February 12, 2020

Mauritania – The Café at the Edge of the World

When I woke up on my last day in Western Sahara, a nice man offered me a free shower in his hotel. He just said you’re welcome, take that bathroom it’s anyway free. Lovely last contact with a person from Sahara, right? And there it came, the border to Mauritania. Straight at the borders queue a guy in a blue sport jacked came to my window. He said he’ll help me to get through this border jungle – he spoke English. The Moroccan check-out was for free even if they scanned my car with an x-ray scanner. This is probably Africa’s most decadent border. From time to time the guy in the blue jacket popped up to show he’s still present. I knew he wanted something for his service but I neither asked for it nor I stopped him. Kind of an human experiment. After 1h of formularies I was ready to leave the Moroccan part. The guy asked me if I can take him with to the other side (Mauritania), I said why not. He was somehow cool with all the cops, I guess he’s working here daily as a border agent.

When he jumped in my car, I could see that his jacked is actually a former German sport club jacket. Probably donations to Africa. It was called “FC Wichsenstein” with means as much as “FC Jerkoffstone”, haha. Super funny to me but I did tell him. He was wearing it so self-confident and why making him unhappy? What waited for me after the Moroccan border seemed to be a bad joke. This 1,5 km track looked like a mixture of hell and a Mad Max movie. People everywhere, sand, no asphalt, the worst “roads” you could ever imagine, no system at all, burned cars, abandoned trucks in the middle of the streets, obviously people who are even living in between these borders and if this wouldn’t have been crazy enough everyone was trying to get a ride with me to Mauritania. Jerkoffstone was trying to even take some of his mates with to the Mauritanian border. I had to reject these people to not lose the control about the situation. You have to know that these people are no trying to escape the country or something, they really just wanna have a ride to not walk. But you never know what they will do inside your car, so no.

Wichsenstein had to lend me money at the Mauritanian border to buy the visa. They didn’t except their own currency for it, just Euro with is super weird?! After all was done Wichsenstein invited me to a table in a café at the border. He told me wrong prices to earn here and there some extra Euros, but I told him the correct amounts and said that I will not pay for anything except his lent VISA money. So, a kind of a first funny situation in this Mauritanian café. At the end I was okay with paying him like 5 euro for his service. A service I didn’t as him for. This money was nothing according to him. He has family was his argument. He gave the 5 euro straight to an old local man. When I left, I silently gave the old man some more money (my remaining Diham from Morocco) as he was really nice to me all the time. He sat at the same table in that café than me btw. Even if Wichsenstein was a dick, he was still kind of nice to give this money, he called nothing, to the old man. At the end I can say that Wichsenstein was not really helpful, but I learned to always reject border help from now on. You learn on the streets how to survive on the streets, I guess.  At the border you could see that people come from different areas. All skin colors where present and I saw people with dark skin for the first time since my Africa trip started. Most of them came from Mali and the joked around a lot with me. Nice & funny people.

After the horrible track of the border zone, streets became better. There were still big potholes, but you could drive most of them street like normal ones. The environment changes much compared to Western Sahara. There are no more rocks in the desert. Just sand and sand dunes. Really pretty. It feels like borders where made after territorial attributes back in the days. Like Mauritania is 100% desert, Western Sahara 50% desert and rocks, Morocco 0% desert and that’s how the draw the line. I went to Nouadhibou first. On my way I saw a loooong train. I thought: “This seems to be a long one.”. I found out later that it’s actually one of the longest trains in the world with an average of 3km. The train is transporting iron ore for the Chinese 700km through the country to the shore where it’s getting shipped to elsewhere. Soon I arrived at Nouadhibou which is a peninsular in the north of Mauritania. The West side of Nouadhibou is still Morocco and the East belongs to Mauritania. In between there’s a belt of mines and military. I was trying to go surfing on the Moroccan side, but the solders didn’t get what I wanted. I still don’t speak French. The just said “danger, danger, danger!” and as they had big guns which was why I didn’t really try to argue. The city traffic is even worse than in Morocco. Way too many people. So I bought food and drove to a more quiet spot at the beach inside the bay of Nouadhibou.

