Just back from a two-week camel trek in Mauritania, walking with a mostly French group of 14 from Chinguetti (‘la Sorbonne du desert’) to Terjit (map, left), about 150km. For the first two days over the dunes we were accompanied by a crew filming a report for a French TV station on the return of tourism to Mauritania (see below).
Of course tourism never really stopped for independent travellers (compared to Algeria) and despite the killings and kidnappings of a few years ago (including an entire French family in 2007, right). But the recent resumption of charter flights bringing much bigger groups from Paris directly to Atar (not via Nouakchott) was something for local tour operators to celebrate. It is probably the result of revised travel advice issued by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (left). You’ll see they critically (and imo, correctly) extend the ‘travel if you must’ orange zone further east compared to the British FCO. It makes all the difference for local tourism because in that orange zone most of what most people want to see in Mauritania is easily accessible. Our weekly plane chartered by Le Point (with seats sold on to other operators) was packed out.
The Vallee Blanche is the longest trek Le Point offer, but in terms of landscape and pace, maybe not their best depending on your previous experience. Horror des horreurs, we even walked along a road for a bit. Our guide recommended the 8-day Amatlich Erg walk – fewer interminable rocky plateaux he said, but then that’s all part of the deal in the desert. Wherever you go, it’s a variety of sand, rock and passing landforms that’s the key to a satisfying experience. I got the feeling that by day 8 or 9 most were counting the days, partly because the 25km/day pace had dropped by over 50% (as planned) by which time the 6-hour lunch breaks were exceeding walking times.
The fact it was unseasonably hot, with temperatures of over 40°C in the shade, may have tempered enthusiasm, but actually the morale and ambience of our group was very good; most had done previous tours with Le Point, including Chad which can be a tougher call. The Adrar at this time is usually in the low 30s – as it was on our very last day to Terjit, but most days it really was too hard to move or even stay awake for long, while lying under an acacia between noon and 3pm.
The plus side was that being on the trail before dawn was great fun, although I’m not sure what shape I’d have been in had we walked 25km/day for the full two weeks. So in fact the long siestas were the right thing to do. We’re not all huddled round that meagre shade tree on the left just because someone has cracked open their stash of Haribo Yellow Belly Jelly Snakes. We’re gagging to cool down a bit. Much depends on the terrain of course – is dodging trackless rubble worse than sinking into ankle-deep sand? They’re about the same once you add your daily endowment of aches, pains and cumulative fatigue.
All this was eased by a hard-working crew (left) plus our guide Mohamed who, it must be said, was feeling the strain after a busy season tramping around the desert with us nasranis. (There was no French-domiciled accompagnateur, not a need for one; with a Brit group it might need to be different.) I was just relieved I had a fully charged Kindle to help pass the long hours inching along with the shade from 11am till 4 or 5pm. By then it wasn’t going to get hotter, or the remainder of the day’s walk was short enough to not matter so much. One night it felt like it didn’t drop below 30°C and after a week of this everything, even your toothpaste buried in your bag, is hot and stays hot. I’ve not been in such heat for so long since an early-80s moto trip to Algeria, mistakenly taken in September when it was hotter still. Oh, and Libya in April 1998 (right); also very hot. Both were quite shock and yet watching our Mauritanian camel crew stride along in their flip-flops from camp-to-camp without rests and after spending over an hour locating and laboriously loading over a dozen camels makes you wonder what you’re whining about. You got to take your cheche off to these guys.
As it was, a couple in the group chose to ride when weary, and another couple had reserved camels to ride whenever possible. If you take this option, good saddle padding is essential, especially on the backbone. Me, I like to walk – some days more than others.
Sleeping out, I was a bit concerned that le chaleur might bring out the spiders and snakes everyone talks about in the desert. I heard later that the guides had indeed spotted a snake on night one, and again at Berbera guelta, but I never even saw any tracks. I suppose the good thing is that, besides being too big to eat, at night a reposing human is not much warmer than the surrounding desert and so not that alluring.
Compared to my Algeria camel trips (here and here) I have to say the service was as good if not better; it’s only a shame the fresh lunchtime salad couldn’t last beyond day one out of Chinguetti. After that it was cous cous/rice/pasta with tinned fish and hard veg at lunch, and the same but with veg stew in the evenings, plus soup and tinned fruit for afters. That said, we got two goats (right) which we didn’t have to buy, sandbread baked every night and pancakes every morning. And there was never a shortage of water, even for washing. After a while you do crave fresh fruit and veg as well as cool, clear water, but despite what you might call a ‘high-carb’ diet I managed to lose 4kg which I happened to have going spare. Heat kills the appetite which is why I’m currently dressed in three ski suits while doing Hot Yoga next to the radiator.
