Art and Survival in the Tassili Plateau
As I’d spent my formative tourleading years in Morocco, when one of the rarely operated tours to the middle of the Sahara came up for grabs, my managers and I both made a beeline for it.
The tour involved taking everything with me to run a trip which was centred around the charming sounding town of Djanet, pretty much smack in the centre of the Sahara, sandwiched between the mountainous region of Tassili n’Ajjer and the legendary Tenere stretching away south to Niger.
Although not often springing to mind as a tourist destination, an awful lot is known about Algeria, as it offers some of the best access routes across the intimidating Sahara, itself larger than the contiguous United States. It is a truly huge country, bounded by impossible straight lines running across stone, sand and craggy desert, drawn, as ever, by colonial and imperial interests. The physical landscape of deserts is the most obvious danger, and has claimed untold thousands of lives; the isolated local populations over history have in their turn presented emphatic frontiers, and in recent years political unrest has held Algeria at arm’s length from most outsiders. Explorers of all sorts, from Ibn Battuta up to the Imperial and geographical wranglings of the 19thC, everyone had a tale to tell, it seems. The truly vast areas of the Sahara spawned a host of historical and mythical lost tribes, lost cities, lost armies, not to mention common or garden mirages !
Deserts are a lightning rod for romantics, too; the lure of spellbinding night skies, the imagery of camel trains and nomadic warriors drew adventurers, surveyors, visionaries, missionaries. The very size and inaccessibility of deserts is inbuilt in our ideas of the unknown, the undiscovered; (therefore, treasure, conquest, valuable new knowledge). I’ve read of legends of worm eating tribes, wandering marabouts or holy men, recently of course the English Patient mentions the mythical city of Uweinat and the cave decorated with paintings of swimming figures. I especially loved people like Isabel Eberhardt, Ralph Bagnold and the Desert Fathers, all of whom saw or sought answers to their own visions of the unknown.
This was never going to be a luxury trip in terms of physical delights, as you can imagine, the austerity of desert survival casts a deep shadow over frivolity. So it was no surprise that flying in to Algiers in the early evening meant it was hardly worth going into town for a hotel because our onward flight to Djanet (if it took off), would be boarding in pre-dawn darkness. All flights there have to avoid the dramatic, destabilising thermal gusts from the dry landscape being superheated as the sun rose. Even with modern location and rescue services, an unscheduled stop in the Sahara would all too likely be your last one.
So we slept on the airport floor. We’d come prepared for basking under open desert skies in our sleeping bags, but perhaps not bargained for the surprising hardness of concrete, although it was a good introduction to life at ground level. My younger brother has an interesting theory about levels – elevated levels indicating elevated points of ‘civilisation’. In most early societies, of course, everything WAS done on the ground, and sitting on a rock became a chair, until we started eating and working at tables, making structures which were more than mere shelter.
With barely any sleep we progressed to check in with a growing stream of heavily swathed women and men heading for Djanet, along with a chaotic and alarming stack of baggage (some of which was moving in sacks). We also had a few metal trunks containing camp kitchen equipment and basic supplies as we knew there would be precious little to be had in our destination; we could just hope for fresh(ish) veg locally, – oh, and as many dates as you can shake a stick at !
A Hadean glow from the east gradually became umber, then tawny as the earth below was illuminated; after a couple of hours a line of ellipses slowly resolved into oblongs and then vehicles. A soft bump, then fine dust, newly imbued with spirit devils surrounded our small plane almost as quickly as the drivers of the Land Cruisers and Peugeots who thronged to clear the vessel of incoming traffic and load up speedily for the return flight, taking crates and patients for attention in Algiers. A cacophony of engine noise then rent the air and, as suddenly, the ear-splitting silence gathered around us, in the middle of nowhere.
A morning spent in and around Djanet revealed a small oasis town with, as expected, basic everything. There were one or two alliances of 4×4 owners who took people and goods to even more remote locations, and we would be taking advantage of their expertise later in the trip to experience the Tenere. For now I needed to stock up on rather squidgy tomatoes and greens to supplement the pasta and dehydrated foods we had imported. Water was procured and secured in plastic bidons and a couple of 4x4s acquired to take us the few kilometres out of town to begin our climb into the Tassili n’Ajjer.
