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Tea Time in the Sahara: A Journey into the Depths of Mauritania

A journey into the desert of Mauritania goes far beyond travel.

It had been a long day. It must have been nearing midnight and we sat in the back of a pickup truck with a group of Taiwanese commercial fishermen. Nouadhibou was quiet and ominous.

Barely any of the buildings reached above two storeys. The air was balmy as the truck zoomed past hollowed or burned out car frames. Every couple of blocks a few passengers would get out and more would get in. The fisherman stayed. We didn’t know where we were going or where to be dropped off. At one stop a group of teenage boys stood staring vacantly next to stack of burning tires.

“Why do you come here?” one of the fishermen pestered me. “There is nothing to see here, no tourists. Not popular place.”

Why did we come here?

Maybe we came to get away from the popular routes. Maybe we came to find the ideal of Africa or the serenity of the Sahara or just to keep pushing to avoid the disintegration and reclaim our happiness.

We sat in the back of the pickup as it swerved around corners. The road was not asphalt or tarmac, just a mixture of chewed up concrete and sand that blew in from the dunes.

The Taiwanese fishermen jumped off.

“Not popular place. You go somewhere else.” I think he strained to smile. The driver turned and asked where we would sleep. We were the last ones left in the bed of the truck. I tried to explain in a mixture of English and broken French that we had a tent and could sleep at a campsite or caravan park. He nodded and then looked at my girlfriend.
“Maybe she could sleep at my house,” he laughed. The car started with a jolt and the tires spun out as he drove ahead a few blocks and dropped us off in front of a parking lot full of gravel with an office out front.

A man emerged from the office and after discussing something with the driver walked straight into the gravel and told us we could put our tent there.

“It’s just gravel,” I moaned. He shrugged his shoulders and motioned for us to go into the office. We sat in the office while he was fumbling through his desk. On the wall was a poster of a group of young people in a 4WD driving through a marshland. Two of the people leaned out the window with cameras hanging around there necks. Around the edges of the poster were pictures of colorful birds that lived in this exotic part of Africa. The posters were in Spanish and I attempted to make out what they were advertising. The people looked happy, everyone looked happy in the photos.

The man found a green ledger and places it on the desk. He then leaned back and put his hands around the back of his head. We opened the ledger. It had a price list for the campsite: One car, one tent, 4 persons 20 Euros.

“We don’t have a car, 4 people, or Euros,” I explained. It didn’t matter, he said. 20 Euros was the price. I tried to rationally understand but couldn’t. I had stayed in Paris before in a hotel with a bed and shower for less than 20 euros, how could it be to sleep on gravel in the middle of the summer in the fucking Sahara be more expensive.
We went outside to discuss.

“This is fucking bullshit, fucking bullshit,” my girlfriend stated, her voice slightly rising as she stared at me. “We can’t afford this shit.”

“Then what is your fucking solution, should we just sleep in one of those hollowed out fucking cars?”

To my surprise she nodded. We left the gravel pit and wandered along the deserted streets. I felt exposed. It was impossible to blend in, I felt trapped in a war zone and we were a walking target.

We found a car next to a brick wall. Between the car and the wall was enough space for two people to lay down side by side. We pushed the broken glass aside and put down or sleeping mats. Despite the heat, the glass, the landscape, she fell asleep. I sat up against the wall and smoked cigarettes. What the fuck were we doing here?

I didn’t sleep at all and slowly after dawn we gathered our mats and off we started to walk. The city looked like something out of Lord of War. It looked like a post-Armageddon version of a Spanish citadel. It was pure chaos. Cars went in every direction and there seemed to be no order or traffic lanes. Music and horns blared, all the cars were derelict versions what you see on the streets of France. The buildings looked like rundown carbon copies of Vienna.
It was Europe after being pushed through an oil refinery and stomped by a thousand military boots.

The town seemed divided into halves. One side of the street North African Muslims would walk and the other half Black Africa. The hatred was palpable. We tried to find a restaurant for breakfast and went into a Muslim shop. It wasn’t open yet I gathered in French, and I also gathered to be careful of Negroes as the shopkeeper pulled on his skin.

“This place sucks,” my girlfriend stated. “We could have gone back to India.”

“Will you stop fucking moaning,” I said. “You only like India because it is cheap.”

