Language, linguistics and travel. A blog that tries to bring them all together.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Kiffa, Mauritania to Kayes, Mali

The BOFs had been assured by their acquaintances at the Nouakchott chapter of the Rotary Club that the road from Kiffa to Kayes, the western most city in Mali, was easily negotiable with two wheel drives. If they ever come across those individuals again I hope they give them a good slapping.

The condition of the road from Kiffa began to deteriorate the moment we left town and became a one lane, rutted track with a high central ridge that often defied the best efforts of our low slung vehicles. Often we had to navigate it with the set of wheels on one side of the car skirting the furthest edge of the track while the other set ran along the ridge. Deviations from this routine risked ploughing the underbody of the respective cars into the sand, effectively bringing the vehicle to a complete stand still. Once the Volvo became so badly stuck we had to dig back thirty feet in order to reverse the car on to solid ground before attempting an alternative route. At the frequent wadis progress came to a temporary halt while the terrain was surveyed for the most likely path through then, one by one, each vehicle would make its mad dash across the soft sand, the passage emphasized by wild fishtails and sprays of dust. Any loss of power or hesitation on the part of the driver unfailingly meant getting stuck. Eventually we had to abandon the track entirely and weave along beside it, all the while hoping there weren't any appreciable holes hidden by the tall yellow grasses and that the thorns for the ubiquitous acacia trees wouldn't puncture our tires.

The BOFs, who'd been leading the way, stopped at a rise in the land. Roger and John had a GPS and for the last twenty kilometers had been worried that we been going the wrong way as the coordinates exhibited by their machine didn't match those attested by the Bamako Run Road Book. I thought the best way to find out was to simply ask a local. The question was who? This region of the world was very sparsely populated. We'd passed a goatherd about a kilometer back so I turned tail and went in search of him. I found him wher standing atop a small hill surrounded by his flock. Fully aware that being questioned by a white foreigner wouldn't be among the usual litany of his daily events, I approached him wearing the best disarming smile I could muster and waving familiarly. His eyes widened perceptibly but he stood his ground. He was younger than I'd supposed; barely a teenager.
"As-salaam aleikum," I said, hailing him with the most widely accepted Arabic salutation. He didn't respond.
"Ca va?" I tried again, this time in French. Again he said nothing and eyed me with such incredulity you'd have thought I had horns growing out of my head. I generally rely heavily on my linguistic abilities when traveling; usually I'm able to find some common language even if it's just a greeting or a few odd words. This time I was stumped. It was a testament to how far off the beaten track we'd placed ourselves. Falling back on the clumsiness of sign language and place names, I cleared a small patch of ground and drew a map with a stick. It was all to no avail, I may as well have been trying to theorize about black holes with a tree. He listened politely to my gibberish and offered a few soothing murmurs. It was pointless. I thanked him profusely for his pains then gave him a couple of cigarettes; probably not the best gift for a pre-teen but it was all that I had.

We decided that continuing onwards was the best idea and eventually our decision proved to be the correct one. A quartet of battered trucks was laboriously coming the opposite way. We ran into them on a crest where the track had become nothing more than deep sandy grooves that were a struggle even for their immense wheels. The driver of the lead truck, a jovial fellow who delighted in seeing our motley convoy, affirmed that we were indeed on the route to Koudoudjel, one of the few villages named on the Michelin map. Making a wide and difficult sweep away from the impossible track we drove on, more relaxed now, knowing that if nothing else we were at least going the right way.

Koudoudjel was a haphazard place of mud compounds sitting amidst strands of dried out foliage. As soon as our vehicles came into view, the village bounded into life. Crying "Donne-moi un stylo" (give me a pen), and "cadeau, cadeau", children raced toward us like a mob converging on enticing products at a post Christmas sale. Their imminent arrival presented a problem; desert driving demanded we go as fast as humanly possible in order to skim over the ankle deep, sandy thoroughfare through the village but the risk of running over a gift obsessed child ruled that out. One by one ours wheels dug in and the vehicles came to a defeated halt. The cars were immediately surrounded by eager, smiling faces and outstretched hands. While Trygve sat in the driver's seat with pursed lips, I waded through the mob to the back of the car to retrieve the sand ladders. A collection of the more helpful children helped me dig out the wheels and place the sand ladders. Once that was done, I turned to the sea of expectant faces and announced that now it was time to to give me a cadeau. As though playing a thrilling new game, we all leaned into the car and with a mighty push set it in motion. Slowly it gathered enough speed then ponderously made its way to solid ground under its own steam.

Whether traveling through villages or crossing wadis we used our sand ladders extensively. Unfortunately their inherent usefulness does come with a down side as, under certain circumstances, they have a propensity for flying out at odd angles. Glenn was hit first. As the car we'd been pushing struggled away, he stood rooted to the spot, teeth clenched and staring straight ahead as though transfixed by a hallucination of a giant serpent. He hobbled off to one side and pulled up his pant leg. The skin on his shin had been smartly split with an angry flash of red defining its limits. It was my turn next. I wasn't nearly so stoic. The ladder came flying out at a peculiar angle, smacking into me just above the left knee. Casper, who'd been driving, thought I'd been shot. Despite my dramatic fall, the skin wasn't broken but I ended up with a nasty, thick welt that had me limping the rest of the day.

