La Route du Despair

1 – 3 April 2014
Matmata to Oualata

After admiring the lunar landscape, the guelta and the crocodiles of Matmata for some time, I have lunch with the driver and his helper, which of course involves overly sweet tea. Another rude drive through the oasis, this time chasing local goats, takes us back to N’beyka. The driver drops me off at the police station where I spent the mostly sleepless night, and I pay him. He looks confused, speaks to the police officer, who speaks to a colleague. ’Trente-cinq mille’, the colleague says. Um, no… the price was 3.500, not 35.000. ‘That’s what you agreed to’, they communicate. Nope, the price in the sand was 3500; after 8 years of financial studies, I’d like to think I would have spotted the additional zero if it had been there. I definitely wouldn’t want to spend the equivalent of a hundred euros on a three-hour trip. If the price in the sand had been 35000, I would’ve haggled it down to something more reasonable. Alas, reasoning is pointless; friendly as they are, the Mauritanian police are used to being The Authority, and that’s that. When they try to arrange a taxi for me to take me back to the Route de l’Espoir, it turns out to be both more expensive and later than organising one myself, so I decline their offer. I’m thoroughly annoyed, and just want to get on my way again as quick as possible.

Back in Sangrafa, I reconnect with la Route de l’Espoir. Predictably, I spend another hour waiting for another overcrowded taxi to take me to the city of Kiffa, famous for its colourful glass powder beads. On the way there, we cross the southern tip of the Tagant plateau. Unfortunately, the epic vista over black rock mountains and golden sands that I know should be there, is obscured by the filthy, dusty, humid desert air. Kiffa’s few hotels are fairly expensive; since I’m paying more than I’d like anyway, I end up going for a hotel with a private bathroom, a tv and an airconditioner that turns out to be so noisy that I’d rather turn it off… The tv news shows are all talking about the Ebola outbreak further south, in Sierra Leone and Guinee. A quick look on Wikipedia tells me that none of the outbreaks so far (in the Congo) have been as dramatic as the movies would have you believe, so I’m not too concerned. If anything, the many mosquitoes passing through the mosquito net have me more concerned about malaria; I’m happy to have a large supply of Malarone. The following morning, I replenish my supply of cash, and get more passport copies again. The friendly attendant of the copyshop points me to a corner down the street where I can use some business’ free wifi (along with some 10 other locals), and he even brings out a little chair for me to sit on while I contact my home front. It’s here that I do something stupid. I had promised my parents that I wouldn’t go to the Southeastern corner of Mauritania. However, that area has a very picturesque town called Oualata, and policemen, both in Atar and in N’Beyka, have told me it’s safe to go there. So I tell my parents I’m travelling North towards Tijikja, instead of Southeast towards Oualata. The only one who will have any idea of where I will actually be for the next few days, is my friend Lisa.

The first step is to get to Nema, which is the last town on the paved road, in the far southeast corner of Mauritania. At the Gare Routière for eastbound taxis, the manager doesn’t come across as the reliable sort; I keep an eye out on my luggage throughout the 2.5 hour wait for the taxi to find enough passengers. Ofcourse, when you don’t consider the Renault Nevada stationwagon “full” until there are 9 passengers (two on the passenger seat; four in the back row; and another three on the makeshift bench in the boot), it takes some time to fill up. By the time we leave, it’s past noon, and my watch indicates it’s 43 degrees Celcius in the shade. From Kiffa to Tintane, the ride is relatively smooth; the asphalt has a few big holes in it which need to be dodged, but nothing that slows us down too much. At Tintane, one of the passengers leaves the taxi, and an elderly woman joins me and two other men in the middle row. Trouble is, the Mauritanian beauty ideal for women is big… really, really big. It’s actually a human rights issue, in the sense that some young girls are force-fed fatty milk, in order to make them big and plump and beautiful for the local men. The woman entering the taxi fills up about one-and-a-half of the three-ish seats which are supposed to be shared by four passengers; that leaves slightly more than one seat for two local men, and me. Thankfully the beauty ideal for local men appears to be skinny!

