Across the Sahara in 48 Hours?

The big diesel truck rumbles to life, the driver flicks his lighter, takes a long draw from his hash pipe, and shifts into first gear. The smoke and faint smell of hashish drifts across the cab of the truck. The man next to me looks for my reaction and bellows out a loud, sinister laugh. It was then I knew that it was going to be a long, crazy ride across the frontier of the Western Sahara known for its mine fields, road pirates, and strong interest in independence. We are only hours from the town of Inezgane, the beginning of our trip through all of Western Sahara and on to Nouachott, Mauritania. A non-stop marathon born of a desire to reach West Africa, and ultimately Timbuktu, overland from Morocco.

There are four of us traveling this stretch together, three ex Peace Corp volunteers, whom I recently met, and me. We had awoken that morning at six A.M. to negotiate a ride in transport trucks, called cameos, carrying vegetables through to Nouachott. The sand of the Sahara is apparently lousy for farming, so vegetables are a big hit in Mauritania (especially delicious if you are used to a diet based on sand and camel hump) thereby making it worthwhile to drive carrots, grapes, and watermelons across many, many kilometers of desert.

From Nouachott on, we could use public transport, but for this stretch there was none. Private transport consisted of 4×4 ‘bush taxis’ out of Dakhla, the cameos, or hitchhiking. I’ve hitched a good deal in the U.S. and know that you spend a lot of time waiting for rides. Waiting for ride in the Saharan sun in July, no thanks. Using the cameos virtually guaranteed us one smooth ride for the entire stretch and we’d know the cost before setting out. The downside to all this was two fold. One, we’d not have much chance to experience the land we’d be driving through and two, we were at the mercy of the truck driver. I could already see pulling over in the most remote part of drive with the driver needing a bit more money…’or’ I could hear him say, ‘I can just drop you off here’.

“We’ll call you when we’re ready’, they said, and so they did. Like everything in Morocco, no one is in a rush until the bug hits them. Then it’s life and death, and so it was here. Two of us spoke arabic and two of us didn’t. I resisted when we split into two groups with the two non-arabic speakers traveling together, one was me. Though we had to be there right away, it would be another two hours before all the vegetables were loaded and we were off. Boxes of carrots were stacked, watermelons were placed one by one, and finally the covering and netting to hold everything in place was thrown over the top. This was tightened with a lever to pull the loops of netting over hooks mounted on the body of the truck using the full body weight of the workers. Much of the net was torn after all was completed.

We hopped in the truck and started our 48 hour journey through the Sahara desert. The truck had a bench big enough for three, a place behind the seat for sleeping and if we rotated positions regularly we’d feel little pain. It’s said that ignorance is bliss, and we were certainly ignorant, though I can’t say that we were blissful. We were ignorant in that we didn’t know when we would stop to eat or where we would sleep. We had heard some rumors that we’d stop at road houses where we would find a mattress to throw on the floor, but that was wrong.

It wasn’t but 10 km before we stopped to pick up another passenger and my dreams of comfort vanished. This guy happily took the coveted passenger seat and would have surely fought to the death to keep it, the time would come where I would seriously consider that challenge. Not knowing Arabic was a serious drag when my neighbor wanted to talk. He got frustrated when I couldn’t understand him, and trying to understand sentences in which I knew one word frustrated me. Occasionally we’d try to talk which invariably ended in a smile, then we’d look away in unison and roll our eyes wondering what we’d just discussed. Given the scenery I imagine that we were always conversing about either sand, camels, or maybe rocks.

We were told that we’d be in Nouachott in about 48 hours. I don’t think I ever truly believed it, but I tried to believe just so that I didn’t start the trip with a bad attitude. I knew that there would be times when I could no longer stay in that truck another minute, which would coincide with windows being rolled up and the air turned off in the comfort of our solar oven exposed to the noon day sun, all for our health. In Morocco, there is a wives’s tale, that folks buy into whole heartedly, which claims that cross winds make you sick. The effect of this is that windows stay rolled up and the air stays off. If they think that sickness is caused by a comfortable breeze, I wonder what they attribute heat stroke to? Being in the middle seat left me away from the window crank and completely powerless. At least I had the gear shift between my legs to keep me on my toes and distracted.

