We set off quite early this morning and headed for the border. I was 42°C again today and felt a whole lot hotter when we spent almost 3 hours at the Moroccan ‘pre-border post’ at Guerguerrat. There were loads of flies and it was only then that we realised we never did put a fan in the cab area! Well, too late now… We’d still choose to keep the fan in the sleeping area than move it downstairs! The rest of the border bits weren’t nearly as onerous. The last Moroccan bit was simply to see our passports, and, as always, send us on our way with very warm greetings and lots of smiles. It made me think that for Europeans who are contemplating travel in Africa, but are a little nervous – Morocco would be an excellent starter!
The Mauritanian side of things were in sharp contrast to the Moroccan with even smaller, much more ramshackle buildings (piles of stones with a piece of corrugated iron for a roof). They were still friendly, but the one official was a little too friendly for my liking, also eyeing out the cab to see what he could ask for! We chatted, while Michael completed the other formalities in the immigration shack and ended up with him getting very excited about the fact that I knew which birds they had in the area and could show them to him in the Newman’s bird book. Then on to customs, which we nearly drove right past! Not too onerous, about 10 minutes and a request for toothpaste from the customs guy. We met a group of Frenchmen who has just come up north and they took photos of Nyathi. She must have had about a dozen people photographing her so far!
We had quite a few approaches from guides both at the border and along the way, but we convinced them it wasn’t necessary. We used the tracks from Guy and it made the going pretty easy. We were amazed though that in many places the tracks had already been completely covered and at one stage it was only at the insistence of the GPS that we had to turn right (into a sand dune) that we investigated the other side and sure enough we had to squeeze around the side of the dune and a rocky outcrop to emerge on the track the other side. Still, with even the small possibility of mines about, we kept as close to the main tracks as possible. Closer to Nouadhibou we saw quite a few graders preparing road surfaces so now it will be much more accessible to vehicles, even 2WDs!
The sea was brilliantly blue in the Baie de Levrier, almost turquoise. It’s a very beautiful bay which supports a big fishing industry and many foreign workers, as we learnt from Ismail, a ‘Societe de Securite’ employee to whom we gave a lift from the last checkpoint.
He told us about the procedures we had to go through in order to get vehicle insurance etc. However, his advice on exchanging money wasn’t so good as we only got 250 ougiya to the Euro and later had an offer in the campsite for 280! The campsite is clean and quiet and the owner, Ali is very helpful. Unfortunately, the locals, particularly guides can still come in and ask for business – they are all quite desperate as business is slow, with fewer tourists at this time of the year and with the war with Iraq, plus of course with GPS technology, their role is becoming redundant!
We met Antoine from France/Spain at Camping Baie le Levrier. He recommended a restaurant run by a Spanish guy (Hogar del Canario). We went there for dinner and had a really good evening. Antoine runs a vehicle/engine sales business and has been Mauritania about 25 times, so we picked his brains about routes etc. He also travelled very extensively so we had a great time chatting with him.
We spent the day at camp today. I have spent almost all day catching up on the journal and updating stuff for the website. The computer crashed at one stage because of the heat! It has been hot and towards the end of the day, very windy. We met lots of other travellers today, but no-one is game for the route to Choum along the piste, so we are going to just set off on our own tomorrow. We met Kate and Nash from England who are backpacking through Africa to Australia. We'll probably catch up with them in Atar.
Ali organised to have our gas bottle filled for 750 dirhams which is pretty good as we hadn't managed throughout Morocco as they always want to exchange bottles rather than refill ours. It's pretty late now and Nyathi's battery is running low, so that's its for today...
We only got going at about 2pm! We were supposed to buy vehicle insurance when the office opened at 8:30, but it turned out today was a public holiday – May Day. Then uploading the 4MB website updates took 3 hours (!) at the internet café (the first cyber café we tried did not even have a single working CDROM drive, apparently). During all this, there was a huge march and demonstration on the streets about something in relation to May Day – complete with riot police and water cannons (the fire tender from Nouadhibou airport). All peaceful and good natured though, but noisy as anything with all the shouting, the sirens, the hooting etc.
Once out of the town, retracing our track back towards Morocco for about 40km, we saw the ore train running alongside us. Very impressive, but we didn’t manage to count the carriages. The wind was howling, blowing sand into everything, and making it very unpleasant to get out even to take a photo. We helped two locals en route. One with pumping up two flats tyres. Their house was in this isolated spot about 100m from the railway line. They were most appreciative and offered us tea, which we politely declined. Our second help-out session was for a guy in a 2WD vehicle who was getting bogged down in the sand, despite using sand ladders. We offered him a tow, but he wanted to carrying on digging and driving, digging and driving, so Michael helped him out with the digging and placing of sand ladders –he’s a good Samaritan, my view was that if he didn’t want our help, we should have left him happily doing his own thing!