The road between Tintane and Ayoun al Atrous is supposed to be paved, but it’s not really. Part of it is being resurfaced, although the work seems to have stopped after stripping the asphalt off. In other parts, there is still asphalt left, but it has craters big enough to swallow the car whole; after trying to dodge them for a while we end up driving through the sand on the side of the road instead. Hauling 10 passengers and their luggage over rough roads at extreme temperatures is more than the poor Renault, probably approaching its 30th birthday, can handle. The engine overheats, leaving us stranded along the side of the road. Some friendly locals, living in a bungalow-shaped tent with only 2 walls and a palm-fond floor raised off the ground, take us in and provide us with some rice and tea. Meanwhile, their neighbours help the taxi driver get water from a nearby well to cool off the engine. It takes an hour for the engine to cool down enough for us to continue; we’ll make regular stops to fill up the water tank and pour more water over the engine before we reach Ayoun al Atrous. At a gas stop, some young street kids approach the car and start to address the passengers in rhythmically spoken Arabic. My neighbour explains that they are reciting the Quran, which is considered a great virtue in Mauritania. Pleased by their performance, he gives them a few Ouguiya. He’s not into Islamism, though; like several other Mauritanians and Moroccans I’ve met, he’s very eager for me to understand that terrorism is against the teachings of Islam. He also appreciates that in Europe, there is freedom of religion. That’s not really the case in Mauritania; you can have a different religion than Islam, but you can’t try to convert Muslims to another religion, and being an atheist is – according to the law, although thankfully not in practice – punishable by death. Our animated discussion makes the time pass quicker, and the afternoon starts to turn into evening – which in Mauritania means that three of the five daily worship times are coming up. Each of those three times, the taxi stops and everybody gets out to worship; and every time, another twenty minutes or so have passed before we get back on the road.

By the time we make it to Ayoun al Atrous, find enough passengers on their way to Nema, and head out onto the road again, the sun has set. Once again, the taxi’s headlights are barely functional. The beam lights up about 30 meters of road, but we’re driving at almost a hundred kilometres per hour and the brakes are old (and not built for the weight of a driver, 9 passengers and their luggage). Also, the reason that the southern strip of Mauritania is more densely populated, is that it can sustain more animals – but the animals are often free to roam wherever they please. That leads to an interesting set of challenges, each with a different solution. Goats are smart enough to run out of the way when you honk a little. Like goats, cows are usually in groups. They will also move out of the way, but they are slower (and much heavier and therefore more dangerous), so you can’t just honk the horn and expect them to save themselves (and you) from a crash; you need to slow down a lot. Donkeys are not interested in survival; they’ll be standing in the middle of the road, look at the approaching car, ignore its flashing headlights and its honking, and look back at the ground without moving an inch. The only way to avoid them is to drive around them. Camels are completely unpredictable; when startled, they’ll jump, but there’s no telling in which direction. So even a camel standing several meters away from the road might jump onto the road when startled – and with those long legs, the entire weight of the camel would crash into the passenger compartment. Extreme caution is advised.

Timbedgha is the last place on the road before Nema, and as it’s already fully dark, we pull into the Gare Routière for dinner. The meat appears to be uncooked; maybe it’s one of those inedible pieces of camel organ again. Whatever it is, I can’t stomach it this evening, so I stick to the rice on the side. The fellow passenger who talked to me about terrorism seems to be offended that I don’t eat this obviously delicious meat, and leaves (I don’t know if my rudeness is the cause). Some time later, the taxi driver informs me that the taxi won’t continue today, since it’s too late and there’re not enough people going to Nema. He offers to let me sleep at the taxi company’s office; tomorrow, he’ll continue to Nema. I’m pissed off about the taxi not continuing all the way, but since it appears that a spot on the floor of the taxi office is as good as it’s going to get in Timbedgha, I have no other choice than to accept. On the way to the office, we pass a modern large van; the taxi driver informs me that the van driver lives in Nema, and he will want to go home for the night. Better yet, the van has more than enough seats for the eight or so passengers, working headlights, and believe it or not: working seatbelts! Seems like my luck on this road is finally improving! For the first time since saying goodbye to Daniel, David and Yasmine, two and a half days ago, I feel comfortable and safe on the road. Finding an English-speaking fellow passenger in the van seems to be the icing on the cake, but it is not; after some small talk, he tells me: ‘I hope you won’t run into trouble in Nema’, and as we’re approaching Nema: ‘I hope you’ll get to know Islam and become a Muslim’. I try to think of it as him wishing what he thinks is best for me, but it does come across quite intimidating. Driving into Nema, it becomes obvious that, no, my luck hasn’t improved: at one of the checkpoints, the police forbid me to look for a hotel and order the taxi driver to drop me off at the Police Commissariat, where I’ll be sleeping ‘pour la securité’. Lovely! The policemen are friendly to me, but I do feel some resentment for being held there against my will. At first, I sleep in the courtyard outside, to avoid the stifling heat inside the bureau. In the middle of the night, the wind picks up and starts to blow sand into my face, so I move inside. After laying down my air mattress, I see somebody else sleeping on the rug, a few meters further back. I consider joining him in what’s apparently the sleeping area, but I don’t feel like socializing. When I wake up the next morning, I discover that the man I’d considered lying next to, has chains around his ankle , tying him to a pillar! I’m too embarrassed to ask which crime he has committed.

