Wanderlust: The Tassili n’Ajjer, Nature’s 8000-Year-Old Scrapbook

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In the heart of the Sahara Desert lies the Tassili n’Ajjer: a rocky labyrinth spanning 72,000 square kilometres. The land is vast and golden; never-ending rivers of sand blow between towering sandstone structures, unknowingly sculpted by the wind. The endless sand forms an almost blank canvas, painted pink and gold as the scorching sun sets each day. The altitude of 1,150 to 2,158 metres, along with the tangled maze of shaded valleys and nearby oases means this patch of desert is abundant with life. Saharan myrtles, cypresses, olives, and sycamore figs cluster in the shaded areas. In the Iherir valley, aquatic moss oozes enough water to fill dams, waterfalls, and pools, all teeming with fish. On land, lizards, spiders, insects, and specially adapted mammals explore the sand dunes, whilst hosts of migratory Palaearctic birds arrive from distant skies.

Human feet have also traversed the Tassil n’Ajjer, though their prints were immediately blown away by the wind. However, the 15,000 paintings and engravings on the sandstone walls were less fragile, and now form a prehistoric scrapbook, documenting 8000 years of evolution. The oldest among them were made during the last wet period and, as the land dried up into a desert, the buffalos morphed into cattle-herders, then into horse-riders, and then into camel-riders. Similarly, the style of artwork changed over the centuries, becoming increasingly abstract as the climate grew arid. Scholars have yet to discover all the rock art, and the Adrar, Tasedjbest, Ifedaniouen and Aras in the west are proving particularly fruitful areas of exploration.

Today, the main plateau is home to the remnants of the Kel Ajjer Twareg nomadic people. Only 1000 remain as, after a series of droughts, the majority emigrated to nearby towns, north of the border. The peripheral areas are more heavily populated, for instance the northern valleys are home to more than 10,000 people, most of them Da’ira, whilst the Djanet oasis in the southeast accommodates around 5000 people. Though some farming is possible, the local populations have come to rely on tourism for survival. Tourism peaked in the 1990s, and an airport was built in Djanet to facilitate its growth. However, tourism worked both magic and mischief, and vandalism needed to be controlled. Today, the Tassili National Park office works hard to regulate tourism through organising guided package tours, meaning tourists can be constantly monitored during their visit. The site is further protected by its UNESCO status as a Mixed Natural & Cultural World Heritage Site of outstanding value. One can only hope these initiatives will protect the area and allow it to survive for thousands of years to come.

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Felicity Williams

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