Shifting Sands Changing Ways
Tassili N’Ajjer is immense, an 80,000-square-kilometer national park that lies deep in Algerian share of the Sahara Desert. Plateaux and canyons shape its terrain, and on their rocks are painted and engraved animals that knew the Sahara when it’s pastures were green.
The rhino and her calf gaze out over the barren valley. Behind them stand three giraffes, staring into the distance as if looking for water. Sleeping close by are intricately patterned antelopes. It could be a scene in East Africa, but this is the arid north, and these animals have held their poses for thousands of years. Engraved on the rock at Tinterhert, in the northern part of the Tassili N’A’jjer National Park, they are testament to a time when grass grew in the Sahara Desert.
Tinterhert’s animals are not alone. They form just part of a fascinating collection of engravings and paintings that adorn the rocks of this stunning national park in the south-eastern corner of Algeria. Tassili N’ Ajjer shares its eastern and southern borders with Libya and Niger respectively, and stretches for 700 kilometres north-westward to the central Saharan outpost of Amguid. It should come as no surprise that it is one of the biggest national parks in Africa; after all, Algeria is the continent’s second largest country.
Bordered by six countries and the Mediterranean Sea, Algeria covers a staggering 2.3 million square kilometres. From north to south it is divided into four distinct geographical zones: the Tell Atlas, a mountainous region that borders the 998-kilometre coastline and whose hills and valleys are home to most of the country’s 29.3 million inhabitants; the High Plateau, which is characterised by shallow basins and chotts (dried-up lakes); more mountains that make up the Sahara Atlas range; and, occupying 85 per cent of the country’s area, the spectacular Sahara Desert.
In broad terms, the Sahara is spectacular; its sand seas are stunning, its gravel plains seem endless, and its rocky plateau are dramatically sculpted. In detail, too, it is a fascinating place of fossilised seashells and corals, finely worked rock paintings, Stone Age tools and trees that are thousands of years old. Yet its awesome scenery and immense beauty can be deceiving, for the Sahara is also a harsh and cruel place. Those who live amongst its shifting ergs (sand seas) can do so because they have not only a deep understanding of the desert that has been layered by many generations, but also an unparalleled respect for their environment.
The Sahara’s population amounts to a mere 2.5 million. Some of its inhabitants live in oases and oil towns, but many more are nomads whose traditional way of life is largely unaffected by modernisation. Clad in ﬂowing robes, these desert travellers are the epitome of the Western world’s romantic idea of nomads, continuously drifting in search of water and fresh pasture for their animals.
The sheer size of the desert as well as obstacles in the form of sand dunes and mountains have had the effect of isolating the nomads into groups which have remained in the same regions for thousands of years. Thus, the Moors are found predominantly at the western edge of the Sahara in Mauritania, and the traditional Berbers still have a very strong inﬂuence in Morocco. The Arab population is generally centred at the desert’s north-eastern edge and the Tubu – often considered to be the true desert-dwellers – have made southern Libya, northern Chad and eastern Niger their home. By far the most famous desert nomads, though, are those who live in the central Sahara, the proud and mysterious Tuaregs.
With their signature cheche (headscarf) and double- edged swords, the Tuaregs are the archetype of the feared desert nomad. Their origin is uncertain – some believe they are from Berber stock, but there is also a somewhat romantic notion that they are descended from the Knights Templar, or Crusaders. Certainly, their tamachek language is similar to that of the old Berbers, yet their written tiﬁnagh script was also used by ancient Libyans.
The word ‘Tuareg’ – translating roughly to ‘abandoned by god’ – is an Arab word and not particularly popular with the Tuaregs themselves. They prefer to use the name ’Kel Tamashek’ or ‘people of Tamashek’, although their collective name for themselves is ‘Kel Taguelmous’, ’people of the veil’. This derives from their habit of wearing their cheche in such a way that it can be pulled across the face like a veil in the presence of strangers or superiors. The amount of cloth in the veil indicates a person’s standing in society for, like many nomadic people, Tuaregs adhere to a caste system with nobles at the top, followed by the clergy, warriors, camel traders and finally servants.
About 100,000 Tuaregs are estimated to be living in the central Sahara, of whom 9,000 are truly nomadic. Yet the itinerant way of life of even these people has been disrupted in recent years, as a result of a very long dry spell that began in 1973. As their traditional grazing areas have been drying up, many have been compelled to move into urban areas, where their presence is having serious consequences on already-dwindling water supplies. This problem is no more evident than in the southern Algerian town of Djanet.
A small oasis town that lies on top of a subterranean water supply in the south of the Tassili N’Ajjer National Park, Djanet is built around a once-flourishing palmerie, or orchard of date palms. The palmerie, an integral part of village life, is made up of many individually owned smallholdings which are passed down through the generations from mother to daughter, as is the norm in most matriarchal societies. Harvesting the dates is very profitable, but the fruit needs a reliable water supply. Djanet was initially home to the Da’ira people and sedentary Tuaregs, and in the mid-1980s its population numbered no more than 5,000. Things are very different today.
During the 1980s two things happened to change the town. The decreasing rainfall dating from the early 1970s gradually affected the palmerie and it began to show signs of dying. Then there was an inﬂux of tourists and the quiet desert outpost slowly turned into an incredibly efficient tourist destination with an international airport, a hotel, a campsite and a scattering of tour companies. In addition to having to cope with an influx of hungry and thirsty Tuaregs, Djanet now had tourists using up its precious water supply as well.
