British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Dogon Yaro (Ronald Bird)
Overland to Kano Across the Sahara
S.A.T.T. Advertisement
I had always wanted to see the country and the variety of peoples on the southern edges of the Sahara north of the Nigerian frontier. Returning from leave to Northern Nigeria it was no longer feasible to organise a camel caravan from Tripoli as in the days of the early explorers, and so I had little choice but to go by motor transport of some kind from Algiers, south along one of the desert routes or pistes to West Africa. Hence I found myself early on the morning of Thursday 20th April 1950 outside the offices of the Societe Africaine des Transports Tropicaux in the Rue Sidi Carnot in Algiers. I had made enquiries earlier in the year and Thomas Cook had booked me a seat on a 'bus' of the S.A.T.T. that travelled from Algiers to Fort Lamy in Tchad by the Route du Hoggar and Kano. Eventually a curious looking silver painted four wheel drive vehicle with balloon tyres rolled up. It had "Alger-Zinder-Kano-Fort Lamy" painted on the sides, took up to 8 passengers, carried a considerable amount of freight and luggage, and had steel sand ladders fastened on the back. The other passengers appeared to be 4 or 5 fairly non-descript Frenchmen and after a lengthy stowage of freight and luggage we were shepherded on board by the driver who spoke in a thick Provencal accent.

Overland to Kano Across the Sahara
S.A.T.T. Bus
Finally we got away from Algiers at about 7.30 a.m. and climbed the steep hillsides south of the city before plunging into the lush green countryside that rose tier on tier, white houses gleaming in the sun above the blue Mediterranean. It had rained hard the previous day and the first 30 kilometres of the trip were across a plateau covered with dark green vegetation with red-brown earth showing starkly amongst the vines. Then we climbed up the gorge of the Chiffa River to cross the passes of the Eastern Atlas Mountains. Suddenly it grew bitterly cold and the sun hid behind glowering storm clouds and a terrific hailstorm burst upon us. Even with winter clothes and an overcoat it was bitingly cold and a welcome stop was made at the town of Berroughia for lunch. Soon the lush green country and the profusion of wild flowers, so breath-taking at first sight, began to give way to a browner drier land. Green crops were left behind and we drove across a stony and hilly plateau with cold rain pouring down. It was dark and freezing when we reached Laghouat where the Hotel Saharien proved warm and comfortable. We had covered 432 kilometres on a rough and twisty but mostly tarred road in about 12 hours; this was good progress compared with a day's travel further south. The next morning was sunny but still cold as we drove through the crowded streets of Laghouat past a very fine looking mosque. Following a made road across a stony plateau we reached the oasis of Tilrempt by late morning and stopped briefly at an old fort, the first of the 'Beau Geste' type forts that we saw. Finally a steep descent through rocky hills brought us into the hollow of Ghardaia and an overnight stop at the Hotel Transatlantique.

Overland to Kano Across the Sahara
Hotel Transatlantique
The following morning Saturday we made a late start as the bus needed servicing and repairs. There was time to explore Ghardaia, visit the suk and see something of the holy city of the M'Zabites on the edge of the town. The tarred road of Ghardaia soon deteriorated into a stony track and before long difficult sandy stretches appeared interspersed with small dunes which meant the line of the piste was continually changing. There was no sign of life until we got to the small bordj or old fort of Hassi Fahl which was a poste de secours maintained by the Genie or Army Engineers. The guardien of the bordj appeared more negro than Arab but there were quite a number of Sha'amba Arab encampments with their flocks in the vicinity. One began at last to have some impression of the immensity of the desert, so like a sea in many ways, and by now we were beginning to feel the increasing heat. This was the edge of the real desert country with barren rocky hills, often flat topped, and steep-sided valleys or oueds with a few tufts of wiry grass growing in them.
Overland to Kano Across the Sahara
Hotel Dal Piaz
We reached El Golea just as it got dark, cramped and stiff, tired and dusty, and were glad of the comfortable S.A.T.T. hotel to stay at after our 865 kilometres from Algiers. El Golea proved to be a large straggling oasis. Alhough the town of small flat-roofed houses with mosque and suk was not that big, it was clean and beautifully laid out with palm lined streets. Just south of El Golea the two main routes across the desert divided; the Route du Hoggar going due south and then veering east for Tamanrasset and Agades; the Route de Tanezrouft going west and then south for Gao and Timbuctoo. The Hotel Dal Piaz at El Golea was not only a comfortable, cool building in the Moorish style with a fine rose garden, but it was to be the last of any reasonable comfort before we moved onto the harsh environment and blinding heat of the true desert wastes. When we arrived at El Golea the driver of the bus warned us of the hazards of desert travel and told us that the gerbas or goatskin waterbags tied on each side of the bus were our water reserve in case of emergency. He also advised us to provide ourselves with emergency food supplies and try and buy tinned sardines etc. in the market.

