Moving fast in Mauritania


I could make out the silhouette of the young camel in the headlights as I shot forward in my seat. We’d missed the donkey 5 kilometres back, rattled over the washboard road and collided with the darkness many times on this bus. The camel didn’t move, just stared, but the bus slowed and avoided a collision. This was Mauritania at night on the road. We’d left Nouadibhou in daylight, driven down the Saharan road south towards Nouakchott, passed nameless villages, small estates of sheds dropped into the desert like vertical driftwood in a sea of sand, set against the waves of golden dunes. Sounds nice, but it’s not. It looks like serious poverty.

Nouadibhou had been hectic. We didn’t know what to expect when we arrived there, and didn’t really know what we’d had when we left. We sipped good coffee and ate puff pastries in a swish cafe with wifi and indoor fountain while goats rummaged through rubbish 20 metres away. We pedalled past donkey carts and were overtaken by shiny 4x4s on the road. Progress drives in the fast lane but the majority don’t seem to be able to keep up .

And we’d arrived in Mauritania through ‘no man’s land’, a 4 kilometre stretch of dirt road after the Moroccan border. No man’s land was basically full of rubbish. I could try to give it a poetic slant, but I’d be polishing a turd. Burnt out cars and old TVs sit around beyond the various tracks that offer a safe route through the landmines to the Mauritanian border. The tracks are sand and rough stone, not suited to tandems, so we pushed the bike through.

Then we’d cycled along the peninsula to Nouadhibou, coastline to our left with long flat sandy beaches and wetlands, punctuated by huge rocks looking like exclamation marks on soundbytes in a glossy holiday brochure. Nouadhibou eventually arrived with ramshackle shops, goats dodging traffic and traffic dodging people, donkey carts and us. This was driving like I’ve never seen before.

We’d decided on the way down through Morocco that Mauritania may be the country for public transport. Cycling another 800km of desert didn’t really appeal. There are hundreds of kilometres between water stops and it was the kind of weather that demanded intake of fluid. And lots of it.

The next day we were at a bus depot discussing how we fit a tandem on the bus. The easiest way, it seemed, was to pay some money. Once we made space in the wallet, there was room for the bike.

We had a couple of hours before the bus left and headed off for a coffee. We settled on a restaurant where the bike could fit in the courtyard. The owner, a Spanish guy was so taken with our trip he wanted to feed us for free. We said we weren’t hungry which, when the food arrived, I realised was a lie. When we left I was stuffed, not something I can say about many days on this trip.

And so this was how we came to be on a bus, arriving in Nouakchott in darkness. We had the name of an Auberge – the Sahara – and the driver stopped for us on his way to the centre. Half an hour later the tent was pitched on the roof terrace and we’d covered six days’ cycling in six hours.


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