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Western Sahara & Mauritania – Sand, Sand & More Sand

So we left Essaouira in the pouring rain and dark to head 16km out of town to the campsite the rest of the group were staying in, we arrived at 7.45 and left reunited as a group at 8am.

We headed out of Essaouira into the wilderness and basically drove all day until we reached a relatively secluded site for our bush camp.

We found a good spot for the green beast (our tent) which we made sure wasn’t near the toilet tent!!!

It was totally nondescript but did have the most amazing sunset that night.

The next morning we were up early and left our bush camp location under cover of darkness and eventually found ourselves driving through a town called Tantan which had wide pavements and palm tree lined streets. The town ended as promptly as it started and then we were back into sweeping desert scenery with scrub land, sand and salt pans at varying intervals.

Our camp for the night was another bush camp which had a glorious view of the ocean and the sunset. It was mostly peaceful with the odd local hanging out fishing or bbq-ing on the cliff edge.

Again, we left before the sunrise and drove again all day through desert landscapes intermingled with shipwrecks, beautiful untouched beaches and sporadic tent villages.

It turned out to be a vision of how the human race attempts to tame Mother Nature. You have the most foreboding desert dotted with small, bustling towns with a decent sized population who are merrily going about their business in banks, cafes, pizzerias and bus stops. They seem to be totally oblivious to the surrounding desert trying to re-engulf them.

Upon reaching the outskirts of Dakhla we came across some stunning, expensive looking resorts and the Royal Dakhla Golf Course, which looked totally out of place….there were small patches of astroturf strategically placed for each ‘hole’, all of which were then surrounded by mounds of desert sand! Odd!

We rocked up to the beach front and our bush camp for the night which was basically on the public beach. Not the most peaceful of bush camp sites but very picturesque.

I dashed into town with Nienke and Jono to do some food shopping for cook group, then Nicole and I threw the tent up before dashing over the sand to a luxury spa resort with chalets, a bar, toilets, WiFi and a pool! We had decided not to upgrade due to the ridiculous price requested for the chalet but we still managed to make use of the pool by buying a soft drink….best bottle of sparkling water I have ever bought…got me use of WiFi, proper toilets, a swim and a shower! Small pleasures need to be taken where they can be found when bush camping!!

The next day we got up early and before doing anything Nicole and I scurried across the sand,in the dark, like assassins to sneak luxury resort to use the bathroom and the proper toilet…we were doing so well and almost made it until the local security guy caught sight of us skulking past, head torches off and in stealth mode! Damn! I then proceeded to explain that we had friends staying there…Richard and Rhona (who had paid for the upgrade) and that we needed to tell them we were leaving at 8am,,,at first he wasn’t getting it but after a few minutes of to-ing and fro-ing in French haggling over our entry, he succumbed believing they had massive suitcases to carry back across the sand and needed the extra time to make it to the truck before it left at 8am.

We headed to the restaurant, followed by the security guy who clearly didn’t believe us, wondering what the next part of our ruse would be as we only wanted to clean our teeth in running water and use a proper toilet quick! Thankfully and as if by magic, Richard and Rhona were breakfasting in the restaurant…allowing us to over dramatically voice the news that we were leaving at 8am (a fact they already knew) and that we had come to use the loo and that they needed to corroborate the story. The security guard seemed happy and left us, allowing us a brief moment to utilise the facilities before skulking back off to the truck back along the beach. We didn’t hang around to ‘help’ Richard and Rhona with their huge, non-existent suitcases!!!!!

So, the day started off excitingly and continued to deliver with an amazing sunrise and stunning scenery of pelicans, lakes and desert.

We drove for a hour or two before stopping to take pictures of us at the Tropic of Cancer.

We then drove through the desert again until we reached a local motel/hotel which initially was supposed to be a late lunch stop but as the option for bush camping near the border was not particularly safe, we were allowed to all have a free upgrade and stay at the hotel. We upgraded on top of the upgrade to get ourselves a room with its own bathroom and then proceeded to nap, do washing and WiFi for the rest of the day.

The next day was Saturday and our last in Morocco and the disputed region of Western Sahara, we were all up early and off for the rigmarole of our first border crossing. We arrived in good time to the Moroccan side and proceeded to fill forms and get stamped out relatively speedily, we then had to hang around in the weirdest no man’s land ever whilst the truck was scanned and all it’s paperwork checked. The no man’s land would not have looked out of place in the next Mad Max film…..sand, waste, plastic, broken down cars, parts of broken down cars, rusted hulls of cars, immigrants living in tents fabricated from cloth and plastic who are permanently trapped in no man’s land unable to enter Morocco and unwilling to return through the desert to where they had come from.

It was a pretty much lawless and not a place we wanted to hang around, especially as there were also a fair few UN vehicles dotted on the horizon and a whole host of gunning position hide outs.

We managed to get ourselves two cool looking dudes as ‘fixers’ who walked in front of the truck directing us around the carnage, sand dunes and land mines to the Mauritanian border where a guy dressed like an African Warlord complete with green beret directed us into the relevant building where we then spent the next few hours!

We found ourselves all shepherded into a hot open courtyard with nowhere to sit, some grotty toilets, an even more grotty kitchen and what can only be described as an interrogation room. We stood around for what felt like an age waiting for something to happen, a couple of European lorry drivers were taken off into the interrogation room and given their visas and then it was our turn. We had already been separated into two lines with men on the right and women on the left, we also had some locals that had rocked up after us and were trying to queue barge their way in front of us! Thankfully the guys in charge had clocked this and totally disregarded their pleas for jumping ahead of us, so the first 4 of our group were up….Me, Nicole, Nicola and Rhona. We entered the ‘interrogation room’ and stood around unsure as to what was going on…they collected our passports and then proceeded to bark at me to sit down on what looked like the chair from mastermind (a much grubbier version!!)

