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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