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Caterpillar Cars Make 15,000-Mile Trip from Algeria to Madagascar in Nine Months


With Illustrations from Photographs by Members of the Citroën Central African Expedition


IFTEEN thousand miles by motor through the heart of Africa reads. almost like a figment of Jules Verne's fertile imagination, but it represents the actual accomplishment of the Citroën Central African Expedition, which it was my privilege to lead from Algeria to Mozambique and on to Madagascar.

Our original purpose was to demonstrate the feasibility of motor transport in these wild regions, and to trace a route which might later enable the French Government to project a railroad that would connect two of its greatest provinces, now separated by thousands of miles of desert and jungle.

This was soon broadened, however, to include official missions for the Colonial Office, the Air Ministry, the French Natural History Museum, and the French Geographical Society, all of which added materially both to the complexity of the arrangements and the interest of the trip.

A detailed and connected account of all our adventures is beyond the compass of this article and must be reserved for several volumes, but I am including here the more interesting incidents of a journey which daily revealed the mysteries and beauties, and in some instances the terrors, of a little-known world.


The personnel of the expedition included my two assistants, M. Louis Audouin-Dubreuil, second in command, and Major A. Bettembourg. A motionpicture producer, M. Léon Poirier, was in charge of our cinematographic work, with M. Georges Specht as camera operator.

M. Alexandre Jacovleff accompanied us to make sketches, while Dr. Eugène Bergonier provided medical attention and

taxidermic supervision, and M. Charles Brull was in charge both of our mechanical department and mineralogical and geological research. geological research. Nine mechanics, all experienced in Saharan travel, completed the party.

Our eight 10-horsepower Citroën cars were equipped with the Kegresse-Hinstintype caterpillar system in addition to regular front wheels. Because of the great amount of equipment which had to be carried on so elaborate a trip, it was necessary to provide each car with a trailer, and both cars and trailers with extra water, gas, and oil tanks.



In order that we might not upset the economic equilibrium of the remote places through which we were to pass, and that we might be sure of our sustenance, we sent from France nearly all of our supplies. Depots were established at intervals along the route and more than 80 tons of foodstuffs, general and mechanical supplies, were distributed to them some weeks before we started.

After 10 months of careful and painstaking preparation, we left Colomb Béchar (see map, page 652) on the morning of October 28, 1924, to cross deserts and penetrate jungles, some of which had never before been traversed by mechanical


As our caterpillar cars spread through the miniature ravines and over the hillocks of the South Algerian Plain, they looked for all the world like the vessels of a flotilla performing maneuvers on a rough


The initial stage of the journey took us across the great Sahara to Burem, on the Niger River, but ours was not the first mechanically transported party to make

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THE ROUTE OF THE CITROËN CENTRAL AFRICAN EXPEDITION For nine months eight 10-horsepower automobiles equipped with caterpillar tractors pushed their way diagonally across Africa from Colomb Béchar, the railhead south of Algiers, to the Mozambique Channel, and thence across to Madagascar. On the shores of Lake Victoria the Expedition began to separate into groups of two cars each, and pursued their journey by various routes (see text, page 705). For a crossing of Africa from Cairo to Cape Town, partly on foot, see Felix Shay's narrative in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE for February, 1925.

this trip. Nearly two years before, in December, 1922, and January, 1923, the Citroën Caterpillar Tractor Expedition crossed from Tuggurt to Timbuktu, definitely outdistancing the camel in his own domain by making the 2,000-mile journey in 20 days instead of the customary three months.*

Crossing the desert, even though we were fortified with the experience of this earlier passage, was still no easy task.

* See "The Conquest of the Sahara by Automobile," in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE for January, 1924.

After leaving the magnificent oasis of Beni Abbes, which stretches its long, green trail of palm trees along the bed of the Wadi Saura, we encountered what we thought at the time was rough going; but when, on November 10, we entered the almost unknown Tanezrouft, we embarked on a desert compared with which the wilderness we had already crossed was as nothing.

