Sun, Moon, Stars, Sand, and Camels

We’ve returned to Agadez from our two weeks camping in the desert, and we’re back at our favorite cyber cafe using our computer. This post and the previous one give kind of a day-by-day impression of the trip. If some arrangements we made before leaving are still in effect, we’ll be traveling in a car over the next four days to Cotonou, Benin, where we’ll check back next.

March 20 Iferouane (lunch), Tazirzet (camp)

The Air Massif appears to be several heaps of rock. Maybe somewhere there are some actual solid mountains, but we didn’t go anywhere near them. The most frequent sights are cinder cones and piles of large volcanic boulders.

Iferouane is a little village at the edge of the mountains. We had lunch at a campground, where $4 cold beers were very popular with the group, and where we jumped at the chance to take $2 showers, and to rinse out some shirts while we were at it.

The meals are reasonably uniform on this trip. Lunch generally consists of various cold vegetables (perhaps beet, cabbage, peas, or beans), rice or couscous, and little bits of canned fish, with fruit for dessert. Dinner sometimes has a tasty thin soup, followed by some rice, couscous, or pasta, often with some sauce with vegetables. On a few occasions, there’s meat — a goat and a sheep were sacrificed over the course of the trip, resulting in about three or four meals. After dinner, there’s a small dessert, perhaps fruit cocktail, and Tuareg tea served by and Tuareg music played by the crew guitarist, until 10 PM.

Sleeping has generally been delightful. There’s a mat for each guest, and we slept on the thicker ones most of the time. The mats are also used as seating for dinner, and often one has to wait until enough people leave dinner before taking a mat to one’s chosen sleeping area. The two tents brought by the tour organizer were never used — all of us slept under the stars every night. The first several days and nights there was no wind whatsoever, and there were great views of the stars. We watched Saturn hang out in Gemini, Mars move around in Taurus, and we could see Venus and Jupiter straddling the entirety of Scorpio around 2 AM each morning, with the Southern Cross visible and right-side up just over the horizon.

We made our way to a tiny village at the east edge of the Air Mountains called Tazirzet, where we set up camp. A local dog barked much of the night.

March 21, 22 Camels around Tazirzet

The next two days were entirely dedicated to hanging out with camels. There were enough camels so everyone in the group had one. We’d go out in the morning for a few hours, and the 4x4s would race ahead and fix lunch when we caught up with them. We’d hang around until it started to cool off a little, and then go back on the camels for a few more hours, while the 4x4s raced up to the place where we’d camp for the night.

The camels were theoretically more fun than the 30-minute camel ride at Timbuktu, because we were actually driving the camel. Given an obedient camel, you generally tell it to start walking by gently scratching the back of its neck with your foot; you stop it by pulling back on the rein, and steer it by pulling the rein left and right. There were two rather enormous camels that they decided were the ones for me and Ray, though they didn’t keep very good track of which one was me and which one was Ray, so we ended up switching after the first morning. My first camel was very obedient and controllable, but the other one had definite ideas about when to start and stop, and wasn’t quite as fun. However, the saddle on him felt a lot better, so it was a tradeoff.

The biggest problem with being virgin camel riders was that we really felt like hanging on to the saddle for dear life with both hands most of the time. This made it difficult to drink water, which often was tied to the camel out of our reach, and to take pictures. Occasionally we snapped a shot or two if the camel wasn’t actually moving, but in the afternoons we ended up just walking, which probably made the camels happier as well, not having to carry us.

It was a much more peaceful way to get around than the 4x4s, but we didn’t cover very much ground.