When the day began, we'd been optimistic about reaching the border with Mali. Now all we aimed for was the village of Konkassa, only one hundred paltry kilometers from Kiffa. As evening drew near we finally reached its outskirts. Despite our best efforts there didn't appear to be any way around the village so in grand style we ploughed along the main street with the cars becoming stuck with merciless regularity. Finally the track hardened and we arrived in the center. As the inevitable crowd gathered, several of our group nipped into a shabby, little store in search bread and bottled water. I went to join them while Trygve stayed in the car surrounded by a growing mob of curious children. Then it happened; while her attention was diverted by one child, a couple more reached in through the passenger window and stole my sunglasses and a pair of binoculars from the dashboard. Theft is severely looked down upon in the Arabic countries and the air around the car automatically became electric as people milled around in shocked expectancy. Some children ran up to me, beckoning. Excitedly they told me to follow them into a compound. I did so, surrounding myself with gravity I didn't really feel. A worried boy came around the side of a building and shakily handed me the binoculars. I don't know if he was the one who took them, nevertheless I was very surprised to get them back. Back in the street the adults in their authoritative blue and white robes had gathered. They made a circle around me and fired off questions trying to figure out which child took the sunglasses. Despite what had happened, I found their concern admirable. They recommended I go to the police. I told them there was no time; the sun was sinking and I explained that we needed to find a camping spot for the night. Strangely enough, I'm certain that if I'd stayed in Konkassa, my sunglasses would have been returned and the child roundly punished.

After bogging down several more times on the southern edge of Konkassa, we finally found the stretch of land that another group of Bamako Runners had selected for their night's stay. Collectively they'd developed a different attitude to Africa than we had and had encircled their vehicles in a tight laager then blocked the gaps with lengths of caution tape and rope in an attempt to keep the gathering of curious villagers at bay. In the center, an enormous campfire was roasting the night air. Our own group parked close by but without defenses and certainly not in a circle. In dribs and drabs the Mauritanians came over from the laager to inspect us until eventually a sizable crowd had gathered. They meticulously studied our every movement, passing whispered comments as they did so. It was like being an animal in a zoo. Georgina made a move and said she love it if she could use some of the scant excess water to wash off the day's dust. That gave me an idea.
"Does anybody here speak French?" I asked in that language. A fellow in the midst of the crowd put up his hand.
Aware of the Arabic ideas of modesty, I told him that one of our women would like to wash herself and would it be okay if everyone left for a while? It was like Moses at the Red Sea. Within half a minute we were alone, and all felt that a small miracle had just happened. After Georgina had sponged herself partially clean, the villagers slowly filtered back. This time I went over and got into conversation with them, explaining the hows, whys and wherefores of our being in their village. Later, when the time for bed had arrived, Trygve urged me to make an attempt at repeating the miracle.
"Excuse me," I said raising my voice, "My friends and I are going to bed now. Would it be okay if everyone left?"
After handshakes all around we were left to ourselves once again.
From the laager we could hear irritated English accents telling their unwanted guests to "bugger off".

The laager uncircled itself early the following morning and drove south, leaving behind a still smoldering fire and copious scraps of trash.

It was a further 50km to the Malian border. Although the track wasn't much better south of Konkassa, there were far fewer snags and, for the most part, the area on either side route was easier to navigate. Terry had already proven himself a desert driver and I found that following along in his wake, though at an appreciable distance because of the dust, almost guaranteed a through path. Only once did he falter. I have visions of him still, jacking up the front wheel of their red station wagon to put the sand ladder under it while muttering swear words at himself for having been caught in a "badger" hole. Despite trying to follow the coordinates on the GPS, we still managed to lose the way. By the time the error had been recognized, we had already gone ten kilometers down the wrong track. A pair of charitable villagers put us right and with out too much fanfare we arrived in Hamid, the last sizable habitation before the border. Like all the villages we'd passed through, it was a squat, mud brick affair that blended perfectly into the sepia tones of the dried out, tree strewn landscape surrounding it. The one difference was that it had a innocuous building at the far end of town with a ragged, green Mauritanian flag flying above it. This was the border post. A trio of Mauritanians greeted our convoy when we arrived. One of them, the governor of the province as it turned out, told us that the gentleman who stamped the passports was in Konkassa and that we should just continue on. We didn't need telling twice. Somewhere in the undefined landscape we crossed the border. The only indication that we were in a different country was that the road improved imperceptibly until we found we could actually drive on it.

In the early afternoon we stopped in a clearing to have a cup of tea and a bite to eat. As so often happens in the Sahel, a couple of blue robed, tuareg shepherds soon discovered us. While we stood greeting them, a gang of children, entralled at the idea of foreigners being in their midst came to examine us. For once they didn't ask for cadeau but stood around ogling us and chattering excitedly. Trying to put things in context, Georgina assumed that the two blue clad adults were teachers taking their pupils on a nature walk. I looked at her quizzically. There were no houses nearby let along a school. When the two adults left, the children remained. Georgina was confused. "They're leaving their class behind", she said aghast at such breach in student/teacher relations. Big hearted Terry and John couldn't resist handing out gifts to the children. They gathered around him in an excited mob with outstretched hands and amazed expressions; another group of "cadeau kids" had just been created.

For the rest of the afternoon we drove on stopping only to reconnoiter rut strewn wadis before attempting the uncertain crossings. It was proof of our newly acquired abilities that we were able to traverse them at all. Prior to this journey, I would have taken one look and declared half of them impossible and turned around to find another route. When the sun's rays began diminishing we still hadn't reached Kayes and camped for the night beside the road once more, though this time far from any habitation.

