We´re not in Kansas anymore Toto! From the moment we crossed the border from Morocco everything felt different and really was different. From the bizarre – someone turned the furnace up and emptied a swarm of mosquitos into the sky at the border; to the more expected – faces were suddenly much darker and the country much, much poorer.
Mauritania is a strict Muslim country which means all of us – men and women – had to be covered down to elbows and ankles and no alcohol at all, it wasn´t even worth the risk smuggling some through the border. The Arab influence is clear and strong – Arabic is the first language (French the second, absolutely no-one speaks English) and the local dress is very much Muslim. That´s not to say the locals are all in drab burkas, far from it – the streets are full of colour and life. The men wear elegant blue or white Boubous and the women look fabulous in brightly coloured Melahfa and Hijabs. Poor it maybe, dull it is not.
It took 6 sweltering hours to cross the border, which is apparently not bad at all by Mauritanian standards. We first had to get checked out of Morocco, including a full body scan for Henry, then we drove 1km across no-mans land to the Mauritanian border where we were fingerprinted and photographed for visas, shuffled to the Gendarmes for Henry´s importation permit, escorted back to national security for who knows what then the insurance had to be bought….it went on and on. We hired a fixer who was invaluable at the time and even more so a few days later, but more of that to come. Without him we would probably still be there!
But eventually we were through and heading down the Peninsula to the bustling town of Nouadhibou (Noo-ad-ee-boo). The hour long journey made it clear that everything had changed. The entire country is desert and the occasional town or village passed by with dust roads, tumble-down shacks, donkeys and goats but little else to differentiate it from the villages of a thousand years ago. The convoy truck and a big Landrover could not have looked more out of place travelling through.
Nouadhibou itself is a busy town but the poverty was evident. One thing that stood out more than anything else, however, was the one thing that had not changed since Morocco – the warmth and friendliness of the Mauritanian people. They have nothing and yet all they wanted to do was chat and help in any way they could. Of course they wanted us to buy whatever they were selling, why wouldn´t they, but there was no hassle, nothing but laughter and banter and friendly curiosity. We were the only western faces around apart from 2 French cyclists (in this heat?!) and 2 Europeans driving Toyotas. All of us staying in the one and only tiny campsite right in the centre of town.
We started the usual routine of changing money and buying SIM cards for our phones. It seems the locals don´t care who you buy these things from, as long as you buy them – if the shop you go into doesn´t have it they´ll run down the road to their friend who does and bring it back for you. We´d managed to buy a ´burner phone´ in Marrakech so getting the data uploaded to our SIM was a much easier job this time – and the locals all queued up to sort it out for us. Walking down the street we were hailed with Monsieur or Sister at every turn – James being addressed in German and me apparently Brazilian!
The campsite itself was grim. The owner took exception to the Westerner´s disregard for water in a desert country and switched it off! Toilets could only be flushed by bucket in the beginning, now not at all. Luke warm showers and washing clothes were benefits only for the first few who dashed in before he caught us! We spent two nights there stocking up on supplies and were pleased to be out of town and into the countryside.
We had a brief stop at the tip of the peninsula where there was a national reserve which provides sanctuary for a particular breed of seals which are on the critically endangered list. It apparently also housed numerous birds, lizards and other exciting fauna….but we saw only sand, sea and rocks.
Getting down to the beach was an adventure in itself!
The way back was lined with heavy industry and ship breakers which seemed incongruous to the prestine nature park itself.
We then headed back up to the top of the peninsula and started our long trek east across the desert. It was a 350km drive to the town of Chom across sand dunes and desert plains – the desert we had hoped for in the Western Sahara. Steve estimated it would take 2 or 3 days depending on how often their 20 tonne truck got stuck in the sand.
The answer to that became clear after the first couple of hours. It was a lot, all the time, all day for 3 days – sometimes getting stuck as soon as we had dug it out before everyone got back on board, other times managing half an hour before sinking again.
It was back-breaking work digging the sand out from the wheels, lugging heavy sand boards under the tyres, driving a meter or two on the boards before digging the next section, lugging the boards forwards and repeat. Eventually – sometimes after half an hour sometimes after 2 hours, the truck´s wheels would finally get free and start rolling.
Once rolling, Steve drove until he was sure he was on firm enough ground to stop which could be 1km away or more. However far it was, everyone had to walk the distance before getting back on board. Many times we arrived back at the truck to find he had stopped not because he was on safe ground but because he had sunk again and the process had to be started all over again without any rest.
Henry, on the other hand, was a dream. The three of us sped through the dunes, ducking and diving, checking out potential routes for the big truck and coming back to report. We were two of the most enthusiastic diggers despite it not being our truck – James leading the way with the digging and me carrying the boards back and forth with other members of the team. However, we were envied for being able to drive to wherever the truck had stopped rather than walk but envy became relief when we started tying the heavy sand boards to the back to drag them to the truck rather than everyone carrying them. And relief became excitement when we started offering surf rides on the sand boards across the dunes as we drove!
It took over 3 days to cross the desert and we were all exhausted. We had also run out of meat so dinner every night for 19 hungry people had been restricted to vegetables and rice. But it was 3 absolutely beautiful days which I will remember for the rest of my life. The landscape was breathtaking, the air fresh, the sand clean, the sun and sky glittering. When we had cloud it made the digging easier, when the sky was clear it was glorious. Three nights of camping out under the stars, a gentle breeze on my face and enveloped in absolute silence.
