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Scouring the Sahara


Words and pictures by Patrick Cruywagen

Our Bush Editor, riding high in one of Kingsley Holgate’s Defender 130s, completes the second half of his not-so-touristy trip through deepest Africa, and comes away with a dusty pocketful of stories to tell.

We’d arrived in Chad’s capital city of N’Djamena in the dark and so had no idea of what to expect at sunrise, but what we could see were a large number of soldiers.
Land Cruiser pick-ups seem to be the ride of choice for the military as well as rebels, which makes for even fights… They usually have some sort of heavy gun mounted on the back plus as many soldiers / rebels and as much ammunition as possible.
After our one big night in N’Djamena it was time to move on from our comfortable house with the white sheets, full pantry, imported coffee and a generator so big it could power every single one of Bloemfontein’s streetlights. American diplomatic personnel sure know how to rough it…
Gert du Preez, our friend from the SA diplomatic corps, showed us where to purchase some ice and fresh produce before putting us on the right road towards Lake Chad and the Niger border. We’d been warned not to take any pictures in the city, but I did try to sneak a few on the move as we hastily made our way into the desert.

Scouring the Sahara

This was to be a very different experience to Cameroon with its red mud roads and evergreen scenery. In Cameroon, Samuel Eto soccer jerseys and western-style clothing dominated, but here it was more traditional. Men wore turban-like headgear known locally as tagiya and long robes or jalabiyas, and for the ladies it was wraps, or, as the locals call them, rabott or pagne, which cover both halves. Ladies of the Muslim faith were covered from head to toe – all you could see were their eyes.
The landscape had a similar look and feel to the pans in Botswana during the middle of a summer heat wave. It was white and dusty which made us dirty and thirsty. It was that dry heat that seems to slow down your movements and make you look for the closest shade so that you can rest a bit. This is how we’d be rolling for the next couple of days as we headed west.
Most people who travel from the capital city to see Lake Chad first go to Douguia on the banks of the Cheri River. Then, if bored with the hotel pool and river, they go on to a remote village called Guete which lies on the lake’s southern shores. We didn’t fancy the sight of French soldiers in Speedos so instead headed for the town of Massokry which lies to the east of the lake. It was also here that Chad runs out of tar, making it the last stop for the old yellow Peugeot 504 taxis.

