Ténéré, the Dune on earth, the desert in the desert of Sahara, Africa

Ténéré is a desert region which comprises of vast plain of sand in the south central Sahara, and it is located in two countries, the Republic of Niger and the Republic of Chad. This whole desert occupies about 400,000 square kilometers area, and the highest elevated point is at 430 meters. Together with the Aïr Mountains, is part of the Aïr and Ténéré Natural Reserves, which are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1991.

The Ténéré, as well as the rest of the Great Desert, are amongst the most extreme environments on Earth. The Ténéré has a hot desert climate, typical of the large Sahara Desert. The climate is hyper-arid, extremely hot, sunny and dry year-round and there is virtually no plant life. The sunshine duration is also one of the highest results on the planet at around 4,000 hours.

Most of the Ténéré is a flat basin, once the bed of the prehistoric Lake Chad. The Aïr Mountains to the west, the Hoggar Mountains to the north, the Djado Plateau to the northeast, the Tibesti Mountains to the east, and the Lake Chad basin to the south are considered to be the limits of the Ténéré. The Erg du Bilma, the desert’s center, is located roughly at 17°35′N 10°55′E. The Neolithic Tenerian culture is centered there.

In the north, the Ténéré is a vast sand sheet – the true, featureless ‘Ténéré’ of legend reaching up to the low hills of the Tassili du Hoggar along the Algerian border. In the centre, the Bilma Erg forms rows of easily navigable low dunes whose corridors make regular byways for the azalai or salt caravans. To the west, the Aïr Mountains rise up. To the southeast, the Ténéré is bordered by the Kaouar cliffs running 100 km north to south. At the base, lies a string of oases including the famous Bilma. Periodic outcrops, such as the unusual marble Blue Mountains in the northwest near Adrar Chiriet, or the Agram hills near the oasis of Fachi and Adrar Madet to the north, are rare but notable landmarks.

With an area of over 7.7 million hectares, the Air and Ténéré Natural Reserves is the largest protected area in Africa; nevertheless, the portion designated as a protected sanctuary only makes up one-sixth of the entire reserve. It encompasses the Aïr volcanic rock mass, a small Sahelian pocket located in the Ténéré Saharan desert that is isolated in terms of temperature, flora, and fauna. The reserves are home to a remarkable diversity of wild animals, plant life, and scenery.

The Addax Sanctuary, spanning 1,280,500 hectares, is designated as a stringent reserve. Due to their extremely low numbers, desert animals depend on their huge size for survival. There are boundary markers at each of the main entrances to the Ténéré desert and the Aïr mountains. There are plans to extend the area to the southwest to accommodate a wildlife site during specific rainfall events and to account for Addax migrations southeast to the Mt Termit region.

The area is best known is most likely because of the celebrated Tree of Ténéré, once thought to be among the most remote in the world. Situated by the last well before entering the Grand Erg du Bilma on the way to Fachi, salt caravans relied on the tree as a landmark until it was allegedly knocked down by a truck driver in 1973. It was replaced by a metal sculpture and the remains are enshrined at the museum in the capital city of Niger, Niamey. Despite this unfortunate mishap, the tree is still often indicated on maps of the region as a notable landmark.

The Ténéré is a physiographic region in the Sahara that stretches from western Chad to northeastern Niger. Covering roughly 154,440 square miles (400,000 square kilometers), this large level plain of sand is part of the northwest portion of the Central Sudan depression. Its borders are to the west by the Aïr massif, to the north by the Ahaggar (Hoggar) mountains, to the east by the Tibesti mountain massif, to the north by the Djado Plateau, and to the south by the Lake Chad basin. One of the most desolate areas of the Sahara is Ténéré, which has almost little vegetation and an intensely hot and dry climate.

The Ténéré has a hot desert climate, the average high temperatures are above 40 °C for about 5 months and more in the hottest regions, and record high temperatures as high as 50 °C are highly possible during summer. The annual average high temperature is around 35 °C. During “winter” months, the average high temperatures stay above 25 °C and generally hover around 30 °C. The sunshine duration is also one of the highest results on the planet at around 4,000 hours, that is about 91% of the daylight hours between sunrise and sunset. The annual precipitation amount is extremely low—one of the lowest annual rainfall amounts found on Earth—around 10 mm to 15 mm, and frequently several years may pass without seeing any rainfall at all.

