Across a Threshold

Over the following three days I squared off my tires along 1,400km of long, straight, windswept road tracing the barren coastline from Agadir to the border town of Barbas where I'd have to face my mounting fears and cross into Mauritania.

Leaving the city, I was struck by obviously foreign beggars at some of the large intersections. Begging isn't common in Morocco at all, and is frowned upon in Arabic culture, so this practice is left to Cameroonian and Nigerian migrants slowly making their way on foot to Europe—usually over the course of years.

This far south the tourism drops off rapidly, and as a result so do the touts and carpet sellers, so interactions with locals become a lot more pleasant and mostly very warm.

Western Sahara is a disputed territory (you will find it referred to as Morocco on any map produced there) and in order to sway the balance of eventual democratic power the Moroccan government has pumped a lot of money into settlement programs to incentivise Moroccans to settle and stay. As a result, the well-constructed road is lined with solar windmills and telecommunications towers as it strings together neat, cookie-cutter towns with Lego-like low-rise apartments—all relatively new.

I still fail to understand what people actually do out here, though.

On the first night out of Agadir I settled on a spectacular spot on the sand cliffs above the pounding sea where the main road had dipped inland just enough to make my camp spot invisible from the road after dark.

In the morning I used some rope installed by fishermen to "abseil" down the cliff and have a look at the view—framed as always with a collage of plastic bottles and other debris.

I got back on the road and made good progress towards the border, trying to stay focused and alert despite long sections of very straight and rather featureless road—but I felt at home in this flat aridness and found the landscape beautiful.

At a fuel stop I met two other riders, Carlos & Carla, on their way from Lisbon to Gineau-Bissau to explore some of West Africa's Portuguese heritage. They were on his & hers 1,200 GSes and Carlos's in particular had clocked up an impressive number of Ks thanks to him owning a BMW-partnered tour company in Lisbon, and having travelled all over Europe and other parts of the world on his bike.

I posed for a photo taken with Carla's fancy SLR, we got chatting, and (a bit like dogs at the local park) after sussing each other out and finding the results mutually acceptable we decided to ride the rest of the way to the border together.

A nice effect of riding with others not as anxiously fixated on the end goal as you is that they tend to stop and smell the roses. Riding with these two forced me to do a bit of sightseeing, which included visiting a museum in Tarfaya dedicated to the life and times of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, famous aviator and author of "The Little Prince".

Carlos and Carla had ridden on ahead while I stocked up on some supplies, but my visit to the museum was short due to my inability to read any of the French exhibits, so I made up some time there.

In Boujdour I opted for the budget campsite on the edge of town—dilapidated but still an overland haunt—while Carlos & Carla found something a bit more to their taste in the town centre. At the camp ground I met a few hardened travellers. A Dutch couple, Willem & Gea and two best mates Thierry & Eric from France.

Willem & Gea were retracing a trip they'd done years before in a Magirus-Deutz truck, which Willem had built into a mobile home, but this time they were in a tiny Suzuki Jimny pulling a little trailer which they slept in. They'd gone from one extreme of the weight spectrum to the other.

Thierry & Eric were just sleeping on a cheap mattress in the back of Thierry's 80 Series Land Cruiser, which he had taken to the ends of the earth on various massive trips with a very basic set-up. They were on their way back from a trip through Mauritania, which Thierry knew like the back of his hand. He gave me a lot of advice about my (potential) desert crossing and all the delights that awaited me in the interior of the Sahara.

I joined Carlos & Carla for a pizza and coke in town and then settled down for the night, huddled against out of the wind against the camp ground wall.

The final day to Barbas was much the same as the previous ones—flat, dry, windy and straight, but there was always something interesting to see along the way. Carla had mocked me for sitting on the speed limit the previous day so I made it a mission to keep up with her, which meant staying consistently on 140-150 Km/h. I'm pretty sure she was stopping for photos, too.

I arrived at Hotel Barbas before C&C who'd stopped in Dakhla (a kitesurfing Mecca) for lunch allowing me to blow past them unknowingly in my efforts to keep up. I had a pang of panic at losing them because we'd talked about crossing the border together and using a "fixer" that Carlos had got a number for (and that Willem had also recommended). Without them I'd be crossing alone and without the fixer—my original plan of course but I'd allowed myself to be comforted by the thought of companions.

The hotel was a surreal desert oasis and bustling with people from all walks of life and cultures heading to or from the small but busy border post. There were UN observers, overland travellers, crazy French hitchhikers, refugees, African migrant labourers and Arab businessmen all milling around or watching football in the central courtyard.

I was relieved when my Portuguese pals turned up late in the afternoon and I celebrated with an ice cold coke and a camel tagine which was absolutely delicious.

A fellow ADV-er, Andrej, had previously given me the number of a fixer who could help us with border formalities. Carlos and Carla had given up on theirs so we’d made some preliminary contact with mine, called Cheikh, via WhatsApp.

