Getting stood up by a camel in the Sahara

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Africa » Mauritania » Adrar » Chinguetti
April 2nd 2011
Published: April 13th 2011
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I am on the back of a Ute high above the roof sitting on some bags. It’s pitch black and I am concentrating so I don’t fall asleep. If I do and fall off no one would know for a while. Only one other guy is up there with me and he is facing the other way - The rest of the passengers are squeezed inside. There is no evidence to suggest that I am in the Sahara. It’s just the sound of the tyres crossing compact sand. It’s cold and we are driving at a fair pace. I thought the toughest part of the trip was over but I was only in the middle. I didn’t know it then but by late afternoon I would be stood up by camel.

I heard an irregular sound as we drove along. It was soon realised the tyre had popped. We had to disassemble the luggage that is tied up 5 metres high to get the spare tyre. Still its pitch black and no sign of the sun rising. Stars are still at full bloom. We get going again and stop soon after to prey before sunrise.

I was fortunate enough to have found use of the Liverpool scarf whilst travelling the past 3 weeks. Since I was above the roof, the wind with the sandy air would dry my lips instantly. So to protect them and to breathe easier. I wrapped the scarf around my neck than as the locals do put a piece around my mouth and nose.

Choum (pronounced quickly- Shoowum) is a small town where the iron ore train stops for the locals. It is still 3-4 hours bush taxi away from where I needed to go. That was Atar in the Adrar region. My plan was to stay there, rest up and pursue Chingetti the next day. When I arrived I looked at the date and time and realised. I can do what I want to do in the Adrar today and get to the capital to process the VISA for Senegal before the weekend. This is West Africa’s problem - I have realised quickly – Trying to schedule Visa applications.

So I was onto another taxi, this time for 2 hours as it took us 30 minutes to leave the town. I was so tired and I was woken up twice to go through passport stuff. I just fell asleep with it in my hand putting it back in my pocket was just too much. My eyes felt like they were now carrying the shopping cart as well as the groceries.

I arrived into Chingetti the former ancient capital of the Moors. (I didn’t ask around for the bubble boy – “The correct answer is MOOPS!”) It is also a popular stopover on treks to Mecca. I took up a room made of stone and set up for a camel ride to the dunes.

I have a much needed siesta and then walk the town. There are two sides to the city, an old town and new town. There is not much difference. The old town is more in ruins where most date back to the 13th Century. The two cities are divided by a dry river that -I was told - fills up once every 20 years, the last one happened last year. You can see the ripple effect of the once water but now its just dry as a bone. The Sahara has come in and walking through it you sink into the sands density.

The town is not attractive but it is interesting to see how they build the Saharan homes. They have drainage on the roof, which must be for that once in 20 year occurrence. The main site is the stone Mosque, which is only accessible to Muslims. There is also a library with medieval manuscripts. The place is a ghost town and together with me walking around zombie like in the afternoon heat I missed it. Well actually I didn’t it was right in front of my face and I walked past it… 3 times.

I got back to my accommodation at 4pm and waited patiently for my camel to arrive. Half an hour passes and me and the campsite owner walk out to the dunes to see if it’s coming… But it doesn’t. Imagine that! Being stood up by a camel in the Sahara!!

I was told later that sometimes it takes two days to find camels. They are too expensive to feed in town so they let the camel roam free so they need some time to track the camel down which goes off and tries to find green life in the desert. Usually to find them the owners ask people who have arrived from the desert “Where’s the green food?” Apparently the guy has 200 camels, he could be a millionaire!

So I pull the pin on it and tell the guy at the camping ground to forget about it I’ll just walk and he can make me dinner to make up for it (Which I paid for.) I walk to another oasis and in the middle of the two I take my first true Saharan pee, which I would do again later on.

When I got to the north – east dunes looking back towards town I can see the sun has got about another 1 – 1.5 hours left. I continue my rise up the sand dune and am struck by layer upon layer of sand dunes. Because of the underground water, plant life has sprouted around and so to the dunes in the distance. When zoomed in with my camera, the dunes look more like farming plots. I rolled around, tried to slide down face first and had a bit of shuteye whilst the sun got to sunset. Once the sunset I walked along the dry riverbed and to the towns credit the dogs - not that there were many - didn’t give me shit.