Scouring the Sahara

The subsequent transport gap is plugged by the classic workhorse of the desert, the Land Cruiser BJ40 or 45. What I would see these vehicles doing over the next couple of days was nothing short of remarkable, or perhaps crazy.
Firstly the load box is filled beyond capacity; it’s filled until the cargo sticks out above the Cruiser like a termite mound. Then more people than you thought possible find positions on top of this mound of cargo. Allah alone knows what these people hang onto. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, several more people sit on the cab’s roof. If you look at such a vehicle as it approaches you, you’ll notice that the guy sitting furthest to the left on the cab roof has to slightly open his legs so the driver can see where he’s going.
When we reached a village where one of these kamikaze taxis had stopped I took a good look at the passengers climbing off the heap of cargo. I then realised why they wear white robes; it’s so the white dust from the road doesn’t show. As for their faces, well, the white definitely showed up there.
A long, long time ago Lake Chad was one of the largest freshwater lakes on the planet, today it’s slowly drying up. During the terrible droughts of ’84 it dried up completely. It was late evening when we arrived in the town of Bol, which a small sliver of the lake reaches all year round. We won’t reach Niger without a refuel and so we buy 20 litres of diesel from one of these street-side sellers. We spend a few minutes watching some young ladies doing washing in the lake while behind them the sun slips into the lake.
We can’t sleep here as there are way too many people about and we’ve been warned to take care in these parts, so we drive off into the darkness. After an hour we see a pan a little way off the road. It’s the perfect place to rest our travel-weary heads, so we collect some wood and after 10 minutes we have a roaring fi re to cook on. Once again no-one bothers us during the night, but we do hear the rumbling sound of one or two vehicles that are pushing on through the night. Maybe it’s some of the guys we saw broken down earlier on.
Scouring the SaharaOnce back on the road the next day we’re met by caravans of heavily-laden camels. We think they’ve come from Libya in the north where their riders buy goods to trade back in Niger. Today will hopefully be our last day in Chad if we make good time, but there are so many tracks to choose from that at times we fi nd ourselves heading too far east, heading towards Nigeria instead of Niger.
On one occasion we stop to ask a gentleman on a camel if we’re going towards Niger or Nigeria. Imagine driving around Europe and stopping on the motorway to ask someone if you are heading towards Sweden or Scotland… that’s how silly we felt.
The one constant out in these remote parts was the cellphone signal; you could be lost or driving around aimlessly or bashing through the bushes but still have perfect signal.
Kingsley had warned us that the level of the lake had risen during his drive through here the previous month. With so many tracks to choose from we found ourselves literally driving into the lake at one stage. To attempt a drive through such a large body of water with no backup was not an option and so we went bundu-bashing to the east to find another road.
The drive to the border was taking longer than anticipated; it was late afternoon when we stumbled upon a hut and a piece of string across the track, which doubled up as the Chad border post. As this was Land Cruiser country, some gun-carrying soldiers came out to see who was driving this Land Rover. I handed out one of the Johnny Clegg compilation CDs (burnt from my own albums prior to the trip) as a gift and we were on our way.
Things on the Niger side weren’t as easy and took a little longer – this time I had to hand over two Johnny Clegg CDs and a soccer ball for the kids to hasten up the process. I got bored and chased the kids around much to the amusement of the older folk who were sitting under some shaded cloth. Just as we were leaving the border post we saw new vehicles without number plates going in the opposite direction. We were told that they’d come from Benin and were heading for the capital of Chad. I wasn’t so sure and was convinced that a few of them might disappear into Nigeria. These imported vehicles would be ever-present as we did our east-west crossing of Niger.

