On the far side of Niger’s Tenere Desert lies the Djado Plateau, a frayed maze of low escarpments, sand-choked canyons and wind-carved outcrops, geologically contiguous with Algeria’s Tassili N’Ajjer and Libya’s Akakus (right).
This is Tubu and Kanuri country. The latter are an ethnically related group originating from Kanem or Kano in northeastern Nigeria. Tubu nomads best known in northern Chad and, unlike the arriviste Tuareg, are the Sahara’s original inhabitants. When I first listed this area the Tubu of far-eastern Niger where in revolt and a ‘checkpoint’ at Orida took tribute from passing tour groups, all Tuareg led and from Agadez. East of here was a no-go area and was mined, by either the rebels or the Niger army. On old IGN maps the topographic names are derived from the Tuburi language: a peak or hill is ‘Emi’ rather than the Tuareg ‘Adrar’ or Arabic ‘Jebel’, and ‘Enneri’ is a valley, like a ‘oued’ or ‘wadi’.
Perched on an outlying outcrop at the plateau’s edge, like something out of a Tolkein novel is the ruined citadel of Djado (21.016 12.308), a mudbrick warren of passages and collapsed chambers worn ragged by the weathering of passing centuries. Below the fortress, a shallow seasonal pool of brackish water is ringed by reeds and palms.
Such fortified ksars are not unusual in many old Sahara towns like Djanet, Ghat, Dakhla in Egypt and Ouadane in Mauritania. But all are adjacent to a modern town which has since grown up around them. That such a large citadel should located hundreds of miles from the nearest town appears an enigma. Djado personifies the Sahara’s romantic mystique, a Lost City crumbling into the sands. Who lived here, what did they do and where did they all go?
It’s origin may well date back to the late Kanem-Bornu Empire as a station on the trans-Sahara trade route which evolved between Lake Chad and Tripoli. Any place in the Sahara where the groundwater reaches the surface becomes important. By the 17th century, Tripoli – the capital of Ottoman Tripolitania – became the Mediterranean’s busiest slave market. From Lake Chad a line of wells and oases run north via Agadem to the salt mines of Bilma, Aney and on to the smaller salines of Seguedine. Here the route split: the busier arm led northeast to Tumu and the famed slave trading post of Murzuk. The other branched northwest towards Ghat. All of these places would have had a fortified ksar similar to Djado, though not so dramatically isolated.
Around the 18th century it’s probable the inhabitants of ‘Djebado’ (as it’s called on the 1888 map, above) either gradually lost out to the dominant Murzuk trade route, were harassed by Tuareg or Tubu raiding parties, or just succumbed to the growing infestations of malarial mosquitoes which still inhabit the reedy lake today.
The Djado plateau, and more especially the Aïr mountains on the far side of the Tenere, are rich with ancient petroglyphs (left) and other rock art, some 6-8000 years old. At this time the Sahara was a savannah widely populated by the last of the nomadic hunters or early pastoralists. Many show animals long since extinct in the desert: bovids, crocodiles, giraffes or elephants (left). But it is a mistake to conflate the medieval ruins of Djado with the relics of the prehistoric era. The ksar is no more than a 1000 years old and much more likely, half that. To the north is a smaller are more intact ruins of Djaba (below) and beyond that, the well at Orida, 500km from Ghat.
Today the Kanuri whose ancestors were said to have inhabited Djado, live out on the desert plain in the nearby village of Chirfa, though annually they return to harvest the dates which grow alongside the ruins.
Below: an excerpt from the film of the 1960 Berliet Tenere Expedition. An accompanying helicopter surveys ‘Le Mont Saint Michele du Tenere’.
Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
Out in Niger’s Tenere desert, east of the Aïr mountains lies the isolated massif of Adrar Madet. About 2.5 kilometres directly west of the 20-km long massif’s northern tip, a perfect stone circle lies in the sand. The circle is about 20m in diametre and some 600m from the circle and more or less at each cardinal point is a small arrow. You can see all five points here on Bing. You won’t see them on Google.
I’ve not been there but have known about it for years. Some speculate that it could a sacred pre-historic marker associated with prime meridians and ancient Egyptian knowledge, marking the ‘middle of North Africa’ (left). It is a huge coincidence that the circle is – within a few kilometres – exactly halfway between the equator and Ras Angela near Bizerte in Tunisia, the northernmost point of Africa. And it’s nearly directly south (178.4°) of Ras Angela, too. (Fwiw, it’s 64km west to the actual point directly south of Ras Angela, just south of Arakao on the edge of the Aïr.)
I err more towards the idea of a much less ancient aviation landmark from the colonial era, one of many located in the Sahara and still being found, including less ambiguous examples where names of nearby outposts are stencilled inside the circles. Fellow Saharaholic, Yves Rohmer confirms this fact. Rubbish from that era: tin cans, bottles of Pastis and so on, litter the Madet site. A similar circle exists in nearby Fachi, with that name stencilled in it and close to an old airstrip. Another plausible explanation made in the discussion linked above was a drop zone for parachute or dummy bomb training.
Not so mysterious after all then, but you do wonder, with the distinctive and isolated 20-km-long Madet ridge angled NW/SE and the Aïr massif to the west, what value the tiny 20-m stone compass actually added to aerial navigation? And why put an airstrip there if anywhere flat in the Sahara can be an ’emergency airstrip’. And would they have spent days building the drop zone circle when a ring of smoking oil drums would have sufficed?
Another possibility I like to entertain is of a playful or geographically inclined Colonel stationed in the Sahara. He’d spent his lovelorn honeymoon in Bizerte and, looking at his Michelin map one hot day, noticed Adrar Madet’s central position. He decided it would be a good morale-building (or time-killing) exercise to have the circle and cardinal points marked in the desert for posterity. But as Adrar Madet is far from any route or useful resource, the purpose and meaning of his enigmatic earth sculpture has been lost in the sands of time.
That’s as may be, but what about the other similar but smaller cobbled stone circles I’ve seen in the mountains of southern Algeria (below)? Neither could be described as aviation markers. ‘Tombs’ said the guides, but they’re not like the usual pre-Islamic tombs of the desert.
Here’s another curious circle, spotted by a mate in the remote wastes of Timetrine, northern Mali, coincidentally one place where AQIM kept European kidnap hostages up to a few years ago.
19.455065, -0.422889; It’s a lot clearer on Bing Maps than Google. According to the old 200k IGN map, this is actually the brackish (saumâtre) well of T-in Kar (wrongly positioned on Bing), so marking it for pilots may make sense for emergencies.
You will see four points a couple of hundred metres from the circle set in the middle of a distinctively rectangular clay pan covering about half a square kilometre. But they seem so vaguely positioned as to be pointless.
The clay pan is on a more-or-less direct line between Timbuktu and Tessalit where there is also a ‘TES’ marker by the current airfield (left). In those days (pre-War) they would have navigated as much by landmarks as a bearing. Since around 2013 this whole area has been a war zone between mostly French forces under Operation Barkhane, having it out with AQIM and the like. So far this intervention has been as successful as similar operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sahara Overland camel contributor Alistair Bestow gives an account of the Bilma salt caravan in Niger. See also the Sahara Trekking ebook
For a few years now, on my office wall at work I have had a Jean-Luc Manaud calendar, with evocative images of Niger, particularly of the Tenere Desert. It is well out of date, and has been stuck on the image of Fachi for months. I had resolved to get there this winter, and to see both Bilma and Fachi, by camel if that was possible.
I arrived in Agadez on 30th December 2005, after having travelled from Niamey by bus, and hunted down one of the guides recommended by Lonely Planet. Moussa Touboulou was in town and available to be my guide, if we could work out an itinerary for such a trip at a reasonable price. I was told that it was only really possible to travel both to, and from, Bilma by camel caravan, if I arrived in Agadez in October. There is apparently an ‘October Rush’ being the most favourable time to go for the camels. Therefore it would be possible to go to Bilma by vehicle, and then wait for a caravan to leave Bilma for Agadez.
