Africa Dispatch: Mauritania

Mauritanian cell: +222-763-3098
Thuraya Sat phone: +88216-51071135

Dear all,

I am in Nouadhibou in Mauritania.
I’ve been trying to avoid writing this dispatch. I repacked the Land Rover again and again. I filled some oil into the engine, I made travel plans, pored over maps, read in my guidebook, drove a lot through the desert, cooked some spaghetti, and drove some more through the desert. Finally there wasn’t anything left to do but to reluctantly sit down and start to write this dispatch.

I like writing. I do write every day in my little blue notebook that I bought on the day I left on my great journey to South Africa in my little hometown’s only stationary store.

At night you can see me sitting in my car accurately noting the day’s traveled kilometers, date and place into this small diary. I am writing about the highlights and low points of the day and about people I met. But mainly I am writing down my thoughts and ideas, as there is a lot of time to think about things when you are driving for days and days all alone through the desert or the mountains or on a Spanish motorway.

I decided not to write a daily online blog, but write an old-fashioned hand written diary instead, just as I did on my last long trip through South America. And although I know that this is a little disappointing for some people who where hoping to get more frequent updates on my travels, there are several good reasons for this. First of all a diary is something extremely personal and it is important that it contains some things that are not for everyone’s eyes. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a diary, but a dispatch or an article. I found it very important for my last trip that I wrote very personal things in a way where it didn’t matter how many grammatical errors the notes contained or if it made any particular sense to the reader, in my own language, German, and with the knowledge that not every online geek will read it. My last diaries were the basis for my first book, and it wouldn’t have been possible to edit a meaningful book without writing things up in a very straightforward way while on the road. The only solution would be to write two diaries one on a paper and one online, but I simply don’t have the time.

So there will be no daily blog, but there will be regular dispatches, like the one you are reading, every three weeks or so. And honestly, who really has time to read blogs? I don’t.

I will mainly use the blog to post some of the images of this journey, my current location and updated contact information. You are also able to find my location on a map and all travel dispatches will be collected there. I just uploaded new images, so check it out:

I am sitting in the pleasant and shady communal space of a small dusty campground right next to a gas station in the center of town and I not only have to fight the blaring TV that is producing an incredible noise by presenting French afternoon game shows to the half sleeping guardian of this place, but also a local visitor, who additionally to the TV terror, has just decided to reset the ring tone of his brand new cell phone. The only possible way to do this, naturally, is by listening to all of the 50 or so different tones and songs that are on offer. We just finished listening to the entire melody of “Jingle Bells” and are now slowly, after some consideration, moving on to a Shakira song that I can’t recall the title of. I am sure I will be cursed to carry around the melody in my head all day, though.

I will not use these minor distractions as just another excuse for not finishing the task at hand, which is to write down some notes about my travels. I will concentrate as best as I can.

I am now on the road for about three weeks. I traveled from Germany to Luxemburg, France, Spain, Morocco, Western Sahara and just arrived in Mauritania. During the first five days of my trip I was accompanied by my girlfriend Chiho, who had to fly back to New York from Southern France. She was attending a photography event in the US that she had signed up for some months ago. Although we are both used to long separations by now as I spent long periods of time during the last four years on the road working, it was a sad departure. Chiho will be in New York to work on her own projects, but also in order to take care of some things that we have been working on together. The main project is the photo book about Iraq, which we edited and designed together and which will come out this fall. Without her taking care of the book, the planned exhibition and a multitude of other projects and duties, I would not be able to do this trip.

Even with Chiho being in New York, it is tough for me to keep our little company together. For visa reasons I actually had to start my own company, called Christoph Bangert Inc., of which I am the president, secretary, and main shareholder. Being the president of a company presents me with many responsibilities. While in Southern Spain I was tackling a mountain of un-replied emails that had been waiting in my mailbox for weeks as well as sending out some pictures and invoices to clients. In the Moroccan Atlas Mountains I was battling with the American Tax Authorities who wanted some paperwork from me, which had to be faxed from Germany. In the Western Sahara I finally managed to finish up, with the great help of my friend Johan who is currently traveling in Turkey, all the texts for the Iraq book and I also received the introduction for the book from Jon Lee Anderson, who had just returned from Afghanistan.

