11 – 27th December 2004 – Nouakchott, Mauritania

Hello everyone!  It’s now over three weeks since the last update, and leaving Laayoune certainly feels like a long time ago.  We’ve passed a few milestones too since then, having entered the tropics just south of Dakhla and crossed the 7500km mark (a quarter of the total distance if all goes to plan) not long afterwards.

Our first couple of days out of Laayoune carried on much as before, with settlements not too widely spaced to make convenient overnight stops.  First came the small roadside hamlet of Lemsid, where the friendly café owners let us camp nearby, before a short day to Boujdour, a fishing town with a handful of small hotels, restaurants and shops.  We followed two lorries through the town, amused by the camels peering over the sides at the passing streets!  Most of the afternoon was spent shopping for food supplies in the market and various grocery stores, as for the next three days to Dakhla we couldn’t be sure of finding any shops.  Fortunately we were able to get reliable information about the location of cafés and petrol station where we could fill up with water, as we wanted to avoid carrying too much!  Nevertheless, as we left Boujdour at dawn the following morning, our panniers bulged with an extra 15 litres – enough for our first overnight camp and the whole of the following day.  The map showed a settlement, Echtoukan, around 150km away, which we were confident of reaching by the following afternoon to refill.  (Incidentally, if you’re reading this and are interested in the practicalities, have a look at the information we’ve put together on our page about the Atlantic Route.)

The first thing we noticed as we cycled past the police checkpoint on the outskirts was the wind.  Prevailing winds around here are from the north-east, which would have suited us nicely, as our road headed basically south-west for the next several hundred km.  We were in for a bit of unusual weather though (of which more later) and a strong southerly breeze was the first sign.  Wind is much, much worse than hills, so we were unable to appreciate the dead flat terrain as we battled along at 10 or 12kph, hunched over the handlebars.  Despite our early start and pressing hard all day, we managed only 100km that day before finding a secluded camping spot a few hundred metres off the road and pitching the tent.  A small open fire to cook our dinner, amazingly bright stars, and the gentle sound of far-off Atlantic breakers crashing against the shore more than made up for the day’s trials, and by 9pm we were sound asleep.

We had hoped to reach Dakhla, at the end of a 40km-long peninsula, after three days cycling from Boujdour, but by the time darkness fell on the second day, the continuing headwind meant we still had over 160km to go.  Nevertheless we went to sleep hoping for a favourable wind in the morning – we knew that if the wind would just turn, with an early start and this flat road we could make it in a day.  Unfortunately it wasn’t to be.  We were up at 5.15am, packed the panniers and ate breakfast in the dark, and were on our way just as day broke.  Within a couple of kilometres, a rainbow in the morning sun suggested all was not as it should be, and soon we were cycling into a gusting headwind, with rain blowing into our faces.  Yes, we are still in the Sahara…  We pressed on through the gloom, hoping that things would improve, and by lunchtime the rain at least had moved on.  The headwind was relentless though, and by sunset, after 9 hours in the saddle out of an 11-hour day, we had reached the end of the peninsula, 40km short of our target.  Thankfully Moroccan hospitality came to the rescue once again, and an invite to sleep in the back of a café led to us pitching the tent outside and enjoying a warm meal and lots of tea.

So our planned rest day in Dakhla didn’t materialise, and 36 hours later we were back at the café, having cycled down the peninsula and back again.  We were loathe to make work for ourselves, but the town offered the only chance to buy decent provisions in the 900km stretch from Laayoune to Mauritania.  We were glad of the detour however, on checking our email in the town’s cybercafé, as Anna’s family had sent news of an excellent Christmas present…

These long days through the desert were becoming something of a routine by now – the alarm set for a pre-dawn start, and our morning pattern well worked-out.  It may be an exaggeration that the desert is “boiling by day, freezing by night”, but the night-time temperatures certainly made us glad of our sleeping bags and fleeces were needed first thing in the mornings.  On the first night after leaving Dakhla, Luke was woken in the early hours by the tent flapping in an unfamiliar way – a northerly breeze!  It’s hard to imagine what a difference this made – the following day, despite a slightly later-than-usual start, we covered 125km and felt as though we’d had a day off!  A new menace came in the form of jerboahs, desert rodents which were attracted to our food, water or rubbish, and kept us awake several times with their scrabbling.  One sleep-deprived night we were driven to try catching them in empty water bottles, but when we let them go some way from the tent they soon found their way back!