We nutted out a deal, whereby Moussa would organise the travel by truck to Dirkou (600+km), and then 4WD from Dirkou to Bilma (40km) and then by camel from Bilma back to Agadez. He would travel with me for the full distance, organise the permit -still required for travel in this area- food, water and accommodation, if needed in Dirkou and Bilma. His fee was CFA55000 per day (approx £55 per day). We worked out a daily rate, because the number of days to undertake the travel was not certain, and I have had experience in a guide wildly over-estimating the number of days for a journey, thereby making the daily cost quite expensive. It proved to be the case here too, -Moussa estimating 30 days, but in fact the trip took only 20 days in all.
There was a few days to wait in Agadez before a truck was going to leave for Dirkou, but one was located, and on Wednesday 4th Jan 2006, we went by taxi to the edge of town where indeed a large Mercedes truck was waiting. We climbed aboard on top of the goods, along with 30 or so others for the journey to Dirkou. It proved to be nearly two days travel, the truck being overloaded, and lumbering along quite slowly over the flat, flat desert. It was quite an experience to travel this way, being crushed in with everyone else, but was thankful that it was only 2 days, and that we were not as overloaded as some of the other trucks that we saw en-route.
We arrived in Dirkou, being a surprisingly large town, on the morning of Jan 6th. We stayed overnight at a ‘friends’ house, which left me time to explore the markets under the shady trees, and to marvel at the flat absolute desert to the west. Moussa organised a lift in a 4WD the next day for Bilma, and we arrived there on Jan 7th.
Bilma is everything I had imagined of an oasis, but being larger than I expected. There are shady sandy streets -large trees I think which may have been planted by the French, groves of date palms, watered gardens of fruit and vegetables, an aging, crumbling fort, and a Grand Source of water, being a large pool of water inhabited by small fish, and frequented by birds including a spoonbill. To the north west of the oasis, are the salt works, where pools of saline water are created to allow the salt to crystallise on the surface. The workers then disturb the crystals on the surface, sending them to the bottom from where they are collected and dried. These crystals are then broken up by a hammer, have water added to them, and than are placed in moulds of one shape or another. The moulds are either a basin or two sizes, or a cone, made from the truck of a palm tree and covered with leather. The salt is turned out, and then dried into the robust forms which are carried by caravan to Agadez and beyond.
I was in Bilma for 2 days, before the caravan Moussa had located and negotiated with, was due to leave. The day before our departure, I went to the salt works where the caravan was located, and watch the parcels of salt being made ready for transport. Generally two or three cones, were packed with several basin forms of salt, in damp palm matting, and tied up with rope. The large parcels were barely able to be lifted by a man. The salt is supported, when on the camel by goat skins filled with dates -also being sent to Agadez and beyond.
On Monday 9th Jan, we joined the caravan, and at 1.00pm said farewell to Bilma. It is noted that in contrast to the caravan travel I have done in Mali, to Timbuktu-Taoudenni, that this trip saw us rent some capacity from the caravan itself, rather than having our own camels. This meant that Moussa and I were ’embedded’ in the caravan. On the Timbuktu-Taoudenni trips it has been difficult sometimes to convince the guide to travel with the salt caravans, because it is easier and faster to travel with the guides own camels.
The desert here was quite different from that of Mali, the Tenere being much sandier, having less vegetation, and more dunes, but at the same time being less variable in its appearance, than the desert of Mali. It was four days of travel to reach Fachi,. There was plenty of time to admire the wonderful creamy dunes along the way, of which there are many. We travelled from 9 in the morning to about 10 at night non-stop. It was clearly well planned, as the caravan carried exactly the correct amount of feed for this sector, until they picked up another 4 days worth of feed that they had left in Fachi on the way to Bilma. After the eighth day, we reached the Arbre du Tenere monument, and there after there was sufficient feed to be found for the camels en-route for the last 7 days of travel to Agadez, making a total of 15 days by camel.
The last 6 days of travel was through stony desert, with frequent patches of vegetation for the camels to eat, and we passed a number of villages, and nomadic Tuareg with their sheep and goats. We also travelled for a few less hours per day than had been the case for the first 8 days.
The caravan actually was not going to finish its journey until Tahoua, some few hundred kilometers later. On the last night , I said my farewells to the camelliers whom I had got to know over the previous 2 weeks. They had made me feel very welcome, and it was a great journey.
Below, a series of French 1:200,000 maps of the Sahara – from Mauritania to the western frontier of Chad. Though the maps date from the 1950s, it’s very unlikely that Google Earth would reveal any more detail today. A couple of sheets from the central Mauritanian plateau and an eastern Algerian erg are included to show the mapmakers weren’t just being lazy – there really was nothing to show. Each map covers one square degree of the Earth’s surface, which in Saharan latitudes adds up to over 12,000 km2. Just two of these maps would cover Wales (right).
Update 20 years later: no one’s been here for years and years
My fascination with the Tenere probably started after reading the alluringly sparse route descriptions in the old Sahara Handbook in the early 1980s.
Several stillborn attempts followed, resulting in a clearly inadequate description in my own Sahara Overland guidebook of 2000. I decided it was time to cough up two grand on a tour and enjoy a relaxed recce that wouldn’t put my own Toyota at risk (there was a high chance of losing your car in this area at the time).
No Brit operators covered this part of the Sahara and, looking at various itineraries and prices, I chose Suntours, a German operator long established in the region. I may have communicated better with a French-speaking group, but Suntours’ 22-day itinerary looked the most thorough, including the lost valley or Enneri Blaka deep in the Djado plateau, with its mysterious submarine formation. (Vintage helicopter video bottom of the page). I met the group in Paris and we flew straight down the Tanezrouft (no window seat, alas…), reaching Niamey at sunset where it transpired half of the group of nine’s baggage was missing. We had to hang around next day in the hope that the bags might turn up from Abidjan that evening. Like most sub-Sahara capitals, Niamey isn’t what you come to Africa for, but for 20p, the museum was a bargain, while brochettes at sunset on the terrace of the Grand Hotel is the done thing. That night a few more bags turned up and, with only three missing, it was decided to take the 1000-km drive to Agadez; the luggageless ones would have to make do. This long drive is a drag. Flying direct to Agadez from Paris would be ideal, though I can see why Suntours don’t trust the Le Pointe charters. The American tour that got robbed at Temet (more below) suffered a typical, late Le Pointe cancellation on the way out, then all had to pay up for a scheduled flight. Glad I missed that trip! As it happens, the night drive in two minibuses wasn’t so bad as most of us could stretch out on a bench seat and get some sleep. Leaving around midnight, we got to Agadez thirteen hours later for lunch at Ewaden Voyages’, the local partner of Suntours. Soon after, two old Sixty-series Land Cruisers and a Patrol were loaded up and we headed for the hills.
AïR I’d been warned that I might find the Aïr a rough and dull drive – not the real Tenere. In fact, it was quite satisfying on the way out at least, when it was all new. Out here Tuareg dudes really do wander around from village to village on camels with their takouba swords by their side! I’ve never encountered the semi-sedentary Kel Aïr Tuareg before, but now realise how much Tuareg mythology might be based on the colourful culture of this accessible clan.
We camped in a oued (“never camp in a oued!”) where Ibrahim cooked the first of many spectacular meals. How long could this last I wondered, and sure enough, by the time we got to the Kaouar in the east, things got a bit plain, but his outstanding lunchtime salads were works of art, composed of fresh ingredients for much longer than you’d expect in fridge-free motoring. Another great aspect of this tour was letting us loose on foot while the morning (and sometimes lunchtime) camp was packed up by the crew. With a bit of luck you could get a quiet couple of miles under your soles before the cars caught up.
No one could have complained too much time was spent cooped up in the cars, although the constant attention the old dogs needed added frequent cig’ breaks. On the whole trip I doubt if we drove more than half an hour without one car stopping to fix something. That said, it was soon clear these drivers drove their vehicles with great care; a first for me in Africa. I was in the Patrol where Madougou treated the machine like his own. I’d have been happy for him to drive my car (and if you know most desert drivers, that’s quite an admission!). The southern Aïr is a Sahel of low reddish hills which darken and rise towards Timia and the volcanic extrusions thereabouts. Settlements and nomadic encampments focus round the gravely oueds, some with nearby gardens and enclosures. You’re never far from others in the Aïr.
