Images of Al Qasr

Some places in the world are so imbued with a sense of history that you seem to have walked backwards to have arrived there. The old caravan town of Al Qasr in Egypt’s Western Desert is one of them. Just a short journey from the fly-blown town of Mut (which lives up to its uninspiring name) in Dakhla Oasis, is this creaky time warp of mud-brick bordered by immense sand dunes. Thought to be the oldest town in the oasis, Al Qasr first rose to prominence in the 12th Century and became one of the most important centres of the Western Desert under Ottoman rule. Most of its remaining, though crumbling, architecture of covered alleyways, decorated brickwork and intricately inscribed acacia beam lintels dates from this period.

Visit during the early afternoon when the narrow high-walled lanes here provide some relief from the scorching desert heat.

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Life on Mars, in Egypt

I have just come back from Mars. Or, at least, a place so unearthly that it is what I imagine snapshots from a holiday jaunt to Mars – or Uranus, or Jupiter – would look like. Black pitted landscapes of rippling rock. Mineral-rich conical mountains in shimmering oranges and emerald greens. Chalk pinnacles that rise out of the sand in shapes that seem to have fallen straight out of a surrealist painting. It’s a thoroughly alien environment supplanted firmly on earth. This is Egypt’s Western Desert.

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Images of Algiers

The Algiers kasbah is all white-and-blue loveliness that tumbles down the hill towards the shore. It’s a winding labyrinth of alleyways, rimmed by tall, narrow buildings, that lead you on a merry maze of a stroll. Don’t bother with a map, they said. And they were right. Just head down. You’ll get out eventually.

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On why I don’t have a bucket list

In 2008 I led a one-off tour that started in Cairo and then stretched west across North Africa, meandering all the way to Casablanca in Morocco. Back on a minibus, after an exhausting wait on Egypt’s Sallum border post into Libya, I overheard my elderly tour passenger crow to her husband, “number 66 and another one off the bucket list.”

“Hey Jess,” her husband shouted. “This is our 66th country. How many countries have you been to?”

Here’s a secret.

I don’t have a bucket list.

There. I’ve said it. I have committed the sin of the modern day traveller. I don’t have a top 50 things to do before I die or even a top 20 places to see before I turn 40. When I was 20 I didn’t have a top 100 destinations to tick off a list before I turned 30 either. And when I did turn 30 I wasn’t exactly sure how many countries or bucket-listy places I’d actually been to.

Not long after that tour finished, a friend got me to write down all the countries I’d visited to see who came out on top. After presenting him with the list he pointed out that despite the fact we were living in Cairo and my job had me constantly travelling across the Middle East and North Africa I had managed to forget to write down every single North African and Middle Eastern country, including the one I lived in. I guess I wasn’t made for tick box tourism.

The way my passenger couple had gloated that they’d now been to 66 countries when we’d only been in number 66 for a total of five minutes sums up the bucket list problem to me. It reduces the very act of travelling to a simple list of must-sees and must-dos that we can later brag about. Of course I want to see a country’s most famed monuments and attractions (and you can read more about my attitude towards the travel-snobs who avoid the major sites here) but it always seems to me that it’s the things in between all those must-sees that provide the best and most memorable travel experiences.

In 2004 I went to Libya for the first time (sans passengers) and yes, the grand Roman ruins of Leptis Magna blew me away and I thought the winding lanes of the Sahara Caravan city of Ghadarmes was one of the most enchanting place I’d ever seen but they are not the things that first spring to mind when someone asks me about Libya.

Instead I usually tell them about the shopkeeper in Khoms (the town beside the ruined Roman city) who was so gobsmacked at seeing an independent traveller that he wouldn’t let me pay for my groceries. Or I tell them about the oil engineer in Tobruq who bumped into me on the street and took the day off work to give me a private tour of the WWII cemeteries. His tour culminated in a tea drinking session with Tobruq’s Minister for Tourism who earnestly asked me how they could attract more travellers to town and then, jangling a set of keys before me, opened up Rommel’s operation bunker just for me. I tell them about being held in the Ghadarmes police station for hours because they knew I wasn’t supposed to be here (independent travel was illegal in Libya at this time) but they didn’t know what to do with me (they decided ignoring the issue was the best option and let me go). And I tell them about bizarre bus trips, about hitching rides in dodgy minibuses with even dodgier drivers, and getting lost everywhere because the guidebook maps were so out of date none of them made sense. Mostly though the things I remember from that trip are the people and you can’t put people on a bucket list.

It’s not that I think bucket lists are wrong. Just sometimes they seem to narrow our perspective so we don’t see the bigger picture. If we’re so busy concentrating on ticking off the next country or getting to the next star attraction we tend to miss what’s going on right in front of our noses and it’s sometimes these things that end up being the most amazingly memorable parts to a trip.

