Mauritania by Accident

Mauritania had never been on my 'must visit' list. Neither had travelling in pain, and sometimes delirious with a raging fever, ever been on my 'must do' list. By accident, the two coincided and it was for me, a whole new experience. I had a great time.

Mauritania by Accident

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by HELEN001 on April 21, 2006

As we only saw an iron ore train and crossed the minefield my experience of recommended highlights is a tad limited. But this is not a problem because Mauritania is another one of those countries where you can make your own highlights. For some people it could be the vast desert panoramas, for others the surprising variety and beauty of the plants that grow in this seeming wilderness. If not the landscape or flora then what about the sight of hundreds of boys in gleaming white robes heading home from Koranic school or sitting in an internet café where every other cyber-cruiser in the place is not only male, but wearing blue robes and a white headscarf? There are also those encounters with the Mauritanians themselves that either narrow or widen the cultural divide depending on the circumstances. The ritualistic exchange of pleasantries at the police checkpoints can be just as much a highlight to some people as the sight of a capital city in a state of gridlock. The little I saw of Mauritania was enough of a highlight to make me definitely want to go back for more. ${QuickSuggestions} Take about 20 photocopies of the page in your passport that shows your details - it can save time at checkpoints and you don't usually need to get out of your vehicle if you have copies to hand over. When relaxing, do not lie on either your back or your front if you are female – this is considered to be sexually suggestive. So lie on your side unless you mean it! Be wary of the baguettes in Ayoun el Atrous. Explosions don’t necessarily mean there’s been a coup, so don’t panic. Always bend your knees when picking up anything heavy including "beeg moolet!" Pay no attention to anyone who asks you if you want to go for "a smoke" on the beach, in Nouakchott, at night. No matter how gorgeous you think they are or how much you’d love a spliff. Gorgeous they may be but smart they aren’t. You don’t go to the beach at night unless you’re keen to have being mugged as one of your highlights. OK, it doesn’t happen to everybody but it does happen a lot. It’s up to you. Enjoy! ${BestWay} Well I’m biased towards the way we did it, which was in a large orange truck. We slept in it or on it and we could cook and wash pretty much anywhere we wanted. Because the cab was high up it felt safer when we had to stop for whatever reason and we were pretty sure that nobody would want to steal it because of obvious resale problems. I don’t think a re-spray and a change of license plates wouldn’t have fooled anyone never mind the Mauritanian police equivalent of the car crime division – there wasn’t another vehicle like her in the country. Most travellers we met were in their own vehicles which, like their occupants, ranged from the "prepared for every eventuality including nuclear and chemical warfare" to the "barely through a road-worthy test" types. Pretty much everybody had experienced some sort of delay or hold-up that had little to do with their state of preparedness. With time and patience it is possible to get round Mauritania paying for rides in public or private vehicles. Some hotels arrange trips to the interior and 4x4 hire is possible but expensive. Air travel is a viable alternative.

Auberges Le Phare du Desert

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by HELEN001 on April 21, 2006

When you look at a hotel there's loads of different criteria you can use to rate the place - the most obvious being things like convenience, cleanliness, price, water supply and the number of cockroaches. But I now have another criterion that I can apply; is this a hotel I’d be happy to stay in if I were ill? And the answer is most definitely yes as far as the Auberges le Phare du Desert is concerned. Situated on the Nouakchott side of Kiffa it is a veritable oasis of comfort and tranquillity, and frankly I’d have been happy if we’d been held up there for a number of days instead of staying just the one night. Neither am I joking when I call it an oasis although it’s not quite the palm tree type of oasis. Most of the vegetation around the auberge was what I’d call "jungley" and there was even a little stream. The main body of the auberge was a courtyard, surrounded on four sides by single storey buildings housing the hotel rooms.

Each room had a door that opened on to a terrace running around the sides of the courtyard. The walls and doors of these simple buildings were decorated with often highly ornate Tuareg symbols. There was also mirror work in places and the floors of the terraces were mosaics of what looked like pieces of broken tiles. The the courtyard was carpeted with large, colourful, modern floral pattern carpets. Not one the same. One side of the courtyard was a dining area and the other side was like the "chill out" area, with chairs and banquettes arranged almost regimentally along the edge of the carpets and all facing inwards. No two pieces of furniture in the courtyard were identical. All the tables were different sizes and heights.

In the "chill out" area there would be a wooden school chair next to a highly upholstered faux fur armchair, which was next to an upright dining room chair and so on. I had my dinner sitting on an office chair. I wasn’t up to rolling round the room or going up and down, but I could’ve done if I’d wanted to. There’s something for everyone at Le Phare du Desert! Anyway, the entire courtyard is covered by heavily patterned canvass that peaks in the centre, so you feel like you’re in a huge tent. There’s some more jungle as well. It’s like something designed by Gaudi. I loved it.

Out the back is a clean toilet block, with showers and more tents if you don’t fancy a room. The rooms are clean, comfortable and decorated slightly more simply than the courtyard. There was a limited menu but the food was fine. The owner Idoumou Abderramane is an educated and interesting man who speaks excellent English. He owns another similarly named hotel outside Tidjikja and they can arrange guided tours around Mauritania at excellent rates. E-mail: . Great place.

Auberge Menata

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by HELEN001 on April 22, 2006

Having worked out that this place was smack in the centre of town when I looked at the map I was really surprised to find the auberge to be a large house on a quiet, secluded and pretty up-market looking side street. The building was surrounded by a large sandy compound enclosed behind high walls on all sides. Along the front wall was a row of very tall conifer-type trees, and it was really hard to imagine you were actually in the centre of a capital city. To one side of the house was a parking area which, when we arrived, was full of a real motley collection of vehicles, including a couple that looked far more suitable for "doing the school run" rather than hiking across Africa.

There was one van that we suspected had left the Glastonbury Festival last year, and had just kept on going. And of course, there were the "professional" travellers – some of whom come close to being obsessive about the cleanliness of their clothes and their vehicles. There was a garden area to the front of the building, and built into the wall was a little shop selling crisps, biscuits, and drinks. Great idea. There was also a large decorated tent full of mattresses for lazing around in. On the roof were two more large tents which also provided sleeping accommodation. To the rear of the auberge was a nice outdoor eating area, shaded by overhanging trees, with a couple of large tables, some chairs and a couple of dodgy benches. The rooms in the house were large and airy. In the front hall there’s loads of interesting local maps and info on the walls, posters for events and even a little display case of local crafts.

The bathroom I used was huge and spotless, with a proper bath and shower – it was like staying at someone’s house, which is really what you’re doing when you stay here. Olivia the owner, when she’s around, seems to belong to the "so laid back it’s horizontal" school of business management, which is great but takes a bit of getting used to. So, if you’re the sort of person who wants to see a menu rather than have someone look and see what’s in the fridge, then I’d eat out. When it’s not New Years Eve there’s plenty of decent places close by to eat. Or buy your own stuff and cook in the kitchen – there’s everything you need in the way of pans and plates. Or if you know you are leaving in the morning then try to pay the bill the day before because although Olivia may say she’ll be there, it doesn’t mean she definitely will be. If, on the other hand, you’re pretty horizontal yourself, then this is a great place to stay. The broad cross-section of travellers who seem to end up here provide endless entertainment as you watch them adjust to the Menata management style.