By this time, we’d had the chance to talk with most of the people in the group. There were 21 paying guests, the two European tour leaders, and the Tuareg crew, including the local tour leader, drivers, cooks, and the musician. The guests appear to range in age from 27 to 67 or something like that, and seems like a fairly interesting bunch. There are eight Americans, four Irish, nine English, and a woman from the Netherlands and a man from Norway. The thing that struck me particularly is that the group has a large number of technical women, more than I’ve ever seen at work. There’s a biomedical researcher, a semiconductor manufacturing environmental specialist, a programmer, and someone who sets up electron microscopes and other equipment in clean rooms. The men include programmers and project managers, construction managers, an insurance lawyer, and a doctor. The doctor was very handy to have on the trip, helping both guests with various dietary and pain problems, and also helping out locals with assorted complaints. (The pain problems would have been avoided if all of the 4x4s had seat belts for each guest — some of the dunes are “cut” at the bottom). There’s also a mathematics PhD with cerebral palsy who has gone with the tour leader on expeditions to Nepal and Uganda and many other places — he raced up the dune the next day much faster than either of us could. Everyone in the group is very friendly, except for an Irish 80s rock star bass player who only talks to the few people in the group who she thinks are cool enough to talk to. We didn’t make the grade.

March 23 Drive to Temet

We left the camels behind, and drove up the dunes alongside the mountains to Temet, where the largest dunes in the Sahara are said to be located. We actually drove past the dunes and up a small dry river canyon to a spring, where we reloaded the water jugs and goat skins (goat skins keep water very cool), and had another beard-shampooing opportunity. Walking up the canyon from the spring led to a few rivulets of running water. At the spring, a goat was purchased, and as we had lunch nearby, the goat was “strangled” (its windpipe was cut), skinned, and gutted to become the next few nights’ food. At this point we’d also begun to run out of baguettes, and the Tuaregs started baking bread in a meter-wide pan which probably made about 20 round pieces or so.

After resting awhile after lunch, we drove a few minutes back to the dune. We quickly set up camp, and then started a sunset walk up the large dune, trying to pick a slightly out-of-the-way route so as not to ruin the pristine front face of the dune with our footprints. It was quite a strenuous little walk through the steep sand, and by the time we got to the top most of the sun was gone, but it was still a very beautiful place.

March 24 Blue Mountains (lunch), Tenere (camp)

The next morning many people walked up the dune again for sunrise, though I slept in (until 6:30). After breakfast, we started our drive across the several hundred solid kilometers of Tenere desert. Not too far from where we started were the Blue Mountains, where we stopped for lunch. There were no trees there, so the 4x4s parked next to each other, stretched rugs across the gap between them, providing a shady though cramped place to have lunch — this system was repeated for several other treeless lunches.

The Blue Mountains are yet another unexplained pile of rocks. These rocks, however, are a bluish white color, perhaps a kind of marble. They were very pretty and we took lots of pictures of them. After lunch, we joined a couple others from the group who had found an extremely comfortable cool cave formed by some of the rocks. Fortunately the sand vipers weren’t there.

When it got cool enough, we continued driving across the desert. Sometimes the going was slow and sandy, sometimes it was quite fast on more solid ground. We ended up at a completely flat treeless sandy area where the sand was so clean and devoid of rocks and thorns that we could walk around barefoot.

There was virtually no wind at all up to this point, except that from the motion of the 4×4, and an occasional light breeze at night. It was quite hot during the middle of the day, but the rest of the time, it was quite nice.

March 25 Continue crossing Tenere

The next day was just more driving across the desert, flat, fast, unshaded, and uneventful. Around evening, we pulled up at the well called Achegour, which rates a “potable” on the Michelin map — no stars. It was the worst water of the trip, but suitable for splashing on people’s heads to remind them of what washing their hair was like. We have been assured all of the drinking water we’re encountering is safe to drink, and it seems to have been the case, but not all of it was tasty — some tasted like algae (just like at home in the summer), some had lots of sediment, but this water had a chemical taste that our water purifier was unable to remove. The coffee we had the next morning resulted in everyone turning up their noses as they drank it.

But only a couple of people have had digestive problems and we’ve all been eating everything, the salads, the fruit, water from the goatskin bags, I think we must have all come from Africa at some point to be so used to how to live.

