April 24, 1998

Mauritania: 20K south of Keffi

God, it's hot. Still well above 30 even at this hour. At lunch today it was pushing 50 in the shade and the sun was like an anvil. We're heading towards Kayes, "the hottest town in Africa."

At least it's a dry heat.

Eastern Mauritania is a desolate, squalid wasteland, where shrivelled trees and mangy goats and crowds of dangerously skinny people try to eke out an existence in an environment too harsh for grass. The kids in town demand presents while we're there and fling stones at us when we drive off, and it's hard to feel outraged.

The sight of a fridge is a cause for celebration.

Brian has gone: he claims he'll return, but we have our doubts. He left us yesterday, returning to Nouakchott to marry a woman he'd met the day before. I will refrain from editorial comment.

"Do you have a cadeau for me? Something small, like a wristwatch?" - a cop one of the countless roadside spot checks.

A hard day of sand-matting under the baking sun took us to the coast, where we paused for a well-deserved swim and birthday cake. Would have eaten dinner too, but we had to dash off at low tide and ride the beach for half an hour to get to the Nouakchott trail. Stopped for a sodden B-day party for Angela + Andrea, and finally crashed around midnight.

Next, drove into the wide, low, relatively thriving metropolis of Nouakchott, with wide boulevards, large Mediterraneanesque buildings sporting satellite dishes, and at least one good cafe. No newspapers or magazines younger than 2.5 years tho. Stopped at the French embassy for a visa, shopped, and free-camped by a sand dune, which seemed like a good idea until we discovered - at 4 AM - that it was a sand quarry, open 24 hours. Moment of blind panic as I wake to lights and truck noises...while sleeping under the truck.

Back in for a day in the city, another good meal followed by a long walk, and a brief stop at the fishing port; stacks of 4'-5' fish. New free camp because the campsite arbitrarily tripled its price at the last minute. Swim and beach volleyball, then a disastrous meal - remind me not to change cook groups again - overshadowed by Shirray's fainting spell.

Final morning in Nouakchott, long afternoon waiting for diesel at a service station, and then we got stuck looking for a campsite and had to dig and sand-mat out, what fun. Slept out-out, because it's too dry for skeeters or rain, too hot for tents, and not windy enough to be impossible; much better than a tent. Must buy a mosquito net, aka moustiquerie.

Yesterday and today, deeper and deeper into nowhere. We must be in the middle by now. One-camel towns with no name, and mile after mile of shrub-spotted desert. No terrain until some New Mexico-esque ridges today; this afternoon wasn't quite as unbearably stark as the previous few hundred K.

Last night, volleyball, a route analysis & explanation, and sleep under the stars again; not bad. Today we ran out of primary-tank diesel while stopped in Keffi for water, and had to transfer-pump in front of a crowd, what fun.

Free-camped again tonight. Tomorrow night is our last in Mauritania, and I've written less inspiring sentences.

Two meals at once at the Nouakchott restaurant, after a forced-march seek-and-devour mission with Mike + Chong. Heidi's "I love sand-matting" bizarrerie. The four-star Novotel out of town, another world entirely. Clothes + trinkets in the Grand Marche. Abandoned at the Prince Cafe. The raging coastal currents, keeping me at a standstill (swimstill?) even while doing a full crawl. Huddled under a Tuareg prayer-tent for shade.

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April 18, 1998

Mauritania: Somewhere in the Sahara

I tried so hard to work up enthusiasm for the scrub and near-desert we passed through, but it's been completely overshadowed by the real thing in all its windswept majesty.

We finally received our passports and entered Mauritania after a long 24 hours in the convoy. We broke down in the middle of an alleged minefield and I wandered up the road w/ Heidi + Chong + Angela + Andrea + Gav. We irritated the soldier in charge: worth it for the chocolate cookies and Spanish water, because the desalinated water we picked up in Dakhla is ghastly. Then two hurry-up-and-waits, interspersed by a frenzied dinnerless bush camp. Long wait in the morning, time maimed by frisbee and football with the French and Germans and Hamid, briefly our guide, a fellow EE who moonlights as a trilingual guide.

Into Nouadhibou, meaning "Jackal's Well," a long low colourless squalid sprawling city, oppressively hot, where it's hard to tell the endless goat-and-poverty-strewn shantytown from the centreville. Good bread though.

