The third (and last) installment of the off road Saharan adventure
06.11.2009 - 07.11.2009
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FRIDAY 6 NOVEMBER
Last morning in the sandy desert - today we head in to the Hoggar.
Brian wanted to change cars so he took my spot in the second car and I went in with Adrian, Yvonne, Ryan and Ali with Upsaad driving. It took us a while to leave camp with the usual engine trouble.
We had a fun morning making our way out of the desert towards the town of Tamanrasset.
As we approached civilization the rubbish started building up – all those horrendous plastic bags caught in the thorns of the acacia trees making them look like cheap Christmas trees, decorating the edge of the road and looking like black crows drifting through the sky. Do I make it sound romantic? It wasn't. Plastic bags are the bane of the third world - actually, they're the bane of the world - full stop. We hit tarmac for a stretch of 200 metres which was a cause for celebration and power lines quickly started invading our peripheral vision.
We didn’t stop in Tamanrasset but Habib, Mohammed and Ryan went to buy supplies: Habib and Mohammed – food, Ryan – beer! We hadn’t been able to get any alcohol in Djanet before leaving for safari and while it was nice to have a dry trip through the desert (literally!) most of us would have loved to have a quiet beer around the campfire.
The rest of us went through town and headed north, waiting on the outskirts of Tamanrasset at the foot of the Hoggar Mountain range.
While we were waiting I played a game of ‘knuckles’ with Abdel Kaider but instead of using knuckle bones we used dried camel dung. When in Rome….!
A camel train went past - it's still exciting despite having seen quite a few now
A group of about 15 guys doing a motorbike safari kicked up a ton of dust on their way past – they were the first other “tourists” we saw in Algeria.
Habib, Mohammed and Ryan met us and we had a quick bite of lunch. Abdelkader then drove the cook’s ute like a bat out of hell up to where we were camping that night to try and bags us a sleeping space for the night in the ‘refuge’ or mountain hut (which is really just a small walled bungalow with a couple of rooms). We have the choice of everyone sleeping in one big room or in our tents - the room is recommended given the rapid drop in temperature in the mountains. The guys were concerned that the number of motorbikes that had cruised past would leave us without an option.
Even in November the sun is fierce and the air dry and clear on the plateau of Atakor. The brown humps of the Hoggar Mountains rise from the Saharan sand like the half-submerged bones of some colossal monster in one of the most desolately beautiful spots on earth.
The journey to Assekrem, deep in the Ahaggar National Park, is like a trip to the moon. As the desert track winds slowly upward in to the mountains, we enter a lunar world, parched and lifeless, where huge basalt pillars soar up from a bolder-strewn plain and the hot, dry wind blows incessantly.
It was a rough, rocky track heading in and we made our way slowly. Hauntingly beautiful scenery to stare at in awe along the way and I took too many photos of rocks but I just couldn’t help myself. It was just stunning but, seriously, I have never seen so many rocks! Rosie from the Rocks would be in her element!
We stopped at a spring when we were right in amongst the desolation - it looked so out of place
As did the guy selling Tuareg wares in middle of nowhere....
The landscape became more and more warped and dramatic as we drove further up in to the mountains towards Assekrem.
We arrived up at Assekrem in the late afternoon. Assekrem means ‘the End of the World’ in the language of the Tuareg and it’s easy to see why. Being there feels like you’re as far away from civilization as can be. Abdelkader had bagsed a room for us in the refuge and we all got ourselves sorted.
A few of the guys walked to the top of the Ermitage hill (more of that later) but Ryan, Abdelkader and I climbed up a steep peak on the other side of the valley which gave us a view of the sunset but not of the mountain peaks behind.
A friend of Abdel’s joined us – Kenny. “Kenny?” I said, “Yes” Kenny said, “Kenny Rogers?” I said, “Yes” Kenny said.
We had the most fantastic vantage point looking out over the valley. Abdel decided to build a fire and while Ryan was taking photos of Abdel, Kenny and I the fire really caught. Abdel was putting a scarf on my head and I didn’t realize quite how close my leg was to the flames! And when I realized I was very nearly on fire I found there was no escape as we were perched up on a cliff face. I’d just had a drag on something suspect and may have been a bit ‘oklok’ so what could have been quite an alarming situation turned out to be very funny. These photos show the story….
As the sun declines, the warped, jagged mountains turn orange and then for a precious moment to perfect pink before night floods in across the plain like a purple mist and swallows them up. As soon as the sun has gone the wind turns as icy as the brilliant stars overhead.
We pick our way carefully back down the mountainside to the refuge the last of Habib’s delicious dinners while huddled around the camp fire trying to keep out of the way of the smoke but stay warm at the same time. I slurped my mint tea loudly to show my appreciation.
