Crossing the Sahara in a different era

The world’s biggest desert is now a virtual war zone, but its history is more peaceful than often assumed.

Mali conflict
Since 9/11, the West African Sahara has been described as a terrorist haven and an inhospitable place [EPA]

Make no mistake about it: the West African Sahara is a dangerous place. One could easily get lost and perish for lack of water. But it is also a beautifully rugged landscape inhabited for centuries by welcoming people, and once regularly traversed by travelers and legitimate traders.

Sadly, in the post 9/11 era, and following conflicts in Algeria, Libya and Mali, the region has been framed as a terrorist haven, an inhospitable place, and an object of surveillance and containment. While the state has always had a limited regional presence, its history has been more peaceful than is commonly assumed.

My most memorable experience with the Sahara came in 1989. In October of that year, following two and a half years of US Peace Corps service in Mali, my two friends, Rick and Tom, and I decided to take the long way home. We traded in our airline tickets for cash, opting to travel over-land across the Sahara Desert through Algeria, and then into Europe. 

Malians gear up for presidential runoff

We went north on the Niger River in a boat to the Malian town of Gao, and waited several days before hitching a ride on an empty date truck that was headed back to Algeria.

We were not alone in this adventure. Other passengers in the truck included a group of Tuareg nomads and their sheep trying to sneak into Algeria, a one-legged Senegalese man looking for work in Libya, the former chauffeur of Sekou Toure, the first leader of independent Guinea, and an explosives expert who used to be in the Algerian underground army during that country’s anti-French insurgency. Together, we would be a family for the next several weeks.

About two days after leaving Gao it became clear that the driver was lost. While he had crossed the desert several times before, it was the first time he had gone through Mali rather than neighbouring Niger. To be clear, we were not travelling on a road, but rather a path marked by gravel-filled barrels every few kilometres. Given that there were no water points for six days, it was important that we stay on the established track. Yet, somehow in the midst of the night-time drive, we had lost the barrels. My friends and I were beginning to think about how much water we had on board – how long could we afford to be lost?

It was at this point that the driver suddenly stopped for some unexplained reason. This was nothing unusual as we regularly stopped for all matter of reasons – from the need to prepare strong tea to the call of nature. Yet this time around, our driver, with his massive mop of hair, felt compelled to use a significant quantity of our remaining water to wash his mane. I could hear my friend Rick grating his teeth as he muttered: “We are going to die.”

But soon thereafter the driver rediscovered the trail. Who knew that dirty hair might impede one’s internal GPS? Encountering the Mali-Algeria border we soon learned that such lines in the sand really meant nothing. Nearly all of the Tuaregs in our truck were without papers, and certainly none of them had a visa – something which I had painstakingly acquired from the Algerian embassy in Bamako nearly 1500 kilometres to the southwest. No matter: all of these Tuareg nomads merely exited the truck and melted into the sands shortly before the border. Roughly two kilometres after we crossed into Algeria they re-appeared, laughing as they climbed back into the truck.

Our trip neared its end roughly two months later as we entered Algiers, the capital city of Algeria. Rick was an amazing guitar player and he had dutifully lugged his instrument across the desert in hopes of fulfilling a dream of playing on the streets of Europe. Arriving in Algiers he just couldn’t wait any longer, so we hit the streets with him after checking into the local backpacker hotel. I knew Rick was good, but the crowd that began to amass once he started playing surpassed all expectations. Then, as Tom and I watched from the crowd, we saw the police arrive. 

Unbeknownst to us, street music was illegal in Algiers and the authorities were there to break up his impromptu concert. As the officer escorted Rick to the police station, Tom convinced me that we should follow at a safe distance so that we could jump in to rescue our friend should the situation turn ugly. As we tailed our friend, we noticed that he and the police officer were in an animated conversation. But then Rick turned to look at us with a smile on his face: We had been invited to stay with the officer and his family for as long as we wished.

This man and his family were incredibly generous to us, especially since we were complete strangers. We spent a good week with them, eating well and visiting the ancient cities and Roman ruins along the Algerian coast. I distinctly remember watching the Berlin Wall come down while in a coffee house in Algiers, thinking that such arbitrary divisions would soon be a thing of the past. 

Now, nearly 25 years later, the memory of this desert trip is still vivid even though the people, and even places, are seemingly gone. My dear friend Rick sadly passed away from cancer this spring – for which I shared this story in the form of a eulogy at his memorial. Tom, with whom I have since lost touch, unfortunately was not there.

Strangely, the Sahara of the late 1980s that I knew no longer exists either. New divisions in the world, between the peoples of the Sahelo-Saharan region and between the East and West, have turned the Sahara frontier into a war zone. This world, and the region, desperately needs men and women of peace. Neither nationalism, nor ideology, is worth the destruction. 

William G. Moseley is Professor, Chair of Geography, and Director of African Studies at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA. His latest book is An Introduction to Human-Environment Geography: Local Dynamics and Global Processes .

Follow him on Twitter: @WilliamGMoseley