With the frequent stops, I thought we were hung out to dry with the cadeau-crazed village kids a little too long for comfort, as if it was pre-arranged that we would crack and splash out on Tuaregobilia. By the time we got to Timia I sensed the group had had enough, and being sent off on a futile tour of this unremarkable village had us all pining for the desert.
“Do you know Alex Marr?” a young Timia boy asked me in French. Well, as it happened I did. I’ve never actually met him, Alex contributed to and was on the front cover of my fourth Adventure Motorcycling Handbook. He came through here on his way to Bilma in 1999, thinking he could ride from there to Lake Chad because of a black line on the Michelin map; not the first to make that mistake. (I noticed Alex also entered the Dakar Rally in 1988). I had the novel experience of receiving a cadeau to pass on to Alex. AMH4 While deflecting vendors’ parries I got talking with a French visitor to Timia and an elder Targui, and asked about the robbery at Temet dunes a couple of weeks earlier. Who were the culprits and had they been caught? The old Tuareg shyly slid behind his cheche at the mere mention of the event, while the French guy realised it was associated with the ‘Madame Tortoise’ (Turtle Tours) he’d heard so much about in the village. She used Dunes Voyages, an established Agadez agency, but you can see from that link, Irma Turtle’s customers were not a happy bunch, even when they weren’t being robbed. I’d already asked Hans our guide about it, but he’d pretended not to understood me. I never found out if the rest of our group knew of the raid (known chiefly to the Saharan online community), and if they were bothered about it. Two months later another tourist group like ours was turned over close to where we’d spoken.
The volcanic geology around Timia is interesting, including the cascade which reminded me of Mutujulu Springs running off Uluru (Ayers Rock). At this beauty spot an orderly line of vendors sat behind a line of rocks imposed by the European agencies on pain of dropping the stopover from their itineraries. Next day we visited the surprisingly substantial ruins of Assode, the old capital of the Aïr before Agadez became pre-eminent a few centuries ago. With that ticked off, by lunch time we watched the women watering their goats at Tchintoulous well, enjoying more relaxed shopping opportunities as they discreetly laid out their wares near us. Then, at the top end of the Zagado valley we spent out last night in the Aïr facing the Taghmert plateau (below).
ARAKAO TO THE TENERE TREE We were now traversing the Neolithic borderlands of the western Tenere and soon pre-Islamic tombs became discernible on the hillsides. Stops hereabouts revealed the usual Neolithic artefacts and at one point I found four grinding stones (left), their easily found milling stone (or moule) plates having long ago been grabbed by collectors. Some consider the collection of Stone Age artefacts tantamount to grave robbery, but to me they’re just non-degradable Neolithic relics that tell a story. Finding them is like beach combing and a lot more satisfying than haggling over a Tuareg cross. And it’s more acceptable that pinching Tuareg heirlooms like swords and camel saddles from impoverished villagers. But, although the collection of artefacts was not discouraged on our tour, I’ve changed my mind on this practice now. Leave these things in the desert. In many countries it has become illegal to remove them.
A tongue of jumbled dunes spill through the mouth of the cirque of Arakao (above), dividing the easily visited south side from the less accessible northern half. We camped on the crest of the dune cordon and spread out to explore. As one would expect, a sheltered site like Arakao was inhabited during Neolithic times and probably long before that. We visited several tombs in the southeast corner and kicked about for more artefacts, usually made from the distinctively green flint-like jasperite found in this region.
Hans, always energetically scanning the sands, found me an amazing rod of fulgarite in the dunes: a brittle, pencil-thin tube of petrified sand caused by a lightning strike. Since I first found some on the edge of Algeria’s Oriental Erg years ago (without then knowing what it was), this stuff has always amazed me: lightning turned into stone: a true wonder of nature. Walking back from a dune summit I found Hans’ spot and excavated another slender undisturbed twig over half a metre long. Who knows how deep it went.
Traditionally Ibrahim always baked a pizza at Arakao we were told, keeping up the circular theme. A thick and chewy Margarita the size of a Land Cruiser wheel is quite an achievement using just enamel trays and embers, and while we all gave him full marks for audacity and presentation, sadly the dough didn’t quite rise.
We cruised down the east side of the Aïr, stopping to admire the amazingly and bizarre engravings at OuedTanakom and Anakom, at times driving continuously over stones all fashioned into tools over the millennia. One can visualise the Neolithic settlements spread out by a long-gone river running out of the mountains, while wild game and herds grazed on the plains of the Tenere, now covered in sand. At ‘Long Stones Pass’ we could make out the mass of Adrar Madet and the Erg Brusset to the east, and later that afternoon finally shook off the Aïr’s margins and headed across the serir for the Tree.
THROUGH THE ERG TO BILMA To finally see the Arbre du Tenere after reading about it over the years was quite a buzz. These days there’s a lot more there than just a bad well and the old metal tree (the original is in Niamey Museum looking as interesting as a bag of crisps). Some Japanese recently built a wacky pylon, and there’s the usual litter, other structures and a water tank. There are even a couple of new trees (“tropical species, pah!” exhorted our biologist guide, Hans) which you’re asked to water when you are there. As Tony Gastel reported in 2000, the water is far from ‘tres mauvais’ as the Michelin map states, but it is very deep, taking three men to haul up the bucket nearly 150 feet. While they watered the cars, we had a chance to wash and then headed along the dune corridors towards Fachi.
At first we drove over irritating tussocks and I had the impression we were going south. A lunchtime GPS check validated my preternatural sense of direction; Abdullai the local guide having deliberately dropped a few parallel corridors to pick one which lead directly to Fachi.
Soon the vegetation disappeared and we were passing among the low, pale yellow dunes of the northern Tenere Erg with very few tracks and no balises. To me, sat in the passenger seat, the driving and navigation of this famous route appeared relatively easy, with the odd bogging easily reversed. Occasionally we came across an old azelai camp with masses of camel dung and other rubbish, and a little later some abandoned kantus (salt pillars) with the dead camel nearby. But we encountered no actual caravans as Tony had last October: the azelai season.
Some gravel pans in the corridors harbour the odd patch of Neolithic chippings,. We found tiny arrowheads, something I thought all but impossible with casual fossicking. The fine craftsmanship and variety of these centimetre-long spikes is nothing short of amazing. They may only be a century old of course, but are probably much older. I imagine like moules, they were found and reused for centuries and centuries.
We camped in the lee of a dune. Next morning we approached Fachi – lovely in Jean Luc Manaud’s famous image, but well camouflaged below the Agram escarpment. The sand-filled streets and tamarisk trees give Fachi a nice, ex-colonial appearance. This was Kanuri country, not Tuareg, though Hans suggested that Kanuri are merely Tubus of the Kaouar region of eastern Niger. I have read that Kanuri (‘from Kano’) like to deny this. We got watered at the well, checked in with the sultan who was entertaining a Spanish TV crew, and then went for a look around the old town escorted by the sulky sultan’s son. Although I find old ksars as emblematic of the Sahara’s romance as anyone, the giant urns inside the old fort was about as interesting as Old Fachi got.
Back by the cars, we were left to stew among the cadeau kids until nice and tender. I went for a wander up a street, looked down an avenue and got spotted whereupon a tidal wave of kids surged towards me. I wouldn’t be surprised if each of us was asked 50-100 times for bics or whatever. It’s all part of being a tourist in Africa, but what was the delay? Having had a quiet time since Timia a few days ago, it was clear that the group was getting irritated by this.
After a visit to the salt evaporation pits (salines) round the back, and lunch in the palms north of town, we headed up a sandy pass in the Agram escarpment where the sand softened noticeably. All the cars struggled and Kaiou’s red HJ60 – which at the best of times smoked like a Ukrainian steelworks – started frying its clutch. We could smell it burning from our car, but he kept pushing and eventually it disintegrated down to bare metal. Luckily Abdullai has a spare and, with the aid of ropes, two jacks and some legs, Kaiou’s Cruiser was running again four hours later.
