10-Oct-2002 -- I recently took a week's trip to the oasis of Bilma, situated in the middle of the Ténéré desert in north-eastern Niger. I flew up from Niamey via Maradi with a group of people in a Piper PA-31T Cheyenne twin turboprop and managed to log about 5 hours of cruise, climb, and descent time from the right seat. We landed at Dirkou, some 30 kilometres north of Bilma. The strip there is paved and situated some distance from the town in the barren desert. From there we continued on to Bilma after securing the plane, in a Libyan-registered Land Cruiser pickup of doubtful vintage, arriving about an hour after dark after a harrowing trip of blowing wind and dust, the ancient Cruiser lurching from side to side in the sand and tipping crazily over hummocks.
The Bilma oasis is some 150 kilometres in length from north to south and only about 2 to 3 kilometres wide. Water is abundant, and in Bilma often flows out of the ground unprovoked. It is an amazing sight to behold this far up into the Sahara (600 kilometres from any other significant population). We had an interesting week in Bilma, visiting the town where most construction is from salt slabs, the salt mines to the west of the town, a monument to a French soldier who was killed there in 1909, several of the springs and resulting gardens, and the site of a near-disastrous tube well project of 1982 which tapped into an artesian source of great pressure, blowing the pipes out of the well and nearly flooding the village. It was three years before the source was controlled by dynamiting the original hole, but still today there is a continuous flow of what we estimated to be about 30 litres per second into a clear pool, from whence the flow is channelled into gardens and finally into a very nice lake with date palms all around. Quite a spot. To the west of the oasis there is nothing but sand and dunes. To the east rises a line of cliffs and buttes of around 100 metres in height.
At the end of the week we travelled back to Dirkou to spend the night before taking off the next morning. With a little spare time on my hands I decided to attempt a Confluence, 19N 13E, located some 11 kilometres due east of where we were staying in Dirkou. Since temperatures were around 40°C I decided not to attempt it by walking such a distance in the sand, and looked around for some transportation. I found a mechanic named Seydou with probably the oldest Land Cruiser pickup I had yet seen, again registered in Libya as are the majority of the vehicles in the oasis. Seydou promised me he could get it over the cliffs to the east by climbing one of the "sand glaciers" flowing down from the top. Our pilot, Jim Rendel, decided to accompany me and we climbed into the front seat of the pickup, which was slanted crazily due to who knows what kind of enormous wallop the vehicle had taken at some point. When the driver started the engine by grounding a wire from under the panel onto the emergency brake handle I knew we were in for an interesting experience.
We headed east toward the cliffs, which the driver said were 7 kilometres from the town. I figured if we got that far I could easily make the four kilometres on to the point. The old Cruiser purred along until we got pretty close to the base of the cliffs, at which point it bogged down in the sand and nearly stalled. Seydou got out and began to let air out of the tires. Jim and I were reckoning we would have to spend the rest of the afternoon digging the Cruiser out. But with Seydou's sidekick pushing we began to move slowly and made it to the base of the sand glacier. At this point there was steam coming from the front of the car. Upon opening the engine compartment we saw that water was flowing copiously from the neck of the radiator, which was minus the coolant recovery bottle, and we knew immediately there was no way the old thing was going to climb the cliffs.
The GPS now read 7.3 kilometres from the Confluence, and it was about 4:30 in the afternoon, which meant we had less than an hour and a half of daylight left. Since Dirkou has a military base there is a dusk-to-dawn curfew on entering the town in a vehicle. In my mind I resigned myself to this being another attempt, but resolved to get as close as possible. So Jim and I put on our sun gear. He wore a floppy hat and I a Tuareg turban, and we started up the long slope of sand, finding it was surprisingly hard. I wished very strongly for my Suzuki Jimny, which would have motored right up the slope with no trouble, but there was no use dreaming. Upon reaching the top of the slope I was still unable to see where the Confluence might be, so I hiked on up over several hummocks until I could see the lay of the land. In contrast to the sand "beaches" to the west, this was a plateau-like area of small hummocks as far as I could see. I set the GPS on a rock and photographed it reading 6.3 kilometres to the point, and reluctantly turned back.
Already after only two kilometres of walking my throat was pretty dry. At 40 degrees and less than 20% humidity it doesn't take long to get dehydrated. The old Cruiser started up willingly and we headed back west towards town. About halfway there it began to stumble and miss but Seydou revved it up a few times and it seemed to clear up, and we made it back with no further problems. Maybe someday I can drive up there. I would like to experience the 2-to-4-day trip from Agadez to Dirkou (600 km) across the Ténéré desert in a convoy. So stay tuned, maybe I will eventually bag 19N 13E.