Travelling Matte #1: In the Middle of a Minefield on the Mauritanian Border
By Miguel Willis, Team Rider
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I woke up to a checkpoint guard prodding me in the ribs with his torch and demanding my passport. "Are you on a mission?" he demanded, flashing his light in my eyes. "Er, what? Who, me? Umm no, kite, sportive professional, surf" I mumbled, desperately trying to force my sleep-starved brain to function. It was 3am on our first day.
My brother and I were on our way to Nouadhibou in Mauritania, on the western shore of the Sahara. We had heard of a huge lagoon there, home to one of the world's largest shipwreck graveyards, and had decided it would be a good kiting location.
We had travelled through Morocco and were now entering north Mauritania. The border consisted of a broken shack in the middle of a huge minefield. On the plus side we received a huge smile from the immigration officer as he stamped our passports and asked for a bribe.
Still in the Sahara.
The next stage of our journey was a long bush taxi ride. The pickup had seen better days and the driver needed to stop every thirty minutes to throw a bucket of water on the overheating engine. At the wells, the camels seemed a bit put out at having to share although they couldn't complain - at least they weren't strapped in pannier bags to the side of our pickup like the poor goats.
The desert was stifling hot, and it felt as though each breath was scalding my lungs. The dusty sky was devoid of any colour and the harsh sun baked the ground. Sleeping, we had to choose between sweating under a sheet or putting up with the flies that were in plague proportions.
Doing a Jack Kerouac on Top of One of the World's Longest Trains
By our third day we had reached the last part of our journey to the coast, a 14 hour train ride. The station was a concrete block in the middle of the desert, packed with people trying to find some respite from the intense sun.
A few enterprising ladies had set up stalls and were selling snacks balanced preciously on wooden boxes. An airgun shooting range had been set up in the middle of it all so I had a go but was distracted by a policeman telling me to hurry up so he could have a turn. Luckily, no passengers were hit by stray bullets.
After a 6 hour wait we jumped on top of the train in the dead of night and slept on a bed of iron ore. Every time the train slowed or sped up a vicious shockwave ran through the wagons, rearranging the 20 tons of rocks under us. It may not have been the most comfortable way of travelling and soon a layer of iron ore coated everything, even the inside of my mouth, but the view of the desert at dawn made it worthwhile.
Nouadhibou and Kiting At Last
We found our hotel, amusingly named Hotel Abba, between a Moroccan restaurant that changed money on the black market and a Chinese restaurant that doubled as a brothel. The local population in Nouadhibou was a transient mix of robed Arabs from the north, dark-skinned fisherman from the south and immigrants from surrounding West African countries. Being close to the Canary Islands, the town had become one of the main departure points for people trying to reach Europe. This year over ten thousand had already attempted the journey in small fishing boats through treacherous waters. Many didn't make it.
One of the first things I noticed when we came into town was the strong desert wind. We hurried down to the closest beach and pumped up the kites, eager to ride after four days of travelling. Unfortunately our choice of location left something to be desired as we quickly realised that Nouadhibou's raw sewage was being pumped into the bay and we were kiting downwind of it. The busy port and nearby fish factory didn't help the water quality either. At least the rusting boats lining the beach made a unique backdrop.
A Town from Mad Max
Nouadhibou's town centre was a rather ambitious term for a dusty crossroads where there was a constant traffic jam. I'm not sure how they managed such a gridlock with a few battered cars and some donkey carts. The streets were lined with stalls selling fruit, fake sunglasses and DVDs. In the middle of it all was a butcher surrounded by large hunks of meat on vicious hooks. Clouded in a swarm of flies, he swung a medieval blade cutting up lumps of camel meat.
All around us, groups of robed men sat on mats drinking tea. Having a cup of tea in Mauritania is not a simple affair; water is boiled in a small pot with a handful of tea, another handful of sugar and a large bunch of mint. Then comes the ritual of pouring it from one glass to another and then back again. It's strong, sweet and very refreshing.
Taken for a Ride at Cape Blanc
The following day we decided to head down to the wild, desolate tip of the peninsular that sticks out into the Atlantic so we flagged down a taxi. "How much to Cape Blanc?"
"1000 Ugea." "Really? Cape Blanc 1000?"
"Yes, no problem, Cape Blanc 1000."
Thinking we had scored a bargain we set off. Less than five minutes later we arrived at the same beach we'd been the day before. "This is Konsado, we said Cape Blanc."
"Cape Blanc? No not possible, too far, the road is very bad and my car is old. I will take you but it'll cost 12,000."
With no other taxis around on this empty beach we had no choice. So, sulking in the backseat, we coughed up the money while the taxi driver chatted away, happy at scoring the fare of the century.
At Cape Blanc there was an impressive shipwreck. We were told that this was from a genuine accident but most of the other wrecks in the area were due to insurance scams. This might explain why people were so sensitive to photos and filming.
Twenty Knots and Glass
In our second week in Mauritania we finally found a great beach, located north of Nouadhibou. This apparently nameless beach was long and clean and had consistent wind blowing slightly offshore producing butter-flat water.
A couple of American Peace Corps workers were in the area and came to see what we were up to. These were the only expatriates living in Mauritania that we came across in our entire trip. They had been in Mauritania for almost two years and the novelty of living there had clearly worn off, since there was little to do or entertain them.
I think we made them even more miserable when they realised that they could have spent this time learning to kite and enjoying great conditions.
Over the next two weeks we found some world-class kiting spots further north of Nouadhibou, all of which were flat-water spots in remote locations. Given more time we would have liked to explore further south as we felt the region had fantastic potential.
During this time we met some colourful local characters. Our Sierra Leonean friend had a British passport that looked a little too shiny and a little too fake. The Liberians gave us hard luck stories and thought we should help them out because we were their Christian brothers. (This was a bit hard to take seriously since they were the smartest dressed people around, with gold bling and the latest mobiles). Muslim fundamentalists told us at great length, whether we wanted to hear it or not, of the moral degradation in Western culture. By the way they described it, it sounded as though I had been missing out on a lot of fun.
After almost three weeks it was time to head back to Morocco. Of course our trip back wasn't without incident. We left Nouadhibou six hours late and arrived at the Moroccan border just as it closed. Luckily our taxi driver had a large supply of cigarettes which he slipped the every border guard to let us through.
We had enjoyed great kiting in Mauritania, with wind every day and fantastic conditions. It was certainly a unique place off the beaten track although not always the easiest place to travel, something to be expected in one of the poorest nations in the world.
Months earlier when we planned our trip we had hoped to kite in an ideal lagoon with spectacular shipwrecks and it was great to return with our expectations well exceeded.
To learn more about Miguel Wills, click here.