I was fortunate to visit the Sahara as part of a geologic study I was making for the Algerian National Oil Company. Our itinerary was to take us to the desert oasis town of Ain Salah where we would pick up our vehicles and drive out into the desert for 10 days of geological reconnaissance. I think that in the desert, nothing is ever quite as easy as one might think or plan for. The trip was no exception and started off with an unexpected landing in the northern desert town of Ghardaia. The plane we were flying on developed icing problems and had to make an early landing. The mechanic's problem was our opportunity. Ghardaia is a thriving town in the heart of the M'Zab oasis. Driving into the town for an afternoon, we were presented with a wonderful view of the village built on a hill above cultivated fields in the valley. The buildings are all painted in soft pastel shades of pink, blue, white, yellow, and natural orange. At the top of the hill is the tower of the town's mosque, a square, sloping structure in the typical "Maghreb" style. A newer mosque with a more modern tower stands at the foot of the town.
We drove to the town square marketplace, the souk, and passed an agreeable time among the shops and stands. There was every sort of produce available, but the crown was the local dates from the sahara. These magnificent fruit provide all the essential ingredients for humans to survive, packaged in a form both pleasing to taste and eat. There was a healer present in the souk giving instruction on common cures for the various illnesses known locally. Around the healer a large crowd of people gathered to listen and learn, demonstrating his importance to the town. The people of the M'Zab oasis form the main merchant class of Algeria, traveling away from the town often for months at a time. We were not allowed to enter the town itself. The streets are narrow and winding in a labyrinthine maze from which strangers would easily become lost. Tales are not uncommon about tourists entering the town never to be seen again, usually with the suggestion that they ended up in sexual servitude to the lonely women enclosed behind their pastel walls. Although I have personally heard this story on different occasions from different sources, I rather doubt it is much more than idle fantasy, though interesting.
When another plane arrived we continued our winding way to the deep desert at the oasis of Ain Salah. We arrived late and were greeted by a night of crystal purity, filled with the stars and Milky Way glistening across the sky. We would grow accustomed to this sky over the next 10 days! Our work included visits to important outcropping strata of rock which we hoped would produce oil in the deep subsurface farther north of the area. We were driven about in land cruisers often across the flat desert surface, or reg. In the low oueds (wadis), or drainage's we would see many forms of shrub and grass growing. Away from these oueds the desert was complete. It was not uncommon to drive for several hours and not see a single living thing, not a blade of grass. The aspect was lunar. The distance revealed the formations we intended to visit. We usually drove along marked "pistes" or tracks known for centuries by the local Tuareg dwellers. I learned that oases in the desert come in various sizes often expressed by the number of date palms the water would support. Towns like Ain Salah or Ghardaia grew around oases which would support extensive plantations of date palms as well as other crops. Other oases may support perhaps ten to twenty palms, or maybe one or two.
Our most poignant moment on the trip occurred at one such oasis. It was a small, ten-tree affair about located on the old piste between Ain Salah and Arak, a town and caravan stop from early times. A new paved road built by the French has bypassed this route and the oasis lies nearly abandoned. To one side of the oasis was an old guest house now falling into ruin. We stopped at this place to eat our lunch and wash in the water. We saw a family sitting in the desert sun about a hundred feet from the trees. They were dressed in the robes typical of the Tuareg people. The location was spectacular, but the conditions were of extreme poverty. I still wonder how they managed to survive, and marvel at the sustaining power of the Sahara Date. As we milled about eating our bread, dates, and oranges, the father stood and walked over to where we were. Beneath the swirls of robes and turban I saw his blue eyes and dark skin that marked his Berber race. We gave him bread and oranges to take to his family, a wife, son, and daughter. There was little in common with his language and the arabic of our hosts and the communication was difficult. He was agitated and eventually managed to explain, with the eventual help of his wife, that their daughter was very ill and needed medicine.
She had a sort of sleeping sickness and seldomly moved. We looked about for what we had but could not offer what was necessary. We offered to take the daughter to Arak which was not far away but were refused. They explained that they had lived there for many years and did not want to leave. Finally we left them with a bottle of medicine which would provide more hope than cure, some more food and we left.
The next week was spent in a wonder of new outcrops, spectacular mountains, glorious nights, evenings in the cooks tent drinking mint tea and exchanging stories, and deepening friendship with our hosts. We climbed a mountain, got lost in a oued, and walked across the surface of the moon. The work was important for the knowledge we learned of the geology and the samples we collected for analysis in Houston. Each day brought a new wonder, a new surprise. As the end of the trip arrived it was with a tinge of regret while we drove out of the mountains, across the reg to the town of Ain Salah and a welcome shower.
The trip is past now, some three years into my own personal history. Yet, it still remains with me, fresh, severe, and close. I am amazed at how life has invaded such a region, become comfortable, and sometimes even thrived. At the same time I still reflect back on the family at the oasis, a daughter who I cannot help but think is no longer alive. It bothers me that we were not able to do more, or that the parents would not allow it. Perhaps it is Allah's will. In the end we were only guests to their world, a fleeting memory of bread and oranges.