Trekking Through Desert Wastelands
Sand. More and more sand. 1200 km in old military Toyotas, 200 km of hiking at a temperature of 35 degrees Celsius, a climb to the second highest Algerian peak, the 2780 meter high Assekrem. This is trekking with the Tuaregs across the Sahara in the south of Algeria!
Sometimes I wonder: What makes a person go on such a journey? A journey during which you have sand in your hair and between your teeth for ten days, a journey without water for personal hygiene, along with spending the night in a small tent that, every day after you wake up, you struggle to put it back together. The sun ‘fries your brain’, and your feet sink deep into the sand as you walk. Or you are trying to stay on your feet after dangerous rocks.
After a long journey via Milan and Algiers, we landed in Tamanrasset in the middle of the night. At the airport, we were met by our Tuareg guides – tall and proud Saharan warriors, a head taller than Arabs. The police and army were bustling everywhere, reminding us of the decade since the coup and the fact that the Islamists are still not resting. It is interesting that the airport in Tamanrasset is one of NASA’s spare landing strips for the Space Shuttle.
Early in the morning of the next day, we left for the desert. We took with us everything we thought we might need on our adventure: water, food, tents, petrol and firewood. Kassim, our chef, took care of all the culinary necessities, so in the middle of the desert, thanks to his skill, incredible dishes were created, but he especially worked hard on their visual experience. In the first days, we ate bread, baguettes of course, but when it ran out, Kassim would knead the dough in the evening and bake homemade bread on the fire. Sometimes our teeth were grinding at breakfast, cause the bread was baked with the unwanted addition of desert sand. On the last morning of our trip, he surprised us with chocolate pancakes.
Drawings under the protection of UNESCO
The proof that the Sahara was green in the past are the drawings on the rocks that show scenes from life, trees, people and animals that once lived here. Most of the drawings are in the area near the Libyan border, and they are under the protection of UNESCO. They can often be seen in the south, and the oldest ones date from the sixth millennium BC. Our archaeologist Simona discovered them with great joy. We also saw reliefs on the rocks. According to Ramazan, we were the first Europeans who had the opportunity to see some of those drawings that are part of Tuareg history.
The view from a height
On the first day of our trip, we drove far south, near the Nigerian border. At dusk we camped in the leeward of a large cave in the wall. Most of the time, we would spend the nights on some high ground, because in the valley there are animals that wander the desert at night, and drivers who drive at night without lights do not drive on high ground. In addition, criminals and smugglers can also be encountered in the desert at night, and it is best to avoid them. The border between the countries looks as if the former colonial masters drew it with a ruler on a map and it is precisely defined, but in the desert it can be quite vague. We stopped ten kilometers before the Niger border. When we looked south in the evening from a safe distance (and height), we noticed moving lights. Ramazan, our Tuareg guide, told us that the Nigerian army controls the border. If they see someone at night, they immediately shoot, and in the morning they check who tried to cross the border. The Algerian side does the same.
Desert flora and fauna and some nomads
If someone thinks that the desert is ‘dead’, he is very wrong. Every now and then, regardless of their attempt at natural camouflage, we would see lizards, suspicious flocks of ravens, butterflies. Especially in the south, in some riverbeds – a herd of camels. And unreal lonely trees growing in the middle of the sand. One evening I almost stepped on a big, fat and bright snake, for which Ramazan succinctly concluded – “no danger”. Easy for him, but I didn’t close my eyes the whole night after that. I sat with a flashlight on my head and to my satisfaction, I didn’t see a single fly.
On the way, we stopped at the nomad camp. A few women, a bunch of children and a man who sat disinterestedly away from us. And lots of goats. They offered us mildly curdled goat’s milk and dry cheese. Goat meat is dried so that it can be consumed as long as possible. We reciprocated the hospitality by giving them toothbrushes and some trinkets, because we learned in the desert that you should avoid giving sweets to children, not because they don’t want it, but because of the fact that there is no dentist within a radius of hundreds of kilometers.
In the second part of our trip, we visited the Hogar mountains. The temperature dropped dangerously in the mountains, but a warm sweater came in handy in the morning. We saw what looked like a narrow road. There is a military outpost directly below the summit of Assekrem, and the road is necessary. At the top there is still a shelter built by the French priest Foucauld at the beginning of the twentieth century. This man has a special place in Tuareg life because he compiled their first grammar and dictionary.
Muslim extremists and Al Qaeda are still quite active. There is a constant threat of bomb attacks in urban areas. In the desert, according to our Tuareg friends, we were safe. Just during my stay in the desert, two Spanish humanitarians were kidnapped, but a few years earlier they kidnapped and held 35 Germans captive for half a year.
A visit to a Tuareg village
At the end of the trip, we also visited Mohamed’s village of Zarnan. His mother and four sisters met us in front of the village. They were very confused, because it is not often that they are visited by strangers. They placed us in a specially prepared room in the middle of the village, fenced with hides, covered and decorated with carpets and cushions. The wives use their own private hut, but most of them are built of cod with a deck of twigs, while only a few houses are built of concrete blocks. The village also has a school. For dinner, we had something that could be reminiscent of meatballs with vegetable soup, but a few pieces of meat cooked in the soup were served separately. We ate according to Tuareg custom, sitting on the floor, five of us from one bowl. After dinner, Muhammad’s wives sat among us and sang some traditional songs to us. The way in which the songs are performed is called tasikisikit: one woman sings solo while the others accompany her with guttural voices. Sabine, a young Swiss woman engaged to a Tuareg, told me the next morning that we had been given a great honor by being guests of the village. She couldn’t remember if, since she lived in the village, she had experienced women singing to strangers!
The name Tuareg would mean the inhabitant of Targa. Targa is a region in Libya (Fezzan) from where they migrated throughout the Sahara. In some loose translation, the Tuareg would be “those whom the gods have abandoned”. The Tuareg speak the Tamashek language and have their own Tifinagh alphabet, but they also use the Latin and Arabic alphabets. Men cover their faces with head coverings, believing that this protects them from evil spirits, but “alašo” also protects them from wind and desert sand. The legend shows otherwise: their greatest hero and brave military leader from the fourth century, who was the first to unite the Tuareg tribes, was actually a woman, Queen Tin Hinan. That is why disgraced men hide their faces to this day. In the evening, by the fire, we asked each other riddles, but takanen, as they call it, is their favorite pastime. Traditional Tuareg clothing is colored with indigo, which leaves a mark on their face. That is why they are also called blue people. And hip-hopper Tupac Shakur is a descendant of Tuaregs.
Civilization at last
When we returned after two weeks to “civilization”, whatever that word meant, we would have given a kingdom for hot water and a shower. Ramazan found a “hole” in the suburbs where we bought a cold beer. I still don’t know the exact answer to initial question. I only know that the nights are full of stars. Sunrises and sunsets are unforgettable, the desert is alive, and the Tuaregs are wonderful hosts!
The article was first published in the Zagreb (Croatia) magazine Putovanja za dvoje (Traveling for two) in February 2010 and later in their German edition.