We left our small authentic bed and breakfast in the Oasis of Beni-Iseguen in Southern Algeria after savoring a very simple breakfast of toasted French baguette, apricot jam and a café au lait. It took a good hour through serpentine roads before we could spot the first dunes at the gate of the Sahara desert. The temperatures were perfect on this December day. The sun was bright but not harsh. The last time I felt the fine grains of the Sahara sand was when I was a kid of eight and I could not wait to dip my feet into that gorgeous golden sand.
Except for the excited Spanish family and a French tourist who lived in Algeria in the 70s, our mini-bus was largely filled with Algerian tourists coming to explore this part of their country and celebrate New Year under the Saharan sky. Our first stop was a camp, which included three large nomad tents, which were already set up for our arrival, and modern clean toilets. A short break to stretch our legs and off we went to the dunes.
Visitors to the desert always look forward to a camel ride. It is one of those must-haves that are expected with a visit to the Sahara. We had that alright! But our expedition into the desert also involved a more unusual, adrenaline-boosting activity: sand surfing; well at least that’s how it started before it turned into sand diving.
Our guide provided us with a snowboard. There was only one board, which we were asked to share in a group of ten; the tour groups are usually not large enough to warrant the purchase of more equipment. The fact that the material was not abundant did not seem to bother people. In fact it quickly turned into a social event and people laughed at each other’s performance as they glided down the steep dune.
But sandboarding was not adventurous enough I guess because within half an hour the snowboard was ditched and some travel companions decided to use their bodies to go down the dune. Sandboarding became sand diving; an Algerian specialty as someone from the group would later characterize it. In the next hour bodies would roll down the dune, acrobatic skills would be showcased and faces would plunge into the ground to lift the warm sand on the surface and give way to the harder cold layer underneath it. For those not indulging in this exercise they simply watched, jumped in fright when someone fell the wrong way and laughed. Others carried on with the camel ride or were shown the skills of rolling a Touareg chach by one of the guides.
We headed back to the camp to eat the lunch we had stopped to pick up on our way to the desert earlier in the morning. It was simple yet very tasty. I wondered whether the taste was helped by the fact that we were sitting under a tent, on the floor served in a traditional manner. Somehow I always think that your taste buds are awakened by your surroundings. And then it was green mint teatime as I happily sat down under the nomad tent, behind the low small table and served green tea and distributed peanuts with a chach on my head.
We headed back to the oasis where three lambs were being roasted on a bed of coal. The Algerian specialty of mechoui was being prepared. It would be served with couscous mixed with honey, raisons and nuts. The three lambs were served full that evening. We were split into three groups and asked to devour the lambs. Rustic and simple! We crashed on the mattresses for the rest of the evening, listened to traditional Mzab music and sipped green tea.
The region of Ghardaia is home to the Mzab Valley. So we could not leave the area without visiting this classified UNESCO world heritage site. The Valley was built around the 101h Century by the Ibadites around five fortified cities; the Ksours. The Mzab Valley is one of the best conserved historical areas in Algeria and it continues to be inhabited by the Mzab people who maintain the same way of life they had centuries ago.
We opted to visit the largest and most known of the Ksours; Beni-Iseguen. But accessing one of the Ksours cannot be done without a local guide; even for Algerians. To access the fortified cities you need to enter with an approved Mzab guide and register at the tourist office at the main gate to the Ksour. The guide could be provided to you at the tourism office. Tourists will need to dress modestly. Thus men are not allowed shorts or sleeveless shirts and women have to cover their hair. Photography is also not permitted although your guide will normally allow you to take pictures provided no local inhabitants are passing by. If you want to take a picture he can ‘clear up’ the area for you but just make sure you inform him of your intention to make a picture before shooting.
So we found a guide to Beni-Iseguen and started a tour through the narrow fascinating streets. This fortified city was built between 1012 and1350 and is home to one of the oldest water distribution systems. The guided tour provided interesting insights into the history of the city and its people. It also explained the religious homogeneity of the Valley. The Mzab people follow a specific stream of Islam and have succeeded to maintain its authenticity for instance by having a single Mosque with a single imam that preaches the same message across the Valley. This has historically stopped other interpretations of Islam from infiltrating the Mzab cities. Nowadays, there is also a common radio channel that caters for this.
A visitor to Beni-Iseguen needs to go in with an open mind. Women are fully veiled with a white cloth from which only one eye sticks out. Unmarried girls are allowed to show their faces in order to attract prospective husbands. Like in a Casbah, houses do not have windows on the front façade so as to protect the privacy of its inhabitants. But above every door there is a hole from which a woman can look out to find out whom the visitor is, as she cannot open the door to a man and vice versa.
It was then time for the market. The market is located outside of the cities themselves in order to allow non-Mzabs to engage in the trade and to protect the inner Ksours. The region is well known for its carpets. These handmade colorful carpets, which are decorated with geometric shapes, are hanged at the entrance of stores as if to protect the privacy of the shoppers inside while attracting the curious ones outside to go into a cavern to explore its content. On the market itself, date merchants sell the freshly reaped dates from the surrounding oases.
The trip was rather unique. It combined nature and culture. But what probably made it more memorable is the unspoiled character of this relatively unexplored destination. One feels like a tourist but is not harassed like one. What you see is what you get!
How to fly there?
There are direct flights to capital Algiers from most European capitals and with different airliners (Air Algerie, Aigle Azure, Lufthansa, Air France, British Airways). There are daily flights to Ghardai with Algerian airliners but most travel agencies offer you the option to drive down with a their driver (350km South of Algiers); a much more interesting option as you get the chance to see the interior of the country.
How to book a holiday in the Mzab Valley?
It is highly recommended to travel to Southern Algeria only with a local Travel Agency and not alone. Make sure you book with a URLed travel agency (see some references). The travel agency would normally arrange for your transport, accommodation and guided tours. Rates vary between 100 to 200 euro depending on the circuit.
Other practical tips
Although some guides speak English have your French phase book handy.