The following day we were driving an ever improving road when we suddenly came across a white Volvo sedan that belonged to the other Bamako Run group. It was parked in the middle of the road and was surrounded by ominous scatterings of rubbish. There was no one around and all the baggage had been removed. Our first thought was that they'd been victims of foul play but as we found no trails of blood nor bodies in the undergrowth, we assumed the vehicle had broken down and that the people who owned it would return later. We were told the real story later that day. Desperately trying to reach Kayes, the group had driven into the night - not the wisest idea in this part of Africa. As they'd been hurrying along one behind the another with visibility cut to a minimum because of the excess of dust, the Volvo had run straight into a tree stump that then pushed the gearbox into the heart of the cab. The vehicle was a write-off and had been abandoned. The following morning the driver and his companion had given the keys to a local telling him the car was his

As the road continued to improve significantly, I took the lead and went zipping along far ahead of the others enjoying the rediscovered joy of speed. During this section, we came across our first Baobab trees, the unofficial emblem of sub-Saharan Africa. With their overly fat trunks and wizened demeanors, each one is a personality unto itself. I never tired their company. They accompanied us down the road and into Kayes, where on the outskirts of town we were immediately pulled over by a pair of moped cops. They incongruously asked for nothing and instead made a special point of leading us to the main road into town where we once again joined legitimate tarmac. It was like waking from a rough night's sleep and finding yourself in paradise.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Nouakchott to Kiffa

We stayed in Nouakchott for a single day and a night which gave us just enough time to accomplish all the chores that traveling through the desert demands: repairing cars, buying provisions, washing clothes and changing money. It was a shame not to spend longer, Nouakchott's seedy, dilapidated atmosphere of trash strewn streets, decrepit buildings and its vibrant, if basic, market cried out for more careful attention. It was like being given a broken, rusted clock and not being allowed to take it apart.

The following day we drove out of the capital, passed the final band of plastic bag strewn scrubland that demarcated the its boundary and arrived once more in the pristine terrain of the desert. On all sides golden sand dunes undulated toward the horizon like great ocean waves frozen in time, camel herds snorted and swayed by the roadside and herds of innocent goats wandered blithely into the path of oncoming traffic. Towns became a rarity. For long stretches the only forms of human habitation were the elegant, white tents of the nomads and the aesthetically challenged mud hamlets of the more permanent residents. In its march to modernity, Mauritania finally got around to abolishing slavery in the 1980s and it was highly likely that the denizens of the hamlets still remained there under indefinite servitude to their tented masters. Heading eastward drew us inexorably deeper into Africa and gave us our last, long glimpse of the vast expanse of the Sahara. Our aim for the day was the southern town of Kiffa, some 600 kilometers distant and fortunately reachable by a tarmac road. The only hinderance, according to the Michelin map, was the possibility of blowing sand.

At the extremity of the sand sea we entered Aleg, our first Sahelian town. It was a dismal affair of colorless, one storey, cinder block buildings that housed the most basic needs of life. Stopping for gas in the center of town brought a plague of "cadeau" enthusiasts upon us. They gathered around the cars like locusts and demanded gifts as they eyed the contents of our vehicles with ill disguised avarice. I almost felt that if I'd stumbled and fallen while being surrounded by them, they'd have descended on me leaving nothing afterwards but a red stain on the desert floor.

After Aleg we drifted back and forth between desert and sahel. The latter was a land of cattle and goat herding. For both creatures and their compatriots, the ubiquitous and hardy, grey donkeys, this section of road had proved to be a death trap. Large road kill became so common that Trygve and I started playing a morbid game in which a dead goat earned one point, a cow two, a camel three and a donkey four. We stopped playing when we passed the first massacre; over half a dozen lifeless goats lay by the roadside, their bellies already starting to bloat. A short while later we passed a small herd of dead cows; a person's livelihood gone in a second. On that one section of road, I witnessed more large road kill than I've collectively seen the rest of my life. We could only conclude that it was caused by pumped up truck drivers racing through the night. The members of our group discussed the subject later and were at a loss to understand why it was that the animals were simply left where they died and not butchered and eaten. The only rational explanation was that, having been killed by a wehicle, the meat was not halal and therefore it was a sin to eat it. That still didn't explain why they didn't skin the animals for their valuable hides.

Low slung, scruffy and crowded with both horse drawn and motorized traffic, Kiffa was a quintessential Mauritanian town. Before going to investigate the heart of of it for hotels, we made a pit stop at a tire repair stall. The Freewheelers needed a dent hammered out of a wheel rim and the tire filled with air. After finishing this meager piece of work, the repairman demanded the equivalent of twenty-five dollars. Mauritanians have one of the world's lowest living standards, generally make about a dollar a day, as such foreigners are seen as a quick and lucrative way to make money. Terry was stunned by the price but as he hadn't settled it beforehand it looked as though he was going to get stung. As the argument heated up, a crowd began to gather. Unable to resist a good battle, I joined the fray. Using rhetoric as a weapon, I appealed to the repairman's good nature by explaining the charitable nature of our mission then added that my client would be happy to pay twice the local rate, as it was understood that foreigners should always pay more and said I thought a more realistic price for the work would be 400 Ouagiya (about a dollar fifty). I could feel the crowd around me murmuring in agreement. A cloud of conscience passed over the repairman's features and the price started dropping. Grabbing the advantage, I pressed my case by theatrically turning to address the crowd, who were evidently reveling in the evening's entertainment, and asked them to judge. They mumbled and shuffled their feet, caught between the need for justice and fairness and a desire to support their countryman. The repairman offered an even lower price. I was trying to pull it down to five or six hundred ouagiya when Terry suddenly caved in on a thousand. A generous soul by nature, he passed over the cash then reached into the recesses of his car, pulled out a football jersey and gave it to the repairman. The last shred of tension evaporated and we left the stall surrounded by a sea of smiles and well wishes.

