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Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by anydavenow, Oct 20, 2018.
The next morning, clear and cool, I set off in front of my four wheeled "support crew" so that I'd have time to fit in a visit to Ben Amera and Ben Aïcha, a pair of monoliths that are very un-touristed despite the former being a close second in size to Uluru (the often overlooked Mount Augustus in Western Australia being the largest monolith in the world).
Threats of terrorism and kidnapping and the general discomfort of travel in this nation (one of Africa's least developed) means that these days visitors to the site are few and far between.
Some time ago there were regular charter flights from France to Atar allowing easier access than by the land route I was following and they had recently resumed after a long hiatus (which will hopefully bring some tourist dollars to this economically parched but fascinating part of the planet).
To visit the monoliths I had to skip across the railway near a small village and head about 7 km north towards the "no go zone" of the border with Western Sahara where the Polisario tend their mine fields.
Approaching Ben Amera was—in the Oxford English definition of the word—awesome. It starts as a little molehill on the horizon but it grows and grows into a 633 metre mountain filling you with existential humility.
A few kilometres north is Amera's more diminutive wife (or ex-wife as the legend goes) who hosts at her feet a little known contemporary sculpture garden established in 1999 by an international group of artists led by a sculptor from Burkina Faso.
I revelled in the feeling of having this gallery of natural and artistic wonder all to myself and spent a couple of hours simply absorbing the environment and the realisation about where I was and how far I'd come since I left London all those weeks ago.
With Choum in my sights I saddled up to complete my mission. As I rode around the back side of the larger monolith I caught a glimpse of some brilliant white tents and saw an ancient Defender 90 tottling along toward them on a twin track which my path was converging with. The wizened and well-turbaned driver scowled and wagged his finger disapprovingly at me, indicating that I wasn't welcome in the area. Not game to press my luck I doubled back around the way I'd come and made my way back to the railway.
The remainder of the track wasn't anything to scoff at. The sand got a lot softer and more like what I'd experienced in the Simpson—though that time I was on a lightly-loaded 450, not my beloved supertanker. The going was tough, and I had some hairy moments, but I was pleased to make it to Choum having not dropped the bike at all, and only getting stuck once when I stopped to help Jens!
Choum was a brown, sandy village where I saw inklings of tourism, coming across a convoy of French 4x4s that had delivered a large group of grey nomads to the town, overwhelming the officious head of the Gendarmerie who was trying to throw his weight around and make sure everyone's papers got checked.
Running very low on fuel, I made my way into the fray to try and enquire as to whether there was any "essence" in town. Categorically not, it turned out. Only "gazoil".
The Mauritanian inconvenience of having your personal and vehicle details recorded at myriad checkpoints along every conceivable route is somewhat mitigated by carrying a "fiche"—a photocopied sheet listing every conceivable item of personal information that might be of interest to the officials (forget probable cause). Having these copies allows officials to copy your details meticulously into their paper journals on their own time rather than while you wait.
Luckily, I still had a couple of copies left and on request offered one to the enormous, robed officer who glared at me from behind his mirrored aviators. He was furious because, as far as I could tell, he was caught off guard by my presence and had assumed that I'd skipped previous checkpoints along the road from Nouakchott.
Arguing without a common language is never pleasant but eventually he cottoned onto the fact that I'd come via the desert and he was immediately pacified. It seemed that if I was crazy enough to cross that alone I wasn't a tourist that needed coddling and I could bugger off.
All the checkpoints are (mostly) for a good cause. The county is working really hard to dispel perceptions of it being a kidnapper's playground, so keeping tourists safe from Islamists and separatists is a high priority.
My next problem was fuel. I was on reserve and still had 80 kilometres to get to Atar. I shot off a WhatsApp message to Jens to alert him to the fact he might need to repay me for the use of my 17mm socket by bringing me a jerry of petrol.
Given lack of cell phone reception between Choum and Atar we decided on a cut-off time after which they'd come and find me, otherwise I'd meet them at a little place they'd identified as having the cheapest rooms in town. Despite the exchange rate to first world currencies going a long way out here, these guys still loved a bargain.
By idling along in top gear I miraculously managed to squeeze out the last 80km to Atar and pulled up at the first petrol station I saw—two lonely, ancient pumps overseen by an oil-stained attendant. I filled up with, on the dot, exactly what I had in the tank when I left Nouadhibou.
While I was filling up, a diminutive young man with the standard status symbol of white headphones hanging unused over his ears came over and went through the usual Moroccan-style run-through of possible European languages until one stuck. His English was actually really good and he explained that he was an "entrepreneur" who had established a tour company and that if I was interested in any tours he could give me a good price. He seemed nice enough—certainly harmless—but I explained that I had friends in town who knew their way around and I set off to find them.
