New Year, New Country

Trip Start Jun 04, 2012
Trip End Apr 04, 2013

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Flag of Mauritania  ,
Tuesday, January 1, 2013

We had arranged to rendezvous with our driver at crack of dawn - these days that means 7:00 a.m. in the morning. Pausing only for some coffee at a neighborhood cafe and grabbing some bread and cheese for the road, we were ready for the 450 km drive from Dakhla to Nouadhibou. The "choffeur" Abderrehman, seemed like an old hand on this route. When he met us the evening before, he wanted to know if we had procured our visas already. Mauritania no longer issues visas at the border and there are a few anecdotes online about travelers who were either clueless or cocky (who assumed they would be able to talk their way through) but were turned away and had to backtrack all the way to Rabat!  Before leaving town, he made one final stop to pick up another young lady (in a mulafa, the Mauritanian version of the hijab) who would be making the trip with us. She got in at the back behind the front passenger seat and after smoking 2 cigarettes in 10 minutes, promptly fell asleep.

Retracing our path through the peninsula (on the tip of which lies Dakhla), we quickly made it to the main highway N2 that runs all the way to the Mauritanian border.  The landscape consists primarily of arid and rocky land with distant views of the ocean on west. With very little traffic on this well maintained asphalt road, it is the driver and the vehicle that determine what the safe driving speed is. Our driver seemed to have supreme confidence in his Mercedes and we have to admit we hardly sense the speed until one of us looked at the odometer.

Just as it was on the road getting to Dakhla, regular checkpoints continue all the way down to the border. To make these stops as brief as possible, our driver collected our passports at the start of the trip and would present them in a bunch, answering any follow up questions on our behalf and indirectly vouching for us. Since he was a regular on this route, he was acquainted with many of the officials and frequently exchanging pleasantries with them.

Abderrehman liked listening to music and played a variety of wonderful (if rather loud) traditional music all the way to the border.  Every once in a while, a directed look at the volume control would result in him turning the volume down just a tad bit, but as time passed, these cues did not work and he waited for a specific verbal request before he would bring down the volume to a bearable level. But he always seemed to find a reason to turn it back up again after a while. The distance melted quickly and just a few kms from the border we stopped at a wayside restaurant for lunch.

The young lady who was asleep for most of the journey was refreshed after this break and got all chatty. She appeared to be an old acquaintance of the Abderrehman and the two kept up a good humored conversation regularly punctuated by loud laughter - mostly from her. She lit up cigarette after cigarette in quick succession, eliciting derisive comments from Abderrehman who mockingly imitated her smoking style and told us that she smoked too much. He paid the price for this indiscretion immediately.  Her hand reached out from the back seat and landed with a sharp smack on his head. M, who was seated in the front passenger seat, winced in shock. But Abderrehman was not flustered. He just kept the banter going as if nothing happened.

At the border a few vehicles were queued up for their turn to be processed out by the authorities. The Moroccan officials were professional, courteous and soon we were allowed to continue through the no-mans-land between the two countries.

The border between Morocco and Mauritania is about 5 km unpaved sand track. It is considered a risky land border crossing since it is   known to be littered with thousands of unexploded land mines, a legacy from the earlier dispute with Mauritania over Western Sahara which neither country has bothered to clear. For this reason walking across the border is prohibited and private vehicles are asked to be very careful and not to veer away from well worn tracks. Abderrehman did not seem overly concerned and picked his way through various rutted tracks all headed in the same general direction.

Litter, discarded plastic bags, plastic bottles and car tires lay strewn as far as they eye could see. All around were carcasses of abandoned cars (yes cars), stripped clean of all electronics and anything that was detachable and had potential reuse. What was left were pretty much like skeletons, much like what is left of a buffalo or antelope after a vulture had gone to work on it. We had learned earlier that many people try to import used (or stolen ?) cars into Mauritania and when they are unable to get it past the authorities, these vehicles are abandoned in the no-mans-land after stripping them completely.  Given the number of abandoned vehicles within  the 5 km stretch, it did not seem to be a plan with much chance of success.

While Abderrehman was in the midst of carefully negotiating the sand traps and bumps, our companion decided that this was a good time to liven up things further and offered her micro mp3 chip to be played on the car stereo. For the next few minutes we were winding our way though the surreal landscape to the accompaniment of Arabic pop music! 

Video of crossing No Man's Land
Eventually we caught sight of a series of shacks with corrugated iron roofs and a couple of single storied buildings with a few green Mauritanian flags flying.  Abderrehman warned us that the Mauritanian authorities are likely to be watching from a distance and this was a good time to put our cameras away. M, as is her won't, continued to click away until we were too close for comfort. V had to issue a final pleading request before she reluctantly put it away.

At the border post, vehicles a few vehicles were already waiting for their turn and Abderrehman tried to sneak up on one side and cut ahead of some of them. To our surprise (and relief), a Mauritanian border guard was enforcing the queue, a good sign if there is one for what a country values. Our vehicle was directed to immediately get back behind those that were there earlier, which caused some grumbling from the mischievous Abdrerehman,  but after years of experience he know not to argue with officialdom at the border

When it was our turn, we parked at the side of the building and entered the border post. After cursory question from the officials manning post on where we were headed and where we planned to stay (in Nouadhibou) etc. our passports were stamped. Back in the car, a sniffer dog took a gander at the contents of the trunk and passenger compartment. It started V as it jumped straight into the back seat while he was still seated. With everything in order, we were on our way into Mauritania.

The physical landscape south of the border was more of the same that we had seen all day. Borders are after all just a line in the sand and here it is literally so.  Having said that, we were entering a country that is culturally unique. With half the population descended from the Moors of Arab and Berber descent and the other half from Black Africans, it is a striking transition zone between the north African Arab world and rest of Black Africa.

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Ramesh on

What adventure. Land crossing between Western Sahara and Mauritania. You both are true journeyers.

And what a place on earth to be celebrating New Year's day.

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