A (Few) Trips to the Edge of my Comfort Zone.

West Africa. The dark part of our Home Continent. A visit to Niger was my first job as a geological consultant with our own consulting firm, operating out of Namibia. I left home without any idea what to expect (which was probably the best) as I flew with a stopover in Dakar (Senegal) en route to Niger. I had to apply for my visa in Dakar and actually considered staying on board the plane to continue the journey to Washington D.C., where my fellow passengers were heading – I remember their looks of pity before I disembarked – “you have no idea whats out there – put on your dust mask and hold on for the ride into oblivion” – or at least that’s what the sleepy stares in the dark looked like. I was slightly freaked out stepping out of the plane into the coastal humidity that was Dakar at midnight.

Travelling has always been part of our itinerary, so I told myself while waiting for my passport (hoping it would bear my Niger visa) for over two days in Dakar “how strange can it be”?

With the wait over (and thankfully with the Francophone visa in my passport) and the flight from Dakar to Niamey (capital of Niger) passing quickly, I found myself in a car travelling from the Niamey International airport to the office of the client. It was dusty, the Harmattan was blowing and although the driver was friendly (and not speaking a word of English) I still felt as if I have just entered another world. The streets were filled with camels, Touregs (not the car) and turban-clad gentlemen. What struck me immediately though was the heat (literally!). We are used to dry heat in Namibia, but this was different. Hotter, windier and very dusty.

Niamey streets.

Niamey was my home for the next couple of days. I wandered the streets, walked along the Niger river and tried my recently learned french on some of the locals… Bonjour! It was during this time that I visited a local market in Niamey. Silver craftsmen abound making swords, jewelry and so much more. I had to refrain from taking photos as it just did not seem apt, but I purposefully drank in the moment with my senses. A grateful and humbling experience.

My Nigerien experience did not end here, I went back to Namibia but was soon back on a flight (this time via France) to Niger to investigate prospective uranium occurrences within central Niger. I arrived, but my field bag, with all of my overnight gear, clothes and geological kit did not… And the next day I had to drive inland to Agadez and from there travel to a small town by the name of In Gall – basically just a speck on the map – a gathering place of nomads, with a central well surrounded by some mud buildings. Needless to say, I was in a spot of bother with only the clothes on my back. I had travel inland and trust that the national carrier of France would somehow manage to bring me my bag in central Niger – on time. I soon had to focus on more pressing matters as we had to travel with military convoy. This involved three armored vehicles (with about 10 Kalashnikov clad soldiers on each) accompanying approximately 20 civilian cars (including our two Land Cruisers). Now the word “driving” is used in the best sense of the word. That was not driving, it was NASCAR at its best.

Armoured convoy.

Everyone in the convoy wanted to keep up with the Soldiers driving in front, probably out of fear for rebel ambushes. I think even the soldiers themselves were scared. So we flew (low level) – the ‘leave no one behind’ phrase here did not exist, it is every man for himself. Should your vehicle break down or get stuck in the sand, you are left behind and have to do what you can to get back on the road. Its on this road that I started to understand the full meaning of Inshallah. We drove past a couple of land mined vehicles and I asked our local geologist, what is the chance of us hitting a mine – his only reply – Inshallah (if it is Gods will). Fear. Unknown feelings. My Love at home. Our life together. These things flash through your mind at times like this. I was afraid to go on, but afraid to turn back as well and you don’t have time to consider your options. You just have to NASCAR ahead – non stop. Through the sand, and dry riverbeds with the army standing guard, 20 mm machine guns loaded and ready, waiting for everyone to pass by. Ever onward. Into the night. Inshallah.

At last we reached our destination after a really terrifying drive. Agadez is a mud built city. Most structures are built from the ochre coloured sand of the region giving the place a really early feeling. It is also home to the oldest mud mosque on the planet. This almost 30 m tall structure has served as a lookout post for enemies and invited caravans to the Tuareg Capital for centuries. It is the mosque of mosques. It is a symbol of Agadez and to me, it symbolically represents the whole of West Africa. The call to prayer by the Imam resounds through my thoughts even though the minaret stood quiet for the day. We were not allowed in as a ceremony was hosted inside.

Mud mosque in Agadez built in 1515.

From Agadez we traveled to In Gall, arriving late at night and booked into the only brick house in town. We had an armed soldier stay with us and from here we drove into the desert on a daily basis to investigate a number of uranium occurrences from a map. The town was sweltering and the desert more so. We drove around a lot, walked some more and took a couple of samples – we even sampled some of the wells after the locals said they were unwell (pun intended) after drinking the water.

Local Toureg assisting with water sampling from a well.

It was an exceptional experience. We drove way off the beaten tracks into areas where I am certain westerners have not been for decades (if ever).

Kids at well.

We helped pull water from wells, spoke to local Toureg people, had lunch in the shade (okay some scanty bush branches) and I got to witness camels helping to pull water from life bringing wells in the Sahara.

Camel pulling water from well.

Nomads in desert.

Of course the visits to the Sahara did not end here. after finishing my third stint in the country, I had to go back to look at some more uranium. This time with another client. On this trip we flew to Agadez (I did not want to go the way of the armoured convoy again), stayed in the same hotel, but from Agadez we had to drive to Arlit, in the heartland of Niger’s uranium province. Also much deeper into the Sahara and closer to oblivion it felt.

