A few shots from a recent two-week fly in tour to southeastern Algeria with Wustenfahrer. For the full trip report, click here.
Part of an occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
Climbing the highest mountain in Africa’s last unclaimed territory
Ginge Fullen (right) is a Guinness-record holding mountaineer and adventurer who among other things, has climbed the highest peak in every African country. Bir Tawil has long been on his radar and the recent division of Sudan sees him planning to visit the Deriba caldera in Darfur in the near future.
In the northern Nubian desert between Egypt and Sudan lies Bir Tawil, an unoccupied 800-square mile quadrangle claimed by neither state. It’s a bureaucratically difficult and potentially dangerous place to reach but has been on my list for some time.
Terra Nullius is a Latin expression for ‘nobody’s land’; it was how Cook described Australia in 1770. Here in the Nubian Desert, it originates from a bizarre situation stemming from the simplest of borders: a straight line along the 22nd parallel drawn in 1899 when Britain formed Anglo-Egyptian Sudan following Kitchener’s campaigns in Sudan. In 1902 Britain sought to modify that boundary to reflect the actual use of the land by the region’s tribes. It counters a complaint commonly made these days about Foreign Office officials blithely marking maps with rulers and in part causing the current grief in the Middle East and Africa.
Bir Tawil lies below the 22nd parallel but the land was traditionally grazd by the Ababdu tribe from Aswan in Egypt. Similarly the adjacent Halaib Triangle, a much bigger area to the east and above the parallel was placed under British Sudanese control as its Beja inhabitants were culturally and ethnically closer to Sudan. Today Egypt resolutely claims the 1899 border including the Halaib Triangle, whilst Sudan sticks to the administrative border of 1902. As a result both claim the Halaib Triangle with its 130 miles of Red Sea shore, but neither are interested in the barren wastes of Bir Tawil.
Bir Tawil is not an easy place to reach, requiring permission from either government to visit; a two-day trip into the desert risking encounters with armed gangs or smugglers. I opted for Sudan as I wanted to get a feel for the country to which I plan to return to climb the highest peak in the troubled Darfur region. (In 2004, before Sudan divided to form South Sudan, I climbed Mount Kinyeti, then the highest point in that country).
In Khartoum I organised everything through Tour-Sudan agency. The owner Midhat Mahir was by far the most pro-active individual I contacted and as it turned out, the best connected. In Sudan government permits are required for everything from registering lodgings outside Khartoum to photography and even permission to buy a detailed map from the Surveyor’s Office. The Sudanese clearly like their paperwork as well as keeping track of you. I needed a dozen copies of my travel permit to hand out to checkpoints along the way.
The plan was a week’s trip leaving me two days in Bir Tawil to locate and climb the highest point. Midhat’s brother Moez would accompany me with two drivers on the 500-mile trek north of Khartoum, around half of it on tarmac the rest across the Nubian desert.
Forget snakes and scorpions or the possibility of breakdown and never being found, the road to Abu Hamed felt like the most dangerous part of this little adventure. Terrible driving and being forced off the road by unlit vehicles was the nearest brush with death I’ve had in a while.
In Abu Hamed we filled up with fuel and water and a few miles north of town left the road and crossed over the railway lines for the last time. I input some coordinates from Grant, my go-to person when tackling unclimbed peaks in dodgy countries. You can’t beat the thrill of heading into a remote place with little available information.
We headed north along flat desert towards the Wadi Gabgaba which would bring us to within 20 miles of our objective. Very soon we started to pass gold miners and for the next hundred miles found the desert had been turned upside down. A gold rush was underway and several thousand men were working hundreds of excavators while individuals were trying their luck with metal detectors. All unlicensed and unregulated, with tons of litter blew across the desert it looked very ugly indeed.
