Updated On: May 31, 2006
Current Location: St. Louis, Senegal
Distance Since Last Update: 1,888 miles
Cumulative Distance: 9,387 miles
Current Weather: Not inhabitable! We'll be lucky to make it out alive.110-120 degrees!
Wild Eats: Camel (It's what's for dinner)
Wildlife: Camels!. Scorpion tried to climb into bed with us. Warthogs, nile monitor lizards.
Activities: Crossing the Sahara! View Video

 
  Nouadhibou - May 11, 2006
Up at 7am, we broke camp and prepared our documents for the upcoming border crossing. After topping off our tanks at the last Western Sahara fuel station 260 kms outside Dakla, we arrived at the Moroccan border just after 10am. First stop, passport control. After being registered, we moved on to customs. Then on to a police checkpoint, and finally another police check just before crossing the border.

At the police check an overlander on a motorcycle was crossing back into Morocco from Mauritania. He came to our truck and without any introduction said “What are you doing here? Why do you want to go there? Here (Morocco) it’s the 21st century. There (Mauritania) it’s another world. It’s black Africa. It’s so different you won’t believe it!” In a strange way, he summarized exactly why we were excited to be crossing the border. While entering Morocco marked a milestone because we were entering Africa, Mauritania marked an even bigger milestone. Just as Morocco feels a million miles away from Europe, Mauritania feels a million miles away from more modern and tourist friendly Morocco. Part Arab, part black Africa, Mauritania is a poor country, marred by landmines and a long history of slavery, which until 1980 was legal and is still widely believed to exist in isolated pockets today. Buried in sand, it’s a country characterized by dramatic desert landscapes, ancient caravan towns, and more camels than you can count.

Once across the border we entered “no-man’s land,” an approximately 3 km buffer zone between the Moroccan and Mauritania borders filled with land mines left over from the war. Immediately across the border the track split off in several directions without as much as a stone to mark the correct path. We knew if we stayed on the well worn tracks we’d be OK and opted to forgo a guide. As we bounced down the rough track towards Mauritania we found Sharikay and Eric. They’d stopped to help help another vehicle dig out of the sand. Together we worked our way to the Mauritanian border taking care not to stray from the main tracks. When we finally arrived at the border we hardly noticed it as the only marker was a tiny wooden shack on the side of the track.

Not sure exactly what to expect, we were greeted by a border official in shabby olive green military dress, who instructed me to stay in the truck and told Eric to follow him into the hut. As we waited outside we were approached by the usual cast of characters trying to convince us we needed a guide to get into town. Finally, Eric emerges and heads back to his truck. Along the way he passes me and quietly says that they’ve requested a “gift” in exchange for returning his passport. After a few minutes rummaging around in the back of his truck he heads back to the hut carrying two cold cans of Sprite. A short while later he come out again and said that did the trick. I was then summoned in. Inside, the walls were covered in cardboard and there was a small table in the corner. A gruff looking man was sitting at the table holding our passports and another man was lying on the floor. He requested that I sit down as he continued to write down our information. New to the game I was a little nervous, however I felt much more comfortable after having seen Eric carry in two Sprites. A small price to pay I thought. Finally, the man turned to me and asked in French if I had my visa. Here it comes I thought. No gift, no visa. I told him that we did not have our visas and would like to buy them at the border. He looked at me and said that he could not offer me a visa. I would have to get it at the police station and he pointed as if to say somewhere else. Hmm, I thought. This must be the moment. I decided to play my hand. I looked at him and calmly said in French. I would very much like to have two visas here at the border. Is there not something we can do to get those visas issued by you and I tapped on the table indicating here. He stared back and calmly said, “No. I cannot issue you a visa. You must get it from the police station” and he added that the police station was next door. Internally, I chuckled, obviously having misread the situation. He then slid the passports across the table and said “Here are your passports. Do you have a present for me?” Ah ha! As it turns out his approach was a bit more straight-forward. I replied by asking him if he and his friends smoked. He said “No.” This was somewhat of a surprise as everyone smokes. He then said, “Do you have something like this?” and he held up the cans of Sprite. Unfortunately, confident that cigarettes would do the trick, we were out of Cokes and candy. Not knowing how he would respond I said I did not. We bantered back and forth a bit awkwardly for a couple of minutes and then he chuckled (I think somewhat amused by my blundering about) and said “It is not a problem. Take your passports and go to the police station next door.”

Just down the road, I joined Eric inside the police checkpoint, a similar shack with cardboard walls, a table and chair with an shabbily clad officer seated at it, and two beds running along the walls, which doubled as chairs. The floor was made of a thin concrete and the chair the officer was sitting in has worn it’s way through the floor and the legs were now dug about an inch into the sand below. We found the officers to be friendly and one of them chatted with us while the other wrote down our information. The whole process took about 30 minutes and cost us 40 euros for the two visas.

The next stop was customs where a man took our passports and vehicle carnet and disappeared inside a third shack without a word. We waited outside and some time later he returns with the stamped documents and requested 10 euros for his services. By the time it was all said and done the process took around 2 hours and was relatively straightforward. With stamped passports, visas, and a stamped carnet in hand we headed to the trucks, eager to get to Nouadhibou.

The drive to Nouadhibou was about 40 km through sandy desert. Mauritania’s second city, behind Nouakchott, Nouadhibou is a town of about 72,000 people. As you approach via the main road leading into town you are immediately struck by the level of poverty. Entering town the desert sands are replaced by a sea of trash. Vehicles that look as if they’ve been resurrected from the dead putter along amongst goats, donkeys, and pedestrians. On the way in, we passed the remains of two vehicles, meshed together in a mangled ball of metal abandoned after they collided in the middle of the street.

Using a GPS waypoint provided by Dutch Courage, another overland expedition, we quickly found the campsite and set about taking care of getting vehicle insurance and exchanging money. Afterwards, we met three travelers – two Germans and one Czech who were 8 months into a bike journey around the globe. Their estimated trip length is 15 years. They were sitting down with one of the campsite employees about to have tea and we were invited to join them. Not knowing exactly what we were getting ourselves into, we
sat down for what we thought would be 10 to 15 minutes and ended up drinking tea and chatting for well over a hour. Turns out, Mauritanians are equally as fanatical about their tea drinking as Moroccans and have a much more elaborate ritual for it’s preparation and drinking. The quick highline is this. If you are invited for tea (which as we’ve since learned is pretty much by everyone you meet from the restaurant owners to insurance brokers to border officials) you’ll be served three rounds and after the third tea it’s acceptable for you to leave. The preparation process is so elaborate I’m still trying to figure it out. Basically, the preparer brings out a gas burner and boils water, adding tea and enough sugar to make North Carolinians stare with bulging eyes. A tray filled with glasses is set out and when the tea is ready the server begins a long ritual of pouring tea from high above the glass (creating a frothy foam). He then pours that glass into the next glass and then back into the previous glass, going back and forth several times before moving to a new glass where the process starts all over again. This continues until he’s worked is way through all of the glasses. Once finished, he pours the tea back into the kettle and then begins filling the glasses. When everyone is finished, he collects the glasses and the ritual starts all over again. It’s a wonderfully long process that gave us plenty of time to chat with our new friends.

