One of my worst experiences ever started as a very cozy Sunday afternoon. My nieces and their parents had been over for a little pool party at my house, and when it was time to for me to ride out, both girls wanted to join.
This was the first time that Priscilla really wanted to ride, and she had the time of her sitting on Ebony as the horse was led from my house to hers.
When it was time for Tabita and I to ride out, Priscilla was devastated and wanted to come along. I told her mother she could sit in front of me, and asked Priscilla if she wanted to. The girl said yes, of course. Her mother warned me that she might fall asleep in the saddle, but I said “no worries, we’re just going for a short stroll to the closest villages.” Renate helped us cross the road and then we were on our way.
The weather was nice, nothing unusual about it. Some clouds in the back but that was it. I even contemplated closing all the windows before leaving, but the air was so cool (would be a pity not to take the chance to cool down the house!) and I hardly saw any clouds. As we headed out, rain of some sort looked possible but not obligatory. In any case, we would not be far from home.
Tabita was a natural in her saddle, remembering everything I taught her more than four months ago.
Priscilla had the time of her life too, having finally overcome her skepticism of riding. She was so proud of herself. “Look, Esther, I’m riding!” she exclaimed as we’d made it a few blocks south.
(Taking matters very seriously), Tabita worked on her “turns”,
…then on speed (not the easiest with our “gentle giant” but I’d rather have it that way than the other way around!)…
… then on her turns again, this time with shorter reins.
Once she got Ebony moving where she wanted to, she was SO proud of herself!
The dogs found some friends to play with,
…and then we were “out” in the beautiful bush.
“Look! It’s the bush!” said Priscilla, and started to fall asleep…
Yes, here it was, the beautiful expanse of land – soon to be filled with city buildings but still to be enjoyed as much as one can.
Behind us, the clouds got darker and rain seemed more probably than not, but there was nothing alarming about it. Just simple rain. Happens all the time when the three month long rainy season sets in.
The sky canvas was beautiful,
…and the light was perfect.
It amazed me how Priscilla was able to sleep on a horse, but she could, and I found her adorable.
Tabita rode ahead of me,
…posed for a picture…
…then we headed for Kasheni.
Always on the look-out for skywatch pictures, I kept track of the scenery behind us,
…while taking a few shots of the little sleeping beauty as well!
Halfway to Kasheni,
…the sky was gorgeous, but still no raining taking place on the horizon.
Tabita wanted to amble,
…and we picked up a little pace and headed for the second closest village, Kasheni.
Priscilla slept even as Arwen trotted/ambled and I must admit that few things awaken such a desire for motherhood as having a little mini-me fall asleep in the saddle in front me, with riding being the most natural thing in the world!
The drama that enfolded happened very quickly. At 6.06 pm, I took the following picture of Ronja and the deep blue sky. Still no signs of any Maduhu storm.
The first sighting appears at 6.07 pm. At that time I don’t think I completely registered it because the picture was just taken over my shoulder,
…but at 6.08 pm, I had not only seen the “dust storm” in the background but was trying to take a good picture of it.
As the clouds suddenly grew very dark, Tabita and I started to turn back. We were just some 15 minutes of slow ambling from our homes and I thought the best thing to do was to get us all home as quickly as possible (the other option would have been to pick up some serious speed and head south, but that was not an option with two small children).
By now, the “storm” was starting to look different from what I was used to, a high wall that seemed to be moving very fast.
Still, the villagers did not seem to worry much about it and people always warn us when there is a danger of some sort. The village women went all “ooohs and aaahs” over Priscilla and jokingly asked if I could give her to them. We exchanged greetings and continued along our way.
By the time we were halfway to Kanya (the village neighbouring Kasheni), the “dust storm” was not looking good.
I looked for any kind of “glitches” in the mud wall where one might pass more easily, but saw none and decided to stay on route for the closest way home. Still, I thought it was just a big dust storm, and I was in touch with the girls’ mother, who coming out to meet us.
The Maduhu however was moving very fast (the picture above was taken at 6.12pm).
I did not know that it would be “over” us in three minutes. Nothing has ever traveled that fast in my books before!!
Seen from the outside, it was impressive and beautiful. You could tell so easily where it started and where it ended, but unfortunately, the visual that met us said nothing about how “deep” it was. For it was deep…
Tabita was very cool about meeting the dust storm. I asked her if she was afraid, and she just shook her head and said, “No, I LIKE rain.” I smiled, happy she wasn’t terrified.
I knew however that we were in for some blistering sand and most probably some rain too and I expected the kids to get scared, but we were so NOT far from home and I was certain I would be able to lead the horses through the storm back home, with their parents joining us from the other side.
Priscilla kept sleeping and I loved having her there… That’s one of the things I always wanted to do if I had children – take them out riding when they were small and let them enjoy the wonders of riding without the fear of being responsible for the horse. Priscilla was certainly feeling safe enough and Arwen behaved perfectly,
…but the Maduhu about to swallow us was NOT what I had had in plan when taking my young nieces out for simple Sunday afternoon ride!