Then we got a puncture – the first of our trip. It took us about 15 minutes to change the wheel – we now have our brand new spare on the left rear. Lifting the spare off the rear bracket wasn’t quite as bad as lifting the flat wheel onto it. I spotted what is probably a long nail buried in the flat tyre, but didn’t bother to remove it. I presume it’s the culprit. Our hydraulic jack has only just enough lift-height to manage our high-profile tyres. I wish I had raided the Discovery and taken its hydraulic jack instead – it is a brilliant 2-stage jack with loads of lift movement.
We camped about 45 mins before dark, after travelling a long way off the piste looking for a sheltered spot in the lee of a hill, a dune, a tree, or anything. We found an excellent spot in the end, with a large thorny bush next to a dune providing good shelter from the incessant wind. While we were making camp a little yellowish bird came to within 20cm of us. It was chirping away and flitting from the chair, then underneath Nyathi and into the bush. Also, while driving along looking for a camp site a swallow kept dancing about Nyathi and hovered right next to passenger window for ages. Other wildlife featured tonight were enormous ‘matabele’ ants with strong pincers to deliver a nasty nip!
Despite being in the middle of nowhere, we couldn’t see very far at all tonight. We were surrounded by a massive brown haze of whipped up sand and of course everything had a film of dust on it within seconds, including our dinner which made for a slightly gritty meal. We got into bed at about 10pm in anticipation of an early start with the myriad flies our extra incentive to get moving asap!
A really good desert drive, we stayed pretty much parallel to the railway all the way. We did a mix of piste driving and sand dunes. Nyathi performed impeccably. She is very forgiving, pushing slowly and powerfully through the resistance like a sand plough, when we’ve got ourselves bogged down, or chosen the wrong gear and come to a halt. I have to say that I’m very impressed with her – I think Michael’s gearing ideas have worked really well.
It was extremely hot and dusty today. We got to see loads of camels along the way, many of them being watered at the reservoirs/wells along the railway line. We successfully avoided the train track debris which has been cast aside, which could cause some nasty damage. We saw the remains of a derailment (about 30 carriages) partially buried underneath encroaching sand dunes. We also drove on the train tracks for a bit too, which was fun...
We found an amazing camping site in the late afternoon. It was still pretty warm (37°C) but we though it unlikely we would find such a perfect spot later on. It was a massive rocky outcrop which rose out of the desert giving the most spectacular views. We climbed to the very top and had a 360° panorama, with not another human in sight. We sat topless, enjoying the breeze, which gave brief respite from the heat. We had a 2 litre bottled of iced water from the fridge and eased into a relaxed evening. We watched the ore trains come and go in the middle of the night, their lights and noise carrying miles across the desert.
We saw a large eagle today, just standing on a dune as we drove by. It was reluctant to move until we got relatively close and it took off, displaying its broad wing span.
The landscape changed from fiery orange dunes to more sahel-like, with a few ragged looking mountains. We saw more ore trains today and managed to count the carriages on one of them – 121 including the two engines.
We arrived at Choum and decided no further investigation of the town was needed so we headed in the right direction for Atar, keeping the mountains on our left. The road was easy to find and follow, despite having loads of offshoots to avoid the heavy-going corrugations, not to mention the powder-fine sand which got through every little nook and cranny leaving everything filthy with dust. The sand dunes had encroached upon the road quite badly. We went up a steep pass, recently built, with the evidence of the tons of rocks shifted to the side to make way! We reached Atar by about lunchtime – the last bit of road newly tarred thanks to foreign investment (from Japan). We arrived at Bab Sahara and cleaned Nyathi a little. We spent some time chatting to other travellers. Kate and Nash were there and it was great to catch up with them. They had arrived in the early morning and said the train journey was pretty tough and that someone may as well have been sifting sand through their hands directly onto their heads!
Atar is not much of a town – it certainly wouldn’t be my choice of place to set up a campsite. Although the campsite did not quite meet my expectations after the glowing Lonely Planet write up, it was very clean, with good bathroom facilities and a nice shady area to relax, with a hammock! We invited Kate and Nash to have dessert and we chatted until quite late into the night.
We had a relaxed wake up. Kate, Nash, Michael and I walked into town to get supplies, go to the post office etc. It was unbearably hot and after parting ways, we went in search of an internet café. It took over an hour to find it and we were both absolutely dripping with sweat by the time we arrived there! African internet cafes can be extremely frustrating as the connection is really slow and more often than not the computer crashes and you lose the email you were typing. Walking back to camp we met a rather rude local person who was very disgruntled with us because we didn’t want to spend the afternoon chatting with him. He told us he didn’t like the English, nor South Africans and when I replied in French that it was his right to choose who he liked and didn’t he was a bit taken aback and muttered sorry under his breath, spat and walked away! It was past 2.30pm by the time we got back to camp. Kate and Nash left, to catch a taxi to Chinguetti.
