Tadrart: The Mystique of No Man's Land

Friday, February 28, 2020 | Tadrart Rouge, Tassili N'Ajjer, Algeria

The Tadrart's vast expanses leave one plenty of space to ponder life's big questions.
What would your hometown look like without humans, without animals, without plants? What would remain if the land were stripped of life and abandoned to the vagaries of the elements? Wracked by winds, erosion, scorching heat and bitter cold, what would that once vibrant ground become as the centuries ticked by?

Among the peculiar pleasures of an extended desert excursion, several days' drive from the nearest cell phone tower, are plenty of silence and raw, open space to contemplate such questions—and to glimpse the likely answers firsthand.

In early January, Nina and I brought a dozen family and friends to one of the planet's most extreme environments: the remote Tadrart plateau.

Tucked deep in the Algerian Sahara, within the Tassili N'Ajjer National Park, the area is called the "Tadrart Rouge" because of its unique brick-red sand. No place on Earth more closely resembles Mars. But the extreme terrain isn't the only draw: scattered across this rugged landscape is one of the world's most splendid collections of prehistoric rock art.

Want to contemplate humanity's place in the universe, and perhaps even your own? You've come to the right spot.

Rise and shine: Saddling up for the day's adventures.
Our group included Nina's father Johannes, aunt Christa and uncle Mike, and cousin Nora from central Germany, plus two close friends from Berlin, Marja and Gunnar, our dear friend Karima from Algiers (serving as the trip's token Algerian), plus my sister Maggie all the way from snowy Boston. To round out our group of 15, a French friend from Algiers, Jacqueline, brought along her sister Claude and three friends, Patrick, Pierre, and Anissa, from Marseille.

To organize the expedition, we called upon our friend Ahmed Benhaoued from Admer Voyages, the same outfit that had guided our last visit to the region back in 2017 ("Illizi to Djanet Overland: The Lost World of Algeria's Tassili N'Ajjer"). That earlier trip had lasted barely more than two days, obliging us to stick to the vicinity of the main town, Djanet. Each time Ahmed had showed us a new site, eliciting many ooh's and ahh's, he would smile at me and say "This is nothing! Just wait until you see Tadrart!" After all Ahmed's goading, two years later we were back to call his bluff.

It turned out he wasn't bluffing.

A typical Tadrart vista: umber sand and a distant 4x4
Ten thousand years ago, the Sahara was covered in grassy savanna, dotted with lakes, and home to a mix of animals we now associate with the Serengeti. Erosion carved a plethora of natural arches and caves into the region's rocks, and prehistoric hunter-gatherers who roamed the area took shelter in those caves, covering the walls with vivid images of the animals all around them.

Desertification has long since driven much of the exotic megafauna southward, though not as long ago as you might imagine. The last lions were only chased out in the 1920s, and cheetah sightings still occur, though only rarely. As I wrote after our last visit, the desert only looks empty; in reality, it teems with life, albeit much of it small in size.

Yet the giraffes, gazelles, rhinoceros, fish, and elephants are still visible, carved or painted with elegant strokes on cave walls throughout the Tadrart Rouge (as well as the Tadrart Acacus, just next door in Libya). Some images show domestic animals too (cows, horses, and dogs) and even some early inscriptions in the Tifinagh (Berber) alphabet. In some images, hunters stalk prey; other scenes show only men doing battle, with the animals nowhere to be found.

Rock carving of giraffes, man, and other animals, plus Tifinagh and Arabic inscriptions
To reach the Tadrart, you must first reach Djanet, a three-hour flight south of Algiers, in the remote southeast corner of Algeria, beside the borders with Libya and Niger. (Thanks to the region's rough terrain and plenty of Algerian military outposts, it's still quite safe, even in this dodgy neighborhood.)

We landed around 4AM from Algiers, collected our bags, and headed straight into the desert, just a couple minutes' drive beyond the lights of the airport, to a spot where Ahmed and his team had pitched a ring of tents.

After a few hours' sleep, we woke, dressed, and ate. Breakfast was basic: baguettes (from a supply that grew more stale by the day, since there were no shops at which to replenish them) with synthetic approximations of cheese, butter, jam, and honey, plus hot drinks. On that front, options diverged widely: you could choose between instant coffee (surely modern society's most disappointing invention) or the Touareg guides' meticulously prepared, world-class sweet mint tea.

Once fed and packed, we loaded our gear into the backs of the guides' 4x4s and rolled out. We briefly rejoined the road—long enough to pass the iconic road sign south of town that gave each of us a visual reminder just how far we were from home:

South of Djanet, an iconic fork in the road
Soon after, we turned off the road—our last sight of pavement for four days—and onto the hard-packed piste. Soon we were racing through an otherworldly ocher terrain, dotted only by the occasional cluster of acacia trees.

