Mauritania

MAURITANIA 2011

It took 2 hours to clear the Morocco border the person responsible for signing us out had an appointment with a doctor and in typical African style; no-one else could sign us out. Lucky, he never died. The road (wheel tracks in soft sand) now passes through 7km of no-man’s land, which is littered with landmines, so we advise everyone to make sure that you stay on the right track. I also think the 7km is a drive back into history as the Mauritanian border is one of complete chaos, which includes fixers, black money dealers, army, police and customs, all after the many stamps. The obvious poverty at the Mauritanian border post cannot be exaggerated. In huts that in Europe would cause an outrage if you kept your animals in them, here the poor officers from the army, customs and police must take care of the formalities and deal with people crossing a border. No doubt wages are low as most if not all are looking for cadeaux (presents). We finished up paying around 120 dirhams, (around 15AUD and we are not sure for what) so once they had stamped our final paperwork they needed to borrow our pen to sign on the stamp. Anyway, after another two hours and a thorough check in our Motorhome looking for alcohol which is strictly forbidden in Mauritania, we were free to go with the signboards displaying the words “Welcome to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania”.

NOUADHIBOU TO ATAR                                                                                                                                             

And yes, you guessed it another 2km and the first roadblock and then another 3 in the 40km to Nouadhibou. Nouadhibou a town situated on a 60km peninsula or headland called Ras Nouadhibou, of which the western side, with the city of Lagouira, is part of Western Sahara. Nouadhibou is less than a kilometre from the border, if you decide to drive via the beach from Morocco. The city has a relaxed feel and is a mixture of Moors, Berber and Africans. It feels like we are just about to enter Black Africa again. We had heard of a small Auberge in the middle of the town where we could stay inside the gate in the car park. That seems like a good idea. Today’s happy hour was cold water and nuts… Nouadhibou, the interesting part the dormitory town Port Mineralier in the far south, from which iron ore mined in Zouerat is exported. Other points of interest are several markets and a ship’s graveyard. The port of Nouadhibou is the final resting place of over 300 ships and hence the world’s largest ship graveyard. The number of craft has built up over time, as corrupt officials accepted bribes from boat owners to allow them to dump their vessels in the area. The major economic activity is fishing; however, the largest industry is processing iron ore that has been transported by train from the interior mining towns of Zouarate These freight trains can be as much as 3km long, and are the longest in the world. We decided to take the track east, following the railway line as much as possible, to Choum. This famous train carries thousands of tons of crushed rock in a chain of wagons up to three kilometres long. Their schedules and frequencies depend partly on unpredictable hold-ups many of which are caused by damaged rails, engine failure and attacks by Polisario guerrillas from over the border in Western Sahara.

The train has one passenger carriage on the afternoon schedule, but passengers can also travel for free on top of, or inside the ore trucks. You turn off the bitumen at Bou Lanouar N21.17 .396 W 16.30 363 (not exactly correct). The track is remote but not difficult and as long as you do not veer south too much and keep the railway line in sight to the left (driving east), you will be okay. Avoid the many iron stakes by not driving too close to the railway line. Enroute we did see a 2-wheel drive, driving on the rail way track. Never cross the railway had line to the north as this area is heavenly mined. We did the trip to Choum in two days. A great night in the desert. The following days we visited Oudane. the only highlight enroute to Ouadane, was the Amogjar Pass.

The next highlight and in my book, it was very narrow, very steep and very scenic. But at the top it was too narrow for our truck! You can also take the now tarred Ebnou pass to save time. This is also spectacular, but nothing compared to the Amogjar pass. The rest of the 200km are a little boring. Arriving at Ouadane you see a palm fringed hill and after such a boring drive, it is unexpected. The town is built in the same colour as the rocks (using the same rocks). You only realise these are houses when you get very close. We found ourselves a nice bush camp and enjoyed a starlit night. We decided to travel from Quadane to Chinguetti, following the notes from Chris Scott, auditor of Africa Overland. This route follows the dunes to Chinguetti. But as we left town we were stopped by the army/police and we were told to turn back and not to use the track. Reason was that a few people got lost and two had died in the desert. One of them rolled his Pinzgauer on the dunes and walked away from his vehicle not to be found for two days! You are now only allowed to drive this stretch with a guide. Reluctantly we turned around and had to drive back the same boring route. Just before Atar, we passed the Azougui Oasis.

ATAR TO NOUAKCHOTT

When we arrived in Atar we were confronted by demonstrations, not just men but also women. Initially we thought It was to do with labour day, but it didn’t take long before we heard Bin Laden had been killed. As we walked around town we found ourselves right in the middle of the demonstrations. We did our shopping and found Bab Sahara, a small compound where we parked our truck. Atar is a lively place and the hub for the Adrar Mountains. After we left Atar we travelled via the Oasis of Terjit to the town of Akjoujt. This is a town in the middle of Mauritania and is located at around 19.75N 14.38W. It is the capital of Inchiri region. The town’s main industry is gold and copper mining. Summers in Akjoujt are extremely hot, with temperatures reaching up to 50 degrees Celsius. Today we encountered 10 road blocks and the main reason given was security and rebel activity. The area we travelled through today showed the poor Mauritania that we often see on TV. Located in the Sahelian and Saharan zones, Mauritania has one of the poorest agricultural bases in West Africa. We were told today that the average Mauritanian lives on 1.25 USD per day. From here we made a right-hand turn reason we were required to drive to Nouakchott for our Mali Visa. Nouakchott was something very different and to be quite honest not one previous African Capital we have visited in the past 14 months has been so poor and so undeveloped. Sand has taken over this desert town and the people walking the streets are some of the poorest we have seen anywhere. The few cars are mostly Mercedes or Peugeot and are on average 50 years old.

