From the air, Tarfaya first appears little more than a discoloration – a gray patch of concrete in a wide expanse of yellow sand. As pilot Maxime Raynaud flies over the desolate coast of Morocco’In the far south, he barely distinguishes a fishing port, a faded white fortress and a ruined castle abandoned in the sea.
Landing can be tricky and Raynaud approaches quickly to steady his Tecnam P2010 plane in the strong crosswinds, dodging two radio antennas before landing on a dirt airstrip strewn with small rocks. At 2000 feet, the landing strip leaves little room for error.
“We don’t carry a lot of fuel and we can’t refuel here,” says Raynaud. “If we made a second approach, we might have to deviate.”
For the fifteen crews of the Toulouse-Tarfaya air rally, headed by Raynaud, hijacking is hardly an option – they flew for four days and traveled 1,400 miles to be here. It is a pilgrimage that has been repeated every year for 40 years, first as part of the great Toulouse-Saint Louis rally, and now also in this separate rally which culminates in Tarfaya. THE remote saharan outpost is a legend in aviation and literature.
Former Spanish military base of Cap Juby, Tarfaya was once a crucial stop in the first intercontinental airmail service, Latécoère lineslater named Aeropostale. Based in Toulouse, the capital of French aviation, Aéropostale was operated by a network of daredevil pilots flying rickety biplanes along the West African coast. Among them, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The little Prince. From 1927 to 1929, Saint-Exupéry managed the Tarfaya aerodrome, where he wrote his first novel, Southern Mailand was bewitched by the immensity of the desert.
“Being at the end of the world here was really important for him to meditate and build his philosophy,” says Olivier d’Agay, Saint-Exupéry’s great-nephew, standing on the Tarfaya airstrip. “Aeropostale and The little Prince were born here.
In 1983, Moroccan-born journalist and aviation enthusiast André Sabas organized the first air rally to honor this history, tracing the route of Aéropostale from Toulouse to SpainMorocco and Mauritania in Saint Louis, Senegal. At the time, Jean-Jacques Galy was a young doctor and passionate amateur pilot, himself the son of an aviator. He had grown up with the stories of Aéropostale and had jumped at the chance to imitate his heroes. From the first rally, he was hooked. He participated again in 1984, returned in 1991 as an organizer and has been leading the rally since 2010. His admiration for the pioneers of Aéropostale remains intact.
“It’s important in life to have a mission,” he says. “They had that. To the point, they risked their lives. They did it because they were 25, they feared nothing. If one did well, the other wanted to do better.
This determination also characterized the founder of Aéropostale, Pierre Georges Latécoère, manufacturer of First World War plane. After the war, Latécoère developed a bold vision for idle planes and pilots: to transport mail over unprecedented distances across West Africa, then across the Atlantic to South America. “I redid all the calculations; they confirm the opinion of the specialists: our idea is unrealizable”, declared Latécoère. “There’s only one thing to do: make it happen!”
After a year of test flights, Latécoère obtained a subsidy from the Moroccan government and inaugurated the Toulouse-Rabat line in September 1919. In 1923, he sent three pilots to explore a route to Senegal. Exactly a century before this year’s rally landed in Tarfaya, they left Tarfaya on their return from their successful mission. In 1925, mail circulated daily from Toulouse to Senegal and crossed Brazil on a boat. Although financial problems forced Latécoère to sell the line in 1927, its pilots maintained the dream, achieving Chile by plane in May 1930.
“In 1920, the sending of a letter from France in Chile lasted two and a half months. After the Aéropostale, the letter traveled in a week,” says Sadat Shaibata Mrabih Rabou, director of the Tarfaya Aéropostale museum. “That was the first step in accelerating communications.”
The human cost is high: 120 pilots died, victims of bad weather or engine failure. Others were kidnapped by anti-colonial Saharan nomads, who fired on passing planes and held those forced to land in the desert hostage. In 1928, two Aéropostale pilots spent 117 days captive south of Tarfaya, while Saint-Exupéry, then only 28 years old, negotiated their ransom. “The Moors are asking for a million guns, a million pesetas (about $40 million today), a million camels,” he noted, adding sarcastically, “Nothing!”
But the biggest threat was Aéropostale’s own schedule. Pilots flew in all conditions, risking death to meet their daily deliveries. “We must not forget that everything was a test, everything was new in aviation, recalls the historian of Aéropostale Jean-Claude Nivet. “The mail had to arrive on time. In bad weather, you had to go there. Otherwise, governments and post offices would not hire you.
Modern rallying takes no such risks, and the engines, communications and weather forecasting are all vastly improved. All participants must have more than 250 flying hours and must apply to participate in the rally. But not all dangers can be eliminated.
“The mist is the great enemy,” says Thierry Sentous, a participant in the rally since 1994 and now communications director. “You can’t land, because you can’t see the ground,” he says. “And then there is the wind, the sandstorms. There are times when we have encountered clouds of locusts. They cover the windshield and you can’t see, or worse, they block the engine air vents.
In 2018, Sentous’ engine began to malfunction over the dunes about 150 miles from Nouadhibou, Mauritania. Losing power, Sentous and his co-pilot found a freeway and followed it, preparing to land on the road if the engine failed. They finally limped into Nouadhibou airfield, where dedicated mechanics spent three days repairing the plane.
Even the human threat of the desert has reverberated through the decades. In the 1980s, Sahrawi militants, fighting for the independence of Morocco, fired on a rally plane.
In general, however, the rally prides itself on connecting with local communities, as Saint-Exupéry did a century before. The writer’s cross-cultural learnings in Tarfaya later inspired The little Prince-a fable of a desert encounter between a crashed pilot and an enigmatic alien child, which recounts what his space travels taught him about human nature and love. Today it is the most translated book after the Bible, and the rally celebrates its legacy through donations and activities with schools in Tarfaya.
“The little Prince is an icon, an ambassador of peace,” says d’Agay. “It is important to share this memory with the inhabitants of Tarfaya. They know it’s their story too.
Years before becoming a museum director, Shaibata, who grew up in Tarfaya, remembers running to greet landing planes, as neighborhood children still do today. He sees the rally as a bridge between his hometown and the outside world, which he hopes to deepen through a network for exchanging knowledge or sharing financial resources between the municipalities along the Aéropostale route. “The goal is not just to keep that memory alive, but to use it to aid in development,” he says.
In the evening, rally participants gather alongside Tarfaya residents to watch a light show on the facade of the museum, before retiring to a starlit desert camp. In this year of anniversaries – 100 years since the opening of the Senegal road; 80 years from the publication of The little Prince; and 40 years after the first rally – there is celebration but also reflection, as organizers consider how the dream of flying can be preserved for a generation facing new issues such as climate change. Likewise, reverence for the Aéropostale pioneers who shrunk the world sits alongside nostalgia for a time when the land seemed vast, mysterious and unexplored.
Saint-Exupéry also grappled with this tension, as his colleagues pushed their planes ever-longer distances, eventually negating the need for remote fuel stops like Tarfaya. “The horizons of our travels have blurred one after another,” he laments in his memoirs, Wind, sand and stars. He found solace in the intense camaraderie he experienced along the way, reflecting “perhaps the greatness of a calling lies in the unity it creates.”
This solidarity in the face of an epic challenge is what modern rally participants seek to recreate. “Our actions allow us not to forget” the heritage of Aéropostale, says Galy. “We’re not just talking about this story; we live this story.