Whilst waiting to receive our exit stamp from Morrocco I decided to ask the question that had been bothering me, ‘is it true that in no mans land there is a minefield?’ ‘Oh yes’ replied the immigration officer ‘there are lots of mines, but if you stick to the road you will be OK.’ Solid advice, accept for the fact that around 2 kilometres from the Moroccan border the road suddenly ends. There was still another 5 kilometres of heavily mined desert between us and the huddle of distant buildings I assumed was Mauritania and not a clear path, signpost or even another traveller in sight. The only thing we could do was follow the tracks in the sand left by other vehicles and hope for the best. I suddenly understood why the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advises against all travel to this border. We had been warned about it of course, we knew that in 2011 two tourists were killed after they lost their way and hit an anti tank mine, but somehow we had thought that in the intervening years someone would have finished off the road or at least erected a few warning signs. Evidently not! No mans land looked like a post apocalyptic wasteland, a vast expanse of white sand dotted with the rusting carcass’s of burnt out cars. For a second I wondered what had become of their drivers, was this one giant graveyard full of people with a poor sense of direction? Probably not, but I felt myself concentrating doubly hard on the tracks in front of us all the same.
Having safely made it across we found ourselves at the Mauritanian border, a collection of crumbling one story buildings inside a small compound. We quickly discovered that the immigration officer, apparently the only person capable of issuing our visas, was out. No one knew where he was or when he would be back or seemed in anyway phased by his disappearance and so we waited, forming an orderly queue. After around 2 hours he returned, he was surprisingly young, though he had an air of great authority and somehow managed to pull off the unusual combination of a sporty polo shirt and black suit jacket that he was wearing. After 20 minutes of concerted effort he determined that his computer was not working and so we all followed him down the round to the police station. Of course during the move our neatly ordered queue was disrupted, a couple of latecomers had managed to hotfoot it to the police station and install themselves at the front of the new queue. I was saved the effort of defending my rightful place as upon arriving the immigration officer immediately announced that women should queue separately and would be seen first. There were only 2 women, in comparison to more than 20 men and so without as much as a backward glance, I left Leon to fight it out and took my place at the front. Finally I was called into the office and took a seat across the desk from the immigration officer. He completely ignored my friendly ‘Bonjour, Mouseur’ instead chatting in Arabic to a junior officer and another man who handed him a stack of passports which he quickly busied himself with. I was just beginning to wonder if I should come back later, when he gestured for me to give him my passport, ‘Ah’ he said taking in its red cover and gold embossed design ‘Anglais…Theresa May! Brexit!!’ Then he roared with laughter. It was not the response I had expected. But then you know things must be bad when even Mauritians think your government is a shitshow!
It felt strange to finally be in Mauritania. The so called ‘Nouakchott -Nouadhibou corridor’ an almost 500km stretch of costal road connecting the two main cities, is probably the road I had pictured more times than any other before embarking on this trip. Crossing Mauritania is unavoidable when travelling West Africa overland and for years I had read that it would be by far the most dangerous part of our trip due to the high risk of kidnapping by Islamic groups. The Brandt ‘Overland Africa’ guidebook which I had spent hours anxiously pouring over, describes this stretch of road as ‘running the gambit’ conjuring up images of jihadis with Kalashnikovs lurking in the sand dunes around every corner.
The reality as I discovered, is very different. For years people travelling in this region have said that for the West of the country at least, government travel warnings are hyperbolic and seriously out of date and it is better to be guided by current advice from locals and other travellers. Travel warnings also conflict between governments, France for example advises only ‘increased vigilance’ to areas of Mauritania where the FCO advises against all travel. The apparent ease with which these designations are made and the infrequency with which they are reviewed seems unfair. Issuing a travel warning makes a country ‘off limits’ for most travellers, depriving countries of valuable tourist revenue. It also has the effect of rendering nearly all travel insurance policies null and void, the only option being to take out expensive additional ‘high risk destination’ insurance. Many Mauritanians I met expressed their frustration and disbelief about how their country was portrayed, asking me to tell people that Mauritania is very safe and welcoming. Ultimately I can only talk about my experience; which is a sleepy laid back country, remarkably free from hassles and scams, where the only thing that felt remotely like ‘running the gambit’ was trying to negotiate our way through the chaotic traffic of the main cities.
