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.
I came across this old French map of the Saharan trade routes from 1889 [full-size source]. As always, it’s interesting to see where was prominent then and what has come since. Old spellings and some names differ.
Not a lot of people know that an earlier name for Marrakech was ‘Maroc’ or Morocco. Once this area was all known as ‘Mauretania’ – the Land of the Moors (Blacks) from which all these names derive. Mogador is today’s Essaouira. Other well-known Moroccan towns are present, as well as the 52-days road to Timbuktu from Zagora or Sijilmassa (Rissani), all depicted with other names. By this time most camel trade took the western route to Goulimim (Wadi Noun), which explains the vestiges of the tourist camel market there today. The original site is actually here.
Cap Juby (today’s Tarfaya) we’ll be hearing more about shortly, but inland from here a tough route from Tindouf led to Taoudeni and also Timbuktu. Southwest from Tindouf another track leads to Mauritania, the old colonial overland route to Dakar mid-last century, as driven by this nutter.
Mauritania has many familiar places like Atar, Chinguetti (right), Ouadane (left, where we coninued east across the Majabat for Algeria in 2006) as well as Oujeft leading to the ruins of Ksar el Barka, Tidjikja, Tichit, and Oualata for Timbuktu. But no Nouadhibou (Cap Blanc) or Nouadhibou (Tiourourt) yet, far less Zouerat. And no Dakar back then; St Louis was the colonial capital of French West Africa.
In Mali Timbuktu is central, with trade routes leading north via Araouane, or Tim Missao well (left) in Algeria where we stopped in 2006 and 1989 (right). No Tamanrasset or Djanet – the two biggest towns in southern Algeria today, but In Salah, Amguid and Temassinin (Bordj Omar Driss) are present.
In Libya little seems to have changed: Ghat and Ghadames are there, as well as Germa (Ubari) and Murzuk on the route for Lake Chad via Bilma (left). To the east the oases making up Kufra lead down to the Ounianga lakes in northern Chad. And east of there is the Darb al Arbain (Road of Forty Days) from El Fasher in Sudan, via Selima across the sand sheet (right) towards Kharga and Asyut on the Nile.
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. 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…
… 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.
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.
Garmin Topo North Africa v3 Light
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.
Long version You download the Garmin Topo map directly into your device (takes about an hour) and only once 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, right
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.
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 and in Libya is thinner still. 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.
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.
A look at some old Sahara Maps to see what obscure places or routes were once conspicuous, as well as which ancient places survive today.
The earliest old map I have looks like it’s from the medieval era, but was probably based on Herodotus’ Histories which was getting on for 2000 years old by this time. It was he that brought terms like ‘Libya’ (North Africa) and ‘Aethiopia’ (sub-Saharan Africa) into common usage.
On this map ‘Mauritania’ is today’s Morocco, while the chariot-riding Garamanteans are correctly located around present day Germa in the Libyan Fezzan. It’s probably coincidental, but the ‘Barditi Montef’ (mountains) could be the Tibesti around Bardai – actually only 700km southeast of ancient Garama. (Left: rock art depicting chariots at Tim Missao well, 1200km southwest of Germa on the way to Mali. The Garamanteans are said to have got around.)
This map, but not 1554 Munster map above, may have been the best that Moorish wanderer, Leo Africanus’ (BBC doc) had to go on for his 16th-century travels across the region, venturing as far as Timbuktu, Cairo and possibly even Mecca. Along with Ibn Battuta’s travels a couple of centuries earlier, it was Africanus’ Description of Africa (1550) which expanded knowledge of the Sahara. But despite the efforts of Africanus, even by 1700 or so, satirists like Jonathan Swift (right) were said to have quipped:
So Geographers in Afric maps With Savage Pictures fill their Gaps
Fast forward a few centuries and there be no dragons or other medieval monsters (left) on this map of Africa dating from an atlas produced in 1803. It’s credited to William Kneass who later became Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. Instead, the advent of scientific enlightenment had brought us longitude, latitude and the ‘Equinoctial Line’.
The mariners of the era had succeeded in very accurately mapping the outline of the African continent, but the interior, including the ‘Zahara or Desert of Barbary‘, remained blanks. South of the Sahara the most notable inland incursions were made by the early European colonies around Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau, Angola, the Cape and Mozambique. In the north Egypt and the Nile are better mapped all the way into the Biblical lands of Abyssinia. The Moroccan imperial cities are present: ‘New Salle’ being Rabat, with Marrakech labelled as ‘Morocco’. Never linked those two words before, but presumably they’re both based on ‘Moor’ so it makes sense.