Additionally I was negotiating with a German magazine that will publish a story about my journey and I was selling some prints to someone in Australia who had seen a picture of mine in the New Yorker.

While dealing with all these business related things I still had to take care of all the daily travel procedures like reading the map, studying the guidebook, learning how to use a GPS in only one day, dealing with pushy tourist guides and street children, keeping the Land Rover running and in one piece, getting visas, crossing borders and finally, and most importantly, I also had to try to take some pictures.

This journey is not exactly a vacation so far, and of course it was never intended to be one. But that I have to deal with such a large amount of travel unrelated work, caused partly by the easily available access to the internet and cell phone network and partly by my annoying habit of trying to do everything at the same time, was a little disappointing at times and often left me with the feeling of being overwhelmed. There were moments when I was sitting in my car after a long day’s drive, exhausted and numb and unable to make any further decisions. In moments like these it would be good to have a travel companion. I am generally happy to be traveling alone, though, I’m meeting a lot more people that way and I even hope to improve my practically nonexistent French on this journey. So far communication has been rather rocky, and a lot of time conversation does not go much further than “Bon jour, ca va?…..”

I should have paid more attention in that bloody French class back in school. I guess my mother was right on that one.

But before I start to wonder off into my childhood I should write a little about the places I visited so far. In Southern France I got a massive sunburn. My bright white skin wasn’t ready for the Mediterranean sun and I ended up with nasty burn marks, huge blisters and stripes of skin falling off my legs. I also had a persistent cough, which would not go away and was only to be tackled with some doses of antibiotics, which helped a great deal with the annoying coughing, but left me with diarrhea instead. I was also still exhausted from several months of traveling to Afghanistan and Nigeria and busy weeks in New York in between those trips.

Basically, my body was a wreck.

The few days of rest that Chiho and I spent in Saintes Maries de-la-Mer in the Camargue were very pleasant and much needed. One day we went to see a bull fight, where young boys were running around a wild bull while trying to rip off a little piece of string from between the bull’s horns. The bull in turn tried to stab and kill the boys and in one instance he almost succeeded. However the outcome of the scenario, the bull gets to live in the end, unlike during bullfighting I saw in Spain some years ago. All in all it was a spectacular event that I enjoyed tremendously.

After dropping off Chiho at the airport in Montpellier and introducing her to her first European budget airline travel experience, including the privilege to share a packed airplane with a busload of German middle aged ‘all inclusive’ tourists, I made my way south, to Spain.

I spent my days on empty motorways and my nights on great campgrounds with hot showers, clean toilets, supermarkets and restaurants. One of them even had wireless internet access all over its grounds, which I celebrated with writing 49 emails in one day.

Because the vacation season hadn’t started yet, I met mostly elderly travelers on these campgrounds, a lot of them retired Germans, who are spending the winter months in the South. I liked talking to these people, who were mostly enjoying themselves and were interested in my journey. They had little German or Bavarian flags mounted on their caravans, were watching German TV shows, ate German homemade food while, of course, were having a cold bottle of German beer. The only thing that annoyed me a little was that after I explained the route of my trip again and again, everyone, really everyone, in order to say goodbye, wished me A NICE VACATION.

Crossing the Gibraltar straight with a huge ferry that mainly carried trucks from Algeciras in Spain to Tangier in Morocco was a great experience. On a beautiful and clear day I spent almost the entire time on deck watching the European coast disappear in the distance and observing the ship’s slow progress towards the coast of North Africa.

