Fred and Donanne Hunter returned to Africa after a thirty-year absence. When he had been a journalist based in Nairobi, he had not really looked at the Sahara. Now he felt it was something he must do. So Donanne went along. The group of travelers has now reached Dirkou which seems like a real town.
We are now in Dirkou, a desert crossroads up the track from Bilma. We check in with the Gendarmerie Nationale and surrender our passports. Phil comes to our car; we are riding in the Land Cruiser of Husseini with his old pal Ralph (whom he consults). Phil says the options are to find a bar in town, eat there and have cold drinks or to lunch in a shady place on the outskirts of town. He decides on the latter. So we wend our way through town to the compound of a Tuareg Ixa knows. There we stop. Hmm. By now Ixa sometimes seems to have a streak of perversity, a desire to do the reverse of what Phil has decided. (Or perhaps Phil is merely indecisive and Ixa does what pleases him without strong direction from Phil.)
The women are distressed with the toilet facilities on the trip. Barbara says on the Timbuktu trip she took – was Phil’s partner Barbara Wagner leading it? – a tent fly was erected at every camp. But these fineries may be lost on men.
D has just returned with news that a “high tech” shower has been erected for the women in what will pass as a shower room. There’s a cistern on the roof above it into which water from the well is being pumped. The gals open a nozzle and the water comes down. Lucky them. Denby’s gone first.
After lunch and demi-showers (even for men, too) at the Tuareg compound at the north end of Dirkou, most of us went in to look at the town. While Bilma seemed very much a village, Dirkou had a definite downtown area, complete with several streets of well-stocked shops. We repaired to the Marianna Bar and Bob (who seems to have really been longing for a drink) bought a round for everyone: beers for himself, his lady Denby, Bert, ex-Marine Jim and Phil and Fantas or cokes for Barbara, Donanne, Dennis, Ixa and me. The proprietess of the bar turned out to be a 20-something Nigerian woman named Grace. She was happy to welcome us in English and seemed to speak no French (though she knew local languages). She’s from Benin City, married to the bar’s owner (his mother is Marianna). Grace wore a purple head-scarf, a bodice of another material and a waist cloth of a third. None of them, of course, went together – except, of course – they did the way she wore them.
Her skin was very dark, but also unlined in a way that made it resemble the dunes we’ve been seeing: natural, beautiful, great sinuosity. Her eyes – and their whites – in the dark skin and the flashing white teeth. Most beguiling. She rearranged her cloth in a manner that seemed unconscious, but sexy. (How unconscious?) Very flirtatious, more with men than women. Large-boned with a bit of a tummy. (D wondered if she were pregnant.) I loved her Nigerian self-confidence.
Phil had brought a baseball cap for her husband, a souvenir gift from a tourist on one of his trips. Phil offered it without much preamble and Grace seemed uncertain of what it was, who Phil was, why the hat. She took it, however, acknowledging that the name Phil mentioned was that of her husband.
At dinner Bob expressed annoyance that Grace had failed to give Phil a free beer for the service he’d rendered. I jumped to her defense, saying, “Bob, you have no conception of how rich we look in the streets of Dirkou!” Denby also seemed to feel that Grace owed Phil a free beer for she taught her the American expression: “It’s on the house.” But why should Nigerian barkeeps in Dirkou need to give away freebies to rich Americans who come there?
You entered Marianna Bar through a break in the building’s wall. There was a tiny ante-space. Turn right and enter the bar itself: perhaps five tables with the ever-present white plastic chairs. A variety of tables. We all clustered at the largest of these. Grace sat nearby on a stool at the bar with a barman behind it. The drinks were well-cooled. Behind where D sat were squares of randomly applied color: red, green, blue on a white wall. I thought the decor worked well. Opposite were painted in large bold letters: “Bienvenue à Dirkou.” Behind Grace was a burlap sack on which were blazoned the words: Bière Niger. The ceiling was a series of worn mammy cloths through which one sensed matting up above. A yard outside (useful in crowded times) had the words: “Place to be” on the wall.
Phil pointed out a street off the main drag. D and I walked down it. A number of “Bureaux de Change,” not surprising since Dirkou is the first town one hits coming from Libya. Also a hotel-restaurant. A shop for tape diskettes with music blaring. Farther back, clothing stores. The street got narrower and more charming. Of course, it was then about 4:30 or 5:00 p.m., a good time for Dirkou. Some of our people liked the town a lot. Thought they could stay there for awhile.
After dinner Phil briefed us (this does not happen every night) on what to expect tomorrow. Of course, Ixa goes off entirely on his own bat. We kid Phil that his briefings are like North Korean brainwashing: he tells us one thing only intentionally to do another.
Tuesday 12/5/00 North of Dirkou
Beginning to lose mental definition of the places we’ve stopped. Last night we were in an enclosure of dunes with an opening to the west. Rather like our second campsite. Pleasant. Previous night in dunes north of Bilma.
Dinners: 1. Couscous. 2. Rice. 3. Spaghetti. 4. Noodles. 5. Peas. 6. Couscous again. On #5 we’d gotten sheep meat in Bilma. Other local meat last night.
Full day. At the moment – it’s about 12:30 – we find ourselves in a village called Séguedine, just south of the Djado Plateau. Here we will apparently have lunch and here, so Phil tells us, Ixa has ten minutes of business to transact with town elders. One wonders what “ten minutes” means in this society and I guess we’ll find out. Husseini with whom we’re again riding says, “Les enfants ici sont comme les enfants de Fashi.” (“The kids here are like those in Fashi.”) And how right he is. We’ve rolled up the windows and kids peer at us through them. Ixa has just returned. That was quick! There must be 50-60 kids.