The vast stretches of sand dunes and sand in the southeast are called ergs, and the northwest’s plains coated in gravel are called regs. The maximum and minimum July temperatures (summer average) at Bilma Oasis, close to the Ténéré’s center, are 42 °C and 24 °C. The Ténéré experiences year-round, hot, dusty winds from the east or northeast (the harmattan); sporadic yearly rainfall amounts to approximately 1 inch (25 mm). There are frequently hundreds of miles without any wells in the region.

The Natural Reserves is, geographically speaking, an island of Sahelian-type fauna and flora, isolated in a Saharan desert environment. It therefore constitutes a set of exceptional relict ecosystems combined with mountain and plain landscapes of exceptional interest and aesthetic value, justifying its inclusion on the UNESCO world heritage list. The living dunes of the Ténéré quickly modify the landscape by displacement and deposition of sand. The region contains mountains of blue marble presenting a unique aesthetic interest in this environment.

During the Carboniferous period, the region was beneath the sea; later it was a tropical forest. A major dinosaur cemetery lies southeast of Agadez at Gadoufaoua; many fossils have been found there, having eroded out from the ground. An almost complete specimen of the crocodile-like reptile Sarcosuchus imperator, nicknamed the SuperCroc, was discovered there by paleontologists.

During early human history, this was a fertile land much more congenial to human life than it is now. The region was inhabited by modern humans as long ago as the Paleolithic period some 60,000 years ago. They hunted wild animals and left evidence of their presence in the form of stone tools including tiny, finely carved arrow heads. During the Neolithic period about 10,000 years ago, ancient hunters, the early Holocene Kiffian people, created rock engravings and cave paintings that can still be found across the region.

The Neolithic Subpluvial was an extended meteorological period, from about 7,500-7,000 BC to about 3,500-3,000 BC, of relatively wet and rainy conditions in the climate history of northern Africa. It was both preceded and followed by much drier periods. Several archaeological sites that date from this time, often identified as part of the Tenerian culture, are dotted across the deserts along the borders of Niger, Algeria and Libya. The human population dwindled as the Sahara dried out, and by 2500 BC, it had largely become as dry as it is today.

Natural Reserves
The Ténéré, or “desert” in Tuareg, is a region of the south central Sahara that is covered in desert. The largest desert on earth, the word for “emptiness” is where the name Sahara originates. There is a location known as the Tenere in the center of that desolation. The Tuareg term for “nothing” is whence the Tenere gets its name. It makes sense why the area is known as “The Land Of Fear” by the inhabitants. It is made up of a huge sand plain that stretches over 400,000 square kilometers and connects northeastern Niger to western Chad.

With a land area of 7,736,000 hectares, the Aïr and Ténéré Natural Reserves rank among Africa’s largest protected areas. It is the final stronghold for Niger’s Saharo-Sahelian fauna. It is divided into two main areas: the huge Ténéré desert plain and the mountain massifs of Aïr, which reach heights of up to 2000 meters. The Aïr is a tiny area of Sahelian vegetation with components of Sudanese and Saharo-Mediterranean found in the middle of a desert.

This arid desert was a seafloor during the Late Carboniferous Period (320–300 million years ago), and it eventually transformed into a lush tropical forest, according to fossil evidence. Rock artifacts, flint axes, and arrowheads are signs of Middle Paleolithic (about 60,000 BCE) human presence in this area; animal images and carvings on rocks show Neolithic (8,000–5,000 BCE) residents. Sand dunes serve as landmarks for the Teda and Tuareg nomads who travel across the Ténéré. The Ténéré is home to the uncommon desert antelope, the addax.

The Aïr is a fascinating collection of remnant ecosystems mixed with very beautiful and visually appealing mountain and plain landscapes, constituting a Sahelian enclave encircled by a Saharian desert. The living dunes of the Ténéré quickly alter the topography by moving and depositing sand. The area is home to the blue marble mountains, which offer a remarkable visual spectacle.

In Niger, the sole remaining stronghold for Saharo-Sahlien fauna is the Reserve of Aïr and Ténéré. Many wildlife species that have been eradicated from other parts of the Sahara and the Sahel have survived in this region because of the Aïr’s seclusion and the relatively small amount of human habitation. The property has a wide range of habitats that are essential for the preservation of the ecological richness of the Saharo Sahelian region, including live dunes, fixed dunes, stoney gravel desert, cliff valleys, canyons, high plateaus, water holes, etc.

