Dispatches for December 2004:
Click on a date (bottom) to read expedition reports.
December 3, 2004: Nguigmi, Niger
|1. December 3, 2004
2. December 5, 2004
3. December 7, 2004
4. December 8, 2004
5. December 9, 2004
|6. December 10, 2004
7. December 11, 2004
8. December 12, 2004
9. December 18, 2004
10. December 19, 2004
|11. December 20, 2004|
12. December 23, 2004
13. December 24, 2004
14. December 25, 2004
This morning I woke to find the "brume"—the thick white haze of the real harmattan. You couldn't see across the street, and you could taste the dust. We called the folks in Nguigmi. It was predicted that the brume would lift a bit. Maybe we would be able to take off.
We decided we could take a quick trip to the Sultanate. We arrived at the Sultanate and were shown around by a guy who was tour guide extraordinaire. His teeth were red from tea. I could see a black mark on his forehead, so he was a man who prayed quite a bit.
Our guide opened a door and explained that this was not only the court but the prison. There were three cells where they could hold over 500 people. There were two rooms for judging people's guilt, one the scorpion room, the other the ant room. In the scorpion room they put meat and milk in there to draw the scorpions out. They let the prisoner get stung twice. If he was crippled, he was sold into slavery, to Goree in Senegal to be sent to America, or if he was in relatively good shape he was taken as a slave for the sultan. In the ant room the guards put sugar water and had the same result. What interested me was this guy knew all about selling slaves through Goree to America. I would love to be able to retrace this movement throughout the continent.
There were 12 windows on the second floor of the court. It was explained that this was for each of the 12 wives of the sultan. The current sultan has only three wives (and 23 kids. He is also the 23rd sultan). Once a woman became a wife of the sultan, she was not allowed to leave her room, so the windows gave her a little view into the court.
We were shown the grave of the sister of one of the sultans in a hallway. The story here was that no one is allowed to pass in front of the sultan when he is seated. The daughter of the sister passed in front of a previous sultan, and when her mother told the sultan that her daughter would walk where she wanted, the sultan said, "You say this to the sultan, I will sit on you." A hole was dug and the woman was buried alive, because he wasn't allowed to execute her. Every year the sultan sits here and recites verses from the Koran.
We were shown where the wives of previous sultans were housed. The doors to the windowless rooms were small and the living conditions looked dismal. There were 12 women here now. It kind of felt like a nunnery, the women said hello, they were very friendly. They do not leave the compound.
Later, leaving Zinder, Niger, by air, I could see that the land was cultivated wherever possible. Every pan had wells and date palms and manioc. There were right of ways built into the landscape for the passage of cattle. The soils here are completely abused. Further to the east the land became sandier, and there was much less cultivation. This land was overrun with livestock, the worst overgrazing we've seen yet, not a stitch of grass for long stretches in this country.
We arrived at the Petronas oil base around 16:00. It is a dry and dusty place. Sand is taking over the town. The main exploration field is about 140 km (90 miles) to the north. Petronas has partnered up with Exxon here to see if they could hit it big. We were driven almost immediately to the house of the chef de canton, Mr. Mai Manga, via a sand track. We arrived at the chef de canton's house and were greeted by men who led us into a large room that had a carved throne with a bench for the feet of the chef. The chef de canton was not present, but we quickly realized that this was also the house that had been reserved for us, and his deputy received us.
I asked him about Lake Chad. He said that when he was a kid the town in Nguigmi was a peninsula, surrounded on the south, east, and west. There were pirogues here. You could take a boat to Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon. The lake was full of fish, and the town of Nguigmi had elephants, leopards, and lots of other wildlife. During the drought of the 1970s, the water went all the way back to a point where there was no more lake at all in Niger. He said that it has been coming back up since 1987.
The wind has gone down to zero this evening and the air is bit clearer. We will see if our mission succeeds tomorrow for at least one clear flight over the Termit. I more than regret getting pushed back from the Tibesti Mountains twice, maybe one of the greatest regrets of my life. I will be back there. I am looking forward now, not behind us.
December 5, 2004: Addax
The mission: to find the last known population of addax left in the Sahara Desert. It's hard to imagine that a large mammal that existed in herds of hundreds in more than one country in this desert 30 years ago is fast going extinct. Its cohabitant, the scimitar-horned oryx, is already said by many scientists to be extinct in the wild. What blows me away is that the world seems to be complacent about the fact that most of the large mammal fauna of the Sahara Desert will probably go extinct in our lifetimes if we do nothing to save them.
December 7, 2004: Grand Erg de Bilma; Seeking the Addax
We finally took off at about 13:30, destination: Grand Erg de Bilma.
