Exploring the Algerian Sahara offers the traveller the ultimate challenge, not to mention some of the last great wilderness adventures in the world. You may see some of the most spectacular scenery on earth – Algeria is famed among experienced Saharan travellers as a true landscape of the soul – but the process of getting there along the long, dusty, rocky trails is something that you’ll remember almost as long as you will places like Tassili N’Ajjer National Park, Tassili du Hoggar, Assekrem or Tanezrouft.
. . The home page of Alain Sèbe (www.alainsebeimages.com), arguably the finest photographer currently working in the Sahara, is filled with inspirational desert shots.
A Saharan expedition is definitely not for those who value their creature comforts, as transport can be uncomfortable, conditions are often primitive, the climate is almost always extreme and the range of food limited. There will surely come a moment when the arduous nature of travel in the Sahara makes you wonder why on earth you decided to come.
But then you’ll catch a glimpse of a distant sand dune of pristine, sculpted perfection, stumble upon a slash of green in a remote canyon of desolate black rocks, discover a wall adorned with rock art so exquisite as to qualify as a masterpiece or find yourself in patient conversation with a Tuareg keen to initiate you into the Sahara’s secrets. These are the moments when all memories of the hardship disappear and you begin to wonder how you can ever bear to leave.
We can also promise you one thing: once you have visited the imagined territory of the Sahara, the Sahara will fill your dreams and you’ll spend the rest of your life longing to return.
BEFORE YOU GO
Visiting the Sahara, whether it be in Algeria or elsewhere, requires careful planning. While much of this involves practical preparation, it also entails catching a sense of the Sahara’s magic, and dreaming a little before you go.
Some aspects of travelling in the Algerian Sahara are covered elsewhere in this book. In addition to the destination chapters – Ghardaïa and the Grand Ergs, and Tamanrasset, Djanet and the Sahara – detailed coverage of Saharan rock art can be found on, while descriptions of the Sahara’s geography and the wildlife you may see there form a central part of the Environment chapter.
When it comes to preparing for a Saharan expedition, a little inspiration can take you a long way. The following books will help you to catch the spirit of the Sahara and whet your appetite for what awaits you in Algeria:
Wind, Sand and Stars (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) The existentialist bible of Saharan travel, filled with all the wisdom and gravitas of the world’s largest desert.
The Sahara (The World’s Wild Places, Time-Life Books) An unlikely desert classic which combines a wealth of information with evocative text that captures the essence of Saharan travel.
Libyan Sands – Travels in a Dead World (RA Bagnold) A beautifully written 1920s exploration of the Egyptian and Libyan deserts that overflows with the joy of discovery, a sensation that is still possible today.
The Gates of Africa: Death, Discovery and the Search for Timbuktu (Anthony Sattin) No book about the Saharan explorers of old so beautifully evokes the reasons why they (and perhaps we) felt so called by the desert.
Impossible Journey: Two Against the Sahara (Michael Asher) Epic tales of Saharan exploration aren’t the preserve of 19th-century travellers and this crossing of the Sahara from west to east is extraordinary.
Desert Divers (Sven Lindqvist) A deeply meditative text on the peoples of the Algerian Sahara and the strange mysteries of the desert.
Mysterious Sahara (Byron Khun de Prorock) A stirring 1920s account of journeys into the Sahara (including extensive sections on Algeria) by one of the most intrepid Saharan travellers of the 20th century.
. . Sahara: The Forbidding Sands (Jean-Marc Durou) is a stunningly photographed addition to your library, with text by Tuareg writers and some of France’s most respected Saharan travellers.
Call of the Desert (Philippe Bourseiller) A weighty coffee-table tome that you won’t want in your suitcase, but which has one of the most exceptional collections of Saharan photos.
Sahara: An Immense Ocean of Sand (Paolo Navaresio and Gianni Guadalupi) A kilo or two less than Bourseiller’s book, but similarly exceptional photos and lively, informative text.
Sahara: The Atlantic to the Nile (Alain and Berny Sèbe) Award-winning photos of the Sahara’s signature landscapes with a heavy focus on Algeria.
. . SAHARA STATS
It is a notoriously unwieldy beast to quantify, but most estimates put the Sahara’s size at 9.065 million sq km, which is comparable to the continental United States. Almost a quarter of the Sahara lies within the borders of Algeria.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, sand covers just 20% of the Sahara’s surface and only a ninth of the Sahara rises as sand dunes.
More typical of the Sahara are the vast gravel plains and plateaus such as the Tanezrouft of southeastern Algeria. Improbably, plains such as these owe their existence to water. When the rains ceased and the Sahara began to dry out around 4000 years ago, the rivers which once flowed from the mountains of the central Sahara to the sea dried out. They left behind mountain debris carried down onto eroded plains such as the Tanezrouft. These great tablelands of sedimentary limestone, newly exposed to unimpeded Saharan winds, were thereafter polished smooth as all loose debris was scoured away by wind and sand.