“In India people are happy, they smile when you walk down the streets.”

“So what? We left to travel, travelling is seeing everything and not just the things that make you happy or are easy. We are not here to consume,” I yelled, my voice hoarse from cigarettes. Despite my moralist ramblings I opened the pack and consumed another cigarette.

We had been at this for weeks now. The only thing that changed was the page and stamps on our passports. The landscape was starting to parallel our emotional insides. Burnt and stained buildings and the lack of vegetation began to mirror the lack of feeling in my body. It was impossible to talk without fighting. Blame, anger, and hatred before us in the exact order it appeared inside of us. These emotions were all that was left as everything that we thought was normal was being peeled away from us.

We found a restaurant that was open. A few patrons sat in the corner. I was exhausted and overdosed with nicotine. I ordered whatever the owner had. He produced Nescafé, omelettes, and steamed fish. We ate with glee. It seemed to be the first meal we had had in weeks. We ordered seconds, the bill be damned. We finished, paid the good man and out the door we went.

A woman who had been eating in the corner stood up and blocked the door. Two men stood to either side of her. Very large men, on one of them I could see the handle of a gun.

“Give me your money,” she stated. I pretended I didn’t understand. She literally yawned and repeated her demand. The two men behind her looked on menacingly. I kept my eyes on the man’s gun.

“No passports, no documents, just money,” she declared flatly. She looked bored as if robbing tourists was a daily occurrence. My girlfriend started to cry.

I started fumbling through my bag. I probably should put up an argument or some sort of delay tactic. I looked around the room. My girlfriend was crying. A few moments ago we were eating and happy and now this. Perhaps I should have felt guilt for dragging her here. Perhaps I should feel excitement, something else to add to the adventure in my journal. Instead I felt nothing. I had a bank account and these people didn’t. Us and them, either way I would get my story and they would get relief for another day. Simple as that, there was no emotion to be felt. Tears streamed down my girlfriends face.

“Don’t cry,” I muttered. I handed over about fifty or sixty Euros worth of local currency. The woman took our money, shifted her body and let us walk out the door. We were back in in the glaring light and chaos. Horns blared and people all around stared at us. Some girls who appeared to be hookers waved at me. Others stared and two guys came up and tried to sell us watches.

I turned to my girlfriend, “It’s your fucking fault we got robbed! You made us a target and you’re making us one now by crying. Grow up!”

“What are we going to do now, there aren’t any ATM’s in this fucking place!”

My girlfriend continued to cry. I told her to shut up. Outside and inside the chaos continued.

I hailed a taxi and told him to take us to the train station that was located on the outskirts of town. I didn’t care anymore, I didn’t bargain.

“Train no go until night time,” he said. That is fine I told him. What else could we do in this godforsaken place? He drove us to the outskirts, up and down hills we rode, the ocean on one side and sand dunes on the other. The train station was little more than a small concrete block. We were dropped off.

“Train no go for long time,” the driver stated. “Why do you come here?”

I slammed the door shut and walk over to the station. This was physically why we came here. This part of the Sahara while visibly poor was rich in minerals. On a daily basis the world’s longest train came from the interior loaded with iron ore that was mined. After dumping its contents the train would return empty. Entrepreneurial travelers could simply hop on the massive train as it chugged its way slowly through the desert.

That was my intent and I pushed this far to do something that the majority of people had never even heard of in a country that most people didn’t even know existed.

Despite the train being hours away people were already waiting. Some had simple backpacks. Some of the Muslims simply appeared to be camel herders who had come into the city to sell something and now were getting a free ride back. I wandered over to the tracks. Two pieces of parallel metal covered in wind-blown sand. I took a photo. Some groups and families seemed intent on moving all their belongings on this hunky train. Little groups of people had brought along furniture and what appeared to be the interior of their entire houses.

We had all day and we decided to take a walk. Our nerves were still rattled. We decided to walk toward the ocean and perhaps if we were lucky have a swim. The train station and was actually above the town and as we were walking down a ridge when we were shocked to discover dozens of old and abandoned ships. It seemed to be a swarm of ghost ships. Many of them were old giant rusted fishing boats, on some you could still make out the flags of the various European nations where these ships originated.

