Travelogue : The plateau of Tassili n'Ajjer
Inshallah January 2005

South Algeria. Wideness and mystery, a thin line between surviving and destruction, the power to take a life or to change someones life. These are only a few associations which I can recall upon by the memory of this voyage. Albeit Algeria still has to cope with setbacks as a result of the past civil war, the authorities are doing their best to get a stream of tourism going again. Several European countries try to convince tour operators that Algeria, and certainly the south, is a safe destination again. Le Grand Sud — according to connoisseurs the most beautiful desert in the world — has paid the price for the incidents that took place 1500 km northerly. We have never felt unsafe during this whole trip.

The Tassili mountains are situated in the depths of the Sahara desert of South Algeria. It's an enormous crystalline plateau with black lava, cones of a volcano, table mountains and narrow gorges with prehistoric paintings. Tassili n'Ajjer is an area of outstanding natural beauty, very fascinating by its panoramic views and the play of colours on the sand and rocks. This fascinating landscape belongs to the most peculiar in the world. Also the experience of its deafening silence and the incredible sea of light have been memorable!

The Algerian Sahara is immense. The desert covers 85 percent of Algeria, an equivalent of 6 times the size of France. Still 8 percent of the whole population lives near a large oasis. Sahara means "the big emptyness, nothingness". As a visitor, I feel privileged to be able to walk around in this scenery, where elements of nature rule. On the plateau of Tassili n'Ajjer, we are in the hands of the territory knowledge of a Tuareg guide, who leads us into the right direction without a map or GPS system. A challenge? Certainly. Not an easy one but for sure it's worth the effort... for those who like a hazardous adventure of course!

A long voyage to Djanet

Saturday, January 1

I've spend New Year's Eve with a couple of friends. At 8 o'clock in the morning we drive to Brussels airport to meet the rest of the group. The highway is almost deserted. From Brussels we go to the airport of Paris Orly by mini-bus. It's a small group, only 7 people. In the afternoon, we have a flight to Algiers with Air Algérie. As we arrive a few hours later, it seems that our connecting flight to Djanet has been delayed. While we are waiting we also understand the have to make another stop over on the way to Djanet. Normally a whole trip from Paris to Djanet would take only 5 hours but it lasts 4 times more. We finally arrive at Djanet in the middle of the night. The manager of the local tour operator agency 'Essendilène Voyages Djanet' is waiting for us. It is a big Tuareg in a traditional blue stately robe and chèche (a long coton turban). Abdou Borgi helps us to complete the customs formalities so we can move on as fast as possible. In front of this small airport building stand a lot of Toyota four-wheel drive jeeps — Japanese camels as they call them overthere. The drivers steer a northerly course to the oasis of Djanet, 30 km from the airport. The night is black as coal and there are no lights apart from those of our jeeps. It's 3.30 am when we arrive at the house of the agency. It has an inner courtyard where the cook has prepared some hot soup for us. We can put our sleeping bags under the large tent but it's pretty cold so we choose to spend the night inside the building after such a long voyage...

Sunday, January 2

We have breakfast under the awning in the inner courtyard. They serve baguettes with jam and fresh coffee. A remainder of the French who have passed through here. With two jeeps we drive to a little office in the centre of Djanet (1150 m) to get permission and an official Tuareg guide to discover the Tassili plateau. Our guide's name is Amma. We drive into the rocky desert to the point where we meet the drivers with their pack animals near Akba Tafilalet. Akba Tafilalet, 12 km east of Djanet is the usual starting point of the treks. The plateau is inaccesible with jeeps, thus we go by foot. When we get out the jeep we become aware that it will become a cold week. The wind sweeps across the desert and makes it very chilly. I'm glad that I've bought an extra fleece windstopper the day before I left and borrowed a warmer sleeping bag (-10°C) than the one I have. I even took an extra fleece bag to put into the sleeping bag.

