Africa, Travel

Mauritania – Observations on a mysterious land

It is a wonderful thing to go to a place about which so little is publicized that you can’t reasonably have any expectations of it. There’s not much room for disappointment and plenty for intrigue and feeling frighteningly, delightfully out of your comfort zone. Mauritania is one of those kinds of places.

Mauritania is a vast, mostly sand covered country sandwiched between Morocco and Senegal. It’s twice the size of France – the country which once colonized it – and yet very few westerners are even aware of its existence, fewer still would ever plan a trip there. Therein lies the majority of the country’s appeal. Here’s what I learned from three weeks in the big M.

Nouadhibou

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Main drag, Nouadhibou

If Mauritanian cities in general are supposed to be an assault on the senses, then Nouadhibou is a full-on tsunami.

Crowds jostle for space in the market where carts overflow with artfully placed fruit and plastic knick-knacks, women sit on the curb stirring large vats of bubbling oil, dishing out freshly deep-fried doughnuts for 10 ouguiya (€.25) a bag. In the centre of it all, a lone cow eats from a trough, immune to the chaos swirling millimetres from its big dopey face. Smiling school children rush to shake your hand and welcome you in French, Arabic, English and Spanish. Occasionally they will point and yell “Chinois!” (there is a huge amount of Chinese trawlers operating off the coast of Mauritania, most foreigners in the city are Chinese). Rubbish spills onto the sand road where barefoot children chase old bike tyres, and gangs of goats patrol the alleys, picking through the debris. Above it all, a luxury Chinese helicopter hovers, on one of its regular trips between the Hongdong International Fishery Development Company, and home base.

Nouadhibou is far from a tourist hotspot. Most overlanders breeze through once they’ve made it through the border, en route to Dakar, Banjul, or generally, somewhere that isn’t Mauritania. That means while tourism infrastructure is basically non-existent, in most places you’ll be greeted with a gracious curiosity that is one of Mauritania’s main drawcards.

On our first day in Nouadhibou, after a long day of waiting at the border, we parked up to camp next to the city’s ship graveyard, which was exactly as grim as it sounds. We were woken at midnight by two men yelling into the tent. The nearby factory had long since closed for the day and we hadn’t had the chance to buy a SIM card, not that we had a reliable emergency contact anyway. It was shaping up to be a bit of a B-grade horror movie. A bleary-eyed peek out the window revealed two military policemen.

“Hello! We are police, are you ok here? Here is my phone number if you have any problems, goodnight!”

The next morning, the same policemen, smiling widely and seemingly thrilled about the late-night distraction we’d provided, brought us a fresh baguette, still warm from the oven.

“Petit dejeuner for you. Welcome to Mauritania!”

And so, with our day having begun the best way possible, we set off to explore the area.

 

Parts of the Nouadhibou coast are nothing short of idyllic. While we spotted none of the endangered monk seals said to reside on Cap Blanc, the waves lapping gently at the base of the chalky cliffs (once you framed out the plastic bottles and fishing nets) made a picture perfect scene. Overfishing and an almost complete lack of waste infrastructure has left many beaches awash with detritus. On the east side of the coast though, it’s a haven, children splash in picturesque coves and, due to a strong wind, only the heaviest bits of rubbish stick around.

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Cap Blanc, Nouadhibou

While parked up for a few hours to enjoy the view, we met Mamoudou, a local mechanic pleased to be able to practice his English. We had not one but three meetings over the course of the day, after our first interaction, he came back with his nephews to introduce us, later in the evening he returned again, this time proudly weilding his mechanic certifications. Silence is not the enemy in Mauritania, and when we’d both run out of things to say, Mamoudou was happy enough to sit with us for hours on end, waiting patiently for a conversation topic to arise. We pulled out our world map to show him where we were from, but the conversation quickly turned to fishing. Nouadhibou and Nouakchott, the only two places that could really be considered cities in Mauritania, rely heavily on fish. In the coming years it’s likely a whole new city will spring up around a gigantic fishing port being built by a Chinese company in the far south of the country. Mamoudou pointed to all the countries that had fishing interests in Mauritania – Russia, Ukraine, China, Japan, Turkey and Spain to name a few. He proceeded to show off his international diplomacy skills by introducing himself in Russian, Turkish and Spanish, a skill he’d picked up from his fisherman father. Most Mauritanians speak French and Arabic, but along with those, Mamoudou also speaks Pulaar – the language of his people – Wolof and Hassaniyya.

