20 Apr 92 - Timbuktu, Mali


Sand is everywhere. Not the normal type, it’s not the kind you can get wet and use to build a castle; it’s more like dust. My watch is already destroyed. It gets in your ears and your nose and your hair, and it stays there.

On the other side of the wall, I can hear Songhai Devil Worshipers chanting and banging on floating gourds. We are surrounded by Mosques. There are no tourists. The Tuareg recently attacked the town. The children thought it was another Rambo film and sat on a wall to watch; one was killed.

I am staying with a Baptist pilot. Mechanics are few and far between. I’ve found one here, but he’s from the "old school" that likes to be thorough. I’m not so sure I like that, but without an annual inspections there is no insurance, so we begin. There’s no hangar. Sand flows everywhere. He makes me open every single panel, and I watch sand fill my airplane. For 3 days, we’ve been doing this. We start at 5 AM and work until noon, by then we’ve drunk a gallon of water, and it’s too hot to think.

Everyone else checked the timing by looking at the mark on a timing wheel. Not this guy, he opened up the engine to see the cylinder, put a protractor on the nose cone and found my timing has been off my 10 degrees since before I left home. I don’t know how I should feel about this. Pre-detonation is serious, but there has been so much water and wide empty places; I guess I just don’t think about it. We fixed it; I learned something, and I will never question thorough "old school" mechanics again.

I’ve lost a lot of weight. Probably because I’ve been living on bread, Fanta and malaria pills - a lot of Fanta, the orange kind. I must spend fifty dollars a week just on Fanta. There are odd meals in between, but I am amazed at how healthy I feel. The reason for this is, of course, the budget - canned food is a fortune - but also the risk of catching something that might stay with me for a while.

In Niger, Thanks to some very good people at home, I made the deadline for a Rolex grant by about two days. The idea was planted in my head by Lord Hunt in England and was coordinated from a crackling phone line in Agadez. It is a real long shot for me, but would certainly buy a lot of airplane gas. I was also hired by USAID / Peace Corps to do a wildlife survey of Park "W" in southwest Niger. I was paid $8,000 for this. They had been quoted $30,000 by a guy in Senegal. I think we were both happy to find each other.

The day I was supposed to begin the survey, there was a military mutiny in Niamey. Bullets whizzed through the air most of the day. The Prime Minister was held hostage, and the soldier on the radio was drunk. The Army hadn’t been paid in three months, and they had decided to do something about it. It reminded me of math class in fifth grade. When the teacher left, the desks slammed, erasures flew across the room, we screamed. It was chaos. It felt good, and we wanted attention. This was an opportunity to destroy, to steal, to maybe kill, and I was hoping it wouldn’t spread to the airport. The next day, the government agreed to pay the army, so all the civil servants went on strike. They hadn’t been paid either, but they also didn’t have any guns.

I left for Park "W," following the Niger river south. The dust in the air was so think I could only see straight down. The river bent into a gigantic "W" and the half million acres of the park began. I was struck right away by the contrast. On one side of the river was lush green, and on the other - people, cattle, huts and dry parched wasted earth. My GPS stopped working, so I was back on my trusty little stopwatch and, with time, arrived over the ranger station at Tapoa Gorge. This was home for he next two weeks.

We had found 10 cooking oil drums in Niamey. They were filled with rust and fuel, and I was surprised they had arrived. The dust in the air is called "the harmattin" and it is basically the Sahara being blown down across the Sahel. It was hot. Vultures and other large birds were busy looking at the ground; I was busy looking for them. Ramadan had begun. My fasting Muslim observers spent most of their time regurgitating into plastic bags. One of them had been in an airplane before - "a big one." We did three complete surveys of the park, back and forth at 3 kilometer intervals, staring and counting from 300 feet between orange streamers on the struts at he ground. We saw herders, goats, sheep, cattle and canoes. The game had all been driven into the center of the park. It all became very obvious to me. This desertification not only pushes sand, but also people. A wave flowing south into the Sahel. Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries. Park "W" has perhaps 1,500 visitors on a good year, and all the income goes to the government. The land is being destroyed by over-grazing; they need to eat. Park invasion is out of control. Who is going to stop them; it is not a priority.

We passed over a herd of 120 elephants - even airsick Muslims smiled. Then in Benin, just across the Mekrou river, we discovered a poacher’s camp. The next day it was raided: the most pernicious cache of weapons - poison tipped arrows, home made rifles, bamboo spike traps, steel snares and taught cabled branches to string them - no one expected to find the poachers. This is the land of "gris-gris" (black magic), a more powerful force than you would believe; "the poachers were invisible." There were drying racks for meat to carry back to Nigeria or Benin and a freshly snared Forest Buffalo whose hind leg had been cut to the bone. The meat was brought back to Tapoa. There was a feast after sunset.

Maybe it doesn’t matter; I couldn’t help, but think that conservation is a luxury of a wealthy society - especially of wildlife. But, as I drifted back and forth through the dust, it occurred to me that this park may just be a test case. If this park can survive, we might learn that desertification as it is called, is not just climatic change, but that our hand is in it as well.

Six elephants wandered into Tapoa to graze in the school yard. They were indifferent. I watched the bright curious eyes of the children as they sat and stared and whispered amongst themselves for nearly an hour. They were fascinated and in awe, but for the first time I thought I sensed a strange compassion or even love for these gentle giants. As the sun faded into the dust, the elephants moved quietly away. One lingered behind the others and would pause with his right hind foot folded behind the other like the Planters Peanut Man. Then I noticed the foot was missing; it had been removed by a snare.

Back in Niamey, I was in trouble for working without a permit. But in Africa, it is a whole lot easier to get pardoned than it is to get permission. I was dropped off by a fire truck at the control tower and watched Yasser Arafat walk on his red carpet out to his Air Algeria jet. A week later, I heard he had crashed in a sandstorm up north. The director of Civil Aviation was now my friend, but the man who collects the landing fees was not. He handed me a bill for $320. His friend was carefully looking over his shoulder. The carbon paper had missed all the numbers. The problem is that going from country to country the rules change, and you’re never quite sure who or what to believe. We discussed the fees, and I explained that my budget didn’t include fees like that. The friend disappeared then returned with a new bill; it was for half. We discussed it more and found an old list of fees. I couldn’t tell if they were angry or sad, but when I left the office, the bill was for $3.

I find it incredibly hard to do anything in this heat. In Ougadougou, it was 52 degrees C in the cabin as I waited to take-off. You don’t sweat; you evaporate. In Mopti, Mali, I waited ten days for gas; it could have just as easily been a month. The firemen at Mopti let me camp in their fire station. There is no humidity. A water-soaked T-shirt draped over your head is dry in 20 to 30 minutes. There is no wind. The Songhai are beating their drums again. If you walk out of town, you are standing in sand. Even the river has moved away from this place. It is being buried in sand. I am eating Danish canned chicken salted with sand. On the outside of the tin is stamped "gift from Denmark - not for resale." I think I paid $3 for it. My French is getting better.

       Tom Claytor