We set off at first light from Dakhla, aiming to get to the border early. As we passed further south, there was a noticeable increase in both police and military presence and there were multiple stops at police check points to hand over our fisches – a document we’d written with all our details on. At the checkpoint just before we left Western Sahara, we stopped and were greeted by a very officious looking policeman. He asked for our fisches and then found we were from Great Britain (no one really understands that Ireland is a separate country, much to my enjoyment and James disgust). He then proceeded to tell is a joke in flawless England, after discovering which part of London I was from and how near this was to “the Cockneys”. An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotmans…. This was not the hardcore police state we were expecting. He waved us off and wished us Good Luck in Mauritania.
We got to the border and flew through the Moroccan side, with the only hiccough being when the drugs dog launched into our car, only to complete his most thorough assessment by peeing on Stanley. It never ceases to amaze me that people are surprised you don’t know your way around border posts and wander aimlessly from one window to another until someone takes pity on you, but even saying this we were through in half an hour and out in to No Mans Land.
No Mans Land is an area of about 3km between the Moroccan and Mauritanian border which remains disputed. It was, once upon a time, covered with landmines placed in one of the many conflicts. Prior to going, we had been told to stay on the path to avoid accidents, but there was certainly no sign of landmines now with people wandering through the burnt out cars. It felt quite ominous, and we drove quickly over the non-existent roads. Later, we met a group of Dutch birdwatchers who overcame this feeling to bury 4 L of wine to ensure they had a tipple on their return trip!
Entering Mauritania felt like we were finally reaching Africa. The people were much darker, it was substantially hotter and had the African influence. We went from one office to the next, repeating our itinerary and having our details entered in various books. It was certainly poorer than Morocco, with some on the more senior Military officials sitting at desks in a shipping container with no fans or AC – alright today in Winter with temperatures of 30 degrees but potentially agonizing in the Saharan summer. After another hour and a half we were done and head off onto Mauritania, only to be stopped within 2km at a police checkpoint. This was clearly going to be a theme.
We spent the night in Nouadhibou, Mauritanias second biggest city - saying that it seems to be its only other city. A very pleasant little place which was friendly with the streets yet more full of donkeys than Morocco, being told about the town by the ladies as we walked around. We visited Cap Blanc in the morning, which is a Monk Seal Sanctuary on a peninsular far out of town. We were shown round by the military officer who seemed to be the tourism official for the town and saw a Monk seal. There are only 150 left in this colony which is the biggest and only viable group in the world, but only one seems to live here, the rest being further down the coast in a military base. It makes the machine gun mounted on top of our guides car possibly a little excessive protection for this one seal, but I’m sure he appreciates it.
We picked up maps for the Banc D’Arguin, a bird sanctuary on the coast, which included GPS coordinates and drove down the main road. At some point along this 400km stretch of nothingness in the middle of the Sahara, you have to take the leap of faith and drive at right angles to the one road in existence following the GPS coordinates as you drive over the sand. Trust me, that takes a fair amount of trust in satellites and I, for one, will never have anyone tell me my A level in physics was for nothing! We drove like this for 40km until we saw the sea and then scooted down the coast til we found a village of about 30 people and set up camp for the night. Just before the little village, we saw the first people we had in hours – a group of three Frenchmen who were waving frantically at us. Thinking they were being friendly we drove over to the men, dressed in their boxers with handkerchiefs over their head. “Three days!” “We could have died!” they shouted at us in extremely rapid French. After several “Pardon?” and “Repetitez sil vous plait” we got the gist that they been got stuck in the sand somewhere near by and been wandering the Sahara for three days. They had been very close to running out of water and had sent the fourth member of their group off to find the locals, who at that exact moment turned up. Luckily, because we had problems of our own. As a parting gift from my Mum, we had received a small pile of Marks and Spencers chocolates which I had stowed away in the dashboard for emergencies. This had seemed a very sensibly location, in England, when it was 2 degrees, but it had chosen this exact moment to melt through the glove box and cover the car, my legs and my shoes. What ensued was a very unusual situation with James trying to comprehend rapid emergency French from a selection of half naked castaways, while I screamed at him to help me as a swarm of flies descended upon my thighs.
We spent the next few days finding the inner twitcher. Flamingos, Pelicans, Spoonbills - there were some lovely birds. Some very lovely birds, it just turns out James and I don’t really care about birds… This feeling was very much solidified when on one of the nights we meet a large group of twitchers (quite intrepid twitchers I may add) and we teamed up for a day trip on a pirogue in the Banc D’Arguin. We were up at the crack of dawn, and had a rather enjoyable few hours sailing around the islands looking at the beautiful birds whilst having experts explain all about them, and by eleven we were quite happy with our lot. By four o’clock we were still on the islands, but now the wind had dropped and there seemed no way back. The captain explained we were to wait for the wind to come back and the tide to rise so we could get passed the islands. We waited. And waited. By seven o’clock even the twitchers had lost to will to twitch, as we floated 12km off to shore line waiting for the wind to pick up. It did not and eventually James and I fell asleep in the fishing nets, incredibly glad we had had the presence of mind to bring lots of water, and emergency biscuits whilst I thought up more and more inventive ways to have a pee off the boat . We didn’t land til nearly midnight and the only saving grace was at least we both smelt as bad as each other. The guide explained to us that they had very few tourists in the Banc D'Arguin, with 60 people having visited in 2013 and things now worse with the fear of islamic fundamentalism throughout the world. Our twitcher friends later visited the tourist information centre, and after reading the sign-in book realised that only one person had visited so far this year. To be fair, we would have visited but it wasn't on the tourist map so we hadn't actually known it had existed.
Tomorrow we head for the Senegalese border and onto a cold beer, something which I would have been very glad of after 16 hours in a fishing boat. If there are three rules for Africa, they are never pass a passable loo, allow a full day for a border crossing and never get on a bloody boat.
Liz Jarman & James Nunan
Our trip from Essex to Cape Town & back again
Km travelled : 50818km
Countries visited: 30