After lunch — bread, sardines, a hard-boiled egg and cheese spread and an oranje — we start our first climb while ten donkeys get loaded with our complete expedition gear, including tents, camp stoves, tools, lots of water and food. The plateau of Tassili rises up in an escarpment some 700 m above the shifting sand dunes (ergs). Because of the point in time, it is not possible to climb all the way up to the tableland in the afternoon. Also because the mountain path is very steep, makes it though for the donkeys to rise. They are heavily loaded. We climb till we reach a first broad plateau (photo). The guide decides that we wait here for the drivers. We spend our time walking around enjoying the little warmth of the sunrays. Once the sun disappears behind the rocks and we are left in the shadow, the temperature drops down fast (photo). When the evening falls we return to the spot the guide has selected to make a bivouac. We are happy that we've brought along a few igloo tents. The setup was to sleep outside under the desert sky. By the time the tents are pitched, it has become dark. We huddle together around a small campfire. Because wood is scarce around here it looks more like a watch fire. While the cook prepares our evening meal in his improvised kitchen, one of the drivers starts with a Tuareg tradition: making tea. While the tea-leaves slowly cook in the teakettle above the campfire, he adds sugar to it. The mix adds savour to the tea. This seems le moment suprême of a Tuareg dinner — and the ritual will take place in deadly earnest. The little tea glasses are filled three times: the first glass tastes bitter like life, the second tastes sweet like love and the last tastes smooth like death, so they use to say. And the tea doesn't only makes us feel better after a nap, it also warms our benumbed hands and other limbs as the evenings and nights are considerable cold in the desert. After we finish supper, we are glad to enter our tents and turn in the sleeping bags. Outside the wind howls but I feel warm and fall asleep.

The plateau of Tassili n'Ajjer

Monday, January 3

Lukely, the cold hasn't come between me and my sleep last night. Hereby, my sleeping gear is approved. Around 7.30 am I crawl out our tent. The wind tells me it's still freezing cold. The first rays of sunshine haven't got the power to increase the temperature yet (photo). When I read the thermometer on my backpack that still stands in the shadow, it marks 3°C. If you notice that the wind moves with a speed of 20 to 30 km/h, it feels like approximately -6°C. But we can dress well against it. We pack up and after breakfast and some hot milk we start to climb again. We pass through a huge narrow canyon. The drivers and the donkeys have to take another route because this one is much to difficult and steep. At the point the track splits, they go right taking a zigzagging path up to the top of the plateau (requiring a long detour), while we turn left taking a footpath steeply up the valley slope. After a half hour climb we reach yet another gorge, from which a steep path leads up to the edge of the plateau (photo). On top of the plateau of Tassili n'Ajjer the wind sweeps across the land. Up here, it's like entering an unreal world. The landscape changes dramatically, with eroded humps of sandstone sticking out of the plain (photo), and the fantastic sandstone spires of Tamrit visible on the horizon. We are miles away from civilization now. The park and the massif are shaped roughly like a triangle, whose longest side measures 700 km from Amguid to the frontier with Niger. The national park is 60 km in length from Djanet to the Libyan frontier. Tassili n'Ajjer was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1982.

We follow an easy-going narrow path through a striking neverending desert of stones until we reach the valley of cypresses, near Tamrit (1900 m). These gigantic, more than thousand years old, trees — the Tuareg people name them 'tarout' — grow in a picturesque, rocky ravine (photo). Tassili n'Ajjer means 'plateau of rivers'. More than thousand years ago wild rivers have run through these canyons and gorges. Water is rarely present in this region, remaining in deep shaded rocky chasms. And still these beautiful big pine-trees with their rough bark keep on growing. If you know where to look you can find some water reservoirs that are filled with rainwater. The guide shows us some tracks of a jackal but it is very unlikely that we are going to see any animal on this trip. The wild animals that live up here have a very good scent and probably smell us from miles away because of the continuous wind.

After we leave the majestic rock pillars of Tamrit the landscape changes again. We walk through a scenery with a lot of rocks, big black oblate stones and sandy parts (photo). We pass Tin Toumaitek. Wind erosion and the arid climate have strewn the plateau with rock formations resembling stone forests. We climb to one of the highest points to get a good view over the area but we don't see the drivers anywhere. According to our guide it isn't a good sign. He shows us in which direction we can move on while he himself walks in the direction where the drivers should come from. A little later we see that Amma meets somebody. It seems to be Azoum (our cook) who left us after lunch to find the drivers. Amma joins us again with the story that there have been some problems with the donkeys while they were mounting. They will hopefully arrive at the point where Azoum is waiting around 6 pm. We decide to go and look for a series of ancient cave wall paintings at Timinzezine and another breathtaking canyon. We get to see mural paintings of three antelopes and a large elephant. The sun is almost down when we reach camp and set up our tents. All our cooking gear has also arrived but one donkey of the three Japanese travellers, who pitch camp next to us, hasn't made it to the top of the Tassili. So tonight, Azoum has to cook some more pasta for them too. I've put on some extra thermic underwear before joining the rest of the group by the watch fire under an overhanging rock. To see a few igloo tents in a godforsaken place and an impressive, dead silence makes me loose all sense of time very quickly. Night is falling and it seems that we already sit here for ages. You get easily used to the slow-down tempo. When I look up, I see this impressive star-spangled sky. The longer I look, the more stars I see twinkling at the firmament. This game of thousands, maybe millions of natural lights is part of the back-to-basic therapy of Le Grand Sud. This really is a wonderful spectacle. The so-called civilized world with mobile phones, television, radio and all other comfort suddenly seems far away. And it may last just a bit more.