The three Saharan antelope species—the Dorcus gazelle, the Leptocere gazelle, and the Addax gazelle—that are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List depend on the existence of significant natural habitats on the site. The statute of sanctuary for the Addax’s protections benefits around one-sixth of the Reserve. Significant populations of Saharan ungulates and carnivorous species, including cheetahs, Rüppells foxes, and fennec foxes, can be found on the land. Afrotropical and palaearctic migratory birds use the Aïr massif as a transit zone in significant numbers. The Reserve is home to 40 species of mammals, 165 species of birds, 18 species of reptiles, and 1 species of amphibian.

The steppe is home to species of Acacia ehrenbergiana, Acacia raddiana, Balanites aegyptiaca, and Maerua crassifolia, as well as species of Panicum turgidum and Stipagrostis vulnerans at lower elevations. A very specific habitat has emerged in the larger valleys with abundant water in the alluvial reservoirs. This habitat is associated with a dense ligneous stratum of doum palms, date palms, Acacia nilotica, Acacia raddiana, Boscia senegalensis, and Salvadora persica, and a herbaceous stratum that includes Stipagrostis vulnerans among others.

Human Activities
The Ténéré is very sparsely populated. Fachi and Bilma are the only settlements that are not on the edge of the Tenéré. While the well-known Tuareg occupy the Aïr Mountains and Agadez to the west, and still operate the salt caravans for Hausa merchants, other inhabitants of the Ténéré, found from oases like Fachi eastwards, are the non-Berber Kanuri and Toubou.

Settlements and villages:
In 1960, the Tuareg territory became part of the independent republic of Niger. It has been divided into seven départments. The central part of the Ténéré is a protected area, under the auspices of the Aïr and Ténéré Natural Reserve. The administrative centre of the Ténéré is the town of Agadez, south of the Aïr Mountains and west of the Tenere. There are also various oasis settlements, some like Bilma and Séguedine based on salt production.

Fachi is an oasis surrounded by the Ténéré desert and the dunes of the Erg of Bilma in eastern Niger, placed on the western edge of the small Agram mountain outcropping. It is also a stopping point of the Agadez to the Kaouar caravans of the Azalay. Fachi is 240 kilometres (150 miles) west of Bilma and 320 km (200 mi) east of the Aïr Mountains. Apart from water, dates, and salt, Fachi produces no provisions, and depends entirely upon trade in these products with passing caravans.

Bilma is an oasis town and commune in north east Niger it lies protected from the desert dunes under the Kaouar Cliffs and is the largest town along the Kaouar escarpment. It is known for its gardens, for salt and natron production through evaporation ponds, date cultivation, and as the destination of one of the last Saharan caravan routes (the Azalai, from Agadez). While it continues to produce salt in large natron salt pans, and this salt is still sold for livestock use throughout west Africa. Tourism (based out of Agadez and the Aïr Mountains some 560 km (350 mi) to the west) is of growing importance.

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The poet Abu Ishaq Ibrahim al-Kanemi was born in Bilma in the 12th century. During French Colonial rule, Bilma was the site of a major military post at Fort Dromard. In 1989, UTA Flight 772 crashed into the desert near the town after a bomb exploded on board, killing all 170 people aboard.

Dirkou is a town in the Bilma Department, Agadez Region of north-eastern Niger. It lies in the northern Kaouar escarpment, a north–south line of cliffs which form an isolated oasis in the Sahara desert. It once lay on the important central soudan route of the Trans-Saharan trade which linked coastal Libya and the Fezzan to the Kanem-Bornu Empire near Lake Chad. The town is served by Dirkou Airport. It is on the route some migrants have taken from Niger to Libya. Apart from the main city of Dirkou, the rural communities of Achénouma, Aney, and Emi Tchouma lie within the borders of the commune.

Séguédine is a town in central eastern Niger, lying at the far northern tip of the Kaouar escarpment, an inhabited oasis in the midst of the Sahara Desert. It once lay on the important central soudan route of the Trans-Saharan trade which linked coastal Libya and the Fezzan to the Kanem-Bornu Empire near Lake Chad.

Tree of Ténéré
The desert is also known for the celebrated Tree of Ténéré, once thought to be among the most remote in the world. Situated by the last well before entering the Grand Erg du Bilma on the way to Fachi, salt caravans relied on the tree as a landmark until it was allegedly knocked down by a truck driver in 1973. It was replaced by a metal sculpture and the remains are enshrined at the museum in Niamey (capital of Niger). Despite this unfortunate mishap, the tree is still often indicated on maps of the region as a notable landmark.

Tuareg people
The Tuareg people are a large Berber ethnic group that principally inhabit the Sahara in a vast area stretching from far southwestern Libya to southern Algeria, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Traditionally nomadic pastoralists, small groups of Tuareg are also found in northern Nigeria.

