I followed a Toyata land cruiser out of Nouakchott. Sidi Ali, who’d been my excellent guide to the city, offered to escort me onto the right road towards Senegal. As we said goodbye he gave me some advice. “Make sure you tie your bicycle chain around your ankle when you get there”. How reassuring I remarked.
Bad-mouthing the people who live in your neighbouring country seems to be commonplace all over the World. Moroccans will warn you about being kidnapped in Mauritania , just as Indians will happily tell you Pakistanis are all terrorists and the Chinese might attack the Japanese on the subject of war crimes. I’m struggling to think of a country I’ve travelled through where someone has remarked about their neighbours “You will love it there. The people are so kind and friendly”.
The desert finally started to change as I sped over the shell-speckled tarmac. Trees, yes trees – small and sporadic at first, slowly became larger and more numerous. The sand was still there, more so than ever in fact with some fantastic wind-whipped dunes to boast, but I could sense the end of the long road through the Sahara was finally coming to an end.
Buildings, often just square one-storey concrete grey blocks, dotted the roadside like bits of loose and broken lego waiting to be cleaned up. It was hard to tell if they collectively constituted a village – so strung out, isolated and lifeless as they appeared. None would have shown on any map and it was hard to delineate where one settlement ended and the next began.
I slept in one of these nameless places during my first night out of Nouakchott. Two teenage boys had waved me down at the roadside as the light was fading. They pointed to a building when I explained I wanted to rest the night. Five minutes later, after pushing the bike through the sand, I met an old women dressed in black. The widowed Grandmother I guessed. She took one look at me, muttered something to the boys then disappeared.
“You must pay 10,000 ouigaya” one said (30 Euro). I laughed. The door to a concrete box was opened. It was probably about 40C in there. I explained I would sleep in my tent instead, so began to pitch it 50 metres away. “It is dangerous here. There are goats and donkeys at night”. I was surprised they spoke English. Their school was visible close by so I asked if I could sleep there. A resounding “no” was the answer.
Word of my presence soon spread. Half a dozen more children showed up. Curiously there were no adults. They sat and watched me boil up some pasta, observing the multi-fuel stove like an alien object. To them it was, like most of what was visible beside my tent.
If I hadn’t just cycled 160km I might have shared some of the pasta out, but there were simply too many stomachs to feed and I was famished. I gave the oldest boy some money to buy biscuits from a nearby tin-shack shop. He returned and obediently handed them back to me. This surprised me. I opened both packets and instructed that they were for everyone. Bodies quickly rose from the sand and their was babble of shouts as the eldest boy shared them out.
In the morning these young faces greeted me again. Some were going to the school. It was a good opportunity to ask me for a pen, some money, a notebook or any cadeau amongst all the foreign objects. I left them disappointed.
These calls of “donnez moi cadeau” continued as the vegetation and settlements increased towards the border with Senegal. I waved, smiled and half-pretended I hadn’t heard them with the Ipod playing. I expect these calls to accompany me throughout much of Francophone Africa.
The settlements and traffic ceased later in the day when I turned off the main road onto a piste track. This followed the banks of the River Senegal, which acts as the national border between Mauritania and Senegal. The river itself remained invisible, but I could sense it was close. Reeds and small waterways bordered the road and birds darted their way through the cloudless sky.
The desert had finished but the heat had increased. I stopped to rest under the shade of an acacia tree and remained there for a good few hours. This may well become a pattern throughout Africa. Several hundred metres away a small family of warthogs crossed the road. The following morning I saw one much closer when I stepped out of my tent for a morning pee. It looked vicious and capable of harm. I later passed a sign warning me of ‘animaux savage’, but whenever these small ugly beasts saw me they sped away quickly with their tales held high.
A National Geographic documentary on penguins was playing in the immigration office later that day. It was mid-afternoon and the temperature about 40C. The immigration officer was reclined on a foam mattress on the floor and totally absorbed by the TV. Alongside me was a group of sun-burnt middle-aged French tourists. Their car had passed me by an hour or so earlier. They ignored me so I chose to ignore them. My passport was soon stamped in a separate room and the immigration officer made some remark about seeing me the day before.
The main river channel finally came into view as I pedalled across a dam. This was effectively the no-mans land. There was no-one manning the barrier at the other end so I ducked on under, expecting to hear a whistle or shout. None came. The tarmac returned and I soon had a Senegalese stamp. No visa needed, no money, no questions. It was a good start to country number six of The Big Africa Cycle.
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