Le Louvre of the Sahara

Tuesday, January 4

While Azoum prepares breakfast, coffee and hot milk, we pack our things. We leave the mountainous region and continue our hike crossing an immense plain strewn with little stones. It sounds monotonous but it doesn't bore me one second. Isn't it glorious to be on the way single-mindedly? The flat plateau has been shaped by fluvial action, their surface furrowed by narrow, deep gorges and dry river beds. In the far distance we see a new craggy line of rocks come to the surface (photo). Again, the powerful biting wind sweeps across the plain and there's almost no place to hide. Therefore a scarf or a chèche and some warm gloves are more than welcome. Around noon we arrive at the rock formations and descend into an enormous labyrinth, the mysterious network of Séfar. It's pretty clear soon that you can get lost easily around here (photo). And wow, the wind is falling. After lunch, I take a siesta and enjoy the warmth of the sun. Meanwhile there seems to be a discussion going on about the continuation of our trip. The guide presumes that we go back in our footsteps after we have visited the site of Séfar but that isn't the original plan. Because we've had a delay in the beginning we will need one more day if we wanna continue to Jabbaran. Amma asks for a postponement of the discussion and suggests that we go see the wall paintings of Séfar first (photo).

Séfar is one of the major centres of prehistoric rock art in the central Sahara, and even in the world. A hike through the natural corridors of Séfar is like travelling through history of art, but also through the past of North Africa. The entire site is of international importance for a series of acient cave paintings. We first walk through the maze of Séfar Noir. The name refers to the dark rocks and the colour of the frescos, mainly red or sometimes black. Even though these frescos are protected by Unesco, I'm dumbfounded by the fact that a lot of them are in such a bad shape. You can ask yourself if they aren't deliberately damaged or been wiped out? The most noteworthy prehistoric remains include rock paintings and engravings of large fauna and of man. I've read there are more than 30.000 wall paintings in this open-air museum on the Tassili plateau. It has to be said they have been drawn with an eye for detail, knowing that they are between 3.000 and 10.000 years old. Among them we recognize many cows and men (photo), a camel, an antelope or a gazelle, a pregnant woman, a dancing crowd and several hunting scenes, men hunting animals with spears and bow and arrow. We even get to see a drawing of a giraffe. I especially like the abstract design of the frescos (photo). After Séfar Noir, we continue the walk through the labyrinth of Séfar Blanc. In this part all the figures are much bigger and drawn in white. Can you imagine what kind of materials they must have used to draw so that even after so many centuries these frescos still exist? Amazing, isn't it! I remember clearly one large drawing of some kind of rain-god. All the figures beside him stuck their hands into the sky to welcome for rain. It strikes the eye that almost all the wall paintings are sheltered against sunlight, in the shadow of a overhanging rock. Were they originally made within caves, do I ask myself? Before we return to our bivouac we climb a high rock to watch the sunset. This is the first night that I don't need extra clothing to keep me warm while waiting for dinner by the campfire. We are well-protected against the wind within this stonen forest. That's a perfect opportunity to have a wash. I use soap-without-water and moist cloths because there isn't any water around. That does me good. The Tuareg succeed to keep the fire burning with a minimum of wood every night. After the tea ceremony we slurp our soup and enjoy the delicious couscous with lots of vegetables and pieces of lamb cooked by Azoum. This is also the first night that everybody is comfortably off. We finish our discussion of this afternoon before we go to sleep. We decide to give a written message to a guide of another group that returns to Djanet by Tamrit wherein we explain that we will stay a day longer on this tableland and that we descend somewhere nearby Jabbaren. By knowing this they can change our point of rendez-vous.

