… and finally; Tuesday March 15th – Into Mauritania
Up, packed, on the road at 7.45a.m.
This is it. Off we went, wondering just how today would end up. In the journal I wrote, “Fairly straight open desert road. Border crossing / ‘no mans land = NO road. Rock and sand piste for some kms.”
So, there you are – Yes, we did get over the border and into Mauri.
If that seems anticlimactic it shouldn’t. I felt that way myself for all of five minutes after the first checkpoint within Mauritania until a faint memory of a previous ‘Adventure’ in my life came up and tapped me on the shoulder, so to speak. The memory was that, then, as now, the situation was easy to get in to, and hard to get out of. That certainly gave me a chill along my spine.
The journey across.
The journey up to the border was uneventful. Apart from Denis’s Bike finally giving up the ghost and deciding to die completely. It had been somewhat ‘ill’ for a few days and the slowest of all the Gappers. Led by Andy – it had got a top end rebuild of the engine last night, (it had previously had a clutch rebuild) but despite his best efforts, and Andy is a seriously good mechanic, it had only lasted a short while. Now it was unceremoniously dumped on the back of the trailer. Denis took Callums Bike and Callum rode in the car with Ian.
To this day I have never worked out how that happened; Denis on Callums Bike and Callum in the car!
This was like a scene you see in the movies where the heroes reach the border and the tension noticeably rises. The uniformed officials, in this case were military and had guns to match. The locals gabbling away in a language that to me seemed to hold secrets – only because I couldn’t understand it. I felt a twinge of paranoia for a moment thinking, they’re talking about us! But then thought – yes, they probably are ya pillock – if you were them – you would too!
French is the language of commerce here, but best to appear ignorant and if you do understand what’s being said – keep it to yourself. You’ll learn a lot more with your ears than your mouth. I take a mental snapshot of the crowds and clusters of people, all dealing with their own personal stage of the paperwork mountain to climb to get across the border. There are tense, worried faces on travellers, serious and weary faces on those staffing this place and going about their job and clueless faces trying to look cool and blasé and in all likelihood failing, looking.. well, clueless ( that would be us).
Denis does his border routine.
This means a lot of faffing about. This is no complaint about Denis (for a change) it’s just the way of it with border crossings outside of the E.U. in general, and particularly in Africa. It was our first real experience of the phenomena as entering into Morocco was positively cosmopolitan by comparison to this! So off he goes with a mix of various bits of paperwork, passports, fiche with all our details duplicated ad nauseum, with an air of I’ve-done-this-all-before – I’m a confident man of the world manner about him. Good so far.
Not only, but also …
an unfortunate attitude of condescension toward the officials, speaking to them only in English, but louder if they didn’t understand the first time – oh – and dropping into a French accent occasionally – to match their stumbling but well intentioned English.
Bad, definitely bad.
I’ve often wondered since, if any of us could’ve done better – for my part I’d Smile sweetly at times, speak in obviously badly pronounced French, play dumb (and poor!) tourist and also play the Irish card. This ploy has often confounded officialdom in the past when I’ve travelled. In Europe perhaps because I have an English accent. In Africa, first there would be a doubletake – a look of wtf?! Then a smile- or at least a visible relaxation in the manner of the official. Sure us Oirish are friends with all nations! What threat could I be?
To be sure, to be sure – if a racial stereotype will help – damn sure I’ll play along.
But I digress. The border was hardly a place of warmth and congeniality. Stark, modern concrete and marble,but already well worn and shabby. The first thing you note is the huge aerial mast that the wind howled through, and a blustery wind that whipped up litter and sand in the very exposed checkpoint. Hustle and bustle all around as people more local and more experienced queued and handed their own paperwork in to be allowed exit the country…. or is it territory…. or is it disputed area? Whatever you may call it – there’s a sense of readiness, of being alert. The issues between Morocco and Mauritania have never been resolved – just put on hold until the financial backing is there to continue. So to my mind at least it looks as if the whole border area could go from ‘wary’ to ‘full alert’ in double quick time. You see it in the layout, that aerial mast is obviously to ensure good communication over a large area. The strange ramps we saw all through the sahara look to be for long range gun emplacements – all face south – at Mauritania. even the architecture of the border post is set so Observation from a distance is to assist those defending it.
while Denis could do some of this paperwork on behalf of the group, some we had to do solo and stand and speak for ourselves. This would have been amusing if not for the wind, the heat – now we had no shade and the fact we were after all, in the Sahara proper. To my eyes it reminded me of checkpoints I’d been through as a child going ‘home’ to Donegal in the north west of Ireland / but not in ‘Northern Ireland’. You still had to queue, get scrutinised and maybe searched. As I’ve said – checkpoints like this have a specific architecture; you are exposed to view and those that check you are set up for observation of you. You are vulnerable, they are not. You have a long lead in to the ‘set’, they have time to assess you on your approach. It’s all in the detail. The Booth of Last Anointing as I thought of it later, was a good example. This was our last stop before actually leaving – where we got all our rubber stamped bits of paper finally dealt with.
