08/10/2010 – Nouadibou to Dhakla (Western Sahara) – 261 miles – 4 hours at border! nightmare

We met Sebastian, a German man heading north who needed a lift. We packed his surf board on the roof and he gave us breakfast. We had someone along for the ride. He had been in Senegal and was heading to Dhakla to surf before heading home. He was a geologist working in Tenerife about to return home to Munich.

We made our way through no mans land between the two borders. A couple of fixers tried to show us the way to avoid the mines that are either side of the track. The border crossing took much longer than expected. We had been warned yesterday by a German couple heading to Cape Town. It was worse than Egypt! Four hours later, we were free. I sped up Immigration by saying I was ill and needed to get to Dhakla. That got the passport from the middle of the line to the front. Cheeky, but we had to get through Customs as well. There we needed a scan of the car, so we went in line with another vehicle and had the x-ray carried out. This is the only Mauritanian border heading north. Desert to the east, sea to the west. They were turning the process electronic, so that will hopefully speed things up in the future.

An hour after starting with Customs we were gone. We arrived in Dhakla at 8pm. No problems driving in the dark here – what a difference from Mauritania. Cafe culture and a European feel to life here. We know Morocco and welcome the cooler climate and people on the streets late in the evening, strolling around and taking coffee or mint tea in cafes and watching football on the flat screen tv’s.

We leave our sub-Saharan antics behind us, with so much relief after Mauritania, but like all African experiences, it leaves you wanting more. In a flash it felt like the trip had finished to a point. Still, we have a good bit of time in Morocco. We have been here before, so it will be good to see some more of the country as we head north. A long stretch of road to get up north into Morocco proper. We aim to be near Tan Tan early next week.

07/10/2010 – Desert camp to Nouadibou – Max temp 38 C


We survived the night! We woke up in the night with sand blowing against our faces, so we had to adjust and use the sleeping bags to hide our faces. Still a great way to enjoy the desert. We’ve been wanting to do this for ages. We could have stretched another night in the desert, but felt we should crack on.

Three miles after starting, we got stuck in the sand! Just after we had left a small village, and the men came to push. We were on the move in thirty minutes.

Expecting the route to get better, it always gets worse, then better again. Two days is enough of this we thought and kept checking our waypoints to see where it would improve. When the route was originally routed in our book, they were still building the main Nouadibou to Nouakchott tarmac road. Our final task was to find it. We got lost trying to get around a massive dune – we couldn’t drive over it. As we got closer to the town near the main road, there were more obstacles in our way.

As we stopped to suss out which way to go, another trained passed. It was just as long as the one we saw in Choum. We had a plan. We let the train pass, then we will use the train track to take us back to our route! We found a way up to the tracks and kept one wheel between and one outside of the track. We picked up on another track, so thought we were ok. We tool the dune next to the track, half on the dune and half on the track. The vehicle slid a little downwards and then turned to get stuck. We reversed out and picked up the original track.

Somehow we made it to the tarmac. Smooth, flat, pristine tarmac and we made a move to Nouadibou. Maybe an hour later and we were there.

There was a squeaking sound coming from the front right wheel. Another problem, so we got some kids to look at it, when we arrived. The rubber covering to the ball joint  on the stabilising arm of the suspension had a small split in it and the grease had leaked out. I went off with one of the kids to find a replacement. An hour later we still couldn’t find one, so he used a similar looking one he found at his workshop and fixed it, African style! It worked and least he noise had disappeared. We said, let’s sort it out in Morocco if we had to and got our minds to getting to the border the next day!

06/10/2010  – Atar to desert camp – Mauritania 143 miles max temp 42 c (R2-Mauritania in the Sahara Overland)


Got the hell out of Atar. The best advice we gave ourselves was to go it alone. If there’s a problem, then we can only blame ourselves. We had had it with guides trying to help. It runs true with other stories we have read about desert travel in Mauritania. Atar was a nice enough town with a gentle pace. It’s an important region of Mauritania. For three months in the summer, families base themselves around Atar and Azougui for the getna date harvest.

