An Adventure Alternative

March 18

It’s 1930 on the day that Gavin’s group arrived by their charter flight which stopped in Algeria during a worrisome sandstorm — any impediment to visibility upsets eclipse aficionados — and the hotel lobby is buzzing with homeless tourists. Two groups, Dunes-Voyage and Adventure Alternative, have been told there is No Room At The Inn for all of their guests, and some of them will have to make other arrangements, as we did last night.

But we were here at 9 in the morning with Souleyman Icha, the local travel agent who works with Gavin, and he made them put us in a room as soon as one opened up.

The official line on why this hotel overbooked and denied Souleymane the rooms that he said he paid for — has changed. It started out this afternoon that their rooms weren’t ready and they didn’t have mattresses. Souleymane told the assembled Gavin crowd that he had brought his own mattresses for them. Then they said: that guests this morning had refused to leave; and that they had locked themselves into their rooms and stolen the keys and the police came to evict them. You could hear this rumor telephoning around the room like a montage shot. I was aware of no police activity; but we were gone around noon.

I guess they just don’t count very closely, and it doesn’t matter most times because flights don’t come and buses don’t come. They don’t count on the ardent punctuality of eclipse tourists.

March 19 3 AM

The welcoming dinner was not the most reassuring event I’ve attended. Gavin’s assistant, Steve, an aging rock star type of no fixed address (he has a house in Cornwall and a house in the Andes, but has only recently started living anywhere for more than a week at a time), has the disturbing quality of being an Optimist. Relax, he says, everybody’s going to have a great time, eclipse or no eclipse. I tried to explain to Gavin a couple of years ago that I don’t want to have a great time, I only want to maximize my chance of seeing the eclipse. This message does not seem to have sunk in.

It seems that our plan calls for us to rely on a mission-critical refueling rendezvous somewhere in the Tenere desert. This rendezvous has been arranged by Suleymane, who has Already Paid for the gasoline, just as he Already Paid for the rooms which did not materialize last night, resulting in 8 of our party sleeping, as I write, dormitory style in the hotel’s prayer room, on mats. I hope nobody wants to use the room in the morning. I should consider praying myself.

Gavin’s plan apparently calls for us to drive in a diagonal line southeast across the Tenere so as to intersect the Bilma road. He has not said that any of his party have ever been there before. He puts out a bunch of romantic blather in his documentation about the Trackless Desert where the windblown sand covers your tire tracks as you pass. This describes any road out here; but a three-foot unmapped scarp can block your entire progress and it would be nice if the optimist reconnaissance person had ever been there in person to look.

The result is that I can’t get back to sleep.

Adding to the almost literary quality of the foreshadowing, the reason their chartered Airbus stopped in Algeria was that they didn’t have enough fuel to make it to Agadez. Of course their pilot knew this when he took off: he’s not an optimist; it was all planned. But the passengers were bringing so many kilos of astronomical crap, that he offloaded fuel in Paris and scheduled a stop in some town in Algeria. Gavin had been to the town in 1990 when he walked across the Sahara Desert. It didn’t have an airstrip then. He said, it looked like a bunch of cardboard boxes on a hillside.

What precisely is his plan, if the fuel doesn’t show? What is my plan, if he can’t reassure me? I swear, if somebody walked up to me right now with an offer to drive to Bilma and sit and do nothing but await the eclipse, I would take it. The Aïr Massif will be here for a long time.

March 19, 2006 19:19:54

18.38354 7.66943

We left our hotel at 8 and messed around in town until 9, buying last minute tissues (since it won’t be possible to wash handkerchiefs or even ourselves for the next two weeks; the primitive life requires excessive amounts of waste) and gingembre and tamarind sirop and postcards at a mini mart on the airport road. By 9:10 we were on the road out of town and by 9:15 we had been stopped by the army who demanded to see documentation that everyone in the 6 Landcruisers had paid his or her eclipse tax. This law was passed just lately — it’s 15 Euros and the rumor has it that Libya has passed a 1000 Euro eclipse tax so I don’t know what is going to happen in the center line city. Probably a lot more people going to Turkey. Those of you who are old enough to remember 1991 in Mexico will recall that the Mexicans wanted you to pay a tax to drive down Baja as well, but they wisely gave up on the matter after about two weeks of considering what it would do to their tourist business.

The Niger Army gave up as well after Gavin persuaded them to. This is good for us, since we didn’t come in via the airport and this is the first we’ve heard of such a tax.

A half hour later we were on our way again. The army people had obtained pens and some eclipse sunglasses; also had conversations about how to get an American Visa. (Befriend someone from the embassy, was what worked for Haliss.)

An hour after that we stopped at our first Tourist Attraction: a large black outcropping on which the Previous Occupants of the Sahara had built a village on the edge of a lake, since discontinued, and spent their spare time carving very artistic giraffes, since discontinued, onto the rock. Then we had lunch, a sandwich, and a nap. Oh, and campfire stories, even though there wasn’t a campfire.

Steve, one of the tour organizers, related how his assistant in Borneo had been crushed and eaten by a 30 foot python while crossing a river. Michelle told the story of when she was a waitress and forgot to bring a customer ketchup 7 times and only got tipped a penny. Steve said a mountaineer of his acquaintance had fallen into a nest of rattlesnakes and died.

Canterbury Tales, it isn’t. I think Steve is where a lot of the stories come from which end up on He said some businessman in Zimbabwe got fed up with being mugged and so filled a briefcase with baby puff adders and carried it around until he got robbed.

Steve is taking a group of Barclays Bank executives skiing to the North Pole after this trip. It will involve a costume change. There’s a lot more talk of extrajudicial execution and what really, really, rich people do for team building exercises, than I usually seek out on vacations. (You can take seven of your friends to the South Pole for 450,000 pounds. John Glenn did, and some actor whose name I recognized but forget. Steve is pretty good with the names you recognize.)

Living in the Sahara is like being in kindergarten, in this regard. The inhabitants, be they sand adders, lizards, camels, or Tuaregs, pretty much shut down in the afternoon. Afterwards they march around in a circle hitting sticks together.

The sign said that the carvings are 6000 to 8000 years old. I don’t know how you can tell that of a rock carving. That would be contemporary with the oldest kingdoms in Egypt. The Sahara at that time was not a desert. However, the pharaohs kept undercutting the EPA and now look at it. It’s beautiful of course but in a less green sort of way.

Then we drove north some more and stopped off the road having discovered that the supply truck wasn’t at the end of the train.

Another car went back for them and never returned.

They sent news of what was going on, via passing cars. Nobody in this expedition, it turns out, has a walkie talkie.

After two hours, the whole caravan went back to find out what was going on. By that time the water pump on the Toyota truck had been replaced, and we were ready to drive on to find a campsite before it got dark. These land cruisers aren’t new. The red one we are in has 500,000 kilometers on it.

Steve, the optimist, became visibly angry. I am happy that his optimism doesn’t extend to complacent idiocy, which optimism for the most part is.

We have picked a campsite a bit short of where we hoped to attain today, the well at Gougaram, but we can easily make it to the oasis of Iferouane tomorrow morning if no more water pumps fail. The sun has gone down and tiny moths are visiting the screen — no mosquitoes as you may infer from the nearest water being 50 meters down, if at all. I suspect dinner is about to be served.