Mauritania - Atar to Rosso

January 26, 2004


Those of you who like watching exciting telly, will recall the TV series '24', where Jack Bauer goes through 24 hours of trials and tribulations in order to save the world. I recently went through a similar 24 hour experience, and although, unlike Jack, I didn't die and come back to life, it was a long and wearing experience.
My 24 hours started on the train...

11pm - It's freezing cold, and some of the windows are missing. It's pitch black and I've been on a hard wooden bench for hours. All the available lying down space has been taken by others. There is so much sand blowing in the train, that I have to keep my eyes shut.

3am - The train stops in the middle of nowhere, and a bunch of people get off. We are surrounded by giant pick-up trucks shining their headlights in our faces.
The other foreigners I'm with negotiate a vastly inflated price for the pick-up truck to Atar, the nearest town. I've eaten all my food. I'm very hungry.

4am - Due to intense negotations it takes an hour to get the pick-up moving, including the time to get all the luggage (including a bicycle) on the roof. The truck has 2 people in the front seat, 4 in the back seat, and 6 of us in the rear boot compartment.

5am - I am in the middle of the MOST UNCOMFORTABLE journey I have ever had the misfortune to make. I am cold, tired, and unable to move at all. Even my feet won't move due to the foreigners keeping some baggage with them in the truck, including ridiculously, a guitar.

6am - I am so uncomfortable that I actually have a mild claustrophobic panic attack. This is the first time this has ever happened to me, and my stomach suddenly feels violently active. I am taking breaths and counting up to a 1000 in my head.

7am - We finally arrive, and a guy that the Italian with the guitar met on the train, leads us to a place to stay.

7.15am - The place is a room with 4 mattresses. I don't have a sleeping bag. I ask if there are any blankets. I am given a filthy sheet.

7.30am - We are sitting drinking tea. I am totally exhausted. We all know it's impolite to leave before drinking 3 glasses of tea. The tea takes forever to make, and after each glass I am calculating how long before I can sleep.

8.30am - I go to sleep on the mattress, fully clothed, covered in a dirty sheet.

11.30am - I am woken by the sound of the Italian playing Bob Marley songs on his guitar next door. The Mauritanians are clapping and shouting.

12pm - I decide to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible, before I get given any more tea.

1pm - I've asked around town, and they say the truck to Chinguetti goes at 3pm.

2pm - I eat at last.

3pm - I wait in a deserted, dirty patch of ground for the truck.

Atar is a hive of activity
Photo - Joao Pedro Leitao

4pm - I'm still waiting. People have come past and tried to sell me tourist crap. Kids have come and stared for a while.

5pm - I'm still waiting. The local kids now know me as 'the guy from England waiting for the truck to Chinguetti'. They keep coming and talking to me about football. They don't understand why my French is worse than theirs.

5.30pm - I finally get in the truck, and thanks for small mercies they don't have enough passengers, so there are only 3 people in the back seat, including me.

Atar market
Atar market
Photo - Joao Pedro Leitao

6pm - The guy sitting next to me tells me he is a professor of the Koran. He spends the next hour chanting very loudly.

7pm - The driver stops. Everyone gets out by the side of the road and prays. I stay in the truck, feeling like a lemon.

8pm - We arrive. The town's power supply is out. It's pitch black. The Professor takes me to an Auberge. I am dreaming of a good nights sleep. The Auberge has only mattresses in a room. 'I want a bed', I wail, 'I don't have a sleeping bag', 'I need a hot shower'. 'Everywhere here is like this', he replies.

8.30pm - I have fled in despair, and am crouching under a tree trying to read the guidebook with a cigarette lighter.

8.45pm - I read about the most expensive place in town, 20 euros worth. 'They must have beds', I think. I start walking. It is pitch black, and the streets are sand-filled and don't have names.

9pm - A kid takes pity on me, and leads me to the hotel. It has a room. It is nice. It has a toilet and a shower. I am ecstatic.

9.30pm - I realise the hot water is solar powered, but am so dirty I take a cold shower.

9.45pm - I eat chicken and chips in the hotel restaurant (tent). There are 6 other people there. They are all French. We have a 2 minute conversation, then I eat in silence while they yap in French.

10.30pm - I get into bed feeling like I have been hit with sticks all day, and had sand thrown all over me.

11pm - I am asleep at last..

out of atar
The road out of Atar to Chinguetti
Photo - Joao Pedro Leitao

January 26, 2004


Chinguetti is an ancient caravan town. By which I mean camel caravans going to Timbuktu, not German tourist caravans. Only 3 years ago, there were no telephones, and only generator powered electricity. The old town is pretty much crumbling ruins, and the new town is what I would call 'modern ruins'. There is not an awful lot in Chinguetti, bar a tiny market, a few grocery stores, and a bunch of basic places to stay. The streets have no names, and are just tracks in the sand. In recent years, since flights to the nearby (2 hours) town of Atar started from Paris, a small package industry has developed, bringing with it the usual mass of touts selling tourist crap. The prices in Chinguetti seem to be uniformly higher than in the rest of Mauritania. I suspect all the villagers have agreed on fixed higher prices for tourists, but maybe I just have a suspicious mind.

chinguetti street
A Chinguetti street
Photo - Paul Beaton

Chinguetti is surrounded by sand dunes, and this is one hell of a good reason to visit, as after just 20 minutes walking, I was in amongst the dunes. It is SO BEAUTIFUL in the sand dunes, I was actually saying 'Wow!' as I arrived on top of some of the dunes. They stretch as far as the eye can see, and are a vast range of heights and shapes. The colour of the sky is some kind of blue that is just dazzling, and the sand changes colour according to where the sun is.