Tuareg culture is largely matrilineal. In Tuareg society women do not traditionally wear the face veil, whereas men do.The most famous Tuareg symbol is the tagelmust, a combined turban and veil, often indigo-blue colored. The men’s facial covering originates from the belief that such action wards off evil spirits. It may have related instrumentally from the need for protection from the harsh desert sands as well. Men begin wearing a veil when they reach maturity. The veil usually conceals their face, excluding their eyes and the top of the nose.

Similar to other rural Berber traditions, jewellery made of silver, coloured glass or iron is also a special artform of the Tuareg people. While jewellery of other Berber cultures in the Maghreb was mainly worn by women, Tuareg men also use necklaces, amulets, rings and other jewellery.

These traditional handicrafts are made by the inadan wan-tizol (makers of weapons and jewelry). Among their products are tanaghilt or zakkat (the ‘Agadez Cross’ or ‘Croix d’Agadez’); the Tuareg sword (takoba), gold and silver-made necklaces called ‘takaza’ as well as earrings called ‘tizabaten’. Pilgrimage boxes have intricate iron and brass decorations and are used for carrying items. Tahatint are made of goat skin. Other such artifacts are made of leather and include metalwork for saddle decorations, called trik.

Most forms of the Cross of Agadez are worn as pendants with varied shapes that either resemble a cross or have the shape of a plate or shield. Historically, the oldest known specimens were made of stone or copper, but subsequently the Tuareg blacksmiths also used iron and silver made in the lost-wax casting technique. Today, these pieces of jewellery are often made for tourists or as items of ethnic-style fashion for customers in other countries, with certain modern changes.

While living quarters are progressively changing to adapt to a more sedentary lifestyle, Tuareg groups are well known for their nomadic architecture (tents). There are several documented styles, some covered with animal skin, some with mats. The style tends to vary by location or subgroup. The tent is traditionally constructed for the first time during the marriage ceremony and is considered an extension of the union, to the extent that the phrase “making a tent” is a metaphor for becoming married.

Tagella is a flatbread made from wheat flour and cooked on a charcoal fire; the flat disk-shaped bread is buried under the hot sand. The bread is broken into small pieces and eaten with a meat sauce. Millet porridge called a cink or a liwa is a staple much like ugali and fufu. Millet is boiled with water to make a pap and eaten with milk or a heavy sauce. Common dairy foods are goat’s and camel’s milk called akh, as well as cheese ta komart and Tona a thick yogurt made from them. Eghajira is a beverage drunk with a ladle. It is made by pounding millet, goat cheese, dates, milk and sugar and is served on festivals. The local popular tea, called atay or ashay, is made from Gunpowder Green Tea with much sugar added. After steeping, it is poured three times in and out of the teapot over the tea, mint leaves and sugar and served by pouring from a height of over a foot into small tea glasses with a froth on top.

Traditional Tuareg music has two major components: the monochord violin anzad played often during night parties and a small tambour covered with goatskin called tende, performed during camel and horse races, and other festivities. Traditional songs called Asak and Tisiway (poems) are sung by women and men during feasts and social occasions. Another popular Tuareg musical genre is Takamba, characteristic for its Afro percussions.

They are a semi-nomadic people who practice Islam, and are descended from the indigenous Berber communities of Northern Africa. The Tuareg today inhabit a vast area in the Sahara, stretching from far southwestern Libya to southern Algeria, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and the far north of Nigeria. Throughout history, the Tuareg were renowned and respected warriors. The Tuareg warrior equipment consisted of a takoba (sword), allagh (lance) and aghar (shield) made of antelope hide.

Road Trip
Some of the most exquisite sand dunes in the entire Sahara can be found in a large desert. Some of the most breathtaking scenery in the Sahara is explored via the tourism paths Into the Ténéré. This desert trip travels through some of the world’s most isolated regions. This journey offers breathtaking scenery, an adventure deep within the Sahara, a sense of discovery, and the sensation of almost completely uncharted territory.

The voyage begins in the captivating capital of the Tuareg people, the legendary city of Agadez. This used to be a center of religious study and a significant stop for caravans traveling through the area in search of trade. Discover dinosaur fossils while traveling to the magnificent Grand Erg du Bilma dunes. Next, proceed to Fachi, an oasis where the locals rely on salt extraction for their livelihood.

