0248. A 20 hour trip... (Mauritania 01--revisit)

Nouakchott Travel Blog

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Yep... you read that right... I left El Ayoun Thursday night, and arrived in Nouakchott Mauritania Wednesday night... Definitely an adventure--however, I must say it pales in comparison to my 2004 trans Saharan adventure--back when Mauritania was still fierce and untamed.  So I'm going to pause here for a minute and take a trip down memory lane, to July of 2004...

MAURITANIA IN 2004... 

Dakhla, Morocco... I stalled for another week or so in Agadir, then, on an impulse, I got on a bus going south... WAY south... to the very end of the line.... No more buses south of Dakhla--or any sort of organized transportation.

.. It's just you, the desert, and whoever happens to be driving by...

Rode all night... South of Tan Tan the bus stopped at a bustling travel stop village where a long row of butchers and grillers prepared meat for the hungry traveler.  The place was full of soldiers coming back from being stationed in the Moroccan Sahara.   I wasn't too hungry--I was drawn instead to the sound of the waves in the darkness... Sure enough, just a short distance away was the beach... a beach that stretches on and on undisturbed for a thousand miles... 
...I started running... faster and faster in the pitch darkness... An amazing feeling, knowing that I could run on and on forever and never run into a single human being...

...Common sense kicked in--and I headed back to my bus.

..

In the morning I arrived in El Ayoun--the farthest south I'd ever gotten (in 1997).  But this time my bus is going much farther.  Much farther.

Cliffs and beach on the right.  Rocks and sand on the left.  No vegetation of any sort.  Ever.  And this went on for the entire day. 

Finally we reached a gas station in the middle of nowhere with a bit of familiarity.  The rotiserie chicken was fantastic... As the guy served me I couldn't help but wonder what his commute to work must be like...

And then, towards evening, there we were.   Driving down the narrow penensula with a beautiful turquoise bay on our left and we'd arrived in Dakhla...

I took a quick look around the fairly modern town, with its sleepy little market and typical three story homes.

.. But I wouldn't tarry long... I knew I had to press on while I had the drive in me to do so...

Mauritania or Bust

As expected, no transportation that way... "but you can just wait at the edge of town for someone to go by" I was told...

So I did... grabbed a cab back to the edge of town, and waited...

The Most Desolate Border in the World--Nouadibou, Mauritania

The taxi dropped me off at a Gendarme Police checkpoint outside Dakhla.  The cops were quite friendly and excited about my adventure.  It wasn't long before a rickety windowless cargo van pulled up that was heading south.  I negociated with the driver and climbed aboard.

  I felt a bit uneasy when he told me that he'd be holding onto my passport... but there's no turning back now...

We were off... sitting on the spare tire with a half a dozen other passengers... a Moroccan with a few boxes of wares  to sell... a couple of Saharawi women with small children... a Mauritanian medical student studying in Morocco...

We stopped at a tiny little village somewhere around dusk where people stocked up on water and food.

Then the bumps began--not the typical bumps of a dirt or gravel road, but the bone jarring ruts and rocks of an abandoned path... And to think--since the border with Algeria is technically closed, this is the ONLY road that connects Morocco with another country!

Around 9 or so, we stopped again--this time at a little restaurant in the middle of nowhere.

  Here the Moroccan fellow graciously invited me to share a tagine with him.  All the Saharawis, including the driver, as well as the passengers from another vehicle gathered in a room where they sat on the floor, ate, drank tea, socialized late into the night...

...So it looks like this is where we'll be staying the night, I assumed.  Me and the other non-Saharawis just kind of hung around outside not quite sure what to do.  It was becoming clear that all the Saharawis would spend the night together in that room--and it didn't seem like we were welcome... And it was quite chilly outside... Finally we made arrangements to sleep on the floor in another room...

Next morning we were off... Another two hours of bumps and we were there... Two shabby little rooms in the middle of endless sand dunes.

.. this is the Moroccan--Mauritanian border...
And so we waited... and waited... and waited... Hours went by.  I was told that the border police had to radio in our passport numbers one by one to Rabat, where they'd be checked on a computer database and then radioed back one by one...

