The first thing I have to say, is that my trip to Niger was awesome! Holy cow; where to begin? Racing across the desert in Land Cruisers, eating tuna sandwiches in sandstorms, climbing 1000 ft sand dunes or blue marble mountains, seeing horizons so vast and with such uniformity that you can’t focus your eyes, or maybe the ancient villages, or seeing car parts stuck in trees from RPG hits. Well, I guess I could start at the beginning, in Dulles airport. . .
I am walking to my gate, which, of course, is at the other end of the universe and I am getting really hungry, because they don’t feed you on American flights. I see pretzel places, bagel places, danish places and then McDonald’s. Well, McDonald’s is sort of real food, better than pure sugar, so I had a burger (not to good, but it took up space in my stomach). Then not 100 feet later there’s a Wendy’s. DOH!! A real fast food place.
I went to my gate and remembered “Air Miles”. I’m flying like 8 gazillion miles on this trip; I should sign up for some kind of miles program. So I go to the counter, and with some resistance, get signed up. Then I just went and sat down . I sat there for about half an hour when I notice a woman sitting down the row from me, talking to an older couple. I think she looks quite pretty and we exchange glances a few times, but nothing comes of it.
Finally time to board and its a new Boeing 777. Cool plane! It had really high ceilings and felt like it had all sorts of room. In every seat it had a monitor and you could change channels to what ever movie you wanted or see where you were in flight. The flight wasn’t full and I got 2 seats to myself. Oh, and the woman I mentioned earlier, she ends up sitting right behind me, but still nothing is said. I ended up watching the Stoner Family (a very good movie, makes me cry. I’m a sucker for chick flicks, but we’ll talk about that later)
On take off I look out the window and right at the end of the wing tip is the full moon rising. Its reflecting on the wing and its just beautiful. I took some pictures, but they didn’t come out as well as I hoped. I remember staying awake to see Long Island and Rhode Island before falling asleep.
They woke us up about an hour before we reached Paris, fed us something and started making jokes in French over the PA. Everyone was laughing, so it must have been funny. The sun was rising as we came into Paris and as we sank into the clouds I watched the Sun disappear. After landing and during taxi I saw one of the Concordes mounted like a statue. It’s was sad to see the only supersonic passager planes for “display only”.
When I got into CDG Airport my first impression was “Wow! High tech for the sixties! It’s like the jetsons look for the future. We went through moving walkways in tubes and everything!”
Then came time to get the luggage. What a nightmare! Two or 3 suitcases would come out and the carousel would stop. A couple minutes later it would start again. A couple more and one would get jammed in the ceiling conveyor belt, it would stop, then the suitcase would drop making a huge bang. This went on for over two hours! Finally, one of my bags showed up, but I waited in vain for my other one. In the end, I was standing there with 3 or 4 other people, one of which was the woman from Dulles. The belts finally stopped altogether and the dude came and started collecting what was left for a cart in the corner (bad sign). So, I put in a claim at the desk and I told them I would call them for it. It ended up being a good thing, because they got to hold on to my heavy luggage for 4 days while I explored Paris.
I then went to the customs. They saw I had an American passport and just waived me through. Not even one question. Pretty good!
I then started my mission of finding out how to get to Paris. I walked around until I found a sign with a train and a bus on it. Looks good to me, so I went that way. I walked outside and found 3 buses, one of which said something to do with trains , so I got on and there is the woman again. When I got to the train station, I looked around and found what looked like a ticket booth, got in line and guess who comes up behind me trying to go to Paris too. I finally asked “Are you following me or what? We got to stop meeting like this!” She laughed and said she was going to Paris and that she had already snagged a local to get her there. So I asked if I might tag along since I had no idea where I was going. By the way, the woman’s name was Dolly. A true delight to talk to and be around.
First night we stayed in a youth hotel in Marie de Clichy or something like that. It was ok place, but, of course, I had the floor with the broken bathrooms!
The next day we wandered around together, had pizza and saw the sites. I needed some deoderant, so we stopped in a little pharmacy. About 30 minutes later, I realized I was no longer carrying my hydrogen alpha telescope, which I had been carrying the entire time in Paris. We traced our steps back from one place to another until we were back at that pharmacy. On the counter, my telescope was still sitting there. No one had even noticed it! Whew! While I was there, I picked up a watch as well. I didn’t have one, since I used a cell phones for time, but my phone was useless in Europe and especially Africa.
The best food in Paris was the Tirimasu. In the grocery store, they wouldn’t take credit cards unless you bought so much and so I looked around to buy something else and right there was a huge Tirimasu cake. Perfect! Dolly and I ate the whole thing. In France, the Tirimasu has real alcohol in it and it gives it a real kick. Much better than the crap you get in the States.
One of the nights just as we walked under the Eifel tower, all the strobes came on! Just beautiful! Only problem was, I didn’t have a coat, as it had been lost with my luggage. Shivering and giggling at a high pitch, we ran to a little cafe. There were no customers inside and a waiter opened the door for us. He prepared a small table in the corner and lit a candle. We had hot chocolate, talked and warmed up together. It was so romantic.
