A Travellerspoint blog

When Travel doesn’t Go According to Plan

It’s impossible to plan your way our of everything – or to have all your plans go accordingly. This is especially true in West Africa - sometimes you just have to improvise and luck out.

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I (try to) plan too much

I (try to) plan too much

It’s three o’clock in the morning, and I have just arrived in Praia’s (Cape Verde’s capital) small international airport. The airport’s only cash machine is out of money, the one exchange bureau is closed, the Wi-Fi doesn’t work, the only café doesn’t take international credit cards, and I can’t check in to my hostel before 10 o’clock. Like at home, things doesn’t always go my way when travelling. To be honest, since travellers, by definition, are new to most places we show up in, have no idea about local arrangements and often don’t speak the languish, our plans probably goes wrong more often than others’. So to give you a little idea about how that turns out here’s a small buffet from the last few days were things haven’t gone as smooth as I’d liked them to go.

Ariving to Podor by Pirogue

Ariving to Podor by Pirogue

Crossing from Mauritania to Senegal – as with any border crossing – hustlers tend to be around en masse to offer you a dreadful rate for any money you would like to change. I figured I’d avoid them and change my money somewhere else. On the Mauritanian side of the Senegal River, that constitutes the border, was nothing but a small village. On the Senegal side, the provincial capital of Podor seemed like the more promising place to find a proper place to change. This assessment quickly turned out to be wrong. Nobody in Podor wanted Mauritanian money, and if anyone offered to change it would be at rate 1.5 – not the official 1.8 rate. The difference would cost me around 15 Euro, which given that there was no bank in town would mean that I wouldn’t have enough money to get all the way to Dakar. As it was late, I seriously began to consider whether I would have to walk out of town to pitch my tent for the night, as I couldn’t pay my hotel room.

Hotel had a frog-problem

Hotel had a frog-problem

The only thing I had going for me, was that a local student had befriended me. He knew the manager of the hotel I wanted to stay in, and he somehow convinced (the drunk) the manager to let me postpone the payment of the first night, so I had a chance to return to Mauritania the next day and try changing my money in the village. I just needed to give him my passport as a guarantee. Fine. Or at least that was all right until I went down to the river the next day, where the pirogues did the crossing. Since I needed to leave Senegal, the border police wanted my passport. Somehow, I managed to explain the situation to them in some broken French, pointing out that without my passport I wouldn’t be allowed to stay in Mauritania anyway. I simply had to come back. Leaving my “national ID” (read: my driver’s license) with the border police as a guarantee for my return, I was allowed to cross. On the Mauritanian shore, the border official on duty insisted that he handled the change of my money. Always a bit worried about African officials and money, I had no choice. My lack of trust, however, was put thoroughly to shame. The official made the change with some local Senegalese boys who had crossed with me and insisted on what was essential a fair rate for both parties. When I didn’t have the last few cents to complete the transfer at the correct rate, he even paid for it himself to make everything work out! So while it was some extra hassle to correct my initial blunder of not changing the Mauritania money before I left the country, everything worked out eventually.

Eventually I made it

Eventually I made it

And things often end up working out for me. Stupid, but lucky, remember? Leaving Podor, I had 18 hours to make the 400 km to Dakar to catch a flight to Cape Verde. Something that might or might not be possible in West Africa depending on where you are. Here in Senegal, it should be possible as half of the distance was between Dakar and Senegal’s second city, Saint Louis. In other words, there is plenty of traffic and good roads. Getting out of Podor quickly became an issue, through. I’d checked at the bus station the day before if there was a vehicle to Saint Louis this morning. “Yes, yes, it leaves at 7.” Okay. So I was at the bus station a little past six, just in case – only to get the message that there was no car to Saint Louis. Sigh… Instead, I could take another car 20 km to a crossroad, from where there would be onward transport to Saint Louis. Of course, there wasn’t. There was, however, a car to the city at the halfway point. T.I.A. (This Is Africa). I was running out of money too, so all I got for breakfast/lunch was a few biscuits; I only did not dare to spend any money on food as long as there was unpaid transport ahead of me – and taking it in small steps are more expensive than making it in one long stretch. But I lucked out again. At the halfway town a car going directly to Dakar just needed two more passengers. Conveniently, I was one such passenger, and suddenly I had made it to the airport in Dakar in just under 10 hours. A complete success; so much so that I now had an eight-hour wait at the airport – at least here were food!

