The problems of Africa

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May 29th 2007
Published: May 29th 2007
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Trains, vans, camels, and very cosy taxis...

Climbing the dunesClimbing the dunesClimbing the dunes

Aluan, Ekziel and Elbeid ascend a Saharan sand dune

Tom Griffith

The Sahara
You know you have arrived in West Africa when your old van breaks down in the desert wilderness of No Man's Land, and then again five minutes past the customs check, requiring you and five hastily-gathered Mauritanians to get behind and give it a push. Yes, we made it to Mauritania, and it instantly felt so much more African than Morocco. From the ricketty wooden hut that constituted Mauritanian Immigration at the border, to the old Mercedes taxi blaring out Senegalese pop music, the vibe transformed after crossing the arid border zone. Despite being the last remaining haven of the Moors, and the distinctly Arabophile attitudes of the government, the spirit of West Africa has gained a foothold in the desert fastness of this strange country on the edge of the Sahara. The population is about equally divided between Arab Moors, and black Africans (for want of a better term), and the combination makes for a rather bizarre country that acts as the transition from austere Arab North Africa to wild West Africa.

It is impossible to sum up this enigmatic country in a few paragraphs, so I will mention just the basics. The place is basically all desert,
Dakar - 1430km to go...Dakar - 1430km to go...Dakar - 1430km to go...

A sign in the Western Sahara point us in the direction of West Africa
there are about three million people, and slavery was only outlawed in 1980, when there were still 100, 000 slaves here. Apparently it still exists, but we didn't see anything to back this up except for a hell of a lot of poor folk getting around.

Our first stop in Mauritania was the second city, Nouadhibou, a shambolic fishing port close to the Western Sahara border. We arrived there after the aforementioned engine troubles, and a rather long wait at Moroccan immigration. First impressions were of a country that is intensely poor, and seemingly full of nothing but goats, camels, men in blue robes, and old Mercedes that have been smuggled here from Europe. First impressions haven't changed much in the past week.

Nouadhibou lies on a peninsula surrounded by the richest fishing waters in the world, where tuna and sardines teem in the cool Atalantic ocean. This should make Mauritania a rather wealthy country, but, sadly, in order to pay its huge debts, it has sold the fishing rights to...the European Union. So all you get here in Mauritania, unless you are very lucky, are expensive imported cans of Mauritanian fish, while the Spanish and Portuguese and
Chinguetti youthsChinguetti youthsChinguetti youths

A collection of cheeky kids, one at least named Mohamed, in the old part of Chinguetti
godknows who else get all the cash. Now, I am not fully aware of the economic and political factors at work, but it all stinks worse than a pile of tuna in the desert sun to me.

Nouadhibou doesn't have much going on, except for some ultra-friendly locals and a few dusty streets, so we pushed on into the mighty Sahara. The trip we took from Noua to Chinguetti, about 600 kilometres away, was pretty epic, and by relating the whole tale to you, I might be able to give you something of a feel for Mauritania.

We were planning to start the trip by taking the world's longest train to a place called Choum. The train leaves every day, and takes 12 hours. The catch is, it is not a passenger vehicle. The train is a 2.3 kilometre-long behemoth which carries iron ore from the desert to the coast, and then returns to the desert emptied of cargo. If you want, you are allowed to sit in the empty iron ore wagons, and travel across the Sahara free of charge. Dirty, loud, windy, hot and quite unique. So we wrapped our bags in old rice sacks (good
Le Maure bleuLe Maure bleuLe Maure bleu

A Moor is his traditional blue robe walkk across the sands in Chinguetti
move - the dirt we collected was unbelievable), and left our hotel looking for a taxi to the station.

A Merc (what else) pulled up, and the driver asked if we were okay. 'Are you a taxi?' I asked. 'No, but jump in anyway', said the guy. A local magistrate got in at the same time, and the guy then drove us to the train station, free of charge. Once we were there, the magistrate made sure he gave Suze's hand a nice squeeze goodbye, and they were on their way.

The station was really just a concrete shack surrounded by oil drums. A couple of people had set up stalls there, selling biscuits and drinks to the scattering of passengers waiting for the train. One of them fed me glasses of tea until I needed to wee and didn't want any money for them. Just near the train tracks, some sand had been arranged as the local mosque. We sat in the shack and watched a procession of men wander over, wash themselves symbolically in the sand, and then pray in the desert sand.

While we were waiting, a group of five men befriended us. they
Ask the goats for directionsAsk the goats for directionsAsk the goats for directions

Just over the border into Mauritania, a welcoming herd of goats point us in the right direction
were all members of POLISARIO, the Western Saharan independence movement, returning to their Algerian refugee camp via Mauritania. They were so into the freedom fighting thing that they did a little bit for us. When the local police came in to check our passports (a common occurrence here), the POLISARIO men bristled and demanded to know why our passports needed to be checked. They asked me whether I had been asked to pay the police money, but of course I hadn't, and I calmed them somewhat when I said that it was just a routine check.