One thing that spoils the Mauritanian desert vibe for me is the endless ‘gift shops’ unrolled at many desert stops and every nomad camp. In this way Algeria feels more sauvage; on the Immidir treks we might come across a family of feral goat nomads in 11 days and never ever see car tracks. But as I recall from the late-90s, wayside trinket markets were always the way in the Adrar, as it was in the Aïr of Niger. And anyway, not everyone may have as replete a collection of cheches, stone tools, teapots and other desert souvenirs like me. At one place I noticed a women selling an unusual fulgarite necklace among her collection of silver jewellery.
The large group size didn’t really bother me, perhaps because much of the chat went over my head, but probably because it was a good group and anyway – resting or on the move there is plenty of space, it’s not like being stuck in a bus. Plus you imagine people who choose to take a two-week walk in the desert in March aren’t going to be complainers. Having said that, you do wonder if Homo Sapiens’ mysterious Great Leap Forward; the so-called advent of behavioural modernity 40,000 years ago is attributable to the invention of the comfy chair. Or maybe that’s where it all went wrong.
It’s interesting to observe how the Frenchies (and the few Belges) are much more casual about desert walking than some Brits brought up on the exploits of tormented ex-public school masochists like Thesiger, Lawrence and maybe Michael Asher. Le Sahara to them is just a holiday destination like Vanuatu, not necessarily a place to pit yourself against the elements to within an inch of your life.
Straight out of Atar into the desert.
Great value at €1200 + €55 airport visa
Pre-dawn starts. Feels like a proper desert trip
Sand-baked goat x 2, merci beaucoup
A shady acacia just when you need it
Great crew from Mauritanie Voyages
Wheat flour sandbread, not heavy tagela
Afternoon at Berbera oasis
You’ll get plenty of dune walking in
Lack of prolonged remoteness (to be expected in the Adrar)
Flatish landscape out east
Trinket stalls every day
Pace slowed too much (but just as well)
Nescafe – in the end, undrinkable whatever you try
Missed fresh lunch salads and fruit, too
Oued Abiod; the better places were off it
You can watch the 4-minute French TV report here. We didn’t encounter the army patrols featured in the film – they were up north shot later (so to speak). But it reminds me how brilliant drones are for desert filming. Makes me want to do more walking in the Sahara, but maybe not in a springtime heatwave.
I recently read Ahmed Hassanein Bey’s 1924 National Geographic article about his six-month camel journey from Saloum on the Mediterranean coast to El Obied in the Sudan. (You can read an online version here). Two years earlier he’d travelled as far south as Kufra, then the centre of the xenophobic Senussi sect. And in 1925 he published The Lost Oases which the NG article summarises and which is still available in print at normal prices.
On that 2200-mile journey he located the ‘lost oases’ of Jebel Arkenu and Uweinat (see map). At Jebel Uweinat he speculated correctly that the rock art depictions of animals he saw there must pre-date the 2000-year-old camel era which were not present.
At one point in the latter half of the trip when the caravan is forced to travel at night to avoid the intense heat, he interestingly describes how their guide navigated by the stars when there were no faint landmarks to aid orientation. It surprised me by being rather less intuitive than I thought.
The manner in which a Bedouin guide find his way across the desert at night is a source of wonder to the uninitiated. In a region which provides no familiar landmarks he depends solely on the stars. As we were proceeding in a south-westerly direction during most of our night trekking the pole star was at the guide’s back. He will glance over his shoulder, face so that the pole star would be behind his right ear, then take a sight on the start of the south in that line. He would march for perhaps five minutes with his his eye riveted on this star, then turn and make a new observation of the pole star for of course the star to the south was constantly progressing westward. He would then select a new staff of guidance and continue.
He goes on to explain that the technique floundered around dawn and dusk when the stars weren’t visible and at which point he took over with his compass.
How quickly the landscape changes, even when one travels on foot.
Phillipe Diole, The Most Beautiful Desert Of All (1956)
In November 2007 I joined a recce organised by London-based Simoon Travel and Tanezrouft Voyages. Over 11 days we walked about 200kms from south of Arak through the northeastern Immidir to the Amguid Crater and the Bou Zerafa dunes beyond.
The Immidir, aka the ‘Monts du Mouydir‘ on the Mich map, left, is a region of plateaux, escarpments and canyons that spread north and east of the Arak Gorge on the Trans-Sahara Highway.
