Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sahara: The Endless Desert (Algeria and Niger)

The inky blackness is only broken by a glittering sea of stars. Meteorites paint short-lived stripes of light across the cosmos. The Milky Way gleams like a celestial highway unsighted in the urban areas of the world. Snuggling into a sleeping bag - yes, it gets cool at night despite reaching well into the fifties (over 120 in the Fahrenheit scale) during the day – there is a strange sensation of a vast emptiness. The eerie silence is suffocating. The air is dead still.

Undoubtedly, one of the most treasured and unique travel experiences is sleeping under the stars in the unworldly endless expanse of the Sahara. Though alert, the nothingness and the silence dulls the senses into sleep.

There are no roads and no people. The path is defined by regular marker posts every few kilometres to ensure that your vehicle doesn’t career off into the wilderness (or is that, even greater wilderness). Apart from vague tracks in the sand, there are no signs of life.

Yet, the Sahara (desert in Arabic) is full of surprises. A lone tree is marked on our map, an ideal spot for lunch and a little escape from the draining rays of the sun.

In many areas, huge windswept dunes, perfectly sculpted by nature, rear from the desert floor (see top photo). They reflect the early morning and evening sun in an artist’s palette of red, gold and ochre, the gentle waves creating a striped landscape. But, the landscape is far more than a giant sandpit. Rocks litter the path while barren mountains, pockmarked and weather beaten by the cruel environment, gives definition and shape to the Sahara.

In the morning, our small party makes tea when two Tuareg people (or maybe Berber?) and their lumbering camel stroll into our group. Wrapped in indigo headwear and near matching robes and undoubtedly aware of us from the night, we must have made for a most incongruous sight. They join us for a quiet warming cup but little conversation takes place, their language completely indecipherable to our ears (certainly not French or Arabic). As mysteriously as they arrived, they walk off into the heat dissolving into the horizon and heat.

The parching sand and rock and the unrelenting sun casts images of shimmering waters afar. I have enough water but what these mirages must have done for travellers past, desperate for water to soothe their dried throats.

The path south through Algeria includes a number of cars, expired in the conditions. Clearly there for some time, the paintwork sandblasted away but the unrelenting dry preserving the car body. What comes of the driver and passengers?

After days, a small settlement and the southern extent of the Sahara comes into sight. A ramshackle stone village with only a handful of people sits uneasily in the Saharan landscape. An old woman stands near the entrance stooped at an awkward angle, her wizened face straining from the effort of sweeping the sand from her tiny one room house. The brush is nearly as worn as the woman wielding it. Her husband sits outside, his body near lifeless and sapped of energy from the years of extracting life from the harsh climate.

Stopping for mint tea, the couple describe the ongoing southern retreat of their village. They estimate that a few more years will see them moving further south, the sand winning a cruel battle for the village as the Sahara marches grimly south. Heart-wrenching stories of hunger and death in sub-Saharan countries like Niger will increase as the Sahara unrelentingly grows south at an estimated rate of around 50 kilometres per year, swallowing once fertile soils with desert.

The Sahara is a difficult journey with complicated and ever-changing visa and travel arrangements. The effort is rewarded with a unique limitless landscape of rock and sand, a nothingness where you continue to see and discover new things. A place that sparks your senses and fills your memories forever.

Note: No photos (by request) were taken of the village. A general photo of desertification courtesy of John Spooner.


jana pekova said...

The Sahara Desert is real miracle, a natural wonder. Traveling either on foot or by camel through the landscape of sand, the ocean of fine yellow to red colorful sand is a life changing experience. Journeying through the desert puts people's mind into peace and brings life long energy within itself. Morocco has some of very pretty stretches of the desert and camel trekking through the sand dunes of Erg Chigaga is one of a kind trip. It is possible to visit these sand dunes from Marrakech, but note that 3 days are required for the Sahara Desert tour.

Vago Damitio said...

I love the Sahara. The people, the landscape, and those crazy little foxes the Taureg keep as souvenirs...

Mark H said...

@jana: A tunning sight indeed.

@vago: The Sahara is strangely mesmerising. You'd think the endless sand would get monotonous but it is quite the reverse.

Heather on her travels said...

I wonder what was the story behind those skeletons of cars

Mark H said...

@heather: I wish I knew about what happened to the drivers of the cars. Were they in convoy and one broke down? Did something worse happen? Are they dumped there by trucks? I guess we'll never know...

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