Hoping to keep a low profile, that night we camped well off the main route and away from the miners. In Khartoum I’d gotten hold of a colonial-era 1:25,000 map from the National Survey and the next morning we found ourselves on old routes marked as ‘fair going’ by surveyor W Jennings-Bramley back in 1925. By camel he might have covered 20 miles a day; we did the same distance in just an hour.
Our initial destination was the 609-metre peak of Jebel Bartazuga marking the southernmost corner of the Bir Tawil quadrangle. It came into view, very prominent in the otherwise flat desert. I thought we had left the last of the gold miners but I was wrong; a camp had set up here too on the very boundary of Bir Tawil.
On my return leg I climbed Jebel Bartazuga, topped with an old trig point by the British to mark the boundary when they surveyed the area. Flags have also been placed here from others who’ve recently been laying claims to the territory, but they’ve all long since blown away.
Probably the first westerner here in recent times was former Guardian journalist Jack Shenker in 2011. American Jeremiah Heaton followed in 2014, claiming the area as the ‘Kingdom of North Sudan’, thus delivering on a promise to make his daughter a ‘princess’. He’s in dispute with a Russian called Dmitry Zhikharev who made similar claims, and in 2017 Indian adventurer Suyash Dixit planted a tree and put up yet another flag. There are other claimants including the ‘Kingdom of the State of Bir Tawil’ with its own national anthem and the ‘Empire of Bir Tawil’. I wasn’t interested in such claims but was of course intent on climbing Bir Tawil’s highest peak which I believed had yet to be done.
Once over the border we headed towards the eastern end of the territory and Jebel Hagar el Zarqa. On the 1925 map it was shown as the highest point in the land at just 705m (2313’), but one man’s hill is another man’s mountain. It lay some 30 miles away and we headed straight for it; in reality zigzagging through a maze of sandy wadis. Just five miles away our target came in sight and, as I’ve said before on my travels in Africa, once I was so close it would take an army of natives riding a herd of wild elephants and throwing landmines to stop me. Given that we saw no one during our time in Bir Tawil, I felt confident. We weaved our way nearer and nearer and by mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve parked up at the base of the mountain.
My aim was to sleep on summit but Moez my guide warned it might be chilly. It may the mid-winter but this is still the Sahara so I replied I’d probably survive but suggested he took his big down jacket. Around 4pm, as the sun’s heat diminished we set off, following the edge of a gully until we met a ridge about half way up. Here it was mostly scree but in less than an hour we were on the summit. With a new African peak ticked off, Moez and I shook hands.
Low hills surrounded us and Egypt’s actual border was just eight miles to the north. There was a cairn here so I was not the first, but probably the first in a very long time. Moez suggested we drop down a little out of the wind but he knew what my answer would be: we would build a windbreak right on the summit. We set about clearing an area for our wall and once done, even Moez seemed reassured. The wind did pick up later but our wall did its job.
That night the stars were bright as they always are in the desert and some 100,000 light years away The Milky Way beamed over us like a highway to another world. I envied the future explorers and slept well in our starlit bedroom.
As often, the desert brings on reflective thoughts. I was now 50 years old; where had all the time gone? It’s scary that you’re over half way through your life and find yourself looking more to the past than the future. When you’re young the world is infinite and filled with mystery – immortality beckons. As years roll on the world remains thankfully mysterious but feels less big and the impression of immortality slips through your hands. Death was something that only happened to other people and time was unlimited so you don’t push yourself or do the things you promised you would. But once you grasp mortality good things can result – the ticking clock helps you focus on new challenges.
The sun rose around six and was all ours to see; our bivi on top of Jebel Hagar had served us well. After a few more photos we headed down for our Christmas breakfast of coffee, porridge and eggs. I spent the next two days exploring wadis I’m sure no one has seen in decades and hiking a few other peaks to make sure there was nothing higher. With my short visit to Bir Tawil coming to an end, we headed back to Jebel Bartazuga for our last desert night.
I enjoyed my time back in the Sahara; it reaffirmed my view that there’s still adventure to be had in this world, you just have to get out and find it. The greater the effort, the more worthwhile the journey.