After questioning several locals, we managed to track down an auberge at the edge of town. A gaggle of small boys heralded our arrival with excited screams then gathered around the cars menacingly. Leaving a sentry, we went to examine the place. The center of the auberge was dominated by a large, open walled structure comfortably laid out with mats and cushions. Terry and Georgina immediately began enthusing about it. For my part, I felt uneasy sensing something amiss. The robed owner came out of a door and measured us up with a critical eye. I asked if there were rooms.
"Yes," he answered, "But they are all occupied."
I scanned the compound taking in the closed doors on all the cubicle sized buildings forming a "u" around the central structure. It was odd that at this time of day and especially in a town like this that all the rooms were taken.
"You can sleep under this," he suggested swiveling his head around toward the structure. "It is only 4000 ougiya per person." It was excessively expensive but it didn't matter, I'd already decided I didn't want to stay.
"This place is a brothel," I hissed to my friends.
Terry and Georgina looked askance at me then a willowy, young woman in shape enhancing brown outfit leisurely sauntered into the compound.
"I think I'll trust Jon's judgement here," said Terry eyeing the girl with interest.
On the way out, one the owner's friends asked how many hours we were planning on staying, effectively putting an end to any further debate. Along with the rest of the Bamako Runners, we ended up sleeping in walled in camping ground on the other side of town.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Through the Desert to Nouakchott

With the ice cream cone flashing orange and Lara's theme trickling from the BOFs speakers, we set off once more into the desert. Our coastal destination was about four hours away across an undulating beige landscape dotted with hardy vegetation whose primary source of defense was the mighty thorn. With the previous day's experience under our belts, we shot off like seasoned pros, skimming the surface of the sand fields as though skiing through them. As the route was demarcated by the tracks of earlier vehicles, Trygve, who was driving the Volvo at the time and quiet Casper in The Rat, began racing each other leaving the more sedate BOFs along with Moulay, our guide, far behind. The exhilaration that comes with bouncing over sparse desert at full speed and in complete control is like closing in a mountain peak. Each in their turn overtook the other. leaving the laggard in a proverbial cloud of dust as both cars skipped across the desert like two playful puppies chasing each other. Then the Volvo died. Ever since we'd had to switch to leaded gasoline in Dakhla, the car had started acting a little strange. We'd been assured that the change would simply blow out the catalytic converter and that the car would run essentially as it had before. There had been warning signs the day before, when at certain moments the engine couldn't push out its maximum power but even then we thought we'd make it through. Impotence could well be defined as having a dead engine in the middle of a desert. With tools in hand, John the Yorkshireman and Roger of the BOFs twiddled with pipes and filters as they tried to diagnose the malady. I'd was seriously beginning to wonder if we'd have to leave the car in the desert when Yorkshire John pulled off the plug that regulated the air flow into the engine. The car started. It didn't sound good. The engine stammered consistantly like a stuck record but it ran and that was of the most important thing. By the time we reached the sea, it was obvious that John and Roger would need to do a little more fine tuning.

Trygve is apt to say that Mauritanians don't do towns well and should stick to living in the desert. That may well be said of villages too. Approaching the coast, a collection of cargo containers turned out to be a mean, little fishing hamlet. We continued on past it over a hump of sand to discover a encampment of graceful desert tents, where we'd be spending the night. Centuries of experience have taught the desert dwelling denizens how to live in it with relative ease and protection. The four sided tents are invariably white on the outside and outrageously colorful on the inside with the roof being held up by a single pole, though for larger ones a second may be added. For added comfort, the floors are covered by large, woven, plastic mats with mingling geometric designs. It's possible to tell which way the prevailing wind comes from by noting the direction of the doorway; it always faces leeward.

After paying the park and accommodation fees, a murmur that all was not right with the following day's itinerary began growing louder. The idea was to drive 140km south along an ill defined track then coast down the beach at low tide all the way to Nouakchott. We'd looked over the tidal charts that came with the information package for the Challenge and found that the difference between the low and high tides was minimal at best. According to Moulay, it meant that the ground would not be hard enough for long enough to keep the vehicles from sinking in. That in turn would mean lost time which could then result in the tide coming in before we reached Nouakchott, thus losing most the vehicles to the sea.

Another group of Bamako Runners was also staying on the beach. I'd met their guide, Dahid, the day before. He was a lithe, smooth skinned man in his late twenties who exuded intelligence and confidence as his birth right. After questioning both guides to the best of my ability, I found a bone of contention between them. Dahid, who was as concerned about the beach route as Moulay, planned to continue down the coast until his convoy reached the beach. If the tide looked bad they'd double back for 40km then take a piste across to the new tarmac road to Nouakchott. Moulay counseled our team not to take the same route to the road.
"It is very bad," he cautioned, "You must go fast and cannot stop. Otherwise you get stuck. It is difficult to come back to help." He was certain the beach wouldn't be possible and recommended we take a 40km track directly to the road from our present location. The condition of our vehicles was the main cause for concern. It was unlikely that the lumbering ice cream van and our sickly Volvo would be able to conquer more difficult tracks now.

I passed the evening with the two guides in one of the capacious tents drinking small glasses of sweetened tea and listening to them as they stealthily attacked each others abilities. Privately Moulay suggested that Dahid was intentionally setting up the other group for catastrophe as, by the unwritten law of the desert, the keys to any stranded vehicle are handed over to the guide. "He has taken hundreds of vehicles," whispered Moulay conspiratorially, "I am honest. Always I want all the cars to leave the desert. I want everyone to have a good experience." Over the last couple of days the vehicles in our group had bogged down in the desert sands with alarming frequency. "In my group only one car got stuck yesterday and only one today," boasted Dahid. With knowing assurance he said he knew the how to navigate the difficult route to the highway. Moulay looked away with derision clouding his face.