We left El Golea on Monday morning well before dawn for the long hard drive to In Salah, first along a sandy track but then climbing up to the endless gravelly wastes of the Tademait Plateau. The heat began to be really oppressive for the first time and the going got rougher and stonier as the bus lurched and bumped along over the rocks. Suddenly the bus seemed to stagger and we came to a halt with a clanking noise to find we had broken a mainspring. After 3 hours or so for repairs we set off again across the interminable rocky plain through a growing heat haze; visibility was quite short with continuous mirages and we seemed to drive eternally across a small flat island fixed in space without getting anywhere. We stopped briefly at Fort Miribel, desolate in the extreme, now deserted but once occupied by the Foreign Legion. Early evening brought us to the southern edge of the plateau with a steep escarpment leading down to a sandy plain. We appeared to sail across this following occasional heaps of stones which marked the general direction, swerving sometimes to the left or to the right to avoid bad patches of loose sand, the first signs of the dreaded 'fesh-fesh sand'.
Overland to Kano Across the Sahara
Broken Down in the Sahara
As darkness fell we got onto a track which brought us, after 2 or 3 more hours, to the red mud hotel run by the S.A.T.T. at In Salah. In Salah proved to be a small town and oasis with the usual civil and military buildings but not much else except the great sand dunes which were encroaching into the town. Here we took on an African assistant to help the driver in the main desert crossing which still lay ahead; he looked to be from further south in central Africa but was in fact a Sha'amba Arab from El Golea. The fact that In Salah was historically one of the biggest slave markets in the whole desert region helps to explain some of the tribal admixture. The first stretch south from In Salah was slow and difficult going with wide sandy dunes but later we reached a firmer piste which got more and more rocky amongst small hills and flat rocky outcrops. When we stopped in the afternoon for a quick meal the assistant driver made mint tea for all and very refreshing it proved in the already searing heat. Mint tea was to become our standard refreshment from now on and appeared as if by magic whenever we stopped for long. By now the other passengers had been reduced to three Frenchmen, an engineer and two well drillers, going all the way to Fort Lamy, but none of them had experienced desert travel any more than I had. We began to climb into the foothills of the Hoggar Mountains and reached the massive Arak gorges as the sun set. Mighty cliffs reared up on each side with castle like walls overshadowing a tiny bordj or campment where we were to spend the night. At first sight it looked dirty and tumbledown but the gardien, an ex-Genie Frenchman married to an Arab, produced a passable meal.

We were roused next morning with mugs of strong black coffee and left well before dawn along a stony track through a succession of gorges and then small valleys which broadened out as we climbed up to a sandy plain scattered with enormous boulders and great craggy hills.

We crossed numerous dry river beds with a good deal of dried-up vegetation and here for the first time we saw wild game, first a single gazelle, then a herd of six, and finally another just in front of the bus. Climbing out of a rocky river bed we again broke a spring and limped on to the bordj of In Eker where we stopped for 3 hours to carry out repairs. The driver of a big diesel truck going north stopped to help us, the first vehicle we had met on the piste for two days. We then pushed on through stony country to the village of In Amguel, the first settlement we had seen since In Salah, though we had seen a small caravan of 5 camels earlier in the day. We were now in the country of the Touareg and we began to climb up steadily through a wild rocky and mountainous landscape to the stony plateau of Tamanrasset which is some 4300 feet above sea level. Shortly after 7 p.m. we reached the S.A.T.T. hotel at Tamanrasset, or Fort Laperrine, cramped from the bus and famished with hunger.

