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On a caravan, with one of the Sahara’s last European explorers

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Climbing into the saddle, he adjusts the scarf protecting his head from the sun and, with a tap on the camel’s back, the caravan sets off.

Thierry Tillet is again off to explore the vast Saharan desert, at the head of a nine-camel convoy with three other riders.

At 68, the Frenchman is one of the last European explorers since the end of the 19th century to dedicate much of his life — 47 years — to crisscrossing the Sahara.

This expedition, which began before the coronavirus epidemic, starts and ends at two desert jewels in central Mauritania.

From Tichitt, the convoy is headed east to Oualata, 300 kilometres (185 miles) away, travelling in single file over a sandy, rocky landscape.

For the first time, Tillet — or Ghabidine, as a Tuareg friend renamed him — is taking journalists along “so that this knowledge reaches the general public”.

Perched on the back of his swaying camel, Tillet wears an old, holey T-shirt and worn sandals.

On-the-ground information from locals is key to Tillet’s preparations before leaving on an expedition. PHOTO: AFP / JOHN WESSELS

With his tousled, white hair and stubbled chin, it’s easy to forget he’s an authority in his field.

For many years he was a member of the anthropology laboratory at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

He was also professor of prehistoric archaeology at Grenoble University and taught in Chad, Niger and Mali.

Throughout, he would go back and forth to the Sahara.

He has documented Neolithic civilisations, overseen the inventory of Malian archaeological sites and discovered a dinosaur skeleton in the Tenere desert in Niger.

“Sometimes, small fragments of discovered tools contain more information than a dinosaur, even if it’s less spectacular,” Tillet says.

In all its diversity

Exploring the history of the world’s largest expanse of arid land is a hugely diverse venture.

It can range from the forgotten religious centres of Sufi brotherhoods in northern Mali, to the sandstone plateaus in northeastern Chad and prehistoric Saharan settlements in Niger.

But trading his camel for the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle as his mode of transport isn’t an option for Tillet.

“You’re going at the speed of the camel, and that allows me to observe and spot a number of things on the ground,” he says.

Travelling at a camel’s pace provides a greater chance of spotting artefacts in the sand, Tillet says. PHOTO: AFP / JOHN WESSELS

“In a car I wouldn’t be able to do that, it moves too quickly.”

Each trip brings something new, be it publications in scientific works, “a few stones brought back for research” or photos of objects from the Neolithic era, the last period of the Stone Age.

Currently it’s an 11th-century caravan depot lost in the Mauritanian dunes, the Ma’den Ijafen, that begs to be found.

“It was Theodore (Monod, the late French explorer) who discovered it in 1956,” Tillet says.

“He asked me to go back there.”

For three years now, he has been searching and, on this expedition, wants to ask around among nomadic shepherds.

The revealing winds

Tillet does not consider himself an adventurer or a daredevil.

“Exploration carries with it a fantasy. I’m not trying to discover the unknown, but to discover what exists!” he says.

“That is true scientific exploration.”

In this part of the Sahara, prehistoric artefacts are everywhere, constantly revealed by an omnipresent wind, but indistinguishable to the untrained eye.

“In a continental climate, it’s often necessary to dig… Here, it’s all on the surface.”

For three years, Tillet has been searching for signs of an 11th-century caravan depot, the Ma’den Ijafen, lost in the Mauritanian dunes. PHOTO: AFP / JOHN WESSELS

Without warning, he pulls the reins to stop, on spotting something interesting.

If he doesn’t know what it is, he takes notes and — in his only recourse to 21st-century technology — satellite coordinates using a GPS.

Once home in southwestern France’s Perigord region, he will transfer them onto a map, tirelessly completing what he calls his “spider’s web”.

The hundreds of GPS points are not only a scientific record but suggest the route of his next expedition.

Searching for a bull

Tillet, the son of Parisian bakers, said his love of Africa and archaeology began after hearing stories as a child.

But it was his first university professor who ignited the desire to go and see it for himself, encouraging him to focus on the Sahara.

On his first trip — in Algeria — it rained a lot.

“For someone wanting to study the Sahara, it was a bad start!” he says, laughing.