The Sahara is also home to barren mountain ranges of sandstone and granite such as the Jebel Acacus (Libya), Aïr Mountains (Niger), Tibesti (Chad), Adrar-n-Iforhas (Mali) and the Algerian ranges of the Hoggar and Tassili N’Ajjer. These dark apparitions of the central Sahara were formed by volcanic activity, beginning 570 million years ago with the Great African Episode, which formed the mountains of Africa, and culminating in the last volcanic activity a mere two million years ago. Most of these mountains are basalt to the core, with underlying foundations of granite.
Although there are places where life can seem impossible, the Sahara is home to 1400 plant species, 50 species of mammal and 18 species of bird.
WHEN TO GO
The season during which you visit the Sahara will have a strong bearing on what you’re able to achieve and what type of memories you’ll take home.
The best time to visit the Sahara is in October or November when daytime temperatures can be surprisingly mild and the nights won’t have fallen below zero as they tend to do in the months that follow. If you’re lucky and there have been late-summer rains in the preceding months, some desert landscapes will still be alive with flowers and soft tinges of green.
Winter (December through to February) in the Algerian Sahara will also mean that you’re free to explore just about anywhere without too much difficulty, although you may be surprised at just how cool the days can become, and nights can be bitterly, interminably cold. Having ‘slept’ outdoors in the central Sahara in just a light sleeping bag when the temperatures dropped more degrees below zero than we care to remember, we can only exhort you to come well prepared.
From March until the middle of May are also good months for visiting the Sahara, although in April there is a greater risk of strong winds and sandstorms, which can reduce visibility to just a few metres and be extremely unpleasant if you find yourself in open country. By late April and early May, temperatures have begun to rise and given that your car is unlikely to let you use air-conditioning when traversing tough terrain, you may be a little more restricted in how deep into the desert you want to travel.
. . people survive by staying indoors for most of the daylight hours
Don’t even think of travelling in the Sahara from late May until mid-September when temperatures are fierce. In any event, given that you have to visit the Algerian Sahara in the company of a guide, you’ll struggle to find one willing to leave the shade and accompany you at such times. For people who live in the Sahara, these are months to be endured and the people survive by staying indoors for most of the daylight hours. One day in the open desert and you’ll feel like doing the same.
WHAT TO BRING
Although we’ve provided some general advice on what to bring on your visit to, there are further things that are specifically necessary for Saharan travel that you should consider carrying in your backpack.
Clothes & Camping Equipment
If you’re visiting the Algerian Sahara as part of an organised tour, check what equipment the operator will be sending with you. A warm sleeping bag and tent are essential in colder weather, while blankets should also be provided. A portable stove is also a must, as are kitchen and eating utensils.
. . TYING YOUR TAGUELMOUST
The Tuareg turban (known as an ashaersh or taguelmoust) has puzzled ethnographers for centuries. The Tuareg are one of the few societies in the world where men, but not women, must wear the veil. One functional purpose is as protection against wind and sand.
However, it also serves a social purpose in the rigid hierarchy of social relationships. A Tuareg man is not supposed to show his face to one of higher status, and Tuareg who still follow the traditional way of life will rarely expose the lower half of their face in company. When such men drink tea, they are supposed to pass their glass under their taguelmoust so as not to reveal the mouth.
There are many ways of tying the taguelmoust. Although it’s likely to take a while for you to gain the casual ease with which Tuareg men accomplish the task, one relatively easy way to do it is as follows:
Step 1 Fold the cloth so that it remains the same length but half the width.
Step 2 Drape the folded cloth flat over your head so that three quarters of its length hangs down in front of your right arm and the shorter length over your left.
Step 3 With your right hand, hold the cloth about halfway down its length.
Step 4 Place your left hand across your body, and tense it so that your four fingers are pointing out to your right and your thumb is pointing to the sky.
Step 5 Holding your left hand just below your right shoulder, about chest high and about 15cm out from your body, grasp the nearest fold of the long length of cloth in your left hand between the thumb and flattened forefinger.
Step 6 With your right hand, quickly take the length of cloth in a full circle in front of your face and around the back of your head until you return to where you started.
Step 7 Repeat as many times as necessary.
Step 8 Tuck any remaining strands of cloth into the folds on the top or back of the head.
Step 9 Ask your Tuareg guide to sort it out.
There; we told you it was easy.
No tour operator can be held responsible, however, if you find yourself freezing on a cold desert night because you didn’t bring enough warm clothes. For all but summer months, we advise you to bring a jacket or coat which is effective at keeping out the wind and keeping you warm. Other warm clothes should also be considered, depending on the time of year. Thermal underwear, for example, takes up little space.
Good, sturdy boots are another must for the uneven trails of the Tassili N’Ajjer in particular.
Sunscreen is necessary, as is some form of head protection to help guard against getting sunburn or, worse, heat exhaustion. You should definitely bring a hat, but many travellers don traditional Tuareg headgear – the taguelmoust or other cloth – which not only shields you from the sun, but also keeps out wind-borne sand. For advice on the complicated fun of tying your new Tuareg taguelmoust in nine easy steps, see the boxed text, opposite . Moisturising cream for dry skin is also recommended.