A good friend of mine who died on Everest in 1997 certainly lived his life that way. Mal Duff was old enough to be wise yet far too young to die. His gravestone bears the following words from a poem by fellow Scot, James Graham and twenty years on, it feels a good time to remember his epitaph:
He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
That dares not put it to the touch
To win or lose it all
249 (0) 912253484
Part of an occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
… I had reason to believe that there existed, in the Western Sahara, a vast depression which might be submerged by the waters of the Atlantic, thus opening a navigable way to [Timbuktu]…
Visit Tarfaya on Cape Juby and just offshore you will see the curious Casa del Mar fort (left), beyond the St Exupery monument. Port Victoria or Mackenzie’s factory are other names for the trading post of the North West Africa Trading Company, established by Scotsman, Donald Mackenzie in 1882 during the ‘Scramble for Africa’.
Mackenzie’s venture hoped to capitalise on the recent westward swing of the trans-Saharan caravan trade emanating from Timbuktu, by intercepting caravans before they reached the terminus at Wadi Noun (near today’s Guelmin). In fact in a decade or more the NWAT Co barely covered its costs after compensation was finally agreed against an earlier raid and to abandon it in favour of the Moroccan sultanate.
It reminds you that colonisation at the time wasn’t purely a state affair, where armies marched off to conquer distant lands. Ahead of them strode adventurer-entrepreneurs with funds raised from venture capitalists and who gambled everything on striking it rich. It was their reports, or better still, a government charter to supply a commodity or service, which preceded more cautious colonisation, very often spurred by other European rivals nosing around for an as yet unclaimed slice of the cake.
It’s hard to find out much about Donald Mackenzie, but in 1877, a few years before he set up the North West Africa Trading Company, he had a far more radical idea to capitalise on the trans-Saharan trade.
He proposed nothing less than flooding the interior of the Sahara from the Atlantic so that, with the addition of a few canals which had proved so successful in Britain prior to the age of rail, ships could sail directly to Timbuktu and the Niger river in a matter of days, avoiding the arduous overland journey of weeks. As a side benefit the flooding would ‘green’ the Sahara, enabling agriculture to thrive on the wind-blown sands.
This was the era of grand engineering projects like the Suez Canal (completed 1869) and the Panama Canal (first serious attempt 1881). A canal to the trading heart of West Africa could be a similar commercial coup.
It’s hard to think what gave Mackenzie this idea, other than conflating lurid traders’ descriptions of El Djouf (left) with the small depressions or sebkhas near Cape Juby. The biggest of these is the Sebkha Tah, some 55m below sea level and just 15km from the Atlantic, but still no bigger than Malta. For some reason he believed that the vast El Djouf (part of the million-square-kilometre Majabat al Koubra or ‘Empty Quarter’) was a huge depression which had once been connected to the Atlantic via the Seguia el Hamra or some such, but had become cut off and dried out.
Mackenzie had never actually travelled in this area (other than a camel tour up to Port Consado – present day Khenifiss – and down to Layounne during the NWAT Co era; map right) but had read of other larger desert depressions in Tunisia and Egypt, similar to those near Cape Juby. All these basins held seasonally dry salt lakes which may have suggested that flooding was plausible. He believed an inland sea the size of Tunisia or Oklahoma would soon be formed, paving an inland seaway to Timbuktu.
Mackenzie diligently read up on all your great 19th-century Saharan explorers: Barth, Rohlfs, Caille, Duveyrier, Clapperton, and in 1877 published an exhaustive proposal [available online] to ‘The Presidents and Members of the Chambers of Commerce of Great Britain‘ stressing ‘the importance of holding commercial intercourse with the interior‘.
