In and Out of Africa

More Desert anyone?

The warm Niger beer was hardly the best I had ever tasted. It could well have been the most refreshing and deserved. We had got through the Sahara parched but virtually unscathed (if you ignore the enormous cracks in the windscreen that is). When we arrived the border had been closed for lunch. As soon as the offices opened again we went through the formalities of crossing another border. This was, in many ways much more of an 'African' border crossing than the port at Oran. The buildings were ramshackle and none had any indication of their purpose. There were many people milling about, some appeared to live at the border, others were officials or members of the army and a few, like us, seemed to be attempting to cross the border. Jan took us straight to the correct buildings in the right order, which made things marginally less confusing. People would come up to us and ask us questions and it was impossible to tell whether they had any right to do so or not. One man came up and demanded tourist tax. Jan told us that this was normal and an 'official' tax. He asked for a receipt and, amazingly, one was produced. Another man started peering into the truck. "Antibiotics", he said. Jan was looking at us and shaking his head gently. "No, we have no antibiotics" we lied convincingly. "Food", he asked while using the international sign language for opening a tin of some really gorgeous delicacy. Jan was still shaking his head. "We have only a little rice", we lied again. Satisfied with that he went away, our second vehicle search in Africa completed. We managed to buy some more 'assurance', this time valid all the way to Nigeria. The 'assurance agent' used a convincing rubber stamp to add two extra countries to the document. Once again we were unsure of how valid this document would be in the event of an accident.

This was also the first border crossing where our Carnet was stamped. A Carnet is a kind of Passport for the Landrover. They are generally issued by an international motoring organisation, in this case the A.A. and each page has three sections. On entering a country they would stamp the stub and outer section. Then remove the outer section and take it away. When we left each country they would stamp the stub once more and remove the second section. The theory was that they could then match the two pieces and work out if the vehicle left the country or not. If the pieces didn't match the government would then recover the duty from the AA (in some cases this could be two and a half times the value of the vehicle). The AA would then claim from the insurance (which we had paid for). The AA and the insurance company would then get together and follow us to the ends of the earth to claim back the money.

We finally completed all the formalities except having our passports stamped. Our passports had reached the top of the pile when the border closed for the evening. So we settled down for another night in limbo, separated from our passports.

We had somehow gained the impression that we had completed the Piste and that there were now 'real' roads in Niger. As we started off towards the Arlit we realised that there were still 200 km of bone shaking 'Piste' to go. The only difference was that more of the Ballises were still standing and there were fewer tracks going off into nowhere. There were also some real sand dunes, which we drove around, and one particularly sandy stretch. The Landrover came to a halt in the sand. I had taken a Landrover 'vehicle familiarisation' course before leaving. This explained what all the levers and gears were for and how to drive up very steep banks and through muddy snow covered fields. They had a 'jungle track' which was full of convincing muddy water but no equivalent of hot soft sand. I tried various selections of high and low gears and pushed all the levers in sight. Eventually I found the right combination and drove out.

The Saharan Convoy

Jan stopped at the top of the rise overlooking the sand field. He was trying to beat his previous record of getting stuck five times. He had only got stuck four times this trip but here was the sand field which had defeated him last time. He remained stationary at the top for about ten minutes mentally preparing for the duel. We saw a puff of black smoke and the truck started to accelerate. The big Mercedes diesel making a throaty roar as he powered down the hill. More puffs of smoke as he worked through the gears. They were getting closer know, the truck moving at frightening speed down the slope towards us. Then they reached the sand. The soft deep sand gripping with the might of millions of tiny grains, pulling against the momentum of the massive Mercedes under full throttle.

In the cab Jan was fighting to keep the tanker from being dragged to a stop, or rolling over. Ten more metres before the desert became hard and rocky once more. Nine metres and the truck was slowing rapidly, seven metres and it looked like he might just make it. With three metres left to go the mighty Mercedes ground to a reluctant halt next to the skeleton of a less fortunate Peugot, stripped clean by human vultures and the passage of time.