We cleared the hills of Devonian sandstone that form the basis of the oasis that is all along the western side of the escarpment. The most striking thing right away was the vegetation—there was none. The other striking thing was the lack of domestic stock—not a sheep, nor goat, nor camel, just rock and sand. We flew farther and we could see the dunes looming in the distance. We kept going to the east until we were finally in a place where I am sure no human has been in centuries. The dunes were high and perfectly sculpted. You felt like you were looking at the most exquisite whipped cream pie imaginable. The dunes went on forever. This was a no-man's-land like no other. No human could ever traverse this place. Even with a camel, it would be impossible. Seeking the Addax:
This past September, SOS Faune Niger and the Nigerian Air Force did a survey in a micro-dot of land on the gigantic surface of the Sahara east of the Termit Mountains in eastern Niger. Using ultralights, they found 128 addax, more than anyone could have believed. Most agree that this is the last population of addax left in the entire Sahara. I sat down with Hubert Planton who was on this survey, and we made a flight plan, in fairly dense transect lines, that we hoped would take us over the addax.
After much searching, we flew north and hit an area about 15 miles (24 kilometers) north of the SOS survey grid. There was good pasture of centotheca, a semi-succulent plant, which is a favorite of the addax. We were paralleling a large dune that seemed to be good habitat. Then, out of nowhere, there they were—two addax running along the base of the dune! I let out a war cry. I couldn't believe my eyes. Two wild addax in one of the most isolated and beautiful places in the Sahara, and I was actually seeing them. I sat in this little airplane cruising a few hundred feet off the ground, never taking my eyes off these perfect beasts.
We made a few turns overhead. I took some pictures to make the sighting official. I thought about the fact that I was one of a handful of people who may have just observed the addax in the wild for the last time. I thought about people like Maurice who have seen scimitar-horned oryx. It is like having seen the last of passenger pigeons or the ivory-billed woodpecker. What is to be done? How can I help save these animals?
December 8, 2004: Salt Palaces; Phantom Sheep
We flew out of Dirkou early heading straight north. When we reached the escarpment near Chirfa, the sandstone was in sand castle columns. As in Ennedi, the columns were tall, some 200 meters (200 yards) plus. We could see what looked like a sandstone outcrop right in the middle of the oasis and headed for that. As we passed over, we realized that it was an old town built into a little rise.
The houses, like others we have seen in the older parts of the western side of the Djado Plateau, are built from blocks of salt collected in the oasis. They were stacked into an unbelievably complex maze. The houses without roofs reveal room after room, some only a few feet square, hundreds of rooms. What they were used for is beyond me. Like other old habitations, this one looked like a ghost town. There were no people milling around or pots and pans around fireplaces or clothing hanging on lines. These old salt castles are fast melting into the desert they came from. Newer towns are built of mud brick and have satellite dishes and telephones. Phantom Sheep:
We reached our northernmost point just shy of 22 degrees. Turning east across the plateau we reached the Enneri Blaka, a large wadi that leads to a place called Seguedine. We followed the wadi for about 30 miles (50 kilometers). We actually saw a single dorcas gazelle. Maurice pushed us toward a single tree we could see about five miles (eight kilometers) out. He said that if there were any sheep, they would be under trees at this time of day.
I saw Maurice just about jump out of the airplane, and then I saw what he did. As we approached the tree, a herd of Barbary sheep bolted from their midday shelter and headed for the hills! There was big male, a few adult females, and one small baby—seven in total. We circled a few times. I looked around the landscape and wondered how this animal, who weighed about as much as I do and who has about the same basic needs, could survive in this extreme environment. I would surely die in about three days. How was this possible?
We landed in Dirkou again early in the afternoon. The mayor was waiting for us. He had the seat leaned back in his Toyota Land Cruiser GX and was listening to Radio France International, chain smoking.
December 9, 2004: Allah ou Akbar
At around 4 a.m. a call awoke me. It was a man's voice, chanting—the morning's first call to prayer. I will remember these chants all my life. They permeate every building, every room, and every soul in this part of the world five times a day. For the people who live here, the chanting call to prayer rings over and over from the day you are born until the day you die. People line up to pray to Allah here wherever they are repeating Allah ou Akbar, Allah ou Akbar
, billions of times a day on the planet. It is almost like a hypnosis that becomes permanently fixed in your brain.
Today I found myself looking forward to a flight that I had thought would never happen. We were going right up to the border with Chad, near the Libyan border, about as deep as you can get into the Sahara. We flew over the northern section of the Erg de Bilma. Where the Erg ended we turned north and an hour and half later we were nearing the Chad border up on the Massif d'Afafi where Maurice thought we might find some Barbary sheep or maybe even the last of the scimitar-horned oryx. We were right in the heart of the area of the Chadian rebellion.
Mario would not cross the border into Chad no matter how hard Maurice and I urged him. I looked over into Chad and couldn't believe my eyes. In the distance loomed two gigantic volcanic peaks—Touside and Emi Koussi. As we flew north, they hardly seemed to move on the horizon. They must have been 100 kilometers (60 miles) distant, but I could see them clearly. I started daydreaming about a walk across this range. I would definitely do it someday. These mountains are at the end of the Earth, over 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) with just about no rainfall, full of land mines, rebels, pirates—the heartland of the so-called rebellion.
As we proceeded north, there were 4x4 tracks in every wadi, encircling every bush. The guys born and raised here know every wadi, every tree, every rock, every cache and who owns it, and every source of water for hundreds of miles around. They are all connected by Thuraya telephones. They have a vast information network that is controlled in Abu Dhabi. Where men travel with Toyota Land Cruiser pick-up trucks with .50-caliber machine guns and all have a personal AK-47, how can a dorcas gazelle survive? We did not see a gazelle, fox, or bird all day long. Maurice said that when he was up here 30 years ago there were dorcas all over the place.