Vividly detailing at third hand the riches, economy, geography and ethnicities in this corner of Africa, he firmly believed his northern route reaching down into the African interior was the key, avoiding the disease-ridden equatorial jungles and pagan tribes further south in favour of the more sophisticated vestiges of the West African Islamic states. Under his proposal land distances for the annual camel caravans from Timbuktu would be halved, with Cape Juby just nine sea days from Britain. De Lesseps himself, the force behind the Suez and original Panama canals, supported the idea of Saharan flooding, believing a side benefit would somehow improve the European climate while greening the desert for agriculture.
Mackenzie also thought that trade and communications would help liberate the sub-Sahran population from the slave trade. And this wasn’t just a ploy to appeal to investors’ morals or religious beliefs – Mackenzie’s later work in East Africa after the NWAT Company dissolved suggested he was always a genuine abolitionist.
According to his upbeat proposal (is there any other kind?) Mackenzie has it all worked out: do a recce to get the tribal chiefs on board at Cape Juby and Timbuktu, locate the channel in El Djouf and unplug that Atlantic cork.
I have no doubt of the ultimate achievement of this project, he wrote in the proposal’s introduction. But investors seemed less keen and, were it even possible, you’d think in creating a shallow, hyper-saline lake, the only thing that would grow would be salt crystals. The fact is the interior of the Sahara, including the dune-filed expanse of El Djouf spanning the Mali-Mauritania border, is a low plateau some 3-500 metres above sea level. Someone ought to tell Conde Nast Traveler.
Mackenzie had slightly less difficulty finding investors for Port Victoria a few years later, and decade or three after that, Jules Verne fictionalised the idea in his last published book, The Invasion of the Sea, set in Tunisia.
Pictures from Emile Leray’s website and the web
In July 2012, a couple of years before fake news had become a thing, online media tripped over itself to syndicate a compelling Saharan survival story evoking the gripping 1965 desert drama, Flight of the Phoenix.
And now, five years later, a video has just appeared on youtube (below) where the aged and batty-looking adventurer again recounts his incredible desert caper.
Back in 2012 full details and motivations were skimmed over, but the story goes that in March 1993, 43-year-old Frenchman Emile Leray set off from Tan-Tan to drive his Citroen 2CV east to Zagora – more or less MW2 from the book (left), followed by MS8 from Tata.
But with the Polisario ceasefire just 18 months old and frequently being broken, at Tilemsen the Moroccan army stopped him from continuing south towards Mseid, the former Polisario front line. Leray turned back towards Tan-Tan, but not before incurring some animosity from the army by refusing to give a soldier a lift back to town – a common request at remote Saharan checkpoints.
Just west of Tilemsen, Leray ‘had an idea’. He decided to circumvent the checkpoint to the north (see MW1 KM22), and rejoin MW2 eastwards. But once on the piste (or off-road, as claimed) one of the 2CV’s suspension arms broke after hitting a hole too hard. With ten days’ provisions on board, but reluctant to easily walk-out and leave his car vulnerable to theft, he decided to strip his crippled Citroen down to a rudimentary motorcycle and ride out as if nothing much happened. The powertrain and suspension of a 2CV makes such a conversion plausible.
The way the story was initially reported in English – using images shot in a quarry (left) – Saharan know-alls like myself were initially sceptical. If it really happened why not just walk back half a day to the road? But while researching the yarn more closely for the Morocco book, reading his own account published in a 2CV enthusiasts’ magazine a decade after the events , a faint ring of truth came through. Perhaps he did make the 2CV bike, but not in quite the circumstances he claimed.
As the TV show, Mythbusters proved for themselves, his contraption was barely rideable (left) and within a day Lalay says he was caught by a desert patrol camping in the desert and instructed to lead them back to the car’s remains to corroborate his story. Ironically, he goes on to claim (with convincing documentary evidence) that he ended up paying a 4500-dh tax for driving a vehicle which did not conform to the one he originally imported to Morocco a few weeks earlier. vehicle, even though he’d taken pains to tack on his ‘Steel Camel’s’ original plate.
