People sit near a fully loaded truck in Madama near the border with Libya on January 1, 2015 (AFP Photo / Dominique Faget)

The biggest truck on Earth

MADAMA, Niger, January 6, 2015 – On New Year’s Day I joined France’s defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, on a lightening visit to Madama, in the remote far-north of Niger. Here, near an old colonial fort in the middle of nowhere, the French army is busy setting up a forward base for the regional counter-terrorism operation dubbed Operation Barkhane.

The desert outpost lies at the gates of Libya, right on the route used by jihadists and arms smugglers to reach northern Mali and Niger from the violence-wracked state. The minister was here to pay a visit to the 200-or-so soldiers sent to build a base in the sands.

A Niger soldier waits near a truck belonging to sellers in Madama on January 1, 2015A Niger soldier waits near a truck belonging to sellers in Madama on January 1, 2015 (AFP Photo / Dominique Faget)

Near the gleaming new runway, I spot five or six trucks piled high with a mind-boggling load – at a standstill under the sun. I slip away from the group visit for a moment to investigate, and snap a few pictures.

It turns out the trucks come from over the Libyan border, which lies in the desert around 100 kilometres (60 miles) to the north. They are waiting to pass Niger customs to be allowed into the country. A mere formality, involving a glance at their papers by a Niger soldier. There is generally no question of unloading these mega-trucks for inspection…

A Niger soldier stands guard in Madama, Niger on January 1, 2015A Niger soldier stands guard in Madama, Niger on January 1, 2015 (AFP Photo / Dominique Faget)

Madama lies on a traditional trading route, once used by camel-drawn caravans. Libya’s late dictator Moamer Kadhafi dreamed of a trans-Saharan highway that would run along this same route. These days it is used for trading and trafficking of all kinds – legal and illegal. It’s easy to imagine five or six crates of Kalashnikov rifles hidden under one of those sky-high mounds of merchandise…

A pick-up truck laden with goods in Madama, Niger, on January 1, 2015A pick-up truck laden with goods in Madama, Niger, on January 1, 2015 (AFP Photo / Dominique Faget)

The truckers themselves are from Niger or Libya. As they sit there waiting to pass customs, a flourishing traders' market springs up on the spot. Pick-up trucks appear from nowhere, their drivers jump out to bargain with the truckers, and they vanish into the desert again, laden with goods.

A loaded pick-up truck near a French military plane, in Madama, Niger on January 1, 2015A loaded pick-up truck near a French military plane, in Madama, Niger on January 1, 2015 (AFP Photo / Dominique Faget)

I move closer. The drivers are very friendly – and delighted to have their pictures taken. We chat for a moment. I tell them we’re not used to seeing trucks like theirs in France, that I am amazed vehicles so overloaded can drive for hours through the desert.

“Ah! But this is nothing!” one of them beams. “A few minutes behind us there’s a truck even bigger. Hang on a moment, and you’ll see for yourself!”

A fully loaded truck at Madama, Niger on January 1, 2015A fully loaded truck at Madama, Niger on January 1, 2015 (AFP Photo / Dominique Faget)

But time has come for me to rejoin the official group. We’re on a tight schedule. We need to board the military plane that will take us back to Ndjamena, in Chad, which we left that morning. The minister’s surprise visit to the Sahel outpost will have lasted just three hours.

To my great regret, I never did get to see – trundling out of the desert sands – the biggest truck on Earth…

Dominique Faget is an AFP photographer based in Paris

French soldiers in front of armoured vehicles in Madama, Niger on January 1, 2015French soldiers in front of armoured vehicles in Madama, Niger on January 1, 2015 (AFP Photo / Dominique Faget)