We shared hotel rooms and had a great time. She apparently was having problems with her marriage and just needed to get away for a while. Nothing happened between us, but we still had a wonderful time sharing the experience and our stories together, and laughing endlessly.
Went spent four days together, but the time finally came to say goodbye to Dolly and hello to Africa. I got on the charter flight, so excited, but at the same time sad to lose such a good companion. She did ask if she could go too, but thet charter flight was completely booked.
Getting in the charter flight was the hard part. There was about 4 inches of leg room and since my legs are about 5 inches thick, you don’t have to do too much math to figure out there’s a problem. I had to take my shoes off and turn my legs sideways to squeeze them in. It was a 5 hour flight, but at least they let you get up and wander around, otherwise people would have lost limbs due to lack of blood flow. The food was fantastic, as it was on all non American flights on the trip. Our first stop was in Algeria to refuel. In case they can’t find the airport in Agadez due to a sand storm or other incident, they will have enough fuel to make it to another airport, which there aren’t many of in Northwest Africa. We circled the airport a couple of times as they were having a bit of a sandstorm themselves. When we finally landed, there was some kind of argument as to where we were supposed to park the plane. The pilot apparently wanted to park in a certain direction so sand didn’t pile up in the engine and the ground crew wanted him to park a different way. We moved back and forth a few times and I think the pilot got his way. Then some armed guards showed up around the plane. I was surprised to see that they were white guys. I thought mercenary at first, but someone said they might be Ex French Foreign legion. I then made a call to my dad on my Sat phone to say hi and let him know I made the flight and that I was in Algeria. With the antenna against the window, I was able to get reception. We refueled and the pilot had some lengthy discussions with the ground crew. What was interesting is that all the ground crew, even the ones in suits, helped moved the stairs away from the plane before the one guy with a farm tractor pulled them back to the terminal. We then headed for Agadez.
During the rest of the flight, I was watching the terrain go by. Seeing extinct volcanoes and cinder cones, ancient river beds, sand dunes and just awesome desolation. When we were landing in Agadez, I noticed a lot of trenches with 45 degree angle trenches on the ends. Someone said they had something to do with gathering water, but I am still uclear what they were for. As we approached the runway, I could see all the mud brick houses and shops spreading out for miles and I saw the famous Agadez Mosque that’s about 5 stories tall. By far the tallest building that I saw in Africa. As we touched down fire trucks were parked at the ends of the runway just in case. I noticed that every time a plane landed or took off, the firetrucks would race out and position themselves.
As we pulled up to the terminal, I could see people lining all the walls around the airport watching the spectacle. Then four guys pushed a set of stairs up to the plane and we disembarked. They brought around some carts and by hand took our luggage around the terminal somewhere and came back with an empty cart. We all filed into a line for customs and to pay the new “Eclipse Tax” they had apparently made up the day before. After a few hours it was finally my turn to pay and move on. When I got to the guy (he was wearing a suit and real Ray Bans) checking the shots records, he looked at mine and pointed to a spot where my doctor had missed a date. He said this is highly irregular and that this is not normal. I asked him “what do I need to do?”. He told me how it was a problem a few more times and then said it will cost you 20 Euros to fix. I said, I don’t have 20 Euros anymore because I just spent it on the Eclipse tax. Well, he finally let me go out of customs borrow the money from Jen, our tour leader and I came back and paid (read “bribed” ) him. He then said, don’t forget to put in the date and handed me a pen. Welcome to Africa!
As we proceeded out the front of the airport, we were assaulted by hundreds of people trying to carry luggage for pay and trying to sell you all sorts of junk. I had one guy pull my pack off me and take off for my waiting car. I saw my driver starting yelling at them and I was told to just get in the car. I said “no problem!” The guy did put my pack in the car, but he never got paid. What a mob! The driver started the car and we practically had to push people out of the way with the bumper. It was such a relief to get inside the hotel. I was then assigned a room with Fred who was the “electronic technical adviser” for the trip. On the way to the room more people grabbed our stuff and then wanted pay when we got there. I handed one of them a 50c Euro coin and they looked at it as though I insulted them, so I gave them a dollar each, they seemed somewhat satisfied and left. I then went ahead and had a shower, because I knew it might be my last for sometime. After an OK nights sleep on Klingon style beds, we woke up for breakfast. Breakfast included hard bread that tasted like kerosene, sugar cubes, coffee and tea. I think there was some kind of jam too, but I passed since Jam and kerosene flavors don’t mix well.
Next, it was time to meet the drivers and get assigned cars. I was assigned a yellow ribbon and placed in the Washington car with two others (Joe and Stephanie) who also happened to be from WA. Our driver was Mohamed. Oh, I forgot, I bought a turban/sash from a guy in the lobby of the hotel and another man helped me put it on. It looked pretty cool! We then headed off in a northerly direction and got a nice tour of the worst, I hope, part of town. Complete with strewn and burning trash everywhere, grave sites and people kind of hanging out along the “road”. There were also people selling refilled bottles of some kind of colored liquid. As we got out of town the scenery got much better. There were grass like huts, camels, sheep and donkeys everywhere. I looked on Joe’s map and it showed the dirt trail we were on as a 2nd class road. I wondered what the 3rd class dotted line roads were like. We drove for about 4 or 5 hours and stopped, if I remember correctly, somewhere near Aouderas for lunch. Everyday for lunch and dinner, the drivers would lay down straw mats and place blue cushions around them for diner tables. They would set up two of these. One for the yellow group and one for the black group. I was supposed to be in the yellow group, but I often defected depending on what was for lunch in the black and yellow camps. It wasn’t all about food though. No, of course not, foods not that important, yeah , food is of minor concern . . . it was ahh . . nice to socialize with the different groups, yeah, that’s the ticket!