From Arlit we had to drive still further north to the uranium concessions and its on one of these days that as luck would have it, we first got stuck and then had a flat tyre.

Stuck in the Sahara.

Getting stuck, or having a flat tyre is normal, it happens all the time. But this felt a bit different. Firstly we were in the middle of nowhere, it was really hot, no shade anywhere and of course no mobile signal. Add onto that, we were in rebel country with visibility up to the Atlantic, so anyone driving within 100 km from our position would spot us in a heartbeat. This is an area where a fellow Geologist has also been hijacked before. So getting the tyre fixed quickly was paramount.

But, TIA. Things never go as you expect. First of all I saw our driver acting strangely as he got out of the car. It is important to note that it was the holy month of Ramadan and our driver was fasting. That means no water, no food and no nothing during the day. Okay, no probs. Lets change the tyre. However, we could not as our spare was flat… How did this happen, I asked? Well, apparently our driver saw the flat spare when we left Arlit that morning, but thought we would not need it..

Fixing our tyre.

We were only one vehicle and without a private military vehicle (basically a land cruiser filled with men holding AKs – which we should have had, but talked our way out of it). All travelers (especially foreign nationals) are obliged to travel with a military vehicle when venturing into the Sahara. This is due to the kidnappings, ambushes etc within the area at that time. In addition, you must have a “pass” letter from the Prefect (this can only be obtained in Agadez) and he will not give you a a letter if you do not travel with a military vehicle. Without this letter, we will not be able to pass from Agadez (where we landed with the domestic flight) to Arlit, further north. But, the military car and soldiers are expensive, so my fellow Geo and I convinced the Prefect to let us travel alone, and very reluctantly, he agreed.

Lying in the shade of the car, waiting for a miracle, I was made starting to face consequences of our decision to travel without a military vehicle. If I was to call the embassy on the Sat phone to come and help us, the Prefect would be super upset (something about a big tall turban clad government man getting angry did not sit well with me). If we did call, we (or at least the driver) could die of thirst…

So I give it time. And we tried and tried but of course our pump (at least we had a pump in the car) was leaking air. Unfortunately at this time, the driver reminded us that Arlit (our base while in the north) has a curfew. No one is allowed to drive into the town after dark. And we could not stay outside of town for a real and eminent fear of rebels. So we continued to try with the retched tyre. I reached my Love on the Satphone, giving her GPS coords and told her to raise hell if I didn’t call in at a specific time. We also called the driver’s boss and tried to tell him where we were, but that was far easier said than done. We were way off the main road, deep in the Sahara and basically only a dot on the map. I explained that to the Geo, who explained it to the driver who in turn talked to his boss. They know the area well, I told myself, and I presumed the driver would say “hey, we are behind that sand dune to the right of the little bush, you know the one, its where you turn off at the sandy patch from the main road and drive for 100 km into the sand sea”. Or something like that…

Eventually, after struggling for hours and unable to fix the tyre, we decided to drive out on the flat tyre. We had to, as no rescue came from the driver’s boss (who would have guessed) and by now even our water supplies were getting thin (the driver was fasting still, and if he decided to start drinking out of thirst, we were done for). We pushed onward, eventually reached the main road and was found by the boss (who by the way drove up and down this road all the way to Liberia unable to find that sandy patch turn off…).

Working in the Sahara.

The next day we continued our work (with two spare tyres this time) and after a couple more sandy, uneventful days, we drive back to Agadez to make our flight to Niamey. As we were saying our goodbyes to the driver, I overheard my fellow Geo alking in a stern tone to the driver’s boss on the phone. What now, I thought?

Turns out that the 50 % upfront deposit I had to pay the car owner (the one that came to our rescue in the desert) for the car rental (which I paid weeks before while still in Namibia) was never received.

He was demanding from the Geo that we pay the deposit (again) as well as the remaining 50 % to the driver right there or he would call the police to prevent us from flying out. A very unpleasant situation. First of all, the flights don’t go every day (if at all). Secondly, I did not have that kind of cash on me. So I pleaded with the guy on the phone (who at least spoke English) to let us go in peace and that I would deposit the other 50 % once I reached Niamey. Eventually he agreed and we took off. Now if you have ever watched the movie Argo (Arrrrr go @@!$ yourself), you will recall the relief of the couple of passengers as they took off from Iran – that is exactly what I felt like when the plane left the runway of Agadez bound for Niamey. Phew…

Back in Niamey I paid him everything as promised, thinking I will never see my money again and left Niger, a bit stressed out. At least three months passed after this last stint into Niger, when I heard from the car owner. He received my 50 % upfront payment and wanted  return the extra money. Unbelievable!

Since my last departure there has been a host of attacks in Niamey, hostage takings and killings of civilians. Some hostages were from the same camp I stayed at in Arlit and only released after three years and probably some ransoms paid.

Brewing tea in In Gall.

I have asked myself many times over whether I would return to this landlocked, windswept part of Africa with all of its bad publicity, severe weather and difficult situations. But when I think back to how I was treated by the people, the smiles in the eyes when I spoke to random strangers, the traditional tea brewing, camels in the streets and friendly waves from kids in the desert, I know what my answer will be.

Friend in Niamey.