Since my last update in Nouakchott, where I signed off at the point of disembarkation of the iron-ore train with decision to take a bush-taxi to Atar in the depths of the Mauritanian desert rather than cycle the 120km piste, so much has happened I don’t quite know where to begin or what to write about. If I wrote about everything that has captured my imagination, this update could be published as a short book and more importantly, it woulthe dn’t leave me enough time to enjoy St Louis. Instead, I’ll just mention a few highlights and leave the rest for tales down the pub for anyone that will listen…
Apologies there’s no pictures, but the internet is incredibly slow today… check back at my last two posts though and there’s plenty to look at there.
It took the best part of six hours to get from Choum to Atar, a mere 120km, by bush-taxi. I’ve been cycling this distance in the same amount of time and feeling less exhausted at the end of it too. Bush-taxi is a local term for a 4×4 (Toyota) pick-up truck overloaded with people and things. More care is taken with securing the ‘things’ in the back of the truck than the people – and essentially what this meant was that it took an inordinately long time to pack everyone’s belonging into the back of the pick-up, with my bike balanced unstably on the top of the heap and the panniers hanging precariously from their straps. I was then left to perch on top of this top-heavy load, feet dangling in the cool night-time air over the edge. Despite hurtling along the bumpy desert tracks, the entire cargo of things and people made it to Atar. Doing as the locals do, I even managed to sleep a little. Unable to keep my eyelids open, I’d occasionally wake with a jerk as my body slumped from it’s upright position and I’d find my self sliding slowly over the side.
Rain in the desert
My plan to cycle to the ancient caravan town of Chinguetti over the Amogjar pass changed abruptly when, through enquiries as to the state of the route, it became apparent that a recent heavy thunderstorm had washed away the road. It would be passable ‘tomorrow’… or the next day, I was told. I learnt a long time ago that ‘tomorrow’ is used to refer to ‘some time in the future’ and so with that, I decided to cycle to the small oasis of Terjit for some relaxation and since this was on the route south to Nouakchott I’d just continue my journey from there. Chinguetti just wasn’t meant to be (this time). The doorless nomadic tent I slept in was invaded by ants and mosquitoes in the night, but it was the bats that prompted me to get up in the darkness and put up my own tent. I could have coped with the bats too, if it wasn’t that one had decided to hang directly above me and I can only presume urinated on my face since it certainly wasn’t raining inside.
The Deserted Desert Road to Nouakchott
From Terjit to Nouakchott it was three long days on the bike, covering some 415km. The first day was hard – it was my first since Morocco where I was travelling alone – I was bored and I found the scenery uninspiring. The second day however, I crossed paths with two other cyclists – a German and a Frenchman. They said they were loving the scenery, which was constantly changing and once I got thinking about it, realised they were right and from that point on, my spirits were lifted and I started to enjoy the desert again. I think I had set my sights on getting to Nouakchott that I had forgotten the main reason for cycling – to see the country. This trip is about the journey, not the destination.
Dust Devil and Dinner
The first day I cycled until sunset and having found somewhere to camp set about cooking up a feast (well pasta and tuna at least). With dinner cooked, I sat down to eat by torchlight and as I did, out of nowhere, the wind starting blowing around me. It blew dust into my face and for a while I had to sit with my eyes shut, rubbing them furiously. A few minutes later the wind stopped as suddenly as it had started and shining the torch into my bowl of pasta found it was now heavily garnished with sand. I ate my pasta with added ‘crunch’ and then set about cleaning some of the dust off my clothes.
Dust Devil and Dunes
The second day I cycled until sunset and found a spot to camp next to a small dune by a radio mast. I enjoyed a dust-free dinner and the crumbs I dropped were soon attacked by a small army of ants. It was only once I had set up the inner of my tent and settled down for the evening that the wind started out of nowehere. This time, it was blowing in one direction only – over the dune and bringing with it substantial quantities of sand, which blew straight through the mesh inner and deposited on me and all my belongings. I decided to forego seeing the stars that night and put up the outer part of the tent as well in an attempt to stem the flow of sand that was gradually building up into little dunes next to my panniers and sleeping bag. This attempt failed. Throughout the night, the sand continued to layer up on me as it blew under the edges of the tent. Once again I had to put up with mouthfuls of sand and I didn’t dare try and use a hairbrush the next day!
A Desert Romance
When I was in the UK, back in the early stages of planning this trip, the idea of travelling through the Sahara had a certain romantic appeal to it. I had images of me cycling alone through the desert wilderness expanse, cooking up a sumptuous filling meal out in the open and later looking up from my sleeping bag at the vast African night sky and the millions of stars realising just how insignificant you are in this universe….The reality has been somewhat different! Having said that, I have loved the desert experience and would swap a city hotel room for sand in my tent in the Sahara any day. Me and the desert closer resembles a 25-year marriage (from what I’ve seen of other people’s marriages that is) – there are good days and bad days and sometimes you have to work hard at it, but in the end, it’s an enduring love and I’ve no doubt I’ll be back to the desert in the future. I’ll probably be complaining profusely about the sand again but it doesn’t mean I love it any less.
Not a lot in Nouakchott
I arrived in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s understated capital, on the third day and eventually found Auberge Menata which had been recommended. I opted for camping in my tent on the terrace and was surprised to see a tent identical to mine already pitched. I was even more surprised when later on, I bumped into Lars (the Swedish guy I’d been cycling through the Western Sahara with). He was even more surprised that I was surprised to see him, since it was his tent on the terrace I had seen and his bike, which I had failed to spot, was parked directly in front of it. Top marks for observation skills!
My intended one night in Nouakchott turned into four. There’s not a lot to see and do the capital but that’s probably why I was happy relaxing there for a while. I could happily chill out in the auberge courtyard in the shade of the leafy trees without feeling I should be exploring the city. I explored as far as was necessary to find good food, which wasn’t far. What I really wanted was a beer though, but this city of Muslim Mauritania is as dry as the desert.
I left the exploring for the resident tortoises whose tunnels from the auberge expand into a network that lies beneath the city – they were here long before the city was built in the 60’s – connecting a number of these tortoises who live in various large garden residences over town. This network of tunnels would remain unknown if it wasn’t for one slight, inebriated Frenchman who, at the suggestion by a resident Glaswegian called Barrie, decided one time to go and investigate, armed only with a headtorch, where the tortoises used to disappear to at night.
Two Take to the Road
Since me and Lars are both cycling, both cycling in the same direction and seem to get on quite well, we decided to continue travelling together. And so, after three (or was it four or five nights?) in Nouakchott, we took to the road again, south towards St Louis in Senegal.
A Passport Check and Proposition
Leaving Nouakchott we came to a military checkpoint and a little further on to a customs check and then a little further on the police check. Travelling through the Western Sahara and Mauritania, showing your passport and answering the standard ‘where are you from?’, ‘where are you going?’ questions at the numerous checkpoints has become part of the routine on the road.
A short distance before this checkpoint there was a small shop selling cold cokes, which Lars stopped to buy. I rode over to the police with our passports, so they could begin the slow process of copying all our details onto file. I went and got my coke and returned to the police shack. I was called over by one of the guards who began asking the usual questions, while holding our passports firmly in both hands behind his back.. I was beginning to think there might be some problem. The questions then moved on to ‘are you married?’ – this is quite a common question when I’ve been cycling by myself, but not when with Lars. I say no. ‘But why not?’. I say I am married to my bike. He laughs. ‘Divorce your bike and marry me’. I say no. He is really quite serious and asks if I’ll marry him again. He does afterall have a good job and could take good care of me. I say I prefer to take care of myself. I notice the three other police guards standing a few feet away, closely watching this conversation. I’m wondering how I’m going to get our passports back without a wedding ceremony. I then spot Lars walking over with empty bottles in search of water. I decide to change the direction of this conversation and ask if it’s possible for ‘mon amie’ to get some water. ‘Oh he is your boyfriend?’. I want my passport back so I say yes. He asks why we aren’t married. And so the conversation continues until Lars reaches us. Getting bored of the marriage chat, I ask directly if there is a problem with the passports. No problem and he hands them back, fills up our water bottles and wishes us ‘bon voyage’.