Praia means 'beach' - fooled again

Praia means 'beach' - fooled again

Which then brings us back to this post’s introduction: arriving on Cape Verde in the middle of the night without any usable currency (again) and a hostel I couldn’t check in to. As any sensible idiot would have done, I decide to postpone all these problems a few hours. The airport benches were luckily not those with armrests between each seat, so I was able to get some sleep without the humiliation of lying on the floor in a corner of the entrance hall.
The situation hadn’t improved when I woke a few hours later. Still no money in the machine, still no clerk in the changing booth, and thus still no food. However, Cape Verde is a small place, so the airport is just 5 km outside the town. Figured I could walk that – maybe someone would even pick me up… and voilà, a minibus stopped for me almost instantly. Once inside I explained I needed to get to a bank to get out money before I was able to pay for the ride. This was not a problem, so we happily drove into town. To my surprise, we stopped just a kilometre short of the city centre where everybody was transferred to another minibus. Here the driver didn’t really get my rather poor effort to explain in Portuguese, that I didn’t have any money. Instead, he just figured that my destination was a bank; he then proceeds to drop me off at such a building in the centre. Here he, to my bewilderment, just drove off without any further explanation. Somehow I’d managed to get into town, with two bus rides without having to pay anything. I took out some money, found the location of my hostel in a nearby café that had both breakfast and Wi-Fi, and went to check myself in.

Eventually I could enjoy, Praia

Eventually I could enjoy, Praia

What I’m trying to get at with these examples is first that travelling in Africa rarely works out as planned. Secondly, that if you have a little flair (and are willing to overnight in airports), everything usually works out just fine in the end. Somehow. And while every day isn’t as chaotic as those three described above, the examples are plenty and could probably fill out a whole blog if I was to record them all.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 03:51 Archived in Cape Verde Tagged travel airport praia planning dakar corruption mauritania senegal podor cape_verde Comments (0)

In the Footsteps of Caravans

Thirst, camels and fishy pasta – or how it is to walk through the Sahara. And a little bit on how to measure remoteness with Coca-Cola.

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Getting water

Getting water

The thirst was the worst part. I wanted something to drink constantly. No more than twenty seconds would pass by from a mouthful of water had been swallowed until I wanted to take another sip. But I had to walk it off, rationing my drinking to every half hour or so. Otherwise, we’d run our of water.

I didn’t expect walking through the Sahara would be easy, but my need for water surprised me – I would easily go through 8-10 litres a day – and I usually handle extreme heat well… The afternoons, in particular, were though, when the temperature, in the shade, rose to 40-45 degrees. Do I need to say that there isn’t much shade in the Sahara? And what shade we could find was only any help during our breaks. The hours walking would be endured in the burning sun. It all reminded me of when I was 18, and my parents took my sister and me on a vacation to Egypt. Temperatures there were high too and at some point one of the other tourists placed his electric thermometer on a rock in the sun to see how hot it was out of the shade. The thermometer crashed at 63 degrees, and we never got the final answer.

"Shade" in the Sahara

"Shade" in the Sahara

However, this trek was the main reason I had ventured out into the Sahara. While it is impossible to join a real Tuareg caravan – unless you bring a camera crew and the backing of a large broadcasting network (again, I’m looking at you, Michael Palin). Luckily, it’s possible to arrange one yourself. The word ‘caravan’ might be overdoing it as we only had one camel and that doesn’t really make a caravan, but the idea is the same. Anyway, what was eventually a ‘camel trek’ was my effort to follow in the footsteps of some of history’s most remarkable travellers. The caravans were the ships of North Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Connecting the Mediterranean, China, the Indian Ocean and Sub-Saharan Africa these traders (and their camels) brought silk, ebony, gold, wild animals and much more to Europe. From Mauritania and Morocco traders would regularly cross the Sahara or travel the length of it by foot. If you have ever visited Morocco or Egypt (or just seen the pictures in the brochures), you might have the idea that camels are for riding. That is only the case for the sick and the fatigue (and the worrier, but that’s another story). The traders of the caravans would walk. Camels are pack-animals here, and the load they carried was goods only. Using precious camel-power to carry the merchants themselves would limit the potential profit. So better pack a few extra kilos of products on the camels and then walk by its side. So that’s what I did.