How to live in Africa includes throwing trash everywhere. You see trees so covered with black plastic bags that they look like some perverted Burning Man installation. (Many artifacts of Sahara life would remind one of Burning Man, except not the people naked and painted silver.) Achegour was so full of rusted sardine cans, accented with axles and large hunks of drive trains, that it would have been risking tetanus to walk there at night, so we went south about 5 km to find a nice flat plateau of sand to despoil on our own.

March 26 Arrive at Dirkou

Each morning we would walk for half an hour or so, and the cars would pick us up. This morning as we walked across some pretty rocks, we passed a camel carcass, all bones and skin. The traditional version of the discarded camshafts and axles. As we continued to drive the next few days, we passed quite a few more.

For lunch we stopped nearby at a pair of mesas, with incredibly beautiful rock everywhere, particularly some flat maroon slabs on the top, and some lilac-colored flaky pieces up the sides. A few people collected some lava tube structures. The best photo of the trip was taken by Solve, the Norwegian guy, of a desert fox who happened to come out of his hole just as he walked by.

We continued on to Dirkou, which was well inside the zone of totality. Any apprehension we had about cars breaking down or fuel not showing up causing us to miss the eclipse subsided. Dirkou was described as a transit point for people from all over West Africa going to Europe via Libya. There were huge trucks which carried lots of people sitting on hay. It is the modern version of slave ships.

There was another opportunity for cold beer, which we excitedly took advantage of. We drove just out of town and set up camp.

Late that night, the wind started up, and continued pretty strong in the morning. There was lots of dust being blown up by it, and we started to get scared about being sanded out. A long call on the satellite phone to someone with the Internet in front of them revealed that the wind would die down the next day and everything would be fine.

March 27 Dirkou Market, Lunch at a house, Arrive at camp near Bilma

In the morning we returned to Dirkou and walked through their market. Ray found a great polyester shirt featuring Tariq Aziz. There was an interesting shop selling skins of various animals, and a guy carrying a scorpion around inside a gourd. They arranged for our normal lunch to be served by our normal kitchen crew in a local house, where several people washed off using water poured from a bowl, though we passed in order to theoretically get to the eclipse camp site a little sooner. At the market, the kitchen crew bought a sheep, and tied it onto the truck.

We drove on to Bilma, a somewhat larger town, where we spent quite awhile at the gendarmerie, where they insisted that everyone had to show a receipt for, or pay, the eclipse tax. We moved on to a campsite just out of town that looked like it would be nice for the eclipse.

Indeed, the wind died down, and everything became quite nice.

March 28 Bilma: Hospital, Lunch at Auberge, Give away glasses

We drove back into Bilma for most of the day, including a visit to a local hospital, and a public forum where we told the locals what to expect for the eclipse, and where we handed out eclipse viewers. There were way less viewers than people, and the handout turned into quite a feeding frenzy. A local camping hotel provided a nice place to have lunch, and a proper shower. They were selling something about the color and consistency of brown sugar which is made from dates and peanuts, and should prove to be fine road food on the next leg of the trip, to Benin.

For dinner, there was sheep two ways — braised with a nice juice, over couscous, and about an hour later, mechoui style, cooked in a pan on the ground under coals, with onions and spices. No vegetables, though. The sky sparkled with stars, the music and dancing continued until late, (late, for camping nerds), and everyone went to bed happy for the morrow.

And were very annoyed about 1:30 in the morning when to notice that all the stars had disappeared. There was no wind blowing in dust, but the stars were gone. Not a good thing to happen the night before an eclipse. Jupiter reappeared about three AM, and the summer triangle…but the air was what passes for sultry, except with possibly dust instead of mist. Or was it mist?

March 29 Eclipse, head toward Agadez, Fachi (camp)

We spent the morning worrying that we wouldn’t see the eclipse, or at least not very well. What was the haze — dust? fog? Presumably it was fog, since the dust-carrying wind had stopped over a day ago. Hopefully it would burn off.