Cheikh could communicate reasonably in English but calls were patchy. The instinct is to text, but you realise quickly why in Africa people rely so heavily on WhatsApp voice messages rather than the written word. Cheikh was quite easily understandable when speaking but he typed purely phonetically—and with an accent—resulting in some amazing prose like this response to my question about how long the crossing might take:

"2awa120minit oktomoro9 h un monie homani moto"

That's "2 hours, 120 minutes. OK, tomorrow 9 in the morning. How many motos?"

So as I rebirthed myself into a disoriented existence the next morning my Mauritanian apprehension was still beating away healthily, though tempered by the fact that I’d have a couple of buddies to accompany me at least as far as Nouadhibou (just across the border). Being in contact with fellow travellers made it feel less like I was the first man preparing for his small step on the moon, and more like a good old adventure.

I still had hanging over me the decision of whether or not to attempt riding the iron ore railway track, but I’d made a deal with myself not to think about it anymore until I got to Nouadhibou.

Through an African overlanders Facebook group I’d been in contact with Maximillian from Munich, who had put up a post asking if anyone was game to attempt the desert crossing with him around the time I’d be there. Although he was in a well prepared Defender he was concerned about a solo excursion. There’s very little information about this track online, and what little advice there was varied from “you’ll be fine” to “don’t even think about it”.

We’d pencilled in teaming up for that part of the trip. Sadly, due to my delays in Spain I’d missed that boat and Maxi had forged ahead and done the crossing with a co-driver.

The two BMWs and I needed to head out early to allow time for what was meant to be a tricky border crossing, and before we left I hurried off a few Facebook messages to Maxi to see if he could offer me any advice about conditions.

It was a short run out the Moroccan side of the formalities on the remaining stub of Western Saharan infrastructure. As we got closer to the action we came up on the tail end of a kilometres-long queue of trucks that we found out had been held up for days due to a strike. Cheikh met us at the pearly gates and guided us to an appropriate parking spot, after which he shepherded us this way and that to the various offices we needed to go to to get our paperwork sorted out.

Although it's a relatively busy border post, and a bottleneck for a lot of commercial road traffic connecting North and West Africa things are conducted at an unhurried pace and we had time to make friends with a few locals, including Senegalese Mohammed and his mates who spoke surprisingly good English and were travelling for "business".

Once we'd cleared the Moroccan authorities we had to cross "no mans land", which is a strip of territory between the two countries technically under control of the Polisario Front, the rebel liberation movement fighting against Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara.

There's literally no road joining the two countries, so you simply travel off road, following in the well-worn tracks of all the vehicles that have meandered their way ahead of you—and with good reason as there are apparently still active land mines about (often hyped to the point of people claiming they've driven through an "active minefield" despite hundreds of people crossing each way and staying in one piece daily).

Carla is not keen on dirt at all but she braved the conditions and made her way across the two or three kilometres of admittedly pretty bumpy stuff while I doubled Cheikh or he walked ahead of us to give directions.

The Mauritanian side was one step up on the culture-shock scale and had the general appearance of an abandoned mining town with rusting vehicles and machinery scattered amongst shabby buildings all fighting the inevitable ageing process being hurried along by the heat and creeping sand.

All in all the crossing was straightforward if slow (and very hot) and it was good to sit down for a warm Coca Cola with our fixer-cum-host at the end of it all.

Despite the roughness of the surface in no-mans-land, beyond the border post lay a decent two-lane road to the port town of Nouadhibou. Town isn't really the right word for it, as it's painfully exploding into being a small city. Wikipedia gives it's population as around 120,000 but I simply don't see how that can be true. It feels like an estimate that's 20 years behind on a 25% compounding growth rate to me.

If you’ve ever wondered where Mercedes Benz sedans go to die a slow, painful death it’s Mauritania. And if you think the plastic in the ocean originated from your local Coles I also have news for you.

Entering the city it felt harsh, chaotic and filthy to me—and not welcoming. As we rode around looking for a hotel a brand new white ute screeched to a halt across our path and three young Chinese guys dressed in black jumped out and ran toward us. The scars and tattoos on their faces had us spooked for a while but it turned out all they wanted was a photo before they jumped back in the ute and raced down the main street leaving a wake of swerving old Mercs and startled donkeys behind them.

After trying some of the limited options (including one exorbitantly priced and overly security conscious hotel for diplomats and businessmen) we found a tranquil paradise on a little peninsula overlooking a lagoon, just out of town.

The hotel had started life as an abandoned sports-fishing centre and was half way through being converted into a small hotel but it had a great vibe, friendly staff and a restaurant serving freshly caught fish.

Over the course of the evening, well-heeled local Arabs and the odd international businessman trickled into the restaurant. Some came in couples after quietly enjoying a romantic stroll on the jetty. Others brashly spread themselves across the restaurant tables and asserted their importance—filling the room with smoke while watching football on the wall-mounted flat-screen while apparently finalising some or other deal.

The class and racial divide that cuts through Mauritanian life began to show itself to us in the little interactions between customers and the hotel staff in this country—the very last in the world to outlaw slavery.

© David Baskind · 2022