Wednesday, January 5

Grey clouds gather over us when we get up. After breakfast we go for a little walk with Amma. Meanwhile the drivers can load the donkeys. Amma shows us one of the few water reservoirs between the rocks where the drivers tap water from for their animals. As we leave Séfar behind (photo), Amma explicitly asks us to stick together. Normally, a group returns to Tamrit again so from this part on we are totally alone. We walk southward over a desolate flat area covered with lots and lots of loose stones. As we dive into another rock formations we enter an area were many jackals live. Unfortunately, we only get to see their tracks. I like this scenery very much. It's almost beyond description. Each time it's a combination of rocks, massive huge stones and yellowish sand dunes and yet every time it's different again. Sometimes it reminds me of statues of Gaudí (photo). The route passes through a number of wadis. The sandy parts are overgrown with small bushes with long sharp-pointed needles. After we cross a flat sandy desert between two rock formations we climb up to an idyllic picnic spot in the beating sun (photo). The place is called In-Itinen. It's a little desert totally walled in by huge rocks (photo). The donkeys are already released from their load as we arrive. Azoum is preparing vegetables for lunch and Saïd, Ibrahim and Musa make a small fire to brew tea (photo). Sun, no wind and a juicy orange. A perfect siesta.

We move on between the rocks, crossing orange-yellow sand blown up to dunes by the wind (photo). Notwithstanding the fact we see many tracks of jackals again, they keep hiding from us. Once more we cross a flat part that leads us to another small valley with a few dead cypresses. The vivid blue sky is marvellously decorated with white lines and streaks. Towards the evening we reach a lonely tarout in the area of Ala-n-doumene (photo). We pitch our igloos near a cliff. From here we can enjoy a beautiful sunset. Although the fire is made under an overhanging rock, the wind comes from the wrong quarter and keeps blowing through our bivouac. Amma starts to mix water with flour and knead the dough to a round bread. Then he buries it in the sand near the campfire and put some glowing embers on top of it so it can bake. After a half hour he digs up the bread again and turns it around to repeat the baking part once more. This unfermented bread is named 'tagela'. After another half hour he digs it up the second time and scrapes off the sand from the crust with his knife. The baking and the scraping of a tagela occupies a lot of time in the Sahara. Tonight we sit shivering around the campfire like no day before. Even thermic underwear, a t-shirt, a shirt, a windstopper and a fleece, a skarf and a hat don't give solace. Amma and the drivers crumble the bread before it goes to the kitchen. Azoum returns with a typical Tuareg dish. After dinner we disappear as quick as lightning into our tent and sleeping bag. Brrr...

Thursday, January 6

Everything has to go fast this morning because we want to leave this spot as soon as possible because of the cold wind. Today we cross another endless large plain strewn with small stones (photo). I find it bewildering. Never before I've seen the earth so naked as now. As if the earth's crust has been stripped and then been scorched and burned by the sun and cold. Teared apart and split, crushed and shattered. A futureless wasteland of rock and stone, redbrown or jet-black depending on the incidence of light, with billions of flat boulders gleaming in the sun, and high rising basalt rocks. It's an inhuman and uninhabitable land, you think (photo). And yet... We even see a typical so called mirage, a famous fata morgana that every desert visitor comes across. Anyway, these supposed lakes prove to be evaporated when we reach them. Amma tells us that there's a good chance we may see some gazelles. But even today we don't see any animals except for some hares. This flat area is totally different from the various rock formations we've seen the past days. We walk by a few large tumili made of stones. At midday we reach the rocky high plateau of Jabbaren. Between the rocks there are several chambers without a roof made up by an accumulation of stones. I guess this camp is often used for large groups of tourists. Here and there still lies some rubbish. That's a pity.

In the afternoon we visit some more wall paintings in this area. We pass a place where a lot of mouflons have taken a rest but as far as we can see, no trace of them. When the sun goes down, it's the same old song again; a cold breeze. We found shelter in one of the stone houses.