We’ve spent the morning driving apparently within sight of the falaise that runs from Bilma past Dirkou and on into the Djado Plateau. We’ve finally come out to follow “la piste” [track] from Libya, marked by tires left in the sand. The first cast-offs we’ve seen and D calls this “la piste des pneus perdus.”
Half an hour ago we came upon a huge – and hugely loaded – truck traveling from Libya. It broke down last night – or yesterday. We get varying reports. The truck cab has been tilted forward to permit repairs. The loaded truck stands probably 15’ high. From my cursory inspection it looks as if grain of some sort, packed in grain bags, is the principle cargo. (Ralph, however, suggests that grain is an improbable cargo. Oil and gasoline come from Libya. Hmm.) As a kind of decoration hanging onto the outside of the truck are dozens of bedrolls and other personal items. In the rear metal chairs and bicycles. The passengers sit out on mats patiently awaiting the onward journey.
As we stop, many of them come flocking to the cars, not so much to ask for help as simply to look at us. (There are, we’re told, 70 passengers – which seems quite possible.) We could not take them anywhere anyway and, since they’re coming from Libya – seven days already on the road, some say – they don’t want to return in that direction. (And it soon turns out that the truck is within easy walking distance of Séguedine if it needs to send a message. We don’t know if the truck has a radio.)
A Nigerian spots us as English-speakers and tells D he’s from Yadda. A Ghanaian tells Barbara that he’s been in Libya for a year working as a butcher. He still has a long journey home once he gets to Agadez. I’m at first wary of taking photos – D grabs one quickly as we arrive – uncertain how the passengers will react to our photographing their misery. But they don’t seem to mind. And, in fact, are not miserable. Curiously Nigerians come up asking to take photos of us! The stranded passengers comment on how cold the weather is. (Phil says it was blisteringly hot last time he was through here.) It seems very pleasant to us. I’m in shorts and a tee shirt and wore my Patagonia jacket most of the morning. We get reports that the clutch must be replaced and a new one found; also that the driver and company have all the parts they need and everything’s under control. So who knows? No one seems concerned. Good. We get on our way.
Wednesday. Badly need a rest day and I took it. We arrived at “Rocky Camp” last night after sunset. We had been driving over very difficult rocky terrain apparently merely because Ixa, our dune-buckaroo, enjoys doing that. A killer on the back. Phil pissed at Ixa, but what can he do? We set up fast – we’re getting good at erecting this tent – but this a.m. I decided to take it easy.
Donanne takes up the story in italics.
Windy (Rocky) Camp, Niger, Wednesday 12/6/00
We arrived here just before a stunning sunset, having forced the vehicles (Hadj’s needing several running starts to make it) up a vast sand “glacier” into these spectacular organ pipe-like hills. Black sandstone pinnacles made a remarkable frame for the blazing curtain of deep scarlet in the west. We chose a spot at the north end of this little sand and rock plateau so that “the facilities” were right next door, just beyond a wall of rock. Kind volunteers set up our tent and for the first time we put on the rain tarp for added warmth. Fred went over to the pre-dinner social gathering while I nested, setting up the sleeping bags on the foam pads, putting out our patagonia night garb, flashlight, water bottles, t.p. and fetching about two-inches of wash water in each of two plastic bowls from the supply that is set up each evening mid-camp. I bathed in the darkness, trying as always to keep the sand from layering the bar of soap.
For dinner tonight Mohammed personally supervised the roasting of tasty marinated goat meat served after the soup course with our first french fries! We ended with canned apricots. During the night the tent was battered by the raging wind. The added tarp made lots of noise. I wondered if in the stiff breeze Phil, Jim, Dennis and Dale continued their practice of sleeping without benefit of tents.
Rien de Rien Camp, Niger, Thursday, 12/7/00
The wind departs by morning. The breakfast bread is unusually sandy! (It’s amazing how good the bread is on this trek. Issouf bakes it en route unless we’ve been through a town. But the town bread isn’t as good as his.) I try to eat around the crunchy bits as I down my veritable peanut butter sandwich and take a gulp of tea.
We’re off today to the Rien de Rien: In the afternoon we’re completely surrounded by Sahara sand. It goes beyond forever. The “Nothing of Nothing.” The entire world is a bowl of soft beige sand with a lid of sky blue. Unforgettable.
The Rien de Rien was as far as we penetrated into the Sahara. About halfway across. I would have liked very much to visit Tamanrasset, deep in Algeria, and Ghardaia, well north, a place where explorers rested before heading south into the desert. But the “Nothing of Nothing” was as far as we got.
In 2013 the Sahara has been a battleground between extremist Islamists (who co-opted the Tuareg rebellion) and African/European/American forces determined not to allow Islamists to convert the Sahara into a staging base for jihad. That struggle could last for years.
The original plan for our 2000 trip was to head south from West Africa to revisit the Congo town where I’d set up a USIS cultural center. After that we’d meet our son Paul in South Africa and show him the animals while it was still possible to see them.
But to go south from West Africa, you have to go back to Paris, London or Brussels. So we scratched the Congo idea and postponed the South Africa/Namibia/Zimbabwe/Malawi trip until the following year.
And that’s where the next posts will take us after one final West Africa post that will offer a gallery of Sahara photos.