It is a country utterly devoid of resources: no water, no wood, no grass, no growing, living thing. In crossing from Ouallen to Tessalit we traveled more than



This important outpost of the French in Africa lies on the northern edge of that arid hinterland of Algeria known as the Southern Territories. It is more than 400 miles by the Algerian State Railway from Colomb Béchar to Oran, "the Chicago of Africa," on the Mediterranean.

330 miles without finding a drop of water. It was in this stretch of desert inferno, some 50 miles out from the Ouallen well and still within plain sight of the mountains surrounding it, that we found the dried skeletons of several travelers who had died of thirst. These bleaching bones were all that remained of a caravan from the Sudan that had miscalculated its water supply (see page 660).

The Arabs say that death in the desert from thirst is an indescribable sustained torture in which the whole body dries up. The contact of clothing becomes insufferable and it is discarded, but only to let the cruel rays of the scorching sun inflict additional torment.

The desert peoples exercise great care in dealing with those who are suffering severely from thirst, as it would be fatal to give them drink at once. First, their lips are moistened, then the body is rubbed gently with a wet cloth and bathed slowly for several hours. A small quantity of milk is administered after a while, and finally a swallow of water. Sufferers who have been thus rescued sometimes re

main dull and mentally befogged for a long time.

After driving for five days in the Tanezrouft our nerves began to feel the effects of its monotony and the vastness of its solitude. Coincidentally we experienced all sorts of difficulties. The cars seemed to sink deeper and deeper into the sandy ground and consumed great quantities of gasoline, due to the necessity of an almost constant use of second gear.


The blinding brilliance of the sun, the intense heat, and the foul smell of gasoline, caused by an everlasting rear wind, all had a disturbing effect and contributed toward the development among us of a very real anxiety lest our gas or water fail before we reached the oasis at Tessalit. Our fears proved groundless, however, for we sighted waving palms before our supply of either was near exhaustion.

As we approached the vicinity of this oasis we took precautions to guard against the robbers who sometimes frequent it.


After ten months of preparation, the Citroën Central African Expedition started across the Sahara from


Algerian railway system.


town is an


post, and the troops accorded military

honors to the departing explorers. Colomb Béchar, the southern terminus of

At night our camp became practically a war bivouac. We parked our caterpillar cars so as to form a hollow square and mounted loaded machine guns in positions to command all approaches.

The members of the party took turns doing guard duty, but our improvised fortresses were never attacked, and the only sounds that broke the oppressive stillness of the night were the steady tramp of our sentry and the occasional yelp of a lonely jackal.

While to most Europeans everything on the desert looks much alike, the Arabs and Tuaregs seem to know their way about quite confidently. We had as one of our guides a Tuareg who claimed not to have been over parts of the way since he was two years old, but he was able to retrace his earlier journey with sufficient accuracy to bring us to the well we sought.

After replenishing our water tanks, we set out again; but our guide had evidently never crossed this part of the country at all, for before two hours had passed we came suddenly upon a great heap of impassable rocks. The guide, if such he might still be properly termed, counseled an immediate return to Tessalit and predicted dire calamities in the event of our failure to heed his advice.

SILVER STIMULATES A TUAREG'S MEMORY While we were hesitating as to what course to pursue, help came from a most unexpected quarter. Indeed, it came from directly behind one of the impeding rocks in the person of a strange Tuareg, who appeared as if out of the earth.

At first no amount of questioning brought forth any information about the route to Tabankort, but finally Major Bettembourg produced a silver coin. The Tuareg's eyes brightened and he immediately remembered the way to a well some kilometers beyond. A second coin further stimulated his obliging memory, and display of a handful of silver brought clearly to his mind the way not only to Tabankort, but on to Timbuktu.

Ikenen (for such was his name) proved a good guide, and we soon reached the Tabankort well, where a Tuareg camp lent an interesting touch to the scene. The character of these people has been much embellished by myth and legend,



Each of the eight cars could accommodate three persons and, with its trailer, was an independent unit, carrying its own tools, tents, and foodstuffs.
If separated from the others, a one-car contingent could provide for its own needs for several days.

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