Four Thousand Miles Across Africa
General Jas. G. Steese, Sc.D., F.R.G.S.
(Sept. 1935 Dickinson Alumnus)

Finding myself in West Africa last winter, (1931) my business completed, and Paris beckoning, I made inquiries concerning some route back to Europe other than the long sea-voyage up the West Coast to Bordeaux. Information was very indefinite, but I finally did arrange to have an automobile sent south to meet me at Gao, French Soudan. Meanwhile, I had arrived at Bamako, the inner terminus of the French Railroad from the coast at Dakar, Senegal.

Bamako is on the Niger River some 400 miles upstream from Timbuktu. Gao is on the Niger some 300 miles downstream from Timbuktu. Niamey, the capital of French Nigeria, is also on the Niger some 700 miles downstream from Timbuktu. Timbuktu is about at the northern crest of the large curve of the Niger. Above Timbuktu, the Niger floods a wide area, and is navigable by riverboats during the season of high water. From Bamako to Gao overland, therefore, it is necessary to swing to the south and east via Niamey.

The hotel at Bamako, where I was delayed about a week, was not too bad. By that, I mean that it had the principal requirements for comfort in the Tropics; viz., ice, electric lights, mosquito bars on the beds, shower baths, and plenty of refreshments. The heat was intense, even the nights being much hotter than in the Caribbean countries with which I am quite familiar. But, in a linen suit, sitting comfortably at a wicker table in a high-ceilinged foyer surrounded by palms, with the ice clinking cheerfully in a tall glass, and a white-robed black slave at one's elbow, the days seemed to pass quite endurably.

Dakar, where I had been some time previously, is the largest and most progressive city on the West Coast. It has paved streets, handsome buildings, good roads to nearby towns and beaches, several large cafes, and a quite pretentious dance-hall and cabaret. On the coast, too, it was cool enough in the evenings for a light woolen suit.

Finally, I got away from Bamako automobile and made Gao in six days; four days driving, and a day's stop at Ouagadougou, the capital of Haute Volta, and at Niamey. At Bobo-Diou-lassou where we spent the first night, there was a primitive inn, with dirt floors and homemade beds, but it had all the necessary tropical comforts enumerated except electric lights. At Ouagadougou, we dined out on the electric-lighted terrace, as at Bamako and my room, though it had a rough stone floor, also had a private shower-bath, quite a luxury in the Desert.

At Niamey, the Transsaharien Co. had just completed a small concrete and corrugated iron hotel, but the electric lights were still uncertain, the water had not yet been connected with the shower-baths, and there was no ice the first day.

Niamey is the junction of roads running north, south, east, and west. It is the projected southern terminus of the proposed Transsaharien Railway, though eventually it is planned to build two branches of the railroad from a point north of Timbuktu, the western branch continuing up the Niger to connect with the Senegal Railway near Bamako. The Niamey line will eventually be extended into the Congo.

The Niger is comparable with the Nile or the Mississippi. At Bamako is a large dam to feed an extensive irrigation project, and the entire valley is extensively cultivated. Both human and animal life are abundant. Cotton from the Niger Valley will eventually rival that of Egypt. The native market at Niamey was especially interesting. The women wear somewhat more clothes than farther west, and the Zaberma women in particular seemed to be under closer control as they all wear a white metal padlock in their noses.

Except for the last two hundred kilometers into Gao, a few short uncompleted stretches, and detours around some old bridges not yet reconstructed, there were excellently constructed macadam roads throughout French Soudan, Haute Volta, and French Nigeria. The largest rivers are crossed by ferry. We habitually drove our big Renault car at 70 km. (45 miles) per hour, and regularly made 50 km. per hour, or 500 km. in ten hours, not counting car troubles. The country generally was semi-arid like Arizona or New Mexico.
We used balloon tires deflated to the minimum pressure permissible, which meant lots of blow-outs where the surface was hard and stony. Our longest run was 602 km.

The French Government has made amazing strides since the War in the development of its African colonies and mandates. Four railroads from important coast ports in West Africa are advancing into the Interior. The inner termini of these railroads are all connected up with good roads, so that it is now possible, in nearly all kinds of weather, to travel by automobile all through the Niger region, and as far east as Lake Tchad. Large port developments, city improvements, agricultural experiments, etc., are underway.

Everywhere, we passed large road gangs hard at work. Sometimes they were convict gangs; but, more usually, free natives working out their poll tax. Each black, once in his lifetime, must pay a tax of 52 francs (about $2.08 U. S. Cy.), or work it out in a road gang at the rate of Fcs: 3.50 per day, a total of 16 days labor each. As there are millions -of them and Fcs: 52 is a small fortune, most of them work it out on the roads, with excellent results.

From Gao north to Reggan, there is a stretch across the Tanezrouft, the worst part of the Sahara, of about 1350 km., or 850 miles, about the distance between New York and Chicago. This section is entirely uninhabited, un-watered, and trackless except for the occasional little pile of rocks set up by successive automobile parties. In crossing this stretch we met only one arab with one camel. Just to the westward, the Razzias (marauding bands) are quite active, but they gave no trouble along this stretch last winter. Later, I was forbidden to cross the Atlas Mountains into southern Morocco on account of the bandits against whom the French were conducting military operations.

