Unfortunately for us, this haven lay another 60 kilometres away in Nouadhibou, Mauritania’s second city; but fortunately for us, our newfound German / Austrian friends were heading the same way. In convoy, and in the dark (another rule in tatters), we arrived at Chez Abba and set up camp. In spite of the thumping club music from the establishment next door, we slept until the sun woke us the next morning.
Our original travel plan – drafted before the Arab Spring – included a visit to Atar and Chinguetti, and a chance to experience the Saharan landscapes. However, by the time we arrived in Mauritania in late 2012, the threat of terrorism and kidnapping was very real. Only a few weeks before, a French national had been kidnapped in southwest Mali, near the border with Mauritania. Being slightly risk-averse in these cases, we decided to change our route and stick to the wellused coastal road.
We were still determined to make the most of our time in Mauritania, and so decided to visit Parc National du Banc d’Arguin (pronounced locally as ban-dar-gin with a hard g as in gull); conveniently, it’s located 200 kilometres from Nouadhibou towards Nouakchott – the capital city – in the direction of Senegal. The park is a World Heritage listed site and lies on the migratory route for birds travelling between Europe and Africa. We also discovered that December / January is prime viewing time – perfect!
We departed from Nouadhibou on beautifully laid tarmac in the direction of Nouakchott, and very quickly experienced the true Mauritania. The wind was incessant. It never seemed to stop – only the strength varied, from a strong breeze to storm strength… or so it felt. It blew the fine desert sands across the road, making it difficult at times to see where the road’s edge started and ended. Clearly, the Mauritanians have learned to live with this: they wrap themselves up with almost no skin showing! Even eyes sport trendy sunglasses – an absolute essential. They have also come up with ingenious methods of protecting their cars, including covering the bonnets and headlights with plastic to prevent sandblasting.
Unsurprisingly, there was very little life or activity outside the main cities. Occasionally we would pass a few small settlements, which seldom consisted of more than a white tent, firmly staked at the corners. It looked, and felt, desolate and deserted.
The only regular signs of life were the numerous check-points – we must have passed almost 10 after leaving Nouadhibou. Each checkpoint – either military or police – asked us for a fiche. The fiche is a single page containing all our vital passport details, and is their way of tracking foreigners in the country. While I realise this is for your own safety (if you go missing, they know which part of the country to look for you) it does become tiring. Because of the wind, the officers are clothed from neck to foot, their heads are covered by a headscarf, and their eyes are covered by dark sunglasses. It’s quite daunting to be greeted by a “mummy with sunglasses” but most of the time they were very friendly and courteous.
At one checkpoint, the officer disappeared into his little hut, and we saw him making a phone call with our fiches firmly clutched in his hand. We waited and waited, nervously wondering about the reason for the call, and whether we were likely to be detained for some reason. After ten long minutes, he returned to the vehicle and waved us on. No explanation was given for the phone call. Only much later did we find out that he had called ahead to the park office to let them know that we were on our way. If only we had known!
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