The driver told us he wouldn’t sleep until we got to Nouachott. That too was wrong, I realized this when we’d make a slight course adjustment on a straight road and head for the desert, but it was just the driver taking a quick nap induced by driving non-stop for 20 hours and a dose of some nice, relaxing hashish. We thought we’d stop for food, which we did. We ate once a day, and it wasn’t much. Quarter of a tagine for day one, quarter of a plate of grilled hamburger meat for day two and not a lot of water to go with it. So ignorance wasn’t bliss, but it was better than this.

Having cell phone reception meant that we could communicate with the other two travelers. They left before we did, but reported a flat tire. A bet was made that whoever crossed into Mauritania first would buy the others a round of beer. It didn’t occur to us that we’d still be in a strictly Muslim country once we arrived and therefore couldn’t even buy beer, bad bet for the winners. No matter, the race was on.The flat tire on the other rig gave us hope and we still had 36 hours in which anything could happen and it did. Two hours later we had a flat tire and our hearts sank. No one thought about the border crossing as the great equalizer.

My traveling partner for this part of the journey was Houman Saberi, an easy going fellow with great language skills. He made himself at home behind the seats while I road ‘bitch’ between the driver seat and the passenger seat…you know the spot with th stick shift between your legs and no room for you legs? At around 6 pm we mercifully got the flat tire, which let us get outside and get blood back into my legs. The ride so far was not without delay, in fact we had several. The fist and foremost being the road blocks. So far we counted nine. By the end of the next day, we had racked up twenty nine. They loved seeing a white boy riding in a transport truck through the Western Sahara headed for Dakar. Naturally they questioned me every chance they got, no matter that there buddy 15 km down the road, and his buddy before that asked me the same questions. “Passport, what are you doing here, where are you going, what is your occupation’ we the standard questions. They had a knack for dragging it out. Even if I was smuggling hash, these guys would never figure it out with these methods. It was basically just harassment and entertainment for the coppers. Maybe it even gave them the feeling of job satisfaction, not they accomplished anything.

That harassment turned the tables in my favor, because once the tire was fixed, they forced me to the back and gave me new instructions. “When we come to road block you go to sleep, you tell them you go to next town, and you did NOT pay for this ride’. After riding bitch for eight hours, I had no problems ‘pretending’ to be asleep. Occasionally I’d wake up only to find Houman sitting upright exactly as I had seen him hours before, and hours before that. No one wanted me up front so he was stuck. The following day, after watching the sunrise in the Sahara, we stopped for gas. I tried again to switch, but wasn’t allowed. I wasn’t until later that morning that Houman said he couldn’t take it anymore. It was once again my turn to suffer, and so I did.

The road followed the coast just a hundred meters or so from the edge of the sea. The coast was spectacular as the desert hit the ocean in a giant cliff line drastically marking the difference between the golden land and dark blue, rolling sea. Several times a river snaked its way out of the Sahara which cut through the cliff band entering the sea via a gorgeous but completely desolate beach garnished with flamingos wading into the outwash of the rivers.

There were two major towns on our trip through Western Sahara, Dakhla and Laayoune, we passed through Laayoune at around midnight on our first day, and was surprised to find it clean and well built, far from the wild west style town I was expecting. Dakhla, we didn’t pass through being on a peninsula away from the mainland, but it was close enough to see. It looked really nice. Beautiful ocean, stark white buildings, and awesome exposure to the sea. Definitely a place I’d like to visit.

We rolled along and finally hit the Moroccan border. Things were looking good that we would be in Nouachott sometime tomorrow before lunch. The border is desolate. A set of concrete buildings set in the middle of the Sahara. Moroccan officials love paper work and bureaucracy. I have little patience for this as is, but when you’re out in the Sahara with no shade, you loose whatever patience you had. I wrapped my long sleeve shirt around my head and sat down on the edge of the concrete platform and baked. Of course they make no predictions as to how long it will take, just give me your info and your papers and wait outside. No shade, Sahara, early afternoon, no water, and no one could care less. We suffered and maybe an hour later we had our stamp. We still had to go to the Gendarmes and sign out, which was fast and painless…I was confused. Don’t you need to know my mother’s cousin’s grandmother’s shoe size or something?

