Led by wise men

John Eisenhammer treks through the stark beauty of the Sahara

The Sahara is a cold land with a hot sun. Each day I was reminded of this bitterly apt description as Ibrahim, our Tuareg guide, woke us by banging on his metal platter. "Bonjooour," he cried, as the first thin flecks of light slipped over the razor edge of distant dunes.

Before dawn the temperature in the Sahara falls to close to zero in the early winter months. In January and February it drops below. You soon learn the art of crawling out of your sleeping bag while speedily putting on as many layers of clothing as possible in the dark without falling over into the damp sand. By 7am, however, you can already feel the heat of the sun and by 8am it is pleasantly warm. From then on you shed layers like an onion as the temperature steadily rises.

The Great Eastern Erg cuts a vast, sandy arc across Algeria and Tunisia, touching Libya. It is one of the largest of the ergs, which mean "vein" in Arabic. There are five main veins coursing through this vast desert expanse of north Africa. Such uncompromising lands of stark beauty and solitude have become second home to Jean Louis Bernezat and his wife Odette. For nearly 30 years they have been criss-crossing the deserts of Africa, developing a specialised tour business.

In small, French-speaking groups you can go trekking during the winter months from October to April (the summer being too hot) in Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Namibia (all year round) and, for the first time this year, Libya. The tours range from one-week trips to serious, five-week, Lawrence- of-Arabia stuff.

These are holidays for those who like to rough it and enjoy a reasonable physical challenge. My wife and I opted for one of the shorter trips - 11 days including seven days trekking - in Tunisia's Great Eastern Erg. Though reasonably sporty, neither of us is a serious walker. Of the other six in our group, most were keen ramblers.

The trek proper began once we were deposited near the edge of the Erg at a dried-up well called Bir Abdallah. Eight camels were waiting for us,accompanied by their owners, Mustapha and Msbah. The world of casual tourism was left well behind during our boneshaking ride south by Land Rover from Tozeur. All lingering thoughts of the luscious date plantations we had jolted past were blanketed out by the heat, dust and the sheer emptiness of where we made our first bivouac. We slept that night, as we would every night, in the open.

The following morning, after only a couple of hours' walking, we reached the Erg. It was as if some Olympian landscaper had cut a carefully delineated border, as the flat, scrawny scrubland ceased, and the undulating, sandy vastness began. A day later we reached Tumbain, a flat table mountain from whose top you look out on the infinity of the erg. The solitude of the place was awesome.

It is not the custom here to ride on camels. They carried all our supplies while we walked, though should anyone have fallen ill, they were there as an emergency ride. Serious medical help, however, would have been days away.

Our life soon fell into a pattern. Up just before dawn, a quick breakfast before loading the camels, and then a good four hours' walking. The sand is surprisingly firm underfoot. Sometimes we followed the caravan as it took the route of least resistance, but mostly we meandered across the crest of the high dunes, pursuing the diminutive figure of Ibrahim, swathed in his black shesh, as he padded bare-footed to the rhythm of his staff and his own thoughts. One imagines the landscape to be monotonous, but it is not. The play of light in the mornings and evenings, the sheer immensity of the place, the artistry of the dunes, some over 100m high, with their amazingly clean lines and graceful forms, are constant sources of wonderment.

Some time after 11am Ibrahim would plant his staff in the sand and we would all slump to the ground with an angry buzzing of hundreds of suddenly disturbed flies. The midday meal was a salad of cabbage, onions, olives and sliced lemon that tasted as if it was made by the angels. It came, as did everything, with a soupcon of fine-grained sand.

In the afternoon, we would walk for another two hours or more before finding a spot for the night and beginning the evening rituals of unloading the caravan and gathering firewood. Around the camp fire, Msbah would sing while Mustapha blew and grunted into a hand-made flute that looked suspiciously like the piece of plumbing missing from under the sink at the hotel in Tozeur. There followed much drinking of strong, sweet tea brewed in a battered metal teapot bubbling on the embers. Exhausted by the day's walking, we were usually all in our bags well before 9pm, gazing up at the wide-screen entertainment of the desert night sky, emblazoned with the Milky Way and the nervous flashes of shooting stars. The moon rose late, and shone with such intensity as it became fuller that you would waken during the night to a floodlit landscape bright enough to read by.

Most nights I was lulled to sleep by one of the camels, which, having found a flavoursome bush next to my sleeping bag, would treat me to a stereophonic display of its digestive rhythms. In the morning, the dew- soaked sand opened like a book, recounting the activities of the night that had gone on around us as we slept. There were the scratchy trails of beetles and lizards, the claw marks of kangaroo rats and desert mice, the dragged belly lines of a hedgehog and the energetic side-swipes of a viper.

It was from atop a dune of alpine proportions that we first saw Lakhwazat lake, the high point of our trip. Curling across a depression in the middle of the dunes, the silvery stain of the water seemed incongruous after four days of the nothingness of parched sand and heat. Ducks played among the reeds, and a few wild donkeys wandered about. The water flowed into the lake from a spring that bubbled up in the middle of the sand. The pungent, sulphurous water emerged, the temperature of a warm bath, into a small, natural, sandy tub. The aches from days of hard slogging slipped away as I lay in this heavenly pool. Only the sound of bubbling water broke the peace. I knew then that I had discovered the finest jacuzzi in the world.

John Eisenhammer bought his trek through Hommes et Montagnes, 38500 Voiron, France (00334 76 66 14 43)

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Sport
footballLIVE City face Stoke, while Warnock returns to Palace dugout
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
books
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference