Monthly Archives: January 2020

Nouakchott

It was a scene straight out of Mad Max. Kilometre upon kilometre of flat white desert sands stretching out to a seemingly infinite horizon under a canopy of dull white clouds. The only interruption to the white monotone was the thin ribbon of black bitumen road, Suddenly the wind springs up and in the dust storm white out the horizon contracts down to a few metres in front of the car. We are at the outskirts of the capitol and ugly squat concrete houses appear. Rubbish litters the roadway and crashed cars are abandoned to rust by the roadside. Perhaps the desert sands will bury all of the chaos as the houses have sand heaped up beside their wall as the Sahara advances in a process described as desertification.

What is the capitol of Mauritania would make a good quiz show question. I certainly didn’t know before I got here. The answer of course is Nouakchott. There is not much to do here. The weather clears as we make it into the city centre and we go to the beach to stroll past row upon row of brightly coloured fishing boats.

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The mosque is pretty and the museum occupies a few minutes of spare time.

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For travellers there is not even the opportunity to kick back with a few drinks as this is an alcohol free Islamic country. I am ready to come home now.

Scenic Mauritania

Yesterday was for history buffs today the many landscapes of this surprisingly varied country. The early drive was through flat dusty, rocky gibber plains known as reg in the Western Sahara, again off road. An hour or so in this featureless landscape we turn towards a high rocky outcrop undistinguished from the many others we have seen but this one is special as it has 6000 year old rock paintings halfway up. While they are much less spectacular than many others I have seen, the detail is good and it portrays a time when animals were abundant here before the establishment of the Sahara desert. I find myself asking again how did they find this place literally in the middle of nowhere?  Secondly, how many more such sites are out there waiting to be discovered?

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After an hour or so of driving we joined a road which rapidly fell away from the mountainsides around. Breathtakingly beautiful.

Off road again through a massive verdant oasis before driving down into the White Sand gorge.

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The drive in was literally a roller coaster drive down massive vertical sand dunes to the valley floor. Steep shale rocky vertical walls rose sharply on either side of the canyon. The valley floor was a hot wonderland of pale sand dunes and I had the opportunity to wander around and experience their beauty and silence. The tour de force was another crazy steep drive up to a lookout at the head of the valley affording panoramic views of this awe inspiring and beautiful landscape.

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Finally another lush oasis for lunch and a short walk to a unique sight for this country, a tiny little waterfall.

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Historic Mauritania

The jewel in Mauritania’s crown is the historic city of Chinguetti deep in the middle of the country forever being reclaimed by the Sahara desert. This quiet little backwater was once the 7th most important city in Sunni Islam. A centre of learning it harks back to the 8th century AD and was an important starting point for Muslim West African pilgrims to commence the long pilgrimage to perform a Haj.

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The excavated and preserved historical section lies well below the level of the present day city and features a restored, photogenic, pretty minaret. The real highlight, though, is what prompted UNESCO to designate this as a world heritage site. These are the antiquities found there and a magnificent library under lock and key that goes back to the 8th century with original manuscripts that is still owned by the family of a wizened charismatic old man who speaks to us at length and shows us around. While his belief that this is his family’s heritage and rightfully belongs to him is perfectly correct, I can’t help worrying that these unique and priceless manuscripts are deteriorating because of the way that they are being kept and handled.

Chinguetti minaret

Chinguetti minaret

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Keeper of the manuscripts

Keeper of the manuscripts

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800 year old text

800 year old text

Ancient muslim astronomy text

Ancient muslim astronomy text

Oldest text in the library a series of poems dating back to 700 AD

Oldest text in the library a series of poems dating back to 700 AD

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From there it is a crazy four wheel drive across the Sahara to Ouadane. There is no road here. There are shallow tracks in the sand from previous drivers but our driver does not always follow them. It is hot and the desert sands are featureless yet our driver like a homing pigeon successfully navigates us first to an oasis and then to our present city of Ouadane.

Oasis

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This place is similarly amazing for history buffs. Set on a mesa above us is the new city of Oudane but on the slopes of the hillside up is the abandoned stone city of old Oudane constructed between the 12th and 18th century AD. It is an amazing labyrinth of winding alleyways and well preserved houses that makes for a great couple of hours of walking and sightseeing.

