20,000 leagues under the sky, 2004- travel blog

Packing the Merc

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Dodgy deals, revolution, the Restaurant at the End of the World, police, police and more police, off-roading blackmarket cars through a minefield and more. I must really be in Africa now, I will write up fully when I get more time.

After an earlish breakfast and a quick shop for supplies for the trip we met in the reception of the Sahara Hotel. The 2 Koreans were there and also a Japanese girl who was going to join the three of us in our car. The middle man who had arranged the transport wanted Dh300 up front, I wasn't too keen to pay before I'd seen the car but didn't have much choice. The 6 of us plus middle man, our luggage and some freight were all loaded into a mini van for the trip to the police check point from where vehicles to Mauritania depart. The Koreans had a brief panic that this was how we were going to spend the whole journey. We joked on the way there that it was going to be the transit-style van we had been offered in town for Dh250, Jan said that if it was he wouldn't go. We did a circuit of the parking area at the check post and low and behold pulled up next to a van, to give middle man his dues it was a mercedes as he'd said. True to his word Jan took his bag off the van and demanded his money back which surprisingly middle man gave him straight away. The Koreans 'car' was the front seats of the van, our 'car' was the back; no seats just a carpet on the floor and no windows. After a very brief conference Andreas and myself decided that we didn't want to leave Jan behind, we'd agreed to do the trip together so we pulledour packs off too. This left middle man in a bit of a fix as he could see his profits disappearing. He wouldn't give Andreas and I our money and said he would find a car and disappeared. A few minutes later he came back and said we could go in a car for an extra Dh100. We checked it out and it was a Mercedes 190, we would have the back seat and a Moroccan man had the front seat, we agreed, paid, loaded the boot and left.

The Moroccan turned out to be a well travelled teacher from Rabat, he blamed a knock on the head for his travelling which most Moroccans don't do. After about an hour we passed the Korean/Japanese van, our driver said that vans can take 10 hours to complete the trip and we should do it in about 4. The trip was reasonably comfortable but frequently interruped by check points, police checkposts, gendarmerie checkposts and military checkposts. Each one was interested in different things although I never worked out which were which - one kind wanted the foreigners and registered our passports, another wanted to check the locals and the third were more interested in the car and driver. At one of the latter they discovered (or invented) the fact that the insurance for the taxi wasn't sufficient for the number of passengers, we sat around in the sun for over half an hour while they argued with the driver but eventually some deal, probably involving a bribe, sent us back on our way.

The scenery was incredible, I never knew there could be so much nothing and so many kinds of nothing - sandy nothing, rocky nothing, pebbly nothing and scrubby nothing. Contrary to mathmatical theory nothing times infinity really does amount to something. The last petrol station in Morocco is about 80km north of the border and a traditional stopping point on the route. If anywhere fits the description of Restaurant at the edge of the Universe this has to be it. It sits in its own time zone - circa 1980 - I think they only have one tape (CDs haven't been invented here yet) The Eagles, Rush, The Scorpions, Pink Floyd etc but every track seemed to fit. I don't know what they feed the chickens in the desert but I had the best Chicken Tagine I'd had in Morocco made with what must have been a very fat chicken. Just as we were close to leaving the van turned up, the looks on the faces of it's occupants when they saw us there having last seen us still in Dakhla was a classic, we told them we caught a helicopter.

With a very saggy back seat, myself and Andreas swapped sides for the rest of the journey to relieve the cramp. It didn't take that much longer to reach the border post, getting through was a different matter. The border brings together the police, gendamerie and military who are joined by immigration and customs into one big red tape fiasco where you have to convince all of them to let you out. The checkpost who had stopped us for the taxi insurance had radiod ahead to cause further delays, the Morrocan was given a hard time by one lot and to make it worse the Korapanese van came through and passed us. After about 3 hours we finally got the go-ahead to pass through the border.

Then came one of the biggest adventures of my trip so far. Just through the border our Mauritanian driver stopped to great everyone, we joked that it would take a week if he knew everyone from here to Nouadibou. One of his friends asked if one of us wanted to drive a car to Mauritania for him. The 3km no-man's-land is really that here, between leaving Morocco and entering Mauritania there are no rules and consequently there is a big free trade in cars there especially if all the papers arn't in order. This guy had bought cars from people re-entering Morocco and wanted to take them back to the Mauritanian side. Andreas agreed to drive the car for him but then he gave us all a set of keys, in all including the trader and our taxi driver (the Moroccan drove the taxi for some reason) we drove a fleet of 6 vehicles across the border. Bearing in mind that the border is also a minefield and leaving the designated path can be deadly, driving a manual left hand drive car with poor brakes was something of a challenge. I don't think I was the only one for forgot to take note of who was driving what car, consequently I wasn't sure who knew the correct route and who was going to lead me to oblivion. The area was straight out of Mad Max with wrecked and abandoned cars everywhere. As people stopped to take photographs and our convoy became more jumbled we could have ended up anywhere. Actually there are camels wandering all over the area and berber settlements in the middle so I think the chances of finding a live mine anywhere near the offical border posts is slim; I didn't see too many three legged camels.

We reabandonned the cars just before the Mauritanian border post and walked through. Mauritanian formalities turned out to be just that, no real hastles, only €10 for a visa on entry as opposed to the €20 we'd been told and no bribes required. My bag never got searched as the young customs official wh was about to do it was replaced by someone more senior(he obviously fancied his chances of some booty). When he searched Andreas' bag and found a full big bottle of water he asked for a drink, I was sure that this was to see if it was alcohol as I'd thought about swapping water for vodka. I had to laugh when he drank a huge amount then passed it to a colleague whi drank then passed it to our driver who drunk and passed back an empty bottle _ it would have been funnier if it was vodka. A French group lost over a dozen bottles of wine, they must have cried themselves to sleep!

The final hour or so drive into Nouadhibou had more police checks but as we were in the driver's country and he knew everyone we sailed past them all, until the last one where he must have said the wrong thing. We were sent to the side of the road where he faced more papers checks and everyone else flew past, I think we wnded up being the last cros borderes into town that night. Nouadhibou was Mad Max Part II, the Moroccans had told us that Mauritania isn't a different country it's a different world. I can't say that I've seen anywhere like it before, if you had to design chaos this would be it. An odd assortment of near-wrecks and animal drawn vehicles moving through the town in random directions with no apparent code for which side or direction is taken. As we arrived at dust there was an eirie light from a combination of the Sahara dust and the man made polution. We dropped our Moroccan friend off first at a house that was surprisingly western looking for such a non western city. We then went to the main Auberge but found that everyone who overtook us at the last checkpoint got there first and filled it up. We found another one further out of town and took a 3 bed room. The driver was great, he drove us back into town and found a shop who exchanged money before finally leaving us at the camp site.

We had the Dutch tour of NDB - Jan wanted to hire a taxi to go to the train station and the big ships but it turned into a 4 hour hire around the town and it's surroundings. NDB is famous for two things, fish and the iron ore train (the worlds longest train). The whole city stinks of fish and not just fish but rotting fish, I guess they don't like the fish heads as they cut them off and leave them to rot on the beach, around the town and anywhere else that comes in handy. The trip to Cape Blanc at the end of the peninsular was nice, the town there was built by the French but abandoned to the sands and now lies in ruins and partially burried.

I couldn't decide whether to take the train trip into the desert with Andreas or go on to Nouakchott was Jan. In the end I decided to go on to Nouakchott but on my own by taxi as Jan hitched a lift from a German in a Austrian WWII truck (honestly).



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