Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mad Max

Apart from its political importance, Dakhla has a certain fame among kite-surfers for its constant wind and vast beaches. We ride along beautiful lagoons, before climbing back onto the cliffs that border the continent. Once there, the road meanders into the mainland and the wind gets hotter. The landscape consists of eroded sand stone hills, dotted with rusty little signposts warning us to stay on the main axis because of “danger, mines!”

Indeed conflict between Morocco and Mauritania has left the border zone with mine fields and a 3 km no-man’s land. Not so much hassle to pass the Moroccan side. A turbaned Mauritanian is a bit wary about our plans to visit his country. On the other hand, a group of French motards is heading back home after a 2 week trip to the once touristy Adrar region and they have seen no terrorists neither police there. Very reassuring indeed…

The Mauritanian side of the border is friendly and welcoming, although the officers seem a little bit disappointed that our “linea recta” itinerary will neglect so much of the beauty of their beloved country. Sunset is near and we accept the invitation of a Moor to accompany him to his hostel in Nouadhibou, 40 km off the border. The nightly arrival has something of a Mad Max scene: dust and diesel fumes everywhere, rusty car wrecks are dying next to the road or slowly coughing their last breath in front of us. Turbaned men in traditional boubou cover their face to protect it against the dust, giving them a very suspicious appearance. We leave the luggage at the hostel and take one bike to the city center. The crowd is doing some last minute shopping for Tabaski. Tomorrow the whole country will disappear into the desert to slaughter and eat mutton with their relatives. But tonight all over the market they are creating the thickest layer of rubbish one has ever seen. Eric, the Liberian house servant of our host, makes us laugh with his stories and confesses that his boss is a secret agent, which adds sense to the picture frames showing him shaking hands with Mitterand, Col. Kadhaffi and the Mauritanian president. We don’t know whether or not we should feel safer now.

The 470km ride from Nouadhibou to Nouakchott takes us through scorching hot and sandy desert landscapes. At first acacia trees and small villages consisting of scattered huts, made of wood or hammered oil barrels, then salt lakes and the crossing of enormous sand dunes. If it wasn’t for the recently tarred road we could have never crossed these parts with our heavily loaded bikes. Alongside, plastic fences and bushes are planted to battle the dunes, but every now and then, the wind has blown over some sand. I’d love to take more pictures, but riding at night is no option, and it is already getting late. After every picture break, the sweat is cooling me down for 1 or 2 minutes, but then everything is dry again. Nouakchott doesn’t show its face until the last 5 km. It is a disorganized nomad settlement barely 50 years old. A few high buildings are randomly built over the city, and there is no obvious city center. Quite naturally, we end up in an overlanders’ nest. The atmosphere is relaxed and we feel like staying a couple of days. We spend them buying sea food (langoustes and prawns) at the picturesque fish market, reading “Jeune Afrique”, an Africa-based weekly covering the good and the bad news from the continent (providing us with background info about the Sahara as well as the elections in several upcoming countries), hanging around with travelling locals, expats and French overlanders, and drinking strong and foaming Mauritanian tea. Nice to hear a local view on terrorism, politics, women’s rights and so on, wrapped in a good joke or a steaming discussion. We even dare taste Nouakchott’s night life, but we soon feel that West-Africa must have more on offer than this.

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