The Sahel region is a climate zone sandwiched between the African Savannah grasslands to the south and the Sahara desert to the north, across West and Central Africa. While the frequency of drought in the region is thought to have increased from the end of the 19th century, three long droughts have had dramatic environmental and societal effects upon the Sahel nations. Famine followed severe droughts in the 1910s, the 1940s, and the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, although a partial recovery occurred from 1975-80. The most recent drought occurred in 2012.


Our story is about the severe drought in 1973-74. My childhood friend, Jan Michelsen, who owned Sæter Autoservice in Oslo, Norway - saw a programme on the national TV from Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso). Large numbers of Tuaregs (A large Berber ethnic confederation. They principally inhabit the Sahara desert, in a vast area stretching from far southwestern Libya to southern Algeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso) from the northern part of Sahara had emigrated south to Upper Volta with the rest of their livestock in order to survive. The International Red Cross said that it was a big problem distributing food and medicines in the northern part of the country due to a lack of proper vehicles for driving in the roadless grasslands, and especially in the desert with large sand dunes.

Jan had always been a fan of military vehicles and also owning a few, so he started to check if the Norwegian Army had some trucks in their surplus stock for sale - and yes indeed, among those were many CMP trucks from WWII available. He bought several and soon he was in contact with the Norwegian Red Cross, offering these as a gift. The Red Cross said they soon were sending an Hercules aircraft from the Royal Norwegian Air Force down to West Africa, and the Hercules could carry 2 trucks with it down to Upper Volta. The Sæter Autoservice crew started to overhaul two trucks, equipped them with new electrical system, sealed beam headlights etc., painted them white with the Red Cross emblem. The Norwegian and International Red Cross needed the names of the 2 drivers right away, and as I was visiting the Sæter Autoservice one day, Jan and I decided to take the job as we had good experience with off-road driving in rough terrain. In a week we had been equipped with free clothes, water cleaning systems, visa for Liberia & Upper Volta, required vaccines, health certificates, salary compensation, etc., and I got a long term leave permit from my job.

The Hercules landed at a military base in South England for refueling. The next stop was the military airport in Las Palmas on the Canary Islands before the next leg of the trip to Robert Int. Airport in Liberia. We found a hotel for the night close to the airport. That was a strange experience. No water from the taps, we had to do a cat wash in the swimming pool!!! As the country uses American Dollar notes, they was worn and dirty and the hotel staff was crazy over getting our clean and not worn US notes...

Robert Int. Airport would be the base for the Norwegian Hercules' daily transport of food etc. into Upper Volta and Niger. The next morning we started the last leg of our trip to our destination - Gorom-Gorom in the Northern part of Upper Volta (quite close to Mali). Originally there was no landing strip in Gorom-Gorom, but the leader of the International Red Cross for the mission, Mr. Gayard - a French man who had a coffee plantation in the Central African Republic, made a 1,600 m runway just outside of the village with the help of local men and a tractor. See below...

Gorom-Gorom is located about 330 kms north of the capital Ouagadougou - but what a heath when we got out of the aircraft! The village was being our base for our long stay in this country. No electricity, just a few generators own by the military, 3 water wells (which 2 went dry during our stay and the last one only a little bit sipping in every night and available every morning), no real roads - only wheel tracks on the ground/sand. Fuel needed to be bought and transported in barrels from a larger village call Dori about 60 kms more south. The Red Cross had 4 vehicles in Gorom-Gorom; 1 short wheel-base Land-Rover pick-up, 1 long wheel-base Land-Rover pick-up, 1 VW 181 (see below), and 1 rented Dodge truck from the late 1950s or early 1960s. The Dodge had twin wheels on each side of the rear axle, so it had problems in the sand dunes etc. The tyres was very worn, so they punctured twice a week. Hard job for the guys hand pumping air into a flat truck tyre. Our trucks had air compressor on the side of the transmission box, so the guys was VERY happy when we could assist them.

The first week we were living in an empty "hospital" building. In the meantime helpers built us a large one room house of sand/mud blocks and straw roof. We soon found out that much of the distribution would go to local habitants of Upper Volta living in remote areas - the Tuareg refugees had settled only a few kilometers outside of Gorom-Gorom. Strange when we were driving in the desert areas with large sand dunes. Suddenly we got message about stopping for food distribution. No sight of any people or houses, but soon it was crowded! I used to bring several types of candy for the children, but once it was a topless woman among them who also wanted something. I only had some chewing gum left so I gave her one. She chewed and chewed, but it never disappeared in her mouth. She took it out with her fingers and looked at it over and over, and I realised that she never have tried chewing gum earlier!

We saw many strange things in the desert. Between the sand dunes there was a small flat topped mountain where the Swedes had been mining. Swedish Atlas Copco compressors etc. were still there. All the builings were intact - even a hospital. A family lived there guarding the place for the Swedes. Once it was planned to build a railroad line up there from Ouagadougou, but it never happened. Another place was a large cattle farm started by the Americans, but it failed because of drought. The sand won over the grass. All buildings were intact. Sheds full of trucks, jeeps and other fine vehicles and machinery. Also guarded by a family living there.

