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.