Part 1: Borderline Issues

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by HELEN001 on April 22, 2006

Yes, I know Nioro is in Mali but the Mauritanian border post is there. I gather it’s been moved some time recently and before, once through the Malian border post, there was a sort of limbo area of some miles before you reached the Mauritanian border post. Of course, like much of the stuff you’re told in this neck of the woods, this could be just another one of those things you hear that may or may not be the case. As both border posts are out in the sticks and in the middle of a particularly uninspiring stretch of scrub, it certainly seems a good idea socially to have the posts within shouting distance. At least the guards can chat loudly to each other until one of the posts gets moved again. Oh and, when I say border post, I should perhaps be more specific and say border "tent."

So anyway, there were two of us in the truck and we were heading back to the UK. The driver was Claire who had been our trip leader round Mali and I shouldn’t really have been there at all, but that’s a different story. Claire had driven down through Mauritania the previous October with a male colleague so she had a fair idea of what to expect, particularly at police checkpoints and border posts. We drove up to the border post in our long-sleeved t-shirts and headscarves. The truck was an alcohol-free zone; we’d hidden our cigarette supplies, put cameras away and, to be on the safe side we’d sprayed the cab with deodorant to mask any lingering whiff of nicotine – not that it did much for the lingering whiff of us! Both of us had also suddenly lost any ability we may have had to speak anything other than the most rudimentary French. I’d taken another handful of painkillers half an hour before and, whilst I hadn’t managed to rustle up a friendly smile, I could at least manage a friendly grimace. We were ready.

Well daahlings, was I the disappointed one. I’d been expecting at least some sort of minor shake-down but in fact it was more like watching someone revising for, and then sitting a GCSE – and just as exciting. The guy not only studied our passports as if they were the set texts for the literature exam, unusually he was even reading them the right way up. He asked a few pertinent and intelligent questions, thought for a moment then opened an enormous ledger. Time slowed. I’ve never seen anybody write in slow motion before – it’s fascinating. The only noise was the breeze flapping the side of the tent and the faint scratching of nib on paper. In the corner of the tent, lying on his side on a blanket, was a similarly clad camouflaged soldier holding a glass of mint tea to his mouth. A small enamel teapot sat on a tiny pile of glowing embers on the ground. Even the sweat running down everyone’s foreheads was in slow motion. It was very peaceful. Bizarre eh? I’d gone in expecting hell and came out having had some sort of nirvana like experience. Can you believe that some people actually pay thousands of pounds to go to exotic locations to be taught how to do stuff like that?

Anyway, it didn’t last. Maybe 50 yards or so after the border tent there was another checkpoint. It was unclear which of the small cluster of reed huts on either side of the road was the actual checkpoint. But you had to stop because one half of the road was blocked by three upturned oil drums and the other half by a red and white striped bamboo pole. In the shade of the huts a few small groups of men were talking. I waved at the guys on the left and Claire waved to the guys on the right. We had already locked our doors but had the windows rolled down. A guy on my side of the road got up and strolled over the pitted tarmac to my window. His left hand reached up and tried to open my door. He spoke to us in French but mysteriously, we didn’t speak French anymore.

"Hello! How are you?" shouted Claire over the top of me at the "officer," "Do you want our passports?"

Well that shut him up for a few moments. He then spoke, at length, in French. We looked at him blankly. "We don’t speak French." I said and handed him our passports and photocopies of the relevant pages. Now he was an upside down reader. He walked back across the road and handed them to a figure reclining on a mattress under a scrubby tree. This was, apparently, a police checkpoint and although we didn’t know it at the time, it was the easiest checkpoint we would experience in Mauritania. The reclining boss didn’t seem to be in the slightest bit interested in us once he’d had a cursory flick through the pages. He took the photocopies and without looking up said something to the "officer" who came back over to my window smiling. I put my hand out for the passports. He put them behind his back and smiled. "Cadeaux?"

"Eh, sorry mate?"

"Cadeaux pour moi. Vous avez une cadeaux pour moi?"

"Terribly sorry officer, but we don’t speak French. Er, vous speeek English?"

"T-shirt pour moi?"

"Do us a favour eh? You do your job and we’ll do ours - you give us the passports and we drive away OK? So stop hanging from the wing mirror and pass them over please."

He did. We left. Interesting observation here; police checkpoint personnel in Mauritania tend to "wind-down" in the afternoons. In the mornings though, it’s a different story. In the mornings the exchange of pleasantries could often get as far as being asked for a "fucky fucky" before we could get our passports back. I’m pretty certain this is not much of a problem for guys, unless someone knows better? What made it all so tedious was that you knew you weren’t going to give in and you knew they’d eventually give up but you still had to go through the whole drawn out process which could take forever. We never once felt threatened at a checkpoint though, and in some places they were charmingly persistent. And this was roughly every 50km or so. Claire and I had a theory. Both of us agreed that the last thing on earth we’d ever want to be, would be a Mauritanian checkpoint officer. The only entertainment must be when a vehicle pulls up, especially a foreign vehicle. So we figured that if that had been us and two western females in a bright orange military style truck pulled up, then off course we’d have kept them there for as long as possible. Wouldn’t you?

So my advice to any female travellers who may find themselves in this position is, think outside the box. If you don’t, you’ll just get more and more peed-off with it. Think of it this way instead – it is, whether you like it or not, an authentic cultural experience. Isn’t that what you went there for in the first place? Or how about, they probably didn’t choose to be there but you did? But if you really want to reduce the stress factor then think of it as providing an essential service. Think of it as "entertaining the troops" if you like. Trust me, you can make life a lot easier if you dump the notion that these guys are the "bad guys." I really don’t think they are – I think they’re the "bored guys." Now, I have a problem.

The only things I can remember about the drive from the border to Ayoun el Atrous are a couple of the more "entertaining" checkpoints, and even that’s a bit fuzzy. I had a raging temperature and hurt all over, and there was an excruciating pain in my left-hand side when I breathed in but not out. I’d had it in Bamako for 3 days the previous week. but it just suddenly went away and I’d been fine for a couple of days before we left for Mauritania. It had returned with a vengeance by the time we reached Nioro. I think there were two things that kept me going. One was the desperate need to find a pharmacy in Ayoun el Atrous. The other, strangely enough, was the thought of seeing some "interesting rock formations." Rough Guide to West Africa (2003) ed. Hudgens and Trillo. So I apologise for this lack of scenic description due to my comatose state, but if it’s any consolation Claire told me that the landscape was nothing to write home about.

Part 2: The Longest Day

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by HELEN001 on April 22, 2006

So we reached Ayoun el Atrous with Claire hungry enough to eat her own leg and me ready to trade my first-born for a truckload of drugs. I’m not usually one for praying but, as we crawled along the main street all I kept thinking was, please, please God can we find a pharmacy before we find a food shop. I know it was selfish – but she wasn’t going to die, whereas I was.

Well, what a funny little place it is. I guess it must’ve been around 5ish in the afternoon so there was that nice warm orangey glow you get at that time of day. The trouble was that it was still too early for the place to be open again after the long midday break. The majority of shops had the shutters pulled down, there was hardly anyone around and the only thing missing were balls of tumbleweed gently rolling in the warm breeze. Yes, they certainly know how to roll up the pavements in Ayoun! On the other hand you did get a chance to see the buildings without the people getting in the way. Quite a few traditional red sandstone buildings but nothing particularly awe-inspiring. The majority of shop buildings lining the road appeared to be your standard concrete box about the size of a single car garage. No windows, just shutters or doors as wide as the unit itself and usually the whole façade would be painted in either shades of pastel blue or a muted red colour.