South of the Atlas ‘Tatta’ appears to be close to Tata, with the Oued Draa known as the ‘Nun’. The 16th-century Portuguese trading post of ‘Mogodoro’ is Essaouira, and Tarfaya at Cape Bojador was then called ‘Tungarzall’. To the east you’d have thought that Sijilmassa near Erfoud might have got a mention. It was the northern terminus on the ’52 day’ caravan route from Timbuktu.
Further south in Western Sahara and Mauritania, ‘St Cyprian’s Bay’ became Golfe de Cintra after a Portuguese mariner and slaver got killed nearby at Arguin (also labelled). Inland from here, only ancient ‘Tisheet‘ gets a mention, on the old Dhar Tichit caravan route.
I remember going to a talk in Nouakchott about the medieval glass trading links between Tichit and Venice. Tichit didn’t look like much when we were there in 1990 (right; it’s all in D. Travels), but it’s a historic settlement on a par with Timbuktu (above left; as seen by Caillé in 1830), Oualata, Chinguetti and Ouadane. The latter may be the ‘El Waden’, misplaced way north of Timbuktu and not far from ‘Ensala’ which could be even more distant In Salah in Algeria. At this point it was still a couple of years before the American sailor, Robert Adams briefly ended up a slave in Timbuktu. Among other things, his account helped kick off the race to reach this fabled Saharan ‘Shangri La’ and with that, the great age of European Saharan exploration as listed rather Francocentrically on the 1898 map below.
Eastwards on this 1803 map, many places in Algeria are recognisable: ‘Tuggurt’, ‘Guargala’, (Ouargla) and over the border in present day Libya: ‘Godemashe’ (Ghadames), ‘Mourzouk’ and ‘Ganat’ (Ghat). ‘Zeghen’ was less easy to pinpoint, visited by James Richardson while on the road from Tunis to Ghat and back up to Tripoli in 1845-6. At the time Richardson estimated Zeghen’s population at ‘200 men, 300 women, and 700 children and slaves‘. Our man Duveyrier (see below) locates it for us a short distance northwest of Sebha in the Wadi Ash-Shati, on the way to ‘Sockna‘. Here Richardson spent some time as a guest of the Turkish Caid and his comely concubines.
‘Berdoa’ is the old name for Kufra in southeast Libya, and south of there, on the page’s fold, is the enduring salt oasis of ‘Belma’ (left) at the base of Niger’s ‘Kawar’ escarpment. The hyper-arid and largely uninhabited Libyan Desert around Jebel Uweinat wasn’t to be explored until the 20th century.
Fast forward a hundred and one years and the Saharan blanks begin to fill up. Below is the ‘Northern Africa’ plate extracted from a Bartholomew’s Handy Reference Atlas of the World dated 1904 (source) and which differs very little from my 1888 version.
The interior is still sparse, but the proposed trans-Saharan railway gets a mention. Running across the flat plain of the Tanezrouft, in 1922 it was the actual route taken by the first cars – Citroen Kegresse autochenilles (half tracks; left) – to cross the Sahara north to south and back. In the west ‘Shinghit’ is a bit out of line with Atar and Wadan, but in the ball park. To the south is the ghost town of Ksar el Barka and ‘Portendik’ must be early Nouakchott, though you wonder what became of ‘Mufga’ near grubby Choum of today. Ancient Taghaza (as visited by Ibn Battuta) never gets a mention on any of these maps, but it’s replacement, the newer salt mine at ‘Towdeni’ was a key point on the ’52 days’ caravan route to Sijilmassa. In northern Mali, ‘Essuk‘ whch hosted the early Tuareg music festivals before they moved to Timbuktu and long predates today’s Kidal. Meanwhile in Algeria the Amadror salt mines get one of their last calls. Wau crater in Libya gets a name check too, there’s brackish water there, but due to the mosquitoes it was never a settlement. Up in the Mediterranean, Crete is oddly identified by its ancient name of Candia, perhaps intended as a poke at the despicable Ottomans?