In May - July it was VERY hot. Sometimes the temperature reached 50 C (122 F) in the shadow!!! Not too bad because the air was very dry. Most of the weekends we traveled down to the capital Ouagadougou and stayed in one of the city's finest hotels - air conditioning and other goodies!!! Sometimes we traveled with a Piper as Mr. Gayard had a permit to fly small aircraft, but was not allowed to bring passengers yet (hmmm!). Entering or leaving the city by road was strongly controlled by the army. All documents up, reasons for entering and leaving, complete check of the vehicle etc. Not long before we came to the country there had been a military coup.

For us it was a great time and a special thanks to Mr. Gayard (whose English wasn’t very good) - his best was in the morning after some beers the evening before; "Ah, it was a nice morning last night!" - and all the local load and unload helpers/guides that was with us on all our missions - even through some heavy dust/sand storms!!!

Sadly several of my negative films have been lost during many moves since that time - only the few below exist today!!!

The Canadian Military Pattern (CMP) truck was a class of military truck - of various forms - made in large numbers in Canada during World War II to British Army specifications for use in the armies of the British Commonwealth allies. Standard designs were drawn up just before the beginning of the war.

CMP trucks were also sent to the Soviet Union following the Nazi invasion, as part of Canada's Gift and Mutual Aid program to the Allies. During the War CMP trucks saw service around the world in the North African Campaign, the Allied invasion of Sicily, the Italian Campaign, the Soviet Front, the Burma Campaign, the Battle of the Philippines (1941–42), the liberation of Northwest Europe, and the Western Allied invasion of Germany. CMP trucks also saw service in post-war conflicts in Indonesia, French Indochina, and the Portuguese colonies in Africa.

OUR TRUCKS (populary known in Norway as "Hiawatha"):

#1 - FORD F60L with Cab #13 was built in 1943, type 3 ton 4x4 Cargo. engine Ford 239 cu in (3.9 L) V8 cyl, 95 hp (71 kW), 50 mph (80 km/h).
#2 - CHEVROLET C60L with Cab #13 was built in 1942, type 3 ton 4x4 Cargo, engine GM 216 cu in (3.5 L) 6 cyl in line, 85 hp (63 kW), 50 mph (80 km/h).

#1 & #2 - Weight: 7,875 lb (3,572 kg), Length: 204 in (5.18 m), Width: 84 in (2.13 m), Height: 116 in (2.95 m).

The Ford and Chevrolet trucks shared a standard cab design, which evolved over the years of production. The final No. 13 cab, an entirely Canadian design made from late 1941 until the end of the war, had the two flat panes of the windscreen angled slightly downward to minimize the glare from the sun and to avoid causing strong reflections that would be observable from aircraft. All the CMP cab designs had a short, "cab forward" configuration that gave CMP trucks their distinctive pug-nosed profile. No. built: 500,000+

Arild Hermansen, who was working for Sæter Autoservice in Oslo, in front of the Ford F60L (#1), and in the rear the Chevrolet C60L (#2).

Here he is in the driver seat of the Ford.

The Ford on the way into the Royal Norwegian Air Force's "Odin" Lockheed C-130 Hercules on Gardermoen Airport, loaded with spare parts, extra wheel etc. for the aircraft.

And here me and the Chevrolet follows into the aircraft...

Jan and me the day we arrived Gorom-Gorom and have just taken the trucks out of the aircraft.

PHOTO: © Gunnar Filseth/Aftenposten

Me on a visit to the local market in Gorom-Gorom and 3 local "Queens"...

Me and the Chevy testing the "Highway"...

Bringing supplies to a small village further north.

Also from the village...

Kid eating milk powder.

Wood for cooking was important, but trees near the villages were taken a long time ago, so after unloading supplies we drove far away in order to find wood and bring it back to the villages.

For some weeks we was based in Dori south of Gorom-Gorom. Here we're parked ouside our small "Travel Housing". This picture is taken late in Autumn after the start of the rainy season.

Early morning start after a rainy night.

Crossing a river on the way to a village.

When we were based in Dori, a French couple living in Niger came to the "Travel Housing". They was tourists, driving their VW 181 from Niamey (capital of Niger) to Ouagadougou, up to Dori. On a map they had it showed a road over to Niger which could save them a lot of time reaching Niger, but there was no road, just wheel tracks. The day after they left, a man came running into the yard of the "Travel Housing" - he only had some textiles around his waste and a spear. He gave us a letter - it was from the French couple, they was stranded because of all the water and asking if we could help them get back to Dori. We took the Chevy and the runner came with us as a guide. We had a lot of deep water crossings (some times I had about 20-30 centimeters of water above the floor inside the cabin). After about 50 kilometers we found them - and what a run the messenger had done!!! We led the way with the VW behind... Driving outside the "road" tracks was dangerous - too soft and you really got stuck! Once I tried to drive around an obstacle, but the truck sank down to the frame. Standing on a little distance away from the truck it looked like a truck without wheels and shafts - just like a cabin and the cargo area flat on the ground!

Soon we had to tow them, but asked him to keep the engine running to prevent water entering through exhaust system and into the engine. VW with a boxer engine low in the rear could be a disaster...

In the deepest parts the VW floated like a small boat, and luckily the door sealings was very good and kept the water from sipping in...

Me and some young "friends" north of Gorom-Gorom!!!

Me and another "friend" in the backyard of Gorom-Gorom's prefect!!!