Late one night in Nouakchott, the inky skies opened and emptied themselves onto the roof of the little hut we were staying in. Some natural phenomena are so impressive that you have to say them out loud (especially if you’re British and the phenomenon is weather-related). Thus, throughout the Sahara, there was no limit to the number of times we could say “Hot, isn’t it?” and thus, when the wall of water hit our Nouakchott roof and woke us up, we both, simultaneously, shouted: “Rain!”While we said the same thing, it turned out we were thinking very different thoughts. I was thinking “Rain! Brilliant!” and ran outside to enjoy the unusual and unexpected drenching. Huw was thinking “Rain! Expensive electrical stuff!” and ran around packing up the mess that creeps out of our panniers to take over the floor whenever we’re freed from the confines of our tiny tent. Within minutes, two inches of water sloshed around the floor and lapped at the hut’s walls – a taste of the weather to come in West Africa.
We cycled out of Nouakchott a couple of days later, past a French friend riding his newly acquired donkey and cart which he plans to drive to Senegal, past the goats and the pot holes, past the hawkers and pedallers of mint and sunglasses and T-shirts, past the markets and the bidonvilles and the whole crazy sprawl of this vast city, which was haphazardly invented 50-odd years ago when Mauritania, hurtling towards independence, decided it needed a capital. Or, at least, a city.
Fifty years on, Nouakchott is home to one or two million (depending on whose shot in the dark you believe) of Mauritania’s three million people, and it keeps on swelling. Immigrants from across the Sahara and West Africa keep streaming in, looking for something, or fleeing from something – often drought. This is Africa’s hyper-urbanisation in action; you can almost hear the city growing around you.
And Nouakchott sprawls. To the south, the city doesn’t seem to end at all. Even when you leave the Sahara behind and pedal through the Sahel’s stumpy-treed landscapes, with longhorn cattle starting to intersperse the camel herds, thin green grasses beginning to blanket the dunes and luminescent bee-eaters diving across the road, there is no point at which the city stops and the ribbon of slapdash dwellings begins. The string of dwellings follows you almost all the way to the Senegalese border.
This could be a problem for wild camping but, luckily, people with nomadic roots fundamentally understand the concept; we rested and camped in villages all along the route without any problems. In the daytimes, children might sit with us, asking us to fix the village bicycle (“there is no spanner here”) or telling us about their world. One ten year old spontaneously started telling us about Mauritanian politics (I love it – and shamelessly milk it – when this happens; children usually tell you what their elders think but far more honestly, and in an easily understandable way). Aziz was good because he spent money on the people. The other candidates were not good; they thought only of themselves. The boy, like many people in this stretch, was wearing a “Vote Aziz” T-shirt, and I wondered who gave them all the T-shirts, and whether they were given anything else ahead of the election.Adults often brought us a goatskin or a mat or a bench to sit on, or invited us to rest with them in their tents and drink tea or zrig (diluted, sweetened and strangely delicious milk). We only accepted one invitation into a home and it turned out to be an unfortunate choice; when we left after drinking some tea and sleeping a little, we gave our host a packet of cigarettes and a bag of dried apricots to thank him. He aggressively demanded an enormous sum of money for “the protection” (“bad people could have taken advantage of you if you had rested out there”). We paid one quarter of what he asked for – still enough to cover the family’s food for a couple of days – and left him being berated by his sisters for his behaviour.
At another stop, a young couple walked over to talk to us. The woman spotted my sun cream, recognised the brand and, thinking it was moisturiser, asked to use some. Explaining that it was a strange sun cream designed for babies and it covers your skin in a thick, semi-permanent white film was beyond my French and hers, and she smeared the stuff all over her face. Her husband bent double with laughter at the result and Huw and I joined in, although I abruptly stopped when I realised that was what I must look like all the time.
That night, camping next to a camel herder at the edge of a village, a group of women came over to talk, ask for a cadeau and tell us that their home was just over there if we needed anything. When they left, we decided to sleep under the stars instead of putting up the tent – until the circle of Huw’s torchlight fell on a small scurrying thing: a scorpion. No, five scorpions. No, five scorpion-sized scorpions and an eight centimetre-long monster of a scorpion, which was carrying away one of our peanuts in its front claws! Within a minute or so, we were safely ensconced in the tent, and we fell asleep listening to camels grunting and farting, with the sound drumming and singing drifting over from the women’s tent.
This stretch had the worst driving we’ve seen so far; we saw the aftermath of two recent accidents, and several large and slow moving animals (cows, donkeys and camels) were among the roadkill – not reassuring. At one point, a Toyota Hilux veered into me to avoid an oncoming Berliet truck. It only made contact with my handlebars (via my hand) but, with the shock of being hit, I let out a great yowl. Then, with the relief of realising that I was OK, the dawning of pain and because I’m a bit prone to melodrama, I let out another one. Unexpectedly and very embarrassingly, the driver heard me, slammed on the brakes and got out to check I was alright. I had to spend a couple of minutes reassuring him before I could take off my glove to check my hand; no broken bones, but thankfully just enough bruising to milk the incident for sympathy when I caught up with Huw.
The next night (yes, we were slow), we found a butcher’s stall still open at dusk and stopped to buy some meat (camel meat; “meat from cows is no good”). We set up camp beside the butcher’s shop, and he brought us two goatskins, asked if we needed firewood or bread or mattresses and then left us. We were briefly joined by the village’s teenagers and an older, cosmopolitan, English-speaking man. “Don’t worry. These people are just curious about the strange visitors to our village.” He told them to leave us alone and then asked whether we wanted to eat at his house. We thanked him but told him we were cooking for ourselves. “I understand,” he smiled, “everybody likes their food their own way. You enjoy your British meal and I will enjoy my Mauritanian one.” He left, and we cooked our camel meat and rice.
Just after dawn, the butcher arrived to warn us that the camel tethered under a nearby tree was about to become meat. Two slaughtermen arrived soon afterwards and, while the slaughter itself was extremely quick, the preamble was a bit distressing – not least for the camel, who was batted about the face with tin foil and generally aggravated for ten minutes before being killed. The herdsmen here seem skilled and their camels and cattle generally seem healthy and contented, so we could only guess that stressed camel meat is meant to taste better.
We reached the border late that morning and spent the afternoon and night lounging in an old colonial hotel with goats on its front lawn and 1.3-metre monitor lizards under its hedges. That night, our last in Mauritania, I wasn’t sure I understood this country much better than when we arrived about a month ago. I wasn’t sure I understood it at all.
Is Mauritania an Arab country or an African one? Is it pro-Western or a breeding ground for terrorism? Is its “national character” kind and hospitable, or harsh and opportunistic? (How many “national characters” does it have?) And what next for Mauritania? Will it get rich from oil or keep grinding deeper into poverty? Is Aziz ushering in a new era of stability or will the coups continue? Was the election rigged or not? Will any infrastructure ever be built? Or will Mauritania carry on as it is, a mostly empty Saharan hinterland that not many people have heard of and still fewer have any interest in?
Long before we have any answers, it’s time to move on again – into Senegal, another country to wonder about, with questions all of its own.