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Vacations in the Sahara
Trackless sands, trusty camels, and a trove of prehistoric art

by William Langewiesche

DAYS from Djanet, in the wild and mountainous desert of southeastern Algeria, the pickup blew a tire. A goat in the back lay down to die. My host, the driver, was a young nomad with rings on his fingers. He hauled the goat to its feet and then mounted the spare tire and said, "Don't worry. If you love a woman, she can never hurt you. The desert is my woman." This alarmed me. I had another metaphor in mind. A vehicle in the Sahara is a life raft, and ours had sprung a leak: with the barest hiss the spare was losing air. We kept afloat only by working an old bicycle pump. I remembered a Frenchman who had assured me, "You are never alone in the desert." Easy to say in Paris, but I already knew of people who had been too alone. You can lie for months here without being found. Short of that, solitude is one of the beauties of the Sahara. Now we navigated trackless valleys and sailed sand seas. We gave up on the goat, and abandoned its carcass to the shade of thorns. And finally we got to Djanet, a lovely oasis town at the foot of craggy cliffs. I have since become more objective, but at the time, I thought it was the most luxurious place on earth.

There are other Saharas, some too tame. In Tunisia mass tourism has made a caricature of the desert and turned young men into pimps. I once joined a group of Spaniards there, and saw the land fast from behind glass. Our guide grappled with the age-old problem of what to do with a desert. He named rock formations -- the "lion," the "camel," the "cathedral." He sold dunes and traditions. He used superlatives without content. "At Tamerza is the most interesting waterfall. You absolutely must see it -- everyone does." The waterfall was unusual, perhaps. Also liquid and cool. We splashed in it and took pictures. The guide was a jester, ambiguous in the way of paid companions: he seemed to disdain other Tunisians, and secretly to despise us as well. He wanted us to admire the mirages, but there are mirages in Spain, too. The Spaniards felt excluded and unfulfilled. This was Tunisia, the impenetrable Sahara. Morocco is worse.
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Algeria is better, maybe because thirty years ago the Algerians threw the French out. Algerians have become proud and somewhat distant. If they are poor, they are not hungry. If they hustle each other, they do not bother strangers. In the vast south, which is the desert, they themselves are accustomed to travel. They are hospitable but not fawning. They appreciate their own solitude and respect that of others. They have not spoiled their desert: it is the real Sahara. Still, I cannot recommend a vacation there without admitting that Algeria is troubled. After the near victory of the Islamic party in national elections, and a subsequent military crackdown, last year a low-grade civil war broke out that so far has claimed more than a thousand lives. The struggle is limited to the north, mostly to savagery between authorities and rebels in the capital, Algiers. To date foreigners have not been attacked.

In fact the capital is worth a few nights on the way to the Sahara. It sparkles across hills on a blue Mediterranean bay. Though the suburbs boast a Hilton and a Sofitel, the best place to stay is the Es-Safir (phone 011-213-273-5040, fax 273-7863), a venerable colonial-era hotel in the city center, where for $40 you get a room with a high ceiling and a bath. Forget the museums and the beaches. Algiers is tense and watchful. The economy has gone underground. Walk the streets and study the face of resurgent Islam. You probably should stay out of the casbah this year. The calls to prayer sound like calls to action.

But you can also skip the city center, and fly Air Algerie from Algiers to Djanet, two hours away by Boeing on a flight any day but Tuesday. The airline is competent and safe. Except during the height of summer it runs an additional weekly flight directly from Paris to Djanet. The flight takes only four hours, but by some measures covers as great a distance as exists anywhere.

DJANET stands at 3,600 feet at the base of the Tassili-n-Ajjer plateau, which rises almost twice as high. It is an old trading center for Tuareg nomads, the veiled warriors of the high desert. Because of its altitude, the area is not prohibitively hot, even in the summer, and nights are cold in the winter. The town is home to 10,000 people. It consists of villages built of stone which melt into the hillsides along a dry riverbed. It has an old French fort, a market, and a typical date palmery. You can easily spend a couple of days there, watching the Arabs, Tuaregs, and black Africans. Along the main street a shaded cafe serves tea and good strong coffee. The little restaurants won't make you sick. As elsewhere in the Sahara, the drinking water is clean. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the main hotel, a concrete box longingly named The Zéribas, after the airy stick-walled huts of tradition. Better to stay six miles out of town at the other hotel, called Ténéré Villages, where a room for two costs $60 and includes breakfast.

The hotel is run by Ténéré Voyages, the most reputable guide service in the Algerian Sahara. This is convenient, because Djanet alone is not enough to see -- you'll want to poke around the desert. For $90 a day per person ($50 for children) Ténéré Voyages includes the room, all meals, and a Toyota Landcruiser with driver. The price is based on there being four passengers per vehicle, and is the same whether you make day trips from the hotel or venture farther, camping in the desert. You may also travel by camel or by foot with pack mule. Though all this quickly becomes expensive, straying from Djanet without a guide and a good vehicle would be foolish. Ténéré Voyages says it has never lost a client. Its phone number in Djanet is 011-213-9735053; its head office is in Ouargla, at 970-7562, fax 970-2936.

