Tag Archives: Conrad Killian

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

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

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).

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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.

Mountain of Goats

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Que dit Mohamed?
Mohamed, il dit qu’il accepte de vous conduire ou vous voulez, du Tenere, aux Azzjers, du Mouydir aux Iforas, il crevera s’il le faut son chameau pour vous plaire; 
mais vous accompagner a la Garet, jamais!… Il y a des Djenouns mon Captan… Pas un homme du Hoggar ne vous accompagnera sur les flancs de la Garet…

Garet, first ascent, 1935. Carnets Saharienes by Roger Frison-Roche

November 2005. Photos me, Jon and Nick

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Jon, me and Nick-the-Cam flew into Tam to shoot Mountain of Spirits (MoS), another ageing idea of mine brushed down, spruced up and slotted into the ‘let’s do it’ category.
Unable to find a cast, Jon and I worked through our inherent modesty and decided to be in it ourselves. In 2003 Desert Riders ended with me crashing out as Jon and I neared Garet with the intention of climbing it. So our film had a theme. Indeed my interest in Garet ran back to my first Saharan trip in ’82.

Tam airport car park 3am and a whole bunch of French and German fly-ins dispersed with us into the desert, to regroup a fortnight later for the flight back, some limping, some in slings, most with suntans and chi-chi headwear.

By the skin of our teeth we managed to slip thousands of pounds of camera gear and other restricted items through the scanners and past Customs, and spent the night in a house in Tam. Wanting to keep it simple and being hard men of the desert (or attracted to that idea on film!) the original plan had been to do it all out the back of a pickup; us three in the back, the crew up front. But the permit people were appalled at the idea: “Tourists are NOT goats” they exclaimed, so a station wagon was roped in. Just as well, the brief sessions filming in the back proved it would have been a rough fortnight indeed.

We headed up to Tahat (2908m), Atakor west side, for a warm-up slog into the Saharan Death Zone. It should have been an easy walk but luck – or was it the djenouns? – was against us. Lots of rain in 2005 and amazingly streams were still running out of the Hoggar. Tahat base camp we could have made at a pinch, but on up to Assekrem was washed-out (never easy at the best of times). Not wanting to lose time, we grabbed a few shots, scooted back to town and took the regular way up to Assekrem for a cozy night in the lodge and the dramatic sunset/sunrise.

The descent to Hirafok is still a spring-munching crawl at times. In places smoother than when I last did it in 2000, elsewhere cut up by the recent run-off. Still, as I was already finding, you sure notice a whole lot more when you’re not driving. Nevertheless, I was reminded that the Atakor is a grim and rough place where you’re jammed on the pistes. If it wasn’t for Assekrem being a ‘must-do’, I wouldn’t bother when you compare it to the lovely sandstone and granite ranges nearby.

By now I was gripped by le grippe and with time lost, was not fired up enough to shoot over to Telertheba (2455m) to see how far we’d get up that one. Almost certainly we would not have made the summit, first climbed by Conrad Killian in the 1920s, but it would have been fun trying. So we thought, let’s head straight for Garet and get stuck in; it was the focus of the film after all. Filming properly and not in my practiced fast-and-loose style, was taking a whole lot more time, but part of the project’s purpose was a curiosity to appraise the results of shooting a film with proper attention to detail.

We took the Hassi Dehine piste, camping near the well. Being end of Ramadan I bought a goat off some nomads and our crew spent the the rest of the night tearing it to bits and cooking it up. The liver (or some such organ) grilled in fat-wraps was very tasty. We met up with the nomads next morning and gave them a lift to another nearby camp for some festive socialising. They all knew Mohamed our guide – or his late father, a nomad of note from the In Salah area.

It’s a lovely drive up the Tefedest west side as always and after a while the distinctive turret of Garet juts up from the ridge line. Over the next few days we ended up driving right round the Tefedest, and Garet is always prominent, even 100kms away. It may not be the highest point but, like the Matterhorn or Ayers Rock, its elemental presence casts a spell of its own.

But the pesky djenoun were still trifling with us. We proceeded to spend half a day pushing into dead end oueds, failing to locate the point which I stumbled on easily with my 2000 tour group, close to the mountain’s foot. We did have an actual waypoint for a base camp attainable by vehicle, but could not get nearer than an adjacent valley, 2km away, due to flood-washed banks. Two clicks was near enough though, so that evening we set off on foot over the pass with all the water we could carry plus Abdelsalaam with another waterbag on his head. Even then, I had a suspicion water was going to be an issue and when we got to the base camp waypoint we texted for another bag to be brought up. Water was low but Mohamed knew of a well on the other side of the Igharhar valley.
As darkness fell the crescent moon emerged from behind Garet’s flanks, hanging directly below Venus – a diabolical alignment considered inauspicious since before the days of Babylon.

We loaded up and set off around dawn, up the boulder-chocked east oued, hoping we were following an Italian route description I’d found in a climbing magazine. It quickly reminded me of our attempt on Jebel Uweinat early in 2004 where the broken terrain at the end of a much longer approach walk has worn us down. Here on Garet. we were soon hogging the shade, detesting our overnight backpacks and stopping for breathers every 20 mins. Clearly our recent colds and lack of exercise on other mountains was having an effect, added to the suspicion that this was not going to be the pleasingly videogenic cakewalk we’d imagined.