“And you?” he asked expectantly.

“Ah, just English, only one”

Mamoudou, for good reason, found this greatly amusing.

I asked him what he thought of the massive amount of foreign interest in his country’s resources.

He  said, “Mauritania is very rich”

He moved a long finger through the thin lines on our map.

“Fish here, iron here, diamonds here. But the people are not rich.”

He pointed to the map again.

Russia – “this place is good to work for, good people, good money”

Ukraine – same again

Turkey – same again

China – “this is not good, they do not let you pray. They do not respect the people.”

And all of a sudden I felt a bit guilty about buying a huge bag of imported treats from the Chinese supermarket in town, by far the flashiest joint in the whole city.

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Mamoudou and his nephews, Nouadhibou

We offered Mamoudou a Coke, a fleeting antidote to the sweltering heat.

He took a deep swig, crumpled his can, and tossed it into the turquoise water of the sea behind him. I may have winced.

“It’s no problem!” he said, “do this!”

He moved to grab my can and gestured tossing it in the sea.

I protested, not wanting to offend him but also not wanting to contribute to the destruction of Mauritania’s otherwise beautiful coastline.

“Is no problem!” he said.

“You drink, you smoke” – two tossing gestures – “in Africa, is no problem.”

“But what about the fish and the other things in the sea that could die?” I asked.

He gave an easy shrug.

Mamoudou had told us earlier his dream was to live in the UK. And once you’ve seen a Mauritanian wearing a balaclava and gloves in the 30 degree winter, you’ll realize what a serious commitment that is. What Mamoudou didn’t need to tell us was that the chances of him getting a UK visa in Brexit-era Britain are akin to a snowdrops chances of survival in the Sahel.

What I think Mamoudou was trying to say with his indifferent shrug, is that when a young, hard-working and educated man can’t get a visa to the country of his dreams despite speaking five more languages than your average human, that man may have more immediate problems than the lifespan of a horse mackerel that’s likely to be dredged up any second by a Chinese trawler, but of course that is just a guess.

Adrar

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Somewhere in the Adrar

We left Nouadhibou, and headed inland to the vast and sandy Adrar region, a place still blacklisted from many guidebooks and most certainly the New Zealand Safe Travel website. Terror attacks and kidnappings in the country between 2007 and 2009 meant flights into Atar were cancelled, and generally, tourism in the area dried up completely. Locals told us the area has been safe for some time, but the convoy of American paratroopers we bumped into seemed to think differently.

“Don’t go to Choum man, that’s where all the bad shit goes down.”

By that point we had already been to Choum, and the only act of terror we experienced was an old lady trying to sell us two cans of Coke for €10.

Driving in the Adrar, especially off-road, is surreal. You’ll find yourself wondering how there can possibly be 7 billion people on this planet when there’s no sign of a single one of them. We spent five days driving through the desert which was mostly flat and completely bare as far as the eye could see. Occasionally we’d pass a tiny settlement, with homes made out of discarded railway sleepers and a handful of people crouching in the shade. In great contrast to Morocco, none rushed to the car to ask for money or gifts, but stayed put, eyeing us warily.

One constant companion on the way from Nouadhibou to the Adrar is the two and a half kilometre long iron-ore train. It’s one of the longest in the world and chugs through the desert several times a day. Even for non-locomotive enthusiasts, it’s spectacular to see, and that’s before you notice the herd of camels strapped to the flat-deck of a car, or a flock of sheep balancing on a mound of iron-ore.

