”All you need to know is that it’s possible.” -Wolf, Appalachian Leader
Last... dead last.
This is the position that Niger almost always occupies when ranking how well countries are doing. Niger had until recently the unenviable position of 188th out of 188 countries in the Human development index (its now 187th). This is the index which measures things like health, education, equality and productivity. It therefore has a brutal combination of the lowest reading rates, health rates, income equality, gender equality and GDP. You name the stat it is a nation that’s at the bottom of it (or at the top of it when considering birth rates: Niger women have the highest in the world, a staggering 7 children per female). It has also been a place that has intrigued me deeply. There is something about its location right in the center of Africa and Sahara that is shrouded in mystery. This mystery has only deepened in the last 10 years as Islamic extremists moved into the north of the country, installing Sharia law in parts and making the area inaccessible for others. However it is also an area of untold beauty and cultural riches. The Sahara, the
Air mountains, the stunning desert city of Agadez and the culture of the local desert nomads, the Tureg makes for a compelling travel destination. For me however Niger was a place that was totally off my own travel radar. The visa is hard to get, the physical location is thousand plus kilometers from the west coast, the climate and of course the security situation is very bad. Niger rarely makes waves internationally and when it does it it’s invariably for the wrong reasons: war, rebellions and famines. Now why would anyone choose to go there and if they did decide to go, how on earth would they make that trip happen. Well where there is a will there is a way. It is not an easy journey but all I need to know is that it’s possible. Now onward to the journey.
My trip to Niger started at the coast of Togo. I had read that the changing state of affairs in Niger meant that it was safe to travel to the capital Niamey and reports deem it somewhat safe to visit the desert city of Agadez. As I have stated previously governments over react to situations and sometimes
just publish overly cautious warnings on places. That being said we are now talking about going straight into the heart of the Sahara, warnings need to be taken seriously. As my Lonely Planet states: “As good as Niger is, the current security situation means that it is off limits to travellers. Attacks against foreigners have occurred across the Sahara and threat of kidnapping remains high”. Hmmm ok not the most postitve of reviews however after getting my visa fairly easily it is enough to at least get me on the very long bus to Niamey.
From Togo it takes 2 days of overland travel to get to Burkina Faso and it’s capital Ouagadougou. Slowly as I get closer to the Sahara the temperature starts to climb. By the time I hit Ouagadougou I am struck down with heat stroke and plans to visit the countryside of Burkina Faso are scrapped, I need to rest to prepare myself. After a few days rest I board the last bus to take me from Burkina to Niger, a 20 hour journey. The closer we get to Niger the more frequent the military checkpoints and more aggressive they become. One officer takes a
look at my passport and asks, are you sure? It’s dangerous. That’s all he said to me as he waved me on. As we approach the final border check I stare across at the buses external thermometer, 47 degrees; this is next level. After the final check I am officially into Niger and all the checkpoints and military presence stop immediately. Now I am not too sure if this is a good or a bad thing. Is it so safe these are not needed OR have they just given up trying. We shall see and with this I arrive into Niamey at close to midnight. The temperature: 36 degrees.
So the first rule of visiting Niger is: don’t come during the hottest month of May. The second rule is: don’t come during Ramadan. Both of these rules I broke to make this trip happen. Personally I am a believer in the world laying out a path for you to follow; your only job is find the scent of the track and keep on it. As obstacles are placed in your way it’s your decision on whether they are just challenges l to overcome OR you are on the wrong
path. Here it’s like behind every turn I keep getting thrown obstacles. I’m starting to think that maybe I misread the signs and it’s the 2nd of the choices above! Anyway, too late to turn back now as I arrived into Niamey and check into my Airbnb. Here I am greeted by a lovely local lady Mireille and her Liberian husband Thomas. Mireille lived in America for 22 years and is back in her home country to be a part of the MCC program. The MCC is an almost half a billion dollar grant to Niger from the US to improve the prosperity of the region (https://www.mcc.gov/where-we-work/country/niger). It is a massive chunk of money and for a country like Niger it could make a huge difference if it can only make it to those in need without being funneled into corrupt administrators back pockets first.
