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.