Tillet’s wife occasionally used to accompany him on his explorations.

But this time, his companions are Ahmadou, Sheih and Ahmed, whom he has known for many years.

Looks, gestures and common phrases in mixed mother tongues make up for any language barriers.

The days are punctuated by the same rituals: a sunrise departure, stops to drink green tea and finding a place where they can make supper before sleeping under the stars as the camels graze.

If he finds something interesting and doesn’t know what it is, he takes notes and GPS satellite coordinates which he then transfers onto a map once he’s back in France. PHOTO: AFP / JOHN WESSELS

After two days, the caravan stops at Akreijit, an archaeological site discovered in 1934 by Monod and partly restored by a French team at the end of the last century.

The foundations of the old buildings are visible again.

European tourists disembark from their 4x4s in a cloud of dust and briskly visit the old town, just last year removed from the “red zones” where the French foreign ministry advises against travel.

Tillet looks for a drawing of a bull on a rock, located during a previous visit.

“It is two metres (6.5 feet) long,” he says. “My GPS point tells me it’s in 22 metres.”

He scans and searches, passing repeatedly through the ruins, but finds nothing.

‘At great risk’

Concerned about kidnappings, the French authorities are not always happy about the caravan’s off-the-radar trips.

“These people are as worrying as they are fascinating, so we have to keep an eye out,” a French diplomat in the sub-region later told AFP.

Three-quarters of the caravan’s route are in areas that travellers are officially advised by the French government to avoid.

The caravan travelled from the former desert jewel of Tichitt to Oualata, 300 kilometres (185 miles) away. PHOTO: AFP / JOHN WESSELS

“Objectively, he sometimes puts himself at great risk,” acknowledged Pierre Touya, president of the Association of Saharans which groups archaeologists, geographers and other enthusiasts.

Still, “he remains rational, does very good research and is supported by local knowledge,” he said.

On-the-ground information from locals is key to Tillet’s preparations before leaving.

By email and phone, he finds out about nomadic tribes’ movements or where there are wells for the animals to drink.

For decades, the region has been buffeted by inter-communal clashes, separatist insurgencies and conflicts between religious groups — and Tillet has often found himself on the front row.

In the 1990s, he met Iyad Ag Ghaly, then a rebel leader and now head of one of the main jihadist coalitions.

He also met French ethnologist Francoise Claustre in Chad before she was kidnapped in 1974 by Hissene Habre’s rebels.

Concerned about kidnappings, the French authorities are not always happy about the caravan’s off-the-radar trips. PHOTO: AFP / JOHN WESSELS

And he has shared mechoui, a meal of slow-roasted lamb, with former Malian president and fellow archaeologist Alpha Oumar Konare.

“As long as I don’t bump into the bastards, it’s all right,” he smiles, talking about the jihadists, who are an escalating threat in the Sahel region.

In 2009, he was forced to hide in the northern Malian town of Kidal.

Alerted to the presence of “likely unfriendly” groups at a time when Tuareg independence rebellions and jihadist groups were emerging, he left at 4:00 am in a pick-up truck, his head down and face hidden.

That same year, he and his camel team were woken in the night by the blinding light of a surveillance drone in the desert of Mali’s Taoudenit region.

The jihadist expansion in the Sahel-Saharan strip has reduced exploration possibilities.

But, according to a source close to the authorities, interviewed in Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott, a security grid set up a decade ago to counter the emerging jihadist influence is “once again allowing scientists and tourists to come”.

‘So much to document’

It’s day four and, after a cold night, he groans from the pain of an old foot injury as he climbs into the saddle.

But, neither the discomfort nor deteriorating regional security will stop him.

Next year Tillet is planning a more than 1,000-km route in the Sahara, his longest yet. PHOTO: AFP / JOHN WESSELS

This desert is “the place where I feel the best, where you can’t go wrong”, he says.

When he reaches Oualata near the Mali border after what will have been a two-week journey, Tillet plans to relax and drink tea with an old acquaintance.

Even if he didn’t find the elusive caravan depot this time, he’s happy with the information gleaned.

Previously the projects were funded by his former employer, the CNRS, but since retiring in 2012, he pays the several thousand euros needed for the trip himself.

