Mauritania: Atar

November - December 2004


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The pick up truck drove alongside the railway line between two trains, the headlights lighting up wagon after wagon, looking for a way past the down train, which blocked our way into Choum. Eventually, we reached the end of the train and crossed the railway line and a few sidings and drove the short distance into Choum. We stopped beside some mud brick buildings and the driver turned off the ignition. Suddenly everything went quiet, except for the distant sound of the diesel engines pulling the iron ore wagons. We had stopped next to another pick up truck, whose passengers were milling around in the darkness. Standing beside one of the buildings I saw Jeff and Josh, the American and Frenchman who had ridden in one of the empty iron ore wagons. I hoped that we would soon be on our way to Atar, which was still a four-hour drive away. I sat on top of the cab of the pick up watching the dazzling display of stars; I have never seen so many shooting stars in such a short time.

It soon became apparent that we weren't going anywhere fast this morning as the two pickup drivers talked and talked endlessly. It appeared that there were not enough passengers to make the trip to Atar viable for both pickups. So the negotiating began as to who would drive to Atar this morning. Eventually it was decided that the other pickup truck would make the trip, so we transferred our luggage over. A sum of money was swapped for a scrap of paper, a ticket to Atar. When all the passengers had purchased a ticket, the pile of money was again counted, before the scraps of paper were collected and counted too. One final count of the money and a double check that all the money equalled the number of scraps of paper collected and we were ready to go. This whole process took two hours to complete in that quintessential African way, which either makes you laugh or scream; I laughed as we finally climbed up into the back of the pick up truck and sat on top of our luggage. I huddled down behind the cab, so that I would be slightly sheltered from the wind as it was now very cold. At 05:00 we set off, two hours after the train had arrived.

We left the mud brick buildings of Choum behind us and drove out into the desert, the landscape illuminated by the silvery light of the moon. There were thirteen passengers in the back of the pickup, plus a couple in the cab. It was absolutely freezing and I huddled as best I could out of the wind in my fleece, my scarf wrapped around my head. I closed my eyes and dreamt of sleep as the pick up bounced and slid along the track, which were little more than two tyre tracks in the soft sand. I soon began to wish this journey would be over; it had been a long day, I was tired, cold and covered in dust. All I wanted to do was sleep in a warm bed; then I would open my eyes and see my fellow passengers sitting around me all battling the cold and discomfort; everyone was quiet, no-one spoke.

At some indeterminate time after departing from Choum the sky began to brighten to the east, heralding the start of another day. In the distance I could begin to see the escarpment leading up to the Adrar plateau, a black line running along the horizon, silhouetted against the clear sky gradually turning brighter as the sun edged towards the new day. When the impending day could no longer be ignored and the long, dark shadow of the escarpment stretching across the desert shrunk with every passing minute, we stopped to pray. For myself and the other infidels travelling in this bush taxi, it was a chance to stretch our legs and to take a look at our surroundings in the light of the new day. Once the last prayers had been said we resumed our positions in the back of the pick up and were on our way again. The track began to gradually get closer and closer to the escarpment until we bounced over a dip and landed on a road. It was only a dirt road but compared to the track we had been travelling along it seemed like a motorway, which now headed straight to the rocky escarpment of the Adrar plateau.

The escarpment is about 200m high and the dirt road now twisted and climbed to the top. The views across the desert below us, glowing in the morning sun, were breathtaking as we climbed towards the top of the plateau. Finally the cold of the night had vanished with the darkness, which had enveloped us all. I could feel the first welcome, warm rays of sunshine on my face. The top of the plateau, strewn with rocks and boulders, looked like an inhospitable place just as the sandy desert below us had, which stretched all the way back to the ocean. This plateau though has harboured outposts of human civilisation dating back hundreds of years. Soon we began to pass small villages along the side of the road, nothing more than a few huts scattered in the desert. Barefoot children stopped alongside the road, some would just stand and stare while others ran, waved and screamed as we drove past.

As we neared Atar, we began to drop passengers off in the outskirts of this desert town and finally arrived at the gare routiere at 09:00. From there Nao, Jeff, Josh and I hired a taxi to take us to Bab Sahara, an auberge about 500m west of Rond-Point, the centre of town. A German ex-pat and his Danish wife and son ran the auberge. Accommodation consisted either of individual, traditionally built stone huts with a thatched roof or a number of communal Bedouin style tents. These were set in a sandy enclosure with some trees providing welcoming shade and plants creating a splash of colour. A flock of scrawny looking chickens patrolled the auberge, scratching around in the sand for insects. We all checked into a tent and I threw myself onto a mattress and shortly afterwards was fast asleep, exhausted from the 18 hour journey from Nouadhibou. I didn't sleep too long and a couple of hours later I woke from the unbearable heat building up inside the tent as the fierce desert sun beat down on the canvas above me. I retreated to the shady communal dining area just in time to order lunch; I hadn't eaten a proper meal for over 24 hours and I was ravenous.

