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."