Two other vehicles arrived during this time--one was a guy who had driven a car all the way from France intending to sell it here at the border--I looked at him incredulously... here we are in the most desolate spot on earth--and he wants to sell a car!  But apparently, there is a "no man's land" in between the countries where you can legally sell a car brought from Europe.

This poor fellow had brought with him a piece of bread and a can of sardines--which he shared with three of us guys who hadn't brought anything.

.. Later on one of the ladies pulled out a bowl of camel milk to pass around...

...An unforgettable day on The Most Desolate Border on Earth...

Finally, half a day later, we were allowed to pass through...

The Mauritanian side of the border consisted of two guys in a tent, one of them sitting on a cot, barefoot...

 

"Where's your visa?" they asked me.

Now for the moment of truth "I was told that I could get the visa here at the border." He nodded yes.

Otherwise, this could have been my worst day in a long time...

We headed a bit further, where there was another tent, another two guards.  Here, I was told, I had to declare exactly how much foreign currency I was carrying with me, otherwise I could get into big trouble.

  A bit of a dodgy situation, especially since I didn't know exactly how much I was carrying with me, and I wasn't about to pull it out and count it in front of everybody.  Finally I figured I'd just give them a round number.

A Mauritanian fellow wearing the typical flowing, regal robe told me that there was no transportation south of Noadhibou until next day.  He offered me a place to stay, plus a ticket south for a very reasonable price, so I decided to take him up on the offer.  Wandering in this part of the world, you've really got no choice but to trust people sometimes.  So I got in his 4 by 4 with a couple of other guys and headed off... This guy drove like a maniac, hitting the bumps with such a vengeance, that our heads would smash against the roof of the jeep..

.

Finally we reached Noadhibou, and I instantly knew I had entered a whole different world... the streets that were nothing but sand... the endless little shacks... the markets that are nothing but a couple of makeshift tables selling decaying meat... the people, the desolate terrain... Surely this is the harshest place to live I've ever seen...

I was feeling more and more uneasy about my "guide"... I found out that, yes, there was transportation south that same day... and as he drove me around doing some of his own errands, and then taking me to an "official" moneychanger where he insisted I had to change money and pay a ridiculous commission, I knew I had to do something... So I talked him into driving me to the station where I weaseled my way out of our agreement.  He bought me a "rooftop" ticket with the money I'd given him.

.. I figured I should cut my losses just to be rid of the guy...

The station consisted of just a scattering of random, rickety vehicle on a dirt lot.  There were a couple of stands nearby selling water and packaged crackers where the girls hollered for me to do business with them--when I went to one stand, the others howled in protest...

At first I thought that riding on top of all the luggage on the back of a pickup would be an adventure.  But as I saw the luggage pile up, I started to seriously wonder if I'd be able to keep my balance up there the entire night--besides, I was the only guy without a jacket--and it looked like the night would be chilly... So I wimped out and upgraded to "business class"--a seat inside the pickup.

It would still be a couple of hours before we'd leave, so I decided to take a tour around town.

.. A very surreal, otherworldly feel.  The streets were empty except for a few skinny children, a woman in her Sarahawi shawl and a suspicious shopkeeper peering out of his little shop... Throughout the town, enormous sand dunes rose up here and there, reminding all that sand is what really rules this region...

I headed back to my truck.  By now the luggage dwarfed the vehicle with bags hanging off every side.  An enormous mama with a baby was perched right in the middle--everyoe else just hung on wherever they could.... And then something even more bizarre--a scrawny foreigner with a scruffy beard and djellaba climbed aboard... I found out later that he was an American Muslim who had spent two years in the middle of the desert with some teacher learning about Islam--so he was clearly well adjusted to this environment.

.. With him was his American bride who was in a panic attack when she realized how many people were going to be crammed into the cab of the pickup... she struggled to get out and gazed in horror at the horde of people clambering atop her precious luggage...