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The city of Atar en route

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Chemin de fer

I randomly found internet posts about journeying on the iron ore train’ Deep in the Sahara there is a massive iron ore mine. Typically twice daily the ore is transported on freight train carriages in a train that is 1 mile long making it the longest train in the world. Backpackers have found that you can board the train from Choum about halfway at around 5pm and spend the next 12-16 hours sitting on top of the ore getting off at Nouadibou by the sea. There are no passenger cars and the ride is both free and laissez faire as the locals will often hitch a ride as well.

Similarly the empty wagons are hauled back to the mine and the most reliable way of riding this train is to pick it up between 3 and 4 pm at Nouadibou and ride in the empty carriages. We only have about 5 minutes to climb up the ladder and jump 5 feet into the empty wagon. Noone checks those who are hitching and the train departs at the driver’s whim. We are safely on board and the engines fire up. The first lurch of the engine sends the first carriage bouncing and sets up a shock wave that roars down the train with a massive boom and jolt a pattern that would happen at random but frequently throughout the journey adding to the discomfort.

As the train picks up speed a plume of desert dust is raised and funnels straight back over the carriages and their occupants. We cover our faces with masks and goggles but still the fine dust gets in everywhere. I stand up and peer over the side for the first 3 hours until sunset taking photos while trying to protect my camera. As the sun sets the temperature plummets to around freezing point and we done thermals and warm apparel and snuggle under blankets lying down on the hard metal floor to hunker down for the night.

The train arrives at Choum at 2am and filthy and sandblasted we climb out into the darkness and sleep the rest of the night in the relative luxury of the tents put up for us by our drivers who have met us there.

Am I glad to have done it, yes. Would I do it again, never! At 62 years of age I found myself asking why do I put myself through such ordeals? I have no idea why but I am sure that there will be other harebrained travel experiences that I will hear about in the future and I will be off again.

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Mauritania

I don’t really know why I romanticised that Mauritania would be a land of sweeping golden Saharan sand dunes against the deep blue Atlantic sea. Unsurprisingly first impressions did not match with the fantasy. Starting with the interminable wait at the border and then the drive to our first stop, Mauritania’s second city Nouadibou. All around are typical grubby African streetscapes set among flat arid wastelands. On our first evening we drive over roadless countryside on a 4WD bush bash to a 400 year old Spanish built lighthouse and then down to a beach that used to be the site of the ship’s graveyard one of the iconic pictures online of things to see here. The ships are gone and we just enjoyed sunset there.

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Sadly the new ships’ graveyard is being tidied up by the ubiquitous Chinese (what an altruistic nation!) and whereas last year there were 15 wrecked ships here today there are only 2 and by next year there will be none.

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The rest of this city has absolutely nothing scenic to offer. This is Africa!

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Dakhla

Last stop before Mauritania this little coastal city is 6 hours drive from the capitol Laayoune up north and 5 hours drive from the border to the south. While the drive is fast and easy on nice roads one must be ever alert to unexpected stoppages such as camel crossings.

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The town of Boujdour is our lunch stop and it features a 400 year old Portuguese built lighthouse.

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Dakhla sits right on the coast and there is a pleasant and newly constructed promenade back from the sea wall. Most of the tourist hotels and restaurants straddle this road.

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An hour out of town a spectacular beach with a large sand dune sitting in the middle is popular with tourists and locals alike.

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We were promised hot springs African style. The sulphurous smelling water is comfortably warm but the experience is less salubrious than a western spa. At least it comes at no cost unlike going to hot springs back home.

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Finally we are taken to a dusty compound to see a somewhat bedraggled ostrich farm. While the actual setting was basic the birds looked well nourished and lively.

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Tomorrow its Mauritania. In all likelihood the posts will become less regular as the internet is pretty basic there. Nonetheless I will eventually get all the trip posted for your enjoyment!

Western Sahara

As a young adult throughout the 1980s news reports frequently highlighted the civil wars in postcolonial Angola and Mozambique. The various warring parties were well known to me. Lesser known was the battle going on in an inhospitable Subsaharan chunk of northwest Africa, but the name of the liberation group had the ear catching name “Polisario”. I venture to say that most of my western contemporaries have had the same experience of having heard of them but having no idea of who they are and what they fought for.