In the early morning Dahid's team fired up their engines and one by one disappeared over the rise. We followed suit a couple of hours but made directly for the tarmac. Once we'd reached the road the two 4x4s left immediately. They arrived in Bamako six days before us with the one team flying back to England as soon as humanly possible.

Our objective for the day was a patch of coastline 85km north of Nouakchott where'd we'd spend the night in relative comfort while still being in the wilds of the desert. It turned out to be two plastic bags short of a garbage dump with a nomad tent balanced in the middle of it and odd jackals appearing amongst tufts of rubbish strewn dunes. Moulay had been reassuring himself and us of what a good and honest guide he was. Using his cellphone he called up Dahid to find out how the other group was getting on. As expected they'd been unable to take the beach route and, to Moulay's evident glee, were bogged down in the bad track to the tarmac. Apparently their one 4x4 was busy burning out its clutch as it pulled vehicle after vehicle out of sand traps. It looked as though we'd made the right decision. At ten in the evening Dahid's group arrived in Nouakchott with all the vehicles mostly intact and Moulay never mentioned Dahid's name again.

We drove the final 85km to Nouakchott the following morning along the goudron and spent the remainder of the day running around town fixing vehicles and gathering supplies.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Into the Desert

The entire aspect of a journey changes when you travel in a group.

We hooked up with a collection of Bamako Runners for the Mauritanian portion of the adventure after chatting with them at the roof top bar of the Sahara Regency Hotel in Dakhla. To make sure we'd be able to cross the border into Mauritania before the customs guards began their lengthy siesta, we all assembled for an early breakfast in the hotel's restaurant then set off in convoy with the remnants of the night still enshrouding us. Roger and John from Carlisle in Northern England, whose self-assigned handle was the BOFs (Boring Old Farts), lead the way. They'd outfitted their bright pink vehicle to make it look like a neighborhood ice cream van by liberally pasting the outside with popsicle and ice cream stickers. A large, plastic ice cream cone was bolted to the front of the van and flashed orange when the occasion demanded. To add authenticity, the BOFs had attached a pair of speakers to the exterior that produced a tinkly version of Lara's theme from Doctor Zhivago. This became our rallying cry. Hidden deep inside the van was a freezer packed with homemade ice cream and hidden deeper still was a collection of alcohol they were planning on smuggling into teetotaling Mauritania in order to help them celebrate January 25th, the birthday of the Scottish poet Robert Burns.

Second place was taken by the boys in The Rat, Glenn and Casper, two drinking buddies from the south of England. The two of them had theatrically painted their black Volvo sedan with whooshes of flames then super glued a giant, rubber rodent to the hood.

The third and fourth place in the queue was filled by either our blue Volvo with its Fishbon logo design or by Terry and John from Yorkshire in a red VW station wagon. John had joined the challenge courtesy of Terry and initially thought it was just another one of the latter's nutty plans that would never come to fruition. But as the date of departure neared so had the momentum. Now the car was packed with hundreds of donated football shirts and dozens of footballs and the outside had become a riot of sponsors' names. Terry, a joiner by trade, had bolted a wooden roof rack to the top of the car then lashed a portable camp toilet, or "commode" as they called it in their broad accents, to the rear of it. From this perch, he intended to do some filming in relative comfort. Before we left Dakhla the two of them convinced us to put some of the football gear in the back of our car to make way for Georgina, a reporter hitchhiking down with the Bamako Run.

The final two places were taken by two Landrover 4 x 4s. We'd briefly met the occupants two days earlier on the way to Dakhla after they'd pulled over to the side of the road for a coffee break. On seeing the Bamako Run stickers we'd made a U turn and gone up to meet them. They'd seemed distant and suspicious. I think if I hadn't eventually held my hand out they would never have thought of offering their own. They kept up this distance from us and everyone else for the duration of our time together. Apparently one pair, Andy and his companion, who's name I never did catch, had bitten off more than they could chew. At times it was a wonder they didn't just turn tail to race back to the comfort of tepid beer in a creaky English pub to pretend they'd never left home. The other pair of four wheel drivers, Chris and Lowell, got themselves caught up in this psyche and inadvertently found themselves in Bamako with much of the journey having been nothing more than a collection of dusty vistas flashing by the window.

Despite a coastal fog, the last thing I expected to encounter in the Sahara, and taking the wrong track in the heavily mined no man's land between the Moroccan and Mauritanian frontiers, we crossed into Mauritania in good time. Mauritania is one the world's poorest countries and according to members of the Peace Corps, I'd met several years before, was the worst posting in all of Africa. It is a country drowned in desert that apparently produces very little of anything. Nouadibou, the first town on the other side of the border, was low slung and so shabby and run down an interior designer would have run away shrieking. Despite the poverty, a motley collection of cars constantly plied the streets. Many were incongruously shiny Mercedes, probably the results of the town's prolific, cross-border smuggling trade. Almost every other vehicle was so battered and ancient it was a small miracle they managed to keep them running at all. It was like watching a vehicular "Dawn of the Dead". Grace was added to the scene by the elegant, flowing blue and white robes of the men. Their clothing is the quintessential desert gear that allows for ventilation while keeping the occupant warm or cool depending upon the time of day and the season. When one of the Mauritanians stands atop a sand dune and the wind billows through his robes, it's almost impossible not to think of Lawrence of Arabia.

