The complete guide to the Sahara

Don't be misled by dunes-and camels clichés - the Sahara has genuine magic. Here nomadic tribes live according to ancient traditions, the scenery is breathtaking and the eerie silence full of mystery. And it is ideal for anyone in search of a real adventure
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The Independent Travel

Where is the Sahara and what's it like?

Where is the Sahara and what's it like?

The Sahara is the world's biggest desert. It fills most of Mauritania, Western Sahara, Mali, Algeria, Niger, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Chad and stretches across North Africa right from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.

The word "sahara" derives from the Arabic sahra, or wasteland, but less than a quarter of the Sahara is actually covered by the shifting dunes of popular imagination (although that in itself would be easily enough to smother England and Wales).

Another cliché, that the desert is scorching by day and freezing by night, is also untrue. In the summer, temperatures do hit 50C in the shade but the desert's dry heat is actually quite tolerable and freezing nights are usually only a consequence of altitude. In winter, daytime temperatures are a tolerable 25C and dust-free air makes this an ideal time to visit, particularly for photographers.

A typical Saharan landscape is a flat plain of sand known as serir. Plains of coarse sand, on the other hand, are known as reg. The northern Tenere is a vast serir which is perfectly smooth to drive over as long as the sand is firm. The best known reg is Tanezrouftr, spreading for a thousand kilometres across the Algerian-Mali border.

Escarpments break up these flat plains. In the west, these plateaux are known as hamadas; examples include the undulating Hamada du Draa, south of the Anti Atlas, and the flat Tademait Plateau in Algeria. Some of these plateaux were carved long ago, by rivers, into spectacular canyons and strangely weathered shapes. Examples include Algeria's Tassili N'Ajjer and the Akakas of the Libyan Fezzan. The Sahara also has three mountain ranges: the folded ridges of the Atlas range; the Tibesti of north-western Chad, with the Sahara's highest point, 3415m Emi Koussi; and the dramatic Hoggar in Algeria.

A geographical barrier separating the Berbers and Arabs of the north from the black Africans of the south, the desert is occupied today by the same nomadic tribes whose great-grandfathers once guided - or preyed on - traders travelling between the two areas.

Fine. But why would I want to go there?

It may not be everyone's glass of mint tea but, for many, the sense of history, mystery and adventure the Sahara offers is spellbinding. It is closer than you might think and it's hard not to be humbled by a wilderness the size of Australia with the population of Norfolk. And that's without even mentioning the star-spangled night skies, the soul-searching silence and the surreal, sensual beauty of the dunes at sunset. Being in a wilderness affects people in unexpected ways, but boredom is not usually one of them.

What will I see?

You'll come across plenty of sights, all of which appear more astounding than they might otherwise, thanks to the surrounding desolation. There are rock arches big enough to fly through, a hermitage perched on a 2,700m pass among the volcanic plugs of Hoggar, extraordinary palm-fringed lakes lost amid the dunes of Libya's Ubari Sand Sea and, in Chad, you may get the chance to smile at a dwarf crocodile - ecological relics trapped in the Guelta Archaï's rock pools. Less attractively, nearby you'll find a range of military hardware and live ammunition, abandoned by the retreating Libyans during the disastrous 1980s war.

In Egypt's Great Sand Sea, the world's only known field of silica glass yields emerald-like fragments of natural glass thought to be the result of a meteoric impact. Then there's the prehistoric rock art. Paintings some 7,000 years old and engravings adorn the desert's cliffs, overhangs and cave walls and it's common to stumble across medieval pottery, Neolithic mill stones and, even, Palaeolithic tools. These are particularly common in the highland areas, which once resembled the grassy savannah of today's Serengetti, but the richest troves are in Egypt's Jebel Uweinat, the Libyan Fezzan, the Tassili N'Ajjer of southeast Algeria and the Ennedi Massif in northeast Chad.

Will I get to Timbuktu?

Don't bother. Your one Saharan disappointment is likely to be this fabled town in Mali. What was once a fabulously wealthy medieval city near the Niger River now necessitates steeled nerves to navigate the hassle you're likely to receive. Its heyday passed half a millennium ago and these days it offers little more than the fact that you can say you've been there.

Can I hang out with nomads?

Nomads are unknown in the hyper-arid eastern Sahara, as well as socially reformed Libya but, elsewhere, it's still a way of life. Nomad encounters, however fleeting, are a highlight of any Saharan journey.

Possibly the best place for an authentic meeting is in Mauritania - a nation that, just a single generation ago, was mostly itinerant. Should you come across an encampment you'll need an interpreter to translate the Hassaniya (archaic Arabic); true, nomads won't know French. Tea will be laid on without asking and you'll be invited to rest in their raïma or tent. Generally, men and children look after the camels or goats while women do everything else, including entertaining curious tourists.

You'll walk away in awe that people can still, and indeed prefer to, live like this. To the visitor it is an alluring and simple way of life. However, behind the romanticism, the nomads suffer much prejudice and their unvaried diet means health problems are common.

One place you shouldn't expect to find genuine nomads is in the tourist centres of Morocco and Tunisia. These are the lairs of the blue-veiled fake Tuareg: watch out for locals faking a faraway look in their eye while proclaiming their love for the desert.

So what's the best way of seeing the Sahara?

Adventure package tours are a good introduction but, if you're thinking of travelling this way, avoid Christmas: it's crowded, cold and the days are short.