Below is the translated story as posted on Leray’s website so you can form your own impression. Bear in mind there’s no reason to believe this account told it like it was, but it may have been the original version. My feeling is the 2CV bike was indeed built in the desert, much as Leray claims, but that he set out with the explicit intention of performing this task. Otherwise he’d have walked out like any normal person in such a situation. His unease about leaving the stricken car seems disingenuous. All experienced Saharan travellers accept that if there’s absolutely no choice, their vehicle is a disposable asset.
In March 1993 Emile Leray set off to follow a route from Tan-Tan to Zagora. He left Tan-Tan with the required reserves of fuel and provisions as well as tools to keep his old 2CV on the road.As soon as the Royal Gendarmerie arrives, it strongly discourages him from continuing further, because the zone beyond Tilemsem is prohibited, following new developments in the conflict between Morocco and Western Sahara. Emile must obviously turn around and the soldiers are asking him to take a passenger back to Tan-Tan.
Analyzing the situation, and seeing his project thwarted, Emile claims an insurance problem that does not allow him to take passengers, arguing that his 2 CV is already very loaded. He knows full well that in Africa it’s seen very badly to not take passengers aboard his car in these circumstances. He claims naivety and misunderstanding in adopting the attitude of a tourist not familiar with local customs.
Emile then returns to Tan-Tan under the disgruntled and disapproving look of the soldiers. He starts off at a good pace as he’s afraid he will be followed and he wants to remain out of sight of those whom he has just left. His plan is to bypass the area off-piste and return to his original direction … After a few kilometres he leaves the track to the north and traverses uneven and rocky ground.
After bouncing more strongly, the car jumps and brutally strikes a rock. He must stop because the 2CV does not respond very well. And for good reason – a folded wheel arm and broken spar …
Émile organizes his encampment around the broken 2 CV and reflects on the situation. He is a few miles from Tan-Tan which he could reach on foot, but he runs the risk of leaving is car certainly in bad point but still able to attract theft, including its equipment. In the desert nothing is permanently lost, especially for the one who knows where to look…
He has enough food and water so makes a decision which is to say the least, amazing: from his wreck, he will build a two-wheeled machine! One by one he carefully considered all the technical obstacles that this entails, and this master of African bush mechanics has all the tools and the elements to succeed in the task.
The next morning he began to dismantle the 2CV, first removing the body which he will use as shelter against the cool nights and sandstorms. Having no long-sleeved shirts, against the burning sun he makes sleeves from a pair of socks.
With what remains of the car, Emile Leray will try to build a motorcycle. Overnight he mentally reviewed all the stages and difficulties involved in this rather crazy project … A project that he had probably imagined for a long time but without having had the opportunity to realize it.
The wheel arms (to be removed with a hacksaw) are nested upside down on a reduced chassis of the front and rear side rails. The engine and the gearbox are then placed on the chassis, in the center. Space should be reserved for the battery and the fuel tank and to keep space for luggage without neglecting the layout of the steering system.
The most surprising thing about this 2CV motorcycle is the transmission. It was inspired by the Vélosolex moped idea: the engine drives a drum which in turn turns the tyre by friction, and which, by the laws of physics and mechanics, obliges it to roll with the reverse. Disassembling the gearbox to reverse the differential would have been too risky in this universe of sand …
It seems unthinkable to assemble this machine in the desert without the help of a drill and welding station. All parts were assembled by screwing. When drilling, it will be done in the African way: the piece of metal is folded to 90 ° to form an edge. At a fixed point this edge is weakened by a hacksaw or round file. At the limit of the drilling, the piece must be replaced flat to perforate the filed point with a hammer or a needle. The assemblies were made as much as possible according to the original holes of the chassis or engine-box unit.
The rest is only a matter of time dependent on the quantity of his provisions. Émile believes he must spend three days building his bike – in reality it will take twelve …
There was a great deal of uncertainty to carry out this project and it wasn’t so easy to realize as one might think. The possibility of failure remained present throughout the adventure, giving some anguish to the stranded mechanic.