The massive train pulled into the station soon after, and we stood and watched as the 2 kilometres of wagons - about 150 of them - trundled past. An angst-ridden teen named Hade had adopted us by this point, and he helped us climb into our wagon and get our bags on board. We spent the next 12 hours together, just the three of us, enjoying - or, more accurately, enduring - the desert trip.

Hade was from a very poor family, and his older brother had been convicted of drug trafficking. His dad had done a runner and his mother lived
On the iron ore train...On the iron ore train...On the iron ore train...

Suze standing in the wagon that would be our home for 12 hours
alone in the town of Zouerat. Hade was trying to get some money together working for his uncle in Nouadhibou, and was heading home to see his mum. He was the brooding type, prone to depressive conversation, but a lovely guy. We tried to communicate in broken French and got to know each other quite well. When he asked why we were in Mauritania, he didn't give us the usual, 'Are you a tourist?'. He said, 'You are here to see the problems of Africa'. it was a statement, not a question, and he was right, I guess. We were seeing one of the problems right there. Two rich little westerners riding the iron ore train for the novelty of it, while this poor African kid has to do the hell journey because it is the only affordable transport option to his mother's crapbox little town.

The trip was incredible, yet arduous. The desert landscapes were truly mind-blowing, and the sunset that night was sublime. The wind whipped up sand and dirt and grit and iron into our faces, mouths, bags, clothes, until we were black and sore. When night fell, we curled up on our rice sacks and
Trundling inTrundling inTrundling in

The train arrives at Nouadhibou
tried to sleep, but it was too cold and loud and bumpy to do so. The lack of toilets in our wagon posed something of a problem, but we used our initiative. I won't tell you about Suze's little accident as that would be cruel.

At 3.30am, we arrived in Choum, basically a few houses and a bunch of 4WD taxis in the middle of the desert. We got into one of the cars, arranged a price to the town of Atar, and set off. A kilometre away, we stopped, and then sat around for 30 minutes before being transferred into another car. This one eventually left, and we bumped along the awful dirt road for 120 kilometres to Atar. I kept banging my head on the ceiling, but somehow slept for half the journey. We stopped at 5 for the mandatory sunrise prayers. The male passengers prayed first, then the one woman was allowed to have her go. Suze and I appreciated the time for some quality sleep in the back of the Toyota.

We got to Atar at 7, and found a taxi to take us to the garage for taxis to Chinguetti. We drove around
A Saharan banditA Saharan banditA Saharan bandit

Me all scarved up for the iron ore train trip
for 30 minutes, bought bread at a bakery, and then went to the driver's house, where we had tea, but we didn't go to the garage. Eventually we convinced the driver to take us there and he seemed quite put out that we didn't want more tea.

The garage was closed and there were no taxis planned until 10am; So we walked over a street, and a guy pulled up next to us. 'Where are you going?' he asked. We told him, he gave us a price, he put our bags in the cars, then drove us to a cafe. He then told us to wait while he went around looking for three other passengers for the journey.

I fell asleep while drinking my coffee, and Suze and I realised we were starting to go a bit mad. At 9.30 we had a full taxi, and we set off. We stopped only to put a live goat on the roof, load about three bags of produce into the car, and then have the brakes fixed at the mechanic's.

At 10.30 we set off again. Police check, then on the road to Chinguetti. Another stop to help a
Mauritanian breakdownMauritanian breakdownMauritanian breakdown

A typical sight - 4WDs helping each other on a desert road, thanks to yet another flat tyre or buggered engine
guy with a flat tyre. Off again. Another police check. Off again. We saw a herd of camels, and the taxi stopped. One of our passengers, who turned out to be a camel herder, got out, and proceeded to chase after his camels. We set off again.

At 11.30 we finally arrived. It was as hot as hell. As we unloaded the bags, we were surrounded by people. A gigantic Gambian guy accosted me, trying to sell me handicrafts and get me to drink tea with him, as I was getting my bag off the roof. I resisted the urge to tell him where to go. We found a hotel and showered and ate and slept and swore that, amazing as the whole experience was, we would never repeat it.

Chingeutti was incredible, a true Saharan caravan town that used to be the equal of Timbuktu, and is still the 7th holiest city of Islam. Now it is just a dusty desert settlement of a few thousand people, but the old mosque and a few old buildings remain. Chinguetti is crawling with tourists during January, but now that the hot season is upon the Sahara, it was just
Sunset in ChingeuttiSunset in ChingeuttiSunset in Chingeutti

The sands in Chinguetti turn purple as the sun descends
me and Suze there. It wasn't unbearable, but was uncomfortable. We braved the searing sun, and enjkoyed the place immensely. The highlight was a camel trek out into the sand dunes, where we stayed for a delightful night under the stars with our mad chamelier, Aluan, and our camels, Ekziel and Elbeid. We sang and drank tea together, Aluan made us real Mauritanian damper, and then he said his prayers, and we slept in absolute solitude kilometres away from the nearest people. Absolutely perfect, and arguably the best experience so far.