I met team leader Mark in his Prado at the town's central roundabout and he escorted me out past the military barracks and diesel power generators that supply the town with electricity to a small and unfinished hotel run by a lanky and well educated man who was inseparable from his ancient iPad.
There, Mark had managed to attract a gathering with two more of the four local "tour company operators" who were hanging around trying to get a piece of the action. It wasn't his first rodeo and he knew how to keep things friendly without giving in to any of the persistent if subtle sales tactics.
Later that evening we all went back into town and sat at one of the open-air restaurants the edge of the dusty roundabout enjoying our shawarma and the attention of our hopeful guides. None of them ate, offering one excuse or another, and Mark bought them each a coke to repay them for their company.
He recounted to us a story of a well known entry-level scammer who had been arrested and jailed for a year for selling extremely overpriced carrots to a tourist, earning him the nickname of "Petite Carotte".
It wasn't long before my friend from the petrol station slinked up out of the darkness to see if there was any room at the table amongst his competitors and, as he approached, Mark exclaimed gleefully "hey! It's Petite Carotte!"
The legendary Abou—master mechanic and Minister for Good Times
Empty hoppers parked in the village of Inal (I think), where "according to Wikipedia", "on the night of November 27, 1990, twenty-eight black soldiers arrested in the previous weeks were tortured, hung and buried in a mass grave at Inal, in a celebratory act of the nation's independence day"
Ben Amera looming on the horizon
Ben Amera in full glory
KTM for scale
One of the sculptures at the foot of Ben Aïcha
Another fine sculpture integrated into the rock
I think this might've been from the previous day
Trophy shot near the end of the track—mission accomplished!
After climbing the plateau towards Atar
Atar high street
Atar at dusk
Wow, this brings back good memories of my Intercontinental Rally 2018. I got lost on day 9 which gave me the best feeling of this whole rally, Thierry Sabine anyone . This iron ore track should like a proper adventure. Thank a lot for this report!
Gotta to be a whole lot more of this greatness There are loads of epic tales left to tell in here
What he said! Well written. Dave - and I look forward to reading about our chance encounter(s)
Thanks for the bump, everyone. I need a bit of a push!
Hi Dave: please regard any downtime you have as a result of the current pandemic as an opportunity to set to work and régale us with your tales of derringer do through West Africa.
‘Derring do’ not derringer !
I am stranded in the middle of africa thanks to this log! Where’s the rest? Bring it on...
Where are you at the moment @Red liner?
Haha...i i meant in the middle of your ride report lol
Oh! Gotcha. OK, I promise there will be a new chapter released by the end of the weekend. Hope you have supplies to get you through till then!
After a couple of days of challenging riding I was keen to have a bit of time off the bike and happy to accept Mark's offer of a day tour of the beautiful Saharan surrounds of Atar.
The boys would have a rest day to sort out a few niggles with the working vehicles, while Abou had volunteered to return by bus to Nouakchott, the capital, the previous evening to source a second-hand hub for Jens's Hilux Surf stranded in the desert. To avoid any of his regular customers tracking him down during the secret mission home he got himself a new SIM and phone number so there was no chance that the phone might ring while he was in range—he was on a mission.
Mark first took us into town to find a mechanic who could weld his Colorado's exhaust and my GPS mount, which had both sustained damage during the crossing. With the transport sorted we made our way out of town (delayed momentarily by some camel traffic) and started climbing down the plateau on which Atar rests, heading for our first stop which was a small, beautiful oasis formed by a fresh spring flowing from a deep crack in the side of the mountain. The stream and pools of cool water were shaded by overhanging rocks and palm trees and we spent a couple of hours enjoying some respite from the recent days of travel and the already harsh sun.
Refreshed and ready for something a bit more adventurous (the group of sandalled French tourists sharing dates and trail-mix on the rugs their guides had laid out for them having made us feel a bit soft) Mark bundled us back into the pre-heated wagon and we zipped off to try and find the head of a track that he knew would take us further down the plateau edge and to the mouth of the "vallée blanche", a long stretch of low, white dunes between two dark, rocky ridges at the foot of the sandfield of Erg Amaṭlîch.
We didn't receive more than friendly shrugs from the odd pedestrians Mark made enquiries with, but eventually he was convinced he'd found the track and he pointed the Colorado down a rocky shelf towards a small riverbed. We followed the rough track down between the shaley fingers of the plateau until we spilled out onto a wide, white dry riverbed at the bottom of the valley.
We spent a few hours driving in deep sand back up the riverbed towards the plateau, the Colorado thrashing wildly over the undulating surface as Mark sweated to maintain enough speed to keep us from sinking (and enough balance to keep us from tipping over). As we travelled further into the valley the sides narrowed with towering red dunes on one side, dark, ragged rock on the other, and bleached white sand under our wheels. It was stunning.