After about an hour in this borderland we headed west and checked out the Plateau de Tchigai. Maurice thought we might find some Barbary sheep. There were old trails that might still be used, but there were also those ubiquitous 4x4 tracks. Here is the hardiest large mammal on the planet, one that can survive without drinking, in a place that looks like it has not a single leaf to eat. Yet the challenges of the environment are not what exterminates Barbary sheep. It is men and their guns.
As we neared Dirkou, the same harmattan haze had befallen the escarpment and the wind was howling. Mario pitched the right wing about 20 degrees into the wind and made a hard landing, keeping the machine lined up against its will, like a stallion that didn't want to go where you wanted. Mario is a good man: calm, methodical, and always with a smile. The more we fly in Niger the more it looks like the situation of the fauna is what I had always imagined in the Sahara—dire. Maybe conservation will someday bring back the fauna here, Inshallah.
December 10, 2004: Réserve Naturelle Intégrale Dite Sanctuaire des Addax
The year was 1980 and I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Tunisia looking for a new posting in the "real Africa." I wanted to do botany, but I also wanted to work in conservation. I was offered a job doing research in the proposed Addax reserve in Niger. I thought about it and was tempted, but I wasn't really sure that I wanted to live in the dry Sahara for two years. There wasn't enough biological diversity for me there, so I decided to go to the Central African Republic instead.
Almost 25 years later we were taking off to traverse the Réserve Naturelle Intégrale Dite Sanctuaire des Addax. As we took off from Dirkou, Niger, I thought to myself how different my life would be if I had taken that job. I would have been a desert rat and probably would have remained one like Maurice.
As we flew west, we entered the Réserve Naturelle Nationale de l'Aïr et du Ténéré. The ground was absolutely flat and a cream color. It was one of those places where there wasn't a single feature your iris could zoom in on. No vegetation, livestock, or rocks. Nothing. I thought two things: Thank God I didn't take the job and What ever possessed anyone to turn this place into a national reserve? No matter what any one says the habitat in Termit looks ten times better. We continued west, hoping to stumble on a tuft of grass somewhere. The mother load would be in the Addax Sanctuary.
We were about 20 miles (30 kilometers) into the Addax Sanctuary when Maurice pointed to the north. There was a sudden burst of green. It was grass and small annual bushes. There were also slight dunes here and there. Finally we were entering relief and could focus on the ground. This is where we would surely find tracks of wildlife. My next notation after seeing the green vegetation was a 4x4. There they were again, those ubiquitous vehicle tracks. If they were a wild species, you would say their density was good and they follow the graze precisely. We didn't end up seeing a single animal track, not even of domestic stock.
We traveled north to the extreme northwest of the Addax Sanctuary and everywhere we went there were vehicle tracks. We didn't really expect to see any addax there, but the fact that we didn't see a single gazelle was astonishing. This emptiness depresses me more and more.
The wind was up and it was getting hot and bumpy, so we decided to fly the scenic route salong the east side of the Aïr Mountains. We reached the Erg Temet, which are some of the tallest dunes in the world, and I kept thinking of addax and gazelles. We passed by Adrar Tin Galène, Adrar Gréboun, the Korri d'Iouellene, Adrar Issiguidi, and the Erg Bréard.
In the mountains there were a lot of stone-age ruins, but no wild animals. The landscapes were beautiful, but for me they were like a forest that had been exploited for its big trees. The area had lost its major elements and was withering and dying.
This evening I spoke to Maurice about this Addax Sancutary. He said that he lived in Iferouane for five years in the early 1970s. One of his occupations was hunting addax. Maurice said that at this time there were oryx, thousands of gazelle, and 200 to 300 herds of addax. It seems impossible to me that he saw this just 30 years ago. Maurice must feel an incredible hollowness in his heart. How could he not. When John Newby first arrived in the early 1980s, things were already slipping fast and by the time he left in the '90s there was almost nothing left. Maurice said that the area from the east of the mountains is controlled by the military. For decades these men have been hunting, accomplishing what hundreds of thousands of years of geology and climate change couldn't do. They virtually exterminated the fauna from about a million square kilometers of some of the most prime Sahara Desert. I am afraid that this land may be lost forever unless there is a massive reawakening of the human spirit here.
December 11, 2004: The Barbary Sheep of the Aïr Mountains
We were airborne, headed for a mission of about five hours that would take us to the top of virtually every big mountain in the Aïr Mountains. We proceeded north along a major wadi—called korri
here—that is lined with villages and small irrigated gardens. This is the traditional oasis irrigation that you find from Tunisia all the way to here in the southern Sahara. Away from the korri the land quickly goes dry, and livestock trails are worn into the barren earth. Maurice says that the human population in this area has gone up about ten times since the 1970s.
After about an hour and some we finally made it to Mount Gréboun on the northern side of the massif. This sucker peaks out at around 1,994 meters according to the map and at well over 2,000 meters (7,000 feet) according to Maurice. It is full of sandstone boulders and little korris that lead of this hill and lots of what looked like great fodder for the hardiest of large mammals. This was going to be fun.