We stopped at an auberge near the center of town to set up camp for the night. As we did so, individual Mauritanians and Senegalese edged their way toward us in the hopes of making a sale, changing money or, at the very least, being given a "cadeau" - a gift. This raised Trygve's hackles - wasn't paying for a night to stay in the compound supposed to protect us from all this, she asked irritably. The other predators making the rounds were the guides; the next stage of the journey involved going down the coastal route over ill defined and at times non-existent tracks before finally hitting the coast to take the beach route to the capital. In reality, a brand new macadam road now joined Nouadibou to Nouakchott but taking it would have destroyed our growing sense of adventure. Moulay the guide smoothed his way into our campsite with a smile, a greeting and a handshake then produced a pair of crinkled letters that immediately made me suspicious of him; both referred to him as a replacement guide and were written before the actual desert crossing had taken place. It didn't help that he also looked like a squattier, gap toothed version of Geraldo. While I was away changing money, the rest of our group hired him.

The following day we filled our gas tanks and jerry cans and made a right turn off the goudron to join the piste. The paramount question at the back of everyone's mind was "Who will get stuck first?" Desert driving in a car totally unsuited for it has a very high learning curve. It has to. The first part was easy, the ground was hard and all the sand was piled in graceful, wind sculptured dunes off to the side. When we encountered our first wadi (dry stream bed), Moulay had us all stop on the solid ground in front of it then dutifully deflated all the necessary tires to the right pressure. The wadi was filled with loose sand that only had echoes of tread marks running through it, a sure sign of potential difficulty. The trick is to rev the car on the solid ground, then shift it into second gear or higher by the time you hit the sand. Once going, you don't break for anything until you reach a hard patch on the other side. If you do it right you skim over the sand if not... The first time we used the sand ladders was to rescue The Rat. For the rest of the day intermittent and unavoidable fields of sand threatened to block our advance. It was the BOFs turn to bog down next. As they were leading the way and had loaded the vehicle with all manner of items they were planning on giving as gifts to the Malian people - ten bulky sewing machines for example - this was hardly surprising. But Roger and John had brought a secret weapon with them. They'd managed to get their hands on a pair of silver, roll up sand mats used by the British Army, apparently the very latest in desert tech. Having used them for the exact purpose intended, we can only conclude that there are a lot of infuriated British soldiers stranded somewhere in the desert. Terry the Yorkshireman, and a very practical fellow by nature, turned out the best desert driver. At one particular snag that had bogged down both The Rat and the BOFs, he surveyed the ground and seeing that tufts of grass were blotting a shallow plain on the left side of the track opted to take that route instead. He sailed across it barely leaving a mark. From that and other trials we learned that taking the well rutted track is not always the best idea and also that taking the windward side is often the better course as the ground is more densely packed.

The end of the the day found us at the base of a gently curving dune setting up camp while the setting sun gently broadened the sand shadows on the faces of the surrounding dunes. The quiet camaraderie of having worked together to surmount obstacles had worked itself into all of us along with the whisper of knowledge that comes when using new tools and techniques for the first time.

When night had eventually smothered day, Roger called us all toward the ice cream van for an evening of Scottish heritage. The Robbie Burn's birthday bash started with a poem eulogizing "The chiefdon o' the pudding race", i.e., the haggis that John and Roger had brought with them. It was read aloud by Terry using his thick Yorkshire accent while wearing the green kilt and accompanying sporran he'd brought with him to honor his Irish and Scottish ancestors. Coached on by John and Roger, he stabbed the honored haggis during the appropriate line of verse. Then we were all urged to come forward to fill our bellies with that bloated sausage, tatties (potatoes) and neeps (turnips). Afterwards whiskey glasses were raised in memory of the great man and another of his poems read out loud. It was my turn next. Cloaked in my best Scottish accent, I stood before the assembled crowd and rolled "My love is like a red, red rose..." off my tongue before finishing off with a toast "ta th' wee lassies here among us". For final entertainment, Glenn donned a piece of kilt-like cloth and stumbled over a pair of crossed shovels in a riotous imitation of a traditional Scottish sword dance.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Road South

The foothills of the Anti-Atlas finally leveled out south of Sidi Ifni. From that point on the scenery becomes as flat as a plate with only the suggestion of mesas darkening the eastern horizon. On our right was the coastline of the Atlantic, an end-of-the-world place where the sparse, even earth ended abruptly in death defying cliffs that jutted out over a crashing, scooped out shoreline that has become the final resting place for many an ill fated ship.

The road was asphalt and just wide enough for two lanes of traffic if blowing sand hadn't nibbled away at one of the margins. It was much busier than I thought it would be. Many of the vehicles were trucks bringing supplies south to the desert towns of Layoune, Dakhla and the few spartan hamlets in between. A good proportion of the others were the drab green Landrovers and troop carriers of the Moroccan army who continue to make their presence felt in a newly conquered land. And then there were the Trans-Saharan Brigade, amongst whom we count ourselves. So many people make Morocco/Mauritania journey these days that every second car was a four wheel drive plastered with stickers and weighed down by sand ladders and spare tires. Even more off putting were the grey haired retirees sedately driving their RVs deeper into Africa. Somehow their presence struck a death blow to any thoughts of exploring unknown territory.