I wonder what Arwen was thinking as I steered us straight into the heart of the dust bowl coming our way, but if she had any doubts, she did not show them, but kept power walking ahead. Without a rider, Arwen will spook easily, but when working with a human, she is fine as long as her rider sends steady signals of everything being under control.
The last three minutes before the Maduhu actually swallowed us went very quickly.
The girls’ mother called me to check on us and I was able to give our exact location (just north of the village of Kanya in the direction of Kasheni).
I took my last set of pictures at 6.13,
… ending with this picture of Arwen facing the storm at 6.14 pm – seven minutes after the Maduhu was first spotted on the horizon. I just had enough time to put the camera back in the saddle bag, before the Maduhu was upon us. Thankfully, Tabita panicked and I immediately got off my horse with Priscilla in my arms and got hold of Ebony. If not, I’m not sure what would have happened…
For the Maduhu storm brought something new along that I had never experienced in my life (except during a solar eclipse some years ago but even that was not as bad): a forever moment of PITCH DARKNESS. The name Maduhu comes from Duhu, which means dark, and the definition of a Maduhu storm (which is the only storm in Niger that to my knowledge has a name) is that it is so dark that you cannot even see the light of your torch. The darkness worried me, but I did not show it. I could not see ANYTHING, but at least I was holding on to the important things: Priscilla on one arm with Arwen’s reins at my fingers, and Ebony’s reins on the other hand with a hand on Tabita so that she would know that I was near. If I had to let go of anything I would let go of the horses, but not the girls!! I told the girls to close their eyes so they wouldn’t get any sand, and during that endless moment of pure pitch darkness, neither of them cried. Everything was dead silent and one could not hear a sound – I did not even know what the dogs were up to, but after I called out for Sheba once, she came to sit on my boots, parking herself heavily with her entire body against my legs, so that I would know exactly where she was. She never does that otherwise.
Once the first glimmer of light came back, the blistering sand whipped in the direction of town, making it impossible to move any further. The girls were really brave during all of this, but then it started to hail, and that was too much for Tabita. I asked her if she wanted to come down, so she flung herself around my neck and shared space with her younger sister. I positioned myself so that they would be sheltered from the hail, and then Sheba lay on the other side of them, giving them warmth. Ebony was a grateful statue in the bad weather but Arwen (now finding herself without a rider to give her any peace) was quite agitated, and her movements made Priscilla cry (which in turn agitated Arwen even more). Eventually, the hail turned into rain but it was still mixed with blistering sand, making it impossible for us to move. Once the weather calmed down enough for me to think about moving forward, the girls panicked at the thought of leaving our little human/canine shielded circle in the middle of what had just become nowhere (due to complete lack of visibility). By now, I got reconnected with their parents on the mobile phone, but even though they knew roughly where we were, visibility next to none and they could not find us. Twice, Sheba and Ronja got up as if someone was near, but I neither saw nor heard anyone, and Sheba will not leave my sight. As I knew Josef was looking for us, I tried calling out a few times, but it made the kids worried when nothing happened, so I just had to pretend that all was well and not risk calling out for help unless I had actually seen someone. And so we spend the following hour in blistering sand, hail and rain, until the wind had calmed down some and we only had some ten minutes left of light to make it to the closest road. Desperately wanted to get there before it got dark, I asked Tabita if she was ready to do a little walking. She said yes, but started to cry, so I carried them both in my arms, while leading Arwen and Ebony on each side of us. Arwen pranced (though less panicky than before) but eventually found the ryhtme and calmed down, and when she was calm, I found myself having run out of muscle strength, so I asked Tabita if she would be able to get back in the saddle. She said she could. I don’t know where I found the strenght to lift her up in the saddle because it was all gone by then, but I knew that if I didn’t, we wouldn’t be found, and by now, Renate was coming in a four-wheel drive to pick them up. So sure enough, just as the sun set and it got dark out of natural causes, we made it to the main bush road, where Renate teamed up with us a few minutes later. At the sight of their mother, however, the two very brave girls immediately burst into tears, but I heard those dried quickly in the car on the way back home. Not wanting to worry about Sheba and Ronja in the dark, I sent the dogs with the girls in the car and then rode Arwen home, ponying Ebony without too much trouble. The land was by now filled with water everywhere, so it would not have been easy for any car to have found us, even though we were not “far” from the road.
I felt like a wet cowboy riding home in the dark, swimming in my boots and so drenched I don’t think I’ve ever been that wet before! The rain however was surprisingly temperate, and we were all alright. I unsaddles the horses and brought the drenched tack inside (will require a few hours of saddle soaping…), took a shower and then went over to pick up the dogs and to see the kids. Their smiling faces was exactly what I needed after such an ordeal – both of them were full of hugs and laughter. We had supper together and then we looked at the pictures in my camera. Tabita had told her mother after she came home that the storm was definitively the “worst experience of her life!” but when she looked at the pictures, she was all smiles and particularly proud of the following one:
…a smiling five-year-old about to meet the worst kind of dust storm that Niger has to offer! I’ll definitively give to her: she was as brave as grownup!