Text by David Adams
Photography by David Adams
It takes its name from the Arabic word for emptiness: Al Sahra. But the Sahara is really a collection of deserts, with the most remote being the Ténèré. I have set out across the Ténèré in the way that caravans have done for a thousand years. It will mean a journey of 1,200 miles over rock and sand—by vehicle, camel and on foot—it will be a dangerous journey. For in this sweltering, desiccated furnace, death strikes the weak, the ill prepared, or the unlucky. They call it the land of fear.
I’m starting out in the African Republic of Niger, a former French colony where the Ténèré Desert meets the Aïr Mountains. For me, this is an absolute gift. As a photojournalist, it’s part of my job to travel to some of the world’s remotest places, and the Ténèré is surely one of the most remote places I’ve ever been.
My journey begins in Agadez, a city grown rich on trade of virtually anything and everything. Less than a hundred years ago, the markets here were trading in slaves and precious goods like ivory. Today, the markets are still a chaotic mix of buying and selling almost everything under the sun: sugarcane, onions, grains from Niger, and the most important commodity of all—salt. It’s actually the mainstay of this entire region of Africa and has been for more than a thousand years. And the salt gets to market by the great salt caravans that bring it here.
These markets are set up for the caravans like a port harbour is set up for ships. Agadez is the first stop after crossing the wilderness. From north to south, east to west, the caravans converge on Agadez, because this is one of the great crossroads of Africa. These caravans are the reason you have such diversity of products in the markets. Clothing, services, food and drink, provisions for the camels and other pack animals. You can find everything you need to supply yourself for a trek across the desert, which is exactly what the people here—who call themselves the Tuareg—are doing as a matter of course.
These are not people you’d want to mess with. Only 18 months before I arrived they were in full, armed rebellion against the Niger government. So if you want to travel the desert and survive, you are going to need their help—which is why I’ve got to go 200 miles to Timia, a place famous for its camel races. It’s there that I’ll find the people I need to get across the Ténèré. On arriving in Timia, I find legendary warriors who, with their robes and turbans covering everything but their eyes, wouldn’t look out of place on the set of Star Wars. The Tuareg once upon a time had an empire that controlled all of the central Sahara. No caravan could pass without their say so. There are all kinds of theories about their origin; some say they were once Christian, some even contend they are one of the lost tribes of Israel. But today they are Muslim; and in stark contrast to Islam in the north, in this culture it’s the men who cover their faces, while the women leave theirs unveiled.
Today they look ready to do battle again, although this time their ferocity is focused on the day’s camel races. Some of the participants have been riding four days across the desert just to take part. Lined up for the start of a race, they are an awesome sight and I feel as though I’ve been transported back in time as I watch these men atop their camels, preparing for the competition facing them. These are the descendants of the desert pirates who, as recently as the 1990s, were still raiding caravans with lance and sword.
Perched atop their sturdy beasts, the riders look steely-eyed and ready. The camels, however, look far less interested. Somehow, I don’t think nature ever intended for camels to gallop. Try to convince them to gallop and what you get is more of an awkward lollop, half-canter, half-trot; something which does not look very comfortable for the rider.
And this is not a race for the faint of heart. The course is just over two miles long, and it’s run in 10 minutes, with some of the riders finishing the race on their own two legs. Plodding across the Ténèré with a caravan won’t be quite like this, I think—I hope.
The races continue throughout the day with dancing and festivities in between. Finally, after the last race, the prize giving ceremony draws the whole crowd of racers, because the big prize is a takouba, the legendary sword of the Tuareg. It’s an awesome looking blade, not particularly long, but clearly made by hand. Seeing it, it’s as though we’re back in the middle ages, in the time of the Moors, Crusader Knights and tales of chivalry and honour. The blades are wider than most swords and the uneven edge is deceiving because it is as sharp as a razor. Nowadays, these swords are mainly worn as a ceremonial gesture and a symbol of manliness.
