Algeria is one of geography’s grand epics. At 2.38 million sq km, this is the world’s 11th-largest country and the second biggest in Africa (Sudan is the largest). To help imagine Algeria’s scale, consider this: most of Western Europe – including Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Poland, the UK and Portugal – would fit inside Algeria with room to spare. If that’s just too big to contemplate, Algeria is almost equivalent in size to Western Australia, is 3.5 times the size of Texas or almost 10 times the size of the UK.
Most of Algerian territory is consumed by the Sahara Desert – over 90% by most estimates – although the northern, non-Saharan section of Algeria contains a surprising range of other landscapes. Just 0.9% of Algeria is covered by forests.
. . The distance from Algiers to Tamanrasset is more than 2000km, which is greater than the distance from Algiers to Paris.
The Tell & the Northeast
Pushed up hard against the Mediterranean Coast, the Tell region of Algeria consists of the narrow coastal strip and its mountainous hinterland. Not surprisingly, this is the most densely populated area of the country. Apart from the coastal littoral, the Tell is dominated by the east–west Atlas Mountains, which are a continuation of the Moroccan Atlas and cut right across the north and into Tunisia. It is not an unbroken chain: it consists of a number of separate ranges, and so does not constitute an impenetrable topographical barrier.
There is some fantastic mountain scenery here, particularly in the many different subranges of the Atlas that make up the Kabylie region east of Algiers. In the Massif du Djurdjura lies northern Algeria’s highest point at 2308m; the Petite Kabylie and Grande Kabylie ranges also plunge down to the Mediterranean from a great height. South of Constantine, the Massif de l’Aurès is another signature massif of the northeast. Between the peaks lie numerous high plains – both Sétif and Constantine sit atop the plains – and valleys making for a region of the country that is rarely short on topographical interest.
Most of Algeria’s agricultural possibility – just 3% of the land is arable – lies within the Tell, especially the Mitidja Plain west of Algiers and around Bejaïa to the east.
As might be expected, the only major river systems are in the north of the country, and many of these are seasonal. The main reservoirs for irrigation are in the mountains to the west of Algiers, while those in the northeast produce the 5% of the country’s power which is generated by hydroelectricity.
The High Plateaus & Saharan Atlas
Before reaching the Sahara proper, Algeria descends ever so slightly from the Atlas into what is known as the High Plateaus (Hauts Plateaux), arid, steppelike plains that run east for almost 600km from the Moroccan border. With an average height of around 1200m above sea level, these plains gradually drop down to around 400m around Bou-Saada. It’s only geographers who, on a technicality, would deny that the High Plateaus differ from the Sahara and a quick look at a map of the region confirms that the low rainfall and barren soil is incapable of supporting more than a handful of settlements.
Separating the plateaus from the Sahara, the Saharan Atlas (Atlas Saharien) consists of three massifs – Monts des Ksour, the Djebel Amour and Monts des Ouled – stretching from the Moroccan border near Béchar to Biskra. The highest point is 1927m. Serving as the final barrier between the Sahara Desert and northern Algeria, the Saharan Atlas gets reasonable rains and is home to a number of large oases such as Béchar, Aïn Sefra, Laghouat and Biskra.
. . Sahara: A Natural History, by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle, is a lively biography of the desert with sections on the Sahara’s climate, wildlife and human inhabitants and much more.
The Algerian Sahara
As Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle write in Sahara: A Natural History, ‘In Morocco you can taste the desert, but Algeria is full immersion’. Although the Sahara runs from the Atlantic Coast to the Red Sea, from the coastal hinterland of the Mediterranean to the Sahel deep in Africa, Algeria is one of the few countries where both the vast scope and infinite variety of the world’s largest desert is on full, unrelenting display.
Sand seas the size of European countries – the Grand Erg Occidental and Grand Erg Oriental – rise hundreds of metres in an ever-changing landscape of pristine lines sculpted by the wind. The Grand Ergs of central Algeria are slowly making their way across Algeria – north towards the Saharan Atlas and the Massif de Aurès and south towards the Tassili du Hoggar – engulfing the country in a seemingly unstoppable march of desertification. Although many regions of the Sahara received regular rains until 3000 years ago, it is believed that the Grand Ergs have not received meaningful regular rainfall for 12,000 years.
. . Geomorphology in Deserts, by Robert Cooke and Andrew Warren, may have been written in 1973, but it remains the definitive work on the Sahara’s geography.
