From unexpected rocky plains and the largest open-air art gallery in the world to baking bread in sand, the world’s most iconic desert has a lot to offer visitors.
The great Sahara Desert was on my list of must-visit places for a long time before I finally had the opportunity to venture into it a few months ago.
The Sahara is almost as big as the United States of America, and it stretches from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea, occupying much of the territories of Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Algeria, Niger, Tunisia, Libya, Chad, Egypt and Sudan.
With an area of over 9.4 million sq km, the great Sahara Desert is by far the largest desert on earth as far as the popular understanding of a desert goes.
Geographers, however, define a desert as any place with a total annual precipitation (rain, snow etc) of less than 250mm. By this definition, the continent of Antarctica, contrary to most people’s belief, is the largest desert, followed closely by the Arctic region, with the Sahara in third place.
I was travelling with my wife and a friend, and after a first night in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, we crossed into Algeria and spent the following week visiting Algeria’s cities and Roman ruins near the Mediterranean coast.
From Tlemcen near the Moroccan border, our 4WD headed south towards Taghit about 680km away. Our driver-cum-guide, Badjou, drove at 140kph on the two-lane road most of the time. Traffic was very light and we soon entered the great Sahara Desert.
Algeria has an area of 2,381,741sq km (more than seven times Malaysia) and has taken over as the largest country in Africa after South Sudan broke away from Sudan in July 2011. Eighty percent of the country is desert which is sparsely inhabited, so this large country only has a population of slightly more than 37 million people.
We did not see any sand dunes until we reached Taghit. Like most people, my preconceived idea of the Sahara was an endless expanse of sand dunes with trains of camels here and there. The fact is, sand dunes only constitute a small part of the great Sahara.
The desert is principally rocky in nature and takes the following landforms: stone plateau (known locally as hamada), gravel plain (reg), dry valley and salt flat (shatt or chott). Sandy seas (erg) including sand dunes and dune fields make up less than 20% of the total area.
So when the oasis town of Taghit came into view at the foot of magnificent golden sand dunes as we arrived in the late afternoon, we were truly impressed. We spent the following day exploring a nearby valley, the old ksar (an abandoned beehive-like communal dwelling of red mud houses) and the town itself. We had our first introduction to some exquisite petroglyphs of animals, a precursor to the many we would see in the trip.
Moving on towards Timimoun, a sea of wave-like sand dunes appeared on both sides of the road. Their curves and shades intertwined into a mesh that no mortal being can reproduce irrespective of the amount of time or money employed. Those dunes were part of the Grand Erg Occidental, a long belt of sand seas that extends in a north-easterly direction from Taghit.
Ghardaia, our next stop, is 630km north-east of Timimoun. It is also known as M’Zab Valley, in which are nestled five interesting villages inhabited principally by the Mozabite people, a branch of the Berber people who once lived throughout southern Algeria.
Our guide Badjou is a Mozabite. The women are the most conservative in Algeria. Whenever they are out of their house, they are covered completely in white, leaving only a small triangular opening for one eye to see the way. Even at home, they have to cover up to avoid being seen by any other man than the husband.
There were no sand dunes in or around M’Zab Valley, only rocks. When we flew to Tamanrasset 1,375km south of Ghardaia later, we were again surrounded by rocks. Tamanrasset is deep in the heart of the great Sahara Desert and pretty close to the Niger border.
We spent three days exploring the surrounding desert, following what is known as the Assekrem Circuit. This part of the desert is dominated by interesting rock formations. Assekrem itself is a mountain about 3,000m high.
The Hermitage of Charles de Foucauld occupies a small part of the mountain. It is still lived in by two French brothers. Nearby is a telecommunications station where visitors gather in the late afternoon – the Assekrem is reputedly one of the best places in the desert for viewing a sunset or sunrise.
Our sunset was only so-so, but the following sunrise was truly gorgeous – even though I did not climb to the top of the mountain but just viewed it from near our lodge on the slope. A row of jagged mountain peaks projected a most interesting silhouette against the backdrop of changing colours and hues. I spent a solid hour enjoying and photographing the magical display of colours, light and shadow. The experience was surreal.
From Tamanrasset, we took another flight to Djanet about 700km away. Djanet is very close to the Libyan border and is the gateway to Tassili n’Ajjer National Park. This area of 114,000sq km is often dubbed the largest open-air art gallery in the world on account of the concentration of cave paintings and engravings in the region.
We spent five days exploring a small part of Tadrart Acacus, which lies within the National Park. We were driven around in the desert in a 4WD vehicle. Our guide was a 34-year-old Tuareg man by the name of Ali, and our driver-cum-cook was another Tuareg man by the name of Hamdani.
Ali was a jovial character who spoke pretty good English. Other than showing us rock engravings, Ali also pitched our tents and prepared tea (only two cups instead of the usual three!) for us after every meal.
Hamdani, on the other hand, could hardly speak any English, but he made an attempt to learn. He was a good cook and he showed us how to clean dishes with fine desert sand and how to bake a loaf of bread buried in sand with a fire over it. Both Ali and Hamdani had a good sense of humour and together they made our desert experience thoroughly enjoyable.
All in all, my experiences of various parts of the great Sahara Desert will linger in my memory forever.