The forgotten mountains of the Sahara

A mystic’s hermitage, a queen’s tomb, and more discoveries in this extinct volcanic plateau.
Written by Melanie du Toit
15 June 2021

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The Sahara Desert’s Hoggar Mountains bring to mind scenes that wouldn’t seem completely out of place on another planet. And yet, this moonscape in the highlands of Algeria is a place all Africa’s own.

Algeria Map

 

Our favourite facts about Algeria’s otherworldly mountains

  • Geographically, the mountains are sprawled across a portion of the Tropic of Cancer in a part of the central Sahara Desert. Parts of their jagged, volcanic columns tower some 3,000m above sea level.
  • The range falls within the 450,000km² Ahaggar National Park, which lures adventurous travellers and photographers with its untouched beauty.
  • One of the most prominent features of the mountains is the Atakor volcanic field, where lava flows make for unbelievable scenery. The volcanic nature of Atakor began a whopping 20 million years ago and today its vents, exceeding 400 in number, emit steam and gases.
Typical desert scenes in the Sahara Desert’s Hoggar region.
  • Despite its location in the world’s largest hot desert making life here difficult for many, the region is a biodiversity hotspot.
  • In fact, up until the early 1900s, there were populations of Nile crocodiles in the region.
  • Today, the mountains are home to the highly elusive and critically endangered Northwest African cheetah – which is estimated to have less than 250 adult individuals in the wild. Happily, one lone individual was recorded by researchers as recently as last year!
A still of the Saharan cheetah captured on camera for the first time in 10 years in 2020. Source | Farid Belbachir
  • The Hoggar’s highest peak, Mount Tahat, is a largely unassuming mound rising out of a rocky, volcanic plateau.
  • This plateau is the pastoral homeland of the Kel Ahagger people, a confederation of the nomadic Tuareg people.
  • The Tuareg use the region’s flora – such as its palm, olive and myrtle trees – in traditional medicine.
The Tuareg people are part of the larger Berber ethnic group, predominantly found across North Africa. Source | Matt Sterne
  • According to Kel Ahagger folklore, their founding mother was a mythical queen and matriarch, Tin Hinan, known as the Queen of the Hoggar, and the Queen of Tents.
  • Up until the early 20th century, modern-day historians thought of Tin Hinan as nothing more than a Tuareg myth, until her tomb was discovered in 1925 in an oasis near the modern-day town of Abalessa.
Tin Hinan, mother of the Tuaregs.
  • Tin Hinan’s tomb was a veritable treasure trove, indicative of her high standing. Upon discovery, she was wearing gold and silver jewellery, while pearls, statues, pottery, and iron weapons were found in her main burial chamber.
  • Modern history in the region saw a French mystic, explorer and Catholic priest, Charles de Foucauld, establish a hermitage in Assekrem, one of the highest points in the Hoggar Mountains, where he lived for many years.
de Foucauld’s hermitage in Assekrem as it stands today. Source | Albert Backer
  • While de Foucauld passed away over a century ago, a handful of dedicated monks from the Little Brothers of Jesus order keep his hermitage in order.
  • Today, travellers use the oasis city of Tamanrasset as a base for exploring the region, which can be reached after a quick 2.5-hour flight from the capital, Algiers. In turn, it takes the same amount of time to fly to Algeria from mainland Europe – another reason the area is gaining popularity with experienced travellers in search of undiscovered destinations.

 

What to know before you go:

Travelling to the Hoggar Mountains and Algeria, in general, will require a fair amount of planning, and it’s best to secure the help of an experienced agency when organising your trip. Travellers cannot enter the country without visas (unless hailing from Morocco, Tunisia or Malaysia), and you’ll need to be invited by an Algerian resident or tourist agency.

Visas are not issued on arrival and obtaining your visa will depend on having the correct stamped forms and certified hotel bookings provided by the place(s) where you are staying or the tour you are going on (there is certainly no unplanned backpacking here).

 

Thinking about going? Let us know below and we’ll put you in touch with the experts.  

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