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Thursday, 11 October 2007

To the Edge of Nowhere: Tichit, Mauritania

Written by Max Hunter
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Nouakchott, Mauritania is among the last places on earth you want to sit around for a week waiting for something to happen.  I slept, drank, and watched the street from the balcony of Auberge Sahara, while Mauritanian drivers swerved about on the highway as if each was trying to fulfill a death wish. Then drank some more.

Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel MauritaniaA week passed.  Normally a solo motorcycle traveler, I’d been out of the saddle for days while I waited for the Israeli to get his visa renewed.  The guys down at the police station are having a good time at his expense, while the rest of us waiting were a little less amused.

What the police didn't know is that the two Israelis had been carrying enough Moroccan hash on them to spend the rest of their lives in prison.  A temporary threat, though, since they were consuming the stuff like it was food and water.

There were six of us waiting.  Well, eight if you include the dog and the rabbit. Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel Mauritania The dog was born in India; the rabbit saved from a butcher in Fes. Both traveled in the 1970 Land Rover the Israelis called home.  The rest of us affectionately referred to the Israelis as the "Mossad Boys." They were a bit self-centered and careless enough to die out here if left to their own devices, but otherwise a decent couple of 28 year old guys.

The other truck was a '93 Land Cruiser, owned by a 40-something Spanish experimental filmmaker with his friend riding shotgun. They never got inventive names because they were the ones busy assigning them to everyone else. They were fond of packaged Japanese food brought from Spain, wearing black turbans, and blasting twangy Mauritanian music on the Cruiser's sound system.

Number seven of the team was an unlikely addition: a 27 year-old Japanese guy traversing Africa north to south via bicycle, he rode in the back of the Rover with the rabbit.  His name was Masato, but everyone inexplicably called him Masoto.  He didn't seem to mind. Masato was our young version of the wise old Japanese man that every expedition should have. Full of good advice, he always knew what was best, and was the first one to help when the shit hit the fan.

Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel MauritaniaThen there was me, a 28 year-old aspiring documentary filmmaker touring the Arab world alone on a Kawasaki KLR 650 motorcycle.  I had been on the road for six months, having suffered one broken collarbone and several bouts with food-borne illnesses. The Spaniards called me cowboy. Sure, it was a bit trite to call the American a cowboy, but I didn’t challenge it, for fear they’d invent something worse.

This was the first time since arriving in Africa that I was traveling with others.  I was apprehensive about teaming up, being a solo motorcyclist with a habit of doing things my way.  However, my concerns were assuaged once it became apparent that in a country where the official language is French, not one of us could speak it.  These were my kind of people.

Finally, the visa issues were cleared up, and we set off for the Sahara on the fortuitous day of Friday, July 13.  Two days later, after several hash breaks and a detour to visit the crocodiles at Matmata, we made the 650km to Tidjikja, where the highway ended and the only way forward was through the sand seas of the Sahara.Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel Mauritania

We purchased our final supplies, and I topped off the bike with jerrycan petrol, which was bright orange from sitting so long – it had actually leeched the color right out of the plastic container. Purveyors cut the fuel with cheaper liquids out there to make more money – judging by the smell, I figured my bike would be drinking ninety percent petrol and ten percent urine for the next two days.

None of us, save the Spanish guy, had much experience in the Sahara.  By not much, I mean basically none.  And the Spaniard's last trip had ended with a friend being medically evacuated with a leg fracture after falling off the roof of a moving truck.  So predictably, five minutes into the 200km piste towards Tichit we had trouble. Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel MauritaniaThe Land Cruiser hit soft sand and sunk like a rock nearly to the chassis.  After trying to dig out for thirty minutes in 45 degree heat, the Spaniards produced a balloon they had purchased on the internet, the type that is inflated by the exhaust pipe to lift the truck off the ground so the tires can be dug out or sand ladders placed underneath.

It worked perfectly for the first five minutes.  So good in fact, that I wanted to film, but I had left the camera in the Land Rover.  I went over to get the camera, and while I stood in front of this over-inflated balloon, which rested precariously close to the hot exhaust pipe, I thought how ruined my day would be if that thing blew.

Of course, it did blow in a magnificent explosion that sent the air hose into my left leg and the two-ton Land Cruiser into my face, knocking me back onto the ground with a busted nose and forehead. Blood streamed down into my eyes as my companions dragged me away half dazed, checking to see if my leg was still in one piece.  So began the first day on the piste.Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel Mauritania

An hour later, I was back on the bike.  It was rough going at times, with a mix of deep sandy ruts, dunes, and unmarked sections where the shifting sands of the Sahara had obscured any signs of recent traffic.  We had GPS, but half the party was too stoned to care anyway.  We pressed on.