During these stages, we had some stunning campsites – one of the highlights of a pretty monotonous landscape.  Sometimes we camped near a dune (although airborne sand put us off this!), sometimes near the sea, and sometimes just behind a bluff a little way from the road.  One night, after a long ride to a spot near the Mauritanian border, we picked a seemingly sheltered spot and started pitching the tent.  Just as we had the pegs all in place, a huge gust picked it up, ripped the pegs out of the sandy earth and blew the tent up into the air.  As we grabbed it and wrestled it to the ground, we heard a sickening crunch as one of the poles snapped.  Simultaneously sand was blown into the air and settled in our panniers and the food we were preparing for dinner.  Then Luke discovered that the stove was clogged with sand, and everything seemed to be going wrong…  Half an hour later, though, we were settled down in a better spot a short distance away, with our dinner cooking over an open fire, and the sun setting behind the dunes, and life didn’t seem so bad.  It’s definitely true that the highs are higher and the lows lower when you’re living like this, but we both feel happier and more relaxed than we have done for years.

As planned, we reached the border four days after leaving Dakhla, and crossed into Mauritania without problem.  Our passports are starting to fill up now with visas, exit and entry stamps, and looking back through the pages we see that we spent over two months in Morocco and Western Sahara.  We both agree it has been our favourite country so far, not always easy but the landscapes, architecture and above all boundless hospitality more than compensated for the occasional discomforts.  Speaking of discomforts, Anna in particular had been dreading the state of the road in Mauritania, and we were relieved to find the tarmac again after just a few kilometres of sandy piste through no-man’s-land (again, more practical information here).  After a hot afternoon cycling down yet another peninsula we reached Mauritania’s northern town, Nouadhibou.

When you imagine a country’s second city, the reality of Nouadhibou is not what springs to mind.  A typical street scene consists of a dozen wandering goats (chewing on litter in the absence of any grazing) blocking the road in one direction, while a donkey cart coming the other way is being simultaneously overtaken by two battered, patched-up Mercedes saloons – one on the outside, the other crossing the 6-inch deep layer of sand which passes for a pavement.  Add in itinerant cigarette vendors, crates of fresh fish and gaggles of children and you get the picture!  Not the most relaxing introduction to Mauritania after the peace and quiet of the desert…  We found refuge in a small auberge, run by Momo and Fanta, a pair of the many Senegalese immigrants here.  The first rest day in 10 days’ cycling was greatly appreciated, as was the chance to restock with provisions (albeit at inflated Mauritanian prices).

Back on the road with panniers once again bulging, we headed back up the peninsula to start the longest and most difficult leg of this desert stage.  The 470 kilometres separating Nouadhibou from the capital, Nouakchott, has never been bridged by a road – indeed, Nouadhibou is still not connected to anywhere by tarmac!  Were it not for the ore train, a massive, 200 wagon behemoth carrying up to 18,000 tons of haematite, as well as food and water, between the coastal port and mines at Zouerat, the town would be entirely cut off.  Fortunately for us, a tarmac road is under construction, though not yet finished, despite three years’ work.  Local people assured us it was impossible to cycle south, and offered to take us in their decrepit taxis, but we’d read an account of another cyclist who had made it through so knew it was possible.  We do like a challenge though, so had left ourselves 5 days to get to Nouakchott before Christmas – our predecessor had taken 11…

As it turned out, despite very slow progress through the sandy bits, the excellent state of the 240km central goudron helped us on our way.  After a late arrival at our second overnight stop, where we camped with some friendly camel herders and shared fresh camel milk (delicious) and fresh nomad-bread (like lead – we wondered how the baked product could possibly weigh more than the equivalent volume of flour, until we realised it was due to the high sand content!), we had an easier day along straight desert road, before taking to the piste again for the last 100km.  Here, we were able to cycle on the foundations of the road, much more solid than the sandy tracks made by the 4WDs speeding past.  It was still, though, a tired and bedraggled pair of cyclists who rolled into Nouakchott on Christmas Eve and checked in to the rather plush Escale Des Sables – our Christmas present from Anna’s family.  The Auberge is a real haven, with a shady garden, lots of Mauritanian wall-hangings and beautiful rooms, and we’ve had a fantastic few days relaxing here over Christmas and planning the next few weeks.

Christmas Day was most unusual, with a morning stroll along the beach (and a dip in the Atlantic for Luke) followed by a lunch of fresh pastries to compensate for missing out on the traditional festive food.  It feels strange and a little bit sad to be so far from home at the moment, but singing Christmas carols as we rode through the sands and tuning into the service from Kings’ on the World Service helped us get in the mood.  We hope everyone at home has had a wonderful festive season, and we wish you all the best for 2005!  As for us, tomorrow we will head south to the Senegalese border, before crossing over to St. Louis where we hope to celebrate New Year’s Eve in a more traditional style.


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