By the time we’d finished our tea, we were famished and setout to find a place for lunch. Walking through town we passed the most dilapidated vehicle we’ve ever come across in all of our travels. It was a rusted heap of metal that hardly resembled a car and it was puttering down the street with one door dragging along the road and the rest held together by sheer luck. After a short walk we turned down a dusty side street and between an endless row of barbers shops, we found a tiny dark Senegalese restaurant and ventured in for a closer look. It was dirty and fly infested but also busy so we decided it was a good bet and ordered couscous and Cokes. The couscous turned out to be excellent – some of the best we’ve had, and the Cokes, well, two were Cokes and two were in cans that looked like Coke but read Krystal. The whole meal cost 370 UM (approx. $1.40)

Back at the campsite, we spent the balance of the afternoon getting organized. For dinner, we had the Senegalese cook at the campsite prepare a huge meal for us. It was relatively expensive at 1,000 UM per person (approx $4) however she went to the market and bought tons of fresh fish, vegetables, and rice and put together enough food to feed a small army. We hardly made it through half of it and kept the leftovers for the following day. .

 
 

Parc Nat'l du Banc d'Arguin - May 12, 2006
After taking care of a few admin items, we loaded up the trucks and setoff for Parc National du Banc d’ Arguin. To get there we took the recently sealed road south through the desert – the new link between north and west Africa. Along the way we passed camels and dunes, dunes, and more dunes, and some small nomadic encampments. Because the sealed road is so new, all of our maps and GPS points were out of date which made it difficult to locate the piste into the park. It was now starting to get dark and we decided the best bet would be to find a safe place to camp for the night and then setout again in the morning in search of the piste. Searching for a hidden spot off the main track proved challenging as the surrounding sand was extremely soft and we were in the midst of a large section of dunes. As we searched we passed a Land Cruiser rolled over on the side of the road. We stopped briefly to check it out and just as we did an old Mercedes (pretty much every car in Mauritania is an old Mercedes) came racing up out of nowhere and nearly runs over me as it skid to a halt next to the overturned truck. Out jumps 4 seedy looking characters and, with great efficiency, they began to strip the truck. Not wanting our trucks to be next, we didn’t stick around to introduce ourselves and offer them a hand.

By this point there was very little light left and we still hadn’t found a safe place to camp. Just as it was getting dark, we saw a small tented camp on the side of the road with a young boy, baby, and two women shrouded from head to toe in long black robes, sitting in the sand outside. Since we couldn’t find a hidden spot away from the road, we thought it would be safer to camp next to their tents. Eric and I approached them to see if we could stay beside their camp. It was a memorable experience as we stood beside their tents surrounded by noisy goats, trying to communicate to them that we wanted to camp next to them. To make a long story short, they didn’t speak French and the young boy disappeared into the darkness and returned a short time later with an older boy who served as our translator. The gist of the conversation was that they’d let us stay there however they asked us for 4,000 UM, a ridiculously high price. After some back and forth, we settled on half that (still a high price, but it was dark and our options were limited) and drove our trucks through soft sand to a clear area just behind their tents.

By this point the winds were blowing strong and sand was sweeping across the desert so we quickly set up our tents and using our shower skirts, erected a wind break between the two trucks so that we could eat dinner without being covered in sand (side note: the wind is always blowing in the desert and we always get pummeled with sand).

With the weather now terrible and sand blowing everywhere, we retreated to the protection of our tents and fell asleep to the loud flapping sound of wind beating against the tent walls.

 
 
   
 
 

Parc Nat'l du Banc d'Arguin - May 13, 2006
We woke up this morning around 6am to an incredible desert sunrise. To the east, the sun was just poking it’s head above the sand dunes and the sky was ablaze with orange. To the west, a giant full moon was setting against a crystal clear sky. The wind was still blowing hard and sand was racing through the air. Typically, the morning starts with a quick run into the bush to use the toilet. This morning the task was made a bit harder because we were camped just outside our hosts tents and the flat desert landscape provided absolutely no privacy. Basically, we felt a bit like we were taking a dump in someone’s yard (theirs a bit of irony in this statement because the place was already covered in human and animal feces). We managed however, and as we went about breaking down camp, an old Mercedes pulls over to the side of the road and three men and two women all dressed in traditional light blue Mauritanian robes climbed out and made their way to our camp. Turns our their car was almost completely out of oil. We didn’t have much oil to spare however we donated a half liter to the cause and after thanking us profusely, they jumped back in and raced off. I can’t image that did much, however they seemed very appreciative so perhaps it did the trick.

Once everything was packed up we drove back through the soft sand to the main road and then headed north in search of the piste into the park. This time we had more luck and found it without any problems. The park gate reminded me of a border post and before long I found myself with my shoes off sitting on the floor of a tiny shack filling out entry paperwork. Afterwards, we programmed in a set of GPS waypoints (provided by the park) and setoff for the coast. Heading west, the piste was mostly soft sand, our first real taste of the Mauritanian desert. We passed countless camels grazing along the track and eventually made or way to the ocean. Once we reached the water we followed the tracks north to Iwick, stopping to observe a large flock of pink flamingos along the way. In Iwick, we were stopped at a ranger station which requested we provide a copy of the entry docs we filled out at the park entrance. Nothing goes quickly in Africa and before you knew it our docs had disappeared and we were waiting for what seemed like hours for the ranger to return. As we waited we were invited into the ranger station for tea. I’m not sure exactly how long we were there however I think we cleared the Mauritanian border faster.

Afterwards, we turned around and followed the coastal track south to Teichot. Along the way the track crossed several soft sandy areas that are sometimes submerged by the ocean. Half buried camel carcasses lay, slowly decaying, while you could see heat waves rising from the flat sandy plains. From Teichot, we turned north again, and worked our way to Cape Tagarit, were we setup camp along the beach for the night.

 
 
 
  Nouadhibou - May 14, 2006
Up early, our plan for the day was to follow the desert piste (part of the R1 outlined in Sahara Overland) north 230 km back to Nouadhibou. This proved to be a long, tiring day. For the first 1-2 hours, route finding was easy – with park GPS points, periodic piste markers, and several other tire tracks showing us the way through the soft sand and dunes. Near the park’s northern boundary, the track became more difficult to follow and we decided to switch to the R1 waypoints listed in Sahara Overland. Cutting east, we managed to find the first waypoint however once there, we failed to find any signs of a piste. The next waypoint was 32 miles north of our position. With no signs of a track and nothing but desert in every direction we decided to follow the compass directly towards the waypoint. About halfway there the terrain shifted from soft sand to sandy tufts of hemlock which made the going more difficult and several miles further the hemlock gave way to a long line of sand dunes. This presented a big challenge as we clearly were off piste and we were growing increasingly concerned that we might be getting lost in dunes. After some reconnaissance and deliberation, we decided to pick our way through the dunes following a northwesterly heading in hopes that we might pickup the main piste on the other side. The sand between the dunes was fairly firm and we made it across without a problem and found the piste just on the other side. From there, route finding became easier and we made excellent progress across a mixture of rocky piste, corrugations, soft sand, and a tidal flat, which we were happy to cross without incident. Finally, 230 kms later we emerged on the paved piste just outside Nouadhibou, tired, and happy our trucks had survived the pounding.

Back in Nouadhibou, we headed back to Camping Abba, looking forward to a shower and good meal. For dinner, one of the locals that we had befriended, recommended a small Senegalese place only a few blocks down the road. When we arrived, we were the only customers and, ignoring the increased risk of food poisoning, devoured a huge meal of couscous with beef. I was still hungry after the first round and decided to order the same meal all over again.

Not sure if it was the meal or not, but I woke up at 1:30 am with my stomach all in knots. A clear sign that I was coming down with food poisoning. Over the next 30 minutes I grew sicker and sicker until I finally had to make a fast break for the toilet. There I hovered over a smelly hole for what seemed like hours with a bucket under one end and the hole under the other. Finally, I emerged, having purged pretty much everything inside me, feeling better but knowing that it was only a temporary reprieve before the next round. I made my way back to the tent, crawled inside, and curled up in a ball, waiting for the next round to begin. Much to my surprise however, I went to sleep and didn’t waking up again until the next morning.
.

