31 March & 1 April 2014
Nouakchott to Matmata
David, Daniel and Yasmine from Germany are generously offering me a ride in their Toyota Landcruiser. They’re on their way South to Burkina Faso, and are hoping to make it to the Malian border today. I want to visit N’beïka, on the Tagant plateau. The Tagant is a stony plateau in Southern Mauritania, and conveniently in roughly the same direction as Mali. Before our spirits can be lifted by the excitement of the open road, we must navigate our way out of Nouakchott first. Despite Mauritania’s leisurely pace, there appears to be some sort of rush hour – or maybe it’s just that traffic is always awful, due to the chaotic city “planning”. Whatever the cause of the traffic gridlock, it takes well over an hour to leave the capital.
When we finally do get underway, it doesn’t take long for the landscape to start changing. We’re on the so-called Route de l’Espoir – the Route of Hope – which runs southeast from Nouakchott, through southern Mauritania, towards Mali. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing that the name came from the hope that it would revive the economy, after the old nomadic economy had been decimated by the 20 years of drought between 1970 and 1990. Many nomads moved out of the countryside and into either Nouakchott or the towns along the Senegalese and Malian border, so the Route de l’Espoir is the main road for the vast majority of the population. Southern Mauritania is a transition zone between the Sahara desert and the Sahel semi-desert, but it’s a slow and irregular transition. The monsoon rains coming in from the equator usually make it up to Mauritania’s Southern border, but further North, they change from daily, to sporadic, to might-not-rain-at-all-this-year in the space of a few hundred kilometres. In some parts, the soil retains a decent amount of the water, allowing for some vegetation year-round; in others, the water seeps through the ground immediately, resulting in a bone-dry landscape outside of the rainy season. All of this explains why we encounter a pure desert landscape, followed by the first cows I’ve seen since crossing the Atlas mountains in Morocco (cows can’t survive in the Sahara, but they can in the Sahel), only to be replaced by empty desert again an hour later.
More vegetation means more cattle, means more people, means more villages. And in Mauritania, that means more checkpoints – three or four leading into the village (army, gendarme, local police, and sometimes the anti-drugs unit), and three or four going out of the village. At each checkpoint, we have to show our passport and tell the soldier / gendarme / police officer in question where we came from and what our destination is. Much quicker than expected, we run out of copies of our passports, so we make way to a copy shop to replenish our supply. In typical Mauritanian fashion, this seemingly simple task requires more than an hour of discussion among the staff. The text on a box for a LAN cable provides some comic relief: ‘Life Version 2.0 is the aspiration to experience the future and live life that has never been lived before. Taking a clue from which, Intex promises the human race a touch, feel and experience of things never heard of, neither dreamt. This product is a reflection of that belief.’ Unfortunately, even the awesome power of the LAN cable can’t make our copies appear faster…
When we finally have our copies in hand, it’s back to the open road. An assortment of animals crossing the road, comically over-loaded trucks, and dedicated, underpaid policemen politely asking for “cadeaus” (only a cynic would call them corrupt cops requiring bribes, right?) keep us entertained. We also encounter a couple of saddening animal transport trucks. Their cargo holds are basically open-topped containers, which are so stuffed with animals that any animal that gets sleepy and lies down, will surely get trampled by the others. To “solve” that problem, the truck has several guys hanging over the edge of the cargo hold – while the truck is driving – to poke a stick at any animal that looks sleepy…
Some 400 kilometers after leaving Nouakchott, it’s time to leave David, Daniel and Yasmine; they’re continuing southeast towards Mali, but I want to go northeast, to the Tagant plateau. First, though, it’s time for lunch, at a roadside restaurant in Sangrafa. We lie ourselves down on the pillows, admiring the already-cut but uncooked meat dangling from the roof, unprotected from the heat of more than 40 degrees Celsius. Despite that, the mechui (roasted goat) here is much, much better than at the Senegalese restaurant in Nouakchott, and the tea has just the right balance of sweetness and bitterness (it’s the only tea I’ve tried in the entire Sahara / Sahel region that managed this; all other teas have been excessively sweet).