The track led through an avalanche of angular boulders tumbled on a hillside where we picked our way. Though by now the day’s heat was waning, it was pretty exhausting stuff with the westering sun still on our backs. No sign of the softened edges you might find where water had played a mollifying role in the landscape; here it was sharp-edged brutal geology. Gradually, we ascended into what we felt were well-deserved areas of shadow as the sun was dipping, and noticed that there was a softening of the terrain into curves running through the sandstone massif. By and large this terrain had been formed by water – sand deposits hardening to sandstone, then being carved out by ephemeral water courses; the remaining artistry had been achieved by wind blown sand. As you might expect in an area covering some 72,000 square kilometres, there actually IS water in the Tassili, though rather higher up than we were to go; the highest part of the plateau climbs to some 2,158 metres and reputedly ancient cypresses still endured in gullies and gueltas hidden from the sun.
Thankfully, donkeys had ferried our camp equipment to the heights where we now found ourselves staring at a mesmerising labyrinth of cracks, cliffs, chasms and caves. After a short recce a suitable site was found for our night stop and I arranged the kitchen as my group explored our surroundings, and gazed amazed at some figures they found under the rock shelters nearby. We had a Tuareg ‘guide’ with us, whose duty seemed solely to make sure we didn’t die, but hardly deigned to offer much information beyond the immediately obvious. I made the mistake of asking what was his main work (in such a remote location as Djanet, I could imagine few opportunities), and realized with a start from his expression that I had committed a serious faux-pas. Touaregs, I was coolly informed, do not work, they have darker coloured ‘neighbours’ who do all the work of maintaining an oasis and its gardens in this decidedly feudal society. I was now firmly in my place. Luckily I had read quite a lot on the area, and only had to rely on Mustafa for finding the way.
The drawings show clearly the images of wildlife and people who formerly inhabited the region, once an area of lakes and streams. Hippopotamus, antelope, cattle, horses and lots of people are featured under rock overhangs where the direct sun has not touched and bleached them out of existence. There are around 15,000 pictographs, only first reported (in the west), in 1910. Later visitors have left their own marks here and there to show their passing presence, some have been defaced somewhat by others who disapproved for one reason or another. None of these animals could exist here in the present and offer a stark illustration of the power of climatic change, the drying up of the savannah lands as the Sahara grew and regenerated itself over the last 9-12,000 years.
Our stay in the labyrinths of the plateau lasted only four days or so, but left a huge and permanent impression on all of us, wide-eyed at these simple records of life unfolded before us. We threaded through narrow sand floored canyons alert both to rock falls and to potential overhangs where faint figures could often be descried. It was wonderfully simple for all of us; part dreamscape perhaps brought on by a touch of sensory deprivation, part sheer wonder at the millennia of lives confronting us. People just like us, hoping to leave some trace of their existence, of their pleasures and their wealth. Could they have imagined their world slowly shrinking to an island of scant resources of any kind, and the disappearance of trees, animals and water, perhaps even within the lifetimes of some ?
We came down from the plateau to be whisked off by 4x4s for a brief wash and brush up in such luxury as Djanet afforded us, and then we were off again, southward into the equally vast unpopulated Tenere. This unforgiving slowly undulating sandy plain was a major route for traders and slave caravans heading to Niger, or to the Mediterranean coast. The disorientating scale of this terrain prompted the French colonial powers to mark out safer routes with ‘balises’, nowadays high posts set in concrete filled barrels, but knowing where you are going is only part of survival. The Tenere is still used by people traffickers and hopeful migrants, and is no less hungry for tribute in human lives.
A change to high speed vehicles was a rather abrupt blip in our more pedestrian travels so far. Only breakdowns or lack of fuel could stop our progress – drivers showed off by leaving their hands off the steering as the unending flat surface offered no hazard, even another vehicle (we saw none) would be a visible dust trail from many miles away. This was an exciting interlude, but adrenalin fades quickly in the bloodstream and in part we were relieved to decamp among surreal canyons of black rocks floored with familiar sand, which changed hue with the day’s light. A number of camels were couched nearby, along with four or five local camel drivers. The sensation of revelation and the romance of the desert were quickly re-established.