 
 
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Nouadhibou - May 15, 2006
Woke up this morning feeling much better. Our original plan was to head into the Sahara to make the 3-4 day journey to Atar. Given that I wasn’t feeling great, we decided to hold off a day and use the extra time to service the trucks, which had taken a terrible beating over the past couple of days.

 
 
     
 
 

Sahara Desert (Road to Atar) - May 16, 2006
This morning we got up early, loaded up on fuel and water, hit the market, and were on the road around mid day. Our plan: head east into the heart of the Sahara to Atar. Based on others feedback, we estimated the crossing to take 3-4 days however, Joe (the Austrian we met in Dakla, who was returning home after two months in Mauritania) couldn’t say enough bad things about the piste. “It’s fucking! Fucking! Fucking! Fucking!” The sand is shit!! It’s complete fucking shit!!!!” He went on to say that he met two Swiss guys on the track and it had taken them two days to go just 60 kms (the piste is 540 km in total). His feedback was a little troubling, especially since he was driving a giant military vehicle that looked like it could crawl through anything.

We were able to make up for our late start by taking the new sealed road towards Nouakchott for the first 100 kms and then cutting over onto the piste once the sealed road turned south. Along the way we past the 3 cyclist we’d met in Nouadhibou, now bound for Nouakchott. At the point where the sealed road turned south we broke away, cutting north until we reached several sets of tire tracks running parallel to the nearby train tracks. Initially, tt was a little challenging finding the piste however with the help of some kids we found our way. Just as we were about to cut over to the track, we were approached by a couple of Mauritanians in a Toyota Hilux who asked if they could convoy with us to Choum – a small town along the way. They said that their tires weren’t in the best shape and it would be a great help to them not to go alone.

With that, our three vehicle convoy headed off, bouncing along a series of short connector tracks that required us to climb a steep dune before reaching the main piste. The hilux couldn’t make it up, however the driver clearly knew what he was doing and quickly found another route. Betty climbed up it OK and Eric got stuck on the way up, but managed to dig out quickly and we were all soon on the track. For the first 120 kms or so, the track is mostly corrugations, mixed in with patches of soft sand. Pretty easy. A bit bone jarring. Definitely not very exciting. Plodding along, we passed herd after herd of camels – having to slow from time to time so that they could get out of the way. For the last several kms before sunset the track got progressively sandier as we approached a 60 km section of dunes. With the track growing increasingly difficult we decided to stop and make camp for the night. We picked a spot a few hundred yards away from the train tracks and quickly went about fixing dinner. It was a beautiful, calm, clear, desert night and you could see millions of stars in the sky. Finally, our first relaxing, albeit hot, desert night. After dinner, Eric gave an impromptu astronomy lesson as we relaxed and stared at the night sky. Shortly before we headed to bed, we could here the train coming in the distance, with over 100 cars filled with iron ore in tow. It was quite a sight passing across the desert, almost completely invisible, with the grand finale being the caboose which had an eerie ghostly glow about it. We all sat and commented on how amazing the caboose looked passing through the dark desert night and about 5 minutes later realized what was causing the murky glow and more importantly, why you shouldn’t camp so close to train tracks in the desert. The train was billowing dust which soon blew through our camp caking everything.

 
 
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  Sahara Desert (Road to Atar) - May 17, 2006
This morning we woke up early anticipating a long hard day of dunes driving. As we setoff from our campsite, Joe’s description of the track was echoing in my head, “ It’s fucking! Fucking! Fucking! As we headed east, the track grew increasingly soft as we approached the first 60 km stretch of sand dunes. Entering the dunes was exhilarating, our minds sharply focused on the task at hand. Sheri served as navigator, watching our GPS heading, carefully scouring the dunes for the safest path, and shouting out directions. I took the drivers seat, working Betty for all she was worth. Through soft sections the engine screamed as the turbo charger spooled up. For several kms we cruised over the dunes. Then, our first problem hit. We blew a fuse which controlled the windows, gauges, and A/C. Blowing the A/C or the windows is OK but when both go at once and it’s scorching hot outside you’ve got a problem. Almost immediately it was blazing hot in the truck. We stopped and couldn’t find a direct cause. I checked all fuses and only one was blown – the one controlling the gauges. Upon closer inspection, it wasn’t even the right size fuse. Not able to find a cause, we nervously replaced it with a spare and everything powered back up and off we went again. It was hard going as we worked to navigate and drive. A number of times we got it a bit wrong and found ourselves bogged in the sand. A quick reverse or a bit of digging and we were off again. Other times we hit hidden depressions which gave the suspension and everything that wasn’t ratcheted down a good pounding. Then the going got tougher as the sand softened. We lowered the tire pressure to 32 PSI. The engine was working full out but we managed to keep going. We got slightly bogged a few more times but nothing major. Then, as Eric was route finding, he ended up in a very soft section of sand between dunes. I could see he was having trouble and decided to hold back so that I could lend a hand if necessary. I stopped on what I thought was hard sand and immediately sank down and both truck ground to a halt at exactly the same time.

It was now the middle of the day and the temperature was already 46 Celsius (about 113 F). The sun was beating down and as soon as we stepped out of the trucks we were overcome by flies. And so began a four hour ordeal. We briefly tried to dig Eric’s truck out but it was really dug in. And he was so far from firm sand that it looked hopeless. Betty was in a better spot so we decided it would be best for morale to dig her out first. We lowered the tire pressure some more – 20 PSI. Next we dug out the tires and tried to back out. Betty clawed her way back a few feet and then started to bog again. We stopped. Dug again and gave it another go. The sand was so soft that, even with front and rear diffs locked, the truck immediately dug in deeper. We cleared the tires again and gave it another go. This time all four wheels dug for a split second and then just started to spin. None of them were even touching the ground. The truck was completely bottomed out on it’s chassis. Ugh! It was so hot and the flies..... #@$?!%! The flies were maddening. They were everywhere. All over our heads. In our ears. Buzz! Buzz! Buzz. They even managed to get in my mouth and before I realized it I had swallowed one.

On to plan B. We pulled out the sand ladders and tried to place them behind the front and rear wheels. We tried first without using the hi-lift jack (since, just to restate for the record – it’s the worst invention in the history of mankind). No luck. We couldn’t get any traction. On to plan C. We jacked up the front end up with the hi-lift and laid the tracks down under the front wheels. We then shoved the rear tracks under the back wheels and gave it another go. Success!! Betty took off backwards and made it about 10 meters or so before starting to bog again. When I looked back, there was a large crater marking the spot where she was previously stuck. So we gathered up the sand ladders, hi-lift and shovels and went through the process all over again, only this time we didn’t need the hi-lift. Success! Off she went again. This time all the way back to semi-firm sand.

With Betty out. We decided to take an hour break before turning our attention to Eric’s truck. It was 3pm and, despite drinking almost a gallon of water, the heat was really taking it’s toll. The only shelter was in the truck so we sat there for the next hour eating and taking on as much fluids as possible. At 4pm, we went at it again. For our second attempt, we lowered Eric’s tire pressure further – 15 PSI. Next we dug out the tires, set the sand ladders, and gave it a go. Success! Ginger raced back several meters and then got bogged again. We set everything again and had another go. This time, it worked perfectly and she went charging backwards, with the engine roaring, and eventually made it to firm sand.

