Monday, 1 December 2008

14: Sun, sand and tinned fish

Following our sojourn in Dakhla we hitched back down to the bikes. Originally we had intended to camp out near the border, but the risk of mines, and an offer of a free floor in the hotel where we had left our gear, kept us in the small settlement of Dakmar for our final night in Morocco. Discussions about the fate of Western Sahara with a Saharwi living in the village shed more light on the situation. In a final flamboyant display of hospitality from our hosts we were fed locally caught lobster for dinner. We're certainly not slumming it in the desert!

An early morning start brought us to the border with Mauritania. After clearing the Moroccan side, after a couple of hours of formalities, we crossed the several kilometres of no-man's land to reach the Mauritanian border gate. Our arrival coincided with the guards' lunch and siesta and while life swung slowly back into action, we were instructed to wait outside the raised barrier. The shadow of the barrier provided an 8-inch wide strip of shade that the three of us shared in the glaring sunlight of mid-afternoon. Finally naptime was over and we were stamped into Mauritania.

Until three years ago the journey on from the border would have entailed taking a ride on the iron ore train to Choum, in the interior, followed by a difficult crossing along a sandy piste to Atar and then a sealed road to the capital, Nouakchott. Now there is a sealed road linking Nouadibhou in the north, with Nouakchott, 470 km south. Avoiding a detour to Nouadibhou, and therefore forsaking a stock up on supplies, we headed directly to Nouakchott. Initial impressions of Mauritania was of a country that appeared substanitally poorer than its northern neighbour, at least if the appearance of the sparsely scattered roadside settlements were anything to go by. Ironically, costs for very basic supplies (water and yet more tinned fish) in the small, delapidated shacks at the roadside were double that of Morocco.

A combination of factors, including the limited availability of fresh food, strong winds, and hot days, made the last section of the desert crossing the hardest yet of our journey. Currently listed as a country where only 'essential travel' should be undertaken by the ever cautious British foreign office, we were slightly more vigilant since entering the country. Our only negative experience occured on the second day in the country when a group of men disembarked from a van and flagged us down. A particularly belligerent fellow, who appeared to be under the influence of something stronger than mint tea, ed a bottle of water from my rear rack. Not a nice thing to do, particularly to a cyclist crossing the desert. Fortunately this experience paled in comparison to the kindness and hospitality that we have been shown since arriving here. At one point on the final day to Nouakchott, with bread supplies running periliously low, we discussed the situation as we ate the remainder of our sandy food. Two minutes later a gleaming Volkswagen pulled up and two freshly baked baguettes were handed out of the window. After the car left I said aloud that I would really like some bacon and a bottle of cold beer, but unfortunately that car never arrived.

The larger issue that the country is attempting to grapple with is that of Islamic fundamentalism. The country was recently identified by the head of the German intelligence agency as the next training ground for militant Islamic fundamentalists that have been displaced from Afghanistan and Pakistan. In reality, radical beliefs are only held by a very small section of the population and recent attacks against Mauritanian soldiers by fundamentalist militants have only further angered and alienated the general population from this radical segment of society. A recent military coup that ousted the President has been viewed with apparent widespread approval by many Mauritanians, as the military advocates a hardline approach against the militants.

On our second night in the country, we found ourselves camped in an open plain with no shelter, having already decided to move on after our initial choice of campsite had clearly been spotted by a passing vehicle. After another meal of pasta with fish (sometimes we have fishy pasta instead), we had gone to our tents when I saw that the stiff breeze had already allowed a fine layer of sand to uniformly cover everything in the tent. By midnight the deafening noise of the flapping flysheet had me concerned enough to clambour out and survey how the only partially submerged tent pegs were coping. Much to my relief all but one had held. Back in the sandy tent I fell asleep for another couple of hours. When I woke at 4am, however, it felt as though the tent was going to go airborne at any moment. A mist of fine sand was billowing through the ventilated sides of the tent. Outside the wind seemed considerably less fearsome, but still more than sufficient to force more sand into my eyes, nose, and ears. A hasty discussion in the inky black darkness led us to decide to wait until first light to break camp. The wind continued all morning. During our snack break we stood to attention, backs to the wind, sand exfoliating our legs, as we crunched through our pasteurised cheese sandwiches. With the prospect of shelter and supplies at a petrol station that lay 20 km further on, we got back on the bikes. Our arrival at the station was heralded by a group of applauding Frenchmen fishermen who had passed us earlier in the day. Chilled rose and some magnificent cheese was pulled out of a cooler and grinning stupidly, we eagerly scoffed it down, only gradually becoming aware of our filthy appearance. As the fishermen drove off we descended on the remnants of plates of fried mutton like vultures, having been eyeing them up all too obviously no doubt.

Nouakchott. Someone has suddenly turned up the heat. I attempt a midday walk and I have to intersperse my hunt for peanut butter with regular stops for a cold drink. Designated as the site for the new capital in 1956, the sandy city feels calm and relatively relaxed. I pitch my tent on top of the place we're staying in and fall asleep looking at the stars and listening to the waning of sounds of the city.

Today I'm up at sunrise having drifted in and out of consciousness whilst the muezzin chanted in the hour before dawn. I stroll through the sand-lined streets until it's time to go to the Malian embassy to get a visa. It's Monday and the city is wakening up to a new week. A kaleidascope of skin colours make up the city's population. Light skinned Moors, dark skinned southerners, and the odd toubab or European, the latter normally in a diplomatic or UN-labelled vehicle. Ragged young boys prepare to make a pittance washing cars. Large four-wheel drives roar past. Clapped out taxis lurch along, stocked well above the vehicle's intended loading capacity. A herd of fine looking goats graze through a pile of rubbish at the corner of the Senegalese embassy. Diesel fumes, the aroma of fresh bread, and the smell of the desert (or more likely the rising dust) mingle in the air. It's a heady and hypnotic fusion of sights and sounds at the gateway to west Africa.

Nouakchott, Mauritania

Trip distance: 7970 km

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