In Algeria’s Tassili N’Ajjer Nationwide Park, a land of rock forests and stone giants

On a go to to Algeria, author Henry Wismayer and photographer Marcus Westberg enterprise into the nation’s awe-inspiring (and rarely visited) inside. 

In one other gulch of geological marvels, on the finish of an arcade of russet outcroppings, stands The Hedgehog. Its uppermost dome is a carapace of rumpled stone; its underside is scoured easy by eons of wind and rain. Its weight is born improbably by three slender columns. A stubby snout is turned askance, as if sniffing the air. {That a} lump of rock may have been eroded into this form by an accident of elemental forces appeared absurd. However then all the things felt surreal after two days in Tassili N’Ajjer, the place this sort of pure artistry was changing into routine.

If that is the primary time you’ve encountered the identify, you are in all probability not alone. Reality is, I’m unsure I might have discovered my method there in any respect if it wasn’t for a message I acquired from a fellow author, not too long ago returned from Algeria, who dodged my questions on its northern cities, historic websites and Mediterranean coast, and mentioned: “You should go to Tassili.”

LEFT: “The Hedgehog,” among the many most outstanding rock formations in Tassili N’Ajjer; RIGHT: From the highest of the park’s largest dunes, sandstone pinnacles seem to stretch on into infinity © Marcus Westberg

Positioned within the southeast nook of Algeria, Tassili N’Ajjer Nationwide Park covers 72,000 sq. kilometers of the Sahara Desert, which makes it barely greater than Eire. Throughout this huge house, the desert erupts in a fantastic jumble of sandstone pinnacles, tabular mountains and colossal dunes of polychromatic sand. Unesco, which inscribed the park as a World Heritage Web site in 1982, describes its otherworldly landscapes as “rock forests”.

By the point photographer Marcus Westberg and I flew over the yellow wastes of the Algerian inside on the two-hour flight south from Algiers, Tassili had assumed the scale of a traveler’s grail. In my creativeness, it appeared to vow one thing emancipatory and surreal: the coveted phantasm of getting a large tract of the planet to ourselves.

Driving in Tassili National Park
Tire tracks lead throughout a rubble subject in the direction of the “rock forests” of the Tadrart Rouge © Marcus Westberg

We landed at Djanet, Algeria’s south-eastern outpost, on a hazy afternoon. Our information, Abdesalam Ayoub, Salam for brief, was ready for us on the baggage carousel. Salam was willowy and convivial, and wore a magenta scarf that marked him out as Tuareg, a member of southern Algeria’s dominant Berber tribe. We hopped into his buddy Lahcen Abadi’s venerable Landcruiser and set off east alongside an empty asphalt highway.

If Tassili was obscure, Salam admitted as we drove away from the airport, it was to some extent a conspiracy of geography and geopolitics. Geography, as a result of our vacation spot was terribly distant, slap bang in the course of the Sahara. Geopolitics, too, as a result of we had been near Libya and Niger, two nations gripped by political dysfunction and Islamist insurgency. Algeria, fearful that instability, leaching throughout these once-porous nomad lands, would possibly precipitate a repeat of its personal horrible chapter of militancy in what Algerians name the ‘Black Decade’ of the Nineteen Nineties, maintains an in depth army presence alongside the borders. We handed a big barracks inside moments of hitting the highway.

“There was camel trekking up there,” mentioned Salam, gesturing to the Tamrit Plateau, a monumental escarpment, which is presently off-limits, as its inaccessibility hampers army patrols. “Now only a few Western vacationers come right here, and no one goes onto the plateau.”

Our vacation spot was no much less particular, Salam assured us. We had been heading additional south, to a area of this sprawling wilderness which, although near the Libyan border, is safe – a spot recognized colloquially because the Tadrart Rouge.

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Abdessalam in front of a rock plateau in Tassili National Park
Tuareg information Abdesalam Ayoub (Salam for brief) approaches a solitary mesa, not removed from the rock pinnacles of Moula Naga © Marcus Westberg

Into the rock forests

By the second morning, after tenting the primary evening on the periphery of the park, we had adopted the positions that might develop into customary over the course of our highway journey: Salam, driver Lahcen and Zaoui the cook dinner, shesh headscarves immovably wrapped round heads and necks, sat up-front; the Landcruiser’s trunk full of meals and tenting gear to maintain us for six days and nights within the desert. And in between, Marcus and I, agog. 