The cars drove in strict formation. Abdullai up front, Madougou with us in the Patrol and Kaiou last. But Madougou was a bit slow and sometimes Kaiou got ahead, belching his unburned black puke all over us. Sensing our latest irritation, they halfheartedly tried to fix it later, but the car ran so what’s the matter? Worn diesel injector pumps are a problem in the Sahara, and the mixture on his car was far too rich. Kaiou ran out of fuel before Bilma. With the ridge of the Kaouar behind it, Bilma is easy to spot. I had the impression that crossing from the Tree was relatively easy. The corridors line up just right and in good visibility you can’t miss the Agram or Kaouar escarpments. Finding the Tree without GPS if coming from the east would not be so easy, but even then, grasses and converging tracks would be a clue that you’re close. Hans described Bilma as a dead town and I find Tony’s figures of 12,000 population rather unlikely (for the massive Bilma district, maybe). We stopped at a garage for water. An HJ75 was getting fresh oil and a 109 Land Rover waited outside: thwo classic Saharan cars. On this side of the Tenere you also find plenty of Nigerians washed up on the road to Libya and so English is spoken, but as in much of West Africa, everyone speaks several languages. Our guides chatted in a mixture of Tamachek, Arabic, French, Djerma, Hausa and Tuburi (or ‘Kanuri’). With the jerries full, we drove round to the fort to hand in our passports and pay the provincial tax. Out here you officially need stamps in Bilma, Dirkou and Chirfa which takes up a good page or two of your passport. Near the fort are a couple of market stalls full of Nigerian goods and junk sold by Hausas who I get the impression, are the ‘trading Moors’ of this side of the Sahara. Knowing this, it made sense to learn that the famous Bilma salt caravans or azelais are organised and managed by Hausa or Peul, not Tuareg, though Tuareg camels and guides are hired for the job. And the good news is that these caravans are far from the dying tradition many think. Tony’s reports of seeing several caravans was no fluke.
DIRKOU TO DJADO AND ORIDA Next day we hit Dirkou, a thriving frontier town that’s the true capital of the Kaouar. Nigerians and other desperadoes head north on top of Mercedes lorries to a life of slavery in Libya, only to get sent back following one of Gaddafi’s purges, sat on the piles of subsidised or stolen goods on the same Mercedes gros porteurs that pass daily through Dirkou.
By the compound where Andy and Richard spent their Dirkou detention, is a Tubu technical shot to smithereens and left as a reminder that the government won that rebellion. Passports handed in, I had a choice to go see Jerome or check out the town. Lively though Dirkou looked (and free of hassle, I was told later), I went to pay my respects to the late Diesel Prince of the Tenere, finding a friendly old man instead of the money grabbing Shylock I’d expected. He can afford to smile, selling Libyan fuel at a 1000% mark up, but still a tad less than the official Nigerien price. A big Mercedes was unloading and I got talking with the driver who originally came from Djelfa in northern Algeria, while his two boys bounced oil drums off their heads, Tubu daggers tucked in their belts. He was full of praise for ‘Le System Mercedes’ but didn’t have much to say about the run down from Sebha that I could understand; some diesel may have seeped into our brains over the years.
Although 75 years old, Jerome was lucid and delighted to meet a Brit, claiming to have fought for Monty at El Alamein and all the rest. He rolled off a string of generals’ names and dates which sounded plausible, but later Hans suggested had I been German it would have been the same story under Rommel. In fact, a mate who has since met Jerome found out he is indeed an Anglophile, proudly showing an old WWII photo of himself in a Brit uniform. Gerbert van Der Aa, another S-Files Tenere contributor, interviewed Jerome for a Dutch paper a year or two ago before he died in 2003. Back with the group, Luggageless Erich had bought himself a Hausa outfit, complete with hat. Erich was not all there following a bungled operation in his early forties, and was quite a laugh in a subversive, boyish way. Vendors zoned in on his naïveté and he ended the trip, grinning and draped in Nomadobilia.
The landscape of the Kaouar was a bit grubby for my liking. We dropped into the salt works north of Dirkou where natron salt was mined. I noticed Madougou took some with his chewing tobacco, as they do in these parts. By the time we got to Yeguebba – the northern end of the Kaouar escarpment – the colour of the sand was a pleasingly orange again. We stopped to collect some firewood (there’s plenty of firewood here and masses in the Aïr) and drove across the soak where the last car mired. What a mess, the quicksands wobbled like jelly and it makes you appreciate how easy and clean dry desert sand is to get out of. But with sand plates and a tow, the car was out and we spent the night nearby in the rocks where a fennec (desert fox, sort of) popped in for a visit. Since Bilma it had become clear our drivers were getting tired and probably anxious at being out on the far side of the Tenere in their old bangers. Their banter became restrained and you could see they longed to be back in their own territory. We were having an easy time of course, waited on hand and foot and with nothing to worry about other than, for some, grabbing the best camp spot for the night. I couldn’t join in the evening chatter but it didn’t bother me, though I can now say ‘schpoon’ in German. Anyway, with time to myself I had a fresh batch of hare-brained schemes to nurture through their delicate development stage. Years ago, I recall reading in the Sahara Handbook about the importance of finding Pic Zumri to get to Seguedine from the north and now, there it was and the village laid out in the dip below. Here, the Adadez truck piste from Achegour splits, heading northeast behind the Djado plateau for Tumu and Libya or even east for Chad – a long closed route. Following a visit to Seguedine’s checkpoints, multi-coloured salines, and some gentle bartering with the wily Tubu women, we set off northwest across stony plains, passing petrified wood, the landmark of Oleki peak, and stopping for lunch at Sara ‘oasis‘. A hot wind was blowing from the southwest today, hazing the sky and raising the temperature to the high 30s. But lunch with Suntours was never less than a shady two-hour siesta, finished off with three glasses of ‘chai’. On this occasion Abdullai resoldered his burst radiator on the fire. Earlier, I noticed he’d tried to use clay dust as we’d done in Algeria years ago. I can report that bodge is no less effective at the hands of a wizened Tuareg desert driver than in mine… Hans was a great guide and had a good way of melting the ice at checkpoints by bringing photos from previous visits. At the Chirfa control post, where the guys in their football kit always have a gun close by, the photos caused much delight, as they did in Chirfa village where we picked up some water and veggies from the garden. All through this trip it was clear that Suntours has developed a close rapport with many communities and individuals over the years. At many places Hans discreetly handed over medicaments to the village pharmacy (eye drops and aspirins were much in demand).
I’d been urged to make sure our tour visited Old Chirfa (aka ‘Tebeza’) a short distance from Chirfa village, and sure enough, it was on our itinerary. The old citadel is part of a string of medieval fortified towns that run up from Seguedine and maybe once even Bilma and further south, tracing a defunct trading route which explorers Clapperton and Oudney followed in the 1820s down to Lake Chad, later followed by Hans Vischer in 1906 (see Shadows Across the Sahara). Strolling around Old Chirfa was thrilling but for me the true highlight of the trip, as expected, was Djado, the following morning.
Djado (photo Klaus W.) is a huge complex which must have housed thousands a few centuries ago. In winter it’s surrounded by a lake of brackish water which I’m old oddly, disappears in the rainy season. In autumn the whole of Chirfa moves here to harvest the dates from the many palms; their zeriba huts ring the ancient ruins. Exploring the crumbling town was incredible, every corner revealed a stunning view of distant escarpment, desert sands and waving date palms. My camera had passed out in Fachi, but luckily Klaus had a bag full of lenses and film and agreed to keep shooting for me. Hans poured scorn on the theory of pseudo archeologist Uwe George in Geo magazine. He’s discovered a room with a cross relief (now called the ‘eglise’) and who went on to claim that Christians migrated here from Ethiopia in the first millennium. I’m all for interesting theories but it does indeed sound implausible if not an outright publicity stunt which some publicity-savvy academics are fond of pulling off.
