Dec 14 2009

Mauritania – diary 2009-11-30 to 2009-12-08


We woke up to some bad news this morning. The campsite guardian had heard over the news that 3 Spanish Aid workers had been take hostage along the Nouadhibou – Nouakchott road at 8:30pm the previous evening. They had been driving at the back of the convoy when gunmen had taken them hostage. We didn’t know if it was a ploy to get us to hire a guide so we took it with a pinch of salt. We headed to the Parc National Du Banc D’Arguin office to purchase a permit as that was where we had planned to head over the next 2 days. When at the office Kirk asked the head honcho if the news about the Spanish Aid workers was true and he confirmed. We now needed to be a little vigilant although we were not too concerned because there had been numerous Police and Gendarmerie check points the previous day so we were certain that the checks would be more vigorous and thorough and that they would be looking out for the tourist’s best interest. We headed south and encountered no problems. The drive itself was pretty mundane. Mauritania is a vast area of desert and not much more to see. We were hoping that that would change as we headed into the Parc National Du Banc D’Arguin but alas it didn’t – still nothing but dunes, camels and the odd shrub. This is true Sahara landscape and a real marvel. We headed to the coastal fishing village of Iwik where we were to spend a night camping in the National Park. The waters edge had a calming essence about it. There was a little bit of birdlife but not much more. The occasional fishing lanche made its way back to the shore but part from that we were just happy to enjoy the serenity of the wild Sahara.

We made dinner, enjoyed a cold shower and went to sleep only to be awoken by the howling wind later in the night. It was relentless and continued for the rest of the night.


 Breakfast was enjoyed looking out over the water watching the lanches set sail into the Atlantic Ocean for their daily catch. Anything touristy in Mauritania is expensive so we decided that we had had enough of the National Park/desert and headed out back to the road to Nouakchott. We drove along some time-consuming pistes and really put Mvubu to the test. Both Kirk and I are confident that we will almost certainly be able to get out of any mess with the powerful engine of Mvubu! We eventually emerged out of the park and still had over 200kms to drive before reaching our resting place for the evening. The drive into Nouakchott was interesting. For a capital city it sure resembles nothing of the sort. There were goats everywhere. We saw one goat munching on a long piece of plastic. Kirk asked how they still managed to poo out little pellets when they ate indigestible things like plastic. I did not have the answer! We followed the GPS to a beach campsite apparently favoured by overlanders but when we arrived there was no-one to be seen, eventually someone emerged from one of the derelict buildings and wanted to charge us an arm and a leg to camp. We could have stayed in an auberge for less and that is exactly what we planned to do. We made our way to Auberge Menara and were pleasantly surprised to see that the entire parking courtyard was filled with overlanders. We too pitched our tent and made ourselves comfortable in the facilities. We met a British couple who had been travelling through West Africa for 3 months and headed out to get some dinner with them. We found a cheap ‘take away’ place that specialised in schwarmas and African samosas. Dinner was great as we again had skipped lunch and were starving!


 Nothing was really grabbing us in Nouakchott and we were in 2 minds as in whether to head to Senegal and skip Mauritania or if we should persevere and see the sights in the Adrar region. Kirk has done all of the driving and feels the need to chill a bit. We are also a little bit tired of the desert for now and need some refreshing vegetation to refuel our souls. We decided to persevere and headed into the Adrar region. Atar was a long barren 400kms from Nouakchott but at least the road was good. We managed to get by listening to the end of Bill Bryson’s ‘In a Sunburnt Country’ and the beginning of Wilbur Smith’s ‘River God’. The landscape did change along the way and it got a little more interesting. Atar is situated on a plateau and is surrounded by many oasis villages. The drive here was exhausting but we are excited about the prospects of chilling out at one of these palmaries and enjoying the sights. We spent the night at Auberge Bab Sahara and enjoyed the company of other fellow travellers. I cooked putanesca style pasta for dinner which was received well. We discussed the possible route that we would follow in the next few days and decided that it was worth giving Chinguetti a visit and following a piste route from there to see a crater, gorge and eventually end off at the oasis village of Tergit.


 It is always a pleasing feeling to be woken up by a rooster! At least this rooster had it right, not too early and not too late. Kirk and I had to do some rearranging in the car before we could set off because we had agreed to take give Steven (a traveller we had met in Rabat and who was now in Atar) a lift to Chinguitti. We managed to make ample space and were on our way. We stopped off in town to pick up some fresh bread and fruit and then headed in the direction of Chinguetti, one of the more attractive caravan towns of the Sahara. We didn’t get that far because 10 km’s up the road we were stopped at the bottom of the pass. They were doing road maintenance and the pass would only be open at 2pm. We had 2 ½ hours to kill. We hadn’t had breakfast so decided to have an early lunch and brew a pot of tea. That lasted all of 30 minutes. Kirk and I decided to take a walk to the top of one of the mountain/hills. It wasn’t the most breathtaking view but it gave us the opportunity to stretch out legs and get some much needed exercise. It is amazing what one does when they are bored. Kirk found a stick that resembled a golf stick and decided to teach the locals how to hit a stone with a stick in a golf like style. This was very amusing and the locals seemed to enjoy the interaction. The road eventually opened and we were able to ascend the pass and drive the 10km along the plateau. Chinguetti appeared from the dunes and we navigated our way to an auberge recommended by the owner of Bab Sahara. We were welcomed in by Cheik, the owner of Auberge La Rose des Stables, and shown around. Kirk and I decided to camp in the parking area and Steven took one of the rooms. Cheik offered to take a stroll with us through the village. This proved very helpful as he had a lot of knowledge about the old town and he helped to communicate with the locals who always, at any opportunity try to sell you something. The Le Ksar was very interesting. This is the oldest part of the town that once home to 20 000 people. Most of the ruins are unoccupied today as most of the 2000 residents today prefer to live in the new town. The number of residents has also decreased as they have migrated to the cities in search of work. Some do however still have a holiday home in Chinguetti and visit it in the summer. The principal attraction was the 16th century stone mosque which has been preserved and maintained through the years. There are also many ancient libraries in Le Ksar. These are more like museums and house many ancient manuscripts and old caravan items.

We decide to let Cheik cook dinner for us that evening so whilst Kirk and I rearranged the car Steven and Cheik went into town to shop for ingredients. We enjoyed the cold showers and freshened up before dinner. We sat in the communal area and drank green tea and ate lovely dried dates whilst Kirk went trough some map routes with Cheik. Dinner was cooked to perfection and consisted of chicken with vegetables. It was a delicious meal…it always tastes better when somebody else has prepared it! We enjoyed the evening and enjoyed meeting Cheik. He didn’t speak much English but it helped having Steven there as he could translate for us.


 It felt as though we had slept in an animal farm that night. We had been woken up by numerous roosters, a braying donkey and a very noisy goat kid! I suppose it beats the sound of traffic or your neighbour banging the door! We had a slow start to the morning and enjoyed one last stroll into town with Cheik before we said our goodbyes and drove off into the desert. We drove through the village and along the very wide wadi (dry sandy river bank) in search of the Zagra Mountain. It was interesting to see how the vegetation springs up in areas that have water and at one stage we drove along a plain that resembled that of a lush savannah and not the dry Sahara desert as we know it. We passed numerous shepherds with their herds of goats and camels. We were able to help a couple out as they flagged us down and asked for some water. After we had found the mountains we continued on our track to find the crater that they say is a result of a meteorite. After seeing the ‘crater’ I was not convinced of anything of the sort. It looked to be a slight depression in the landscape surrounded by some stony dunes. We had spent most of the day driving and decided to make camp in the wild. We found an outcrop of stones and rocks and decided that it was a good spot for us to sleep for the night. It was quite eerie being alone in the middle of nowhere. The only sounds were those of a hooting owl and the faint patter of a small jackal. We both slept like babies.


 The thought of a lush oasis was enticing us so we got an early start and tackled the very slow bumpy track ahead. It took hours for us to eventually reach the top of the canyon that lead down to Tergit. We were rewarded with beautiful views of the entire canyon and the promise of some more greenery around the corner. We descended into the valleys and drove into the sleepy town of Tergit. It unfortunately didn’t meet our expectations at all. Between the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet  we were promised trickling waterfalls, a hot spring which feeds two other springs and loads of people. This was not the case. We seemed to be the only ‘tourists’ and we could not find the springs. We left disappointed and headed back to Atar where we spent the night at Baba Sahara again. We splashed out and ordered steak and chips for dinner. We have a long drive tomorrow as we head back to Nouakchott and then on o Senegal. We are both really looking forward to chilling on the beach maybe doing some fishing. Mauritania has been an interesting country to visit. It has allowed me to see how people manage to survive with so little. The desert amazed me and I have thoroughly enjoyed witnessing how it manages to provide for the herds of goats and camels. It is not how I envisaged the desert to look. It has dunes and sand but they are not continuous. There are more rocks and mountains than I imagined and a lot more water than I would ever have thought. I am pleased that I have seen Mauritania but am looking forward to seeing the more lush countries of the South.


