Traveling Through Mauritania

Traveling Through Mauritania

By Graeme Bell

Traveling Through Mauritania

Explorer in Residence, Graeme Bell, discovers a land of extremes in the wilds of the Western Sahara.

One by one we opened our eyes to a bright, blue sky and a world of silence, our Land Rover parked on a sandy cliff behind a knoll, which had done its best to shelter us from a powerful wind. To our left lay the endless expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and to our right lay the Sahara. Today was the day that we would leave Morocco and enter Mauritania, today was the day that we would leave the gateway to sublime Europe and enter a world a universe apart. The Moroccans had welcomed us into their world of beauty and contrast, of peace and ancient culture and they bid us farewell with equal grace and humanity. The kingdom had enchanted us all and I encourage everyone to invest in a journey to the land which gives more than it takes.

The Western Sahara was once ruled by the Spanish and their withdrawal from the region prompted a war between Morocco and The Polisario (a Sahrawi national liberation movement aiming to end Moroccan presence in the Western Sahara), a war which was never quite settled though Morocco did gain control of the endless sands. A wind blew us to the border along an arrow straight road, which terminated at a border outpost of large white buildings and dark, wind-tormented men. Half an hour later we drove through a boom, our paperwork inspected by a cheerful young man. “Good luck”, he said as we drove out of the complex and into another world, another universe. Is it not amazing the difference a line in the sand can make? The border had been mined many years before and we crossed a true no man’s land where the unfortunate had driven their vehicles over explosives as they attempted to reach a better life, or return to a loved one, or attempt lucrative trade. Some vehicles were merely abandoned and stripped of all value. The wind blew tiny tornadoes between the wreckage as we carefully felt our way along a track which had been dug in the dirt by the brave and desperate. A large truck trundled confidently ahead of us and we followed his line – there was no real risk of us driving over a land mine unless we left the main track or were incredibly unlucky, the United Nations has a presence at the border and most mines had, apparently, been cleared. I was not taking any chances.

The gates of Mordor approached. Men in military uniforms and black full face scarves point at a building, “Stop there, go there”. All we see is a white building and once we enter find a forecourt full of men and a few closed doors, no signs. A metal door opens, a man escapes, other men shout, we are pushed forward, “what’s going on”? Behind the metal door is the immigration room where a barefoot man dressed in a thin suit packs Euro notes into drawers overflowing with Euro notes and languidly, eventually issues visas. Four hours later we emerged legally into Mauritania, a land of great, monotonous beauty.

That first night we camped in a world inspired by Salvadore Dali, where the wind sculpted rock and the blue sea promised nothing more than passage to the other universe. Nouadhibou is a small city perched on the tip of a peninsula, the streets are crowded with traders and stores, sullen people trade goats, live chickens, hot fish and Moroccan fresh produce. The port is notorious as a haven for traffickers who deal in living, breathing human flesh desperate to reach the shores of Spain or Italy. As we drive we are stopped often by the military and police who demand a “fiche”, a document which details our particulars. In order to avoid lengthy delays we have prepared and printed a stack of fiche, the traveling community had advised us to do so. A weathered policeman asks us for a bottle of water and we oblige, water is life in a land without water.

The 300 mile drive to the capital Nouakchott is simultaneously excruciating and rewarding, to witness how communities survive in such a barren and hostile land is to be reminded of the strength of the human spirit. The north wind continued to blow us south while extracting all moisture from the air, skin and eyes. We drove through a community of colourful square homes which hugged the road, the lifeline. Mauritanian drivers appear blissfully unaware of the lack of infrastructure which might save their lives when their gambles do not pay off. Overtaking a truck at high speed with traffic approaching is the norm, the approaching drivers are forced to brake hard, even coming to a full stop, to allow yet another battered Toyota Corolla to arrive at his destination a few minutes earlier. We drive carefully and adapt our driving style to ensure our survival. Occasionally we pass a stubborn, beautiful tree, camels, goats, ancient Land Rovers, abandoned trucks and battered villages. Frequently we are stopped by policeman, some of whom inspect our documents as if they have never before encountered a foreign traveler, but most simply accept our fiche and wave us on through the intense heat.

Nouakchott is an unloved coastal city built to accommodate 15,000 people but home to over a million. We arrive at dusk and, after spending a small fortune on supplies at a “western” supermarket, fight our way through obstinate traffic, on dirt streets between large compounds and cross a littered, derelict piece of land to reach a camp by the ocean where we will sit for two weeks, waiting for a passport without which we cannot continue and a Carnet de passage (essentially a vehicle passport) which would make our journey simpler. My son swam every morning in the sea and sailed by handmade and colorfully painted wooden fishing boats, the waves large and powerful. Men gathered on the shore to await a brave and battered water taxi, which breaks through overhead waves to deliver wet fishermen to their boats. Stray dogs fight for dominance and scraps on the beach, which offers the only glimpse of blue sky in the early mornings or on the distant afternoon horizon.

For two weeks the wind blew our minds away. A perpetual sandstorm prevented us from escaping to the interior where we could explore Atar, Chinguetti and the world’s longest iron ore railway from Zouerat to Nouabhidou. We endured the wind and heat and flies and dust until eventually our documents arrived and we were free to escape the dire city and drive to the Senegalese border on a road identical to that on which we had traveled to Nouakchott but in worse condition.

Perhaps one day we will return to Mauritania, everything changes and with a government of and for the people the country could be transformed. We had befriended the camp staff who had grown to respect us as we respected them. The people of the desert do not freely and automatically respect, while they may be respectful, respect itself must be earned – they inhabit a hard land where resources are few and survival is not guaranteed. We were quiet during prayer, did not expect the unchangeable to be changed and always complimented the cook though her options were few!

Mauritania is a land of extremes and each day is an adventure of circumstance and it is the extremity and beauty of the land which deliver an unique experience, the experience which we seek.

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