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Eighties Overland: Part 13


Words & Images Peter Middleton

The spiky Agadez mosque minaret is visible from the desert plain, and (like a lighthouse), offers the guide we need. Sandstorms have abated for now, and we find a small tree offering a little shade to make camp. It is hot. So we also find a shop selling ice cream. Really.

Excited as we are to be here, it is a frustrating day of negotiating a spare tyre, the banks, laissez faire, and chasing away ‘fixers’ who descend like flies at a picnic.

We also have to re-weld the flimsy roof rack, and negotiations are hard, and accompanied by a litany of false promises, until a welder is found at his mud-built home.

The work begins − but finishes immediately as the power cuts off because of non-payment of a bill. So we start again, and chase around in the dusty heat until it is done.

A bad day becomes worse when a tall, aggressive man pushes Mandi off her chair in an outside café. I stand and face him – well, his belly button, as he is huge − and glare up at him. There are words, and clenched fists, before order is restored.

The day is rescued by our meeting a noble Tuareg who is selling his handmade Agadez crosses, plus other exquisite metal-work and traditional swords. The negotiations, in broken French, are completed with grace, humour and fairness, and in Salafou and his family we make unlikely friends.

We are invited to visit their home in a small number of reed-constructed, domed huts that are made to ensure a quick break of camp and quick reconstruction.

For ten days, I sit cross-legged with them, chatting, listening to a soulful flute and their laughter.

I eat goat and couscous, as they design and make the crosses and do other metal work using the old ‘lostwax method’ − the wax design is covered with damp sand before the ball is added to the fire.

The kids also work, pressing on camel-skin bellows to raise the temperature to melt the wax, which is then poured out, leaving the vacant space in the mud ball to be filled with molten silver.

When it cools, and after the mud has been broken away, the silver is worked: every grain is collected, inscribed and polished.