“Morocco is not black Africa. Mauritania is black Africa. Good luck.” These were the parting words of the Moroccan border control captain. We rolled off the asphalt onto a 3km stretch of sandy piste flanked by car wrecks. The Moroccans call it “No Man’s Land”. It’s a buffer zone administered by no country, and claimed by the Polisario. Name’s aside, there’s plenty of people waiting to expedite your passage through the Mauritanian border control process.
We don’t make a habit of using fixers. However, once in Francophone territory, charades can’t translate “Mother’s maiden name”. We employed a helpful bloke with good enough grasp of English and French who found us, i.e. pursued across the no man’s land. $10 is money well spent to preserve your sanity, and jump the queue at police, customs and passport control.
We were at a loss as to what to see in Mauritania. Despite being the 29th largest country in the world by area, three quarters of it is desert of semi-desert. Most of it is considered unsafe to travel. We asked friends who had overlanded Africa extensively for any suggestions. “Build a sandcastle”, they offered. Smartasses.
The Banc d’Arguin National Park on the Atlantic coast is a stopover for birds migrating between Africa and Europe. Neither of us have a history of bird watching, but it would be a welcome break from hundreds of straight highway kilometres. In Nouadhibou we photocopied a National Parks map with key GPS coordinates, which turned out to be of no help at all. At the town of Chome where we approximated we should turn towards the Atlantic, we asked the question to 3 Gendarme which way to Iwik. They simultaneously pointed in 3 different directions. Nobody in these parts wants to be unhelpful to travelers. That’s just bad manners. Our open source GPS map at the time had no tracks and we were at the point of bee-lining through the country when at the exit at the outskirts of Chome we were stopped for a routine fiche check by the police. They knew the way to Iwik and would show us. They jumped in their old Mercedes saloon and floored it off into the desert with us in pursuit. At the track, they drew a map in the sand and wished us good luck. Ha! The problem with the desert is that it is so sparsely vegetated that tracks lead off in every direction. We proceeded to lose and find the track several times. To lose the track would usually mean to get up to the rear axle in soft sand. After managing 17km in 2 hours, and with the sun going down, we decided we didn’t want to go bird-watching, and setup camp.
Having seen enough sand in Mauritania we bee-lined to Senegal.