Defacto border between Morocco and Western Sahara

Defacto border between Morocco and Western Sahara

Well now, 40 years later I am here. This area was a Spanish colony throughout the 20th century until, bowing to UN pressure Spain relinquished it to a joint power sharing arrangement between neighbouring Morocco and Mauritania. War erupted between them and the native Sahrawi people joined the conflict as a nationalist movement calling themselves Polisario. Mauritania dropped out of the war leaving Morocco and Polisario to fight it out since 1979. A cease fire was brokered by the UN in 1991 and it remains in force to this day. Morocco administers a majority of the country and all of the infrastructure. There is an internal borderline that separates the Moroccan controlled area from the sparsely populated barren Polisario controlled section to the east.

The “would be” capitol of Western Sahara is the city of Laayoune. Founded by the Spanish in 1938 it is a more pleasant African city than I expected but overall bereft of any major tourist sights.

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Moroccan propaganda

Moroccan propaganda

Souq

Souq

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Mosque

Mosque

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Catholic Cathedral

Catholic Cathedral

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Agadir

In February 1960 an earthquake measuring 5.7 on the Richter scale rocked southern Morocco. Despite it being of only moderate intensity it leveled the city of Agadir killing almost all of its 125,000 inhabitants. The only building left standing was the cinema built by the French. The rest of the buildings were traditional mud brick hence the devastation.

Nearly 60 years on and this has been rebuilt as a smart resort town. Looking down from the rebuilt 400 year old hilltop fortress, the city follows the curving sweep of golden sand beach. The buildings have a clean modern feel to it and upmarket restaurants line the marina full of tourist pleasure craft.

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Outside of town is a small but well built crocodile park which is also well worth a visit.

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Meet me at the Kasbah

A short 2 hours drive from Casablanca barrelling along at a legal 120km/hr on impeccable freeway is  Marrakech. This tourist highlight of Morocco is set inland at the foot of the High Atlas Range and enjoys a cooler climate than other major cities. Historically the sights go back to the 12th century and culturally this place is a representative microcosm of Moroccan society. This is a “must do” for anyone visiting this country.

The heart of this town is the medina which is the walled original city dating back to the Berber empire some 1000 years ago. The red painted walls have been maintained and restored and still stand today as they would have in antiquity. Passing through one of the gates takes you into the maze like alleyways of the old town again stained ochre red. Nestled within the walls are emperors tombs, palaces and a superb souq (marketplace). Living history is all around and it is a sensory adventure to get lost in the myriad alleyways.

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The Saadian emperor’s tombs date back to the 15th century

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Badi Palace dates back to the 16th century

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The souq

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Menara Gardens

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Koutoubia mosque dates back to the 12th century

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More medina

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Jarin Marjorelle was started by French pianter Jacques Marjorelle 100 years ago. It was bought and extended by fashion designer Yves St Laurent whose ashes have found their final resting place here

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The Djemma El Fna is Africa’s largest square. By day it is an open space, at night it transforms into a massive outdoor eatery,

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Casablanca

Casablanca has one clear claim to fame. Ironically the 1942 eponymous movie that everyone associates with Morocco was filmed completely in Hollywood. This classic black and white movie of love and idealism was a favourite of mine as a young adult. I was intensely disappointed in the 1980s when researching travel in Africa to discover that this exotic sounding city had little to entice the tourist.  Fortunately there have been changes since then to make Morocco’s largest city more attractive to tourists.

I have arrived a day and a half before my tour commences and have booked into a downtown hotel which works out well. While most sights are 1-2 kms apart this is a flat and easy walking city very amenable to an extended day of walking. To pay homage to the movie, I head off to Rick’s café for some outside pictures. From there it is down to the Hassan 11 mosque perched on reclaimed land over the sea for sunset pictures. This is the third largest mosque in the world behind only the pilgrimage icons of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Completed in 1993 it can accommodate 25,000 worshippers inside and a further 80,000 in the immediate surrounds. It is spectacular both for its location perched above the sea and its massive size.

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The day ends with dinner at Rick’s café. The interioat Ricksr is well appointed and resembles a 1940s style restaurant but sadly it is nowhere near an accurate reproduction of the movie set. Nonetheless a martini as a nod to the fact that Rick’s was a gin joint and a reasonable meal completes the tourist experience.

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The next morning starts at the Habbous district built by the French 100 years ago. The royal palace is here and this pretty old quarter has an atmospheric marketplace.

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Passing through town I catch the Mohammed V square.

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Finally the Notre Dame church which is, unfortunately locked.

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