Journey through deserts of Mauritania

Great sand dunes in Mauritania. Picture: Ji-Elle geographicguide.net

Sunday, April 4, 2010

WE REACHED in Mauretania on March 9. The Islamic Republic of Mauritania is 200 times bigger than Brunei, and 75 per cent of its land is desert.

Mauritania is an inhospitable place, and easterly wind was blowing sand about one foot high. We passed a car or two on and off on the lonely road.

Mauritania was the last bastion for slavery and about 40 per cent of the population are descendants of African slaves.

One of the Trans Sahara trade route runs through Mauritania.

There was gold, slaves and salt on route, and therefore the Almoravid dynasty in Morocco sent an army to the south, fought a battle against the Ghana Empire.

"Why should we return all booty to Morocco? Better we keep it ourselves and claim independence," said the Army commanders.

So it was done. Their descendants ruled the country until the Arabs came in the 17th century.

Then on, other rulers directed the events until the French called the shots in 19th century.

In 1960, Mauritania declared independence.

Our first glimpse of Mauritania's capital Nouakchott was the poverty of its people.

Troubles are order of the day in Mauritania. First, from the trade union. The 3000 expatriates in the mining community earned two third of the countries entire wage bill. The union found it unfair.

Then riots flared up in 1989, the Moors chased the black Africans, many had to flee South. We really pushed through to the capital Nouakchott.

All workers were blacks. Lots of kids are helping them too. Mostly street kids in greasy shirt and shorts are laughing and smiling in their innocence. They know nothing else except the old vehicles.

School? Of course not. They could be future human dynamites when they understand and get desperate for a better life.

Next we went to the beach. Two dozens of fishing boats anchored off shore. The fishermen were busy as much as their counterparts in any part of the world.

There were two Mauritanian Arabs with us, yet we were almost chased away. They did not like to be photographed.

JAMBO's new gearbox that was replaced the previous day did well during the test run.

While waiting for our turn at a filling station, a woman reversed her car right into the door of JAMBO.

"Sorry," she said. "You must pay for the repair," we demanded.

"I do not have money," she said.

"So sorry JAMBO," the oversized woman said and vanished.

March 12

In the morning we met a "master fixer".

First he placed grease on the area. Then he removed the inner door cover and pushed with a wood and dented it out. Then he hammered a bit from outside on the greased area, pushed again, hammered and pushed, took a rag, cleaned the grease away within 20 minutes.

Back on the main road we met the camel herd belonging to the group of Bedouins. They fed them millet gruel in drums.

Late afternoon we returned to Nouakchott. Among French campers we set up our Hotel de la JAMBO for a sound sleep.

After test-driving JAMBO in the desert we knew it is doing well again.

We were heading east on March 13 on a tarred road with many controls towards Kiffa Town. We reached the town by 6.30pm.

Sunday March 14

Seventy two kilo metres eastwards from Kiffa town, there is a Guelta, a small gorge in the rocks where there is a 30 metres long and five metres wide pool. This pool said to be infested with crocodiles since ancient times. The Sahara was green due to ample rainfall about 5000 years ago.

The police in the area led us half way in to the pool side. After 10km we stopped JAMBO and continued on foot.

Soon we met a cattle herd which also went to drink the muddy green water from that pool.

Then for a moment, we saw the nose of a crocodile, and another one was hiding under the rock. Both creatures were about 1.5 metres long.

Not only that, we think, they come to the pool in the night for hunting. Thousands of birds are perching in the trees of the nearby wilderness. That was such an amazing sight. Here we saw two crocs, perhaps there are more. We heard that during the drought season, crocs dig a tunnel and survive inside it.

After this adventure, we continued eastwards until Ayoun-El Atroda and reached the gate around 5pm.

People here are poor. Despite their abject poverty, these devoted Muslims have built a small mosque in the town.

A samaritan, he may not be a trained teacher, but who feels that kids should learn, conducts a class for children in a roadside makeshift.

From about 50-70 roadblocks, not one officer, be it army, gendarmerie, police, asked us for anything.

Also here we drove by mistake into a "HALT sign" as we did in Morocco. The difference here is they smiled to the word "sorry" and let us go.

In Morocco it was an offence, and the culprits are fined. Part of the on the spot fine would definitely be dipped into the officers' pockets.

By 12pm we reached the Mali border, the immigration process took just one hour and we drove on Mali roads which have been developed with the funds granted by European Financing agencies.

By 6pm we reached Bamako, the capital of Mali. Our camping ground, outside of town, had no electricity or running water.

As there was no choice, we stayed on expecting to set off our journey early in the morning.

The Brunei Times