To the south are the lovely exfoliated granite domes around Tidikmar and Moulay Hassan which we visited in 2005, and to the north and west of the TSH are a number of low plateaux, sand sheets and small ergs of the Adrar Ahnet.
A few groups have followed part of our route through the Immidir before, and I know of a few others who’ve approached the crater from the Habedra piste by car and walked the last 10-20 kms, but no one has combined both. It was an idea I’d offered a couple of years ago with Tanezrouft and then proposed to Libya specialists Simoon. They liked it, found some people and so here we were.
After arriving at In Salah, we drove south 300kms along the Trans Sahara Highway to this valley a few kms beyond Arak settlement. The camels and crew had been waiting a couple of days. Next morning we set off north up the Ighaghar valley in the middle left of the picture.
The first few days with a south wind were hot and at times the terrain proved to be tougher for the camels than I expected. On Day 1 a few camels stumbled and lost their loads getting to the top of the Taflout Pass pictured above.
By the next day we had a morning wandering through the cool box canyons and welcome gueltas or aguelmam for which the Immidir is best known. This place is just behind the Arak Gorge.
Although there was rock art to be found, what we saw wasn’t really up to the quality and density of the eastern N’Ajjer, Akakus or the Gilf.
Most days we came across a desert mosque or some sort, although I’ve never seen the ‘pewed’ examples we found in the Immidir. The inset shows a similar structure viewed from Google Earth at Aguelman Rahla guelta, 13kms directly north of the crater at the mouth of Oued Tafrakrek (see Google image below). Google Earth shows the permanent guelta surrounded by pre-islamic tombs (including the less common keyhole type) which suggests like many Sahara oueds, the place has long been inhabited.
What tracks there were were old camel pistes across the hammada. Rubble like this was tough on boots and feet; most of us got blisters. Even the camels needed treating for cuts and one night the guides made them some hide socks. Some days the caravan took alternative, easier routes. Daily distances varied between 14 and 24kms. By the end we didn’t even notice a 14-km morning. The route is inaccessible to vehicles but we passed plenty of mouflon, jackal, gazelle and fennec trails and once saw camel tracks other than our own.
This was a nice day; about 24 clicks round the back of the guelta below, over a ridge where one camel collapsed and needed unpacking and a gentle kicking. Then round to the big oued above which fed the gorge pictured below and into a series of small valleys where I found an intact pot.
Later it was fun marching on alone trying to catch up the caravan somewhere up ahead with the security of knowing the others were following. At times it took a little tracking to uncover the lead camels’ trail. Easy in sand, trickier on rock.
One lunch stop was by a deeply-carved gorge strung out with several waterholes (gueltas) and this arch.
With no wells along the walking stage, the crew refilled from sources like this. People are put off by the colour but of course what makes you ill you can’t see, even in crystal clear water. Being early in the cool season following the summer rains, the water was probably fresh enough and if the crew could drink it so ought I. So as an experiment I drank the water as it came but didn’t get ill.
Interestingly ‘flying’ over our route on Google Earth reveals the region awash with gueltas. The gorge above (N24.317′ E 03° 58.506′) is almost one long pool and elsewhere we or the camels would not have got through some valleys and gorges without swimming.
Mohamed H of Agence Tanezrouft and Sidi Ali our cook coming through. Sidi and the crew’s work started when we stopped walking for the day and carried on until we set off before them next morning so we didn’t resent them riding. We could too and those that did remarked what a relief it was to be able to look around at the scenery instead of dodging the next rock underfoot.
After a while it didn’t take much hesitation for us to grab a quick wash or launder at any guelta we came across, or even dive in for a swim. Like all tassilis, the Immidir has countless gueltas which make it suited to camel trekking. You can see from the ‘tide lines’ how deep this one fills after heavy rains.
Some shade always cropped up around lunchtime or ‘midi’. Usually we’d have to wait for Sidi Ali and his lunch camels to catch up. Then while we siesta’d the main caravan might pass through and keep going, usually getting to our evening camp ahead of us.
Food. Breakfast was light: coffee with hot milk and baguettes, sand bread or pancakes with jam and marg. We were sometimes given dates and a soft drink for the road. Lunch was a heap of mixed salad or veggie rice followed by mint tea and an orange while they lasted. We has more tea/coffee and biscuits soon after we stopped walking for the day. Dinner was soup and bread, a main course of cous cous/rice/pasta and stew – all variations on dried goat meat followed by an orange and mint tea. Most of us brought some sort of snacks and I brought my v-kettle (right) with drinks/soups which came in handy while waiting for the lunch camel to turn up.