We started to see the telltale signs of Barbary sheep, little clear patches on vantage points with trails leading to them and away from them. Some even had clear patterns of hoof marks in them. We rounded the peak along the north and east rims looking into the luscious Temet dune fields that were dwarfed at our altitude on this mountain. We were cruising only about 400 feet (100 meters) above the rock.
We flew over some of the best habitat I could imagine for Barbary sheep. We reached the southern end of Gréboun and hadn't seen a living mammal. We looked deep into every canyon in the rock where the vegetation was heavy, no animals. We made five-minute transects over the mountaintops, still nothing. Maurice yelled to me, "C'est incroyable, c'est incroyable, c'est incroyable
There were no sheep in sight and he couldn't believe it. I think that he was thinking, maybe they killed all the addax, maybe they killed 99 percent of the gazelles, but how could they have killed all of these sheep? He was beside himself.
At Takolokouzet, Anakom, Goundai, Adrar Egalah, same story, tons of trails, tons of white patches at vantage points, unbelievably rich, abundant vegetation, and no sheep, not a single one. Nor did we see a single gazelle. We did see a single camel between one of the mountains.
Finally we reached Monts Bagzane, the tallest of the Adrars in the Aïr. This one has a village on top. We didn't really expect to see any Barbary sheep up there, and we didn't. Maurice said to me, "Never, ever would I have ever guessed that we would find nothing in these mountains." He was devastated. He was convinced deep down that the Barbary sheep were gone.
I didn't know what to think. I was completely baffled. Were the trails we had seen old trails of sheep that had gone extinct? Did we just miss the sheep? That seemed impossible. I am still baffled. I believe certainly there are sheep in the Aïr. The mountains are too vast and the human population is too low to think otherwise. But I also think that the hills are not overpopulated with sheep, as Maurice described them in the 1970s. Conclusion: I need to get into those mountains on foot and see what the real story is. I don't want to join the ranks of those who say that the scimitar-horned oryx is extinct, I just can't do it. I need to do more work in these parts. We need to make conservation work in these countries. First place to start is Chad, I believe.
December 12, 2004: Niger, the Last Shot
For a scheduled 8 a.m. takeoff, we were finally off just after 10. We were on our way to the capital city, Niamey. About an hour into the flight we flew over Teguidda-n-Tessoumt. Maurice had said that there were some interesting salines there. We passed over and I pushed "Take Picture" a number of times. When I zoomed into the image, I was blown away. There was a pattern of perfectly round holes of various sizes filled with red, yellow, black, white, and gold water. It was as if we had stumbled on a magnificent jeweled necklace that had been magnified onto the desert floor. We flew over this place five times, it was so gorgeous.
Farther west, the vegetation picked up and so, too, did the density of 4x4 tracks. There were camels but not in huge numbers. There were nomads living in tents made of skins rather than mats. Maurice said that these were the western Tuareg, who come from the Algerian side, not the Libyan side. We turned to the south and passed through about 45 minutes of steppe vegetation. There was good grass cover and an abundance of cucumber vines. This looked as good as any habitat we had seen in Chad. But not a gazelle in sight.
Farther south we fly over some wells with hundreds of camels and goats. The owners must come from 100 kilometers (60 miles) around to get to these wells. I can't imagine the dynamics that must go on at one of these wells to get a shot at some water. There are no pumps, everything is done by hand with buckets, and these wells are many tens of meters deep. It must take at couple of hours to water a single camel.
Soon the land was heavily used by humans. Every square inch that could hold a single plant of millet was planted. The vegetation was short and overused. It was as bleak a landscape as you could imagine.
Then we were safe on the ground in Niamey. We had not seen a single wild animal in the past two days of flying, almost ten hours in the air. This was devastating. That is West Africa today.
There is so much to be done here in Niger. Look at this so-called Sanctuaire des Addax that Maurice is convinced has no more addax. It is a place that has one of the most austerely beautiful landscapes on the planet—gigantic dunes, 6,000-foot (2,000-meter) sandstone peaks, lost canyons lined with acacia and grass. Yet the fauna has been obliterated. If Nigerians and conservationists the world over can make this place a priority, there is a chance yet that the conservation ethic will take hold, and with it an improved, sustainable economy. People may even start raising dorcas gazelles and repopulating that perfect habitat in the Aïr Mountains with Barbary sheep. It can be done.
December 18, 2004: Tombouctou, Ambassadors, and Missing Sheiks — Watch Video
The gloom of the dust storm was still with us but waning, so we decided to take off to the northwest. I wanted to see if there were any signs of wildlife left in the deserts of Mali. Certainly the difference between Niger and Chad had been stunning. Indications were that Mali still has at least some wildlife because our Arab sheik's friend had come here after being told that hunting is closed in Niger this year. I thought we might actually find him out there in the desert. He had been taken hostage on his first day out. Funny how popular that sport is also in the Arab world.