For our new hosts, our time out in the forbidding landscape was probably like a good hike in the Yorkshire Dales would be to us. They knew every turn and crag, every tiny crevice where reliable water could be found, where to find the right sort of sand to make a comfy bivouac pit, where critters like snakes or scorpions might disturb your peace. The evocative sight of one of our guides seated atop a dune prompted a flurry of camera clicks, many, probably, as mine were, entitled “Lookouts”. The Bedu drivers rustled up tiny fires of thorns and camel dung to brew tea, and heat up their food. A few flat stones placed under the fire then served to bake flatbreads, gritty and crisp on the outside, moist and soft on the inside. A good lesson to learn; later, the same stones could be wrapped in a cloth to keep feet warm as the desert night drove the heat out of the day.
Those days in a loose camel train, sometimes utterly lost in the experience where sound was enveloped and smothered by soft sand were branded by the powerful sun into our minds. It is hard to remain truly comfortable in a camel saddle for long, we found, but the easy pace was soothing to the mind, whether walking alongside on the shady side of the camel, or taking it easy aloft. A quietude settled over the group, self absorbed in the discomfort of heat, of dry mouth and throat, of metronomic pace. We passed through, to us, a barely changing landscape we would find hard to resolve; then at rest, the simple needs of water, of searching for patches of shade and of re-aligning ourselves with the silence around us.
As with all good desert tales (Ice Cold in Alex, The Fearful Void), we did, of course, almost run out of water, as we simply could not carry all that was required for comfort and for need. A rock wall a kilometre distant looked only forbidding to us, but our guides strode purposefully to the foot of a craggy cliff to show us a shaded guelta, in this case a tiny triangular pool, leaf green at the edge where sand lay beneath, then dark holly green where it became deeper. This pond of life-giving resource was perhaps less than two metres in any direction, backed by rock and fronted by damp sand with many animal traces, both prints and droppings. A rich broth which in other circumstances, we would have had to rely on, we took 25 litres back to our camp and filtered out the debris. A vague putrid sweetness meant it would probably be ok if we boiled it before use and held our noses, but in this case we poured it into plastic bowls for each of the camels. We were not exactly in dire straits, but it was a good lesson again; a dead camel means a dead person, so you look after your charge.
We did, inevitably have a mishap – no desert trip would be complete without having to dig a vehicle out of fine sand, or in desperation with an exhausted camel, resort to lighting a fire under its backside to force it to stand and continue. Or, as actually happened, someone wandered off alone without telling anyone and rapidly lost sight of the camp. Whether they had gone in search of communion with nature, necessity of privacy or overwhelmed by djinns, once they realised they were lost, they stopped and waited, rather than compound the problem further. It took some time to track them down, despite the alarm, no harm was done but it did bring a sharp reminder of the reality of the flimsiness of human life in this environment.
The sensations I felt and feel about the lengthy periods I have spent in deserts are both complex and pared down to the bone. Images shown here are in some sense iconic of desert travel, especially the camel and dune ones. A bit like the Taj Mahal, they have been photographed in every conceivable circumstance, but they are essentially only visual, of course. The discomfort, nay, pain both physical and psychological of desert travel is impossible to push through the sieve of sight, but remain in the half buried memory, a visceral reaction. Similarly, the pleasure, the sense of space and freedom can never be captured from an image. Some photographs have essentially become emojis to stand for a range of sensations; at best I can only try to explain my own, and hope some of that explanation finds congruence with your own feelings, whether they are derived from experience or imagination.
My memories of that trip come to a blur if I think of the return to Algiers; I simply cannot bring to mind more than a hotel room and draining the remaining duty free with others. To my shame I saw nothing at all of Algiers other than the hotel and the airport, but I did have much larger worlds to carry home in my mind.
Still emptying sand from my boots – AmateurEmigrant !