Above,Dufrenoy’s intriguing and detailed map from 1898, centred on the southern limits of French-controlled Algeria. The red lines identify the itineraries of that busy century’s wave of Sahara explorers, from Laing’s fatal excursion to Timbuktu in 1826, right up to Laperrine, who in 1898 set out to quell the southern Tuareg with his Méhariste Camel Corps and died in a plane crash southwest of Tam in 1920. Note too the zig-zaging return of Flatters’ disastrous second mission of 1881, (as described in Desert Travels) when the handful of harried survivors sought to out-run the Tuareg who’d trailed and picked them off one by one.
Back-tracking a bit, the 1881 Flatters Mission – partly intent on reconnoitring a railway route between the Maghreb and France’s territories in West Africa – wouldn’t have got half as far as it did without Henri Duveyrier’s amazingly detailed map of1864. It was based on his journeys there a few years earlier, described in Les Touaregs du Nord. Tamanrasset was merely a oued; Silet, In Amguel and Ideles on the other side of the Hoggar were established settlements. The tomb of Tin Hinan (left) even gets a mention, though it’s a bit misplaced from actual Abalessa.
Further out on the Tanezrouft the strategic well of Tim Missao (the chariots, above) and the waterhole at In Ziza (left) are labelled, but in Libya the Murzuk sand sea is just an ‘unnamed hammada’ separating the Tuareg from Tubu. There’s plenty more mouth-watering detail if this area means anything to you, and Duveyrier’s inset helpfully lays the ancient geographical names alongside their modern counterparts.
Not a Sahara map but a world map from 1914 as the British Empire began the descent from it’s late-Victorian apogee. In an era before flight and in the golden age of ocean liners, it illustrates just long it took a citizen of Albion to reach the far flung corners of the world. Central Sahara is up there at the end of the scale, alongside the Amazon, Outback, Congo, Tibet and Siberia. The widespread adoption of the motor car would soon change that.
How time flies. It’s now 1933 and above, France’s African colony encompasses half the Sahara and most of West Africa. Tamanrasset and Djanet, which even then must have been the biggest towns in southern Algeria, are still missed out, but then this isn’t a French map. In Mauritania Tidjikja makes an appearance, so does Iferouane in the Aïr and Tindouf up in Algeria. ‘Marakesh’ looks like it’s still ‘aka Morocco’ where the Spanish cling on to protectorates in western Sahara (Rio de Oro), Sidi Ifni and on the north coast, but not for long. Within 25 years the Sahara would take on the borders and principal towns with which we’re familiar today.
Who can resist the superb ‘Uweinat’ map (below) originally published by the Survey of Egypt in 1945. One of the most fascinating corners of the Sahara, much of its detail was based on the intrepid explorations of Ralph Bagnold in the 1920s, as well as later Brits, some of who were fictionalised in The English Patient movie. The last time we travelled there (left), it was still the best paper map available for that area, notwithstanding the newer aeronautical TPCs.
Old Saharan mapoholics will be familiar with the Austin TX university’s comprehensive online database of full-sized Saharan maps dating more or less from the early 1940s. Click this to get to the index pictured below and thank you Austin.
And finally, a forerunner to the famous 4-million scale Michelin 153 map (now the 741) that covered the French Sahara: an ageing Michelin 152 from 1948. It was the best photo I could manage – scanning will have to wait for a very rainy day.
You get the feeling that this may have been a commemorative special edition to celebrate General Leclrec’s heroic achievements in the Sahara during WWII, when a small column managed to take Kufra and then Murzuk from the Italians, and then push north to help expel the Axis forces from North Africa along with the 8th Army.
Like the LRDG map, the 152 has helpful detail like ‘piste tres difficile‘ as well as the famous info on water resources ‘tres mauvais a 50m‘, that we recognise from the later editions which covered the Sahara all the way to the Atlantic.
When I started travelling in the Sahara all there was was Michelin’s 153 (left, now 741). Later I discovered IGN’s superb series of 1-million scale maps and then GPS came along. Initially it was only useful in pointing to waypoints in close combination with paper maps. Now a GPS or a phone can have a map in it almost as good as those below, or you can simply trace a route off Google Sat**, then save and import the tracklog into your gadget and just follow the line displayed on the tiny screen. No nav skill required. But a good paper map is still a useful for visualising the big picture, certainly in the planning stage.
The better Sahara maps are reviewed below. Only a couple are really useful to desert travellers; others maps may be more easily found and will offer a good background or modern overlay, while some other Sahara maps are of limited value to an actual desert traveller as opposed to someone pinning on a classroom wall for a project.