The thermometer on the outside of his cab said 48 degrees C. Almost too hot for this kind of work. I could only manage a couple of shovels of sand before I needed to rest. This would probably be Jan's last trip this year before it became to hot to work. We had dug the tanker out of longer sand fields but this time it was well and truly embedded. The heat was too intense and in desperation we removed the generator that Detlef was towing and used his truck to pull the tanker out. Slowly but surely it inched forward the three metres and was free.

As the piste gave way to unsealed road we found ourselves at the outskirts of Arlit. After the emotional experiences of the desert we had hoped for a nice shower, a cold beer and some time alone to assimilate it all. We were about to get a rude awakening. For us solitude was now, like many things in Africa, a thing of the past, or perhaps the distant future. As we drove past the rubbish dump on the outskirts of town we were spotted. By the time we had arrived at the campsite there were several vehicles full of locals behind us. Before we have come to a stop they begin to descend on us like the flies from the nearby rubbish tip. We sat down in the bar. Before we can order our tepid beers a man in dark robes and an Arab headdress sits next to us.

"I am Tuareg" he says. He begins to open his bundle and show us his wares.
"Tuareg sword", (he pulls out a sword)"Agadez cross", (he pulls out a silver cross),"Mask", (hideous voodoo mask), etc...
"We'd like to order some beers", we plead, doing the international sign language for "I'm parched and need a drink".
"I give, good price", he continues, undeterred.

This is the beginning of a lengthy procedure and bargaining is compulsory. The first price quoted being ten or twenty times the real price. You have to offer a ridiculously low value i.e. a hundredth of the value you want to pay.
e.g. "Tuareg Sword 200 CFA., Best price"
"No, No, way too much - 1 CFA".
"Ah, you insult me - 150 CFA - best price"
"No ,maybe 2 etc. etc.".

This continues until you die of thirst, fall asleep, another tourist arrives who looks richer or you purchase the sword for around 20 CFA. While we were having our first experience of bargaining Detlef had already sold the Mercedes saloon from the back of his truck.

Sometimes they try and get you to start.
"Give me your best price".
Mention of a price now, even in jest, means you are committed to at least lengthy bargaining. Don't get involved unless you intend to buy as they get offended/angry if YOU waste THEIR time in such a fashion. There is an apocryphal story of the lady tourist in Egypt who jokingly begins bargaining for a camel and even agrees a price. When she then laughs and says it was only a joke she is beaten to death.

All this was very alien to me. At home I would expect to bargain over maybe the top ten percent of an item ( car etc. ). Here you have to bargain over 95 percent of the value. We weren't really interested in buying anything, we had a long way to go and our budget had been reduced by a quarter by the Spanish robbers. Our reluctance to buy was considered to be a subtle bargaining ploy on our part.

To make things worse, as well as the people trying to sell you artefacts there was another group trying to buy everything you possess.

"How much for the Landrover? - I have expedition in Agadez and need Landrover"
'It's not for sale, we want it for our expedition'
"I give you good price"
'It really is not for sale!'
"How much for the tyres?"
"One tyre, you have two spares"
"Your shirt?"
'AAAaaaaaaaaggggghhhhhhh, NOTHING IS FOR SALE'

Get the picture?

You come out of the shower and there is someone buying/selling. They wait outside your tent in the morning to catch you half asleep. You have a meal, there is someone there. Driving along the road in the middle of nowhere you decide to have a toilet stop. You look around and there is no one for miles. Just as you get your Zip undone a voice behind you.
"I am Tuareg, - Agadez cross..."

To be fair most of the non-residents at the campsite were on entrepreneurial ventures taking vehicles to Niger to sell. These same people were looking for cheap Africana to sell in exclusive boutiques in Europe. Most of the rest were tourists on overland tour trucks, some of whom were not on such a tight budget (what the heck, if I run out of beer money I can always phone Daddy...). So who can blame them for wanting to exploit this seemingly endless supply of immense wealth!