Hours of formalities - no search, no currency declaration, but an "insurance" tax - and eventually a campsite six African kilometres out of town, past camel herds and saltwater pools. Another marathon cook session for us. Up, collect three large freshly caught fish, and out into the Sahara after a brief shopping trip in Nouadhibou.

Endless rocky plains - driving's much more fun with a side up - with only one sand-mat stop. Park in the curve of a sand dune which we rushed up and tobogganed or plummeted down. When we grew tired we discovered that solid rock lurked a few inches below the ground. Only the Belgian girls - more later - got their tent up, and the rest of us prepared to huddle under the truck.

We picked up the Belgian girls - Ingrid and Nicole - at the border, which they couldn't cross because they're on bicycles, because they're spending four years cycling across the world, have written a (Belgian, Flemish) bestseller on it, and have pretty much turned travel into a cottage industry.

Then the excitement: Sam didn't show up for dinner and nobody knew where he went. I scaled the sand dune to look for him and, after being briefly dazzled by more stars than I ever knew existed, was stunned by two sets of headlights, coming at us. In the middle of the Sahara.

Turned out he'd wandered off just before sunset, lost his bearings when the dark hit, and (fucking idiot) wandered off to look for us. Eventually he saw some lights, ran at them, and flagged down two Tuareg Land Rovers about 10K from where we were camped. They managed to find us and delivered him. Then they invited us over for freshly slaughtered lamb - mmm, red meat - with mint tea and a multi-cultural array of songs.

Slept under the truck, after repeatedly bruising my head on the drive shaft. Up and across the wide ocean of sand, dunes and plains and ridges and solitary twisted trees, and repeated sand matting. The heat at lunch was like an anvil, but it didn't affect the hovering lime-green wasp-like bug.

Wonderbat and the Red Spot Brigade. The abandoned and miraculously recovered cookpot. The Case of the Disappearing Lighters. Trowels & TP dangling, we stride into the desert. Sardine sandwiches and oranges when times get desperate on the truck. "Lola" as we cross a white sea of sand.

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April 15, 1998

No-man's-land, Morocco-Mauritania border

In sight of the shattered remnants of a Land Rover that must have strayed onto a mine. Not surprisingly, no one is exploring the area. About 10K up a winding desert trail with more bumps and surprises than a roller coaster, but we're on a sort of pavement - well, hardpack - now. The convoy is being inspected by the Mauritanian military.

Woke up last night to patter-patter on the tent fly and assumed it was a Lariam dream. Rain in the Sahara, who'd'a thunk it? Stopped now, but the sky is still a bright poisonous gray.

Dakhla is a hideous military anthill of a town, but I like desert more and more, in its many faces - windswept dunes, straggling chains of rock, endless plains pounded absolutely flat by sun and wind. More life than I expected - tufts of thorn and cactus are speckled everywhere.

Camped outside of Dakhla by the ocean for two nights. First was by the beach, a much-appreciated swim. Watched the sunset from the edge of a laser-beam-level stone plateau perched on a sand dune like a graduation cap. Had to dig the truck out to get there, but sand is much easier to dig than previous olive-grove muck.

Then to Dakhla: stocked up on drugs, food, dry goods, trinkets, anything to spend our last dirhams. Camped next to a fisherman's cemetery in a small green enclave cut into the desert by the ocean.

Hurry-up-and-wait yesterday morning, sewing off the ends of our newly purchased plastic mats as the convoy slowly assembled. A couple of checkpoints en route, but fewer than the police stops the previous couple of days.

Just interrupted by passport check: two serious men in khaki, in a building made of piled stones, flipping through passports.

Night in high wind at a cheerless border compound, miserable rainstrewn desert morning, and here we are, spirits much improved. Noudahibou by nightfall.

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April 11, 1998

Morocco: Past Laayoune, Western Sahara

Our lives revolve around food. We wake early in the mornings, just past the crack of dawn, and have our tents down before breakfast. Drive for a couple of hours and stop for today's and/or tomorrow's cooks to shop, while the remainder have cafes au lait and watch the baked streets and houses or guard the truck from endlessly enthusiastic hustlers selling fossils or racks of semi-precious stones. Drive on, playing cards, listening to music, staring out the window, until we stop for the night. Pitch tents, wander for half an hour, and mark time until dinner. After dinner we crash almost immediately.