A medical kit is a near-essential item, while you should also make sure that your travel insurance covers you for trekking, camel trekking and 4WD expeditions in the Algerian Sahara. Some form of mosquito repellent is also recommended – that unmistakeable highpitched whine in the ear is death to sleep in many Saharan oases.
Useful items to have around the camp site at night include a Swiss army knife, a torch (some people prefer a head lantern) and spare batteries. Some travellers like to also carry a short-wave radio with them, although most prefer the silence of desert nights to knowing what’s happening in the world beyond the desert. A small telescope for studying the night sky is something of an indulgence, but one that you’ll appreciate if you have room in your backpack or vehicle.
. . good, sturdy boots are a must
Be sure to carry all your documents – passport, carnet de passage (passport or travel permit for your vehicle), vehicle registration and insurance papers for your vehicle – with you at all times and keep them easily accessible. The Algerian security services are known to pop up in the most remote and unlikely places and, although they’re primarily there for your own protection, they’ll want to make sure that everything is in order before they let you continue on your way.
Navigating the Sahara requires good maps and an experienced local guide. A satellite-generated Global Positioning System (GPS) can also come in handy, but it’s no substitute for the local knowledge of an experienced guide – a GPS can point you in the right direction but can’t tell what lies in your path, and hence the most appropriate route.
For an overview of the area, the regularly updated Michelin map Africa: North and West (sheet 953, formerly 153, scale 1:4,000,000) is one of the best and most detailed, and something of a classic. It has lent its name to the 153 Club (www.the153club.org) whose members have driven across the Sahara and around West Africa. That said, don’t rely solely on the Michelin map as its scale makes it insufficiently detailed for most desert navigation. Expect also a few discrepancies between the map and reality, especially regarding road information, because old tracks get upgraded and once-smooth highways become potholed disasters.
. . STUCK IN THE SAND Anthony Ham
There’s no feeling like it, that sense of being so deep in the Sahara and so far from civilisation that you wonder whether you’ve fallen off the end of the earth. The glorious sense of solitude and the gravitas of a desert landscape sculpted by the wind are among the many rewards of travelling in the Sahara. That is until something happens to your vehicle. And so it was that we awoke one morning in the sands of the Sahara to find that the car’s battery was a complete nonstarter.
I have become accustomed over the years to drivers in this area being able to fix anything – for them necessity is indeed the mother of invention. I have watched, 300km from the nearest town, as my driver dismantled a Land Rover’s suspension and then rebuilt it in just over two hours. I have marvelled as my guide and driver changed the entire gear system of a Toyota Landcruiser in a deep valley of a sand sea. So I wasn’t worried at first.
We dug the wheels from the sand and pushed. When that failed, my driver and two guides jacked up the car and tried to spin the wheels, hoping that would coax the engine to life. They dismantled the fan belt and tried to charge the battery by hand. They talked excitedly and with purpose which suggested that things were not as bad as they seemed to me. Then came the moment when my two guides and driver stopped peering into the engine and, as one, began to look hopefully towards the horizon. That’s when I knew we had problems and began to wonder just how much trouble we were in.
And so it was that one guide and one driver set out to walk 25km across the sand to the nearest police post, leaving us to contemplate what it truly meant to be stuck in the sand with no prospect of passing traffic in one of the most remote corners of the Sahara. As the hours passed, with the sun overhead, we crawled under the car for shade. What if they got lost and never returned? What if the police vehicle was under repair or away on patrol? We knew we had enough food and water for at least a week, but the sense of helplessness soon morphed into morbid thoughts.
Although my usual rule is to venture into the Sahara only with two or more 4WDs, I often break it when I am with an experienced driver who knows his car. Off the beaten track, I also always travel with a satellite phone. In this case, I had no phone and no second car.
Finally, after six hours, a police car with mounted machine guns appeared over the horizon, bearing our guide and driver and the means to restart our car.
A happy reunion. Relief that you could almost taste. And one of the most important lessons of Saharan travel learnt – always know your vehicle before taking it into the desert.
The most detailed topographical maps are the old Russian satellite survey maps (1:200,000) from the 1970s. They may be in Cyrillic script but they’re still the best maps for Saharan navigation, at least when it comes to topographical features.
If you can’t find the Russian maps, your next best bet is probably the series of maps produced by the Institut Géographique National (IGN). IGN’s extensive series of Carte Internationale du Monde sheets (1:1,000,000) covers the Algerian Sahara and the most relevant sheets are likely to be In-Azaoua, Djanet, Tamanrasset and In-Salah. The only problem with these maps is that they were surveyed in the 1960s and don’t seem to have been updated since. As such, they’re generally excellent for topographical features, but of little use for road detail.
To try to track down these and other Saharan maps, your first stop should be Stanfords (tel 020-7836 1321; www.stanfords.co.uk; 12-14 Long Acre, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9LP, UK), the world’s largest supplier of maps. It also has stores in Manchester and Bristol.