On that same Cairo to Casablanca trip in 2008 we were held up for four hours on the Tunisia/Algeria border. By the time everyone was stamped through the Tunisian side the group were a bedraggled and tired mess who just wanted to get to a hotel with a clean-ish toilet. We entered the no-man’s land between Tunisia and Algeria (my passengers’ no 68) under one of those tour group black clouds that threaten to turn into a tour leader nightmare of in-group bickering. The no-man’s land between the frontier posts stretched on in a desolate plain of dirty desert sand for four kilometres up to the shack that served as Algeria’s immigration building. I had no idea about transport here and guessed we were going to have to walk. And then, out of the desert nothingness in the distance a plume of sand rose in the air. We watched and waited as the sound of the thrumping engine got closer until Muhammad pulled up beside us in his car and threw open the passenger door which then theatrically fell off the car body completely to land in the sand beside our feet.

I squeezed people and luggage into the car. Muhammad threw open the bonnet and fixed something with a rubber band. He pushed me into the passenger seat and handed me the door to hang on to. We broke down three times on the short trip between the border posts making what should have been a five minute drive into a half hour circus which starred a hammer, a piece of rope and a copious number of rubber bands (which I began to have a whole new respect for afterwards). In a cloud of dust we arrived in front of Algerian immigration. As we climbed out, the car gave an audible sigh and something exploded in the engine. We entered Algeria laughing hysterically all signs of grumpiness gone.

You can’t put Muhammad and his border transport on a bucket list. It’s just one of those odd moments that can occur on a journey and make you love travelling even more. While bucket lists would have us condense travel to a simple series of tick box sights, it’s moments like these that remind us that travel is more than a wish list of things we must see. It’s also about the bonkers shit that happens along the way. So much of modern life is buried under lists with career goals and five year plans and achievements we should aim for. Let’s not spoil our travel time the same way.

Images from Algeria’s Sahara

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Just a simple strip of cloth

I could only see his eyes but I knew Muhammad was smiling. The crinkled creases at the corners of his eyes gave him away. He’d just finished telling me the legend behind the origins of the cheche – the six-metre long turban that Muhammad, like the majority of Tuareg men, wore wrapped mummy-style around his head. The story tells of an Arab raiding party who attacked a Tuareg village where the men had all left to go hunting. Believing they’d struck an easy target, crowing about an easy victory even before they advanced, the Arabs were dumbfounded when the Tuareg women fought back. Unprepared for a full scale battle the Arabs were forced to abandon their raid and flee. Afterwards, licking their wounds, they began to tell a tale about the warrior women of the Tuareg whose men covered their faces in shame at their women’s strength.

“If this story is true”, Muhammad said. “Who do you think should be ashamed? We Tuareg would have been proud to have such fierce women”.

Surrounded by a rippling sea of sand dunes, I breathed in the hot dust whipped up from the 4WD’s wheels. Faced with the harsh reality of the Tuareg’s homeland it’s easy to see the more prosaic reasons why the cheche became part of their traditional costume. My mouth felt like I’d been chewing gravel. My eyes stung from grit. Sweat dripped down my forehead from the congealed mass of my fringe. ‘Eating dust’ is not a catchphrase here. It’s the reality of day-to-day existence in Algeria’s southern Sahara. The cheche provides one of the most effective tools of escaping the worst of what this environment throws at you.

This is Tuareg territory. In the desert outpost of Djanet, where the sugar cube buildings slouched under the glaring sun, they glided down the dusty main drag with the slow, sinuous strides which only those born in hot climates ever master. They wore shiny emperor robes of emerald green, ruby red and Picasso blue, and sat under shop veranda shades drinking endless cups of tea. A proudly independent desert people, the Tuareg once controlled the caravans through the vast depths of the Sahara; trading in ivory, salt and slaves. This profitable business collapsed in the 20th century as the slave trade died out and the advent of the vehicle forged its way into modern life. Still capitalising on their reputation as gurus of the desert lands, the Tuareg trade in tourism these days.

Muhammad and I were following one of the Tuareg’s ancient trading routes, heading for the barren Hoggar Mountain Range. From Djanet we had veered off the bitumen and into the never-never of sand. In a beat-up jalopy of a 4WD, festooned with clinking jerry-cans, supply boxes and the mandatory guerba (a traditional water carrier made out of goat-hide), all swinging off the car frame like a survivalist’s fantasy Christmas tree, we sped across the Erg Admar’s endless yellow waves. In the distance where the land was supposed to meet the sky the horizon blurred into a silvery shimmer. When we stopped the soft soles of my feet were scorched by the griddle-hot ground. Except for our own chatter the only sound was that of the wind swooping over the crests of the dunes, re-sculpting them grain by grain.

Following the trail of an oed (a dried-up river bed), we drove west to a plateau speckled with sparse scrub. Among this pitiful landscape of dirt and dust the tiny Tuareg settlement of Tadent eked out a living as herders and trinket-touts. The air was thick with the smell of dung and campfire smoke. A skinny goat, tethered to a tree, bleated out a sad whine as I got out of the car. Village women approached me silently in flowing puffed-sleeved rainbow gowns of lipstick-pink and lime green flowers looking like bright, sparkly peacocks strutting through a tawny beige world. This was the last settlement stop for miles. Afterwards we veered off the oed and began the traverse higher into the Tassili du Hoggar.

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 traveller 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 marvelled 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 litres 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 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.

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 moulding 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.

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This story was first published in the January 2013 issue of Perceptive Travel.

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