Forays into the desert are risky because there are not possibilities for helicopter evacuation if you go down, and the only people around are likely to be hostage takers. Very soon we were in a desert that had just the occasional Tuareg tent, camel, or band of a few goats. The vegetation was looking very nice—Saharan steppe with that beautiful and full cover of golden grass dotted with these green bushes that the Arabs make rope out of. About 80 kilometers (50 miles) out, I spied our first two bustards. Bustards are kind of the airliner version of turkeys—heavy bodies but strong fliers. This was a good sign. Where there are bustards, farther out there are gazelles.
We were just breaking into good territory for possibly finding the last remaining addax when there was a problem with the airplane. One more flight day lost. Soon we were back in Tombouctou.
In the evening we went to a not-so-good restaurant with a group that included the U.S. ambassador, Ms. Vicki Huddleston. She is a career diplomat, in her sixties I would say, petite, trim, and a live wire. She had paved the way for us in Mali and is a huge advocate of the Gourma elephants. I sat next to Vicki thinking I would get some real in-depth views, but she was surrounded by coming and goings of emissaries of various missions. She wanted to have the facts right for the inauguration the next day of a school built with U.S. Army funds. The discussion started to go into the minutia not of guns or soldiers or al Qaeda but of wells and schools and clinics. The attaché was a woman who had good knowledge of every village and its needs. They were talking about a budget of $300,000 and how they could maximize the benefit from these funds. The thing that impressed me was the nuts-and-bolts talk about the small amounts that are needed to make significant structural improvements.
The U.S. government is supporting a number of security initiatives in every country with a border in north Africa. The obvious need is to bring law and order to lawless places deep in the Sahara. The U.S. Army is not the first to try. It will undoubtedly have some success as long as the cash keeps flowing and a watchful eye is present. There is no doubt that the war on terror is pushing us deeper than we have ever been before into every possible hotbed of general insecurity worldwide.
Later that night, the hotel owner told me that the Malian military had caught up with the hostage takers. They had mowed down seven Tuareg men and freed the two Arab hostages. It is a crazy world.
December 19, 2004: The Longest Elephant Migration
The dust has settled around Tombouctou now. We were in the air just as the sun broke over the horizon. Then, as if we passed into paradise, the land was bright green with vegetation, hundreds of teal ducks were flying low over muddy flats, and fishermen were casting nets from their dugout canoes. This is the great Niger River. It drains forests far to the south in Liberia and the Ivory Coast and makes an almost divine passage to the north to the edge of the Sahara before it changes course and finally empties into the Gulf of Guinea in the forests of coastal Nigeria. It must be an incredible thing for nomads in caravans traveling from Algeria or Libya across some of the driest country on the planet for weeks when from a high dune this gigantic ribbon of water appeared before them.
In centuries past, the Niger River meant habitat for both man and beast, a lifeline for humans, elephants, giraffe, savanna antelope, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, and birds in the billions. While a few hippos remain, man has long since exterminated most other species for his own advantage. Mali is now a country with enormous human needs. Where needs are great, humans spend little time reflecting on how to preserve nature.
What we see today in Tombouctou is a major rice scheme north of the river. Similar schemes line the Niger's banks from Bamako to Niamey and beyond, multiplied many times over. Here's one example: The owner of the hotel here in Tombouctou has two hectares of rice. He can produce in an average year about three tons (three metric tons) of food. He has ten children. His family consumes maybe two tons (two metric tons) a year, and he sells the rest. It is a well-provisioned life. Without it, his family would either be much smaller or living extremely precarious lives. Mali will most likely have doubled its current 11 million people in the next 15 years and double that again by 2030. The Niger, like every other river on Earth that makes its way into a dry place, will be emptied by man.
Soon we were back in dry Sahel and making our way toward a circular flight. This circle is about 600 kilometers (400 miles) around and dips into Burkina Faso. I traced this flight line from a series of points given to me by Iain Douglas-Hamilton. He collared some of the elephants here, which are the northernmost population left on the continent. As we hooked into the migration route from the north, taking a vertical picture every 20 seconds, I was immediately struck by the correlation between the points and the acacia thickets that spotted the depressions in this arid land. As the dry season drags on, these depressions continue to hold water. Thus, they are part of the dry-season range. The Niger River is still 100 kilometers (60 miles) distant. I think elephants probably used to range all the way to the Niger. In fact, one of Iain's elephants actually ventured far to the north, stopping only about 40 miles (60 kilometers) short of the river.
Apparently, when the first rains hit the south, the elephants know. They start to move before it actually rains in the Sahel dry-season range. They head for the mountains, working their way along galleries of acacia in a landscape dominated by Tuareg herders who live at relative peace with these jumbos. Humans and elephants compete for water holes and some graze, but there seems to still be enough to go around.
The elephants cross a pass between buttes and enter a landscape that is less heavily used by humans, covered in scrub. But then there is another band of soils that are appropriate for marginal sorghum cultivation and, according to the points on the map, not a place where elephants hang out. It's amazing to me how elephants adapt to situations with humans. These big guys use the same water holes and same browse and graze, but they are not major crop raiders. In this particular situation, the elephants have probably tried this in the past and been punished. As they go south, along the Burkina Faso border, they enter a large band of wooded vegetation that is bordered to the north with human-dominated landscape. This is a more productive area for humans and would be for wildlife, but the elephants have been excluded.