Tamanrasset was the French administrative centre of the Hoggar region of the central Sahara and there seemed quite a number of French military and civilians about, and though not a Touareg town, for they lived mostly in scattered settlements throughout the region, there were many Touareg about, their faces covered up to the eyes with the traditional blue veil. We had come 2105 kilometres from Algiers and we were to spend a rest day here before starting on the toughest and most desolate stretch of the piste to In Guezzam, on the frontier of the Southern Annexe of Algeria and Agades in the Territoire du Niger. There was time to look around, check in at the offices of the Annexe, and visit the small fort where the celebrated French hermit of the Hoggar, Pere de Foucauld, was murdered in December 1916 by Senussi tribesmen. The buildings were nearly all of the same red mud as those at In Salah as the rainfall is minimal though there were plenty of tamarisk trees throughout the small town. The hotel was the worst since leaving Algiers and we were all glad to get away early on the morning of Friday 28th. April. While at Tamanrasset the heat had not been oppressive as there had been a thick dusty harmattan wind blowing. We left at 4.15 a.m. hoping to do the long trackless stretch to In Guezzam in a day if we did not stick too often in the soft sand. The first part of the route through the mountains was rocky and stony but after about two hours we came down into a dry stream bed between craggy hills; we followed this for another two hours or so tryingg to avoid the fesh-fesh sand but were twice stuck fast or ensablé and had laboriously to dig our way out. It was rather like navigating a river where the sandbanks are changing continually with the current and you only find where they are when you run aground. We passed a Genie unit trying to consolidate one of the worst sections and then came out into a wide flat sandy plain, firm at first but soon deteriorating into the most difficult and treacherous part of the whole journey. It was now nearly midday, the heat: extreme, the interior of the bus like a roasting oven, and the light blinding, and in the midst of it all the engine of the bus spluttered and petered out. It proved to be nothing worse than a blocked fuel feed but the heat of the engine made repairs long and tedious. We went on, the bus weaving along between rocks first in one direction then in another, sometimes following the wheel tracks of a previous vehicle, sometimes avoiding all other wheel tracks, sometimes on firm going and sometimes on soft sand which soon deteriorated into fesh-fesh. It was here that knowledge of the desert showed itself as the driver expertly felt his way along, but in spite of his cleverness in avoiding the worst places, we were ensablé again four times. By now a drill had been established and as soon as the bus stuck in the sand the passengers all jumped out, grabbed sand hoes and dug the sand out from the front of the wheels, then the steel sand ladders were put down to get the bus moving, and then the whole process repeated until one reached firmer ground. We made slow but exhausting progress even as the extreme heat began to wane a little towards evening. As the sun was setting we came upon a group of men working on a bad section of the piste with a French sergeant of the Genie in charge. He insisted on us stopping, took us into a tiny stone hut where he lived and gave us all sweet mint tea. The hospitality of the Sahara is for all travellers and he was evidently one of those for whom the desert, in spite of all it's rigours and harshness, seemed to have a compelling attraction. We pushed on but as it got dark we had our fifth and sixth ensabléments of the day; they were real bad ones and everyone was quite exhausted. Even so the driver insisted on going on for another two hours in the dark and then gave up wuite overcome, though we were well short of In Guezzam. Our evening meal would have been dry bread only if the four Arab passengers we had taken on at Tamanrasset had not produced some cold meat and shared it round. Almost too tired to eat we all collapsed on the soft sand and fell asleep at the foot of a rocky cliff under the blazing desert stars. We were up in the cool before dawn and ploughed on through tricky patches of loose sand across a wide featureless plain until we reached In Guezzam late in the morning. In Guezzam marked the boundary of Algeria and Niger but consisted only of a small bordj run by a Frenchman in radio contact with Tamanrasset and able to report all vehicles passing through this checkpoint. We rested up during the burning heat of the day and left late in the afternoon following a difficult and treacherous sandy track with plenty of evidence to show that other vehicles had stuck in the shifting sands. We stopped as the sun set beside a small Touareg caravan of about 30 camels going north. Some of them spoke Hausa so it was with some surprise on each side that we had quite an animated chat. The bus then drove on in the moonlight and we made good but slow progress until we made camp 150 kilometres south of In Guezzam. We slept again on the soft sand after a supper of a rough soup-stew produced by Amharak the assistant driver.

