Sunday, November 10, 2019

Where the Maghreb meets 'Africa' (9571)

Where we've been
We've made 800 miles since the last post and it feels good that we have progressed towards sub-Saharan Africa. It's always felt like an important threshold.

Getting on with it
From LaĆ¢youne to Boujdour, Dakhla, Nouadhibou, Nouakchott. From the capital of Western Sahara to its Mauritanian equivalent. From the Maghreb to the Sahel. And in some ways, from a world rooted in the north and east to one most definitely not.

'You're going to Africa?'
Twice, Moroccans, on hearing that we were heading to Senegal and the south, used this phrase. In some way the word 'Africa' seems to denote a difference between their world and the area below the desert.

Border crossing/Red Zone
The journey described includes the infamous border between Western Sahara and Mauritania. It's a UK government red zone - a do not go there area. But fellow travellers traverse it regularly and in the received wisdom that advice is, to quote Lonely Planet, 'hyperbolic'. And, anyway, you can't get where we're going from where we started by motorcycle without crossing it.

When we were planning the trip we researched copiously. We read widely, attended seminars, met and spoke with many travellers who had been where we were going. By the time we left, we were in touch with several individuals or groups with immediate knowledge of these areas. We still are and consult them daily.

It's heartening to be connected to so many people who help just because they want to.

They include Horizons Unlimited and the West Africa Travellers FB and WhatsApp groups - both curated by the wonderful Chloe Grant. I receive notifications from ACLED, an international 'crisis mapping project' and regularly look at the foreign sections of the Guardian newspaper.

We haven't done this flippantly or casually. And one of the reasons for going was to challenge our embedded aversions to the unknown, the alien. By definition, you can't do that by staying comfortable.

We know there are a few who believe that our trip is irresponsible. It isn't. And our first objective is to be safe and we've come into this with eyes open, fully prepared.

Desert boots
The border crossing took five hours, you can read more in my Visa and Border-Crossing blog - intended as a resource for other travellers.

Some say the 'no-man's-land' in between the two borders is mined. No doubt it once was, but by now the hundreds of vehicles crossing it daily; big trucks, cars, 4x4's, motorcycles, must have found them all. My biggest problems when getting from the Moroccan compound to the Mauritanian was avoiding the other vehicles and staying upright on the uneven, sandy, rocky terrain.

In the process, I got rear-ended by a big van and ran into the side of a huge (staionary) truck when a patch of soft sand took my front wheel. As a result of the former, our pannier now doesn't quite fit.

Running repairs
But we got through it. And although at the time I wished I'd felt a little bolder, looking back I'm proud of us for having taken it on and succeeded. My abiding memory will always be of a plucky little Bavarian in full riding gear, helmet and all, out there ahead of me amongst the sand, trucks, rocks and general mayhem, arms waving, directing her pilot to where he could find traction and avoid the soft stuff. Magnificent.

Desert Running
We decided that we needed to toughen up and put the Sahara behind us. With this in mind we've done a couple of long days recently. It was the right thing to do, but it challenged our stamina.

The scenery
There have been stretches that tested my concentration. The winds are strong and unremitting. Often the sand flows across the road obscuring it. It's hard to focus on the surface to see whether one of the occasional potholes is approaching - or even where the tarmac is. As big lorries pass, the buffeting increases and a fierce cloud of sand, dust and grit pelts us.

It feels challenging. And then, once or twice, we've passed pedal-cyclists following the same route and it puts things in perspective. And, of course, the occasional figure we pass, sitting hunkering by the road, miles from anything, in the desert beeze and heat, waiting for who knows what, reminds us that people live here. And it makes me wonder.

Here's what I said to my friend, Leigh, recently; 'I've never been more aware that I simply cannot understand the experience of other humans. Sometimes the awareness is a little too much for me.There's so little money here, such narrow horizons. But kids play, the mother sweeps the dirt patch outside her house, the shopkeepers stock goods in ramshackle buildings and life goes on.'


Beaucoup d'essence
Mostly, the vehicles in this area are diesel. On the journey to Nouakchott there are few petrol stations. In the one town that has them, all three turned out to have no unleaded, or 'essence' as they refer to it. We knew we couldn't reach our destination without refuelling. As we sat, wondering what to do at the edge of the town amongst a crowd of locals, a young man in desert clothing (closest to camera, above), realising our predicament, took me to the local general store and helped me buy a 20 litre container of it. Another stood by the bike indicating he would keep an eye on it while we were gone.

People are fantastic if you give them the chance.

In Nouakchott

Injured camel
We're currently staying in an excellent auberge in Nouakchott, guests of Mauritanian-Frenchman Pascal and his wife. We have safe storage for the bike and Pascal helped us get our Malian visas this morning. We have begun to expect the people we meet to help beyond European norms. It's what they do.

And perhaps later I'll tell you of the enthusiastic seminar Pascal delivered to me on the subject of his country's ethnicities and social structures when I asked him about his genetic roots. It was gripping and revelatory.


  1. You can never know what it's like to be anyone else, ever. But you can look and listen. People really are great.
    Proud of you both xxx

  2. Excellent post. Rest and recuperate, please. Sending love x


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