We did buy some mangoes, the nicest we had ever tasted. This was the first part of the 'mango effect'. And I did bow under the pressure and buy a small brass bangle.

From Arlit we travelled to Agadez with Jan (he could have sold the tanker several times already but wanted a better price). On the way we came across several road blocks. They searched Jan's truck. Jan and the official went in to the little hut. Then it was our turn.

"Where is your warning triangle?"
We showed him the triangle. He thought for a moment.
"Where is your second warning triangle?"
We had been warned about this and showed him our second triangle. He thought for a moment.
"Where is your ....", he did the international symbol for fire extinguisher.
We showed him our fire extinguisher. He thought for a moment.
"Where is your second fire extinguisher".
We showed him our second fire extinguisher, which no one had ever said was necessary but had seemed like a good idea, they were on special offer at the supermarket after all. He thought for a second and then smiled.
"You may go".
A game had been played and we had won this round.

Jan didn't have a warning triangle and some money had changed hands.

At Agadez we met Frank again. He was pleased to see us and bought us some beers. The remarkable thing about the beer in Agadez was that it was cold. He told us of his adventures in the desert. Before they had left Tamanghasset one of the Mercedes had been having problems with its gearbox. They set off anyway and didn't notice that it had run out of gear oil. The Mercedes was an automatic and it is generally considered a bad idea to tow an automatic for even a short distance on tar sealed roads without disengaging the drive. The idea of towing one across the Sahara would definitely not have the approval of your local Mercedes dealer. They had towed the vehicle for most of the piste and seemed disappointed and surprised that the gearbox no longer functioned as this was having an adverse affect on the selling price. As well as this they had got lost in the desert and driven several hundred kilometres in the wrong direction. All in all we were glad we had decided to travel with Jan and Trudie.

The toilets at this campsite were another adventure in themselves. There was a small walled area with no roof. In the centre was a small hole. If you 'dropped' something into the hole (a stone for instance) it would be several seconds before you heard a dull thud below. A few seconds later there would be a rather curious rustling noise from much closer. A second trip accompanied by a torch revealed its hideous secrets. Below me was an enormous cavernous pit of Gargantuan proportions. I assume that large tree trunks had been used to cover this and the small holes (there were two 'buildings' over the pit) made later. The fear of the floor collapsing and dumping me neck deep into the bottom of the pit is with me to this day. The second rustling noise was made by a colony of large insects which live directly underneath the floor. Occasionally you could see one scuttle away when disturbed. Remarkably the toilet was odour free, which made it about the only place in the campsite which didn't smell of stale urine.

There are many interesting little markets in Agadez and on the edge of one of them is a little Italian ice cream parlour selling genuine Italian ice cream. If you ever go to Agadez you should not miss this bizarre experience. The ice cream is extremely nice too. If it wasn't for the African woman behind the counter and the smell of Africa outside you could almost imagine you were in Naples.

In Niger you are required to present your passport at the police station in every town. Sometimes they would charge you the 1000 CFA tourist tax and sometimes they wouldn't. At Agadez we were happily dealing with a friendly policeman and about to hand over our 1000 CFA when a fat official came out of the office and pushed him out of the seat.
"5000 CFA", he said. At this the other policemen looked startled. One began to say something but another nudged him and he thought better of it.
"Pour qoi", we said, which means something like 'Why' in French.
"Pour le voiture", he said pointing at the truck.
He had our passports and a smug expression. We handed over 5000 CFA and he gave us a receipt - for 1000 CFA. I began to argue but he still had our passports and a big fat smile.

A game had been played and we had certainly lost this time. This fat official left us angry and bitter about Niger. We left Agadez in a hurry without even photographing the unique mosque. The Spanish robbers were probably at this moment listening to the BBC world service news talking about rioting near Kano in Nigeria. We, however, were blissfully ignorant of this as we headed for the Nigerian border and what I would later describe as the 'African riot belt'.