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Published: March 25th 2018
“Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.” – Jennifer Lee
I really like this quote as it illustrates my longing to journey to Mauritania quite nicely. It has been a dream to travel to this unlikely destination over the last few years. I am unsure what drove me to imagine this place however it took ahold of me, enough to board a flight to Africa. Perhaps its that very little is known about it or was it the rawness of the harsh realities of the environment and its people. Whatever it was this was one of those occasions which set my soul on fire. To get to the start line of Mauritania was a big task however jumping in to discover its treasures is a totally different thing. "Ignore all warnings.... they’re bullsh*t" - Shaun Williams
Ok not exactly ignore them all, like if the house is on fire; sure dont run in. However for the most part warnings or dos/donts are just someone elses arbitary line (at work they are called "guidelines") and in the case of Mauritania there is a big one. The line is that all Western governments place
the stunning desert of Mauritania called the Adrar as firmly off limits; its is a RED area. This is something that needs careful thought and most importantly homework. Is this a bendable rule (someone elses line which is low or totally over the top) or is this a real threat? Well time to find out.
After one of the most hectic boarder crossings I have ever taken I am heading in a minivan to Nouadhibou (the 2nd largest town in Mauritania). I have to give a policeman a Fiche (photocopy of my passport and visa for him to keep) and the wind is cruelly picking up sand and throwing it in my face. The driver states that its Saharan snow with a smile. Nouadhibou is a mess, things are happening, animal, people. They have traffic lights but they are ignored like they’re some ornament on a shelf. It is a little symphony of sound and movement that is overwhelming after coming from the relatively orderly nature of Morrocco. Mauritania is known as the break water between Arab Africa and black Africa and you can already see the mixing of the two, or should I say crashing.
into my hotel Aljizara which is expensive and very very average for the price. $40 Euro per night and the bathroom has holes in it, other option is a renowned bed bugs hotspot; ok I will take it. Once settled I manage to find a restaurant where suprisingly they all speak Spanish. The border with Western Sahara is only a few kms away and as a former colony it might be a relic from that time... Or its a relic from the road linking this town and the capital which was only built 12 years ago by a Spanish company. Formerly there was no road, to get to the capital it was either sailing or 4WD where they would wait for low tide before taking the 300km dash across the beach. Crazy.
The next day I hear the familiar twang of a foriegner trying to speak French and it turns out to be my new best friend Joe. Joe has a 4WD and is heading to Sth Aftrica. We become mates and next minute we are crashing across the dunes in search of the famed ship graveyard. Over the course of the last 20 years rich countries had been
paying corrupt Mauritanian officals to make their old retired ships "disappear". These all found a home at the remote cape blanc and some of the ships were huge (google it, worth a look). Now they have "cleaned up" most of them (the guard said they just sunk them just off the cape) however the ones that are remaining are an incredible however horrible site to behold.
Ok now to the Iron train and how this fits into the picture. The famed iron ore train of Mauritania is the worlds longest at almost 3kms. It is 170 wagons that head out empty to the Sahara every day, get filled up with 100 tonnes of ore each wagon and then makes its 12 hour return trip. Now to access the desert of Mauritania from here the only way for us and for locals is to ride the train. Now when I say ride I mean physically placing yourself in one of these wagons and exposing yourself to all the joys and pains that the sahara has to offer.
Now before i get too far ahead I want to talk about warnings. So the Saharan desert of Mauritania (Adrar) is in
my opinion one of the must sees on this planet. Issue is that the overwhelming consensus from our governments is that its off limits due to a hint of islamic extremist activity that happened years ago. This is where the decision comes in, is it someone elses exagerated line or real. Actually its very similar in a work setting: are you working to someone elses maybe outdated views or the ones you have formed on your own? Ok so after research all i can say is that overwhelmingly people state about how this is one of the safest places on the planet and the locals are considerably unhappy about this RED zone they have been given. The reality is not matching the warning, so as in life and especially in your pursuit of what sets your soul on fire; its time to move forward purposefully.
Back to the train. Having made the decision to tackle it first step was finding out when and where it stops, 2pm outside of town. Second step, buy local clothes and blankets and maybe googles to protect against the iron ore but more importantly the sub zero Saharan nights. Third, 3 Litres of water
minimum and food for 12 hours.