Mireille is especially proud of her nation and it’s past. Niger has always had tumultuous history that is anything but uneventful. Before the French came in the late 1800s the Tureg desert people inhabited these lands. They lived a nomadic life around the areas of present day Chad, Mali and Niger and utilized long
desert routes to traverse goods. They were also a warrior people and when the French came to town they defended their lands successfully right up to 1917 when Agadez was finally overrun. There is something about warrior people and their ability to fend off colonial invasion that rings bells with me. It is not too dissimilar to that of my own country New Zealand and the English. They just couldn’t waltz in and take, they had a fight on their hands. Regardless of the outcome, this type of honor brings a certain amount of respect and it is a respect tag that still holds true today with the Tureg; they are fighters. After independence in the 1960s Niger was hit by famine, drought and coups, it wasn’t until late 60s that uranium was found and some money started flowing into the country’s coffers. This success didn’t last long because by the 80s thanks to uranium prices falling and yet more drought the country was again thrown into turmoil again and one party politics reigned supreme. By the 2000s the Tureg of the north came alive and started an armed rebellion against the government. This however was unfortunately mixed with Islamic
extremists from Mali and Libya in the last 5 years due to the fall of Gadafi. This cruel dictator as is so often the case with these types of rulers had kept back this extremist evil and when he died it exploded. Better the devil you know maybe. Fast forward today and the northern region is a mess with different rebel groups fighting. If the country didn’t have enough problems.
With all these things going on in Niger it is understandable that it doesn’t see any travelers whom only task is to just see the country. This comes up numerous times as I try to board my flight to the desert city of Agadez. I had made up my mind to go and grabbed some overpriced tickets on a airline blacklisted in Europe. Now somewhat surprisingly the first thing I notice when boarding is an abundance of foreigners, wow had I mis-judged Niger. Unfortunately not, turns out everyone on that flight was either an aid worker, government advisor, military office or in the case of my seat mate Ruth: a journalist. It was at this point when I realized that to come to Niger for tourism was not normal.
Every person I met there stared at me strangely when I said I was a tourist, it was firstly WHY and then HOW and finally just general bewilderment! As I take my seat in the plane next to Ruth I hear a bit about why she is here. She covers all of West Africa for the Guardian and had always wanted to do a story in Niger. Her story here will be on the human trafficking onto Europe taking place in Agadez and it’s current state (For a little more on what’s going on click here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=cvVRPqTy0Rg). Agadez is the starting point for many refugees looking for a way out and transit to Europe. They stake everything on making this trip and the outcomes are just tragic. It makes me wonder how desperate someone would have to be to put everything on the line to make this trip. As I chat with Ruth It appears that in many cases it is the victims family whom push them into it so they can make it to Europe and send money home. This is a double tragedy because no matter how tough the trip gets, they cannot go home for fear of
failure. This means that you either die trying or if you don’t make it then you go into hiding and never return and worse still never make contact with your family again. “Travel is never a matter of money but of courage.” – Paolo Coelho
Now with all these stories going on in my head I am on full alert as we land into Agadez. However these stories get washed aside as first thing that hits me is the heat, it is now a tidal wave. Within a minute of just crossing the tarmac every part of my body is on fire. Even going into the shade of the airport shed is no help, it is literally like standing inches from a bonfire. I quickly make haste to my guesthouse and my rooms AC before crashing into oblivion. I don’t think I have ever been to a place where the AC cannot keep up with the outside temperatures, I am still hot inside. At lunchtime I head out to find food, this is the first time that the realization of travel during Ramadan hits me. For those unaware Ramadan is a one month period of the year where
those of the Muslim faith do not eat or drink between the hours of dawn to dusk. The specific month of Ramadan varies between years and for this round it is right in the middle of the hottest time of the year. Imagine that for just a moment, no eating but more so NO drinking (not even water) during the day in one of the hottest places on earth in the hottest month of the year. That is next level. Luckily the hotel guys cook me some food (ok again imagine also being on Ramadan and having to cook someone’s food over the heat of a flame and then serve them water) and then it’s back to my room to crash. Finally I emerge from my slumber and 5pm and attempt to go outside, nope it’s still too hot; back to bed. At 6pm I try again and I want to go back to bed, no have to leave.
