The Long Riders' Guild

Riding across the Sahara

By Jamie Bruce-Lockhart

Hugh Clapperton, portrait in oils by Gildon Manton, 1825.

Commander Hugh Clapperton (1788-1827)



Hugh Clapperton, a British naval officer turned explorer, travelled on two expeditions to explore the interior of north Africa and to identify the final course and termination of the River Niger. He was the first European to chart every degree of latitude between the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Guinea, and his discoveries led directly to the opening of sustained European contact with an important region of sub-Saharan Africa. The greater part of both remarkable journeys was made on horseback

In 1822-23 he and his companions in the British Government’s Mission to Borno spent eight months in Fezzan before crossing the Sahara to Borno, accompanied by an escort of 210 mounted Arab tribesmen provided by the Pasha of Tripoli (in effect a military reconnaissance party). Clapperton spent one year exploring Borno in the Lake Chad region and in 1824 became the first European to travel across the ancient commercial states of Hausaland to Sokoto, the capital of the most important empire in the central Sudan at the time. 

His second expedition in 1825 – 27 was made as leader of a follow-up diplomatic mission to Sokoto and Borno, this time by way of the Guinea Coast. He landed at Badagry in November 1825, crossed the River Niger near Bussa (where Mungo Park had perished twenty years earlier) and returned to Hausaland in July 1826. Though he was denied the opportunity of further exploration to confirm his findings by the outbreak of war between the two empires of Sokoto and Borno, Clapperton established to his own satisfaction the final course of the Niger before he died in Sokoto on 13 April 1827.

Click on the map of Clapperton's journeys to enlarge it.

 The Mission to Borno - Extracts from Clapperton's diaries

A question of payment for supplies

Travelling in Fezzan in 1822, Clapperton and his companion Dr. Walter Oudney were embarrassed by the high-handed manner in which their official escort officer extorted supplies from impoverished villagers. They began to pay their own way; and at Tawila where the Sheikh of the town ‘provided food for ourselves and the horses for which the Dr. paid and in addition gave his daughters, three in number, a pair of scissors, a string of beads and a thimble each, with which the Sheikh was much pleased.’ Clapperton considered his action only reasonable, but 25 years later the frugal abolitionist James Richardson complained that Clapperton and his friends had spoiled the roads of Fezzan, just as British tourists had spoiled the roads of Europe.

A potential danger signal – a mule that ran away.

A ten-week excursion journey through western Fezzan to Ghat, however, was made by camel, while the horses remained behind in Murzuq – although the mule went with the travellers and created rather a stir when it escaped in Wadi al-Ajal. Clapperton feared that if it were found riderless and recognised, the authorities would conclude that he had met an unfortunate end. He rushed off a message to the acting Governor in the capital to alert him – but the mule was found a few hours later.

Some hazards of Saharan travel

The fifteen hundred mile journey across the central Sahara from Fezzan to Lake Chad took two and a half months. Horses were luxurious mounts in the desert, since extra camels were needed to service them on the passages between wells. One camel, carrying six water skins each weighing some 50lbs, was needed to transport the water for a single horse. Other camels were needed to carry the fodder - dried corn and grass and blocks of compressed dates. And as the journey progressed, even these arrangements were put at risk when camels collapsed on the road and their loads had to be redistributed among other, by now already weakened, animals, or carried by men.

The going was hard, ‘on a plain of sand having hard ridges of quartz rock lightly covered with sand which scored the feet of both horses & camels’; and in other places the horses were endangered by soft holes which pitted the clay and gravel. When one of the camels broke through the surface with its near foreleg, Clapperton reflected that a camel could be hauled out only because its joints are flexible, ‘but had the same incident happened to a horse or a mule he would either have had his near leg broke or the off shoulder out of joint.’

Clapperton rode his horse a longer distance than the caravan trail itself by making regular sorties to take navigational sights, explore features of geography, search for geological specimens and look for any signs of herbage or tracks of animals. It was a risky practice and irritated the leader of the escort but the navigational information he was able to construct was of real value, both to himself on the return journey and to successor travellers on the Bilma road. And as if a reminder were needed, the wells on the central plateau were surrounded by scores of skeletons, human corpses and carcases of animals - earlier victims of the inhospitable road.

An unrelenting irritation was the wind. ‘we had a strong gale and the fine sand blown along with it particularly from that raised by the hot air  ... caused both man & horses to sneeze and was painful to the eyes.’ By the time they reached Wadi Kawar, the half-way point, ‘everyone was as tired as could be & for myself I walked these last 2 days owing to the shoe of my horse having lamed his near fore foot – but I have walked parts of every day since we came out.

But by far the worst part of the southbound journey was the seven-day march across the sand dunes of the Bilma Erg in the southern Ténéré; and the theft there of over half their water skins was a serious matter. [On 19 January ] ‘just before halting - when we were going to water our horses - we found out of 14 skins we had filled at Zow [Zo Ba­ba] that we had only 5 and as our horses had not drunk since yestdy morning we could only allow them about 2 gallons – we had all left the Kaffle to the charge of our servants & they said our skins were bad -  I suppose they had given away or sold the greater part but they stoutly denied the charge’.

