“Dawn and dusk – these are the most pleasant hours in Africa. The sun is either not yet scorching, or it is no longer so – it lets you be, lets you live.” (Rysard Kapuscinski)

“This visa has expired”. The green-uniformed Police officer removed the wooden twig he’d been using to clean his teeth with and looked up at me. “It finished on February 3rd. Today is the 9th”. He spoke calmly and his English  was surprisingly fluent. As he thumbed through the other pages of my passport I proceeded to question whether February 3rd was  not the last day on which I could enter Mauritania and that my entry stamp to the country would give me another 30 days. The passport was handed to an older officer who was sitting on a wrought iron bed and drinking tea. He studied it upside  down for  half a minute and muttered something in Arabic. “You must make an extension in Nouakchott. It is 470km exactly” said the first officer. “Bon route“.

Over-staying a visa in some countries can be a big problem – an opportunity for under-paid immigration officials to make some extra cash. Pushing the  bike back onto the road I hesitated for a moment and wondered whether  it would be better to take a bus to the capital. Sand was blowing across the tarmac like an evil vapour and the northerly wind was against me.  In 40km I would be changing direction though – east for 50km then south to the capital. I decided to forget about the visa and just start turning the pedals.

Red road to Nouakchott

The sea was close by but mostly out of vision as I pedalled back along the peninsula that had brought me to Nouadibou. To my left a railway line  ran parallel  to the road, cutting across the sand like an artery into a vast emptiness. This is Mauritania’s only railway line – a 704km single track that reaches deep into the desert and is used to transport Iron ore to the coast. At over 2.5km  in length the train is one of the World’s longest. I watched it slowly roll past several hundred metres away. The final few carriages are reserved for passengers. Several months ago I considered using it to venture to the town of Atar, from where another road leads back to the capital, but then I imagined my bike slung on top of a heap of dirty ore and lost the inclination.

Mauritanian Iron Ore Train

There can’t be many other countries in the World that rival Mauritania for having so little traffic passing between the two largest cities. I expected big diesel-spurting trucks, speeding mini-buses and even quicker cars to be racing passed me all day. I wasn’t on the road long before realising it would be mostly me, with the now familiar sand and wind as company.

The tarmac beneath me was in fact super smooth and very new. Before 2005 the only way to travel between Nouadibou and Nouakchott was by either driving along the beach at low-tide or truly through the desert on a piste road. I’m not sure it would have been possible in anything other than 4-wheeled drive vehicles or off-road motorbikes.

On the subject of which I was passed sometime later in the afternoon by a familiar looking bike. I  knew the driver as he’d been staying in the same hotel as me in Nouadibou. He had introduced himself as Tango from Lithuania. I never learnt his real name. He left Lithuania (a country I know as much about  as Mauritania) 6 months ago with the plan to ride through Europe then find a boat to South America. I’ve met similiar foreigners whose pre-departure planning before a big trip doesn’t venture much beyond looking at a World map and saying to themselves “I’ll go to the port and find a boat to take me across that ocean”. Tango had been hanging around Bilbao and Layounne for weeks and had now realised that it was a bit of an illusion, unless you are lucky or have contacts, to simply find a boat and think you can get a free ride to another continent. The reality is that sea travel on container ships is actually far more expensive than air travel. His problem of course is that he is on a Motorbike.

Tango the Lithuanian

“You forgot this”. He pulled over ahead and handed me a copy of a poem that he’d found on a popular website (I’ve added it here at the bottom). Tango was now planning to ride all the way to South Africa with 1600 Euro to get him there. He will have to budget hard, but this is a man quite happy to eat sardines for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We got on well. He offered to tow me, but I reminded him of my experience the previous week with the dogs. Fortunately I had no canine encounters of a similar nature on this stretch of road.

As the sun kissed the horizon later that day I scanned the roadside for somewhere to camp. The landscape could not have been flatter. No sign of a hummock, a mound or some  small shrubbery to pitch my tent behind. I only feel safe if I’m out of sight from  the road. I reminded myself of the FCO warnings for the country – “We advise against all travel”, and had earlier wondered whether it was irresponsible to be travelling here, as well as naive to think that riding a poor man’s form of transport put me at a lesser risk of being kidnapped?