Spent more days in Marrakesh than expected, due to mech problems. Cafe au laits and a long sonorous night next to Tim + Nick + Mattias, the Place Djemaa el-Fna, usually a riot of people and noise and food stalls and orange juice stands and trinket vendors, cigarette eaters, snake charmers, acrobats, henna tattooists, hasslers, hustlers, and a seething mass of tourists and Moroccans. Hitching in with a fellow EE and walking the 13K back to the campsite. Leonard Cohen drifting over the IHT.

A few long trucking days since. Agadir, closed for the day, so we bush-camped on the beach, played rugby for a bit and huddled out of the wind. Two days through the Western Sahara, police checkpoints spaced sometimes by minutes and sometimes hours, landscape shifting from scraggly trees that look unnaturally placed atop mounds of sand to long flat cactus-strewn scrub to ragged plains of rock and gravel to occasional folded dunes of Hollywood desert. "Objects in the desert may be much further away than they appear." And the wind, varying direction but constant force, lashing the tents and truck, catching clothes and caps, scattering a thin layer of sand on our food and dishes. The shoreline we drive past is dotted with shipwrecks and the surf sounds like thunder.

Stop in the middle of nowhere, and half the time a few old men appear from thin air and crouch near us, shaking hands or smoking silently.

Last night - the 10th - by a wide salt plain like a lunar crater, six inches of salt and earth crust above six inches of muddy water, moonrise ahead and sunset behind peeking over the rims of the crater, bands of purple in the sky and the salt plains glistening in the mingled lights, a dessicated goat's skeleton slumped in a depression in the middle, the omnipresent dry wind hanging over the tableau.

400K to Dakhla and the military convoy bound for Mauritania.

14 April money:
cash francs 5,000
cash pounds 100
cash dollars 250
TC pounds 250
TC dollars 700

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April 04, 1998

Morocco: Cafe Shawarma, Marrakesh

It's amazing how much perspective shift you get from 24h away from the truck; we're so much our own insular society when on the move that it's a reassessing shock to be independent again, with all the other truckers now irrelevant figures Somewhere Else.

I understand cults a little better now.

Chrono: A full day in the Todra Gorges, spent doing some aimless drifting. Walked a few K up the gorge with an unwell Heidi, then abandoned her to a herd of goats and walked up a little way, perched on a crag at the side of the gorge and listened to music and stared for a while.

Hundred-metre walls of red rock scored into layers, like rake marks on sand, ten or twenty feet deep, the lines dipping and swaying in every direction. Dry gravelbed occasionally marked by a pool of water after the creek had run dry, and a road/trail weaving drunkenly from one side of the creek to the other. An old man with leather skin and black teeth leading a dozen camels down into the gorge from the Sahara. Buses splashing through a few inches of water where the stream crossed the road to the hotel.

Returned, wandered to the village in the other direction, a wedge of shocking green beneath hills and cliffs of swept-bare rock. Walked through fields trailing eight-year-olds. No dirhams, no bonbons: bought 'em off with a taste of Portishead. Returned, picked up laundry, ate, chattered, "washed hands" w/oil, talked with solo Canadian traveller Sue, crashed.

Next day, trucked away for a long walk up the Dadoes Gorges, steep switchbacks and a winding road that curled down between two cliffs and next to a waterway, a dark few hundred feet. Hotels scattered apparently randomly. Pitched tents in a gravel tent, more or less, but fortunately we were on truck-guard duty.

Next day - Saturday, day before yesterday - on cook duty. Stopped in Ouarzazate and picked up "jefes" (?) - headscarves - and some food, some beer. Lunched in the desert, where the mud tracks from the last rain had dried and curled up in the sun, crunching like dry leaves when I walked on them. Afternoon stop by a village where parts of Lawrence of Arabia were shot, an unfinished village, sandbag stepping-stones, a crumbling ruin atop a hill with a glorious view - green valley beneath harsh brown scrub beneath a shimmering curtain of snow-capped mountains in the distance. "Gorge walkers can't handle slopes." Reluctantly rescued Heidi's speed-garage tape. Onwards to a campsite above a riverbed. Played drudge in Angela's epic 3.5-hour dinner production: chicken bake with bread-n-butter pudding. Great, but, never again.