It seems that Habib and Mohammed got thirsty on the drive up from Tamanrasset and most of the beer that Ryan had bought at great expense had disappeared. There was enough for one each for those who wanted one.
A couple of the Tuareg guides who were there were really talented musicians and Ryan had a bit of a guitar jamming session with them. It is hypnotic music and I taped a couple of songs - they were amazing.
Went to sleep to the sound of an impromptu and boisterous Tuareg concert in the next door room.
SATURDAY 7 NOVEMBER
Rising toward 5 in the morning, when the desert stars are just starting to pale, we make our way up to the simple stone hermitage of the French mystic and explorer, Charles de Foucauld, on the summit of Assekrem Plateau above to watch the dawn. The monk came to live in the Hoggar in 1911 and built chose the spot for its isolation. The hermitage is 9,000 feet above sea level and takes about 30 mins to reach by foot (the only way to get there). It commands a spectacular view over the Hoggar Mountains - towering pinnacles of brown rock that rise up from the desert floor like a forest of enormous stalagmites. Standing on the mountaintop, watching the light slowly creep across the wild and tortured mountains, you feel like you’re as far away from civilization as can be.
Ryan, Elaine and Paul also made the trek and we watched the spectacular sunrise together. The sunset ends quickly with night and the unchanging stars, but dawn comes more slowly. The moments just before the sun appears are the most beautiful. The mountains start to emerge in a jagged razor's edge against the strengthening wash of apricot and gold in the eastern sky.
Checked out the Ermitage too but declined joining mass which was about to start. As we walk down from the plateau our clothes are bathed in a dusky pink glow from the sunshine reflecting on the wildflowers.
After trekking down the mountain, we packed up camp and said goodbye to Assekrem.
We made our way slowly out of the Hoggar the way we had come.
Stopped at one point for the drivers to say hi to a mate of theirs. Ryan must have pulled his camera out of his pocket as it dropped on the ground and he didn’t realize until a couple of kms down the track.
Mohammed and Habib rushed back to get it and there it was… Lucky. While they did that I asked Abdelkader if he wouldn't mind tying his Taguelmoust while I video'ed it.
The Taureg are one of the few societies in the world where men, but not women, must wear the veil. It is a source of protection against the desert wind and sand but also a social requirement.
The stick he is holding in his mouth is his toothbrush and he spent most of the day chewing on it or rubbing away at his teeth. How spectacular is the landscape?!
We stopped for lunch next to a dry creek bed (oued) on the edge of the Hoggar and enjoyed our last Habib meal. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again – that man is a genius!
It was a melancholy time and I took a shot of our group with the self timer. Here’s our Algeria photo….
The guys took us to our ‘hotel’ and we all spent a long time washing the red dust out of our bodies. The bottom on the shower was like a sandpit when I got out. I didn’t bother washing all my clothes as we weren’t staying in Tamanrasset the night. Our flight to Algers departed at 2am so we were just using it is a rest stop. At around 4pm, after most of us had cold showers, our drivers took us in to the market. Unfortunately it was the locals market and had lots of crap stuff for kitchens made in China - there wasn't much that was really authentic Tuareg. I wandered around with Abdelkader for a while and he helped with some of the negotiation. I bought a ring and some small things for the nieces and nephews.
Met up with Ryan and we wandered across town to find a bottle shop (the usual, no signage, behind closed doors) but we weren’t allowed to drink there as it wasn’t a bar so we took our cans of Heineken to the park over the road and drank our beer in a brown paper bag like true derros. Ah, Mum and Dad would have been so proud.
We wandered towards the place we were meeting the rest of the group for dinner. The street the restaurant was on had tons of shops with traditional Tuareg artifacts so I stopped to check them out and bought a couple of things. I thought I would have been able to buy most things in Algers – I shouldn’t have. Algers didn’t have nearly the range or the quality. Anyhooooo, lesson learned people. If you see something you like, get it because it probably won’t exist in the next place you go.
Ali, our guide, works for a company called Che Che Tours and they put on dinner for us which was very generous. We all sat on cushions on the floor in the back room of a little restaurant. It was the standard chicken and chips fare but a really lovely way to say goodbye to the guys who we have come to know and like so much over the past week. They could have ended the tour after dropping us at our hotel but they all came to dinner and they also drove us out to the airport – at 12.30am!!
We all tried to rest up when we got back to the hotel and I got a bit of sleep but it was time to rise at midnight and get out to the airport.
It was a bit of a teary farewell to our Tuareg friends at Tamanrasset airport. When we were camping the Tuaregs would put a small piece of this natural incense on a piece of coal which let off the most beautiful aroma. Abdelkader must have noticed that I liked it – he handed me a small jar of the incense as we were saying good-bye. I was really touched.
What an amazing adventure. Aren't I a lucky, lucky girl?!