We would almost always have green olives and peanuts as appetizers. I loved the green olives! My group always had green olives, if it didn’t, my group changed :). Then we would have the usual; Some form of lamb, vegetables, both of which are normally yuky in my book, but they had the most awesome garlic butter mustard sauce stuff that made anything good. I didn’t each much of the lamb, but I got my protein in other ways (I’ll explain in a second). They way that prepared the veggies was really good especially with that mustard. Oh yeah, lets not forget the great kerosene bread. Oh, the other protein; Well, I brought some banana chips along and passed the bag around for a treat. Then I just set it next to my bed. That night I woke up with the munchies and ate a couple of hand fulls, until I realized the the bag was moving! I shined my laser on the bag and saw that it was completely full of ants. BLECK! I don’t know how many I ate, but I am sure it made up for some of the missing protein in my diet. Another protein source that appeared and they always seemed to have plenty of, was fish, kinda weird for a country with no water.
At first, they handed out cups for everyone and everybody said things like “this ones my cup”. By the end of trip everyone was just drinking straight out of the pitcher. I think we figured, with all the dirt, germs, ants, kerosene and other contaminants we’d been exposed to on this trip, each other germs aren’t going to make any difference.
Next, we went to the town of Timia. A bustling metropolis with a French fort high above to “protect” it. Fatima, one of our translators took a small group of us on a tour through the town. I was tagging along taking in the site when an old woman came up to me and started talking on and on about something. I was too far from Fatima to ask her what she was saying so I just kept smiling and shrugging, but the message didn’t seem to be getting across. Finally, I think she got tired of walking and talking to ignoramus me and she stopped. A few minutes later I looked back and I saw clothes hanging in a door with a bunch of guys talking inside. I thought it looked like a store so I decided to go have a look. I saw some pants I liked and I pointed to them and said “Combien?” He said how much, but I couldn’t understand, just then Fatima walked in looking for me. She was surprised to see me shopping. She told me that the pants were 7500 CFA (about $15), so I said OK. I also liked the shirt on the wall, but they told me that it was a girls shirt, so I said “never mind” . I went with Fatima to rejoin the group and to see the leader of the village. I tried greeting him in the local way, he smiled and shook my hand. We then went out in front of the village under a big tree to wait for the vehicles to return from refueling. It ended up taking about 2 hours! Meanwhile, everyone that had something to sell showed up. I had to tell person after person that I wasn’t interested. Eventually, one man showed up with some fairly cool stuff, but what I liked most was the brass plate he was wearing. I asked him how much for that. He said “this!. ah. . . $50”. I said Ok, but I forgot that my wallet was in the vehicle, so he had to wait there with me for over and hour to get paid. In the end, he also gave me a little carved face as a gift. Everything in this village went very well and we all waived and said goodbye as we left. We drove about 10 miles or so and set up camp in the middle of what looked like a riverbed. Within a half an hour of setting up camp, a market appeared near our camp. These markets would mysteriously appear wherever we camped. Our drivers said they followed us on motorcycles, but I never saw or heard them. Even when we were a 100 miles from a village camping on a sand dune, the market would appear. It was kind of cool and freaky at the same time. They were very polite in that they didn’t interupt us and just sat 30 or 40 feet away patiently waiting for someone to come over and buy.
Everyone set up there tents, except me. I just slept on the dinner table (can’t miss breakfast that way!) It was fabulous to sleep under the beautiful Milky Way with Orion straight over head.
Next morning, I tried to tie my own turban without much success. Mohamed was kind enough to tie it correctly. Then another guy came up and said, no that’s not right and tied it a different way. Finally, a third guy came, undid and and tied it again. They all started laughing. I soon found out it was in the girl configuration, so I had one of them do it again, correctly this time! The last guy to help me, liked my cheap watch I bought in Paris for like 10 Euros, so he gave me his address to trade watches for jewelry. I figured when I got back to the States, I could send him some cheap Chinese watches from Walmart. It turns out that European and American Chinese watches are nicer than African Chinese watches.
After Timia, we headed toward Kogo, which is the point where the mountains end and the open desert starts. Our first stop was Assode, which are the ruins of the ancient capital of Air. 5000 people died there and we heard many stories of what happened and why the city was abandon. The one consistent theme was disease and that the trading capitol moved to south to Agadez. All the graves were still easily visible as were all the houses and the ancient mosque. It was interesting that the only building that still had wood timbers left in the wreckage was the mosque. We assumed that it was out of respect that they weren’t taken for firewood or building material. The portable marketplace showed up again and I recognized some of the same people. They were definitely following us.