These giant trawlers looked to have been used for commercial fishing. These rust stained behemoths seemed to be the perfect symbolism for a beautiful coastline and ecosystem destroyed so middle class westerners could enjoy exotic seafood.

It was memorizing and tragic. It was hard not to see the poetry on this sunny day as these ships swayed effortlessly in the breeze. The ships were leaking all sorts of chemicals and the water around the coast was brown and sludgy. I thought a bit more about the fish we’d had for breakfast. I felt less bad about being robbed.

We spent the afternoon waiting for the train. As the hours passed more people showed up. It seemed most of them were North African Muslims. I tried conversing with a few and was quickly embarrassed. Many of them could speak passable English along with Spanish, French, and Arabic.

We hung around for the afternoon. Slowly more people started to arrive for the journey to the middle of the desert. Vendors started to show up with sandwiches and cigarettes. I tried to take photos but was not so politely refused at each chance.

The station didn’t offer much covering. It was really four poles with a strip of sheet metal for covering. People jostled in for space and while it protected one from the sun it did little in the way of preventing a person from overheating. My girlfriend was crammed under the covering smoking cigarettes.

“I’m hot,” she complained.

“Well these people are hot everyday.”

She glared and sat there. I took a cigarette and looked off into the distance. The train was meant to arrive at 5 pm. As the hour drew nearer a man went around gathering stones. I watched him intently and as he gathered a large armful he slowly stacked them into a kind of triangular mound. He spoke roughly and ordered all the men to come near him. They all gathered around in three straight lines directly behind him. Suddenly he called out “Allah Akbhar!” and the men bowed down and prostrated. I understood now, the man had made a makeshift Mecca and the men were praying. I longed to take photos, for the first time I saw beauty in Africa. I tried to show my girlfriend.

“I’m tired,” she responded.

“Will you stop complaining,” I said bitterly. “Complain, complain, complain.”

“Are you happy now,” she yelled. She calmed down for a moment. “You’ve finally seen Africa, are you happy now?”

Around a quarter past nine we were still waiting. The sun had gone down and we cooled down. The sweat and sand had caked on our bodies creating a second layer of skin. Suddenly a light approached around the corner towards the station. The entire platform rushed to the side of the tracks. The huge bulking train coming towards us suddenly stopped. As it stopped it made a loud bang that sounded like a bomb exploding.

I instinctively jumped down and covered myself. I stood up still a bit stunned to be alive.

Mauritania ore train

Mauritania ore train

The carriages themselves were huge. At a storey high and just simply a huge open container for iron ore to be dumped into. It was reputed to be the longest train in the world. We told that there were well over a hundred carriages ready to be filled to the brim with iron ore. The man who had led the prayers motioned for me and pointed to a corner of a carriage where we could climb up. We did so and no sooner had we gotten in than the train took off. Inside it was just a big empty shell, like being inside a giant empty refrigerator. Black iron ore dust was sprinkled inside the carriage like sugar on a cake.

The little with his local kaftin and mushroom shaped turban showed us around our new home. In the corner he had placed sand and that was where we would go to the toilet. In the other corner he spread out his sleeping mats. The train chugged along in the black Saharan night. Our travelling companion opened his luggage and put together a small stove and boiled some tea.

It was surreal we were riding in an empty coal train going into the middle of nowhere drinking tea in the Sahara. For the first time in weeks all the pain and struggles seemed to be vindicated. We were lucky in that the moon was still bright and after my tea I stood up and looked over the edge. All I could see was the vast expanse of nothingness occasionally with the outline of camels’ bodies as they roamed patiently across the endless horizon. It seemed the layers of civilization were being peeled away like an onion skin.

I lay down on my mat and felt the train slowly rock back and forth like the empty ships we had seen hours earlier. I watched the moon intently and would occasionally stand up and look out at the desert the vast flat land spread out like an ocean. I stood and wondered how many miles I was looking out into. Where did it all end and where did it all begin? The questions that had one answer. This is why I had come to Africa.

This story originally appeared on hackwriters.com

[Photos from WikiCommons]

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Filed under: Africa, Mauritania, Travel Stories

About the Author:

Lawrence Hamilton is a freelance journalist focusing on South Asian security situations and border disputes. has written 51 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Lawrence Hamilton is currently in: Dunedin, NZMap