As I look on, I remember that these are the kind of men I will make my own trip into the desert with; these are the men who will take me north, into bandit country and through the heart of Niger’s Aïr Mountains, a Tuareg stronghold during the rebellion. Many people don’t realize that while the Sahara is all desert, it is more arid mountain than sand dune. Some of the mountain’s peaks are more than 7,000 feet high, and I want to explore them. I want to go deep into them, where no European has ever gone. But most of all, I want to ski them. That’s right ski! Amongst the camping equipment, tools, spare wheels and everything else we need for our expedition, I decided to bring my skis, just in case I found a good dune.
To accomplish this, I had to go to Ilferouane first, the former headquarters of the rebellion. But today, everything is quiet here and I am merely a figure of curiosity for the people here until word gets around. Then it’s offers of camel rides (for a price) and saddles to go on the camel (for a price) and even someone offering to sell me my very own takouba. The sword on offer is old looking, with alchemic moon symbols carved into it. After much effort, I manage to get away without buying anything. But if I wanted to buy, this would be the place to do it, for in Ilferouane, are some of the world’s last swordsmiths still making swords for combat. The swords they make are some of the finest cutting steel blades. The kind, which, 500 years ago would have come from European cities like Toledo or Padua. The beauty of the final product belies its humble beginnings, which may have been as unglamorous as a Toyota bumper. Unarmed, I make my way through the market and finally find myself a guide for the following day.
In the morning, Hoya Abdu Romano, who will take me across the Ténèré, assigns me to a camel named Absohito, which means almost white, and is the camel’s colour. I climb up to perch in the camel’s saddle and discover to my dismay that there are no stirrups.
“And where are the stirrups?” I ask Hoya.
“There are no stirrups,” he replies.
“There are no stirrups?” I repeat.
“No stirrups. Oh, okay,” I say, trying to find an easy spot on the camel’s neck to put my feet. Still, this camel looks particularly well designed, and it’s also got a very good temperament, I think.
“If you want to do it the Tuareg way,” Hoya advises, “just grab its chin, climb up on its neck, and spring into the saddle before it bites you. Easy.”
I decide to try that next time, and we ride off into the mountains towards one of the highest peaks in the Aïr: Adrar Tamgak. On our way, we cross a riverbed that is nearly dry, and the camel’s legs splash up water as we make our way up through the Tamgak corridor. I didn’t know it then, but that was to be the last water we would see for more than a week.
The next morning, a family of baboons appeared from nowhere to have a look at our encampment. Hoya tells me he’s seen the big baboon before. But what’s amazing is that they’re here at all. In an arid place like this, they are actually relics from a bygone age. And so are the boulders they are all sitting on. Watching the baboons, I almost overlooked the figures of animals carved into the boulders. Hoya tells me he thinks the carvings are about 8,000 years old, but what amazes me is the kind of animals carved into them.
When Tutankhamen sat on the Egyptian throne and King Solomon ruled Israel, this would have been lush savannah land with plenty of game for hunter-gatherers. Whoever carved these figures 7,000 to 10,000 years ago sat here in a very different landscape than I do now. Because what he saw out on the plains were giraffe, ibex, and all the other animals here on these rocks, and all I can see is dunes. But this is what I’ve come all this way to see: the great Ténèré Desert, washing like a gigantic ocean of sand across the rocky coastline of the Aïr Mountains. Reuniting with my vehicles, we head off into the desert, guided by Hoya.
Towards midday, the sun heats the sand to more than 110 degrees Fahrenheit and it gets so hot that its reduced density makes it difficult for our vehicles to find traction and we have to let the air out of the tires to create more surface area. But once we’re into the real desert, we can get up quite a speed. The Tuareg always drive in formation and within sight of one another because you can get lost in a mirage long before you ever reach the horizon.
