Some time ago someone kindly gave me the official ASO roadbook from the 2007 Lisbon-Dakar Rally, the last one to be held in the Sahara.
Following the murder of a French family in Mauritania just before the Rally (actually thought to be criminals not terrorists), additional threats saw the 2008 event cancelled at the last minute. The following year the Rally moved to South America where it continued to thrive with less controversy until it moved again to Saudi in 2020.
The longest stage in 2007 was across the top of Western Sahara from Tan Tan on the Atlantic to the Mauritanian mining town of Zouerat – 817km via Smara with a tea break at Bir Mogrein. The shortest stage was still 500km long, through the light jungles of western Mali and Senegal where I limped over the border into Senegal some thirty years earlier on two flat tyres (right). I passed plenty of Dakar racers that year too, and eventually ended up in Dakar myself (above left), but not on any sort of podium. Below some snapshots from the Last Roadbook from what many still feel was the last real Dakar.
This book is a cracker. In 1959, with the French Sahara convulsed by wars of independence, Newman, an engineer who’d failed to launch “a product two years ahead of its time” jacks it all in to visit a friend in Nigeria. But unlike his friend, Newman decides to drive all the way across the desert – “the sort of adventure that had my nerve endings tingling”. And to make matters harder he chooses to do it in his new Ford Zephyr. “In a saloon car it’s impossible” his Nigerian friend urges him, having struggled to reach Nigeria from Dakar in a Landrover. “I’ll see you in six weeks” was Newman’s firm reply. Trouble was, he’d spent £3000 preparing the car, was running out on the HP, and was skint.
The romance sours and he’s turned back at the border near Foum el Hassan by the Moroccans where the FLN (sheltering in newly independent Morocco) and the French (clinging on to Algeria) were still battling it out. Infuriated by this reversal and convinced that his sheer determination and self-importance will win the day, he tries to bully people into overruling the decision but eventually has to storm off to Oujda on the opposite side of the country. Here again he’s repelled and so decides to charge illegally into Algeria.
“To hell with them. It was impossible was it? I’d show them whether it was!”
And so he and his Swiss hitcher muddle overnight through machine-gun fire into French/Algerian territory. He gets interrogated in Bechar, loses his suspicious companion and eventually gets permission to go west to Tindouf, alone. But it’s August so he has a hard time of it; gets repeatedly stuck, gets lost, gets desperate and at times flips out. He shoots his soup can with his ’45 and chases gazelles to exhaustion through the night – but then fondles them lovingly. Arriving at Tindouf (then a military base) he’s treated as a hero, given much free hospitality, admiration and a guide to Bir Mogrein (“my big worry – that he would smell – was completely unfounded“). Then the poor old Zephyr begins to break up: first the drive shaft, then the clutch, he gets one shipped up from Dakar but the rally-spec engine blows up too. He flies to Dakar expecting the embassy or the Ford agents to bail him out, but merely gets repatriated ‘on bail’. Back home, he borrows some money from his mother, flies back out with a new companion and engine bits to then stagger down to Dakar, on the way exhausting his welcome with the French who now see him as an irresponsible scrounger.
His bad reputation rolls ahead of him like a bow wave and in the Gambia he’s been forced to stay in natives’ lodgings. The climate turns on them and at one point he threatens to shoot a ferryman who – of all things – requests payment to barge him across the Faleme river into Mali. Penniless and with his companion now struck down with fever, they lurch from village to lorry, scrounging fuel, tow starts and food. After Bamako it’s relatively plain sailing to Nigeria (another engine in Ghana), but his friend has long since left. With his car a wreck, the book ends with Newman boasting that he’ll return north via the Hoggar route in summer. It’s impossible, after all! If he did, there is no record of a book about it, The Forgotten Path was published five years later when he was 35. Even allowing for the era, Newman puts himself across like some arrogant rich-boy/student thinking the world owed him and his ‘impossible’ undertaking, making even Geoffrey ‘Fearful Void’ Moorhouse look reasonable. Time and again he boils over when friends, strangers, hotel staff or – for pity’s sake! – when embassy refuse to bail him out, and yet he obviously started the trip nearly broke with plans of ‘selling film rights’ while bouncing cheques like a Haarlem Globetrotter. It’s this breathtaking arrogance and the lively ‘what-on-earth-could-happen-next’ pace that drives you through this short book. One admires adventurousness of course, but in his own words Newman comes across as deeply obnoxious and who deserved everything he got. Available online for a couple of quid.