Mauritania

5th of January – 20th of January 2019: 

We hardly reached the Mauritanian border, a young English-speaking Mauritanian helped us with the visa process, and everything went much faster than expected. The office for the visas was on a break; however, we were first in line. While waiting, we talked with other travelers and meanwhile got rid of many SIM card vendors and moneychanger. 110 Euros lighter and equipped with our first African visa, we pedaled further into the emptiness of the desert.  

Shortly after we woke up, the floor began to shake and we knew where it came from. Mauritania is famous for its iron ore trains with record length. Immediately, we climbed out of our tent half-naked to see the ancient train. On the wagons, we saw many people and goats, additionally to the ore.  

The day before, we had a strenuous day and it did not look like this would change, since the wind was against us. We fought against the strong head wind and cycled with less than 15km/h. At a small settlement, we asked for water and were promptly invited for tea and a warm meal. A few of the young men, we have seen already at the border and one of them even sold us his SIM-cards. A few minutes later, Jorge, whom we met just before Dakhla, was standing in the entrance of the house. We had nice conversations with him and the locals, took a couple of group pictures, and got back on our two-wheeled vehicle in different directions. We hardly left the settlement, when a local woman stopped with her car and gave us two bottles of water and some mandarins, which we accepted thankfully. The landscape surrounding us fitted more to what we had imagined when thinking about the desert beforehand. High sand dunes piled up and everywhere nobody was around, not even shepherds with their animals.  

Since there were no water sources in the small villages in the Sahara Desert, there were huge pillows filled with water, especially in Mauritania. Those are regularly filled by huge trucks, so the population has enough water.  

Until the afternoon, the wind slowed us down, before it got weaker. Our hunt for bread, some sauce for our pasta was not successful in three different settlements. In the last village of the day, we found a relatively large bakery and bought six huge baguettes.  

We soon realized that people in Mauritania had to live with less financial means than in Morocco, despite being a rich country with plenty of resources. Most of the food items must be imported from far away and therefore the prices are extremely high compared to the income. Mostly food items, cement and finished products of all kinds are imported and plaster and hides exported. 

Dealing with the Mauritanian currency (Ougiey) was difficult in the beginning, since all the prices were missing a zero. Therefore, we were always confused and had to take this into account as well when calculating the prices. 

Before we ordered our dinner, we asked for the price. The price we understood sounded too good to be true and we were happy about the cheap meal. When we wanted to pay, it turned out that a zero was missing on our side of the understood price and it was rather expensive. We agreed on half of the price after a 20-minute discussion and paid six Euros for a large portion of pasta with carrots, goat meat and tea. We ordered neither tea nor meat and the language barrier was once more omnipresent.  

Just before we started our cycling day, Fabian realized that one of his bicycle rack mountings was broken. Some cable ties saved the situation provisionally and we pushed our bikes out of the sand and on the windy road. The landscape got even sandier and the wind blew the dust including sand grains with full force on us and our rides. In the last few days, the temperatures increased steadily in the night and during the day. Therefore, we sweated more and more and thanks to the sweat, our bodies downright crumbed.  

From the hills, we could see miles and miles of desert and the colors of the different dunes were just amazing.  

A couple of people, who were installing a new satellite dish on a huge antenna, gave us some water and invited us for a tea. We found out that Mauritanians drink always three teas and this is what we did while having interesting conversations. 

Sometimes, we saw shell limestone more than 100km away from the coast and this surprised us a lot. It was beautiful to look at, but as an underlayment for our tent rather unpractical.  

Later, we got closer to the coast and people dried fish in the dry desert air. Most people life in very simple houses or rather shacks made of wood, corrugated iron sheet or other cheap materials one can find. 35 km before the capital Nouakchott, we wanted to refill our water bottles and asked a family who was sitting in their small shop. Like always, we filled our bottles from a huge pillow, filled with water, which every settlement had. The family invited us for three teas and asked where we head.  

In Nouakchott, where more than one million people live, we met Warren, our Warmshowers host for the next few days. He made a shower possible, which we needed urgently and he kindly cooked a big portion of pasta. We had nice conversations about the country and its people and enjoyed the roof above our heads.  

We visited the fish market at the beach and the second largest harbor of the country. Muscly men brought hundreds of colorful fishing boats in different sizes back ashore. When bringing back the boats to land, the anglers, which are mostly from Senegal or other Western African countries, sing traditional songs.  

After more than ten fish sandwiches, we walked through the contradictory roads of the capital. We saw people living in tents without running water and electricity and opposite a mansion that was equipped with a lawn and palm trees. During the time of independence from France in the year of 1960, the number of inhabitants of Nouakchott was still in the four-digit range. Through the urbanization because of the drought periods and economic crises, the population increased quickly. The housing situation is below average and most of the people live in cheap accommodations. Just a few households have direct water connections. Due to inadequate sanitary installations and the bad living situation and standing areas of water, the malaria cases increased in the last few years in Nouakchott.  

Around noon, we left the apartment of Warren unusually with a small backpack instead of our bicycles. We wanted to discover the inland of Mauritania by foot and threated ourselves with a break from cycling. We walked the long way to the road, which leads to Atar. There, we put out our self-created sign with the destination in Arabic and showed it to every car driving in the right direction. After a short time, a friendly local stopped and took us with him. He even bought some food and drinks for the way and dropped us off at a police station. He said that from there, we would find a free transport in a couple of minutes to Atar that is 400 km apart. A few hours later, we were still there and it was already dark. We decided to spend the night at the police checkpoint and organize a transport ourselves in the morning after. The nice police officers invited us even for dinner. 

