First shared in February 2006, while on a 12-month assignment in Niamey, Niger, working in response to the 2005-6 famine in that country.
Part II of the Nigerien Nostalgia series.
Niamey just before Christmas was, in its own way, not very Christmassy. It is very hard to get excited about trees draped with shiny plastic and fat men in red suits when perched on the edge of the biggest sandpit in the world (though then again the Aussies seem to manage it okay I suppose…) And yet it did have its own charm. The fairy lights strung up on the Total gas station glowed Bonne Annee 2006 in mishapen curves, and in the smokey, dust-filled air, car headlights and streetlamps cast an ethereal glow, like a cold winter’s fog in south-east England. If you stand still and concentrate hard, it almost feels atmospheric, and for a brief moment, you get a little nostalgic. Then you realise that it’s getting hard to breath, and it’s still 30 degrees at 8pm, and the muzzazin starts yelling his call to prayer down a nearby microphone, and Christmas flees.
We went to Agadez, because really there was nothing else to do over Christmas in Niger.
They call it the most dangerous road in the world. I don’t know if that’s true any more. Certainly I would imagine some of the border-roads in northern Angola, notorious for land-mines, or the roads linking El-Fasher, Nyala and El-Geneina, preyed upon by Janjawid and Darfur rebels alike, must rank, not to mention the highways across the Sunni Triangle in Iraq. But for a while, back in the nineties, there is little doubt that the road running from Agadez to Arlit, just south of the Algerian border, wasn’t a good place to be. It is a combination of factors. The narrow, deteriorating road surface, the utter desolation of the landscape around it should something go wrong, the camels that dart out into the path of oncoming vehicles, the Tuareg rebels- now mostly just small gangs of bandits- that prey on it, and the fact that despite all the warnings, it is still commerically travelled by coaches, bush-taxis, and small groups of foreign tourists in four-wheel-drives, heading into the Aïr Mountains for their Christmas vacation.
Some of these facts played briefly in the back of my mind as we drove along. Staff members had told us we needed to be careful north of Agadez, but those less prone to worrying told us it was an awesome place to go. A frenchman had been shot dead on this very road three weeks early after his driver ran a bandit roadblock, but it was the first such death in a some time, and utterly avoidable if his driver hadn’t been a complete idiot and had stopped instead. And sitting in the front seat of the Pajero, the windows down because there was no air-conditioning, it was hard not to be exhilerated by the landscape around us, and most other thoughts were pushed far out of mind.
The Timbuktou of Niger, Agadez sprung up several centuries ago, a trading town where Tuareg camel caravans would stop and trade with Fulani and Hausa merchants in the last real settlement before reaching the Sahara proper. You can find it by putting your finger more or less in the middle of the great empty expanse in the middle of West Africa and finding the nearest town south of your finger. To the south, the road, treacherously pot-holed, winds its way 900km to Niamey- a horrific 12-hour coach-ride of the most vile kind. The town itself sits amidst a featureless gravel plain, its mud-brick houses blending almost seamlessly into the endless light-brown landscape across which the Harmattan winds sweep great dust-storms in March and April out of the north.
And it was across this plain, north out of Agadez, that we now raced. We passed a single small town- nothing more than a desolate little hamlet on the edge of the road- and then largely nothing. In the distance, we could make out the Aïr Mountains themselves, mysteriously jagged knife-edges of rock, hazy on the distant horizon that kept pace with us.
We came across a bus. It was a Rimbo bus, the same company we had travelled up with 3 days earlier. The bus goes from Niamey to Agadez, then on to Arlit, the journey passed squeezed into a merciless, airless, suspensionless crate. This particular bus had been the bus the day after we had travelled up to Agadez- the Christmas Day bus to Arlit. A crane was lifting its carcass back onto the road. It had swerved to avoid a camel and rolled over its front corner, which was crushed inwards like an egg-shell. Fifteen people had died. These frequent accidents are the real reason the road out of Agadez is still given the nickname we had heard it called. Strange how the story “15 die in Nigerien Christmas-Day bus tragedy” never made it onto the interntional news circuits. I felt suddenly vulnerable riding in the suicide-seat of our battered, hired four-by-four. A colleague in another NGO had rolled her Hilux outside Agadez just a few weeks ago, and I still remember seeing the remains of a GOAL Land-Rover flipped outside Zinder, the passenger of which my friend Ellen had to stabilize while he was airlifted to safety in France over 2 nerve-wracking days with life-threatening spinal injuries. It wouldn’t be the last time I wished our car had safety-belts, but we just had to trust Ahmoud, our driver. He used to run cocaine through the desert to the Sudanese border when he was younger, and he knew the roads all across the Sahara well, so we felt we were in pretty good hands.