The 2CV motorcycle was obviously not conceived for the sake of comfort, it is a rather secondary notion that was not imperative in what we can call the specifications. The prototype has therefore not benefited from some desirable improvements. It should be noted that, for example, the exhaust is free, so the nose and the ears benefit greatly from the engine’s gases. The bike does not have a brake, nor does it have foot rests which allow some control of the trajectory with the feet, because the craft lacks stability. On the first test the bike fell over, causing a great scare to Emile, who almost found himself crushed under his 200-kilo machine.
The arrangement of the clutch and accelerator controls were particularly tedious. It was necessary to dismantle, adjust and reassemble the parts for optimum operation. Similarly, the tests were punctuated by frequent falls. To lift the two-wheeled steel camel proved particularly physically difficult … All these circumstances contributed to prolong Emile stay in the desert. The final day was be spent adjusting and testing and cleaning the bivouac site.
It was an occasion to immortalize the moment thanks to a small camera with the trigger connected by a long string. Émile poses in the middle of a place that in March 1993 was the theatre of his unusual feat.
He leaves the next afternoon leaving the parts that he will not use in the body shell of the 2CV. He takes with him the rest of his food (more than a litre and a half of water), the bed, the tool box, not forgetting maps and compass. A small foam mattress and a towel sewn together will serve as a tent.
After a bumpy ride and a few stops for mechanical improvements, he encamped and slept at the edge of a track. In the night, he is awakened by three soldiers in 4×4, one of which immediately recognizes the “tourist” of Tilemsem. Very irritated to find him in the forbidden zone, he strongly doubts Emile Leray’s explanations; an accident followed by the transformation into a motorcycle. Intrigued by the machine, but totally incredulous, the soldier demands to see the carcass of the 2CV to have proof of this incredible story.
The officer puts an armed guard by the tent and the motorcycle, then embarks with Émile in the 4×4. After an hour of research in the dark, the remains of the 2 CV cannot be found. Back at the camp, Émile is allowed to rest near the motorcycle until dawn, guarded a hundred meters away by the military in their 4×4. The next day, the carcass was found and the soldiers relax. Émile will learn later that his interlocutor wanted to recover the abandoned pieces for his brother-in-law …
In the early morning, Emile was ordered to take his motorcycle back, and ride in front of the 4×4. The convoy sets off slowly towards Tan-Tan but several falls seriously annoy the soldier, pestering against this unstable machine. Eventually the soldier calls by radio for another 4×4 to come to recover the 2CV motorcycle.
Arriving at Tan-Tan on April 6th, things get complicated with a lot of bureaucratic hassles. At the provincial governor’s office, a report is drawn up, as well as by the Royal Gendarmerie. The vehicle is impounded.
Emile has the disagreeable surprise of learning that he has to pay a tax of 4500 dirhams. He is very unhappy because the customs officers had spoken to him on the eve of mere formalities. The vehicle is regarded as dangerous and no longer corresponds to the description of the registration documents.
“Delay in importing a non-conforming vehicle” is the charge, and by paying the fine he can regain his freedom and recover his contraption, but not be allowed to drive it. One could say a lot from this misadventure about the complicated relations between Africans and Europeans on the issue of money …
The next day Emile is summoned to sign the forms to exit the territory, and leave for France. He thinks he should come back as soon as possible to get the bike back, but by then he must find a place to park it. There is no question that he leaves her in the pound, it may cost him dearly, and the place is not guarded. A customs officer who is more sympathetic than his colleagues offers to take the steel camel home while waiting for him to return to Morocco.
A month later Emile made the 3500-km journey between Rennes and Tan-Tan with another 2CV to pick up his motorcycle, now dismantled in three parts …
Since then, the steel-motorcycle camel has enjoyed the honors of the press and participated in a few events such as the Aventure and the Inventors of Rennes, the fiftieth anniversary of the 2 CV in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, Without forgetting the Motards have heart.
