The 450 km journey from Zinder to Agadez was not one to forget easily. Not that the road was too bad. On the contrary, it has improved a lot in recent years and is now tarred for 2/3 of the distance. But the car…
Instead of planning a bit, I just went to the Agadez car park, waited there 24 hours and was lucky enough to have a front seat in an overloaded private Toyota Landcruiser with non functioning brakes, no lights and only 2 gears.
That morning I was so happy. In fact, we had a departure! Two hours later we were ready to go. I shared the privileged front seat with a Party member who was at the window. Between the driver and me, seated with the gear stick between his legs, was a teenage boy.
The windscreen was broken but tape kept its pieces together. The backseat was occupied by 5 men, most of them well paying Nigerians without proper papers, while the circular placed little wooden benches in the back of the car were packed with people too, mostly ordinary citizens without the money for an express bus. In addition to this, we would take a lot of roadside passengers too, who thankfully jumped on the roof to be dropped in the next oasis.
The car now was damaged severely. Together we pushed the car back towards the road, but the engine didn’t start anymore and our driver badly needed a spare part.
Two hours later, just before dawn, a truck passed by. He stopped and towed our car back onto the road. It’s a good custom to help each other in case of trouble and also this truck driver didn’t leave us before they got the engine running again.
Close to noon we reached Agadez, finally. The journey was somehow an experience, but next time I would probably plan a bit better and take an ever reliable 3 times weekly express bus service that starts at fixed times in the morning, and arrives the same day just before dark. Ticket prices? About EUR 19 for the express bus, EUR 11 for a seat in a private car that might be better value than the one that I took!
It was all fine for about an hour. Then suddenly, near the Tiguidit escarpment, the road was blocked and partly washed away after the recent storms.
The driver saw it only when we were about 30 meters away from it and without working brakes our only chance would be to turn off the road and just hope for the best. For a single second I thought I was going to die as the car tumbled down the raised road into the bush, waiting for the big boom! But it didn’t come. About 50 meters off the road the car crashed to a halt, with nobody hurt.
By the way, the Dino cemetery at Tiguidit is a popular stop for tour groups; independent travellers can reach there on a 2 day hitch hiking / camel combination.
We got out of the overheated car, I took a piece of plastic sheet and wrapped it around me, fell down in the sand and tried to get some sleep. Like the others did.
We had to wait for sufficient moonlight. I was happy that we didn’t continue and actually loved this situation, the isolation, watching the beautiful lightning all around me. I just had a bottom of water and a small piece of cheese left, but I didn’t worry; I thought about these other passengers who were to traverse the Sahara for weeks, while I would reach my destination tomorrow!
By 3AM the sky was clear and the moon- and starlight supplied us with some natural light. The driver decided to move on. The winds were still quite strong and the heavily damaged windscreen reduced the visibility badly, but the Party member sitting next to me was supposed to put his head out of the side window for better views on the road in front of us.
Not long after that minor incident, we reached Ader Bissinat, the last settlement before entering the complete emptiness towards Agadez.
We just stopped to buy the local specialty, cheese. I wasn’t sure about the hygienic conditions the cheese was produced under, but it tasted very well anyway. It was almost dark now, and we still had to cover some 160 km and however I would have preferred to stay overnight in Ader Bissinat, the driver absolutely wanted to move on.
It wouldn’t have been a worry if only the car had lights. And yes, the lights were working but the driver didn’t want to turn them on due to a failing battery. This now was ridiculous! Driving a car without lights and brakes with maybe maximum 10 meters visibility! The other passengers started to complain too and then we finally stopped…for prayer only. We continued for 2 more hours, but then the weather became really bad. A thunderstorm covered our windscreen with sand and finally the driver was forced to stop.
When we left Tanoukou around 4PM, I knew we were maybe just over half way, and soon it would be dark.
The early teenage boy spoke some English and we became friends, while the English speaking Nigerians kept me informed about the cheating and the stealing at the checkpoints on their epic journey to – hopefully - Europe.
The tarmac road ended and we continued in the dust. At that point a minor incident occurred. A Toyota Pick Up packed with a few dozen of really young people in the back had passed us an hour before, but got stranded with a tyre problem. So we stopped and offered help. They were from all over Western Africa and also trying their luck in making their way to Europe.