My plan for the morning is to book a spot on the “taxi brousse” to Oualata, my final destination, and getting food and juice; I’m incredulous when the police commissioner tells me I can’t leave the police station without a police escort. Feeling like a little child, I walk the 50 meters to the epicerie with my escort in tow, and get some overly sugary “juice” and some bread. The Gare Routière is in the center of the village, next to the market (besides food and clothes, hay for animals and wood for cooking are the most popular items) and the veterinarian’s clinic (with hand-drawn illustrations of animals and illnesses it can treat, for the illiterate). I don’t know if I’m doing something wrong, but I’m getting lots of weird looks, which seem to indicate I don’t belong here. I see this more in an hour here than in my previous few weeks in Mauritania combined – regardless of how far or near my police escort is. I’m not feeling particularly welcome or comfortable, so after booking my spot on the taxi brousse, I get back to the police station and wait for the taxi to leave. There, the commissioner advises me to wear a turban on the taxi. ‘Why?’, I ask. The response is a monologue in French, which I don’t fully understand… but I could swear he mentioned the words ‘terroristes’, and ‘chercher des touristes’ (while making a binoculars gesture). My escort motions that it’s time to go back to the taxi because it’s about to leave, and while I follow him, my mind goes into overdrive. Did I understand the commissioner correctly? My police escort says the turban is just against the sand, but I’m sure that the commissioner said more than that… Should I go back to the station and ask him for a clarification? Should I just go back where I came from and abandon my plan of visiting Oualata? But I’ve spent the past three days suffering the most uncomfortable travelling of my life just to get here, and it’s only a few more hours to Oualata… But I promised my parents that I wouldn’t do anything stupid… but the police in N’Beyka said Oualata was safe? But the police here in Nema probably know the situation better…

The pickup truck’s rear is filled up with fridges, food, furniture, construction materials, a few goats, and who knows what else, until the cargo is more than twice the size of the pickup truck itself… and then some ten people clamber on top of the cargo. I’m about to experience one of those quintessentially Saharan journeys, but I barely notice, let alone feel like taking a photo (I don’t want to do anything that makes it more obvious that I’m a tourist). Consulting with my police escort, he says that for double the price, I can buy inside the cabin instead of on top of the cargo; that should mean I’m less easily visible from a distance. I happily pay the extra, but as we depart, my mind is still racing.

We drive up a steep hill and onto the rim of the Aoukar depression, and find ourselves on a flat, sandy plateau covered with dry grass. For more than two hours, the pickup-truck weaves left and right, trying to find the best route across the sand. My eyes are constantly scanning the horizon for any sign of terrorists or criminals who would like to kidnap a lone Westerner. From time to time, we spot a herder with cows on the horizon. About an hour and a half into the journey, I spot a man in ragged clothes, carrying an AK-74… and the driver steers the pickup towards him! My heart is in my throat, I’m looking at the driver and the other passengers for any sign of what’s going on… but their faces are filled with boredom more than anything else. I’m wedged between the driver and another passenger in the front seat, so I can’t jump out of the truck even if I wanted to. As we reach the armed man, the driver exchanges pleasantries, and then continues on his way… and my heart rate finally dips below 200 again. As it turns out, Mauritanian soldiers are assigned to positions in the middle of the desert, to guard long desert routes for weeks on end… and this particular soldier couldn’t be bothered to wear his uniform just to impress the two or three cars per day that passed by his position…

Not long after, we descend a steep mountain pass, back into the Aoukar depression. And in the space of a few hundred meters, the grass is gone, and we exchange the Sahelian culture for the Sahara again. The herders are no longer black but Moorish, and their livestock of choice no longer cows, but camels and goats. The tents go from rigid-walled, off-the-ground, colorful and semi-permanent, to the nomadic ideal of five poles and a white sheet of fabric. As we approach Oualata, we meet a herd of camels, who take some time to get out of our way. Camels are bred not only for their meat, skin and milk, but also for racing. Camel racing is popular in many Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. However, since Mauritania is one of the few countries where nomadic camel herding is still a way of life, many of the top racing camels are bred here. Encountering the herd and their drivers is a beautiful sight, and as we’re almost in Oualata, I’m finally relaxed enough to appreciate the beauty of my surroundings again. I’m relieved that the Route of Despair is finally over… until I realize that I probably have to travel the same route again to get out of here!

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