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Surviving the Sahara: Three weeks with the Tuareg
One of the most inhospitable regions on Earth can be conquered, if you're with the right people
I can see Abdelkrim’s eyes smiling through the slit in his headdress as he holds up a bag of ripe dates.
“With just three of these you could live for nine days in the desert,” he says.
I’m doubtful, but my Tuareg friend is clearly doing his best to reassure me about my chances here in the world’s biggest hot desert.
“You eat just a date skin on each of the first three days,” he explains, “and for the next three days you eat the meat. Then you suck one date stone each day until day nine.”
“Unless you get to water on the 10th day you’re going to die though,” Abdelkrim shrugs philosophically.
I’ve flown into the Algerian desert town of Tamanrasset to spend three weeks exploring the center of the Sahara with the Tuaregs, a nomadic people who have traversed the Sahara with their camels for 2,000 years.
Covering more than 9.4 million square kilometers, the Sahara is nearly as big as China. Temperatures average around 30 C across the year, but can hit 50 C in July.
More importantly, rainfall, while having reportedly increased in recent years, rarely tops 20 milimeters a year in its dry regions.
The Tuareg have agreed to show me how to make the most of my chances in this lethal environment.
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For the last week our camels have been plodding across the dunes -- there is nothing but sun and sand for hundreds of kilometers in every direction.
I’m haunted by a story I heard of a desperate nomad who tied himself to the tail of his camel and was revived in the nick of time when his inert body was finally dragged to water.
I am already aware that without Abdelkrim and his team of Tuaregs I’d never have made it this far. The truth is that unless you carry provisions -- specifically water -- it is close to impossible to survive in the central Sahara for more than three days.
The desert nomads know their way between wells and oases.
Their traditional migration routes, carved out over centuries, follow ancient trails that link sections of the wadis (dry riverbeds) that are shallow enough to dig for water even if you have to work for hours to get to it.
Even the most experienced desert wayfarer is aware that, when the goat-skin water-sacks are down to their last liters, a simple wrong-turn could be a death-sentence.
The word Tuareg comes from an Arabic word meaning "the God-forsaken people" but they refer to themselves as Imouhar -- "the free men."
I do my best to adjust as soon as possible to the natural freedom of nomadic life. Early in the trip I tuck my watch into the bottom of a saddlebag and allow my body clock to wake me with the first early glint of the sun.
Walk in the morning
We make the most of the cooler hours by traveling from early morning, but when the power of the midday sun starts to hit we look for the protection of whatever shade we can find.
We’re careful to beat the ground to rouse any sheltering snakes or scorpions before crawling under the scraggy juniper bushes.
Some Tuareg claim to have partial immunity from bites and stings because of the "gri-gri" charms they wear around their necks, and because Tuareg mothers believe they can vaccinate their babies but putting a dab of scorpion poison on their breasts during breastfeeding.
Once the unforgiving fireball of the sun loosens its stranglehold on the country, young Abdelsalam, the cook, sets water boiling for tea.
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Drink lots of tea
The afternoon tea ceremony is central to Tuareg social life. Three shots of mint tea must be drunk at each sitting: the first bitter cup is said to be "as harsh as death;" the second "as sweet as life;" and the third "as light as love."
All three must be served "hotter than hell."
Fully revived, we load the saddlebags onto our grunting, bellowing camels and hit the trail for another few hours.
The hypnotic, swaying rhythm of my camel soon lulls me into a semi-doze as we cross the great open plains. By now I have only the vaguest notion of where we actually are. I figure that on a map of Africa we’d be somewhere near the bottom of the H on "SAHARA."
Don't trust your eyes
“Here we navigate by the prevailing winds during the day, and by the stars at night,” Abdelkrim explains. “Only a fool trusts his eyes in a landscape that never stops changing.”
Stories abound in the desert of blind nomads who navigate perfectly by sense of smell.
The dunes shimmer on the horizon ahead of us and eventually they rise like islands out of a landscape that ripples as the wind ruffles the sand.
At times, when the wind blows hard, it seems that in the whole world there is nothing but sand.
This is no time to stop though and we keep riding, our veils pulled up over our noses.
Use your clothes to block the sand
Abdelkrim has shown me how to wrap the three meters of muslin cloth around my head and I’m surprised and grateful at how effective the cooling effect of circulating air can be, even under the Saharan sun.
Towards nightfall we aim for the shelter of a little archipelago of sand dunes in a sea of sand.
We pitch camp on the leeward side, where the dust storms won’t reach us.
The effect is reminiscent of sea voyages and safe harbors and I mention the similarity a couple of times, before it strikes me that I am talking to men who have lived their lives far from the ocean and cannot imagine an expanse of water that could stretch even from one bank of dunes to the next.
We lay out our sleeping blankets and build a fire with just enough precious firewood to cook the last shreds of lamb.
Abdelsalam bakes a few flat loaves of Tuareg bread directly on the heated sand under the coals. In the desert you chew your food without letting teeth grind.
You learn to always allow a half-millimeter gap between your molars to stop you from noticing the sand in every mouthful.
The veiled tagelmoust headdress is the perfect barrier for keeping sand out of your face. Tuaregs often wear it even at night and at times the men eat by pushing their food up under the veil.
On formal occasions they might wear a tagelmoust of eight meters and set it off with indigo-dyed robes that stain the skin and give them one of their many romantic nicknames: the blue men of the desert.
The Tuareg are unique as the only tribe in which the men wear veils instead of the women and many men will not remove the veil in front of strangers.
We’ve been traveling together for the best part of a week before I actually see the faces of my Tuareg guides.
Then, one evening I sit at the campfire and see that all four of my guides have removed their veils. I feel that in some small but significant way I’ve been accepted into their group.
The more I learn about Saharan survival techniques the more convinced I was that life would be very short indeed without the help of my Tuareg friends.
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Tidjani Reggani is a Tuareg chieftain and owner of Timtar Expeditions. He can arrange short excursions or expeditions of several weeks by camel or four-wheel drive in the Central Sahara region around Tamanrasset.
See www.timtar.com or call (+213) 29 34 60 38
First published November 2012, updated March 2013