Nouakchott “The place of the winds” is the capital and by far the largest city of Mauritania. It is one of the largest cities in the Sahara. The city is the administrative and economic centre of Mauritania. Most streets are completely covered by Sahara sand and the few bitumen roads are in poor shape. Traffic lights work on and off. We did our shopping and looked up Auberge Menata, where we can camp in the car park within the compound. We arrived at the Mali Embassy and at Midday our Visas were ready. Well organized, friendly and helpful. No doubt Mali wants visitors. Today, the French army flew in as extra protection for the airports. With the death of Osama Bin Laden, everyone is on high alert. The Islamic Magreb is a North African off-shoot of a Bin Laden extremist network. They say it is very active in the south-east of Mauritania and the northern parts of Mali. And this is exactly where we will travel to today and for the next 3 or 4 days. We are not sure what happened here yesterday, but we were told a convoy of AQIM vehicles crossed from Mali into Mauritania to assassinate the Mauritanian President. They got as far as the outskirts of Nouakchott when one car blew up during an engagement with the army. The pressure continues following last month’s abductions of two French nationals from Niger, which soon ended in their deaths. While at the Mali Embassy, we also heard of trouble in Burkina Faso. Apparently mutiny of members of the military. Also, the government has been dissolved and police are firing into the air to disperse demonstrators. There is no Ghana Embassy in Nouakchott. After one more night on the beach watching the fisherman pull the nets in full of fish. We were about to leave but were stopped with the message no-one can leave town?!?!

NOUAKCHOTT TO MALI BORDER

2 days later we had the all okay and were allowed to leave Nouakchott travelling east, but we had to assure the police that we would not travel beyond 6pm. The Sahara is the world’s largest hot desert and the world’s second largest desert after Antarctica. At over 9,000,000 square kilometres (3,500,000 sq. miles), it covers Algeria, Libya, South-west Egypt, North- east Sudan, Niger, Chad, Mali and Mauritania till the outskirts of the Atlantic Ocean. To the south, it is delimited by the Sahel, a belt of semi-arid tropical savanna separating the Sahara from Sub-Saharan Africa. The Sahara is almost as large as the continental United States, and is larger than Australia. Some of the sand dunes can reach 180 meters (600 feet) in height. Its name comes from the Tamajaq Tuareg language word Tenere, which means the desert. Slowly the sandy Sahara dunes started to disappear, and the Sahel country started to appear. The Adrar is exactly how you’ve always imagined the Sahara to be. Endless ergs (dunes) and regs (rocky desert) with tabular small mountains. From here you can follow many tracks far to the south east before crossing into Mali like we did on our way down. Mauritania is an Islamic Republic. The Southern part of the country is filled with friendly people, and they are very welcoming, if a little unused to tourists. The Mauritanians are certainly not extremists. Most of the people in the North are very conservative and quite reserved. At 8pm the temp was still 39 degrees and the wind was as hot as that coming from a hair-dryer. In Australia our main concern is kangaroos on the roads, but here it is camels. After the camels it must be the overloaded trucks. Some trucks were up to 7 meters high. It was incredible seeing the evening traffic. Only one in ten cars had all their lights working and only one in five had just a front or a rear light. Four out of ten have no lights and the cop car only had one light. Once we arrived at an army post at 5.30pm (11th for the day) we were inspected and invited to camp right behind their camp.

It was obvious they were expecting us. We shouted them some diet coke (no alcohol in Mauritania) and biscuits and in return we were invited for the tea. We enjoyed another night under the stars feeling a little secure knowing we have police/army around us. By the way, the local Muslim people made it quite clear to us that Bin Laden was unarmed, and his children were there when he was shot. We just left it at that as we do not speak French and we didn’t want to make a comment.

