It is serenely quiet and bitterly cold. A small group of us have just scrambled over rocks with numb hands to get to a small stone hut. An almost spiritual light replaces the intense sunlight as shades of orange and pink paint the uneven tips of the wind-worn and jagged brown mountains which jut out of the Saharan sands. The eerie shadows of the valleys below fall into a deep mauve haze before evaporating into complete darkness. Only a handful of people huddled together for warmth are on hand to watch nature’s welcoming of a new night in this remote and desolate mountain hideaway.
We carefully pick our way back down to the small refuge, the dazzling stars of the evening sky belying the plummeting temperatures and biting breezes. Dining in candlelight, a steaming plate of cous-cous and stew, cooked by the local Tuareg desert dwellers, started to restore feeling to the body’s extremities.
Around 100 years ago, a French hermit monk and ex-army officer, Father Charles de Foucauld built a spiritual retreat in Assekrem, one of the highest points in the Sahara (around 2600 metres above sea level) in the Hoggar mountains in southern Algeria and the central Sahara. He traveled there because he believed that you had to live in the mountains to truly know God.
Exhausted, we settle into the dormitories onto tired, lumpy mattresses. A good night’s sleep is important as we’ll be awake at five to again clamber up the rocky path to view the sunrise. It is even colder than the night before as nature rolls away the stars and paints the Hoggar moonscape with a golden yellow.
Assekrem is a rugged four hour, 80 kilometre drive west from the oasis town of Tamanrasset through an incredible moonscape via a roadway barely distinguishable from the surrounding desert sands and rocks.
It has been described as the most beautiful sunset on Earth – maybe too strong an epithet. But it is an uplifting, rewarding, spiritual place in an unwelcoming and rugged desert environment. A steady flow of visitors from all around the world suggests that it is well worth the effort to see the majestic sunrises and sunsets of this mountain hermitage.
This journey was undertaken many years ago around the time of the first Gulf War. Note that Algeria remains a dangerous place to travel and you should seek the latest travel advisories before going. That being said, the south of Algeria and the desert region is far more peaceful than the north and populous areas of Algeria.