In France, IGN (tel 01 43 98 80 00; www.ign.fr; 107, rue de La Boétie, 75008 Paris) sells its sheet maps at stores in Paris and Dijon.
Another excellent resource, especially for preparing your vehicle for the Sahara and advice on desert driving, is the 2nd edition of Sahara Overland: A Route and Planning Guide by Chris Scott. It includes 16 detailed route descriptions for the Algerian Sahara, often including GPS coordinates.
If you’re travelling in your own 4WD, you should make sure that your engine has been rigorously checked and any potential problems either fixed or noted. If you choose the latter option, and even if you don’t, a close to full set of spare parts is essential. Your tyres (including spares) must be in excellent condition, while spare inner tubes and repair kits are also a must. A spare battery can also be a good idea. Your vehicle should be equipped with either an additional petrol tank or petrol containers, as well as a number of large water containers or jerry cans – you’d be surprised at how many inexperienced desert travellers set out into the Sahara with the idea that a few water bottles will see them through.
. . equip your vehicle with additional petrol and water’
Sand ladders (also known as sand plates), tow ropes and shovels are staples of Saharan 4WD expeditions, while electric compressors (air pumps that run from your car’s engine and pump up your tyres) are useful for reinflating tyres after a journey through soft sand. An airbag jack is also an excellent thing to have on hand.
A satellite phone is another near-essential accessory, although if you’re travelling with a tour company a satellite phone for the group may be part of the service.
RESPONSIBLE SAHARAN TRAVEL
Despite appearances, the Sahara can be an extremely fragile environment and the only evidence of your visit that you should leave behind is footprints in the sand. Some general rules to keep in mind so as to minimize your impact while travelling in the Sahara include the following:
- Carry out all your rubbish. If you’ve carried it in, you can carry it out. Most Algerian tour companies are sensitive to these concerns and leave behind little rubbish but you can make sure of it.
. . ENVIRONMENTALLY PISTE-OFF
Before you decide to explore the Algerian Sahara by 4WD, it is worth considering the environmental cost of what is known as the ‘Toyotarisation’ of the Sahara. With their large wheels, 4WDs break up the surface of the desert which is then scattered into the air by strong winds. By one estimate, the annual generation of dust has increased by 1000% in North Africa in the last fifty years. And in case you thought that your 4WD tracks across the sands would soon be erased by the winds, remember that tracks from WWII vehicles are still visible in the Libyan Desert six decades after the cessation of hostilities. Airborne dust is a primary cause of drought far more than it is a consequence of it, as it shields the earth’s surface from sunlight and hinders cloud formation.
The consequences of our impatience in the desert extend far beyond Algeria and its desert communities. The stirred-up sand threatens to envelop large tracts of the world in dust, with serious consequences for human health, coral reefs and climate change. Plankton on the surface of the world’s oceans is being smothered by sand with devastating implications for marine life. Dust storms are increasingly common in cities, such as Madrid and the dust-laden winds threaten to transform 90% of Spain’s Mediterranean regions into deserts. Sand from the Sahara has even reached as far away as Greenland, settling on icebergs and causing them to melt faster. The process of desertification is extremely difficult and costly to reverse.
Travelling by camel or on foot may be more restricting, but it’s the best way to ensure that you leave behind nothing but footprints in the sand.
- Minimise the waste you must carry out by taking minimal packaging and instead take reusable containers or stuff sacks.
- Never bury your rubbish. Digging disturbs soil and ground cover, and encourages erosion. Buried rubbish will more than likely be dug up by animals, who may be injured or poisoned by it. It may also take decades to decompose in the dry desert air.
- Don’t rely on bought water in plastic bottles. Disposal of these bottles is creating a major problem as a quick look at the outskirts of many oasis towns or travellers’ former camp sites will attest.
- Sanitary napkins, tampons and condoms should also be carried out despite the inconvenience. They burn and decompose poorly.
- Where there’s no toilet, bury your waste. Dig a small hole 15cm (6 in) deep. Cover the waste with soil and a rock. Use toilet paper sparingly and bury it with the waste, or burn it.
- If you light a fire, don’t surround it with rocks, as this creates a visual scar.
- When collecting firewood, only use dead wood and never take from a living tree.
. . The most significant risks for travellers in the Sahara are dehydration and heat exhaustion
Apart from questions of vehicle maintenance, there are two major safety aspects to trekking in the Algerian Sahara.
The first thing that you must take into consideration is the question of security, because militant Islamist groups continue to operate in remote stretches of the Sahara and have targeted foreign travellers in the past, most spectacularly in 2003. After 31 of the 32 hostages were finally freed (one died of heat exhaustion while in captivity), few people back in Europe showed any sympathy for the former captives, instead calling on the released hostages to pay back the costs of the massive search. For its part, the Algerian government maintains that the groups would not have been kidnapped had they been travelling with an official Algerian guide.
The rules surrounding expeditions into the Algerian Sahara have since been tightened and all off-road travel south of Ghardaïa must be undertaken in the company of a professional local guide, which can be arranged in Tamanrasset, Djanet or Adrar.
