PRUDENCE: THE BEST TOOL IN THE BOX
The majority of our overland travels will introduce us to friendly, inquisitive people. We will neither be abducted, nor consumed by an earthquake. And while normal precautions should always apply, sometimes it pays to be more vigilant.
When scoping their next mission, the British Army invariably deploys the 7 Ps: Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Obviously such preparatory measures can never be infallible, for no amount of planning can fully discount an ‘untimely interruption’. Nevertheless, it can be a pretty helpful adage when prepping for an overland trip. After all, a disciplined procedure from the outset may avoid a catastrophe further down the road. And that’s got to be good news. Though, not everyone sees it that way. Inevitably, there are some who would argue that planning the hell out of an adventure is counter-productive. ”Damn it all!” they cry. “This is no longer an adventure.”
Adventure is all about spontaneous decisions, right?
Well, fair enough. We each of us travel in our own fashion. Except, circumstances will change along the way, particularly on an extended overland journey. One day, we might just find ourselves asking questions such as: are we really equipped for this 1,000-kilometer-long desert piste? What shall we do when our route is known to be frequented by armed bandits? How far should we stray Into regions prone to terrorist activity?
In short, at what point does our adventure mutate into reckless abandon?
Some of the countries our overland journeys lead us through do require a heightened state of caution. This might arise not only from social or geopolitical disorder, but also resulting from the environment or from freak weather conditions. And remember, the dynamics of a potential problem may be constantly changing. What was true last week may no longer be the case. Many perceived security issues are overblown. And then again, it’s always possible to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. No amount of planning will overcome a hit like this; supernatural insights cannot be snatched from the tool box. At least not from mine.
So what should we do if we find ourselves in questionable territory?
After a few weeks on the road our danger receptor - ie our intuition - has usually struck new heights. Assuming our insights haven’t morphed into full-blown paranoia, this already puts us in a good place when assessing our circumstances. Intuition is a wonderful thing, and it goes without saying that it’s always well worth putting our gut instinct way up there if there’s a twitch in the air, not least when we’ve just set up camp in a field used by a bunch of narco-traffickers.
The second string to our bow comes from monitoring the media and the travel forums, and then matching what we glean against local intelligence. Get chatting to the store owner, the diesel pump attendant, the policeman, the campsite manager - always remembering that what they tell us may be the best advice we’ve ever received, utter garbage or even downright malicious. We must therefore weigh up what we’re hearing. To make the situation even more precarious, we might not even understand a word they said.
Having cranked through the initial assessment, and hopefully applied a little grey matter along the way, we can employ a layer of prudence, or, to put it more simply: let’s try and avoid undesired consequences. Is this all beginning to sound way too boring? Well, I can assure you it shouldn’t do. And here’s a quick example why.
In 2009, the Festival in the Desert, an annual concert staged near Timbuktu in Mali, was organized against a backdrop of Tuareg uprisings and Islamist incursions. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was gathering its forces, the whole region becoming increasingly unstable. A few governments had advised their citizens to not even go there, for events had already taken a fatal turn: a French overlanding family had been murdered on the Mauritania/Mali border and a Mauritanian military patrol massacred out in the desert. In the face of such insecurity, the classic Paris-Dakar rally was cancelled, never to return to the region (the Dakar of the future was relocated to a more peaceable South America).
In the days leading up to the concert, further attacks occurred against the Malian military at Nampala, though we pressed on, often quizzing the locals and, whenever possible, reading the local paper. After all, it’s not everyday you get the opportunity to watch some of West Africa’s leading musicians - we weren’t to be put off easily. In the circumstances, the concert was well attended; in the region of ten thousand people, a good many of those being foreigners, had congregated in the middle of nowhere. And so had a serious number of Mali’s military personnel, bristling with hardware. The government was taking no chances.
On the second day of the festival, some old Tuareg friends came by our camp for tea. Amongst all the chatter, they told us how there was growing unrest in the desert - bad things were happening out there, they said.
“You should not travel this route north of the Niger River to Gao,” they told us, when we gave them the low-down on our plans.
When asked why not, we were left pondering their vague answers: the sand was too deep … our Hilux was not up to the job … there might be bandits who would steal our things. Though they were talking in riddles, the wider issues meant there was a message to be heeded. However, our hearts were set on travelling along the north of the Niger River and reaching Gao. That evening, all that we’d heard and read so far sparked a healthy campfire debate. After the festival, we returned for one night in Timbuktu and then embarked on the piste to Gao. We were four of us in the Toyota Hilux and for the moment the majority had voted in favour of sticking to the plan. Yet, as the lure of the Sahara drew us ever deeper, I couldn’t dismiss from my mind how we might be descending into recklessness.
After a long day bashing the piste, we halted for the night at the foot of a picture-perfect dune. There was a cluster of palm trees in which the breeze caused the fronds to shimmer and crackle. To the south, beyond the vast plain, a slither of the Niger reflected the orange sun. We lit a fire and poured a drink; whilst the stew bubbled, we began our debate all over again. Was it time for common sense to overrule adventure?
The next morning, we agreed between us to abandon the route to Gao and instead to search for the infrequent ferry service to Gourma-Rharous, a settlement on the southern side of the river; from there we could pursue our journey south through more secure country. And that is what we did. Mere days later, while buying goods in a store, the news piping from the corner television reported how a tourist convoy had been ambushed in the vicinity of Gao and members from one of the vehicles kidnapped. Luckily, some of the hostages were eventually released, others met with a grisly end.
The old Tuaregs who’d come for tea knew something was in the wind. They just didn’t express themselves too well. Who knows if we’d have been in any danger had we continued with our plans. I’m only glad I never found out.
My book, City of Myths, River of Dreams, recounts our journey through West Africa.