First we had to get to Choum. It was a piste, so rocky sandy but an easy route with plenty of track and marker posts to keep you confident that you are going the right way.

We got to Choum in a flash. By chance, just in time for the train to come in. Were not sure if it’s still the World’s longest train. It’s the iron ore train to Nouadibou. Its many carriages arrive empty from the coast and leave loaded. It takes passengers and vehicles, but we were going on into the desert trying to find the tracks. We were told not to get too close to the railway line. Old sleeper posts, stick out from underneath the sand and the sand gets deep in places so that you can get stuck.

There were no vehicles around. We came across the odd police post by the railway line – they waved us down and asked for our paperwork. We made really good time. It looked like we could get this route easily done in two days. We made a diversion to Ben Amera, a huge monolith rock, Africa’s biggest, that sticks out of the desert and is comparable to Ayres Rock in Australia. The other rock, Aisha, to the west has a sculpture park around the base. Made to celebrate the millennium, 16 sculptors turned many of the boulders into art. We stopped there for lunch and had a look around.It was a beautiful spot and would have made a good place to camp for the night.

Our mission today was to get through the Azeffal dunes, the hardest section, by tonight and then camp in the desert before dark. Masses of tracks and deviations. After this section we would know if we had enough fuel to carry on tomorrow on the harder piste sections.

It was cooler than the other day in the desert near Chinguetti, so the Land cruiser was taking less of a beating from the sun. It was easier dune riding all round, but still, when Bun said we were going wrong , and too far away from the railway, I would keep heading away from where she said!

We got through the dune field and arrived at a bigger police check. We got questioned as to where we were going. We said that we would sleep in the desert tonight, but they said we should not  for our security and, instead, we should sleep at the next post 29 kms away. Not much we could say to that so we carried on. They said they would phone ahead on their sat phone so they would expect us.

We were happy, we made good ground today. We got to that next post. It was much smaller with one officer with a machine gun and the other with a sat phone. We said we were heading on a little and sleeping in the desert. They understood us and let us continue. The message didn’t get through and they seemed less concerned about us sleeping out in the desert.

We got a wicked spot away from the tracks by a little stony crest. It put us out of sight. Bun made a gorgeous curry using some tinned spinach and potatoes. We gazed at the stars, the best for ages and then started to fear for our safety when we saw some headlights in the distance! The vehicle kept to the track, but it was still enough to get our imagination working. We reckoned we had passed the last army post, 56 km’s back. Still pretty close to us!

Another train came in the dark. A crawling night train, with very bright beaming light making its way across the desert. You couldn’t see anything but just heard the carriages making a loud noise on the rails.

05/10/2010 – Chinguetti to Atar – Mauritania

We followed the same route we had taken three times before to Atar. We manged to get some fuel in Chinguetti to get us back to Atar.

Problems started to happen when we rolled into Atar. Bun had noticed an odd sound coming from the usual place, somewhere around the driveshaft, on the front right wheel. We bought some fuel in Atar and took a closer look.

A repeat of what we had experienced months ago – this time on the other side. The rubber cv boot had split and was making a loud noise as we drove along. It didn’t look good. A small job , but always hassle sorting out. We were not near any major town. We drove off and bumped into our friend Abdulla a.ka. Tom Kruzze again. ‘Ah, no problem, I have a man who can fix this’ Off we went. Back to the edge of town to a workshop, but more like a dump, where three men were working on a gearbox of an old Land Cruiser with pieces everywhere.

They got the 10-year-old kid working on it. We’ve seen this job a few times, but still let someone else do it. He got the boot off and went off to find a replacement. We were worried about any damage to the driveshaft, but reckoned it only happened today. We had been driving around in the dunes, so sand was the problem.

He came back with a new boot which looked like it might work. He had all the ball bearings out and cleaned and greased them, and had the boot on again after an hour. The trouble occurs when you start to agree a price. We had done this just before he started fitting the new boot, but it’s always a headache. They try to rip you off, so you spend most of the time agreeing a fair price. We negotiated him down loads and settled on £40 for the job!