After gathering the necessary courage I cruise through the old city and it is stunning. Like Chinguitti in Mauritania, this is one of the old cities on the trans-Saharan camel route. All the buildings are made from local mud which
not only protects it helps to keep the temperature down inside. As I move around the city I start to question everyone I walk past, is that person friend or foe. This is not ideal as most people are seen to be smiling at me however I cannot get myself out of this mode. After an hour slinking through tiny little alleys I finally venture onto the grand mosque of Agadez and what a sight it is to behold. Here I meet a guide Mohammad and we book in some time tomorrow to see the city. He is a Tureg and assures me that I will have a good time. I look at him a little bit worried but he just splashes a smile, ok maybe this place might not be so bad.
Muhammad leads me through the old city again but this time with new eyes. When you are with a good guide you rapidly gain confidence again, everyone is actually smiling at me and wanting to be my friend. Ummm now whom has changed. Muhammad informs me that Agadez used to be a tourist Mecca and before the conflicts here in the early 2000s the main money
earner was from travelers. He states that I am the first tourist he has shown around in 4 years. I think about what happened to all the people whom are now unemployed as a result of this, what are they doing now or more importantly what cause are they fighting for. After visiting the actual Sultan and the local camel market Muhammad takes me to meet Dijene, the local head guide and a Tureg leader for the region. Dijene sits on a cushion telling me stores of old. He has been all around the world courtesy of his old tourist friends, New York, Rome, London; all from his old acquaintances whom he took around the desert. As with Muhammad he tells me about the last decade and how bad it is without tourists coming here now. Worse still is now the surrounding area is safe but no one is returning. This however is forgotten quickly because after much bargaining we agree on a 2 day camel trip into the desert. He assures me I will feel the safest I have ever felt and will be in for some of the best hospitality i have ever witnessed, Tureg style. In saying
this he also told me not to tell anyone where we are going, it’s for our own safety he says; again with a Tureg smile. Hmmmm. “It is not down in any map; true places never are.” – Herman Melville
The early dawn breaks and we need to start moving out of the city. Purely because of the heat or maybe for security I am dressed in the local garb including a full face turbin. Our route will take us out into the desert and towards the Air mountains where we will camp the night. It is about a 50-60km round trip and our camels will be essential. They are not only carrying us but also our supplies and my water for the trip. Camels are reliable if not uncomfortable beasts and after the first hour everything hurts. Unlike a horse there are no stirrups and you just place your feet on their neck. Because of this you feel every jolt through your body. By the three hour mark I am broken and exhausted and the sun is fierce. When on a camel you are totally exposed to the elements and the sun just smashes you from up
there. Luckily the plan is to stop at 11.30 and wait until 3.30 until it’s possible to leave. At this time we pull our caravan into an oasis ringed by trees surrounding a well. The heat by 11.30am is into the mid 40s so we find shade and do the only thing that helps which is to get as low to the ground as possible. Even my water which is in the shade is almost too hot to touch let alone drink. In a temperate climate 8 cups of water will do a day, here it is 4x that; 32 cups minimum and I sink this easy. My guide cooks lunch but honestly I am not that hungry, I just sit there drinking water laced with a dodgy grape flavoring.