Émile returned several times to Africa, and in 2006 took a new opportunity for the Doctor of African mechanics to exercise his transformational talents on the steel camel [below]… For more information: full story and technical details in 2 CV Magazine March-April 2003
updated December 2017
Over the years there’s been talk of a High Atlas crossing in 100-km span between the MH12 Demnate backroad (right) and MH1 via Agoudal. The 4000-m ridge of the Mgoun massif separates them. There are trekking trails which probably could be threaded together on a light bike, but now Moroccan road builders have completed what I’ve dubbed ‘MH19‘, a route usable in any vehicle as long as conditions allow.
I heard about it too late to describe fully in the 2017 edition (right), although it is mapped on page 110 (below left). I got to ride the route on a 250 just as the book was published in October 2017, and again about a month later southbound in a 4×4. Like many Morocco routes it’s a straightforward drive once you find the start points, doable without much of a description or GPS. Northbound, all you need to know is:
1. Fork right, off the road at the top end of Alemdoun village (above left) for Ouzighimte, (aka: El Mrabitine).
Southbound, just east of Tabant turn right (south) over the ford (right) for the easy 17-km climb to the Ait Imi pass.
2. Have a 200km fuel range.
Elevation profiles show the road climbing steeply from the south up to the Aït Hamad pass, but the gradient on the entire route is never extreme, and as long as the surface remains smooth, the route is doable in a regular car or a fully loaded big adv bike.
It took us 3 hours to ride the 80-km of piste from Alemdoun to Tabant, and about the same southbound in a 4×4.
At Ouzighimte (aka Ameksar?) we chose the gorge route (right) instead of the new climb over the pass, a great diversion and the original route) which is still used by local Merc van buses. Coming north, turn off at the bend as you enter Amejgag village and wind your way north through the village to the gorge.
The route is sealed for the first 40km to Alemdoun (cafes, fuel at the shop if you ask; diesel 60dh/5L). On the way you’ll pass many Rose Valley auberges in the villages Kasbah Agoulzi recommended). At the end of Alemdoun, leave the road and keep right (north), not west with the tarmac. Now on the dirt, climb up to Amejgag village. Here the original piste splits right (east) to pass through the village and follow the Amejgag Gorge and the river north to join up in the Ameskar valley in about 10km. Most local traffic uses this narrow route.
Otherwise, the new route takes you up to a 2350-m pass (right; KM50) before dropping down to Ameskar and joining the gorge route (KM56). Now the steep climb begins to the 3042-metre Tizi n’Ait Hamad (~KM65). From the top of this pass (left; telecom tower; bloke in a hut) Jebel Mgoun summit (4071m; second only to Toubkal) is a 16km walk to the west. This was the rougher part of the crossing, but still smooth enough to be doable in a 2WD or a heavy bike.
You descend from the Ait Hamad (above), climb an intermediate pass then descend into the valley of the Mgoun river, bypassing some remote villages of El Mrabitine. This descent is on a broader, metalled road, though it was still covered in loose gravel in 2017. You cross the Mgoun stream (KM83; ford) and climb less steeply to the Tizi n’Aït Imi (2898m; ~KM98). At the top Aït Bouguemaze valley lies 20km below. Near busy Tabant village (KM117) the tarmac resumes, with shops and basic bap cafes before you join MH18 (if heading west). As the whole area is popular with trekkers, there are several auberges hereabouts.
There is a small Total just west of the Rose roundabout in Kella; the point where you turn north off the N10. At the Aït Bouguemaze end, the nearest fuel is either Azilal, 79km to the north via MH17 – a fabulous drop from the pine forests. Or stay on MH18 west to Demnate; 83km – about 90 mins of near constant bends.
Total fuel-to-fuel distance from Kelaa to either is around 200km, but there is drum fuel at the shop at the top end of Alemdoun.
“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 Sands Ralph Bagnold 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.