Mauritania: Arriving in Nouadhibou

November - December 2004


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After spending two days travelling through Western Sahara south from Sidi Ifni, I finally arrived in the small town of Dakhla, the southern most town in Morocco or Western Sahara, depending on your political allegiances. The Spanish only abandoned their former colony of Western Sahara in 1976. Once the Spanish left a three-way fight ensued between the Moroccans, marching down from the north, the Mauritanians marching up from the south and Polisario, the guerrilla army fighting for an independent Saharawi Republic. The Moroccans very soon gained control and the Mauritanians gave up their claims on the territory. A guerrilla war between the Moroccans and Polisario continued for many years and since then the legal status of the territory has been in limbo. Today the war has been put on hold under a UN monitored ceasefire and the fighting has turned to referendums on the final status of the territory, which have been suspended many times because of disagreements between the two sides. Today you definitely feel as though you are still in Morocco rather than the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, which was declared by Polisario on 27th February 1976.

Dakhla is either at the start or the end of the road, this is where all public transport either begins or terminates. I had arrived on a bus from Laayoune 542km to the north, which had taken the best part of a day to travel across the endless, barren desert, which typifies Western Sahara. I was on my way to Mauritania; the border lay 360km south of Dakhla where not even a bus or grand taxi would venture. I had very little information about Dakhla and the road south to the border; I would have to hitchhike from here to continue my journey south. Dakhla is a small town and it didn't take me long to find my bearings and more importantly the Hotel Sahara in the market area, where I planned to spend the night before continuing my journey across the desert. Formerly known as Villa Cisneros and established by the Spanish in 1844, Dakhla sits at the end of a sandy peninsula that stretches south into the ocean for about 40km. Considering its location I found it a pleasant enough town to stay in, I didn't feel that I was completely in the middle of nowhere, which my map indicated I was. I'm sure though that if I became stuck here the isolation of the town would begin to play games with my mind.

From the moment I arrived in town I only had one objective, to find a lift out of town and south to the border. I really only had two options, to hitch a ride with some Mauritanian traders returning home or hitching a ride with other travellers, who all seemed to be encamped for the night at a campsite 7km north of town. As it was late in the afternoon I began by walking around the market area, which conveniently began at the front door of the Hotel Sahara, looking to see what was going on and whether I could find a ride. The market area bustled with activity and a surprisingly mixed population of Moroccans, Sahariens and Mauritanians and the occasional European such as myself. I heard various languages spoken including Arabic, French, Spanish and English as I stopped and talked with some of the locals along the streets. Everyone seemed very friendly and open and the town had a relaxed, unconfrontational air about it, despite the ongoing political disputes about who actually owned this place.

It was back in the lobby of the Sahara Hotel on the first floor, looking out at the market square below that I met Benbellah, a very tall and loud Mauritanian dressed in his traditional blue robes. He asked me if I was planning to go to Mauritania and after I replied he offered me a lift in his van, which was returning empty tomorrow. The price agreed was 300 dirhams, which seemed a bit steep, but I later found out that this is the standard fare for a lift across the border. Benbellah mentioned that there was a Japanese lad also staying at the hotel and asked me to speak to him to see whether he too wanted to come along tomorrow. He would pick me up from the hotel at 08.00 the next morning.

I went for a walk to a nearby restaurant feeling happy that my journey south hadn't stalled here where the public transport ended and that after a nights rest I would be back on the road and finally in Mauritania by the time the sun had set again tomorrow. I enjoyed, if that is the right word, my final, rather greasy, slightly cold and gristly Moroccan tajine at a cheap, local restaurant just north of the market.

On returning back to the Sahara Hotel I met the Japanese lad and introduced myself. His name was Nao and he had spent the last two days in Dakhla trying to work out how to get to Mauritania. I told him that I had arranged a lift with Benbellah for tomorrow and that if he wanted to join me he would be more than welcome. It turned out that Nao had already spoken with Benbellah but he told me that he didn't know whether he could trust him. I think Nao had been tricked by some conmen when he first arrived in Tangiers and was now very suspicious of anyone. I said that I trusted Benbellah and that at 08.00 tomorrow I would be leaving, what could possibly go wrong? Moreover, if it did we would both be in it together; Nao agreed. It didn't take long to find Benbellah to tell him he had an extra passenger tomorrow, as I mentioned earlier he was very tall and loud.

