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Day 59: Agadez to Tabelot

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Michael Palin - SaharaHere in Agadez the world hasn't changed. And why should it? Niger is not a player. It is one of the poorest countries on the planet. Its gross national product works out at $850 per person per year. There are no banks of television screens here pumping out the apocalyptic scenes they're seeing back home. In Niger the literacy rate is barely 15 per cent, and I have not seen a single newspaper or magazine on the streets of Agadez. Life goes on.

We have heard that there is a possibility of joining a camel caravan at Tabelot, a town 50 miles to the northeast as the crow flies, though more like six hours in a vehicle, as it lies deep in the Aïr (pronounced 'eye-eer') Mountains.

I'm excited at the prospect, not just of joining a camel train, but of entering, for the first time, one of the three legendary mountain ranges of the Sahara, the others being the Tibesti in Chad and the Hoggar in southern Algeria.

I'm not disappointed. This is a tortured, twisted, dramatic landscape, created by immense volcanic forces, which have swung the bedrock of the Sahara from the horizontal to the vertical, rolled it over and left it to shatter and splinter in the heat. Rock-fields stretch away into the distance, charred like the rakings from a furnace. Across this untamed surface runs a roughly cleared track. As we shake and sway along, the goatskin in which the water supply is kept, lashed to the side of the car to keep cool, occasionally swings round and taps ghoulishly at the window, as if the goat had come back to life and was asking to be let in.

After five hours we run into Tabelot. It's not much more than a large village, but significantly different from the villages on the plain. The mud walls of the compound are stout affairs, with stone foundations. The tents inside them are more substantial too, with heavy flanks hanging from a strong rattan spine. It all makes sense as soon I step down from the four-wheel drive and feel the pleasant sensation of a fresh, almost cooling edge to the air. We're in the mountains, 2000 feet higher than Agadez, looking across to a mountain peak that's 3000 feet higher still.

Our accompanying team, led by the imperious Mohammed Ixa, a tall, straight-backed Touareg swathed in a yellow robe, slings a plastic cover between acacia trees and vehicles to provide us with some shade. A groundsheet is laid, and as soon as the sponge rubber mattresses are arranged on top of it Mohammed selects one, lies down, closes his eyes beatifically and proceeds to listen to his radio through an earpiece for the next couple of hours. Meanwhile, his minions prepare a late lunch of all the things the guidebooks advise you not to eat - hand-prepared salad (but whose hands?), watermelon (who knows where the water's come from?) - that sort of thing. Apart from French bread and hard-boiled eggs, it's all there is, so we eat it anyway. A fierce gusting wind snatches at the plastic awning above us, which snaps and crackles but holds fast. This is the harmattan, someone says, the wind from the heart of the desert, hot and dry enough to split tree trunks.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 59
  • Country/sea: Niger
  • Place: Agadez
  • Book page no: 170

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