The factor that grabs you instantly is the topography, the astonishing scale and spectrum of vertical shapes. There are towering buttes springing from gravel plains, and cascades of brown rock that appear to be unsieved cocoa. Large tracts of sand lead into amphitheaters of towering, striated rock. Numberless caves perforate the mesas.   

The ridgelines, uncovered to the total sculptural drive of the wind, are a gallery of arches, columns and balconies. This countless number of form and silhouette signifies that the panorama shortly grew to become a paradise for pareidolia, the tendency for the human mind to understand recognizable pictures in random varieties or patterns. A honeycombed scarp turns into the ruins of a desert ziggurat. Ridgetop pillars develop into high-browed heads, turned to at least one one other in silent conclave. (One evening we might sleep, in Salam’s phrases, “behind the huge penis,” a columnar rock whose figurative qualities had been, I’m afraid, fairly plain.)

Guide, Abdessalam, showing rock carvings in Tassili National Park
Salam presents a big etching of an elephant herd, considered one of over 15,000 examples of rock artwork in Tassili N’Ajjer Nationwide Park © Marcus Westberg

A number of miles previous the army checkpoint often known as “the door,” which marked the brink of the Tadrart Rouge area, we pulled up beside what regarded, at first look, like a clean slab on the base of a cliff. Solely as we obtained nearer did we see the images: a herd of cows; a bunch of athletic hunters operating after a swine-like quarry; a supine giraffe with intricately dappled disguise. This was our introduction to what is likely one of the most vital concentrations of prehistoric rock artwork on the planet. 

The principal medium is oxidized sandstone, the identical reddish pigment that stains lots of the dunes, crushed and combined with bonding brokers like blood and cow milk. A few of the most elegant and enduring artworks are engraved, painstakingly etched onto boulders with a thousand strokes of a rounded stone. Between them, the images describe millennia of prehistory and chart the social evolutions which were formed by the area’s desiccating local weather.

Cave paintings seen in Tassili National Park
Work of piebald cattle adorn an overhang close to the sandstone pinnacles of Moula Naga © Marcus Westberg

The oldest, a few of that are thought to have been drawn 10,000 years in the past, depict the megafauna we now affiliate with lands farther south – elephants, giraffes, lions – revealing that immediately’s desert was as soon as fertile grassland. Later, Neolithic pastoralists settled the land, displacing the wildlife. They left behind elegant glyphs of the piebald cattle they reared on what remained of the savannah. The youngest drawings, disdained by Salam as “not outdated” (although many are older than the Roman ruins discovered elsewhere in Algeria) are summary depictions of camels, symbols of the austere, semi-nomadic life that the Tuareg would inherit. Counter-intuitively, the refinement of the artistry deteriorates on this latter interval. No matter alternative the early folks needed to linger in place and indulge creative impulses had evaporated as desertification took maintain. Within the Sahara, ceaseless motion was a precondition of survival.

Wonders, revealed

After a day or so, I already had a sense that we had been within the grips of someplace to rival the world’s nice awe-scapes, these singular locations – Antarctica, Patagonia, the Himalayas – the place huge desolation resolves right into a humbling type of magnificence. However this was at the least partly intuitive. We weren’t seeing the rocks of their greatest mild. All through our second afternoon within the desert, sirocco winds from Morocco had stuffed the skies with orange mud. This had the impact of decreasing visibility, however the haze additionally bled the rock of texture, depth, colour and shadow. At Moula Naga, the place we camped on the second night beside a shaft of rock formed like a camel’s head, you may look straight on the solar, a weak silver orb, half an hour earlier than it hit the horizon.

The Cathedral rock formation in Tassili National Park
Three views of “The Cathedral,” the place a number of tall apertures have been eroded by way of a collection of buttes © Marcus Westberg

The following morning, I awoke to pressing scuffling in Marcus’ tent, a sure-fire signal, for anybody who has traveled with a photographer earlier than, that daybreak situations had improved. Inside minutes, we had apologetically chivvied Lahcen from his morning hearth, and rushed again to “The Cathedral”, a large plain surrounded on two sides by rock towers with 50-foot-high apertures punched by way of the higher reaches. Yesterday, these godly home windows had appeared flat and spectral. This morning, they stood in excellent reduction towards a deep blue sky.

