Connect with us


Driving across the Sahara – Part 4



Before I set out once more across the lone and level sands I should alert my loyal readers (and long-suffering editor) to what I shall be up to next week. Some years ago in this column I offered a short story about the early history of coffee preparation. I’ve now rewritten the story to make it richer, and so I’m serving that up again. Of course many of my readers may be younger ones, and as for the older ones your memories might have dribbled out of your ear-drums, so no compunction about doing that. Now, once more to my beloved Sahara. Back once again at the Hotel de l’Air in Agadez I found there was a new receptionist, a young Tuareg man (or Targui: Tuareg is the plural for the people, one of the main traditionally nomadic Saharan groups). Margaret and I got on well with him and in the evening he suggested that the next day we should meet his father, a local chief and silversmith. The next morning the old gentleman arrived and I sat chatting with him and his son (Margaret had gone for a stroll and then a shower, but joined us later). They suggested they teach me a few words of the Tuareg language, Tamasheq, an offer I didn’t take up (I had much less excuse a couple of years later in Libya, when a similar offer came from a colleague who was a Malian Targui — I really regret my indolence at that time, as a little Tamasheq would now be a nice, glamorous string to my bow). We chatted in English and French and in Hausa, which the father spoke, but not the son (you see how easy things are in Lesotho?) When Margaret arrived the father invited us for tea in his silversmith’s shop. I knew Margaret wanted to buy some of the famous Agadez silver cross pendants (there are a couple of dozen different designs), so we leapt at the offer. Margaret bought quite a few and I bought a couple and the old man presented each of us with a booklet that gave the history of the crosses and an illustrated guide to them. Lovely. He then offered to host us that afternoon at the monthly animal market, held just outside town. This was an offer we were certainly not going to refuse. When we got to the market we were seated on rugs and given more delicious Arab-style tea. I was then taught all the qualities I needed to assess if I were trying to choose a camel to buy, a skill I have, oddly, never been able to put to use. Having been thus instructed, there was then widespread agreement that either Margaret or I should buy a camel. I pointed out that there was a big camel market in Sokoto, where I lived, and if I seriously needed a camel I could buy one there. To which the response came, these were a better class of camel. Well, maybe, but how was I going to get one back to Sokoto — with the poor beast trotting along behind my Beetle? And as for Margaret, how was she going to ship one on Air France back to Paris, then to London, and then up the road to Warwick? And what would her neighbours say when they saw it grazing in her garden? More to the point, what would her husband say? At this point sanity was restored and we said goodbye to our friends and left the market unencumbered by camel. The next day we made the trip up to Arlit to see the uranium mine I described a couple of weeks ago. I have to be very careful in describing what happened next, as I made use of the incident in my short story “Remarkable People” and — I believe this is a common experience — when one has done this, it becomes difficult to separate out fictionalised details from one’s slippery memory of the actual incident. But basically this. On the way back from Arlit to Agadez we were aware of sand and grit-laden whirligigs (miniature tornadoes) here and there. One of these slammed into the front of the car and smashed the windscreen, which turned into a blinding snowy sheet. I immediately sounded the horn (I believe this is a common reflex), until a spectacularly unperturbed Margaret pointed out that if there were any other vehicles on the road they could certainly see us; I, on the other hand, could see nothing at all, and should stop. I stopped and we smashed out the windscreen with a handy can of grapefruit juice and, very slowly, proceeded. We reached a traffic police check, where we had to obtain a (verbal) laisser-passer or permission to proceed. The official who checked us out could see that we were in difficulties and demanded a bribe and I paid up — a single but quite substantial banknote. As we drove off I saw in the rear-view mirror that the wind had blown the note from his hand and he was chasing it across the desert. “Serves you right,” I thought. You come across nasty guys and nice ones. Back in Agadez the sweet hotel receptionist volunteered to scout around the mechanics in town and see if any had a Volkswagen Beetle windscreen they could fit. No joy, so I had to use the emergency plastic windscreen that came with the car. Driving back to Nigeria the next morning I could only go very slowly — we could have bought a camel to trot behind us — otherwise the plastic windscreen billowed against the steering-wheel and tried to get us to turn off the road. After a bit Margaret —a person of great resourcefulness— removed her stockings and used those to secure the windscreen. At the turn-off to Tahoua we reached another laisser-passer barrier and a handsome young officer checked us out, gazing at the stocking-bound windscreen and making a wisecrack about Western technology. He then wished us safe journey and waved us on. Margaret commented on how pleasant he was and then asked me whether I really should have held his hand and called him “darling.” I can’t round off on that note, so, briefly a Libyan memory. On a trip with students to the Fezzan, the Libyan chunk of the Sahara, I was taken to a rock-face which bore faded inscriptions. Tamasheq, the Tuareg language, has its own script, Tifinagh, and the inscriptions were messages from nomadic groups leaving advice for those following them, where there was danger from brigands, where fresh water could be found, and so on. The living desert. Chris Dunton

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Copyright © 2022. The Post Newspaper. All Rights Reserved