When I got back the owner of the campsite said that diner was ready and he invited me to eat with his family. We had cous cous and I am not sure if it was because I was eating at 830pm but it was just me and him who ate. The rest of the family sat back and made comments every so often.

The wife sat behind the husband until it was time to serve the meal. Than she would stay at the kitchen. Everything was outside. A mat was laid down and we sat on that. In the cous cous was camel meat, carrots and some dirt. The son who was 14 was in charge of the tea. Mauritania is all about the head on the tea. They traverse the drink form cup to cup until enough froth covers half the cup. They boil the water in a very tiny teacup. The flavour is mint, which the father said, “without mint it would be terrible.”

He had no English, little Spanish but we managed to communicate. I used it as a chance to try the French I knew and maybe get a few more words. There was a daughter too 9 years who was a cheerful cute kid. He was 34, his wife 31. He walked me back to my room and at dinner there was no mention of the camel stuff up. I informed that he doesn’t have to worry about the deposit I put on. The dinner and two waters and we’ll call it even. He was so grateful. I think he felt a bit ashamed and my gesture, which I would never do in a real touristy place, was appreciated. And that is what travelling to these parts of the world is about. Things don’t work out. So what! Just look where you are! This is a part of the world only a handful of westerners see a week. Most of Mauritania’s tourists just blinker their way straight to Senegal.

Tourism has palled to insignificance based on a few things. Back in the Gulf War 1991, Mauritania supported Iraq. Aid dried up and when it became a place where possible terrorists are harboured than things really dried up. Two major ones were French tourists killed in 2007 and a suicide bombing in 2009 in the capital. Most travel advisors advise it’s a no go zone.

On that note, the next day I was off to the capital Nouakchott to hopefully process my visa before the weekend. I was farewelled by a silver ant which was just one of numerous weird looking bugs in the Sahara. It turned out to be the hottest day to travel. It involved two rides. The first for just over an hour back to Atar the main hub for the Adrar region. The landscape is immense with desert as far as the eye can see. With small oasis’ where little villages pop up. Than some dramatic rock formations, something that I missed in my sleep yesterday.

As we reached the outskirts of town and despite the roughness I thought ‘things have gone pretty smoothly really.’ A second after that thought and the car ran out of petrol. So out we get from the car. Luckily it’s still cool in the morning sun and we push the car to the petrol station. A wooden building where a guy brings out a can of petrol, which is good enough to get us to the bush taxi stand. Actually he dropped me off in the wrong spot but anyway.

I wait an hour as it starts to heat up and eventually after the driver tried to rip me off a few times we left. I got the front seat, which he tried to double charge me. Its one thing about the Moorish Arab they try and rip you off the first few times. When they don’t succeed they have a bit of respect for you and they are nice and trustworthy thereafter.

Chinguetti was Mauritania’s first offshore oil field so when they see a white person travelling alone there is an assumption you might be more than a tourist. But when I said “Australie!” at the road stops (which every time we had to drive off the road) I didn’t get too much problems. Unlike Sudan, Mauritania was pretty good some even said “Thank you for visiting.”

Again we drive through nothing but desert. Deserts are interesting places because most of the time its just hard dry ground with little vegetation and that’s basically all I saw. There were a few towns in between where we waited a while to find more passengers when some other passengers reached their destination.

Two moments I will remember fondly – One – A trucks row of tyres just dropped off from under it. We just passed it 10 seconds earlier so the driver slowly made our car crawl down the hill watching the trucks tyre row scamper down the hill stopping in the rocks. – Two – The rushing to the shop for a drink by the locals whenever the car stopped. That’s when you know it’s a hot day. When desert people are running for coolness. And then we’d have to push start the car to get going again.

It was a special few days, the only sounds were tyre hitting the gravel and the wind coming through the windows. The occasional fly buzzing by or the train tracks rattling where the adventure all began. The only sign that we were coming into the capital was when music came onto the radio but that was the only indication. Mauritania is around 75% desert and the capital falls into that category. Sahara’s sand dunes are starting to build up on the outskirts and the city is only realised once you are about 4 streets from the main street.