I worked my way to the truck and motioned to the driver that we were finally ready. Then I saw a terrifying sight. They were unloading the trucks one carrot box at a time, and we were third in line. Each truck takes at a minimum of two hours to unload and reload. Aside from having to sit around for several more hours, it also meant we’d get out of Morocco, but the boarder into Mauritania would be closed, leaving us in no-man’s land or hefty bribes to pay. The inspectors got bored and decided that one truck would be enough, that took them 2 hours of holding us up to decide.

We rolled off into the unpaved no-mans land between the two boarders. Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania don’t seem to get along very well. We crawled through the desert in first gear and picked routes as we went. It was slow, scenic, and frustrating, knowing that the boarder was only 10 km away but also another hour, and probably closing there gates while we tooled around in the desert. No-man’s land was full of blown out cars, trash, sand and surrounded by land mines. If you picked a bad route not only did you run the chance of getting stuck but also setting off a land mine. Rumor is that exactly that happened to a French motorcyclist not too long ago.

We hit the border and came to dead stand still. Aprile Leonardo and Andrew Walsh, our other traveling companions came to greet us, ‘bad news’ they said. We knew the news but we listened with heavy hearts as they said “They won’t let us through, at least not until we get our trucks searched’. W were looking at eight hours for our convoy of four. That was the good news, the bad news is that the men who do the searching won’t be here for at least 24 hours. No food, very little water, no blankets, no tent and stuck in Sahara for a minimum of 30 hours, best case scenario.

The problem was that the previous day they actually made 6 ton bust of hashish, in a truck just like ours, meaning that the border guards had just tasted blood and were eager for more. However if we were willing to pony up 5,000 Dirhams, equivalent to about 800 US dollars, we could pass no questions asked. Oh, that was per truck quote. If we had been carrying 6 tons of Hashish worth a fortune, we’d would have no problem getting through. Since we weren’t smuggling hash we’d have to be searched.

So there we were, no Hahish, 1/4 quart of water, no food, no blankets, no tent. Stepping gingerly through the desert to avoid land mines I scoured some abandoned vehicles and found the following: one snake, one hundred packages of ass cream (brand new and unopened), six longhorns mounted some leather contraption, and one beautiful mattress. When I returned and everyone saw my prize, I was offered 1000 cfa, which I proudly declined. Then I made a spectacle of how comfortable my mattress was. That sparked a mass migration to the desert. Truck drivers, riders, and all hoping to find the holy grail. I sat on my mattress and waited for the fireworks of someone tripping over a land mine.

We did have one option when a taxi driver appeared and offered us a ridiculously high cost ride to Nouadibou, which was out of the way and meant we’d forfeit the money we’d already spent to get to Nouchott. We decided collectively to stay in the desert, I arranged and closely guarded my mattress and had my knife handy. I knew without asking that people have been killed for much less in this ungodly place.

The sun began to set and the border officials formed a group, telling me that they we planning something. It wasn’t long until they called me over and threw some Spanish my way. “You can’t sleep here’ is what they said. I called April over since her Spanish was better. “So let me get this straight” I said to her, “we can’t go but we can’t stay”? No, no they said, you can go but the trucks must stay.

“Oh yeah, thats a completely different story’, I said to myself. “Thats perfectly reasonable’, I thought, sitting 500 km from my destination and 50 km from the nearest town. Night was approaching fast. “It is no problem’, said the border guard, ‘you take taxi’. Ah, and there it was, the driver of the taxi had been making friends while we were searching for bedding. By the way, logic does not work with cops, the insane, or customs officials.

We got 600 dirhams back from the truckers and said our good byes and let raping begin. Next stop border guards! Much, much, much to my surprise the boarder official was polite, intelligent, and efficient. He asked about the origins of our names and who we hoped to win the elections. I said Obama just because I didn’t want to explain that none of the candidates deserved to win. He also let me sit next to the machine gun propped against the wall. I was between the machine gun and him, which was a bad move on his part. My mind reeled with possibilities and I found it hard to concentrate on his questions. Luckily for him, I really was impressed by him and I’m generally reasonable, though some would argue otherwise.