Still at the early stage of the journey between Ilferouane to Bilma, we had an accident with one of the vehicles. One of our trucks took quite a beating 400 miles from the nearest service station. But the timing was fortuitous, as the accident site was near Arakal, a giant meteoric crater, and the light was perfect. The sun was beginning to set across these dunes, some of which are the biggest in the world. It was an amazing sight and I know this is what I’ve come to see. The desert looked almost sensuous in the light. Curves and ripples were made crisp in the red evening light, and as the last rays of sun slip over the horizon and the sand dunes cease to glow, I revel in this photographer’s dream.
The next morning, I see a dune rising up into the sky and I call for my skis. Amid great laughter by the Tuareg watching me, I toss my hat to the ground, throw my skis over my shoulder and begin marching up the dune. It’s a pile of sand almost a thousand feet high and there’s no ski lift. I march and trudge and with every step it feels like three steps back. The ridge just seems to get further away instead of closer and I curse myself for leaving behind both hat and water. Finally reaching the ridge, after what seems like forever, the view is breathtaking. A way off in the distance there are dark ridges of mountain that just seem to burn in the sun, and I can see dunes away off into the distance across this amazing crater. The edge of the crater glows golden orange and I am awestruck. But I can’t stay long because the heat up here is infernal.
So I strap on the planks, grab my poles and push off. The sand is so much heavier than snow that it’s hard to move and turn, but I’m not sinking in at all, I’m staying on top of the sand and I’m even able to carve it up a little. Most surprising of all, I don’t fall down even once. I’m able to keep myself stable and make it all the way to the bottom in a fairly rapid descent. Nearing the bottom, where the Tuareg wait, I see them still pointing and laughing in disbelief. I arrive at the bottom parched and exhausted.
The next day—a week into my journey—I chase up my caravan. We head into the heart of Niger’s sand ocean. It’s not a bad name, and descriptive, too. Here in the middle of North Africa, it feels as though you’re really crossing the sea. The Ténèré takes its name from the Tuareg name for nothingness. So I’m crossing a nothingness the size of France, in the middle of an emptiness the size of the United States. And if that’s not enough to make you feel small and unimportant, keep in mind that out here, death comes quickly. Go without water for eight hours and you start to die. And if you do die, your body won’t rot; it’s so dry out here even bacteria struggle to survive. Instead, your body will simply desiccate and blow away on the wind.
And yet, for centuries, Tuareg caravans have been crossing this desert without even a compass to guide them. As our vehicles move across the great ocean of desert, we sight camel tracks but Hoya can’t tell us from the moving vehicle how old the tracks are so we stop and examine the camel droppings. I hesitate, but he picks up a piece of dung and presses it between his fingers like he’s breaking a nut and the dry dung opens with a crack. Then he holds it to his nose and announces that it’s about three days old, so the caravan is probably about 60 miles ahead. When at last I catch up with the caravan I’m chasing, it appears first as a shimmering line on the horizon. Then it resolves into something more clear and we recognize it. Looking on from a distance, it once more seems as though time has stood still and things haven’t changed since the Middle Ages.
When we reach the caravan, we find that a young boy who is part of the caravan has a badly infected hand. He’s got a simple dressing over his wound but his hand is swollen and the wound looks bad. He may well have blood poisoning; it looks pretty serious and there’s not a lot we can do for him, but we help to clean it up a bit and hope it stops the infection. We give the men he’s with some medication from our medical kit and ask them not to sell it. We remind them that if his wound turns gangrenous, it could mean the choice between amputation of his arm—or death.
This encounter reminds us of two things. First, that this little gift from our supplies was more treatment than that boy would normally get way out here, and second, that the dangers of desert travel should never be overlooked. While the Ténèré is awesomely beautiful, there’s no margin for error, no support if something goes wrong.
It’s a while later that we arrive in Bilma, one of the most isolated outposts in all of Niger. Deciding to arrive in style, I get out my skis again and attach a tow line to the back of the truck to get in a little water ski practice. Well it might not be the greatest fun, what with hot sand blowing up in your face and every bump threatening to separate you from your skin, but at least there aren’t any sharks out here.
