Crossing into Mauritania
Once passing, relatively painlessly, through Moroccan immigration, I was ushered to a van where my Mauritanian Adventure began. I mistakenly thought that meant we would be moving soon. I waited over an hour for the seats in the van to fill up but then another van showed up. All the Moroccans and Mauritanians moved to that van, leaving just myself and a couple from Sweden, Anna and David, in the first van.
Our van then left straight away. We had a 10 minute drive through a sandy car graveyard with no defined road. I had heard that there were unexploded mines in this area, not that you’d be able to see them before you set one off! I honestly don’t know how the driver navigated his way through, but I guess he’s done it many times before.
Maritanian Adventure at the Border
We then stopped in front of a building and the driver told us to follow him in. It seemed that men were having lunch in a doorless room. We were told to wait outside that room, which made us think that it was where we would get our visas. Soon after, a group of guys carrying a door made their way to the room and fixed the door in place, while we waited some more.
We’d been waiting for about 10 mins when another man came along and opened the door to the room next door. That was the actual visa room. We went inside to wait some more. After a while, we were asked some questions, photographed and fingerprinted in that room. Then after what seemed like a very long time, we were finally given back our passports with visas inside. So surely that’s it? It’s all good and we can be on our way? Haha! No.
Dude, Where’s Our Van?
Once we got back outside, the van that should have been waiting for us wasn’t. The other van, that had taken the Moroccans and Mauritanians earlier, was there. We were ushered into that van instead. More waiting ensued as the Moroccans got their visas. They had joined the long line outside the visa room just as we had left.
When the Moroccans were done, we drove another 5 minutes to another building, where we needed to get our entry stamps. The first guy that saw us, looked at our passports and called someone else, who took us to another room. In that room, we were asked pretty much the same questions as before.
We were then taken back to the first room, where the guy inputted our details into their computer system. He also decided to teach us a bit of Arabic in the process. The word for Sweden kind of sounds like sweet. As a side note, he entered my year of birth as 2077 accidentally, so I’m a traveller from the future, folks.
We then had to go into a third room where a more jovial guy checked our passports and fingerprinted us again. He then tried to show us his knowledge of our countries by telling us something stereotypically famous about them. Thankfully, that was actually the end of the immigration process, but not the waiting.
The van drove us out to an intersection, not far out of the controlled area. We waited there for our original van to turn up, as that was the van that would take us to Nouadhibou. The van we were waiting in was headed for the capital, Nouakchott. Just 10 minutes later, the van we needed arrived and we were happily moving again! It had taken a total of 4 hours from when we first reached the border, to finally be on our way to our destination.
The Mauritanian Adventure Continues in The Little Town of Nouadhibou
Maybe I was just tired, but it seemed like a really long drive through endless desert before we arrived in the coastal city of Nouadhibou. The van driver kindly allowed me to use his phone to call my host, Haji, who came to pick me up shortly after. The driver also let Anna and David use his phone to call their host. Another guy from the van company then took them outside to get a taxi. Not long after that, Haji arrived. When he took me to his car, it realised he was the taxi, as Anna and David were inside!
One striking thing about Nouadhibou, is that there is almost as many donkey-drawn carts as cars on the road. They haul everything from food to electrical goods. Another interesting facet of Nouadhibou is the stores run by Chinese people. Haji informed me that they have lived in the country for many years, but don’t speak the local languages. They do have a reputation for having stuff that can’t be found anywhere else, though. Who would’ve thought you could practice Mandarin in Africa?
The Iron Train – A Mauritanian Adventure Not to be Missed!
This was the one Mauritanian adventure that I had no intention of missing out on! The Iron Train, as it’s known, runs empty from Nouadhibou to Zouerat, in the country’s north. It returns to Nouadhibou full of iron Ore. Not only is it the only train service in Mauritania, it’s also one of the longest trains in the world, at over 2 kilometres in length!
You can just jump on this train and ride for free for several hundred kilometres. Many locals actually use it regularly as a means of transport. I was only taking it to Choum, which is about halfway to Zouerat. All the information I’d found online had pointed to the train leaving around 2pm. I had inside information from Haji’s cousin, who works on the train, that it was leaving at 4pm. This meant that I got to spend an extra few hours waiting in the comfort of Haji’s place.