For a vehicle-based Sahara journey, choose one large-scale Sahara map covering the whole area you plan to visit (left) and then add one- or half-million scale maps for all the areas you plan to cover on pistes. In rare instances these can be backed up by a selection of 1:200,000 maps for areas of special interest, or for trekking. As a rule, the country maps described below are less useful for travel in the Sahara, but help give the big picture.
The maps below are reviewed specifically in regard to their utility as navigational aids for independent desert travellers, less so for conventional fly-in tourists most of who will have little need of maps. Each of the 70-odd GPS routes detailed in my Sahara guidebook (left, long out of print) included a recommendation to one of the maps below. Factors I consider useful in a Sahara paper map are:
Up to date information – certainly in new editions (a common failing)
Accurate and consistent hierarchy of roads and pistes (a common failing)
Clear depiction of relief (some better than others)
An idea of the surface terrain like dunes (very useful but often overlooked)
Reliable information on wells (a tall order, but frequently guesses are made)
Gridlines across the map face to aid positioning with GPS
If you’re into just crossing the Sahara you may find my Sahara Routes Map on the Routes page useful. It shows the major border crossings as well as where borders are best not crossed.
For years buying Garmin maps for anywhere outside of developed nations wasn’t worthwhile. Even their Morocco map – largely ripped off from Olaf – was said to be an inferior version and cost over £100 for a map you could get for free. Last updated in 2008, Olaf is old now – many pistes have been sealed but others as still accurate – and their are masses of them. But lately Garmin have collaborated with OSM to produce a huge map covering the Maghreb (right) for a very reasonable £20. Up to now I’ve found route planning with Google Earth and decent paper maps has been adequate. Is a digital map in a handheld GPS worth it? V4 released 2019; review of V3 here.
Sahara Paper Maps
Michelin 741 Scale 1:4 million, (edition 7; 2019) The 741 covers 80% of the Sahara from the Atlantic to western Egypt (28E). Compared to other offerings, the 700 series is renowned for its detail, readability and reasonable accuracy given the huge task involved. This review concentrates on the Saharan portion of the map. Although it’s not been properly updated for years, the Michelin 741 is the best planning map for Saharan travels (were they possible), giving you a good overview of the Sahara west of Egypt, accurate relative distances, borders, major roads and some pistes, as well as settlements and surface features. You even get the depth and mineral composition of some wells. This is not a map for off-highway navigation, although over the years many novice Saharans have tried! I see the red ‘Crossing the Sahara…’ warning label has not changed in 40 years! The 2019 edition still shows non-existing or obsolete pistes from the colonial era, pistes which are now roads and most annoyingly, roads which are definitely still tracks and will ruin your rental car. But now the Sahara is no longer popular with tourists, fixing that is a low priority. You’ll just have to find out the hard way or double check on Google Earth of the superior Bing Aerial where WYSIWYG. The other problem with all these Michelins is the thin paper which means your map will fall apart if you use it too much. These nitpickings apart, the 741 remains the definitive map for the Sahara and West Africa, offering a quick way of getting to know this huge region.
Adrar, Mauritania Scale 1:600,000 2015, €10 Third edition of a hand drawn map from the Bab Sahara auberge in Atar. Probably not good enough to navigate with by itself (no long/lat grid) but presumably uses local knowledge and so gives a useful and more up to date ‘big picture’ than anything from IGN. The IGN’s old 200k series would fill in the gaps.
Moroccan French 250k Scale 1:250,000 Early 1960s? Click here.
Institute Geographique Nationale (IGN) Scales 1m; 1:500,000; 1:200,000 Early 1960s to mid-1970s. €8 Yes they’re old but the one million IGNs are to general purpose desert navigation with GPS what the 741 is to planning. They are great maps but only cover the former French African colonies as well as the western reaches of Libya (up to 12E). Readability from 1964 up to the last sheets in 1975 is very good. The few 1961 sheets covering ever-overlooked Mauritania are a little basic by comparison.
The advent of GPS brought up a few errors with the: mountains misplaced by a few kilometres – but overall the detail and accuracy is outstanding as subsequent satellite imagery has proved. Changes in roads are best cross-referenced on a 741 or Google, and don’t expect all the marked wells to have been maintained over the decades while new ones will have appeared. Particularly in the more populous Sahel, the position of tracks and other man-made features may have altered over the last few decades. Excepting parts of Libya and all of Egypt, these excellent maps are ideal for the basic level of exploration and travel that Sahara Overland used to represent. For Morocco there are far better maps; for Mauritania too.