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Sheep on a train, Adrar

Once you’re back on the road, the efforts to draw tourists back to the region are clear. There’s a brand new tarseal road complete with shiny new signs linking Atar and Choum, along with a heavy military presence on the way to the capital of Nouakchott. The vast majority of the guards at checkpoints dotted throughout Mauritania, are without being facetious, an absolute delight. They are genuinely pleased to have you, a few of the young bucks might ask for a gift, – “un petit cadeaux monsieur!” – only to be playfully swatted away by an older superior.

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Tarseal, glorious tarseal

Nouakchott

About halfway down the country, just off the coast is a 100 sq/km dust cloud, and somewhere inside that dustcloud, if you can find it, is Nouakchott. Mauritania’s capital had previously been described to us as “an absolute shitshow” to be avoided at all costs, but seeing as we needed to get visas there, we had a sentence of at least a few days.

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Nouakchott

As a backpacker or overlander in Nouakchott, you may find yourself in the unique position of being rich enough for the beggars and street hustlers, but far too poor, badly-dressed or at the very least, far too un-French, to expect any kind of decent service. Almost all of Nouakchott’s most appealing hotels, auberges, cafes and restaurants are located in the same area as all the foreign embassies, so if you’re not clearly a businessperson or diplomat, you can get used to being refused entry at higher end hotels, or at the very least, being the recipient of several withering, Miranda Priestly-esque looks.

In a city where the cars, and many of the homes are in such appalling condition they appear to be held together with dental floss and optimism, it is beyond strange to find yourself on the receiving end of such blatant snobbery, but then again, the sheer mystery of what might happen next is all part of the Mauritanian experience.

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Parking, Mauritania

The highlight of any visit to Nouakchott is the daily fish market, an orgy of colour and stifling smells. Dozens of men and boys work together to bring wooden pirogues to shore amid the crashing waves. Fish heads are lopped off at an alarming speed. Women with babies strapped across their hips sit ashore and fry up the catch of the hour. You can almost guarantee you’ll be the only tourist witnessing it all, and that is something special in itself.

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Fish Market, Nouakchott

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Mauritania is incredibly poor, it’s polluted, almost nothing grows there, and most of the people we met who passed through said they couldn’t wait to leave, and yet the memory of Mauritania that sticks most stubbornly in my head is this.

As night fell in the Adrar one evening, we clambered up the side of a tower of sand and shale to perch underneath a layer of white-gold stars. So many stars, it was like they’d been splattered on from somewhere higher up. The entry-level art project of God or Allah or whomever had the creative foresight to will such an impressive landscape into being. Far beyond the rocky hills was a town, lights from fires winked in the distance, but the biggest light of all came from the iron-ore train, which started its slow chug towards us just as we nestled into our hole in the rock. It’s surreal, to be in a place so vast and barren, and to hear the sound of a train. The night was so still that the distant roar pushed out any other noise that might have filled the atmosphere, and even though we were hundreds of meters away, that train could have been making its way through one ear and out the other.

Nothing in Mauritania moves quickly, including the iron-ore train, and so we sat and watched as a mile long centipede of metal and rock meandered it’s way through the black expanse below. Lights teased us, blue sparks from the wheels glinting for a millisecond, the brief silhouette of a passenger as they tried in vain to light a cigarette. We watched as the train grew smaller and smaller, until a seam opened up in the universe and it disappeared. It was as if it had driven into a giant black envelope, and for that I was grateful, for in bleaker times I could pull it out and remind myself that even in a place as strange and barren as Mauritania, there’s a bit of magic.

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Africa, Travel

Morocco: Something for Nothing

You know that sensation when something happens, just for a moment, but it seems to stretch out for long enough to allow your brain the time to wonder “what the hell is this?”. That was the exact sensation I felt as Ibrahim the Moroccan mechanic leaned in and briefly sucked on my neck. You could not have described it as a kiss, there was too much…ingestion. Kiss verses suck. Even if it only lasts a second, you can tell the difference. It wasn’t so shocking that I recoiled immediately, but jarring enough that, when the mechanic asked for a photo with my boyfriend and I just seconds later, my expression could only be described as that of a bewildered sufferer of chronic hemorrhoids.

As we drove off, I looked back at the workshop.

