Or how we were saved by a Frenchman and didn’t die in the desert.
03.05.2016 - 07.05.2016 29 °C
Saying that we were ill-prepared would be an understatement. All right, we had enough water with us. But that was also it. I’d just arrived in Nouadhibou in Northern Mauritania, from my walk through No Man’s Land. In the sand-covered yard of the camping/hostel, I was going to stay in was a big green van that had been modified into a camper. Pretty cool. In the camper was a young German family; David, Antoinette and two-and-a-half-year-old Rosa. They were just about to leave for the UNESCO protected Parc National Banc du d’Arguin. I had long tried to figure out how to get there without my own wheels. So I was thrilled when I was invited with them and didn’t hesitate to accept. I had barely had time to see the room I supposedly should have occupied, let alone get any local currency (the impossible named Ouguiya), sim card or anything else. But this simply was too good of an opportunity to miss. So we set off.
Parc National Banc du d’Arguin is a cool place. It is not only a place where the Sahara runs directly into the Atlantic Ocean. It is also home to millions of birds, including thousands of flamingos and, lastly, inhabited by the isolated Imragen fishing people, who some of the year fish by letting dolphins chase fish into shallow bays where the mammals then split the spoils between them.
The van had to get its oil filter changed, giving me a chance to change some money and buy a sim card. We also bought a few baguettes. Then we were off. That said, I still felt very unprepared. That, however, was soon forgotten. These were cool guys and even little Rosa eventually began to accept me, despite my status as an intruder in the van. The toy animals that I’ve been forced to bring with me by friends from home helped immensely here (I had almost not gotten them with be when I left the van).
I can’t remember when I figured out that the van wasn’t a four-wheel-drive. Maybe back at the camping, maybe when we hit the first dunes. But I can remember thinking that I’d read somewhere that this park was accessible for 4x4’s only. Never mind. Keep calm and carry on. It was a powerful machine and most of the piste (off road tracks) was gravel or hard sand anyway… Alas, we got stuck in the second dune we hit. Digging the van, weighing six tonnes, out of soft sand is hard work. Often we would only get it up on the metal plates that should secure the wheel’s grip and a few metres further before we, yet again, had to dig it out. So larger dunes had to be driven one or two metres at a time if we got stuck. Getting just 20 or 30 metres like this take hours. Worse, the piste was becoming sandier.
Stubborn as we were, instead of giving up, we when off the piste and tried to navigate our way between the dunes on the harder sand. That is a tough job and judging when the sand is hard enough is next to impossible. Whenever we hit soft sand and did not have enough speed to get through it, we would get stuck. We didn’t count, but we probably got stuck at least a dozen times on that first day. The last one was bad too. So bad that we just had to stay there for the night, trying to dig ourselves out the next morning… I spend the evening trying to figure out where we were. The distance from the tarmac road, where we entered the park, to the coast and better piste was around 30 km – we had gotten 8 km on that first day.
We woke up to a worse situation that when we went to bed. The wind had added a few layers of extra sand to our bogged down situation. We were unmovable. While the van was too heavy and going any further in a car that wasn’t 4x4 seemed inadvisable, we actually had a few nice tools. Besides the metal plates, we’d picked up a broken tier that could also be used for grip. And we had an axe. So, twenty or so small desert trees had to give up their lives for us to get out of trouble by building ourselves a small road on the sand. Thus, we actually managed to do so, and after a long, long day, were we probably had to dig the van out twenty or so times, we actually manage to reach good piste, and shortly after that, to reach the coast. There weren't any facilities in the first village we arrived in, but they pointed us further down the coast were one of the park’s larger settlements, Iwik, was located. Unfortunately, my German companions weren’t prepared to pay for parking their van overnight within the village. (For the meagre sum of 5.5€ per person). We instead found a spot too far from the village for me to explore it. To my big frustration. However, I was there on their invitation, so it didn’t feel right to make a big fuzz about it.
Waking up to the sound of the waves, was brilliant. An hour’s drive further down the coast, we came across a flock of hundreds of flamingos and figured it would be a good place for a pancake breakfast. Everybody was fairly tired after a day of exhausting digging the van out yesterday, but the pancakes wasn’t a matter of spoiling ourselves. Having run out of bread, that was what we could make for breakfast.