After driving for an hour or so, the convoy stopped. I hopped out to see what was going on. A small kid, maybe 4 or 5 years old had stepped one of the millions of thorns that were everywhere and it had gone through his foot. Desiree was going to see if she could work on him and get it out, but there were too many people hanging around, so we left for the campsite and she went back with a driver. I believe she was able to get the thorn out, but she told the parents to take him to town if he didn’t get better in 4 or 5 days.
We were traveling down the “road” when the first driver made an abrupt left turn and we all followed and drove out into the bush in what looked like a random direction. We finally came to a riverbed and stopped to set up camp. During camp set up one of the drivers was trying to break off a huge dead branch for firewood, so I thought “lets put some of this mass to work” and I pushed the branch until it snapped off, but in the process I hit a branch full of huge thorns. They tore my sash right off and left a couple of gashes in my scalp. I’m glad I was wearing that thing or it would have been much worse. The gashes actually ached for the next 4 or 5 days! But the worst incident, beside the little kid, was when Gail ran into a bunch of them with her face. She looked like she had gotten into a fight with a bear. I am sure glad I brought real shoes with me, because people were getting them through their flip flops all the time. Even my 2 inch thick soles weren’t enough when on my last day in the desert one went right through the sole and into my foot.
Well, after the thorn incident, I decided I was down with that and set up my telescope. Everyone started to notice the sunset. The sun was a huge reddish ball and some of the guys ran to a nearby hill to get a good look. I saw it and I had to grab my camera. The pictures actually turned out awesome! They look the same size as the Sun.
After sunset, I spent about 30 minutes collimating the scope. It was completely out of whack from all the banging around. Once I got everything aligned, I started showing everyone Saturn. Some of them had never seen it before and there were lots of oos and ahhhs. For some reason I had to keep adjusting the scope as Saturn was drifting really fast. I thought maybe the motor had too much sand and banging around, but I could here it running. When I turned the motor off, I saw that Saturn actually moved slower. I said to myself “what the hell?”. Then I realized I had the telescope backwards! DUMB! I had the forks facing south instead of North. It’s not like I work with telescopes everyday and sell the things for a living, otherwise I would have felt really bad. After correcting my “error” I showed everyone the Orion nebula. Holy Crap! It was spectacular even in a 5 inch. It was almost straight up and the nearest light were those 2 or 3 street lights we had seen back in Agadez, hundreds of miles away. You could see the Milky Way run into the horizon in both directions. Late in the night, I woke up and when I opened my eyes, the center of the galaxy was straight up. Freaken awesome! I was all excited, but everyone else was asleep. After starring at the sky for a while I got up and wondered out into the dark. I could hear camels and and sheep making noise along with some dogs in the distance. There had to be a bunch of nomads or something nearby. I stood in the dark and listened for maybe a half hour and then went back to bed. One of the best things about the desert was that every time I opened my eyes from sleeping, there was the universe right in front of me, huge and bright! I always went to sleep with a smile on my face.
At first, I was the only person from the group who didn’t sleep in a tent. I gave up on using tents many years ago, as its easy to dry your sleeping bag on your dash board, but putting away tents and setting them up, especially when it rains, is a huge pain in the ass. Plus, I have always felt safer outside where I can hear and see what’s coming. Sleeping outside also had the added benefit of making a connection between the drivers and me who also slept outside next to their vehicles.
The next day we continued heading for Kogo. On the way we stopped for lunch at the blue marble mountains. They were awesome! Huge mountains of marble covered in sand. I just had to climb to the top and look around. One the way up my throat quickly dried out and started to hurt. I adjusted my turban to cover my mouth and nose and it really helped. As I approached the top, I had to climb in stages as the sand was getting very loose. I would make mad rushes between rocks and then stop for a breather. I finally made it to the top, stood on a big rock and gave out a Indian type yell. People from the camp far below yelled back. When I looked around, I could see the end of the mountains and the beginning of the open desert, where we were heading. I tried to take a timed picture with me and the background, but my body ended up taking up the whole picture!
After looking around for a while I galloped down the slope and ran into camp for some water and lunch. I drank about 4 containers of water as soon as I sat down. Lunch was a mountain of cool vegetables with my favorite mustard garlic sauce. I think I ate with black group that day.
We eventually all woke from our afternoon naps and we were on our way again. As we approached Kogo, the spaces got wider and the vehicles spread out and sped up. It was like we were in a huge desert race. I was playing music I brought with me and we rocked to Walk Like and Egyptian as we raced the other drivers with my arm and leg hanging out the window.
On the lead car Hamid decided he wanted to film from the top of the car and the driver decided he wanted to teach him a lesson, so we were going pretty fast and I could see Hamid bouncing around on top of the Land cruiser. I leaned to my driver and said “fool”. He laughed! I would like to see the video Hamid made while being up there. I bet it’s awesome. The best thing about all this racing around in the desert was it always felt like I was in some movie.