Ali and his camel

Ali and his camel

Every morning Ali – my nomad guide and ‘camel-driver’ – and I would get up with the sun, around six a.m. He would brew tea, and we would eat the bread he had baked in the sand the previous night. Sidenote: Baking in the sand is simple: First, light a fire to heat the sand beneath it and push the fire aside when the sand is hot. Then, put the flat, raw dough in the sand and cover it with more sand. Third, light another fire next to the buried dough downwind so that the flames will heat the sand covering the doe. Once you have followed those three easy steps, let the soon-to-be-bread linger there for half an hour, after which it’s possible to uncover a baked piece of bread. Brush off the few grain of sand that sticks and voila – you have breakfast. Even through Ali put plenty of sugar in the tea, three shots of tea and a loaf bread is not a lot of energy to start our walk on. This tended to be an issue, as I would get hungry again within a few hours. But I’m not one to complain, so I didn’t.

Tea Break

Tea Break

Before we could leave, however, Ali had to find his camel. Yes, find it. In the Sahara. Camels aren’t tied down overnight as you’d might expect. Instead, Ali would tie its two front legs together, reducing any steps the camel could take to ten centimetres or so. This limits the camel’s range, but during the night, it’s still possible for it to get quite far on ten centimetre-steps. Often the camel would be out of sight by the morning, and Ali would then have to track it down.

Walking under the Sun

Walking under the Sun

Once the camel had been found and packed, we would walk for three to four hours continuously. No breaks, just keep walking. The only times we would pause was when Ali stopped for a few seconds to navigate, which he did by the sun. Our route was pretty easy, though. Due west for the first three days, then west, south-west for the final two. I could probably have asked for breaks, but Ali didn’t stop me, and I didn’t stop him. Something that Ali did praise me for – if I should brag but a little – and we could easily have done the trek in four days, not five. Though it’s still wouldn’t be the three days Ali would use to cover those 90 kilometres had he been by himself.

We would break from the afternoon heat around 11 and seek shelter from the sun under one of the few trees around. They don’t provide a lot of shade, but it’s better than nothing. Lunch (and dinner) would be rice or pasta with onion and canned sardines – all five days. Not very exciting, but it can stand the heat; obviously a decent quality of food out here. We would stay in the shade until four in the afternoon. Besides lunch, and drinking tea, there isn’t really much else do to than nap and read. So I have now finished the one book I brought with me…

Inside a Nomad Tent

Inside a Nomad Tent

The afternoon walks were the tough ones. While they only lasted for two hours, and the lunch had somewhat re-energised me, the heat was tormenting. The sun's rays had become ridiculously hot during the afternoon – the best resemblance I can come up with is standing too close to a giant bonfire. The morning walk would also still be in my legs, and I spend most afternoons watching the minutes pass by on my watch, wishing that it would be quicker. Once we’d stopped for the day, more tea was served before we would have another fishy serving of rice or pasta and once the sun had set, around nine, I was usually ready to crash on the thin blanket that, laid out in the sand, pretended to be a proper camp.

Desert "Camp"

Desert "Camp"

So passed the days. When so much of my day was spend walking and staring at the sand, there’s a lot of time for thinking. Just to give an example, in my head I manage to rewrite and perfect my opening line for a stage play I did during my first year of high school... hat was 15(!) years ago. I also came up with a range of lines worthy of Hemmingway for this blog, all of which (except this one) I have since forgotten. In general, I felt good. Sure, it was a challenge, but I wasn’t too exhausted, too thirsty (despite what I wrote above) and my legs weren't too sore – but I guess that is all relative. A notable exception was the second day when the strong winds that have followed me ever since Western Sahara suddenly decided to leave me alone. This made the heat (even more) unbearable, and I profoundly struggled through the second day. On the other hand, on the fourth day we were ahead of time and only walked for an hour-and-a-half before reaching an oasis for our mid-day break, meaning that most of the day was spend lying around during nothing – absolutely bliss. Even after that we still manage to arrive at the final oasis of Terjit before noon on the fifth day, giving me an extra half day to regroup.

Terjit!!

Terjit!!

