[words and photographs © Mark Eveleigh]
For the past week our camels had been carrying us through one of the least hospitable on regions earth. We were in southern Algeria in what is, geographically and literally, the dead centre of the Sahara. Only the Tuareg travel here with any real degree of security.
The word “Tuareg” comes from an Arabic word meaning “the God-forsaken people” – but they call themselves simply the Imouhar, the Free Men. Even today the Tuareg are part of a nation that transcends international borders to spread through Algeria, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Libya. They are fair-skinned people – although burnished by sun and wind – who consider themselves white. Although Tuaregs are well respected in Algeria, their southern counterparts often complain bitterly about the “racist” attitudes of black governments.
The Tuareg are unique in that among them it is the men who traditionally cover their faces, not the women. For the first couple of days of our trek I never saw the faces of our four guides, and it felt like a compliment when they began to let their guard down and I was able to converse with them (albeit in my stilted French) face-to-face.
The way in which the tagelmoust head-dress is worn can denote tribe, maturity and status. The leader of our little group was Abdelkrim of the Dag Rali Tuaregs and he showed me how to wind the three-metre strip of cloth around my head in such a way that it set up a very effective circulation of cooling air. On formal occasions a Tuareg will wear a tagelmoust of eight metres and set it off with the indigo dyed robes that stain the skin and give the people their other name – the blue men of the desert.
Much has been written about the nobility of the Tuareg and the code of honour by which they live. The explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison made several trips in the central Sahara and he noted, in Worlds Within, that “travelling with the Tuareg is like being one of a group of mediaeval knights”.
Or perhaps Samurai. They share similar warrior codes and a tea ceremony that is central to their social life. Three thimble-sized glasses of heart-thumpingly sweet mint-tea must be drunk at each sitting. The Tuareg say that the first bitter cup is “as harsh as death”, the second “as sweet as life”, and the third “as light as love”.
We slept under the countless Saharan stars and woke with the first hint of a fiery sun…by which time the first of many pots of tea would be brewing. We would ride until midday and then search out a patch of shade under which to lay our mats. Lunch was usually salad, surprisingly chilled by the simple use of a hessian saddlebag that was constantly moistened throughout the day. In the afternoon we would ride for another couple of hours. If we camped near a well our guides would water the camels and refill the guerbas (water-carriers made of entire goat skins), while we took turns to bathe. For three days there was no water for bathing at all. In the evening we would eat a hearty meal of soup or stew, with the flat Tuareg loaves that Abdelsalam and Achmed baked in the sand under the fire. The bread is washed and scraped afterwards and is almost free of grit. Once we bought a goat from a village and our guides slaughtered it in the halal way so that we could all join in the feast.
After dinner we would sit around the fire, sipping tea, and listen to the sound of our camels chewing acacia cud in the moonlight.
“If I was travelling on an ugly, scrawny camel with a droopy hump,” Abdelkrim said, “I would do almost anything to avoid passing even a single nomad tent. As it is, with these fine, strong white beasts…well, this is better than cruising around in a Mercedes with an arm out the window!”
The Tuareg are immensely proud of their camels. They are carefully neck-trained – like western horses – so that you steer with the merest motion of a single rein that runs under the neck and into the pierced nostril. The command “Ouit! Ouit!” is enough to get going and at the slightest hint of “Shhhhhhh!” the camel lays down…albeit with the characteristic jolt of a 10-foot deckchair collapsing. Camel riding is surprisingly comfortable once you have adjusted to the rhythm. The gentle rocking motion and the soft swish-swish of the camels’ padded feet have a soothing effect that is somehow conducive to lazy contemplation in a way that horseback travel rarely is.
As we travelled in a wide circle around the mighty tabletop of Aga Lela Mountain, there were times when our sprawling caravan of 11 camels seemed to be just an insignificant dot on the desiccated landscape. Sometimes we stopped to look at ancient rock art, dating back perhaps 6,000 years and depicting a time in which the Sahara was forest and lush savannah on which elephants, rhinos and giraffes grazed.
