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.