A Dali-esque scene of bizarre mushroom shaped rocks and giant's marbles lay scattered across a plain of orange sand. It was a stone forest, seeded by volcanic eruption and moulded by millennia of wind. We stopped at the age-old traveler resting places of Youfihakit and Tintaraben. Here, on the overhanging rock outcrops, ancient artists had used the stone walls as their canvases and their graffiti revealed a Sahara which seemed unimaginable now. Elephants, giraffes and ostriches were etched into the rock. A wonderfully detailed anteater glowered down from one huge wall.
Muhammad pointed to one engraving showing stick figures chasing a herd of cows. "These pictures are thought to be from 4500 BC", he said. I marveled at the age of this art and tried to imagine this arid land as the savannah it was when these artists began to scrape their drawings into the stone.
By the end of the second day my lips were splitting from the constant sand shower and my skin prickled with heat-rash. It was definitely time to try the cheche out for myself. We set up camp surrounded by a landscape plucked from a child's nightmare. A Grimm's Brother's rock formation loomed above us on the cliff while church spire pinnacles cast monstrous shadows on the sand. Muhammad decided to make taguella for dinner. This simple bread made from millet flour, water and salt is the Tuareg's main sustenance during desert travel. He placed the dough into the campfire ashes and then covered it with sand and hot embers. After twenty minutes he scraped the sand away for the dough to be turned over. Another twenty minutes and the bread was removed, the sand shaken off. It was dense and chewy and tasted of wood-smoke. A treat for me but if Muhammad was travelling in the desert by himself he'd eat little else. After dinner he teased me about my water consumption. I was glugging down a solid three liters every day. "One tea in the morning and maybe a cup of water when we get to camp at night", Muhammad told me was all he drank.
The 4WD groaned and choked as we wound our way upwards along the narrow ridge into the Hoggar Mountains. In the distance, jagged canine-teeth peaks pierced the sky. We spluttered to a stop near the summit of Assekrem and I climbed the rough-cut steps to the top. In 1904, on this barren summit, the French priest Charles de Foucauld abandoned the world to live in hermitic solitude, spending ten years studying Tuareg culture and their language Tamershak. The church he built and made his home in is more a shack than a place of worship. A bitterly cold wind howled through the gaps in the window frames and tugged on my clothes.
Adapting to a Primeval Land
I sat on a boulder and watched the sun throw a dusky-pink blanket over the craggy mountain tops, holding my jacket tight around me as the wind whipped across the stones. Muhammad came and sat next to me and grinned. We both had our cheches wrapped tightly around our heads. "Now you look like a Tuareg," he said. But I knew that the soles of my feet were too pale and softly puffy and my blue eyes too weak and watery. Unlike me, the Tuareg have long adjusted to the desert. Their thirst and hunger sated by only a few cups of water and a bit of bread as they travel. Their foot soles thickened to not feel the burning heat of the sand and their clothing cocooning them from the worst of the sun and dust.
As it dipped, the sun set the surrounding peaks aglow and spread fingers of blood-red streaks across the sky. I could see the dark beauty in this landscape; shaped by violent upheaval in the belly of the earth and then carved out by the soft murmurings of the wind. As we walked down from the summit a slither of a crescent moon rose up from behind the peaks and the stars began to stud the darkening sky. This was a primeval land, I thought, where you would never belong fully, where you were constantly challenged by nature itself.
I watched Muhammad spring down the steps despite the oncoming dark. Unless you were Tuareg of course; they had learnt the hard lessons of molding their life around, rather than against, the desert. I rearranged my cheche closer across my face so it covered my nose against the chill. The simplicity of this strip of fabric summed up the Tuareg's clever adaptation to the take-no-prisoners toughness of the Sahara. How they became masters of this brutal terrain.
Travel writer Jessica Lee is the author of Footprint's Syria, Lebanon and Jordan guidebooks and and is a co-author on Lonely Planet's Egypt, Turkey, and Africa titles. Born in Wales and brought up in New Zealand, she hightailed it for the road at the age of 18 and has been perpetually on the move ever since. After five years of being based in Cairo, she recently uprooted herself again and now lives in Turkey's central Anatolia region. Visit her website at www.jessicaleetravels.com.
Tracking the Hadzabe: Little is Changed in one of Africa's Last Remaining Bush Tribes by Shelley Seale
Sex, Lies, and Desert Dust at Burning Man by Brad Olsen
Into the Valley of Life by Chris Epting
Monks on a Cliff Top at Ethiopia's Debre Damo by Steve Davey
See other Africa travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author: