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Western Crews Explore In Mysterious Algeria

Updated: May 3, 2022

By The Western Geophysical North Africa Operations Team;

Originally published in the 1972 Spring-Summer Western Profile Recounted by Scott Singleton

The Doodlebugger Diary recounts the experiences of geophysicists during their working lives. I’ve published extensively on my own experiences and encourage those of you with experiences of your own to also contribute. Your fellow industry professionals would love to hear your stories.

I’ve been occasionally reprinting a series of early 1980’s articles from the GSI Shotpoints and GSI Grapevine that can be found at I also have reprinted various Western Geophysical Profile articles. These can be found at This month I’m peeling back the years to an even earlier time with another blissful-sounding article from the Western Profile. Enjoy!

Algeria map
Figure 1: Map of Algeria in 1972 accompanying the Western Profile article. Each of the towns mentioned in the article is on this map so you can follow along with the crew’s travels.

Prolog by Scott Singleton

After the end of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962) the National Liberation Front (or Front de Liberation Nationale, FLN) became the sole legal and ruling party of the government, an arrangement that lasted until other parties were legalized in 1989 (which, by the way, led to the formation of the Islamic Salvation Front and their second civil war in the early 1990’s). Successive governments of the 1960’s and 1970’s resulted in dramatic increases in authoritarianism and socialism, which in turn led to collectivization of agriculture and nationalization of oil production.

It is in this environment that our intrepid doodlebuggers ventured into Algeria in 1970. It is not too hard to imagine that they were welcomed with open arms; the society was at least at peace after decades of wars, killing and destruction following WWII, and were trying to make it as an independent country. I have written about the same kind of experience in Eretria after their independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990’s. It is in this context that our story begins with Western Geophysical ramping up full-scale exploration efforts with the establishment of a central base of operations run by a fairly good sized group of expats in Oran, Algeria, a city on the coast to the west of Algiers near the border with Morocco (Figure 1).

Oran, Algeria, 1970 AFRICA -How full of mystery this name seems! For some persons it is synonymous with an immeasurable desert full of masked camel riders, for others it brings to mind veiled women and oriental perfumes, and for some men it means the Arabic belly dancers. For those families living in the “Enchanting City” of Oran, Algeria, however, these descriptions are not altogether as they see them, however much they may match those of tourist pamphlets. No matter, because the object of the PROFILE is to move the imagination and increase the knowledge of all Westerners all over the world - in this case, regarding our Company in Algeria. This Western multi-party operation began in the early fall of 1970. Among the early arrivals in Oran from the States were Supervisor C. Q. (Quin) Williams and wife Billie. Because of their friendly concern for others, they were of great assistance to those crew members in getting established and settled. By October 31 the town-based personnel and many crew families had flown in to begin a “new life” (Figures 2, Figure 3, and Figure 4). Also, the equipment was arriving and awaiting clearance through customs.

Algeria, Sant Cruz Fort and Cathedral
Figure 2: Westerners in Oran, Algeria, can see this view from the base of the mountain located directly across the harbor from the Western building. The structure on the left is the Santa Cruz Fort, and in the background at the right is the top of Santa Cruz Cathedral.

Actual Western operations in Algeria began in February 1971 when Party 53 fired its first shot in the Sahara Desert. This was near Ouargla, which was used by this crew as a supply base for food and water and where Fred Cooper then lived and was in charge of our warehouse there. Party V-54 soon followed and set up camp farther west, near the oasis of Ghardaia. In the cooler mountainous regions northwest of Ghardaia Parties 55 and V-56 used the small livestock community of Mecheria as a supply base. The surrounding land looks like the King Ranch, with no fences, skinny cattle, and an occasional mountain jutting out of the otherwise flat terrain. Meanwhile, the Westerners back in Oran were becoming acquainted with their new “post.”

Algeria figure 3
Figure 3: This view of Oran can be seen by Westerners standing across the harbor in the Santa Cruz Fort. Western’s building is in top-left background.

Oran, an important prehistoric town originally called “d’Ilfri’ (the Caves) and in Arabic ‘Wahran,” was founded by the Andalousian Arabs in the 8th century. Prospering under the Almohades and Ziyanides from Tlemcen, the port shared its trade with Rachgoun and Honaine. Following an expedition by Pedro Navarro, Oran was occupied in 1509 by the Spanish, to whom many monuments today bear witness. In 1791, however, as a result of attacks by the Bey of Mascara and an earthquake claiming 2,000 lives, a treaty was negotiated between King Charles IV of Spain and the Bey of Algiers. The city then reverted to Islam and became the home of the Bey for Western Algeria. Built at the foot of a mountain, Oran was surrounded by a wall through which a few doors were built and was bordered by flour mills on the Ah-Rhi River. Today the town has expanded way beyond its wall and, with its numerous high-rise buildings, has become one of the busiest North African towns.

Algeria figure 4
Figure 4: A group of Western expats (left foreground) at one of Oran’s outdoor cafes

To house its offices and personnel and families, our Company took an entire building, the Immeuble Charles de Foucauldt. Dubbed “Chez Western,” it is majestically situated in the center of an immense naked field (handy for the assembling of vehicle caravans) just on the outskirts of the city. Our office-apartment building has offices on the ground floor and, directly above six floor apartments for the men and those families who accompanied them. With everyone in the same building there are no excuses of taxi or bus strikes or sudden “illnesses” that creep up on a person on cold winter mornings! Whether we like it or not, every morning at 8 o’clock all expatriated office personnel rush downstairs to earn their day.

Now to the field, with Party 53 Ieading off. To reach this crew we travel through the orange-growing areas and the Atlas Mountains. Just over the mountain is the resort town of Tiaret, surrounded by fir trees. It is a center for schools, in which many expatriates serve as teachers. Leaving Tiaret and the high mountains, we drive through the plain and hills to Laghouat, where petrol and tires must be checked for just outside of this picturesque village is the beginning of the Sahara Desert. The nearest city is many miles away an oasis called Ghardaia. While wending our way through the hills and down into this tight little valley we are almost certain of viewing a mirage as glimpses of nothing but Mediterranean blue meet the eye, and as we round the final curve there it is, the town of Ghardaia - completely to the last building, dressed in blue. A long-to-be-remembered sight. Ghardaia actually consists of five walled-in cities connected somewhat loosely by open market places. Persons not from one of these cities are not permitted inside the walls unless accompanied by a guide or resident. Ghardaia is considered to be a holy city and its inhabitants are the Mozabs. They are a religious sect who settled here in the 8th century, much as the Pilgrim Fathers, to be free to pursue their faith and to start business. Both pursuits have proved very successful. Business is thriving. Because of their location, the Mozabs form a trading link between nomads and people from the coast area.

Departing Ghardaia and its abundant date palms, we are again surrounded by the desert, and we begin to see the Bedouin with their camel trains traveling south. Just before reaching the city of Ouargla, we see the first and dunes - Party 53 is surrounded by these. A small green patch in a barren desert, Ouargla itself is a nice city where that all-important item, food, is bought for the party. Located northeast of Ouargla is the beautiful oasis town of Touggourt with lovely palm and white mosques.