The Saharan ski shop with no customers

By Thomas Fessy
BBC News, Niger


Around 30 years ago, an entrepreneur from Niger spotted a gap in the market that he thought nobody else could fill - a ski-hire shop in the Sahara desert. He is still in the ski-rental business to this day even though he has no customers.

They are displayed on the porch of the shop - just under a dozen pairs of skis and a handful of snowboards.

There is also a yellow spoon-shaped snow sledge and a bigger red one if you would rather be properly seated when sliding down a slope.

Do not expect the latest models though, as most of these were brought here in the early 1980s - only the snowboards came a bit later.

The ski boots look so heavy the idea of wearing them in this heat is utterly discouraging.

This is Agadez, a dusty marketplace in Niger surrounded by the Sahara desert, not Courchevel in the French Alps.

The temperature here rises above 45C and when there is a bit of air it feels like somebody is holding a hairdryer right in your face.

Nobody has picked up any of these skis since 2007. Abdelkader Baba, the shop's owner, has not used them himself since then either.

He would not go skiing without tourists and they just don't venture around here anymore - kidnappings and armed attacks have kept them away.

But that is no reason to take down the "ski shop" sign from the wooden facade. The sign is what makes this shop famous after all, with two red skis pointing in the air on either side of it, its turbaned Tuareg skier painted in black on a white sand dune and a few Agadez desert crosses - the symbol of the town - mimicking snowflakes.

Right in the middle of a bustling crossroads you cannot really miss it.

Baba used to take tourists to the sand dunes outside town, deep in the desert.

"We'd have to climb up before six in the morning because the heat would make it impossible soon after the sun rose," he says. English, Australian, Swedish, Slovak and Japanese people were among the first to try sand dune skiing.

But that was 30 years ago. "It is not unusual to see a camel sliding down a dune," he explains. "So when I saw Europeans skiing on television, I thought we should try it out here."

It was easy to convince friends who were participating in the Dakar motor rally across the region to bring him pairs of skis. It was a lot more difficult to learn how to descend a sand dune on them.

image copyrightAlamy
image captionTourists still ski on sand in Namibia but they have stopped visiting Agadez

Baba is better known as Danger here. It is hard to believe looking at his charming face but he was, he says, a troublemaker at a younger age.

He also used to build small cars out of wire as a child and that is how he developed a passion for all kinds of objects.

And so his ski shop is filled with boxes and bags and piles of antiques, books, souvenirs and just things.

He treasures collections of currencies from different West African countries, and he has also amassed bank notes from Yugoslavia and coins from the Soviet Union. He shows me a penny from pre-independence Nigeria, dated 1959.

The coin was pierced in the middle back then, with the face of Queen Elizabeth on one side and a big Star of David on the other.

I suppose the art of a collector is to take as much pleasure in adding new pieces to a collection as in showing off their treasure to others. His complete lack of interest in trying to sell me anything is quite unusual in this part of the world.

He opens another dusty bag displaying rocks and stones of different shapes and colours which had been brought to him by Tuareg guides who travel deep into the desert and find them during their journeys.

"Here is a sand rose. And this one is a piece of star that fell from the sky - it's a meteorite. I know it is because it is magnetic," he says.

The Sahara is an open museum, containing some of the most ancient fossils on earth. "These were fish that became stone," Baba says, pointing at fossilised shells dating back millions of years to when the Sahara was still under water.

Baba, or Danger, then unfolds a sheepskin and puts it on like a pair of shorts. He stands up and claps, bending his knees and tiptoeing between the treasures he had laid out on the floor. These are traditional Fulani dance moves.

I ask him whether he thinks he will ever go to the dunes again. "Until European embassies stop preventing their citizens from coming up here, I don't think I will get back on these skis," he answers.

"They blame it on al-Qaeda and other jihadi militants groups but it's a shame," he says. "Death will find you wherever you are, people die in Europe too! You should be allowed to do whatever you want to do."

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