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Day 62: The Ténéré Desert

Michael Palin - SaharaEl Haj, who's driving Basil, J-P and me, is tall, quiet and, I should imagine, quite badly paid. He is a Toubou from the Bilma region and J-P speaks good enough French to get him talking. He's not complimentary about anyone apart from the Toubou, finding the Touareg arrogant and the Fulani, of whom the Wodaabe are a subdivision, too submissive. He cheers up visibly when talking of the Hausa. They're the people everyone detests, he says confidently.

'After all, they're the bosses.'

By mid-morning the mountain range has receded and we turn off the track not far from the site of the celebrated Arbre du Ténéré. Long renowned for being the only tree standing in hundreds of square miles of surrounding desert, the Arbre du Ténéré became even more famous when, in 1973, a truck knocked it over. The bits and pieces have been stuck together and it now resides in a place of honour at the national museum in Niamey.

We turn north now, across country, to the spot where we hope to find Omar and the camel train. The Ténéré, considered by those who know these things to be the most beautiful part of the Sahara, does not make things easy for us. After following a long and ultimately impassable wadi (dried-up riverbed), we're forced to turn back and look for a way through the sand dunes. The first few are low and relatively uncomplicated, but eventually we reach a big one, 100 feet or more and steep. The first two vehicles of our convoy make it, but El Haj doesn't. Revving the engine is fatal, as it just digs the wheels in deeper, so he has no option but to roll rather shamefacedly backwards until he finds level ground.

He lets down the front tyres to increase grip and we put our shoulders to the back of the vehicle as he tries again. Despite all our combined efforts, the wheels spin helplessly, we're covered in flying sand and the attempt is abandoned. El Haj wipes his brow and reluctantly climbs up onto the roof to get down the sand ladders which he probably should have used in the first place. Two of these, placed in front of the back wheels, provide the resistance he needs. But once moving he mustn't stop, and with shouts of encouragement we watch our means of transport hurtle up the dune, pause agonisingly briefly on the crest and disappear over the other side. Our cheers die quite quickly as we realise we have to retrieve the ladders and climb up after him. John Pritchard checks the temperature. It's 56°C/133°F.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 62
  • Country/sea: Niger
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  • Book page no: 177

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