Named after its Berber inhabitants called Mauri.
(Mauras: Latin meaning Moor, and Aquitania: meaning land of Sand.)
What we know:
Dry. Sand. Slavery. IMF/ World Bank Clients. Iron Ore. Islam. 80 % Moors Black 18% Blacks.
Engaging low differential we fall off the red line into a heavily sanded track. The border turns out to be a chair and table with a chain hanging between two sticks.
Pulling over to wait our turn it is easy to see that what is sitting at the table is not one of the five university graduates or fifteen students MAURITANIA had when it got its Independence from France, back in 196O.
Seated at the small table is whatever you do don’t look up, don’t stare labelled army colonel. He is sporting a moustache that causes a secondary shadow to set over his narrow lips. Surrounded by a group of wander bouts, give me fag, I have the packet, pocket the light types he looks like something out of Mad max.
With my palms requiring a wipe on my shorts we approach. I have a mental picture of myself stripped standing in the searing sun. Looking to his left and right there is not another table for thousands kilometres. It’s tempting. All of a sudden there is some ugly talk. Our Germany foot Tourist is being led off over the sand to spend the night in jail. No Visa. My nerve end tingles. Is this the gate to Hell or Heaven, too late, only the visas will tell? > Moving one closer. One of the wander bout soldiers is at the window asking Fanny to have a look at one of his friends. “He has a fever ” The German say’s you are a doctor. She offers a few of our trusty multi vitamins.
(Top Tip: Vitamins pills. > A must for Africa. All over the continent it is — doctor, DOCTOR give me a pill. The safest is a multi vit.)
My tinker visa passes with flying colours. The pills are turned down. How far to Nouâdhibou gets a reply, “Nouâdhibou is not more than an hour down the line from this point.”
II hum did LLLai (Praise be to God)
“All you have to do” say’s the colonel “is follow the track beside the railway line.”
The well-defined colonel track soon turned into a million tracks obliterated by deep sand. For the next hour it ebb and flow from gravel, to shale, to ill-at-ease sand, to rocks > Wheel spinning stuff. Then last but not least a dose of smooth rolling sand coaster that are unavoidable. These are bottomless ruts of sand that can only be driven a neck breaking speed > Foot to the floor stuff to get to the opposite side without spending hours of digging, out with the sands tracks, more digging, and more sand tracks. The first victims are the two ancients French in their Toyota Hatchback. They being somewhat top-heavy have come a cropper in one of the sand traps. I and El Cid Eugene the Spanish Bus driver stop to lend a hand > A running repair with rope and wire. Using the same method I once use to splice a broken boom of a yacht we strap the French Masion back onto the chassis. Eventually we leave our two unfazed French friends to struggle into town at their own pace.
Next it’s a puncture for the lorry/bus. With a great deal of sheer force and ignorance we manage to remove the offending wheel, and heave it up onto the floor of the bus. After many more stops to cool our overheating engines, sort out hostile police checks, we arrive, beating the longest train in the world from Zouérat by a short head, in Nouâdhibou. The train by the way is carrying three to four kilometres of iron ore.
Nouâdhibou first impressions rival that of Dakhla for dump of the year. Domineered by an iron ore smelting works the port takes its name from the word for Hassaniya > Arabic > for > The Jackals well.
Full of Korean/Spanish/ fishing rust buckets, most of which are lying to anchor at different hilts of sinking.
A fine film of iron ore dust covers the harbour, the town, and all adjacent mud brick buildings and inhabitants. It is a wart on a finger of the Sahara called Cape Blanc peninsula.
Whether you arrival here on four wheels or by camel your first impressions will remain justifiable long after you leave. On the way in and on the way out unless you are leaving by air or train, you pass over the town’s open dump > A heap of rubbish in a state of constant spontaneous combustion that gets hold of your breath to the point of suffocation.
Nouâdhibou is featureless and flat. Its views, if any, to west are blocked by the railway embankment. The east offers flat sand with a strip of distant blue that could be either water or sky. The air strip which subs up as a road is a good thirty minute walk outside the town, with the railway station if there is one a good deal further.
Why are we here? > To get permission to travel on to Nouakchott the Mali capital where the red line starts again on our map. Sounds easy I hear you saying. We are to learn different
.A wonderful cup of coffee, some foreign exchange dealing on the black market for Ouguiya (Mauritania cash) and the ejection of an over persistent guide who has somehow or other managed to get himself sitting in Williwaw cab. We followed El Cid down over the town edge, on to the runway, heading for Baie de l’Étoil. It offers the only secure camping site near Nouakchott. Skirting the runway we head off out over the flat sand which has the habit of being covered at high tide. Somewhere out on this vast hard sandy wasteland we are once more stopped by two traffic cops. By the look of them they have been standing out here all day waiting for us.
El Cid handles them in the head lights of the bus. We head further out from the shore to avoid any more speed traps. After what seems ages of twisting this way and that, dodging the incoming tide, we arrive at a set of high gates. These are opened by a man obviously knowing to our man El Cid. We drive into a small walled empty compound capable of taking five tents. In the dark all is exceedingly depressing looking. A gale of wind blowing in short sudden puffs whips across the floor of the compound, rattling its surroundings corrugated sheeting walls. By the time I have the tent pitched and secure for the twenty-seventh time, everyone is too knackered to care.
The compound has a shanty type shed built along the wall facing us. Inside this shed some tomato plants are defying the lack of water in an effort to produce more than shrivelled up skins. The wall to our right has a pedestrian door that opens up onto the blue strip we saw on the way into Nouakchott. > The seashore.
There is also a stable like open structure building made of mud bricks containing two rooms, which we presume are supposed to pass for accommodation in some forthcoming ‘out of door camping’ tourist brochure. Attached to these rooms is a kitchen with a tap, a loo, a shower. All of which have run out of water long before the Sahara did.
It is not a good night. The tent, to the background sound of slapping little waves is battered from every angle. Rocking and rolling its canvas quiver while the window zippers jingled to the strain on the guys and poles. Every slapping sound is a waves coming closer – not to mention the sheets of tin roofing that spend the night awaking the dead. The humour barometer is at an all time low by the morning. Frantically search the plastic bags for loo paper the morning confirms last night’s feelings. We got to get out of here as soon as possible.
Welcome to MAURITANIA it can only get better.
Look say’s Fanny “it is over four times the size of Britain, and fourteen times bigger than where you Paddies come from.” How she worked that out by her finger measurements method I don’t know, but this is not the time or place to ask. “The whole God damn place only qualifies for eight pages out of the one thousand three hundred pages in our Lonely Planet bible.”
“There is no answer to this profound observation as she has studied all eight pages over and over for the duration of the night.
As the morning progress its get better. Not so. First it is the tea bags, then the time of the month. There is every likely hood that we are to be the first couple to split up over plastic bags if we don’t watch it.
The Spaniard and I go hunting for a fish for lunch.
Moored about two hundred meters from the hall door of the compound in the deep blue is a bad attempt at a Huckleberry Finn box raft. It is being pulled ashore by a rope and back out again to it mooring by two individuals that have the same look of fear as our shower or loo would do if they saw water close up.
After an hour or so they eventually pull themselves ashore with their catch. I leave it to the fish expertise of the Spaniard to do a deal > A fish as big as a salmon is unloaded from a sack that is just about to be put into the back of waiting taxi. It is gutted, and eaten by high noon.
Taking a short walk after lunch not far from where we are camped I discover an Air Afrique lodge building. It is as desolate as it surroundings with boarded up windows looking out across to the opposite shore beaches where we will go in the near future. Behind the beaches a solid illusion of dunes stretching south and north as far as the eye can see. They’re are endlessly denying their continuation.
Advanc’ed Dunes, Anti Dunes, Attached Dunes, Barchad Dunes, Head Dunes, IceBarchad Dunes, Lateral Dunes, Longitudinal Dunes, Phytogenic Dunes, Plinth Dunes, Seif Dunes, Tail Dunes, Transverse Dunes, Wake Dunes …… to mention but a few……
With the heat of the day subsiding we all squash into Williwaw for a trip into town.
Bouncing along past the airport we charge up the sand that separates the town from the sand flats. Our first attempt comes to a halt less than two meters from the top. We roll back down for another assault. This time we hit a rock, and come to a sudden standstill in the soft sand. We all bail out and start digging. Our trusty Spaniard laying to rest our sand shovel pontificate’s on the different methods of getting a jeep out of the sand. The shovel is never to be found again.
A round of excellent coffee in a surprising well run cafe, has Fanny back to the sparkling person I love. Florence in the meantime is having a ball with the younger of the Spanish girls, playing in the street some Moorish game that only children can comprehend. We all cross over the street to the market place. El Cid is to replace my spade. I search for six or seven meters of black cloth. After the other night I have sworn to learn the secret of wearing a Bedouin style head wrap around. “They don’t wear them just for the good of their health”
Before the hazards of our return trip to our compound we learn that the French ‘old dears’ have been seen in town. We meet up and have several drinks while they fill us in. They had just arrived yesterday. The house as we speak is being re welded to the chassis and they hope to be on the road again in a few days. I did not have the heart to tell them that they did not have a hope of crossing the dunes I had seen in the morning.
Once more, in near darkness we pass along the outer limits of the sand to avoid unwanted hostile police attention Early dinner, compliments of Eugene, a game of chess, with a few Johnny Walkers, the decision to accompany the Spanish Gypsy across the gap to the red line, to Senegal is made.
This is not a difficult decision. The only other option is that you must take a guide into the waste of dunes that makes up the Parc National du Banc d’Arguin, one of the world’s greatest bird breeding parks. The very thought of a guide after the earlier ejection of our cab sitting individual is nauseating in the extreme
Safe in my sleeping bag that night, listening to the music of the splashing lake waves, I have no idea of what we are letting ourselves in for – just as well. I also can’t help thinking who would have thought that we would need a bird book for the Sahara.
What I had not take into account is the Spaniard’s undisciplined children. The first hint of what lay ahead should have been obvious The next inkling is the state of the Spaniards Truck/Bus. The third and the most serious one is that we are all of us still ignorant of the Sahara’s timeless nature. To be fair to the Spaniard the last hint of what was going to happen is hidden in both of us and how we will cope with each other.
To top it all there is still no sign of Madre (mother) who is expected to turn up in Nouâdhibo to keep the little boobs in hand. She is supposed to be flying in for the trip across to Senegal. The chances of a mother arriving seemed rather remote to me. On looking back I might have been better to have spent some time learning Ground to Air Signals.
Our first visit of the morning to the Police station in town makes it is plain for all to see that getting permission to cross is not going to be a piece of cake. If the chief of police is anything to go by there is every likelihood that we are all going to learn the value of time without speed for the next few days. A large bed inhabits his office.
Early each morning and for the next several days we witness the pleasure of greeting his lordship the cop. A Mauritanian greeting can take up to a month of Sundays to deliver. It usually starting with “Iyak la bas” (Hope you have no bad) another words, “How’s it going.” Then it is on to how’s your mother, how’s your father, how’s the tenth son of your first wife the seventh son of the next wife and so on down the list, till you are dismissed with a nod of his head.
This ritual is carried out by each and every one that enters his office. All stared at outside by a group of very disinterested donkeys in the searing heat, and a small crowd that is battles in the dust for position in an ever elongating waiting queue.
Passing sand colour police wearing uniforms that make them Chameleon-like against the walls of the station we enter the station. This is not a place to spend time explaining visa this or visa that. Luckily I have read in the Bible that advises not to let go of your Passport on any account. Follow its advice I supply photo copies which I had done back in the UK. (Top Tip: Photo copies of YOUR PASSPORT information page is another must to have with you.)
With a show of just how efficient he could be we are returning to Williwaw in a matter of minutes rather than days with instructions to report up the other end of town to the customs, then the army and back to customs for a currency declaration.
Stepping out into the blazing sun I feel white privileged as we pass the starched white shirts and blue djalabs that will have to go home and unroll their head-gear to lighten their days load of sand to return and try again tomorrow.
At the other end of town the next hurdle commenced with all of us been ushered in to a small room I spot one tooth in the adjacent room. It was he who had taken our details two days previous at the last barrier just outside the town. I had given him a hand in his fly infested shed to write our details in his jotter.
Four forms each, three for the car one for the loot are all copied letter by letter, amount by amount, into a large ledger by a woman who had not discovered the pleasures of smiling, as one tooth has done on seeing me again. Using find the column first method she runs her index finger along the top of the page then down to meet her other finger that is tracing the line along to a free spot. She has not quite mastered the technique. Taking her eye off the ball to look at our forms she loses the column arriving at a filled in spot. A re run of the fingers is required only to write the wrong information in the wrong place. In the intense silence of this important work we listen to the silent creeping tide approaching with every torturous entry. The possibilities of dodging the police on the drive back to camp are becoming less and less with every wrong entry.
The next office is further down the corridor where the entered forms are now shuffled in front of us from one bundle to another.
One tooth offers Florence one of the many machine guns resting up against the wall. She turns it down. Then all of a sudden for no apparent reason a stamp, a scribble we are acceptable for a month but not yet cleared to join up the thin red line. This has to be granted by the chief of police.
We celebrate with six hundred ouguiya worthy of chicken surprise, and a visit to the Spanish consulate to see if we can pay a visit to the fuckers (Spanish sound for Seals: written Focas.) According to El Cid all the fuckers, and there are thousands of them, hang out on a beach the other side of the Peninsula which belongs to the Spanish. This side not too long ago once belonged to a French multinational company named Miferm which was once more powerful than the whole MAURITANIA government.
The consulate is not in, so we go and dig him out of his home. His is the only one living in a house behind walls with a border of grass running along its length. Not difficult to find in a place where there is not another blade of grass to be seen for hundreds of kilometres.
Sentencing a consulate to pull his plonker in a hell hole like this is beyond the call of any diplomatic duties. What the Spanish will do for a fish has no limitations.
We meet a balding man, with heavy glasses, a heavy stomach in his early fifties wearing African sandals and loose Senegal trousers to match. There is no invitation to have a cup of tea, or a cool drink. With my extensive command of Spanish I soon gather that the Fuckers are no longer in the Fucked Area. It has been mined by the Mauritanians. However we can drive out-of-town (he draws a small map: A – you are here, they are now there – map) to where better Fuckers can be had on the French side. The Spanish side is also mined. Adios.
Once more in the dark the shore police are given the slip and the night’s sleep thanks to Allah is without much disturbance.
Day three > The wind has died, fanning Fanny’s ado of early morning grouch. Before setting off her patience is tested by a bottle of suntan oil that has opened in one of our small day backpacks. Our police station is not opening today so we are free to cross over the Peninsula to La Gouera on the Atlantic side in search of Monks Fuckers according to El Cid. Not quite to Fanny’s liking but it is better than spending the day sitting around in the heat. A swim in some Atlantic rollers wins her over. Williwaw, however, puts up some stern resistance with yet another flat tyre.
(Top Tip: Don’t strap, or bolt the high jack on to the front bumper. The best position is in behind your roof rack ladder. An electrical winch is an expense we could not afford. If you learn how to use your hight jack, you can manage without one.
Eventually, all is set. The plan is to drop off my tyre in town along with one of El Cids tyres to have the punctures repaired. Then on out to the cape not to the very end, but to a place called Faux Cap Blanc, where according to the latest reports, all the fuckers are sunbathing.
This time after our normal five-mile beach run into town, we mount the sand embankment at a different angle without any trouble. Our search for the tyre people takes us over mountains of plastic bottles, and general household rubbish. We zigzag in and out and between mud baked houses all looking exactly like its neighbour. Watched by a carnivorous eating free range goat we eventually arrive at a generator with an air hose.