Eventually, we got to the crux of the gorge and had nowhere left to go but back up onto the plateau. We found a local in a much more rudimentary North African edition of a Hilux with a well-loaded tray idling his motor with the bonnet up, cooling it down for a run up the steep dune offering an exit from the valley. We watched in admiration as he gunned it up the track to the top of the plateau and out of sight. After a little rest of our own vehicle it was time for us to attempt the climb, but sadly the little four cylinder Colorado just didn't have the torque to get us up no matter how hard we hit the bottom of the hill.
I'd learned by now that with this crew, every problem simply presented a new opportunity for adventure, so I wasn't too worried about us hitting a dead end, or whether we even had enough fuel to get back the way we came. After one last failed attempt we made defeat official and turned back to follow the riverbed downstream. Eventually, we came across a friendly local out for a blat on his camel and with a few scraps of French, a couple of village names and a lot of body language we had something resembling directions.
A turn off into a tributary of the main river we'd been following lead us to another village oasis nestled beside the mountain and a way back out to the village of Aujeft where we could reconnect with the secondary road that we'd originally turned off in the morning. As we made our way back to bitumen along the sand we passed through little clusters of civilisation—gatherings of grass huts and patchwork shacks made from flattened 44 gallon drums where people eked out a living on the promise of precious, intermittent water.
Eventually, we were back on the N1 which runs between Nouakchott and Atar and we swung right to head back to base camp after a great (though stiflingly hot) day of exploring. Our arrival at the big roundabout in Atar was typically fortuitous as we found Abou there in the passenger seat of with one of the previous evening's possibly dodgy tour operators who spotted him and I assumed a potential opportunity to further embed himself with our group.
After a bit of a wash-up at the auberge we went back into town again for a wander around the market quarter and a bite to eat. Having Mark with his travellers French made things a lot more relaxed for me, able to see the easier, lighter side of travel in these parts and not constantly overwhelmed with the task of managing the basics.
I listened on as Mark chatted to a Senegalese family selling bissap (a local, sickly-sweet and delicious iced-tea of hibiscus flower*) about their migration to Mauritania for work. It made me think about where I was heading when this family had migrated all the way here to a remote desert town in one of the world's least developed countries, to sit all day beside the road in the hope of selling a few drinks or vegetables.
Atar from Above - Aerial view of Atar itself
Oil & water
Landcruiser - Old girl still going strong
Early model Nissan Patrol
Welding Shop - Consisted of... a welder
Sorted - The bracket is alloy, so a brace was added (and is still going strong)
Over It - Eric has had enough of this messing around and is keen to get back on the beers
To the market - Stocking up on some lunch supplies for the trip
Local Traffic - Please give way
Terjit Oasis - Follow the leader
Terjit Oasis - Cool pool
Terjit Oasis - Mark cooling off
Terjit Village - Back out to the main road
Aerial View of Terjit - You can see the oasis nestled in the canyon
Off Piste - Heading on the track down over the plateau
Vallée Blanche - Stunning
Lunch stop - You can get these little loaves freshly baked everywhere in North Africa—delicious and portable!
Ready to Race
Valley narrows - This is where we were hoping to be able to drive back up onto the plateau
Cooling off - The Colorado had had enough
Elegant dismount - Asking for directions
Village of Aujeft
Village of Aujeft - Palm frond huts
Village of Aujeft - Oil drum shacks
Aerial view - Area around the plateau and Vallée Blanche
Map of Atar and surrounds - This was shared by well-seasoned travellers Thierry and Eric I met in Morocco
Atar of an evening
Some phone video from bits of the trip, including the failed hillclimb attempt
Terrific write up and pictures.
I listened on as Mark chatted to a Senegalese family selling bissap (a local, sickly-sweet and delicious, chilled pomegranate drink) about their migration to Mauritania for work. It made me think about where I was heading when this family had migrated all the way here to a remote desert town in one of the world's least developed countries, to sit all day beside the road in the hope of selling a few drinks or vegetables.
this...this is what travel is all about. Great stuff.
Thanks for the likes and comments, guys—I will take it as a signal to keep going! ;-)
Please do. Its good doing adventures through someone else that you will never do yourself. If that makes sense?
Great stuff Dave, thanks again and looking forward to the next installments.
One thing though, your picture of a Colorado above looks suspiciously like a Toyota Prado, or whatever they're known as over there.
Some trivia for you:
When the Prado was launched in the UK in 1996, it was called the Land Cruiser Colorado and replaced the 4Runner, which had been discontinued from sale. It was called this to distinguish it from the larger Land Cruiser – renamed as the Land Cruiser Amazon – which was already on sale. It dropped the Colorado name tag in 2003, when it was renamed simply Land Cruiser.
Another excellent day brewing here, I learnt something. Vehicle names are interesting, lots of reasons they get different names in different markets.