Language is not a great obstacle. French is widely spoken, along with Arabic and Tamachek, the Berber dialect of the Tuaregs. English is less common, because American and British visitors are rare. But visitors talk too much anyway, and expect too much of their guides. Local people know less than they pretend to. You can learn more by reading a few books beforehand (if you read French, you'll want to look for the Guide Bled Algerie, which is far and away the best guidebook available; in English look for the out-of-print Search for the Tassili Frescoes, by Henri Lhote), and trusting the guides simply to navigate. In Algeria at least they don't require you to ski the dunes and they don't name the rocks.

After a morning's drive south from Djanet you come to a desert of scattered acacias, and to a canyon and a spring where nomads camp. The women may slip into their tents. The men may make tea, and sit with you for hours in silence and the buzzing of flies. The goats will bleat. The children will stare.

Farther to the south and east, after a day or so of hard travel, the Sahara descends toward Niger and Libya into valleys so hot that the wind blows upward and sand dunes mount the canyon walls to escape. Nomads do not venture here. This is the Tadart, a wilderness within a wilderness, a desert of sculpted stone. It requires patience to visit: at midday you pass long hours sheltering from the sun under overhanging rocks; at night, under the brilliant stars, you must reassure yourself that elsewhere life continues. I have tried, and been unable, in the Tadart to imagine Manhattan.

Closer to Djanet lies Erg Admer, a sea of 300-foot dunes extending for more than a hundred miles toward the Hoggar Mountains. By Algerian standards Admer is a small erg, but its sand will line your horizons and fill your shoes. For all its size, the most surprising characteristic of the Sahara is the speed with which it changes. It is full of hidden worlds. The most compelling of them rises to the east, in the rugged Tassili plateau. Accessible only by steep cliffside trails, the Tassili contains one of the world's great collections of prehistoric rock art. Rock drawings can be found in highlands throughout the Sahara, hundreds in the Tadart alone, but only here in the Tassili is there such a concentration-- perhaps 400,000 Neolithic paintings and engravings, which together chronicle the human history of the Sahara. If you are physically tough, you can hike up to the closest site and back in a day. It's better to pack in supplies and spend a week. The richest site is at Sefar, a two-day walk from the trailhead. And the Tassili is spectacular canyon-cut country. The art gives you an excuse to wander through it.

PEOPLE began to paint the rock there about 8,000 years ago, during a long wet spell. They drew gods with round heads, and illustrated a Savannah roamed by the largest African mammals. Rivers flowed in the canyons, and crocodiles lurked, and there was good fishing near Djanet. Around 4000 B.C. new people arrived with domesticated cattle, bringing with them the finest period in Saharan art, the so-called Bovine: they drew realistic cows and graceful human beings. Because of similarities of hairstyle and village life, clearly shown on rock paintings, it seems likely that they were the ancestors of the modern Peul, herders of the Sahel. Speculation that they wrecked their homeland by overgrazing it seems unfair, since larger climatic forces were at work. After 2000 B.C. the desert began to return. The rivers dried up, and the African mammals drifted south. On a cliffside near Djanet an engraving shows a weeping cow. Around 1500 B.C. armed horsemen appeared, driving chariots at full gallop. They were Berbers from the north, and they took over. The art declined, and the desert deepened. Then, just before Christ, came the camel.

It came from Arabia as a domesticated animal, and soon supplanted the horse and chariot. Fierce horsemen became even fiercer camelmen, the indomitable Tuaregs. This is not as improbable as it might seem. Horses don't endure the hard desert, and wheels require roads. In a brilliant book titled The Camel and the Wheel (1990), the Columbia history professor Richard W. Bulliet describes how camels came to dominate throughout North Africa and the Middle East. All that was required was an efficient camel saddle -- and one was invented in northern Arabia a few centuries before Christ. It was excellent as both a packsaddle and a riding saddle. Afterward even the memory of the wheel was lost.

Incidentally, the problem with camels is the hump, which is made of fat and cannot support a load. The first saddles went on behind the hump, since there was not enough space in front. But the rear was weak and wobbly. The northern-Arabian solution was a saddle that straddled the hump with a frame of inverted Vs. It allowed the camel to carry heavier packs, and it provided the rider with a high, stable perch from which to swing a sword. According to Bulliet, this was the invention that won the Arab world. It remains the packsaddle of the Sahara today.

The rock art continues. The most recent works are primitive representations of trucks and Junkers trimotors. The Tuaregs know that the hoof has been surpassed. Still, they cling to their camels. For riding and making war, they have gone beyond the Arabs. They breed a tall, thin camel with a back so long that they can put their riding saddles before the hump. This places the rider low, within the upper reach of a horseman, but improves the handling. Tuaregs nestle their bare feet against their camels' necks and direct the beasts with gentle pressure. If you go to Djanet, you might do the same, for the sake of history alone.

Copyright © 1993 by William Langewiesche. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1993; Vacations in the Sahara; Volume 272, No. 5; pages 62-66.

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