Sleep under the stars? Yes, and surrounded by dunes. Where? In the desert of Ahaggar, one of the most beautiful and hidden places in the Algerian Sahara. How? On a multi-day route in 4×4 vehicles.
Since time immemorial, mankind has been drawn to the magic of a night beneath the stars. Because of its beauty, its allure, or perhaps because it awakens the wanderlust gene that some of us seem to possess. But there are very few places in the world like the Sahara Desert that offer you the chance to contemplate its splendor, all while your eyes become heavier in the complete silence and as the star-filled sky bids you goodnight. You are in one of the most beautiful and remotest areas of the Sahara, almost 200 miles away from the nearest urban area. Man’s presence is scarce here, palpable only through sightings of the occasional traveling Tuareg who’s accompanied by his solitude, his goats, and his camels.
Although this destination offers an endless variety of possibilities for adventure, we will focus on it from the point of view of those who consider it too reckless to travel without minimum safety requirements. For this reason, they prefer to have the support of a travel agency which provides them with comfort and peace of mind. This type of trip comes highly recommended for travelers fascinated by the desert, its unique sunrises and sunsets, as well as by the solitude it offers and its captivating beauty that stretches out into the infinite horizon.
We will prepare ourselves for a 4×4 drive through southern Algeria. There we’ll discover the Tassili, or Ahaggar plateau, and the Sahara’s largest mountain range: the Hoggar Massif. Covering a total surface area similar to that of France, it is a true realm of nothingness, where only the capital of the Algerian desert, Tamanrasset, flies the flag for civilization. This mountain range, formed by a 6,600-feet-high plateau, is composed of ancient lava flows. With each passing second, the protruding archaic volcanoes lose their battle against erosion. These monolithic lava forms, known as “pythons,” reach heights that are inconceivable to our notion of a desert. This is how the summit of Assekrem, also known as Mount Tahat, comes into view at an incredible altitude of 9,573 feet.
In the south, the contours soften out and the plateau changes its name to Tassili Ahaggar, although its enduring beauty is still all the more magnified. Rocky outcrops with a thousand different forms, the remnants of a forgotten sea from 400 million years ago, break up the plains and amass dunes of surprising size and beauty. It is a landscape that is almost impossible to forget.
These dunes were formed by sand that’s been pushed up, grain by grain, from the desert by the continuous and abrupt changes in temperature. The entire, immense plain is dotted with these formations – each one of them unique – where the sand from the dunes and the vertical walls seem to be locked in an eternal battle. The area’s enormous size means that any distances are covered in all-terrain vehicles. The majority of those working for the travel agency will be Tuaregs. Of nomadic origin, these people are predominantly based in Tamanrasset, which gives rise to the proverb: “If a Tuareg leaves the desert, he is no longer a Tuareg.” This could make us change our mind. Despite this, they are the perfect link between the desert and our world. They provide a lifetime of experience spent in the desert, in addition to the itinerary and infrastructure required for the journey: all-terrain vehicles, food, water and camping materials. In any case, there tends to always be at least one “authentic” Tuareg within the team. Generally older, they put their trust in the remotest corners of this vast, empty land, while simultaneously sharing their rich knowledge of it. It is a great shame that if you want to talk to them, understand their lives, or ask about the desert or its animals, you’ll be left rather disappointed, unless you speak Arabic or Tamahaq (the name of the Tuareg language). Our traveling companions, although somewhat westernized, retain many of the customs of a life in the desert.
We form a small group of unfamiliar travelers, each of us with an adventurous spirit. We are all bewitched by the magic and immensity of the desert and by its never-ending beauty; a magical light also fascinates my camera. There are moments when my camera feels overwhelmed in conveying this feeling to me, as if scared of losing out on those moments of light that offer a singular photographic composition. No matter where I look, I cannot stop taking photos.
Our trip follows a routine. We wake up, accompanied by a cold dawn.
