Monday, February 27

Mauritania - Some excitement

Brett: On leaving the Moroccan side of the Guerguarat border, we drove off the perfect tar onto the super rough tar and rocks in no-mans land. We had wanted to follow the many other locals crossing in their Mercedes, but they had gone through the border much quicker and were already out of sight. The hard road continued for about 1km until it became a decent sand road. There were 2 cars parked on the side offering to change money (I realised later they were also blocking the main route through the sand so that we would get stuck and they could charge us to come and help us get out). We ignored them and followed what looked like the main route to us (it also matched up with the main track in T4A). I had my hand out the window taking pictures of the scrapped cars (some blown up and some just dumped there for scrap) when we came across some guys in a car who were shouting at us – we had read stories about fake cops and I suspected they would have some scam to try on us, so we kept driving and they turned around and followed us. We joined another difficult, rough section and then after a hill it became soft sand, and we realised too late that the main route was over to our left. We kept going straight on the soft sand road, which became softer and eventually we bogged down, with the guys still in pursuit. We jumped out and locked the hubs, engaged 4x4 low range and tried again, but were still bogged down. At this point, I saw the car behind us had parked and two guys wearing black shirts, dark glasses and tan leather jackets were walking over, so floored and the beast ploughed through the sand, eventually picking up enough momentum to get up the hill at the other side. The guys couldn’t follow us through the deep sand so they gave up - it is impossible to know what they would have done, but the stories I had read usually ended with the payment of lots of money... No-mans land is a total of 4km and acts somewhat like a cattle grate for motor homes, although I suspect if you could follow the locals, or possibly one of the trucks, it would be pretty straightforward – normal cars and trucks make it through easily when on the right tracks, but just have to take it really slow.
We signed in at the Mauritanian gate and the guards proceeded to search the car very thoroughly for alcohol (which they wouldn’t have found), with one guy becoming 5 by the end. I had to make a real effort to close each door before opening the next so that I could watch them carefully, as they were all over our stuff, leaning in the windows and grabbing things. This was the first border search where they would dig in our bags rather than asking us to show them the contents and they kept asking for gifts – cell phone, jacket, camera, laptop, our entire box of clothes from Megs for charity etc. We just kept saying no but eventually gave in on a request for my old binoculars, which the most senior guy had become interested in. He was so happy when we said he could have them, we immediately felt guilty – giving “gifts” perpetuates the behaviour for future travellers, but the joke was on him as they are actually broken Winking smile. At Customs, there were a lot of touts offering to help – they were actually quite friendly and not aggressive, but just wouldn’t go away. We changed some US dollars with them – we knew that we were getting slightly worse than the bank rate (rather than the better black market rate which is only available from Euros), but we only needed a small amount to get us through the border. The touts aren’t needed and we filled in the customs form, paid our $13 entry tax (got a receipt) and got the car reg details written in our passports. We headed over to Immigration, which was easy on a very modern computer system and finally drove through the last gate. We bought insurance at the gate ($40 for 10 days) – the price has gone up a lot recently, but seemed roughly in line with what others were paying.
After leaving the border and headed for Nouadhibou – passing the longest train in the world (probably 1.5km on that day). We reached town, and for the first time felt we were truly back in Africa with the traffic and chaos. We stayed at Camping Chez ABBA ($5pp), which is a popular spot for overlanders (with much better internet than Morocco), but it was empty the first 2 nights we were there. We celebrated getting through the border on our first night with beer shandies made from the beers the English guys had given us as a thank you for towing them out of the sand. It was great to just relax, have a drink and enjoy not being freezing cold. We watched the sunset and listened to the call to prayer…a bit different though, as it was fairly off tune…maybe it was open mic night at the Mosque Smile. The nights were still really windy so we didn’t get much sleep with the tent flapping around. The town has a lot of garbage and the air is dusty, but it is relaxed and fairly interesting. We explored a bit, walking a big 8km loop round the town, eventually giving up due to the heat (makes a nice change) and heading to the excellent Chinese restaurant just up the street.
Mary: We drove to Cap Blanc ($4pp), a satellite park of the Banc d’Arguin at the end of the peninsular, to look at one of the newest and biggest of the ships in the famous Ship Graveyard. The park itself is tiny, but really pretty, and the huge rusty boat looks awesome. A guy came along with his ladder to scavenge from the wreck while we were there – not sure if he found anything interesting. There is a large population of birds (similar to seagulls but with red beaks), but we didn’t see any signs of the near extinct Monk Seal colony that is supposed to be here. To get to the park, we following the tracks shown in T4A (you wouldn’t find the way without it), which takes you past an oil refinery and across some pretty rough tracks (sometimes just cairns showing the path across rocks). We knew the roads were safe, because they looked well used, but the path runs close to the disputed border with Morocco, so there are probably mines in the sand. We took it very carefully and stuck to where we could see other tracks. The bay is full of other wrecks, but access to the beach is restricted as most of the properties along the bay are owned by the port – it’s a pity no budding entrepreneurs have come up with tours out to go see the ships – one place we did manage to get to see the bay was at (N20 54.577 W17 02.970).
