The Sahara was a big surprise.
Before we left Dakar, we were bracing ourselves for two solid months crawling across the desert. We had packed in more food than at any time since we left South Africa in 2013. These days we don’t carry more than about 10 tins at a time for emergencies. Now the food box was crammed with +/- 50. We also had 20 packets of milk powder, 4 bags of lentils and 10kgs of rice. If we got stranded somewhere remote waiting for parts, we weren’t going to go hungry.
We were also carrying more water than usual. Not only were our two 250L reservoirs full, Zola also cleaned out the Jojo tank on the back, normally used for the first filtering of waste vegetable oil. Now it was filled with emergency water for showers and clothes washing. We had visions of eking out our last drops on a parched plain while broken down somewhere in the middle of the Sahara.
But as soon as we crossed the River Senegal, Big Reg was whipping along perfect tar averaging 50kmph despite the head wind. We couldn’t believe the progress we were making, even when the road deteriorated with an occasional pothole. It only took us a week to cross the whole of Mauritania.
We also couldn’t believe the temperature. For two months in Senegal I had been berating us for being ‘late’. Every single book I’ve ever read about travelling the Sahara recommends going between November and March, as from April it’s just “too hot” to travel. But why didn’t I realise that a) inland temperatures are very different from the coast and b) all of those books were written by Europeans, coming down from the frozen north?! Let me tell you now (South)Africans, if you’re travelling up from the equator, you’re going to freeze your ass off if you cross before March!
Far from the 45˚-50˚C hell I was expecting, the Sahara’s dry heat was nowhere near as bad as the sapping humidity of Nigeria or Liberia at 30˚C. I was so relieved we hadn’t left Dakar any earlier than June. To dip below 20˚C at night is quite cold enough for me. Averaging 30something˚C of an afternoon was ample pay off and quite managable.
We’d stocked up on tonic for our 2pm pick-me-up, but we only really needed it once. That day, the coast road curved about 100km inland, and it reached 40˚C. Then we broke out the fizzy lemon from the Dometic freezer mid-afternoon and sucked on boiled sweets to give us a little lift.
This side of the river, there was an immediate change of scenery: scrub, thorn trees and suddenly dunes by the road. The white glare of rocky rubble varied with red sand. People appeared shorter and stubbier like the trees and the horses shrank to donkeys, sometimes miniature ones. There was an increasing incidence of camels.
The first day we were assailed by the smell of burning rubber and the air pressure gauge dropped to red. When we pulled over, we could hear the escaping hiss coming from under the passenger seat. The leak was in the same place Aman had tackled in Liberia. Sampson impressively fixed it in 5 minutes.
People who live amongst sand don’t seem that bothered about going to the beach. That whole week there were hardly any roads off the highway down to the sea.
That first night, Big Reg pulled off on a rare side road and parked amidst a scattering of small square concrete houses with tiny rectangular windows or just a metal door, some painted in pastel colours of blue, green, yellow or mauve.
Next to them were ‘shade huts’ for sitting out the midday heat in – rectangular or circular structures with a roof and struts like a bandstand, covered in chicken wire with cloth sides you could drop to protect against wind, sun, sand and dust.
Not a single person emerged. The peace was blissful if a little eerie. We indulged in simple food, Friday Night Treats, cat cuddling and reminiscing with Ruby about her toddlerhood. It was so silent and cool and dark, like a ghost town. Were these nomads’ homes? Had the whole village gone for a walk? Or had the water dried up so everyone had left?
It was so lovely and quiet, I was so happy when I got up, excited about the empty day ahead. It was cold enough for trainers and a hoodie against the wind.
The lack of a beach wasn’t helping me deal with the challenge of teenagers on the road. At home, when they wake up grumpy, you can avoid them till they leave for school; on the road, their bad mood can sour the whole day for everyone if you don’t manage to coax them out of it with a bit of exercise. With Ruby it can take a whole walk…
I try to be non-contentious with a quiz on French irregular verbs (we used to do times tables but Zola knows them all better than me now). Ruby is reluctant to get involved, but doesn’t like to be beaten by her brother, who is increasingly and annoyingly competent! I leave her to her sulky thoughts for a bit and pursue a cosy chat with Zola. Finally when she asks me a question, I beam the full light of my warm attention on her and she bathes in it – talking about herself and her future, comes to link arms and chats away merrily. Shoo, but it’s a trial of patience. I have to get her on an even keel before we get back to the truck where her father’s lack of tact can bomb a whole hour’s work in mere seconds…
Now Zola’s tween temper is beginning to flare up too, it can be like a mood juggling act, balancing the needs of both of them.
It was while crossing the Sahara that I noticed Zola’s chin had turned from round and boyish to square and manly. This same week we found some old footage of him in St Newlyn East 18 months ago, with a piping voice and shock of 300 dreads (before Brian streamlined them back in Cape Town on his 11th birthday). This month before he turned 12, I realised that, in the interim, his voice has dropped to a tone as gravelly as the floor of the desert around us.