We were about to enter a region controlled [at that time] by unreconstructed Tubu outlaws – an anomaly tolerated by the Niger government who let them have the remote Djado plateau to themselves (and maybe pull off the odd tourist and car robbery on the edge of the Aïr?). No longer did our guides stop to chat with every passing car, mumbling a string of greetings. Now it was just ‘get out of my way’ crabbiness you’ll find in any city. We crossed a sandy ridge near the no less photogenic ksar of Djaba and stopped at a Tubu checkpoint where Abdullai gruffly handed over a 5000 CFA tax without so much as a “Sallam alei…
Ahead of us rose the massive monolith of Orida prominent since yesterday, and behind it the arch and the forbidden rim of the Djado plateau beyond. The landscape and warm colours evoke the tassilis of the Ajjer and Akakus with which the Djado plateau is contiguous. Most Ewaden guides would not come this far into Tubu territory, let alone reach out towards the intriguing Enneri Blaka (which was on our itinerary but we didn’t visit). Lunch was under the palms near Djaba. Some Tubu girls parked up and set up their trinkets on a mat. This sort of ‘silent trading’ was much more agreeable and relaxed than the bombardment we got in the Aïr villages. But it works both ways: Tuareg tend to make more agreeable company than grouchy Tubu.
We returned to Chirfa to pick up more water and our passports and then headed out along the Djanet track to the Col de Chandeliers (aka ‘Pass de Orida‘). A cozy camp was set up among the sun-warmed rocks while to the west, the plain of the Tenere du Tafassasset spread out like a becalmed ocean. It’s a corny simile for the desert I know, but this is the first place I’ve seen in the Sahara where it was appropriate. This was the real Tenere – a word usually used to describe the whole of northeast Niger and the Tamachek translation of the Arabic ‘Sah’ra’ or empty quarter.
ADRAR BOUS, TEMET AND CHIRIET The awe of this emptiness was lessened next day by the clear tracks running west to Arbre Perdu (which we rode to on bikes in 2003) and on to the isolated hills of Grein. But further on, beyond the northern outliers of Erg Capot Rey, even the tracks and wind-aligned ripples disappeared until it was hard to tell if we were moving at all, baring the drone of the engine as it hit a soft patch. Running at these high speeds caused a new set of problems for the aged Toyotas and while a puncture was fixed, Ibrahim prepared a quick lunch in the shade of the cars. We continued west through the void and in the late afternoon the profile of Adrar Bous mountain loomed out of the western haze.
Adrar Bous is well known as a locality of Neolithic knick-knacks, and we parked up by a Stone Age ‘chip pan’ and shuffled around for more arrowheads, then camped in a sheltered creek; an old Tuareg hide-out from the days of the rebellion. All of our crew were former rebels who’d fought in the bitter war of the early 1990s. Since then, the Tuareg of the Aïr have won some concessions on the organisation of tourism; the whole of Niger’s tourism depends on their kudos after all. But in the poor villages of the Aïr, aid still struggles to make much impact. All the better then is tourism like this where our money goes straight into the hills. From Adrar Bous we were back on the tramlines of the Tenere Loop which winds down the eastern side of the Aïr into the dunes of Temet where the Austrian and American groups had been robbed a couple of weeks earlier. I’ve since got the full story from one of the people involved (see link above) and it was no hit and run raid, but a thorough and thoroughly intimidating robbery of all involved, and in which the drivers of the American group from Dunes Voyages excelled themselves in stopping all the cars being taken. One hears it may have been renegade Mali Tuareg behind it; they’ve been behind most of the tourist (and rally) robberies over the last couple of years, though such events are always blamed on foreigners. I’ve since read the ‘leader has been caught’, hopefully not just any old Tuareg in the wrong place at the wrong time. We had lunch at the site of the robbery where I probed our drivers, but didn’t get much of a response so left it and walked up the huge dune with the rest of the group. Since then, there was another raid of a German group in Timia in March. A winding corridor led east out through the dunes and we spent the evening at Izouzadene, the striking outcrop of marble veined with cobalt salts known as the Blue Mountains. From a distance they do have a distinctive pale blue hue, but close up the grey veins look less impressive and the masses of tracks in the area could almost make it Morocco.
From here we drove south through the dunes to Adrar Chiriet, visible from the summits of Izouzadene, enjoying the classic east Aïr panoramas of dunes lapping against a backdrop of purple-grey plateaux. Driving into the massif, Ibrahim stopped to grab a bunch of wild grass to concoct a herbal infusion for later; a change from the endless Tuareg tea we drank daily. West of Chiriet, a rocky track led to Tchou-m Adegdeg well. Just on the other side of the Teghmert plateau was the point at the Zagado valley where we’d emerged from the Aïr nearly a fortnight ago. Here Tuareg nomads watered their herds and a camel sipped from the bowl in which my shirt stewed in detergent.
Between here and the nearby Tezerzik well is a lovely scenic drive through dunes featuring a distinctive lip below their crests. At Tezerzik the drivers bought a nomad’s sheep for a tenner and slung it on the roof. At the nearby camp in the dunes I watched them slaughter and butcher it with the same casual effortlessness they’d employed to repair the clutch a few days earlier. Interestingly, there’s not much blood when the throat is cut and once the hide has been peeled back the thing in hung on a stake, its ribs pulled apart and the innards removed for the drivers subsequent delectation; we got the tender meat in a cous-cous. Normally I find cous-cous an over-rated North African ‘must-eat’, but the way Ibrahim prepared it, both the millet and the sauce were as good as it gets.
BACK INTO THE AïR FOR AGADEZ From here the desert section of the tour was over and we had a dreary three-day drive back down through Iferouane and the main track via El Meki to Agadez. It was March now and the nights were irritatingly windy, but the drivers were brightening up, pleased to be on home turf. I had the feeling these last days to Agadez were strung out with unnecessary stops to fill the time. The third night in yet another creek full of thorns and dung, just a couple of clicks out of Agadez seemed unnecessarily stingy. In my experience a tour should end on an upbeat note if possible, not dribble away the final days. I gather the others also complained about this retracing through the Aïr – ‘for fresh vegetable’ they were told, but our last lunch in the bush was all tinned. Despite the day lost in Niamey, maybe we could have nipped out to Enneri Blaka, after all, but I know well you do need to keep a few days in hand, especially somewhere edgy like the Tenere. I’m sure Suntours have developed their itinerary carefully over the years, but leaving the desert at the very last minute – along the track from the Tree to Agadez for example, would have been more satisfying.
We had an option for a hotel in Agadez that night and, wanting to check the town out in my own time, I took up the offer with the two couples and spent the night the Hotel Tidene near the mosque. I checked out some other agencies but as advised, Agadez itself doesn’t have much to offer. Next day the tour regrouped and set off for the long hot slog back to Niamey, getting home by the skin of our teeth following an Air Afrique strike and cancelled flights. Should I return with my own vehicle I think I’d repeat the recent tour of an Italian friend: leave Djanet without checking out and with stacks of diesel and a Niger visa, then do my own thing in the northern Tenere around Grein, Adrar Bous and down as far as Chiriet maybe. If you get caught at least you have a visa and if you don’t, no one knows any better and you slip back into Algeria (as we did in 2003 on Desert Riders). If anything, doing it this way is less prone to getting hijacked than the local tours whose timetables and routes make them easy targets. But it’s a risk that will probably never go away (and within two years got very much worse).
SUMMARY This tour indeed proved to be a great recce of the famous Tenere I had long wanted to visit. I found the Aïr and its Tuareg life more interesting than I thought, and the run in both directions across the Tenere less impressive than I imagined. The whole Djado region is of course amazing, as are parts of the eastern Tenere bordering the Aïr, but the Tenere is no longer the wild Sahara of my imagination. TV crews and tours have put the place firmly on the map and, beautiful though it is in its entirety, getting off the tracks would have been more fun, something that you can only do yourself and in good vehicles.
I found this nice IGN half million map of the Air in Niamey. Dating from 1991, it’s a similar style to the Niger country map from IGN but I can’t say I’ve ever seen this one in Paris. In many ways it’s superior to the one million IGNs which are pretty old now and don’t show recent roads. Mine cost me 50FF, plus old paperback and a small argument from the side of the Grand Hotel.
I returned to the Tenere with my own tour for the Eclipse of 2006, and visited many of the same amazing places with another great crew (and ran into Abdullai in Chirfa). Our two-weeker was a perfect Saharan adventure.