I got out of the car to take a picture from the scene, with the boy posing in front. Then 2 guys from the pick up came to me and tried to grab my camera by force. One of them shouted “You snapped us I’m gonna smash your camera” and “show me your papers” (which I refused of course). Later I understood that this was the guy’s third attempt to cross into Italy, after being sent back 2 times before, and he suspected me of being an immigration officer from Italy or Spain, some kind of spy! I saved the camera, lucky that I was Dutch, but the whole situation was unpleasant, with the Ghanaian youngster completely mad and my camera under thread!
The people of Tanoukou had some good business since, not only we, but also a big Mercedes Sahara truck paused here.
It is an amazing sight to see such a heavy loaded and just adequately equipped truck that had travelled for 2-3 weeks through the Sahara sand. Overloaded with big bags full of goods from Libya, passengers on top, multi dozens of water tanks on the sides. “It’s heroic to travel in such way”, I thought. Something different than the perfectly prepared and mostly luxury equipped European yuppies in their EUR 40.000,-- Landcruisers or the tour groups in overland trucks for whom everything is arranged properly with other people responsible for them.
The poorest of illegal people from countries like Nigeria and Cameroon were to travel such way to Libya. Nobody cares about them, three weeks long, on your own in the burning sun, if you survive, fine, if you die, you die!
If you would like to join such a cross desert truck, the lorry park in Agadez has a lot of opportunities either to Algeria or Libya.
It became clear soon that the “all inclusive” fee paid to the driver by the Coastal Africans was “consumed” already by the time we reached the third checkpoint.
The men without papers had to get out, open their luggage and had to pay a negotiable sum of money, a time consuming process that repeated several times all the way to Agadez. Besides paying, they had to work as well! They always were to push the car and get the engine started!
By the way, I didn’t have to show my passport a single time!
Some hours later we stopped at the sleepy settlement annex truck stop named Tanoukou. The village was not much more than a few rows of mud brick houses along the road, but because of the nearby big seasonal pond, with large herds of animals drinking, children playing and with beautiful acacia trees rising from the water, it all looked quite scenic. The men took the opportunity to go for a prayer session at the local mosque, while I strolled around the houses and had some bread with instant milk again.
Due to the lack of higher gears, we (fortunately) couldn’t move very fast on the seemingly endless road through the desolate landscapes of sand, sometimes knee high grass, scrub and the occasional seasonal pond.
During the first few hours outside Zinder, we passed through some tiny villages, in one of which the driver paused for more than an hour to visit a relative and to buy supplies of dried meat.
The only substantial village on the Zinder – Agadez road is Tanout, some 140 km north of Zinder. Which we reached after almost 5 hours. I wasn’t very hungry in the heat of the day, but it would be the last change to have some kind of meal. Bread and goat meat; for drink very healthy French milk powder mixed with boiled water. I still was convinced that we would reach Agadez today.
The road to Agadez was just 450 km, mostly on recently surfaced or reinforced dirt road. I estimated 12 hours and since we left by 8am, I expected to arrive in the early evening. But we ended up arriving by noon next day!
From the Agadez Lorry Park in Zinder to the first police checkpoint north of town is just 300 meters. One of the assistants jumped on the drivers seat and some men pushed the car to get the engine started. Then he drove the vehicle slowly towards the checkpoint.
So far so good. But when we approached the barrier and he slammed the brakes without any result, I got somehow a nervous feel. Just before the barrier, he steered the vehicle sharply to the right in the bush, avoided a thorn tree and the nondescript police buildings before we got stranded in the sand. The driver/owner and the policemen, most likely negotiating the fee for the illegal Nigerians, enjoyed it a lot as they laughed loudly about so much stupidity of the assistant.
I felt a bit uncomfortable. We were just about to travel 450 km. in the desert and Upper Sahel, and we didn’t even have proper brakes?!
But then I remembered that I had waited for more than 24 hours for this thing to depart, so I just prayed for the best! The car owner drove the car himself and at least he knew how to handle it!