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Saharan Love Affair?

by Jane Atkins, Researcher, Deserts and Grasslands

My love affair with the Sahara started last year when I was looking for the most impressive and beautiful place to film people searching for water in the desert.  Like any love affair, the last few months have seen me totally in love with the Sahara, telling everyone about it, then the next moment immensely frustrated, tearing my hair out and cursing it, never wanting to go back!

Here I am with our guide, Hamdi

Here I am with our guide, Hamdi

 The story starts back in March when I started looking into desert wells. Essential to life in the desert, wells are found in every desert known to man, but one passionate Italian geologist whispered down the phone, ‘I can tell you the best place of all.’ As the UNESCO consultant on desert areas, he had seen more sand dunes than I could imagine, so I was keen to hear his words of wisdom. ‘Algeria’ he said.  Hmm.. not somewhere I had ever wanted to go, but who knows.. I might be surprised.

 So a few weeks later I was on a plane to Algeria, and then flying from the capital, Algiers, to a small town called Timmimoun.  From the window of the nearly empty plane, all I could see was desert- golden dunes, then stretches of flat hard baked desert rock, big escarpments and dried out river beds snaking through the emptiness.  We flew for three golden hours and still the desert stretched on.  I hardly saw a soul down there, a few small towns in the middle of nowhere, but that was it.  How on earth do people live here?   And why? 

Another view of the wells stretching away into the distance

This was my recce, my first visit to Algeria and this extraordinary part of the Sahara.  From the moment I stepped into the heat and saw the dunes I was in love.  It was magical.  And when I saw the desert wells, I was astounded.    I had never seen anything like this.  There was not just one well or two here in the desert, but hundreds and thousands.  Individually they looked like huge mole hills, but in a long line this lunar landscape looked as if it had been blasted by a bomber plane.  Amazingly, some of these wells were 600 years old and the system they are based on dates back to 5000 years ago.  Incredibly, even today these wells and passages are still the only source of water for some people here.   

I took photos, recced other locations, met people who dig these wells, and others who farmed small gardens in the desert.  I wrote shot lists and planned how to reveal this incredible landscape and tell this story.  A week later I was back in the office and writing applications to Algerian officials to get permission to film and import a hot air balloon for aerials.  That was back in May.  Between then and my Algeria shoot I was filming in Kenya but Algeria was always on my mind.

But as the shoot got nearer, I was beginning to tear my hair out.  My Production Co-ordinator (the lovely Isabelle Corr) and I had written more letters and filled in more paperwork than I care to recall.  I was hoping that Algeria would welcome a filming project revealing its extraordinary natural heritage, but there were so many hurdles to cross, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back! 

At the end of August we finally received our filming visas, and then the unimaginable happened.  The wonderful sound recordist I was hoping to go to Algeria with, died in a tragic accident. I could not believe it.  He was so full of life and energy.  Filming out there would not be the same without him.   And then a week later, the safety climber we were supposed to be taking also had a serious but not fatal accident; falling from a cliff while climbing.   With only three weeks to go until the shoot, we had to find new crew and get them visas in quick turn around time.

Then there was another blow.  Sadly, one very important bit of our kit was refused.  We were not allowed to bring in the hot air balloon.  I had hoped to film aerials over the Algerian desert, giving a spectacular bird’s eye view of these strange and ancient wells, and the beautiful villages and gardens but, despite providing every insurance document and licence, the authorities said No.  Dany, the hot air balloon pilot, who shot beautiful aerials of the Niger desert for us last year, was as disappointed as we were but so as not to risk the rest of the shoot, we  had to cancel that aspect of the filming project.

It is now November and I am back from Algeria.  After the rollercoaster summer preparing for the filming trip, I can say with huge relief that we did finally get ourselves and our kit into the desert.  Under the 45 degree heat of the Sahara, the team managed to build a climbing rig over the wells to lower our cameraman 15 metres into the desert rock, where it was cool, dark and quiet.  Our great cameraman (also an expert caver) Gavin Newman managed to squeeze through the tiny manmade passages to film Mafourdi, a sweet 70 year old man, nimble as a 17 year old, as he descended to meet him in the darkness. 

From the surface I stared nervously into the dark hole.  I could hear tapping and rocks falling as more rock was drawn up in buckets.  Communicating by walkie talkies, I blindly suggested shots to the cameraman, as it was too tight for me to go down inside the wells too.   As I tried to focus on getting the shots to tell the story, I tried not to think of tales I’d been told about passages collapsing, trapping workers inside in dark desert graves.  Luckily this was not our fate.  You’ll have to watch the Deserts film to see the whole fascinating story but for now, all I can say is that thankfully this rollercoaster ride ended well, and give a huge thanks to the team - Isabelle, Gavin, Willow, Sam, Said and the Ba’amar guys - for all their hard work!

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