After a call to Boris at the Internet to determine that where we were was “clear”, we embarked on a small exploratory drive to see if the fog suddenly cleared a little further from the oasis of Bilma. We concluded that the difference was minor, and decided to tough out whatever would happen at our campsite.

The sun got higher, and the sky was pretty blue well above the horizon. After awhile we could actually see distinct shadows. Eventually totality came, and it was a very pretty four-minute eclipse. Maybe there would have been a little more corona with no fog, but it was actually quite nice. There were some little prominences at the beginning and end, and the corona was entirely horizontal. Ray said it looked like gang signs on hands being held out to the side: Westside on the east side and Eastside on the west side. It will be a skillful filtering or compositing job that will show this much corona in a photograph, though. We could see Venus and Mercury, which should give an idea of how clear it was or wasn’t. There weren’t any sunset colors since the sunset color of choice in the Sahara is brown; and there wasn’t any chance to appreciate the approach of the shadow with visibility along the ground about 600 meters; but at third contact I noticed a few shadow bands which looked straight rather then ripply, scurrying across the sand dunes. I forget if there were any Baily’s beads. There was a nice third contact diamond ring. I’ve given up watching second contact diamond rings, they always leave an afterimage for the whole of totality.

The group had about five people who’d seen lots of eclipses, about five more who’d seen one or two. All the rest were eclipse virgins, and finally could understand what this experience was like that made us want to see it again and again. The doctor had three really nice cameras, and took lots of really nice pictures.

After the eclipse, we had a little lunch, and started our drive back to Agadez, camping near the oasis town of Fachi. Both lunch and dinner were basically pasta with a little tomato flavor and no vegetables or meat at all. The drive was across sand dunes, and included a pretty major bump coming off a dune. Ray hit the ceiling, but seems in good shape aside from a sore neck. A bump in a different car the next day produced more sore necks — our driver has become much more careful.

The other challenge is getting unstuck from the sand. They carry these little ladders which they put under the tires to provide traction. Sometimes people running along the car pick up the ladder once the car has gone over it and throw it on the other side of the tire to continue the traction. Once doing so knocked our exhaust pipe out of place.

March 30 Arbre de Tenere (lunch), camp near Agadez

We went into Fachi briefly to get water. We were mobbed by kids asking for gifts.

The morning drive was across sand dunes, and was plagued by continuously getting stuck in the sand. Some drivers got stuck constantly, and apparently one never got stuck at all. It’s an art, I guess.

It seemed to take awhile, but we eventually found Arbre de Tenere, where a large tree once stood, reputedly hundreds of kilometers from any other tree. It was killed in a car crash, and is now in a museum in the capital. A metal monument stands at the site now. There’s also a well with great echoes.

Now it’s the last night of camping in the desert (unless the hotels are overbooked again tomorrow, which seems likely), and the wind has died down. Tomorrow we return to Agadez, showers, laundry, electricity, the Internet, and dinner in a nice restaurant. We’ll also find out what the plans are for our car trip to Cotonou, Benin.

March 31 Hotel de l’Aïr, Agadez.

We got on the road at the usual time this morning and drove through a combination of sand dunes, sandstorms, tiny forests with nameless unnumbered tracks on which the caravan got separated, gravelly bits of sharp gravel, gravelly bits of rounded gravel, and arrived in Agadez, 140 km up the road, 6 hours later. Since then we’ve had fresh mango juice and done a bit of shopping, not nearly enough to satisfy the two dozen touts who lurk with their knives and brass camels and masks. After Bilma and Dirkou and Fachi, it’s nice to see people who have something actually to offer, rather than merely asking for gifts. Ellen bought a rock, a plain ordinary rock, from a tiny child in Fachi, just to reward the behavior of offering something in return for the cadeau that is begged.