Although I ate much less then I normally do, I eat too much anyway and saw the trek as a chance for a bit of a detox. I lost about half a stone but was never hungry. The daily ritual of walking, sleeping, chatting, eating and resting was very satisfying; as always the desert demonstrates how little you need to be content.
I carried about 2.5 litres of water in a Camelbak (bigger than most) and never ran out. On the earlier hotter days at about 30°C I got through 2L a day, later in the low 20s it was about a litre. About the same as summer in England.
Come the big day the chattering subsided but we were still smiling when we got to the top of this gnaaarly climb, having unnecessarily gone up and down another ridge (see map below). With us we carried overnight gear, a bit of food and -no surprise to me having done these sort of walks before – not enough water. At the top of the climb we got our first sight of the Bou Zerafa dunefield 20 kms to the north and from this picture overlooking the camel route below the crater was only about 6km to the east.
Before we set off from Arak I didn’t have a clue which way our guide Yahia was going to reach Bou Zerafa other than north some way. A map didn’t mean much to him so there was little point asking or pointing and Tamachek names don’t always match the map’s Arabic. I presume then it was a total fluke when his route led far to the east below the Adrar Tassedit escarpment before turning north up the Oued Bou Zerafa – or Oued Tassedit as they called it. It could not have passed closer to the crater site.
So east we went. The broken terrain reminded me of a mild version of Ginge Fullen’s attempt to climb Bittu Bitti, Libya’s highest peak (see p.377 in the book). Between us and the horizon where the crater surely lay were any number of chasms, clefts and gorges. Near this point we passed the 150-km mark which put the crater at nearly 100 miles from our departure point near Arak.
Just on sunset and having covered 7 tough kms in 3.5 hours, we sat ourselves down in the middle of the crater pan. Not sure what we’re all laughing about; we each have less than a litre of water left so tomorrow was going to be a bit of a march but our goal had been accomplished.
From the left: me, Yahia the guide, Francoise, Jon the photographer, Imogen, Amelia of Simoon, Bob, Amelia’s husband Lex who tracked the whole route on GPS and Tom.
The crater is thought to have been formed less than 100,000 years ago and the first recorded visit was by a French geologist in 1969. For us it would have been nice to explore it in sunlight and I’d also hoped to take a hike over to the Oued Tafrakrek rim a couple of clicks to the east. But having chatted with Mohamed on the sat phone, Yahia explained to us the camels were already heading for the dunes so to intercept them we had a longer cross-country walk the next day. I went to sleep thirsty, woke up thirsty and at first light decided to drink my last cupful while others chose to save a few drops for the hike. To make the most of the cool morning we climbed out of the unlit crater at first light and set off northwest to the dunes.
Here’s part of our route in red over the Adrar Tassedit plateau 8 days after leaving Arak. After lunch (009 LCH if you have bionic eyes) and repacking our gear we left the caravan trail in green, crossed a needless ridge (below the ‘A’ and then climbed back onto the plateau (‘009 DN VW’; the group shot 4 pics above) and then went up and down past ‘009 150KM’ to the crater at ‘706’. The map above is about 15 miles/25kms wide.
Although we were unsure to put our trust in Yahia as he’d never been here either, next day he led us to the dunes where our camels were waiting. Knowing water was scarce he lured us on, keeping just out of reach so there was no discussion about which way to go. As the return route and waypoints show, his Tuareg ‘GPS’ was spot on. Apart from the easily-remedied water issues our route to the crater was as good as could be expected.
In 2009 we started at dawn at ‘557’ a bit to the north of our lunch spot, above the meander of the ‘T’ on the map. We climbed up the valley side with a bit of scrambling and had a much easier 2.5hr/6km each way walk to the crater. Next day we followed the green route along the canyon to the dunes and beyond, probably 30km but no one noticed by now.
With some (myself included) a bit more parched than others (notably the women), we finally staggered off the plateau and onto the sands some 6 hours and 16 kms from the crater – much further than we imagined and having drunk no- or just a couple of sips of water. Everyone had quietly focused on the task. Luckily it was another cool day and of course we knew the crew was out there somewhere with water.
Once on the sands some desperados cracked and drained the last gritty dregs from their hydrators while Yahia dashed off to track down the caravan out in the sands. A few minutes later Mohamed came galloping in with some water.