A group of French tourists arrived and I sat chatting to them for a while, Then Henrik and Rike, Ron and Karen arrived from Choum. They had been delayed by over ten hours before the train departed and were all very hot and exhausted. We gave Henrik and the family ice cold water from the freezer, which went down well! Henrik was not at all well and by early evening, we had asked Kate (their taxi search was fruitless) if she wouldn’t mind just checking him out as he was writhing in pain, compounded by the fact that some local child arbitrarily chucked a rock over the wall and it hit Henrik in the eye! It turned out that, it was nothing too serious - thankfully. Michael helped Rike put up their tent. We had quite a social evening. Kate and Nash joined us for dinner and after that Ron and Karen and Rike (once she got the kids to bed) also came along. We shared our chocolate and beer and everyone had a relaxed evening swapping stories and adventures.
We saw our first solifuge tonight (arachnid about 10cm long, orange and hairy which moves like lightening)! It was attracted by our kitchen light and kept running around us in circles. Needless to say I jumped pretty high when it came anywhere near me. It was 43°C in the shade again today and at midnight it was 35°C!
We left quietly at 7am, so as not to disturb everyone else and headed for Nouakchott. We reluctantly aborted our idea of going to Tdjika, Tichit and Oualata following very strong protestations from all the locals and Justus from the campsite, who told us horror stories of local people who died recently doing that stretch and that he could get the police to stop us (although not said as a threat – we think merely to emphasise the point). We decided that should anything go wrong, we didn’t want to try and get support from the people who had advised against the journey in the first place!
The heat was already pretty unbearable by 9am which is when we discovered that the squeaking noise we had heard previously was in fact the wheel bearings! We spent an extremely hot and frustrating 5 hours fighting with the incessant wind and blasting sand, while trying to avoid the sun as best as possible while we fixed left hand wheel bearings. Sadly the rollers fell out of the casing like broken teeth and the stub axle was worn down significantly! It was pretty challenging to try and do the job while keeping it grit-free, especially when we encountered loads of dust devils. Michael said he wouldn’t check the right hand side in those conditions and when we next camped he could do a good job of it! Alas, an hour into the journey we thought we heard a noise from the front right. We found a spot slightly sheltered by an old lorry wreck and had a look-see! Although the bearing still looked pretty healthy, we decided to do the job and then we knew we wouldn’t have to worry about it! For the second time I set up a makeshift shelter and wind break and we both got greasy again (Michael significantly more so than me)!
It was early evening before we finished and we decided to drive into the night to get to Nouakchott. Extra excitement was added to the day when we were chased by the gendarmerie! We had slowed down at a check point and saw nothing, Michael drove on and then in the rear view mirror we saw someone flashing a torch wildly – we carried on thinking they’d shrug their shoulders thinking ‘stupid tourist’. 3kms later he pulled in front of us and was remarkably friendly when we played the ‘I’m sorry, I did not see' card. We drove back to the check point, they took down our details and we were on our way again!
By the time we got into Nouakchott we were both starving. Roger (in a Land-Rover) saw us navigating about town and led us to Camping Bivouac Paris-Dakar, where the manager, Thierry, drove us to the local pizzeria to get dinner. I had a wonderful hot shower/bath and Michael opted for a luke warm shower. We fell into bed and slept like babies.
We spent the morning in camp, enjoying the dappled shade from all the trees and hiding from the dust cloud outside the high walls! I washed loads of clothing as well as the very dusty bedding, while Michael caught up on all the GPS coordinates and information. We took the mattress out and gave it a good brush. We set off after lunch and filled up with swivel pin housing grease and fuel. We met a really friendly local, Mohammed, whose brother lives in Cape Town. He spoke good English and was very polite (saying that as the other ‘money-changer’ had got to us first, that was fine, perhaps the next day he would be lucky and get there first). I gave him our Morocco Guide book and in return he took me to the local market. He commented on the fact that I put a sarong over my shoulders before getting out the car and said that it was really appreciated when travellers respected the local customs. We left the city going via the post office (which was closed - frustratingly), however, after taking the wrong road and having to retrace our steps – we drove through the remains of a riot and very backed-up traffic, what a sight! We got to see a very interesting cemetery and a somewhat battered ambulance.
We saw loads of camel markets and lots of hustle-bustle activity. I cannot get over how much sand hangs in the air, obscuring the horizon and blowing in everywhere. We were saying that the diplomats who get postings here, must either be climbing up the ladder, or be on their way down…
We found a quiet bush camp off the road, within the sand dunes. We fed what we think were scarab beetles on our leftover corned beef and caused a bit of a feeding frenzy, it was fascinating to watch! We washed off the day’s sand and climbed into bed, the temperature still in the mid thirties.