We left Marseille on 10 December ferry to Tunis. The ferry was only about 1/3 full making the loading in Marseille uneventful compared with our trip a week closer to Christmas in 1999. The ship docked in Tunis at noon with clearance through Tunisian immigration and customs taking a mere 30 minutes (compared to 5 hours in 1999) allowing us to reach the salt pan of Chott El Jerid near Nefta (Algerian frontier) shortly after dark. We camped on the salt pan, leaving early for the border crossing the next morning.
Clearance out of Tunisia took about 30 minutes but entry into Algeria just over 4 hours. In that time the officials processed only 3 cars, two of which were Algerian. The officials were nevertheless friendly. Two German bikers were crossing into Tunisia as we were leaving. They had ridden a loop from El Oued to Djanet then onto Tam and back along main route through In Salah (which included a convoy).
The Algerian border formalities correspond exactly with those described elsewhere on this website (immigration, customs, compulsory money change and car insurance). The only problem we had was with customs insisting on us filling in the form to reflect ‘Landrover’ as the type of car but ‘Toyota’ as the make. I guess this finally signifies the death of the British automotive legend, in this part of North Africa at least. [It was the same story with one of the LRs on my tour too, but caused no probs. CS]
From the Algerian border we headed on towards El Oued. There seemed to be few camping possibilities along this stretch given the awkward hummocky dunes lining the road and the proximity of villages. About 20 or 30km from El Oued, while entering one of the small villages, a group of youngsters aged less than 10, stoned the Landrover. No windows were broken but a bit more topography was added to the body work – never a serious issue in a 30-year-old vehicle with an aluminium body. We were welcomed into El Oued by the police and local businessmen alike. El Oued was calm and the streets clean and quite empty. We changed money at one of the banks.
That night we slept on the south side of the road 60km short of Hassi Messaoud. A strong north-easterly was drifting sand in a conveyor about 1m deep so we were looking for shelter behind south-facing hills. There is a small escarpment out of view of the road (N32° 10′ 37” E5° 52′ 23”) which served the purpose on a stretch that offered few alternatives. We arrived in Hassi shortly after 8am the next day. Here the military checkpoint issued our laissez passer in about 20 minutes. It was valid for a month. We were waved through the south side of Hassi en route to Hassi Bel Guebbour. The next check point was at Gassi Touil. Here the military spoke very little French, but seemed to want us to return 3km and wait at the side of the road. We went back, found nothing at the road side and so returned to the checkpoint. After a bit of discussion amongst themselves we were eventually waved through. We now know that a convoy operates on this stretch and may entail a delay of several hours until the convoy leaves.
If you have ever looked out of the window of a 747 on a night time trans Africa flight and seen two tiny pin pricks of light in the insanely massive blackness of the Sahara, the chances are that you are looking at somewhere like Hassi Bel Guebbour – with the two lights shared between the fuel station and the shop, this being the first fuel after Hassi M. It has a great sense of isolation and the interdune corridor that the tarmac follows south from Gassi is stunning.
Some 50km east of Bel Guebbour (28 36′ 10”N, 7 5′ 27”E) we passed large pools of water in an otherwise dry river bed. Although it was fairly early in the day we couldn’t pass the opportunity by and so set up a pleasant camp a few kms clear of the road out of the still strong north-easterly. A piste runs south to Bordj Omar Driss which starts parallel to the road [I have been told to avoid this piste – plenty of oilfield security].
The next day we called in at In Amenas (the bakery was selling awesome custard slices) and headed south through the huge dune field which seems to be the far western limb of the Ubari sand sea, eventually camping off the road in a sand field in the lee of a shady glade of trees (N26° 56′ 23″ E8° 41′ 54″). Firewood was plentiful. From our campsite we drove early the next day to Illizi for fuel and then on across the Fadnoun Plateau. The new road is a bonus but twists sharply without warning. It is rather like a pub video game where a blind rise could be followed by a sharp left, u-turn or a stranded truck jack-knifed across the road. The whole route from Illizi to Djanet is beautiful. We camped about 100km short of Djanet in a large dry river bed (N24° 54′ 56″, E8° 45′ 87î”). It was a stunning setting and well worth a few weeks stay. In Djanet we had a pleasant stay at Hotel Zeribas, camping in the far corner under the reed shelters. Djanet offered a great selection of fresh veggies, telephones which work given a bit of patience and pleasant temperatures. South of Djanet the daily temperatures were well over 30 degrees.
Whilst settling down for a quiet brew of tea in our campsite at Hotel Zeribas, Andy Pag drew up in a blast of diesel from the old Datsun he had brought down from Belgium. By this stage he was travelling alone and therefore keen to join us across the Northern Tenere to Chirfa and Dirkou. This was the planned next leg of the trip. We were glad for his company because the piste from Djanet to Dirkou is a lonely 850km stretch (we passed no traffic on this entire route).
Although our time in Algeria was much shorter than planned (for reasons explained later), we found the country calm and enjoyable to travel in. The only military checks we passed through were at Hassi M, Gassi Touil, and Hassi Bel Guebbour. Apart from this stretch, we were free to come and go as we pleased. Whenever we encountered police we found them very helpful and accommodating. From a tourist perspective, everything is in place for Algeria’s recovery – all that is missing are tourists. We saw none between the Tunisian border and Agadez (about 5000km) except for Andy in Djanet.
After some time to rest and check out Djanet, we took off for Niger, leaving by the piste to Libya (a left turn off the new airport road past the old aerodrome). We turned off this mildly corrugated piste about 35km from Djanet, taking tracks through a gap in the mountains towards Mount Tiska. Once the tracks join, the piste is surprisingly well formed. After about an hour (roughly 40km) the piste turned east of Mount Tiska. The area is very beautiful with just about every spot a perfect campsite. We spent the night here with Andy cooking up a great veg stew. During the night we saw three vehicles approaching the Mount Tiska foothills some 10km to the south. They stopped when in view of our fire although we couldn’t be sure they saw us. They set off again well after midnight once the moon was up, passing within a few kilometres of us with their lights off. This all seemed to point to smugglers taking Marlboro into Algeria possibly via a piste through the Djado plateau.
We continued on the well-formed piste the next day. Within an hour it was obvious that the piste would pass well east of the Adrar Mariaou mountains. The piste is not marked on the Michelin or the TPC maps. Since we wanted to hook up with the balise line across the northern Tenere (which lies west of Adrar Mariaou) we left what seems to be a smugglers piste, taking a drainage line out onto the flat northern Tenere. The surface was better than any tarmac we had driven since France. While the route sounds complicated, the desert is very open with the Mount Tiska and Adrar Mariaou mountains clearly visible all the time. All the driving was easy. Within an hour we had gained the Tenere and found the first balise. There we several old (and a little indistinct) tracks along the balise line. Our GPS position showed us to be on the eastern most of the two pistes entering the Tenere which are marked on the TPC J 3B map. As the balise line piste appeared to be the western most piste on this map, we seemed to be on the wrong line, and so headed south-west to see if we intersected any other piste (although we were sure that there was only one balise line across the Tenere and that the TPC marked piste was wrong – but the check was easy to make and the surface pretty hard). It turned out that the piste marked on the TPC is wrong.
After about half an hour four Toyota Land Cruiser pick-ups could be seen driving straight at us from the northern base of the Adrar Mariaou mountains. They were travelling at speeds up to 160km/hr. The group turned out to be the Algerian police. After making their AK-47s clear to us and checking our papers (carte de grise, visas, insurance etc) they waved us on cheerfully. We should point out that it is not possible to leave Algeria officially along the northern Tenere route south of Djanet. While the police don’t mind, the Algerian customs do not permit official exit.
The northern Tenere is simply awesome. It is difficult to put words to the vastness of the place. It is impossible at times to tell whether you can see 50m, 500m or 50km off the piste. There are three wrecks on the balise line, 2two from the 1988 Paris-Dakar race. The shot blasted dark silver chassis gleaming in the bleached light. For the most part the Northern Tenere is very easy driving. The first few hundred kilometres out of Djanet were softer, the Landrover not being powerful enough to plane over the surface. Immediately south of Berliet balise 21 the sand is deep and powdery. It was the only time between Djanet and Agadez that we needed low range. The soft sand persists for 40km south of Berliet Balise 21. In a newish Toyota the northern Tenere could probably be crossed in a day. We took two days of driving, but three days altogether.
