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Starting out from Touggourt (Algeria), Georges-Marie Haardt, Louis Audoin-Dubreuil and a team of 10 people, including several army officers and a geographer, made it to Timbuktu (Sudan) in 20 days. But what was it exactly that made these men set out to conquer a region considered to be one of the world’s most inhospitable ?
It was quite simply a great idea. After World War I, the plan for a safe and quick link between mainland France and Equatorial Africa appealed to colonial settlers and industrialists alike, and met with a favourable reception in military and scientific circles. A great idea which the car at long last was to make possible. Trusting his equipment, André Citroën was convinced that the link could be made within 20 days, and history was to prove him right.
With 5 Citroën Kégresse tracked vehicles, members of the "Haardt-Audouin" mission completed the first direct link between Algeria and French West Africa. With much pomp and ceremony, the first trans-saharan mail delivered by car was handed to Colonel Mangeot, commander of the region of Timbuktu, on January 7, 1923.
When crossing into the Sudan, just before Tabankor, an incident occurred that was so strange as to leave its mark on all members of the Haardt and Audoin expedition. Seeing that the last two cars in the convoy were having problems keeping up, a rocket was fired to signal the position of the leading half-tracks. Amazingly, when the flare fell to ground, it started a fire in a patch of parched grass. No-one was able to put it out.
The fire spread, forcing the drivers to move on to avoid being trapped by the flames. The savannah turned red, starting a stampede of animals that until then had been invisible. The five vehicles came through unscathed and continued on their triumphant drive to Timbuktu.
A great route to the "great isle"In crossing the Sahara two years earlier, Haardt and Audoin had clearly proved that the car was indeed the ideal means of locomotion for linking North Africa to West Africa. Others had already set their sights further. So it occurred that one day, French President Gaston Doumergue mentioned to André Citroën and Georges-Marie Haardt the advantages of a regular link between the African colonies and Madagascar, a French territory isolated in the Indian ocean.
A few words off the record during a conversation were the beginning of the "Black Cruise", an expedition that was to demand more than a year of preparation, stir up unheard of enthusiasm amongst both the public at large and scientific, artistic and business circles, and lead to 8 half-tracks, fitted with the Kégresse propulsion device of rubber tread, covering more than 28,000 km across Africa, starting from Colomb-Bechar.
his is how Georges-Marie Haardt and his team crossed Algeria, the Niger, Chad, Oubangui-Chari and the Belgian Congo. In Kampala, their column split into four groups and reached the Indian ocean and Tananarive, each taking a different route (Mombasa, Dar-es-Salam, Mozambique and the Cape). They were given a rapturous welcome wherever they went.
Visiting the Harem of Moussa on their way, the members of the expedition made many a colourful encounter, none more so than that with the sultan of Maradi in Fulani country. "Serki" Moussa – that was his name – pulled up in front of the half-tracks escorted by his janissaries and musicians. Moussa had wed four, or maybe five (he wasn’t too sure himself) of the 67 daughters of Barmou, the sultan of Tessaoua. The old Barmou was famous throughout the region, because he kept a harem of 100 women.
Léon Poirier, the group’s film-maker, was already imagining the fabulous movie he could shoot inside the "inner sanctum". The problem was persuading Moussa to let him inside. Finaud, a sultan who understood what Léon Poirier was getting at, proposed a deal : he had a brand new car that someone had given him, but it wouldn’t start. If Poirier could repair it, he could visit the women’s quarters. The expedition’s technicians closely examined the engine, thought for a moment then turned the starting handle. The car started. Discreetly, they explained that it was merely a matter of turning the ignition key.
From 1928, Georges-Marie Haardt dreamt of opening up the "Silk Road" to cars, i.e. the legendary corridor through which commercial trade was handled between China, Persia, Arabia and Europe. Enthusiastic as ever, André Citroën decided to finance the project which, given its sheer scale, was to demand several years of preparation and reconnoitring.
Just imagine : 30,000 km from Beirut to Beijing, driving through Russian Turkestan, Sinkiang and the Gobi desert up to the Yellow River. As time passed, political uncertainty, firstly in the USSR then in Afghanistan, led the expedition leaders, Haardt, Audoin and Point, to change the itinerary, and forced the team to cross Kashmir (5,000 m above sea-level).
It also led to the idea of splitting the expedition into two groups to increase the chances of success. One was to leave from Beirut and attempt to climb through the Himalayas (the Pamir group), and the other, setting out from Tien Tsin, would come and meet it (the China group). After many trials and tribulations, political or otherwise, and some truly exciting moments, the Pamir group of 24 people, equipped with 6 Citroën Kegresse P17s especially fitted to cope with the extreme cold, made it to Aksu on October 8, 1931. The China group, which had been joined by Father Teilhard de Chardin, had been waiting there for several days.
Its members, too, had experienced some hair-raising adventures in a strife-torn country, and were even taken hostage by a war-lord for 3 months. The two groups then set out together on the road to Beijing, where they arrived on February 12, 1932. The diplomatic quarter gave them a rousing reception. Unfortunately, Haardt was never to return to France : exhausted, he went down with the ‘flu and died in Hong Kong on March 15, 1932. His legend lives on!