For comic relief, intermittent, triangular road signs warned us that itinerant camels might saunter across the road at any moment, while on a slightly more serious note we found ourselves being flagged to a halt with alarming frequency at one of Western Sahara's ubiquitous road blocks. Here we were asked to produce our "fiche", a piece of paper documenting all our particulars from nationality to mother's name. The grey uniformed police were invariably polite and professional, though I did start to wonder what offense they must have committed elsewhere to land them in such isolated, barren surrounds. Shortly afterwards we'd be back up to speed and surrounded once again by the unrelenting desert landscape. Sometimes the monotonous horizon was mercifully broken by the familiar form of a single sand dune. For some inexplicable reason it had decided to park itself on that particular spot, though any other would have worked equally well. Other dunes had decided that clustering together was a better idea and, as a unit, created enormous undulating, golden fields that ended as mysteriously as they'd started. For companionship, an endless convoy of electricity pylons journeyed through the desert along side us, its head and tail forming vanishing points at the boundaries of the horizon. Kilometer after kilometer, hour after hour it went on and on.

Three hundred and forty kilometers from the southern extremity of Western Sahara the road split in two. We took the right fork to the peninsula town of Dakhla and, after passing the final road block, suspended our southern passage for a couple of days rest and recuperation.

Dakhla is the final meeting point for groups going south into Mauritania and taking the coastal route. We've lagged so far behind our own group that we now threaten to be lapped by the one coming after us. They're on the so-called Bamako Run and will be taking a left turn at some point and heading toward Mali. We've now hooked up with them for tomorrow's border crossing and beach route. Our story may change once we arrive in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania and start gathering information. As the car is now properly equipped, we're considering joining the Bamako Run then turning tail at its completion and heading westward toward the Senegalese border. If possible we'll then go on to Gambia then link up with group 4, who'll be coming out of the Sahara around that time then auction off the car in Banjul along with them. This is, of course, assuming that the Volvo will be able to make it that far and that the border regions of Mali aren't bristling with bandits.

Thursday, January 25, 2007


Driving through the Anti-Atlas in southern Morocco gave us our first peripheral glimpse of the Sahara. Continuously tortured by the elements and almost stripped of vegetation, the landscape retains a stark beauty that left me speechless. As words simply cannot express the intensity of this desolated region, I've decided to let it speak for itself through images, even though they are at best a very poor recreation.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Zagora to Foum Zguid

I got it wrong. The town of Tazenakht was not on the way to M'hamid, the last town before the Algerian border. It was, in fact, in another part of Morocco entirely. This put a serious cramp in our plans as the road we we'd planning on taking to Foum Z'guid was supposed to be "goudron" or asphalt. I studied the map quickly and discovered an alternative route. It ran west from Zagora, the market town we'd just left, and was "piste" (a dirt road) for the first twenty kilometers or so.Then there'd be a fork in the road where we'd go right and immediately join goudron. The left fork promised only piste that, according to a French Internet forum I'd been perusing the previous evening, was only suitable for four wheel drives. We'd rejected the latter out of hand the previous evening but as the former now seemed like a viable alternative, we doubled back to hunt down the initial turning off the main road.

To be certain we were going the right way, we stopped at a nearby tour guide office. There was a large hand drawn map of the region on the wall and using it as a reference, Mustapha, the capable manager, outlined the best route to take. He assured us that the direct piste we'd dismissed the day before, was the best option as the road to the right, that looked so good on the map, was in fact much worse.
"Will our car be able to make it?" I enquired tentatively, pointing through doorway at our Volvo.
"No problem. Go at only ten kilometers per hour. You will be fine," he assured us. "Just be sure you stay between the mountains and always go straight. Don't go left or right, just go straight and always stay between the mountains," he emphasized.
We thanked him profusely and set off.

We got lost almost immediately when the piste broke itself into several rutted tracks within a kilometer of our starting point. As we sat trying to figure out which route to take, a crammed white van passed us, its roof liberally carpeted with passengers. They appeared to be taking a path that would go "between the mountains" so we decided it best to follow them. Just to be on the safe side we also stopped a passing motorcyclist to ask if it was indeed the right route. It was.

The road was at best a collection of earthen, ruts and tire tracks. We bounced along it like two sailors in a storm. It was amazing that the passengers on top of the van weren't continuously tumbling off. We tailed their dusty wake for several kilometers until the track branched into three distinct directions. The van took the right fork toward some distant adobe buildings; after some deliberation we decided that going straight was best. All on our own now, we sallied forth continuously adjusting to the terrain's shallow rises and falls. The going wasn't bad but it was confusing when the route would periodically double itself in an amoeba-like fashion. More often than not these diverging paths would come together again. Obviously drivers before us had been testing out different routes.

It was late afternoon by this time and the drooping sun was etching the landscape with shadow. Although this was our first time we were actually entering into the Sahara with our car it wasn't as forbidding as I dared think. On both sides rose the blackened mountains of the Anti-Atlas; completely devoid of vegetation and as abrupt and harsh as a Martian landscape. They gave way to the very gently undulating valley we were now driving across. In all directs sturdy acacia trees had put deep roots in the rock strewn soil, each at an appreciative distance from its neighbor. And as always, whenever I thought about these hardy trees, I was reminded of a salient piece of advice I'd picked up from a book about driving in the Sahara - "Don't park under an acacia tree. They drop large, menacing thorns on the ground that will almost certainly give you a puncture."

The sun dropped further and beamed in through the window shield with the force of an invading army. We were almost ready to call it quits and find a camping spot when we suddenly came upon a village in the midst of that desolated landscape. Half the houses had been abandoned, their adobe walls slowly dissolving back into the earth, the other half, evidently, were home to the tilling farmers we now found ourselves waving to. Channels had been cut in their fields to aid irrigation but try as I might I couldn't see where they found their water. On the other side of the village we entered another stretch of desert and stopped for the night.