You get to an area on the east side of the route, around the month of September when the dry season is starting to kick in, and there is a very thin pattern of points on the map. According to the data, it appears that the elephants streak across this area. When we flew over it, we could see the reason. The vegetation is sparse, and cattle and people dominate.
The farther north you travel on this long march, the more spotty the choice vegetation becomes. The ancient oxbows start to appear. This is where the elephants spend the hot months. Here, too, are villages and nomad camps and thousands of cattle. There is no other population of elephants in Africa that lives more exposed to the human species and yet in apparent harmony. The Gourma elephants have a lot to teach us.
December 20, 2004: Battle Fatigue
Flying in a small airplane four hours a day, day after day, week after week, month after month, only a few hundred feet off the ground, with turbulence, strange noises coming from the engine, government bureaucracy, and traveling in terra incognita
is somewhere between combat and long-distance truck driving. We are in month seven of this process now and the chief pilot, Peter Ragg, has told me tonight that we are done.
He has a genuine concern that the two aircraft are tired, and the Saharan dust has impregnated every empty space. The engines have been breathing dirty air for weeks. The instruments are breaking down one by one. OWCS is spitting oil from the cam rods and has lost its artificial horizon, manifold pressure gauge, and temperature sensors. The fuel strainer is leaking. There are two cylinders that are low on compression. We are eating a liter of oil about every three hours of flying. The engine is ready for overhaul. NYZS has no breaks, and the oil strainer is not functioning properly.
I've never been in serious combat day after day. But I was in Congo when the bullets and mortars, cannon, antiaircraft, rockets, and RPGs were whizzing by our heads and exploding, so I have felt some of the excitement of warfare. I have been out front in lots of anti-poaching missions where you run into camps not knowing how well armed the folks are and which way the guns are pointing, so I have felt jungle warfare. But flying in a single-engine airplane day after day, over some of the most inhospitable country on the planet works every day on your nerves, if you are the pilot in command.
The stress builds, it eats away at your mind until you start to become obsessed by the thumps of the pistons and you are so finely tuned that even the slightest change in the hum of your engine sends you into deep thought. The pilots on this voyage have reached this point. They are done. They need to know they are going home. I am expedition leader, and sending these guys into battle day after day has become almost impossible.
We are in the process of contingency planning now. Looks like we are going to streak across Mali, Mauritania, and Morocco and be on the Mediterranean in the next week, just shy of seven months out and several months and several countries short of my original objective.
December 23, 2004: The Atlantic Ocean Again — Watch Video
Imagine, if you can, the evening rush hour in Bamako, Mali. Tens of thousands of little motorcycles with two-stroke engines that have bad rings and thousands of way-out-of-date Mercedes and Renault 12 automobiles make their way, excruciatingly slowly, toward wherever they came from in the morning. At about the same time, maybe 200,000 charcoal fires are ignited. The result is that levels of just about every pollutant known to modern man settle in a haze that makes you eyes bleed and your brain go numb.
The haze had just lifted the next morning when we got to the airport. This was going to be a straight shot to Nouakchott, about five hours, and there was surely not going to be any dilly-dallying. Peter was cleared for take off, and we were allowed to taxi. The controller then wanted us to wait until Peter was ten miles out before he let us go. These guys haven't quite grasped the concept of visual flight rules.
The flight went from a heavily inhabited Sudanian savanna to desert. Once we crossed the border into Mauritania two things happened: The mosques in the towns got twice as big, and the nomad tents were now white and generally placed in dense vegetation. These were the Maurs. We were out of Touareg country.
The land in Mauritania seemed to be quite overgrazed, and it definitely wins the heavily contested prize of "most 4x4 tracks." There was virtually a road between every dune in the west of the country. Little chance that there is any wildlife.
As soon as we landed in Nouakchott, the cool sea breeze hit me. It's amazing how you can feel a coastal town, no matter how congested and overbuilt. It was good to be back on the Atlantic Ocean again. Several British guys were running around the tarmac here like they owned the place. They asked about our planes, problems, needs. They operate two Bell helicopters here. Where there are non-Russian helicopters, that means oil. An Australian company found some offshore deposits here, and production is supposed to start shortly. Funny how immediately the Brits and the Americans try to help people. Refreshing after the French folks we have been meeting who help but they empty your pocket of cash at the same time.
It took about an hour to get our passports stamped because we had the misfortune to have Air France come in after we did, and it took a long time to fuel up and get our paperwork in order. One thing that is immediately striking in this country is that just about everyone you see in a position of any authority is tan skinned, part of the ruling Maur population.
The guy from Asecna, Hamid, who is a Maur, brought us into town, and he brought me to the beach later. Hamid asked me if I wanted to go to the traditional fish market. I was thinking it would be like in Libreville where you buy frozen fish from all over the world along with every other flash frozen product for sale on this planet. We arrived and there was a substantial market building and already from a distance I could see lots of fresh fish over a meter long.