...Dude... Honeymoon in Mauritania?  You guys are going to need some serious marraige counseling after this...

...And then we are off...

Nouakchott, Mauritania

It was near dusk when we left Noadhibou and thankfully the road wasn't quite as bad as the previous one.  Occasionally we did have to get out and push when the pick up got stuck in the sand--but clearly the driver knew how to manage the desert terrain.

  Occasionally the dirt road would be cut off by a sand dune and we'd have to rumble around it through the desert... And then there were the periodic police stops where us foreigners had to go and have them write down all our information.  No funny business going on, so I didn't mind--but clearly the driver seemed to be getting irked about the delays. 
Sometime in the middle of the night, we stopped at a little grouping of tents. I was really hungry, so I went to one of the tents to see what was on the menu... I waited by candlelight as they brought me a plate of spaghetti with little chunks of rotting mutton and a sprinkling of sand... I figured this was a part of the Mauritanian experience--so I ate what I could...

In another tent there was music--haunting, wailing voices with slow, thumping percussions going on through the night.

.. I gazed up at the best view of the starry sky that I'd ever seen...

...That night in the middle of the Sahara, is one I'll never forget...

No formal sleeping arrangements... some people slept in tents... some on the ground inside... Luckily nobody had claimed the back seat of the pickup cab, so that's where I spent the rest of the night...

Early in the morning we were off again... Little had changed in the barren landscape except for a few jagged mountains nearby... Hours went by--still not a single green thing in sight.  We came to a tent in the middle of nowhere.  The driver got out and went to have tea there.  I don't know if he knew the guy, or it's just the Saharawi thing to do... The rest of us waited, waited...

Finally off again... and then, suddenly out of nowhere--pavement!  We were approaching civilization. 

Nouakchott  did have some semblance of a "regular" city with shops, some decent looking homes, banks--even a luxury hotel!  As soon as I could, I got off the vehicle and headed off on foot to explore the city.

I hiked down the wide, dirt streets where ladies in flowing dresses carried enormous fish on platters to cook for dinner... young fellows on donkey carts provided "running water" to households from big metal jugs...

Then, as I walked, the city suddenly transformed into a vast slum that went on and on forever... I knew I looked really out of place--but I was determined to experience this place...

...Finally I reached the edge of town--a vast sheep and cattle market...

Back into town, found my way to the main market area where little shops sold very pricey traditional Saharawi robes... But I wasn't looking for a robe--all I wanted was a map... This trip had happened so suddenly, that I hadn't even had time to look at a map and I had absolutely no idea what town lay between here and Dakar, Senegal...
Nope, no maps... just have to figure out my way the old fashioned way... I did however see a car crash right in front of me... A policeman, standing right there, just laughed and walked away.  By all the dents I saw in the cars, clearly this is not an unusual event here in Nouakchott.   It seems like folks here are the best drivers in the world out in the open country--but put them in an urban environment where they have to share space with other vehicles, and they have absolutely no idea what to do...

...More markets... a fish market, then a meat market, which I will not attempt to describe...

...A little grove of palm trees that brought a refreshing little bit of green to the city...

...Finally I felt I had explored the city fairly thoroughly, so I started heading south, figuring I'd find some sort of transport on the way.  I'd found out that the border town is called "Rosso" and is only a couple of hours away... It's been a very intense two days here in Mauritania, and though I could stay longer, I decide to keep on moving... So I walk on and on but no sign of the "Rosso station"

No real taxis here in Nouakchott--the way it works here is, if you have a car, you have a taxi... So I finally decide to accept an offer for a ride to the station... The horizon is getting dark with one of them typical Mauritanian sandstorms...

I get to the station and an old man rushes up and pulls me over to a car which he says is going to Rosso.  A while later, another passenger shows up--another man drags him off to ANOTHER car... and so on and so forth... Hours go by, with several vehicles half full... Finally, a car is full to capacity and heads out.  My car just sits there, almost full... I just sit there, soaking in the Mauritanian experience...

Finally, we're off once again...

OK--BACK TO THE PRESENT...