We stopped at one of these little oases for lunch (salads, bread, tea) and a nap, then continued driving through ever more extreme landscapes, reaching the Oued In Djeran campsite shortly before dark. After hurriedly pitching our tents, we clambered across the nearby cliffs and canyons for a view of the sunset. Atop one rise, I found myself standing on a rock covered in the knobby stems of fossilized algae—a relic of the Sahara's past as the bed of a prehistoric sea.

At dusk, the temperature dropped precipitously (this being early January in the Sahara) so we bundled up and huddled under blankets around the campfire while Ahmed's team prepared dinner (a welcome series of hot stews). In honor of Johannes's 66th birthday, which happened to be that day, dessert was a plateful of madeleines, freed from their wrappers and smeared with not-quite-nutella, then topped with birthday candles. (Given the composition of our group, we sung "Happy Birthday" many times in many languages.)

After the meal, one of the cooks emerged with a guitar and played a selection of songs in Tamaheq (the Touareg's dialect of Berber/Tamazight), accompanied by his colleagues singing backup or thumping fists and cigarette lighters on plastic water jugs.

A nightly fireside concert in the desert, with Touareg tea
The next day we rose and did it all again, with plenty of stops along the way to examine rock art, hike slot canyons, share meals, and ogle bizarre rock formations (e.g., a massive arch in the approximate form of Algeria, a rock shaped like a hedgehog).

My favorite part of each day was the early morning, when I would duck out of the tent just after sunrise to explore. All around each campsite, the dawn would reveal tracks of desert mice and other rodents, feral cats, and bat-eared fennecs—the stars of each night's silent, invisible hunt.

One morning I crossed a sea of sand dunes then scaled a colossal rock pillar, its dark-red rock crumbling into almost-purple chunks in my hand. Atop the pillar, the wind blew around me, briefly making my head swim. I sat, and a distant crow flapped over to inspect me. All I could hear as he approached, circled, then glided off was the pulsing swoosh-swoosh of his wings in the crisp desert air.

Dune conquerors
Between the many stops, we spent several hours each day in the car. (For a visual, check out this quick video I shot.) None of us had thought to bring music along, so our car spent all five days listening to a playlist of Ahmed's favorite Touareg blues tunes. The more we listened, the more the list seemed to dwindle, until I could have sworn we were listening to Imarhan's "Tahabort" on eternal repeat—not that that stopped us from clapping and ululating along.

Each evening, we would scramble to pitch our tents, then explore before dinner. At the Tin Merzouga camp (just 10 miles / 15 kilometers from the Libyan border), we scaled a towering red sand dune together, collapsing at the top while our leg muscles screamed. At Moul Naga, we crisscrossed row after row of perfect yellow dunes, following camel tracks or just finding a quiet spot to stare at the horizon and meditate.

One evening, the crew prepared tagella, the traditional Touareg bread made from just semolina, water, and a pinch of salt, then cooked directly in the sand, smothered under a layer of hot coals. Scraped of its sandy outer layer, broken into small chunks, and drenched in savory vegetable-and-mutton sauce, it was exquisite—and undoubtedly my favorite meal of the trip.

Preparing traditional tagella bread in the sand
Every night, the crew would sing their favorite local hits, the firelight flickering across their faces and the full moon illuminating the desert beyond in a dull, milky glow. (See a video I shot of one of their songs here.)

"More people should discover this," I whispered to Nina one evening as the nightly concert wound down. "Yeah," she agreed, "But can you imagine what it would look like if they did?"

Tragically, she's right. While we took care to pack up our trash, we weren't exactly practicing "leave no trace" camping; our own trip to Tadrart was enjoyable in part because of just how few others come here. (One look at the unsightly toll the New Year's festivities impose on Algeria's more popular, less remote desert destinations is enough to confirm just how bad it might get if more visited Tadrart.) Yet still, our guides feed their families off the region's meager tourism industry. Who's to say they don't deserve better?

One question leads to another. How can we balance our desire for progress with our need for survival? Can humanity coexist with the natural world around us, as we once did? Or, like parasites, will we continue to drive every other species steadily toward extinction? In a world of individuals, devoid of collective conscience or controls, what will keep us from doing so? How much longer until the desert overtakes all our homelands?

Deep in the barren, denuded wasteland of the steadily expanding Sahara, surrounded by the relics of our nameless ancestors, is a good place to ponder these questions. Though their names may be forgotten, those ancestors left traces of enduring beauty behind them. Will anyone survive to uncover our society's remains? And if they do, what will they find?

My Rolleiflex photos from our trip are available here: 2020 Rollei - Tassili and my Leica Q2 photos are available here: 2020.01 Q2 - Tassili.

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