Next, venture into the vast Ténéré desert and pass near the edge of the Air Mountains, which are inhabited by remote Tuareg communities. Aspire to encounter the camel caravans and their drivers who have traversed this territory for ages. A visit to two of the most significant oasis in the area, Iferouane and Timia, comes after you reach the massive dunes of Temet, some of the tallest in the world.

Before our sight, the desolate wildness of the Ténéré Desert expands. Just past this historic landmark, Ténéré Erg, the first huge dunes, proudly lift their profile against the sky.

Ténéré and Bilma ergs
This is the famed salt caravan route that leads to Bilma in the winter. It’s an experience of a lifetime to see a train of camels sauntering magnificently through the soft sand. Travelers feel as lost as if they were in the middle of an unknown sea as the 4WDs twist their way around the massive sand ridges, leaving small tire prints that disappear with the first breeze. Driving becomes more difficult because there is no road in this maze—not even the shadow of a track. This endless sea of sand offers wonderfully green refuges like the Fachi and Bilma Oasis.

Dirkou – Seguedine – Djado – Orida : la falaise du Kaouar
Beneath the intimidating Kaouar Cliff, the plantations of Aney, Seguedine, and Chirfa palm trees bloom a delectably green color. The great fortified cities of Djado and Djaba have vanished, leaving only remains to silently preserve the legacy of their unidentified creators. The pillars of stone at Orida, eroded by blowing sand, provide for an amazing, almost bizarre scene.

Dissalak Cliff and Ténéré Desert
Dissalak Cliff has been transformed into a sculpture gallery over millennia by the ferocious Saharan wind. The worn rock is covered in sculptures of human bodies, abstract figures, and eagle heads. This is the point at which you enter the Tafassâsset, the true Ténéré Desert, a level region that is as empty, pristine, and vast as the infinite. In this world of quiet and silence, there is nothing to look at and no indication of life. Traveling across this complete wasteland between the sky and the sand is an extremely humble experience.

Adrar Bous – Temet
Traces of very ancient human existence can still be found in the Adrar Bous area. Its vast collection of Neolithic artifacts, which includes fishbones, grindstones, and arrow heads, bears testament to a time and place of activity totally different from our own; in fact, the Neolithic societies were based in a region of Ténéré that was dotted with lakes. Finding one of those antiquities that dates back thousands of years is one of the most poignant travel experiences one can have. At the base of the 1,000-meter Gréboun mountain, the Temet Oued (intermittent river) meanders among steep sand dunes that reach a height of about 300 meters.

Tezirzek – Chiriet
In the vicinity of Tezirzek Well, the lush fauna that roamed the Ténéré while the desert was still in bloom is evoked by a hill covered in rock paintings. The cultures that relied on those species for survival have vanished along with them. Rushing up against Adrar Chiriet, a black volcanic rock wonderfully worn by blowing sand, are the multicolored Ifiniyane Dunes.

Illekane – Arakao
There are no contrasts as sharp as these in the whole Sahara. Waves of sand wash in all directions towards the horizon, occasionally smashing against islands of white and blue marble. Delicate flowers are nourished by gold, silver, and pink dunes, which also catch light traces that suggest a hidden life that has somehow adapted to its hostile surroundings. Through a massive break in its high walls, the ten-kilometer-wide crater Arakao, formed like a crab claw, gathers the Ténéré sand, building an enormous sand buttress against the Takolokouzet.

Zagado valley- Assodé – Timia
We enter the majestic Massif de l’Aïr deep into its center by following the Zagado River. Gazelles frolic among its banks of trees. There are many stories about ‘Assodé’s thriving history. Only a few walls remain of the ancient Aïr capital, now a ghost town, but the pottery shards scattered throughout the site attest to its formerly flourishing commerce. The Timia Oasis stands out against the ochre stretch of sand because of its vibrant green color against the otherwise gloomy lava range surrounding it. The wooden pulleys that their forefathers used to water their gardens are still in use by Kel Oui farmers. They grow a vast range of vegetables, wheat, corn, and even grapes. A beautiful waterfall flows downstream from Timia, forming a sequence of basins before reaching the guelta.

Elméki – Dabaga – Azel – Agadez
This section of track is full of contrasts and surprises, to the traveler’s never-ending delight: light-footed gazelles and blooming acacia trees; arid moonscapes and emerald-green oasis; volcanic pillars and well-kept gardens. Tuaregs continue to harvest tin from old cassiterite mines in Elméki. Azel is a quaint community of settled Tuareg farmers and ranchers that is traversed by the road leading to Agadez.