My New Train Buddy
Haji found a man he knew to take care of me on the train. When it finally arrived at 16:30, I helped the man get his stuff in the train car. He busily set up his Iron Train camp stove and started preparing dinner. I had wondered earlier what was in all the bags and boxes he’d brought with him. This man had clearly done this before!
The train finally departed, with a massive jolt, about 15 minutes later. Shortly after that, the man got out some money and started showing me the different types of Mauritanian notes and coins. As he showed me each note and coin he would also tell me the value in Arabic.
About 45 minutes into the journey, my train buddy got up from where he was resting on the floor and started praying. When he was done, the train came to a stop and many men from other cars got out to collect sticks, presumably for their own Iron Train camp stoves. My train buddy got to making some tea once the train jolted back into motion. I do love Mauritanian tea!
It was only about 20 minutes later that we stopped again. After drinking his tea, the man in the car with me jumped out to have a walk around. Once he was back in the car, the train started moving again, but backwards. Everyone was looking a bit puzzled, until it stopped again and started moving forward. Maybe the driver was just having a laugh.
Like any excited young kid on a train would, I hung my head out of the train car to watch our progress through the never-ending desert quite a few times. Every time I did, the constant barrage of sand trying to penetrate my face got too much and I had to retreat back into the car. Not that the sand situation was much better there. Who knew sand could get into areas covered with several layers of clothing I guess I got a free full body exfoliation session.
Mauritanian Adventure After Dark
Things started getting hotter on the train when the wind died down after sunset. That along with the constant jolting made it difficult to sleep. I did manage to get in bits here and there until my travel buddy woke me up at about 2:20am. We were already approaching Choum. I was a bit surprised, as I was expecting our arrival into Choum to be closer to 6am! I got my stuff and was ready to hop off as soon as the train stopped. My buddy got off with me and made sure that I got a seat in one of the waiting vans. He only got back in the car after I was sitting in the van.
Of course, it would be silly to think that the van would leave straight away because that’s just not how things work in Africa! Let’s just say that what should’ve been less than a 2 hour trip, was stretched out to 4 hours. There were various stops along the way for praying, drinking camel milk and changing a flat tyre.
So how many Mauritanians does it take to change a tyre badly and break a hydraulic jack? 5 apparently. They had no idea of the correct placement of the jack and had tried to jack the car up with a rock. That just ended damaging the car chassis. In perhaps the strangest part of my Mauritanian Adventure, there I was, in the middle of the desert, schooling 5 guys on how to change a tyre. My dad would’ve been proud!
We finally arrived in Atar, which seemed to have streets run almost exclusively by goats, around 6:30am. There was also a makeshift market set up at an intersection where people sold bread from wheelbarrows and vegetables from the sidewalk. Atar was about to take my Mauritanian adventure to the next level.
A lovely man that had started talking to me in the van to Atar, invited me back to his house. I still had a few hours to wait for transport to Nouakchott started at 8am. His family gave me some much needed cold water and a chance to freshen up. They also gave me a space for a well deserved, albeit short, rest. The man then took me back into the Atar town centre at 7:30am. It seemed the earliest bus was at 11am. I’d already had a very long trip from Nouadhibou, so I just wanted to leave as soon as possible.
The man then suggested that we go to the police post at the edge of town. He said that he’d find a car for me there which would depart earlier. As the police had to stop every car going past, they agreed to ask anyone going to Nouakchott if they could take me. What Mauritanian adventure would be complete without the police helping you to hitchhike!
Atar to Nouakchott
I only waited 5 minutes for a nice air-conditioned Toyota Corolla to come through and agree to take me along for the ride. My new short term travel buddies, Mohamed, Sidji and Khira, were very welcoming and even gave me some water. Conversation was a bit hard, as they didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Arabic or French. We found a way to understand each other.
We stopped in a town about 250km from Nouakchott where we had some BBQ goat and tea for lunch. Probably the most interesting lunch I’ve had in a while.
Once in Nouakchott, I made my way to my host Liz’s house. I was just in time for a delicious chicken dinner, then a long overdue and well-deserved shower. After an interesting chat, we went out for a very mellow night of Mauritanian tea, lovely chats and games in the breeze on a rooftop. What a great introduction to the city!