristic pictures.
Cartographically, the RKH isn’t the best design for me, but the 2019 is a bit lighter and if necessary you can eat your lunch off it, use it as an umbrella, origami it into a bowl and generally rough it up without it ending up like Michelin confetti. Plastic paper maps are the way to go.

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The biggest drawback with the RKH was the vague alignment of roads and tracks and not keeping with pistes which were sealed years ago. For regular tourists heading out in rental cars or campervans towards a sealed road on the map which turns out to be a piste is irritating. But they’re also missing out on many great backroad drives.
This map is hard to find as a digital download. RK-H don’t sell it anymore but this place does the 2013 edition for $8.

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Michelin 742 1:1m
Only £5.99 and best for planning, but fragile

Michelin, the best map for Morocco, right? It’s OK but the thin paper doesn’t lend itself to regular use, not helped by the fact that at over 1.5m wide, the 742 is a big map. What’s also missing is a Long/Lat grid. Why? Here’s a possible explanation*.

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Rather than city insets you get five useful sub-regions at 600k scale (notably Jebel Sirwa south of Marrakech), and even some useful climate stats. What I like most about this map is the intuitive 1:1m scale (a millimeter = a kilometre), the clear, functional Michelin design and the fact that it goes right down to Laayoune which means you can view all the book’s routes on one sheet (apart from the lower halves of Routes MO2 and MW6). And at £5.99 in the UK, it’s the cheapest of the recommended Morocco maps.
Roads and pistes wind around with believable intricacy (unlike the lazier RKH) and we get Michelin’s well-known scenic ‘green road’ feature which is pretty reliable. In places the forest and dune coverage isn’t to be relied on and it’s this sort of detail that you feel never gets updated.
As for the accuracy of secondary roads and pistes – a common failing on all these maps – look carefully at the Key (in five languages including Arabic). Unconventionally, uncoloured (white) roads with 
sol borders on both sides signify ‘road surfaced’, but one dashed edge means an all-out piste liable to the weather, though they’ve added a new designation: one dotted edge which means unsealed but usable in all-weather by all vehicles. Being vague about the type of surface is a conveniently ambiguous way of saying they could be surfaced with asphalt, gravel, egg mayonnaise or rocks. And of course some of these solid-edged ‘white roads’ are major two-lane highways where the regular yellow colouring would be more appropriate. And as on other maps, plenty of tracks mentioned in the book or on the digital maps below are missing and some white roads don’t exist. In places this data is years out of date but overall they don’t get it as badly or as conspicuously wrong as the RKH, below.
Note that so-called ‘new editions’ often add up to no more than a new cover design but in my experience the 742 is still one of the best maps for overlanding in Morocco.

* Try and draw on a grid and it soon becomes clear the 742 is tilted quite a few degrees east of north, probably because it’s extracted from the top left of their ‘North and West Africa’ 953 map which is north-centred on E16°. Without presumably expensive correction, putting a grid over a 742 would expose this lean all the more clearly and might put customers off. Don’t know what on earth I’m on about? Don’t worry it’s not that important.

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Digital maps for your GPS

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Open Source Mapping (OSM)
Similar to the much-loved Olaf (below) but now more up to date. On the link select ‘Morocco’ in the ‘Africa’ menu and choose to add or remove tiles as needed (less tiles may mean quicker map). You will need Garmin’s free MapInstall and Basecamp software.
Of the three digital map options for Morocco, this is the one I refer to last – and you can see why on the four-screen comparison below. The absence of topographic detail makes it harder to visualise the landscape, compared to the Garmin and Olaf

Garmin North Africa Topo £20
You will need Garmin’s free MapInstall and Basecamp software. This map is locked in your GPS unit so only shows and becomes editable with Basecamp on a computer screen when your GPS is attached to the computer. Click the link for a full review. Below the same region shown on four digital maps discussed here

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Marokko Topo GPS – ‘Olaf map’ 
(now superseded by Garmin and OSM)
Free download
‘Olaf’ is the adopted abbreviation for the free downloadable Marokko Topo GPS vector map produced by a guy called Olaf Kähler – don’t ask me how he did it, but updating ended in 2009. Olaf was fast and easy and gave you many more routes than the book plus usable city maps. It’s said the Garmin North Africa Topo took many Olaf originals, and it’s probably the same case with the OSMs which have now superseded Olaf.
Olaf obviously improved on a base map of Morocco you got in a standard GPS (see comparison above), and was enhanced by featuring tracks sent in as track logs by contributors to his project. But Olaf merrily published everything his contributors sent in, whether they were blundering around or following regular tracks, so not all routes are kosher.