And just to end this blog on another little side note: There are a few “travellers’ rules” to figure out when you are somewhere really remote – somewhere truly off the beaten track. I usually go with the ‘Coca-Cola Rule’. It’s a pretty simple, but clear, rule: Just ask the question, “is it possible to buy a Coca-Cola or is there any Coca-Cola merchandise [signs, parasols, small plastic tables, etc.] around?” If neither of those two criteria are fulfilled, you can indeed claim to be somewhere remote. The UN have actually considered using Coca-Cola’s deliverance system to provide humanitarian aid to isolated provinces, simply because the company is so efficient in spewing itself out everywhere. Though, neither in Chinguetti, Ouadane nor on the trek was there any signs of Coca-Cola, but as soon as we walked into Terjit, I saw a Coca-Cola poster. Though they didn’t have any Coca-Colas I could celebrate my arrival with (alcohol is illegal in Mauritania), it still marked the point where I knew that I had returned successfully from the desert.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 03:32 Archived in Mauritania Tagged desert travel trek adventure walk camel sahara exploration mauritania atar chinguetti adrar Comments (2)

Cities of the Sahara

Ancient caravan stops in the desert, which today moves to the sound of the sand blowing through the air and the guitars’ insisting sounds of the past.

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Heading into the Mauritanian Sahara, I had to pass through a few unavoidable cities and towns. The region's central city is a garrison town and administrative centre, and nothing worth talking about. However, there were a few other places.

Chinguetti

Chinguetti

The cities of the Sahara’s caravan trade seems to have one thing in common. They rise out of the Earth, more like growing three than buildings. Or, I could be mistaken, are they being consumed by the sand and rocks they stand on? It’s impossible to tell. Chinguetti, the most famous of Mauritania’s caravan stops (at its height 32,000 camels passed through here every day), seems at one with the sandy dunes that engulfed the ancient city. A hundred kilometres to the northeast, Ouadane’s crumbling houses, mosques and city walls give off the impression that the stones have just tumbled down the mountainside, randomly forming the buildings that now form a ruined ghost town. Regardless, there’s something in the air in these place. Something more than the dust and the sand always blowing in from the desert surrounding them. The whistling sounds sand-grains make as they fly through the air hits at a whiff of history, that simply won’t leave the cities.

Ouadane's Old Quarter

Ouadane's Old Quarter

These cities were not only important for caravans. Medieval Islamic scholars congregated on these towns, as the caravans did not only bring goods and trade. They also brought knowledge. These scholars began to collect manuscripts and books, not only religious texts – Koranic verses and Sharia law – but also history, cosmology, Greek philosophy and Babylonian laws.
All this a thousand years ago, when Europe was still caught in the Dark Ages, and people through that the Earth was flat. 400 years before Copernicus figured out that the Earth moves around the Sun (not the other way around) did these Islamic scholars draw Solar-centric illustrations in their books – in the middle of the Sahara. More than 15,000 of these books are still stored in private libraries in the desert cities of Mauritania.

Librarian with his manuscripts

Librarian with his manuscripts

This is something that simply makes my academic heart melt. History and knowledge are dear to me – my brain having taken damage permanently from my bachelor’s degree’s minor field, Philosophy. These texts are such an important and invaluable part of human history and it is almost inconceivable how they have survived here – in the middle of the Sahara – for hundreds and hundreds of years. Stored away in small dusty libraries, in crumbling houses, surrounded by the massive dunes of the desert. The fact that these have survived is a tribute to our abilities as humans to take care of our shared history. To quote the Internet: “Faith in Humanity restored.”

Desert mosque sunset

Desert mosque sunset

History isn’t the only attraction here. Once the scorching sun is setting over the horizon of dunes life, return to these ancient cities. Blankets will be spread in front of peoples' house and the tea will be prepared. An important evening ritual here is to keep one’s friendships alive and well. People will thus make rounds. From house to house, from blanket to blanket. Many friendships go back to peoples' childhoods; some go even further back. Families, who have been close-knit for generations. In these cases, keeping the relationship healthy is not only a matter of social comfort – it is a duty to one’s family, one’s parents and grand-parents that are not taken lightly.