We entered the open desert, but turned South. This took us into what looked like a gigantic ancient caldera. In the center were sand dunes hundreds of feet high and that is where they took us. I ran up and down the dunes and even tried rolling down once. That was a bad idea. Sand got into many places sand isn’t supposed to go! The interpreters assigned one dune as the women’s and one as the men’s and they began to set up camp. I climbed back up the big dune and when I looked back, the vendors were there again! Where did they come from? They just appeared again. That night I slept against the dune, which was very comfy, and watched the night sky, which I never get tired of starring at. I did notice something curious though. There were virtually no airplanes in the sky and almost no satellites that I could see, even though it was very dark. I assume this it due to the fact of us being nearly at the equator, so this isn’t much inclination of the Sun and more of the sky is in shadow during the night. We did see the space station though.
The next day, a few of us went further into the caldera to see ancient painting and scrapings on the rocks. There were lots of pictures of people and giraffes. They told me that this area used to be lush and that many animals lived here.
That day, we finally headed out into the open desert. We were driving through dunes when all 9 vehicles became stuck at the same time. Everyone got out and we helped the lead vehicle get unstuck move a few feet and get stuck again. After about 3 hours, a few of the lead vehicles were free, but we were still working on the remaining. Dig out the tires, place metal plates under them, everyone get behind, put it in low gear and push. We did this over and over. There was once section of dune with a large dip. Most of us stood on the side and and when a vehicle would get loose, speed down into the dune trying to make it up the other side, we would cheer. It was a triumph each time we got a vehicle out! Eventually, all the vehicles made it through and we stopped to set up camp. I was exhausted and just laid down on the ground. I wrote in the sand “wake for food”.
That evening, I was presented with a chocolate cake for Capt. Sand’s birthday. (Capt. Sand was a nickname that everyone had given me, because I had the tendency to climb every sand dune in sight. The name stuck) This cake even had chocolate frosting and it left me wondering how the hell they had managed to bake a complete chocolate cake out here in the sand! It was delicious though.
After a day or so of crossing the Sahara, we came to a mound with a couple of trees on it and large population of birds. I got out and walked around. The sand had been very pleasant on my feet for days and I had abandoned the used of shoes, but here, the sand must have had I high specific heat. My feet started to burn and it was too far to run back to the car, so I quickly dug a hole to put my feet in. We we left, the guides made an offering of water to the trees. Apparently, all the travelers give water to this group of trees to keep them there. They are a good landmark and stop over.
Everyday, we would stop for lunch between 11 and 2 and after watching them for a while I realized that they were steering by the Sun. The would stick their hands out the window for the shadow, but between 11 and 2, the shadow was too small to be used, hence the break.
When we reached the far side of the desert and mountains began to appear again, we drove out of our way to a small military outpost complete with one jeep and 2 men. We handed them all of our passports and a case of smokes. That meant we got our passports back that day. While we were waiting, we went to another abandoned city to the North. It was full of palm trees and looked lush. They said it had been abandoned because of mosquitos and disease. It was a fairly impressive city, with 3 and 4 story buildings, with many passageways. They said this was a trading post and a very tolerant city. We found a room that had been used as a christian church. It still had the cross etched above the door.
On the way back to the outpost, we went through some very interesting rock outcroppings and etched sandstone arches, much like you see in Utah. We also found burned out vehicles and you could see were RPGs had hit and sprayed shrapnel into the rock and trees. This fighting had been between the Taureg and the government. Like most African countries, borders were arbitrarily assigned by the Europeans and the Tuareg had been a tribe that spread all the way across the Sahara, but were now split into many countries rules my other ethnicities. The Tauregs complained that the government was corrupt and took resources from the Tuareg without compensation, specifically uranium. The Chinese government and the US were also making plays for the resources and trying to manipulate the politics of the country. When we were there, it happened to be a pretty quiet time, but not too long after we left the second time, there was a firefight at the airport.
After getting our passports, we headed south to Bilma. We saw how they made salt. The had large areas where salt was present in the ground. They would form square pools, fill them with water and when all the water had evaporated, large squares of salt would be left. They would carve up this salt into rectangular sections and tie them onto camels. These camel trains would then travel all the way to Niamey to trade for grain, money or whatever else they needed. We had seen many of these caravans. In fact the boy who had the thorn through his foot was part of one. The caravaners must make pretty decent money. They seemed to have really nice clothing, Ray Bans, boom boxes, satellite phones and the like.
We finally reached eclipse camp and it was crowded there were people everywhere. There was even a shower truck! The local governor showed up with his entourage and said hello to all the people. We had a nice big camp fire, like we did every night. I love sitting around the fire talking, especially, when it gets late and only you and one or two of the most interesting people are left. Just laying there talking about everything without and worries, deadlines or cares feels so right.
Many people set up their equipment at night for the eclipse, so they could get a good polar alignment. In the morning, everyone, checked their gear and waited. There were not only cameras and scopes, but instruments like anonomiters and temperature gauges. I set my scopes on the Sun, but my C5 was out of whack again and I couldn’t fix it during the day, so I just relied on the H-alpha scope attached to the side.
When totality began, the Taureg drivers and including Fatima, knelt down and prayed. I let them be for a bit and then I told them this is a once in a live time opportunity, you have to at least look! Fatima finally looked up and came over to look through the scope, but many of the drivers didn’t. It was kind of sad. Something we can around the world to see, they are purposely missing.
There had been a small sandstorm that morning and during the diamond ring effect, it was like beams of light from heaven shooting down. Total eclipses make you feel like you are part of the universe, albeit a very very tiny part. There is something magical about them, that you can’t explain to someone who hasn’t seen one. Everyone should go and see at least one.