The most important preparation you can undertake is to carefully check the prevailing security situation for the area in which you wish to travel. One source of such information is your own government, either from their travel advisory websites or from their embassies in Algiers.
Another important information stream to monitor is forums set up for Saharan travellers. The most comprehensive of these is the Sahara Overland (www.sahara-overland.com), the companion website to the book of the same name.
Apart from adhering to the requirement that you travel with a professional Algerian guide, other important precautions include notifying your embassy of your plans and providing a detailed itinerary to the police in Tamanrasset, Djanet or another regional centre before you set out.
The most significant risks for travellers in the Sahara are dehydration and heat exhaustion. These potentially serious conditions are best combated by drinking plenty of water, doing so often and keeping your head covered; for the latter, a hat is good, but a Tuareg taguelmoust is even better. Resist the temptation to strip down to shorts and T-shirt at every available opportunity, because long sleeves and light trousers actually help to keep the body cool. Given that sweat usually evaporates in the desert before you realise it has appeared, you may not always be aware that your body is losing fluids. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty before drinking. You should aim to consume 6L of water per day – more if you’re engaged in strenuous activity. You should also avoid direct sunlight between 10am and 3pm to minimise the burning and dehydrating effects of the sun. Remember also that the sun can be extremely powerful even on cloudy days.
Dehydration is a particular danger if you’re struck down with diarrhoea, when the necessity of replacing lost bodily fluids and salts is even greater. It’s also a good reason to ensure that food is properly prepared and cooked and that you, along with all those involved with your food preparation, are washing hands and cooking utensils regularly.
Another small but serious risk to your health in the Algerian Sahara is bites from snakes and scorpions. The Sahara has many poisonous snakes although the vast majority of travellers never see one. In winter and other colder months, snakes are a rarity. If you’re camping in a rocky area, consider sleeping in a tent and avoid leaving any food scraps littered around the site. If that all sounds scary, remember that the incidence of snakebite is exceptionally rare and that snakes are probably more afraid of you than you are of them and will clear out long before you arrive.
. . The most dangerous snake in the Sahara is the horned viper which buries itself almost completely beneath the sand so as to conceal itself from prey – avoid walking too far away from your camp without shoes.
If you do get bitten, remain calm, thoroughly wash the affected area and keep it below the level of your heart. Paracetamol, rather than aspirin, is recommended for the pain and you should get medical treatment as soon as possible.
Of less gravity, the hot, dry conditions can also lead to dry skin which is more uncomfortable than serious.
Before embarking on a walking trip, consider the following points to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience:
- Be sure you are healthy and feel comfortable walking for a sustained period.
- Obtain reliable information about physical and environmental conditions along your intended route. In practical terms, this means contacting the Office National du Parc Tassili (OPTN) in Djanet or the Office du Parc Nationale de l’Ahaggar (L’OPNA) in Tamanrasset.
- Be aware of local laws, regulations and etiquette about wildlife and the environment.
- Before entering the Tassili N’Ajjer National Park, pay the DA100 permit in Djanet.
- Walk only in regions within your realm of experience and on tracks that suit your level of fitness.
- Be aware that weather conditions and terrain vary significantly from one region, or even from one trail, to another. Seasonal changes can significantly alter any trail. These differences influence the way walkers dress and the equipment they carry.
- Avoid camping in what seems like a dry riverbed (oued) because rain, even kilometres away, can transform the oued into a raging torrent within no time.
ON THE GROUND
You’ve dreamed a little, filled your backpack with all the necessaries, thought about responsible Saharan travel and informed yourself as to the risks. Now’s the time to explore the Sahara for real and put the theory into practice.
REACHING THE SAHARA
If you stick to the major routes, the road network is fairly well developed. Without a vehicle, you can take any of the routes normally followed by the overland crowd by using public transport to reach the start of offroad desert trails. Transport on some of the routes is, however, infrequent so you’ll need to be prepared to take a plane to get out or else sit around for a week or more waiting for a shared taxi to leave. This applies mainly to the eastern route from Hassi Messaoud down through In Amenas, Illizi and Djanet to Tamanrasset. The Route du Hoggar presents no such problems, although you may end up on a bus between In Salah and Tamanrasset.
TYPES OF EXPEDITION
Most people explore the Algerian Sahara using a mixture of 4WD and trekking by foot, but for those in no hurry camel-trekking is the most environmentally responsible manner to explore the Sahara. Believe it or not, cycling is also a possibility.
There’s almost nowhere that you can’t reach in the Algerian Sahara in a 4WD and you’re almost certain to travel by 4WD at some point in your journey, even if it’s only to reach the trailhead from which you commence your trek on foot. The advantage of travelling in this way is that you will be able to range much wider than you can on foot or by camel (unless you have months to spend on the latter). You will be able to reach a more varied range of sites and traverse a more representative sample of Saharan landscapes, leaving the Algerian Sahara with a better appreciation of its scale. Travelling in this way does, however, come at a significant environmental cost, which is something that you should take into account when deciding how best to travel in the Sahara.
