Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The heat, the sand, the flies: across the Sahara

Having just watched a repeat of a Ripping Yarns episode recently, I was tempted to add 'by frog' to my title. But no - it's the Sahara, not the Andes.
Mention of Eugène Estienne in my last post (here) leads me on to his two sons, Georges (who served in Aviation with N12 and N49) and René. All three men were involved with attempts to cross the Sahara in the 1920s and open it up to commercial routes.

Since acquiring Algeria and territory in west Africa from Senegal to Lake Chad during the nineteenth century, the French sought ways to join the two together. The first attempt was the Flatters expedition of 1880-81, which intended to survey a route for a trans-Saharan railway. Flatters and most of his men were killed. A second mission, in 1898-1900, the Foureau Lamy expedition (on Gallica here) managed to reach Lake Chad, but it was not followed up.

A motorised expedition to cross the Sahara under Georges Haardt and Louis Audouin-Dubreuil left Colomb-Béchar in December 1922, and using Citroen half-tracks, crossed the desert and returned in twenty days. Georges took part in the expedition, and interested his father and brother in the project. Their project was to use ancien caravan tracks as their route, but they had to solve the problem of crossing 1,400 waterless kilometres. They were aided by the Compagnie Générale Transsaharienne (CGT), part owned by the Nieuport Astra aircraft company and by Citroen's rivals, Renault. In four Citroen half-tracks and with a Nieuport aircraft, the expedition crossed the flat Tanezrouft in just three days.

The viability of the route had been proved, and from 1927, using specially-built six-wheeled Renaults with built-in sleeping accommodation, a regular bus service was set up on the route Colomb Béchar in Algeria to Gao in Mali. Georges and René continued to pioneer new routes (René was killed by locals in 1927).

Georges ended his association with CGT in 1933, and set up his own company Société Algérienne des Transports Tropicaux (later Société Africains des Transports Tropicaux), with 6,000km of routes, and which, from 1943, included an air transport subsidiary, Compagnie Aéro-Africaine. The vehicles of SATT followed a more easterly route, though the mountainous Hoggar.

Restarting after the end of the war with nine Lockheed Lodestars, CAA linked Algiers, Nice, Ajaccio, Bastia, Tunis and Marrakech in the north with Abidjan, Bamako, Bangui, Bobo-Diolasso, Cotonou, Douala, Fort-Lamy, Gao, Libreville, Lomé, Niamey, Ouagadougou, Port-Gentil, Zinder and even Stanleyville in the Belgian Congo. In 1951, CGT withdrew its transport services across the Sahara, giving SATT a virtual monopoly. Two years later Estienne sold CAA to Air Algérie. 

Within a few years, the Algerian war saw the final end of the tourist industry, and Estienne's companies were nationalised by the new Algerian government, whereupon he retired to France.

Pictures: the flat desert of the Tanezrouft at Reggan (Panoramio); the Foureau-Lamy expedition (from Gallica); posters advertising the Haardt expedition, CGT and SATT (all internet finds); the Hoggar (from Wikipedia); the interior of the Renault six-wheelers; en route during the 1930s (from Jean Oudart)

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