Despite the common misconception, the Sahara is not just one big expanse of sand. Gravel plains such as the impossibly barren Tanezrouft in southwestern Algeria and Mali and barren plateaus such as the Plateau du Tademaït (north of In Salah) provide some of the most featureless horizons in the Sahara. In Algeria’s far southeast are some of the signature massifs of the central Sahara, especially the Hoggar (or Ahaggar) Mountains and the Tassili N’Ajjer, surrounded by vast sandstone or granite plateaus otherwise known as the Mid Sahara Rise. It is in the Hoggar, at Mt Tahat (2908m), where you’ll find Algeria’s highest point, although peaks regularly approach 2000m. Owing their weird-and-wonderful shapes to volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, these otherworldly mountain ranges are a tortured terrain of soaring monoliths and deep canyons. The Hoggar alone occupies an area roughly equivalent to France.
. . THE FORMATION OF SAND DUNES
Sand dunes are among the great mysteries of the Sahara. In the desert, sand particles are relatively heavy so even the strongest winds can rarely lift them much higher than an adult’s shoulders. The slightest bump in the landscape can cause a phenomenon known as cresting, where an accumulation of drifting sand builds up. The slopes facing the wind are generally more compacted and less steep than those that lie on the other side of the ridge-line. The actual formation takes place where there were originally favourable land formations (often surprisingly small) and a constancy in the direction of the winds. Over time, with a base of ever more densely compacted sand, they become a ‘permanent’ feature of the landscape. Individual or small groups of dunes inch forward with time, pushed by consistent winds, although sand seas are relatively stable, having formed over millennia as rock is scoured and worn down to individual grains of quartz or sand.
Some of the most common types of dune are barchan or crescent dunes (the shape of the ridge-line); seif (Arabic for sword), which have long, sweeping ridges; and akhlé, a haphazard network of dunes without any discernible pattern. Unique combinations of all of these can be found in both the Grand Erg Occidental and Grand Erg Oriental, as well as smaller sand seas elsewhere.
For more information on sand dune formation, the 1973 Geomorphology in Deserts by Robert Cooke and Andrew Warren is dense but comprehensive, while Ralph Bagnold’s Libyan Sands – Travels in a Dead World (1935) is more accessible.
The Sahara may cover more than 90% of Algeria, but it is home to less than 10% of its human population.
The prehistoric rock paintings of the Tassili N’Ajjer and elsewhere suggest that elephants, giraffes and rhinoceroses once roamed the region. Not surprisingly, none remain and Algeria has few surviving mammal species. Most of the animal species which do remain have been pushed into ever-more-remote areas and you’re extremely unlikely to see more than a handful of species (if any) during your visit.
Algeria is home to 92 mammal species, of which 15 are officially classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as threatened. More common species which survive include gazelles, porcupines, antelopes, golden jackals, Egyptian mongooses, spotted hyenas and European genets. In northern Algeria European wild boar and Barbary red deer remain reasonably prevalent, although both are a favourite of hunters.
In the Sahara the painfully shy waddan, a large goatlike deer whose agility is perfectly suited to its steep mountain domain, hides in remote mountain wadis in the Tassili N’Ajjer and Hoggar Mountains. The fennec fox is a gloriously adapted, largely nocturnal species with fur-soled feet to protect against scorching sands and comically large ears; it spends most of the hot daylight hours underground. The largest rodent in the Libyan Sahara is the gundi, which can stop breathing for up to a minute to hide itself from prey. Wolves are also present. The four-toed jerboa is a small rodent that sometimes hops through desert camps at night in search of food and is a favourite meal of the fennec. The extremely shy sand cat is also present in southern Algeria, while other species found in the Hoggar region in reasonable numbers include Cape hares, Ruppell’s foxes and, to a lesser extent, Barbary sheep.
Lizards, snakes (the striped sand snake, the horned viper and the Saharan sand snake) and scorpions are also quite common; you’d have to be extremely unlucky to encounter snakes in winter.
Of the marine wildlife along Algeria’s Mediterranean Coast, dolphins, porpoises and whales are all common.
. . La Vie Sauvage au Sahara, by Alain Dragesco-Joffe, is the finest study (in French) of the Sahara’s wildlife, including rare photos and analysis of the Saharan cheetah.
The addax is a large antelope that once frequented the Hoggar and Tassili N’Ajjer regions but may have become extinct in Algeria. Remarkably, it never drinks water. The scimitar-horned oryx (a long-horned antelope) was officially declared extinct in Algeria in 1996. Other species for which it may be too late include the Barbary hyena and Barbary leopard. The dorcas gazelle is considered threatened, while the dama gazelle may have gone the way of the addax in Algeria due to hunting and human encroachment.