British tour operators offering Saharan trips (with or without flights) include: Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000, www.coxandkings.com), which has a 13 day "Sahara & Roman Africa" trip exploring dunes, sculpted rocks and desert oases, from £1695; the Imaginative Traveller (020-8742 3045, www.imtrav.com), which has a two-week tour in Libya that includes a two-day jeep safari across the dunes of the Ubari Sandsea, from £1295; Dragoman (01728 861133, www.dragoman.co.uk), which has Saharan trips of between three and eight weeks, taking in a desert safari and visits to Leptis Magna and Germa, from £1540; Exodus Travels (020-8675 5550, www.exodus.co.uk), which has 15-day trips stopping at Sabratha, Leptis Magna, Tripoli, Germa, Ghat and Ghadames, for £1495; Travelbag Adventures (014205 41007, www.travelbag-adventures.co.uk), which has 14-day trips to Morocco, including Fez, the Erg Chebbi dunes, the Todra Gorge, the Draa Valley and the Atlas villages, from £649; Encounter (020-7370 6845, www.encounter-overland.com), which has 28-day tours of Tunisia, Libya & The Sahara from £710 and Explore Worldwide (01252 760 000, www.explore.co.uk) offers a 16-day Nile Felucca and Desert Oasis trip, including 4WD desert safaris and stays in a Bedouin camp from £615 per person.

What about specialist operators?

Agence Les Voyages (00 33 3 81 8121 24), a French-based Libyan operator offering tours throughout the country; Agence Essendilene (00 33 1 43 56 03 69), a Paris-based Tuareg agency offering treks of the Tassili's art sites; Comptoir du Desert (00 33 1 43 56 03 69, deserts@club-internet.fr), an upmarket French operator which covers the Sahara; Explorator (00 33 1 53 45 85 85, www.explo.com) and Terres D'Aventure (00 33 1 53 73 77 67, www.terdav.com), the French equivalents of companies such as Explore Worldwide; Samir Lama (00 49 69 447897), a German expert on Egypt's Gilf Kebir and Jebel Uweinat region; Spazi d'Avventura (00 31 2 706 37138) a Milanese operator that specialises in Chad; Suntours (00 49 6447 92103, www.suntours.de), an established German operator in central and west Sahara; Trailmasters (01474 873 277), which runs escorted tours of Morocco with your own 4WD; and Wilderness Wheels (0191 496 0869, www.wildernesswheels.com), which offers short rides in Morocco, with Honda XR400s supplied.

And if I'd rather travel independently?

Arranging your own Saharan trip can be very rewarding, despite the costs to your nerves and your wallet. You'll need to spend time equipping a suitable 4WD or trail bike, however, since a well-prepared vehicle is vital for tackling the desert. Morocco is a good venue for trying out a 4WD before taking on the real thing further south. You can get there on a 20-minute hydrofoil ride from Algeciras near Gibraltar. Tunis, and thence Libya, Algeria and Niger, can be reached aboard modern and comfortable 24-hour ferries from Marseille or Genoa.

Once you're in the Sahara, this is a cheap place to travel: there's little expense apart from fuel. Most tourists follow recognised tracks or pistes, based on trade routes dating back centuries. Rarely more than 600km between resupply points, these can cross rocky plateaux or dunes and so are quite a challenge. Local guides have good memories but, for the rest of us, GPS satellite navigation and the best maps available help avoid errors.

On certain routes a local guide is a wise precaution (and sometimes, one is actually mandatory), since they could save you days of backtracking and nail-biting, as well as being generally informative.

Can't I fly there instead?

Sure, but for most Saharan airports you need to change at Paris. The direct links from London are to Algiers, Tunis, Benghazi and Tripoli in Libya, Cairo and Luxor in Egypt. Via Paris, you can also fly to Tamanrasset and Djanet (via Algiers), Bamako (Mali), Djerba (Tunisia), Ndjamena (Chad), Niamey (Niger) and Nouakchott (Mauritania). For Timbuktu, you have to change at Bamako.

What if I just want to dip a toe into the desert?

If you are not inclined to go for the full Sahara experience, it's easy to bolt on a desert experience to a mainstream holiday. This is most readily achieved on a trip to Tunisia, independently or on a package; the leading tour operator is Airtours (0800 028 8001, www.airtours.co.uk).

From the main resorts on the East Coast, there are plenty of trips that run into the desert, including to the areas where Star Trek and The English Patient were filmed. You can also access the desert from popular tourist centres in Egypt and Morocco.

How safe is travelling in the Sahara?

Snakes, scorpions and sand storms are yet another cliché, especially in winter when the creepy crawlies are dormant and the weather is calm. The biggest danger is poor prepar- ation. The fundamentals are well-equipped and provisioned transportation and a realistic itinerary. Driving around the desert alone is risky, but meeting up with other motor tourists is easier than you think when you find yourself at the only petrol station for 500km.

Having said that, in any remote area, law and order tends to be a lifestyle choice. Parts of the Sahara are in a permanent ebb and flow of rebellion and you should make sure you're up to date with the latest travel advice before you go. You could try the foreign office website (www.fco.gov.uk/travel) but you may find more detailed information from the French Department of Foreign Affairs (www.dfae.diplomatie.fr) or, if you don't speak French, from the US State Department's travel warnings (www.travel.state.gov).

Survival situations rarely appear unexpectedly, but tend to evolve from bad preparation followed by bad luck. One such scenario would be the vehicle breaking down while you're off-route at a hot time of year. It's in this situation that water reserves are vital. In fact, in the Sahara such events are rare because people are prepared. Morocco and Tunisia are more common venues for disasters, when summer package tourists hire a hatchback, get stuck in the sand and try to walk back to the hotel at midday.

Where can I find inspiration?

Try reading Sahara Unveiled by William Langwiesche, Libyan Sands, by Ralph Bagnold, Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de St Exupery, or Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. But the best literature on the Sahara is in French, Italian or German.

Chris Scott is author of 'Sahara Overland' (Trailblazer, £19.99) and runs occasional 4WD and supported motorcycle tours in the Sahara (www.sahara-overland.com)

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