Showing posts with label Mauritania. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mauritania. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Mauritania: A Desert Kingdom

Mauritania for a two-week vacation, as the old joke goes, is not the First Prize in any competition that you might wish to enter. Mauritania for three or four days, longer, perhaps, for those with some particularly niche interests, is a tremendous opportunity and a very interesting place to visit.
We can’t all be experts; of course, the longer one spends in a destination the more accurately and perceptively one can write. However, three days travelling through this remarkable country is enough to gain an impression and an empathy for this raw, edgy place.

Let it first be said that I liked Mauritania; actually quite a lot. Not in the “Let’s buy a little vacation home here, Darling” way, but in the way of finding a piece of a missing puzzle lying before me. I had heard, read and spoken of sub-Saharan refugees, of the difficulties of life in the Sahel, of the power of shifting desert sands, but now I had seen all of these with my own eyes. And the impressions are powerful.

Entering the country is a confrontation. After leaving Morocco, there is a dystopian, three-kilometer stretch of burned-out cars, trucks abandoned after their particular insurance fraud, land-mines, refugees living among this debris having successfully left Mauritania but denied entry into Morocco; it is a warped piece of land.

Mauritania is a tortuous nation; it lies mostly straddling the Sahara from the vast inland deserts to the dunes that try to push the Atlantic
coast back to the west. It is a land of harshness, of difficulty and struggle; it is a land painted in a palette of browns, yellows and dust; it is a land of transition as the Arabic peoples of the north blend and merge with the Africans of the south. It is a land of definitions.

The languages, from Arabic to Wolof and the latent French of their colonial puppeteers blend and spread; the cultures of the culture, based mostly on family, clan and tribe still remain the bedrock of the country’s social fabric. In a land as apparently desolate and exacting as the Sahara, these ties bind and tie people closely over vast distances.

Driving through the desert there were signs of temporary encampments. Signs that the nomadic existence, so well suited to the environment, was alive and almost well. Camels, goats and dust wandered and lived along the roads defying the ever-blowing sand.

To coin a phrase, “The answer, my friends, was blowing in the wind.”

The questions remained obscure.

Who “owns” the desert? Whose land is marked by a shifting surface? Where can people live?  
Those questions, answered by a curious and no doubt divisive confrontation between the traditional and established custom of the region and the vast power of the multi-national mining interests and their brutal financiers.

It is a region that makes sense of belief; a belief in a better future beyond the bitter desert winds and their capricious whims. Life in the desert is harsh; the weather bitter, the landscape austere but life for those lucky enough to enjoy family, tribe and clan can be secure. Life, punctuated five times each day with the call to prayer that binds the national community may not be one that westerners could enjoy, but we were not supposed to enjoy it.

Travellers are welcomed deeply; we are treated with respect, kindness and care. Even a little wonder. As a visitor to Mauritania, although warned before arrival of the dangers of brigands, and the potential of being kidnapped (30,000 was the probable ransom that was advised), I never felt in any danger. I was annoyed, irritated and even exasperated, but only when I felt my own interpretation of an event to be superior to the local idea. In a land of such complexities, and a life determined so completely by the bleak, harsh Sahara, I really had nothing valuable to add.

After time in the desert, driving past the iron-ore train, appreciating that there were subtleties that I would never understand, I decided that I rather liked Mauritania. Or, at least, I felt a growing empathy for a country that in the wildest reaches of my imagination, I could not conceive.

Nouakchott, the capital, a city of some million folks came as a surprise. It isn’t a particularly beautiful place, in fact it isn’t really beautiful at all, but it is lively, contemporary and perhaps will operate as an economic driver for the country. The market, visited thanks to Google Maps attempt to help me avoid a vast traffic jam, was a wonderfully frenetic place, ad in ordinary circumstances I would love to have spent the morning exploring; it is a new city, only 65 years old, and in some ways an ugly, unintentional growth. In other ways, however, it represents the harnessing of the dynamic energy of the country, and the potential growth of both population and mineral wealth in the next decades will determine Mauritania’s future.

Harsh? Yes; Challenging? Absolutely. Interesting? Without question.

Perhaps a one-week stay in Mauritania would be a worthwhile prize.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Budapest to Bamako: Driving the Sahara

The route from France to Freetown

Driving across the Sahara Desert may appear to be an odd thing to do, and perhaps it is. However, in the same way that remote places seem less isolated when visited, driving from Morocco to Sierra Leone seems quite normal as one motors south in the company of other like-minded folks.

Except, of course, in Guinea, but that is another story.