. . Organising a 4WD expedition through one of the travel agencies in Tamanrasset or Djanet should cost €50 to €80 per person per day.
Even if you are a small group or a party of one, you should never travel into the Sahara without at least two vehicles (the guide or driver brings the other). For longer expeditions, an additional vehicle is always necessary for carrying food supplies, kitchen and camping equipment and your additional water and petrol.
Desert driving requires a whole new set of skills and if you’re feeling as if you could use some instruction from the experts, Timtar Expeditions (tel 029 346038; www.timtar.com) in Djanet offers courses from October to May.
The desire to walk in the hot Saharan sun may seem like a strange form of madness, but there’s no other way to reach and explore the fine rock art that is such a feature of the Tassili N’Ajjer National Park. Remember, however, that this and other treks in the Algerian Sahara are almost always restricted to rocky mountain areas and no-one’s expecting you to walk amid the sands of the Grand Ergs. Sturdy hiking boots are essential.
The overwhelming benefit of exploring the Sahara on foot is that it’s just you and nature and that your impact upon the environment will likely be minimal.
Hiking tours can be arranged through all of the travel agencies in Djanet. Tours organised through an international tour company can also include walking components with the cost incorporated into the overall cost of your tour.
. . Djanet travel agencies generally charge from €50 to €60 per person per day for treks into the Tassili N’Ajjer, which should include all water, food and camping equipment, a national park permit, a guide and pack animals for carrying your luggage and supplies.
Surveying the Sahara from high atop a camel is desert travel at its most atmospheric, allowing you to cover reasonable distances (20km to 40km per day) but at the same time slow down to a loping desert pace. It also enables you to truly experience the solitude of the desert without engine noise and to discover an intimacy with the landscape that simply isn’t possible by 4WD. By camel, you may not see great swaths of the desert, but you’ll see it in far greater detail and come to appreciate its subtleties far more than you could by motorised transport. Camel safaris are also the most environmentally friendly way to see the Sahara.
. . THE GREAT CARAVANS OF THE SAHARA
People have been travelling through the Sahara by camel since the 1st century BC and the great trans-Saharan caravans once created some of the most lucrative trade routes in Africa.
For centuries, there were two principal kinds of Saharan caravan. The first were the caravans organised by wealthy merchants of the oasis towns of the Sahara and trading cities along the North African coast, such as Tripoli, or in the African interior such as Kano. The merchants rarelytravelled themselves, but instead paid trusted cameleers to ferry their goods across the Sahara to distant towns where the merchants’ agents sold the goods and bought new ones for the return journey. In this way, goods from the interior of Africa – precious stones, gold, silver, ivory, dates and ostrich plumes – headed north to the coast while items as unusual as glass necklaces, paper from Venice for use in religious texts and linen from Marseille passed through en route south. Trade caravans such as these were, for example, the only connection that the Roman cities of North Africa had with the interior of the continent.
The prosperous trading towns of the Sahara such as Timbuktu, Agadez, Murzuq and Ghadames actually produced few goods of their own, but their merchants became adept at profiting from passing trade and ultimately controlling it. The Tuareg, too, learned how to extract their profits, alternately looting the caravans and serving as paid protectors of the travelling salesmen.
The arrival of European traders and armies on the West African coast from the 15th century onwards marked the death knell for trans-Saharan caravans. Trade was reoriented away from the Sahara and the caravans became ever less frequent over the subsequent centuries, before finally disappearing altogether.
The second type of trans-Saharan caravan were the salt caravans, which were the exclusive domain of the Tuareg who ventured deep into the salt mines of the Sahara – mines at Taoudenni in northern Mali and Bilma in northeastern Niger were the most important. Many Tuareg then travelled to towns on the Saharan fringe where they traded the salt for foodstuffs, cloth and tea. For centuries, salt was so highly prized that it traded ounce-for-ounce with gold in the lands south of the Sahara. By the time the salt caravans returned home to their bases in the Hoggar Mountains of Algeria or the Aïr Mountains of Niger, they had been away for seven or eight months, during which time the difficulties of Saharan travel – daily, 18-hour forced marches were the norm – had taken their toll on humans and camels alike. Many never returned.
As late as the 19th century, caravans consisting of more than 20,000 camels would set out for the salt mines amid great fanfare. Salt caravans do still cross the Sahara, especially in Mali and Niger where camels remain the cheapest way of transporting salt, but they’re a shadow of their former glories and the last salt caravans are a distant memory in Algeria.
The major drawback of travelling by camel is that you will be restricted to seeing a relatively small corner of the desert – so vast are the distances of the Algerian Sahara that exploring several regions astride a camel would take more time than you probably have.
. . If you’re setting out on a camel expedition, consider buying Tuareg pants (akerbai), with their exquisitely brocaded hems. These loose-fitting pants are very comfy and ideal for minimising the chafing of riding a camel.
Travel agencies in Tamanrasset can organise camel treks into the Hoggar Mountains and Assekrem, while international tour operators can similarly make the arrangements.