Just the name of the Sahara, evocative as it is of the sigh of shifting sands, brings to mind an endless sea of rolling dunes, full of the romance of Beau Geste and TE Lawrence. But this is actually an immensely varied region and the Tuareg have as many different ways to describe desert conditions as the Inuit do for snow and ice. Our camels plodded through desolate, rolling tassili where jerboa rodents scampered from bush to bush and we crossed the sandy wasteland of the tenéré where Saharan hares would break from cover to go racing off over the plain. Even here, in the heart of the Sahara we saw lush oases where generations had toiled to cultivate pomegranates, dates and figs and towards the end of our travels in Ahaggar National Park (a park that is more than 20 times bigger than Kruger) we crossed mountain passes between peaks that rise to 3,000 metres.
Crossing a wide wadi riverbed one day Abdelkrim stopped and stared down at a jumble of faint camel tracks on the ground. A few words of Tamahak (the Tuareg language) passed between him and young Achmed who suddenly turned and marched back in the direction from which we had come. Among the tangle left by a dozen camels Abdelkrim had recognised the tracks of a youngster that Achmed had lost near here several months before.
The camel has evolved perfectly for desert travel and the Tuareg has turned the beast into a formidable ally. A good camel can do anything between 50 and 100 miles a day on nothing but a few shreds of spiky acacia. They will go for days without water and then drink 100 litres at a time. A camel can drink even the rankest of water and, if a Tuareg will bear the stigma of riding a female, he will have a portable still that is capable of purifying stagnant water into fresh, wholesome milk.
It is said that a Tuareg can live for nine days on nothing but three dates: he will eat a skin one day, the meat of a date the next and on the third he will suck a stone. On the tenth day however, he will die. In the final desperate bid for life Tuaregs have been known to tie themselves to the tail of a camel and hope that he will eventually stumble to water.
Nevertheless this is remote frontier country and in many places the trail was dotted with graves. According to tradition, a wayfarer is buried where he falls and a perfectly good campsite is often made uninhabitable by the grave of a luckless nomad. Perhaps the only things that a Tuareg truly fears are the hosts of mischievous – and often downright diabolical djinns – that haunt the desert nights. Unexpected firelight on the horizon, the fearless stare of a hungry jackal or even a piece of acacia dropping on a windless night can be reason enough to break camp and move to a less threatening area.
Many Tuareg wear a sacred gri-gri charm (usually a leather pouch containing verses of the Koran) to protect them from these spirits and from snakes and scorpions. Even the tiny sand-coloured scorpions might put a man in a fever for two days but many Tuareg consider that they have partial immunity from these. Tuareg mothers put a dab of scorpion poison on their nipples when they are breastfeeding as a form of vaccine for their babies.
The old ways and traditions of the Tuareg are still alive and well and, unusually, the youngsters seem to have retained the will to live up to the code of their forefathers. There are few things a Tuareg would rather do than make a journey with his camels but a well- known maxim has it that in this day and age “there can be no nomadism without tourism and no tourism without nomadism”.
Algeria has long been known to French adventure tourists as the great desert frontier of the Maghreb. Now a few Tuareg-run operations – specifically in Tamanrasset, gateway to the Sahara – have started to attract international tourists from other areas. Recent bombings in Algiers have had a damaging effect on tourism in the desert yet Algeria is almost 10 times the size of the UK and the distance from the capital to Tamanrasset is about the same as that from London to Algiers. As the Tuareg like to point out, little of what happens in the far-off capital is likely to have any effect on life among the Free Men.
Many hope that growing tourism in the Algerian Sahara will provide the source of income will allow a new generation of Free Men to follow the Tuareg path.
The best expeditions that the Algerian Sahara has to offer are set up through the knowledgeable and hospitable Tuareg leader Mr Tidjani at www.timtar.com