It was 5pm and we were ready to get going again. In retrospect, I have to admit, when you’re looking at two fully loaded Land Cruisers buried down to the chassis in the middle of the Sahara and it’s 113 F and there’s no shade and the flies are driving you mad and there’s nobody around for miles and miles...... that’s raw, unbridled Africa at her finest! That said, we were happy to be done and eager to get started again. After a brief break to regroup, we were off again. More dunes. More sand. Things went smoothly however and we made it through the toughest section before dark. Shortly before stopping to setup camp, Eric pulls off the piste and says he’s having a problem with his truck. As it turns out, the same fuse that blew in Betty earlier in the day had just blown on their truck. The gauges, windows, ignition, etc. were all out. Having already dealt with this problem earlier in the day, we thought it would be as easy as replacing the fuse. He replaced it and it immediately blew again. He replaced it again and it blew again. Not sure of the cause, we decided the safest bet was to setup camp for the night and try to get to Atar the next day using the remaining spares (a big task consider he’d need one every time the truck stalled in deep sand.)

We setup camp shortly before sunset near a row of low dunes. It was a beautiful, albeit hot, evening and we spent it licking our wounds and recovering from a hard day in the desert.

 
 
     
 
 

Atar - May 18, 2006
This morning was another early start. We still faced another 80 km of dunes followed by a long drive along corrugated piste, and then more sand. – this time with the added challenge of getting Eric and Sharikay’s truck through without blowing the rest of their fuses. We decided the best approach would be for Betty to take the lead through the dunes (often we follow so that we can winch their truck out backwards when it gets stuck). That way we could navigate and point out soft spots before they ran into trouble. This strategy worked perfectly. We got stuck four times along the way (once on top of a camel carcass half buried in the sand) however through radio contact were able to steer Eric around the problem areas.

When we finally made it though the last of the dunes we were exhausted. It had been a long hard slog. With the dunes behind us, we were nearing Choum and we turned south towards Atar. Now away from the railroad tracks, navigation became more difficult as we searched for the main piste. Our GPS coordinates pointed us south through a barren rocky landscape. We searched for other tracks however we found very little to help us. As we tracked south toward the next waypoint we continued to search with little success. Twice Eric got bogged but was able to keep from stalling. Occasionally taking a perpendicular route in hopes of intersecting the main track. Finally, we found it, or at least one of the main feeder tracks heading south. We followed it for 50 kms or so and then began to track away from the waypoint again. This forced us to cut across a rocky moonscape. The going was very slow but finally we hit the main track.

From there the track turned from rocking piste to some of the worst corrugations we’ve experienced. It was terrible and I was sure the truck was literally going to rattle itself apart. We crossed a high plateau. On the other side was a sandy valley were we broke away from the main piste and forged our own tracks over the dunes, along the way passing small villages scattered amongst the sands.

We arrived in Atar late in the afternoon, tired, hot, and filthy, and quickly found Bab Sahara, a campsite highly recommended by other overland travelers. An oasis in the midst of a stifling desert, it was exactly what we needed. There we met three Europeans – one Brit and two Dutch – who were traveling throughout west Africa after a 5 month stint volunteering as teachers in Ghana. We had an excellent chat and spent the rest of the night relaxing and unwinding after 540 rough km of Saharan driving.

 
 
 
 
 

Atar - May 19, 2006
The only positive spin on last nights sleep was that we lived through it. It was hot. There wasn’t the slightest hint of a breeze. Our tent could have doubled as a rapid weight loss clinic for horse jockeys trying to make weight. Today started off hot and as the sun rose it just got hotter. Ever since we left Nouadhibou it’s been growing hotter by the day and now it’s so hot we can hardly move. Yesterday the temperature nearly topped 50 C (120 F). To provide a little perspective, the fuel tanks for our gas cooker have a warning on them stating that they can explode if stored in temperatures above 50C/120 F.

By 8am we’d retreated to the shade of a large open air tent in the center of the campsite and sat motionless waiting for the inevitable BOOM!! of our fuel tanks. While Eric went about sorting out his truck we set about washing clothes and slooowly taking care of a variety of admin items. Mostly however we sat, motionless, void of any desire to do anything. A three legged dog at the campsite had the best idea. It dug a hole just under a water tap and slept there all day with water dripping on it’s head.

Around mid day Eric, Sheri, and I decided to mount an expedition into town to find food. I say expedition because we only gave it a 50% chance that it would make it back alive. The tiny gargage covered streets were deserted. Not a person to be found anywhere. Only goats rummaging through the trash. Along the way we stopped for our one vice – the overlanders we’d met the previous day had introduced us to Atar’s version of ice cream. A small bodega just of the dirt road leading to our campsite had a refrigerator. Inside was a pile of tiny hand tied plastic baggies filled with frozen juices (well, we think it was something like juice) which Justice, the owner of the campsite, vowed was sure to give us full blown diarrhea. We didn’t care what it was made of. We didn’t care what it might do to us – that it might result in horrific bouts of vomiting and gut wrenching and that it might shorten our lives by 30 years. All that mattered was that it was cold and frozen. For 50 ougs (basically nothing) we bought a bag with eight of the tiny frozen treats inside. It was amazing. Incredible. Life changing!

Our new found crack lasted all of about 2 blocks before it was gone. With nothing to sustain us and the heat beating down, we nearly died on the walk into town. Once there, we found the place abandoned. It was Friday afternoon and everything was boarded up. There was a lone donkey standing in the middle of the street strapped to an empty cart. The market was empty except for one produce stand with the most pathetic looking assortment of dried, rotting produce I’ve ever seen, and a woman selling bread which doubled as an ant farm. Down the street there was one stall open and inside we found a man selling almost cool Cokes. We purchased two which we downed on the spot and when we turned around to hand him the empty bottles he was gone and the shop was boarded up like the rest.

Without any options, starving and now near death, we were forced back to the market and the lone woman selling ant infested bread. We bought a couple of the freshest looking loafs we could find and watched as she literally beat the ants out of it by pounding on it with her hand. As she slapped the ants came pouring out by the dozens (I must admit, at this point we’re under no illusion that bread in Africa is clean. We’ve watched vendors drop their bread on the ground, only to pick it up, covered in dirt, dust it off and hand it to the next buyer. We’ve watch it kicked in the streets. We watch vendors pick their noses with one finger while clutching loafs of bread with the other four. We’ve watched it stuffed into the trunks of cars along with gas cans and spare tires and piled onto donkey carts. If a piece falls off, the driver jumps off to grab it and then throws it back on top of the pile).

With our bounty in hand, we slowly dragged ourselves back to the shade of the campsite, along the way stopping at the bodega for another round of “ice cream.” This time doubling the order to 16 baggies. There we spent the balance of the afternoon motionless, waiting for the temperatures to fall. By 7pm the thermometer had plummeted to a brisk 43 C and able to move again, we had dinner and then called it a night.

 
 
     
 
  Atar - May 20, 2006
Pretty much a repeat of yesterday. Another uninhabitable day in Atar. Eric worked with Justice, to fix his ailing truck while Sheri pulled out the razor and buzzed off all of my hair. I now resemble a Lance Armstrong want-a-be, with a buzz cut that would have served me well when I was racing triathlons. Other than that, we sat motionless, making occasional trips down the road to get more ice cream. For dinner, we made our way into town to a Senegalese restaurant, recommended by the campsite. A popular hangout for Peace Corps workers and locals the food was good and fairly reasonable (at least for Mauritania).
 
