We arrived in Dakhla at 7am and amazingly it was absolutely tipping down with rain. Here we were on the edge of the Sahara, wading through floods. The bus had leaked and Shaun’s bag been saturated, so he spent the rest of the day creating wind tunnels with the wet bits and pieces as we sped south through the desert in a bush taxi.
We’d originally planned to spend a day in Dakhla, but it’s just an administrative centre and not particularly attractive. A few miles out of town are stunning beaches where the Sahara meets turquoise Atlantic and kite surfers ride the waves in a beautiful lagoon. But, without your own transport, it’s hard to get to. We arrived and as we sat down and ordered coffee a Mauritanian in the traditional blue robe asked if we needed a lift to his country. After a quick meeting, we decided to push on. It was us, a Cote D’Ivoirian and a couple of Mauritanians in the bush taxi. The driver, Mohammed, was eager for us to drink up and leave and then we sat and waited outside of a shop for half an hour, as his friend had forgotten something. He asked me my name and I told him. He then proceeded to call me “Smith” for the duration of the trip.
“And where are you from” he asked.
I told him England.
“Ah, Peter Shilton!”
We eventually left into the bleak rocky desert, crossed the tropic of cancer and then hit a sandstorm. It was impossible to make out the difference between land and sky, sand blue across the road and everywhere was a dull yellow haze. Several military and police check points later we reached the border, which was relatively straight forward except there must have been about ten checks where we showed passports, all within view of each other.
“This way Smith” said Mohammed.
“Give them your passport Smith.”
“Open your bags Smith, the dog needs to check for drugs.”
I could remember the no man’s land – a three km rough rocky stretch filled with abandoned vehicles, fridges and tv’s – from my last visit. Men in robes loomed from the haze to change money and sell SIM cards. The Mauritanian border was easy enough, except the visa rules had changed just four weeks earlier. Instead of 50 euro’s it was now 120. Even if you just need a couple of days to cross to Senegal. Mauritania is desperate for tourism, which has plummeted, so it’s hard to see how this will help attract more. For people like us who just travelled around 36 hours from Marrakech – well, we could hardly refuse and turn back.
Mohammed sold us on to a new taxi. He was going to Noakshott and obviously didn’t want to make the 30km diversion to Nouadhibou, where we’d originally agreed he’d take us. He even told us the iron ore train had stopped running, so we’d give up on the idea and travel direct to the capital with him.
After more bleak white sand desert, we arrived at concrete huts at the edge of Nouadhibou, passed a dead camel laying bloated on the side of the road and then past tens of live camels all tied up, as their owners presumably popped into town.
The town is based around a large port and has a significant number of Chinese residents, which means one thing – a Chinese restaurant!
So, after booking into Chez Ali, off we went for sweet and sour chicken and other dishes. The hotel was cheap with a super friendly owner – he demanded me all the prices of every leg of my journey to date, unable to believe how cheap it had all been. In fact, an overriding impression of Mauritania is that the people are either too friendly or grumpy and uncommunicative. I didn’t experience much middle ground, although perhaps that’s because I’m dealing with either officialdom (grumpy) or people in tourism (smily happy people).
A word about the hotel – imagine a nomads tent in the Sahara, decked out with carpets, cushions, fine cloths. Then picture that placed in a dirty concrete cell with a mattress seemingly stuffed with camel hair. That’s where we stayed.
Nouadhibou is up there with the great bleak but functional towns I’ve stayed in whilst travelling: Golmud in China (the Gateway to Tibet) springs to mind as a possibe winner – a shit hole at the end of hours of gravel plains and potash mines where residents wore cowboy hats and face masks (and stole my jeans whilst I was in the shower).
We took breakfast at the nearby patisserie – a small cold pizza for me (the corner stone of any nutritious breakfast) and a pastry for Shaun. Then we went to look at the wrecked ships – as you may remember if you’ve read my earlier blogs about Mauritania, lax regulations means companies dump old ships on the beach here and locals strip them down. After a long hot walk and a taxi ride, we ended up too far along and so walked back past clouds of sea gulls and piles of plastic bottles that had washed up to the three or four rusting hulks that were currently there. It’s an odd site in the hazy atmosphere where desert meets ocean.
Time was getting on and we had an iron ore train to catch, so we accepted a hitch with a super friendly Moroccan lady called Lilly (she’s invited us for dinner if we ever return), packed up and headed off for our big adventure.