There was a lot of sand about. On either side of the road between the edge of the tarmac and the concrete steps leading to the shop fronts were strips of sand about 2m wide. Blown by the wind, in some places the sand had formed small drifts up against the shop steps. In other places it encroached on the road like the tide coming in. If the place had been busy I’m not sure I’d have noticed the sand so much. So then it got me thinking about what a nightmare it must be to have so much sand in your life. We’d been at the Festival au Desert in Tombouctou two weeks earlier and, on the second morning we woke up to the breathtaking awfulness of the harmattan. If it had been just a wind then that would have been bearable – it was the sand carried by the wind that made it unbearable. It was everywhere; we were eating it, breathing it and thinking it.

We were lucky as well, it could have lasted for days but by mid afternoon it was dying away. It would be no exaggeration for me to say that my few hours experience of the harmattan took me to the edge of my sanity. Imagine having to live like that for days on end, unable to open your eyes, to speak or to breath with ease. I don’t think I want to try. Now in Mauritania this hot, dry desert wind is called the sirocco and although I’m no expert on post-sand storm evidence evaluation, it looked to me like Ayoun had also been hit fairly recently by something very sandy. There was very little traffic, most vehicles were parked up on the side of the road and most of them were covered in a thick layer of orange dust. The town had an abandoned feel to it like you get in seaside resorts in England between October and April. Although obviously not as cold, damp and windy.

Yet it was here that my prayers were answered and I now concede there may well be a God. There, in the distance, a guiding light – the neon green cross that had been the focus of my mantra for the last God knows how many hours. We rolled of the tarmac, into the sand and came to stop outside the pharmacy. I leaped out of the cab. When I landed there was a stab of pain in the ball of my right foot, everything went red, my eyes watered and, although I can’t remember, I damn sure my language would’ve been pretty ripe. I whipped off my wafer thin but oh so comfortable fluorescent pink left flip flop and there, embedded in the sole was what looked like a pea-size sea urchin. ‘Oh’, says Claire, "that’s camel acacia." Well let me tell you something, the cram cram in Mali is nothing - a mere pinprick compared to this camel acacia stuff.

Those pointed barbs really hurt and they draw blood. A few small giggling boys had gathered and they watched with interest as I hopped towards the pharmacy steps. Money! I hadn’t got any of whatever it was they call their money in Mauritania. I hopped over to Claire’s side of the cab. The "laying of hands" on some cash took time but eventually I hopped up the steps and into the pharmacy. Minutes later I was clutching a small plastic bag containing 50 cherry red anti-inflammatory tablets. I propped myself up against the shop counter while the pharmacist disappeared down the street to get change for the large denomination note I’d upset him with. The giggling boys sat outside on the steps. Suddenly and silently the silhouette of a tall figure wearing a boubou was standing in the shop entrance. Kicking off his leather sandals he took a step into the shop and into the cool blue of a strip light. He was very handsome and very tall. His robe was that wonderful shade of sky blue favoured by the Mauritanians but the brilliant white of his head scarf made my eyes hurt. He took a few steps towards me. Was I bothered? No – too ill to care. He spoke – in French.

I replied in English, "Look, I’m really sorry but I don’t want anything."

"Anglais?" he queried.

"Uh huh."

"You want to change money maybe?"

‘No thank you... very much.’

"Life insurance maybe?"

"Sorry? What did you just ask me?"

"You need life insurance?"

OK, I thought. Maybe we need to try this in French. I just couldn’t understand why I was being offered life insurance by a Mauritanian money changer. Maybe he thought life insurance meant "somewhere to stay?" But no, the run-through in French was the same. I was positive that I’d heard the words "assurance-vie" so I was in the middle of politely declining when the pharmacist returned. He was clutching a large wad of notes, which he proceeded to count out loud into my upturned hand, while "tutting" his displeasure in between every increment. I’m amazed I still had it in me to offer my profuse thanks as I limped past the local business diversification award winner, out of the shop and down the steps. Back in the cab I threw a few "cherries" into me, washed down by half a litre of warm, warm, warm, water. My mantra changed to "I will feel better soon."

Funny little place with funny tasting bread. We eventually found a young boy carrying a large flat tray of what looked like baguettes but about a third of the usual size and a bit pointier at the ends. They were also a strange, even, reddish-brown colour. I think we bought about half a dozen. Interestingly, they were also considerably heavier than you’d expect for a loaf of bread. Whatever they were, I managed about two bites. You know that rule of thumb about the ratio of ingredients used in baking that says "half fat to flour?" Well, this stuff certainly isn’t made using that particular method. I’d hazard a guess and say it was more like equal parts fat to flour to sand. Days later we speculated about whether it was a local speciality, because we never saw it anywhere else, or if in fact we’d actually bought some sort of sheep fodder.

What I saw of the rock formations on the way out of town looked good for about a mile or so. I was glad to have seen them before I died. Which is what I was pretty sure was happening to me. I had to lie down. I wanted to die in relative comfort and I couldn’t wait until we got to Kiffa. I’m still not sure whether I fell asleep or passed out. Whichever it was, there was this huge wave of blackness that washed over me as I was on my way down to, rather than already lying on, the mattress on the floor. You could have tortured me with Mauritanian baguettes and I wouldn’t have moved. And sometime I really must ask Claire what she said at the police checkpoints to explain the presence of a corpse in the back of the truck

Part 3: 'While there is life, there's hope'*

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by HELEN001 on April 22, 2006

Well, it was a new day, a new dawn and although I wasn’t exactly feeling like a new woman, I definitely felt better. The night before, Claire had woken me to tell me we were there. I had no idea where there was and it wouldn’t have meant anything to me if Claire had told me. I remember a meal but I’m fairly sure I didn’t actually eat anything. And having a wash. I think I got lost at some point and there seemed to be a lot of tents around. I do remember looking up at the clear night sky before getting in the truck to sleep. The stars were so spectacularly bright it made me want to go round shooting out street lights on return to the UK. I slept like a log, woke up in the morning feeling sort of OK and looked out the back of the truck.

Directly in front of me and about 10m away across a stretch of gravel was a building or structure or something – I’m not really quite sure which word to use here. There was definitely some sort of painted concrete structure but this was almost completely covered in lush foliage. The entrance appeared to be through a tunnel of vines and creepers. On either side of, and somehow attached to, the building were tents. More tents and a couple of small white painted concrete outbuildings stood independently to the sides and rear of the main building. It took me a moment to figure out what was bothering me. It was the plants of course! They didn’t look right. We were completely surrounded by rocks and sand and the odd patch of dusty grey scrub yet I was looking at a small but thriving tropical garden. I recognised some of the plants and associated most of them with places that were more on the humid side than inland Mauritania tends to be. Somewhere like Amazonia say!

Anyway, there was no sign of Claire and the cab was locked so I took it slowly across to the foliage tunnel where I was slightly puzzled by the sound of gently trickling water. Somewhere in amongst the roots of some creepers, I couldn’t really see, must’ve been some sort of fountain. To get into the building you had to cross a very shallow, one step wide stream which seemed to be part of an irrigation system for the plants. I didn’t remember that from the night before any more than I remembered that there was also a totally unnecessary but thoughtfully provided stepping stone. I found Claire sitting at a table in the centre of a large covered courtyard, book in one hand, coffee cup in the other. There were plants and rugs and strange motifs on the walls. The roof was this amazing patchwork of fabrics stretched over wooden poles. Sofas and low banquette seating was arranged around the edge of the carpeted area. This was the Auberges Le Phare du Desert just outside Kiffa and very nice it was too.