Coverage of 1:500,000 IGNs was always patchy, these days are hard to find and not really worth the bother. For some odd reason detail is cut off at country boundaries, even adjacent former French ones, though of course you’d assume the extra detail makes thse the best scale of all for piste driving. Half millions are not available at the Espace IGN Cartothèque in Paris but they are to be found as bootleg digitals (Algeria only, as far as I know.)
Just about all the original 1:200,000s have been sold or returned to the relevant countries. Theoretically still available from the relevant ministries in Algeria, Niger and Mali, their ‘strategic’ scale makes obtaining them a hit-and-miss affair. Nevertheless, when you can find them, the colour originals are real works of map art, especially in mixed dune and rocky terrain. They are the finest maps of the Sahara ever made, obliterating the more recent Soviet equivalents at the same scale which were only based on aerial or satellite photography. IGN’s were checked on the ground too, and it shows. Black-and-white copies of the full set were available from the IGN Cartothèque in Paris at around 7 euro each – you’re much better off with colour scans sold or available in digital format. Some avoid the copyright issue by not crediting the maps as IGNs.
The biggest drawback with the 200,000s is that there are no- or limited grid lines across the face of the map and each degree is only marked in 10-minute increments along the borders. If you look closely there are actually faint crosses also at ten minute intervals on the map face, so it’s possible to mark your own grid – but draw from cross to cross and not straight across, even though, given their UTM projection, lines are almost straight.
For a serious mission you can print off the digital scans into an A4 map booklet (left) but you’ll need to mess about a bit to correct the print size so as to reflect the original 200k scale. Price for paper 1 mils is around €9 in Paris. 1:500,000 and 1:200,000 sheets about the same or all free to download here.
IGN country maps IGN also produced a modern series of country maps in the Sahara including Chad, Egypt, Mali, Morocco, Mauritania (1993!), Niger and Tunisia with scales ranging from one- to 2.5 million. Easily available in Europe, they’re probably far inferior to more recent RK-H maps. ‘Chad’ has no grid lines for example.I spotted the hard-to-find 500k Air Massif (pictured right) at Agadez airport years ago for 12 euros – an especially handy map for camelling or trekking in the region, were you be able to get there.
Reise Know-How series For the 1:1m scale Morocco map see here. About £9 or €9. In 2011 RKH optimistically released a 1:200,000 map of the Hoggar around Tamanrasset in southern Algeria. Plastic and double-sided like all the rest, it covers a once commonly visited region for fly-in tours; namely the Atakor massif (Assekrem), and the so-called ‘Tassili-Hoggar’ region southeast of Tam – a fabulous area of outcrops, dunes and prehistoric engravings along the Tin Tarabine oued, the Youf Ehakit nearby, and the famed Taghera and El Ghessour outcrops just to the southwest.
The extent (right) runs from 5°E to 6° 50’E and 21°N to 24°N, the southern tip of the Tefedest, with grid lines every 10 degrees – very nice. The image left shows a rough depiction. What few dune areas there are, are not depicted (as they are, vaguely, on the 1 million IGNs) and on close comparison with the ancient IGN 200,000s, it transpires RKH have merely copied many of the incompletely depicted routes shown on the 200s which were last updated in the 1960s, rather than researching and adding some of the regular tourist trails which have developed in the Taghera since that time, and are doubtless accurately recorded on countless GPS track logs. So the map is based on 50-year-old IGNs, rather than adding anything new; no great surprise there and not that important as most visitors will be led here anyway. And for 8 quid it’s a bit of a souvenir treat, anyway. Sadly, the collapse of fly-in tourism to this specific area at around the time the map was probably commissioned, means they may not sell as many as they hoped. For those like me, it makes a great souvenir on which to plot and relate to various points visited over the years. The scale (1cm = 2km) is obviously a bit OTT for independent driving (were it possible), but it would work well while being led trekking around the region. You need a guide anyway to get to all the best spots. We used this map to plot our route up to Assekrem in Jan 2012 along unmarked trails. The colouration and detail is too subtle by far. Some well-established pistes are missing, the Tefedest range seems to have a new pass halfway up, but the worse thing in the overpowering anaemia of this map – all the same pale washed-out tan tone with no discernible definition for the dominant ergs and a way too-large contour interval of 250m for the 1.200k scale – a map that clearly did not eat enough fruit and veg during its production. You do get a handy 1° grid (but no sub-calibration, like a TPC or IGN 1m). With the wealth of Algeria know-how in Germany, this map is a missed opportunity. Review copy of this map supplied by The Map Shop.