It must have be the heat in combination with the endless hours driving through brown desert and brown sky, but we found it hilarious that the guys at the road blocks kept asking us for “fish”…they are actually asking for “fiche” (photocopy) of our passports, which we had a bunch of copies of. You could say we had all our fiches in a row… you could also say we turned one fish into many fiches, but we had less luck with the bread….We were stopped 21*** times in Mauritania and asked for fish 20*** times. The road blocks are mostly quite quick and relaxed, but after the first few it gets a bit boring.
WebNormally we take the FCO warnings with a pinch of salt, but the FCO website advises against all travel in the majority of Mauritania due to the threat of kidnapping. Unlike “normal” unrest where it seems tourists would be unlikely to get caught up in the trouble, the risk of kidnapping is one we take much more seriously.  We were also warned recently of the rioting in Senegal in the run-up to the elections - a friend was caught up in it while shopping and had tear gas thrown at him), so we decided to spend out time in Nouadhibou and Nouakchott (both safe) until after the Senegal elections on 26 Feb. 
We left Nouadhibou early in the morning, heading for Nouakchott, 480km away. The road is mostly good tar road, but it’s all within the red area on the FCO website (avoid all travel), so we decided to do it in one day and skip the detour route which runs along the beach through Banc d’Arguin. If the Cap Blanc park was anything to go by, Banc d’Arguin would have been absolutely spectacular, but we didn’t want to take the chance. It is really hard to judge how much of a risk kidnapping really is in Mauritania, but we did get a sense that something bad was going to happen sometime soon… Anyway we passed a local guy parked next to the road, trying to wave us down for help, but we felt a bit suspicious so we didn’t stop, reasoning that one of the locals we had just passed would help him. We felt relaxed while we were moving, but eventually we stopped for lunch. We parked to the side of a dirt track off the main road, facing the tar, ready with the keys in the ignition. A local minibus drove past on the tar and stopped a few hundred meters past us on the left – everyone got out and scattered over the road, which seemed odd, considering we had seen very few other people in the last 6 hours, so why would they stop there? While we were looking left, a Landcruiser pickup raced up a small dirt road on the right and quickly turned the corner, either blocking us off or misjudging the turn, depending on interpretation. They were still a few meters away and started coming towards us slowly, the driver with his hand out of the window indicating us to stop. The image of a old Landcruiser pickup racing through the desert, 5 or 6 guys on the back, is not one we associate with good things, so the adrenalin was definitely pumping at this point. Brett said “oh no” and dropped his sandwich, started the car instantly and got us round them and floored it back onto the tar and away. The dirt road angled away from the tar but we could see the pickup racing away into the distance. Who knows, it may have all been innocent and we overreacted, but we trust our instincts and they haven’t let us down so far… So by this time we had had enough of the FCO red zone and pushed on the last 1h30 for Nouakchott. It is a big, chaotic sprawling town with a really relaxed feel, but just as we pulled into the road our campsite was on, a huge chanting demonstration was coming down the road towards us holding a huge flag…we backed up quickly and went round the block, but it turned out to be a peaceful protest against the troubles in Syria…
So if it’s helpful to other overlanders: we saw a number of other tourists on this road and I think it is fine to cross between Nouakchott and Nouadhibou in a day, in the light, and being careful where you stop (maybe the checkpoints would be a good lunch spot). It is currently the only overland crossing of the Sahara west of the Nile. The cities themselves seemed totally fine and relaxed, but I’m not sure about excursions out into the desert in your own vehicle at the moment…
Brett: In Nouakchott, we stayed at Camping Nomad/Sahara ($5pp), which is small, but run by nice people – Abdul the manager is a really good guy.  There is also a really good restaurant/take away place just opposite on the tar road which does incredible chicken wraps for about $1.70. We did a quick bush service on our Chinese folding bikes and headed off to the Port Pecheurs (Fish Market), about 5km away. The market is chaotic and smelly but really lively and colourful. We weren’t hassled at all, although loads of people came to chat and admire the bikes. We wandered around eating some kind of small fried dough balls (like miniature Mandaazi) and taking photos of the hundreds of fishing boats along the beach. On our way out we found a tiny informal restaurant round the back of the market where we had a lovely HOT fish stew with rice for a dollar. Nouakchott is a very relaxed town and we explored some more of it the next day – the local food is also quite a bit cheaper (and better) than Nouadhibou. Mauritania itself is a strange contrast – in Nouadhibou we felt it was one of the poorest countries we have travelled through, with not much prospect of improvement with the tourism industry still suffering from the kidnappings. But you get very little hassle at all (once you’re through the border), the people are nice, and we particularly liked Nouakchott.


  1. Hello Brett and Mary
    We are following your blog and for 3 weeks no entry from you.We hope you are ok.We are really worried.Hope to hear from you soon
    Martin & Camelia

  2. They're okay, I just met them in the Cote D'Ivoire embassy in London!