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Driving across the Sahara – Part 3



This week and next I’m inflicting on my readers (and on my long-suffering editor) one final Sahara trip, once again through Niger, the country to the north of Nigeria. A British friend, Margaret, was coming to see me—her first trip to Africa—and I had suggested we spend a week or so in Niger before heading for Nigeria, where I was living and working. I set out from Sokoto in my trusty Beetle, heading for Niamey, the capital of Niger, about six hours drive north-west (first time there for me). This took me not into the Sahara but through the northern strip of the mostly arid Sahel, which borders the desert. Once in Niamey I needed to find a hotel and then get to the airport to meet Margaret, who was flying in from Paris and would not be able to get through immigration unless I slipped her the name of the hotel. I really should have been cautious enough to set out the previous day as, after five years’ loyal service, my Beetle proved it wasn’t as trusty as I’d imagined. About half-way to Niamey it started conking out, stalling and making piteous help me, help me noises. Managing to get it limping into the small town of Dogondouchi, I found a motor mechanic, an extremely helpful Ghanaian, who took control. He said that if the problem turned out to be serious, he’d get his son to drive me to a hotel in Niamey and then to the airport and he would himself deliver my car the next day. As he got to work, he suggested I pop around the corner, to an air-conditioned little restaurant run by his wife. I did so and enjoyed (I well remember, because it was so welcome) freshly-squeezed mango juice, and then foofoo (pounded yam) and pot greens with almond flakes on top. Soon after, my car arrived—it had merely been overheating—and I set off again. In Niamey I found a very nice place, the Hotel du Sahel, and then left for the airport. Got to the car park and, as I was still a bit fraught, leapt out of the car without turning off the ignition and swung the door shut, locking my keys inside. There the car sat, placidly throbbing away as if it didn’t have a care in the world. As Margaret’s plane was due to land I had no time to work out what on earth to do, but rushed inside to meet her at immigration. She was carrying a huge parasol, in green and white, the colours of the Nigerian flag, which was a nice touch. I asked if she’d had a good flight (reply: yes, she had) and she asked if I’d had a good drive (reply: a kind of strangled shriek). On the way back to the car park, I told an official my problem and he fetched one of the cooks from the airport kitchen, who came out with an armful of carving knives, strode to my car (I thought of humming Vaughan Williams’s “March Past of the Kitchen Utensils”), prised away the rubber surround of the driver’s window, got the window down (clunk! Into the door cavity), turned off the ignition and handed me my keys. Margaret asked me “is Africa always like this?” and I replied “it is when I’m around.” Our hotel sat on a cliff overlooking the River Niger. A wonderful dinner on the terrace that night and I slept like the proverbial log. The next day we discovered an Olympic-sized swimming-pool just down the road from the hotel; we did the National Museum and the pottery market (at that time I collected pottery); best of all, we found that if we drove down the zig-zag road from the hotel to the Niger, we could pay a ferryman to take us on a river trip in his canoe. The following day we set off for Agadez. It was theoretically feasible to drive there in a straight line from Niamey, but the road was a desert track and there was only one small settlement on the way, called In Gall, where there might be no place to stay and no petrol station (for all these desert trips I travelled with at least one metal jerry-can full of fuel lodged behind the passenger seat. Not recommended, as it’s extremely dangerous). I decided we should not risk a rough road and a night dossing out in the car, and instead drove all the way south-east back to the Nigerian border (in the border town, Birni nKonni there was an absolute dump of a bush bar which did, however, serve a beautiful bean soup). Then we drove straight north to Agadez on the road I’ve described before. I’m very glad we went there, as we had the most memorable of my three Agadez experiences. To be concluded Chris Dunton

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