Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pssst. Pssst. This is Nouakchott

There is officially nothing to see in Nouakchott. It's over 500km from Nouadhibou and though this is flat treeless Sahara country, the drive is bewitchingly beautiful as the sun sets. There are approximately 15 checkpoints between the two cities and they're generally brief affairs, more of a nuisance than an inconvenience. Nouakchott though should really have a sign reading 'Thank you for spending some time resting here on your way to somewhere more interesting'. It's physically impossible - for me at least - to leave the auberge where I'm staying between midday and 4pm on the two days I spent there with the temperature hovering at 40 degrees or above. It is the most intense heat which makes you feel as if you've been out on the lash for a week. But, well, this is the Sahara eh? The streets of the city are filled with money changers who hiss at you to get your attention - 'Pssst, pssst' - and the roads are clogged with remarkable looking cars about 30 years past their best. When they inevitably break down, it isn't a mechanic they'll be calling but an archaeologist.
Nouakchott's biggest selling point - apart from the ease with which you can get a visa at the Malian embassy - is its fish market or Porte de Peche as the locals call it. It's a daily event and it's one of those wonderful places where you get to watch west Africa reveal itself. It's a fish market by the sea and at about 3pm each day the boats start to return with their catch and it's once they come onshore that the excitement begins. Each boat crashes ashore, held in place by a crew of helpers who unload the boat of its enormous catch as the boat is buffeted by crashing waves. Like little piranhas, there are scores of young kids with their own nets who feast on the many fish who spill from the boats. In fact it isn't just the children - by 6pm when I'm leaving there are adults hauling sacks filled with fish from the scene, a larceny no-one cares about - there's plenty to go around.
And so you have dozens of boats crashing ashore, excited children sprinting from boat to boat filling their nets to bursting point, men with waterproofs and plastic creels racing back and forth to put the fish in ice - quite how anyone keeps a trace of who's caught what is absolutely beyond me. It's bedlam, a technicolour snapshot of Mauritania far removed from its colourless sand drenched cities.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


Not exactly, as you'll gather from the photos above, the pearl of the Atlantic - Nouadhibou is little more than a large coastal town which sits precariously on the Cap Blanc peninsula. Aside from its rich fishing waters, Nouadhibou also attracts a high number of foreign vessels due to its lax regulations which have meant that the waters off its shores have become something of a shipping graveyard. There is but one main street in the city along which there are various clothes shops, grocers, banks, restaurants and, it seems, enough hairdressers to make this the coiffeur capital of Africa. There are no menus in the restaurants here - if they’re not serving fish with rice then, quite simply, they’re not serving. If you don’t like fish or rice, you’re in the wrong place. All of the shop fronts are of uniform size which lends the place the feel of a village rather than a town which is home to 80,000 Mauritanians. There are a couple of ATMs in the city but Visa is king here which is useless to me but I’d already stocked up at the border.
At every street corner sits a man wearing a full head scarf and overcoat and selling mobile phone top-up cards. Business never seems to be booming. The breeze which has blown hard for the two days I’ve been here is welcome in that it takes the oomph out of the heat but it carries with it the stinging sands of the Sahara - a headscarf will be a prudent investment for this part of the world. It’s a hard place to live buffeted as it is by those sands all day every day. The sand is literally everywhere but the main street upon which the Mercedes is king. At least 70% of the cars here are old Mercedes and it seems as if 50% of those have shattered windscreens. Most eye-catching of all as I walk down the street are the clothes worn by many of the males here - draa - long, flowing, blue or light blue robes worn predominantly, it must be said, by the older generation.
It is cheap here though. It costs me 50c to use the internet for an hour, 80c for dinner - yes, fish with rice - and a nights’ accommodation in an auberge sets me back just under €8. Ultimately, although this is a drab little place, I’ve had a childish sense of excitement since I arrived here yesterday which is mostly down to the fact that I’m in a part of the world not very often seen. I’ve been here 24 hours now and there isn’t another traveller in sight which is no doubt down to the security warnings regarding any travel in Mauritania right now. There have been warnings posted regarding the potential kidnapping of westerners but I figure that I’m pretty safe; How can you kidnap a native of a land whose leader’s name is Inda?
I also get a taste of Mauritanian hospitality on a walk around the town today. I meet a guy on the street who invites me back to his place; “Come in, come in,” his words as he leads me to his house where he prepares tea - the longest, most intensive and convoluted tea making process I’ve ever witnessed and all of that for what amounts to a half of a shot glass of tea. Nice tea, mind, but surely not worth that effort. His English, like my French, is in need of polishing and so we nod and smile at each other throughout the hour I’m with him. Geography seems to be his favourite subject and he lists the names of several European countries and asks “Which capital?” I’m unsure as to whether I’m being tested or he’s genuinely curious. He asks me which countries I’m visiting in Africa, which leads to the following exchange….
Me: Senegal
Him: Is no good.
Me: Mali
Him: Is no good.
Me: Burkina Faso
Him: Is no good
Me: Um, I might go to Niger
Him: Is no good
Nigeria, apparently, is the only country in Africa, other than Mauritania of course, that he’d recommend I visit. This continues in our discussion of Europe and the rest of the world. Denmark, Sweden, Norway, France, Russia, Ukraine, England and many others are all dismissed as no good. The guy could have been a foreign affairs advisor to George W. Bush. But he does make a decent tea and he even offers to pay for a taxi to take me back to where I’m staying.