Spontaneous concert

Spontaneous concert

Central for knitting the social fabric of Mauritanian social life is two things: tea and music. The only thing that possibly can interrupt these ‘rounds of friendships’ is when the musicians bring out their instruments. Lead by an insisting guitar (these days more likely to be electronic than traditional) men and women alike will gather, spontaneously, around the musicians. Though these a subtle affairs, with most people sitting down, all will join the musicians. All bands will thus have one or two ‘lead clappers’, who will lead the crowd by showing the rhythms of the claps. Often, when there is more than one band clapper, they will clap different rhythms. They are thus equally a part of the group than the guitar, the singer or the drums are. As an attendant, all I have to do is pick one of the clappers and follow his lead.

Tea on the way - literally

Tea on the way - literally

The other central element to Mauritanian life is tea. Tea is a cultural ritual in many countries, but in few is it obsessed over as it is in Mauritania. Tea here is not just ‘a cup of tea’. It is the fuel for conversation and as such, it is no small business. Tea will be offered to an arriving guest; by merely passing in front of someone's house; or – in the middle of nowhere – when the taxi-brousse driver needs a break. But make sure you have the time before accepting a tea-offer. Brewing tea correctly in Mauritania takes no less than 40 minutes and easily more than an hour. Two pots and at least three classes are required in an endless ritual of pouring the tea between the pots, between glasses and between glasses and pots the taste of each serving is perfected. Tea here is not one glass, but three. The first strong – this one is for health. The second neither too strong or too sweet – this one is a life without too many extremes. The last glass you get served is very, very sweet – this one is for love. The glasses large shot-glasses and the upper half consist of white foam made in the pouring process. Drinking the tea actually takes a fraction of the time it takes to make it. The mean time is filled with conversation.
Mauritania is a conservative country, and it is easy to see in daily life. I found it worth it to slow down and appreciate this in the Sahara towns historic setting. Especially since I was about to head further into the Sahara for something that would be a rather challenging walk. More on that in a few days.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 05:57 Archived in Mauritania Tagged people desert culture history travel adventure sahara mauritania chinguetti adrar ouadane wadane liberaries Comments (1)

Africa’s Wildest Train Ride

The continent got some crazy train rides, but riding through the night on a cargo train meant for transporting iron ore, not passengers, compares to nothing else.

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Waiting in the Sun

Waiting in the Sun

I happily endured a few extra hours of scorching Saharan sun to get the worst seat available. The shady area around the station building was reserved for those who had been intelligent enough to buy a ticket for the one passenger carriage that makes up the rear of the train. It wasn’t like the tickets were sold out either. Or too expensive. But I was here to ride the Iron Ore Train and I wasn’t going to take the easy option out as other, more famous, travellers had done before me (Michael Palin, I’m looking at you). To travel this train, you simply jump into one of the open waggons, endure the scorching sun, the freezing night and the impossible dusty twelve-hour journey. During those twelve hours, this train will bring me from the coastal city of Nouadhibou and 400 km into the Sahara.

The Iron Ore Train

The Iron Ore Train

This train is the longest in the world, averaging2.5 km in length and maxing out at 3 km. That’s between 250 and 300 waggons. It’s also one of the heaviest when these are loaded with iron ore dust. From what I’ve been told that also makes it the dustiest train ride in the world. But initially, the dust wasn’t a problem, the sun was. The train leaves once a day; at any given time, between two in the afternoon and midnight. So once you’ve shown up at the station, it’s basically a waiting game. For this train passengers aren’t the priority, the iron dust is. I turned up about a quarter to three, with no train in sight. The first hour was spent explaining the police why I was in Mauritania. Not in a controlling manner; they were clearly bored and wanted to chat. And their office was in the share, so I was in no hurry to get out of there.

Dust!

Dust!

I’d come prepared, for the sun, the cold and the dust. My long ski underway has been surprisingly useful in Africa. I’ve used it for hiking in the jungle on previous trips and wore it for much of the mishaps in the Banc du d’Arguin. It covers me from the sun; it transports the sweat away from my body and it isn’t as hot as you might think. Come night; it will also help keeping me warm. For the dust, I’d gotten a flour sack for my backpack and I’ve practised my turban/terrorist-scarf skills for a few days now. It worked out pretty well, but still amateurish compared to the Mauritanians, who are experts at covering their faces from the dust. People will go most of the day with scarves covering their face, and at times, it almost looks like Mauritania is a country inhabited by bank robbers.