Then political unrest flared in the early 1990s and continued for the rest of that decade. The tourists vanished virtually overnight, leaving Djanet with high unemployment and memories of better times. Today the vastly overpopulated town accommodates 15,000 people, some 70 per cent of whom are without work. Among them are the nomadic Tuaregs who have lost virtually everything as a result of the drought. Because of the caste system, however, many of them turn down the few work opportunities there are, deeming employment to be below their status. The government is now trying to encourage the nomads to return to the desert by allocating them 20,000 dinar (about US$570) for every small camel they acquire. Perhaps the scheme is working, but we couldn’t help noticing that the Djanet market was full of meat whose origin was obvious from the camel heads hanging outside the butcheries.
Since the beginning of the new century, things have started to improve for Djanet. Algeria as a whole is more stable politically and the tourists are, returning, many of them self-drivers from Europe. It is now possible to reach Djanet on a tarmac road all the way from Tunisia’s Mediterranean coast. Between 1992 and 1998 about 15 tourists contacted the Djanet office of ONAT, the Algerian Tourist Board; in the year 2000, 350 people used its services. The Christmas 2000 period was ONAT’s most successful one and prospects are looking promising for Djanet — great news for a town that has grown to rely on the tourist industry for employment.
Djanet’s main claim to fame is being the starting point for trips to the Tassili N’Ajjer plateau, where some of the Sahara’s best and most diverse examples of rock art are on display. The plateau, whose name describes it as a ‘plateau of chasms’, covers an area of 130 O00 square kilometres and rises some 500 to 600 metres above the national park that bears the same name. It is a place of outstanding beauty and phenomenal natural architecture, sculpted into a spectacular metropolis of sandstone valleys and gorges by wind and water over thousands of years. Scattered under eroded overhangs is a fantastic display of art dating from the Holocene wet period of 9000 to 2500 BC.
It is not possible to drive onto the plateau, so when we visited it we had to swap our vehicle for a less stable and more painful form of transport – our legs. We had opted for a one-day hike to Jabberen – the second most important rock site in the area – with the strange idea that a one-day hike would be less strenuous! In retrospect, an excursion of two days or more, with mules to carry all our equipment and experienced guides to pamper us, may have been an easier option.
The walk up the plateau is not for the faint-hearted and is best done when the sun is low and the pass in shadow. A 600-metre climb may not sound too horrendous, but it includes a number of steep ascents. It was worth it, though – the views across the vast plains of the Sahara were breathtaking.
Many Tuaregs are employed as guides by the Algerian national parks organisation. Ours, Ahmed, spoke no English and limited French. He seemed very happy with his lot, having inherited the position of guide from his father, as is the custom in Tuareg society. He walked slowly and seemingly without purpose, but would stop suddenly to point out amazing works of art that were not obvious to our untrained eyes.
The plateau is the only place where paintings of the so-called Roundhead period – believed to be some of the earliest examples of Saharan art — have been found. The polychrome figures are characterised, not surprisingly, by large, round heads that vaguely resemble the Western world’s idea of Martians. Hard on the heels of the Roundheads came the Bulbalus period, when the most common paintings depicted Bulbalus omtiquus, a precursor of modern domesticated cattle that strongly resembles a buffalo, but with larger horns. It became extinct not long before cattle were introduced, which was around 5000 BC. The third and most recent style originates from between 4500 and 2500 BC, and illustrates cattle and people at work, as opposed to wildlife or hunting scenes.
Tassili N’Ajjer Park is also known for its rock engravings, which are believed to predate the art on the plateau. Tinterhert in the north, with its giraffes and rhinos, is perhaps the most famous location but there are others, such as Terarart (Crying Cows) near Djanet. There, cows are depicted appearing to cry into a pool, which fills with water during the rains and was probably a permanent water source in the past.
During our four-week travels in Algeria, we spent much of the time exploring the Sahara and revelling in its beauty. Tassili N’Ajjer is so immense that it took us three days to get from the northern boundary town of Illizi to Djanet and then another five to get out again. We drove past vast ergs, through dried-up riverbeds, over sand that had reclaimed the road, and once through a sandstorm so fierce that the temperature dropped a staggering 10 “C within minutes. At night we camped amongst fantastic rock formations or sand dunes and once in the middle of a vast reg (gravel plain) devoid of any features.
That is not to say that the park is empty. There are 28 rare plant species in Tassili N’Ajjer, of which the most important must be the 230 cyprus trees Cupressus dupreziana that are found only on the plateau. In 1971 a botanist spent three months studying and labelling them, and found some of them to be up to 3,000 years old. We encountered small groups of dorcas gazelle, the most common gazelle in the Sahara, almost daily. When startled, they somehow found the energy to pronk away from us. Along with the caracal and cheetah, they are one of the 20 or so large mammal species that still roam the park.
One night we camped beside a barchan (crescent-shaped) dune near Mount Tazat. Just as we had settled down with a drink, an Egyptian vulture landed on the dune’s ridge and watched us. It returned to continue its inspection in the morning. The following night, 185 kilometres to the north- west, we were visited by another Egyptian vulture. There are 300 bird species in the Sahara, and Tassili is an important resting area for Palaeartic migrants.
Apart from the rock art, man has left other signs of his presence in the park. Ancient graves, two to five metres in diameter and with a raised conical circle of stones in their centre, are built on hill slopes. Smaller, less extravagant graves are scattered throughout the park. Pottery fragments and tools lie around old settlements to such an extent that even the untrained eye cannot fail to see them. Newer relics of history include deserted French forts, a reminder of recent unhappy times.
The Tassili N’Ajjer National Park was proclaimed by the Algerian Ministry of Culture in 1972. By 1982 it had gained recognition as an inestimable conservation area and joined the list of World Heritage Sites. The rhinos and giraffes may be long gone, but the park is still an amazing place full of secrets and vast areas of emptiness that are absorbing in their beauty.
Published in Africa Geographic – October 2001