So there I was sat on the black leather chair, with a lightbulb hanging above me and all the windows black out with cardboard boxes….all very Hollywood espionage film-esquire!!!

One guy finally proceeded to type my passport details into an antiquated computer, ask me for finger prints and then pass my passport back to the other guy who seemed to scan it in using a very old scanner before the other guy printed out the visa. The standard of the IT equipment was such that all of their photos on the visa print out only in magenta because they haven’t got the yellow and blue toners! Apparently having a bright pink, unrecognisable picture was sufficient for forward travel in Mauritania so after the rest of the group were sorted we headed off with our magenta portraits!

We drove to the small Mauritanian town of Nouadhibou and to a tiny, crap campsite right in town. It was my turn on cook group again so I knocked up Moroccan Lamb Stew with rice for tea which, as we were now in Mauritania and we weren’t sure what the meat was, became Mauritanian Mutton Stew.

We had a windy night in the tent and learnt that Nouadhibou comes alive very early in the morning….exceptionally loud call to prayer, banging around and donkeys braying loudly outside! Still I have an early start anyway as I had to knock up plum porridge for breakfast.

After breakfast we left and embarked on a long 300 mile drive to the capital of Mauritania – Nouakchott.

The drive was similar to the previous drive days….dusty, sandy, desolate desert scrubland dotted with goats, camels and shacks.

Finally we arrived at our campsite for 3 nights….we weren’t overly impressed as it had crap wifi, no charging outlets and limited water. Still it wasn’t quite bushcamping so we made the best of it.

We stayed the first night, then the next morning we all spent a few hours doing a huge truck clean. We pulled the truck seats out, bashed all the dust out, swept, dusted, cleaned the windows, mopped and then pulled all the crates out and cleaned the contents. It’s quite therapeutic and essential when overlanding to prevent rats or other vermin getting into the truck and bringing in disease etc.

After the clean we grabbed a taxi into town….8 of us…in one taxi…Christ alone knows how we all squeezed with bags also! A few of the guys were going cook group shopping whereas Nicole, Nicola, Grant and I were going in to upgrade for the night and bag ourselves a decent hotel with a bed, hot shower, power and WiFi.

We charged electronic devices, sat under the air con, washed our clothes and had hot showers then headed up to the rooftop terrace for a civilised lunch before popping out into Nouakchott for a quick mooch about the shops. We had a small shopping list between us of shampoo, deodorant, rubber gloves (Nicola’s requirement for future truck clean), a Mauritanian flag for Brad, water, yoghurt drinks and some semi decent chocolate. We roamed about the market in the local vicinity which comprised of mobile phone sellers, street food, fruit and veg stalls and the odd flip flop stall. We were relatively successful and managed to sourced everything apart from the gloves.

One thing we noticed is that most of the cars are old Mercedes Benz’s which look like they have been recovered from the scrap head and given a new life. There were cars whose doors didn’t shut, cars whose boots flapped up and down as they bumped along the road, cars with no back windows or just no windows at all. I even saw one that looked like it had been burnt out and was still being driven! Crazy!

We then returned to our respective rooms to chill until dinner where we dined on the roof terrace taking in the wonderful pink sunset over Nouakchott.

The next day was a leisurely affair, we had a 2 hour late breakfast before Nicola and I headed out into town again, this time to find the National Museum which was relatively unknown and underfunded but had a small collection of ancient artefacts from Palaeolithic and Neolithic Mauritania and a small collection of ethnographic items, namely traditional clothes, fabrics, weapons and tools. We spent a good hour wandering around the 2 rooms learning something of the history of Mauritania which was great.

Afterwards we grabbed some fruit and a drink before returning to our air con for final charging, showers and WiFi. We had a slightly dramatic end to our hotel encounter when Nicola came knocking on our door to say that their shower screen had violently shattered sending chunks and shards of glass flying everywhere, cutting both of them in the process! Their bathroom looked like the scene of a crime…the hotel staff were very apologetic and thankfully both Nicola and Grant were able to utilise our shower before we set off back to camp for our final night.

As usual the taxi drive ended in an argument over cost, whereby we were quoted a cost by the hotel and the driver was trying to claim ten times that price. It ended in a stand off with the driver making numerous calls to the hotel receptionist and me getting more and more irate, thankfully in the end they conceded and we managed to off load the taxi driver and get on with putting the tent back up, chilling on the beach and having dinner.

Wednesday, our last day in Mauritania saw us leaving early, 7am, and heading out of Nouakchott on terrible roads which were part tarmac, part pot holed and part sand. The going was slow and took an absolute age and the amount of rubbish and plastic on the side of the road was horrendous!

We finished our long drive to the border with a 2 hour drive through a National Park which was lovely, there were birds a plenty…herons, cranes and pelicans, also warthogs, lizards and snakes. The trip turned into an impromptu safari which perked us all up.

Finally at 6pm ish we made it to the Mauritanian border and managed to all get stamped out before the very brief drive through No Man’s Land to the Senegalese border. By 7pm we were through and decided rather than bush camp to drive in the dark for an hour to our next campsite in St Louis. It was a long 14 hour day and we were all knackered so dinner was a quick sandwich affair followed by bed so we could wake up refreshed the next day and ready to take on Senegal and all St Louis had to offer.

Stay tuned for the next instalment where I will cover our first stint in Senegal which will cover St Louis and Dakar.

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