Algeria – Afilal and Assekrem (Tamanrasset 4/4)

On the third day of our trip to Tamanrasset we went to Assekrem. For foreign tourists, this is the only spot in the area where one can stay overnight outside of Tam because there’s an outpost of the gendarmerie. A permit has to be organized in advance and ours was sorted by the travel agency and our marvellous guide.

The track to Assekrem is marked and leads through a varied landscape. Quite often it appeared moon-like.

We didn’t go to Assekrem immediately but had a stopover with picnic at one of Algeria’s Ramsar wetlands. It’s a pretty odd feeling to have been through parched valleys and hills and then suddenly there’s a river and ponds and plastic bottles and bags.

If you look at the sign you can marvel at its linguistic complexity. Arabic, French, and English are easily recognizable. The signs that look a bit like runes are Tifinagh, the writing system of the Amazigh (Berber) languages. It’s one of the oldest writing systems still in use and because the Amazigh are matriarchal the women are responsible for teaching it (or so I read in my guide book).

With the area being full of water, there was of course lots of wildlife. We saw kestrels and martins, plenty of dragonflies and brilliant grasshoppers with red wings underneath their grey ones. There was a lot of humming in the air.

We arrived in Assekrem in the afternoon. There was ample time to climb from the refuge to the mountain top, from about 2600m to 2800m – and I certainly felt the height and had to stop every few steps to catch my breath. Well, it gave us time to admire the house bunting.

Once we had made it to the top, we were welcomed by the local Catholic priest … yes, you read that correctly. Assekrem is famous because at the beginning of the 20th century a French astronomer, Foucauld, built his hermitage on the mountain to observe the weather and the stars and to possibly do some spying for the French military. He also erected a tiny church which can be visited these days. The priest also told us that we were really lucky because it was a very fine day with great visibility and almost no wind. Really balmy.

We had almost two hours of daylight left and made good use of it. If you’d like more photos, especially the stars of a desert sky, head here: http://chinese-poems.com/blog/?p=1812

We made it down just in time for darkness to cover land and plastic and had dinner followed by some of the coldest hours I’ve ever experienced (I spent a winter on Iceland). And there wasn’t even any wind blowing! I went to sleep dressed with my woolly hat on and crawled under three thick blankets.

In the morning, the whole sky was covered in an orange glow, seeing which was well worth the freezing night, but I didn’t climb up the mountain. We went back to Tam and admired some camels on the way. We also had our last picnic of the trip. The flights to and from Tam are always in the middle of the night so we tried to nap once back in our hotel. It was an amazing experience and I’m looking forward to seeing more of the Sahara.

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Algeria – Boulders and Birds (Tamanrasset 3/4)

On our second day in Tamanrasset, our fab guide (and the three vehicles of the gendarmerie) took us north-east of the town, passing through fields of plastic rubbish into an area that is best described as boulder country. I don’t know the geological processes which shaped the rock formations to make them look like they do, but it was an awesome place to see.

At some point, our driver stopped near some boulders and we were told to venture in between them and eventually under one of the big stones. There, on the ‘ceiling’ above us, we saw some rock art which is a few thousand years old. I was very tempted to touch it but managed just about to behave myself. I couldn’t resist though feeling in the hole where the old ones must have mixed the paint.

While our guide prepared picnic and tea, we had a look around and admired the landscape and whatever wildlife we could find in it. I was amazed at a fairly vibrant insect life.

Back in the hotel in the afternoon, we spent some time in its garden where we saw more birds. An Egyptian vulture flew by and several silverbills and firefinches had made their home in the garden’s trees and were just lovely to observe. At this point, some thank yous – to the birders on birdforum.net for their help with bird IDs and to our colleague Narimene for making endless phonecalls!

Algeria – Visiting the desert around Tamanrasset 1/4

In the middle of December, husband and I visited the town and area of Tamanrasset, which is about 1600km south of Algiers right in the middle of the Sahara desert. From Tam to the south, Mali or Niger, it is about 500km and the next bigger Algerian settlements are Djanet, at a distance of roughly 700km east and In Salah, the same distance north.