Friday, January 7

When my benumbed feet awake me, there sticks a glaze of ice on the flysheet of our tent (photo). But I don't complain because the first thing I see, are orange coloured rocks in the rising sun. There's even a glaze of ice on top of the dunes nearby the bivouac (photo). Today we are about to leave the plateau and descend 700 m again into Akba Aroûm. From Jabbaren the path follows the main wadi west for a short distance until it reaches a small ridge that is the watershed, beyond which the land begins a gradual descent to the western edge of the plateau (photo). A small wadi starts to cut itself a couple of metres below the surface, and after a few bends it ends abruptly in a large steep slope littered with car sized boulders tumbling down between two outlying fingers of the plateau. As we reach the boundary of this high ridge, we overlook the surrounding ergs (photo). A small difficult boulder strewn path leads us downwards through the uncountable rocks and stones. The path zigzags down the slope, which unlike the Akba Tafilalet, is uninterrupted for the full elevation of the plateau. It takes two hours to reach the dry riverbed below (photo). The jeeps of Agence Essendilène Voyages are already waiting for us. When we enter Djanet again we first pay a quick visit to a hammam. That does me good. After this welcome refreshment we stop at a small market (photo) to get some food for this evening. We drive westwards on the asphalt road nr. 8 to Tamanrasset but we leave this road pretty soon. We continue our journey through the Sahara desert with two four-wheel drive jeeps. This seems to be the perfect playground for the chauffeurs. Although there's no need to rush, they like to race fast (photo). When they try to get over a huge dune one of the jeeps gets stuck in the loose sand. After we get out he shifts the jeep into reverse and tries again (photo). This time he gets over the sand hill. We stroll down by foot when we see that our bivouac for tonight will be in the valley near a djebel below (photo). While the others put their igloo tents near to the rock we decide to pitch it near to a little tree in the middle of the sandy plain surrounded by granite rocky hills. It's a peaceful night in Tikoubaouïne.

La vache qui pleure

Saturday, January 8

We wake up early before sunrise. We run up one of the highest dunes nearby to watch the sun coming up from behind the rocky mountains (photo). As the sun warms the earth, we cherish the moment. We get to see that a desert is less death and barren as tough at first sight. On our way to Essendilène we drive through several oueds. These are places where rain water flows together and even between the rocks we descry all kinds of vegetation: poor plants, bushes and here and there even flowers. We pass a small oasis and continue up a broad valley. The road ends at a few palm trees and huts, where the Tuareg family of one of our chauffeurs lives. At Essendilène we have a walk through a fertile canyon and take lunch. The vegetation in the canyon floor gets denser and denser as we go in, its almost like a jungle of oleanders, reeds and various other bright green plants. On our way back we get on the asphalt road to Djanet again (photo). But only for a few kilometres.

In the late afternoon we drive into the dunes of Erg d'Admer (photo). The idea is to set up our last camp in the sandy dunes a few miles from the airport where we have our flight early in the morning. Both jeeps run aground on a sand dune. We have to dig out one of them (photo). I don't know if this is part of the plan but it is fun to shoot some nice pictures (photo). We visit one of the famous engravings, 'la vache qui pleure' (photo). According to the legend the cow shows a large tear because of the fact that the desert keeps marching on and makes the ponds run dry. This almost polished piece of work is beautiful by its simplicity. After while we can move to our last camp. As we climb a rock to see the final sunset the drivers set up a large tent. Azoum prepares a delicious meal for us for the last time. We put our sleeping bags next to eachother in the tent. We plan to wake up around 3 o'clock in the morning. We have to catch our plane at 3.55 am. As we arrive there at 3.30 am it seems quite calm but... we are wide awake when the customs suddenly ask us to hurry up because all the other passengers are already in the airplane and it already stands on the airstrip ready to take off. Cool! I've been on a plane as fast as here.

When we arrive in Algiers we have to walk from the domenstic air terminal to the international one. Because there's no connections between the two airport buildings we have go on the outside. The sky is brightening up. The pavement is frozen. When we reach the check in of Air Algérie the desk clerk informs us we are too late for the flight of 7.50 am. Too late? Yes, there's not enough time to check in our luggage anymore. Strange but what can you do? They give us a ticket to get breakfast and put us on the next flight to Paris. So, again another long day in an airport waiting... Algeria is not so far away but it's hard to get there in time and obviously also to get out in time.

Related travelogues:
Morocco, walking in the Massif Sirwa
Morocco, the High Atlas and the climb of the M'goun
Link of interest:
Agence Essendilène Voyages
Agence Essendilène Voyages
Anders Reizen
Copyright notes:
This is a non-profit web page. This travelogue is written by / most of the photographs are taken by Joël Neelen. Special thanks to Amma and Erik! © January 2006. All Rights Reserved.