That first night in the desert was nothing short of magical.  The sky out there was so clear we could see satellites traversing the heavens.  I was watching them and lying on the ground near my bike when one of the Spaniards tossed a rope my way. Sometime, somewhere he had heard that if you put a rope around you at night it would keep away scorpions.  Sure I would test it. The Israeli didn’t have a rope, so the next day if he was dead, we'd know it had worked.

After circling my area with rope, I walked five meters into the darkness to relieve myself. While in the act I noticed the ground moving near my target and shined the light to find a venomous Saharan horned viper in a staring contest with my private parts.Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel Mauritania

Do you happen to have an anti-snake rope with you?

No?

I'm sleeping on the truck, goodnight.

 

The next day we drove through a hellish sandstorm, usually off-piste, with a brief respite at a well that doubled as the local nomad hangout. Some poor camel had been tasked with Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel Mauritaniarunning the rope through the pulley system to lift the buckets of water out, and by the time we left, I had fended off offers to trade three of the beasts for my motorcycle – a far cry from the eighty I had demanded.

I slept on the truck again that night.  The Israelis had cooked up some inventive way to smoke the dwindling hash reserves, which resulted in a Spaniard throwing up for twenty minutes with the rest of us trying to be sympathetic while failing to contain our amusement at his being such a lightweight.  I don't smoke hash, but they didn't mind. After all, the rabbit ate my share, remaining on a steady diet of ganja and Cornflakes mixed with whatever greenery we could find.  It was the most chilled out rabbit I had ever seen, even on the bone jarring pistes.

The next day we split into two groups.  The Spaniards, the Japanese guy and I would take the Land Cruiser and the bike to Tichit in one day, while the Israelis would spend two and a half days getting stoned and driving very slowly.  I was sure they would get lost, and end up as two more Jews wandering the desert for 40 years. But everyone was satisfied with the arrangement, especially the Mossad Boys, so we set off for the most difficult terrain we had seen yet.

The rest of the route was marked by disappearing piste and shifting sands.  The Paris-Dakar rally passes through Tichit each year with the deliberate intention of weeding out half the competition.  It is extremely difficult terrain for any vehicle, even more so when loaded down with gear, passengers, fuel, and water. Few other vehicles ever make it out there, especially during the summer when temperatures soar to 50 degrees or more.  We were 60 kilometers from Tichit, negotiating our way through deep, soft sand, when the motorcycle quit on us with a burned out clutch.

Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel MauritaniaLosing a vehicle out there means you might never see it again. There is nobody to call, and no way to call with no cell phone reception, and even with a satellite phone nobody is going to come, anyway.  We tried for an hour to get the bike running to no avail.  In the end, we ditched her behind a sand dune a few dozen meters from the piste and hoped she wouldn't be hauled off by thieves or curious nomads the next day.  It would end up taking three days to find a pickup truck for recovery, and the fact that there wasn't a fingerprint on her despite still being visible from the piste was a testament to just how few people, if any, had been that way in days.

I was distraught at leaving my bike, which had been my companion and life for the past several months, but I had no choice but to continue to Tichit. Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel Mauritania Coming over a sand dune, the oases surrounding the town laid out before us like the Garden of Eden. We were greeted by the sight of a camel herder driving his fifty strong herd out of town and into the nothingness beyond.  He looked like something from a Hollywood production, with a black turban covering his head and face, driving his magnificent ivory white camel with subtle taps of his bare foot along its side.

 

Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel Mauritania



Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel MauritaniaIn Tichit we were directed to the military post, which happened to be next to our derelict auberge.  We checked in with the chief and inquired about recovery of the bike, but we were told that due to regulations they could not use their pickup trucks to help us.  This was coming from the least professional military I had ever seen: guys sitting around sipping tea and playing Petanque, while garbed out in a mix of robes, sandals, military dress, and t-shirts. A few nights later, after we’d not understood the orders barked to us through the darkness in French, we were informed by a soldier with an AK-47, who perched on the rooftop at night, not to leave our auberge past 11pm or risk being shot. Kind of a downer.

Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel MauritaniaNot that there was much to do past dark in Tichit anyway.  Sure there was the usual hash and what little alcohol was left, but Tichit itself offered no pleasures except peaceful serenity, friendly people, an abundance of dates, and bessop, a drink made from hibiscus flowers. The last exciting thing to happen there, as far as I was concerned, was last year’s Dakar Rally; the most exciting thing to happen there as far as the locals were concerned was our arrival.  We were the first foreigners in a month.