The double-sided RK-H Algeria 1:1.7m scale map is dated 2010 and as expected has the usual flaws which are seeing paper maps lose out against digital user-supported OSMs and the like. Is it because they print thousands at a time but make few easily researched corrections during reprints? Who knows. Best thing of course is the tough plastic paper printed on both sides which makes it compact but at a still nearly useful scale. In the south which I know better, some so-called ‘secondary roads’, like Djanet to Libyan border (below right; actually a national road so should be red) are now sealed. It’s also a shame they don’t depict sand seas any differently than a plateau or any other type of adjacent relief; it would make the map so much more readable. And although there’s a grid, the vague orientation of pistes along with the small scale wouldn’t make this map actually useful for navigating off-road; a 1m IGN nearly as old as me would be much better. One fringe benefit is that you get a useful map of Tunisia.
Sahara – International Travel Map (ITM) Scale ~ 1:3.4m – 2016 Despite being double-sided and on plastic paper (like an RK-H) the originalITMSahara map was a failed attempt to outdo the long-established Michelin 741. In 2016 they had another go and on the ITM website you can view a pretty big scan (left) of either side. At a glance all looks good, with a pleasing muted relief. But look closer and soon the errors and sloppiness jump out. First off is the odd use of light greeny-blue to show a level of elevation between green and browny-orange, giving the mistaken impression of huge lakes. And the only way of spotting sand seas the size of small countries is from a label, not shading, which is much less usefully used to depict ‘national parks’. We all know what an NP indicates in the Sahara. The map also cut-offs at the edges; coverage has been dictated by an immutable scale and available paper size. So the 800km from Dakhla to Nouakchott (the main Sahara crossing) are missing, as is the Nile east of Wadi Halfa. Had they picked a slightly larger scale – say 4 million – it would all fitted, but perhaps Michelin own that scale size. Morocco and all of Western Sahara are shown as one big country, giving you the impression that the Berm is a dream and you can roll into the PFZ without getting apprehended by the Moroccan army, far less caught in a mine field. You wonder if ITM just asked the Moroccans for a country map and they happily sent one, grinning from ear to ear. A ‘Chinguetti’ pops up east of Zug in the PFZ.
Roads are as good as can be expected, notwithstanding detail and orientations that are 30 years out of date in places and the hierarchy is all mixed up. You will also find total cobblers such as ‘Area of extremely high and permeative sand dunes roads usually impassable [sic]’ on the sealed road across the flat sand sheet to Zouerat – hundreds of miles from any erg matching that description. Like Chinguetti, Ain ben Tili gets shown twice, in case you miss one. In northern Mali the map is mismatched east of the prime meridian and nearby, Bordj Moktar in Algeria is misplaced. The T-SH to In Guezzam was sealed decades ago, but there is no such road continuing to Arlit yet, though it’s all the same here. Bordj el Haous and Zaoutallaz (same place; two names) are shown as different places miles apart (the road here is confusing, too). And newsflash: Hassi Messaoud is now a village, not Algeria’s Houston. On it goes eastwards, with random inconsistencies and ludicrous errors. Stick with a 741.
Gizi’s Algeria sheet 1.2.5m, 2012 The 2006 edition of this map had a 1° grid and was not bad at all. A new edition came out in 2012. Usefully, all have place names in Arabic but the paper is old-fashioned thick and glossy which you feel won’t last if used too much, and I found the colouration of the relief a bit over the top (the terrain, dunes, reg, were not well depicted). Gizi also did a Libya map at 1:1.75. as well as Mauritania (2009; 1:1.25m) and Mali (1:1.2m, 2010).
Soviet World Series Scales 1 million 1:500k; 1:200k From the early 1970s to mid-1980s The Soviet Union produced a range of topographic maps covering the world at the above scales, making them the only ones to cover Libya, where they matched IGN’s earlier efforts to the west but at a lower quality. Drawbacks include the Cyrillic (Russian) text, two-colourprinting and worse still, representing dunes as a series of still more orange contours rather than with colour and shade as with IGNs. Some sources sold black-and-white copies which made them even harder to read. Nevertheless, they’re the best there was for Libya, with the half million originals noticeably easier to read than the one millions, and now all downloadable for free if you know where to look or who to ask.