One of the most curious survivors in all the Sahara is the Saharan cheetah, of which between 200 and 500 are thought to survive in the whole Sahara. Surveys in 2005 found that a small community of cheetahs – the world’s fastest land animal – continues to hide out in the Hoggar Mountains. What makes their survival even more remarkable is the fact that the Saharan cheetah – whose colours have dulled in the Saharan sun – is extremely susceptible to stress and heat exhaustion.
In the north the Barbary ape (Barbary macaque) and Algerian wild dog are also considered at risk of extinction.
The Mediterranean monk seal is Europe’s most highly endangered marine mammal, with just 600 surviving worldwide; a small colony remains in the caves and on rocky outcrops along Algeria’s far northeastern coast. Over-fishing by commercial fleets in the Mediterranean and coastal pollution have reduced their numbers in Algeria to just 10. The leopardlike serval, which has the longest legs in the cat family, may survive in northern Algeria, but only in similar numbers to the monk seal.
At last count, Algeria had 183 endemic bird species, of which eight are considered endangered. In addition to these, hundreds of millions of migrating birds cross the Sahara every year, escaping the European winter for the warmth of equatorial Africa. Some have been known to cross the Sahara in just 40 hours, although the toll is considerable – up to half will not return. The same species are believed to have been following trans-Saharan migratory routes for millennia, from since before the Sahara was a desert.
. . Sahara Conservation Fund (www.saharaconservation.org) is an excellent website detailing efforts underway to protect Saharan wildlife and the Saharan environment.
Birds that you may come across include the Lanner falcon, Marbled teal, Barbary partridge, blue rock thrush, Greylag goose, golden eagle, Common or Red crossbill and desert sparrow as well as shrikes, larks, crows, turtle doves, vultures, herons, bitterns, woodpigeons, eagles and bulbuls. The sociable moula moula bird, with a black body and striking white face and tail, is a constant companion in the far south; the Tuareg call it the messenger bird or the deliverer of happiness.
In the Kabylie region, the Kabylie nuthatch, with its russet-coloured breast, is sometimes spotted above 1000m, although it is considered threatened, as is Audouin’s Gull.
Along the coast of Algeria, the usual array of Mediterranean flora thrives, with large areas given over to the cultivation of olives and citrus fruit. You may also come across eucalyptus, bougainvillea and oleander. Other species include gall oak and cork oak.
Inland, the only vegetation is largely confined to the oases, where the date palm reigns supreme, along with fig, tamarisk and oleander trees. Outside the oases, Acacia arabica (acacia) often provides the only shade in the middle of the desert wilderness. Alfalfa grass and salt bushes often appear as if by miracle after rains.
Like the Sahara’s few surviving mammal species, a few holdouts of Mediterranean plant species – such as Mediterranean olive, Saharan myrtle and tarout cypress trees – can be found at high altitudes in the Hoggar and Tassili N’Ajjer regions.
Algeria has 11 national parks in addition to a host of other protected areas that encompass a total of between 5% and 10% of the country’s land area. That said, although the Algerian government’s record in setting aside protected areas has improved in recent years, these are rarely national parks in the traditional sense – there are few park wardens, locals continue to live within most park boundaries and there are rarely official entry gates, all of which means you may end up visiting one of the parks without realising it.
Ahaggar National Park
The Ahaggar National Park (Parc National de l’Ahaggar) covers an astonishing 450,000 sq km, making it one the largest protected areas in the world. Created in 1987, the park runs from In Salah to the Mali and Niger borders and encompasses the Hoggar Mountains and the Tassili d’Immidir. There’s an information office (tel 029 734117; pl du 1er Novembre) in Tamanrasset.
Tassili N’Ajjer National Park
Covering 80,000 sq km, the Tassili N’Ajjer National Park (Parc National de Tassili N’Ajjer; is Algeria’s other major park and arguably the most effectively run. The Office National du Parc Tassili in Djanet controls entry to the park, with a DA100 entry fee per person.
. . Africa & the Middle East: A continental overview of environmental issues, by Kevin Hillstrom, contains an excellent exploration of North Africa’s environmental past and future, focusing on how human populations impact upon the environment.