Yesterday, zoned next to an apparently on-speed Tim as the truck wound its way up, through, and around the mountains en route to Marrakesh. The bare brown folds, furrows and ridges of a desert mountaintop. A red mountain lurking behind a screen of green ones. To a campsite outside Marrakesh. Showered & headed into town, hitching a bus ride with Heidi + Amanda. Heidi's loud "Evil Moslem" comment on the bus - my God. Long walk through medina, over ram's horns and Heidi's objections, to a halfway decent hotel and the wow-wow-wow grand square of the medina, countless stalls of oranges and food, henna tattooists and cobra charmers, hemmed in by anarchic traffic on three sides and an endless covered market on the other.

Went to new area of town - main strip, as with all Moroccan towns, is Blvd Mohammed V - but didn't meet our would-be rendez-vous'ers. Had damn fine cafe au lait and walked back to medina, where we ate at a stall and chilled on a terrace above the seething crowd. Heidi claimed the single bed, so battled with Amanda for the covers, and dropped into surreal Lariam dreams.

Woke, breakfasted on bread and orange juice - now that's Moroccan - split with the shoppers and had a cafe and IHT before going gift shopping (was given responsibility for PK's gift.) Found some nice sandals, but 50 Dh too much: we'll see. Roved down Mohammed V, bought soap + pens + paper, stopped here for a pizza. Plan is to check out the new area of town, meet H+A at 5, buy sandals, and head out for the night. Might change my $20 USD - last big town for a while.

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April 01, 1998

Morocco: Restaurant Cafe Hotel des Roches, Todra Gorge

Sipping a Coke in the reception/alcohol-free bar room, which, like other rooms here, converts to a bedroom after hours. A grand old dilapidated place, all faded tile and crumbling paint, but with comfy patterned benches/beds and a truly breathtaking backdrop - the Todra Gorge looming above, a crescent moon hanging off the shoulder of a colossal mass of rock.

We've seen so many staggering landscapes in the last couple of days that I'm afraid I'm already starting to get jaded. An endless green lawn of grass and moss beneath a canopy of cedars, their monkey-highway trunks ("monsieur! monsieur! le sage dans l'arbre!") impossibly straight and slender, with a creek weaving slowly between the trees. Endless mountain slops strewn with rocks like God's own gravel, grass spilling out beneath the boulders, dotted by conical pits half-filled by water and sinuous glacier-carved lakes. An interminable plain of stones and dirt overseen by a snow-caped range of mountains. Raw jagged scrubland where only the hardiest and thorniest bushes and weeds survive the baking sun and the flash floods. Ribbed cliffs and sudden outgrowths of stone above a red near-desert pockmarked by tufts of grass, an almost Martian landscape.

Chronological: Second day at Diamant Vert was uneventful save for the fact that we cooked (acquitted ourselves OK) and the discovery of the disused amusement park - rides, slides, huge cafe - at other end.

Up into the mountains. Stopped to see a cedar so old it's allegedly biblical and continued up just a little to a pleasant forest campsite. Smoked up, wandered a little, ate, and was taken by surprise at the cold's rapid advance. Heat entirely dependent on sun at this height + latitude. OK night - 1st real test for sleeping bag - and up further and further, past mountainside farmland and picturesque valleys, to a somewhat jarring stop - not physically, but a big wide field in a high wind is not my idea of a great campsite. It worked out OK. Tents huddled close together like sheep. Heidi + I went for a walk to a hilltop while the others played football with the (intensely curious) locals and Angela nearly crippled a couple children. Dinners, some stoned stargazing, and to bed.

Today: a slow start and a long drive, with the usual hour's stop in a town and half-hour stop for lunch - it's amazing how quickly this all falls into routine. Wound through miles and miles of previously described mountains and foothills, the edge of the Sahara, with a brief pause when the main diesel tank ran dry (no, really). Missed the climactic entrance into the Gorge because of a nail-biting yet triumphant game of 500. OK, that's a little pathetic.

Hawkers and hustlers selling fossils and semi-precious stones and lacquered scorpions and their services as guides. And headscarves, which PK says we're going to need - cool. Baked mud and brick rough- carved into squat rectangular buildings in the mountain villages. Heat and dust, white stone and brown dirt, in town streets. Dark cafes and the moustached men who populate them. Pools in roadside pits like inverted grain silos. Brown sheep and black goats, flocking over the land. Hills of crumbling dirt that ripple out to the real Sahara.

I'm enjoying the journey more with every passing day.

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