Here’s how it goes; you join the queue, single file, clutching the precious papers. Never has a grubby photocopy with scrawls of biro and smudged rubber stamps upon it been so important. You finally get your turn. It’s like a confessional! I almost start off with “Bless me father for I have sinned” I resist this as I would be the only one that found it funny. Inside their cool shady retreat of an office I see what I guess is, a Customs official, an obvious military man, and a not quite so obvious man in … ‘Plain Clothes’. The Customs guy has the hard work – asking the questions and punching, almost literally, an ancient keyboard on a battered old computer. In French (of course) He asks my purpose of visit, vehicle details and occupation. To hear him and to be able to reply is in itself a palaver. You see, the window in the booth is set at just the wrong height. You cant hear him unless you and lean your head right into his window – I feel like I’m sticking my head in a lions mouth – but to the bureaucrat, it’s just his personal space and he looks harassed and we are just an unusual headache.
Now, that plain clothes man is right in my face, taking in every detail, looking for … what? To me it’s obvious he is the one in charge, but he says little, just the odd muttered comment to his colleagues. They do the face to face / he’s the alarm bell. He is obviously curious, but keeps that in check well. Not a man I’d play poker with. The questions are basic. No suprises there. Name, nationality (ya have the damn passport in front of you!) d.o.b. occupation, purpose of visit. The last one always get more attention than any other. “Aide Humanitaire”. Charity. This got raised eyebrows every time we said it. Often followed by “why there and not here?”. In some form or another that was the single most common question; “why would you go all the way there when it is needed nearer to home?” whether the inference was their home or ours I was never sure.
That was it. Apart from some of us having to rapidly change professions, because if answered honestly in bad French – we couldn’t find the right words for them to understand – we passed muster and got ready to exit.
We left as what’s most accurately described as a clump. Ourselves and a mixed group of local vehicles ranging from saloon car filled to bursting with entire families. To pick up trucks stacked vertically up to twice their own height. To trucks and buses – both classes of vehicle maximising capacity with every available nook or cranny containing something valuable to someone. It could be anything from a live chicken to a child.
Within yards of the gate, the tarmac roads just peters out into sand and rock. Literal ‘No Mans Land’. The rock foundation polished to a bright shine from constant traffic over it. Some locals try to get us to fork right. Ian had already warned us not to follow but stick to the path most travelled, following the majority, but not all of the traffic, slightly left and on into a barren scene of burnt out cars left and right. Not all were ancient wrecks, some looked modern. They may have been the ones that wandered into the minefield that is on either side of this ‘road’. No, it cant be called a road. It really is just a case of follow the leader in a southerly direction. This would be impossible at night. This is dangerous. Well, the most real danger on the trip so far. Apart from the time Denis tried to lead the group into a minefield on the road for lunch a few days ago! Mauritania might be a threat- but this is here and now and real. I am taken aback though when I see people going ‘off piste’ and taking some severe direction changes and disappearing off into the horizon. But there were no muffled explosions, no one blew up. Obviously locals that know where they are going and have a destination worth hassle of the border crossing. I suppose that the fact some governments somewhere decided this place was a border means little to them. They live here, it’s their home ground.
So surreal I laugh out loud
I cant quite take it in when I see the logo of a certain well known world class courier firm, faded on the back of a grubby lorry, as it slows to a halt and pulls up at what looks like a familys tent to one side … to make a delivery!!!
It’s only when I see Toms film of the trip that I realise he had actually filmed the crossing! Probably a definite no-no had it been known, but brilliant footage* to see that in ‘No Mans Lands’ in between two countries border.
*The DVD is now available in Ireland. More on how to buy it soon! Message me if you just cant wait for your copy (€20 including delivery to anywhere) All money after postage costs goes direct to the hospitals appeal. 5 hour long episodes. An hour long ‘Cinema edition’. Blunt, frank and often bleeped! Tom did a professional job on this and it is a very watchable quality film.
Soon thankfully – that last 5 (?) miles was torture, we reach the Mauritanian side and begin the slow process of getting IN to another country.