Cycling in the Sahara seems about as likely as skiing. But think about it a little more and you’ll quickly come to the realisation that the arduous but infinitely rewarding trails of the Hoggar Mountains could be a mountain- biker’s paradise.
Asking Algerian travel agencies about cycling tours is likely to inspire blank looks, and suitable two-wheeled transport is almost impossible to find in Algeria so you’ll need to bring your own bicycle or mountain bike and spare parts. For international tour companies offering advice and/or cycling tours to the Hoggar Mountains.
The possibilities are endless. What follows is our pick of the best.
. . Cyclists planning to travel through the Algerian Sahara should consider contacting Bicycle Africa through www.ibike.org/bikeafrica; it has some information on cycling in the country.
Western Oases & Grand Erg Occidental
For those of you with a passion for desert oasis towns and sand seas of incomparable beauty, but with no desire to mount a major expedition, the road from Aïn Sefra to Ghardaïa (see above ) could be for you. The road encircles the southern half of the Grand Erg Occidental and expeditions into the sands can be arranged from both Taghit and Timimoun. The Grand Erg Occidental itself is one of the largest and most beautiful sand seas in the Sahara.
The Grand Erg Oriental
The northern limits of the Grand Erg Oriental can be seen from the road between Ouargla and El-Oued and this section can be travelled by public transport. The paved road south from Touggourt bisects the erg as it runs all the way down to Illizi, although you would really need your own vehicle for this journey.
Like its western counterpart, the Grand Erg Oriental is a signature Saharan sand sea, and international tour operators can organise journeys south from Hassi Messaoud. After crossing the erg, the routes diverge, with some heading for Illizi (three days) and the Tassili N’Ajjer, while others pass through Amguid – the site of a Tuareg massacre of a French military expedition in 1881 – before entering the Hoggar Mountains from the north (three days). Another possibility is to cross an arm of the erg by leaving El-Oued bound for Deb Deb (three days).
. . One area of the Algerian Sahara that is considered off-limits at present is the Tanezrouft, the desolate and often trackless area of the Sahara west of Tamanrasset and south of Reggane and across the border into Mali.
The Trans-Saharan Highway
Although the Trans-Saharan Hwy sees far fewer travellers than it used to, the route from Ghardaïa down into Niger is part of Saharan travelling legend and completing it remains a significant notch on the belt of seasoned Saharan travellers. ‘Highway’ is something of a loosely applied term as wind-blown sand and the impossibility of regular maintenance have meant that the road can be difficult even to find. Although in theory this route can be completed using public transport, we don’t recommend it because of the uncertainties of the journey and the bureaucratic formalities at the Niger border. In your own vehicle, allow four days to reach Arlit in northern Niger, whereafter there’s a well-paved road.
. . If the sands of the Grand Erg Oriental were laid out flat, the sand would still rise 26m above the earth. The Grand Erg Oriental is believed by geologists to have been a sand sea for at least 4000 years.
The deep valleys and soaring, bizarrely shaped peaks of the Hoggar Mountains represent the magnificent heartland of the Algerian Sahara and are the spiritual home to the Kel Ahaggar, one of the major Tuareg confederations of the central Sahara. The most popular – and undoubtedly most spectacular – route climbs steeply up from Tamanrasset to the plateau of Atakor and Assekrem; it’s possible to take this route by either camel or 4WD. If your time is short, you can go as far as Assekrem and return to Tamanrasset the following day; even if the crowds that make this trek fill the route with anything but a desert solitude, don’t miss it. If you’ve more time, there are countless opportunities to leave the crowds behind and explore further afield.
The rocky plateau that makes up the Tassili N’Ajjer National Park is only accessible on foot and you could easily spend a week trekking atop the plateau and down into the deep rocky valleys for which the region is famous. It’s also possible to trek for shorter periods. For descriptions of possible routes.
. . ENCOUNTERS WITH THE TUAREG
Although many travellers encounter the Tuareg as guides or drivers, there are still small numbers of Tuareg families who live a traditional life across southern Algeria. Most live in semipermanent shelters, although it’s not uncommon to find young Tuareg girls or boys herding their goats in remote oueds (dry riverbeds) or old Tuareg men similarly far from home.
If you do encounter the Tuareg in this manner, there are a few things to remember. The most important is that these families live in the Hoggar or Tassili N’Ajjer because they choose to pursue a traditional lifestyle, not for the benefit of tourists. An increasingly exploitative relationship threatens that choice and Tuareg families are in danger of becoming a tourist sideshow as foreigners seek to meet an ‘authentic’ Tuareg family. It’s a difficulty faced by indigenous peoples the world over and the most important thing to remember is to behave with the utmost discretion. If you meet an elderly Tuareg man, address him as ‘Sheikh’ or ‘Haj’ as a mark of respect.
The Tuareg are a mine of information about the region and its history and spending time talking with them is far more important than sneaking a photo.