So being a good Westerner I arrive at the "station" at 1pm, exactly an hour early. Ok I just get told the train is delayed, how long? Till 6pm. Ok back into town and return at 5pm, nope its now for 7pm. That rolls around, nope 8pm. Ok, ok, apparently the train runs on African time because it shows up at 9pm! It is huge, the carriages just keep rolling past and it brakes kilometres before it reaches the station. I have amazingly found two other foriegners on bikes whom want to share a "wagon" together, a Sweedish and a Polish guy. The train stops for 10mins and we have to load the bikes and all the gear into the wagons before it goes, all in complete darkness. The wagons are huge and you have to climb into them using a ladder on the side. Somehow we hoist the bikes up and get into the wagon with all the gear just in time. It is at this point we hear what can only be described as a jet fighter approaching fast and a massive crash, we are all knocked off our feet and
think the train has been hit, oh no! Nope thats just it taking off; due to the size the force is so large that it creates such a shock wave that knocks you over.
Once we are going we are immediately enveloped in dust and darkness. The noise is deafening and we reach for our earplugs, we cant talk and the shaking is immense. The only thing to do is to cover yourself with blankets and just suck it up. I try to eat my dinner and I end up just putting the bag over my face and am still eating iron ore. So I attempt to lay down and just take the vibrations as I don't have a sleeping mat. All I can say is that it will be a long night and im really thankful for my 2 cyclist friends; alone at night this would be a scary experience. However that being said there were moments of absolute clarity, when we slowed the full range of stars are out against a Saharan backdrop. So surreal that for a moment the commotion is forgotten and it takes on an eerie type of beauty.
We now awaken to
a sunrise over the Sahara and it is stunning. None of us have had sleep and we are covered in dust but its hard to hide the smiles. I always feel the best experiences are breed from these types of moments. Its like the experience is multiplied 10 fold when adversity is met and bested. The train stops 11 hours after it starts in a remote town in the Sahara with literally nothing around. Its early in the morning and the sun is almost unbearable already. I say goodbye to my cyclist mates (we got pretty tight after going through a night like that, even though we didn’t speak!) and I catch a 4WD to the capital of the Adrar, a tiny town called Atar.
The road to Atar is beautiful but littered with checkpoints and I hand out a fistful of Fiches. We pass through countless little settlements of tents exposed to the harsh realities of the Sahara. These people continue to herd animals and make mass pilgrimages into the Sahara, and I complain when I don’t get my coffee at home. We arrive in Atar and its here that I stay at a guesthouse where the Belgium
owner has travelled the Sahara for 30 years. Its here where I hear the frustration in his voice about the Red zone, he challenges me to leave my passport or wallet or bag out in the street and it will just stay there. Travellers know this, you can FEEL when a place is bad; you just know. Its hard to describe but its just this aura of a place that gets you. But the opposite is also true, here I feel the sensation of safety, every 2nd person greets my or wants to shake my hand with such a genuine nature. Here I know that the warning was off, I am glad I chose to choose the pursuit.
My next stop is the stunning ancient desert city of Chinguitti. Chinguitti is the 7th holiest islamic town in the world. It has been at the crossroads of the trans Saharan caravan route that plied these lands for centuries (and still is). It is a beautiful clay town sourrounded by impressive sand dunes but more importantly it is home to the famed desert libraries of Chinguitti. These libraries contain 6000 hand written manuscripts from the 9th century when Chinguitti was a
center of the Islamic academic universe. They contain subjects from everything astronomy to math (saw Pythagoreas theory!) to Islamic teachings. Amazing thing is that this priceless collection is stored not in a spotless temperature controlled museum in Europe but in the clay houses of the city still. There is something really moving when you see these works of art still in their accustomed environment not in some far off museum in another land. The curator carefully thumbs through pages for you to see with joy in his eyes, a really unique and humbling experience. Unfortunately although the town is a World Heritage site, the dunes are slowly starting to eat away at it and threaten to cover it in sand again. The old town although a spectacular site it is half covered in sand already. Over the coming years it will be returned to the desert and the fate of the famed libraries unknown but what will go on is the hardy spirit of its people.
I end my trip to the Sahara at this point and head to the Capital Nouakchott via a ridiculously over-packed minibus (random but a a guy whose arms are chained to his feet
is shuffled in by a guard and sits behind me, ok that’s weird). The capital is a place where it is struggling to keep up with its own growth, again cars, chaos, people, livestock and ornamental traffic lights.
Now in reflecting on my time in the desert it is hard not to be taken back by the life there and it’s harsh realities but also it’s immense gifts. The Sahara has life in it where you would expect there to be none. For me coming here was a journey in the pursuit of a passion and challenging accepted views. However it also turned into that of a humbling experience. And with this type of journey you will set the soul on fire no matter the outcome.
Thanks for reading, next stop Senegal
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