Sahara, Part II: Crossing the Desert

For the first part of the Sahara series, see Birth and Evolution of a Desert.

The harsh desert conditions of the Sahara, as we know it today, prohibited extensive contact between northern Africa and their southern neighbors for a very long time. Before the camel was introduced, people did undertake the journey on foot or with the help of donkeys, but it was so arduous and dangerous that trans-Saharan trade on any large scale was nearly impossible.

Picture of a blue warning sign featuring a camel in the Sahara desert in Tunisia.
Camel crossing sign in the Tunisian Sahara, by Johnny Africa.

Desert Survival

In the best of circumstances, and with severe rationing, it is possible to survive on a minimum of a liter of water a day in the Sahara, although normal consumption would place this requirement at 4.5 liters a day. Having good knowledge of the locations of oases, water holes and wadis is, and was, paramount to survival. Much like sailors, the nomadic desert people developed a navigation system using the night sky and its constellations to tell direction and distance, guiding them safely to the desert’s shore, or Sahel — from the Arabic word sāḥil meaning “shore, coast” in a figurative sense.

Picture of a Tuareg man laying in the sands at the top of an erg in the Sahara desert.
A well earned rest in the Sahara, Algeria, by Evan Cole.

The nomadic Tuareg and Berber peoples were those who undertook the journey on a regular basis. Their clothing was well adapted to the arid conditions of the Sahara.

Long, flowing robes or tunics help circulate the air around the body, keeping it cool, while also protecting the skin from the harmful rays of sun. Darker clothes are even favored in the desert because, although dark materials absorb more heat from the sun, they also absorbs heat from the body. As long as wind circulates, the color of the garment does not play a crucial role in the cooling of the wearer. Layers of clothes also slow down the evaporation of sweat, retaining the much needed moisture that keeps the body hydrated.

Picture of a Tuareg man pouring tea under his tent in the desert of the Sahara
Tuareg tea, unknown photographer

The traditional Tuareg man’s headdresses, the tagelmust and the cheche (pronounced “shesh”) are long strips of indigo cloth, wrapped around the head in a turban, covering the entire face apart from the eyes, which not only offers protection from the sun, but prevents the inhalation of wind-borne sand particles.

Shelter is another vital part of surviving the desert. The desert people erect tents — made of goat leather, linen, old clothing, or mats — both to create much needed shade during the midday heat and to keep warm when the temperatures plummet at night. The tents’ entrances are usually oriented towards the south to protect from the northern winds.

Drinking hot tea in a hot environment seems counter-intuitive, but the excessive sweat triggered by ingesting something hot evaporates very quickly in the desert, allowing the body to cool.

Crossing by Land

In the distant past, travelers could only make the long and arduous journey across the Sahara on foot or with caravans of donkeys and oxen. The eventual arrival of horses and camels, neither of which are indigenous to Africa, facilitated the journey.

Horses and Chariots

Rock art in Tassili n'Ajjer, in the Sahara desert of southeast Algeria. Maroon painting of two horses galloping to left drawing chariot with charioteer wearing skirt and holding four reins.
Rock art of a horse-drawn chariot in the Tassili n’Ajjer, southeast Algeria in the Sahara. (Source: Trust for African Rock Art)

Horses were the first to be introduced into Africa through Egypt and the people of the Nile valley adopted both the horse and the war chariot around 1600 BC. It was sometime in the thirteenth century BC that the horse first appeared in Libya to subsequently spread, around 1000 BC, to the surrounding lands, including parts of the desert, such as the Tassili n’Ajjer. Rock art shows these horses were very small, probably Shetland ponies, not the full-sized horses that could have supported much-needed weight on their backs. So they weren’t ridden, but harnessed in pairs to a light chariot in which two men could ride.

A string of rock art sites, depicting the horse-drawn chariots, trace the probable routes that the chariots took through the desert. These “chariot tracks” were not roads in any modern sense, but a series of parallel trails running from one well or waterhole to the next, avoiding any rock outcroppings and sandy areas along the way, while seeking out flat lands that were easier on the chariots. The chariots were fragile and could not conceivably serve for the whole trans-Saharan journey over difficult terrain. Libyan-Berbers, who knew how to build and repair chariots, may have circulated through these areas with horses and timber, making their skills available to travelers.