Aside from a the misplacing of a passport by one of the crew, everything went smoothly. By now the sun had set and we worked our way through several more road blocks manned by surprisingly friendly folks…with machine guns. Nothing spells hospitality than a guy greeting you with a machine gun every five kilometers.

We arrived in Nouadibou and were chauffeured to a ‘cheaper’ Auberge than the one we had in mind. Unsurprisingly, it cost the same amount. To my delight tea arrived right away. I’m a sucker for Moroccan tea. The same was true the next morning, on the terrace. That buttered me up for the next question, ‘voudrais vous petit dejeuner avec pain e butter e marmalade’. “Oui, oui si vous plat’ I answered without hesitation. There was a cool breeze blowing through the palm growing above the terrace, the weather was perfect, I was being served food and tea. I was definitely in my happy place.

We had a schedule to make and so we blasted off that evening on a taxi to Nouachott. Some Moroccans promised us a ride, but after 1.5 hours of waiting, we gave up. Taxis are sold by the seat and somehow they calculate that a small body Mercedes 190 series has seven places. I think they arrived at this by a calculation of volume, not area. Three in the front and four in the back. Though physically possible, fitting seven folks in a taxi is nothing less than painful. I can say that four hip widths are longer than the back seat of one of these rigs, which means you have to ‘spoon’ the person next to you. Now if it was a taxi full of cheerleaders 500 km would pass by fairly fast, but I’m still waiting for that taxi ride. I’m fairly certain that if you die a martyr, you’ll get your fifty virgins, but you’ll all be in one taxi. Just another one of god’s hilarious jokes.

So yeah there we were blasting down the highway, desert all around broken by thee occasional hut, tree, or camel. Two hundred kilometers into the journey and we pull over, walk to one of the huts and step inside. Following the mandatory and exhaustive greeting. We sit down and are served a big bowl of camel’s milk which we pass around. Now I’ve had nasty traditional fare, so I was prepared to suppress my gag reflex and smile outwardly and say ‘mmm…delicious’ but damned if it didn’t taste good. It was sweet and very thin, nothing like I expected. We layed on couches buffering the walls and on the floor while several rounds of hot tea were served. Then came the meal. A nice plate of rice on a tray topped with a beautiful head of goat with knife sticking out of the skull. The host was kind enough to give us the majority of meat including lips, gums, and everything else that comes with a pressure cooked head. I did a good job of not seeing where the meat was being cut from.

We started down the road again and I fell asleep. After some time I became aware of some occasional heavy swerving, so did everyone else. The driver had become a zombie. He stared dead ahead and could not respond to questions or comments. In fact the only time he acted alive was when he ran off the road. That moment of clarity only lasted long enough to get us pointed in the right direction again. There are certainly many, many places that are worse than sailing off the road than the middle of the Sahara but hitting an on-coming truck would be nasty. What really made my blood run cold were the big, heavily loaded, oncoming trucks. Though there weren’t hundreds, there were enough to make me wish we would just run off the road and get good and stuck in the sand. God willing we’d have to spend the night there. I found myself looking for good places to run off the road and being disappointed when we didn’t. Damn I wish I’d have sprung for that evacuation insurance!

The process of avoiding death went like this; swerve into the left lane, one swerve into the right lane, once more into the oncoming lane, and a final last second swerve back into the right lane and whoosh the truck would skim by. This happened many times and when we finally got near Nouachott, we started to hit road blocks. A mixed blessing since they woke the driver up for a little bit but these guys were really interested why we were traveling at one o’clock in the morning through the stark desert of Mauritania. You know what? That’s a damn good question and one that isn’t so easily answered, especially to a solider that speaks only Arabic.

Well that was just the beginning, in addition to the many, many road blocks outside the city, the police had one on seemingly every intersection inside the city. We had two Auberge’s in mind, and couldn’t find either. After passing through the same road block three times you’d think they recognize you. Nope, ‘passport, sil vous plait’ they’d call to us. I couldn’t help but get a little irritated. We did find the Auberge by chance and called it a night.

Sixty four hours from Inezgane and we’d arrived in Nouachott tired, scared, and with a new appreciation for Moroccan public transport. Now for the road to Senegal, surely that would be easier!