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

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.