Last week we reflected on travel as an escape from our everyday lives. But travel can turn escape into exploration, and even education, as we learn more about the world than our textbooks and newspapers will accommodate.
Over 200 years ago, Mungo Park, a Scottish explorer, set foot in Niger and introduced the largely unexplored region to people in the West, inspiring future European explorers to make their way towards Africa. However, even today, Niger remains largely unexplored compared to other parts of the continent, and seldom features on travel wishlists. So this week, we decided to virtually visit Niger.
As it turns out, Niger is all about embracing the unexpected: from animal rock art and unique architecture to colorful traditional clothing, indigenous patterns, diverse cultural traditions, endangered species, and even miracle berries.
Join us as we un-stereotype this land-locked West African country that is often referred to as the “Frying Pan of the World”.
36 Hours in Niger
9.00 AM: Morning Prayers
Agadez Grande Mosque in Niger is the tallest mud-brick structure in the world. It is a gateway to the Sahara desert and goes back to the 15th century during the time of the Sultanate of Aïr.
The Mosque is an important center of caravan trade and remains an important historic site. The 27m high minaret made of mud-brick is a great example of earthen architecture.
Why is it made of mud?
In the Sahara desert, building materials such as wood, cement, stone, and fuel are scarcely available. Therefore, mud, straw, and pebbles are mixed and dried in the sun to create banco (a kind of adobe) which is fairly strong but requires frequent maintenance as wind and rain can wear it down.
Interestingly, the tower of the mosque contains scaffolding- wooden beams sticking out from the walls of the tower, that protect it.
The Grand Mosque of Niamey is another site of worship, located in the center of Niamey. It is the largest mosque in the city and was gifted to Niger in the 1970s by the Libyan dictator, Moammar Gaddafi. Its minaret contains 171 steps.
Agadez was once a tourist hub, but that was before the collapse of Libya and the following consequences. Today, it is considered a “red zone” by the French government. It is said that Gaddafi often traveled to Agadez to celebrate Maoulid, Maoulid, the Sufi commemoration of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed.
11.00 AM: Rendezvous with Giraffes
Kouré is known to have the final existing full giraffe herd in West Africa: 170 of them on last count. However, not so long ago, their numbers had dropped to 50 due to intensive poaching and severe drought. With the efforts of the Association to Safeguard Giraffes in Niger, their population has been considerably revived, although they are still under threat by the loss of the tiger bush habitat being cleared for agriculture.
1.00 PM: French Delicacies
Complexe Tabakady Restaurant is a cozy restaurant that serves French cuisine. They’re particularly known for their seafood.
2.00 PM: Animal Petroglyphs
Niger is home to over 820 petroglyphs, including the largest known animal petroglyphs in the world. Interestingly, they reside in the Tenere Desert, which literally means “where there is nothing”. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
For the uninitiated, petroglyphs are rock-parts inscribed with artwork and often associated with prehistoric people. Out of the 820+ petroglyphs found in Niger, over 700 represent animals (including bovidae, giraffes, ostriches, antelopes, lions, rhinoceroses and camels), 61 represent humans while 159 are indeterminate.
The most famous petroglyphs are the Dabous Giraffes. At a height of 20 feet, they are from the neolithic age, that is, between 6000 to 8000 years old. The petroglyph features two giraffes engraved on a sloped, sandstone rock at the foothills of the Aïr Mountains. It showcases incredible detail and is the largest known animal rock carving in the world.
The Aïr Mountains in themselves are known for their rock art, featuring illustrations of animals (given that the region was a pastoral area in Neolithic times) and war (in later times), depicted through horses and chariots.
The mountains were also once home to the endangered African wild dog, also known as the painted hunting dog, and the largest indigenous canine in Africa.
4.00 PM: Last Tree of Ténéré
The Last Tree of Ténéré is a lone tree in Tchirozérine, Niger, that survived desertification, but not a drunk truck driver. It had no other tree for company for up to 400km in every direction. Because of its mysterious survival, it acquired sacred status amongst the nomadic Tuareg people, who spared it from being cut for firewood or cattle food.
When Michel Lesourd of the Central Service of Saharan Affairs first came upon the tree in 1939, he wrote:
The secret to its miraculous survival was discovered when a nearby well was dug up and it was found that the tree’s roots ran over a hundred feet deep underground — right into the water table. Sadly enough, in 1973, an inebriated truck driver ran into the tree and uprooted it. The remains of the tree were relocated to the Niger National Museum in Niamey and a metal sculpture was placed at the site of the tree in memory of it.
