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Day 61: Into the Ténéré Desert

Michael Palin - Sahara'How are you, Britisher? I show you something.'

'I must talk with you. I know Ginger Baker!'

'Donnez-moi un cadeau!'

As we appear at the door of the Pensione the usual suspects waiting in the shade of the Hôtel de l'Aïr across the street leap to their feet. Today I do not totally ignore the street cries of Agadez. Mindful of what is to come - prolonged exposure to the hottest part of the desert - I negotiate for a turban and am now the proud owner of a 15-foot length of indigo cotton. It seems an awful lot to wrap round a size six and seven-eighths head, but they tell me some turbans are 20 feet long.

As we shall be camping for the foreseeable future, our departure from Agadez is delayed to enable everyone to repack, reducing bags and baggage to the minimum, and to spoil ourselves with an early lunch of penne arrabiata with aubergine and a glass of wine or three at Le Pilier.

A couple of hours later, the memory of the meal and the cool, airy courtyard of the restaurant is a distant dream. The Bilma road is a bleak and uncompromising strip of desert dust, defined only by the imprint of vehicles that have passed this way before. The rains have not reached this far south, nor does it look as if they have done so for many years. The ground is hard and hot. Fine green lines, the only hint of decoration in a landscape of sombre browns and blacks, follow cracks in the rocks where a residue of moisture has been trapped. Unbelievably, there are people living here, on the very edge of survival. A thin straw hut bends with the wind. Outside it, children with wild hair and torn blue smocks watch us pass, standing barefoot on the stones, a donkey stock-still beside them.

There are army checkpoints. Whilst Mohammed presents our papers I get out for a breather, only to be hit by a wall of heat unlike anything I've yet experienced. Whatever is the opposite of wind chill, this is it. Air stoked up to 55°C/131°F and driven on by the harmattan rakes the desert like a blast from a flame-thrower.

I'm told that in desert as hot as the Ténéré, the human body loses 2 gallons of water a day, which is 9 litres, and 4 gallons if you're on the move, so one should really keep drinking constantly. We have bottles of water with us but they heat up quickly and warm water is so much more difficult to gulp down. J-P has come up with an ingenious answer. He drops a couple of mint tea bags into a plastic bottle, which he wedges on top of the dashboard. The head-on sunlight heats it, the bounce of the vehicle stirs it and the near boiling infusion that results is a lot more palatable than lukewarm mineral water.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 61
  • Country/sea: Niger
  • Place: Agadez
  • Book page no: 175

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