Tam is on a volcanic plateau at an altitude of circa 1300m, which makes it mild in winter during the days and bearable during the summer months. The nights can get freezing. The views are amazing and much more varied then I had expected. The volcanic area is called Hoggar and it is a National Park.

If you’re Algerian, visiting this amazing place is expensive but not complicated. As foreign nationals, there were some bureaucratic hoops for us to jump through. This is unfortunately rooted in recent history. About a decade ago, several tourists were kidnapped in the area. The government eventually stopped the kidnaps and introduced a policy of escorting foreigners. I’d love to show you a photo of our dozen or so guards but it’s not allowed to photograph anything relating to police, gendarmerie or military so you’ve got to take my word for it. The escort was organized by our travel agency and our fabulous guide, Mouloud, did the daily communication – meeting in the morning, confirming places to go, making sure we got back to the hotel in the evening.

To be able to do so, we had to provide all our paperwork a fortnight or so in advance – in our case residency permits, work permits, passports, flight details and hotel reservation. If you’re planning to visit anywhere in the wilaya (district) of Tamanrasset, you have to do this. Your travel agency should tell you what paperwork needs to be done and you need to be good at doing things in advance and possibly chasing up. Algerians are lovely people; the red tape, however, is atrocious.

The basic rule is you go on a day trip and you’re escorted back for the night. We even had the guide taking us out for dinner and souvenir shopping. It was a wee bit like North Korea but having said that – I think it’s great that one’s being protected. The only place where one can go for an overnight stay is Assekrem (more about that in a future post) because there’s an outpost for the gendarmerie.

If you want to do anything special like birdwatching, be aware of a few things regarding optics. Don’t bring binoculars into the country. If you can afford it, buy a pair in Algiers or Oran – I don’t think you could get them easily anywhere else. I’ve been assured by a local judge that possessing binoculars isn’t an offence but I’m not a legal authority so exercise caution. Regarding lenses for the camera, my longest is 300mm and so far no one has complained. However, when it comes to anything bigger you might or might not get into trouble with the authorities and I’d go to great lengths to avoid that. The rules with the escort might also influence early morning hours – you need to be either a really skilled negotiator to get sunrise observation or accept that this is something you do in Djanet, Ghardaja or Bechar.

When it comes to food and drink of course you need to be aware that you’re still in a predominantly Muslim area although there’s a very different feel compared to the north of Algeria. There’s no alcohol available in restaurants. For vegetarians, Algeria can be slightly problematic: Aw, there’s just this little bit of minced meat on the egg, so it’s not really meat, surely not a problem? Thankfully, Mouloud the great guide was also really good at keeping us fed!

Another typical experience is Sahara tea which is green tea boiled and mixed with sugar. Health and safety warning: a lot of sugar. My estimate is 100ml of tea contain two or three heaped table spoons full of sugar. The tea is prepared on acacia wood which smells divine. If you’re feeling tired after a long day’s work or a few minutes’ stroll in the heat (the tourist experience), this is the best thing to revive your spirits.


Algeria – World Cleanup Day

We were not an official team for World Cleanup Day because the person I had contacted, well, didn’t seem to care much about cleaning away all the rubbish or to actually be involved. So my husband, some friends and I went out into the forest next to where we live to do our bit (which we do pretty much every weekend anyway).

We spent about two hours cleaning away plastic bottles and bottle tops, wrappers, wet wipes and vast quantities of styrofoam. We were seven to begin with, but some members of the public decided to join us on the spot and helped to collect rubbish and to carry it out of the forest.

The photos are maybe a bit odd because it was overcast, late in the afternoon and I wore gloves. But anyway, we had fun and did something good.

Algeria – Misserghin, Home of the Clementine

Misserghin is a small town just south of Oran on the banks of the salt lake Sebkha. It’s most famous for the Clementine, named after abbot Father Clementine who bred it towards the end of the 19th century. My guide book said one could visit the remains of the abbey, so while my parents were over for a visit we took the opportunity to go exploring.