As the night progressed, we received more visitors and I don’t think they have ever seen a truck from Australia before. We handed out some cadeaux and before we knew it we received camel milk, camel meat and other foods in return. Problem was we were not sure what it was. As we found during Stage One of our journey, the African people are so friendly, and we love this continent. The people who live here deserve so much more. We left early and spent the whole day driving. Like yesterday, passing villages full of rubbish either at the beginning or the end. Even rubbish dumps in the middle of the street. All streets are made up out of tiny stalls selling everything from phone cards to fresh slaughtered meat in the open sun. The Mali border was our planned destination for today. But the road between Kiffa and Ayoun El-Atrous was potholed for the complete distance of 220km. This, in conjunction with over 15 road blocks and corrupt officials, we were asked over and over for everything from toys for their kids to Euros and cadeaus. Today we remembered again the joke you are drunk in Africa when you miss all the potholes. Well we were not drunk, and we were incapable of missing the potholes, in fact it was not a matter of missing the potholes, but which pothole was better to drive through. I felt quite silly with my fully optioned 4WD truck doing 20/30km per hour while bush taxis and 1990 Mercedes taxis were speeding at 60- 70 km hour. Obviously, the stock standard suspension, although noisy, seems to keep going. And no doubt they gave up on aftermarket items years ago. I also worked out that the best tyre was a brand imported by Ali Baba (this is the real name) called Ling Long. No patents, no anti-chip and no other fancy shit. Just a cheap strong tyre, which can be driven with chunks missing and steel coming though the tread with an average speed of around 30km per hour, the last 180km took 6 hours and it was 6pm when we arrived in Ayoun El-Atrous. We again looked for a nice spot for bush camping, but the same as yesterday, we were told to stop and find an enclosed compound in town to be safe for the night. We were again advised there were bandits operating at night. We took the advice and we found a spot inside a compound in Ayoun El-Atrous. This time an Auberge that was being built. After a bit of negotiating we stayed for 5 Euro including a cold shower. As we were parking the truck, we realized we had a puncture. But after a long day and very hot weather, we first had a shower and decided to put the jack under the truck and change the tyre tomorrow morning, when it is cool (probably around 35 degrees!

RETURNING BACK IN MAURITANIA (ENTERING FROM SENEGAL) JOURNEY BACK TO MOROCCO

DIAMMA BORDER to MOROCCO BORDER

We had an early departure, filling up with fuel and then off to the Senegal border in Diamma. From there, we cross into Southern Mauritania. Driving through northern Senegal we drove around the Senegal River and Parc National du Djoudi. Further inland, the Senegal River region is characterized by vast open spaces dotted with tiny villages and beautiful mud-brick houses. A chain of 18th-century French forts also provide focal points for travellers making the effort to visit the river region. Forming the border between Senegal and Mauritania, the Senegal River runs for some 1790km through West Africa. After about 20km we arrived at the Senegal border. Formalities were going smoothly and with no problems until the passports where stamped. Then we were told to pay10,000CFA to get them back! This was the fee for stamping. I looked at the officer and said, “Well sir, let me give you my business card and I would also like to use your phone.” The card was just our website and email address, but we told them that we are writing a book. “Surely you don’t want to be in my book,” I said. The chief had to get off his bed to have a look at the card and then he told me that this charge was a mistake because the stamping fee only applied when we enter Senegal, but as we were leaving, there is no need to pay. Next border was Mauritania. Same story, they said that we had to pay 6,000CFA for the paperwork. Unfortunately for him, he had no receipts left but he said the stamp in my passport would verify that I have paid. So that was that and so far, as I was concerned there was no more to pay, because you don’t have to pay at Customs. Then, just as I was reconciling that in my mind, a Customs officer came up to me. The demanding that I pay him 2,000CFA. I then became very angry and said, “I have already paid!” He replied and said that it was nothing to do with him. “Well, you come with me,” I told him. And we went back to the police. Unfortunately, both work together and when I demanded to get my 6,000CFA back, he said, “No problem, but first we will search your car. Oh shit. To cut a long story short they found one can of beer I had forgotten to take out of the fridge. This of course is a criminal offence in this Muslim country. After some discussion we came to a compromise. The officer said to me, “You did not see the can of beer in the fridge so just leave the 6,000CFA with us and be on your way. Anyway, only one more border crossing in West Africa and we will be in Morocco. It seems to us that most of West Africa is so corrupt and we are both pleased to be leaving this part of the world. The constant demands and subsequent haggles over bribes put us on edge. It is so bad that police officers at road blocks even argue with each other over who is going to rip a bribe out of the unsuspecting white fella. That is certainly not the way to gain respect. At Diama we entered the Diawling National Park, Due to the unrest in the country we stayed overnight in the park before returning to the main North – South road in Mauritania. Unfortunately for us, we found ourselves caught in a major sandstorm, which lasted for two days. It is called the Harmattan, which is a hot, dry, and dust-laden wind. It blows from the Sahara and one night we were battered by 80km hour winds, which really made us worry about the truck blowing over or at least, having the paint stripped off. Except for 50mm of dust over the truck, we survived. From here we stuck close to the ocean because visibility was very very poor, and the heat inland was close to 50 degrees Celsius. While near the ocean it was so cool that we sat inside for the first time in months. We arrived at the border with Mauritania and Morocco, hoping to have the formalities done in a few hours but it took a lot longer than we had expected. Three hours to clear Mauritania customs then the infamous 7 km through an ex minefield to reach the Morocco border (Western Sahara) and then two and a half hours to get into Morocco, including driving our truck through a scanner. From here all the way Bitumen to our next stop in Morocco

WELCOME BACK TO CIVILAZATION, WELCOME TO MOROCCO.