standing by the side of the road in Western Sahara, a small van pulled up next to us, and in the driver seat was this old little French guy with a big moustache, bearing a strong resemblance to Einstein. He was going all the way to Dakar in Senegal, and was happy to take us to Mauritania, so we climbed in and started driving towards the border. It was a long drive, and the vast desert seemed never ending. Sometimes we spotted the warning signs for minefields, though most of these signs were so rusty they had disintegrated completely.
“Einstein” had done this drive many times before for his work, and told us how the Western Sahara/Mauritanian border was always such a hassle, and would usually take 4-5 hours to get through. The immigration was very strict, and whole van was scanned by a massive x-ray machine, looking for any kind of weapons or booze (alcohol being strictly illegal to sell or import in Mauritania, so good thing we had finished our tiny vodka bottles the night before!).
Our driver kept introducing himself to the officers as a kernel of the French army, and when they weren’t listening he turned to us and whispered that he was just making it all up to make the border crossings quicker. They showed us a great deal of respect, and even let us to the front of the queue some times, so it clearly worked! This guy was absolutely hilarious, and really immersed himself in this made up character of his, taking it further and further till he was introducing himself as “Colonel Moustache”, and us as his distant family.
We got our Mauritanian visas sorted, and Sally got chatting to the guy at the passport control, Abdel, who was really friendly, and gave us his number and told us to call him if we ever needed anything.
Colonel Moustache drove us to Nouadhibou, but by the time we got there the sun had set, and we ended up wandering around the unlit streets in an unfamiliar city. We hadn’t prepared at all, couldn’t get the internet to work on our phones and had no idea where we were going, so we decided to call Abdel from passport control to ask for help.
He had just finished work and told us he’d come pick us up if we told him where we were. We had of course no clue, and couldn’t see any street names, so we stumbled into the nearest shop and threw the phone at the poor shop keeper, who looked very confused for a bit, but eventually lifted the phone to his ear, and gave Abdul our location.
After a few minutes Abdul and his friend Mo picked us up. Mo had worked in Norway for five years, and spoke fluent Norwegian, so it was very strange getting a guided tour of the city in my native language, certainly not what I expected in Mauritania!
Abdul and Mo showed us around town and introduced us to the local cuisine. Very different from Moroccan food, but still pretty tasty.
We had been a bit worried about safety in Mauritania, our governments discourages people from travelling to the whole country, rating most of the country as extremely dangerous, with kidnappings ant terrorist attacks to be likely to happen. The Locals seemed to be shocked about this, and couldn’t stop talking about how safe it was (and we never felt unsafe there!).
We left most of our stuff at their place and hit the road again, trying to get to Choum where we could train hop on the iron ore train through the desert and back to Nouadhibou.
Abdel drove is to the police checkpoint at the edge of town, and the friendly police officers asked us to sit down in the shade while they found us a ride.
This kind of passive hitchhiking would turn out to be the norm for Mauritania!
It didn’t take long before the police had found us a car, insisting they were good men and would get us to the capital safely.
It was a very long drive through the desert, hours of nothing but sand dunes, except for a tiny village half way there, where they gave is some tea and water.
Internet reception in Mauritania is by far the worst we’ve ever encountered, even with a local data sim it almost never worked, except for in the big cities, and even in the capital it was so weak it was almost useless. Without internet it was impossible to get in touch with people on couchsurfing, and it’s not really an easy place to walk around to look for accommodation, so we were a bit lost at where to stay.
We didn’t have to worry though, our drivers rented a big hotel apartment for themselves and let us sleep on the couches in the living room, after they fed us a feast of Grilled chicken and flavourful rice.
The next morning they drove us to the road heading to Atar, and again we started walking to get out of the city centre. Someone stopped for us and asked where we were going, and offered to take us to the police checkpoint, where we were met by another smiling police officer who offered us to sit in their shaded tent while he found us a ride.
We were sitting there for a long time when the policeman came over, and told us he’d found us a ride. He also promised they were good people, and that they would get us to our destination safely. So we greeted the drivers and jumped into their car, which to our excitement had aircon, which made the trip through the desert so much more comfortable.