Map of the horse-drawn chariot tracks through the Sahara desert, traced by the presence of rock art sites depicting the chariots.
Map of the chariot tracks through the Sahara, from The Cambridge History of Africa, Vol 2, 1978

Since the horses were so small and the chariots so light, they could not have been used to carry any substantial amounts of trade goods. Wealthy people, or people of status, were probably the ones riding the chariots, either for pleasure or to signal their prestige. Chiefs or rich traders travelling by chariot might have been accompanied by caravans of donkeys or oxen in order to do business on behalf of Carthaginian or Roman merchants.


The absence of any fossilized camelid bones, or any representation of camels in rock art prior to the first century AD, indicates that camels were not indigenous to Africa. We now know that camels originated in North America where they lived for millions of years, then traveled, via the Bering land-bridge, to Asia. They were domesticated in Central Asia and through trade and travel, were eventually introduced to North Africa in the first century AD.

Rock art of a camel and rider with saddle trappings in the Sahara desert of Chad
Rock art of a man riding a camel, Chad. (Source: Trust for African Rock Art)

With the appearance of the camel, the Sahara finally had its ideal beast of burden. Nicknamed the “ships of the desert”, camels are much hardier than either donkeys, oxen or horses.  They can carry a substantial load of 125-150 kg (275-330 lb) over long distances, in daily stretches of 25 to 30 km (15 to 18 miles). If necessary, they can even cover up to 150 km (93 miles) in a single day, provided they are given adequate time to recover afterwards. Not only that, but the animal is able to go several days without water, although it does drink large quantities of water when it gets the opportunity, making do with even brackish water. It also knows how to survive on the sparse vegetation the desert offers and to protect itself from the harsh sands with its double layers of eyelashes and its ability to close its nostrils.

With the docile animal’s arrival, trans-Saharan trade could really start to flourish. Of course, there was a darker side to the use of the camels: armed with this fast riding pack-animal ideally suited to the environment, the people of the desert were empowered to perform more substantial slave-raids on the black tribesmen of the Sahel.  The military forces of the Maghreb, although still favoring the horse, did not neglect the desert animal entirely and formed camel-riding auxiliaries. The camel became the tool of the trader, but also of the soldier and the brigand.

Crossing by Sea

The Sahara is bordered by the Atlantic. So why didn’t traders, before the arrival of camels, skirt the harsh desert and take to the sea? It would have been a very short trip, only 18 days, to sail along the coast from Morocco to Senegal. The Carthaginians, who occupied the coasts of North Africa at around 260 BC, sailed all the way to the Canary Islands off the western coast. In principle, the ships of classical times would be more than capable of undertaking the journey with enough food and water. So why did they never sail further south?

The first reason, surprisingly, was a lack of interest. From the few goods that made it across the Sahara in those days — a little ivory, a handful of precious stones, a few exotic animals for the circuses, and some rare medicines — it didn’t seem the land to the south was all that rich, so it wasn’t worth the trouble. No doubt gold would have been a great motivation for such a journey, but the Carthaginians had no idea how rich in gold West Africa would prove to be in the coming centuries and we are not at all certain that the indigenous people were even exploiting the goldfields yet.

The main deterrent, though, was wind-related. The sailors of classical times had access to two types of ships: one was broad and wide with a square sail and a steering oar that was manned by a small crew, while the other was a galley propelled by up to fifty oarsmen. Because of the number of oarsmen needed, only rich individuals and military navies could afford the galleys. The trip south from Morocco to the Senegal river would have been smooth sailing and the oarsmen would have been able to kick back and let their ship be pushed south by the northern winds. But this same prevailing wind, always from the north, would make the return journey impossible; even the oarsmen aboard the expensive galleys couldn’t have made any headway towards the north in these conditions.

Sources and Further Reading

Books and Articles:

  • Mauny, R. (1978). Trans-Saharan contacts and the Iron Age in West Africa. In J. D. Fage, & R. Oliver (Eds.), The Cambridge History of Africa, Vol 2 (pp. 272–341). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.


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