Finally...into Africa

Ah, now this is Africa! I finally feel as if I’ve crossed continents having left Morocco and entered Mauritania. I still see Morocco essentially as the end of southern Europe so it feels wonderful to be here in Africa at long last. Crossing the border - something I’m expecting to be fraught with administrative difficulties throughout west Africa - was surprisingly straightforward. I arrived in the border village of Guergarat on the Moroccan side and made my way through with not a taxi in sight. I needn’t have worried though because as soon as I stepped into no man’s land there, waiting almost with open arms, was Arturo Frontero, the self-styled saviour of many a cowed backpacker entering the corridor of uncertainty that is no man’s land on the way to the Mauritanian border. We quickly agreed on a price and he brought me to the Mauritanian side where the hassles - due in no small part to the fact that Arturo was widely known by all of the border officials - were non-existent. No man’s land was a depressing drive - an unpaved stretch of some 7km that served as a graveyard for many dead cars and little else besides.
A mere 5 minutes spent in the company of the Mauritanian officials and I was officially in Mauritania and speeding my way to Nouadhibou with the window down listening to a selection of Artruro’s favourites which included fucking ‘Sacrifice’ by Elton John which will now always remind me of Mauritania. Bastard. The window on the passenger side of Arturo’s taxi was stuck and wouldn’t go back up which became a problem as we drove to Nouadhibou and yours truly was whipped by Saharan sands. Every so often we’d pass a sign warning of unexploded mines on all sides - a legacy of Mauritania’s not so distant troubled past. The landscape on either side seemed to go forever - flat sandy terrain as far as the eye could see - a reminder of the vastness of this country which is twice the size of France. 75% of it is desert and it’s expanding southward all the time. On our way to Nouadhibou we had to slow several times for both the camels who sauntered across in front of us and the road block officials who want nothing more than a ‘fiche’ containing my personal details from me. Quite why they want to know my occupation every time they speak to me is beyond me but I’m hoping to have built up the courage to utter the words ‘camel mechanic’ before I leave the country in a few days.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Welcome to the twilight zone. Christ, this is Dakhla? The strangest and, in some ways, eeriest place I’ve been to in Morocco without question - I arrived here at 2pm on a Friday afternoon when you’d expect that the place would certainly betray some signs of life but Dakhla is curiously silent, strikingly so. As I strolled around the streets earlier looking for life, the only noise I heard came from the military air base built on the fringes of the town centre. Dakhla is 23 hours’ drive from Marrakesh and the drive probably wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated helped by the fact that the roads were impeccable all the way. Of course the reason for this is that because Western Sahara - the majority of which I’ve passed through now - is a disputed territory which Morocco is claiming for its own, the government is pouring millions into developing the roads and settlements in the region. There are grants and land available for those who are willing to be coaxed into living here. It’s like Morocco’s very own Gaeltacht.
The drive here almost had a very spectacular beginning as before we had even pulled out of the bus despot, the bus driver and a passenger had to be held apart and screamed obscenities at each other. Well, it was all in Arabic but it’s fair to say they were screaming obscenities at each other given their tone of voice and the fact that it was too early to compliment the driver on his driving. And it all blew out quickly as many of those ‘Hold me back, hold me back’ contretemps seem to do.
There’s nothing to see on the drive here however but sand flats on both sides and it's a 1,500km drive (the equivalent of a drive from Dublin to northern Italy for example). Upon leaving Marrakesh we did drive through the High Atlas mountains for some time but once we leave them behind it’s scrub desert all the way. The Moroccan military are everywhere to be seen along the road and our bus is stopped countless times by officials who clearly can’t be arsed mounting the bus to check on everyone’s passports and so we’re waved through more often that not. There’s a heavy military presence in every town and village throughout Western Sahara, each settlement appearing infrequently like a mirage on the horizon. This is flat country. It is quite beautiful to look at in a Blade Runner/Star Wars landscape way.
I’m not the only western on the bus though as I’m joined by a Dutch guy who’s cycling from north Africa down to the south if he can make it. Poor bastard though - he hadn’t done his research and was 40km out of Dakhla when he met some people who told him that the Mauritanian border officials had long since stopped handing out visas at the border and so he had to abandon his bike here in Dakhla and begin the relentlessly boring trip all the way back up to the Mauritanian embassy in Rabat, collect his visa and then jump on same bus right back down to Dakhla from where he’ll set off tomorrow. He doesn’t seem even slightly discomfited by this, as he put it himself “I have one year so there is no hurry”.
As is always the case whenever I’m sat upright be it on a train, bus or plane, there was no sleep whatsoever but I’ve found myself a cheap room in the Hotel Riad around the corner from the bus stop so it’ll be an early night. As Dakhla is about as interesting and as lively as Enniscrone in the depths of winter - Dakhla is also by the sea, a drab, nuclear looking sea mind you - I’ll be moving on tomorrow having figured out that there is indeed a bus to the border at 9am from where I’ll take a shared taxi to Nouadhibou. If all goes well then I should be in West Africa proper by this time tomorrow evening. I’ve been anticipating the iron-ore train now for some time but it looks unlikely as if it’ll come to pass now alas. Mauritania has, for some time, had a poor reputation where tourist safety is concerned and so any travel to the Adrar region - which is exactly where I would have been headed on board the train - is, at present, strongly discouraged. And so it now seems as if Mauritania will be a transit country only with a stop-off at Nouadhibou tomorrow and the capital Nouakchott a couple of days later before heading on to tangle with border officials at Rosso on the border with Senegal.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