As we started setting up, a farmer and his wife went zipping by on their moped. Seeing us they doubled back. Trygve raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips. "Don't invite them to stay, whatever you do," she warned. While his wife stood at a distance, her husband came over to exchange greetings. He was excited to meet us and smiled deeply, displaying a full set of tea and tobacco stained teeth. Although he spoke no French beyond "ca va" he made us understand that he lived nearby and asked if we'd like to spend the night at his place instead. I was looking forward to spending the night under the stars, so I declined by thanking him profusely in Arabic, then said "Bghrit nshuf hada" - "I want to see this" and with a grandiose gesture raised my arms to heavens. He understood immediately, smiled his stained smile and bid me farewell, much to the obvious relief of his wife.

The stars were immaculate.

Mustapha had given us the idea that the piste was better after passing the village. Instead it got worse. I, of course, had been airily throwing around my opinion over supper; "Those people with their 4 x 4's," I'd sneered, "if a road's a little rough they always think it's only possible for them." They may well have been right this time. Trygve, who had been reluctant to take any piste in the first place, sat fuming in the passenger seat as our slow and unwieldy progress occasionally brought great thuds to the bottom of the chassis from rocks I'd unintentionally disturbed. Each bang brought to mind a vision of our horribly exposed gas tank. Eventually the way became so bad I had to periodically ask Trgve to walk ahead and clear the path of snags. I sneaked a short video of her doing it; she's dressed in bright red and orange clothing that would be better suited to an Indian wedding but still works well in a desolate Saharan landscape; each time she bends down to pick up a rock and toss it aside is like watching a New Yorker flip off a errant cab driver. I exchanged places with her shortly after that.

We came across occasional habitations of mean tents whose denizens came running out toward us to beg for gifts. One girl ran along beside our slow, bouncing vehicle screaming for chocolate. When she gave up the chase she let out a piercing scream that raised the hair on the backs of our necks.

To speed up our painfully slow progress, I adopted a new method for dealing with the snags by seating myself on the hood of the car with my feet firmly planted on the bumper. In this way i had a much better view of the road ahead and didn't have to get out of the car every time a rock needed to be move or the precipitous path through a wadi evened out.

A white van suddenly appeared on the road behind us. We let it catch up and introduced ourselves to the French couple in the cab. They said they'd come from Foum Z'guid and had tried to drive to Zagora along the same piste we'd just taken but had decided it prudent to turn back. I wondered why we hadn't seen them earlier in the day. We let them go ahead of us and stood watching as they slowly and unevenly disappeared into the distance. Shortly afterwards I started discovering rocks with spots of fresh black, liquid on them. The van must have taken a hard hit at some point.

Like a mirage a herd of heavily laden camels appeared over a rise. I motioned for Trygve to stop and reached inside to grab my camera. I tried taking a short video as we lumbered along. The results are like the ships of the desert during a particularly bad storm at sea. The leader of the camel train deliberately ambled toward the edge of the piste. He wore a white burnoose that framed a face as deeply wrinkled as the surrounding mountains. Instead of greeting us he thrust his hand toward his mouth and growled "khoobs", the Arabic word for bread. I said we didn't have any - which was a lie. He put his finger and thumb together and again made a motion like eating but this time he said "floos" - now he wanted money.
"Well you did take pictures of his camels", I heard Trygve insinuating.
He was obviously a very tough man who led a life so different from mine that we had nothing in common. He fixed me with eyes that were as foreign and forbidding as those of a shark. I showed him my camera and took his picture. I don't know if he even understood what I was doing. He couldn't have cared less anyway. He wanted something from us and would be damned if wasn't going to get it . I grabbed four dirhams from inside the car and gave them to him. He spat out a harsh, guttural cascade of words.
"What d'ye think he's saying?" I shot at Trygve.
"That you're a cheap bastard and that he should be given more," she said leaning toward him and putting another coin in his claw of a hand.

After several more arduous kilometers, we finally closed in on the far end of the mountains and like a miracle the stones and sand suddenly leveled out to become smooth, two lane dirt road.

Ait Ben Haddou

One of the joys of having a car is being able to change your route at whim. It was in this manner that we arrived at the village of Ait Ben Haddou. Noted for its ancient adobe casbah, it has become not only a UNESCO protected site but has also the backdrop for many a Hollywood movie.

Surrounded by a profusion of oasis greenery, the casbah rises like a natural outcrop that erosion has formed into softened, straight lines, crenellations and incised geometric patterns. Behind carefully kept up towers and walls, the casbah's buildings crowd as though seeking comfort from one another. Their shared walls create a befuddling maze of intermittently roofed passageways that eventually lead to ruins at the top of the hill. These once formed the last line of defense against marauders. Along the way artifacts from the non-too-distant old days have been unartistically laid out to help give the masses of tourists passing through a sense of antiquity. Deeper into the casbah the buildings have been taken over by the commerce of tourism complete with predatory salesmen lingering out front with all the languages of the world falling from their lips. One was dressed in the blue truban of the Tuareg and said he rode his camel into the desert to pick up "the beautiful things" he had hanging from the walls and covering the floor. If anyone believed that line - there's a bridge in Brooklyn...

The view from the ruins was awe inspiring. On one side a barren desert of veined foothills slowly lumbered across the landscape; on the opposite side a wide stream flowed, bringing with it a lengthy, ribbon of foliage. Huddled adobe buildings edged the fields and trees, eventually giving way once more to the rich sienna and umber tones of the desert. Along the horizon, the snow capped peaks of the High Atlas dominated all below them like a purpled, elongated crown.