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Mauritania

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Mauritania
25 February - 10 March


Leaving the border behind us we headed for Nouadhibou and like Dakhla it too was on the end of another long peninsular. Entering the town was a real eye opener and such a huge change after Morocco. The main road was filled with almost anything that could move on four wheels and the muddle and mess everywhere was almost too much to take in. Driving skills were somewhat lacking and we witnessed several minor traffic accidents, most of which seem to involve a total inability to reverse without hitting something!



We stayed three days, camping at the Auberge Camping Abba and came to thoroughly enjoy the chaotic way of Mauritanian life. On the surface it seemed chaotic but once we understood it, everything had its purpose.



On our second day in Nouadhibou we thought we would walk to Cape Blanc, the very tip of the peninsula. A taxi dropped us off at the start of a sandy track and we were told it was only a short distance away. It wasn’t! It took us about two hours and, oh boy, was it hot! We walked past the Port Mineral from where iron ore is shipped to China, then further on past a grave yard of abandoned ships, their owners having pocketed the insurance payout. Finally we walked along a cliff edge and came to the lighthouse at the end of the peninsula. Here we came across a solitary, huge ship stranded on the sand at the foot of the cliffs. It was an eerie sight in an isolated spot. Thankfully, on our return journey and when we were almost half way back we got a lift in a car of sorts, missing most of its component parts such as lights, door handles, wing mirrors, etc and held together by bits of wire and string. It was also jam packed full of smelly and filthy iron ore workers, but what the hell it was a lift! We squeezed in amongst them, and off we went rattling slowly along the bumpy track. What a hilarious sight we must have looked, and how thankful we were for a shower that night!

On the 28 of February we began our epic three day drive along a 500 km plus desert piste which took us from Nouadhibou to Atar. The piste ran south of the railway line that carries the iron ore to Nouadhibou and made famous by Michael Palin. On it run the longest trains in the world, each with over two hundred wagons on their way to the port. They certainly made their presence felt during our journey; especially in the quiet of the night when the roar of the train went on and on and on, even though it was well over 3kms away. Our bush camping in the Saharan sand was fun, although a little unnerving at times; particularly when out of nowhere we heard a car or truck approaching in the dead of night. Nothing ever stopped, but we were always a little on tenter hooks wondering if they might come back. We found one really magical place at the base of some monoliths, and the only visitor we had there was a desert fox that appeared only a few feet away as we were cooking up our vegetable hot pot. We also had a couple of ravens that provided entertained as they played in the evening thermals above us. We actually tried out our shower for the first time here. It worked brilliantly, the water was warm and refreshing and removed all the sand and dust from our hair and tired bodies. Having a shower together and all in the nuddy was fun too!



Peter’s piste driving, especially in soft sand, was brilliant. This takes a lot of skill and was quite tricky and scary at times, but not once did we get stuck. As his confidence grew we did some off piste driving, leaving the railway line out of sight and keeping a close eye on our GPS. All clever stuff! We reached Choum on March 1st, our most easterly position and, for us, the end of the railway line. This rather strange place consisted of one petrol pump and a little sandy street full of sleepy people waiting for the next train to come in. From here we changed our direction and went south to Atar, arriving later the same day.



Atar is another small dusty, desert town that seemed to be centred around a huge roundabout. Here we stopped to get our bearings and within seconds we were completely surrounded, mostly by young boys, who either wanted to sell us something, or to take us to an artisan shop. It was exhausting fending them off, in the nicest possible way of course, and eventually we collapsed in a heap at the quiet, comfortable auberge Bab Sahara. This was an excellent place run by a Dutchman called ‘Just’; there was a proper sit down loo with loo paper and sweet smelling incense on a charcoal burner in the corner. How amazing was that! The food was good too, making a change from our simple bush camp cook-ups. We explored the town the next day and, no, we couldn’t avoid the roundabout! So even more hassle because we were now on foot. We found the ‘marche’ and watched people working with various metals, making knives and small decorative objects. We were fascinated by a blind man skilfully working on something very small; despite the speed at which he worked, he never once hit his fingers. We bought a beautifully engraved clasp knife that he had made and use it for cutting our breakfast fruit.

On March 3 we began a three day loop from Atar to see Chinguetti, an ancient capital of the Moors, and another town of historical interest called Ouadane. Chinguetti is an important Islamic place of learning and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is slowly disappearing under a sea of sand. This town is important for its famous Islamic bibliotheques, some containing copies of the Koran handwritten on gazelle skin over 500 years ago. We visited one library and were given an excellent account of the history of the ancient books that were kept in dusty, sandy boxes on filthy shelves. The Arabic text in some of them was just beautiful. The proud keeper of these precious books recited some wonderfully expressed poetry for us in Arabic. We were mesmerised by his recital, it was just so lovely.

We were highly amused by the ‘boutique girls’, as we called them, who ran out from their ramshackle dwellings each with a basket filled with trinkets to sell. We spent a fun afternoon on the floor in the house of one of them where we well looked after and were given, in succession, three glasses of very sweet mint tea. Tea drinking is a real ritual here. All the while Liz bargained like there was no tomorrow! We eventually bought little things from three of the girls who had been helpful to us in the old town. It was difficult not to buy from them all, and there must have been at least seven young mothers along with their children, all squashed up around us, sitting on mats in one small room and surrounded by hundreds of flies. It was quite delightful... it really was!

Ouadane, next in the loop was the more dramatic and photogenic town of the two. It was an ancient, major trading site, over 900 years old and its ruins were perched on the side of an escarpment overlooking a green oasis. Ouadane had been the crossroads for all the camel caravans in the Western Sahara; after the arrival of European merchants on the Atlantic coast at the beginning of the C18th, the demise of Ouadane and the caravan routes that had made it rich took only 30 years and the population crashed from thousands to just 55! We met the most wonderful man here called Abidine Sidi, whose family was one of the three that established Ouadane all those years ago. It was a pity Michael Palin didn’t come to Ouadane, as Sidi ,as he is known by all, was just the kind of character the travel program would have loved. He was an intellectual of the absent minded professor type who had a museum full of all kinds of things he had collected, or been given, throughout his life time. Everything was related to Ouadane from the old to new and his exhibits were piled high on tables, chairs and shelves or even hanging from the ceiling. Each time he moved to show us something, things would fall down around him! He talked endlessly about the background and history of Ouadane and the caravans that once came from Morocco, Algeria and elsewhere to trade. He was simply fascinating.



The second day we had a good guide called Mohammed who walked us round the ruins of the old town. He was the son of the town’s Imam and had a friend around every corner. After a stop for the mandatory 3 glasses of tea, he then took us to see some thousand year old rock engravings a few kms away. Though barely visible, they depicted the animals that roamed the area when it was a lush green savannah.

We left this fascinating little corner of Mauritania and returned to Bab Sahara on March 5, staying for only one night before moving on to the pretty oasis village of Terjit. It was not far from the tarred road to Nouakchott and tucked away next to a huge overhanging escarpment. We spent one night here in the funky Auberge Caravan run by a ‘lovely young French man, Sebastian’ who was a trained chef and cooked us the best meal we have had yet on our travels. Quite unbelievable, when there is so little food to buy anywhere; or as Sebastian put it ‘making something out of nothing’. Soon after arriving and like mad dogs and Englishmen, we too went out in the mid day sun to walk through the palmeries to some fresh water springs. It was quite a walk but well worth every minute, this was such a little gem of a place, where cool springs created pools that were a life saver when we dipped in to cool off. Heaven!



We are now in Nouakchott and checked into the best hotel in town after three nights in a dusty, but good, overlanders’ campsite. It helps tremendously to meet other travellers who can advise us on visas, insurance for the car or the recommendation of places to stay and so on. As a result we always feel better prepared when moving on. We have met all kinds of interesting and lovely people, some of whom we shall probably continue to bump into. We have also found the people of Mauritania, though very poor, to be friendly and generous. Whenever we buy a gift from them, they then insist on giving us a ‘cadeau’ or small present. Also, observing them, it has been interesting to see how good they are with one another. We have never seen any major confrontations between them and one poor man will give to another begging on the street. The taxi drivers also hand out little bags of food or sugar to people begging on the side of the road. Nouakchott, the capital, has been a pleasant surprise and staying on the more affluent side of town, we have found tree lined avenues and big substantial houses. Ok, the roads might be sandy tracks and the odd donkey or goat passes by, but by Mauritanian standards this is pretty damn smart.



The men wear long and very wide white or blue cotton robes or d’raas that they tightly tie up around them when the wind is blowing. The women, unlike in Morocco, appear much more relaxed and freer to do as they wish, they don’t cover their faces and also mix quite publicly with the opposite sex. Mauritanian women also wear beautiful coloured shawls, called melhafes, that they cleverly fold and wrap around themselves.
Tomorrow, March 11 we will be moving on and heading south east and in about four days will be in Mali. We have started taking our anti-malarial pills and are ready for those nasty, pesty mossies. The next internet stop is the Mali capital, Bamako.

By the way, thanks to all of you who have emailed us; it’s great to read your news and your comments and we are just so sorry that we do not have the time to reply to you individually. Keep them coming!!

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