If ever I decide I want to settle down, get married and have children, I have found an easier, quicker way to go about this than the slow process of finding a boyfriend in England, going out for several years, moving in together and then waiting for him to pop the question. Just fly out to Morocco or Mauritania and judging by my experiences on this trip, I can guarantee that by the end of the day you’d have three proposals. It would be like flying to Vegas, getting wasted on Tequila and within 24 hours you could be married by Elvis to some guy you met at the slot machines. This way however, you avoid a hangover!
Crash Land in Africa
Aday after leaving Nouakchott and we had by this stage, well and truly left the desert behind. No more sand or camels. Instead, small wooden huts and screaming children chasing us down the road, green fields and the stereotypical symbol of Africa – the acacia tree.
With so much variety, I wasn’t spending much time looking where I was going when cycling. And so it was, as we passed a village, watching two women watch us and then go running in the opposite direction, that I cycled straight into the back of Lars’ bike, panniers colliding, me swerving uncontrollably. As my front wheel left the road, I left my bike – careering over the handlebars to land face down in the gravel. Smooth.
For the next fifteen minutes, I sat cross-legged by the road, picking gravel out of my bleeding palms watched on by an increasing number of villagers – children, women and men – and passing cars also slowing to see what was going on. And as I sat bandaging up my hands, Lars kindly went to great lengths to document this part of the trip, camera-laden snapping away. Thanks!
Corrugations and Flat Tyres
Towards the end of the second day after leaving Nouakchott, we turned off the main road and began following a piste directly towards the Diama bridge crossing to Senegal. The piste was hideously corrugated, which is a nightmare for cycling on but preferable by far to just continuing on the main road with speeding cars overtaking occasionally. We camped that night under acacia trees and were awoken in the morning to the chirping of birds and baying of donkeys.
The following day, short of food and unsure where we could get some, we came across a small village. I stopped to ask a young boy if there was a shop where we could get food; bread or biscuits for example. This was a mistake. Soon we were surrounded by a horde of children all demanding sweets and chocolate from us. Seriously – we don’t have any. If we did, I’d have been eating them. Deciding that no food was preferable to fighting our way through these persistent kids, we started to cycle off, boys following at a sprint closely behind. One spotted a bag on the top of my bike, with biscuit packets inside. He began tearing at it and had soon ripped it right off – thanks, I was wondering what to do with my rubbish bag. The other kids laughed as empty wrappers lay strewn across the path.
It was at this exact point that I realised something wasn’t quite right… 7,000km from England and it was while trying to make a speedy getaway from these thieving kids (one of the them had by this point managed to undo the straps on my back pannier) that I get my first flat tyre. Perfect.
For the next fifteen minutes I rifled through my bags searching out the spare tyre. And as I set about changing the tyre, pumping it up and keeping a close eye on my belongings, Lars kindly ensured the entire episode was documented in a series of colour photographs. Thanks!
After this, things calmed down and the remaining journey into Senegal was simply wonderful. We cycled along smooth tracks through the Parc National de Djoudj, watching hundreds of birds by the waters of the Senegal river. Pelicans, flamingos, herons, wading birds and hundreds of smaller birds the names of which I don’t know. We raced warthogs along the tracks, their tails erect, tusks menacing, dust flying. Lars chased large lizards in an attempt to catch them.
We left the park late in the afternoon and with a slight quickening of pace, made it to Diama bridge and the border just in time to get our passports stamped. We were actually fifteen minutes late, but the Senegalese official said he would let us through since we were on bikes.
We camped a few kilometres further on and the next morning pedalled the last 25km.
And so, having craved beer ever since arriving in Nouakchott (my last alcoholic beverage was in Essaouira, Morocco several weeks ago), we cruised into colourful, lively, bustling St. Louis just as it was beginning to get hot.
That first bottle of ice cold Flag beer, tasted so good. It was worth the wait.
Life here is sweet. But after four days, it’s time to leave again. Next stop, the Gambia.