Scouring the Sahara

Just exactly what is Niger famous for? Well they have the highest birth rate on the planet: wait for it, a whopping eight children per woman. Of late the country’s been in the news for all the wrong reasons: in ’05 it suffered one of the most devastating food crises of all time; then in ’07 the Tuareg tribes of the north decided that they didn’t like the government, accusing it of violating ceasefire agreements and hoarding resources. The tragedy of the Tuareg uprising is that much of the northern part of the country, where most of the major tourist attractions lie, is a no-go area unless you want to literally risk your life.
We wanted to see the desert and so upon reaching the dusty town of Nguigmi we contacted a man by the name of Mr Moda, who would take us out into the desert to sleep in the dunes. He took us to his home and, true to the law of averages, a whole little tribe of kids came out to greet us. They’d obviously been playing outside all day as they were all covered in white dust, which is synonymous with the region. They looked like the Baker Man’s assistants who’d fallen into a keg of flour.
After we had loaded his gear it was off to the market to buy supplies. Cooked meat (Mr Moda told us it was beef) was bought on the side of the street and neatly wrapped in brown paper. Next were some cold drinks and wood. We thought we were good to go but when we got to the checkpoint on the outskirts of town we were told to go back to the police station. Here we had to pay a ‘desert fee’. Our supply of caps, T-shirts and Johnny Clegg CDs was dwindling fast.
By the time the police let us go it was already dark, but I was getting used to this driving in the dark by now. The place Mr Moda wanted to take us was about 45 minutes away, and obviously upon arrival we had no idea what it looked like – all I could see were the stars up above. Still I was happy, camping in the Sahara under the stars, something I had never done before.
That night I fell asleep knowing that it was north of here that Al-Qaeda took a couple of French mine workers hostage only a month or two ago. Luckily I was from South Africa and we were not very high on the Al-Qaeda potential hostages list. By now our Return Dash had developed a sort of pattern. Drive all day, arrive late afternoon or at night, eat and drink, up at sparrows, take in a couple of tourist sights, then drive all day again.
Scouring the SaharaGetting on the road west to Zinder was not that easy. First we had to go visit the school close to where we slept in the desert. I was relieved when we left the school as they had some rather advanced mathematics on the green board and I was worried they would ask us some maths question. Not my strongpoint.
Then once back in Nguigmi it only got worse; we thought we could just pay the guide and go. Mr Moda had arranged for us a meeting with the mayor. She was a little busy and so we had to wait before we could meet her. I wonder what she made of these unshaven desert rats. Then it was the local governor and the head of the military. They were obviously busier than the mayor because we waited even longer. Luckily these meetings were quick as the school kids in town were busy rioting and so the authorities had their hands full. It was mid-morning by the time we hit the road. I suppose it is not too often that travellers pass through these parts so everybody wanted to see the town’s current main attraction. Still you can’t fault Mr Moda for his hospitality. When we asked him how much we owe him for being our guide he said: “We are brothers now. You can pay me whatever.” That was a nice gesture on his part especially when one considers that he has a whole tribe to feed.
We had to cover about 750 km to get to Zinder, to try this after leaving late was a bold move but we made it despite the stretches of really bad tar found between the stretches of even worse tar. The cars in transit without number plates where ever present, passing in the opposite direction. Whenever we went through a village during lunchtime, we would see row upon row of men, shoes off, praying side-by-side. Only once did we see a lady join them. Villages virtually came to a standstill during these prayer times.
Not so for the Nigerians living in Niger. They were on the lookout for vehicles passing through the towns to offer them fuel at much lower rates than the petrol stations. It came out of a barrel and seemed fine and so we bought some from them on more than one occasion.
Zinder used to be the capital of the once powerful Damagaram state, but today it has been reduced to last-bigtown- in-the-middle-of-nowhere status. If you only have time to do two things while in town then you have to visit the impressive-looking 19th century Palais du Sultan and the Grand Marche. The Sultan had not arrived at the palace by the time we got there and so I strolled across the road to the Grand Mosque. Prayers were over and it stood empty, although there was one chap sitting outside reading the Koran and occasionally sending a message on his mobile. Some kids strolled by on the way to school. It was all so peaceful.
The silence was suddenly broken by sirens and honking horns. I turned away from the mosque to see a souped-up scooter leading a 100 Series Land Cruiser with a number plate which read “Sultanat Du Damagaram”. The Sultan had arrived at the palace! We were not able to meet him in person as his red-robed bodyguards whisked him away, but one of his assistants was kind enough to take us on a palace tour. From here we went to the Grand Marche but as it was a Friday and market day in Zinder is on a Thursday, the place looked as if it was on a go-slow. Nevertheless, people were friendly and didn’t mind us taking pictures of the little activity that was going on.
Another long driving day (750 km again) lay ahead of us to Niamey, the capital of Niger. When pulling over to stop for some lunch we picked up a nail in one of our tyres. Out came the high-lift jack to help hasten the change. We were carrying two spares so it was not that critical to get the damaged tyre repaired straight away. The white sand of the Sahara had been replaced by red desert sand, not too dissimilar from our own Kalahari.
Scouring the Sahara