Every morning we hear the gentle clink of glass as they prepare the first of three or four delicious teas that they drink throughout the boiling hot day. Three little glasses each time. The first, strong and bitter, is called the tea of death. The smoother second one is that of life. And the last one, with more sugar than usual, is that of love. During the ritual, the atmosphere is friendly and relaxed, very consistent with the pleasant and amicable nature of the “blue people.” You will also be surprised by the preparation of Tuareg bread, or “Taquel-la.” In order to bake it, they require embers from an intense flame, fueled by one of the Sahara’s other most precious assets: the wood of one of the scarce Acacia trees. The dough, buried in sand and heated by the embers, is then shredded up into little pieces and mixed with other food depending on the time of day: with milk, camel or goat curd for breakfast; with vegetables, if there are any, at lunchtime; and with spiced, boiled meat in the evening. While the Tuaregs pack away the camp – which is in the middle of nowhere – we take a morning stroll in the surrounding area. Our old Tuareg guide – whose people undoubtedly know the Sahara best – tries to communicate his knowledge to us, a wisdom forged by years of living in this majestic desert. Meanwhile, the first days of January offer us pleasant temperatures. Once we’re in our vehicles, the midday hours wear on and we pass through some interesting places.
The Oued (dry river) Tin-Tarabine, the extraordinary outcrops of In-nakachaker which are larger than most buildings, and the arrival at Tagrera, where giant forests that are mushroom-like, yet actually made of solid stone, all appear to welcome us into a fantasy world. Meanwhile, we discover petroglyphs everywhere, which turn this place into a shrine of Neolithic art from a time when the desert was not yet a desert, but a humid savannah. In In-Tehog, the rock art reaches levels of inconceivable expression. Both times that I looked to the floor, I was rewarded by the sight of a flint knife and a perfectly round, polished stone which was the size of a billiard ball. They were possibly used 8,000 years ago by the Neolithic inhabitants of the then-savannah to grind grains.
When it seems as though the word “surprise” has been worn out by this experience, you’ll enter the narrow passageways cut by the sandstone canyons of El-Ghessour with its ghostly and surreal landscapes.
I feel very good. It’s the desert I’d been searching for, the thing I had dreamt of. A secret, hidden place. Occasionally I escape from my friendly traveling companions, running the risk of the guide’s rebuke, but my adventurous spirit spurs me on. Sometimes you find yourself in a place that you know is your own.
When you leave the vehicles at sunset and begin to walk amongst the labyrinth of these enormous rocks – accompanied by the last rays of sunshine and the solitude that is marked by each one of your footsteps in the sand – you experience the magic of the Sahara.
After watching one of the most beautiful sunsets in the world from the desert dunes, you find a moment of peace and tranquility around the campfire, where the Sahara’s interminable silence is broken only by the singing of your friends. There, in the middle of nowhere, you enjoy the hospitality of their character, but also their pride in maintaining their customs and traditions.
Although they are Muslim, their social basis is matriarchal; they are monogamous and above all, always nomadic. Seeking out the best pastures around these empty plains transforms their modern-day journeys into real odysseys, as they find themselves caged in by prisons called geopolitical borders.
The days pass by in Tassili Ahaggar. You find yourself falling in love with its beauty, which continues to surprise you with each passing moment. We don’t see anybody except for the occasional herd of camels.
But our journey is not yet over. Our 4×4 vehicles head north in search of the Sahara’s highest mountain range, the Hoggar. Here, the terrain becomes rough, the altitude takes center stage and we soon spot the volcanic “pythons,” witnesses of volcanic activity that reigned in this region millions of years ago. We head towards the peak of Assekrem, almost 9,850 feet high, known as one of the best places in the Sahara in which to enjoy the sunset. It is also home to the hermitage of Charles de Foucauld, the hermit priest. He led a life of contemplation there during his last 15 years on earth. The altitude and the month of January cannot prevent us from enjoying a magnificent sunset in the company of a solitary moon.
Keywords: Adventure escapes. Adventure travel. Guide book