Desert explorer Michael Asher investigates the most disastrous exploration mission in the history of the Sahara
In December 1880 a French expedition attempted to map a route for a railway that would stretch from their colony in Algeria right across the Sahara desert to reach their territories in West Africa. ‘Paris to Timbuctoo in Six Days’ was the slogan. It would do for the French colonies what the American railways were doing in the western states at the same time. No native opposition was expected. As one of the expedition’s organizers said, ‘A hundred uncivilized tribesmen armed with old-fashioned spears: what is that against the might of France?’
Four months later, a handful of emaciated survivors staggered into a remote outpost on the edge of the desert. Although armed with modern rifles, the column had been lured to destruction by the self-styled ‘lords of the desert’, the Tuareg. At this, the highpoint of European colonialism in Africa, this story of treachery, massacre, torture and even cannibalism made headlines around the world. Attacked by the Tuareg in their remote heartland, the survivors had been pursued for weeks on end, driven into the waterless desert to die. The desperate lengths they resorted to shocked Victorian sensibilities. They do not make easy reading now.
This grisly story, told by our greatest living desert explorer reveals what happened when the conceit of western colonialism met the equally arrogant Tuareg, who had dominated this remote region, and anyone trying to cross it, for a thousand years.