After the eclipse, we headed back West across the desert. We were in a hurry, so we drove into the night. This was apparently a bad idea, as the vehicles started getting separated from each other after a Land Cruiser in the middle broke his suspension. They managed to get it jury rigged but it wasn’t a very good fix, so the passengers and all their gear had to be transferred to another vehicle. The driver and one guide were given a satellite phone and told to head straight back to Agadez. That left us with 8 vehicles, 4 of which had kept going, not seeing that the 5th had broke down. During the night, using radios and sat phones we tried to find each other. We drove around for a long time before we saw light illuminating the sand in the air. I got out and shined my 20mw green laser straight up and with all the sand in the air, it was very easy to see. I guess the other drivers could see it and they headed our way. Once, reunited, we went to where they had already set up camp.
The next morning we stopped by the Tenere Tree. It used to be a tree that grew in the desert, but one night a drunk Lybian truck driver ran it over or so the story goes. Then, a Japanese man paid to put up a metal version of the tree. It must have been a very important tree, because I saw more military there than in the whole country. This was an anti-aircraft truck and 2 or 3 other vehicles of soldiers protecting the metal tree?
As we drove on I was noticing tanks tracks running North South and I asked the Taureg about them. They told me that the Chinese had an oil drilling operation going on to the south and they had tanks to protect it. They also told me that it is not advisable to go any further South that were we were.
Our next and last stop was to see the Wodaabe tribal dancers. The are all men who dance, roll their eyes and sing with high pitch to attract the girls. They sang well and preformed for us for about 30 minutes.
We continued driving West and we would see these massive Mercedes trucks loaded with equipment strapped on all sides and in the bed with people and goats on top. They looked like moving mountains.
In the late afternoon, we finally reached Agadez. Everyone had a shower and we met at a restaurant to celebrate. It was a nice place with music and dancers. Eilijiah was there in white and looked very good. We joked around and laughed for hours. The Taureg were asking me which girls I liked and I pointed out a couple. Elijiah was telling me to do things that I won’t repeat here. He was great and funny, but a horny bugger too!
After dinner, everyone went out of the restaurant, but there was a huge mob. I don’t know what was going on, but I became seperated from everyone and I saw the vehicles leave. It was a bit unerving and I half expectetd there to be gunfire. Elijiah pulled up in a nother Land Cruiser and I made a dash, pushing my way through and jumped in I said “go!” and he did. When I got back to the hotel, I realized I was missing my camera. I tried to think what had happened. Did I lose it in the crowd? Or maybe it was still in the Land Cruiser. I expressed my concerns to Fatima and the next morning, she had her husband take me by motorcycle to the travel companies compound. That was a really fun but scary ride. I was trying to hang on to the back of the bike as we hit pot holes and swerved to avoid people, cars, carts and animals. When we finally got there, but they didn’t have it. So many good pictures gone!
Later in the days we grabbed all our gear and headed to the airport. As I was leaving the hotel, Elijiah appeared and handed me my camera. I was so happy, I reached in my pocket and gave him all my money. It was so good to have my camera back even though it stopped working shortly afterwords from becoming “Saharafied”. All I really wanted was the pictures.
At the end of the trip, I planned to give my French-Chinese watch to my driver, Mohamed, but it had become “Saharafied” as well. But he liked it anyway and kept it to remember me by. All the drivers met us at the airport to say goodbye and after a ridiculously long line, we finally got on the plane and left Niger.
Returning to Paris wasn’t the same without Dolly. I spent two days wondering around, including once when I got on the wrong train and ended up at EuroDisney.
The whole time we were in Africa, we were always talking to the locals about meteorites and gave them our contact information should they find anything. We told them to look for fusion crust, even mixing of the shiny metal bits on the interior, told them to make sure there was not layering in the rock and that they would probably be heavy. The fusion crust is from when the meteorite burns through the atmosphere at 100,000 miles an hour or more. The rock melts for the initial few seconds and then freezes before it hits the ground. This has the effects of making the outside of the rock look melted and black, often deformed in the direction of travel. Telling the locals this, would pay off only a few months later.
In November of 2006, my business partners and I decided to head back to Niger for the second time that year. We had looked for meteorites while we were there on the first trip, but we quickly realized one big problem. All the rocks in the Sahara were black and burned looking! They had been sitting in the blazing sun for 10,000 years or more and it effectively burned them to look just like fusion crust. Another issue we would discover later was the presence of magnetite everywhere.
In the fall of 2006, we received a telegram that several meteorites had been found, so we had them DHL’d to us. All of them were just igneous rocks, save one. That one was an actual meteorite! That got our attention and we began to talk of putting an expedition together. The meteorite was found northeast of Agadez somewhere, but because it was going to be a small group of five we couldn’t charter a jet into Agadez as we had done for the eclipse earlier in the year. Since there are no scheduled flights into Agadez, we were going to have to fly into Niamey and drive the 1000km to Agadez, and then drive into the desert to the Northeast.