The train journey for Jeff and Josh had been far tougher, after spending 12 hours riding in a open iron ore wagon the two of them looked far more exhausted than I felt. They, like myself, had read that the two major discomforts of riding in the wagons is the constant dust and the cold at night. Jeff told me that what no one had ever mentioned was the physical battering your body received as the train bounced, shook and jolted its way down the track. He said that it was impossible to sit or lie down in the wagon as he was constantly being thrown around. Even one of his water bottles, lying on the floor of the wagon split open when it was violently flung across the wagon by the extremely uneven track bed. For the 12 hour journey Jeff and Josh had to literally hold on to the side of the wagon with white knuckles to prevent injury to themselves. My romantic ideas of riding for free in a freight wagon now disappeared upon hearing about the reality.

Atar is the main commercial centre in the north of the country with a population of about 18,000. It is a hot and dusty place, where cars and trucks share the roads with camels and goats. There is nothing attractive about this town; it is merely a practical place where people live simple lives, locals come to trade and tourists pass through on their way across the Adrar plateau. There is a small market area to the north of Rond-Point and to the west of the market the Ksar district, the oldest part of town, where the narrow, winding streets lead past traditional mud brick houses with carved doorways. The southern part of town is the new quarter, where wide, dusty streets are lined with modern concrete buildings, mostly only one storey high. I planned to use this town as a base to visit the historic towns of Chinguetti and Ouadane, there is not much for a tourist to see or do in Atar. It is a place you end up spending time in while arranging transport, picking up supplies or recovering from a long journey.

There were a number of other guests already staying at Bab Sahara, another Frenchman, David, two fellow Brits, Paul and Becky, waiting for their Landrover to be repaired and two guys from Australia. The Australians left that afternoon heading to Ouadane by bush taxi. After lunch, rice and stew, probably camel, I went for a walk around town to familiarise myself with my new surroundings. This was definitely no metropolis, it appeared to be a place where very little happens and if it did, it probably happened very slowly. The market area was the closest this town got to bustling, but even here there were no crowds and soon every souvenir seller spotted me walking curiously up the road. Most of them came out with the same sales pitch, which went something like this. 'I am having a celebration for my newborn son and I have to throw a party and feed all the guests. There will be almost 100 people attending and I need to buy a cow to feed them all. If you could do some business with me today it would help provide money towards the feast.' By the time I left the market I realised that I had arrived in the party capital of the Sahara Desert; everyone was throwing a party for their newborn son. Away though from the fantasyland of the souvenir market, life carried on as normal. Goats were herded along the streets, barefoot children played with whatever was dumped in the streets and battered looking vehicles drove past leaving a cloud of dust in their wake.

I originally planned to visit Chinguetti and Ouadane using local public transport, which was slow and infrequent. That night all the other guests were talking about hiring a vehicle and driver to do the trip, which would save a lot of time hanging around at the taxi parks; time was one commodity I didn't have in abundance on this three week trip. The owner of the auberge had a number of contacts in town that could take us, so we arranged to meet a driver the following morning to negotiate a price for a two-night trip. Once that had been settled a few of us ventured into town to find something to eat. The restaurant of choice was a small place along Route de Chinguetti run by a Moroccan man with a large personality, who could also speak German, which he liked to practice on his patrons. During my stay in Atar I would always find him standing outside his restaurant, wearing a grubby, white apron cooking on his barbeque. The menu looked good, but much of it was not available, so on most of my visits I settled for his rather greasy, camel stew and chips.

The next morning, after breakfast at the auberge, the seven of us, Paul, Becky, David, Josh, Jeff, Nao and I, waited for a guide to arrive from town to take us on our trip further out into the desert. As the temperature began to rise, as the morning wore on, time seemed to slow down as we all sat about waiting for something to happen. Eventually a 4WD arrived at the gates of the compound, flanked by all the local children, who spent most of the day playing in the sandy street leading to the auberge. Ibrahim, dressed smartly in a shirt and a traditional blue robe, drove the vehicle. After some discussions a price and an itinerary was decided. I didn't give much input, as long as we were going to Chinguetti and Ouadane I was happy. The cost split seven ways made the whole trip very reasonable.

Continue reading this journey: Chinguetti & Ouadane