“That guy just sucked on my neck” I said to my boyfriend, Oscar.

“What? The mechanic?? Didn’t he kiss your cheek?”

“Nope, it was my neck, and it was a fleeting but definite suck.”

“That’s fucking weird” said Oscar.

I couldn’t help but agree.

Erg Chebbi post-neck slurp

Things are often like this in Morocco, you can go for a long time believing things are one way, in this instance, avoiding physical contact with men, smiling, touching your hand to your heart and feeling incredibly smug and culturally aware, only to have someone greet you not with a polite but distant gesture but by performing an alarmingly accurate garra rufa fish impression right under your left ear.

Maybe Ibrahim was going for a fashionable French cheek kiss and missed the mark? Maybe the neck-suck is an ancient Berber greeting which I should have returned? Probably, it will remain a mystery.

One thing to know about Morocco is that it is almost impossible to be truly alone there. You can drive for miles away from the nearest village, over dunes soft as flour and through near-impassable river beds, to a place where the only sound is that of a fat black beetle dutifully shuffling a ball of camel shit towards its hole. Wait five minutes in that serene and silent spot and a chair salesman with 7 wicker stools strapped to his scooter will appear like a mirage. “Hello my friend! You want chair? English car yes? Lovely jubbly!”

Stool salesman territory, Moroccan Sahara

The other thing to know about Morocco is that people will ask you for things, and demand them in some cases, whether they need them or not, on the offchance that you’ll give it to them anyway. Thousands of French tourists visit Morocco every year. Most of them drive sinfully ugly but expensive campervans, and most of them make a habit of bringing giant bags of sweets with them for every visit so they can toss them out the window to local children like leathery, pétanque-playing Santas. The effect of this well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful gesture (depending on who you talk to) is that almost anywhere you might choose you stop your car, your bike, or linger in a public place, you’ll be swarmed by either children demanding bonbons, or adults inviting you in for a cup of tea and then asking for a tenner.

The third thing to know about Morocco, is that, even if people aren’t simply putting their hands out and begging, they’re probably thinking about getting your money some other way. Indeed, in a lot of places, opportunistic scamming is basically a national sport. We experienced this more on our trip through Morocco’s more cosmopolitan areas in 2017, but found it was still alive and well this time around. Take this story from our friend Hamid (who swears he doesn’t do it anymore) as a shining example. Hamid is a desert guide who lives in Merzouga, on the edge of the vast and glorious dunes of Erg Chebbi. Morocco is pretty strict when it comes to drugs and booze, but according to our entrepreneurial friend Hamid, that doesn’t stop desperate tourists from seeking it out.

Hamid the entrepreneur

“Sometimes I went out to the desert with the tourists, we stop for the night, have some food, watch the stars, have nice time. I pull out my hashish and I smoke. I say nothing. They say, “is that hashish?” I say yea. They say “man, can you get us hashish? We’d love some hashish”. So I say yea I can get it, but it is difficult. There is not much hashish in Merzouga, so it’s expensive and there are problems with police. Same with beer. Then they say “oh man could you get us beer too?” I say yes but will take longer. They say they want beer and hashish. I prepare to go walk and say, if I’m not back in one hour and a half, there are problems with police. So I go over one dune, just one big dune, I sit and smoke for 2 hours, maybe 3 hours. I already had my hashish in my bag, this much”

(He shows half a thumbs worth)

“It cost me twenty dirham”

(approximately €2)

“I go back to camp and get beer from kitchen which is already there. I go to tourists and say ‘I’m sorry there were problems with the police, I got a big fine’ they say, “no problem man” and give me two hundred euro.”

That is a kind of swindling genius you really can’t fault, but all the same it gives a certain insight into the national psyche.

So, keeping in mind those above three points, we headed into the High Atlas Mountains with excitement and a twinge of trepidation gnawing away somewhere deep in our skulls.

The mountains were beautiful – tiny mudbrick settlements with horses grazing in front of towering snow-dusted peaks, crumbling roads being whipped by some of the wildest winds we’d ever experienced. About three hours in, we found ourselves on a winding dirt track overlooking a green valley. Around the bend, a house appeared, and two figures running like hell towards us. We lowered the window and a pair of wrinkled hands clamped onto our door frame with the strength of of a pair of hands that had clamped onto many hundreds of door frames in the past.