At times the road we were on ran very close to the border of Nigeria, while the town of Birnin Konni was actually on the border. The roads were improving and so even though we started late out of Zinder, we were able to make it to Niamey a little after sunset. As we were on a tight budget and accommodation is expensive in the Niger capital we managed to squat in the garden of a contact we had. But first we went to a local restaurant where they do chicken on the coals – driving all day tends to burn a hole in your stomach! We were all too tired to set up proper camp once we’d arrived at where we’d be staying, so Ross slept on the back of the Landy, Deon put up a mozzie net under the tree and I slept in a little tent.
At around 04h00 the mosque near us burst into cry, ending any hope I had of sleeping in. Oh well, at least it made our Niamey experience all the more authentic. This was a big day for me, as I’d be seeing the third largest river in Africa, the Niger, for the first time. The Scotsman Mungo Park was the first European to lay eyes on this boomerang-shaped river.
After exchanging some money at the still closed main market we went to the Grand Hotel du Niger to see the river. As the hotel had experienced a security incident some time ago you had to go through an airport-type scanner to get in. It was the type of establishment where you had to pay 10 euros if you wanted to sit down. So after having a look at the river through the perimeter security fence we decided to leave. I so wished that we had more time to explore the river or take a sunset pirogue trip on it.
As all of us had better halves waiting for us back home, we made a stop at the artisan centre across the road to buy some gift s. The centre lies within the grounds of the sad-looking zoo and national museum, so one has to pay a small entrance fee. The country is famous for its silverwork and so I purchased a silver Agadez cross. There was also some very good leatherwork at the centre and I bought a brown leather handbag (not for me). I have to add that compared to other parts of Africa the centre was very reasonably priced and if you bargained you got good deals. I saw the same silver crosses at the Accra airport for about 20 times the price!
To leave Niger we had to cross the Niger River, but there was a camel strolling across the bridge just in front of our Land Rover. I jumped out and ran ahead to get a photo of the Landy and the camel. At the end of the bridge we stopped where it was safe to take a walk down to the river. In the water down below were the biggest pirogues I’d ever seen. They carried goods that were being traded by people on the shore. Lots of these boats were carrying pumpkins by the thousands. One of the local cellphone companies showed just how much they care about the lack of animals in the river by placing a large red billboard with a picture of a hippo on it right in the middle of the river.
After 120 km of good tar we were at the Burkina Faso border. Unlike some of our earlier border crossings we had no problems at all. We’d heard good things about the people of Burkina Faso, very much like our own Malawi down south which is known as the warm heart of Africa. The first Burkinabe (as the people are known) we had contact with confirmed what we had heard – they were most welcoming and very friendly.
We didn’t have time to go to the north of the country and visit the inhospitable Sahel. Instead, we took the main road to the capital, Ouagadougou, affectionately known as Ouaga. It does not boast as many architectural tourist attractions as some of the older cities on the planet, but what it does have is culture and arts in the form of dance, music and theatre. The first things you notice when entering the city are the thousands of mobylette (mopeds) which whizz around like bees. Luckily they tended to keep a safe distance from our Defender.
Scouring the SaharaAs with all our other visits to capital cities, it was for one night only. I needed some exercise so went for a run along a canal, where locals had made some lovely vegetable gardens. I zigzagged my way through and then headed off into a built-up area. I came across some boys playing football and joined them for a game on a sandy field. The dust that hung about the field was unbearable for me but it’s just a part of life for these boys. Even after the sun had gone down we still played on. By the time we were done it was pitch black and I was so tired that I couldn’t remember which direction I’d come from. The run back to the Hotel Ricardo where we were staying took a little longer than I would’ve liked.
We left the city the next morning; it was a Sunday so it was nice and quiet with no traffic or hassles from officials to worry about. We were heading south for the first time on our journey, with the Gulf of Guinea our intended target. As had become custom we stopped at one of the street sellers who make omelettes for breakfast. They throw it into a baguette and if you like they’ll add some mayonnaise. Four of these perfect hangover cures never cost us more than R30 in total! After two hours we were at the border of Ghana, the only country on our trip that I’d previously been to.
If someone blindfolded you, took you to Ghana and then removed the blindfold, how would you know where you were? Easy, just read the signs next to the road. They’re the most humorous in all of Africa and almost always have some sort of religious connotation. These were some of my favourites: Jesus is Alive Internet Café; God is Able Saw Sharping Shop; Agony Haircuts; God says Phone; God Gives Electronic Repairs – do not urinate here. These types of shops and signs are very common and can be found in every village.
It was impossible to reach the capital Accra in a day and so we stayed in a small ramshackle hotel about 120 km north of Kumasi, the former capital of the Ashanti Kingdom. The whole expedition team was up early the next morning as this would be our last day in the Land Rover. We saw a glorious sunrise over the forested area we were driving through. Broken-down trucks still littered the road and had to be rounded as we headed south. By the time we got to Kumasi we were in the thick of the morning traffic. We scrapped our plans to spend a few hours in the city and instead pushed on to Accra.
The last few kilometres were taking forever due to the traffic. Once in the city we paid a cab driver to lead us to the Alisa Hotel, where we’d be spending our one night in Accra. It had been kindly arranged for us by the South African General Manager. The afternoon was spent trying to clear all our gear out of the Defender as it had been our home for a couple of weeks. That evening we took a cab and a few bottles of Captain Morgan to The Rhapsody’s restaurant in town where the South African owner Chris Fourie had invited us for an end-ofexpedition meal. He wasn’t there but still we tucked in to some good old South African vleis. It tasted very different to the goat, guinea fowl and goodness knows what else we’d been eating.
Accra was like a morgue on a Monday night and so we returned to our hotel pool where we sat till the wee hours, drinking rum and chatting about what we’d seen and experienced. There were many highlights: the forest elephants of the Central African Republic, the crazy boat races in Bangui, sleeping in the Sahara Desert, witnessing the mad modes of desert transport as we made our way around Lake Chad, the friendliness of the people in Burkina Faso, seeing the Niger River for the first time and then climbing onto that Air Kenya flight home.
We’d driven a route which not too many people do and yet we never felt unsafe or unwelcome. We’d travelled through Toyota territory in a Defender, which – besides the nail in the tyre – hadn’t given us a moment’s trouble. Yes, it wasn’t designed to host grown men sit in its second row of seats and the door rubbers have ongoing matrimonial problems with the doors, but it took everything we dished up for it.
If I were to rate all the trips I’ve done over the years, this one would be pretty near the top of the list. Why? We went to places tourists don’t go to and we saw things we never knew existed. Is there a better formula for travel?

