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An Adventure in
Southern Algeria

What a trip! We traveled to Algeria to see some of the best desert scenery and prehistoric rock art the planet has to offer. And we were not disappointed. If anything, the sights exceeded our lofty expectations. The Algerian Sahara offers some of the most spectacular vistas we have even seen, perhaps equaled only by Antarctica. Hopefully our photos convey a sense of this truly unbelievable region.

Traveling in a police state
Now for the negatives. Algeria is a very difficult country to visit. It is a police state. Even securing a visa is not exactly routine. Once you arrive, there are endless “landing” forms, detailed cards printed in French that must be completed every time you take off or land and they are closely scrutinized. Similar cards must be completed at every hotel. The visa procedures and the landing/registration cards were only minor annoyances. There are more serious issues. Most importantly, there is a high threat of terrorism in Algeria, particularly in the south because of the proximity to borders with Libya, Niger and Mali (each with their own problems).

Visitors cannot travel independently anywhere in the south. You MUST be with your guide. On our first morning in Tamanrasset, Larry got separated from the rest of the group on the main shopping street. The police (who were exceeding nice everywhere) saw me, were concerned and offered to take me back to our hotel, then decided we should go to the police station instead! There, they tracked down one of our drivers and chewed him out when he arrived to pick me up.

We found the Algerian people friendly everywhere. They are not the problem. Because of the threat of terrorism, an enhanced level of security may well be necessary. But security measures go far beyond what would seem reasonable and necessary to us. The friendliness of the police and immigration authorities made the situation tolerable.

We began our trip to Southern Algeria in Tamanrasset, a bustling desert town of around 75,000. Upon our arrival from Algiers, we were welcomed by our Tuareg crew, dressed in their colorful desert head wraps (cheches) and robes. After endless immigration formalities, we finally left the small airport about 1:30 am and proceeded to the Hotel Tahat. We were amazed to find we had a 3-car police escort, one in front and 2 behind with lights flashing.

The Saharan area of North Africa is the home of the Tuaregs, the legendary ‘blue men of the desert,” so named because of their traditional blue head wraps (cheches) and blue robe. These days, Tuaregs wear a wide range of colorful cheches, though, blue is still the most common color. The majority of Tuaregs live in the desert regions of Mali, Niger, Algeria and Libya. Many are still nomadic herders who cross national borders freely, though many others now live in towns and villages in or bordering the desert (including Tamanrasset and Djanet). Border crossing is also becoming more difficult as countries beef up their security in response to incidents of terrorism and threats to travelers.

When colonial powers such as France relinquished their claims on North African countries in the 1960s, the Tuaregs’ loose cross-borders federation pretty much dissolved and they became the disenfranchised minority in each of those countries. But they are still the masters of the desert. And if you travel in the desert, you definitely want to do so with a Tuareg crew, as we did.

Tourists delight in the colorful Tuareg crafts which include heavy necklaces and bracelets of silver and gemstones, fine-tooled camel leather saddles bags, purses and boxes and metal decorations.

We were apparently the only guests at the hotel which had about 60 rooms, yet the check-in procedure which required us to complete still another landing card took well over 30 minutes. It was after 2 am when we finally reached our rooms.

The next morning, we drove into Tam to have a look and visit an arts and crafts center. It was here that Larry got separated from the rest of the group. After we were all back at the hotel, our guide informed us of a major change in our itinerary. Our plan to drive from Tamanrasset to Djanet, camping one night en route, had been changed. We were now going to fly to Djanet (as strongly recommend by the US State Dept. and the British Foreign Service). Aissa Khirani, the owner of Cheche Tours had made this decision as a result of some new threats. Later in the afternoon we received more bad news. Perhaps because we were Americans, the police were also concerned about our planned drive to Assekrem, a spectacular volcanic area about 50 miles from Tam. They told Aissa they could not guarantee our safety and, while they would not prohibit our journey there, it would be at our own risk. Aissa decided to cancel this element of our trip as well. This was a major blow. The sunset and sunrise over the volcanic peaks is said to be one of the world’s best.

