Dave Keetch writes: The French version of Al Jazeera was on the television so I was only half paying attention to it as I sat with Hajar’s family in their home at Tiznit, Morocco. It was the news ticker that caught my eye though. “Mauritanie” scrolled across the bottom of the screen. I then caught the word “touriste” and finally “mort”. My grasp of the language was far from being fluent, but I knew enough for it to send an alarm bell ringing.
After abruptly interrupting the conversation to have it translated for me on its next appearance, I later scoured the internet in search of finer details. As with the visa debacle, it didn’t take long for word to get around various cyber fora. One particular forum, indispensable for anything related to crossing the Sahara, held a vigorous discussion for days. Was it still safe to travel in Mauritania? I filtered in any reasoning that favoured my burning desire to cross the Sahara via the Atlantic Coast and reassuringly relayed it to my partner. With her mind at relative ease, we could press on.
It was a long and mostly uncomfortable overnight bus ride into the disputed territory of the Western Sahara, made worse after being placed on broken seats at the very back of the bus (note would-be Saharan overlanders — get on the bus to Layounne at Agadir, not Tiznit!). On the positive side of things, we arrived in Layounne not long after sunrise, which would give me the entire day to explore the city before catching up on sleep. As it turned out, I probably only needed an hour as there wasn’t really that much to see in Layounne, just a whole lot of concrete and many UN-marked vehicles.
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The following morning we found ourselves back at the station and looking to get on a bus that was only going as far as Dakhla (once there we’d have to find a car and a driver to take us over the border). It was slightly chaotic — you couldn’t actually buy tickets in advance, they had another ‘system’. I noted the queue of personal paraphernalia lined up on the counter and added my own item to the end of it. Every time a bus rolled up, if people disembarked then those whose item was at the front of the queue would be first in line to get on the departing bus. As my mind grappled with this unfamiliar concept I noticed a young Anglo woman (I later told her I firstly thought she was someone’’s child, given her small stature and tiny frame) amongst the sea of people and realised I hadn’t seen a fellow tourist for several days.
Lily was from England and, in a rather fortuitous circumstance, was also overlanding through West Africa on her way to Ghana. The harmony was instant and once Lily and my partner found common ground in homeopathy (much to the chagrin of this science graduate and stickler for rigorous statistical evidence) the bond was sealed. The three of us would end up travelling together through West Africa at various stages, parting ways and meeting again several times, until somehow winding up in her family’s home in Totnes, eating a loving home-cooked meal by an open fire. But I digress.
Lily wasn’t the only tourist catching a ride to Dakhla and onward. We also met two Swedish fellas who had done a fair bit of travelling in their time. We’d decided to group together and look for a ride to and across the border. Once in Dakhla I figured it was a good time to tell them about that recent event and, in a sadistic kind of way, I was curious to see how the’’d react. None of them had heard the news that three Spanish NGO workers had just been kidnapped by the African branch of Al Qaeda on the Nouadhibou-Nouakchott road and then been whisked off to remote northern Mali to be used as leverage in some sort of ransom bid.
Lily was as non-plussed as I, but I’d spooked the two Swedes. They insisted we all travel together the entire way to the Mauritanian-Senegalese border, safety in numbers, and one of them repeatedly stated “this is not my scene” as though this type of event was commonplace and he’d made some grave error in choosing to travel through West Africa. I felt a little responsible for their paranoia and attempted to calm them with reason. You see, it is very likely the Spanish NGO workers were specifically targeted, perhaps for political reasons, but likely because it would have been well known they were travelling that road, on that day, and at that particular time. We were just five tourists, our country of origin and immediate travel plans known only by us. Even after explaining that it had never been safer to transit through Mauritania because of the heightened military presence I still doubt they slept well that night in Dakhla.
Our care-free aura must have unnerved them too. We’d reached Nouadhibou the following day after a pre-dawn start, a bumpy ride through the infamous no-man’s land, and a series of tedious border formalities. We decided to again stay the night and get a ride to Nouakchott the following day, but that next morning we, the newly formed trio, returned from breakfast to find that the two Swedes had packed their bags and left the lodging. I never saw them again, but apparently Lily bumped into one of them at an internet cafe in The Gambia. They came through the Saharan crossing unscathed.
And so did we, which wasn’t really a surprise. We did play it safe though and caught a bus packed with locals heading to Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital. It was a predictably eventless ride down the Atlantic coastline, although there was one moment that I’ll always remember. Around halfway through the 380km ride down the Nouadhibou-Nouakchott road, the locals who had been full of chatter suddenly grew silent and many turned to look at us, the only tourists on the bus. They turned back to their conversations as quickly as they’d stopped, but it was nevertheless an eerie moment to know where we’d just passed.
Dave Keetch recently spent four months travelling through West Africa.