5.00 PM: World’s Most Remote Memorial
Who would have thought that the world’s most remote memorial would be located in N’Guigmi, Niger? Prior to our virtual visit, we had no idea either.
The UTA Flight 772 Memorial is in memory of the 170 people killed on board due to a suitcase bomb detonated by a Libyan terrorist in 1989.
The wreckage is still scattered around the site due to its remote location. However, 18 years after the tragic incident, family members of the victims came together to build a memorial at the site. It was funded by the Libyan Government and took two months to complete the building of the monument is one of the remotest parts of the world.
The monument resembles a compass when seen from the top and contains 170 broken mirrors- each one symbolizing a victim of the crash.
6.30 PM: Wind Down
Cap Banga is a restaurant in Niamey that serves traditional African food. Overlooking the Niger river, it’s perfect for a sundowner. Try their brochettes and seafood, both perfect with beer.
9.00 AM: National Park
The most renowned national park of Niger is the W National Park, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A distinct park that’s a cross between the savannah and the West African jungles. You can find baboons, African buffalo, giraffes, leopards, and lions here.
11.00 AM: Oases in the Desert
The Sahara desert is the third largest and hottest desert in the world, and 80% of Niger’s land is part of it. Niger has several oasis towns and communes that are fascinating to visit and to experience desert life.
Bilma is an oasis town inhabited by the Bilma Kanuri tribe and is the destination of one of the last Saharan caravan routes. The people of the tribe cultivate date palms and produce salt from saline fields by following an evaporation method.
Timia is another beautiful oasis town but unlike any other. This remote city offers pink pomegranates, bright orange citrus fruits, and juicy watermelons — right in the middle of the Sahara desert!
This is possible because the city is fed by an oasis throughout the year. It is dotted with tiny clusters of low-rise cottages, green fields, and date palms- just like in the storybooks.
2.00 PM: Quick Bite
Mango is a nice cafe in Niamey that is perfect to grab a quick bite.
3.00 PM: Tribal Festival
For a true cultural immersion of sorts, participating in a tribal festival is a must. There are numerous tribal festivals in Niger, based on the tribe, region, and season.
The Peulh people celebrate the end of the rainy season with a traditional tribal dance, while the nomads of Ingall celebrate Cure Salée (meaning “Festival of the Nomads”) as they gather their cattle to go to new pastures. They meet near the salt pools to refresh their cattle and goat herds, and the gathering acts as a chance to catch up on the latest news, medicinal cures, trade, and friendships across different ethnicities.
The Wodabé Fule people celebrate Guérewol, an annual courtship festival. Young men looking to get married dress up in ornamental gear, paint their faces, and gather to dance and sing, in an effort to attract the attention of their female counterparts. The dance itself is hypnotic, featuring repeated steps and swaying in line over a long period of time in the heat, all in an effort to prove their stamina, interest, and attractiveness. They drink a fermented bark concoction, known for its hallucinogenic effect, to keep going for long hours. The week-long festival also includes intense negotiations over dowry, competitions, and camel races amongst the suitors.
6.00 PM: Sunset & Chill
There’s no better place to end the weekend in Niger than watching the sun go down at Grand Hotel du Niger Restaurant. Enjoy an outdoor dinner with a panoramic view of Niamey.
Given its extreme climate and poor development, Niger may not top most people’s travel wishlists, but it’s surely a country that is not to be missed- especially if you love unique experiences and exploring the unexplored.
How to get there
There are two international airports in Niger: Niamey and Agadez. Niamey has regularly scheduled flights from Europe and Africa. Niger is also accessible by road from several cities, including Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Nigeria.
Where to stay
Niger has plenty of accommodation options to choose from. Noom Hotel is a comfortable hotel in Niamey. If you’re into ecotourism and want a more rustic experience, L’Ile Du Lamantin is a lovely place to stay amidst nature. For Airbnb lovers, Le Loft by FAYEL is a good option.
Taxis and motorcycles are the best mode of transport in Niger, although accident rates are high in the country. Motorcycle-taxis are called Okada here (Achaba in the north), although they’re banned in a few cities.
When to visit
November to January is the best time to visit Niger.
Travelers must have a valid visa to visit Niger.
Niger has 11 official languages. While French is the official language, Hausa is the most spoken language in Niger.
The official currency of Niger is the West African CFA franc.
If you enjoyed reading this post, you might also like our virtual travels to Tuvalu, Liechtenstein, Turkmenistan, Vatican City, Tywyn, Riga, Khovd, Wulingyuan, Samoa, Madagascar, Beppu, Bishkek, and Antequera.