“Dirham! Dirham!” the old woman barked. Now, we might have been inclined to give the woman some food, but if you give money to everyone who asks for money in Morocco, you’ll barely make it past the border. Besides, she didn’t ask very nicely.

Gently, Oscar pried the old woman’s fingers from our vehicle, and we trundled off to the distant melody of Arabic swearing. It wasn’t for another few minutes, when we heard a metallic clunk and then a dull thud, that we realised we’d forgotten about the second distant figure, and while the woman had diverted us with her vice-like grip, her grandson had climbed onto the boot of our car and begun untying our worldly belongings. If it wasn’t for the fact that aluminum clothes racks make quite a bit of noise when they hit the ground, we might never have noticed. Oscar pumped the brakes, and chased a skinny-jeaned teenager, sans clothes rack, up the road. If the kid hadn’t been laughing and pointing at us, I might have assumed he was in more of a desperate situation.

High Atlas Mountains

On we trundled, down deep into the guts of the mountains, along the valley floor with the light falling and nowhere to camp in the howling wind. We were greeted by a large family who must have heard us coming for miles. They seemed excited, the road had washed out some time ago with no obvious efforts made to replace it. Visitors didn’t pass through often. They spoke over each other in French and Arabic, inviting us in for tea or a meal, we said we had to keep going, but to avoid another attempted clothes rack heist, plonked a perfect round orange into the hands of each family member.

Their reactions were not ones of satisfaction, in fact they looked truly confused. They spoke to each other with unfamiliar words but an entirely recognisable tone. They hadn’t asked for anything, they’d simply wanted to help us out, why are these stupid white people tossing oranges out of the window for no good reason? We left feeling abashed. Onwards into the night in a place we didn’t know the rules for anymore.

The next morning, we came across Omar and his brother, two charismatic young Berber men trying to hillstart their dusty car. We gave them a jumpstart and were invited in to meet the family and have breakfast. The house was toasty warm, with the morning light streaming through the window and a medical reality show playing on the small TV in the living room. After a sleepless night in our tent cowering from the wind, the steaming mint tea and bread with jam was a godsend. As we left, we asked Omar if he wanted anything in return for the hospitality.

Bristling slightly, he replied.

“Porquoi?”

Why indeed, we left reprimanding ourselves again.

Breakfast at Chez Omar

Call it southern hospitality, or luck, but from that point on every single local we met wanted nothing but to talk, and be friends.

In Mirleft, Bokhtar and Ali shared fishing tips and some of their catch. In Dakhla, we spent two days camping next door to Jelili, who kept us topped up to the eyeballs with tea and insisted we join him for a feast of fish tagine, lemony and delicious. At the border of the Western Sahara, a disputed territory and former conflict zone, Abdes, a military police officer, kept us lingering under the blazing afternoon sun as he showed us what seemed to be every picture ever taken of his new wife, a wide eyed beauty with an impressive cake repertoire.

Ali and Oscar with the day’s haul

Morocco is an enigma. The constant clamour of touts and opportunists can make you feel miles from home, desperate for the cool indifference of a Glassons sales assistant. On one hand, people back home aren’t going to mount your moving vehicle to steal your clothes rack (probably), on the other hand, New Zealand Police wouldn’t invite you into the office for breakfast to say sorry after giving you a speeding ticket, and they definitely wouldn’t wave you down to show you pictures of chocolate gateaux.

I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time in Morocco, and travelled many thousands of kilometres within its borders. People sometimes ask me what to expect from the country, and frankly, I wish I knew. You can prepare to be swindled, but you should also prepare to be as surprised by the kindness and humility of the Moroccan people as you would be by a cheeky neck-slurp. Like Forrest Gump’s infamous box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get, and to be honest, that’s at least two thirds of the fun.

Agadir sunset

Etoh’s house, Mid Atlas Mountains

Tata gorge

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