Illizi to Djanet Overland: The Lost World of Algeria's Tassili N'Ajjer

Sunday, September 1, 2019 | Tassili-N'Ajjer National Park, Algeria

Sunrise over Issendilene Canyon, in the heart of Algeria's Tassili N'Ajjer National Park
If you’ve never been to the Sahara, chances are you’ve never met anyone as cool as the Touareg. Is charisma in their genes, or is it just in the water down here? Meet them and you’ll be convinced that it is—that a whole population can walk with a regal air, poised and captivating, draped in elegant swathes of brilliant cloth, people of few words with a splash of white smile always at the ready.

Or maybe it’s just that, when you’re on a desert excursion in their world—the deepest reaches of the Sahara Desert—you romanticize those who hold your lives in their hands. And make no mistake, they really do. If, one morning, you would awake to find them nowhere in sight, exposure to the scorching heat would do you in by nightfall, if not earlier. Even today, in the 21st century, the Touaregs who guide visitors in these parts still know how to navigate the brutal landscape from watering hole to watering hole, hidden oasis to hidden oasis, without so much as a glance at a GPS.

Last spring, Nina and I joined three close friends—Belgian-Bulgarian couple Laurent and Dessi, plus our ever-entertaining Spanish buddy Pedro—for a long weekend excursion in the Tassili N’Ajjer National Park, in Algeria’s remote southeast. A UNESCO World Heritage Site slightly larger than Ireland, the region holds over 15,000 prehistoric rock paintings and carvings dating as far back as 10,000 BC, alongside many natural wonders.

Guiding us through this far-flung heart of the Sahara was Ahmed Benhaoued and his team from Admer Voyages. Through no fault of our guides, on the logistical front nearly everything that could go wrong with our trip did go wrong. We had
chosen to come in early April—peak sandstorm season—and unsurprisingly we encountered sandstorms aplenty. The first one forced us to land not in our intended destination of Djanet (the Touareg’s historic and cultural capital in this region) but in the drab administrative town of Illizi, some 400 km (250 miles) to the north and on the park’s opposite end.

Not to worry, Ahmed and his team duly hit the road and met us there the next morning. And meanwhile, that evening Dessi managed to get us invited to a local wedding in Illizi. No sandstorm would spoil this group's fun.

Lunch break
Just after dawn the next morning we hit the lone paved road south, passing through a Martian landscape of sun-baked sand and black basalt rocks. In many stretches, there wasn’t a bush or blade of grass in sight. Furry guerba waterskins slapped against the sides of our guides' Toyota pickups. (Pro tip: When your guide tells you the traditional goatskins can keep water cool even in the crushing desert sun, look sassy and ask "Really?" to win a free taste test.) An escort of green-and-white gendarme vehicles flanked our small convoy, as they do to "ensure the safety" of all foreigners visiting Algeria’s vast southern reaches.

Before long we entered the park. The landscape grew more rugged and mountainous and the sun climbed higher; by mid-morning on a cloudless April day, it was already nearing 95°F / 35°C. (The heat roasted my film on this trip, as you can see from my Rolleiflex photos.)

We turned off the road for a short detour to Dider, where Ahmed showed us the gazelle carving that we all knew from Algeria’s 1,000 dinar note. It was scraped not onto a wall but into a flat rock right on the ground (we were asked to remove our shoes before approaching) and was remarkably smooth. Given its exposed position, I worried aloud if it might not be susceptible to the elements. Ahmed had just begun explaining how the carving had survived thousands of years of exposure when my phone slipped from my pocket and fell beside it, instantly shattering the screen. The rock, needless to say, emerged from the encounter very much unscathed, and looks likely to outlast us all.

Hiking the canyon of Issendilene
From there we drove onward and stopped for lunch at Tarzaroko, or was it Ouaghighen? Or maybe Tenagh, Sersouf, Tananit, Tedjart Toujed, ... or somewhere else? In truth, we struggled to catch the place names, which were all in the Touareg’s local Berber dialect and mumbled at us by Ahmed and his team through the cotton chèche cloths covering their heads and mouths. What’s more, the places weren’t “places” as us non-Touaregs might conceive of them. They were simply areas of the rocky desert whose cliffs and sand and scrubby acacia trees meant something to the Touareg, but nothing to us. They held no settlements, no signposts.

We had been back on the road for several hours by the time we stopped for gas in Bordj el Haouas (a real town, though just barely). Soon after, our 4x4s lurched off-road onto the packed sand again, and we sped through the afternoon heat toward a lone tree on the horizon. Under the tree, two Algerian gendarmes in green fatigues slouched in busted lawn chairs beside a small desk. After greeting our drivers, they took their time transcribing our names and passport details into a tattered ledger on the desk, then waved us onward. Our security escort peeled away, back toward town. (Though we were closer than ever to the Libyan border, I later learned, we were in an area sheltered by the mountainous terrain, and thus free from danger in the authorities’ eyes.)

As we drove onward, the cliff walls closed in until we found ourselves navigating a dry, sandy oued (riverbed) that wound through a rocky canyon known as Issendilene. It was late afternoon when we pulled to a stop beside a small shepherd’s homestead. Goats bleated among the bushes all around as we set off on foot with Ahmed, wending our way further into the ravine as its rocky walls narrowed around us. Ahmed showed us local plants—including siwak, which we gnawed as we trekked further up the canyon.

