So poor and drought ridden is the south Saharan nation of Niger, if a particularly morbid bookie had been taking bets on its existence a few hundred years ago, you’d probably have got fairly long odds. But for all its problems, its survived, and in amongst the drifting sands and full body fabrics to protect from the sun, you’ll find camel racing, mutton, and an undeniable pride. Niger is finally, very slowly, coming into an iota of social stability.
There are still the remnants of such a tumultuous past, though. Stumbling through the deserts to ghost villages sat under the shadows of sand dunes is a harrowing reminder of the droughts. The villages that are still going, however, are something special. The mud brick houses of Zinder, for example, hide a French fort amongst this camel’s rest stop, as well as the artefacts of conflict from Zinder’s days as a colonial capital.
Those intrepid explorers who do make their way into Niger, usually do it for the Air Mountains and Tenere Desert. The 2000m peaks are towers of black volcanic ash rising from the desert, while the desert itself is a modern-art mish mash of dramatic dunes littered with dinosaur bones gradually exposed by the wind. In amongst it all, you’ll find rock art, hot springs and oasis towns, along with an annual festival of Taureg culture.
The city of Agadez is a gateway to spectacular scenery in it own right, and home to a memorable spiky mud mosque, while the surrounding markets are the perfect place to sample Niger’s tea (which is a real local fascination), or a meal of couscous, mutton, dates and yoghurt. Sunset over the Niger River, which provides essential water to a state that’s forever short, is another memorable experience, as is tracking down Africa’s last wild giraffe herd, and watching it graze amongst the towering trees.
As Niger’s problems are not political, but social, relatively rich foreigners are largely immune to the effects. Except, that is, on an emotional level. But most visitors agree the dazzling, horizon-filling desert sites are worth the complexities, and leave feeling like they've made a difference, as well as just seeing the sites. Aside from all the natural beauty, there's one more overpowering reason why you'd want to visit Niger: there are very few countries on earth that need your tourist dollars more.