The Corn Flake Traveller in Mauritania
Mauritania is not an easy country to get to and doesn’t receive many visitors but with fantastic Saharan scenery and warm, hospitable people it is well worth the effort for those more adventurous travellers. I went there myself during a 6 month back-packing trip of West Africa and even found it difficult to get there from neighbouring Morocco, which involved getting a visa from Rabat then travelling about 36 hours by bus and taxi across Western Sahara.
The bus journey was full of desert scenery, particularly after the Tan Tan area. There were lots of checkpoints, where annoying military men would come on the bus and look at everybody’s documentation. They kept asking me my profession, to which I would reply ‘secret agent’ and then they would nod and go away, showing how worthwhile the questioning was.
The Western Sahara is a disputed territory, or as others may describe it, Morocco is occupying the territory, and it certainly looked that way with a massive Moroccan military presence. I got the impression that this area of the planet is considered to be a country by its people but a province of Morocco by Moroccans. Dakhla (the most southern city) was full of soldiers walking and cycling the streets, there were also lots of U.N trucks driving around and I even met some Moroccans and U.N workers who were receiving big financial rewards to be there.
The only way to get to Mauritania was to take a taxi 400km through more endless desert, and more checkpoints, to the border, then after crossing to be dropped 50km away in the mining city of Nouadhibou.
The taxi driver was great and did everything for us, including paying all the bribes and tips needed to get the passport stamps. It took about an hour to clear the Moroccan side but this was mainly because we turned up just after an ‘Overland Tour’(23 tourists travelling from Gibraltar to Cape town on a truck converted to hold equipment, people and food) so we had to wait for them to pass.
The drive through no man’s land was interesting. There was no road, just sand and the drivers really needed to know where they were going to navigate around the mine fields and the many burnt out cars, which were revealing the location of mines. It was like an assault course and took us about 30 minutes to go through about 5kms of no man’s land before we eventually came out at the Mauritanian border control. Again the driver did most of the work, except when we were required to go up to the desk to state our professions and where we were going, it was pretty good fun wrestling through the Africans, all fighting to reach the front of the cue.
While waiting I went and talked to the money changers and was shown straight away the hospitality of the Mauritanians, one guy bought me a drink and another offered me a bed in his home. Annoyingly I couldn’t accept his offer as I already had the taxi to Nouadhibou paid for.
Once in the town we walked around a bit, sizing up the place, then we got a double in a hotel, which was an annoyingly expensive $15. Now I felt like I had arrived in ‘Black Africa’, really poor people, shitty conditions and lots of very friendly black skinned people, I soon lost count of the number of people that stopped us to say bonjour and shyly smile.
The next day we went south to a beach with some ex-military tunnels and about 10-15 shipwrecks just off the shore. In the afternoon I walked around town looking for a hotel that would let us camp in their grounds but most of them wanted virtually the same price as a room. We met a really friendly car mechanic called ‘Commando’, who showed us to a hotel that resembled a building site and was the same price as the others. He then offered us his house to sleep in and I didn’t want to say no after turning down the money changer at the border, these opportunities don’t come around very often (except in Mauritania as I would begin to learn).