The exit from the Northern Tenere to Chirfa is clearly marked – nearly all the balises are in place across the Northern Tenere. On arrival in Chirfa we drove directly to the military checkpoint. They stamped our passports while looking over the vehicles, asking if we had any sat phones, short wave transmitters as so on. We helped the commander with his GPS as he had no manual for it. We left our passports with the military overnight, thinking that this was routine practice in Niger. We drove through the village and checked out the impressive Djado ruins. The next day we returned to the military post for our passports. By then the mood had changed and we were ordered to drive directly to Dirkou, not to leave the piste and to arrive there no later than 4pm. As it was already getting on to 10am it was a tall ask in our old vehicles. We assumed Dirkou was the first official border post (as marked on the Michelin map) on this route and hence the requirement that we shouldn’t linger on the piste. We found the piste south of Seguedine very sandy. Again it would be very difficult to get lost on this route – in fact we hardly bothered with the GPS. We arrived in Dirkou a little after 4pm, handed over our passports (which were again kept overnight), met with Jerome and drove off to town for the night. The military checkpoint was pretty chaotic as several 10-wheel-drive Merc trucks loaded to the hilt were about to leave for Libya.
We returned to the military post early the next day, waited around before asking for and being given back our passports (they now had stamps from both Dirkou and Chirfa). From there we headed up the hill to refuel (we had used about 220 L of petrol since Djanet; that’s 3.7kpl or 10.4mpg) at Jerome’s fuel dump. Make sure you take your own pipe / 12V pump as Jerome’s assistants seem to have sucked too much fuel through their brains over the years. They are several sandwiches short of a picnic!
Whilst we were refueling the military drove up in a Landcruiser and took back our passports and vehicle papers. Once we had finished refueling the military impounded our vehicles. We now had no passports, no vehicles and no vehicle papers. Things weren’t looking good. No explanation was given but we were told to wait until 3:30pm. We waited in a barbed wire area between the passport shack and the military base. This is a stinking hot, dusty, shadeless area surrounded by feche feche that we grew to hate over the next few days. At 5pm were we told that there was a problem and that we would have to wait until 9am the next morning. We later found out that the Minister of Defence in Niamey had already phoned the French Ambassador in Niamey to say that European nationals were being held in the north. The French Embassy in Niger deals with all European nationals in Niger.
The next morning we were told to wait until 3:30 pm as the commander of the military base in Dirkou was waiting for instructions from Niamey. Most of our dealings had been with the Chef de Transit at the passport shack on the outskirts of the military base. He had been telling us all sorts of lies about why we were being held and when we would be released. He was a very difficult person to deal with – at one point gesturing to me that he would tear up my passports if we didn’t leave him alone. Our main effort at this stage was to speak to the Military commander of Dirkou. Of course we could get nowhere near his office. Our vehicle papers, passports and visas were all in order and we wanted to know what we were being held for.
The commander finally agreed to see us late that afternoon. It was rather like meeting Kurtz. We were shown into this darkened, blue room with padded doors. The commander greeted us and asked what our problem was as he had heard we were anxious! We explained that our vehicle papers, passports and visas were in good order and that we were uncertain what the problem was. He explained that the situation in the north is difficult, that tourists coming into Niger from the north were a problem and that the only way to enter this region was through Agadez where all the necessary paper work was available and where guides could be hired. He assured us that he was working on a solution for us. We asked if it was possible to simply deport us from Niger and we would leave immediately back to Djanet the way we had come (this had been our plan all along).
Fortunately we had managed to get permission to be taken to Bilma (45km to the south) to phone our embassies. With our vehicles still impounded we had to find a way of getting there. The distinction between who was military and who was a tour operator was extremely blurred. We were charged 30 quid one way for the trip although we returned with a tour operator anxious for our business. They were an unpleasant mafia-like gang and things turned sour shortly after they dropped us off. Interestingly we were taken to the military commanders office in the military base in the same tour operator’s Landcruiser. In Bilma we managed to call the German consulate in Niamey (there is only an unofficial representative for British nationals who is a businessmen in Niamey – he didn’t want to know our case!). I managed to get a line out to Megan who was in Cape Town at the time. Megan phoned the German and British Embassies in South Africa as well as the German Consulate in Niamey, eventually being put on to the French Embassy in Niamey. This helped our case enormously, although we had no way of knowing she had achieved all this until our problems were nearly over.
Early in the afternoon of our fourth day in Dirkou we were told that we were being taken to Agadez. Remembering that the Commander of the military camp in Dirkou had told us that Agadez had all the services necessary to help us, we were relieved that the problems from their side seemed to be coming to an end. This soon changed when a Land Cruiser with a machine gun and live ammo chain mounted on the back rolled up. They were our escorts, so at least we didn’t have to take a guide! Our passports were still being held, so it was clear we were simply being transferred to Agadez. We protested that our 30-year-old series 2A was not up to the Dirkou to Agadez crossing of the Tenere, but we were told that there was no option: take the vehicle or leave it behind. It was do or die time for the 1950s transmission.
We left Dirkou at about 4pm. Although there was still problems to come, it was good to leave that stinking hot, dust riddled, barbed wire camp. The military Land Cruiser drove in front but waved us past in frustration at our pace. We drove on to the wells at Achegour which we reached by about 7:30 pm. It was amazing to be crossing the central Tenere although it was a pity it was not in circumstances of our own choosing. We drove through the night, following a star but basically heading west south-west. Again we didn’t bother with a GPS. With no sign of the military we decided to savour our freedom and drove on into the morning light taking a dune corridor about 30km north of Arbre de Tenere (make sure you are in the correct corridor if you want to see this place otherwise you need to back track about 30km). The going in the central Tenere is much softer than the northern Tenere. Our consumption dropped to about 3km per litre [8mpg]. We hardly ever got out of second gear although we didn’t ever get stuck. Where the sand is very soft all the truck tracks merge. Apart from a very high median strip the going is OK on the tracks.
We emerged from the sandy desert at about noon the next day to find the military waiting for us. The piste is up to 50km wide in the Tenere so they must have passed us in the night. We drove on to Agadez arriving in the early evening. The commander of the military camp in Agadez then met with us. He simply said that after a day’s rest we would be taken on to Niamey 900km away. This was probably the low point of the trip! After a few days we had another military escort down to Niamey. We left on Christmas day at 9am and arrived in Niamey at about 8pm. We had a young soldier in our Land Rover but separated from the others over the distance. We were held at the outskirts of Niamey as our passport were in the other vehicle. Then we decided enough was enough and I negotiated for a passport substitute, giving them some paper with work letter heads. From there we basically made a run for the French Embassy – the soldier protesting from the back of the Land Rover while we made out we didn’t know what he wanted us to do. We arrived at the French Embassy at 11:30 pm Christmas night and were greeted by the French Ambassador, the head of the French Military attache in Niger and the Head of the Internationale Police in Niger. They were all amazingly helpful. Details began to emerge that we were suspected spies/gun runners. The piste from Djanet to Chirfa is never crossed from north to south these days and so our arrival out of the northern Tenere had aroused much suspicion. There was also a suggestion that we had been picked up by a military patrol in the Northern Tenere. This might have been the commander at Chirfa trying to win himself a promotion, but it was certainly not how it happened as we had driven directly to the military checkpoint at Chirfa and found them all lazing about in the sun.
A meeting was set up with the Niger Chief of Police for the next day. The arrangements were made from the French Embassy shortly after midnight. We were very surprised when the meeting went ahead as it was taking place at lunchtime on the Islamic equivalent of Christmas day. It was at that meeting that our passports were returned. We had been held for nine days and had been required to drive about 2000km for the ceremony. The Chief of Police of Niger pointed out to us that he didn’t know why we were being held by the Military.
From Niamey we took the shortest route out of Niger – to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso.