Job done, We wanted to test the vehicle before we set off on the journey along the railway line from Choum to Nouadibou. This was a three-day journey, two at a push, through nothing but desert following the train tracks to the coast. We grabbed some cheap food at a Senegalese restaurant in town.

Abdulah got us off to an oasis outside of town, so we could go for a swim. It was down the bumpiest track you have ever seen. On the way back up, there was a loud bang against the side of the Land Cruiser. A massive rock had hit the side of the vehicle and made a dent on the front right. Jesus! We stopped at the top and it didn’t look great! But hey, Abdulah said he would fix it when we got back to his camp. It still needs some work to get back to normal. Out first collision with anything. Our patience with Mauritanians was wearing thin. We have to get out of here!

That evening, we had contemplated avoiding the railway route. Money was running short. We couldn’t get any out in Atar. The repair to the vehicle earlier was unexpected and we thought about going an easy way back to the capital.

This is where we we got faith from everything we had done so far on this trip. The main concern was if we had enough fuel. The dune drive yesterday showed us that the fuel would be used quicker in the sand. We read and re-read the navigation points in the Sahara book so we would know where the heavy sand would be and where to let the tyres down and for how long. This was also going to be our last two/three-day mission in the middle of nowhere with no help around if we get stuck.

The work done in the morning was good and I exchanged some dollars I had as back up so we could buy water and bread i nthe morning. Fuel wasn’t a problem. We easily had enough to cover the 540 km to Nouadhibou. Well, we hoped we did!

04/10/2010 – Chinguetti – Oudhane – Tanouchert- Chinguetti – Mauritnia

Route: 143 miles – max temp 52c (also route R7 on Mauritnaia in Chris Scott’s book ‘Sahara Overland’

Got going at eight thirty. Mahmoud turned up in a crisp new blue boubou. He meant buisness as a guide today. We unloaded loads of luggage for him to get in and to save weight.

It was obvious early enough on this route, that we would have struggled to find our own way. We would have stopped after 5km to decide the next route. Mamoud kept pointing his hand from the back to show us the right way to go. This was all good for ages, he could see the horizon and said keep going straight. We passed a dune with grass growing out of it. Wierd and a first an odd sight. The dunes were rolling and we could make good speed in 2nd gear, zipping up the dunes and rolling over the top.

We passed some clay pans which still had some water. Everything around was small dunes and grassy mounds which took some getting around in the sand.

We made good time. We passed Tanouchert Oasis, where we planned on spending the night, easily after an hour and a half. That was way in the distance and we headed towards Ouadane. Quite a few scary bangs and crashes coming off some small dunes. It’s almost impossible to predict the landing on some of the dunes. The sun is so high in the sky in the middle of the day that shadows are non existent. Dangerous on bigger dunes, when you think you are travelling on a flat continuous slope only to find a drop.

Fuel was disappearing a bit too quickly for my liking. We were carrying way more than we were expecting to use. When we arrived in Ouadane we were told we were the first tourists in four months. The over-cautious warnings had kept tourist away and the town was suffering for it. The guide who showed us around the old town had a moan on the subject. He said the army are protecting the borders and that Mauritania was safe. It still isn’t peak tourist season here. It cools down in November onwards, but the interior of Mauritania still stays very hot even in the cooler months of January and February.

Bun took over the driving. We were on our way to the Oasis. We got our hottest day on the whole trip – the in-car reading was 52 c. We were thrashing the Land Cruiser in heavy sand, rolling over dunes, making the transmission incredibly hot. Our life saving AC was useless in this heat. Inside  the vehicle was roasting. Down at our feet you could feel the heat coming from the engine and transmission.

Bun got incredibly close to dropping off a very large dune. After she braked hard to avoid going down it, it looked possible to ride it, but from the top you really have no idea of how steep it was. We all gasped when we realised how close we got to the edge of this one!