I am not at all sure how this journey really happened; it started, as all good adventures do, in a wine bar. This time, in Tbilisi with my friend Ia Tabagari. She, the most indefatigable woman I have possibly ever met, was itching to go on a long drive, and had found the Budapest to Bamako rally somewhere in the ether. It was, we agreed, a fine idea, and fortified by the fine local wine decided that we should enroll. We didn’t, mostly because the security situation in Mali deteriorated; however, like so many ideas that burrow their way into one’s brain, the idea of the B2B rally refused to budge.

Fast forward a couple of years, and an Australian friend, Alan Wallish, the owner of a fabulous Cairns-based reef operation, Passions of Paradise, and a colleague and friend these thirty years, visited Winnipeg to relieve the boredom of Canada’s West Coast for a few days last summer. The idea was pitched, agreement concluded, toasts drunk and the entry completed. Our participation in the 2020 Budapest to Bamako rally was secure.

Panda and the Ambulance
Adding three additional friends and a 4WD Fiat Panda from the Orkney Islands the package was completed and the countdown was underway. We had purchased an ambulance for the journey, basically on a whim, but with the thought that it would be donated it to a local medical facility in Sierra Leone upon arrival. At this point, observant readers will have noted that Bamako is not actually located in Sierra Leone; this is, of course, true, but due to the security situation in Mali, a new (and considerably harder as it turned out) route to Sierra Leone had been drawn to avoid potential bloodshed.

Spurning the actual start, our idea was to meet in Malaga, as heading from France to Budapest for the start of the rally only to turn around and retrace the 1500 kms seemed a bit daft (even by our standards), so we agreed that the ambulance would be driven to Malaga to await the two Australians and we would continue from there, meeting our Orcadian cohorts in Ceuta. The Orcadians, it should be noted, had decided to drive from those distant, northern isles to Budapest and then on to the south of Spain, arriving in a state of semi-chock. So far so good.

And so the journey started. 

The pace was undeniably hard. The premise of B2B is, of course, a rally, but the inclusion of a “Touring” category, not to mention the “Spirit” category lulled many of us into thinking that there
Breakdown in Tan Tan
would be a slightly gentler route, with some time to enjoy and learn about the countries through which we passed. Alas, this was not to be. The tempo was sprightly, and although the Spirit route did not incorporate many of the rather more rutted and inhospitable terrain the racing 4WDs were challenging, our statelier vehicles still needed to reach camp at nightfall, and time to sightsee, explore of even photograph was very limited. Frankly, some of the roads would be better suited by a convoy of Mars Rovers.

The roads unfurled with the topography. From the smooth and perfectly cambered highways of Morocco passing first through intense agri-business then the High Atlas Mountains and then, as the mountains flattened into craggy plains and desert the roads became straighter and dustier, and finished in accordance with the country’s road-paving budget.

 The Moroccan roads started well, and grew into the mountains; here it Panda 
climbing a steep  run deep in the High Atlas Mountains.

This budgetary disparity was brought sharply into focus some 2,800 kms south of Ceuta at the Moroccan/Mauritanian border. Between the two customs posts, placed some seven kilometres apart, lies the most desolate no-mans-land that I have seen to date. The first two kilometres, presumably Moroccan and finishing at the actual border were paved, the subsequent five, lying now in Mauritania were not, and the way forward simply a vague channel of adventurous rock strewn with a dystopian collection of burned-out cars, trucks abandoned in the pursuit of some insurance swindle or other, and a warning that beyond an unidentified boundary there are land mines.

The Mauritanian border; burned out cars and landmines

We ventured no further than the identified boundary, and following a brief concern that one of our party who was suffering from a hangover, would be identified as a Coronavirus or Ebola carrier due to his elevated temperature, we passed through the gates, passed the border and entered the start, dry and harsh landscape of Mauritania. 

The Sahara is a stark and unforgiving place; its brutality is reflected in the harsh housing, the scrubby animals, the layers of clothing protecting against the ever-blowing sand and the unforgiving sun. It has a beauty, a raw grandeur that embraces the horizon and everything within it; it is a land of strict rules and strict traditions, without which life in this environment would be impossible. 

The desert eventually gave way to Savannah as we approached the Senegalese border, and as we drove farther south, the vegetation grew, the water supplies became more obvious and hints of the
approaching Tropical zone became more apparent.

To see these changes in landscapes was remarkable; to see how the people living throughout the region adapted to their particular circumstances was fascinating; the drive, all 7,150 kilometers of it, was endlessly absorbing and now, as I sit in Freetown trying to collect my thoughts, I look back on the images of the journey with a degree of smugness. 

Driving across the desert was cool!