The variety of fish for sale was enormous: bar, drum, rouget, mullet, tuna, jacks, dorado, sea trout, snapper, and many other that I couldn't even guess at. Their size is what struck me. This wasn't the typical piles of juvenile fish that you see in many places around Africa. These were nice mature fish of all species. For years I have heard that the Mauritanian fishery is dead, but it appears that at least a remnant of the bounty is still there. I asked about foreign vessels, and my friend said that it was mostly European boats that operate in Mauritanian water, Spanish in particular from the Canary Islands.
We took a stroll on the beach along the line of boats on the beachhead. There were hundreds of them lined up, all intricately painted with bright colors with inscriptions from the Koran and names of various holy men. This is where we saw all the fringe species for sale. One guy had about five moray eels. It looked like each one had a spear hole through its neck. On one pile there were a couple hundred baby manta rays, in another very large squid and huge red conches with yellow spots.
We watched the boats come in through the surf. I can imagine that this is dangerous business on a rough day. The crews jumped out into the waves and positioned the boat in the shallows. Immediately they were surrounded by guys with crates to haul away the fish. Hamid said that the tradition was that if a fish fell to the ground then it was to be recuperated by kids and there were a few of these waiting for the stray fish. None fell on this load, which looked to be some kind of small mackerel type fish, weighing about a pound a piece.
I asked why all of the fishermen had "la peau noire,
" black skin. He laughed, saying that it was the Senegalese who did the fishing in Mauritania, not Mauritanians. I saw a few small sharks, skates, and a puffer fish in the piles. It seems like everything is fair game here, and there is no size limit. My guide knew about Banc d'Arguin National Park, and there are signs right in Nouakchott so it must extend right down into town. He knew that you were only able to fish with traditional means, and there were no Senegalese with their motors allowed. My guide was rushed, so we bid the fish and fishermen farewell.
We spent about an hour walking around and then went back to the hotel. I went walking afterward just in the neighborhood and couldn't believe the number of Mercedes cars here. There is money in Mauritania, but there is also poverty. A group of veiled ladies came up to me begging. They all looked like they may have been divorced and out on the streets begging. Here is one of those cases you are obliged to give. Many of the women here are very beautiful. The cool sea air keeps the whole town clean and air conditioned into the night.
Tomorrow we will be overflying the Spanish Sahara all day.
December 24, 2004: Worlds Apart
Just after start up, an enormous Illyushin XX passed over the field. This monster must have at least 40 tires on it. This guy landed and was reminded three times by the controller that he should proceed with low power because of jet blast. He obviously had a reputation here at the airport. Soon after we were airborne, our plane started to shudder. Seems the turbulence was caused by the Illyushin. This was my first experience of feeling how a machine of that dimension can change the wind for minutes after it has passed.
As we crossed into Western Sahara, now officially claimed as part of Morocco, we hit our first great wall. During the war between Morocco and Algeria for what was Spanish Sahara until the Spaniards gave it up in around 1975, the Moroccans had one of those crazy ideas. They would build dirt fortifications around the whole of the Spanish Sahara.
Flying over the first wall, I couldn't even imagine how a country the size of Morocco could accomplish such a feat. The wall was probably three meters (ten feet) high and several meters wide build from dirt pushed up into a linear mound as far as the eye could see. Along it maybe every one or two kilometers there is a fortified military encampment that covered several hectares with buildings and what looked like considerable infrastructure. The ones we passed over right on the border looked to be still manned. We didn't fly close enough to find out. I could easily imagine these guys shooting a rocket at us.
Over the next few hours we passed at least five more layers of walls, less and less maintained but nonetheless they were built. This may have been one of the greatest civil engineering task of its time, as military operations often are. I'd like to look into the financing of these walls.
The other thing that is truly shocking in this desert is the concentration of 4x4 tracks everywhere. I would think that there are only a few kilometer stretches between Nouakchott and Laayoune, in northern Western Sahara, that did not have tracks. In many places they were so dense that it looked like years of the Paris-Dakar Rally had sped by here with thousands of support vehicles. There was a total lack of wildlife. We traversed Dakhla National Park, and it seemed that the 4x4 tracks hardly diminished. There was no sign of wildlife except some very old terraces on some of the hills in this forgotten park. I guess when there are thousands of military running around armed and able with no real restrictions, how can you possibly think that wildlife could survive?
What is amazing is how pervasive it is all over the Sahara. That is why Chad is so incredibly important. We can do something there, and the base is still enough to make it worthwhile. I understand why people in the U.S. finally got up in arms about people driving around indiscriminately in the desert. It's devastating to the ecosystem.
As we approached Laayoune, I sensed something was very different. This was a Saharan town, no doubt, but the buildings were all painted the same color, a mix of tan with a hint of pink and white. It looked very clean and developed. We landed and were greeted by various branches of the government. We met some real policemen in well-adorned blue suits with white rope bandoleers and crisp, blue folding caps. All were Arabs and all greeted us very warmly with firm handshakes and genuine smiles. It was as if they were truly happy that we had come to visit their fine place.
We talked about where we had come from. I asked about the four Antonov 24s and 26s on the ground there. They were painted bright white and had the big black U.N. painted on the tail. The cop said they were involved in the Western Sahara conflict. I thought to myself, That's another U.N. scam, 25 years or more into this conflict and the U.N. still has probably tens of aircraft based in Morocco. I would love to see the budgets of all the various U.N. peacekeeping missions around the world. It must be mind-boggling.