After the police was not successful with helping our hitchhike-project, we walked a bit and searched on our own. The first car stopped and took us 270 km further. Our assumption was that the police only searched for a vehicle, which would take us all the way to Atar and therefore failed.  

The son of the driver was a teenager and during a break, he boiled some water in a teapot on some glowing coal pieces. What surprised us was that he did it without his father saying anything to him. This procedure repeated itself three times as always and afterwards we continued our ride. In the mine village, which was the hometown of them, we found some youngsters who took us a few kilometers with them and then two locals for the rest of the stretch. With around 140 km/h over potholes and sand drifts, we travelled to our destination. The landscape changed at the end of the journey and rocks and cliffs replaced green steppe. Despite the high speed, we saw a cyclist approaching us. It turned out to be Jörg, another Swiss touring cyclist whom we have met already in Dakhla.  

In a hostel, we visited Kenneth and Inga; two friends we got to know in Dahkla and afterwards tried to find a lift to Chinguetti. Unfortunately, the police did not like our hitchhike project during the night and transported us to a pension for the night.  

In the guesthouse, we met a group of Frenchmen, who were travelling with a truck and took us along for a bit in the direction of Chinguetti. The second part, we could sit on the loading area of a Jeep, which transported us to our destination in no time. After a walk across the sand dunes and visiting the older part of the city, we met Kenneth and Inga again while enjoying a delicious meal. We talked about voyages and our next destinations.  

We treated ourselves with a rest day and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere in the historic village. Chinguetti counts as the seventh holiest city of Islam and was a flourishing trade city a long time ago. Before noon, we met two Swiss men who travel with a car and visited Africa several times already. They invited us for lunch and we exchanged our adventures. In the evening, we decided to spend the night on a sand dune only with our sleeping bags below the stars.  

We bought freshly baked baguette and waited at the exit of the village for a transport back to Atar. After around two hours, a Jeep took us and we reached Atar quickly. On the partly bendy roads, the women in the back of the car were praying their psalm loudly and we were mightily amused of the screaming and the spitting noises belonging to it. To the starting point of the famous iron ore train, we still had to cover about 100 km. One of the first cars stopped but could only take us a bit. Chikali, the nice local, invited us for tea and lunch with his family. Coincidentally, he owned a transportation company and booked two seats in the next bus to Schum. The kids in Schum were nerve-racking with their repeated “Monsieur cadeaux” while we waited for the train.  

The train arrived around four hours late and we climbed on one of the wagons filled with iron ore. Those trains with a length of 2.5km are the longest scheduled consorting trains in the World. They have a total weight of 17’000 tons. We set-up our sleeping place and enjoyed the unique feeling to travel free on an open wagon through the desert.  

For the sunrise, we crawled out of our sleeping bags and admired the glowing, bright orange globe on the horizon. A few hours later, we reached Nouadhibou and therefore the end of this bumpy ride and we were black from head to toe. This ride was truly an unforgettable experience for us. 

After we satisfied our internet-addiction, we visited the largest port of the country, which was extremely lively. Then we started our hitchhike-project again and found two vehicles that brought us out of the city quite fast. Afterwards there were no more cars in the direction of Nouakchott and we stranded only 100 km after the city. We asked a shop owner if we could spend the night in his shop and he quickly agreed. Until midnight, many of his friends were visiting and the television was running on maximum volume. Finally, he closed the door of the shack and slept behind the counter.  

Another uncomfortable night later, the shop owner woke us up at 8 am. We bought breakfast and stood next to the road right away, so we would not miss any cars. During the time of waiting, we observed the interesting events around us and other people joined us on the side of the road. After a while, a car stopped and we agreed to pay five Euros per person for the remaining 400 km back to the capital. After half of the distance, we realized that our driver had no legs and the car was a custom-built model so he could break and accelerate. Tired and hungry, we finally reached Nouakchott in the late afternoon. Happy to be back with our bicycles, we cooked a typical Swiss meal together with our host Warren and another guest called Jörg. 

After saying goodbye to Warren, we visited the harbor with Jörg, since he had not seen it yet. This time the beach was quieter and therefore we cycled out of the large city through heavily travelled road with sandy bits. The landscape changed slowly and more thorny trees and bushes appeared. We enjoyed the variation to travel with another cyclist.  

The road in the direction of the Senegalese border was not renewed in a long time. Unfortunately, the condition was extremely bad and partly we had to push our bikes through sandy passages.  

Since yesterday, we reached the Sahelian zone and the landscape resembled more a savanna than a desert. The area was suddenly more densely populated and many people waved at us and shouted in our direction. At the same time, we saw more farm animals and for the first time in a while cattle as well.  

We chose the border crossing at Diama, since it is supposed to be less stressful and the last part on Mauritanian territory leads through a national park. Directly after we reached the gravel road along the Senegal River, we saw the first birds and warthogs. 

In the night, we heard different animals, which were hanging around the water surrounding us. During the first hour of the morning, we saw hundreds if not thousands of pelicans, flamingos, swallows and other kinds of birds. Suddenly, we saw a desert crocodile escaping into the high reed. A few kilometers before the border, we arrived at the last police checkpoint and showed our passports like usual. Before we got our passports back, the officers demanded 5 Euros each for the entrance of the national park (Parc National du Diawling). This confused us and we started an extremely heated discussion including the exchange of insults, since the police officer and the employee of the national park both could not identify them as such. After a while, we were 10 Euros lighter and cycled the last part until the border.  

Before we entered Mauritania, we did not know much about this huge country and were surprised about the immense hospitality. People live in simple conditions in the solitude of the inexcusable desert and mostly do not have water or electricity at hand. However, we were mostly welcomed with a smile.  

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