 The rooster woke us again this morning and we set off towards Nouakchott. The drive was pleasant as the sun was obscured by the clouds that had provided some relief for the past 5 days. We enjoyed the animated reading of Wilbur Smiths ‘River God’. Audio books are a godsend and can turn a dreary desert road into so much more. We arrived in Nouakchott safely and headed straight for xxx for lunch. Kirk had been dreaming about these fatayas from El-Karama since the last one and was pleased to see that they had stock and would be ready in 30 minutes. It is amazing how simple the food is yet is so tasty. We headed back to Auberge Menata and again were astounded to see that it was so full! We managed to squeeze Mvubu into a parking space and were pleased to see some familiar faces (Mohammed the Scotsman!) and to meet some new people. The first car we noticed was an old Land Drover that Kirk had seen in England. It had a Footloose 4×4 sticker on it and an Eezi-Awn tent mounted on its roof rack. We needed to do some admin in the form of washing. The desert sand gets into everything and th clothes I had been wearing for the last 3 days were filthy. It was very hot In Nouakchott and the washing dried in no time. We settled in and relaxed for a while before hitting the streets to find some money exchangers (black market) who would be able to exchange some ‘Oogs’ to CFA. We were unsuccessful and so thought it a good idea to head back to El-Karama for yet another meal. When we crossed the road we saw Noel and Reka sat at a table enjoying a Chawarma too. We joined them and found out that Noel owned the Land Drover parked in the Auberge and that they too were travelling to South Africa. Reka was from Hungary, living in London and Noel a Brit with Sri Lankan roots. It was good to have a conversation in English and immediately we struck up a rapport with these similar minded travellers.  We decided to try the falafels this time and again were not disappointed. We headed back to the Auberge to enjoy a few games of rummy. Kirk and I decided to hang around in Nouakchott for another day as we had decided to drive to the border in convoy with our new found travelling friends.


 A cart brune/brown card was our mission for the day. We asked around for car insurance offices but had no success with the locals. Reka and Noel were off to the Senegalese embassy to sort out a visa for Reka. We asked our best source of information – Mohammed – for directions to an insurer and he was helpful in directing us to one just around the corner from the auberge. We set off and managed successfully to get the necessary paperwork which would cover us for the next 3 months and included most of the countries we would be visiting in West Africa. Lunch time had long gone but we were ravenous so again asked our good friend for some ideas for lunch…we had overdone the food from El-Karama and were in need of some good tasting local cuisine. Mohammed took us to a small Buvette that specialised in a Senegalese fish dish called Thieboudienne (pronounced chey-bou-jen). A platter of this meal is quite a sight – it had carefully arranged pieces of fish, stuffed with parsley and spices, carrots, cassava and other vegetables, served on a tasty bed of rice that had been cooked in the same juices that the fish had been cooked in. It was truly the most flavoursome dish we had tasted in a long time.

With our stomachs full we headed back to the Auberge and enjoyed the coolness of the afternoon breeze. We decided to take a walk to the Senegalese embassy to collect Reka’s passport so that we could get on the road as early a possible the following morning. The evening was fun filled with the start of the UNO tournament that would run for the next 4 days.


 We said our goodbyes to all the travellers at Auberge Menata. It really is a fantastic place where many overlanders descend upon to find friendly faces and comfortable accommodation. We knew we would be seeing many faces again as 2 other vehicles were heading towards the Diama border that day as well. We still had not solved the problem of the ‘Oogs’ to CFAs and so decided to fill Mvubu with as much fuel as possible. At just under 60 Euro cents, it was still a steal! We then had to take a low exchange rate to change the remainder of the money. It is illegal to leave Mauritania with any of their currency so the Exchange Touts push their luck. CFAs are also quite difficult to get in Mauritania. Whilst waiting in the car for the money Sidi, a Mauritanian business man greeted us in perfect English and invited us into his office for tea. This was surprisingly very enjoyable as he told us stories about his adventures in Europe and his travels in South Africa. We drank the mandatory 3 cups of green tea and were on our way to the Diama border post. The drive was pleasant. The sun had not shone for one single day that we were in Mauritania – a blessing gin disguise- and the weather was cooler than it had been for the last 10 days. As we headed further south the landscape and vegetation changed slowly and when we entered the national park we were treated to some bird watching and the spotting of a bush pig and a huge monitor lizard. E descended upon the border in no time and had a fairly stress free crossing. No bribes paid, only the ridiculous ‘custom fees’, ‘community tax’ and ‘police fees’ that they demand but fail to give a receipt for. The Mauritanian side cost more than the Senegalese side for some strange reason. We paid the bridge toll (€10) and CFA2500 for the Laissez-Passser. We were officially in our 3rd African country!

We drove to Saint Louis and navigated our way to Zebrabar where we made camp for the evening. We ate at the restaurant as it was too late to cook our own food and enjoyed the first cold beer! The UNO tournament continued until midnight where we decided to call it an evening as we looked forward to the sights of the new country the following morning.

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