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Sahara; The Garden of God
Harpers & Queen, December 2004

It was irritating: here I was after five days of near-continuous, round the clock travel and years of desire, finally perched on the edge of the Tenere, the desert within the desert, the Sahara of the Sahara, pretty well bang in the middle of North Africa, and yet I found myself walking past the litter of at least four separate camp fires. It was quite definitely not what I had expected, and, once again, I tried to lift myself out of a spreading mood of disappointment and concentrate my attention on the magnificent near horizon, a mountain made out of blue marble that was wrapped in a royal cloak of sand dunes. But then, like a scab that needs to be itched, I found myself looking back down over the litter of stones, the tell-tale evidence of previous travellers - or had even the central Sahara now become a tourist trail?

Then I suddenly stopped in my tracks. My petulant frowns melted away in a glow of delight as it dawned upon me that these camp fires had not been lit for some five thousand years. I was walking through a neolithic camping ground whose protective covering of sand had just been excavated by the wind. A few minutes of close attention revealed half a dozen scraper blades and a diminutive arrow head, and then my eyes became focused enough to pick out the deeply etched fragments of an earthenware bowl and beside it a pillow shaped stone with a dark rock rolling pin that served as a handmill. They lay just a few places from the old camp fire, almost as if they had been abandoned mid-meal. It was time travel. Seemingly nothing stood between these remote ancestors and all those layers of human culture, language and civilization, all those libraries of history blown away to reveal this humble evidence of some last supper. For once my possessive nature remained still. I took just three photographs and found myself placing the arrow head exactly back into its surrounding imprint of grit as I walked on.

On the edge of the Blue Mountain I rejoined the veiled form of Akly, my Tuareg guide and together we silently climbed its summit to catch an awesome prospect over the Tenere, now lit up the setting sun. This time I did not need to try and concentrate on the desert landscape - it possessed me. A vast panorama, an utterly gaunt harmony of black sun-hammered rock mountains mixed with valleys of golden sand and wind-raked empires of gravel stretched immutably east beyond our ken It did not beckon, it just stood; a wilderness quite beyond man’s uttermost power to change or improve. No one lives here, no one could live here, and even the Tuareg of the region treat it with an awed respect. For it continues to take a steady tithe from those travellers who do cross it, however well prepared they may be with their satellite guidance systems, mobile phones and fortnight-long supplies of water. That year a lorry packed full of migrant workers trying to make their way illegally north had foundered and all had perished; a Libyan convoy had just gone ‘missing’; and a month or two after we left I heard that an Italian vehicle had been blown up by a mine. As I had just witnessed, this desert also has the power to bury all evidence for a thousand years or more. It is sometimes referred to as the Garden of God: a place where the deity can walk without being disturbed by the evidence of man. It is good to know such places where we count for so little.

Barnaby Rogerson travelled in the Sahara desert of Northern Niger with Akly and Celine who also run the Desert Auberge in Agadez as a guest of Tim Best Travel, 68 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 3LQ, Tel 020-7591-0300, fax 0301, e-mail “t.besttravel@easynet.co.uk, website www.timbesttravel.com

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