I was so excited about the ships journey that I completely failed to discover the ships’ duty free stores and, more seriously, the booth of the Moroccan border police, who does the border formalities for Morocco on board. When I drove off the ferry with my Land Rover, proud to be finally arriving on African soil and in high spirits, the adventure was abruptly stopped by several other border police officers that were controlling the Moroccan entrance stamps in everybody’s passports. Big discussions in French, German and Arabic all at once errupted and I ended up having to park the car in the harbor, which is always a great place to leave a fully packed and shiny car behind, and walk back onto the ferry, to try to find the Moroccan border police man who unfortunately had already disappeared. After waiting for a while and watching the first travelers going back to Spain arrive on the ferry, which made me slightly nervous, because I had no desire to go back to Spain while my car was parked on a dock in Morocco, finally a guy wearing a baseball hat and T-shirt arrived with a laptop and put and entry stamp into my passport.

Although my entry into Morocco wasn’t as smoothly as planned, which was of course my own fault, I liked the country from the start. It’s an easy place to visit, has a good infrastructure and amazing landscapes.

The only annoyances are the many tourists and the resulting fact that in many places you have to deal with hustlers who want to serve you as tour guides, moneychangers, drug dealers or souvenir vendors. There are no limits to the creativity of these people for finding ways to extract money from the visitor of their country.

After staying in Tangier I drove to Meknes, and on to Fez, where I visited the old Medina and took pictures of the famous leather tanneries. In general I have to confess that I wasn’t really in the mood to spend a lot of time in overcrowded souks and among people. I was longing for some solitude and tried to find it in the High Atlas Mountains. For some reason, possibly because of the close cultural similarities between Morocco and the Middle East, I had to think about Iraq a lot.
I chose a well known off road track that crosses the spectacular Atlas Mountains from the north east to the south west. The first part of the route, which takes several days to complete, passes and area called ‘Cirque de Jaffar’. Further on you pass small villages called Tagoudit, Anemzi, and Imilchil. I then drove along the ‘Gorges du Dades’, a stunning valley, which reminded me in its rock formations of nothing less than the Grand Canyon.

The whole journey followed rough and partly stony tracks and crossed rivers and high passes. The scenery was just breathtaking. The only negative aspect was the rude behavior of packs of teenaged villagers and shepherds that I was assaulted by on the way. In order to extract goods or money from me they climbed on top of the roof rack of the moving Land Rover and where trying to steal my parent’s camping table and chair that I had strapped to the roof, attempted to open all doors and banged their fists against my windows while shouting and screaming on top of their lungs. There was really no point in negotiations, as there were just too many kids to pay or please with presents. The only trouble really was that I had to ask for the way a lot as there were often several different tracks to chose between, which resulted in everybody constantly sending me in the wrong direction while asking for cigarettes, money, whiskey, or anything, no matter what. I met a middle-aged man who, with a dead serious face, asked me for some candy. Judging from his teeth he had been successful in the past with his request.

Of course one has to try to understand these people. I was driving through very remote areas and there is great poverty. Several times a day there is a big fat foreign four wheel driven car with white people in it rolling through these tiny villages. To these kids it’s a sport to harass these visitors that they perceive as being incredibly rich.

Well, after retracting my beloved camping table and chair from a nearby mud puddle, even my patience had and end. I shouted and cursed these teenagers while making in retrospect ridiculous hand signs motioning the sliding of a person’s throat, which surprisingly impressed some of the kids. Something I learned in the Middle East.
You don’t mess with a camper’s camping gear.

I spend the night in the back of the farmhouse of an incredibly hospitable and friendly family just three villages down the road. I was very grateful to these people, especially after the annoyances of the day.

After miserably failing to find some sort of peace and solitude in the mountains, I drove down south into the Sahara desert. From a small village close to the Algerian border called Mhamid, I drove westwards on an off road piste, alongside huge sand dunes and crossing dried out riverbeds and lakes. In my diary I wrote that day: ‘… And finally alone.’