 
 
 

Chinghuetti - May 21, 2006
Out of the kettle and into the fire, our plan for the day was to depart Atar for Chingetti, an ancient Saharan trading town and the seventh holiest city of Islam. In Chingetti we plan to hire camels for a trek into the desert. While Sheri and Sharikay packed up the trucks, Eric and I walked into town to exchange some cash and trade in our fancy CampingGaz cookers.

With no ATM’s in Mauritania there’s two basic options for getting cash: 1.) Going to one of the official banks located in the major cities including Nouadhibou and Nouakchott or e2.) Exchanging money on the black market. The benefit of using a bank is that it’s legal and you receive an official receipt. The benefit to exchanging on the black market is that the rates are higher. The downside to the black market is that it’s illegal and consequently you’re more likely to be dealing with individuals of questionable character and run a greater risk of receiving counterfeit money or being robbed. We opted for the black market. Last night we negotiated a rate with a Senegalese guy we met a couple of days ago. He put us in touch with another more shady looking guy who said he could have the cash by 9 am the next morning. When we arrived in town he was waiting for us just off the main road. We followed him into a small shop where he introduced us to a third guy who would supply the cash. The third guy, dressed in a typical Mauritanian blue robe, pulled out a huge wad of cash. We pulled out our dollars and watched as he closely scrutinized each bill. Once he was comfortable that our clean crisp dollar bills were real, he began counting out ougs in 1,000 and 2,000 denominations – 102,000 in all. We then turned around and scrutinized and counted and then recounted the ougs. It’s a somewhat nerve racking process that I’m always eager to get through as quickly as possible.

With the deal done, we turned our attention to bartering off our fancy Camping Gaz cookers that we’d purchased in Cromford before the trip. In theory, it’s the perfect stove for overland cooking – with two burners, a grill, and a large propane fuel canister that’s good for a couple of months of daily cooking. In practice, it’s terrible. It’s a big and cumbersome piece of kit that takes up a large amount of one of our drawers. To use it you have to pull it out, set it up, and hookup the stove to the gas canister. Interested in a smaller, easier to use cooker, we decided to buy the simple fuel bottle with screw on top burner commonly used in households throughout Africa. So that we’d have a second burner when necessary, we also opted for a camping size version of the same thing. Knowing we’d need to get rid of our existing setup, we set out to find a vendor that would be willing to take our stove in exchange for the two simple stoves and full fuel bottles. A fair trade considering our stuff was used. We’d done some searching the previous day and had located a shop that had what we were looking for. On the way back from exchanging money, we stopped by the shop and explained what we wanted to do. Without much discussion they said sure. Just bring it in.

Back at the campsite, Eric and I met up with Sheri and Sharikay around 11am and after dusting off the cooker, which was filthy, set out for Chinguetti. On the way through town we stopped at the shop and pulled out our cooker. The shopkeeper took a look at our fancy cooker and said he’d be glad to trade. Only, instead of an even swap like we’d agreed to, he typed 5,000 into his calculator and handed it to me – indicating that we still owned him that amount as part of the trade. Not a surprise. No, I replied and typed a 0 into the calculator and handed it back to him. He scoffed as if insulted and typed 5,000 again. I replied with another firm “0.” This time he countered with 4,000. No, I replied again. And so we went back and forth until we reached a stalemate at which point Eric grabbed the fuel canister, Sheri grabbed the cooker, I shook his hand and we all started to walk out. The shop owner with a clerk in tow came chasing after and agreed to the original deal – an even swap. With that we were off to Chinguetti.

Along the way we stopped at a police checkpoint. As we were going through the formalities, one of the officers approached us and asked if he could hitch a ride to the next checkpoint, 25km down the road. We explained that we’d be happy to but there was no room inside. We offered up a spot on the roof instead. He didn’t go for it. He persisted. We showed him that there were no back seats. He didn’t seem to care. Knowing we had to clear the checkpoint he was heading towards we were a bit concerned about the ramifications if we turned him down. In the end, Sharikay gave up her seat and Sheri sat on her lap in our truck. Not ideal however it made the next checkpoint go much more smoothly.

We arrived in Chinguetti late in the afternoon. Just outside of town, Sheri noted that in Sahara Overland, Chris Scott mentions that it’s recommended you lower your tire pressure before entering town to avoid the embarrassment of getting stuck in the middle of town. As we approached along the main road leading into town I could see why Chris Scott made such a suggestion. Surrounding the jumble of decaying stone buildings that makeup the old city is a sea of sand dunes as far as the eye can see. I’m not sure about the embarrassment part however because the place looked completely abandoned.

Shortly after entering town we stopped at a walled auberge called Eden that was highly recommended by the owners of Bab Sahara, our campsite in Atar. Inside the walls we found a small courtyard and garden – another tiny oasis in the middle of the desert. We also found the same three guys from Ghana we’d hung out with in Atar a few days earlier. They were seated on the floor with the auberge’s owner, Mahmud, sipping tea and chatting as their camels were being loaded for a 5 day trek into the desert. They’d done a similar trek in Mali a couple of months earlier and said that they had a great time. So much so that they were willing to brave the extreme temperatures and scorching sun to have another go. It was encouraging to see someone else heading into the desert so late in the year and they provided us with a great deal of useful information on arranging camels for a similar trip. After an hour or so of sipping tea and chatting, their camels were finally loaded and we joined them outside and watched as they marched off into a blinding sandstorm.

As they disappeared into the dunes, we returned to the safety of the auberge to ride out the storm. By 8:30pm the winds had subsided and the sand was starting to clear from the air. It was relatively comfortable outside so Mahmud invited us to have dinner outside in the courtyard. It was an excellent meal that included soup, couscous with camel meat, and hot citronella. During dinner, we had the opportunity to talk with Mahmud and discussed the possibility of organizing camels for a multi-day trek into the Sahara. He smiled and calmly in a mix of French and English said that it could be arranged. He went on to say that, with the exception of the three Europeans we’d just seen off, it was unusual to venture into the desert so late in the year. For this reason, he said that it would take a couple of days for the nomadic camel herders who lived in the desert a short distance outside of town to go find four camels (As we learned later, once it’s too hot for camel trekking, the herders set the camels free in the desert to graze. In fall, they head out into the desert to gather their camels for the following season). In spite of the less than perfect conditions, we were all still interested and gave Mahmud the go ahead to start making arrangements.
In the meantime, we’d take the trucks into the desert to visit the ancient oasis village of Ouadane.

With our bellies stuffed and the hour growing late, Mahmud asked us where we’d like to sleep. The choices included the private garden, a room at the auberge or on the roof. We chose the roof as it was a relatively cool evening and the thought of sleeping in the open air was appealing.

 

 
 
   
 
 

Sahara Desert (Ouadane) - May 22, 2006
In spite of the excellent weather, last night turned out to be a terrible nights sleep. Perhaps it was the call to prayer, which seemed to go on for hours. Perhaps it was the fact that we didn’t have blankets and believe it or not it was chilly out (read: I think the temperature dropped below 100 F and our now thin skin couldn’t handle it). Who knows. In any case, the sunrise was spectacular and we were up early for an overnight trip through the desert to Ouadane, a town that Lonely Planet describes as “a desert ghost town in the making.”

To get to Ouadane, there are two possible routes: a dirt piste over a the plateau and a sandy track that cuts straight through the dunes. We chose to get there via the plateau and return via dunes. Thanks to some recent road work, the infamous bone jarring rocky piste has now been tamed and we arrived in Ouadane having experienced little more than a mild shake down from the corrugations.