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Sometimes an Olaf track can be out by a couple hundred metres and other tracks appear to be dead ends. Using Olaf on a Nuvi satnav (left), tracks appear as ‘fat’ orange and ‘thin’ grey lines. GPSs like Montanas may display them more clearly, but you can expect problems importing Olaf into Montanas and the like if you’re not that techy. Problems importing Olaf (not unusual)? Read this.

… and your smartphone or phablet?

apart from OSM,  you can now download Google Maps for offline use your phone’s GPS. You may not be able to download all of Morocco before the mb limit is reached, but it’s free and familiar. Other than that, search the internet for map apps which cover Morocco.

Other paper and digital/online mapping 

Google and Bing Maps
Can be brilliant for planning 
Used as a pre-planning road map, Google Maps‘ map page can be misleading on southern Morocco compared to the more detailed paper maps reviewed above. Click between ‘map’ to ‘satellite’ and you’ll often see how inaccurate the highway overlay is compared to the true satellite image, although the Terrain page can be illuminating. Pistes and roads are as out-of-date, incomplete, not labeled with the standard Moroccan N- or R- road/track designations, inaccurate in hierarchy (closed piste and two-lane blacktop shown as the same – the same flaw as TPCs) or are non-existent, just like the worst paper maps above. Furthermore, many town and village names are unrecognisable, presumably taken from non-standard US sources. Zoomed in, you can look at the Google map on Morocco a long time before you find a name you recognise and work out where you are.

However, Google Map’s satellite page (or Google Earth) is particularly effective in vividly dramatising and navigating the arid topography of a place like southern Morocco, even if resolution/clarity on some of the segments appear shot through the bottom of a Coke bottle at F1.8. In that case, check out Bing Maps’ Aerial view; zoom in close enough and suddenly it jumps from what looks like overboiled spinach soup to eye-popping clarity.

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Bing Chegara (left) • Google Chegaga ®ght) 

Either platform at its best look as crisp as peering down from a hot air balloon. On Erg Chebbi you can even spot the tourist bivouacs in the dunes. Google Earth needs many of the layers unchecked which often contain wildly inaccurate ‘user-added’ junk, but Bing or Google, on the ground at last you have a WYSIWYG ‘map’ that cannot lie. With My Places you can preview your route or cook up new links between pistes, discover new areas and generally be thrilled at the bird’s eye view of Morocco. Where the res is good, it’s brilliant.

Book review: DIE ERSCHLIESUNG DER SAHARA DURCH MOTORFAHRZEUGE 1901-1936 ~ Werner Nother

pid449828DIE ERSCHLIESUNG DER SAHARA DURCH MOTORFAHRZEUGE 1901-1936
[Opening up the Sahara by Motor Vehicle, 1901-36]
Werner Nother (try amazon.de)

propcarI would not normally review German books here, even if some of the best material may be in that language, but hardcore Saharans may be interested in this huge  book, a breeze block three times the size of Sahara Overland.
Werner Nother is one of a handful of German-speaking uber Saharans known to me and a registered ergoholic. Among his many Saharan achievements are mapping every last lake and paleo-lake in the Ubari Sand Sea years before they appeared on the tourist trail (his Hilux is pictured on p.82 of Sahara Overland).

I heard it took him ten or twenty years to complete this massive book – a record of every pioneering expedition by motor car and bike trip into the Sahara in the first third of the last century. I can’t understand a word of it but the many archive photos and crystal clear maps are good enough to illustrate the advent of the automobile in the Sahara. Some of the early solutions to the problem of soft sand traction are ingenious – they cottoned on to giant caterpillar/belt drives pretty early, though the propeller cars look like they may have had pilot suction problems. And our strange friend Byron Prorok (see other reviews) is in here too.

Interestingly, one sees that all the main pistes as depicted on the Mich 741 and including the Libyan Desert were all established by the mid-30s. And yet took them another 70-odd years to finally seal the Sahara (followed by an eternity of maintenance…). The many maps also highlight places and routes that may have slipped from the contemporary Saharan radar, offering endless opportunities for historic trips ‘in the wheel tracks of’. I suspect this is a fascinating account of early motoring in the Sahara.