I started my trip out of Portland Oregon, flew to Pittsburgh, PA, where I had a long layover before heading to JFK. I had time to get a few hours sleep and have some pizza before taking off again. I was the first one to reach JFK and waited in the Royal Air Moroc terminal for everyone else. They were all flying into Laguardia, so I had wait for them to transfer over. It was fantastic to see them all again! We joked and laughed and it felt like getting the family back together.
The flight from JFK to Casablanca was about 8 hours and on the way I started to feel sick. I suspected the pizza I had eaten in Pittsburgh. When we landed at the Casablanca airport, it was early in the morning. We then caught the train to Casablanca. When we got there, we grabbed our luggage and exited the train station. It was a bright sunny morning and Mercedes cabs were lined up and parked everywhere. With the 5 of us and our luggage, we needed a cab with a lot of room. A gentleman in his 40s came up to us, pointed to the parking lot “I have a large cab”. We grabbed our stuff and followed him into the sea of cabs. As we approached his, we realized that is was exactly the same as all the other cabs in the parking lot, but seeing no larger vehicles, we reluctantly began to load our things. This cab was designed for 4 small foreigners including the driver, not for 5 large Americans and a driver! Jen, Patrick, Vic and I sat in the back, well three of us sat, my arm and head hanging out the window while Jen squatted in our laps and leaned into the front seat. We drove like this for a few blocks, but our driver was getting upset that Jen, being of the female persuasion and sitting in our laps, was being unladylike, so he pulled over and told us that we need to rearrange. Vic got out and moved to the front, Fred and his 6ft, 5in stature moved into the center over the stickshift. The whole time we were laughing so hard its was difficult to breath. I managed to take video of part of the ride by hanging the camera out the window, since there wasn’t any room inside the cab. When we arrived at the hotel, the lobby was floored in marble and rich with local flavor. The manager informed us that Jen had to have her own room unless she was staying with her husband. We looked at each with an expression of “umm, ok…”. We agreed with him and then just switched rooms when we got upstairs.
I began to throw up and took a hot bath to clear my head, then went to bed. In the afternoon, we boarded yet another planes bound for Niamey. I watched out the window the whole flight and noticed how we flew around Algeria, instead of taking the short route through it. The mountains were black and barren, looking like an alien volcanic landscape with vast sandy nothingness in between. I watched the shadows grow long and giving perceivable depth the the mount range as the Sun set. I thought about how this landscape was created millions of years ago when Africa had collided with North America and the connection between these mountains and the Appalachians.
We landed in Niamey after dark. As everyone filed into the small terminal it became chaos. We all stood around the luggage conveyor belt until we had gathered our things. We were constantly hounded by people who wanted to carry our luggage or help in any way they could in exchange for a few dollars. One of our guides, a highly educated thin handsome man, helped us get everything together and over to customs. As customs looked through our luggage they noticed these large, heavy grey squares. They asked us what they were and to produce the certificate of origin. We told him that they were metal detectors and that we made them ourselves. They didn’t beleive us and moved all our stuff to a seperate area. I was thinking “oh boy, here it comes..how much is this going to cost us?” We waited for about twenty minutes and they let us go, with no charge! I don’t know what our guide told them, but he was good!
We exited the airport and the five us loaded up in a VW minivan kind of thing. With people crammed against the car still trying to get money, we took off. We headed out into the darkness toward Agadez. After driving for an hour or so, we stopped on the side of the road and turned the engine off. I asked what was going on and was told that we can’t drive in dark because of bandits. They also have road blocks to prevent people from doing so. I was told that the road goes very near to the Nigerian border and that was part of the problem. It was dark out there, really dark, which was nice. I looked at the sky for a bit and then went back into lay down. In a way, I was fortunate to be sick in that I got to lay in a seat, where everyone else had to sit, crammed together in this no frills van. Fred couldn’t fit in the back seat because of his stature, so he had to ride in the metal jump seat at the end of my curled feet.
As we made our way toward out of Agadez toward Timia, we stopped at this water hole. It was the only time I saw standing water in Niger. It was nice to dip our feet into, but I was warned not to put anything else into the water. While we were there, the usual vendors showed up. I went over to talk to them and see if they knew Boujie. I said his name and showed them one of his letters. Most of them said no, but one guy got very excited and said, “that’s his brother over there!” “really? His brother!?”, so I went over and talked to Boujie’s brother. It became very friendly once they knew who I was. We all sat down and tried to talk. I traded some of the watches that I had brought with me for some of his jewelry. He said that his brother wasn’t here, but it was very good to meet me and that he would tell him that I was in the country.
About three days out into the sahara, one of our guides, Elias, who was sitting in the back of the of the Land Cruiser says in effect “Look! Mom’s house”. I’m thinking, what the hell is he talking about? We haven’t seen another human in day or more. But, sure enough, up ahead are two trees with tarps between them. There are goats, camels, kids and mom! His mom lived next to “no flies” mountain and when we got there, see sat us down and said “moment”. She quickly milked a camel and brought us back a warm bowl full. She also handed us camel cheese. To be polite I took a sip. It was good! Sweeter than cow milk. The whole time, I was there, I had the turbine over my face and was covered from head to toe. When we got back in the car I was told that they thought I was Patrick’s wife. WHAT!?