We hired a taxi for a day (6000 Dinar). The driver had never been to the place but was also curious, and after a bit of asking and some U-turns we eventually found the entrance to the property. I immediately fell in love with the gardens. No abbey to be seen anywhere though, at least nothing that I would have recognized as such.

Turns out, when the French Catholics were here, they made use of much older buildings of Ottoman origin. The people who run the place now have turned it into some kind of agricultural commune, and welcomed us warmly. Communicating was a wee bit tricky since none of us had more than a smattering of French or Arabic and our hosts next to no English or German, but our enthusiasm for gardening and history more than made up for this.

We got a tour of the old office buildings of the abbey plus the stables with very content looking cattle and then we ventured underground. Tunnels! Originally, those had been used to hide from whoever was the enemy of the day. Nowadays, they’re used for growing mushrooms.

Then we were taken for a tour around the fields and the flower garden. Along the way, our hosts explained about the different grains, vegetables and what most people would call weeds and how they’re used as spices or ingredients for a salad. And at every stage we were given some samples to taste or to take with us.

It was incredible. Of course, we also admired a field with young Clementine trees. Fruit growers from all over the world still come to Misserghin to learn about the plant and how to handle it.

clementines

church

 

Towards the end of our tour we visited the old abbey church too. These days, it’s used as a community centre. When we were there, about a dozen people were learning about apiary. It was fascinating to watch how they got the tiny larva out of the honey comb to put it into a nourishing solution – if I understood correctly this is done to produce queen larvae. Tell me in the comments if that makes sense as I know nothing about bee-keeping.

So, a day full of new discoveries and plenty of organically grown food. Many thanks again to our hosts at the now-farm former-abbey in Misserghin.

apiary

WorldBookProject – Brazil, Indonesia and Vatican

Yup, I’m in the middle of the 3rd year of reading my way around the world, and it’s still highly exciting because I’ve again made some rather unexpected discoveries (bookwise). The equality count at the moment: 163 books read, 69 by female authors, 11 with mixed authorship and one unknown writer.

159 Brazil: Socorro Acioli – The Head of the Saint

This was great fun! It’s a children’s book or YA, but still. The author put her finger exactly where it hurts when talking about bigotry in religious establishment, people’s gullibility and corruption. I need to read more by her.

160 Indonesia: Dee Lestari – Paper Boats

Again some YA here, but this one wasn’t my cup of tea. Too many convenient coincidences and way too much beating around the bush or silence between the characters.

161 Vatican: Pope Francis – ENCYCLICAL LETTER ‘LAUDATO SI’ OF THE HOLY FATHER FRANCIS ON CARE FOR OUR COMMON HOME

As an atheist, I was more than surprised how very much in agreement I found myself with the Pope on the matters he wrote about. The encyclical deals with environmental problems, where those are coming from, and makes suggestions what to do about them. I also hadn’t expected the almost scientific language of the letter. The flowery bits were kept to the paragraphs about biblical verses and prayers. I have to say, I wish more people would listen to him and do more for our planet.

Algeria – Oran’s Fort Of Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is the place to visit in Oran and the Wikipedia article gives plenty of background information.

santa-cruz.jpg

It’s possible to walk up the hill, but be prepared for steep paths and exposure to sun and wind. Alternatively, take a taxi. The price for going up, the driver waiting and getting you down again depends on the goodwill of the taxi driver and your negotiating skills. We paid the meter price (about 800 Dinar), but people have also paid much more than that.

Santa Cruz 2

Unless you’re heavily interested in Spanish military architecture, the fort itself is not that exciting because it’s mostly empty halls and yards these days.

One goes up there for the views (and possibly the picnic area). You can see all of Oran, the Lion Mountains and Canastel to the east, the big salt lake to the south and more hills and the military port to the west (not photos of the latter though – the military doesn’t take kindly to that).

When we were there the church was still under reconstruction, as is the cable car which might hopefully be running again … soon. Things take time in Algeria, but they get done eventually. So, here’s to our next visit, including l’église and le téléphérique!