Where was I? Oh yeah!  I'm on a grand taxi speeding across the desert in the middle of the night.  At about 1:30 AM we reach that same travel station where my bus stopped back in 2004.  The driver says he’s going to take a quick 30 minute nap. He disappears into the backroom for 5 hours...

I usually try to flow with things, but I'm getting pretty antsy to get to Dakhla, as things really have to go like clockwork for me to stay on schedule.  The other passengers seem to be getting antsy too.  We ask the waiter to please wake him up. He asks "Is the guy Saharawi?... well... you know their rules..." 

Finally our driver shows up, when the guys complain he says "why didn't you guys wake me up?"

To his credit, he does drink his coffee in the car, something Moroccans NEVER do...

We reach the fork at about 9 AM. Road to the right: Dakhla, 40 kms.  Road to the left: Africa in all its splendor. 

I was thinking of going to Dakhla and catching a ride from there, as I don't like to take the risk of being stranded in the middle of nowhere.  But our driver pulls into a nearby gas station and farms the other passengers out to other taxis--clearly not interested in going further.  So I decide to hike back to the fork and try my luck.

There’s a Gendarme Police stop right at the fork, so I figure I'll gamble on asking them for help.  They are quite friendly and looking over my papers say that they’ll try to help me get a ride.  So I walk across the road and wait... Other than the Gendarme post and the gas station there's nothing but sand and rock in every direction.

 

After about 20 minutes or so, I see a parade of three rusty old cars coming up from Dakhla.  After being checked by the cops, they came my way and stop... The Gendarme look my way and wave.

A thirty something sunburned French fellow steps out of the first car--asking me how far I’m going.  I tell him I’m heading all the way to Senegal--but a lift down to Nouadibou would be just fine... And I'd be glad to help with the gas...

"Don't worry about it" he said, "and we're going all the way to Nouakchott, so you can ride with us until there..."

Damn, I'm getting lucky on this trip...

So quite unlike my previous journey, this time I travel in style, riding shotgun with driver number 2.  Their plan is to sell two of the cars (and some other, uh, "stuff") at the border with Mauritania, where that can be done legally without having to pay any fees.  Then they will continue on in the third car to Nouakchott.  I’m trying to figure out how the four of us and all our luggage will fit into one car... and it looks like it could be a real challenge... But hey, they offered...

The lead driver has made this trip 7 times and knows all the ropes and how to negotiate and all.  The guy I ride with, well, has never left France before--not even to, say, Belguim!  I look at him incredulously--I mean, to drive from France to Mauritania is an adventure. But to drive from France to Mauritania when you've never done any sort of excursion before is absolutely crazy!  But he seems to be just chilling and soaking it all in like a peaceful drive down to Marseille...

We stop at a travel stop about 150 kms from the border (the same place I spent the night in 04) where I buy 3 guys lunch.  I also manage to buy some Euros--which I figure will hold me over until I reach an ATM in Senegal... Then we are off again...

We reach the border and I’m almost disappointed. The hut in the middle of the desert was gone and a typical, freshly painted border station is set up in its place.  Tourists, businessmen and locals line up at the immigration window, just as they would at any border anywhere else in the world.  Well, at least I was able to experience this border back when it was The Most Desolate Border in the World...

Still takes a while to get through--and then a very bumpy ride through unpaved "no man's land" between Morocco and Mauritania... And then we reached Kandahar...

Kandahar is nothing--no houses, stalls, not even a tent.  But this where Frenchmen travel across thousands of miles of desert to do business.  Scattered among the dunes are random vehicles of various types--along with quite a few skeletons of cars that simply weren't worth driving any further.  A couple of Mauritanians pop up out of nowhere and Driver Number 1 gets to work.

The cars are clearly not worth much, even in Mauritania--I have to crawl out through the drivers side because my door is broken--and they are Renaults, not Mercedes which are loved at any age.  They can't agree on a price, so we drive off...

But the French guy knows how things work here... within a few minutes the buyers are chasing us down in another car, finally agreeing to his price of 1000 Euros per car...

