Through the Sahara (September-October 2013)

 

Many kilometres lay behind us since our last update and our arrival in Nouakchott – capital of Mauritania. Some people decide to drive the distance to Senegal as quickly as possible but we are grateful that we took our time and had some brilliant experiences on the way.

The landscape south of Sidi Ifni changed rapidly into barren stony desert with little to no vegetation. We crossed the previously Spanish occupied Tarfaya Strip and the police checkpoints started to be more thoroughly and they did not just wave us through anymore. Everybody was still very correct and friendly though and of the 17 checkpoints we passed until Mauritania only two asked for a cadeau (gift) hoping for some leftover beer or whiskey as it is illegal to bring alcohol into Mauritania. It is important to have a couple of fiches with you which contain loads of personal details that otherwise have to be handwritten into a big book at every checkpoint.

The largest town of Western Sahara is Laayoune which has all the facilities of a Moroccan town but little else to convince one to linger. The biggest attraction of the whole drive was without a doubt the amazing Atlantic coast line which the road follows for most of the time. From the cliffs it is a long drop down to the rough sea or beautiful deserted beaches. In between the tiny settlements self-built fishing tents stand their ground against the strong winds and local anglers drop their lines straight down the cliffs. It is hard to imagine living like that without any shade or diversion for miles and we have no idea how they lift the heavy catch up the long distance from the sea.

Generally we expected the route to be a monotonous one but if you open your eyes a bit you will see that the surroundings are still constantly changing. Large orange sand dunes, shallow hills and gorges, rocky flat areas, white dune fields or slightly green grassy areas are showing up and disappearing in the distance whilst driving – even though it is fair to say that flat rocky areas prevail.

Camels are a usual sight sometimes scratching themselves at road signs and birds find refuge at a few lagoons along the coast. The amazingly colourful evening skies are worth a mention as well as the abundance of stars at night. The few settlements guarantee little light pollution and watching the night sky is better entertainment than any TV program could hope to offer.

The mild climate did also surprise us with constant wind and none of the scorching heat we had expected. On the contrary the temperatures were perfect during the day and almost chilly as soon as the sun set.

After two wild camps we arrived in Dakhla which is the last big settlement in Western Sahara and offers a beautiful long lagoon on the one side and the rough Atlantic on the other. Kite-surfers congregate in masses at the lagoon and provide a colourful spectacle.

On the camping spot we gathered the latest information for the southbound travel but did not meet any other overlanders. In general it has been quiet a solitary experience lately and we are looking forward to catch up with folks and meet new people once in Senegal.

The border crossing was a test of patience which took us 7 hours in total. In that time we moved maybe 5km most of it on the piste through the no man’s land between Western Sahara and Mauritania. The track was easy to follow though without a real risk of getting lost in the minefield anymore. Officials on both sides were correct and friendly enough but surprised about our young age. For a complete rundown on the formalities and our personal experience you can read further here!

The day left us exhausted and we were happy to reach the first Mauritanian town of Nouadibhou and our camping spot for the night just before sunset. Nouadibhou itself is very manageable and mainly consists of one long main road with little high rising buildings and loads of sand everywhere. The roads are full of battered cars, goats and donkeys and everything has quite a relaxed feel about it without being overly interesting.

After organizing the vehicle insurance we headed off along the tarmac road to Nouakchott and the national park Banc d’Arguin. The national park is famous for its abundant birdlife and huge congregations of migratory birds as well as its rich marine life, some rare gazelles, jackals and even hyenas. Unfortunately we arrived at the worst possible time again as of the estimated 2.5 million birds from November to February only about 2500 remained in September.

From Châmi we followed a rough piste into the park along GPS coordinates copied of the national park map towards the Imragen settlement of Iwik. The Imragen are about a thousand strong and live close to their traditions along the coast. They use some simple sailing boats for fishing as well as a more unique method. Imragen men spread along the beach and hit the water as a signal for dolphins which chase swarms of fish towards the coast into the waiting nets and have their fair share of the bounty. The Imragen women traditionally have the right to ask for fish on any incoming boat without the need of payment.

