Chapter 5 – Travel in the Sahara

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This is an excerpt of the chapter where Bertie explains what travel in the Sahara was like in the early 1900s.

The immense desert of the Sahara stretches from the Nile on the East to the Atlantic Ocean on the West, and from the Algerian border on the North to a line running through Timbuktu, Agades, Lake Chad and Khartoum on the south, approximately 3500 miles from east to west and 1000 from north to south. It consists for the most part of sandy wastes, arid, hot and waterless: it is lacking in rivers, in vegetation and in tillable soil. These two latter find exceptions in the infrequent oases which vary in size from such an oasis as El Golea to the proverbial 2 date palms and a well. The Sahara is by no means as featureless as many people imagine: on our route, for instance, we shall pass directly through the Hoggar Mountains, an immense range attaining a height of some good feet and stretching for 120 miles from north to south and more from east to west. Parts of this range are still unexplored and it is said that from its mineral deposits were bought the jewels of the Queen of Sheba. Also on our route is the mighty gorge of Arak, along the bottom of which we shall travel. This varies in width from half a mile to 3 or 4 miles or more, the precipitous sides of the gorge rise to some 2000 feet sheer from the valley floor. The length of the gorge from end to end is approximately 50 miles which gives some idea of its magnificent grandeur and imposing size.

Along this gorge there is a dry river bed which is filled with a rushing torrent about once every 7 years. InJalah a small walled town containing a fort, a hotel, a Shell pump and probably about 30 native houses, is stated to be the driest place in the world: the average rainfall is 1/10th of an inch in 10 years! In addition to the Hoggar Mountains and the gorge of Arak, there are several escarpments, sheer cliffs sometimes 800 – 1000 feet high where the desert descends or rises to a different level. Shifting dunes of sand are also encountered almost every where throughout the Sahara, while lava rocks, sometimes rising to 100 feet or more sheerly from the flat sand, are often encountered so that the Sahara is not monotonous at any rate by the route we are using. The outlook is continually changing, sometimes nothing but a flat sandy waste, sometimes rocky, sometimes mountainous, but hardly dull.

Bertie then goes on to describe that the Sahara was first crossed by white men in 1823 and that camel caravans had traveled across it for centuries before this. The main commodities that were traded were salt in exchange for skins, ivory and various other commodities. In 1938 the camel tracks were still in existence and camel caravans still crossed the great desert from north to south and from east to west. An interesting fact in connection with camel caravans is the regular system of pilotage which prevailed. Bertie explains caravans would take on board a pilot who knew the locality and pilot them across the desert.

From Symons’ book: “The well at In Abengaritt, usually deserted, was the scene of a teeming mass of sheep, goats and camels.”

He goes on with an interesting account of how the French managed to control the Sahara by using Citroen motor vehicles and aeroplanes to map out the route transversing the desert. Bertie writes in the diary “how I would love that job!”

There was a trans-Sahara bus service which was inaugurated and continued while Bertie and Humfrey were transgressing the Sahara. This service, run by the SATT went from Algiers to Zindes in French Equatorial Africa and onto Kano in British Nigeria. The buses were Renaults specially built for the job. They had enormous wheels shod with single 12 inch tyres, carried 6 passengers and a fair load in goods and supplies. They were very slow and frightfully noisy. The service ran twice a week as far as Tamaurasset and once a week on to the south. It took 16 days to go from Algiers to Kano, and gauging by the jaded appearance of the passengers who they saw at Agadez on their previous journey, it seems it was a pretty sound trip. The bus of course stopped each night the fare was about ₤27 which includes hotel accommodation. The drivers of these buses were Frenchmen, specially pick for the job and real tough guys.

With regard to privately owned motor vehicles crossing the Sahara, Bertie explains that the French authorities wisely insist that certain formalities are observed, the manager of the hotel at El Golea being the person responsible for seeing that they are carried out. First he has to be convinced that somewhere aboard the vehicle there is stored 5 gallons of water per person and also that there is a supply of food sufficient to last the crew a minimum of 8 days.

Last, the owner of the vehicle is required to sign a ‘contract de depannage’ or ‘breakdown contract’ and to pay the necessary fee. This varies from 400 to 600 francs according to the horse power of the vehicle. The ‘contract de depannage’ is now compulsory. It used not to be so until a few years ago when two people, one an Englishwoman and a Belgium lost their lives in the desert and since then the authorities have made it obligatory for anyone insisting to cross the Sahara to sign this contract. The method of working is simple. When one is leaving, say, El Golea one is asked when one wants to be depannage. Suppose one starts at 6am on the Monday morning, one simply says “I wish to be depannage if I have not arrived at In Saleh” (the next desert post)”by 6pm on Tuesday”. Each of the desert posts is equipped with a wireless receiver and transmitter and a wireless message is thereupon sent from ElGolea to In Saleh, saying “Symons Wolseley left 6.00 depannage 18.00 Tuesday”. If then, delayed by a serious breakdown one has not arrived at InSaleh by 6pm on Tuesday the SATT undertakes that a rescue can/will be sent out from InSelah to find one and bring me in, so that, provided one has not wandered from the track, for the SATT naturally cannot undertake a search throughout the desert though they are pretty liberal about this one is bound to be rescued sooner or later, I say sooner or later because the cars used for this purpose are not exactly in the first flush of their youth and it is by no means unknown for the rescue car either to break down itself or to get stuck in the sand but it will arrive sometime. Still, that is the position and it is a valuable safeguard for the Sahara is a relentless enemy and one cannot afford to play the fool with it.

Remembering that if one should have lost oneself and consumed all one’s water, one cannot live more than 24 hours in the boiling heat and shadeless glare, the whole system is a wise precaution and the French government is to be complimented upon it.

This system works throughout the Sahara crossing, each post advising the next when you deguine depannage. I may say that in every case we arrived at the end of each stage before the wireless message announcing our departure from the beginning of it! But the ordinary traveller does not race across the Sahara quite as we did!

I have often been asked how we found our way. Resisting the temptation to carry on the tradition of traveler and make the most of difficulties, I do not purpose to do so.

The track is marked by little heaps of stones (“cairns”) about 18 inches high and 200 yards apart. It must be understood that these do not in any way constitute a road or path as there is just one line of them throughout: in the words they are meant purely as a guide to the direction and are not intended to be slavishly followed, though at night it is most inadvisable to miss one for fear that one may not find the next and so get lost.

It is very very easy to lose one’s sense of direction completely as there are very few landmarks to guide one. It needs a really sharp look-out at night to be sure that one does not miss a single cairn and at the same time to have one’s eyes glued to the track ahead in time to avoid obstacles in one’s path, such as gullies and rocks, and also to be ready for a lightening change down on sticking patches of deep soft sand.

The most awful dread is that of getting stuck in the sand; this may mean hours of work to get on the move again (it took Symons 23 hours on his first journey to Kano) and such a delay would mean goodbye to all hopes of beating Algiers – Kano record. So particularly at night, desert driving is nerve racking work when one is in a hurry.

Other features of Sahara travel will appear as we proceed on our way, so that we can now resume with our start from El Golea for the desert crossing proper.


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