Even the city streets are covered in the stuff. In fact if you take away the roads you don’t have a solid footing its all a light sink into the ground. The capital as a whole is small and not that intriguing. You could cover the sights in 2 hours and that’s being generous… Very generous. In fact within the first 20 minutes of walking the city upon my late afternoon arrival I decided. After 4 days travelling in harsh conditions looking probably the worst I have ever looked. I might as well get some more passport photos to kill some time. So when I discovered I would have to wait 3 days for my VISA I wasn’t exactly happy.

I arrived at the Embassy at 9:10am and fill in the paperwork with the help from the reception guy. The forms were in French and the first few letters of each new question was cut off by the photocopying. It was Thursday and I read and hoped that it is a same day service. It’s crucial that this happens as if not I will have to wait till Sunday to get my passport back. Islamic countries weekends are Friday and Saturday.

I hand in the paperwork and the guy says to come back Sunday it’s a 2 day process. I think, I can’t accept that I have to at least try and get it today. I question, “Why does it take so long? What do you actually do for this to take so long to process?” He wouldn’t answer. “So I have to waste 3 days when it can be done today?” He said, “No this is the normal process. In European countries it takes two weeks.” I looked bewildered with that comment as this is different I’m applying in a neighbouring country.

To cut a long story short I asked “Is there something I can do to make this happen by 4pm this afternoon?” He said, “If you had an airline ticket or it was an emergency than maybe.” I said, “So it can be done if we want it to happen. What is the difference if I am catching a plane or going overland? I still want to leave tomorrow. I even put it in my application.” He wasn’t impressed. So I left it at that. Than I realised after walking out that I needed to make sure that I only need the one visa as Gambia the next country is landlocked (apart from a small bit of coast) by Senegal meaning I need to re-enter the country. I walk back in. This is 10 seconds later and the busy Consulate worker is on youtube. He looked caught red handed. I ask him the question whilst fixated at the very sociable computer screen. He minimises and answers my question “Yes you can re-enter in as long as it’s within the timeframe of the visa.” I thanked him for his time and yet again I get a great little story about Embassy workers work ethics.

So I had 3 days to kill in a really boring yet calm capital city of the world thinking I could be in the Sahara right now under the stars. But what can you do. I gambled to make some time up but in Africa they are long odds.

I managed to get out to the coast 5kms away and to Port de Peche. The fish market. And this fish market was the most entertaining market I have been to in a long time. For fish markets it is the best. So much action, the boats silhouetted out in the ocean. Guys carrying trays of fish from the wooden boats called Cayucos (bad spelling on that one) to the market where it gets weighed and purchased by fat women wearing colourful dresses. Other fish are getting gutted in all its goo glory.

The men are walking back to pick up another load to deliver from the boat (a fragile looking thin wooden boat sometimes used to transport people to Canary Islands Spain.) Blood and guts are dripping down their face and back as they are carrying the load on top of their head. Further along the beach and you have the docking area for the boats. Port de Peche is not a real port. It’s a beach and to dock. You zoom the boat in with the waves than pull the boat along the sand until it’s fully out of the water. They then need to use cylinder tubes to put the boat on so they can roll the boat up the sand. It’s a long hard working process.

Even further along is where the young beachgoers hang out. Music is on via a stereo system brought along. They are dancing like it’s a club. Football is being played and guys are doing push up competitions. The females aren’t covered up in the traditional Muslim style. It’s a mixed group with some men still wearing the bou bou (spelling) a double-sided gown/cape that they put their head through the middle. Most are in a light blue colour with gold symbols.

It gets windy and cooler towards sunset and as I walked back to the market another boat arrived full of fish. The same men were at it again picking up the fish carrying them in a basket on their head rushing them to the market. The basket is too full and as the basket bobbles some fish fly out and drop on the sand. The kids that are nearby sprint and push to pick up the fish and run away whilst the security guard dressed in fisherman gear looks peeved.

Mauritania is a special place and one of my favourite places in Africa. I do think it would be appreciated more with your own vehicle or with other travellers so you can split the cost and be more adventurous than I did. However even with a basic trip that I did created an adventure far few countries in the world can provide. I would like to one day return. Despite having to say to every official that I was a tourist. In Mauritania I felt like a visitor more than a tourist.

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