The tarmac abruptly stopped beyond the Moroccan border post. Ahead lay a wasteland of abandoned vehicles and chassis – rusting victims from the land mines that litter the several kilometres of no-mans-land separating Morocco and Mauritania. I felt like I’d been thrown into an army training obstacle course as a series of corrugated piste tracks traversed this war-zone. There was little indication of which one to follow, nor anyone to ask. Cycle off in the wrong direction for 50 metres and I might have joined the unlucky souls who’ve perished here before me. It seems a ridiculous situation that neither country can agree to lay down a few kilometres of tarmac in this disputed and troubled region of the Sahara.
When I spotted the green flag with its golden crescent fluttering up ahead I breathed a sigh of relief. A tall and burly guard laughed as I bumped my way back onto the asphalt and handed over my passport. Ten metres ahead several eager-eyed money-changers waited for an opportunity to make a commission. They didn’t get it. I briefly considered resting at the border for the night having already cycled 140km, but one look at the signposted Auberge and I decided to push on for the remaining 50km to Nouadibou.
If I’d followed the FCO guidelines for travelling to Mauritania I wouldn’t have come here at all. In summary it advises against almost all travel to the country based on the threat of terrorist kidnappings that have taken place in the last year. It’s quite a contrast from the Lonely Planet guidebook, which describes it as a “gentle introduction to sub-Saharan Africa.. a magnetic playground for mystical types” and a country with “a lot to love”.
Having seen dozens of sponsor-emblazoned 4x4s trumpeting some west African rally/challenge and various ostentatious overland vehicles making their way south through Morocco I really had few fears about entering Mauritania. Their drivers might have seen me as being more vulnerable on a bicycle, but surely any would-be-terrorist would recognise richer rewards behind the windows of one of these vehicles?
Nouadibou is Mauritania’s second city and it sits on a peninsula of land reportedly surrounded by some of the most densely stocked fishing quantities in the World. The wind was behind me again as I raced to reach the place before sunset, but 10km out the rear tyre went flat. I stopped to fix the second puncture of this journey so far, trying in vain to ignore the sand filling my ears.
A Mercedes heading towards the city slowed to stop and the driver shouted something out of the window about owning a hotel. He was waiting for me thirty minutes later at a police check-post. The light was now fading and I was entering the city at the worst time. I was too tired to find my orientation so followed him down various sand-filled streets into a residential district. The electricity in the city was down. For a moment I felt a wave of paranoia as I stepped into a dark room and an empty hotel whilst the owner spoke in a mixture of French and English that was more comical than comprehensible.
It wasn’t until the next day that I began to take stock of my surroundings. I walked the 3km into what is classed the centre and quickly realised what a complete mess this city is. Goats scavenge on heaps of rubbish that lie upon the sand and shell-filled road-side, whilst rusting ship containers and make-shift wooden shacks make convenient homes for a diverse range of west Africans (Senegalese Gambian, Liberian, Malian, Nigerian) who’ve made their way here. Most see the city as a spring-board to the Canary islands and Europe. It’s a desperate scene and for the first few hours came as something of a culture-shock. The streets resemble a building site, a refuse dump and a vehicle scrapyard at the same time, and apparently I’m in one of the more affluent suburbs.
The owner of my hotel is called Abdullah. He greets me saying “How are you fine” every time we meet. There is a recent picture of him sitting alongside the Mauritanian president and Colonel Gaddafi, and another of him in more youthful days shaking hands with Francois Mitterrand. He says he has a government job yet drives to the border every day looking for possible guests for this hotel. I’m trying to make sense of it all. A Liberian man works here and speaks fluent English. He came by invitation to play football for FC Nouadibou, but was thrown out of the squad for refusing to become a Muslim. Now he works for Abdullah, who hasn’t paid him in 6 months. He wants to return home and was excited to hear that I plan to visit Liberia. “You will be very welcome. The people in my country are not racist”.
I hasten to use the expression ‘the real Africa’, but I feel a marked difference in crossing the border from Morocco. I expect my surroundings to be cleaner, calmer and a little more familiar as I prepare to cycle the 500km of desert that separate me from the capital – Nouackchott. Or maybe not.