Still, not a lot of money for all that driving they’ve done...

 

We cram into the remaining vehicle and cross into Mauritania--even their side of the border has been fixed up nicely... and on to a beautifully paved highway... past little tent hamlets scattered through the wilderness, as we speed at 130 kms per hour into the night... Not the wild adventure I had back in 04--but at least I'll get down to Senegal a lot faster...

NOUAKCHOTT

Nouakchott--and really all of Mauritania feels so much tamer now with their new highway.  It's no longer the rugged outpost out in the middle of nowhere.  As we enter the city I even see a couple of hotels and hostels that have popped up here and there--clearly a lot of tourists are taking advantage of this new gateway to Africa, although I suspect still very few of them tarry in Mauritania for very long.

The lead driver knows of a relatively cheap hostel where we can stay in a dormitory style room for about 7 Euros--we we’re the only ones in the rooms so there’s was little risk of thievery. Then we head out to grab something to eat.  A brightly lit street had a couple of eateries that offer a good variety of Mauritanian and foreign dishes--and the place is alive and hopping even though it’s well after midnight. 

No rotten meat and no sand in my food this time.

Still excited about being in Mauritania nonetheless--more of a feeling of "this looks like a fun city to explore" rather than "what the hell am I doing in this crazy place?" kind of excitement.  So I bid the kind French fellows goodbye and head off to bed... I've got a lot of exploring to do tomorrow...

Next morning I head out, in a hurry to revisit some of the places I saw last time, discover a few new places, and make sure I make it to Senegal before the border closes... I first wander around the quiet government district.  Other than an occasional pick up truck full of soldiers, you could never guess that there was a coup d'etat here a few weeks ago...

Mauritania is one of the more difficult parkbenching locations.  First of all: no parkbenches, almost no shade, and folks seem to be a bit on the serious side--so you'd feel pretty odd just pulling out your guitar on a random street corner.  I do find a very nice green park, but it is locked up tight.  So I decide to play it safe and play my set in a shady discreet location before the streets get too crowded...

But actually, as I wander about, I find folks to be much more relaxed and friendly then they seemed before.  Folks would come up to me just to chat... A tall, older fellow walks along with me for a bit telling me that he's also a musician and we should get together and jam when I come back to town... I wander on through the markets and around the bustling downtown area.  One thing they still haven't thought of here yet are sidewalks.  So you've either got to walk on the very busy streets, or trudge through the sand on the side...

...A quite pleasant, relaxing morning soaking in the unique Arab-African fusion vibe that makes this part of the world unique...

Take a couple of photos... a beautiful mosque... the donkey cart warehouse sector... an enormous fish for sale in the market... Don't feel comfortable taking my video clip in any of these places--finally settled for a clip in the lush palm tree oasis right in the heart of town...

I saw buses (yes, buses) that go from Nouakchott to Nouadibou, so I want to find out where their station is.  People point me off in several directions--ended up trudging through sand for miles along boring blank walls... At least I can say I made it to the edge of town, where Nouakchott slowly peeters out on a scattering of upscale villas...

And then, parked there beside the road, is the last thing I’d ever expect to find in Mauritania: a limousine that you can rent.  Not quite as spiffy as what you see in Hollywood, but still a completely surreal thing to see in this middle of nowhere country!

Finally find, actually a couple of bus stations--all buses leaving to Nouadibou around 4 in the afternoon... Satisfied I figure it's time to head south...

See you in a little while, Nouakchott...

 

spanishrosie says:
This is a really enjoyable entry for me as my husband & I have discussed travelling from Morocco (where we have been) to Gambia via Mauritania
Posted on: Jul 23, 2011
SmileyGirl says:
This is the best blog entry I've read on Africa yet! I love the amazing stories, they've really kept me enthralled! But then again I'm incredibly interested in visiting this part of Africa so that could be part of it.
Posted on: Apr 25, 2010
Andy99 says:
Amazing adventures! I'm really enjoying reading this blog.
Posted on: Feb 12, 2009
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Nouakchott
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