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 – Forest of Madagh

The Forest of Madagh is roughly an hour’s drive west of Oran. It’s an area close to the coast on top of a cliff. In some places, the steep drops are a bit gentler and the forest and scrublands reach down to the sea. In the distance, one can see the Habibas Islands. Madagh itself is a tiny settlement and has problems with illegal landgrabbing as well as a non-functioning sewer system.

However, once we had left the fences and plastic rubbish behind, the forest was lovely. We greatly enjoyed being out and about. There was a decidedly autumnal feel and smell in the air. The plant life looked a bit different, but was definitely full of seasonal fruit and colours.

We went on this hike with a former student and a friend of hers. Algerians go hiking according to the principle of safety in numbers. I’m not a big fan of hiking in groups, but the four of us together worked out well. I’ve also only ever felt unsafe here when in a car (diabolic driving styles), but the locals know the situation better than I do so who am I to argue?

While many people go to the forest because of the views of the Med, I got excited about the wildlife. I saw my ever first wild chameleon! We also came across a baby tortoise (http://chinese-poems.com/blog/?p=1787), several kestrels, a Bonelli’s eagle and what might have been a False smooth snake. If your herpetology is up to scratch, please leave a comment. Thank you, Ichrak and Hossein!

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

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!

Algeria – Oran’s beach at Les Andalouses

Oran’s coastline is mostly cliffs with some tiny sandy parts in between. But if you drive about an hour west (depending on traffic it can be faster or take a lot longer), you’ll eventually reach a zone of beaches reaching from Ain Turk via Cape Falcon to Les Andalouses.

All those beaches are extremely popular during summer. When we went there a handful of days ago however, the one we had picked was almost empty. The stroll we took was very pleasant, the food we had afterwards mostly too. It’s just so annoying that when you order vegetarian food (no fish, no meat) you still find chicken sprinkled over your salad – it’s not considered meat!

And a tip regarding transport: there are buses during summer to and from Oran. If you come by taxi, arrange with your driver beforehand to take you back. If you’ve got your own transport, parking is likely to be a problem during summer.

Algeria – Around Tlemcen

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my first trip to Tlemcen. Of course, my friends and I not only spent time in town, but explored some of its surroundings. So here’s a map to put things into context. We went along road N7 up to Ain Fezza and back and to the lake south of the city. The National Park in the southwest is at the top of my wish list.map Tlemcen Area

Scenic stop number one was at the apex of the hairpin on road N7. There’s a spring which is considered powerful for healing body and spirit. The place is nestled in what in ancient times seems to have been a waterfall. The cliffs are towering over a tiny hamlet which only seems to exist to regulate access to said spring. The exciting bit of architecture is formed by an enormous bridge constructed by Gustave Eiffel.

From there, we headed towards Ain Fezza, and then pretty much up the mountains whose cliffs we had just admired. It was freezing cold, but oh joy, there were raptors circling high up in the air!

So, after a picnic with sparrowhawk, Bonelli’s eagle and some local cats we descended down into the caves of Beni Aad. The whole cave system reaches as far as Morocco, but the part accessible for visitors is small. Nevertheless, you can walk around just on your own, take photos, shake your head about the morons who try to leave their signature in the dripstone, and best of all, spot the bats.caves of Beni Aad

Ascending from the fairly warm caves, we ventured into town, did some sightseeing there and then went up the southern hills again to the view-point of Lalla Setti. The views towards north and in the direction of the Med were impressive. Apparently, on a clear day it’s possible to see Spain.Tlemcen northwards

Our last port of call was the reservoir just south of Tlemcen. We stopped at some farmer’s stall to get some free-range eggs, butter and other locally produced food. Yummy! The lake itself was wonderfully quiet and home to some gulls and waders. The perfect place to finish off our tour.

Oran – National Museum Ahmed Zabana

It’s quite a title for a museum that has a vast area available to display its exhibits. Ahmed Zabana is of local and national importance (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahmed_Zabana). I think it’s his photo hanging in the entrance hall. entranceInside the museum, photography is not allowed. Hence there won’t be any pics of all the bones, stuffed animals (including a goat embryo with a double head), swords, painted landscapes, clothes or pottery. You see, the collection is holistic rather than specialised.

On the whole, I think the way the exhibits are presented leaves a lot to be desired. There’s a name, sometimes a year and place of origin. For animals, the Latin name of the species is given. Other than that, next to no context. So not as informative as it could be, and also a bit dull. Having said that, I realise that keeping such a vast and diverse collection must put an enormous strain on the curators even just in terms of day-to-day house keeping. And I also appreciate that all labels are in Arabic as well as French.

My favourite object was a 20th-century bamboo stick from New Caledonia. I guess that’s a reminder of French colonialism – how else would the stick have ended up in Oran? Anyway, it was beautifully and intricately carved with animals like cats and humans.

On the outside, the museum looks very different again. The murals seem to commemorate Algeria’s distant past during Numidian or Roman times. Judge for yourself: