It’s many a young man dream to drive from the top of Africa to the bottom or vice a versa. My advice is stay at home if you don’t know how to drive a four-wheeled drive vehicle.
NOUÁDHIBOU TO NOUACKCHOTT
20.54 N 18.09 N
17.00 W 15.58W
JACKALS WELL TO PLACE OF THE WIND
We stop for fuel some fresh bread and water. It is hot. Two hundred and sixty odd kilometres as the crow flies to Nouackhott.
Twenty five kilometres out-of-town down the wonderful track we had driven in on we arrive once more at the town’s manned police barrier. Its necessity makes no sense whatever, other than to stop any Nouâdhibou residents from trying to escape into the Sahara to commit hari kari. The chief of police has not stamped Fanny’s passport with the National Park pass.
Leaving the girls in care of El Cid, I return to bribe half the town before I find the bastard house. A sweetener agreed, I get to drive him back into town to his office. There is a distinct feeling that this is not the first time he has forgotten to stamp a passport. The sun is setting by the time I Camel Trophy speed it back along the track.
Cleared through the barrier > the Spaniard sets off like Mad Max. Obviously he has had while awaiting my return enough of infinitesimal tits. He gets stuck well short of the fifty kilometre railway sleeper – our marker to turn south.
In full view of the returning four kilometre long iron ore train we dig and eat sand till the sun slides down the windward side of our first campsite. Pitch number twenty-eight. Williwaw like me is restless. The sight of our Spanish partners with there curtains drawn for the night the Latin quotation ‘par nobile fratrum’ with all its ironic meaning seems more than apt.
The morning is clear – I mean no sand storm. Our desert pavement of reddish black shale is littered with white fragments of broken shell. Under a sharp blue wash sky the sandy desert floor stretches out before us as far as the eye can see. Looking out of the driver’s window into this great deal of nothing, I know in my heart and soul that the truck\bus now called ‘Cassé’ is going to live up to its new name.
Slipping Williwaw into first gear, I watch Florence in my wing mirror. She is sitting just behind me not quite awake yet. There are no romantic sights of camel caravans silhouetted against the horizons only the promised heat of the day. Fanny’s veil of apprehension is justifiable as she watches the Spaniard pull away from our campsite. Progress is slow.
We climb in a gestalt therapy tempo onto a plateau above the desert floor. Time itself is hanging still against the relentless encroachment of the moving sands below us. It is still early morning and the glistening heat of the day is just beginning to show its noon day promise to eat all shadows, when the truck/bus goes lame.
“Par grave” says El Cid, producing a hollow piece of piping and a wheel brace that has seen better days.
Luckily the wounded tyre is on the outside rear axle – not requiring much leverage to get the thing off. But after twenty years of revolving it is a god-damn bitch to get back on. The difficulty is overcome by adding nut after nut, washer after washer, until the wheel stops playing Waltzing Matilda.
A quick compass direction check taken far too near the truck\bus for my liking, has us on the way again. The second puncture is not long in coming. El Cid is now down to one spare tyre so I suggest that perhaps a re-inflation to combat the sharp shells might not be such a bad idea.
Like us he is carrying two spare tyres. Unlike us they are both under a Queen Anne bed.
(Top tip: if you must house a spare wheel on the back door put it on its own support. not straight onto the door.)
On the ground in the oven heat of the day our little electrical pump gasps for air in its attempt to re inflate one of our tyres.
(Top TIP: if you must buy an electric pump, buy a decent one.)
Williwaw is fitted with three extra power cigar sockets, one external on the panel beside the rear door, one behind the driver seat into which the fridge is plugged and the last under the passenger’s seat for a hand-held spot light if required.
(Top tip: a dashboard fan is a waste of time. Buy German cigar sockets plugs. they are fused and much better quality. OUTSIDE ADDITIONAL power points are an excellent idea.)
Late afternoon > Once more engulfed in a blowjob of dust and sand we draw near the end of a reddish sharp-shelled plateau > The choice facing us is a very steep descent onto the flatter terrain below or turns around and retrace our already covered tracks. El Cid seems somewhat surprised at the sudden stop. I’m having strong feelings that he has not passed this way before.
The day is almost spent. There is no time to discuss if this is here or there. It is time to go down and hide behind one of the many horseshoe – shaped dunes for the night. They dot the landscape below us. Cid ventures off to the left. To the girls horror I point Williwaw head first over the edge. Without one touch of the brakes she roars us down safely on the flat.
Up on the plateau edge the blasting sand that whipped up over us cheated our half closed eyes as to the distance to the nearest migrating dune. With our Wanker of a Spaniard’s desire to wallow in every soft lump of sand we eventually arrive battle weary to the sanctuary of a newly shaping dune long after the last star has appeared. Pitch – twenty-nine
A tough day.
All praise must go to Fanny who has not only kept periwinkle tits, but also her little sister and Florence amused. She has fed and watered us in an environment that takes no notice of illogical borders set by man now or in the past.
With the night temperature plummeting I elected to sleep outside . Fanny and Flo accept an offer to sleep in the truck\bus. Within seconds, the sound of their snoring disturbs the desert silence. I am too knackered to care. Rolling out my sleeping bag I wonder if I will be found buried alive in the morning. Dust storms can be over thirty kilometres and are known to cover over three hundred square kilometres with a sprinkling of dust as far as London.
Morning >Hunkered down in my bag I watch our surrounding dunes continuously being shaped and reshaped by the wind. From our host dune a tail of sand streams from its running edge. Apart from us there is no other visible sign of human occupation. Our entrance tyre marks are covered up by the night’s storm. We have arrived without a trace just like a yacht dropping anchor. From where we came no one knows.
In the tinted early morning light our night camp has a stark beauty all of its own. We are tucked up close behind the slip side of the dune. Shaped like a quarter moon the dune runs from a few centimetres high to fifty or sixty meters in height. Following the force of the wind from its high point a small wake dune is in the process of being formed right in front of our eyes. (Wake dunes are formed in the lee of a larger dune). By the time I have shaken myself free, the kids are running along the knife-edge of our overnight protector, sending avalanches of soft warm sand to the shadowed floor. We have all slept in too late.
It is not yet ten bells and the temperature is already up in the forties. No visible tracks to follow are a blessing in disguise. The flat rippled sand leading away from our campsite warns of yet another long day. Mauritania borders are big enough to hold four UK’S with room to spare. I check El Cids yesterday bearings with an old world war field compass. My compass bearings to Nouamghar place us a few degrees above our rum line.
The needle points in the direction of a set of longitudinal dunes which are quite visible in the far distance. “The park itself is highly inaccessible” according to one of our bibles “Never mind get over the frigging dunes” says Fanny in a faint voice. Nouamghar marks the southerly boundary of the Parc National du Banc D’ Arguin. There is no sign of last night’s wind but I can smell it regrouping.
(Top Tip: Summer Desert drive. Do it either very early morning, or late evening when the sand is cool and at its LEAST SILKY. )
It is another day of sand ladders, more punctures, tyre pressures changes, sweating, engine cooling, tracks heading off in every direction, wind, temperature in the 50s, with sand in every orifice. All to achieve a day’s run of forty odd kilometres across a flat sandy desert depression.
The day has not given us much confidence to tackle longitudinal, latitudinal, or any ‘tudinal’ dunes.
Pulling in for the second night, it has yet again been another arduous day for Fanny. She has spent the day watching dig after dig unable to open the windows of Williwaw a fraction without getting a mouthful of fine grain sand or dust. The Sahara produces over three hundred million tonnes of dust a year. A mouthful or two won’t go missing or upset the ecosystem but at this very moment looking at Fanny’s drawn face I could do without the Spaniard who is holding us back from making decent headway.
The day’s exertions bear out for all to see that our man Cid lacks finesse when it comes to reading the driving sand surface. His wreck, his appalling kids, his arrogance, if not curtailed could indeed present us with a life threatening situation if we are not careful. However, there is one thing for sure, he is not a quitter. I find myself later that night making a mental note that if necessary I will leave him to fend for himself.
Our campsite number thirty of our voyage is once more behind a large dune. This one is jutting out from the depression wall and is the shape of a bent but not quite closed finger. On our side, the slip side, smooth sand runs downwards and along the tilted hard floor to meet the rippled sands of the depression, the sands that tried to break our camel backs all day.
Courted by the deserts spacious grandeur and an early moon, I forget the exertions of the day. Fingered by starlight and a large glass of whisky I unfold my sleeping bag for yet another night in the open. Nodding off, the picture of the two Paddy brickies who were on their way to a building project in Egypt when their plane was forced to land in the middle of the Sahara comes to mind. Looking out the window one turned to the other and say’s “Jesus Mick let’s get out of here before the fecking cement shows up.”
In the middle of the night I wake to a gnawing of my head and the sound of scurrying feet. Both leave me with a longing for a pee but far from brave about having one. The desert, undisturbed by wind can be a profoundly quiet place yet full of eyes. Compared to the ocean it imparts a sense of permanency, where sounds can be heard in the purity of their musical notes. I lazily awake wondering whether it will be “Coo…ee” or “Ahoy there” that will be man’s first sound across the deserts and oceans of new planets.
The morning reveals a set of small footprints leading underneath Williwaw and a swizzle of unclear tracks emerging from the front bumper. Florence and the Spanish brats follow the tracks up over the dune where they disappear without trace; sucked up by a vacuum hover. I tell them that my night visitor is a ghost desert fox that can hear us from the other side of the Sahara with his enormous ears. After three tough days it is good to hear them laugh.
Over the depression wall we are in for another day of tyre shredding on a mixture of sharp shale and broken shell. In the cool of the morning I suggest to CID that we should have a go at trying to break the seal of one of his punctured tyres before we leave camp. Apart from the brute force of whacking a tyre lever with a hammer, there are two other recognised methods of seal breaking. Place the wheel flat on the ground and avoiding the hub, drive over it. Alternatively place the high jack just inside the rim of the punctured tyre, and jack your vehicle up – Neither worked.
In an attempt to drive the truck/bus over the wheel the bastards forgets to remove the jack – how Irish! I am left with one bent high jack.
Moving out onto the depression’s floor the bus\truck two wheel rear drive is now down to four tyres instead of six. I don’t have to tell Fanny that the day ahead has all the makings of yet another day in heaven. I can hear her saying without a spoken word, ‘Bloody great, it’s over forty-five degrees, not even ten- o -clock in the morning, all I want is out of here”
The day involves hours of digging and retrieving sand tracks. On one occasion, El Cid roars over the tank tracks ripping his exhaust off. On another occasion he pierces his fuel tank. On top of all this for good measure during a white-out, I pull his front bumper off before lunch.
The exertions of the day are driven by an uvula thirst increasing our water consumption up to alarming proportions.
Far from amused, (all of us are covered in dust and sand so that when we blink the moisture of our eyes congeals to form a paste that dries in the sun like concrete) we arrive at camp thirty-one exhausted. Our chosen campsite adds to our desire for survival with the discovery by the kids of a load of bleached camel bones.
Today, day three is the day of connecting the red line.
Once again it starts badly with my Spanish friend asking for water. I am running short on temper not water. I have asked him on numerous occasions not to dig in the truck/bus up to its axils before the sand tracks are in position. Once again for most the day he roars away in the sand until we either come back or catch up to dig or tow him out. That evening camp thirty-two over a game of chess he gets the message. Cut out the el Matador antics or we will be exchanging blows or saying good riddance. In other words, ‘Adiós amigos see you in Nouakchott’
There is no need to worry about fisticuffs today, for unlike yesterday the shale windy surface does not peter out into silky sand but remains flat and hard. However, it not long before there is a large bang and down goes the back wheel of the truck/bus. The day is spent in the searing heat making a new head for the wheel brace. We unscrewing the wheel bolts, which were congealed to their thread worn, counter parts. Pounding with a hammer and tyre levers we remove the tyre. We manufacture a large patch which is stitched and glued to the tube and we steel weld the hub bolts back into place. Florence attends a schooling session. Pear tits and her sister either play with the tools or cause general havoc. While I send a prayer of my own out over the landscape to keep my Irish temper at bay. Fanny kept our energy levels up.
That night pitch thirty-two from my sleeping bag I watch the gleaming sash of the Milky Way, and listen to the desert whisper secrets to the moon. I begin to understand and respect the Saudi Bedouin, the Tuareg and other nomadic cultures that follow a nomadic or semi-nomadic way of life > A way of life that has all but disappeared. It is difficult to appreciate that this part of the earth was once an ocean floor, a forest, and grassland where elephants and antelope roamed. I recall reading some book on Africa where the writer or writers record in great detail distances, the road conditions, between one place and the next , which seems somewhat pointless in a place where time means nothing, making distance somewhat irrelevant.
Morning > According to my compass we are still two degrees below the rum line to NOUACKCHOT. As we break camp in the cold air of a new day dawning there is no argument from Cid, with all the wasted energy he has burned up he is washed out.
Fanny refills our indoor plant spray bottle – a wonderful piece of equipment which when she had packed back in the UK, I gave her hell about. There is nothing like the soft gentle touch of mist on an overheated burnt face, neck or cut.
(Top Tip: Don’t go without one.)
As if looking into a gypsy’s crystal ball the belching exhaust of the truck’s\bus cold engine has us hypnotised. We are on our new course back into and over the larger dunes we saw two days ago. All goes well until we hit the sand at 9 am. Within minutes we are digging. Fanny records the dig time and our length of progress between each dig. Over the next four hours we manage to cover just over seventeen kilometres. Six digs varying in time from fifteen minutes to an hour each and all in the temperature of high forty’s or low fifties. Midsummer is certainly not the time to cross the Western Sahara.
I am now experiencing what is called a survival mode of operation, a silent inner mind map.
(Top TIP: Survival situations rarely appear unexpectedly, but tend to evolve from bad preparations followed by bad luck. Set realistic itinerary and don’t skimp on preparations, or provisions.)
Over lunch I can see the strain in Fanny eyes. She has been physically unable to help but nevertheless has contributed way beyond her wildest imagination to the triumphant struggle of this trip. She reads story after story to Florence, sprayed my sand sore eyes slipped dehydration sachets into our drinks. Receiving with great restrain a bite from thimble tits that nearly causes a ‘Big Country’ punch up. The bite being returned by me with a full unrestricted open-handed slap to her white trasero (backside) impressing Florence surprising the brat leaving El Cid is in two minds, Fanny shock and sore. After this event Cid manages four hours, or fifty odd kilometres without a stop which restores peace to our world.
Our fourth night in the encroaching wilderness is one of utter exhausted sleep for all. Pitch No 32.
For once in the morning we are on way by five thirty am. The driving is considerably easier if undertaking before the sun heats up the sand to egg timer silkiness. Eighteen kilometres on sand without a stop from camp Fanny and I are beginning to think that this could be our lucky day when all of a sudden up ahead, El Cid shows all the signs of digging in again.
Two hours later he has another puncture. With no peel off patches left we cut a patch from one of his shredded tubes. On the go again Fanny announces that to date I have dug El Cid out ninety odd times. She has had it them up to her, (we hit a bump). “They can fry.”
The large to be crossed dunes ahead might grant her wish. We roar on without a hitch until during one of our tyre re- inflating and cooling engine’s stops (I have long given up on my small air compressor using the truck/bus one forgiving attribute blowing.) we spot a black flag on the sandy floor below us. Looking through my 8×24 field 7° (Top Tip: Excellent Bird Watching power) I see a car with two black turbans looking in our direction.
Stopping at a suitable precautionary distance, El Cid and I walk over to find two young Mauritanias. With the assistance of sign language we soon learn that they are awaiting the return of the car’s engine. Apparently, two friends walked off with it some days ago. Bearing in mind our struggle of the last five days the thought of two fellows walking along in the middle of the desert carrying a car engine seem absurd in the extreme. We leave our two young Arabs with a handshake. They settle down for a long wait beside a large barrel of water their fingers pointed in the direction to Nouamghar. ‘How far’ draws a blank. “Follow our friend’s footprints and you can’t go wrong.”
Pitch no 33. Twinkle tits apologises for the bite. Our spirits are better. After yet another three early morning dig outs, we hit the seashore of Parc National du Banc D’ Arguin. In a flash, a chain of vibrant affirming ripples confirms the drawing power of water. Disturbing the resident pelican we are all charging head long for the water.
Down the shore line awaits Nouamghar and civilisation.
Passing the jaw bones of a dead whale well on its way to fossilizing we enter a small settlement set in drifting sands. It contains a shop with a few bleak windowless buildings straight out of a Steinbeck novel. A coke sign creaks in the wind. Coke – something we’d all die for in our condition.
There is a strong feeling of being watched as we all enter the shop Inside the wooden walled building there is a fridge out of which we are handed six bottles of cold Coke. (Put Coca’Colá in it arabic style here)
Standing half in and half out of the shop, swatting flies and gulping coke, we are a forlorn and lonely looking bunch.
Re-emerging from the shop a flapping djalaba tries to pull the wool over my eyes with a tax demand. He became somewhat agitated when I pulled the driver’s door in his face. After what we had been through he was lucky I had not slammed the door on the fingers. He had another thing coming if he thought I was going to pay for it.
Camp number thirty-four is out of sight of the settlement but not out of range of its rubbish dump. According to Cid there is a choice to be made here – we can go down the sea-shore to Nouackhott in the time it takes for the tide to turn or cut inland to find the main off piste drag.
Looking at the soft sand there is no need for you to guess as to what option we took. Come hell or high water it’s down the beach in the morning. Whether we make it or not is of no concern, as elicit tits had just added to the dump aroma with a dump of her very own > RIGHT on our very doorstep.
The beach run is about one hundred and fifty kilometres long, fully accessible only at low tide with no get out if things go wrong. The sea wall is a solid run of Sahara dunes protected by a high ridge of sand. The sort of sandy ridge you get on the bank of a river when it crosses a beach to the sea. It cracks with the weight of your foot, falling as a mini landslide with a solid slosh into the racing water.
Examining the high water mark, I figure that the tide will be turning at six am in the morning. Wrong it does not turn till ten am which is just as well as the Truck/bus gets stuck at its first attempt to get over the soft sand edge onto the beach. We waste almost an hour of the tide trying to get him out.
Fifty kilometres flash by with our speed only slowing for a few outcrops of rock and the odd shipwreck circumnavigation. Going hell for leather we are passed by two packed to the gunnels Peugeot taxis, their huddled passengers clinging on like limpets. If you fall out, you walk. They give us heart.
At the eighty odd kilometre mark we are waived down by a military blockade. Whether their jurisdiction extends beyond the low water mark is not up for debate. What is for debate is whether El Cid is going to turn around from where he has stopped down the beach? Waving Kalashnikovs inform us that if my friend does not come back, they (the military) are going to keep our passports. It’s the last straw as far as Fanny is concerned.
Time ticks away. My explanation that the truck/bus has nothing to do with us other than we were forced to accompany it across the desert, is not having much effect.
I signal to the pointed gun barrels directed towards Cid and beckon him to back up. There is not enough room with the incoming tide for him to turn his vehicle. He reverses back with a crunching noise that announces the pending death of the truck/bus. After a suitable dressing down all is explained > the tide, no brakes, did not see you, no Comprende and – we are finally allowed to continue.
It is now very much a race against the tide. El Cid runs out of fuel. I siphoned some from under my driver’s seat spare tank. One hour later we turn off the beach with the waves slapping against the drivers doors. We roar up an outlet, cut into the sandy sea wall and get stuck not for the first time in the whole crossing in the soft warm yellow sand of mother Sahara. Sand tracks, once more. With feeling we dig to join the red line.
According to Michelin 953 & 954 there are from the North, three other Red line joining crossing choices they are,
Reggane ( Algerie) to Gao (Mali) 1317 km aprox
Tamanghasset (Algeria) to Arlit (Niger) 598 km aprox Aswan ( Egypt) to Berber (Sudan) 1214 km with a dash of water
Our five hundred and twenty plus kilometres with over fifty dig outs, six tyres, one hundred and eighty litres of water and a race against the tide has cured us of any other red line joining routes. What normally should take three to four days has taken us the bones of eight hellish days.
With black tar visible at the top of the sandy exit for a change is a hefty sigh of relief. Not even the sight of itsy- bitsy tits opening the door of the truck bus while Cid sprays sand to the four winds dampens our joy. I am no Gipsyologist, but I can tell you that crossing this part or for that matter, any part of the Sahara with Spanish nackers is a No No.
Somewhat Gipsyfied we head for the centre of Nouakchott better known as the Place of wind > A capital city besieged by dunes.
Cid tells us that he has some friends in town who are going to put himself and his brats up for a few days. Before he can escape I stick him with the cost dinner, a fill of fuel and a promise of collecting my straightened high jack plus a full bottle of gas in the morning. We exchange overdue Adios.
We scarper out-of-town, as far away from the slums as possible, to a hotel named Sabah positioned at the top of the outlet where we had roared up two hours ago.
At seven thousand unutterable (Ouguiya) a night, we did not give a tinkers about the odd cockroach in the shower. The girls deserved the best the wind place could offer. Western hospitality is not one of Mauritania strong points. Morning breakfast consists of two moth-eaten croissants and a cup of coffee that could pass as cold camel pee.
Driving yet again into Nouakchott’s featureless city centre square we see why Mauritania has the biggest drop out of nasrani (Hassaniya Arabic for white Peace Corps Volunteers). The hostile city environment setting has a leg ironed on most of its residences. With many-sided line pious religious dudes its populated is still governed by a cast system of nobility. Slavery was only abolished officially some twenty odd years ago. Prior to the ethnic clashes of 1989 it is no wonder that most of its black Soninke peasants bugger off back to Senegal leaving its soul to disappear into the sand.
Tracking down of El Cid turns out to be a problem but eventually we track down the truck/bus parked with a previous wreck he had driven down in the garden of his friend’s house. While I recover our gear, towing strap, gas bottle, bottle jack, spanners, torches and the like Fanny makes good use of the friend’s house washing machine. Leaving our calling card of two full lines of drying we head back into town for a spot of lunch.
Down one of the side streets we find a small restaurant named “de Iraq.” Sitting outside, Florence is spell-bound by two bonking monkeys. Fanny and I buy two omelettes made from dubious chicken eggs that never crossed a road.
That evening in the shower a tiny film of sand in the basin reminds me that it is water, or the lack of it that determines a true desert, an authentic desert people, and not the mask meaning carried in the name of Mauritania the Land of Sand. Bedouin Arabs came to Mauritania as predatory invaders with a strong aversion to settled life we came as tourists that now know shifting sands are the true invader.
Donations are still peaking at zero. Have some feeling for an Unpublished Author that can spell.
R Dillon. Account no 62259189. Ulster Bank 33 College Green Dublin 2.
Sorting code: 98-50-10. Thanks.