An hour later, we reached a black-green guelta, or oasis pool, tucked deep within the shadows of the canyon's farthest reaches. Ahmed admitted he couldn't swim, and nobody else was game, so I stripped down and dove in alone, happy for any chance to remove the day’s grit and sweat.

Touareg teatime
Night had nearly fallen by the time we emerged from the darkening canyon to find Ahmed’s team preparing dinner over a campfire. We spent the evening singing, joking, and swapping stories with the Touareg around the fire, before heading to bed underneath a sky overflowing with constellations.

Here in the desert, "bed" consisted of a slim mattress laid out on the sand and topped with a fuzzy blanket, with no tent needed. (After sundown, the sweltering temperatures plunge dramatically, thank god. And with no standing water nearby, there wasn't a mosquito to be found—though at the first hint of dawn, a thousand and one flies emerged from nowhere to awake us. It's best to catch your final hours of sleep with the blanket over your head, we learned.)

After breakfast, another drive brought us to the ethereal landscape of Tikoubaouine. Here, squint and you could almost believe you were driving through an exotic metropolis. But open your eyes wide and you'll realize that those are not skyscrapers all around you but towering natural stone pillars, and that the 4x4 is rolling over swollen drifts of loose yellow sand. We stopped to ogle a stone the shape of an elephant, a massive rock arch, and Stone Age carvings of hunters and prehistoric game.

The drivers navigated through the maze and up onto a colossal sand dune, where the morning's hot breeze hit us with full force: the start of the day's sandstorm. Among the many things you don't realize about sandstorms until you're in one is the electricity: sandstorms send trillions of tiny pellets skittering across the desert floor and into the air, and the static electricity they generate leaves you fully charged and ready to spark as soon as you touch anything or anyone.

A pause amid the sandstorm for a look over the imposing columns of Tikoubaouine
Back on the road, a few hours later we finally reached Djanet, the Touareg's beloved regional capital and the jumping off point for excursions to Tassili and the nearby Tadrart plateau. Centered on an oasis tucked between the rocky hills, Djanet isn't much to look at, but its buildings carry a sense of history, being visibly older than those in Illizi or the smaller towns we had passed through along our route.

A well-timed sandstorm delayed our group's flight out, allowing us to hit one final site: Tegharghart, home to the famous crying cow carving (well, at least it's famous in Algeria). After one last campfire barbecue in the desert, we returned to the airport, where Nina and our friends caught their flight back to Algiers while I stayed behind with Ahmed in order to make my way back to Illizi for work meetings (#bestjobever?). First, however, I got to spend an extra day in Djanet with Ahmed, eating meals with his family on the living room floor, sleeping on reed mattresses on his rooftop, and meeting many of his friends and relatives. (Because when a blond-haired, blue-eyed American who speaks Arabic is staying with you, you've gotta show that off!)

La vache qui pleure: The famous "crying cow" carving at Tegharghart, outside Djanet
When Stone Age hunter-gatherers etched images of their hunts onto the Tassili region's rocks eight to ten millennia ago, the Sahara was covered in lush savanna brimming with giraffes, lions, gazelles, elephants, and other creatures we now only associate with sub-Saharan Africa. But even today, the Tassili is alive.

The best part about spending time in any desert is that, if you slow down and look for the right signs, it slowly reveals itself to be far less empty than you first gathered or ever could have imagined.

In just three days crisscrossing the region, I spotted a desert wolf (dib) and a few pudgy rock hyrax (daman de rocher). Awaking early in Issendilene canyon, I watched a woodpecker with a hatchet head flit overhead, its eerie hoop-hoop calls ricocheting off the ravine's walls. Try as I might, unsurprisingly I didn't spot any of the last Saharan cheetahs, a highly endangered subspecies which still inhabits the region against all odds.

During our free day in Djanet, Ahmed and I went for a leisurely drive around town. He pointed out local landmarks through the yellow sandstorm haze while also waving and hollering to friends as we passed, even occasionally picking one up to bring him along for part of the ride. Suddenly, in one sandy section on the edge of town, I spotted a massive lizard sunning himself on the road's edge. "Ahmed, stop!"

He slammed the brakes and we cautiously emerged from the truck. The tan-hued monster inflated his side frills, swelling up at our approach. His tail now extended, he measured as long as my arm. Ahmed's friend crept out from the backseat with a prayer rug in hand and tried to toss it over the lizard, who quickly escaped, torquing his snake-like body as he scampered every which way across the sand, far faster than we could move. "Get on the roof! Climb up!" Ahmed yelled at me while enthusiastically following his own advice. The lizard soon scampered off, nowhere to be found, and Ahmed let out a huge breath, then explained: "That's a ouerren [ورن]—one whip of its tail could kill a dog, or could ruin your leg."

Back in the truck, we resumed our aimless drive, but I wondered to myself: Wait, why were we even trying to catch the lizard? And why did it look familiar? Then I connected the dots: It was the same species that hung in the tourist shops in downtown Algiers, skinned and reincarnated as a purse—albeit one complete with little lizard feet and head.

We had left Algiers for a long weekend in the Tassili, seeking adventure, or at least an escape from the day-to-day. That moment was proof that we had found it: I met the tacky purse lizard in the flesh, and it might have swiped my leg off. When the souvenirs try to take part of you home as a souvenir—and stand a decent chance of success—then you know you're traveling right.

My Rolleiflex photos from our Tassili adventure are available here: 2018 Rollei - Tassili. A selection of digital shots (mostly Nina's) from the trip are available here: 2018.04 Tassili.

Ahmed chats with family from a hilltop overlooking Djanet

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