We spent lunch at the oasis. The Auberge mentioned in the guide-book was closed, so we had lunch with a family that Mahmoud knew. We didn’t know the set-up, and we gradually decided to change our minds on staying in the desert. The heat was too much for us. We thought let’s have our day in the desert and then head back to Chiguetti for the night

We avoided getting out our lunch and were offered some pasta with meat that Mahmoud was eating with the owner. We sat in the shade of the tent, eating sandy pasta swirls, cooked with onion and little bits of chopped meat (camel). Trying to pick up the hot food with your hand, Mauritanian style, was a challenge.

It wasn’t very tasty and proved that sand does get everywhere. Water never tasted so good. When you are so thirsty, you can polish off a litre of water in a few minutes!

Mahmoud decided to take us back on a different track to Chiguetti. This is when it started to get a little hairy. We had total faith in his navigation skills. He was used to trekking with camels and knew the land well. After thirty minutes, he lost confidence. We followed what must have been a river bed, but was now a stony area between some dunes for a while. Next minute we were totally away from the route. He got me to drive off-track and basically hurdle some dunes to the north to find the old track. Once I attempted to drive over one, the vehicle got stuck. Luckily the sand was forgiving. Once you put the vehicle in low-box and reverse it came straight out. This went on for a while, hitting one small dune and then getting stuck and so on.

We hit a brick wall. We had a conversation in what little French we knew. We agreed it wasn’t looking good. We would have to go back thirty minutes to take another track, to hit the one we took this morning.

I said to him ‘you are the guide, you decide what is best to do’. Fuel was running low. If we had messed around in the dunes for another hour we would have been stuck out there. It was already four thirty at this point.

He got us back onto the morning track and all was good. The only problem we had after that was that we were heading into the sun and the wind was behind us. We had some long drags up some dunes for the last hour, which really worked the Land Cruiser. It started overheating and we had to let it rest. We turned it around into the wind and let Mahmoud pour some water on the radiator with the engine still running. It didn’t take long to cool down and we were off again, We stopped once again, before getting back, for the same reason.

03/10/2010 – Atar to Chinguetti – Mauritania

Route taken: Same as yesterday – 50 miles – max temp 40c

Al got to try zrig, camel milk for breakfast. It’s unpasteurized and unrefrigerated which made him think it wasn’t the real deal. I think they gave us normal milk and passed it off as zrig. It can make you ill if drank!

Another round of mint tea and some breakfast and we were on our way back to Chinguetti. They serve tea as rounds of three, so it takes easily an hour before you are ready to move again. It’s a skill making it and here they mix it with a green tea to give it strength. For a round serving four people, at least 5 heaps of sugar are used.

We were familiar faces now to the police at the checkpoints leaving town and at the top of the pass. As we left town there were three or four dune buggy vehicles. They were military vehicles that were patrolling in the area.

When we arrived we spent a bit of time trying to sort a guide out so we can follow a desert route to Ouadane, a former Berber settlement, that was on the caravan route to Oualata & Timbuktu, 95 km north-east of Chinguetti.

It’s a hassle sorting anything out in Mauritania. A simple task of sorting out a guide turns into a mission as you spend ages trying to negotiate prices. We got one guide down to a decent price, but phoned our friend in Atar to try to get him down on the price by becoming our guide instead. He agreed to come from Atar later and we would leave in the morning.

We contemplated risking the route ourselves, but it would have been mad to go that far alone, just relying on our GPS for navigation. Dunes change all the time and alter the route. Fuel consumption doubles in the desert and getting lost with little fuel in the tank is crazy

We sorted out the guide, so afterwards we managed a visit to Le Ksar (old town) in Chinguetti. The seventh holiest city in Islam, it is home to five old libraries which house fragile and dusty ancient islamic manuscripts of Chinguetti.

Later we met Mahmoud again, who explained that Abdula, a.k.a Tom Kruzze, wouldn’t be able to come from Atar to be our guide but we would go with Mahmoud instead. Fair enough, so we left it at that.