Perched on the side of a hill, from a distance Ouadane looks like nothing more than a pile of rumble. Upon closer inspection however, we found that the tiny village is actually, well, not much more than a pile of rubble. Weaving through the narrow streets, we were met by mobs of kids who took to our trucks like a jungle gym – jumping on from all directions as we passed. There were kids hanging from the spare wheel carriers, from the roof racks, from the bumpers, and from the side rails. There were even two small boys running behind Eric and Sharikay’s truck – one clinging to the wheel carrier with his feet dragging the street and the other desperately trying to mount the rear bumper which was just a bit higher than he could jump.

Having seen the whole of the city in short order we stopped at a small auberge on the edge of town for a long, leisurely lunch before setting out on the sandy piste back to Chinguetti. Lunch was in a small tent inside the auberge’s walls and included too many rounds of mint tea to count. It was an enjoyable way to pass the time until the temperatures dropped to a manageable level.

Afterwards, we fired up the trucks and hit the piste. Route finding proved easier than expected and we made good time over the low dunes - sometimes following other tracks and sometimes making our own. We stopped to bushcamp for the night about 38 km outside of Chinguetti. After setting up camp, we dialed up Chris on the satellite phone to wish him happy birthday and then spent the rest off the evening fending off some of the worst bugs we’ve encountered so far.

 
 
     
 
  Chinghuetti - May 23, 2006
Up early to break camp before the flies got too bad, we were just preparing to depart when a nomad appeared out of nowhere riding a large white camel. Clearly curious, he approached our camp for a closer look. About 10 meters from our trucks he dismounted the camel and walked into our camp with the camel following close behind. He approached us and shook our hands. Equally curious about one another, we spent a short time trying to communicate with one another using simple French (he spoke almost no French) and sign language. I offered him some water which he accepted and asked if I could photograph him which he agreed to without asking for anything in return. We spent a few more minutes together and then he took his camel by the rope and marched off into the desert, mounting it a short distance outside of our camp and galloping off into the dunes.

The balance of our drive through the desert was stunningly beautiful with cooper colored dunes in every direction. Route finding was fairly straightforward and we only had to get out once, just outside a nomadic encampment, to search for a route through the dunes.

Back in town we stopped off for lunch at THE ONLY place in Chinguetti that serves food – a small restaurant with two choices – a baguette sandwich with camel or a baguette sandwich with egg. Both come with fries. We chose the egg sandwich and waited for the better half of the afternoon to be served (turns out they had to go to the market to buy the eggs, tomatoes, potatoes, and bread and had to hand cut the fries and cook the eggs one sandwich at a time because they only have one pan). When we tried to pay, they decided it was time to play fleece the travelers and they told us we owed much more than we had previously agreed to. And so began a huge ordeal (read: argument, stalemate, sit-out) until they agreed, again, to the prices they’d originally quoted us. A major pain.

After lunch we met Mahmud at his garden oais in the wadi just outside of town and made plans for the rest of the day. Mahmud had some things to take care of in town and so he assigned Abda, his assistant to serve as our guide for the afternoon and take us into the old city to visit one of the ancient libraries. Driving through the wadi is always a bit of a trick as it’s surrounded by high dunes and filled with deep sand. On the way in, Abda was in Eric’s truck and Sheri, Sharikay and I were following them in our truck. Apparently, Abda told Eric that he knew a shortcut and the next thing we knew we were cutting away from the wadi’s basin and towards the dunes. Over one dune we went. Then another. Then another. We had no idea were we were going and all of a sudden we found ourselves climbing a high dune and when we reached the top and started down the other side we were pitched at such an angle that we were headed straight for the ground below. I did my best to slow the truck but we still pounded nose first into the sand. Somehow we seem to have come away with nothing more than Sheri’s claw marks on the ceiling. Eric was just ahead of us and was less fortunate. He hit much harder and seems to have made a mess of his suspension (we still have to take a closer look however it’s making some terrible noises). Frankly we’re all lucky we didn’t total the trucks and worse yet go straight through the windshield. We’d all let down our guard because we had a desert “guide” leading us and were just outside of town. Lesson learned. Never let your guard down in the dunes – regardless of who’s leading you or where you are.

A bit shaken but still alive, we made it to the old city and navigated the narrow maze of sandy streets to the library. Inside we were met by the keeper of the key who led us inside and gave us a tour of the city’s important documents. Unfortunately the visit turned out to be more painful than fun as Eric and Sheri were starting to show signs that they were coming down with stomach problems. With their health rapidly deteriorating, we cut the visit short and made our way back to the auberge for dinner. By nightfall, they were running fevers of around 102F, had the chills, and were sick to their stomachs. Not good. Sharikay and I played doctor trying to do what we could to make them feel better. One of the boys at the auberge brought out mats and setup beds for them outside in the courtyard. This turned into the sick bay. From there we moved them to the roof where they rode out a most uncomfortable night that included more trips to the toilette than one cares to mention.

 
 
 
 

Chinghuetti - May 24, 2006
It was a long, rough night on the roof of the auberge, the same act playing out over and over again. Sheri gets up groaning in pain. Struggling to get her shoes on in time she’d grab the toilette paper and a headlamp and go racing into the darkness - across the roof, down the stairs, through the courtyard, past the night watchmen sleeping on the ground, and into the toilette.

When they woke up this morning they both still had fevers and looked pretty puny. They were clearly in no shape to begin a trek into the desert and so we delayed. As the sun came up so did the temperatures and Mahmud suggested we spend the day in his garden (The Jardin du Eden), a few kilometers outside of town. At the garden, Mahmud prepared four mattresses for us under the shade of a stand of palms and then went about preparing us mint tea. It was truly an oasis in the middle of the desert. Nowhere is prefect when you’re feeling so sick, yet it provided a high degree of comfort compared to the scorching desert around us.

About mid afternoon, Mahmud invited us into the garden’s pool – a tiny rectangular concrete basin about 1.5 meters wide and 2.5 meters long. Without running water, he had filled it by hand from a 11 meter deep well. It was a wonderful reprieve and we wasted no time in pulling off our shoes and climbing in, clothes and all. It was perfect. Relaxing. Refreshing. At that moment, it was finer than the finest resort. We spent so much time there that when we emerged the pool had lost about 6 inches of water to leaks and evaporation.

By nightfall, Sheri had been on Cipro for several hours and was slowly starting to recover. Still puny though we decided it was best to delay our departure until the following evening. The balance of the evening was spent mending – slowly but surely back to health.

 
 
     
 
 

Sahara Desert (Chinghuetti) - May 25, 2006
Slowly coming back to life, most of the day was spent resting and recovering. By mid afternoon, Sheri was more or less back to her old self and Eric said he was around 80%. With our camels due to arrive shortly, we began preparing for our 3-day trek into the desert. Around 5pm, Ali, a desert nomad and our guide for the upcoming trip, arrived from across the dunes with four camels in tow. Abda, our cook, joined him and they set about loading two camels with food and supplies and the other two with saddles. By 6pm everything was ready to go and we setoff into the desert. Sharikay and I took to the camels while Ali, Abda, Sheri, and Eric marched alongside us. We didn’t go far, only walking an hour and a half before stopping to camp for the night.

Our campsite was in a picture perfect location. Located at the base of a large dune in a vast sea of sand. The first order of business was to unload the camels. Afterwards, Abda went about setting up camp – laying out a large mat and four thin cushions to eat and sleep on, and then firing up a small gas stove to make tea and cook dinner. In the meantime, Ali attended to the camels. First he removed their harnesses and saddles. Next he hobbled each of them by taking a short rope and tying their front legs together. This keeps the camels from going too far when they’re set free to graze during the night. Next he removed the rope from their nose rings (to control the camel, a metal ring is placed through it’s nose and a rope is strung through the ring). Finally, the camels were released into the desert to graze and Ali sat down and built a small fire, watching the camels general direction of travel so to facilitate finding them the next day.