We were spending far more hours driving than during our usual routine, so some physical exertion at dawn and dusk became vital. I don’t know who felt more caged in the truck, Zola or the cats. Tiger and Cleo surprised us by loving exploring the sand, jousting and chasing and sprinting…
On our wanderings, I drove the kids mad with a catchy self-penned ditty which I will set down here for posterity (you’ll have to imagine the Paint Your Wagonesque melody):
“Little round balls, little round balls, must be goat poooooooooo
Little round balls, little round balls, must be goat poooooooooo
Big round balls….. big round balls…….
I only knew two things about Mauritania before I got here. The first was this bizarre story about President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (who seized the helm of state in a military coup in 2008) getting bored during a soccer cup final and ordering the game to move to penalties – in the 63rd minute. That’s the kind of absolute power he wields.
Sadly, I failed to get a non-blurry snap of a poster for a national fishing competition, featuring the President dressed up in tweeds and waders looking like something out of PG Wodehouse. It was quite surreal.
The second was Mauritania’s reputation as the last country in the world to abolish slavery. Although it was only officially outlawed in 1981, it was not illegal to own slaves until 2007 and only one person has ever been prosecuted. Mauritania has the world’s highest prevalence of slaves, estimated at 4% of the population, but possibly as high as 20%.
Thankfully, Mauritania’s foremost anti-slavery campaigner already has a reputation up there with Malcolm X and Mandela when it comes to bravery –Biram Dah Abeid received the UN’s Human Rights Prize in 2013. Abeid, son of a slave (and whose last name means ‘slave’ in Arabic), was released from his third stint in prison in May 2016, the month before we arrived, for protesting the dropping of charges against a master who raped his 15 year old slave girl. He had received a two year sentence.
In 2012 activists from his anti-slavery organization L’Initiative pour le Résurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste (IRA) were imprisoned for staging a sensational demonstration outside a mosque on a Friday. Dah Abeid symbolically burned a copy of sharia law that keeps Haratin people enslaved, after first removing pages referring to the Quran and the Prophet; Dah Abeid states that sharia is not divine law but a set of outdated codes drawn up in the middle ages which shouldn’t be used to oppress so many black Africans in Mauritania.
The month after we left, the IRA was awarded the prestigious James Lawson Award for the Achievement in the Practice of Non-Violent Conflict in Washington as 13 more activists were arrested and sentenced to between 3 and 15 years, allegedly for inciting riots in Nouakchott. Freedom-fighter ‘Biram’ also announced that he would be standing against Aziz in Presidential elections for the second time in 2019.
We felt a definite sense of being in a more authoritarian state. There were marine police postes every 50km along the coast. However, officials at regular roadblocks were bored rather than threatening, asking only for passport numbers and vehicle registration.
Eventually, it became easier just to hand over 4 passport photocopies at each request for “fiches”. It was noticeable how often a darker junior officer was superseded by a more Arab-looking superior officer pushing in to deal with us. I won the first one over by asking him if Google had done a decent job of translating our letter of introduction from French into Arabic – and was rewarded with the briefest possible nod of approval.
The road deteriorated further on the way to the capital, Nouakchott.
There were no women on the streets but men everywhere. I don’t know if this was the norm in Nouakchott or an effect of Ramadan.
I wonder if anyone has done research on the aesthetics of towns in a massively male-dominated society? Nouakchott was marked by an array of ugly thoughtless grey bunkers plonked anywhere, anyhow.
The Mauritanian boubou likewise prioritises function over fashion. The voluminous loose blue or white robes have built in kangaroo pouches to hold money or cell phones. Big armholes presumably allow you to sweat without staining which is practical, though Mauritanian men spend a lot of time hoiking their sleeves up over their shoulders. Most interestingly, the Mauritanian boubou seems to be something you can bung over anything to make your outfit acceptably smart to wear out in public – even pyjamas.
The hotel we approached couldn’t give us water without the permission of an absent director. We were saved yet again by the grace of our Senegalese friend Mamadou – his niece Khady Sarr married a Mauritanian, and this beautiful quiet lady came to find us when Big Reg got lost going up and down the main drag. We had a lovely chat in the parlour with her sisters-in-law before filling up our water tanks from their tap.
After so many sandy days, it was worth the struggle of finding our way across town to the port just to get to the sea, which was calm and warm to paddle in.
We took a rest afternoon: Zola played keyboard in the cab, while Ruby played guitar with Dad and I got stuck into writing up Dakar…
That night Ruby invented Nouakchott Pudding: the drop scones she’d made in a pan from pear, mango, raisins, rice flour and two eggs, were crumbled and drenched with ‘vanilla cream’ (extra thick powdered milk drizzled with essence) perfected by Sampson.
It was a fitting celebration of the relief that comes with knowing you have an abundance of water at your disposal despite being in the middle of the desert.