For what it lacks in excitement, Tichit makes up for in surrealism. This manifests itself in many ways, starting with the landscape - surrounded by cliffs on one side, a dried lake on another, and massive white dunes on the western approach; it is like an island refuge in the middle of nowhere.Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel Mauritania

An island refuge with slavery.  Among Tichit's dirty little secrets is that despite the abolition of slavery in Mauritania over twenty-five years ago, it still exists, even if only informally. Nobody dares to call it what it is, even if it is written all over their faces.  The Moors, the masters, walk headstrong with their chins up. The slaves are more sheepish, look down, stripped of their pride generation after generation; they are meek and quiet. If these subtle differences aren't noticeable, the fact that the blacks are still waiting on the Moors in many of their houses is quite clear.  Although this in itself might be difficult to perceive as the Moors in this part of Mauritania are usually dark skinned as well, and most people would not be able to distinguish the two based simply on color.

Forced labor, no.  They pay men and women in food or shelter instead of wages, or at the most, some paltry token sum, when it costs 15,000 ougiya (nearly 1/5 of the average free Mauritanian’s annual salary) for a seat on the truck to Tidjikja. This is a form of economic slavery that serves the status quo just fine, as far the masters of Tichit are concerned. Some of the blacks have been serving the same family for generations, and while this goes on throughout the country, it just seems more pronounced in Tichit where sometimes it is right in your face.

Despite this significant cultural faux pas, Tichit was, with the exception of one perpetually constipated shopkeeper and the ever-alert AK-47 fellow, an overwhelmingly friendly place. The soldiers especially, many of whom come from larger cities and curse their luck at being sent to such a remote outpost without a loose woman or nightclub within five hundred kilometers, were eager to talk to us.

In Mauritania, as in much of the Arab world, it is common for men to walk around holding hands.  This had come as quite a shock to me upon arriving in Morocco and marveling at how open the society was about homosexuality, until I started counting the couples I saw and realized that no way could an Islamic country be this gay.

The soldiers in Tichit were always eager to hold hands.  Not wanting to be rude I acquiesced on some occasions.  I would like to say that walking down the street holding hands with a man in uniform is among the strangest things I have done over here, but I would be lying. Nevertheless, it felt a little quirky. I pondered such an encounter one evening, as Masato gave a professional Thai massage to one of the Mossad Boys, and I began to wonder if maybe we had all been in the desert too long.

Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel Mauritania

My enjoyment of Tichit was intermixed with anxiety about leaving the KLR behind.  I had to get word to America about my situation and find out if parts could be sent.  There is no cell phone reception in Tichit and the only way to get a message out is by Thuraya, the Arab World's oft-deficient satellite phone service.  We were having problems with the Spaniard's Thuraya, and pointing it towards Mecca (we were told that the satellite hovers above Islam's holiest city) wasn't helping.  So we went for local tech support.

Masato had made friends already, as he always does (language barriers mean nothing, people love the guy), and led one of the Spaniards and I down some sandy alleys and into the atrium of a local woman's house.  We sat down and soon wondered what exactly we had come here for.

Our tech support was a middle aged, heavy-set black Mauritanian woman with shades. Like all Mauritanians she moved very slowly, and we sat for ten minutes while she washed her hands, ate a meal of rice and goat with her friends, and sipped tea as if we weren't even there.  Another woman sat nearby with a breast out feeding her baby.  A few bags of what I hoped was camel milk were piled nearby.

Finally she turned to us and motioned for us to hand over the phone.  We did, and tried to explain that we could not get SMS to work, and did not know how to add minutes to our phone.  Of course communicating all this in English was getting us nowhere, so a ”translator” was called.

The translator was a young guy in his 20s, who although being from Tichit inexplicably could not speak French but spoke English. Or so we were told. Masato spent five minutes explaining in slow and basic English what we needed, and after five minutes of nodding, translating, and confidently proclaiming that he understood, our translator floored us when a look of surprise came to his face and he asked Masato enthusiastically "You speak English?"  We smiled, said our goodbyes, and promptly left, and I couldn't help but worry a little if whatever had just happened was contagious.

Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel MauritaniaThere is nothing better than disappearing to some insane, off the beaten path place that nobody in their right mind would go to, and Tichit delivered on all accounts. Unfortunately, the KLR had seen better days and it needed to be rescued back to Nouakchott for a costly clutch transplant.

 

 

Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel MauritaniaI sold my 70 liters of petrol for 13,000 ougiya and a liter of camel milk, which we passed around on my last night with the group. The others would continue on the piste towards Nema.  I spent two days limping back to Nouakchott, hearing the sounds of a screaming goat and my bike bouncing around in the back of the pickup truck as I reflected on my fond memories of Tichit.  There would be other adventures on other days, and with the clutch fixed I would soon be back on the road.  In shah Allah, as they say.

©Max Hunter

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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