That afternoon, we returned to town to do a little sightseeing. This time, to our surprise, everywhere we went, we were shadowed by a patrol car with 4 officers and another unmarked car with 3 plainclothes men. Seven officers with weapons to watch over the 4 of us. Really? We have no idea why someone decided we required such a high level of protection. Whenever we asked, they would say “for our security.” They genuinely believed they were doing us a favor.

We visited a quite interesting craft workshop on the outskirts of Tam where silver jewelry and camel leather goods were fashioned by workmen sitting on dirt floors in workshops using hand-operated baffles to keep their fires going.

The following morning our guide was to meet us at 9:00 am. But he ended up spending most of the morning at the police station obtaining our travel documents. When we asked the very nice attendants at hotel reception to call us a taxi to go to town they explained that would not be possible because we were not permitted to leave the hotel without our guide and drivers (and there were patrol cars outside to enforce this regulation). That night, our flight to Djanet was cancelled. We did not arrive back at our hotel until 2 am (again).

The following evening, we did fly to Djanet, again arriving at our hotel at 2 am. We awoke to a nice desert view from our room and a camel hanging out in the area just below us. We met our desert guide Ali, had breakfast, and then drove in to town.

Djanet is a pretty little town built on a hillside. It has a mountain backdrop and an extensive expanse of date palms. It is the prime jumping off point for desert excursions. The Algerian president’s retreat occupies a prime hillside location (no pictures allowed and there are eagle-eyed guards to enforce this prohibition). Finally, on our fourth day after arriving in Algeria, we headed to the desert and, literally within minutes, we encountered spectacular scenery.

The Algerian Sahara
Algeria is the second largest country in Africa and the Sahara covers more than 80% of it. Not far from Djanet is a huge series of white dunes called Erg Admer. Over the next 4 days, we pushed deeper into the desert to a magical area called the Tadrart. And the scenery just kept getting more spectacular. The Tadrart is a region of massive rock formations, eroded into an unending array of striking shapes including towers, arches and windows. These formations were surrounded by and sometimes covered by pink sand, creating stunning vistas of remarkable beauty.

Each evening, we would find a scenic campsite and set up our tents while dinner was prepared. Dining and camping under the stars was just a great experience.

We had one more excursion after returning to Djanet. This rugged mountain region has been made a national park and awarded World Heritage status for its extensive rock art sites (15000 paintings and engravings found to date).

The earliest known paintings in the Tassili date back to at least 6000 BC though some accounts place the beginnings as far back as 9000 BC. Wild animals such as elephants, giraffes and rhinos also roamed the region when the climate was wetter and these species are depicted on many sheltered rock surfaces. Enigmatic round-headed human paintings also appeared in this era. By 4000 BC if not earlier, the introduction of cattle in the region is reflected extensively in rock paintings and, around 2000 BC, horses appear. Finally, camels appeared about 2000 years ago, along with scenes showing chariots and fighters with shields. Paintings are much more common than engravings, the latter generally being more ancient.

Little did we know how challenging this excursion would be. What had been described as a 2 hr. hike was instead a 3.5 hour climb up a steep mountain of boulders followed by another strenuous walk across several plains covered with lava and then two more short climbs – altogether, over 5 hours of agony getting to our destination.

At last, we reach the first of a series of sheltered overhangs with ancient drawings. We only had time to visit several sites before heading back. There were lots of interesting human and animal paintings. Many have faded of course but are still clear enough to be photographed and studied.

Once you have ascended to the Tasslli Plateau, there are many painting sights like the ones we explored, some within a half hour or an hour. One really has to spend a few days camping to explore the painting sights more extensively, packing your gear on donkeys.

We were hoping going down would be easier than going up. It wasn’t. In fact, it was harder because you slip and slide on the boulders heading down and because we were exhausted.

All and all, the climb and descent proved to be the most strenuous and difficult physical challenge of any of our travels. It was not what we expected. Was it worth it? Let’s put it this way. Now that we are back, we are glad we did it.

This trip was arranged by Fulani Travel in New York in combination with Cheche Tours in Algeria.