Arriving at Iwik we were warmly welcomed and spent the night at the simple but clean campground close by. The caretaker Abdullah showed us around and didn’t fail to invite us to our first Mauritanian tea. Already used to quite a ceremony from previous experiences in Morocco we were still delighted about the art of Mauritanian tea making. The slightly bitter tea is boiled over a small flame together with a lot of sugar and then poured from one tiny glass into another many times until a firm froth remains. Three glasses are being offered over the period of the ceremony and we ended up spending more than an hour with Abdullah communicating with hands and feet as well as our little French knowledge left from school lessons. Funnily we understood each other well enough and enjoyed the evening a lot.

We were offered to follow one of the national park guides through the park the following day. The guide, two rangers and a teacher were on their way to Nouakchott stopping at all Imragen villages along the way to drop of local children after their annularly holiday at Iwik.

The guide could speak a little bit of English and explained us a lot about the parks history, its conversation and the financing. The tracks we took were sometimes barely visible because of the heavy rains in the past days and we probably would have gotten lost more than once on our own. It was great fun to plough through the sand dunes, over areas full of shells and some stickier mud sections though.

Arriving at the first Imragen village the children were friendly but very shy and we had to learn that men only shake hands with other men and women with other women. During a compulsory tea session a girl named Sultana came up to Jasmine and gave her a malahfa which is a body length dress traditionally worn by Mauritanian women. She did not want anything in return but after repetitive asking of what the people here could make use of we gave some pens and paper for the local school as well as a small torch to Sultana.

The track to the next village was very sandy and slow going but good fun again. After our arrival we were welcomed into the community area under a low tent with a nice breeze going through it. Laying on the carpets covered with comfortable pillows for around two hours we got another sugar kick with tea constantly prepared by one of the younger men of the village. Football news of all European teams were exchanged where Jasmine had a lot more to contribute than football abstinent Fabian. After a few more locals joined the round Arabic prevailed and it was interesting to note how everybody was listening to one person talking in a low voice for a very long time without interrupting him before it was the next persons turn to state his opinion. Finally the host arrived with two big plates of different chicken dishes – one eaten with freshly baked bread and the other mixed with rice. After everybody washed his hands a circle was built and the meal started. As it is custom everybody shared the big plates and ate with the hands. We had some troubles rolling the rice into sticky balls but scooping the other dish with bread was a lot simpler. Both dishes were delicious and left us very satisfied before heading off to the last village. Driving partly along the beach we could spot a few pelicans, flamingos and other birds but nothing much compared to the masses of birds congregating here in winter.

The third village was a different experience again and as soon as we arrived around 20 children gathered asking for gifts like footballs, skipping ropes and even our Norbert! Jasmine turned it into a more pleasant experience for both sides by playing some music and having a spontaneous dancing session with the girls. The boys were more than keen to pose for photos and happy about seeing the results right away on the LCD screen of the camera.

We had to hear that the beach run to Nouakchott was not possible this day anymore as the tide was higher than expected so we drove back to the tarmac on a different piste. Farewells were said to the rangers, teacher and guide who we got to know a lot better during this intense day. Any offerings of a gift or payment in exchange for the guiding and hospitality were declined which surprised us after our experiences in Morocco.

All in all we did not see the wildlife the park is famous for but got a real insight into the people lives and experienced outstanding hospitality.

Being in Nouakchott at the moment we are waiting for our confirmation of the Senegalese visa which hopefully does not take too long anymore. After 4 days in the city we are more than keen to head on especially as the heat is almost unbearable at the moment.

Nouakchott had a lot of rain in the last couple of days and big parts of the city are under water as well as many cellars and basements of the local houses. The puddles provide a heaven for mosquitos and they are only outnumbered by the flies. The city itself is very hassle free and easy to explore on foot though but does not provide too many points of interest.

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