I am assured by El Cid that we will need all our tyres for the crossing. “There is many places where we must deflate and re-inflate” says he in his not so bad English. “I have a compressor on the Truck so it will be easy.” What a relief.
Promised the same tyre back, we head off in the direction of the Iron Ore Smelting plant. Iron ore once supplied over eighty percent of Mauritania exports.
Crossing the railway line we have not gone half kilometre when we are bogged down up to the axial in soft sand. El CID has conveniently left my replacement spade in the back of his truck. We dig with our hands arriving one hour later, fucked at the Fuckers reserve.
The little fuckers have fucked off.
Battering the outside of Williwaw a sand storm whistles up over the cliff edge. What better time to test my black wrap around. Looking like a black pawn chess piece, I battle my way to the edge. Through the seven meters of cotton stinging sands are stabbing my wrapped face. Large ocean growlers break on to the beach below. There’s not a fucker to be seen anywhere. I venture over the cliff edge to find that the sand storm is only the sand being blowing up over the edge from a set of large sand dunes running down to the sea-shore. The beach below is clear and sting free. Beneath me a small lagoon is nestling in behind a sand barrier. It looks wonderful for a swim.
Returning to the girls I convince them that it is worth battling the sand to the edge. Little tits is first out of Williwaw in her bikini and glasses, and runs over the edge squealing, followed by Fanny and Florence, and the other small one all holding hands till they reach the edge. El Cid has disappeared into the sand storm wondering where all ‘you – know – what’ have gone.
Although our map shows us to be now down the coast well below the Canaries Islands, the water is freezing. Pip tits nipples are now hurt so much she start back up the sand dune clutching her boobs while her rear end turns to pumice stone. Everyone eventually follow her in the blazing sunshine to the warmth of Williwaw.
I wade out onto the bar, where I find a shelter better described as a hovel. Made from bits of fishing nets, fish boxes and shore debris. Looking up the cliff I spot its owner huddled in a sandy cave half way up. Our silent contact becomes embodied with the swirling wind, the sea, and tern cries, we meet or our sea natures meet without the need for a spoken word.
Arriving back we take a look further along the cliff top. We meet two Arab Fucker spotters they produce nothing. The girls are fed up and they tell El Cid he can get in or walk the whole way back. We return to town in a blizzard of flies that have taken shelter in Williwaw from the sandstorm. Approaching the outskirts they that is the flies mixed with a cloud of ore dust that swallows the whole place making the journey back to town like driving across a landscape that has suffered a nuclear holocaust.
The next day is not one to remembering. The start is not too bad. We are to go into town in the Truck bus, to collect the pass for the Park and have two more bus tyres fixed. The Chief of Police is his efficient, self-taking pride is once more using up another page of our passports. (Top Tip: Get an extra-large passport, as each frontier official likes using a fresh page.) Eventually he charges three thousand six hundred whatever’s for each pass. Then he demands another three thousand for insurance just in case we run into a tree or have an accident with an oncoming vehicle on the wrong side of the desert.
Next we go to pick up the truck\bus tyres. Five whole hours and one mud wall later that has collapsed with the strain of trying to break the seal on the tyres we leave not knowing that it is a spring tide.
With the girls asleep in the back, El Cid shows a side of him that I was going to become acquainted with on several more occasions over the next few days> blinkered Moorish arrogance, which could cause a life threatening scenario.
Frustrated by the day’s puncher repairs, he hits a sand mound at speed that sends all who are asleep to the roof of the Bus. A few minutes later we are all plunged head long into the sea. We arrive back well after midnight to dine on peanuts. We awake to the sound of incoming traffic, Germans with Merc jeeps for Senegal buyers.
To be continued.
Donations are to date overwhelming. Zero. Hopefully by the time I get to South Africa we might strike a vane of writers support. Just in case you missed an opportunity to donate here are the details. R Dillon. Account number 2259189. Ulster Bank 33 College Green Dublin 2. Sorting Code 98-50-10.