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Between filming and panting it took us most of the day to get just 400m above the plain. Another 1000m of ascent over less than 2km remained including, as far as we knew, a pitch of roping up a chimney and a traverse followed by a scramble up a cleft onto the summit plateau. A big French party had come through in April, on the 60th anniversary of Roger Frison-Roche’s first ascent (his, via an obsolete western route) so how hard could it be for a lightweight alpine-style crew? The problem (or my excuse) was we’d misunderstood the translated Italian and French descriptions: a ‘bivouac’ to which the French party had portaged water was probably the 400m height we’d just attained, not our base camp that morning. It was from the bivi, rested and replete with water, that one set out to summit and return to base in a long, 14-hour day.

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As on Uweinat, water was the problem, along with the fatiguing terrain. Here, I did not want to take a similar chance and plough on regardless to the point where we’d run out of water and food to stagger back. A braver attitude perhaps, and one that can get results, but the reality of an accident up here would be tiresome at the very least; knowing when to turn back was something I’d learned on my first Saharan trip. Better to accept it as a recce and use what time we had left to nip up north to the equally intriguing Amguid crater trek.

So we bounced back down from rock to rock in half the time, picking up what we’d left on the way. There were a few gueltas and next time I’d take a chance and tap them with a good water filter to save carrying the stuff. Back at the base camp it was getting dark and our water hadn’t been delivered, although there was a pot of still-warm rice. After a breather we loaded up and hiked back to the cars in the dark. Turned out the well on the far side wasn’t usable and now water was a priority.

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Next morning we headed for the reliable nomad’s wells on the edge of the Gharis or Immidir escarpment in whose canyon’s Group 1 of the 2003 hostages had been stashed and then released in a raid. We had a good wash at the Tabariq well as a quick rain shower passed over, let some nomads use the Thuraya to get their tea on, and that night, halfway to the Foum Mahek fuel dump, the far distant profile of Garet loomed in the dusk, like a passing submarine. The djenoun were not finished with us yet.

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We headed for a fuel cache I’d left among some rocks in 2002 for the Desert Riders (we never got that far). I like to think I may have even recognised it without GPS. The six jerries were mostly full – some had leaked under pressure and a plastic water bottle cracked at the first touch. This stuff had endured three summers, including the notoriously hot summer of 2003 which spread as far as Europe (41°C in London, remember…). Fuelled up and with a nice ‘cache recovery’ shot in the bag, we set off towards Foum Mahek, at last some new terrain for me.

As we ate lunch under a shade tree a pickup pulled up fast on seeing us. Smugglers said Mohamed. As is often the case, they were more alarmed by us then we by them (same story at Kemal al Din in the Gilf in 2004). Their new Tojo pickup – bought from the proceeds of cig smuggling – still had the dockside stock numbers scrawled on the windscreen, but they were actually just ‘searching for a lost camel’. The news they had was that a checkpoint at a pass on the way to the crater was making passage difficult for travellers and was turning back tourists. A day or two getting official permission may have brought them round, but time was short and the fact that we were also carrying clearly non-amateur filming gear may have got us into trouble.

OK, forget that idea too. Looks like it was becoming one of those trips… I suppose I was overdue for one. We trudged back south along the edge of the scarp and curved round towards the highway. Next day near Asseksam well we were mirror-flashed by some nomads. No souvenir-n-scrounging ploy this, but a request to transport a sick old man to the daily Tam bus at Moulay Lahsene. No probs, it was right on our way, passing through the rounded inselbergs and bright granite sands west the Tidikmar which reminded me of our memorable ride through the Taffassasset down to Erg Killian in 2003.

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At Moulay they still circle the old marabout’s tomb three times for good luck. When I first spotted people doing that in the 80s I thought they were merely hoons. For us though, it was getting too late to invoke the blessings of the saintly Lahsene to save our project. Hoping to shake off the djinns, we headed west round the back of Tesnou through more exfoliating granite domes and camped near ‘Elephant Rock’, so named by some Italian climbers who’d pegged up the sides.

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Here we were free of the corrugations and run-off channels of the Hoggar and Tefedest, out in the open and felt the much better for it. Nothing for it now but to take an idle 3-day drive back south to In Amguel oued and Tam; 10 o’clock mornings, 3 o’clock evenings, exploring, lazing about, filming, even some rock climbing. It was a nice spin down to a frustrating trip.

Though there seemed little point, we shot what was to have been the spine-chilling opening sequence of MoS where a fire-lit nomad (Mohamed in a blanket) spookily recounted the legend of the lost boys of Garet, lured to their deaths by a mendacious mouflon (barbary sheep or waddan; ‘Oudane’ is the Tuareg name for Garet). Their trapped spirits were symbolised by Garet’s twin turrets.

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One day near a lunchtime hill Jon found a carefully-engraved Tuareg spear head, and another day we dozed in a broad oued sprinkled with lighter-than-water pumice, flushed out of the Hoggar by the recent floods. Despite the strict protocols laid out in my book, a rounded piece of aerated lava now sits alongside the bath at home.

Another sunny evening in the dunes west of Ouassdert well, Jon and I even managed to get the dunes ‘singing’, a phenomenon I’d read and written of but never experienced. Indeed it sounded like the passing rumble of a distant propeller plane, but was clearly caused by out feet disturbing the sands. With a couple of new intros for the Desert Driving 2 dvd caught on tape, we rolled back into Tam, had a great feed and hopped on the 3am redeye back to Paris.

Bit of an expensive flop, this one, but you got to try these things and as always there was a positive side. We saw some nice new desert in the last few days west of the Highway and I was impressed with Mohamed’s enthusiasm for exploring – not the usual quick-buck/tramline guide mentality. We’ve since cooked up a couple of meaty tours for the coming year, and though a film about not climbing a mountain through lethargy and disorganisation is probably not worth the effort of editing, doubtless Garet will be in touch for another crack.

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