After negotiating the border we made it to Nouadhibou in the late afternoon. It is the second largest city in Mauritania, but still has just 118,000 people (Mauritania is one of the least densely populated countries in the world). After spending the last 6 weeks in Morrocco and Western Sahara, where driving is generally of a similar standard to Europe, Nouadhibou came as a shock. No one paid the slightest heed to traffic lights, or lanes, or to the conventional wisdom of everyone sticking to their own side of the road. On the main street that ran through the centre of town, you were almost as likely to be taken out by a wondering goat or donkey cart as you were by another car. The cars themselves were a sight to behold, most of them dating from the 70’s, pieced together from multi coloured metal scraps, like a strange patchwork quilt. Many of them looked little better than the burnt our remains I had seen no mans land. Shattered windscreens, missing window panes, dented and rusted, boots that could not close, thick black smoke billowing from their exhausts. Working headlights and break-lights were the exception not the rule. I saw some that looked like they had been on fire at least twice and yet were somehow miraculously still running. And not only were they running, they were ferrying 8 people, 2 chickens and a weeks worth of shopping across the city. Bizarrely even the most decrepit vehicle had been pimped out with a furry steering wheel cover and strip of fake fur across the dashboard. It was so eponymous that I figured it could not just be a fashion statement and must have some practical use, perhaps a way of trapping sand and dust?
Most overlanders rush past Nouadhibou in a bid to make it to the capital, but I enjoyed the couple of days we spent there. The city is located in the middle of a narrow 35km peninsula, to the North there is the Baie de l’Etoile, a vast and beautiful white sandy bay with crystal clear blue water, where you can see many different breeds of birds. There are few tourists in Nouadhibou and very little in the way of tourist infrastructure. Although it is possible to camp next to the Baie de l’Etoile, we decided it was the wind was too strong and after some searching, found a small hotel with views out over the Southern part of the bay. The other rooms were all unoccupied, but the restaurant which overlooked the water was clearly a favourite spot for visiting businessmen and middle class Nouadhibou families. It was a great spot for people watching, at sunset families would make there way along the picturesque jetty that jutted out into the bay, the men’s Daraa robes and women’s brightly coloured scarves billowing in the wind. Mauritania is a fascinating mix of people. There are moors of Arab and Berber descent and black Africans who can be split into two groups, the Haratin (black moors who are the descendants of people enslaved by moors and who have assimilated into their culture) and other black Mauritanians (mostly Fulani or Tukulor). The customers at the restaurant were almost all Arab and the waiting staff, the cleaners and the construction workers building an extension for the hotel, were exclusively black. This divide was one which would see repeated in everywhere in Mauritania. Mauritania is consistently ranked as the country with the highest slave population in the world. In 2014, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, reported that an estimated 50 per cent of Haratines face de facto slavery, including as domestic servants and bonded labourers. Despite the practice being officially criminalised, the government (which is comprised of Arab moors) rarely enforces the law and in contrast has jailed and tortured activists involved in peaceful protests against slavery.
Nouadhibou city is a chaotic and sprawling mass of low buildings. Beyond the main street, with its brightly painted shops, there are numerous slum areas, where goats causally munch on the rubbish which is piled in the streets. Religion plays a large part of day to day life, nearly all Mauritanians are Sunni Muslims. On the first day we entered the city, we were confused when we saw around 20 men standing motionless in a line facing a wall, we had not heard the call prayer. The port of Nouadhibou is the final destination for the famous iron ore train (once taken by Michael Palin) which transports ore from the iron mining area of in Zouerate. The train averages an incredible 2.3km in length. There is only one (very cramped) passenger carriage on the train, locals (and some particularly intrepid backpackers) often hitch a ride for free by clambering into the iron ore cars. We settled for watching at a distance as the carriages rumbled past us.
To the south of the city is an area with many ancient and rusting shipwrecks. We stumbled across it whilst trying to locate a remote colony of rare monk seals (there are less than 500 left worldwide). The guidebook in which we had read about the colony, described in great detail the informative visitors centre, but forgot to mention that there is no road out to the reserve and only one wonky and faded signpost which points vaguely in the direction of empty desert. Even with the strongest 4 x 4 the route would be a challenge, we gave up after more than an hour of pushing the bike through deep sand, reflecting that the challenge involved in reaching them is probably a large reason why these endangered seals have flourished.