In addition to the rock art for which the park is famous, the park was set up to protect 28 endangered plant species such as Mediterranean olive, Saharan myrtle and tarout cypress, as well as threatened animal species such as the Barbary sheep, sand cat, cheetah and dorcas gazelle. The Tassili N’Ajjer National Park is also an important waystation for migrating bird species, while up to 10,000 people, mostly nomadic Tuareg, live within the park’s confines.
Other National Parks
Two of the most important national parks in Algeria are located in the country’s northeast, although facilities for travellers are practically nonexistent.
Taza National Park (Parc National de Taza), which was set aside in 2004, is situated on the Mediterranean Coast in the Kabylie region and its stunning cliffs and precipitous valleys (the landscape soars from sea level to over 1100m) are home to the endangered Barbary ape and the Kabylie nuthatch, as well as the largest stands of gall oak and cork oak in Algeria. The region is especially popular for raptor bird species. Also of significance is the El-Kala National Park (Parc National d’El-Kala), which is hard-up alongside the Algerian–Tunisian border, close to Annaba. The park is home to two of Algeria’s 26 entries on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. An important stopover for migrating birds on their trans-Saharan odyssey, these wetlands play host to rare waterfowl such as the tufted duck, white-headed duck, Ferruginous duck and purple gallinule.
In addition to these parks, there is one further coastal park (Gouraya National Park), five parks covering mountain regions (Theniet el-Had National Park, Djurdjura National Park, Chrea National Park, Belezma National Park and Tlemcen National Park) and one national park on the High Plateaus (Djebel Aissa National Park).
Algeria’s record on environmental protection is patchy, with daunting challenges and the primacy of oil production and consumption on the list of government priorities proving a destructive combination. Despite some public willingness to tackle the big environmental issues, the government has not, for example, signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
The major environmental issue facing Algeria is undoubtedly desertification – by some estimates, the Algerian Sahara grows by hundreds of square kilometres every year and the Sahara is now just 200km from the shores of the Mediterranean. The stripping of vegetation for firewood and soil erosion from overgrazing have meant that once-fertile soil has begun to unravel, hastening the desert’s irresistible march.
. . The deforestation that has denuded so much of Algeria wasn’t helped by the French, who repeatedly bombed northern regions with napalm during the 1954–62 Algerian War of Independence.
Successive Algerian governments have tried a range of responses to combat desertification with limited impact. In 1975 the government planted what it called a 1500km-long, 20km-wide ‘green wall’ along the northern boundary of the Sahara and the cost of maintaining it drained US$100 million from government coffers every year for two decades, only for further overgrazing and human encroachment to strip away much of the good work. Despite such efforts and some successes – some environmentalists claim that 26,000 sq km of pastureland have been reclaimed from the desert on the High Plateaus – the Department of Agriculture estimates that 130,000 sq km have become desert in Algeria in the last 10 years. In December 2006 President Bouteflika earmarked a further US$2.5 billion for the fight against desertification.
The government also has ambitious plans to develop southern regions not only for environmental reasons, but also to stem the rising urban migration of peoples from southern Algeria. Algerian environmentalists have targeted the Taghit region in western Algeria for a possible national park and ecotourism project as a means of regenerating desert life in harmony with the environment. The government has also redoubled its efforts to plant desert-friendly trees in Saharan areas and develop agricultural regions in the south to arrest the region’s environmental and economic decline.
. . Algerian carbon dioxide emissions amount to 5.1 tonnes per capita, which makes it the 76th worst environmental villain in the world. US figures are 19.8 tonnes, while carbon dioxide emissions from the average Malian are just 0.04 tonnes.
With more than 90% of Algerian territory covered by desert, water is not surprisingly a major environmental issue. Water shortages are common and pollution of water sources, especially in the north, from both domestic and industrial sources is a serious problem in many areas. Techniques for water purification are substandard, and rivers are being increasingly contaminated by untreated sewage, industrial effluent and wastes from petroleum refining.
Droughts are an increasing feature of Algerian life, even in relatively fertile areas in the north. These dry spells have not only fuelled an exodus from the rural south to the industrialised north, they have also left the land susceptible to devastating fires such as those that swept through the northeast in 1999.
. . Recent radiocarbon dating suggests that the water currently stored beneath the Sahara has been there for between 14,000 and 38,000 years, with smaller deposits from 7000 years ago.
Water shortages are particularly acute in the south where people rely on underground water sources for human consumption and crop production. It was ever thus in the Sahara – underground water channels known as foggara and dating back centuries discovered in the Adrar region were found to extend over 2000km.
The Mediterranean has also been contaminated by the oil industry, fertilizer runoff and soil erosion.