To Mauritania

Time to move again. Today I board a Supratours bus bound for Dakhla, a mere 25 hours from Marrakesh and into the land of no return of Western Sahara. Dakhla's as far as I can get on public transport and from there I'll try to hitch a lift with someone heading in the same direction south to Nouadhibou, my first point of entry into Mauritania. Dakhla is deep into the disputed territory of Western Sahara and as such there'll be many roadblocks along the way - whether this is to tighten security or to offer the guards who patrol these roadblocks ample opportunities to ask for bribes is open to debate. We'll see.
Marrakesh has been a fantastic base though. Walked around Djemaa El Fna (I've never seen two consecutively similar spellings of the place even here in Morocco) one last time last night and it occurred to me that this rowdy square with its vertically challenged violin players, open to all boxing bouts, freakish Berber storytellers and their dancing shemale assistants, chaotic Moroccan music ensembles, philosophical debates, snake charmers and a whole lot else besides - it's like you picked the weirdest characters from a David Lynch movie and let them run free. Quite the most wonderful place.
I've loaded my mp3 player with podcasts and, ahem, helped myself to some new albums - Elbow, Edwyn Collins, Low, PJ Harvey and Mogwai to help me while away the endless day that lies ahead. All good though.

Jebel Toubkal

Ah, now after a three week lull what better way to get into the swing of things than to trek to the summit of the tallest peak in the High Atlas mountain range? This is what makes Morocco such a wonderful country for me - within a two hour drive of Marrakesh you can find yourself at the foothills of Jebel Toubkal, at 4,167 metres North Africa's highest peak. I got back to Morocco on the 16th March - Paddy's Day is shit anyway - and had 8 days to kill before I could enter Mauritania so I decided to hit the hills again.
The base for trekking on JT is the village of Imlil which is about two hour drive in a grand taxi from Marrakesh. I spent the first night in a little réfuge in Imlil, the owner of which seemed a very agreeable woman upon arrival but quickly morphed into a cleanliness freak who, almost literally, followed me around the place rearranging anything I put my hand on. I sat on her couch and she emerged from a back room to rearrange the cushions I'd put behind my back as I sat there. She spoke no English and I speak whatever French Miss Dennedy drilled into me back in the day and so communication was limited to my shrugs and muted apologies and her sighs of frustration and not so muted exasperation at my presence there. Little wonder I was the only guest there.
I wandered around Imlil and venture into an mountaineering equipment sore to see if crampons would really be necessary for climbing Toubkal in March. I've never worn crampons before and was hoping that in mid-spring the going would be good enough to go without specialist equipment. But no, crampons were essential and I was given a swift demonstration of how to attach them to my boots. I feigned understanding reasoning that I'd tie them my own way when I needed them.
Spent the night chéz Miss Clean Freak and hit the trail the following morning having left as many crumbs on the floor following breakfast as possible. It surprised me that she wasn't there to catch each one as they fell. On the trail it was a pretty steady upward climb all the way to the village of Sidi Charmhamouch and from there it was snow all the way, though firm enough for me not to need the crampons just yet. The mountain réfuge was four and a half hours away, some 950 metres from the base of Toubkal and the place was surprisingly busy. The views everywhere were stunning - the réfuge is at 3,200m and there's snow in all directions.