Past another small fishing village we once again hit some big dunes. It was either going back or charging through. The way back wasn’t attractive giving all of yesterday’s trouble. However, neither was battling the dunes. We eventually choice the latter, and sure, we got bogged down good. It took nearly three hours and most of our energy to get us out, only to discover that the sea had washed away the piste just a few hundred metres past the last dune. Mud is far worse than soft sand with a heavy vehicle, so we didn’t have a choice. We had to go all the way back. Not just across the dunes, but – probably – to where we entered the park. There wasn’t really anything to do about it, we all knew it, we would get stuck again in those same dunes we’d just gotten through. What really got us down, though, was that we got stuck even quicker than expected. We were all too exhausted and demotivated at this point to start another four hours of hard work. I instead opted to walk to the village we’d passed five kilometres further up the road and recruit some local help. Getting there I was greeted with tea by a village elder and for a second thought about hanging around for an hour to see the village. But, I was on a mission. Besides, the locals knew exactly why I had walked in – it hadn’t been the first time a tourist had done that.
There even were a standard price: the equivalent of 55€ would give us four local guys and one shovel. They did have a pick-up truck, but that was too old and had too little fuel to do any good. No matter, it took the four guys just forty minutes to get us out of the dunes and back to the village. Before we left their also showed us the “la bon piste” on our map. It was almost the same way we’d gotten to the coast. However, this time, we knew where we were going and only got stuck in the sand a couple of occasions. Thus, we managed to get within 10 km of the tar road at the edge of the National Park before it really went wrong. David, tired from three tough days, realising that food and fuel was now at a minimum (we didn’t have lunch that day), and impatient to get back to the road charged uphill at a dune clearly too long, too steep and too soft. A hundred metres in we stuck. Too far in to back up, to much in the middle to get to the hard sand on the side of the dune. I would take hours, maybe a whole day, to get us out of this. We ate dinner there. The last food we had. In the dusk, I went a few kilometres out of the way to find a decent way to the dune and back onto the piste. Eventually falling asleep dreading for the mornings work.
Rice crackers with butter. That was breakfast. Nothing else was left. Not a very energising start on the day. As we began digging the van out, slowly turning it towards the harder sand on a downhill slope to the left, it was hard to see how this would not take up the entire day. At least, we still had plenty of water, but that was it. The red lamp indicting ‘low on gas’ was blinking fiercely, and we were beginning to wonder if we would get out. In one of the breaks, I’d started looking at how far it would be to the road if we’d have to walk for help and I noted down our GPS coordinates. But that would have to wait. The most foolish thing to do would be to begin a walk for help just before the midday heath would hit. If you have to walk the desert, do so in the early morning and the evening. In general, I tried to be cheerful and positive. I told stories about how I had managed to run out of food, alone on a four-day hike on Madagascar and how easily it would be to survive this time around. Though, I couldn’t vouch for their van. At the time if felt a bit like I was talking BS…
Luckily, we were still on the piste. That meant the hope of another car coming by – a proper 4x4 – was not out of the question. And like on Madagascar, were I was saved by a guy passing by, that too happened here. A Frenchman in a nice, new and powerful Toyota just happened to pass by around 11 o’clock asking us, relatively casual, if “we needed help getting out?”. Yes, please! Even with his car, it still took an hour and a half to get us out of the dune. After that, even though he guided us around the worst of the sandy bits, we still got stuck a handful of times – but Françies was there to drag us out each time and that made all the difference! Late in the afternoon we finally spotted the road. We’d made it! Thanks to a Frenchman in a Toyota. With no food left, basically no fuel and certainly not of energy left. We stopped at a nearby gas station to refuel, both the cars and us. Alcohol is forbidden in Mauritania, so I had to settle for buying a round of cold Coca Colas. However, they felt just as good as a cold beer would have done!
David, Antoinette and Rosa, as well of Françies were all going south, while I was going back north. So they left me at the gas station for my next struggle. Hitching a ride in the Saharan sun. Compared to digging out the van numerous times a day, this was a breeze, and less than an hour later I could fall asleep in an air conditioned minibus. The bliss!
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