Tuesday, 6 October 2009

She Says – Mauritanian malaise

4-6 October
We are in a town called Aleg, making our way towards Mali. We were aiming for here after leaving Nouakchott as it seemed a reasonable-sized place at a reasonable distance along the road, but in actuality I was hoping we would make it further today. We set off at 7.30am this morning to try to beat the heat and get as many miles on the road as possible before it got too hot. We made it through the millions of gendarmerie and police checkpoints (OK, it was probably 20, and customs never cares about us so they were extra!) but it really slowed us down before reaching Boutilimit around 10.30am (love it! What a name). The checkpoints are no problem, they just want our details for the books - passport copies suffice whereas Morocco wanted more info about our arrival date, entry stamp number and the bike’s details. They usually ask some questions about where we’ve come from and where we are going, and sometimes write down the bike registration, but it’s generally pretty quick and we don’t have to get off the bike or take off our helmets; sometimes a little chat happens but not today.

We stopped in Boutilimit to have a break from the heat, cold drinks and I was hungry so we got some biscuits. We’re being very careful to make sure I’m well fed and watered! A nice policeman had a chat to us while we rested and even got the restaurant we stopped at (open for supplies but not food) to put out chairs for us and took our rubbish away. We get stared at a lot but it was not unfriendly or intimidating, just curious, and many people said hello as they passed, which made it friendlier. From there, our trip to Aleg took a little over an hour, as there were fewer checkpoints, and while the road was poorer in condition with potholes and rough bitumen in places, we seemed to travel faster. However, it was getting really hot and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could comfortably travel by the time we reached Aleg. It’s not quite the large town I was expecting, is very local and busy and dirty, with the main road once we hit town turning into sand and gravel. Bizarre! Outside town, we crossed a massive wetland system, full of plants and birds. It would have been nice to stop and look around, but our main concern was finding somewhere to stay – easier said than done! We managed to find the one and only hotel (we think) but it was quite an effort, as there were signs but not very clear, and the hotel was down a long rough road then up another very rough track. We asked several people for directions and eventually found it, tucked behind a massive satellite dish! When we arrived, the hotel appeared to be closed, so we sat in the shade of their entrance gate to eat lunch and see if anyone turned up, or maybe we would just rest enough to get us on the road again. Before long a couple of guys arrived by car, rousted the staff, and we got in and settled. We made arrangements to use their kitchen to cook dinner so we didn’t have to make it back into the town. I was able to have some fractured conversations with the manageress and co-worker about their babies, and she invited us to contact her husband who works in the nearby city of Kiffa. I was feeling incredibly tired and slept for a while before we had to move rooms due to the air conditioner not working properly. By this time, Xander started feeling rough and had another diarrhoea bout, and is feeling really depressed by our illnesses, so we’ll just have to see how things go. We really would have liked to explore more of Mauritania, as we’ve liked it here. However, we are not feeling confident about getting too far onto rougher roads right now, and are very concerned about the heat. While in Nouakchott, we decided not to head into northern Mauri, as it would be another 500km or so of harsh desert driving and possibly unsealed roads – we saw that just being a big mistake for us! People we met in the auberge came through the Nouadhibou-Nouakchott road just after us and their temperature gauge was reading 58 degrees Celsius! No wonder I had my little ‘episode’. It is hard to know which roads have been upgraded or not, as our maps and guidebook are not very accurate. We wanted to head to a town called Tidjikja not far from where we are now, and although a guide in the auberge told us the road is now fully paved, I think it’s too far out of the way. So we will just keep moving towards Mali as fast as we can, but I think it will take a couple more days yet if the weather stays like this - it was absolutely roasting the hotel windows earlier today (very hot to touch) and has not cooled down much since.

As we left Nouakchott this morning, we stopped a couple of times to get photos of the fantastic sand dune scenery that greeted us outside the city. We got to see the hilarious sight of camel transport – they get the camel to lay down in the back of a ute, cover it with a large net, then as they drive the camel watches the scenery go by with a happy look on its face! I really got the feeling that Nouakchott is a city waiting to be swallowed up by the desert - all its paved streets are completely edged by sand (i.e. no footpaths, just sand), in fact I assume the whole city is just built on sand. It’s a pleasant enough city, nothing to see but very easy to move around once we got more used to the heat (and I got over my various illnesses!). People were friendly, we got very little hassle and felt perfectly safe. Four days was definitely enough there, but as we were waiting till yesterday to get our Mali visas we had no choice. The visas took only 3 hours to get and were very straightforward, costing 6500 ougiya each (about 16 pounds). At the auberge, we spent a lot of time talking with a British couple making their way by 4WD through a similar African route to ours over the next year. I really admire them, as they are just shy of 70, fighting fit and keen to get out there. I hope we’re still travelling independently at that age! They had a problem with broken air conditioning on the very long hot road to Nouakchott, which was fixed by a local mechanic after the Toyota dealer was basically no help. They were off for their Mali visas today, and I hope we see them again along the way. Last night, the auberge was invaded by a lot of travellers – 3 separate 4WD travellers, a car, and a cross-country bus (for lack of a better term!) from a travel company called Dragoman, full of British and Aussie travellers. Thankfully they were pretty well behaved! One group of 4WD travellers is experiencing the same doubts about travel that we have been having – are we crazy, it’s too hot and difficult, etc – so we don’t feel quite so bad that we are on a bike and not in a car! We also met a crazy Scottish guy who has been living here for 8 years, spending his time as a camel shepherd, English teacher and now documentary researcher. He provided us with a lot of entertainment, with his hilarious manner and stories of living in the desert, as well as insight into a very different life and that of the nomadic Toureg people. But we never did hunt down that fruit bat colony…