Ice Cold In Zebra

“Here’s to alcohol. The cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.” – Homer J Simpson

IT is perhaps unfair on Mauritania that our race to the border had pretty much the entire truck willing Steve to put his foot down and start the bureaucratic ball rolling well before the reported early closure time.

Our desire to get to Senegal had us all up, packed away and sat on the truck well before the scheduled 6am departure.

Mmm... beer - The promised land
Mmm… beer – The promised land

The lure was quite simple – a bar full of ice cold beer on the other side of the border.

Not that we need a drink you understand. We functioned perfectly well without a single drop in Mauritania and with very limited (and expensive) options after the first few days in Morocco.

But the prospect of sitting down and relaxing with a cold beer has been growing, along with expectations of what was lying over the Senegalese border, as our enforced abstinence went on.

By our last night in Mauritania, even wandering over the road to buy a Coke and attempting to get rid of our remaining ouguiya produced a frisson of excitement.

That is selling Nouakchott a bit short. There’s not a lot there and what there is is in need of some serious TLC. There certainly is not many places to spend those Ougs – the odd soft drink and trip across the road to Ali Baba’s burger joint accounting for most of the expense.

But the welcome we received from the locals was almost universally warm from people not used to too many tourists walking through their markets and streets (one money changer stopping me just to talk about his two-hour layover at Heathrow).

Saharan farewell - The first in a string of crossings of imaginary lines
Saharan farewell – The first in a string of crossings of imaginary lines

Still, the lure of what lay ahead ensured we were itching to get back on the road south as soon as our Senegal visas were safely stamped and secured in our passports.

And we could almost taste the first cold beer as our dash to the border before it closed – reportedly at 2pm, but that seemed to get earlier while we were there –  headed on to the final few kilometres through a national park.

From the arid, largely dusty, sandy landscape of the previous week or so, we suddenly had greenery, water and plenty of wildlife – mainly feathered, with the odd warthog thrown in – to watch as the miles rolled by.

Not that quickly, mind you, as the roads were little more than tracks, but there was plenty of high spirits as we, almost to a man, stood, watched the passing scene and snapped away happily.

IMG_2920Right up until the point when we thrown into each other. Once we had stopped moving, it was to the realisation that so had Nala.

More alarmingly, she was resting at an alarming angle and we were piling out of the back in a hurry.

199Quite what Steve said as he surveyed the situation is not repeatable, but his attempt to miss a series of bumps that would have given us some serious air time in the back had seen the left side wheels catch the softer earth and be dragged in.

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Off road – Nala at a rather alarming angle as we lend a hand to get across the border as soon as possible

As Steve surveyed the situation and we tried to sneak a few shots without him noticing, the occasional passing local stopped to offer a mixture of advice and stating the bleeding obvious, until one van driver pulled up and insisted he could help.

One look at his van had us worried about its future if his offer to pull us out was accepted, but as we cooked in the heat, options ran out and the clock ticked towards the closing of the border, which was looking the most likely spot for us to pitch our tents – if we could get out of our current hole.

So with Nala hooked up to the rickety van and a group of us adding a bit of extra weight with a shove, Steve gunned her into life and, thankfully, she shot out of her sticky spot and back onto all four wheels.

Stopping briefly to rustle up some remaining Oug as a thank you (for some reason, our offer to trade Ale was not taken up), we raced back on to the truck and Steve took the direct route over any remaining bumps – one bit of hang time producing an uncomfortable landing on a seatbelt holder.

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More sand – Zebra Bar had the odd attraction

And with everyone concerned on both the Mauritania and Senegal borders keen to get home at the end of the day, we were through in pretty much record time and, via a quick stop to change money in St Louis, headed to the promised land at the Zebra Bar.

Run by a Dutch couple, it provides an oasis for the tired and jaded overlander – beach, calm estuary to swim in, wi-fi (ish), showers (who cares if they are cold when it is that hot?) and even western toilets.

And beer.

Plenty of ice cold beer.

Mass selfie - Matt, front and centre, captures the enthusiastic response to the first cold beers for more than a week
Mass selfie – Matt, front and centre, captures the enthusiastic response to the first cold beers for more than a week

The race to be the first at the bar (not including Steve and Joe, who didn’t even pause to let us off) may be the only won by me on the entire trip.

Wish this next section could report on a couple of days and three nights crammed with activities and excursions into St Louis, but no.

Others did make it the few miles down the road for one reason or another, but the bulk of the time was spent relaxing around the campsite, complete with resident monkey, the beach, in the water and at the bar.

And behind it, as we helped ourselves from the fridge, chalked up another tally on our tabs and considered doing something a little more energetic.

And it’s the thought that counts, surely?

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Born Sandy Devotional

HOW nutritious is sand?