An indistinguishable wooden building soon came into sight ahead. It looked like it had been put together from various scraps of material salvaged over the years. Planks of  different sized wood had been nailed together and fishing nets draped over the roof. The doors were locked with large padlocks, but the sand-floored envrions in front of the building provided shelter from the wind. A truck was parked alongside and a young man was talking into his mobile. When the conversation ended he greeted me in Arabic with a smile. He certainly didn’t look like he was about to kidnap me and was more interested in getting the small pile of charcoal that he’d thrown onto the sand nearby properly lit. Within minutes the dying wind did the rest of the work in keeping the embers glowing. The small tea-pot of water soon came to the boil. He filled two small glasses and I offered him a cigarette.

By this stage he knew my intention to spend the night here. I’d asked in French and gesticulated with my head leaning on raised palms. There was little other conversation between us that evening. I later boiled up some pasta and mixed it with sardines, tomatoes, onion and cheese. He rejected the fork, took several mouthfuls with his right hand, then thanked me and disappeared into his truck to use the phone. That’s my breakfast sorted for tomorrow I thought.

Night shelter

He was gone when I got up the following morning. The  sound of the engine starting then warming had stirred me from my sleep earlier. It was 6.30am and another hour before the sun would begin it’s daily journey through the big blue overhead.  This was a good time to be starting on the road too – great light for photography and cool temperatures before the midday assault. I was too lazy and snug in my cocoon.

At the first police check post a few hours later the officer was curious to know where I’d spent the night. I told him a service station I’d passed the previous afternoon. I could have said the truth, but sensed this would have displeased him. He asked for my passport then scribbled the details down on the back of an empty packet of Marlboro reds that he picked up from beside his left foot.“Où vous dormir ce soir?” I said the next service station. It was a good answer. I felt reassured by his concern for my security, but the last thing I wanted was for him to become paranoid and provide me with a police escort all the way to Nouakchott. After a few hours of looking over your shoulder and seeing a police vehicle tailing you it becomes quite irritating.

The temperature increased on the second day and by mid-morning I’d already drunk several litres of water. I seem to be collecting more bottles the further south I go. I totted up the total volume to 12 Litres, 8 of which were bungeed onto the front rack. It’s perfectly designed for this and will happily hold another 2-4 litres, which will be necessary in the months to come. Shade at the roadside was minimal. From a distance the sight of small trees  teased me with such a possibility, but they were impossible to reach without walking through deep and un-rideable sand.

Lone tree

The map showed no marked settlements so I made sure I always had around 10 Litres of water. Police check-posts offered one possibility to fill up, as did the rare service stations (3 in total I think). There were also small buildings and tents advertising camel milk for passing motorists or even calling themselves ‘Auberges’. Most appeared abandoned.

Desert dwellings

I stopped in a typical road-side tent to shelter from the midday sun. An old man in a blue kaftan entered the tent. I greeted him in Arabic and pointed to the sun “Il fait chaud. Puis-je me reposer ici pendant trente minutes”? He agreed, then asked for 2000 ouguiya (7 Euro). I laughed then he laughed and the price dropped to 1000. I thought it was a joke. I merely wanted to rest, eat my lunch and continue. Tea was offered for an equally absurd price, by which time a woman and child had appeared.  “Cadeau?” I know I’ll here this word a lot in Francaphone Africa. I produced a packet of biscuits. It was a minor distraction whilst I went about making a sardine sandwich.

Oh, but I’ve forgotten to mention the flies. There were hundreds of them – small, lively and the kind that land in the same spot within a few seconds of being waved away. With my right hand holding the sandwich my left hand was needed to constantly circle the space in front of me. It might have appeared comical. It wasn’t. The old man later returned and asked for my sardines, then pointed at my clothes. It was pretty desperate. I left him with the flies and headed back into the sun.

It wasn’t the reception I’d expected out in the desert. When I later found another tent and asked a woman dressed in a black mulafa (veil) if  I could rest the night here she used her big right toe and wrote 2000 on the sand beneath. I was more willing to pay and bargained her down to 1000 ouguiya. She refused then accepted when I started to walk away. I wondered if this was inappropriate, but knew she would never ask for this kind of money from a passing local motorist.

On one side of the tent several camels were being fed and on the other a herd of scrawny goats had come to rest. I later realised one of the small buildings was a shop. I never investigated what was inside. The family living here paid me scant attention. Maybe they would have been friendlier had I not deprived them of the 1000 ouguiya?