We spent the rest of the day idling about and drinking everything they brought us. That evening, while contemplating the transit of Orion and Copernicus’ theory that meteorites never strike in the same place twice, a shooting star tore in low over the Tassedit plateau above the crater. With a bright green trail breaking up behind it, somewhere out there a new sprinkling of space debris had scattered itself across the desert floor. As we discussed the startling phenomenon a sonic ‘b-boom’ rippled over the sands, suggesting a meteorite had indeed breached the atmosphere. Someone knew the speed of sound and estimating the time after the sighting, Tom worked out it had fallen about 50 miles away, well beyond the crater. With this suitably astral climax to our crater day, Copernicus was proved right – again.
Next day we headed into the dunes for some exercise. Some took the high road…
… some took the low. We passed Bou Zerafa well marked on the maps. It was sanded over but Yahia assured us there was water a metre below. Winding up our 10-day rocky plateau trek in the glowing orange sands of an erg was perfect – another highlight after the crater.
Next morning the cars turned up from In Salah with fresh food and water. At this point my camera passed out but we carried on northeast alongside a dune ridge to one more camp (passing some lovely pestle-like moules to go with the countless grinders lying around). Another short morning followed to knock off ‘200kms’ according to Lex’s GPS tracking, right by an unmarked well with good water.
We drove from there northwest to Tin Habedra well (sanded in) and then directly west along the Habedra piste passing escarpments lined with tall cairns and small, palmy sources while chased by a storm front. It showered a bit that evening and most took to the tents for the first time as lightning flashes circled us along the horizon. Then at 2am a bolt exploded nearby and a heavy shower drenched the camp. The tents held off the worst of it but next morning by the time we’d got the fire lit most weren’t in the mood for the planned splash about at Tiguelmine guelta on the old Hoggar route. We headed directly back for In Salah, a great feast at Mohamed’s, a plane to Algiers and home.
Gallery from our one-week mule trek on the Tassili plateau last January, following our camel walk to Essendilene and back. We took the classic route, up the escarpment to Tamrit then over to amazing Sefar and down to Jabbaren. The map is on the right.
As we were approaching Jabbaren towards the end of our trek, we heard later that my Spot tracking dropped out for those following it back home. At this time Tigantourine oil base near In Amenas was getting attacked by the Algerian army following a raid by an AQIM group led by the notorious Mokhtar Belmokhtar. We presumed the Algerians temporarily blocked all satellite signals in the region.
As well as illustrating Chants du Hoggar, French painter Paul Élie Dubois worked on a version of a celebrated novel of the time, L’Atlantide (Atlantis) by Pierre Benoit. It describes the vicissitudes of two French soldiers searching for lost compatriots in the Sahara and who end up in Atlantis, ruled by the beautiful Queen Antinea who seduces and then entombs her lovers. There’s more on the book and films here.
Diolé was an adventurer, author and underwater associate of Jaques Cousteau. You can watch an aged Diolé interviewed here with none other than Alain Bombard, an equally interesting character about whom I wrote this post on another blog.
Attracted, as many of us are to places off the beaten track and obscure historic routes, I always thought it might be fun to try and retrace Diolé’s route across the plateau to Djanet, although even when reading the book 25 years ago I had a feeling it was a little-used path. Now it’s doubtful anyone’s been that way for decades.
It’s a well-worn Saharan cliché, but Diolé’s route included a visit to a genuine ‘lost oasis’ that I’ve long been curious about: Ihreri, some 80km NNW of Djanet (often mistaken with the well-known but accessible Iherir on the Fadnoun).
Ihreri may well resemble the similar, virtually abandoned oasis we came across on the Amguid Crater trek one time (left), set in a region prolific with Stone Age megaliths. The grassy patches as well as the sudden density and rustle of date palms were quite unexpected after a week out in the open desert with nothing bar a thorny acacia for shade. I’m also sure I watched a documentary in the mid-1980s about some people trying to get to a very remote oasis in the Tassili and getting a hostile reception. For some reason I think this may have been Ihreri, occupied by the grumpy vestiges of its date-cultivating villagers. Now, it’s unlikely anyone lives there.
On and off over the years I’ve tried to get the Diolé plan off the ground but without success, being told among other things it was too hard or there was very little herbage on the plateau that year. But recently I made contact with an Algerian agency that seems keen to try something out of their well-trodden comfort zone. Perhaps the easy ‘fly-in’ work is drying up these days, but sadly the price they wanted to charge was double a normal tour so that idea has gone back into storage for another few years.