From Houston to Sydney 2013

West Africa



Okay, I confess that the way I woke my son, Andrew, this morning may have been a little on the alarmist side.  Picture the pre-dawn darkness at 5:50 am.  I have showered and dressed, so I say to Andrew (but not really in a hushed voice): “Andrew, do you want us both to be killed?  If you don’t get up and have a shower our car might get hijacked today”.

Any parent with a 22 year old son might be able to identify with the challenge of getting their offspring out of bed for early morning travels (and our starts do seem to be getting earlier and earlier), so they are welcome to try the line above if they think their children might actually prefer not to be carjacked.

The reason for the early start – breakfast at 6:15 am and departure at 7:00 am – was that our journey today was to be a long one; from the capital of Burkina Faso (Ouagadougou) to the capital of Niger (Niamey).  The distance was 512 kilometres and the estimated time for driving (excluding stops for lunch and the border crossing) was 6 hours and 50 minutes.

There was some pressure on time for two reasons.  First, we would ‘lose’ an hour by advancing our watches an hour when we crossed the border.  Second, there are travel warnings published for Niger that highlight the risk of hijacking cars and holding the passengers for ransom under threat of being executed.  Although these travel warnings apply outside Niamey, especially in the northern areas of the country (Niamey is in the extreme south), driving after dark in rural areas raises the danger level, and we were therefore all keen to reach Niamey before sunset… which is why I had to get my son out of bed at such an early hour.

My urging to get Andrew showered and dressed proved to be reluctantly successful, but ultimately futile, the reason being that we arrived at the hotel’s dining room for breakfast at the time they opened (6:15 am), only to find the room in darkness.  We were ushered inside nonetheless, but it was well after 6:30 before everything on the buffet was available.  Consequently, our planned departure at 7:00 am was delayed until 7:15 am.

During most of the morning’s drive, we were heading into the sun, emphasising the smoky, dusty haze, and making our viewing of the countryside somewhat monochromatic.  To be fair, our vehicle has been adding to the haze, blowing huge clouds of blue smoke ever since we were in Djenné.  It reminds me of the child’s drawing of a car showing billowing smoke emerging from the exhaust pipe at the rear.

A feature of Burkina Faso’s highways is the use of speed humps, known locally as ‘sleeping policemen’ to slow the traffic; they would probably be more effective if they could be seen more easily upon approach.  Another feature of driving in Burkina Faso is the large number of toll booths where drivers have to get out of their cars to walk over to a shelter to pay a road toll (typically 500CFA, about $1), and the large number of police check points where papers are checked.  In the case of both the toll booths and the police check points, cars and trucks are surrounded as soon as they stop by food and drink sellers, and sometimes the throng is so thick that resuming driving can be difficult.

One of the hazards of highway driving in Burkina Faso is the livestock on the road – goats, chickens, donkeys, cattle, sheep.  Most of the animals behave predictably, but the donkeys can be stubborn and the sheep seem to be simply stupid.

Towards the east of Burkina Faso we encountered several large herds of longhorn cattle being driven across the roadways.  These made an impressive sight as they headed off into the countryside, churning up clouds of dust as they did so. 

The scorched dry landscape of the Sahel was a great example of a classic geographical landscape.   When I started learning geography in grade 8, the organizing framework for the subject was ‘landscapes’ – equatorial rainforests, deserts, savannas, mountains, the tundra, and so on.  Today’s drive made me think (yet again) that the landscape approach to learning geography is a far better organizing framework than the environmental and socio-political issues approach that is used so commonly today.  After all, the environmental and socio-political issues arise from the processes operating in a landscape (together with its management, of course), so not to have a sound grasp of the general principles and processes means that one’s understanding of the environmental and socio-political issues must be descriptive in nature and superficial in depth.  The gap between the systematic study of landscapes and what happens in most school classrooms today is even wider in US schools, where a very traditional gazetteer approach dominates, emphasising rote memorization rather than conceptual understandings, and overemphasizing US place geography to the detriment of global and international understandings.  To be frank, I’m not sure that I would have continued studying geography had I not started by learning the subject with a clear process-oriented organizational framework such as the one I had.  I doubt that ‘issues geography’ would have hooked me into the subject, and I doubt it would have helped me to understand and enjoy the terrain that we crossed today.  Okay, rant over.

Our border crossing was quite relaxed and painless, though time consuming.  We reached the exit point for Burkina Faso (which is about 20 kilometres before the border) at 12:45 pm, and we were away by 1:00 pm.  The actual border between Burkina Faso and Niger lies well away from any towns, and it was almost a further 20 kilometres before we reached the point where the Nigerien immigration formalities were completed.  We were away by 3:00 pm (which was 2:00 pm Burkinabè time), with most of the time being spent sorting through the papers to bring our vehicle into Niger.

As soon as we crossed the border, it was immediately apparent that Niger was a different country from Burkina Faso.  I was amazed how much more arid Niger was; there was no transition zone – it just changed from scrubby semi-desert to true desert with sparse vegetation as soon as the border had been crossed.

The reason is that Niger’s population have been degrading its physical environment for many years.  Overstocking and overgrazing of livestock on the country’s very marginal and drought-prone land has resulted in serious soil erosion, gullying, deforestation and desertification, and we saw it all on our drive from the border into Niamey this afternoon.  We passed through many small villages, each one being surrounded by extensive fields of rubbish containing thousands of discarded plastic bags.

Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries, and it shows.  Its GNI (Gross National Income) per capita is only about US$370, just over half that of Mali and Burkina Faso.  On the other hand, its HDI (Human Development Index) is well above Mali and Burkina Faso, although I suspect this is largely the result of foreign aid.  As we drove from the border into Niamey, there were countless signs beside the road describing construction projects, water management projects, environmental improvement programs, education programs, and so on, all funded by foreign governments or development agencies.  It is probably inevitable that a culture of dependency must be deeply ingrained as a result of this approach, but given the extreme poverty of the nation, it is difficult to see any alternative way to improve the lives of the people in the short-term.  It is a real conundrum.

We arrived at our hotel, the Grand Hotel, at a little after 5:00 pm.  The security measures at the gate took a while to clear – the underneath of the car was checked with a mirror by black uniformed security guards, the glove-box and interior containers had to be searched, and the driveway had been converted into a low speed zig-zag course by a sequence of chicanes.

The hotel is probably the best that Andrew and I have stayed in so far on this trip.  The bungalow room that we have is spacious, and features a bathroom with a bidet and hot water (with soap and shampoo), a small refrigerator, a TV that works, a desk and chair, a table with two chairs, an air conditioner, and very importantly for Andrew and me (being power users of computers and cameras with batteries that need recharging), it has four working power points!  On the downside, its internet is so slow that I have not been able to load this page today.

The hotel overlooks the Niger River from an elevated riverbank, and good use is made of this location by having an outside terrace that looks across the river, providing wonderful views of the sunset in the cool evening breeze over a drink or two.  Andrew and I stayed there for three hours, starting with some tonics (strictly for the quinine!), followed by some grilled kebabs, and then a tasty dinner of pepper steak accompanied by first rate French bread.  As the sun set, the sky turned a bright orange (thank you dust, and thank you smoke), and hundreds of bats came out to fly overhead - simply magical.

There are few better ways to end a long day’s driving – at least in Niger.


14 January 2014

Day 18 - Ouagadougou to Niamey, Niger