On the way back to camp, Vic was eating camel cheese like it was going out of style. He said “if there is something wrong with this, I am going to be really sick”. I said, “we all will be”. Foreshadowing there. The next day, Fred and I began foaming green out all of oraphices. Jen was having a hard time telling who was puking when. “there goes, Fred, no wait that’s Sean…now that’s Fred!” From then on, we had to move camp everyday, because between all the sickies, we ‘used’ every bush within walking distance. Its bad when you are throwing up or have diarhea, but when you have both at the same time, what the hell are you supposed to do?! In the future, archeologist are going to find my petrified underwear spread all across the Sahara and wonder what the hell? “Ancient man used to bury their underwear in the desert as part of some religious ritual”
Bukar, my driver, who was also a driver on our first trip, was very kind and helped us a lot, by getting food and keeping our stuff clean. After a few days of not being able to hold down water, we came to the conclusion that I would have to go back to Agadez or risk dieing from dehydration. Bukar and Patrick went with me. On the way back, I heard this thumping hissing sound. Bukar eventually stopped the car and walked around the my side of the car. I leaned out the door and could see the source of the sound. The tire had a big gash in the side and had gone flat. It took a little while to fix, but while we were there a whole group of Europeans showed up with their escorts. It turned out that they were driving to Bilma to then run across the desert to Agadez. I asked “what? Like a marathon?”, they replied “No, a super marathon.” It took days to drive across that desert, I couldn’t imagine running across it, on purpose! After we got the tire fixed we started heading East again. We passed through a intersection of two dirt trails and we saw a stainless steel bowl laying in the dirt. Bukar stopped the car and went to get it. He threw it in the back of the truck and we were on our way again. We drove for another hour or so and saw a caravan of white vehicles with red crescents on them. But, the interesting thing is that as we passed them, I saw Elijiah as the driver in the lead vehicle. Bukar saw it too and we quickly turned around. The convoy stopped and Elijiah drove over to us. We were happy to see each other again and shook hands excitedly! In all of Niger, we happen to meet in the middle of the Sahara driving past each other! What are the chances!?
When we finally made it to Agadez in the evening, we stayed in a new hotel. The owner’s proudly proclaimed that is was the one that Gadafi likes to stay in when he is in town. It was heaven to have running water and an entire tile and porcelin batthroom. After taking the worlds longest shower, I slept for a long time. I was awakened when one of the hotel guards came to my room and knocked. He asked me to come with him and after a while I figured out that he was trying to tell me someone was at the gate. All hotels are in compounds in Niger. They have fences all the way around with a gate. Most houses are this way too. They opened the fence and there was Boujie! The man I had been trading watches with from Timia. How did he know I was here at this hotel?! And how did he get here so fast? I invited him in and he offered me a sword as a gift. I in turn gave him the few watches I had left and a little cash. Everyone seemed to be curious about this interaction and most stood nearby watching us. We talked for a while and I introduced Patrick to him. Eventually, we said our goodbye’s and I told him I would send him more watches when I returned home.
A few days later, Fred and Jen finally came back from the desert. I was feeling a little better, so I went out with Abucar and Amelie, a french girl who worked for the tour company. We went to a small restaurant and met up with Michel, the African expedition leader. He was half French and half Nigerien. After a short while two other men showed up. One of the other men, owned the Agadez radio station. Everyone there, except maybe Amelie, said they were Muslim. However, some of them drank beer and some did not because of their faith. I had a Coca Cola along with the radio station owner. He liked that I didn’t drink and toasted me with his glass Coke bottle. It seemed that Agadez stayed up late. Abucar, Amelie and I went from one place to another and had a really good time. I wish I could have stayed longer, because I really liked her.
In the morning, we headed back to Niamey. It was fairly uneventful. There were the usual vehicles with goats and people strapped to them. I even saw a Chrysler mini van full of goats. About half way to Niamey, we were stopped and told that the bridge was gone. There were a bunch of men standing around and one of them hopped onto the side of the van and pointed. We drove out into the desert, driving around bushes and small trees, down into gullies and a back out, but eventually, we made it back to the road. Our driver paid the man and he jumped off and onto another vehicle going the other way. Nigeriens were very quick to take advantage of any situation and see if they could turn it into a business.
Upon, returning to Niamey, we had pizza and I was met by the interior minister of trade. He had heard that I was trading watches for jewelry with the Taureg. He told me forget dealing with them! That he could deliver whole shipping containers of jewelry for a very reasonble price. I took his information and was polite. I guess it was a little flattering to be approached by a government official, but I wanted to trade with people from the desert. They needed the income and it would be easier to sell. When I tell my customer this piece came from this man, having his signature on it, it is more authentic. Not just something made in a factory somewhere.
The next day, we left and headed back home. I was sick for another three weeks after. I think it was the sickest I have ever been, except for the time when I was 5.
About two months later my good friend and business partner, Vic, died. He called the night of his death and we were talking about future plans and what we were going to do in Bolivia and with meteorite hunting. My shop was open at the time and normally I would tell a friend that because of customers, I would have to call them back. But that night, I decided not to and we talked for about 2 hours on the phone. I am so glad I did. I didn’t have any idea it would be the last time I would talk to him. I really miss him.