Monod got off his camel for the last time aged 93 and Tillet, a member of the French Society of Explorers, hopes to go on for a long while yet.

“There’s still so much to document,” he says.

For next year he is planning his longest route so far, at more than 1,000 km, back in the Sahara, with its many silences but, as he says, “where it’s never boring”.

Reporting and photos: AFP

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Culture at Kuda Villingili Resort Maldives on Eid al-Adha

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Kuda Villingili Resort Maldives has shared the details of its upcoming Eid al-Adha celebration, from June 16th to June 18th, 2024. This year, the resort invites guests to fully immerse themselves in a one-of-a-kind celebration. Celebrate the arrival of the new moon with a three-day event filled with cultural festivities, delicious food, and exclusive offers tailored for GCC travellers.

Kuda Villingili Resort Maldives invites guests to embrace the spirit of Eid al-Adha by providing a peaceful sanctuary for contemplation, gratitude, and participation in this significant occasion’s joyous festivities.

In celebration of Eid al-Adha, Kuda Villingili Resort Maldives has shared a fantastic offer exclusively for GCC market for bookings and stays until June 30, 2024, with a minimum stay of 3 nights. Guests are welcome to enjoy an attractive 30% discount on all villa categories, along with a wonderful selection of complimentary amenities such as an Arabic floating breakfast served in their private pool. Savour the tranquilly of a sunset cruise on a traditional Maldivian dhoni, take advantage of an irresistible 10% discount on watersports activities, and rejuvenate with a one-time complimentary 60-minute spa treatment for two adults at the private island overwater spa.

In addition to the thrilling offer, the resort has organised a variety of exciting activities for guests to enjoy during the three-day Eid celebrations. One of the highlights is the fishing competition, known as the Mas Race in Dhivehi. Mas Race is an exciting fishing game that brings families and friends together to embark on thrilling adventures in the bountiful seas. Participants can showcase their fishing skills and rely on a bit of luck to outshine their competitors. The champion reels in the biggest and most fish. The talented culinary team will expertly cook the guests’ personal catches to their liking, whether it’s steamed, grilled, or barbecued with authentic Maldivian flavours and flair. After all, sustainably caught fresh fish in the Maldives are unparalleled.

During the 3-day celebration, guests can also enjoy a large selection of watersports and big-game fishing with a 10% discount. With the surf season in full swell in the Maldives, this Eid, the resort invites all guests to start a new hobby, and what better way than to surf at Chickens Break while in Kuda Villingili? Surf, dive, watersport, and rejuvenate at The Spa with a 20% discount on signature massages.

The culinary highlight of Eid al-Adha is the sighting of the New Moon Eid dinner at The Restaurant, where guests can enjoy a bespoke Arabic-themed dinner featuring delicious dishes from across the Middle East and Eid specials from the Maldives.

The Kuda Fiyo Kid Club is excited to announce an unforgettable Eid celebration for children. The programme features a variety of traditional Maldivian games, including dhalhu vehttun (a local style of bowling), coconut leaf origami, the Eid kite challenge, and various arts and crafts activities.

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Enjoy ultimate luxurious escape on Eid al-Adha at The Ritz-Carlton Maldives

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Celebrate the occasion of Eid Al-Adha by embracing island life at The Ritz-Carlton Maldives, Fari Islands. To commemorate the holiday, the resort invites GCC travellers into a world of breathtaking natural beauty, exclusive accommodation, legendary service, exquisite food, and once in a lifetime experiences.

Guests are invited to indulge in stunning turquoise water views teeming with marine life, pristine untouched white-sand beaches and lush greenery amid the Indian Ocean. With an array of bespoke Eid activities happening for the holiday including sunset cruises, chakra yoga, coral regeneration, design artistry workshops and more, guests can step into a world of exceptional luxury, to enjoy the resorts breathtaking island home.

With only a short flight time from across the GCC, those visiting the island from Monday 17th June until Friday 21st June, can embark on captivating adventures and experiences for the whole family.