Overland to Kano Across the Sahara
Bus arriving in a Bordj
We made a late start the next day as the driver still seemed exhausted after the two previous days. The going had improved and we made quite good progress to the bordj of In Abbangarit, a dilapidated mud hut close to two enormous wells where vast herds of camels, goats and donkeys, and for the first time south of the desert, cattle were watered. The people were Touareg though the herd boys looked like the Fulani of Nigeria but more heavily built. We drove on and suddenly met another vehicle, the first for two days; as it proved to be another S.A.T.T. bus going north we stopped to exchange news, I found that there were three British missionaries from Ibadan going home across the desert; we exchanged Algerian francs for West African francs and they told me that they were the last northbound bus of the season before conditions made travel too difficult. We passed Teguidda where we saw the first permanent settlements we had seen south of Tamanrasset. The heat was still intense and it was the third hottest day of the trip but the piste was stony and tufts of dried grass and some thorn scrub were beginning to appear. We stopped to rest beside a thorn tree that actually had some greenish leaves, and then strung blankets from the bus to the tree while we ate a stew of tinned meat and beans that Ambarak prepared. Late afternoon found us on the piste again through gradually increasing thorn scrub until we reached Agades shortly after dark. The S.A.T.T. 'hotel' was a dirty half-ruined, mud rest house with small dark stuffy rooms, filthy mattresses and dirty ragged blankets on iron bedsteads. We all pulled our beds out into the courtyard and slept again under the stars, waking up in the morning to see the curious pyramid shaved mud minaret of the Agades mosque.

Overland to Kano Across the Sahara
Agades Mosque
Agades was a small town of reddish mud buildings with a mixed population of about 5000, mostly sub-saharan peoples but quite a lot of Touareg and some Arabs from Algeria. The European population was about 30 and although the French administration here in Niger was civilian rather than military there were still a lot of soldiers in evidence. We all had to report to the Police and Customs authorities as travellers coming from Algeria. Looking round the town I found a large and thriving market and that camel caravans still came from the north, particularly of course from Bilma bringing salt. The Touareg and other peoples all seemed to speak Hausa and were prepared to chat away in the friendliest fashion.

We left late on the morning of Tuesday 2nd May as the driver and his friends had had a party the previous evening. The thorn scrub got thicker as we travelled south and herds of camel, cattle and sheep were to be seen as well as donkeys and also a few horses.

We stopped for a meal in the shade of a large thorn tree not far from an enormous well where thousands of beasts of all kinds were being watered. The well at Tadelaka was vast, about 20 feet in diameter going down through apparent solid rock for 150 to 200 feet to abundant water. There were about 12 watering pullies with leather-buckets lowered on long ropes and then drawn up by bullocks each in charge of a. small child seated on it's back. These people were Touareg but darker than those further north and obviously of mixed race; they all spoke Hausa and returned my greetings cheerfully. Some distance away there were other people sitting under a tree waiting their turn to bring up their cattle; they too spoke Hausa but seemed different and then I realised that they were in fact Fulani, though much darker generally than Fulani in Nigeria, and clearly with a strong pagan admixture. They were only too happy to tell me about themselves and claimed to be of the Wodabe Fulani clan with Rahaji cattle; their wanderings were mostly in Niger and down along the Nigerian border. We drove on through the thorn scrub and by evening reached Tanout, a small town where there was a campement with a gardien. It was just a rough mud rest house without any beds and we slept on the floor.

The next day we had a fairly easy run to Zinder, the headquarter town of the whole area. At Zinder there was a multitude of formalities to sort out with Police and Customs before we could do anything. Our driver still seemed exhausted and we were to stay the night here at the Hotel Zangou which was run by a Greek; the food was passable but we were stuffed five people into a small cramped room. I looked round the town and the market and then went to call on the Administrateur for whom I carried a letter of introduction. Zinder appeared to be a town of about 25,000 people with a large and important market, not very different from other towns in Hausaland, but the Government quarters were all rather poor mud houses crammed together in a small area, while the military had an extensive camp on the edge of the town. The next morning, the 4th of May, we set off for the final leg of 290 kilometres on a gravel track to Kano, crossing the Nigerian frontier near Babura. The bus made for the Hotel de France in Kano where I was to part company with my French friends having shared the hazards of the desert and travelled 3760 kilometres in 15 days with them from Algiers. They were keen to get on their way to Fort Lamy and I had to report for duty after my leave. Opinion was that we had been lucky to escape sand storms and major breakdowns and had had a fairly easy passage across the Sahara.

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1955 Map of Lake Chad and Fort Lamy
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