The Lighthouse in the Desert

By Jack Hamilton, 9 Oct, 2011

Folklore spills across time creating and undoing history as it ebbs. Whole identities can be constructed and deconstructed in these stories but it is rare in these ages that entire maps can be reimagined due to a single small tree. The old addage “so geographers in Afric maps, with savage pictures fill their gaps” has long since faded but this is a story about one such ‘gap’, the one piece of life within it and the price of life that goes with it.

The Sahara Desert is awash with a sandstorm of whispers and this particular spec is the lonely Tree of Ténéré. It is a story which entails trust amidst gossip as well as the dangers of blind trust in a terrain in which one can see for miles. Upon first hearing the story I didn’t believe that such a tree could ever have existed. In recent weeks a terrorist cell linked to al-Qaeda was undone by their belief that the tree still existed. However, I must start by describing the story of the tree.

There was once a solitary tree standing in the centre of the Sahara Desert. Between the Baobabs of Senegal and the Olive Trees of Tunisia remained one sole survivor of a bygone era. Millenia ago the tree had been part of a great forest which had gradually died off as the Sahara became the inhospitable mother she is today. One tree remained to guide all those who dared to traverse the barren lands. It was a beacon: the lighthouse in the desert.

The nomads of the desert alone knew of this tree and used it as a tracking mechanism when traversing the most desolate depths of enduring beige. When these Tuareg would encounter the Fulani in north east Mali they would recount their tracks in order to let the Fulani know of their passage, including the waypoint of the tree in the middle of the desert. Having listened politely to the detailed directions the Fulani would thank the Tuareg and see them on their way providing that no disagreements had been reached.

At this stage the Fulani would all agree never to follow the route of the Tuareg. These men had seemingly been driven dangerously insane by the desert. Of course, there is no chance for a tree to exist in such a place. There are no trees for hundreds of miles in the Sahel (the shoreline of the desert), let alone the Sahara. If this route had a proclivity for perverting the minds of the fearsome Tuareg, it was no place for men.

This story circulated until the times when modern technology made it possible for mere mortals to take the route. Safe inside the machinery that would be used to fight the Second World War, Europeans were able to cross the desert here in hopes of cutting off a rival. It was at this time that they too believed themselves to have gone insane too as in the horizon the withered spectre of an acacia tree loomed. They had not been in the desert long enough to have reached the Libyan coast and had not crossed the Italian lines that would have inevitably preceded the water. It could not be Algeria as there had been no sign of the southern Air mountains. The story was true. They had discovered the Tree of Ténéré. The most isolated life on Earth.

It is here that a part of the mystery ends. Confused and in search of the truth the Europeans (a French division) decided to dig underneath the tree and discovered a well 35 metres down. While the fairytale of the tree was slightly depleted the beacon took on a new significance as not only being the only life but suddenly becoming a redeemer of life in the harsh conditions of the Sahara. The tree was not a mirage but the literal symbol of water in the desert.

However, as with all of these stories of the desert, it ends in tragedy. In the 1970s a Libyan truck driver somehow careered into the tree, allegedly drunk. Upon hearing this part of the story I was always interested to hear how the driver could explain this to his boss. He had somehow managed to hit the only tree in a 400km radius.

The reason I was reminded of this story was due to reading intelligence reports from the security forces tracking al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (the Saharan branch of the terrorist organisation). One of the Algerian trackers claimed that they had an intimate knowledge of the desert and in the pursuit they had passed the Tree of Ténéré. Today in the place of the tree stands a simple metal sculpture representing the optimism of the tree. Unfortunately the tracker described in great detail the tree as it looked before the 1970s, exactly the description that was recounted to me. It was clear that the ‘trackers’ did not know the desert and had possibly never crossed into Niger where the tree used to stand. They were found out immediately.

The idea of the Tree of Ténéré had always seemed to me like one of the lies which whispers around the desert. It brought a smile to my face that the myth was actually the truth and it was this fact that unveiled the fiction.

Jack Hamilton can be followed on Twitter @jmhamilton


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