Dive into the crystal-clear waters and snorkel alongside majestic turtles or contribute to the preservation of the vibrant marine ecosystem with the hotel’s Coral Regeneration programme. Watch the sun dip below the horizon aboard a luxurious Sunset Dolphin Cruise or guests can try their luck at reeling in the catch of the day with a Big Game Fishing excursion. If guests are looking for something more challenging, try a Killer Abs workout or group Aerial Hoop Class. For those seeking a more creative activity, enjoy an Eid Design Artistry workshop and discover the joy of expression through art.

Nourish the body, mind, and soul with The Ritz-Carlton Maldives curated selection of indulgent experiences. Become immersed in the ancient practice of Chakra Yoga, harmonising inner energies amidst the breathtaking backdrop of the Maldives, or learn how to give a Gua Sha Massage, where guests can transform their skincare routine by revealing radiant and rejuvenated skin. For those looking to experience something new, attend the Bamboo Tapping workshop where guests will discover a soothing rhythm.

Celebrate Eid Al-Adha in culinary bliss with nightly Levantine cuisine served on the pristine sands of the hotel’s island paradise, courtesy of The White Journey. Guests can enjoy a Maldivian Night on the final evening of the Eid holiday, with a culinary journey underneath the stars where traditional flavours of the island can be enjoyed in every bite.

Keeping young hearts and minds engaged throughout the Eid holiday, the Ritz Kids programme offers a range of exciting activities. From crafting memories on the beach with Sandcastle Decoration to unleashing their inner artist with Eid Pallet Art Painting, children enjoy the holidays like never before. Children can also embark on a thrilling Eid Dhoni Boat Safari or unravel the mysteries of the island with an exciting Eid Treasure Hunt.

For an exclusive Eid activity, football legend Ivan Rakitic will be hosting two football workshops during the celebrations. The Saudi Pro League player and former Barcelona FC icon will be sharing his expertise with guests, and teaching life-long skills to aspiring young players.

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Nova Maldives unveils Eid al-Adha programme with cultural activities

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Recognising the growth of slow and experiential travel trends in the GCC, this Eid Al-Adha, from June 16 to June 19, Nova Maldives extends an invitation to join a journey that integrates traditional and modern aspects of Maldivian culture. Set against the backdrop of the island’s serene beauty, Nova is preparing an extensive cultural event that allows guests to delve into the heritage and customs of the Maldives.

Central to the festivities is the Holhuashi event, redefining traditional storytelling on Wink Beach. The term “Holhuashi,” meaning “public meeting space,” has been adapted here to create a dynamic space for cultural exchange. During the event, master storytellers will share traditional Maldivian stories, aiming to connect guests with the historical roots of the Maldives.

Abdulla Aboobakuru, General Manager of Nova Maldives, commented on the relevance of this year’s event, saying, “One of the notable GCC travel trends to Maldives this year is slow and experiential travel, which emphasises longer duration stays and a deep immersion into the local culture. The Maldivian Eid celebration at Nova is the perfect opportunity for GCC travellers to engage deeply with the unique cultural aspects of the Maldives.”

Additionally, the event will feature renowned Maldivian artists and craftspeople demonstrating their skills in traditional crafts. This presentation is designed not only for viewing but also for guests to experience, as each piece showcases a blend of heritage and innovation.

Throughout the Eid Al-Adha period, guests will have opportunities to engage more deeply with Maldivian culture. Activities will include language lessons, culinary experiences featuring local cuisine, and introductions to Maldivian rituals and beliefs. These elements collectively aim to provide a comprehensive understanding of the Maldivian way of life.

Guests can now book their stay at 45% off for stays up to September 2024. Rates for the Beach Villa start from AED 2711 for 2 guests on an all-inclusive basis, inclusive of all taxes and green tax. The offer includes complimentary use of snorkelling fins and masks during the stay, daily complimentary group Sunrise Yoga, a 30-minute photo session, complimentary rental of standard kayaks and paddleboards (non-guided) once per stay, and discounts on water sports, spa treatments, and à la carte restaurants.

Guests staying 6 nights or more will enjoy a complimentary 3-course dinner at Nova’s speciality restaurants, Mizu and Flames.

For those interested in experiencing this cultural event, bookings can be made for the specified dates in June. Additional details and reservations are available through Nova’s website.

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