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It was late and well dark. I was through Mauritanian immigration and customs and there was nothing but desert until Nouadhibou, the first town eighty kms away. Chatting at the border with Jacques and Christine a French couple who were driving an older Renault down to sell, I had asked to follow them, he having made the trip previously and familiar with the route. Even though there was good tarmac, I didn’t like the idea of riding at night with my fairly inadequate lights. In less developed countries, things can’t be taken quite as for granted as we would in Ireland. Obstructions, animals, large potholes, and unilluminated carts are a hazard on the road at any time of the day or night. Actually that does sound a little familiar!
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It had been a long day, and as we took off, I felt a relief at the end in sight, a fuel refill, a bed, and who knows maybe a rumoured cold beer in this strict Muslim republic. Into the desert blackness, my lights indicated the tarmac ahead, barely picking up the encroaching desert sand on each side of the road. Following at a safe distance, I wasn’t quite comfortable with Jacques speed, around 90 kmh, but knew his headlights were adequate for the job. After ten minutes his brake lights went on and off, and just as I was slowing and figuring out why he would do that, suddenly my headlight showed the desert was on the road and I hit the berm! Sand berms are stretches of desert sand blown across the road and were treachourous when a driver came upon them travelling at speed. On two wheels in the dark I had no chance. There were two deep berms one after the other. With the bike bucking and pulling violently I struggled to keep the front wheel straight, and on the second it went from under me. I must have been doing about 60 kmh and was lucky I had kept it upright going through the first. Out of the blackness it all happened in seconds and there was no time to anticipate the accident or feel fear. The bike was down and I was caught awkwardly under the pannier and the weight of the bike. Squirming out, I was relieved to discover I was unhurt, the Oxtar motocross boots doing their job and protecting my leg. The headlight threw a feeble line of light across the road, and the smell of leaking fuel from the breather tube alerted me to kill the engine. Meanwhile the Renault had turned around and two of us picked up the bike. On quick inspection, it hadn’t appeared to suffer much damage, apart from a broken mirror and dented crash bars. I had been fortunate. We continued the rest of the journey into Nouadhibou at a slower pace, my mind on super alertness!

The driving style here was very different from the other side of the border, a lot less deference paid to for example keeping to one side of the road, oncoming traffic, entering from a side street. And of course there were no footpaths so pedestrians were in the equation as well! Threading our way through the sandy unpaved streets in the yellow glow of the many fires cooking on the roadside, we entered the large sand compound of Auberge Abba, a welcome sight.

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Finding the only place in town that had beer, a Chinese restaurant charging an extortionate price for the service, myself and the French couple were joined by a local hostel owner who’d agreed to go and get motor insurance for me (at 9 o’clock at night). When he heard I was on a bike, he claimed he had a Honda XT600 stored in his shed this last eleven months. In a rather dramatic fashion, it seemed it was a party piece, he told us how an English rider on his way to West Africa had only cleared Mauritanian customs at night, and was on his way to Nouadhibou when he’d had a bad accident. As the story unfolded, I had an eery feeling I knew what he was going to say. “There was big sand across the road and he didn’t see in dark. Crashed very bad. Broke leg here two places”, indicating his shin, “and four ribs”. Apparently he was lifted out by air ambulance to Spain, and then back home to Britain. It was only now he was making arrangements to return for the bike. I counted my blessings.

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The next day was Christmas Eve and it was my intention to get to Nouakchott, the capital, that evening. Eventually getting away after a thorough inspection of the bike, I struck out for the 500 km journey. Having heard there was little possibility of fuel the whole way, (in fact there was a petrol stop 160 kms from NDB) I took the opportunity to fill my 39 litre capacity tanks before leaving Nouadhibou. And realised too late I hadn’t changed enough money to pay for it! My first reaction was of anxiety – what would I do? The attendant looked at me blankly as I explained my predicament, not interested in exchanging euros. But off course it wasn’t a problem, as a passing customer offered to accompany me to the market to change money.

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Locking the bike in the forecourt and asking a mechanic to keep an eye on it – hopefully this would result in him feeling some responsibility towards it – I trudged off after my guide, quickly realising I was going to get uncomfortably warm in all my biking gear! Fifteen minutes later with me now sweating profusely in the midday heat we entered the bustling market, the alleys getting smaller and darker as I followed my guide in, past stalls bursting with various merchandise, passageways bustling with shouting shoppers and stallholders. After a number of turns, I was lost at this stage, we ducked suddenly into a low door and I found myself in what appeared to be a small jewellers. A number of people were in the small enclosed space. We approached the ‘patron’ an elderly muslim in traditional jelaba behind the counter. I was pleasantly surprised at the rate I heard, slightly better for my fifty euro note than a youth before me with his ten. In fact it was to be the best I got in Mauritania despite the advice not to change much here as the rate in the capital Nouakchott was better, and I should have changed a lot more. Completing the exchange we headed back to the bike.
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Since arriving in the border town the previous evening, and after the constant hustling in Morocco, I had felt a mixture of being on guard from the persistent requests for cadeaux, or gifts; and excitement about my first exposure to black Africa. This town attracts many from Senegal and beyond, hoping to make money, or even make it via the Canary Islands to Europe and a better life. It lent the place, to me at least, a real curiosity and interest. During the walk, the two of us hadn’t chatted much. My French being still a bit rusty, we communicated in Spanish which my guide, a tall well built African with an easy stride and relaxed manner, knew as he had been a fisherman and had picked it up on the boats. As we returned to the garage, he asked with a smile for his ‘cadeau’. Not surprised at the request I handed him a few coins which I thought would satisfy him. He looked at me and smiled, “C’est beaucoup, huh?” and put it in his pocket. Feeling bad I took out more and tried to hand it over to him, but he refused, laughing. This man had dignity and I was the one eating humble pie insisting now he take more. This small experience was a great lesson – I would attempt from now to give what I thought was fair for any services rendered, not what I could get away with.

Up to recently, the journey to Nouakchott involved traversing piste, or hard packed sand, down the coast and would have taken a few days. At one point on the route the tides had to be judged right to avoid being stranded! This country was poor, and it was only last year the two main cities were finally connected with a road. After my experiences with sand the previous day, I had realised the weight of the bike and my luggage was going to be a problem if I was to entertain any fancies of piste riding. There wasn’t much agonising about which option to take – it was going to be the brand new sealed road all the way down the capital.

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The road was as scenic as it was uneventful – hour upon hour of real desert dunes, with the occasional scent of the ocean to remind me of its presence not far to the west. Approaching Nouakchott, I was singled out at a military checkpoint and asked some more than usually useless questions before being dismissed.
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Preparing to move off, a hovering tout approached me advertising a hostel in the city. In my weariness I was a little short with him, suggesting he was in cahoots with the official to stop likely customers. As the sun set in a sandy yellow haze, I pulled into Auberge Sahara on the outskirts of town, to a lovely welcome from the hostess Kania [pictured right with her husband, Sidi Barri, and their daughter]. This was to be one of the most pleasant stops on the journey to date, the place benefitting from the obvious female presence. Toilets and bathrooms were clean, and little touches evident like information boards, floors swept daily, and little piles of magazines left around (in French malheuresment). Kania was French, possibly of North African heritage, and having studied classic Arabic as she told me, could with ease adapt it to learn the local Hassaniya dialect in which she conversed fluently. Having myself worked for years in the hospitality area, her constant good humour, warmth and helpfulness really impressed me.

Up on the rooftop terrace a refreshing soft breeze moderated the evening heat, as a few of the visitors, all European, sat under a straw awning eating and chatting. Bedouin tents were strung up around the edge as sleeping options. Two Belgian brothers were entertaining another Belgian couple with photos on their laptop of their trip down. Most of the scenes looked familiar to me from the coast road down Western Sahara. With my presence, the language switched easily to English. Both truck drivers back home, “England is a great country to drive in. I go there often”, they had outfitted their 4x4 Land Cruiser for a serious desert crossing – snorkel exhaust, special air filter, tyres, a huge store of parts and were self sufficient in food. They were about to turn back and head home again the next day – back up the same tarmac road they came down! It seemed the real attraction was their “girlfriends” in Casablanca who they had met on the way down and were excited about returning to see. These girlfriends turned out to be prostitutes they’d stayed up all night with, and were dying to get back to! “This hotel bar, all these pretty girls, it was like a trailer load of good quality fresh hanging beef!” he exclaimed with a rather crude frankness. “Its like this. I respect my wife. This girl I s****!” There was something in the way he stated this that at least seemed honest. The other Belgian couple, in their twenties, appeared the archetypal “hippies”, Kris with his long black hair and beard identical to biblical pictures of Jesus. Chatting to them afterwards about the brothers, they liked them. “At home we discovered we live quite close. But one of them said he would never be interested in talking to me there, but here we have good conversation.” Agreeing with me that there would be a certain satisfaction in taking the beach route back up north to the border, it didn’t appear they were really interested.

Nouakchott is a capital city with desert sand as pavement. Though very run down, in parts looking like one great shanty town, there was something about it I liked. The original light skinned Berber population in light blue boubou, or cotton gown, was augmented with a huge influx of people from the black sub Saharan countries looking for work opportunities. This added a looseness to the place that was attractive. All the taxi drivers seemed to be Senegalese. In bartering fares often a hard done by expression would be adopted when agreement was reached on a fare, relaxing then into chat and joking. I smile remembering one guy in particular. His joy was addictive, constantly punctuating the conversation by holding back the hand inviting a slap/shake – accompanied with a toothy grin and high pitched squeal of laughter. You couldn’t help but laugh with him.

In the hostel, for the first time I was in the company of other overlanders – among them a Czech and his Spanish girlfriend in their Mercedes van they were driving to Burkina to sell, after spending time rock climbing at the Bombori cliffs in east Mali; Mike the dreadlocked German truckdriver who spent the summer driving in Spain, had successfully sold his vehicle in Nouadhibou and was now spending the proceeds passing the winter months in West Africa; Petr another Czech and his girlfriend travelling two up on his BMW F650 (the two of them were of tiny physique!); a group of four French ‘lads’ who had just sold their van and had various household contents left including a cooker, table and chairs spread in the yard for sale; a couple of Italians on their seriously stripped down Yamaha 450’s who were on their way home after some desert riding; and Malcolm and Chris, a Scottish couple with their two kids going around the world in their Land Rover (
www.the-nomads.com).

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In this strictly Islamic republic, Malcolm and I recognised a challenge: to get some beer. And that is what we spent a largely enjoyable part of Christmas Day doing. There were one or two hotels that were prohibitively expensive, even by Irish standards. The previous evening I had approached a Lebanese restaurant, hearing they were the traders in town. With much wringing of hands, the owner had fixed me up with four cans of Kronenberg 1660, a flavoursome (when cold - not nice warm) strong French beer, for €2 each. Unfortunately he was now absent from his place and his staff couldn’t trace him. We were referred to the Chinese restaurant – though in the same breath warned against the food! Serious bargaining followed with a hard nosed Chinese woman in a karaoke back room, some Brian Adams video from the nineties behind her playing silently, lyrics streaming across the screen. Negotiations broke down amid misunderstanding due to hers and my French pronunciation (she called our bluff by letting us walk away at €3.50 a can. We were at her mercy if we had to come crawling back!) Another restaurant looked a promising prospect. A glamourous hostess of Levantine appearance responded sympathetically to our quest, ushering us through an inner door to ‘the bar’. We waited a while for attention in an empty cabaret room, before Malcolm suggested trying a door opposite. This indeed led us into a third inner sanctum, ‘the bar’. However the barman could only offer us cans at €4, understanding our Christian Christmas Day need but apologetically explaining he didn’t have the authority to do us a deal.