While dinner was being prepared, Abda served rounds of mint tea, which we sipped under the stars. Dinner was fantastic – far exceeding standard camp fare. Afterwards, we went to sleep under the stars. A perfect night in the desert.

 
 
 
  Sahara Desert (Chinghuetti) - May 26, 2006
After a cool night sleeping out under a crystal clear desert sky, we woke up early, just as the sun was starting to peak over the dunes. Ali was already off searching for the camels and Abda was starting to prepare breakfast. I set off into the dunes to take some photographs, returning just in time for tea, biscuits and jam. As we were eating Ali returned with the camels and in a short while we were ready to break camp.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the day is watching the camels being loaded. With a tug of the nose ring, Ali commands each camel to a seated position on the ground. Next the loading process begins. First, the saddles/harnesses are strapped on as the camels groan in disapproval. Then, in the case of the load carrying camels, the gear is loaded –water, food, fuel, supplies. More groans of disapproval. Finally, it’s time to mount up. Generally speaking, camels are used to carry loads (salt etc.) in the desert and it’s fairly uncommon, outside of the tourist industry, to ride them during a trek. Rather, everyone walks and the camels carry the supplies. Occasionally taking a break to ride for a short while and then walking again. That said, we took turns riding them for an hour or so just for the experience. To mount the camel, you climb onto it’s front leg – the camel groans with disapproval. Next you step onto it’s back, just forward of the saddle – more groans. You then drop into the deep saddle and the camel clambers onto all fours as you cling on for dear life. If you’re still on top when the camel makes it to his feet, then you’re ready to go.

Loaded up we marched off into the desert. This time with Sheri and Eric in the saddle and Ali, Abda, Sharikay and I walking alongside. By 10am the heat was stifling and the flies were mounting a full on assault. Too hot to continue on, we sought out the sparse shade of a loan acacia to wait out the heat. Ali hobbled and released the camels while we huddled together under a small swath of shade. It was scorching hot. Unbearable. The acacia’s shade was fleeting at best and we constantly had to chase it around under the tree. Worse still were the flies. Millions. No, billions of flies. They were everywhere. All you could do was rap your turban around your head, covering everything, and sit motionless. And so we sat, for hour upon hour. Mid afternoon, on the brink of insanity, Eric waged a courageous counter offensive – killing some 50 of the billions of flies that were overrunning us.

By 4pm, we were ready (read: desperate) to get going again. Ali set out in search of his camels. We waited. And waited. And waited. 30-minutes past. Then an hour. Then 2-hours. Then 2 ½. Occasionally, we’d see his tiny silhouette appear high atop a distant dune. Abda set off into the dunes to join in the search. They didn’t return with the camels until 6:30pm.

With the camels finally back and loaded up we set off again. It was now relatively cool and we trekked through some amazing desert scenery, passing the occasional camel who’d stare at us curiously as we passed. Just before sunset we stopped among a ridge of dunes to make camp. It was another cool, perfect, desert night and we sat relaxing under the stars talking with Sharikay and Eric about past experiences – college, life, future plans. Dinner was excellent! Afterwards, we prepared to go to bed. Just as we were about to go to sleep, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head for a closer look and it was a scorpion who’d decided to climb into bed with us. Not the most welcome of evening visitors! We sent him along his way and we went off to sleep.

 
 
 
 

Atar - May 27, 2006
Up early, we repeated the routine from the previous day – Ali chased down the camels, Abda cooked breakfast, and we generally lazed around shooting photos and enjoying the cool early morning temperatures. With everything else ready to go, Ali and Abda began loading the camels. Everything went well until they got to Lumpy (the name we gave to one of the camels that had a large growth on it’s neck). From the start it was obvious Lumpy got up on the wrong side of the acacia tree and thing went down hill from there. He didn’t want to sit down to be loaded. Once on the ground he didn’t want to stay there to be loaded with gear. He roared, groaned, snarled, and generally pitched a fit. Then he decided he’d had enough and bolted to his feet with gear falling off in all directions. Ali, “the camel whisper” had to persuade him back to the ground. When whispering didn’t work, he moved on to plan B – grabbing the rope on Lumpy’s nose ring and giving it a good tug. Lumpy let out a huge roar and down he came nose first into the sand. They started loading again. And again, Lumpy decided he’d had enough and bolted up again. More stuff went flying and I about got trampled in the process. Another tug on the nose ring and down Lumpy came again with a groan.

Finally, we were loaded and on our way. Ali, Abda, Eric, and Sheri walking while Sharikay and I took another turn in the saddle. Not long into our march, we crossed a series of low dunes. On the way down the backside of one of them Lumpy decided he’d had enough and dropped down on his front knees and slide to the bottom of the dune. This caused his harness to come loose and his load to fall off. A huge ruckus followed. Lumpy was tied to the back of Sharikay’s camel (which she named Bubbles –quite demoralizing for a big male camel) and when he went down, Bubbles got spooked and Ali got knocked down while Sharikay held on for dear life. Fortunately, Ali gained control of the situation quickly and with some doing managed to untangle Lumpy’s harness and reload the gear. All the while Lumpy was roaring and carrying on like a camel possessed. A bit of drama but all was fine in the end.

Around 11:30am we marched into the nomadic encampment where Ali lived. Located amongst the dunes, the encampment was a jumble of small thatched huts. As we approached we passed through a sea of sun bleached bones which included the half decayed carcass of a camel. There were goats and chickens everywhere. When we arrived at Ali’s hut, we were surrounded by small children and inside you could just make out the dark shrouded figures of several women seated on the sandy floor doing their daily chores. Ali summoned one of the women who emerged from the darkness and presented us with a large bowl of fresh goats milk. It was still warm, very watery, and tasted nothing like the cold, low fat, Harris Teeter milk I’m accustomed to having with my Cheerios back in the US. Afterwards, we thanked them for there hospitality and setoff again, bound for the garden – now only a couple of blistering miles away.

When we arrived, Mahmud was waiting for us with cold drinks – a real desert delicacy since Chinguetti only has sporadic power from 8-11pm. Hot, sweaty, and tired, we climbed into the pool, cracked open the cold Cokes, and relaxed. After a brief rest, we sat down inside a thatched hut and had lunch with Abda, Mahmud, and Ali. Refreshed, refueled, and ready to get out of Chinguetti, we went about preparing the trucks to leave. After only sitting for a few days Eric’s was dead and needed to be jumped. It started and we were off – trudging through the wadi’s deep sand for the last time.

We arrived in Atar just before dark and returned to Bab Sahara to camp for the night. Tomorrow we head to Nouakchott.

 
 
 
 

Nouakchott - May 28, 2006
Not eager to spend another day in the stifling heat, we wasted no time in ditching Atar for the promise of cooler (albeit quite relative) temperatures of Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital. After spending weeks navigating the brutal desert pistes, cruising along the smooth sealed road to Nouakchott felt effortless. Along the way we passed some amazing white sand desert that, ironically, made everything look like it was covered in fresh snow.

Only about 40 years old, Nouakchott is a relatively new city of 750,000, with broad tree lined avenues that I’m sure once were very grand. Today however, Nouakchott is a dirty, run down place, jammed with traffic, choked by smog, and littered with trash. Our first order of business was to find a campsite. We had a waypoint but no directions and with a little searching managed to find the Auberge des Nomads, a tiny site located on a dusty side street in the center of town.

After settling in we set off in search of something to eat. We found a great place, a suedo fast food burger joint Mauritanian style (comes with complimentary flies, beggars, street touts, and the stench of rotting garbage). The food was good. Burgers. Fries. Cokes. The whole thing. Only completely different.