SA4x4 Route Guide

Due to the route we took we could resupply often in the big towns or cities. Don’t be afraid to eat with the locals. We ate guinea fowl, goat, and chicken that looked curiously like pigeon. The best meal was the roadside breakfast omelettes. Even though we didn’t have a fridge we still survived these warm parts by buying ice whenever we could. It was only in remote parts of Niger and the Sahel Desert that buying provisions wasn’t possible.

We were in a new Landy in Cruiser country so we needed to get the basics right in terms of spares and, most importantly, tyres. Two spare tyres are recommended on trips of this remote nature.

We did it solo but due to security issues in certain countries such as Niger and northern Chad, a convoy might be advisable. The only downside of a convoy is that from far away you might resembling a band of approaching rebels…

The roads varied dramatically in Cameroon and Niger. The one moment you’re on perfect tar and the next you’re fighting your way through dongas. Be prepared for everything.

Tracks4Africa is of limited use in these areas as their coverage is much sparser than normal. Of course, you do get the as-the-crow-flies distances to major towns and cities which is of some help.

You could do it in a sedan although you might struggle a little in the sand of the Sahel.

Two weeks after we arrived back in SA, two French nationals were kidnapped out of a bar in Niamey, the capital city of Niger. As French Special Forces tried to rescue them, the two men were shot and killed. The French Foreign Office warms against all travel to Niger, Mali and the Sudan. However, we felt safe at all times, even when camping in the bush.

Fuel is readily available everywhere. When you’re close to the Nigerian border, look out for specials as you can save money. The only time we had to make a plan was when trying to drive from the capital of Chad to Niger. We bought some fuel from a bottle on the shores of Lake Chad.

Don’t wear khaki or camouflage, and don’t make any references to America, France and Britain. Buy a local SIM card from the country you’re in; this is much cheaper than using your SA one. Make sure someone has a copy of your route, and report any variations or deviations to them ASAP. All visas need to be obtained in advance. Be patient at border posts and police checkpoints.