My first encounter with the Sahara was a very moving experience. I liked the emptiness and seemingly monotonous, but ever changing landscape at once. I also very much enjoyed driving my Land Rover on loose tracks and across small sand dunes.

Passing Tata, Akka, Guelmin and Tan Tan, I slowly made my way South to the area that is referred to as Western Sahara. The state, a former Spanish colony, is administered by Morocco, who invaded the region in the 1970s and used to fight a costly war against Polisario rebels that were supported by Algeria and were fighting for the establishment of an independent republic.

Although the fighting has stopped after a UN brokered cease-fire in 1991, the final status of this area is still unresolved and a promised referendum on independence, as it was part of the deal, never happened. The landscape of this land consists of mainly featureless desert that is only sparsely inhibited.

I spent several days just driving on a good tarmac road south, encountering very little traffic. In Dakhla, the last city before the border, located some 450 km to the south, I stayed on a lonely and windy campground for two nights while finishing up some work mostly on the Iraq book and spending the nights commuting between the Land Rover and the desolate and smelly toilet block. Apparently I had eaten some bad food while having dinner in one of the local restaurants. Having bad diarrhea didn’t exactly improve my mood and my stay in Dakhla was unfortunately a low point so far. Things only looked up after I got back on the road again and after a long day’s drive and a successful border crossing into Mauritania I felt much better. The only nuisance was that I only got a three-day transit visa for Mauritania, which I am supposed to extend in Nouakchott, the capital. The visa rules for the border crossings were changed recently. I met several travelers who got one month long visas at the same border posts that I went to only weeks ago. I don’t have any desire to go to Nouakchott right now and after talking to other travelers with the same problem and some of the locals, I decided to either sort out the problem in Atar, a town West from here where I am planning to go next, in Nouakchott, where I have to pass through later, or when I leave the country.

Right now I am looking for other travelers that are also planning to take the desert route to Choum and on to Atar. I would prefer to do this trip with a second car, rather than alone, because the 450 km long track is relatively sandy, with lots of dunes and it’s easy to get stuck.

The most difficult part so far has been to try to relax a little and get this restlessness and anxiety out of my bones that I’ve been carrying around with me since I started the journey. The pictures I took so far are nothing special, lots of shots of the Land Rover of course, but I’ve been having a hard time to photograph people. To overcome true and imagined gaps between the local population and me, created by my relative material wealth, which expresses itself through my Land Rover, my huge camera, my white skin and my seemingly endless supply of ballpoint pens, will be the greatest challenge of this trip.

The TV set in the corner is still producing great noise, but at least it is showing a soccer game this time. Finland is playing Serbia in Helsinki. In the meantime I fled to my Land Rover for a while and completed most of this text while sitting in the front seat, the computer on my lab. After running out of battery I am now back where I started out, just inches away from the TV, close to the only electricity socket for miles.

The Mauritanian campground guard, Hassan, is still here and watches the game without much interest. I wonder how he imagines Finland to be like.

First goal for the Serbs! After only three minutes played. Beautiful pass into the center and Jankovic takes it directly and places the ball in the upper left corner of the goal. Spectacular.

Hassan decides to take a little nap.


3 thoughts on “Africa Dispatch: Mauritania

  1. Jens

    There he is. Welcome back Christoph. For a non-blogger you are pretty good in doing this. I should better do some database backups. I’ve never seen such a massive text in wordpress. Thanks for sharing this trip with us. Take care.

  2. Stefan Falke

    Christoph, I agree with Jens, you are pretty good for a non blogger ! I will save the text for later, I have read half and it is midnight in Brooklyn, bedtime. But thanks for sharing the images, some of the places you visit would love to get the (almost tropical) rain you missed tonight in NY. I look at your work with a little envy, it is a trip I would love to undertake myself… But hey, can’t have it all, life is good as it is. I am looking forward to more of both, images and text, and I will take the time to read, believe me, and so will others. You just keep on posting, we will be there. Best, Stefan

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