At 08.00 the two of us were picked up from the hotel by a friend of Benbellah's and lead across town, stopping at a cafe for a breakfast of omelette, bread and tea, before jumping in a taxi and driving north. The taxi dropped us at the police check point where a collection of battered, unreliable looking vans with Mauritanian licence plates had gathered, looking like a tiny ad-hoc taxi park. Our luggage was loaded into the back of a white Mercedes panel van, which had two wooden benches either side and no windows. It looked like today's journey would not be the most comfortable of journeys. We waited some time for other passengers; I soon got bored sitting around waiting for something to happen in this windswept corner of the desert. I walked to the police checkpoint on the road and sat down on a conveniently dumped, wooden cable drum. The policemen were friendly and one of them joined me sitting on the cable drum. They didn't have a lot of work to do, the road was empty, just the occasional vehicle coming or going from Dakhla. I didn't envy their job, it looked incredibly tedious and soul destroying.

An hour or so later we finally had enough passengers, about a dozen of us, to make the journey financially viable. We all climbed into the back and set off down the empty road to the border. There were two large Mauritanian women draped in bright, colourful fabric, who had taken up position on top of all the luggage on the floor; the other passengers were a mix of Moroccans and Mauritanians. The guy sitting beside me had travelled from Rabat in two days and was on his way to Nouakchott; I laughed when he told me that he had taken a grand taxi from Marrakech straight through to Dakhla, the discomfort of my grand taxi rides were still very fresh in my mind.

The road south from Dakhla was no different from the previous 1,000km or so I had already travelled along through Western Sahara, flat and monotonous. At least there was a road, I wasn't sure whether the road was still a dirt piste or had been tarred yet. The latter was true, the Moroccans had spent a lot of money building a new road all the way to the border running parallel to the old dirt piste. This made the journey a lot more comfortable and quicker than I had expected. It still seemed to go on forever though; maybe it was the lack of anything to look at, which slowed down time. By the middle of the afternoon the heat in the back of the van began to edge to unbearable; I would not like to make this trip in the summer, even now in the middle of winter it felt like we were sitting in an oven on wheels. We stopped twice along the way at tiny outposts of civilisation straddling the road, the kind of places were you could easily go stir crazy if you had to spend more than a day there. I could only admire the people who could live out here in this total isolation in these ramshackle settlements baked under the sun and blasted by sand every time the wind blew.

By late afternoon we finally reached the Moroccan border post, the most isolated border post I think I have ever passed through. There was no border town or settlement, just a military compound, crawling with soldiers, sitting on top of a low hill overlooking the road and the handful of buildings housing the immigration and customs officials. It looked like the kind of place where immigration officials get sent if they upset their boss. One day working in the modern surrounds of Mohamed V airport, one misdemeanour later and a hut in the middle of a desert, hundreds of kilometres from civilisation. About four vehicles waited outside the main hut, people milling around kicking stones in the sand while waiting to be called in to present themselves to the officials. Eventually Nao and I were called in and we stood in front of a battered, weathered desk covered in papers and the paraphernalia of an immigration office. Box files covered in dust were stacked in a haphazard way behind the desk; posters of Morocco's most wanted hung lazily to the walls. A two-way radio wired up to a car battery crackled into life every now and then, but no one took any notice of it; most of the time it just sat there and hissed with static. This building also served as living quarters for the officials, behind us at the other end of this small building the floor was littered with mattresses and blankets. Boxes of food; potatoes, onions, eggs and a few cans, sat on the floor next to the dusty box files as well as pots and pans and the most essential item, a teapot and gas stove. Flies were everywhere, covering everything. You really would not want to spend much time here, let alone work here day in and day out.

Eventually everyone in our van had had their travel documents checked and stamped and we were free to continue on our way south. We continued for just under a kilometre when we stopped where the tarred road ended next to a couple of small buildings, the Moroccans customs checkpoint. A single strand of twisted barbed wire marked the southern extent of Morocco, or Western Sahara depending again on your political viewpoint. Beyond us lay no-mans land and a bumpy dirt track, which wound its way between the rocks and dunes towards Mauritania.

