Mauritania - Nouadibhou to Atar

January 21, 2004

In Another World

I now at last find myself here in Nouadibhou, Mauritania! This town has no paved roads leaving in ANY direction, just tracks in the sand. It feels very different from Morocco, and there is sand blowing everywhere.

It's quite a disconcerting change, and I feel somewhat on another planet. The journey here started straightforwardly enough, after a very crap night of sleep on a crappy mattress in the corner of a concrete box at the campsite.

Luxury room!
My luxury room for my last night in Dakhla
Photo - Paul Beaton

We left at 8am, and drove pretty much till 2pm down a nice modern highway through some amazing desert scenery. The police checkpoints had become army checkpoints, but they were friendly and polite and pretty hassle-free. At the exit point of Morocco, the Moroccans had obviously decided it wasn't their job to provide a road through the 8km of no-man's land between the 2 countries, and we found ourselves on a mix of sand and gravel.

There were 3 exit checks out of Morocco. Customs, Immigration, and a third one who perhaps thought he was 'Comedy'.
'You have commited an infraction', he said. We looked blank. He pointed to a battered, crooked STOP sign, about 5 feet before the van had stopped. 'The STOP sign is there', he said, 'You have passed it'.

We mumbled a brief apology. 'Are you prepared to pay a fine?', he asked. By this time I was pretending not to understand any French, and letting Dave handle the business. 'How much is the fine?', asked Dave cautiously.

'Zero Dirham!!! Ha! Ha! Ha!', the border guard was cackling with laughter.
'Ahh, you are very funny', I ventured.
Apart from this minor, hilarious diversion, leaving Morocco was pretty straightforward, even with the paperwork for Dave's van. It was speeded along by Dave handing out a few pens to each officer's 'Do you have a present for me?' request.

The edge of Nouadihbou
The edge of Nouadihbou
Photo - Joao Pedro Leitao

From this point on, there was no road, and we continued down a dusty track to reach the Mauritanian entrance post. This consisted of a chicken shed with a desk and 2 beds. A guy came out to wave us over. We wandered over to the shed, and he went in and GOT INTO BED. He mumbled something to another guy who was alseep in the other bed, and the second guy got up, said hello, and went over to the desk. Obviously it was his turn.

Formalities were at a minimum here, though I was glad I had got my visa on the way down, as Dave didn't have one, and had to pay 65 euros for one on the border. Dave must have been running short of pens, because this time he gave them tins of tuna fish. 'Is there any pork in this?', inquired the guard.

Feeling jubilant with our successful crossing, we sped away from the border post, and after dismissing the many offers of a guiding service, we promptly got stuck in the sand. Help was close at hand and we got towed out by a guy in a Landrover. He was very nice, and pointed us in the right direction, and he didn't even want any money.

Mosque in Nouadihbou
A mosque in Nouadihbou
Photo - Joao Pedro Leitao

It was 50km of sandy track through the desert to reach Nouadibhiu, and we only managed about 15km before we got stuck in the sand again. Starting to get mildly worried, we began digging the sand away. After 15 minutes we were still stuck in the middle of nowhere, and I was getting slightly more than mildly worried.

Next thing you know, a man in blue robes appeared from behind a sand dune. 'I am a guide', he said. Some negotiating later, Dave had struck a deal with him to show us how the hell to get to Nouadibhou, including getting us out of the sand we were stuck in.

An extremely bumpy 3 hours later, we had arrived. The guide was very good at his job, and had us out of the sand pretty quick. He then took us across country a bit to join another road, and we slowly made our way there. He took us staright to a campsite in town, and we arrived about 7pm.

I was very tired...

January 25, 2004

Dave and Bracken

It's been a while (as Staind might say), since I last blogged. This is due to the very valid reason indeed of being in the MIDDLE OF THE DESERT.
I am in fact, still in the middle of the desert, but in this case, a city of a million people happened to have been built here as well.

Before I go any further, I'd like to mention a 'Thank You' to Dave, a retired English guy, who got me to Mauritania, and was good company for a couple of days. Dave has recently retired, and has been living in his van, and travelling around Europe for the last couple of years. He happily gave me a lift, even though I'm sure I look like a suspicious character, and he wouldn't take any petrol money.

Also, I'd like to thank Bracken the dog, which is perhaps the first time I've ever thanked a dog, because they don't normally do very much for me. In this case, Bracken had to give up his space on the front seat of Dave's van, while I had a lift. This, he did uncomplainingly, and although I hardly ever like dogs, I liked Bracken. Bracken also barked at strangers who came near the van, and I enjoyed watching touts running in fear of their lives.