I spotted a G-Class at this spot with French license plates. I thought this could be the person I saw earlier the day kite surfing from the distance, which caught my attention as this is nothing Mauritanian people commonly do. I knocked at his car and an old man came out. I was like: Wow, didn’t expected this. Guy, an 80 years old traveler wo spoke broken English, welcomed me. He was obviously not the kite surfer but a stunning personality thou. Guy travels around the world with his car and has even a blog. Really HTML style but a blog. He ships his car to random places for traveling. Nice pensioner lifestyle I’d call this. He gave me a really funny business card with his contact details. Kind of cute. In his car there was a big framed picture of his wife. Really cool guy this Guy. He told me to not pay more than 1000 Francs for this “camping ground” which was just a beach with now facilities at all. We both didn’t pay the day. The next morning at 7 a.m. I heard his G-Class leaving. I was unsure if he paid so I hurried up and left, too. Okay, actually I’m pretty sure that he didn’t pay as there was no one there any longer supervising us. Such a bad as grandpa, haha. I hurried up and followed him 30 minutes after. So we both basically flew, haha! Probably this is how you save your travel budget as a pensioner. But karma straight got me, and I had to turn around to go back for fuel as I forget to refuel. In the end I spend even more on the fuel for returning than on what I saved with fleeing, haha.

Mauritania has almost no regular fuel. Everything is powered by diesel so I had to fill me extra fuel tank for the first time. The distance between fuel stops become more than 400 km meanwhile. Sometimes you feel really lost in the desert. There are only rarely things like camels and from time to time you spot abandoned trucks which burned down, some villages where you can’t tell if they are still inhabited. Actually, you think a lot when you’re in the desert as all looks the same. Every small discrepancy to the environment, like the above mentioned once, becomes something super interesting as it was the only thing you saw in a while. Weird place this desert. And so big that it takes about 5 days to just cross it from north to south.

At some point between Nouadhibou and Nouakchott (Mauritania’s Capital) I had to refuel. I found a Total fuel stop called Gare du Nor, like the main railway station in Paris. When I arrived, I saw a Suzuki Jimny with Hungarian license plates and a white person having dinner at the food shop of this fuel station. The station as really calmed, probably because it’s more expensive than the one before in the village. The village one was crowed by the people traveling with Toyota 4×4 vans, which are public transport here. I joined the Hungarian guy called Bendeguz at the calm Gare du Nor. He just came back from Mali. He said I’d be the first white person he was seeing in a while. Ben is sitting in a wheelchair, but this doesn’t stop him from traveling. He told me crazy travel stories as he traveled a lot through dangerous countries, I remember Afghanistan was one of them. He told me how he got arrested a bunch of times and police was getting violent with him. Stunning person.

At this point of the trip I had a problem with my swing door, it got blocked by sand and dust, so Ben helped me to fix it. It’s crazy, he has so many tools and stuff in his small Jimny and even sleeps in it. He told me he also drives in the sand which is super nuts because when he gets stuck, he has really no way to find help. Wheelchair + sand = Problem. But his words were: “There will always be a Toyota Landcruiser who can pull you out!” I kept these words in good memory. Strong man this Ben! For some reason he was complaining that he only knows two Japanese people and I swear within the next moment a Japanese motorbike traveler came to Gare du Nore for refueling. What a coincident? Ryo from Japan traveled by road all the way on his Honda to Mauritania. This is such a big trip that it runs out of my imagination. And the craziest thing is, Ryo speaks Japanese only. Ben and I were wondering how he manage all the troubles we recently were dealing with like the visas, tolls, police controls and all that stuff without speaking any other languages. Ryo is a stunning personality and really Japanese. Meanwhile the Gare du Nore fuel stop felt like the café at the edge of the world. Like this famous book, you know? We decided to stay the night at this safe fuel stop and had endless convos. Ryo knows 200 words of English so he attempted the convo whenever he could. Ben told me a story of a friend of him who has lived for 50 years in Africa (some European governmental guy). This man said once he’d give away all his 50 years if he could only think for 30 minutes with an African mind set. A really strong sentence.