No-mans land was a surreal place. This border area is littered with mine fields, which used to be a very real problem before the tarred road was pushed south from Dakhla. Wandering off into the desert here is not recommended. Car wrecks littered the landscape, almost like a scene out of a Mad Max movie. Impromptu car parks suddenly appeared behind the sand dunes where cars driven down from Europe had been parked while their owners continued across the border to sell them, thus avoiding import duties. We picked up an extra passenger here who had parked up his vehicle. The dirt track eventually twisted up a small hill and we found ourselves back on a tarred road in Mauritania next to the Mauritanian border post.

In comparison to this, the Moroccan border post looked positively civilised. Here there were just three wooden sheds beside the road surrounded by absolutely nothing except the sand and rock of the ever-endless Sahara Desert. Looking back across no-mans land, north towards Morocco in the evening light, I could see absolutely nothing; the desert surrounded us like an ocean. We stood around beside the parked van and waited for something to happen as the driver disappeared with our passports into one of the huts. Soon, as the sun set, it began to feel cold as the wind gusted across the desert; we huddled in a group behind the van, sheltering from the wind and dust. Our driver soon reappeared and we all climbed back into the van and drove a couple of hundred metres to the next hut. This hut looked even more dilapidated, like the worst kind of shed you could find on an allotment back home. This is where we had our passports and visas checked.

The hut was so small that only a handful of people could enter at a time; again we grouped outside between the van and hut waiting for our names to be called out. Eventually my name was shouted from inside the hut and I entered. The sun had set now and the light was fading fast. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the gloom inside the hut; there was no electricity or lights out here, conditions looked very primitive. I stood in front of the wooden desk and smiled as the official passed me his torch and asked me to shine it on his desk. I stood there, in a wooden hut in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but desert, shining a torch between my passport and an old ledger book, while the official diligently recorded all the details of my passport and visa. It has to be the most remote border I have ever crossed. Nao and myself were led into one more hut where we had to fill in a hard currency declaration form, again by torchlight and finally we were able to continue on our journey. It was pitch dark outside; the stars twinkled in the desert sky. Welcome to Mauritania, the ancient desert kingdom of the Moors.

I thought and secretly hoped, that after leaving the border crossing we would soon reach our destination for the day, the main northern town on the coast, Nouadhibou. It was not to be just yet and we continued driving through the dark, the headlights of the van illuminating the edges of the desert on either side of the road. Eventually we reached a diversion, which took us along a dirt track following the railway line. As soon as I saw the railway line my spirits lifted. There's only one place this railway line goes and that is Nouadhibou; we were almost there. At about the same time the locals mobile phones began ringing, we were nearing civilisation. Their conversations must have been similar to ours back home, they shouted over the noise of the van as it bounced down the dirt road alongside the railway line, 'I'm in the bush taxi, I'll be home soon, inshallah.'

Just as I was giving up hope that we would get anywhere today, suddenly the bright lights, or should I say the few lights of Nouadhibou appeared before us. In the space of just a few minutes we had travelled from the middle of nowhere to the middle of somewhere. We preceded along the main street into the centre of Nouadhibou, taking detours around back streets to drop off the other passengers. From the back of the van I really couldn't see where we were going or what this city looked like; all I could see were the headlights of passing vehicles. Finally the van pulled up outside Camping Baie du Levrier in the centre of town, where Nao and I planned to spend the night. The owner greeted us at the gate and showed us to one of the small rooms on the far side of the large sandy courtyard used for camping and parking vehicles. The journey had taken 13 hours from Dakhla; we were both tired, exhausted and hungry. I was happy to be in Mauritania after spending the last five days travelling south across Western Sahara from Marrakech stopping in a different town each night. The first leg of this Saharian journey had been successfully completed.

The one thing I wanted to do now was sleep, but hunger got the better of me. There were three Spaniards; well Basques as they preferred to be known, camped in the courtyard with their huge ex-military 4WD. I asked them if they knew of any decent restaurants nearby. After a short discussion in broken English, Spanish and French they went to the fridge and pulled out a huge fish they had caught earlier that day and offered to cook it for us. Half an hour later the five of us sat down to fish steaks fried in olive oil with bread and salad, absolutely delicious. To finish this long day off in style they offered me a couple of cans of beer from their stash in the back of their truck. I retired to our room and very quickly fell asleep feeling happy and looking forward to the next part of this journey, riding on the iron ore train deep into the desert.

Continue reading this journey: The iron ore train to Atar