The road we were driving has a name – Route de l’Espoir, or Road of Hope. It runs from Néma in the east for over 1000km to Nouakchott in the west and it’s a great road. It does sound like a very optimistic and positive name for a road which is what it was meant to be. Built with Brazilian aid, the road was intended to bring social and economic benefits to the towns and villages of Mauritania’s impoverished interior. But that’s not what happened. If you build a road to a place that more people want to leave than want to get to then surely it stands to reason that the place will disappear eventually. Since the road was completed, Nouakchott has become a magnet to poor rural migrants from the east who eke out a living in the shanties that now surround the capital. They’re no better off there than when they were scratching a living on their unproductive farms. But I can understand why they left.

If I lived in one of the desolate, windswept villages we passed through after leaving Kiffa, and I thought there was even the faintest glimmer of hope that I could improve my lot by heading for Nouakchott then I’d be off too. The landscape was big and impressive with more than a touch of topography at last. In the early morning light the deep orange rock outcrops were sharply defined against the bluest of blue skies. At the crest of a long slow hill the rock outcrops gave way to a vast panorama looking over a gravel plain towards a heavily eroded escarpment on the far side. Reminiscent of the "butes" in Arizona, a number of pillars of rock stood, eroded and misshapen, at intervals on the plain. As the day wore on the landscape became bleached, the sunlight unbearably bright and the horizon was hidden by a shimmering haze. The intense blue sky of the morning had gone.

Instead of seeming to absorb light, the sky now bounced the sun’s rays back to earth like a giant reflector. The heat was dry and intense. And then, there would be a village. The majority were nothing more than a small cluster of semi-derelict, single-storey mud buildings on either side of the road with sand drifts blown half way up the walls facing the prevailing wind. There was no evidence of cultivation or anything in the environment to suggest the possibility of cultivation. Shadowy figures sat under woven palm leaf awnings, hiding from the midday sun. The occasional chicken could be seen scratching in the sand and somewhere nearby would be a herd of sheep or goats. Sometimes when you look at a desert landscape you can understand why there are so many religious stories about man meeting God, or whoever, out in the wilderness.

The problem with these stories is they do tend to be told from a single perspective. I mean, there surely is a bit of a difference between having the choice to nip off to the wilderness voluntarily to do a spot of communing with your spiritual side, and been forced to live in that albeit spiritual, but nevertheless desolate, barren and inhospitable landscape? What a grim and wearing existence and what a test of human endurance. We may not necessarily be seeking spiritual enlightenment when we visit Mauritania but we are still, like the prophets, just passing through. I cannot begin to imagine what form my spirituality would take if I lived in one of these villages. Bit of a paradox really – how you can find both heaven and hell on earth in the same place?

Of course, not every village was like this and yes, there was certainly evidence of less grinding poverty in the villages closer to Nuoakchott. In stark contrast to Ayoun the day before, the small towns of Aleg and Boutilimit were busy and the majority of people seemed quite well-off; there were a couple of pristine Mercs parked up between the rows of equally gleaming, usually Toyota, four wheel drive land-cruiser type vehicles. Silver and white being de riguer. Traffic on the open road was rare, mainly trucks but very occasionally we would meet or overtaken by one of these shiny vehicles, usually stuffed to the gunnels with large black-clad ladies in the rear, a number of children of varying ages on the rear parcel shelf, maybe three guys in the front and the person driving wasn’t the man in the driving seat but his 10 year old son who was sitting on his knee. It was the arrangement and number of passengers that Claire and I discussed when this happened.

It wasn’t until we saw a cluster of these vehicles parked up in Boutilimit that we really thought about their significance – that some people in Mauritania do actually seem to have a shed load of money. Not only that, nothing that we had seen so far in Mauritania suggested that it was possible to make money anywhere east of Nouakchott. No mines, no factories, no water. So why so many up-market vehicles around Boutilimit then? Two reasons, firstly Boutilimit is the religious capital of Mauritania and a prestigious seat of Islamic scholarship. Many male children of the Nouakchott well-to-do attend the Koranic school here. Secondly, as the town is only a couple of hours drive from the capital and is home to a library housing some of the country’s most valuable and rare Islamic manuscripts, it is a popular destination for day-trippers from Nouakchott. In fact it’s probably the only destination for a day-trip from Nouakchott!

I was still feeling OK, I’d managed to stay awake all day, and once Claire started banging on about camel sandwiches for dinner I actually started to feel hungry.

*John Gay (C18th), ‘Fables’ Pt I

Part 4: Scratching the Surface

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by HELEN001 on April 22, 2006

As we drove out of Boutilimit, groups of boys in their brilliant white Koranic school robes waved enthusiastically at us. We waved back. It was a photograph I wouldn’t let myself take. Including police checkpoints and the occasional pee stop, we’d been on the road for about 7 hours. Before we’d left Kiffa that morning we’d bought bread and tinned milk from the auberge and they’d filled our flask with hot water. We had "Laughing Cow" cheese, a tin of apricot jam and everything we needed to make 3½ cups of tea or coffee. With about 2 hours until we got to Nouakchott, the only things left to eat in the cab were the "sand baguettes" purchased the previous day in Ayoun. Neither of us were that hungry and besides, we didn’t want to spoil our appetite for the camel sandwiches.

Now I’m afraid I’m going to have to take issue with Messrs. Hudgens and Trillo here when they describe the road between Boutilimit and Nouakchott as "less than engrossing"; Rough Guide to West Africa (2003). Surely that rather depends on who you are and what you’re interested in? It was certainly a good stretch of road to drive and we found there were plenty of things engrossing enough to take our minds off food. The landscape for starters. On the map, the road was an almost straight line all the way to Nouakchott. What the map didn’t show was that for mile after mile the road, although straight, was wavy. To me it felt more like sailing on a calm sea than driving on land. At regular intervals we descended slowly into a shallow but wide valley traversing the road at the bottom of which was a broad wadi. Perversely, if I closed my eyes, it also reminded me of driving through the Yorkshire Dales in England. Where the tarmac road reached the edge of the wadi the road surface changed to concrete.

Once across, the road surface became tarmac again for the long slow climb up to the ridge of the next wave where you would drive for no more than about 10 minutes before descending into yet another wadi. Now, this might not be ‘engrossing’ to some folk but I have to confess that, for a while, I became quite engrossed with the subject of flash flooding and what effect it had on the landscape. The size of some of the rocks littering the wadi floor that had obviously been deposited during a flash flood, gave some indication of just how powerful the force of the water must be. One or two of the wadis were home to car wrecks suggesting that it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, there are always some idiots prepared to ignore the warnings. There was also vegetation in the wadis – not much but there were scrubby bushes and very occasionally a few palm trees.

The stretches of road between the valleys were predominantly areas of sand dunes that spilled halfway across the road in places. There was also obviously an on-going conflict here between man and nature. Many of the dunes bordering the road bore the evidence of previously tried, tested and abandoned methods of holding back the sand. Dilapidated rows of regularly spaced barriers formed gridiron patterns on the dunes. Some of these defences had at one time been made by piling layers of scrub and/or lengths of sacking type material up against staked wire fencing. This had been erected in regularly spaced rows from left to right and top to bottom on the sides of the dunes facing the roads. These fences must’ve been intended to work along the same lines as snow avalanche barriers with the scrub and material acting as the shuttering and holding back the sand.