I wish man and dog, best of luck on their future travels!

January 25, 2004

The Man from the Bank

As Dave and I sat drinking tea at Abba Camping, we were waiting for the Man from the Bank. The idea of sitting and drinking tea, while waiting for the bank employee to come and serve you at your house, is one that I approve of. It certainly rates better than going to the bank and standing in line.

The Man from the Bank wore sunglasses, and was very slick. He could change Euros cash, Euros travellers cheques, and Dollar travellers cheques. Dollars cash were currency non grata - nobody wants them. Dave had Euros cash. 'Do you want the official rate, or the black market rate?', enquired TMFTB (The Man from the Bank). A puzzling question indeed. It crossed my mind that TMFTB was perhaps not actually from the bank.

'If you declared currency at the border, you must use the official rate', said TMFTB. 'Very Well', said Dave, and the deal was sealed. TMFTB had official slips and a stamp, so I began to think he really was from the bank.

I had Dollars Travellers Cheques. 'A lower rate for these', said TMFTB. I had checked on OANDA, and what he offered was not too bad. The deal was again sealed, and I received a large pile of tatty, ripped OUGUIYAS (Mauritanian Currency, in case you're wondering). Upon counting my OUGUIYA, I discovered that 1000 were missing (about 3 euros). 'I'm very sorry', said TMFTB, 'I made a mistake'.

Never trust a man wearing sunglasses who carries a lot of money....

January 25, 2004

The Serpent of the Desert

'The Serpent of the Desert', it says on the postcard I just bought, which depicts the iron ore train that runs across Mauritania. From the air, it does indeed look like a big snake streaming across the desert landscape. From the ground however, it looks not one bit like a snake. More like a dirty, battered old train in fact.

The train
The Serpent of the Desert
Photo - Joao Pedro Leitao

I recently had the privilege of riding this train, which is billed as 'the longest train in the world'. It generally is about 1.5km - 2.5km long, which is not a problem when there is only about 5 bends in the entire 700km plus of track, but it's a long walk to the buffet car if you are at the wrong end of the train.

Actually, there is no buffet car, that was my little joke, and there are only 2 passenger cars - 1st class and 2nd class. They are located at the end of the train, after the hundreds of empty iron ore bucket-wagons (if that's the right word).

The first class carriage has a few beds in it, and requires booking in advance. It is an old French carriage, and is perhaps in the worst state of disrepair I have EVER seen in 1st class. I was almost thankful to be going 2nd class.

I arrived at the station , although 'block of concrete in the desert' is perhaps a more accurate description, and there were 3 other foreigners. A Belgian cycle tourist (he was obviously cheating by taking the train), an Italian guy with a guitar, and a French girl.

The train 2
The long train
Photo - Joao Pedro Leitao

To take the train, there are two choices. You can pay about 2 quid and go in the carriage, or you can ride for free in one of the wagon-buckets. It's pretty cold in the desert, so myself and the Italian opted for the carriage. The Belgian had a plan to put up his tent in the wagon-bucket, so he chose that option, and the French girl went along with him. I had heard and read all kinds of things about this train. One of them being, that when the train arrives there is a mad frenzy to board and get good seats. As the train pulled in, I was prepared for a difficult time getting on board.

Well, I have to say, that as far as 'mad frenzies' go, it was a pretty poor effort, and these Mauritanians could learn a thing or two from the Chinese, who are world experts on train boarding frenzies. I found myself aboard quite easily, and with only a little bit of running. It was not even that crowded, and the tiny windows I had heard about, were huge and open, and the first 4 hours till darkness I enjoyed tremendously by leaning out of the open window and watching the desert go by.

The train departs at 3pm and arrives at Choum at 2am. This means most of the journey is at night. There are of course no lights on the train, but people compensate by hanging candles from the roof in cut-off water bottles.

Up until about 10pm I was pretty much enjoying the train. Some guy had brought a gas burner and was making tea, and people were sitting around quite jovially. A lot of people were sitting/lying on the floor, but they had to move at dusk so everyone could line up and pray.

I realised at about 10pm that it was getting very cold, and the windows wouldn't shut, and the candles went out, and everyone had laid down and taken up all the space. This resulted in a pretty miserable last 4 hours, and as I stumbled off the train at 2am feeling very cold and tired, and covered in sand, little did I know that the worst was yet to come...

next >> Atar - Rosso

The Trip to Africa The Route
Tangier - Casablanca Casablanca - Sidi Ifni Sidi Ifni - Dakhla
Nouadibhou - Atar Atar - Rosso
Rosso - Banjul Banjul - Kidira
Kidira - Bamako