Yesterday we retunred from the desert on our camels, then made our way back to Atar, and on to Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, in the most cramped Mercedes ever. Six passengers squeezed in for the six hour journey through 40 degree heat. We lost our rag a few times, and the only good thing about the whole day was seeing a camel sitting in the back of a ute on the outskirts of Nouakchott.

A few days here applying for our Senegalese visa, and then on into West Africa proper. To give you a final idea about this country, I'll do the usual best and worst list.
Chinguetti streetChinguetti streetChinguetti street

A street in Chinguetti is engulfed by the encroaching sand dunes
Here we go:

Tom and Suze's Top Six of Mauritania

1. The people. Mauritanians are warm, welcoming, and always up for a glass or seven of sweet, sweet tea with you.

2. Chinguetti. A magical caravan town deep in the Sahara, surrounded by dunes. Would be even better if it was cool.

3. The iron ore train to Choum. Hard work, but a unique way of getting from coast to desert. Don't wear your best clothes.

4. A camel trek into the dunes. Just amazing.

5. The clothes. Just about every Mauritanian guy gets around in a flowing blue robe, and a turban/scarf for keeping out the sun and the dust. And it looks pretty cool.

6. The meeting of cultures. Arab North Africa meets Black West Africa, and the combination makes for a lovely country that combines the noble traditions of the North with the musical joie de vivre of the West.

Tom and Suze's Bottom Three of Mauritania

1. Atar. Hot, dusty, hazy town with not much to do except wait for taxis that never leave.

2. Mauritanian time. Ten minutes here is really half an hour, and 9am means
Chinguetti doorwayChinguetti doorwayChinguetti doorway

A lazy goat rests outside a house in the Old Town
midday. but things do get done eventually.

3. The cars. Yes, all the old Mercs and Land Rovers look very funky, but they break down constantly, they are uncomfortable and cramped, and you even have to pay extra for your bags.

Africa Country Count: 3

Mauritania Overland Kilometre Count: 1465km

Africa Overland Kilometre Count: 10,500km

Next Country: Senegal

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


The MosqueThe Mosque
The Mosque

Chinguetti's stone mosque
Aluan and his chargesAluan and his charges
Aluan and his charges

Our chamelier poses next to his two camels
Me and EkzielMe and Ekziel
Me and Ekziel

Me sitting on my camel
The Singing DuneThe Singing Dune
The Singing Dune

Ekziel sitting in front of La Dune Que Chante, the Singing Dune, where we stayed a night

The stunning Saharan dunes stretch into the distance
The thorn muncherThe thorn muncher
The thorn muncher

Elbeid chows down on a tasty thorn tree

Me, exhausted, after climbing up the Singing Dune
Moon over the SaharaMoon over the Sahara
Moon over the Sahara

The moon rises over the Singing Dune
Sun over the SaharaSun over the Sahara
Sun over the Sahara

The sun sets over the Saharan dunes
Morning in the desertMorning in the desert
Morning in the desert

Aluan gets the camels ready for the day's walk

29th May 2007

Overseas aid??
Wonderfully evocotive writing time. Makes problems getting reports in on time seem remarkably trivial. Thanks for living the dream for me and allowing me a glimpse into what the rest of the world is doing while we read stories on how the Federal government has rorted overseas aid for the last decade. And Rohan always loves the camel updates. Cheers.
30th May 2007

Checking the Brakes-Road to Pokhara Revisited
When I read about the brakes being fixed it brought to mind a Nepalese taxi driver topping up the brake fluid shortly before we all crashed after the brakes failed on the road down to Pokhara. Glad it was not so auspicious!
30th May 2007

I thought all the mercs ended up in Albania! Can't believe you put yourself through a camel trek - amazing, but sooo ouchy. Train trip sounds amazing.
30th May 2007

Sand Sand Sand
Tom...I suppose what you are really trying to say is that Atar is the Tennant Creek of Mauritania? Or maybe even Pine Creek perhaps? Whatever the case may be I suppose you at least know what a train load of coal feels like now. Have fun in Senegal and hear from you soon. Oh and ignore the jibes from your father about your pot belly. Remember, he spent decades as a fat bugger.
30th May 2007

Tourists no more
Slim, these photos are so special that I may even have to show my year 7 class. Only problem they will not even have heard who the gangsta with the headwear is...
1st June 2007

WSHS misses you!
well, look who it is. IT'S ur yr 12 debator, ange here and cameron with me we were just reading ur blog and glad to see how much fun youre having!! in modern, its beginning to be stressful cos for the workload (thanks gagic) but im beginning to get the hang of WW1 and germany now (finally). Anyway, when is it that you go back to Australia? cos i think its not until we leave yr 12 that ur back in australia. =( HAVE FUN! ur debators and im sure the modern class misses you too! (esp those breakfast days HAHA)
2nd June 2007

Tom.... Cam gave me your Blog so i thought I would check it out... Far out I'm jealous.... What an amazing life you are leading... anyway Westfields awaits your return but I will make sure to keep tabs on you.. Travel safely mate :)
3rd June 2007

Don't you mean 'last remaining haven of the moops? I'm pretty sure that the card says moops.

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