Only it didn’t really work very well and I doubt, even if they had used wooden shuttering, whether it would have been any more effective at keeping the sand off the road. In lots of places, all that remained of these barriers were the tops of the weathered and bleached fence posts protruding from the side of the dune still connected to each other by the wires from which bundles of rags fluttered in the wind. The scrub was long gone. The other barrier method which tended to be used more on areas of shallow dunes, involved planting evenly spaced rows of tough looking, spiky grass that stretched back some distance away from the road. In some places the rows had been completely submerged beneath the sand and where it was pointing up out of the sand, it looked dead. The prevailing wind here must’ve been from the NE because these sand barriers were only ever on our right hand side of the road. And it was on this side of the road that things suddenly changed. Instead of the dunes coming right up to the edge of the road they stopped about 10m away across an area of hardpan sand and there was something a bit odd looking about them.

They were sand dunes, but they weren’t the right shape. It wasn’t until we came across a guy driving one of those huge, yellow earth-moving machines that we figured out why the dunes looked wrong. This guy has got a job for life. On his first day at work he must’ve been told to go out and remove anything that stood in a precisely defined area on one side of the Route de L’Espoir. So that’s what he was doing. As he sliced back through the dunes for 10m or so he was then leaving them with a straight edge. But only for so long. The odd shaped dunes we’d seen earlier must’ve been dug away mechanically at some point in the past and although they had started to erode and weather, there were still evidence of human intervention. But of course, we didn’t know this until we saw the digger.

Humans don’t tend to have as much impact on the desert as it has on them. My point being that we both became quite engrossed in discussing possible theories for the formation of these odd shaped dunes. Once we found out they were that shape because of human intervention we were then even more engrossed in why we hadn’t considered the possibility of human intervention when theorising earlier and, aside from nuclear weapons testing, just how much impact can humans really have on the desert anyway? I will admit that, like the rest of the country, the road wasn’t very busy. We didn’t see many people for a long time but they were definitely out there. More clusters of tents, huts made from corrugated iron sheets each piece a different colour, definitely some military type buildings in two places and of course, the police checkpoints.

The strangest places though, were some of the settlements set back between ½ to 1km from the road on the stretch with all the wadis. Nearly every valley had some sort of settlement away from the bed of the wadi and there was no incongruity between the setting and the structure. We didn’t expect to find these places marked on our road map but we would have expected names or signposts or something, but no, nothing. But in one or two of these valleys, instead of tents or traditional mud and stone huts, there was what looked like a small compound of around half a dozen or so two-storey holiday apartments. It did seem an unlikely spot for Nouakchott high fliers to have ‘a quiet country hideaway’ but after an engrossing discussion that was our best theory. Perhaps one of the most interesting things we saw however, was the TWINKIE MILK advertising campaign.

Appearing about as frequently as police checkpoints, the large hoardings advertising this milk are all along this stretch of the Route de l’Espoir. In fact they were the only roadside advertising hoardings for miles and miles. Who are their target audience? What’s the point of advertising a commodity that you can’t nip down to the village shop for because they haven’t got a fridge because there’s no electricity? So, after much debate we decided it was either a product awareness strategy to pre-empt the arrival of electricity or some sort of subliminal attempt to get you to scour Nouakchott for Twinkie Milk as soon as you arrive. So I grant you, on first appearances, this stretch of road may seem ‘less than engrossing’, but don’t we all see things differently? Personally I thought it was far more engrossing than some of the roads I’d been on recently and a hell of a lot more comfortable as well.

Part 5: Precarious Positions

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by HELEN001 on April 22, 2006

I’d tried it in the truck cab, on a mattress on the floor of a large decorated tent and on a bench in the shade, but it didn’t matter – everywhere was just too hot, uncomfortable or both to read. Not enough room for air to circulate in the cab, the bench was too unsteady and the tent could have turned out to be an unintended act of sexual provocation.

We weren’t even supposed to be in Nouakchott any more. Should’ve been half-way to the border at Nouadhibou by then, not wasting time reading. Actually, I didn’t mind the fact that the explosions we’d heard the previous night were New Years Eve fireworks and not another bloodless coup as we had speculated before drifting off to sleep. First thing in the morning Claire had got to do something bureaucratic to do with the truck and as soon as that was done we’d be off. First thing in the morning was when Claire discovered it was New Years Day.

"New Years Day? Who’s New Years Day? What?" I asked rolling over in my sleeping bag and peering at her through the mosquito net. It wasn’t a stream of Antipodean invective that came from outside the truck, it was a flash-flood with boulders and everything. It wasn’t my fault that Nouakchott was closed for the day so I didn’t take it personally. I was also quite happy at the idea of a day without motion – it felt like a day off. There was a bit of me that was raging because I wasn’t going out to explore. That’s what I’d normally have done if I found myself somewhere unexpectedly. But fortunately the bit of my brain that deals with "sensible" is bigger. I still wasn’t well, I was very tired and it was really hot. I wasn’t meant to be in Nouakchott so I’d just pretend I wasn’t. I was going to get a big cup of tea then find somewhere to sit comfortably with a guide book and a map of West Africa.

This was the first time I’d ever travelled any distance in a foreign country without having a guide book if not surgically attached to my hand, then at least within easy reach. I’d had a read through before we left Bamako but that felt like light-years back in time. I needed to know where I had come from, where I was and where I was going. And whilst I realise that people might think I’m being metaphysical here I must stress that I’m not. I had to get physically orientated as a matter of some urgency, not philosophically. Not knowing where I was geographically was like having someone steal my security blanket. I’d worry about the metaphysical once I got to grips with my physical whereabouts.

Anyway, I wasn’t even sure I really wanted to leave the sanctuary of the auberge compound. As we’d rolled into town with the setting sun the previous day there’d been a marked increase in traffic heading our way. It was moving at a steady pace and not by any means heavy so it was a bit of a surprise when, barely a stone’s throw from the centre of town, everything just stopped. Well, we did move but it was literally inch by inch with long periods of stillness in between. We were trying to get down a road that was about seven cars wide that narrowed further on to about four cars wide. The road was covered in cars but they were all pointing in different directions. At one point we were front bumper to front bumper with a clapped-out yellow Merc taxi. The only advantage we had was that because we were higher up than most people we could see movement before anyone else. It would also have made an excellent photo opportunity. However, the disadvantage with being high up was that we were eyeball to eyeball with what seemed to be an awful lot of military types with guns hanging about on walls and roofs.

Now I know that taking photos in the vicinity of anything military is not a good idea in a lot of countries. We used to be quite laid-back about it in the UK because I remember being amazed at seeing loads of plane spotters sitting at the end of a runway outside an RAF base once and nobody gave a toss. I guess they’re not allowed to anymore. Anyway, the thing about the military in some countries is that it doesn’t look like the military in our country. Firstly our military don’t tend to walk around in uniform holding hands regardless of gender. I’m not saying they shouldn’t, just that they don’t. And secondly, our military and strategic buildings look like military and strategic buildings, while theirs could be any random structure they catch you taking a photograph of. The rules I’m afraid, are not clear so, be careful out there, things aren’t always what they seem – that might not have been a simple gridlock we were in, it could have been an anti-government demonstration for all we knew. It wasn’t – but it could have been. You never know.