After Daniel, David and Yasmine depart, I start my search for the “gare routière”, or taxi stand for a certain destination. I probably look a bit lost and helpless, because a policeman approaches me and offers to take me there. At the junction where the road towards the Tagant leaves the Route de l’Espoir, I find the taxis waiting for customers. I’m ready to hit the road again and arrive before it gets dark, but… not so fast! This is Mauritania, of course. It takes an hour and a half for the taxi to fill up with the obligatory two persons per seat, by which time it’s about to get dark. For some reason, the taxi’s going towards the Tagant plateau are mostly Rover 400 series station wagons from the early ‘90s (for the life of me, I wouldn’t know how they ended up here – I don’t remember seeing a single other Rover in all of Africa, and now there’re five parked at the same place). I don’t know if it’s my particular Rover 400, or if it’s common to all of them, but the headlights are appalling. They illuminate the road for about 15 – 20 meters in front of the car, which is about one tenth of what you’d want in the pitch black desert night. My comfort level further decreases as we ascend the Tagant plateau and the road becomes twisty, but eventually we do make it to the metropolitan hustle and bustle of N’beyka, with its population of at least a few hundred people. I don’t know if it’s because none of those few hundred people saw fit to start a hotel, or because of security concerns, but the police at one of the checkpoints kindly inform me that I’ll be sleeping at the police station tonight. The police station is a comfortable 4 by 4 meter concrete cube with a chair, a table, a painfully bright and blueish lamp hanging from the ceiling, and warm and humid air which just won’t go away. One of the officers sleeping in the room with me snores like a chainsaw, so all in all, the night is less than restful.
The following morning, I share breakfast with the friendly police officers, after which the police station’s ranking officer offers to help me get a “taxi brousse” (bush taxi, in the form of a Toyota Hilux). I’ll need one today, and nobody else in N’beyka seems to be going in the same direction, so I happily accept his offer. He and I both speak limited French, so he writes the price in the sand: “3500”, which is the Ouguiya equivalent of about 10 euros. That’s a great price, so I thank him, shake hands, and get into the truck behind the driver and his teenage helper. Soon, we leave the paved road and enter a sandy path leading through a typically Sahelian forest of thorny bushes, followed by the stretched out oasis town of Matmata.
The driver isn’t the gentle kind, and at one point, we are chasing a young camel in full gallop over a bouncy sand road, until it can dart sideways through a gap in the thorny fences along the road. It’s not a friendly way to pass through an oasis town, but it’s an epic African vision nonetheless. The driver doesn’t seem concerned about the wellbeing of the people of Matmata, either, so I’m relieved when we leave it behind. A few kilometres of bouncing over a lunar landscape of black and deep purple rocks later, we reach my reason for going to all this trouble: the Guelta of Matmata. A Guelta is a shady depression in rocky ground, where rainwater collects and remains even during (most of) the dry season.
There are many gueltas in the Sahara desert, and they’re often a lifesaver for nomadic herders. What makes this particular guelta special, though, is that it is one of the last places in the Sahara desert where the West African Crocodile still lives. This somewhat smaller and less aggressive cousin of the Nile Crocodile used to live all over North and West Africa, when it was still a wet and green place. After the Sahara dried up, starting around 5,000 years ago, a few populations of crocodiles survived around these gueltas, adapting to bury themselves in caves or mud and enter a state of aestivation (basically the dry, hot-weather version of hibernation) during the dry season. They mainly eat fish and some small mammals, and apparently they never attack humans – but still, I prefer to keep my distance (using my dad’s lessons on how to safely look over the edge of a cliff feels even more sensible when there’re crocodiles down below!). Today, we’re nearing the end of the dry season, but there’s still a bit of water in the guelta. The crocodiles are in full energy conservation mode, so they’re not doing anything remotely interesting. Still, seeing crocodiles in the middle of the Sahara desert, hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest river, is a pretty surreal experience.