The next mooring Ben gave me a lot of spare things he had in his car as he went back to Hungary. The coolest thing was that he had lend me his 1997 issue of the “Lonely Planet – Africa” in which Liberia is consider a unsafe place and Mali a paradise. But according to him the rest is still the same, haha. There I had my second information source about Africa beside my Morocco touri travel guid I found in Camp Tico. The next day we said bye-bye. I shot 3 polaroid’s, one for everyone and Ryo gave us an origami swan each. So classy this Ryo! I promised Ben to bring back his book when I return to Europe. Ryo left to Noakchott a little early, but I met him again on the roads the same evening. We decided to take a camping together. Cheikhy the owner of the camping ground wanted to introduce us to an insurance agent because from Senegal on we needed a new insurance. For some reason he made the contract straight and told us that I have to pay 300 Euro and Ryo 120. Regular price was like 80 and 30. A long discussion started with visits of people at 3 a.m. who woke me up to start arguing with me. I denied because this was neither agreed nor can I tell that it’s a real insurance doc. The internet on top of it said that you can only buy it in Senegal which made us super skeptical. At the end I said we gonna pay 50 and 30 euros or nothing. So prices with were defiantly below the official price. The guys agreed straight. So I guess I have a fake insurance now.. haha. I mean why would the sell it to us for less than they bought it for? Anyway, this is Africa. The police excepted the document and it looked really official. Maybe I’ll check it someday, maybe not. Ryo and I decided to walk through the city. I didn’t know that Mauritania is that dangerous with Mafia, modern slavery and violence. Especially because it didn’t feel like it when I was there. I also didn’t check on it before. Recent researches have shown that 17% of the population is under modern slavery, google it if you wanna know what it is. It’s really fucked up. As a tourist you don’t see all this. Mauritania is one of the poorest countries in the world, moneywise. To give you an example how poor it is and also how poor we Europeans are: The EU recently bought right to fish at the Mauritanian coast for a little money of just 0,1 billion Euro. Good deal for the EU. But what this deal brought with was that big ships came to the Mauritanian shore and the local fisherman couldn’t catch any fish any longer. So fisherman sold their boats to the mafia with is almost the only institution with money. The mafia uses these boats now to smuggle people illegally to the Cap Verts and elsewhere. No official figures but people here said that only every second boat ever arrives at their destination, the rest dies on sea. And I’m not speaking of the boats only.

Probably the biggest building in Nouakchott is the US embassy. It’s so fucking big, you have now imagination. I’m not sure why they made it that big, maybe I’ll find out later, maybe it’s just American. We soon took a walk through the city were we saw an ecological disaster. The biggest trash hill I have ever seen. And I was on European dumps already well to say. Sorry for saying it at this point but I think there is not really hope for Mauritania in the near future. The few cities are full of industries and Chinese companies. Tourism is almost zero caused by this.

Sadly, I decided to cross the country quickly with my 7 days visa, so I didn’t meet so many locals. But as this is Africa, I can say the poorer a country is the nicer the people usually are. I guess Mauritania is an awesome country which I hopefully will see again for another time in future.

The south border to the Senegal is really horrible. 50km of dry mud dam track, no roads just up and down in potholes. The track was even worse than the border “street” with Morocco. I had ground contact a bunch of times and felt that my car will really suffer from this Africa trip in near future. It was probably naive to think that my car will stay in the same good condition than I started with. Closer to The Senegal the nature became greener. No more desert and a lot of animals. I saw a warthog for the first time, the one from Lion King (Pumba). Many births where in this region also. I could feel the Senegal already when I drove along the Senegal River heading the border. On my way I met Ryo again. Can get rid of this Japanese guy. Just kidding, I’m enjoying his company, even if we don’t talk much. Beside the language barrier Ryo in general doesn’t speak too much. It’s his Japanese nature, I guess. Now I can say that what was special to me about Mauritania is that I met a lot of crazy travels in a strange environment of just sand and car wrecks.


And there it came, the border of Senegal, but that’s another story guys. Stay tuned and thanks for reading.