After many hours of driving through the desert, we stopped at a house for some food. They brought out a big shared platter of slow cooked goat, it was absolutely delicious and we ate as much as we could. When we thought we were finished, they brought us another big plate of rice with goat and vegetables on top, even bigger than the last meal. We had no idea how we’d be able to eat any more, but tried our best. We still hadn’t quite mastered the skill of eating rice dishes with our hands, the rice here was not at all sticky like it is in Asia, so it turned out to be quite challenging. They had a lot of fun teaching us different techniques, and after a while i got pretty good at kind of throwing the rice into a ball and then into my mouth.
After cleaning ourselves and the carpet for rice that we had spilled, we had a nap and then we drove the rest of the way to Atar. They helped us find a hotel, and left us there. About an hour later it was a knock on the door. The same guys had come back, and asked what we would like for dinner. They bought us an extortionate amount of chicken, and we had yet another feast. They wished us good luck for the rest of the journey and waived us goodbye.
The next morning when we went to pay for the room, turns out they had actually paid for our hotel bill too! What a kind gesture, and a fantastic start of Sally’s Birthday!
We were adamant to find some coffee for her birthday breakfast, something that’s easier said than done in Mauritania, where everyone just seems to drink tea. We spotted some tourists and almost jumped on them asking if they had seen anywhere we could get some, but they had not. A local happen to overhear our conversation, and knew a place where we could get some instant coffee. Good enough! Day saved!
After going all out and having two coffees each with our breakfast, we stocked up on snacks, and bought a second hand blanket for the train, then started walking out of town, in the direction of Choum.
It turned out to be quite difficult to find anyone going to Choum. Most of the vehicles were minivans operating as taxis, so we ended up spending a lot of time at the police stop, chatting with the officers and waiting around. After a few hours with no luck, one of the officers felt pity for us, and stopped one of the taxi vans and told them to take us for free. So again thanks to the cops, we got ourselves a ride..!
Choum is a tiny and dusty place, hardly even a village. There was a small shop, and the shop owner told us the train was delayed, and wasn’t coming till about 10pm. That was about six hours away, so we sat down on our blanket and waited.
We managed to hop on top of the Iron ore train and make our way through the desert, but this story deserves a blog post of its own, so I’ll write more about this later..!
Back in Nouadhibou we stayed with our friends for a couple more nights before we once again left for Nouakchott.
We went back to the police stop, and again we sat down and waited till they found us a ride.
We arrived in the capital once more after a long drive, and once again found ourselves unable to get in touch with any couchsurfer due to the lack of functioning Internet, but one of the drivers, also called Abdel, invited us to stay in his tent at some camel farm outside of town, so we couldn’t refuse such an offer!
We ate a Grilled dinner in a tent camp outside of town, before we moved to the camel farm out in the desert. He told us that a lot of the people in the capital were Bedouins at heart and didn’t really like living in the city, so many of them had tents out in the desert too, to be able to get away from busy city life when they needed some quiet time.
The tent was big and open with some mats on the ground, so we made ourselves comfortable in our sleeping bags while the guy made his bed outside under the stars.
It was nice to get away from the busy capital, and the only sounds we could hear were the camels calling out to each other in the night, (sounding just like the brontosauruses from Jurassic Park!) it was quite a soothing way to go to sleep.
Unfortunately the tranquillity didn’t last long, and a few hours later I woke up shaking, with an intense fever. It was a long night, and I can’t remember the last time i felt so sick.
At around 5am i managed to go back to sleep, but about an hour later Abdel woke us up, gave us a big bowl of fresh camel milk, and said we had to get going. The sun hadn’t even risen yet, and I was feeling so ill I could hardly move. We tried to drink some camel milk, which is supposed to be really good for you, and then drove back to the capital.
We got back into town, and since I could hardly even sit up straight due to the intense fever, Abdel paid for a hotel room so I could get some rest, making sure to get one with aircon so he was sure i could rest comfortably. He kept bringing us so much food, and I felt really bad that I wasn’t able to eat any of it, but it was such a kind gesture. The fever didn’t pass, but eventually i managed to fall asleep and get some well needed rest.