image: Shadows form on the El Qued Dunes, the Algerian Sahara Desert, Algeria.
Shadows form on the El Qued Dunes, the Algerian Sahara Desert, Algeria.

Photograph © Adam Woolfitt/CORBIS

By William Langewiesche

My most intrepid reader is a thoughtful man named Beltrán Mena, a doctor in Santiago, Chile, who several years ago flew quietly to Africa and set off overland into the heart of the Sahara on the arbitrary pretext of meeting a character I had described in my book Sahara Unveiled. The Sahara is a desert of extremes—of mountains, plains, and sand seas—so hot and dry and trackless that people there still die of thirst. It is one of the wildest places on Earth. And yet the attraction of the Sahara for a traveler like Mena (or me) is that it is inhabited, and that the inhabitants—even of the oases—are travelers, too. Mena didn't mind that it has changed, and that the old camel caravans are being replaced by battered cargo trucks restlessly navigating the open desert. Their wanderings mean that a stranger can get almost anywhere, discretely, without launching noisy expeditions. So Mena set off as he prefers to, with nothing more than a jacket on his arm and a simple soft satchel.

Mena is a philosopher and as tough a man as I know. He approached the Sahara from the southern grasslands, by bus for a day from Niger's capital, Niamey, northeast to Agadez, an ancient mud-walled caravan center. Agadez is the start of the fabled Trans-Saharan Highway, a would-be road still confidently shown on maps, which does indeed run paved for a while to the north, but then dissolves into the gravel and sand. Mena intended to go that way, to Tamanrasset, the trading town in the Ahaggar Mountains of southern Algeria, at the center of the desert.

He took a stifling room at the Agadez hotel, the ruined palace of a forgotten sultan, and he waited a week while trying to find a ride. It was not an easy stay: The town was swollen with refugees from the nomadic Tuaregs' sporadic rebellion against the southerner-controlled central government. The place was seething with opportunists, smugglers, and government spies. Mena's problem was to find a trucker willing to run the gantlet at the official border crossing—a place like a door without walls. Mena needed to get his passport stamped there. He finally did find a ride, and with ten emigrant Malians he clung to a load of bagged grain heading north, and did not flinch during the border bullying, and drank sweet fetid water from goat-carcass bags, and dug out the truck when it bogged down in sand, and for five nights slept in his jacket under magnificent stars.

When he got to Tamanrasset he found the man I had written about, an austere architect named Salah Addoun, whose understandings of the Sahara are uncommonly clear. Mena gave him my book. Their conversation flagged after a while, and Mena set off again into the Sahara, and eventually returned to Santiago. I met him for the first time some months later, and he mentioned how little he and Addoun had to say. I asked him if he therefore regretted having made the trip. He smiled and said that it was I who had written that the desert teaches by taking away.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.



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