Hunting on Lake Chad and the death of a friend

Upon arrival in Borno Clapperton went out hunting on the banks of Lake Chad. He would stalk antelope, hogs, ostrich and other game for hours at a time to get in a shot. But the nights by the lake shore could be uncomfortable, ‘after cooking and eating some of our corrigum [hartebeest] we attempted to lay down and sleep but we were beset with the ants and musquitoes the growling of jackals and the roaring of lions  - & the horse and Mule were as uneasy and disturbed as we were.

After the exhaustion of the desert journey and despite Clapperton’s best efforts – he always put his horse’s interests first - his horse grew steadily weaker in the unaccustomed humidity and heat in the Lake Chad basin. On 1 April, ‘I had all prepared for setting off to hunt on the banks of the Shad at Midnight when the Moon arose – but just before sunset my horse took ill [so] that I  had to give up the plan.’ The next day his stalwart companion died. ‘2nd April  My poor horse died this Morning to my great regret -  I brought him from Tripoli -   he was the fleetest the strongest  the highest & most tractable horse that came out in the Kaffle  and used to follow me like a dog when I chose to dismount & walk -  I could fire off his back as steadily as from the ground - he would never wince - & often have I levelled the rifle upon his neck and back & shot a Gazelle - & when I ran to secure my game he would gallop after me  apparently as pleased as I was -  but alas poor Dick will gallop after me no more'.

Clapperton had no problem acquiring replacements, by loan, gift, or purchase -although ‘mares are seldom for sale, and are highly prized, both for breeding and because they do not neigh on approaching other horses – a quality that especially fits them for predatory inroads. Geldings are unknown’.

Unexpected hazards of travel in the central Sudan

Riding in the river valleys of the Sudan could be uncomfortable ‘and as every tree is full of prickles we got our cloths much torn & were often in danger of losing our eyes’. More dangerous were the traps constructed by villagers on Borno’s borders to prevent Tuareg incursions into their country – ‘some of them were about 12 feet deep, square at the top and tapering at the bottom having 4 pointed sticks sticking up at the bottom – the top is covered with a little grass and reeds over which is strewed sand so that they look like the best sand -  they are about 4 or 5 feet wide at the top’. Clapperton’s mule fell in one and had to be hauled out with ropes – ‘two of the spikes had run into it  one in the belly which took the direction between the skin & the flesh the other into the near thigh which disabled the poor animal from walking without great pain’.

And the African savannah held another unwelcome surprise. In mid-January 1824 ‘the water was frozen in our dishes and our water skins were like boards –  the camels & horses were shivering with cold and appeared to suffer a great deal – more than us’.

One of the worst rides involved a twenty-hour forced march in a large caravan across the Gundumi wilderness where Clapperton almost suffocated from dust thrown up as the caravan rode over dry clay soil; and, hurrying through the thick underwood and briars, because he had neglected to put on his boots, his ‘trowsers were all torn and … legs almost excoriated from the knees to the ankles’. At four in the morning, separated from the rest of the caravan, and with his escort unable to proceed further, he lay down by the side of his horse and, hunger and thirst refreshed by a handful of yellow plums brought by his servants, slept soundly on the ground until daybreak. The next morning other horsemen from the caravan began to appear ‘unable to speak from thirst and dismounted – their horses having either died, or being too weak to bear their riders who were driving them before them.

Horses and men

Clapperton was always interested in horsemen and their mounts and especially their military use - and he was not unnaturally proud of English horsemanship and equipment. In Yorubaland, while he admired the infantry he had no good word for the horse – ‘badly mounted on small horses as clumsily as it is possible to be dressed - their saddles so badly secured & they sit so clumsily on their seat that any man in England that can ride a horse with an English saddle would upset a Yourriba dragoon at the first charge with a long stick …’.

Although separated by one of the largest deserts in the world, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa have maintained equestrian links for thousands of years.  This photograph shows Souleyman with his Dongola horse, a breed which is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa.
Photograph by Yann Arthus-Bertrand from the superb book "Horses" whose text was written by the famous French Long Rider, Jean-Louis Gouraud.

But he was happy to admire the riders if occasion warranted. In March 1824 at a roadside halt he was joined by a captain in the Sultan’s army, ‘one of the finest looking men I ever saw’ and his young wife who ‘bestrode a very handsome palfrey, amid a group of female attendants on foot. I was introduced to her this morning when she politely joined her husband in requesting me to delay my journey another day in which case she proposed we should travel together. Of course it was impossible to refuse so agreeable an invitation … The figure of the lady was small but finely formed and her complexion of a clear copper colour; while unlike most beautiful women, she was mild and unobtrusive in her manners’.