another chinguetti street
Another Chinguetti street
Photo - Paul Beaton

I wandered around the dunes with the usual hundreds of flies that seem to appear from nowhere, and follow you everywhere. As I came down a dune, I looked up, and on top of the next dune were a whole bunch (probably not the correct term) of camels. I said to myself, 'Wow! camels!'. I was very excited.

chinguetti sand
Camels on a sand dune
Photo - Paul Beaton

You may not think camels are exciting, but I found that in this case they were.

my hotel
My hotel
Photo - Paul Beaton

I spend the whole afternoon strolling around the sand dunes, keeping an eye on the sun to combat my fear of not remembering which direction town was. Luckily, every so often there was a very high dune, and a trip to the top, would usually reveal which direction the town was. (often, not quite where I though it was!).

chinguetti sand dunes
There is a lot of sand around Chinguetti
Photo - Paul Beaton

It really is a strikingly beautiful landscape, and it just about made up for all the suffering I went through to get there.

chinguetti plain
The outskirts of Chinguetti
Photo - Paul Beaton

January 27, 2004

Mauritanian Garage

Mauritanian Garage may sound like a new type of house music, but it is in fact referring to the places in Mauritanian towns where you go to try and get out by public transport. There can't be many countries where there are no buses, but apart from battered minibuses, there are none here. The favourite forms of transport are the Peugeot Taxi (2 in the front seat, 4 in the back seat), or the Toyota Hilux pick-up truck (2 in the front seat, 4 in the back seat, an infinite amount of luggage or people in the back of the truck).

If you want to go to, say, Chinguetti, then you go to the 'Garage Chinguetti'. Garage is perhaps not the right term. Patch of wasteland with trucks, goats, drivers, and passengers in that order, is more appropriate. Because almost nobody lives in Mauritania, then it stands to reason that almost nobody is making any journeys by public transport. This means you will invariably leave after 5pm on any given day, no matter when you turn up.

When I went from Chinguetti to Nouchakott, I left at 9am and arrived at midnight. Almost half of this time was spent at the garages watching the goats eat and shit everywhere.

The scenery was pretty spectacular, not really sand dunes, more like Arizona type desert. I had a travel buddy, Omar, who I met in Chinguetti. We shared a front seat for 8 hours, so were obviously on friendly terms. He was a black southern Mauritanian, and the other guys in the truck didn't talk to him much. They communicated with him in French as they don't share the same language.

Omar was very helpful in getting me a taxi to a hotel when we arrived. It was midnight and I had no idea where I was. Cheers Omar.

January 27, 2004

Place of the Winds

'Place of the Winds' is apparently what Noukachott means. Noukachott has almost a million people, and is the capital of Mauritania. It is quite windy here, but 'Place of the Sand and the Moneychangers', would be more apt.

It is difficult to walk around, because the streets REALLY are filled with sand. I guess they just brush the sand off the roads, and not the pavements.

I've been here a few days, and I spent a couple of nights in a hotel with a TV, yes TV, and ensuite bathroom- yes!! Erm, sorry, getting a bit carried away there.

Photo - Joao Pedro Leitao

When I arrived, I was pretty disconcerted by the fact that there was an armed soldier on EVERY street corner. I even got told off a few times for walking in the road, which any sane person would do, because the road is the only bit where you don't have to trudge through sand. Anyway, today they had ALL gone. I guess there must have been some important event I didn't know about.

As you walk around Nouchakott, people constantly ask you if you want to change money. Two Chinese guys even asked me if I wanted to change money. I spoke to them in Chinese, and they were very excited. Today, someone asked me if I was Russian. I replied in the negative, and they looked disappointed.

noukachott taxi
Noukachott taxi
Photo - Joao Pedro Leitao

In theory, this is my last day in Mauritania, and my blog timeline has caught up with my real timeline. Tomorrow, I will try to go to Senegal. No doubt this will involve several hours at a Mauritanian Garage...

January 29, 2004

Dinner's on Tony

I was originally going to leave Mauritania yesterday, but due to circumstances beyond my control (OK, circumstances well within my control), I didn't manage to do it. The night before, a mosquito, lack of food, and an overactive mind conspired to keep me awake until 3am. At 9am I was rapidly searching for a reason to justify me not getting out of bed, and I came up with - "I haven't

The day was pretty uneventful until early evening, when I met a guy who was here doing research on landmines. He had worked for The Red Cross in Afghanistan and Bosnia, and for a landmines organisation, so was here doing a freelance report. He mentioned that a British geologist had borrowed his notes, and he was bringing them back later, and they were going to dinner, and would I like to come. So off we went to the Moroccan Restaurant, which was very nice, and even had beer. The icing on the cake, being that when the bill came, the geologist said, 'Don't worry, this one's on Tony'.

There was no Tony at the table which was a bit confusing, until he said, 'Yep. It's on Tony - Tony Blair. The goverment will pay - you can get something back for your taxes at last!!'. The geologist, being a civil servant, had a good expenses allowance!

The night was not however, over, as the mine researcher being a young fellow like myself, had arranged to meet a guy from the Congo to show him the 'nightlife' of Noukachott. The first stop was a restaurant with a bar at the side, which I thought was not a bad effort for Mauritania. The next stop turned out to be an unmarked door down a sandy side alley. I was most surprised upon opening the door, to find a bouncer in a tuxedo on the other side. I was even more surprised when he told me to take off my hat, and surprised further still, when there was a full blown nightclub at the end of the corridor! They were even playing what I believe the younger generation might call 'house' or 'rave'.

It was only about half full, and contained an even mix of foreigners, locals, and prostitutes. It wasn't massively exciting to be honest, and the landmine guy declared it a 3 out of 10. The Congolese guy had a bit of a dance, and we took our leave. Ironically I got to bed at the same time as the night before, but this time I was determined to make it to Senegal the next day.

next >> Rosso - Banjul

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