How a trip through the Sahara reflects Niger’s fragile state

A National Geographic writer and photographer traveled hundreds of miles through the desert, tracing the dangerous route migrants and others follow to Libya.

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A convoy with about a hundred vehicles escorted by the Nigerien military travels through the Sahara to Sabha, a city in Libya. Many of the travelers are Nigeriens seeking work in Libya, but others are migrants hoping to leave Africa.

The Sahara is a mythic landscape that had long affixed itself to my imagination. While reporting on the precariousness of Niger for National Geographic (see “Surrounded by chaos, Niger is a nation on the edge”), photographer Pascal Maitre and I spent a week traveling through the desert. Our sojourn was not a gratuitous one. In a metaphorical sense, the desert represents for Niger the end of order. In more practical terms, it is also the country’s link to its increasingly unstable neighbors: Libya and Algeria to the north, Mali to the west, and Chad to the east. In other words, one cannot hope to understand the plight of Niger without recognizing the role of the Sahara.

The easy mistake is to view the Sahara as a buffer—as emptiness incarnate, a veritable no-man’s-land. After all, the 800 or so miles between Agadez and the Libyan border are as beautiful, cruel, and mighty as any ocean. Maitre and I were accompanied by one of the Sahara’s most storied guides, Mohammed Ixa, as well as a skilled auto mechanic and an experienced driver. For them, the odd dune or geographic anomaly served as street signs. There’s nothing else. An entire day can pass without revealing any sign of life. But on the same day, sad little tombs are visible arising from the flatness, crowned with half-shredded tires: Here lie the luckless.

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The weekly convoy to Libya assembles just beyond army and police checkpoints outside Agadez, the largest city in central Niger. As many as 25 passengers cram into the back of the Hilux pickups that are the main transportation for the three-day trip.

Though there are no roads across this legendary emptiness, two parallel corridors are understood to exist and, to experienced eyes, are discernible.

One is the sanctioned path. Each week, the Nigerien military protects a convoy that travels from Agadez to the Libyan border and back again. This procession consists of trucks carrying freight and Hilux pickup trucks ferrying about two dozen passengers each—some of them short-time laborers from Niger, some from other West African countries seeking a way out of the continent for good. That this route is theoretically secured does not mean that passage is guaranteed. If, as happens, you fall out of your truck during this three-day trek, the convoy does not stop. If you take ill, there are no medics. If you run out of food, you have no food. But at least along the route you are protected from Islamist militants.

The other unmarked path is for a different kind of voyager: those whose business—drugs, guns, banditry—is such that they prefer to go unseen by the military. Because we intended to take both routes, we also brought along about 10 well-armed members of the Niger military.

The two routes converge at the Puits Espoir, or “Well of Hope.” It is, fittingly, a dry well, with perhaps a half dozen abandoned cars buried all around. We arrived to find the Libya-to-Agadez convoy of a hundred or so pickups gathered there, looking like a misplaced used-car dealership. The drivers were in a state of repose. They smoked hookahs or napped. One of them waved, then pointed to a four-door sedan about a hundred yards away.

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In the morning after a night of travel through the desert, the passengers are covered with dust.

“That’s mine,” he said, laughing ruefully. “It broke down a year and a half ago. I’m trying to earn the money to get it fixed and drive it back to Agadez before the military confiscates it.”

An hour later, the men climbed back into their pickups and the convoy lurched off. We headed in the opposite direction, northward toward Libya. Before long, we noticed another vehicle half-immersed in sand. A door flew open. A man wrestled his way out of the car. He was carrying a knapsack, with a water jug strung around his shoulder. Approaching us, he staggered to his knees. In a weak voice, the man explained that his car had broken down and his fellow traveler had abandoned him. He had presented himself to the convoy—but the drivers, no doubt figuring him for a desert bandit, kept going. The Nigerien soldiers we had hired as our security escort took down his name and address for verification purposes. Then they hoisted him onto the back of one of their two trucks, and we continued northward.

The next day, as we proceeded through the emptiness, we spied another lone figure. It was a sheep. Presumably it had fallen out of someone’s truck. After a spirited chase, the half-crazed animal was wrestled to the ground. It too was loaded onto the back of a military vehicle. As we drove, the young Nigerien soldiers descended into fretful conversation. Though hungry for mutton, they wondered aloud: Was the sheep possessed of evil spirits? Would it transform itself into a human? By the end of the day, the sheep was drinking water from army canteens and eating the desert grass that the soldiers had gathered for it.

In the desert on the outskirts of the village of Dirkou, we encountered a barbed-wire fence and a large shed with no accompanying signage. This was the housing for a surveillance drone that searches for Islamist terrorists. In town, we proceeded to a gated compound where gas is sold. Dirkou’s mayor owns the compound (and the gas station), and he greeted us and our money merrily. Inside was a miniature zoo that included an ostrich, peacocks, gazelles, and a few ducks whose presence in the Sahara remains a mystery.

We journeyed as far north as Séguédine, an oasis town used by traffickers as a staging area for undocumented migrants to begin the next leg of their journey. In the manner of a Western film, the streets were wide and empty, and the locals stared suspiciously as our mini-convoy passed through.

When we headed south, we took the unpoliced way. A few hours from Séguédine, one of our vehicles broke down. Fortunately for us, a couple of miles away sat a raggedy market village that had been semi-abandoned, with all of its goods—dates, bags of couscous, beignets—three years old. Among the items kept by a vendor were a few auto parts, including a replacement for our broken fuel pump. A 16-year-old villager named Abdulley knew exactly how to install it. We paid him handsomely and continued toward Agadez.

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After the truck carrying them broke down, these passengers were forced to walk through the hot, dusty desert to the next village, a trek that took them six or seven hours.

Driving through much of the night to avoid camping near the dunes where bandits tended to lurk, sleeping through a hard sandstorm, and then pushing onward, we stopped only when necessary, trying to avoid being stuck in the sand. The landscape revealed little beyond the forlorn migrant tombs. I was reminded of something that an Agadez migrant trafficker known locally as the Boss had said to me about these trans-Saharan voyages: “There are no precautions. There is only luck.”

All at once, on a rare desert meadow, a community took shape: a hundred donkeys, twice as many camels, and two nomadic herders in flowing robes with long bronze-handled swords hanging from their belts. Ixa, our guide—himself a Tuareg mainstay of the Sahara for all of his 64 years, with a client list that includes prominent French scholars and the actress Debra Winger—told us that the herders had likely traveled on camelback for three months to arrive at this very spot. Niger was getting hotter, grass scarcer.

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Some migrants don’t survive the dangerous trip across the desert, and tombs like this one, marked by jagged stones and an empty water jug, are found all along the way.

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Nigerien soldiers check the bags of a man who was stranded when his car broke down. Drivers in the passing convoy refused to stop for him. After making sure he wasn’t armed, the soldiers loaded him onto the back of one of their trucks and gave him a lift.

When I commented that the herd was the first sign of life we had seen in 22 hours, Ixa smirked. “Ten or 15 years ago,” he said, “you would not see anyone out here for months.”

The Tuareg guide’s point was not merely one of relativity. Rather, he was observing that a new generation of restless West Africans had availed themselves of the Sahara. The desert was not Niger’s buffer against what its U.S. ambassador, Eric Whitaker, referred to as a “rough neighborhood.” It was a superhighway—one without society’s guardrails.

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Stuck in the desert after their truck broke down, these migrants burn a tire to keep warm.

Robert Draper has reported from a dozen African countries as a contributing writer. Pascal Maitre, a frequent contributor to National Geographic, has visited Niger 15 times on assignment.