Once we reached the auberge and parked up in the compound I already felt like I’d personally met the entire population of Nouakchott in the space of an hour and that was about as much cultural interaction I could cope with for a while. Except that, for some inexplicable reason, I had to have some Twinkie Milk. Claire had to have a camel sandwich and some Twinkie Milk, also inexplicably. We’d wandered away from the strange sanctuary of the Auberge Menata along a pleasant, sandy, tree-lined side street, the pavement illuminated by overlapping pools of street lighting. We turned left onto a busy tarmac road lined with shops, the majority of which were closed. Claire stopped suddenly and gawped across the road. Her next words, here edited so as not to offend, could be roughly translated as "Oh dear me, what a dreadful shame – the camel sandwich shop is closed."

"Well I expect they sell camel sandwiches at the Twinkie Milk shop." I was a woman obsessed by now. "Let’s keep going shall we?"

We came to a road junction that really would’ve worked a lot more efficiently if it had been a roundabout but it wasn’t so it was bedlam. The cars were all moving quite fast, there were loads of near-misses and some of the driving was pretty abysmal, but nobody seemed to mind. And, the other slightly odd thing was that every car seemed to have a family in it, like on a Sunday afternoon at home except that in Nouakchott they looked like they were enjoying themselves. Even though the roads were heaving, there were only three shops open out of the many around the junction. One had Twinkie Milk, another had kebabs and one was a big modern patisserie that was doing a roaring trade. Not only were folk queuing up inside for baguettes, there was a sort of makeshift "drive-thru" arrangement from a side door that opened onto the road. And they weren’t buying just one either, some folk were buying them by the sack load. We were just too tired to think about whether people normally bought that much bread on a Monday night in Mauritania or to worry about military coups once in our sleeping bags.

So I had to read the guide properly. If I’d already done this then I’d have known it was the eve of the 1st of Moharem and that just maybe people in Mauritania behaved differently from usual, just like a lot of us do on New Years Eve. But this is also a moral tale- having rejected the truck cab and the suspect bench I found the perfect spot to read. It was hot but bearable and very comfortable. I’d been lying like this, stretched out on my front, elbows supported by a pillow when I came to the bit in the guide book about how not to laze about taking it easy in Mauritania if you are female. Now, if I’d already read the guide I wouldn’t have been in the position of realising I could have been giving the male hotel staff the come on for the last hour or so. In future, even if I’m so ill the Grim Reaper has to read it to me, I want to know what the guide book says before I get there. Especially the stuff about sexually suggestive behaviour.

Part 6: Wind? What Wind?

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by HELEN001 on April 22, 2006

Nouakchott is a very windy place apparently. In fact the name means something like ‘meeting of the winds’ or ‘place of the winds’ in Hassaniya, which is a dialect of Arabic spoken in Mauritania. In 1957 someone decided that the capital of Mauritania had to be situated somewhere where fierce sand storms blow for nearly 250 days a year. The day we spent there fortunately, was not one of them. No, we were there for one of the other 115 days or so that it’s almost too hot to breathe. Not even the hint of a breeze from the sea. I found it really hard to believe that the tribal elders responsible for this decision really couldn’t find somewhere a little less inhospitable to run the country from. But then, what did I know? There may well be some benefits to having your capital city continuously blasted with sand that I just can’t appreciate. Maybe it’s a defence strategy of some sort—why would anyone want to invade a place like this? What on earth would be the point? God knows, there’s so much military around the place that you have to assume that the Mauritanians must think somebody wants to invade them. If I didn’t already know the history then the noticeable increase in military vehicles, police checkpoints and bunker things as we headed north out of Nouakchott would have suggested the perceived threat to be from Morocco. It also meant it was hard to take photos, again. Not only did the military keep spoiling the view but most of my photos were taken from the cab of a moving truck.Once I knew I was going to Mauritania rather than straight home, some of the folk from the Mali trip gave me their spare films before leaving Bamako. ‘You’ve got to take loads of pictures and keep a journal’, they said, in unison, well not quite. But the consensus was that I should keep some sort of record. I promised I’d take photos if I could but they’d be ‘tell it like it really was’ rather than works of art. As for a journal, an ‘as you go along’ sort of diary, well I couldn’t do one of those. Well I could, but it would be a tad heavy on the descriptive side and somewhat deficient on the information side. Sometimes I need to know what it is I’ve actually seen before I write about it, and sometimes I can’t find out until I get home. I usually take notes inside my head but as a concession to convention, I took real notes this time. Sort of. Most of the notes are about the Auberge Menata which is hardly surprising as I could have written a book about the place. Actually, not the place, but the people there. God alone knows what I’d been expecting as we drove into the compound, but it wasn’t having to wait for some white guy with dreadlocks to finish cart-wheeling about on the sand in front of the truck. Then there was the whole bunch of ‘professional’ type travellers, mostly male, varying styles and shades of functional khaki – you know the type? Well they all appeared and stood watching with a certain amount of scepticism as Claire started to reverse the truck neatly and efficiently into a truck-sized space between two modified Landover type vehicles. I did note a modicum of begrudging admiration from this lot but nothing too excessive mind you – nothing that would upset their immaculately dressed khaki-clad fully co-ordinated partners. How do they do it, these people? How do they stay so clean? I used to think these people only existed in adverts, fashion magazines and the occasional movie. The first time I ever came across travellers like this were those people who could do long haul from London to Sydney and skip off the plane looking like they’d just done a luxury spa weekend. They were usually female and wearing white. On the ‘overland scene’ however, the look was gender neutral, khaki and freshly ironed. I don’t know how they do it, but what a way to spend your time in Africa—ironing.Dreadlocks had retreated to the al fresco dining area where he, and his assorted mates appeared to be doing a variety of activities ranging from meditating in the lotus position to juggling with their flip flops. Meanwhile their assorted dogs were racing around the compound causing a severe case of over-excitement in a naked Italian toddler covered in chocolate choking on a banana. We left the ‘professionals’ casting their eyes over the truck like a bunch of bored traffic cops and dumped our stuff on a table in the shade next to meditating man. Claire went off to find the owner, Olivia, to arrange picking up some form or another for the truck at the post office the next day. I went off to organise a cup of tea. When we met back at the table, I handed Claire her cup of tea and she sat down muttering because there wouldn’t be an Olivia until the morning. ‘Excuse me, but do you like Madagascar?’ We both turned around to look at the speaker. ‘Do you like Madagascar?' ‘Never been, sorry.’ I replied. ‘Do you mean the film or the island?’ asked Claire.‘Oh, the island of course.’ said the mid-twenties man of the world as he fiddled with the socks up on his sandaled feet. He looked expectantly at Claire while I admired his obviously new black t-shirt with its fluorescent green printed jungle sprouting from the bottom, the random but equally fluorescent tropical birds of indeterminate species flying therein and the words MADAGASCAR – I LOVE IT! emblazoned across the front. ‘Never been, sorry.’ said Claire. Madagascar Man, who had been sitting a table over from us then slid himself along his bench and onto the one facing us at our table. He reached for his bottle of coke, took a long noisy sip and put it down in front of him, and us. ‘There’s a place in Madagascar that looks exactly like Scotland’. Now this may have been a traditional form of greeting where he came from but where we were from you don’t just plonk yourself down at someone else’s table and start lecturing them about Madagascar. It’s just not cricket. We left.I can’t remember a conversation with anyone at the auberge that wasn’t a little bit odd. At one point the next night this late 20’s, arm waving, overdramatic, French woman came into the compound ranting and raving about a car or something. It was like watching a bad audition. Anyway, a whole bunch of folk who looked like they worked at the auberge disappeared out of the compound with her wildly gesticulating form. It had been a mildly interesting incident and it hadn’t bothered us so we went back to our books. We’d been invited to share dinner with Olivia and some of her friends so we were reading by lamplight in the eating area. A few other people were dotted around, there was music coming from the kitchen. It can’t have been more than an hour later when the queen of the amateur dramatics was back and heading for the kitchen. Still waving her arms around and being very French but clutching her stomach from time to time she emerged from there moments later and walked over to us.‘You av crem?’‘Crem?’ I enquired. ‘ You Eengleesh? You av crem for le malad? Now it took a while but we got there in the end. Having established that she thought she had pulled a muscle in her abdomen, it hurt, she wanted pain relief but not ‘peeels’, we were able to provide her with some of that Deep Heat cream. Problem solved except that we never did work out how she had done it. ‘I av peek up beeg moolet.’ ‘You peek up quoi?’ I asked. ‘Beeg moolet. Too beeg.’ We hadn’t a clue what she’d peeked up but I suggested that she try bending her knees next time she found herself picking up moolet. She said, ‘Oh! You mean like ze African weemin?’ While I was politely agreeing with her I swear I heard Claire whisper, ‘No you airhead—like any sensible person would when peeking up a beeg moolet.’ It was late, the dinner invite had been for 6pm and it was now 10.30pm. We couldn’t cope with the idea of having to talk to anybody else that might’ve been mad and we were too tired to be hungry any more. We’d been told every ten minutes or so it would be ready in ten minutes or so. And we’d believed it, just like we believed, when we crawled into our sleeping bags, that we were going to be up and off to Nouadhibou at the brake of dawn.