The Tuareg have, of course, learnt the ways of the world. Many will only allow their photos to be taken if you pay money or buy something from them, while one old Tuareg man said that he allowed photos to be taken by those with a digital camera so that he could then see himself! To avoid it becoming a one-way encounter, consider making a small contribution to fuel or firewood stocks, or purchasing one of the small items they offer for sale.
Some nomadic Tuareg openly wonder whether this will be the last generation of their people who live a traditional life. Older Tuareg lament the loss of traditional ways and you’ll come across Tuareg men who know how to drive a 4WD but for whom the camel is a relative mystery. Many Tuareg have been forced to move into the cities of the Sahara and further afield by government policies, droughts and decades of war and rebellion.
Perhaps moving with a changing world is merely a continuation of the Tuareg’s innate adaptability, which they learnt through the centuries while coping with the world’s most hostile environment. And yet, the gradual erosion of traditional Tuareg ways as a result first of colonial invasion, then government and tourist intrusion into the Tuareg realm has led many to worry that an entire way of life is in danger of disappearing. If it does, it would be one of the great tragedies of Saharan history.
Tamanrasset to Djanet
The 676km-, three-day route from Tamanrasset takes you via Assekrem and Ideles to Djanet. If you add on an exploration of the Tassili N’Ajjer, you will have covered the stand-out attractions of Algeria’s southern Sahara. Travel agencies in Tamanrasset and Djanet can organise 4WD expeditions along this route. To complete this trek astride a camel would take a minimum of two weeks one-way.
. . Sahara Unveiled by William Langeweische is a beautifully told account of his journey along the Trans-Saharan Hwy with a uncomfortable detour to the Tassili N’Ajjer before tourism arrived.
If this is your first journey to the Sahara, or if you can’t face the logistics of organising your own expedition, there are dozens of recommended Algerian and international tour operators to choose from.
- Akar Akar (tel 029 344638; www.akar-akar.com in French; Tamanrasset) Long-established Tamanrasset agency with tours around the Hoggar.
- Club d’Aventure Africaine (tel 021 697922; www.caa-dz.com in French; 7 rue des Frères Oughlis, Algiers) Allows you to organise everything from Algiers.
- Essendilène Voyages (tel 029 475295; www.essendilene-voyages.com; Djanet) Has strong local contacts and is especially good if you’re planning to cross into Niger, but also offers tours that include yoga, art therapy and family-friendly activities.
- Hoggar Soleil (tel 029 346972; www.hoggarsoleil.com in French; Tamanrasset) Four- to 14-day treks through the Hoggar and Tassili N’Ajjer.
- Immidir Voyages (tel 029 344468; www.immidir-voyages.com; Tamanrasset) Offers 4WD treks and tours around the Immidir region.
- Mer de Sable (tel 049 902595; www.agence-merdesable.com; rue Abd el-Kader Ziadi, Timimoun) Trips in camel caravans and by 4WD into the Grand Erg Occidental.
- M’Zab Tours (tel 029 880002; email@example.com; ave du 1er Novembre, Ghardaïa) Tailored tours around the M’Zab and the Grand Ergs.
- Tarakeft Voyages (tel 029 342007; www.tarakeft.com; Tamanrasset) Runs 4WD and trekking tours in the Hoggar and Mali.
. . The Tuaregs by Karl G Prasse is one of the most accessible reads about the Tuareg of Algeria and their history of occupying the Algerian south.
- Timbeur Voyages (tel 029 475270; www.voyages-timbeur.com; Djanet) Short trips around Djanet and into the Tassili N’Ajjer.
- Timtar Expeditions (tel 029 346038; www.timtar.com; Djanet) Creative camel treks and 4WD expeditions.
- Walene Voyages (tel 029 344229; www.walene-voyages.com in French; Tamanrasset) Range of tours including camel treks to Assekrem.
- Zeriba Voyages (tel 061 382853/346924; www.zeribavoyage.com in French; Djanet) Tassili N’Ajjer treks and the Djanet–Tamanrasset route.
All of the following agencies can arrange treks through the Hoggar Mountains and Tassili N’Ajjer.
- Adventures Abroad (www.adventures-abroad.com) Small group tour.
- Cheche Tours (www.chechetours.com) Excellent range of tours, some of which extend into Niger and Mali.
- Explore Worldwide (www.explore.co.uk) Limited range of small-group tours.
- Hommes et Montagnes (www.hommes-et-montagnes.fr in French) Eight- to 22-day treks ranked according to difficulty.
- La Route du Sahara (www.laroutedusahara.com) Cultural tours to Djanet, and de Foucauld ‘spiritual treks’.
- Les Matins du Monde (www.lesmatinsdumonde.com in French) Tours and rock-climbing.
- Lost Frontiers (www.lostfrontiers.com) Three-week tour.
- Point Afrique (www.point-afrique.com in French) Extensive range of personally tailored and group tours.
- SabléO (www.sableo.com) Regular cycling trips to the Hoggar Mountains.
- Sahara Travel (www.saharatravel.co.uk) Self-drive 4WD expeditions.
- Terres d’Aventure (www.terdav.com in French) Tours and family-friendly trips suited to kids.