After a long afternoon of trudgery we finally start to see the Air mountains of the Sahara. We have not seen anyone since the oasis but as we enter the mountains we start to see signs of life. There are trees and a large number of wells, who knew the Sahara was full of underground water. A wadi appears which is like a river of sand that might see
water in the rainy season and we follow this all the way to a tiny village off the map. Here I am immediately greeted with open arms by the chief and his villagers. My guide informs me that it has been over a decade since he last brought foreigners here and the welcome was especially heart warming. It is here that the harshness of the reality of their lives hits. They are totally isolated and exposed to the climate with no schooling or medical aid in sight. One of the grandmas has a totally mutalated finger and asks me for some creme, I don’t have any but tell her she needs a doctor. She knows she does but she just nods her head understanding her fate. We setup camp and my guide starts cooking dinner whilst I take in the views from a top one of the mountains. Later on one of the locals brings us a welcome feast on top of what we are cooking for ourselves. We respond with gifts of some oil, a bar of soap and my empty water bottles. They are snapped up with numerous thanks and smiles, this truly is a bare bones existence
but one made more bearable by the gifts of travelers.
We camp out under the spectacular stars by our fire. The night is supposed to get cold so I brought some thermals, it doesn’t even get close to dipping under 30. At night I wonder about the fate of the Tureg people. As one of the poorest nations on earth Niger has its back against the wall, sure aid money is coming in however how do you help someone like the grandma in this canyon, how do you get schooling for this little ones. Then I realize, you don’t. They have lived this life for thousands of years and there is a certain level of accepting their fate. To enforce another life on them would be no better than doing what the French or English did hundreds of years ago. As I start to gather momentum with this it is pretty easy to see they are happy and live a simple but meaningful existence. Sure healthcare and schooling might lift them up in some way however it may rip them away from what they know. Who am I to say. As a traveler I’m here to collect experiences; not
lecture locals about their choice of life. These people have resisted the urge of modern life for a reason and are from as far as I can tell content. Maybe they are even happy and don’t need our help.
After a surprisingly refreshing night on the ground looking at the stars we load up the camels to go. By 7am the heat is already on us and the chief waves us a fond farewell. This type of place is so far away from what I was expecting. I think I was half expecting the locals to be waiting to ambush and then attempt to kidnap me. This couldn’t have been further from the truth and in all honesty I felt safer here and on this trip then I would on a trip to the local store in Auckland. With this type of scenery and hospitality I can see this place getting back onto the tourist map slowly. Right now I think it’s an adventure tourist destination for the keen and hardy, but I can see the hordes coming back shortly. Now as the journey draws to a conclusion we roll back into Agadez and the shock of civilization hits
me after the starkness of the desert. We arrive on the outskirts to a makeshift refugee camp of hundreds of tents spread across the road. My guide informs me they are mostly from South Sudan and five cars a day drop many more off. Agadez was known as the start for people migrating to Europe however now is becoming more a dumping ground for those exposed to war elsewhere. Here in Agadez they are not truly looking to migrate, they will not find work however they will not be exposed to war and the possibility of losing their lives. After the genuine hospitality of the Tureg the harsh realities of this region hit home again.
For me Niger has been an eye opening experience. Never have I been to a country so far down the pecking order in terms of human development. It is a country that straddles the line between chaos and order however balances it well. It is right on the edge of what I deem to be the civilized world and once plunging over the side it was hard for me not to be taken by it. For although the brutal harshness of the desert abounded
there were people living there as they have done successfully for countless years. Out there laying under the stars it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the stunning grandeur of it all. This is not some protected park with set boundaries and guards, this is free reign desert. There are no safety barriers, no emergency crews if things go wrong, it’s just you and the people around you. This was to me strangely enlivening and exactly the reason why I travel. Niger has been unchanged for thousands of years and I feel privileged to have been the only tourist here for a very long time. I think my western side grapples with why the locals don’t try harder to improve their situation. However there is also a new side of me developing that believes they are just doing what they have always done here for generations and are happy. There might be fighting, might be migrations, famine, disease but this is their life and their chosen fate. The Sahara didn’t just turn into a desert yesterday nor will it become a temperate climate tomorrow. They seem to be accepting of their journey and content with just getting on with life. Now that’s a destination for one to strive for; one you will never find on a map.
Thanks for reading. Next stop I head to the birthplace of voodoo Benin and chaos grand central Nigeria.
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