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.