So if you want a trip across the Tenere from Dirkou to Agadez without the official guide, then just cross the northern Tenere from Djanet to Chrifa and the military is bound to oblige. The downside is that the trip goes at their pace! Our original trip had been planned to take in Libya, Niger and Algeria, so crossing the northern Tenere from south to north. Others have done parts of this route. Although the Niger military clearly don’t like tourists in the northeast, they seem to tolerate the route this way round. Our plans had to change when the Libyans refused our visas.
Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
I met Belgian couple Luc and Catherine in Sebha last November where they were planning to cross the Ténéré to Agadez and then sell their old BJ40 Land Cruiser in Togo. Had it not been for the fortune I’d spent just getting that far myself I’d have gladly joined them. As we parted Luc and Catherine were heading up to Ghadames to meet some friends for the drive down to Ghat. Here they hoped to continue south. Five months later I got this message…
Ghat did not seem to be a good place to travel to Niger via Algeria, so we decided to return to Sebha to get more information about the conveys going to Dirkou. The advice was that we should go to Al Gatrun and wait there for the trucks going to Niger. Arriving in Al Gatrun, little more than a desert village with one filling station and a Niger consulate we soon met Mohammed Tager of the Wadi Alhikma Travel & Tourism Agency (Tel/Fax: 0735-2901). He ran a camping ground in the old Italian Fort which is very nice. Mohammed offered to organise guides for Chad ($600) or Niger ($400). This was much too expensive for us so we decided to do it our own way. We went to Tajarhi, 80km south of Gatrun to wait there for the convoys that did not come. The only traffic was Niger-bound smugglers passing through at night.
We waited patiently in Tajarhi for four days during which time we got talking with people in the village. We met some Toubous who were planning to drive to Niger with four Toyotas. They were smuggling stuff that they get almost for free from the government: rice, flour, diesel. We also saw a brand new car covered on a truck. They invited us to join them.
Like everyone else it seemed, we left one evening at 9pm. The first part of the piste was terrible, about 100 km. of very soft sand. After one hour we had only covered about 500 metres and could still see the lights of Tajarhi behind us. The others seemed unruffled and unbelievably navigated following a single star. There were no tracks.
After two hours the conditions improved so were able to keep moving. Suddenly, while we’d stopped to check the engines five military Toyotas pick ups fitted with machine guns tore out of the darkness and surrounded us. Catherine and I nervously listened to them talking over the radios and at this moment thought our trip was at an end. But after a brief talk with the others and some shaking of hands we were allowed to continue. Clearly some arrangement had been made. In fact the army knew the smugglers, because we saw one of the soldiers the day before taking money from the Toubous. The reason stopping us in the night was in my opinion to show they could find us anyway, even in the middle of the desert at night. So leaving without their permission would be impossible.
The drive to Madama unfolded exceptional landscapes and every day we met yet another overloaded truck taking Africans to Libya. It’s not a highway but there is traffic anyway We ended the next day just before Madama where we spent the night with the Toubous. In the morning we drove up to the military post and handed over our passports. At long last, after several weeks we were officially in Niger! At Madama we met up with a big Slovenian truck carrying eight tourists and we decided to continue with them as we still had another 500 km to get to Dirkou. Their truck was an old military TAM, about the size of a new Unimog, but with only 120 PS for 10 tonnes! On the way south we passed through two more military check points in Dao Timmi and Dirkou.
In Dirkou we met the famous fuel dealer Jerome the Libyan who sold us diesel in 205-litre drums. Luckily we were able to share it with the Slovenian truck as we had no room for so much fuel. Jerome is a very strange and funny man, he is about 84 years old and tells stories about the second World War during the battle with Rommel and Montgomery in Tobruk. He has lived in Dirkou since 1958. We rested two days in Dirkou during which time we checked over our vehicles and visited the very nice market.
Eventually we managed to find a guide to take us across the Ténéré to Agadez. Mohammed Toufoutou was very good but expensive, charging 1500FF for the 650km trip no matter how long it took. The Ténéré seemed to us very easy driving. We had the impression that it was very flat and only once in a while did we hit patches of soft sand. Some of the parts were so flat and featureless it was hard to keep in a straight line. The guide was incredible. We drove 250 km straight to the Arbre du Ténéré which we found a very dirty place, but anyway we saw it. On our way to Agadez we passed many Africans going north to Libya to find work, perched on the top of big 6×6 trucks overloaded to the hilt.
Very impressive were the salt caravans, some of more than 200 camels heading for Bilma via Arbre du Ténéré and Fachi: 450 km in just fifteen days. At one stage they have to cover about fifty kilometres a day through the dunes to get between the wells of Arbre du Ténéré and Fachi.
When the camels leave Tazolé (160 km east of Agadez) apparently they can become nervous. We saw many dead beasts that did not make it to the next well abandoned by the piste.
The second day, about 200 km from Agadez, the Slovenian truck’s alternator expired. Three times I had to tow-start it to get the engine running. Later when I noticed the whole roof of the BJ shaking, I realised pulling the 10-ton truck over the sand had torn away the rear chassis cross-member.
Arriving in Agadez there was a good ambience but as we were the only tourists, they all jumped on us to sell something.
Having made our repairs the Slovenians found someone to drive with them to Arlit and on to Tamanrasset. From there they planned to continue back up to El Oued and Tunisia. We were going south to Togo, so we said our goodbyes. How they did work out, I don’t know, but I knew that together we had done something special. We were very pleased with our achievement, to have crossed the Sahara and the famous Tenere from Libya to Agadez. I surely want to do it again sometime!
Luc DE WULF and Catherine THOMAS
PS. The Slovenians arrived home safely after their trip through Algeria
Gerbert Van der Aa (see Chad with Mercs) also did this route in October, 1999
Last October I travelled from Libya to Niger with my girlfriend. We had a 15 year old Nissan Patrol diesel. We bought our Niger visa in Sebha (100 dinars each). It took just half an hour. We did not take the carnet as we thought 250 dinars was too expensive. In Gatrun we stayed in the old Italian fort which is something of campsite now. Some bad stories circulate about the owner Mohamed Tahar, but I think he’s really okay. We paid 35 dinars search for the formalities. Staying at the fort was free. Mohamed Tahar offered to organise a guide for the trip to Niger, but did not bother when we said we didn’t need one.
We left Gatrun alone, two people in one car. The sandfield just after Tajarhi is easy with 0.5 bar in the tyres. We drove on the truck piste and saw about four other cars every day. We did not follow the old Marlboro-piste, but drove 20km further west. We reached Tumu in two days and then drove on to Madama, where we were met by some nervous soldiers who initially seemed to think we were Tubu rebels.
We bought insurance for 450 FF. Still alone we continued to Dao Timni, Seguedine and Dirkou.
The piste was clear. Only shortly after Madama we took a wrong branch, and probably arrived on a smugglers piste. We did not really know if the real piste was to the west or to the right. We decided to stop for the night and watch for trucks. In the night it’s much easier to see cars passing by. At the beginning of the night we saw them miles away to the west. So then we knew we had to go west in the morning. We slept well.
We arrived in Dirkou early in the morning, two nights later. We met Jerome and bought petrol with loads of sand in it. We ate something and left in the afternoon. No one told us to take a guide. If we had stayed in town longer, things may have turned out differently. We crossed the Tenere on the truck piste via Achegour. A lot of soft sand, but our Patrol did not have any problems, even without sand tyres (we had 215 R 16 Bridgestones M&S!).
Agadez was calm. We bought a carnet for 50 FF and continued south. We drove to Niamey, Gao and Bamako There we wanted to sell the car, but no one was interested. So we decided to continue to Nara, Nema and Nouackchott. Finally we sold the car in Dakar for 12.000 FF (the same price we paid in the Netherlands).
I don’t think it was dangerous to do Libya-Niger with just one car. Local truck-drivers do the same. As long as you stay on the tracks nothing can go wrong. Tuareg-rebels do not seem to be a problem anymore. Although I wonder what’s going to happen to the Paris-Dakar when they travel through the north of Niger in January 2000. I suppose some people will get robbed. The target is just too easy.