Clapperton’s second expedition 1825-27
Extracts from Clapperton's diaries

A new pair of boots

On arrival on the coast at Badagry, Clapperton managed to borrow a small horse, without a saddle, which he and a companion ‘agreed to ride and tye [sic] - as my foot was cut and blistered with a pair of new boots I had worn yesterday and I could only wear a pair of loose slippers’. In the impenetrable forest ‘we could not see the heavens over our heads the path winding in every direction  - my slippers being down at the heels I soon lost them off my feet when I got my legs and feet miserably cut, and soon getting galled by riding without a saddle I had to walk barefoot – this was really if possible worse for when ever I crossed an ant path my feet were as if on fire and they drew blood from every quarter and I hobbled on with a stick.

Two weeks after arrival on the coast Clapperton’s party fell victim to malaria and to yellow fever; his two officer companions and one servant died and the others, suffering severely themselves, had to travel in hammocks. Once in the savannah, however, the climate improved and with it their health, and horses were again available to them.

Ill-mounted but honest

On departure from Oyo for Borgu, Clapperton had hired small horses for his servants and had been presented with a little Yoruba mare by the King. The explorer and his men were riding bare-back when the Borgu escort arrived to fetch them ‘mounted on some as fine horses as ever I saw. But they were a desperate set for they began plundering the village of the goats & fowls as soon as they had paid their respects to me - … our little Yourriba mares made a sad contrast – but we had not plundered the village’.

A fine cavalcade

The King of Kaiama was ‘a tall raw-boned fellow’ of commanding appearance, who sat well to horse. And when he arrived at Clapperton’s quarters, dressed in silk damask, booted and riding ‘as beautifull a red roan as ever I saw in my life’, he was accompanied by a rather fetching cavalcade of spear bearers ‘which were 6 naked young girls from 15 to 17 years of age  - the only thing they had on was a white band around the head of roman cloth - about 6 inches of the ends flying behind and a string of beads round their waists – in their right hands they carried 3 light spears each  - their light forms & the vivacity in their eyes and the ease with which they flew over the ground made them appear some thing more than human as they ran alongside his horse when he was galloping and making his  horse curvet & bound.

Long before Africa's colonization, vast empires - often ruled by gallant black knights - had been established south of the Sahara.  Horses are still the prerogative of chieftains known as Lamido. This photograph shows the Lamido of Mindif with his stallion, Balewou Koppi.
Photograph by Yann Arthus-Bertrand from the superb book "Horses" whose text was written by the famous French Long Rider, Jean-Louis Gouraud.

The traveller and the King got on well, and after drinking tea in Clapperton’s quarters  they went to the palace and watched ‘some not bad horse racing in the square’.


But by April 1826 Clapperton was becoming increasingly exhausted. He passed out in the sun on one occasion, and had to take steam baths (by closing up a grass hut) to sweat out recurring fever. An overnight ride wore him out: ‘Halted at 4 and lay down on the ground till 6 as I was from fever sickness & pain in the head no longer able to bear the motion of the horse – I had no covering & though the morning was raw & the ground wet I arose much relieved of my sickness & familiar exhaustion -  there are times when a man will take any remedy what ever may be its future effects – such was my case and even if I had had to die by my laying on the wet ground I could not sit on horse back nor could I stand’.

Riding in the rains

In the river valleys of Hausaland the roads were sodden and any stream turned into a boggy swamp: ‘I had not gone many paces before my horse sunk to the belly and as I did not immeadtly dismount thinking to ride him through I got severely hurt by the pummel of the saddle by his plunging – at last I got off,  put the saddle on my head  and got him to a firm spot under a tree’. Twelve hours on the road took its toll. He ‘got wet to the skin yet had a burning thirst at times hardly able to sit on horse back until releaeved by occly vomiting -  I would gladly have lain down any where but there was not a spot clear of water’.

Last days

In December 1826, not long after arrival in Sokoto, Clapperton was effectively placed under house arrest for two months. His health began to fail but the following February he felt well enough to leave his servants in Sokoto while he rode to the Rima river valley, ‘dressed more like a mountain robber than a naval officer’, for a few days’ rest and sport. But by this time even hunting had become too tiring for him. On the fourth day, ‘after a whole afternoon shooting and riding the foothills of the valley to no purpose’, he stopped to accept refreshment from a party of Fulani girls taking their cattle on to the valley floor. ‘They gave me curdled milk and water to drink - after which I lay down beside the lake and took the bridle off my horse to let him enjoy himself also amongst the fine green grass. …’

Two weeks later Clapperton collapsed in his quarters in Sokoto from repeated bouts of fever and dysentery, and never recovered and died there on 13 April 1827.

Jamie Bruce-Lockhart has edited three books about this amazing explorer and Long Rider.


Hugh Clapperton: into the Interior of Africa is published by Brill Publishing.


Difficult and Dangerous Roads is published by Eland Books:  


Clapperton in Borno: journals of the travels in Borno of Lieutenant Hugh Clapperton, RN, from January 1823 to September 1824 is published by Koeppe

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