Deprived of Internet access for a month, we spent the rest of the night getting caught up online.

 
 
     
 
  Nouakchott - May 29, 2006
With not much going on in Nouakchott, today was spent preparing to cross the border into Senegal. After a quick trip to the Senegalese embassy to confirm that we didn’t need visas, we went about doing laundry and updating the website. The highlight of the day – a trip down the road to a Vietnamese restaurant for some much needed, albeit not spectacular, pho.
 
 
     
 
 

Bush Camping (Rosso) - May 30, 2006
After a wonderful, albeit hot, 3-week stay in Mauritania, it’s finally time to depart for Senegal. We’d been warned by other overland travelers and Senegalese alike to avoid Rosso, the main border town, like the plague. From what others were saying, the border officials were famously corrupt and our crossing was sure to be unpleasant. Alternatively, the word on the street was that Diama, a tiny town, hardly on the map, in the northwest corner of Senegal was the better option. To paraphrase one overlander “Diama’s the better option, not a good option, but better than Rosso.” So off we went, bound for Diama. Our plan for the day drive four hours or so to Rosso. Pickup the apparently difficult to find, dirt piste to Diama and then drive until shortly before dark and find a secluded place close to the border to bush camp for the night.

We got underway around 3pm. On the way out of town Sheri and I were nearly run off the road by the police in a 79 series Land Cruiser who cut in front of us and hit the brakes while signaling out the window to stop. The officer approached the car and demanded to know why we’d cut around the little concrete circle when we made a left turn. Pourquoi, Pourquoi? Pourquoi? He angrily demanded. Basically, the issue was that when we’d made a left turn a block back there was a small round concrete circle that we were supposed to stay on the right of when making the turn. We’d gone on the left side of it instead. A minor violation that even in the US a police officer, at the end of the month, short of quota, would be unlikely to give a local (forget a tourist) a ticket for, even if he was standing on the circle at the time. The greater irony however was that here we were, foreigners, in a truck that’s passed stringent UK MOT testing standards parked on the side of the road, being yelled at for a “serious infraction” while all around us there were cars, buses, trucks, tractors, and assorted other contraptions stuffed so far over capacity that they were in immanent jeopardy of tipping, without headlights, brake lights, or turn signals (read: not broken, just gone all together) with doors, fenders, mufflers (in the rare event they had mufflers) dragging the road (literally), being held together by a song and a prayer, weaving recklessly between donkeys, goats, chickens, and pedestrians (who admittedly, were in the middle of the road), without the slightest attention to anything remotely resembling a traffic law.

So there we sat, listening to the officer repeating over and over “Pourquoi? Pourquoi? Pourquoi? Je ne sais pas? I replied, and went on to say that I’m a tourist who’s been in his town for only 2 days and who’s just trying to get to the border to leave his fine country for Senegal. Back and forth we went. “You have an international drivers license so surely you know that this is a violation of international law.” You must be kidding me I thought. But I smiled. Was friendly, and did what seems to work best. Acted completely ignorant and when appropriate chose to not understand what he was saying in French. He clearly seemed to be trolling for a bribe however we waited him out, feigning ignorance and poor French and after 30 minutes or so, clearly frustrated, he said the he would let us off with a warning since we were leaving the country.

Back on the road we made good progress towards the border. Along the way, we were stopped repeatedly by police checkpoints, each asking for cadeaux. “Ah, you are Americans. Do you have something for me from America? Something for my children perhaps?” Up until this point we’d not been asked for anything at checks throughout the country. These proved harmless though as we politely explained we had nothing to give and they let us pass.

Just outside of Rosso, we arrived at our final checkpoint of the day. Typically, officers will ask for your passport and at times will ask you a series of simple questions about the nature of your travel, your occupation etc. This time, the officer asked for our passports and our vehicle’s insurance papers which we were required to purchase when we entered Mauritania. The good news was that we had purchased insurance. The bad news was that it had expired 3 days ago and, not having been asked to produce it at any time during our stay in Mauritania we decided to tempt fate by not renewing it. The officer took our passports and insurance papers and then requested the same from Sharikay and Eric. He then disappeared into a shabby hut on the side of the road while we anxiously waited for the shoe to drop. About 5 minutes later he popped his head out of the hut and summoned me inside. Now it was time to pay the piper. Inside I was met by another officer who pointing out that my insurance papers had expired. I feigned ignorance and pretended not to understand what he was saying. No luck. He persisted using a calendar and drawings on a piece of paper to drive home his point. The gist of it was this: Our insurance had expired. A serious offense (all offenses are serious). We would not be able to drive our vehicles further. He then rapped on a large olive green book sitting on the table which, if I recall correctly had something to do with the Mauritania Ministry of Finance. He said that we must pay a large fine to the government. Then there was a long pause (here comes the moment we’d all been waiting for) or, and he tapped on the table, you can pay something here and all will be taken care of. We would be free to go. I asked how much it would cost to take care of it. 40 euros he said (20 euros per truck). A huge price. The worst part about it was that they actually had us on a real offense. Not some fabricated technicality. I went outside to talk it over with Eric, Sharikay, and Sheri. We knew they were asking way too much but we had another problem. We were short on small bills. We only had a few dollars in denominations smaller than $20’s. We had a couple of small euro notes, and hardly no uogs left. We knew we’d need some small bills to get across the border. Our options were limited and we ultimately decided to offer up $20 and 5 euros. We headed back into the hut and made our offer. Without hesitation, the officer eagerly accepted our counter offer. Damn. We knew immediately that we’d grossly overpaid. Lesson learned. We needed more small euro notes so that we can offer up far less. Perhaps the silver lining was that the officers were so happy with our payment that they began offering up all kinds of advice about crossing the border. They underscored what we already knew. Absolutely avoid Rosso at all cost. They went on to give us directions for finding the piste to Diama, which we’d heard is unmarked and very hard to find.

Their advice along with the invaluable directions provided by other overlanders proved very helpful. With all of the guidance the piste was still difficult to find – even when we were virtually sitting on top of it. We knew we were close however as dozens of “guides” surrounded us offering to lead us to Diama. Some said it was very dangerous to go the route alone. Others said that we would surely get lost amongst the maze of unmarked forks and turns in the road. They all emphatically argued that it’s imperative we have a guide. We simply smiled, decided their offers, and kept searching – until we finally found it hidden behind a dirt parking lot just beside the gas station as you enter town. Once on the piste, most of the “guides” disappeared and only one old mercedes blazed along beside us insisting to guide us to our destination. We ignored him and finally, several miles down the road he abandoned the chase and turned back towards Rosso.

At dusk we started to look for a place to bush camp. We found a small track that led north into the bush. Driving along the track we passed families of warthogs. We continued until we found a hidden spot well off the main track. Within minutes, two men emerge from the darkness. They were wearing tattered clothes and were filthy. Both were very friendly and one spoke good French. We struck up a conversation. They were Mauritanians, from Rosso. They live in the bush 6 months at a time gathering wood and converting it to charcoal. After a short conversation they invited us to join them at their camp for tea. A short walk into the woods we arrived at their camp. There were no tents. No sleeping bags. Just a jug for water, a tea pot and three small glasses and a few plastic sacs which they use to harvest the charcoal, and a small battery powered radio. One of them pulled up an empty sac and we sat down beside a small fire where we had tea and chatted for an hour or so. It was a wonderful visit – the perfect end to an enjoyable, challenging, stay in Mauritania.

 
 
   

 

 

 
     
 
     
 
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