Leaving soon after dawn, the 300 + kilometre onward journey to Nouakchott, the capital city of Mauritania, was long, boring and tiring. Sand, more sand, very strong winds, dust storms, high
temperatures and yet more sand .. and yes, all our windows were still open and our sick colleague was no better ! Thankfully a good smooth road .. with occasional glimpses of herds of animals, windowless blockhouse villages and small tented encampments
, in the distance through the whirling sand, which was sometimes so thick that visibility was only a few metres.
The question of how their inhabitants survive and more particularly, why anyone could wish to
live in these conditions ... so far from
the any civilisation ( as we know it ) ... was a constant wonder. Also, what were they doing to pass their days ? In far-flung villages in countries further South, the locals are usually engaged in arable farming .. here, this would be impossible. Not everyone here can be cattle / goat / sheep / camel herders, surely ?
Perhaps we just saw the area on a bad day.
The nearer we got to Nouakchott the larger the herds of camels ... hundreds of adults and youngsters standing in groups in the open sun .. tended by a solitary
herdsman resting in the shade of a solitary palm tree. We would occasionally see an extra large tent with a modern shiny Mercedes or two parked nearby .. big business I assume.
Sand, for hours at a time, can be
fairly monotonous. Although in saying that, the varying landscapes and colours from almost pure white to a rich gold can be quite beautiful. All signs of
trees and any vegetation disappeared and we were travelling through the high dunes with nothing, but nothing, other than sand
for as far as the eye could see. Well, it is The Sahara !
A full day of travelling ( evidently only travel through the bush is halted at midday ) with a few stops for passport checks, prayers, drinks, snacks and one for fuel. Our friendly guide organised a large
piece of liver, to be cooked on the spot, at our midday stop for food.
It was beautifully succulent, although we were unsure of which animal had previously owned it. Again, no vegetables or salad were available ... only
meat ... which appears to be the staple diet of most Mauritanians, who are a very slim people and do not seem to need or suffer from a lack of the proteins etc. which we benefit from, when eating our greens.
Our entrance into Nouakchott was nearly the last thing we experienced ! Having been grinding along for hours at a steady 65 -70 kph our progress was rapidly brought to a halt with all four wheels locked in a
skidding broadside, very narrowly missing a stupid local taxi driver who had turned across our path. Our driver, as tired as we were, proceeded to turn our taxi around and chase the culprit back up the road until we caught up
with him. My knowledge of Arabic is not sufficient to translate fully what was said ... but I think the possibility that the other driver's parents had never been married and his dubious driving skills were fully discussed !
His name and taxi number were taken and threats ( heard once before ) of bringing down the wrath of Allah and the local Gendarmerie upon his head, were duly issued.
This was our first taste of the driving habits in Nouakchott ... very wide dual carriageways plus even wider sand pavements / sidewalks, with their own two-way traffic dodging between parked cars, people and
animals at high speeds, is evidently the norm.
The competition ended between who smelled the worst ... it was a very close run thing ...
only just won by the sheep !! She trotted off to a certain fate, with the approach of Tobaski :((
Dropped off at a local taxi garage .. the usual arguments over the correct fare to our friend's family home and we had arrived at our "hotel" at last. It was dark again. A warm welcome,
the telephone system being very efficient in Kiffa, our arrival had been notified in advance.
A much needed cold shower was a shock to the system, but helped to wash away two day's worth of the incredible amount of sand
and dust in which we were covered. Rapidly waking us
up in the very much lower coastal temperatures of Nouakchott. Food had been prepared and whilst our filthy clothes were washed by their pretty young maid, we ate our meat and cous.
A comfortable night's sleep was
enjoyed in their main room on beautifully decorated mattress settees, despite swarms of mosquitoes. These were the first we had encountered throughout our journey and suffered for their annoyances with a liberal dosing of
Next morning an expected quick trip to the bank to change some Sterling travellers cheques proved to be a time consuming task. Although proudly displaying signs to say "We accept all Travellers
Cheques," the first two banks flatly refused to have anything to do with them. Saying that so few transactions in Sterling were conducted, it took months before they had sufficient to send off for exchange. As usual, US
Dollars would be no problem.
Our saviour was a senior employee of the next bank, who took it upon himself to leave his office, escort us to a competitor's bank and after nearly an hour of being passed up the corporate
ladder to ever more senior officials, permission was at last granted and we were solvent again. No offers of monetary thanks for his time in helping us would be accepted.
To you Monsieur, merci beaucoup por toute ... I
hope our much expressed gratitude partially made up for your lost office time.
We made a local taxi trip over a few kilometres of waste land to the pride of Nouakchott ... their marvellous new fish market. Then a fascinating shell-collecting walk along the wide beach
full of fishing boats, people and fish in various stages of preparation, the purchase of a few of the locally caught fish, at an incredibly cheap price, for all the family's evening meal and we headed back to town to visit the two large markets in search of beads.
There are two enormous markets in Nouakchott, a few kilometres apart. We took town taxis instead of long walks in the heat, through the maze of crowded streets ... dodging in and out of the speeding drivers, horse and
donkey carts and seemingly, millions of people.
One market is devoted to clothes .. countless numbers of stalls selling a kaleidoscope of coloured material
, shoes, modern Western clothing ( new and second-hand ) and at every corner swarms of blue-kaftan-clad money changers. All looking identical and all constantly pestering you to change money with them. Each one had "the
very best" exchange rates which varied in their value from the sublime to the ridiculous ... well the ridiculously low, anyway !
As usual, US Dollars were all they were interested in. Mauritanian money, the Ouguiya, is rarely seen outside Mauritania and strict controls are in force to prevent taking more than a
little out of the country when you depart.
The manufacturers of Sellotape and its many variations must do a roaring trade, as it is very difficult to find any notes that have not been stuck back together with some form
of tape and most of the coins are almost plain metal, with their inscriptions worn away. Damage resulting from years of being passed between many hands and possibly from sand erosion in the desert.
Tobaski, the Muslim Celebratory Feast ( 2 months after the Koroteh celebrations which mark the end of the Ramadan month of fasting ) was to take place in a few days. Hence the frantic
purchasing of materials for the ladies and children to have new clothes for the occasion.
Everywhere on our travels we had seen thousands of sheep
and goats herded together for sale, in preparation for their "ritual slaughter" on the morning of Tobaski. The nearer the day the higher the prices. Where possible, families spend many month's salaries on these celebrations.
Whether camels would share the same "honourable fate" in Mauritania ... I forgot to ask.