‘Geo referenced’ versions are also available but I’m not sure what this means – calibrated? They were saved as a .map file which I couldn’t open. With reduced copyright restrictions, enterprising individuals and organisations like Quo Vadis (later, Touratech QV) scanned the entire Russian series to sell. All of Africa at 1:500,000 would cost over £1500 in paper but could be bought from Touratech for around 100 euros. This may sound a bargain but would still require printing off several sheets of paper and joining them together to make one complete sheet. assuming you want that. If buying these maps on paper, always go for the semi-colour originals if you can and expect to spend an evening familiarising yourself with place names and the Russian alphabet plus writing the translations onto the maps, where necessary. The TTQV CD maps featured overprinted names of major towns in Roman alphabet and incorporated GPS plotting software for PCs – another story. Now free on the internet if you dig around.
US Defence Mapping Agency Operational Navigation Charts (ONC) 1:1m Tactical Pilotage Charts (TPC) 1:500,000 Produced in the 1960s and 70s and revised in the late 1980s, while they are of a seemingly useful scale, widely sold as ‘Sahara maps’ and open out to the size of a small bed sheet, ONCs and TPCs are pilots’ maps and much over-rated for terrestrial use. Differentiation of relief and surface type is poor and, in the Sahara at least, no attempt is made to distinguish between a mule track or a six lane motorway with regular rest areas. Settlements, where they appear, are rated chiefly by their airport and radio facilities. Terrain differentiation is not so clearly depicted and well information is particularly hit-and-miss: some wells I’ve used are missing while others which are marked may no longer exist.
Despite all that, one sheet I grew fond of in the good years is the TPC H-3D (above) and the ONC H3 in west Libya was surprisingly accurate on tracks. They’re all best used as back-ups to other maps, ideally IGNs. ONCs and TPCs maps also show the UTM grid overprinted in blue, as well as lines of magnetic variation which are also irrelevant with a GPS’s built-in true-north pointing compass. Being flyers’ maps, they’re pretty hot on maximum elevations in given grid squares – little use on the ground. However, as with the Russian maps, an evening’s close scrutiny sorting out which track might be yours can be profitable. In some instances the ONC or TPC will give an absolutely accurate orientation of a track (Route L1 being a case to point), but most of the time they’re confusing and need to be made sense of with another definitive map or Google Earth on zoom. Good things about ONCs and TPCs is that each grid line across the map has an incremental scale of one minute making accurate position-marking very easy. The size can be awkward, but the half-million TPCs, make useful ‘master maps’ to mark up and plot your own routes over a large area. They’re certainly not much use for actual desert navigation compared to the Russian and French alternatives. I’m told in the UK TPC/ONC have been phased so availability will be increasingly bad. See what you can download here for free (not all listed last time I checked).
British MoD Scale 1:2 million Late 1960s Though a red herring and hard to find, at 1:2 million these maps cover the same area as an ONC but at half the size and without the aeronautical overlay. On the piste they’re little use, with detail in ‘non-formerly-British’ regions much patchier than Sheet 9, ‘Dakhla Oasis’ (Libyan Desert; below). Here the Brits’ intimate knowledge of the region dating back to the Bagnold era is evident with heart-warming detail totally absent further west: ‘Soft ground’, ‘Dunes difficult to cross’, ‘Soft clays, Wellingtons advisable’. It even describes the Darb el Arbain caravan route coming up for Sudan (the ‘Forty Days Road’) as ‘Camel route, 1 mile wide marked with camel bones’. Now you know. Great great detail and cartography but for Sahara map collectors only.
Survey of Egypt Scale 1:500,000 Mid-1930s to mid-1970s These maps were originally drawn for the Survey of Egypt in the 1930s by Clayton, with a few details added by Bagnold and Almasy, and may still be in print in Egypt. The relevant sheets for the Western and Libyan Deserts are ‘Siwa’, ‘Farafra’, ‘Dakhla’ ,’Uweinat‘ (biggish file, below), ‘Qena’ and ‘Aswan’. The unavailable Uweinat sheet dates from 1942 is very good, with neat contour colours and good accuracy. The Dakhla sheet has inferior printing and the newer editions get progressively worse. In this region you’re better off with Russian maps (see above) and maybe a TPC H4-C for back-up and marking.