Driving across the Sahara – Part 2

Driving across the Sahara – Part 2

We stayed overnight at a guest-house in Tahoua, where we were treated to the best chicken and chips we’d ever had in our lives, and where we had to sleep in monkish cells with cockroaches crawling over the ceiling. More to the point, we were confronted with a barrage of contradictory opinions as to the state of the road ahead. Next morning, about ten minutes out of town we saw our first sand-dune (there are two kinds of Sahara, the jebel, which is flat and rocky, and the famous sand-dune stuff, the erg). A few minutes later, we saw a flotilla of road-construction vehicles, busying themselves around the point at which the Trans-Saharan highway petered out into the sand. So it was back to Nigeria.

A year later I tried again, with a young Nigerian friend, Paul Adebayo. We stopped overnight in Tahoua and went to an open-air cinema screening, a kung fu epic—enjoyable less for the film than for the uproarious behaviour of the audience, trying out all the martial arts moves in the aisles. Then on to Agadez. The road stretched on and on before us—very good. A few miles from Agadez there was a steep incline, from the top of which you could glimpse in the distance the minaret of the main mosque—one of those tall mud structures with wooden supporting struts famous from the great mosques of Mali (such as Gao and Mopti). So exciting to have reached the place at last.

Back home I told Ed and Hilary the good news and we decided we’d go there together a few days later (I was quite happy to enjoy the architecture and the good food and Algerian wine twice in one week).
The staff at the encampement (translation: “guest-house”) in Tahoua were surprised to see me back so soon, but had obviously got me marked down as “amiable English eccentric” (translation: “total weirdo”), so that was O.K.
Setting out next day we saw—for the first and only time in my life—a camel train, a marvellous spectacle: around a hundred camels, trekking nose to tail. These carried goods from north to west Africa, and vice versa—in medieval times, notably kola nuts and gold, more recently kola nuts and contraband cigarettes.

Then Agadez, with me showing off my newly-acquired Sahara tour guide skills. The Hotel de l’Air where we stayed is an old Emir’s palace, converted into a hotel, rather basic but beautiful to behold, with domed ceilings and plastered walls and shrubs in the courtyards, and with constant electricity and running water (living in Sokoto we used to take breaks in part to enjoy such luxuries). After sundown, dinner was served open-air on the flat terrace roof, with the illuminated minaret of the mosque towering overhead. Our proximity to that didn’t inhibit us from enjoying the wine. (Only drawback, the terrace was reached by a narrow, steep, stone spiral staircase, OK going up but tricky to negotiate going down after the heady Algerian red wine).

We strolled around the town in short bursts, enjoying the architecture, and at a point decided to drive up to Arlit, the only major settlement north of Agadez before you reach the Algerian border. This has one tourist draw, the vast uranium mine just beyond the town. Of course you can’t visit this, for security reasons (it’s not good to have uranium falling into the wrong hands, though, bizarrely, it appears to be acceptable for psychos and ne’er-do-wells such as Trump and Johnson and Putin to have it). What appeared to be half the Nigerien armed forces were deployed to keep you at a safe distance. But you could admire it from the road (reality check: can you really admire something that has to do with weapons of mass destruction?) The lone and level sands stretch far away, and there, plonked down as if dropped from the sky, is this super-modern industrial plant. Really, straight out of a sci-fi film.

Now, as Monty Python used to say, for something completely different. One of my favourite types of anecdote is the “small world” story. I wonder if my readers have any of these? Whether they do or not, here’s one of mine.
The night before our trip to Arlit, over dinner with my friends, I told them about my (at the time) major writing ambition, to produce a critical text on the life and work of the Cameroonian novelist Ferdinand Oyono. Part of the reason for wanting to do this was to prod a thorn into the flesh of the murderous Cameroonian dictatorship and its Western paymasters; as Oyono’s career as a novelist stagnated, he had become a high-profile functionary of that regime. But I had a logistical problem: I had copies of the original French editions of Oyono’s first two novels and their English translations, but didn’t have a copy of the third, Chemin d’Europe, which at that time hadn’t been translated. I was puzzling over how best to get hold of it.

The next day, in Arlit, after seeing the uranium mine, we wandered down a side-road in town trying to find something to eat and drink. We came across a tiny shop which was selling stationery and Hilary dived in to look for picture postcards (Niger does have some wonderful ones, though not quite as beautiful as the Dirk Schwaeger postcards in Lesotho). In the window there was a metal rack full of paperbacks—light reading of the Mills & Boon and James Hadley Chase kind. I stayed outside with Ed (we were both thinking “lager”, not “books”), until I saw Hilary on the other side of the window, pointing at the book-rack and staring at me with a maniacal grin. I thought, “oh Lord, she’s having a funny turn”, but went inside and discovered she was pointing at the one serious work of literature in the rack, namely Oyono’s Chemin d’Europe.

I plucked it out, aware the store-owner was gazing at us from behind the counter, and said something like “well I suppose it might be worth reading, but it’s pretty expensive” (it was, in fact, incredibly cheap). Then I bought it and we left, heading down the road with me letting out little cries of “yippee!”

To be continued

Chris Dunton

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