Mauritania, Western Sahara and Morocco


Salaam Alaikum. Faithful readers may recall that our plans for the route north from Bamako were to head for Mauritania, via Nioro du Sahel, Route de l'Espoir, Nouakchott and Choum, where we planned to catch the train to Nouadhibou and cross the border to Morocco. We did catch the train, but not in Choum, but rather somewhere in the desert, in the middle of some minefields, and with Ellen's clutch almost burned out and front brakes leaking, the train having to make an emergency stop in order to help us out....

 The events leading up to this story started when we left Bamako in the company of Christian, the german desert biker we first met in Ghana. Our African adventures up to Bamako had been entirely pleasant, the roads and pistes had been mostly ok, and the bikes were running fine. All of the above were about to change quite drastically. A short way north of Bamako, a well meaning put unfortunately incompetent bush mechanic failed to recognize my bike troubles as related to a defect gas pump, took the carburator apart and was unable to put it back together. He also managed to damage my gas tank in the progress.

Luckily, Christian was able to fix the problem in order to get us back on the road, or rather back onto corrugations. These were very deep and very scary since the only way to pass them without having your dental fillings rattled loose, was to ride over them at between 80 and 100 km/h, a fairly impressive speed, especially when the corrugations suddenly turned to loose gravel. At least the riding never became boring. We arrived in Diema and were immediately and enthusiastically welcomed by Cheick, the local bike mechanic. Although his services were not required for the bikes (not yet, anyway) , he nevertheless invited us to stay with his family, fed us and was generally very good company.

The following day, we headed out towards Nioro du Sahel, or at least we tried to. After about 15 km, the road became increasingly sandy and very difficult to navigate with our admittedly overloaded bikes. This had supposedly once been a decent piste but according to the locals, it was now pretty much ruined by the passage of the Paris-Dakar rallye. We got rid of some luggage (by having some helpful people take it to the hostel in Nioro) and rode on. Christian had taught us the basics of sandriding, with varying success : Ellen, after a few crashes, resorted to walking her bike through the increasingly difficult passages whereas I tried to follow Christian's advice and take the sandy stretches at some speed, gassing the bike through, rear tire swinging wildly from side to side, motor screaming and adrenaline rushing. None of our respective riding techniques proved itself, since Ellen's clutch didn't like her method and I managed to crash headfirst into! the embankment while racing through a very long, deep sandy stretch. With the help of Christian and Cheick, we eventually managed to get to Nioro, but not without having had two punctures for good measure.

We were sick and tired of sand, so we decided to put the bikes on a truck to get them the 200 km to Kiffa in Mauritania, since all the pistes leading to Mauritania were described to us as sandy and very difficult. The truck was supposed to take about 6-8 hours, Inch'Allah. It actually took us 17 hours, since we totaled 6 punctures and an undisclosed number of tea breaks. At around midnight, Omar, our driver said  This is the place where I picked up the French tourist who was attacked by bandits and had his car taken . He had barely finished the sentence when we had another puncture, leaving us sipping tea on his carpet in the middle of the desert once again and wondering which direction the bandits would come from. Great tea, though. After arriving in Kiffa, we unloaded the bikes and happily hit the Route de l'Espoir, had yet another puncture, fixed it and arrived in Nouakchott after two comparatively uneventful days dodging camels in the ! road.

There, we spent a day with the Malian singer Samba Diallo and Monique, listening to Samba's music, fixing two brand new punctures and trying to figure out how best to get to Nouadhibou. Our information about the train from Choum to Nouadhibou was somewhat sketchy, we had definitely decided not to take the beach piste, so we opted for yet another truck. Baaaad idea, as it turned out. The ride was supposed to last between two and three days. Six days, 12 punctures and various other mechanical problems later, we were stuck without gasoline or water about 10 km before the junction with the piste leading to the border with Morocco.

Because of a major muslim holiday, there was no traffic expected for a while, so we unloaded the bikes, and attempted to do the last bit by ourselves. Turned out to be another bad idea, since the piste was deep ruts in deep sand, and riding off the piste was not recommended because of the abundant landmines in that area. We finally resorted to riding along the train tracks for a while, but Ellen's clutch started slipping, forcing us to stop and consider our options none of which was particularly pleasant. Suddenly, the rails started to sing, a train appeared, the driver made a questioning gesture, we responded with the universally accepted sign for the clutch is toast , the driver stops the train, some helpful people throw the bikes on a platform wagon, we hop on, and 90 minutes later, we're in Nouadhibou. Deus ex machina, if we ever saw one.

Looking back at the truck ride through the desert, we should add that in a way, this whole ride was one of the most interesting experiences on this trip so far. This actually is true for the whole African part of the trip, but the truck ride really allowed us to share for a few days the Mauritanian way of life. We slept on top of the truck under the stars, ate with our two Nigerian Tuareg drivers, visited desert camps, drank enormous amounts of tea and had long discussions with them lying under the truck waiting for the afternoon heat to pass. In the desert, patience is not merely a virtue, it becomes a survival technique, but it takes a while to get used to a mentality based on  If God wills .

After arriving in Nouadhibou, we did some work on the bikes, including fixing another puncture (the grand total was a proud 24 punctures in two weeks, 6 punctures on the bikes and 18 on our two truckrides. Anybody done better?), before heading north. We received a lot of assistance in Nouadhibou from Abdallah who, besides owning a nice hostel, knows everything around town and is refreshingly efficient in providing help for wary travellers. His mobile number is 222 419431, e-mail  Upon leaving, our guide managed to take us through some final sandy stretches, just for fun, but we finally made it to the Moroccan borderpost where we had to wait for 24 hours before being allowed to continue towards Dakhla, Western Sahara. The northbound border between Mauritania and Morocco has only been open a few months, so procedures are still a bit sketchy, but the Moro! ccan borderguards and police bid us such a friendly welcome that the administrative hassles were soon forgotten.

We continued towards Laayoune where we stayed for a couple of days, being lazy and marvelling at the number of UN personnel in town. The UN has been present in the Western Sahara for a long time, trying to assist in the resolution of the Polisario conflict that opposes the people of the Western Sahara to Morocco who annexed the region in 1975. 

Our first taste of Saharan hospitality was offered at a gas station where the owner refused to serve us unless we accepted to share his food and tea, an offer we gladly accepted. He taught us that, unlike the traditional tea ritual involving three glasses of tea, the ritual practiced by his people (the people of Sidi Ahmed Rquibbi) called for a fourth glass to be offered to visitors. Quite a lot of tea.

 Morocco was great. Pleasant people, great shopping, good weather, and curvy roads all make it a place to come back to.  Unfortunately, we were somewhat out of time and had to bypass Fes and other attractions we would have liked to visit. We rode from Laayoune over Guelmim to Marrakesh where we stayed for three days, before heading on to Melilla where we took the ferry to Almeria in Spain. Total distance covered in Africa came to 6.300 km in almost two months.  

We're now in Ampuriabrava in the north of Spain, where we will spend some time with my family, skydive and update the website, before packing up again for the next leg, Europe and Central Asia. Once more, as promised, my father will join us, riding this time his own Harley from Spain to Istanbul. The fun continues...

Hasta la vista
Manou & Ellen