Apart from the trains! The 2km long trains carrying iron ore straight across the desert are apparently quite famous and a sight to behold!
They trundle along 5 or 6 times a day and more at night – faster in one direction empty than in the other laden down. We were travelling alongside the track for most of the time and the drivers started to recognise us! They tooted their horns as they passed us digging and we waved, by the end of the third day they were playing tunes on their horns and we were dancing and singing back on the top of the dunes!
But all good things come to an end and eventually we drove back up onto tarmac and into the town of Chom. We heard the exhausted cheer coming out of the truck in front of us!
Chom again offered very little in terms of material goods but was rich in fun, laughter, humour and curiosity. Everyone wanted their photos taken and to chat to the visitors.
The kids wanted ´presents´, the adults wanted my wrist bands or to have their photo taken with one or other of us. We scoured the town for meat and veg, found Coca Cola and chocolate biscuits and eventually departed passing hundreds of smiling, waving faces as we drive down the road.
Our next stop was Atar only a couple of hours down the bumpy, broken tarmac road. Atar was yet another dusty, sparse town from where the group intended to hire 4x4s to visit Chinguetti, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the desert. However James and I felt we had done enough 4×4-ing across the desert and opted for a rest day in the campsite servicing Henry, doing some washing and generally taking some time out.
This campsite was just as small and noisy as the one in Nouadhibou but water was plentiful, the toilets clean and the showers warm. The campsite owners were incredibly friendly and when we headed into town later in the day to stock up on meat and veg we found the same humour and warmth as everywhere else.
Everyone we had met in Mauritania had been lovely so far, apart from one rather unsettling incident. As we were driving down one of the long, straight roads between towns, a car had overtaken us but then seemed to have trouble over taking the truck in front of us. They hovered about on the wrong side of the road making little progress and forcing oncoming cars to swerve before finally swerving themselves onto the sand verge, losing control and slamming back into the side of the truck. The truck had a small dent and lost a headlight, the car was smashed to bits. We all stopped, albeit with Henry and the truck a safe distance from the car. A small convoy walked back to find two very angry Mauritanians blaming the entire incident on the truck and aggressively demanding money. Fortunately we have a few French speakers in the group so communication was not a complete loss but negotiations went nowhere for hours. More and more locals joined in, all claiming to be witnesses but our group stood their ground – politely but firmly. With police checkpoints stopping us every few miles across the country there was no option for driving away without resolving it. Eventually James suggested we call the fixer from the border who had been very helpful for the first few days in Nouadhibou, his number was found from the campsite and he arrived around 2 hours into the scene. The driver of the car had already started to lower his expectations in the face of maintained polite refusal to take the blame and most of the locals claiming to be witnesses had got bored and left. The police had arrived and took no sides, further weakening the car driver´s position. So the fixer, able to negotiate in Arabic and culturally sensitive, finally managed to agree a €200 settlement which , given the scale of damage to the car, was a miracle.
The whole incident left a bad taste and an unsettled feeling but after a few days in this hot, arid but fascinating country, it became clear that whilst driving with wreckless abandonment is a national trait, aggression and disingenuous behaviour is very much the exception.
So on we go, from Atar to the capital Nouakchott (Noo-ak-shot) via a charming little spa in the desert.
The village around the spa was possibly more fascinating than the water itself, looking for all the world as though the last millennia has forgotten it entirely.
The road onwards provided a huge surprise. The ´great plains of Africa´ are generally thought of as being in the South and East, you never hear of them in relation to Mauritania! But as we rounded a corner the world opened up and we caught our breath. A photo stop could not be avoided!
Eventually though we started to get back to more mundane sights again. The capital is by far the largest town we have visited but even this metropolis is a long way from anything you will see in the West. Sprawling markets selling everything from shoes to fruit to toothbrushes to machine parts to fish nets side by side.
Cars so battered and broken you can´t imagine how they are still on the road.
Fruit imported from Morocco, vegetables few and far between, fresh meat non existent. But a beautiful mosque best viewed from a roof top cafe….
But it is a coastal town so what they do have is fish! We wandered down to the fishing port to find hundreds of fishing boats unloading their catch onto the beach surrounded by crowds of people buying directly off the boat or stalls a few steps up the beach. Remarkably clean and surprisingly little fish smell, this was obviously the place to pick up something for that night´s dinner!
The campsite was 1km out of town, so happily quieter than some of the others, and right on the beach. We arrived in Nouakchott on Saturday needing to secure visas for Senegal but of course the embassies were all closed until Monday. So we had to spend an extra day waiting and had the most relaxing day eating fish and fruit, drinking avacado and baobab milkshakes, watching the locals doing acrobats on the beach or swimming in the sea….it was like we were on holiday again!
We were stuck in Nouakchott for three days getting visas for Senegal and being in large, dusty, noisy towns had started to wear on us – although we did manage to get a pair of trousers each mended for less than €1!
As soon as the visas were secured we were setting off for the Senegalese border with a fondness for the people of Mauritania but hopeful of finding more space to breath without the strict Muslim rules, abject poverty and arid desert…..what would Senegal have in store? One of the worst border crossing in Africa stood between us and finding that out, we needed to steal ourselves for the coming day……