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Sands of Death

UK Publisher: Orion

Desert explorer Michael Asher investigates the most disastrous exploration mission in the history of the Sahara, a story of treachery, massacre, torture and even cannibalism, that made headlines around the world.

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. Attacked by the self-styled ‘lords of the desert’, the Tuareg, the French, despite being armed with modern rifles, had been pursued for weeks on end and driven into the waterless desert to die.

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.