This is a developed country, a place where people expect water, electricity, roads, and communications. They expect abundant food and, from the number of cafés, it looked like they had plenty of leisure time. Nearly all the faces were Arab. The women had head coverings but not overdone, and most men wore Western clothing underneath a burnoose, as it was a little chilly here now.
In the evening I happened upon the souk. The streets were packed with people selling everything from live chickens to television sets. The lights were bright and people were there by the thousands just wandering around buying a little here and there. There were butcher shops, boulangerie,
fruit stands, date stands, olive stands, vegetable stands, fresh chickens, live chickens, carts of oranges and tangerines. This was the North Africa that I had lived in decades ago, still vibrant.
I went to a street stand where they sell kebabs of beef liver, fat, and onion served in a beautiful Arab hobsa,
flatbread. They asked me where I was from. I said loud and clear America, and they didn't seem at all fazed. I could have said Germany, Spain, or any other nationality, and they would have reacted the same. I ate my sandwich that cost me six dirhams, around 75 cents. It was delicious. I went on my merry way, walking the streets of this souk for hours. I thought to myself about the GIs in Iraq and what a weird thing that is. These are basically the same people, living lives that follow their personal aspirations. There was no strife or negativity on the streets. I only hope that Iraq finds democracy quickly and we can get to a peaceful relationship with Arabs because they are among the most generous, gracious people on the planet.
North Africa is a different world from the one we left this morning. I'm sad this trip is over. I'm glad I am still alive.
December 25, 2004: Casablanca
The ocean looked cold below, lacking that turquoise blue of the Indian Ocean. I didn't see any fishing boats. Agriculture was sparse here, there were almost no villages. The further north we got, the more vegetation there was, and a range of hills appeared on the horizon. Once we reached these hills, there were some creeks that flowed into the ocean here. There were groves of olive trees here and there along water courses. There were also caravans of European tourists.
Eventually we got to Tan-Tan. This is right at the edge of the desert but it has a flowing river, which makes all the difference. All it takes is a small permanent flow to signal to humans that it is possible to sustain life. There were some trawlers in the port at Tan-Tan, maybe 30 of them. In a place like this I would have expected a hundred. Life was picking up with the vegetation. With every nautical mile that we went north, the earth received a bit more water, which led to a bit more vegetation and a bit more humanity.
Soon the agriculture was spanning out far from the water sources because there was more of it to spread around. The mountains were higher and you could see the water courses of the Atlas Mountains making their way to the sea. The land was rocky and every farm had high stone walls that delimited every field. The earth looked like it had been farmed and labored over for generations.
We decided to land in Agadir because our auxiliary pump was out, and we were going to need fuel to reach Casablanca. This is the first big city of the south. There were snowcapped peaks in the distance, and rivers flowed into this dry valley. The visibility was exceptional and from about 40 miles (60 kilometers) out I could see an extensive silvery glint on the horizon. As we got closer I could see that it was the greatest concentration of plastic hothouses that I have ever witnessed. They covered maybe even thousands of hectares. Flying over gave me the chills. From bottled water to every tomato eaten on Earth being produced under plastic is a scary world to be living in. This valley around Agadir obviously produces tens of millions of dollars in veggies for Europe every year. There are big bucks here. Saying water is limited or that fertilizers and other petrochemicals are not sustainable means nothing to these guys, no doubt about that.
A cop escorted me through the airport to buy some cheese sandwiches. This place was gigantic, full of marble and other rock slabs, busy cafés and the shops you find in European aerodromes. The cop told me that there were fourteen charters from Europe to Agadir just on Tuesday. Scandinavians, French, Germans, Spanish, you name it they come in great numbers here for the climate.
Soon we were in the air again, Casablanca bound. The snowy caps lured my thoughts to the mountains. I wondered what kind of wildlife was up there. Barbary sheep, maybe? My desire to strike off on foot in the hundreds of places we have seen on this trip increases by the day. I am making plans that I shouldn't be making. There is too much work to be done, but also too much of the world to see before I can't walk anymore.
The farther we traveled north, the more watered the land became. Soon wheat covered enormous rich plains to infinity. We were seeing mechanized farming. This is industrial cultivation, but the villages still look like they're from a different century, although satellite dishes and refrigerators are a modern touch. People still buy vegetables on the streets from stands and meat from butchers who display the entire animal on a hook outside. The cafés serve only in glass and metal, not in paper and plastic. The pace is slow but fast enough for prosperity and a good life. To my mind, this is where America should have stopped. This is where the quality of life in balance with natural resources reached its peak for humankind.
We were south of Casablanca, and we could hear tension in the airwaves. The plane in front of us was reporting light to moderate turbulence but no visibility. The controller was landing people cautiously and telling pilots to be aware that the runway was very wet. There was at least a 15 knot crosswind with gusts of much more. We were right over the city. This is an enormous place, with miles and miles of buildings.
Lucky our hotel in the metropolis has verandas. I will sleep outside again.
Africa was now just a distant memory. Our time machines have taken us to a different planet, and I miss mother Africa terribly.