Part 7: There's More to Beige Than Meets the Eye*

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by HELEN001 on April 22, 2006

At last we were well on the way to Nouadhibou and the border with Western Sahara. Of course we didn’t leave at the crack of dawn-even though we were up then, we didn’t leave until 11:30am. Nouakchott doesn’t open until 9am and that’s it. At least, not the place you go to get the form for the truck that’s been posted to Olivia that she has to collect from the post office to give to Claire because we can’t go anywhere without it. So we breakfasted on coffee and a packet of halal biscuits we’d bought the night before and were now addicted to. Eventually this guy Amadou who worked for Olivia was packed off to the post office at 8:45am. We’d paid up the bill and were ready for off the minute he got back. The minute he got back he told Claire that she had to go in person to the post office because the envelope was addressed to her and not Olivia. So I had time for another cup of tea.

Then we were stuck in the compound because some French "professionals" had parked their vehicle opposite the gates and we didn’t have tight enough steering on the truck to get out. They’d only gone up to the shops but still somebody had to run and find a driver. This guy arrived with a lot of Gallic expostulating and Claire expostulated back the way they do in New Zealand, which turned out to be the same way we do it in the U.K. as well. Just what exactly, is meant by an open-handed, palms-upwards gesture accompanied by a shoulder shrug and raised eyebrows? It could’ve meant "sorry," but I have to say it really did look much more like "Oh, it’s them, is that all," with a touch of "our truck’s better than your truck" thrown in for good measure. Either that or it was a dodgy impersonation of Marlon Brando in The Godfather. But no, we knew we were right, we’d seen them and heard them the previous morning. Pointing and laughing at our beloved Madge. Nobody disses our truck and gets away with it! There wasn’t a cat in hell’s chance that the good Monsieur would able to misinterpret in any way, the instant reflex-like right-handed gestures we felt he deserved in response. Git!

Yeh, OK, childish but it made us feel better. As did the trip to the grocery store for supplies once we’d filled up with diesel. It was a tiny little shop on the way out of town and I think we bought more in 10 minutes than they usually sell in a week. No way were we going to resort to eating sheep food. This time we were setting out well stocked up. Real fresh baguettes, more Laughing Cow cheese, crisps, more halal biscuits which, according to the picture on the packet, were daffodil flavoured, some APPLES! and of course, a couple of bottles of Twinkie Milk. We had a feeling the apples might be a bit lacking on the taste front and we were right, but they were apples. There had to be some vitamin C in them somewhere. What really made the shopkeeper’s day though, was that we decided to do our "duty-free" shopping in his shop and we bought his entire stock of Dunhill and Marlboro Lights off him. So, just in case there are any social pariahs out there who’re either travelling there now or planning to travel overland through Mauritania, then this is the cheapest place to buy your cigarettes.

Once you’ve bought them, hide them or they’ll be "confiscated" off you at a police checkpoint. Alcohol is a no-no and if they find any in your vehicle, not only will they take it from you, but they’ll then give you a pretty hard time too. Seems fair enough – it’s their country, their law. However, they’re not supposed to "confiscate" cigarettes but they can and do. And they get away with it primarily because, although your average non-Muslim knows that alcohol is forbidden, they’re not really sure about smoking. I know there are Muslims who smoke, and I know there are Muslims who drink alcohol. I know the Muslims who’re drinking are breaking the rules, but I’m pretty certain the smoking issue is one of those open to interpretation. Sometimes the rules can vary slightly from country to country or even town to town, just to add to the uncertainty of the situation. So if a policeman at a checkpoint sees or smells evidence of cigarettes, he’ll tell you they’re forbidden in Mauritania. He’ll then want to search the vehicle and you’ll decide to hand over the pack of cigarettes because it’s so much easier and less hassle if you do and he was bound to find them anyway because there’s only so many cartons you can hide in a truck and if he found one he’d just keep at it ‘til he found them all and it would take ages as well and then you’d have to safely re-pack your vehicle, equipment and personal stuff which would be just intolerable because for all that time you’d been standing on the tarmac under the midday sun. Of course you’re going to hand over your cigarettes, firstly because if they are right then you could end up in a local prison or be subject to some fairly gruesome traditional punishment and secondly, because you’re going to die of heat-stroke if you don’t. Of course not everybody’s at it but you’ve got to admit that it’s a pretty clever scam and I gather quite a few travellers have been stung by it.

A friend of mine recently seemed to find it amusing that I could find anything other than ‘beige’ to write about Mauritania. The 460km of brand new tarmac road between Nouakchott and Nouadhibou was certainly beige compared to the some of the areas we’d driven through along the Route de l’Espoir. But just what is beige exactly? Next time you’re in a DIY store pick up one of those paint colour strip charts with samples of what you might call the beige colour collection on it. Now look at the colours - never mind the pretentious names – how many different beiges are there? Loads. Especially when you start comparing different paint brand beiges with each other as well. So, it’s the same with the beige bit north of Nouakchott, it’s not just beige, it’s every beige you can imagine and therefore not as beige as you’d have been expecting if you’d been talking to my friend. And, there are people living and working out there in all that variety of beigeness too. We kept driving past these ruined structures built out of orangey beige clay bricks. Some had been weathered down to a sort of cigar shaped pile of rubble covering an area about the same in length and breadth as four estate cars parked nose to tail would cover. They were set back off the road some way, many had the vestiges of tracks leading to them, and they appeared at fairly regular intervals in varying degrees of dilapidation.