I hit the trail the following morning at 6am, taking 20 minutes to properly strap on the crampons, one of which came loose after 10 minutes of trekking. I've never done a snow trek before and this was tough going but the rewards were in direct proportion to the effort required. It took just under three hours to reach the oddly shaped summit marker atop Toubkal and the views in all directions were majestic. By now I couldn't feel my toes or my fingers but I didn't care for the 15 minutes I spent gazing in all directions. Hard to believe as I stood there that I was just two hours from the chaos of Djemaa El Fna but such is the joy of Morocco.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Into Africa!

Right now Morocco seems like the cleanest and most hygienic nation in the world. It isn’t of course but coming hot on the heels of India, so it seems. I love Morocco - I came here about 6 years ago visiting Fez, Marrakesh, Meknes and Chefchaouen - and the reason I’m here is twofold; I got a cheap flight from Mumbai to Casablanca and I have to go to Rabat to get my Mauritanian visa. Morocco, it seems, is the only north African country that isn’t kicking off right now. There have been demonstrations in Casablanca but Morocco is a pretty settled country and so the chances of, say, a Libyan or Egyptian situation arising here are pretty small. And everything here seems so remarkably easy now too - buying a train ticket without being taken from behind in a queue, finding a carriage on the train that doesn’t have 24 people where there should be 8, and walking around the streets seemingly invisible to the wider Moroccan population - I’m loving it.
Rabat, which I’d never been to, is a surprisingly lovely city. I’d steered clear on my last visit because it was the capital city and it didn’t have any of the allure of classic Moroccan cities like Fez or Marrakesh. But for the 3 days I’m here it’s beautiful. I stay at the HI hostel close to the medina and meet not just an Irishman but a Sligoman - from Ransboro of all places. The old city is charming and it’s easy to settle in with the locals in the cafés drinking thé a la menthe and munching on cous cous. I’m here though to get my Mauritanian visa and, again, this proves disarmingly easy, in fact the consular section opens early to hand out visa application forms. It takes 24 hours to process and I’m back the next day to collect what essentially will be a transit visa for me as Mauritania is somewhere that I have to travel through on my way to Senegal where a visa is not necessary.
Morocco is a very gentle introduction to Africa though - the rail and bus system here are of a western standard and, in general, it‘s a relatively wealthy country. The next step is to figure out exactly how I’m going to get down through Western Sahara and Mauritania and into Senegal. Time permitting I’ll take the iron ore train across to Choum and then travel down to Atar from where I can explore the Sahara. The train is 2.3km of carriages transporting iron ore and a solitary ‘passenger’ carriage at the rear. There are two benches and it’s first come, first serve for those - if you don’t get a place on the benches you sit on the floor or you stand. If you wish you can climb into the ore cars themselves and travel for free but this is for masochists only apparently. The whiff of adventure is in the air again.