Fighting for a bench seat

Fighting for a bench seat

While waiting in the sun, I quickly made friends with a handful of locals… Well, some of them where Mauritanian and somewhere refugees from the Sahrawi camps in southwestern Algeria, who worked as seasonal workers in Mauritania’s harbours. Oh, and they probably made friends with me – not the other way around. I tried to explain to them why I wanted to ride in the carts instead of the more comfortable carriage. They didn’t understand it. Why wouldn’t I just share the room in the carriage with them? I played the tourist card, telling them I was there for the experience of riding in the empty iron ore carts – “tourists are weird”. Truth be told, not even all the people crazy enough to go to West Africa is crazy enough to do this. I, however, had been looking forward to doing this for months.

And riding in the carriage has some drawbacks to it too. Getting a seat on one of the two benches along the walls will require vigorous infighting with around 50 locals. They will all be better at it, more experienced and less merciful than me; I would most likely end up sitting, with too little legroom, on the floor. It’s going to be overcrowded and stinking hot, so I’d rather try my luck with the dust.

The train arriving

The train arriving

The train rolled up at around five p.m. in a cloud of dust that only grew larger for each passing waggon. At least they were empty going into the desert. I picked some nice-looking locals and followed them up into one of the carts. Their friends, in the meantime, were busy loading the neighbouring cart with ten goats. If the goats could do this, I could too. We settled in, in the cart’s shady side. My new companions came armed with thick jackets, blankets and a small teapot. I’d broad along my trusted travel sweater, a windbreaker and a sleeping bag. For a bit of comfort, I’d copied numerous homeless people and brought a thick piece of cardboard to sit on.

The train sets out with what is by far the most frightening sound I have ever heard. Like a building coming crashing down on top of me or a thunder rolling ever closer. Instinctively I duck down into the cart, just before the waggon receives a heavy pull, moves forward and bumps into the waggon in from of it. In the same instant, the waggon behind ours does the same. The sound is the continuous ‘clonks’ of carts hitting each other, getting closer and closer. It was the same ever time we had stopped and during those twelve hours, I never got used to it.

Killing time0

Killing time0

Once the first excitement of rolling out had settled, this train ride – like most train rides – get pretty boresome. The landscape ‘outside’ is endless desert, impressive but dull. Whenever I got up to enjoy it, the dust storm generated by 250 train waggons hits me at full force. The interesting bits of the journey are experienced inside the cart. The little teapot, somehow, produced endless amounts of tea, which were generously shared amongst everybody. The talks quickly fell on football. Did I like Barcelona or Real Madrid better (Spanish football is the only football worth anything here)? I tried to play it diplomatically, as I actually prefer Athletic Madrid to the two formers, but that wouldn’t do. I had to pick one. Then, I’m easily a Barca-man, to the great satisfaction to that half of passengers who share my conviction. The other half insisted that Danes don’t know anything about Spanish football.

Despite the languish barriers, conversation flew relatively easy and day turned to night. This is where choosing the open waggons really pays off. The desert night’s sky is unrivalled, and if you haven’t seen one, you need to head to your nearest desert right away. Just lying on my back in the open cart, enjoying the view, made time fly. Suddenly, we arrived at Choem, in pitch blackness. Until the waiting pickups turned on their blinding headlights, ready to drive us the final kilometres, further into the Sahara.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 05:17 Archived in Mauritania Tagged desert train africa sahara nouadhibou mauritania wildest iron_ore choum Comments (0)

Amateur-Hour at the National Park

Or how we were saved by a Frenchman and didn’t die in the desert.

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The van!

The van!

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.

Flamingos

Flamingos

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.

Rosa and my bunny

Rosa and my bunny

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).

Second Dune We Hit...

Second Dune We Hit...

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.

Stuck Overnight

Stuck Overnight

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.

Getting Out by Building a Road

Getting Out by Building a Road

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.

Imragen Village of Ten-Alloul

Imragen Village of Ten-Alloul

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.

Local Imragen Fishing Boat

Local Imragen Fishing Boat

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.

Deadly desert

Deadly desert

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…

Rescued

Rescued

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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Posted by askgudmundsen 10:57 Archived in Mauritania Tagged desert travel dead national_park camper deadly nouadhibou mauritania parc_national banc_darguin iwik imragen Comments (0)

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