While waiting at Gao for my automobile, I made a side-trip of about a thousand kilometers to Timbuktu, the old trading center of romantic history dating back to the fourth century. At Gao, it was so hot in the hotel even at night that one's sleep, if any, was quite broken; at Timbuktu, on the other hand, I slept on the roof of the Officers' Club under four Army blankets, Including this trip, I was hung up in the vicinity of Gao about ten days, as my automobile had broken down somewhere in the desert and was five days late in arriving.

On account of the great danger of getting lost in the trackless desert, especially during sand storms, and on account of the frequency of motor troubles, the French Army does not permit individual cars to leave town unless they are equipped with a wireless outfit, or -unless they travel two together. So we all joined forces and had two cars and a wireless outfit. Counting the two chauffeurs for each car, so we could continue day and night, we made a party of eleven. At that, when we did break down, our wireless outfit was out of order, too, so we spent three nights out in the desert in crossing this stretch. We had plenty of canned food, but we ran short of wine and mineral water. I had been very careful. tip to that time, as has always been by custom in Europe and South

America, never to drink the native water, or any water unless I saw the bottle opened myself; but, before we got to Reggan, we were glad to drink water out of the spare tank, the radiator or anything wet we could get hold of and to hope that putting a little anis suze, or red wine in it would act as an effective disinfectant.

At Reggan we found a primitive little hotel, recently built by the Transsaharien Co., where we got our first cooked meal in several days. The piece de resistance, on a beautiful hammered brass platter on a side table, was a whole roast sheep, smoking hot, and still wearing the hoofs and horns. After our soup, we got up, clustered around the carcass, tore off tasty morcels with our bare hands, sucked our scorched fingers, and tried to keep the grease and fixings within reasonable limits. Then we washed our hands in brass bowls warm water, and returned to the table for the numerous remaining courses

We got fresh, automobiles at Reggan and our party divided, one car continuing north to the terminus of the Oran Railway at Colomb-Bechar, and my car proceeding slightly east of north towards Algiers. However, we broke down between El Golea and Ghardaia and spent another night out in the desert awaiting rescue. At Ghardaia, we got our fifth car, which finally got us to Algiers.

From Reggan to Algiers required six days, including night stops at Timimoun, El Golea, Ghardaia, Laghouat, and one night out in the desert. These places are all large and important Oases where the Compagnie General Tram atlantique has erected comfortable hotels for its North African tourist traffic. So from Timimoun into Algiers our troubles and uncertainties were at an end, except for tire and motor troubles The road grew constantly better and from Ghardaia into Algiers was of heavy macadam construction with massive concrete bridges. Between Laghouat and Algiers, we crossed the Atlas Mountains over a beautiful winding road. On the higher ridges there still remained considerable snow. The scenery all through northern Algeria is most magnificent, and especially so after the monotony of the desert. Coming into Algiers we passed a big road sign, Marked: To Gao, 3150 km.; To Reg1800 km., &c.

At El Golea I had a pleasant little visit with an old friend whom I had met on a previous trip to the Sahara, that time by camel, Pere Langlais, of the White Fathers, who has spent his life building up an orphanage for abandoned half-caste children; so I was to deliver my usual Christmas contribution, though belated, in person.

The Sahara Desert was first crossed motor cars in 1923 when the Hardt-Audouin-Dubreuil Mission made the trip with Citroen caterpillar tractors. Before that, it took about a hundred days by camel. In 1924 the Mission Gradis crossed with six-wheeled Renault cars. Since then, there have been several crossings between November and March over various routes, and with varying degrees of difficulty. As a part of the Centennial Celebration of the acquisition of Algeria in 1930, certain private parties were invited to join an official motor caravan to make the round trip between Algiers and Gao in thirty days. I received an invitation to join the party, but was unable to get away at that time.

The Transsaharien Co. now makes two trips a month during the winter months and will provide for any small party if given sufficient advance notice. Given at that, one must submit to irritating delays in remote places where living conditions are still somewhat
primitive. We made our entire trip from Bamako to Algiers with ordinary high-powered four-wheeled Renault cars. In another year or two the service will greatly improved, and it will be possible to motor from the Mediterranean to the Congo with almost as great security and comfort as has been possible for many years along the North Coast and south to Biskra, the first oasis near the northern edge of the desert as one goes south from Constantine. Biskra is the setting for the 'Garden of Allah', and there actually is such a garden, just as described by Robert Hichens in his romance. It is one of the points of interest for the great hordes of tourists who now visit Biskra during the winter months.

At Algiers and Tunis, I was on familiar ground, and the trip back to Paris and London, except for a very rough crossing of the Mediterranean between Tunis and Marseilles, was quite uneventful, though mighty pleasant after the discomforts of the desert.

End Notes and Bibliography