During my twenties, I spent a lot of time in West Africa: Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, or Upper Volta, as it was known then.
We worked in all three of these countries, in TV and short wave radio; if one country had something, the other countries would not be outdone.
In Bamako, Mali, we built a 150-meter MW radio mast and a 150-meter TV mast. We also built a studio and small receiver site. This was a Libyan Aid Project, Libya paid for everything!
I think it was all part of Gaddafi’s master plan to slowly take over Africa.
We bought a short wheelbase, soft-top Land Rover from a French guy in Bamako; we thought it would be useful with all our West African work.
It was a great vehicle and made work so much easier.
The problem was the soft top: anyone who has driven in Africa will remember the red soil.
And it goes everywhere. If you were travelling in that machine then you would need a bandanna and goggles, but all we had were sunglasses. When you started to drive above 30 miles an hour, you could hardly see, never mind breathe.
Luckily, you don’t hit speeds exceeding 30 miles per hour in Africa. I had flown from Scotland this time and met one of my colleagues in Oagadougoo, Upper Volta. While I was flying, there was a coup d’etat, and when I arrived the country had been renamed Burkina Faso, ‘the land of the incorruptible man.’
When I touched down in Wagga, the airport was overrun with French paratroopers, and there was a curfew every night. We used to go to a bar each night for chicken and chips, with a tomato sauce made from tomato paste. We lived in the Hotel Central, a small hotel owned by a French former Legionnaire from the Indo-China wars, before Viet Nam.
Walking back to the Central at night was hilarious. There were soldiers positioned on all road junctions and if you were caught out after the curfew, the soldiers made each person do press ups. That was no problem for me, but old people found it very hard. They only made us do 10 or 20, depending how fit you looked.
We had completed our work in Upper Volta and decided to drive to Niamey, the capital of Niger. We had several punctures on the road to the border. African dirt roads are terrible, and it was a frightening experience driving in the dark. There are no lights at all in the bush and local people walk on the road, in the middle, actually, so you suddenly come across people in the road in front of you.
The border between Upper Volta and Niger is in the middle of nowhere, some timbers propped up to mark the checkpoint and I felt somehow safe when I saw the barrier! Then some guards with AK47s. They signalled us to stop at the roadside and pointed at our luggage. The language in West Africa is French, but I think these guys were talking a local tribal language. We couldn’t understand them, but we knew what they were saying. We emptied all of our belongings onto the road and the guards sifted through our stuff with their guns. I was getting worried now, they were out of control. At first everyone was laughing but then it seemed to get more serious! The next thing, everybody was shouting, the soldiers giving orders and pointing at our stuff. There was a bit of a scuffle, then one soldier stepped up to me and very gently pushed an automatic pistol in my mouth.
I can still taste it.
I was ready to die at that point. Then some garbled speech on the soldier’s walkie-talkie. And he removed the gun.
They immediately started to rake through our stuff again, and separated the cartons of cigarettes. In those days travelling to Africa, we all took at least 5 cartons of cigs.
They collected up the fags and turned to us: ‘OK, you can go now,’ they gestured. And that was it. Two minutes before, I was terrified, thinking that this guy will blow the back of my head off.
We got some of our stuff, the easy to collect stuff and got in the Land Rover and drove in silence for around one hour. Then everybody started talking at once.
Speaking to locals after, they said that maybe they weren’t real guards. I then began to think, where were the real guards?
Maybe those rebels had done away with them!
I spoke with a few people about the incident, but never reported it to the authorities.
The rest of the trip went as normal, and I never travel in Africa at night, now!