Just outside of Bilma we find—of all things—a lighthouse. Altogether we’ve done about 220 miles across this ocean of sand and my Tuareg friends have navigated us perfectly, but no thanks to this thing. What in the world is a lighthouse doing in the middle of the desert, you must wonder. Well, it’s one of a series of lighthouses built around the Ténèré in the 1930s by the French army. Used in the same way as lighthouses built along coastlines, this structure served to aid the French army, with their inferior navigation skills compared to the Tuareg.
Bilma itself is an oasis town; with so much fresh water it literally bubbles out of the ground and is so clean and crystal clear that it turns the surrounding desert into a tropical garden. The most surprising thing then, is that most of this water is deliberately turned into salt water. There is so much salt in the ground that water is poured into pools made for the purpose of leeching, and the heat of the sun does all the work. It doesn’t take long for all the water to evaporate and leave the salt behind.
Salt making in Bilma is a big industry, and has been for thousands of years. This is one of the relatively few places in the Sahara that has an abundance of salt. Bilma salt finds its way to nearly every corner of North Africa and that’s why there are always caravans to be found here. Salt was once upon a time used as currency and is still formed into pillars by the sellers. Each pillar is about three feet high and weighs about 65 pounds. In the Ténèré things haven’t changed much. There are plenty of salt sellers in Bilma and it’s serious business. Buyers regularly do a litmus test on even small amounts, to assure its alkalinity before settling on a price for their purchase that may be as little as US$6—but that can still buy you quite a bit of salt.
Not far from the salt pans, it’s a mass of bellowing, fighting, cud-chewing camels all waiting to start a two-week journey back across the Ténèré. Something like 25,000 camels pass through Bilma every year. My guide, Hoya, and I will join a caravan that’s leaving soon. We watch, as a camel is loaded with six pillars of salt, or nearly a quarter of a ton. He doesn’t look too happy—even for a camel—and who can blame him? Once loaded down though, they settle down and our caravan gets on its way.
This particular caravan is very large. Hoya and I are walking with the caravan and I quickly learn that while camels seem to move at a relatively casual pace, their long legs mean that I need to move briskly just to keep up. Then I come to recognize the effectiveness of Tuareg robes at preserving moisture. The men riding on the caravan will drink only three cups of water each day, while I have been consuming approximately a gallon a day. Walking amongst these great beasts I realize the men are dwarfed not only by their size, but also by their number in our caravan. I ask Hoya how many camels he thinks there are.
maybe three, 300. Around 300, or maybe less. Nobody knows exactly and nobody will count them,” he says.
“Count them,” I suggest.
“No,” he says flatly. “Nobody will. For spirits here, it’s no good to count them. If you count your camels, one may die.”
These sturdy creatures make innumerable trips across the Ténèré and elsewhere. Hoya says he doesn’t know how many trips across this desert he’s made. And many of the caravans crossing the Ténèré go right across Africa, with no concern for borders or nationality. People still live and move the way they always have, and they see no reason to change. I felt I was beginning to understand these proud desert travellers, so I asked Hoya what it means to be a Tuareg.
“Freedom first, but it is about many things,” he said, in characteristic succinctness.
The next morning in the pre-dawn twilight, the desert looked like a land of purple below an azure sky. As we prepared the caravan for the day, the image of the Sahara being the middle of nowhere was blown out of my mind and replaced by the idea that it’s really a kind of superhighway. I watched two groups of hundreds of camels each approaching each other and silently cross paths and move away from each other. These caravans are the stuff of life and the Tuareg believe that you are not a man unless you have crossed the desert at least once. This is not only the lifeline of commerce in the region. To a Tuareg, the caravan is a symbol of the journey of life. So I persevere. And with Hoya’s help, I have completed this rite of passage and crossed one of the world’s remotest deserts, on another of my journeys to the ends of the Earth.