Once we saw one actually being used it was obvious what it was, but before that we could’ve been looking at some early Moorish earthwork for all we knew. They were ramps used for sand-mining or quarrying or whatever it’s called and they’re for loading sand onto the back of trucks. The sand was dug from the area around the ramp, carried or pushed up it on a cart and then tipped from the top edge into the back of a waiting truck. At some point they decide eventually to up sticks, move a few kilometres further up the road, build another ramp and start all over again. At the time we couldn’t figure out how they decided when it was time to move on – it didn’t look as if they’d ever reach the sub-marginal, non-economically viable reserves of sand in any of their lifetimes. It was only later we were told, although it’s still not clear why, that it was a question of beigeness. In the world of sand apparently, there is not only a standard of quality required for the Mauritanian building trade but an aesthetic standard as well. The sand has got to perform well, but it’s got to look good too. It can’t be just any old beige, it’s got to be this year’s beige! *I am indebted to Davie Ramage for providing the inspiration for the title of this section.

Part 8: Mined Over Matter

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by HELEN001 on April 22, 2006

So there you are, driving along admiring the beige and enjoying the smooth, new tarmac road when all of a sudden you have to pull out to avoid a row maybe four or five reasonably large rocks. In Mali they tend to use branches cut from scrub whereas in Europe we have to use purpose built, red reflecting hazard warning triangles when a vehicle breaks down or gets a flat and needs to pull over to the side of the road. And in Europe, once the repairs are done, we pack our little triangles away and off we go – and you’d never know we’d been there.

This is not the case in Mauritania, or indeed any country where a nifty little red warning triangle is not a legal requirement and rocks are ten a penny. It’s the same in parts of India. Of course you’re not going to stow the rocks in the vehicle in case you need them again especially when there’s millions of the damn things out there. Same with scrub branches. The trouble is, when these guys have finished their repairs, they just drive off and leave their warning signals behind. Clumps of branches in the road can be annoying. Lumps of rock in the road tend, on the whole, to be a tad more potentially dangerous in my experience. Ironic, innit? The rocks aren’t put on the road to protect the vehicle – they’re to protect the driver or whoever is working on it. Can’t really argue with that. So why don’t they move the rocks off the road? They must’ve seen enough evidence of what happens to other vehicles that have hit a row of these abandoned rocks. We certainly did and we were only passing through. So in thinking about their own safety in the first place they are actually adding risk to what is already the extremely risky business of driving in Mauritania. And I do wish they’d put their cigarettes out before filling your tank with diesel at the gas stations.

Rocks in the road are not the only things that make driving at night in Mauritania look like a protracted suicide attempt. During the day, drivers coming towards you are, more often than not, heading directly at you in the middle of the road. I think the bit about keeping to your own side of the road, particularly when driving towards oncoming traffic, must be missing from the Mauritanian driving test. It is reasonable to assume then, that if they do this in the daytime they probably do it at night too. Just because you’ve got lights, don’t assume that everyone else has and if they have, don’t assume that their signals mean the same as ours.

Camels don’t usually have lights either. Along some stretches, the hardpan shoulder on the side of the road is littered with animal corpses in varying degrees of decay. To be fair, they don’t look big enough to be camels but even though the sheep obviously come off worst, there can’t be many vehicles that would be completely unscathed by the incident. By extension, it stands to reason that hitting a camel would be quite an experience for all concerned. So, do yourselves a favour. Unless you’re in town then or you really can’t avoid it then don’t drive at night – it’s dangerous out there.

Now, before I decided to go hoiking across Mauritania the only "sights" I’d ever heard of there were the shipwrecks, the Nile crocodiles living near Ayoun (which even if I had been awake would never have spotted anyway), and a railway line that carried really long trains. So I have to confess I was taken with a modicum of excitement once we spotted the railway line not far off the border with Western Sahara merely because it was something I’d heard of. I’m not usually like that about trains, OK? Anyway, this railway line carries iron ore to the port at Nouadhibou via Choum from the mines at Zouérat roughly 600km away to the NE. Sometimes the trains can be over 2km long and carry over 20,000 tons of crushed ore. One train a day in either direction has a passenger coach with seats and couchettes. It costs nothing to ride the wagons on this train or on those of the other two trains that travel this route daily without a passenger coach. I’ve heard it is very very dusty.

There are also flat-bed wagons available for transporting vehicles but you have to book a place some days in advance at the railway office in Nouadhibou. And the reason people want to get on this train in the first place is not because they have any particular interest in trains or mining for that matter. Although I know someone who’s been on a tour of the mine and they said it was definitely worth seeing. No, the people I spoke to; vehicle drivers, vehicle passengers and a couple of ‘foot’ passengers, who had caught this train said they did it because it’s time out from the hazards and stresses of the road. I gather even 12 hours of mind-numbing discomfort and dust in a wagon is as good as a rest. Anyway, who’d have believed it when along came a train and it was a long one. But thank god it wasn’t 2km long. As it was we only made it through the Moroccan side of the border within a whisper of it closing for the night. If the train had been one of the biggies we’d have waited at the railway crossing for ages and would have had to spend the night at one of three undesirable locations until the border opened again in the morning.

Claire thought the lesser of the three evils was a windswept concrete car park outside the single storey Moroccan border post building. Be at the door when it opened in the morning and then off. Not too comfortable but bearable. Or how about this option; spending the night on this side of the border uncomfortably close to the lads of the Mauritanian police, customs and immigration services? We weren’t so keen on that one but it was only marginally preferable to the prospect of the third location which was, curiously enough, another Mauritanian "sight" – the MINEFIELD! Two sights in one day, not bad eh? It used to be that you had to have a guide to get through and the route was considerably longer and more circuitous than the 5km you need to cross now. The tarmac stops at one border post, you drive through the minefield and the tarmac starts again at the next border post. Simple!

Surprisingly we made it through the Mauritanian border with relative ease. The sun was very low in the sky but hadn’t yet set. We hadn’t a clue what the time was or if we really had to have a guide. Yes, I know what you’re thinking but we could see other vehicles in the distance and they seemed to be doing OK and we could see a clearly defined track so we went for it. I know this’ll sound slightly macabre but I was a little disappointed not to see any danger signs like KEEP OUT – MINEFIELD. On the other hand it did make me feel uncomfortable, the idea that a minefield could somehow be a visitor attraction. The other thing I found slightly puzzling was the peculiar collection of objects dotted about on either side of the track. There were the usual plastic water bottles but also empty paint tins, loads of tyres, bits of twisted metal and the occasional loosely knotted sack of something just lying about. Very odd. Was told that for entertainment at le weekend, there’s nothing the "yoof" of Nouadhibou like better than to get together with their mates and drive back and forth through the minefield chucking stuff out their cars to see if something will blow up. So now you know.

We had one hairy bit where we came head to head with a truck going the other way and neither of us was going to go off the edge of the track to pass. He reversed – praise be! Then there it was, the Moroccan border post and goodbye Mauritania. The sun slipped slowly below the horizon as we ran like the clappers across that car park. The tall handsome Moroccan stood in the doorway and smiled. He was joined by two other officers.

Still smiling he stepped forward and said in French that he was "desolé" but we were too late and the border was closed. He didn’t look in the slightest bit "afflicted" or "stricken" to me and if him and his mates didn’t stop laughing then there was a good chance he really would be feeling both very soon. "Welcome to Morocco."

© LP 2000-2009