We were up early and did a solid day’s travelling today. We both drank more than 5 litres of water each and kept wetting our face clothes and wiping our bodies to try and keep cool. It was 44°C in the cab and the wind coming through the vents may as well have been from a hairdryer. I am looking particularly sexy with swollen banana feet! We passed a lot of checkpoints today and about half of them asked for ‘cadeaux’. We simply did the same routines over again - ‘I’m not sure I understand’, then the ‘friendly smile, but insistent- sorry we need what we have, besides, we have already given all our bic pens away’. It works, they eventually give up and wave you on…
We saw some spectacular rocky outcrops, which had been eaten away by the unforgiving wind... It’s now 00h15 and I am sweating as I write this journal entry. It is now 35°C and the maximum temperature in the cab today was 48°C!
We had a visitor to the campsite this morning, who woke us up shouting good morning and asking whether we slept there overnight. When he got a slightly dopey response he got bored and moved on… We got to Nema at about 11h30 after passing quite a few checkpoints, with many suggestions of cadeaux for the ‘chef de poste police’, for writing out our passport details etc. Michael is remarkably good at repeatedly, politely saying sorry, no. I get to sit in the car in the sweltering heat fending off requests from the somewhat invasive locals peering into the car to see what would make good cadeaux suggestions! Whenever possible we keep the windows up at a reasonable height, but that makes for a hot and sweaty wait!
The exit formalities at Nema were rather tiresome. First Michael went in to see the customs people – slow, but no problems. Then we had to go to the Police Commissariat for passport stamping etc. They kept us waiting for quite a while (we sat out on a wooden bench in the small entrance porch and spoke broken French to the locals and some of the policemen). Then they said we’d have to come back at 16h00 to see the commissariat. Then another chap arrived who took Michael upstairs and casually told him he needed to pay 10,000 ouguiyas to exit and when Michael answered ‘what’ with absolute disbelief the 2IC confidently said that we would get a receipt (pulling the receipt book towards himself to start writing). Michael said we had no money and then the 2IC started asking for all sorts of paperwork and requested I should come to the office because he thought I could speak better French and convince Michael we should pay. To cut a long story short we had to pay 2,000 ouguiya for ‘vehicle export’ or something of that nature (for which we received a receipt – worth nothing of course). He then tried it on saying that border police would ask for much more than 10,000 ouguiya and that we should give him a cadeau, or at least 1,000 each for stamping the passports. We politely insisted we had no money and weren’t going to give any cadeaux and that we understood what he was saying, but we’d take our chances with the border police (we aren’t intending to travel through a manned border post – Nema is effectively our exit point. He eventually stamped the passports and said we had to go to the commissariat for a signature.
So I sat in the ‘dogbox’ while he sat in the front with Michael and we got it all sorted and dropped him back at the offices, making a hasty retreat…
We headed off for Bassikinou, which is the last town before you cross the border from Mauritania into Mali. It was a single track piste which was extremely hard to define. Michael asked a number of locals for directions, mostly receiving very friendly responses, but with little or no clue as to the right direction. We set up camp some way off the piste to avoid any unexpected wake up calls and were pleased, because we saw two cars quite late at night driving along the route. How they manage to see or the potholes, I’ve no idea. I imagine that’s why some of the cars look like they do and the shock absorber salesmen must make a packet!
Today was probably our most exhausting so far. We spent the whole day travelling (about 9 hours) and we covered just 172 km (and only 120km of those were in the right direction)! It was our own choice. The piste petered out to nothing and the pistes we did find were going in the wrong direction! So we decided to eventually stop searching for a suitable piste (using a zigzag manoeuvre) and set a waypoint on the GPS and headed cross country. The terrain comprised anything from overgrazed, bumpy ground scattered with sand bunkers (we called it the golf course) to dense thorn bushes and dead tree thickets where we had to pick our way carefully to avoid the branches cracking ‘underfoot’ and shooting all the dry dusty debris into the cab! We must have crossed at least ten valleys, each time expecting to see the road when reaching the top of the hill… It was pretty exhausting stuff from both a physical driving, and mental concentration point of view.
However, we did see some wildlife – ground squirrels, lilac-breasted roller, racket-tailed roller, loads of other birds and unbelievably, two green parakeets with long tails! Fairly exhausted, we set up camp about an hour before sunset. It was great to listen to all the birds and relax for a bit, as well as make food in daylight to avoid the deluge of insects!
Michael made a big wood fire and boiled more than 20 litres of water for drinking. We are consuming at least 10 litres of water a day between us, so water boiling is a never ending task.