After a few hours of clandestine questions, being sent to various restaurants and low life dives of Nouakchott things weren’t looking great. The Lebanese in the meantime had informed his staff he didn’t have any. Finally a taxi driver took us to a back entrance of a supposed restaurant near the Russian embassy and waited for us outside in the darkness. In a small, very bare drinking den with six to eight loud African patrons in various stages of intoxication we hit the jackpot. Kronenberg 1660 strong beer at €2.50 a can – and they were cold! There was an air of seediness about. A waitress was decanting a bottle of Johnny Walker into an empty one, they weren’t going to dilute it surely? I agreed a very favourable rate of exchange changing money with the arabic manager as a large African minder peeled off bills from a huge wad. As I’d had an imaginary taste for a cold beer growing in my mouth the longer the quest had gone on, Malcolm and I cracked a can each with delight while we waited for our change, and toasted Christmas. It tasted great. We returned to the auberge to a lovely Christmas dinner of potatoes, vol-au-vents and pate the Belgian couple had prepared from some of the huge bounty of cans the Belgian brothers had left them.

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Stephen's Day was spent giving the bike its first service, and I finally changed my tyres I’d been carrying from home, anticipating the going would get a little rougher the next stage east across Mauritania and south to Mali. This was according to my Michelin 741 map. Making a half hearted and unsuccessful attempt to sell the Conti Escapes, which were more suited to tarmac and still had another 4-5,000 kms left in them, I tied them on the back thinking of donating them to some worthy cause in Bamako. While planning the trip I purposefully didn’t want to weigh the bike down with the awkwardness and weight of extra tyres. When I heard the price the courier was charging Blakestown Tyres - one of my main sponsors - to deliver the off road Continental TKC 80’s to Malaga, I insisted on strapping them on with the intention of changing them over maybe in Morocco. However with the sealed road, it didn’t really make sense to change from nearly new road tyres to off road ‘knobblies’, with quite a distance yet to Cameroon where my next set would be waiting. As it was to transpire, it actually worked out quite well having the two sets of tyres, as I was to find the TKC 80’s, while superb off road, began to wear alarmingly quickly on sealed road.

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My next deadline was Bamako in Mali, planning on getting there in time for the arrival of three pals coming out to join me for the Festival au Desert near Timbuktu. The journey across Mauritania involved great distances, and not too much habitation as the land was too poor to support much. Camels were a risk, grazing on scrub and wandering across the road. While their large pads of hoofs were ideal for walking on sand, they weren’t really suited to tarmac - one ahead of me slipped and skidded as he tried to get off the road. The other hazards were goats, seeming to choose my approach to decide on a mass movement towards the road. (Why did the goats cross the road? F***ed if I know!) I began to feel a little reassured though when I noticed they seemed a little more intelligent in avoiding me than the donkeys! Those poor donkeys, herds of them, were so stupid. I’m sure it had something to do with the lack of nutrition in the desert, or water, but they would amble across slowly into your path, or just stand in the middle of the road dumbly. Some had a bit of life in them and, startled at the last minute by the loud bike, did a sudden donkey scarper off to the side. It was so funny and reminded me exactly of Eddie Murphy’s character in Shrek. The animators for that film got it exactly down. I really wanted to see it again. (Another example of what occupies the mind of the long distance biker for hours: what was the first name of Mr Fatang Fatang Biscuit Barrell? It wasn’t Oleg… Eventually when I was wasn’t thinking, ‘Ole’ came to me. What a triumph!)

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This was when I first broke out the tent and bush camped. As the distances between towns were so great, and the towns themselves turned out to be very basic, it was with some excitement I looked forward to camping out. And very enjoyable it turned out to be. Near twilight I’d select some suitable terrrain, pull off the road (it was so satisfying with the ‘knobbly’ tyres), and head off at a tangent some distance into the desert til the bike was out of sight of the road. The first evening sprawling luxuriously on the sand, I discovered the dreaded ‘kram-krams’, little thorny things that attach themselves fiercely to any clothing and leave tiny hairs in your skin which sting. A nuisance, taking ages to pick off. After that I took a little more precaution before lying on the sand.

The next few nights were to be spent like that. I was making good headway and camped after Ayoun al Atrous just before the Mali border, with a few days to spare before the New Years Day arrival of Paddy, John and Paddy in Bamako.