“It’s a miracle!” declared Salam, after we returned. Given the views that had been now materializing in each path, this didn’t really feel like an overstatement.

Whereas the others broke camp, Salam led us on a stroll south, throughout a valley basin. In locations, the ground had a thick whitish crust, filigreed with hexagonal cracks. This crust confirmed the extent of the water’s attain throughout the summer season rains when Tassili turns into a staging put up for migrating birds. Colocynth, a desert herb with spherical gourd-like fruit, proliferated throughout the dried-up watercourses and Salam inspired us to crunch the seed pods underfoot, liberating the contents as a kindness for the birds and gazelles.

LEFT: A guide walking over sand dunes; RIGHT: Colocynth growing in Tassili National Park
LEFT: Salam approaches a valley basin; the lighter sand exhibits the extent of the water’s attain throughout seasonal rains. RIGHT: Colocynth fruit, recognized colloquially as “desert melon,” proliferates throughout the valley basins © Marcus Westberg

The low dunes, in the meantime, had been a transcript of the earlier evening’s exercise. Beetle tracks scuttered in drunken crescents. Raven claws spun in circles. A jackal’s paw prints padded an unerring meridian throughout the sand. The entire tracery was crisscrossed by the tiny depressions of the jerboa, a bizarre chimerical rodent with outsized ears and kangaroo-like legs, which we frequently spied raiding our camp searching for crumbs.

It was a day of wonders. We noticed enigmatic glyphs from a time earlier than writing, and sandstone eroded into nearly each conceivable form and dimension. Rocks like mushrooms. Rocks fashioned into excellent parabolic archways. Rocks that regarded like skyscrapers, or spacecraft, or preposterous two-ton hedgehogs. 

Within the night, Marcus and I clambered onto the large orange dune of Tin Merzouga. The backbone was an ideal wind-sharpened arabesque, and we scurried alongside its edge, aprons of displaced sand avalanching beneath every footstep. From its 304-meter crest, we gained an extra-terrestrial overview of the lowlands we’d spent the day exploring. Serried ramparts stretched to the horizon, the colours deepening with the reducing solar. On the alternative aspect, trying northeast, terracotta dunes rippled into Libya, simply 2o kilometers away.

Standing on a sand dune in Tassili National Park
The creator stands on a crest of sand on the climb up Tin Merzouga, considered one of Tassili’s largest dunes © Marcus Westberg

In that second, I understood the pull of the desert in a method I by no means have earlier than. All the things was by some means each exquisitely nonetheless but impermanent without delay, the entire tableau rolling and eroding, grain by grain, fluxing on a scale too gradual for people to understand. 

I had spent a lot of the day contemplating the human story narrated by the rock artwork, solely to really feel it now shrink to a pinprick within the face of the desert’s different chronology, the dizzying arc of geological time.

The place the desert means freedom

For the subsequent three days, the sample was established. Within the mornings, we walked or drove to a very lovely level within the park – often the lee-side of a mesa – the place the crew decamped for lunch, leaving Marcus and I free to wander into slot canyons, and onto flat-topped inselbergs, seeing how far we may go earlier than the geology barred our method. These expeditions yielded broadening views, but in addition ceaseless discoveries. In locations, millennia-old shards of stippled pottery, along with fossils of straightforward crops and organisms had been as simple to seek out as chewing gum on an city pavement.

TOP: Guides Zaoui, Lahcen, and Abdessalam making a meal; BOTTOM LEFT: Zaoui stacking rocks; BOTTOM RIGHT: Pieces of pottery found in the sands of Tassili National Park
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Breakfast on the periphery of the Tadrart Rouge area; Salam holds historical pottery shards collected over the course of a day within the Tadrart Rouge; Chef Zaoui builds a cairn on high of a low promontory © Marcus Westberg

Once we returned to camp, Zaoui could be ready for us with thick espresso and aliwa, a inexperienced wheat soup. All three of the guides felt like quick buddies. Versed within the spirit of hospitality and sharing that could be a precondition of desert survival, the Tuareg are pure hosts. Zaoui, whose face was stained grey from years of carrying an allichu, the normal deep blue veil worn by Tuareg males, was even at pains to nourish the native fauna. When, at one lunch cease, a herd of camels approached to scrutinize us, he ambled up with a big bowl of water, which the boldest three drained inside 20 seconds.