Just throwing that out there in a vain attempt to work out exactly what has made up a large chunk of my diet over the past few days.

Since arriving in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, there has been the added bonus of some very welcome meat – courtesy of Ali Baba’s burgers and shawarma across the street from our base – but eggs, bread, vegetables and sand have been the mainstays of my very unbalanced diet.

With as many cokes as can be squeezed into the esky and a lot of water thrown in.

But everything – food, tents, clothes, truck floor – comes complete with a thin layer of sand.

Since emerging from the mud and floods of Morocco, the temperature has been going up and the scorched earth drying out – little wonder as we have been crossing the disputed Western Sahara (which was far from a desert when we first entered) and Mauritania with its average December rainfall of precisely zero.

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Truck life – The presence of shirts suggest this was after a trip to an embassy

Mauritania is also a strict Islamic republic so is completely dry in another sense, leading to some frantic downing of the remaining alcohol stocks before we reached the border and big plans for a rapid trip to the bar as soon as we cross into Senegal.

Probably most importantly, Mauritania is also on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s list of places where the advice is only for essential travel (further east, that advice switches to no travel at all, ruling out large swathes of what looks a fascinating history), while the Western Sahara’s ownership is not recognised by most countries, although Morocco is pretty clear it belongs to her.

It all adds up to two things – lots of police checkpoints (sometimes just a few hundred metres apart) and fairly rapid progress through both countries over the past few days with long hours on the back of the truck.

There are a variety of methods to ride out the time as truck days have fallen into a fairly similar pattern.

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Cramped confines – Our base in Nouakchott. Went down well with the non-snorers

The day starts – often to the strains of the call to prayer from the nearest minaret – early, normally 6.15am for the fire group, who chop the necessary wood (not so easy now we are in a desert), get the morning blaze alight (much easier now everything is not so wet) and ensure the kettles are filled and boiling for the tea and coffee addicts.

Next up are the cook group, usually 15 minutes later, to start setting up the kitchen and sorting out what they are serving up.

Some groups have been reasonably ambitious – Linda’s Spanish omelette – while a fried egg sarnie and the occasional eggy bread have been greeted with delight, but the standard options have been toast or cereal, especially with fewer shopping options in the last week.

Breakfast starts an hour before departure time and sees the masses gradually emerge from their tents, wolf down whatever is on offer and race through the morning routine – shower (if available), use whatever facilities are available (or not), pack up their kit and put away their tents and the kitchen.

And at the appointed hour, usually 8am, the buzzer is pressed to give Steve the all clear to set off and we fall into our travelling routines.

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Beached – An unfortunate member of the fleet at Nouakchott’s fish market

For the first couple of hours, that generally involves a lot of sleeping and a fair amount of listening to iPods (often both at once), with a bit of looking out of the window thrown in.

The first comfort stop of the morning sparks a bit more life into the group – especially if it is coupled with a shop to stock up on snacks and drinks – and we hit the road again until lunch.

That is generally taken on the side of the road, although Joe and Steve have sniffed out the odd beach and clifftop that has seen lunch include a bout of swimming and the odd kickabout or game of frisbee.

Afternoons on the truck can start a bit sluggishly, but tend to pick up as someone’s iPod is plugged into the speakers or a game of Uno breaks out, complete with a fair amount of shrieking and arguing over the seemingly endless list of amendments to the rules. Whichever ones we use, Karla usually wins.

Of course, there is always the option of looking out of the truck while we eat up the miles and there has been some sensational scenery and sights roll by the windows, which have spent most of the time rolled up to grant better views.

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Home sweet home – Nala pulls up at our quite stunning bush camp

Over the past few days, those views have involved a lot of sand, much of which has blown in on top of us, meaning the headscarves we were convinced to buy in the medinas have come into their own.

Mind you, fitting a pair of headphones over a headscarf is not the easiest job in the world.

And, at some point, we pull in to our stop for the night and the whole process starts again – tents up (once everyone has worked out where the snorers are stationed for the night), kitchen out, fire on. If there happens to be wi-fi and showers, the race is on to get both of them at their best.

The race was of an entirely different type when we pulled into a spectacular bush camp in the shadow of a sand dune, plenty of the group lining up to race up to the top.

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Meeting the neighbours – A few of the locals wander past camp

We’ve had another night among the dunes and several in the enclosed compounds of campsites and hostels, while the truck day pattern was broken up by our first major border crossing of the journey.

It was all going so smoothly as we crossed out of Morocco, across no man’s land and into Mauritania with the smiles and jokes of the passport officials sending us on our way. Until one customs official dragged his heels with the final piece of paperwork for Nala and we were reduced to a prolonged bout of Uno to pass the time.

In the end, six hours after reaching the Moroccan border, we rolled into Mauritania.

It was enough to drive a man to drink…

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