Room for the night

The heat was on again the next day and I was drinking like a fish. My clothes were salt-stained and my head started to hurt. I drank more but knew I needed to replenish my body with salts. Similar headaches had occurred when I cycled through India. I rested again in a tent. This time it was women and children who followed me inside. They were as irritating as the flies. I unearthed another packet of biscuits and watched them watching me eating the last of my bread and sardines. They seemed oblivious to the flies that were landing on their face. An older women came to shout at them for taunting me. By this stage I’d been defeated so moved on a kilometre down the road where a small wooden building offered enough shade. I drank a can of coke and could hear a distant roar. The sea was close by and soon after came into view. It was a tonic to my eyes.

The capital was close now. A French man in a 4-wheel drive told me 90km as we both waited for our passports to come back from the police at another check-post. He had several passengers in the back – pale-faced and curious to know how I could cycle through the desert. “What time did you leave Nouadibou this morning”?, asked one as he lowered the tinted window and looked out at me. Nouadibou was 350km away. It’s a bit far for one day I remarked. “Is this your holiday”?, he then asked. I laughed. “Kind of yes”. They assumed I was cycling to the World cup when I said I would continue to South Africa. Many people have asked this. It will be long finished by the time I arrive.

At times the desert here was more scenic than the vast swathes of hamada that had accompanied me in Morocco. Dunes met the road, their velvety sides and wind-crested peaks making me think of an enormous tub of half-eaten vanilla ice-cream. When the sun had less strength they were at their most scenic.

Dream desert

Desert talk from Peter Gostelow on Vimeo.

On the last night in the desert I slept 45km outside the capital. The lights from the city were visible in the night sky, but the stars still shone with a brilliance. It was an unremarkable spot and I slept peacefully until a screaming sound woke me an hour before day-break. It wasn’t a dog and when I later got up for my morning pee I watched a long-eared animal surveying me from a distance. It was a jackal.

Entering capital cities can be a mission on two-wheels. In Nouakchott there are no huge industrial or residential districts to navigate through. I pulled over at the first well-stocked shop. An overweight woman was shouting at the shopkeeper who seemed to not notice my presence. A darker skinned assistant was removing food items from a shelf and seemed incapable of serving me. I helped myself to a can of coke, put the correct amount of money on the counter and walked back outside to sit on a step and drink it. A smug sense of satisfaction ran through me as I watched the scenes in front of me. A light-skinned man wearing a starched white kaftan was instructing several black Mauritanians to push start his pick-up. Nearby a several goats crossed the road and a camel with its hind leg roped to a stake was drinking water from a bowl. I looked down at my shirt and shorts .They were stiff with salt. I was in need of a good shower and rest. After that I was interested to find out more about this city. Oh, and my visa needed extending.

Self timing

Why go?

“‘Why do you do it?’ friends often ask, perplexed,
Brows raised, minds sorely vexed.
‘The world out there is dangerous!
Aren’t you scared? Why do this?
You need steady work, a house, two cars!
You have only a motorbike, and sleep under stars!’

Dear friend, if you must ask, you cannot know
This curiosity that drives me so.
To you it is hidden; in me rises unbidden!
But one day the world I’ll have ridden
By iron steed, then perhaps this need
Will have vanished, finally vanquished!
That day will find me on deathbed,
With no regrets for the life I led.

Will you be able to say the same?
Or will you despair a life worn plain?

I will stake my Himalayan memories
Against your estate of a thousand trees.
Pit my Thai sunset
Against your private jet.
Weigh my horse rides at sunrise
To your Italian suits and ties.
I’ll rejoice in friends before I go,
Not the figures of my stock portfolio.

And, amazingly, there are more like me;
They reject slavery, and are truly free.
They took the chance we all had,
And honestly it makes me sad
That you didn’t.
You thought you couldn’t…
Live without the luxuries
Of all our modern amenities?
You choose the bonds of mortgage, but claim to be free,
Wasting a lifetime absorbed by TV.
Why watch it? but live it!
One life’s all you get!
Don’t put off ’til morrow and continue to borrow
The lives of strangers; ’tis the greatest of dangers
To the soul
Which grows old
Before its time.

Hercules, Columbus,
Guevara, Odysseus,
Champlain, Agamemnon,
The list goes on…
What have they in common?
Regardless man or god,
The soil of continents they trod,
Not in search of gold but adventure!
Not growing old ’cause they ventured
Far from safety; but far be it from me
To Judge…
The pitiless pity us
With souls black pitted.
Pray! save it for those less spirited.
For us… our horizons are unlimited.”

by James Richmond, Canada, in India