It was arduous to withstand the hypothesis that the Tuareg appeared grateful for the pretext to be right here. Most evenings, whereas Marcus and I scrabbled about searching for excessive floor, the three males would unload the gear, mild a hearth, then congregate for a aggressive sport of boules.

The opposite two deferred to Lahcen, who was the eldest by some years. On our final night, tenting on the sand, within the wide-open, we discovered him in his ordinary repose: legs crossed, supervising a pot of mint tea, which he at all times brewed with liturgical solemnity, solely to adulterate the outcome with a fantastic slew of sugar.

Guide, Lahcen, making tea in Tassili National Park
Lahcen Abadi brews mint tea within the shade of an acacia tree © Marcus Westberg

He had been born in 1950, he informed us, in sing-song French, down close to the Malian border. His early years had been free and idyllic, spent shifting from place to put by camel caravan. “He is aware of the desert from right here to Mauritania,” interjected Salam admiringly.

Within the turbulent closing years of French colonial rule, as Algeria’s populous north grew to become mired in a brutal battle of independence through which between 400,000 to at least one million folks died, the Tuareg, in Lahcen’s telling, existed in a tranquil parallel world. “There have been no border posts then,” Lahcen recalled. “We went the place we needed.” All the things modified after Algeria secured independence in 1962. Borders ossified and bureaucratized because the younger nation asserted its frontiers. Emancipation for the broader nation mockingly augured much less freedom for the nomads.

Now, Lahcen admitted, tourism was a necessity, the apparent diversification for a nomadic tradition anxious to take care of its non secular affinity with the desert. Covid had been “catastrophique.” He feared it might solely hasten the diaspora north, the place many Tuareg now labored within the oil and fuel fields. “Many of the younger folks don’t wish to dwell the outdated life,” he mentioned – the common indigenous tragedy enjoying out in slow-motion.

Guides talking over a fire and night sky in Tassili National Park
Lahcen, Zaoui and Salam chat across the campfire at nightfall © Marcus Westberg

That evening, because the moonrise made method for a thick cover of stars, Lahcen made Tuareg bread. He crafted a heavy disc of dough, then positioned it within the hearth, in a bowl of scorching sand, raking the embers again excessive with a stick. Ten minutes later, the bread rose up by way of the ash, like a monster’s pate rising from a tiny volcano. We ate the outcome, a dense, chewy loaf, mixed with Zaoui’s lentil stew, which, like all the things he conjured from his rudimentary kitchen, was scrumptious.

Paradise misplaced

It was late afternoon the subsequent day after we lurched again onto the tarmac highway. The purposeful locomotion felt uncanny after six days of fishtailing over grit and sand.

Guide, Abdessalam, pointing out the crying cows rock carving in Tassili National Park
Salam describes the legend of “the crying cows,” considered one of Tassili N’Ajjer’s most celebrated artworks © Marcus Westberg

On the best way again to Djanet, there was one final treasure for us to see. At an agglomeration of outcrops, a mile or so from the highway, we stood and appraised a celebrated etching often known as “the crying cows.” Hewn into the bottom of a rock tower, the etching pictured a huddle of long-horned cows, their bowed heads turned in the direction of the viewer. Upon every face welled a single tear. Even by the requirements of Tassili’s al fresco galleries, the workmanship was excellent. Native fable holds that they had been drawn by a cow-herd, who had traveled to this space searching for a spring solely to seek out that it had run dry. The weeping cows had been a projection of the artist’s personal despair, as he watched his animals perish one after the other.

How paradoxical, I assumed, as we returned to the highway. The exact same land that betrayed the artist would, to a distant future technology of traveler, come to really feel like a sanctuary from the world his descendants made. My telephone sign pinged again to life. And like that, the notion handed, receding into the dunes.

Fancy Algeria can prepare a six-day tour of Tassili N’Ajjer, together with home transfers from Algeria to Djanet, from round $700 per particular person.