If I had time, I would love to tell you about everything we saw on that trip. (Well, I have some time cos it’s the weekend, but you probably don’t, so I’ll let it go). I’d tell you about the Tuareg nomads in Iferouane, riding to the festival atop camels bedecked in mulitcoloured saddles, brass wares hanging off the side, the beasts themselves the most arrogant, pompous animals in God’s creation, and their riders covered from head to toe in dark robes and turbans, just a narrow slit showing suspicious, weathered eyes. We slept on the dusty floor of a mud hut and shared all our food from one plate, authentic right down to the food poisoning most of us got. I’d tell you about sitting at sunset on the boulders outside Iferouane with a bottle of wine and new friends, watching the sun setting behind distant hills and turning the landscape and the mountains behind us shades of rose, pink and red.
I’d describe the route north, the sandy trail winding its way past the feet of jagged rock outcrops that tower overhead on both sides, otherworldly and ancient, while to us it felt as though we were the only people to see them, so empty was the landscape. I’d describe the sand-dunes at Tizirzak as we came upon them in the late afternoon, when the sun’s rays cast one side in rich golden light, the other in deep shadow, seperated by a wandering knife-edge of sand, and of the exuberance and joy with which we rushed from the trucks to feel the warm sand between our toes, like children arriving at the beach on the first day of their summer vacation. I’d tell you about the meal we shared with some of the shepherds waiting for us among the dunes, a freshly-killed sheep regretfully boiled (have these Tuareg heathen never heard of a barbecue?), and fresh bread baked in hot sand. (And I’d probably pass over too much detail the long, cold night I spent scuttling across the dunes with an upset stomach from the night before).
If I could take you there, I would show you the barren majesty of the Aïr Mountains- vast plains of rock interrupted only by jagged mountains ringed with broken shale, one of the most desolate, primevial, wild landscapes I have ever seen, where even in mid-winter the temperatures were well into the 30s; never have I seen such a place so inhospitable to human life, and I grew to thinking Peter Jackson would have done well to choose northern Niger for his screen rendition of the land of Mordor. I would share with you the joy of the Timia Oasis, rumoured to be the most beautiful in Niger, where date palms and orange trees and grapefruit grow in long gardens along the sandy bottom of rock-walled canyons, winding this way and that in the evening shadows, and where the fruit is heavy and ripe and can be plucked as you walk by. The splash of green amidst the barren rock and sand is almost shocking, the damp cool a relief after long hours staring at the dry wilderness whose very sight makes you long for water.
And back in Agadez, I would take you up the Grande Mosquee, a 150-year-old mud-brick minaret in the Sudanese style, slowly tapered upwards and held together by wooden cross-beams that resemble some ancient, oversized acupunctural experiment gone awry; you can climb the ever-narrowing stairwell that winds its way inside to the very top, light streaming in through small windows in the mud and catching the dust as in an Egyptian tomb, as atmospheric as a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. From the top, the town spreads out, almost camouflaged against the mud 5 stories below, from the old town in the east to the camel market in the west, and in the distance the ever-present mountains. I would lead you through the narrow, rambling streets of the old town, every building still made of mud, jumbled and haphazard, and barely changed in centuries, save for the rattle of a motorbike picking its path through the alleyways and courtyards. We would share a meal at Le Pilier, perhaps the most architecturally intriguing building I have ever been in, beautifully-worked mud-brick with stairways and balconies and courtyards on all different levels, utterly intriguing, and like something straight out of George Lucas’ Mos Eisley. Finally we would fall asleep on a flat rooftop under a glowing night sky, a cold wind helping bring sleep until the call of the muzazin before dawn competes with the roosters to awaken.
Verbal diarrhoea aside, let me tell you that the Aïr Mountains remains one of the most beautiful, stark and dramatic landscapes I have ever seen, anywhere, and surely the most underplayed travel destination I have come across. If you make it to West Africa, a trip to Agadez must be at the top of your list. And if you’re going, let me know, because I want to go back.