The new life
I had what many may consider, a disappointing end to the last decade. Having been divorced by the woman I loved, I fell head over heels again and like someone on a treadmill who couldn’t jump off, once again committed matricide. This could have made for a happy ending had she not been in a relationship with her work supervisor. She told me soon after the wedding, coinciding with a work drought and various other problems. I was distraught and fought for a year to save the marriage but reheated cabbage is never the same and one day she was gone.
When I thought things could sink no lower, I slipped and fell down the stairs, breaking my foot. I’d been heading down to open wine. I lay alone in the dark for an hour, winded, in agony, unable to move and staring at the bottle just out of reach.
I was literally at one of my lowest points. We often need these to kick start massive change and it then it became clear what I needed to do. I needed to challenge myself and live my passions: Africa, travel, adventure.
Once better, I would cross the Sahara to West Africa, by any means possible. I needed space and time to think. A Sunday afternoon stroll wouldn’t cut it. I called into work to say I was now well and would no longer be coming in.
Unlike the writer of “Eat, pray and love*”, this journey didn’t provide comfort, love or spiritual insight – at least not immediately. Before reaching paradise, it was necessary to cross a desert, both physically and metaphorically.
*the travel/self-help bestseller
Welcome back to Africa
I flew to Fez in northern Morocco at the end of January when it was cold and wet. After a taxi ride from the airport I emerged into a scrum of touts, all offering cheaper hotels. I followed one, but when we arrived, the room was three times the price he’d stated. I’d been led through labyrinthine alleys and wasn’t entirely sure where I was. It was dark, wet, I was cold and hungry and could barely communicate. Which in my language meant I was back in my element.
After taking an alternative room, I headed into the maze of the medina. The nearby entrance was grand and decorated with blue tiles. Small cafes, like caves, were dug into the city walls and full of men drinking mint tea. The alleys of the souk swarmed with people, some trendy and some wearing hooded robes like the Jawas in Star Wars.
Fez is the largest Islamic medieval city in the world and to appreciate it fully and not get lost, I needed a guide. As I ate harira, a thin breakfast gruel, I was offered several by my spectators. Hamid was a short fat man with a walrus moustache who produced more mucous than a camel. He took me in his wreck of a car to the opposite side of the city, from where we slowly walked back. It seemed little different from the times of the Arabian nights – goats heads, pointy slippers, ornate tea pots, heaps of olives and spices, craftsmen perched in holes in the walls, pulsating and wailing Arabic music, the smell of spices, cooking meat, perfumes and drains. I visited mosques – one held 20,000 people, ancient universities and the obligatory carpet shops. As we approached the leather tanneries, the smell of rotting skins filled the air. We climbed through several floors of leather jacket shops for a view across pits for stripping and dying the skins and where workers swarmed around like ants.
Although I was there, and, dutiful explorer that I am, I took it all in, my head and heart were still back in Brighton. I had needed to get away, but was I doing the right thing? I wasn’t sure. Just one day away and I was lonely, struggling to communicate and jealously watching romantic European couples on their weekend city breaks. But was too late to turn back and I knew deep down I’d be okay and that I needed to make this journey.
Following a fever, I went to Rabat in an old bus after travelling across the green hills between the Riff and Middle Atlas mountains. I thought I’d arrived in Rabat, but actually I’d gotten off early at the neighbouring city of Sale.
Later, whilst wandering around the medina, I was joined by a “friend” (guide) who insisted he didn’t want anything, then got angry later when I gave him something, as it wasn’t enough. He showed me through some old streets and into a private house with a fine view across the city. It was here that I hit a slick of bird shit that may as well have been ice. I went up into the air horizontally, landing on the small of my back. I was winded and could barely walk. In fact I had a sore back for the next 2 or 3 weeks which is not great when you know you have thousands of miles of rickety buses ahead. As I limped out, the house owner demanded an outrageous fee for the privilege. I was standing soaked with my back and trousers smeared in shit, barely able to walk. After some negotiations we came to a compromise that instead of paying, I wouldn’t pay.
I spent the next day avoiding guides, taking the wrong buses and dropping my passport at the Mauritanian embassy. The visa was going to be ready the following afternoon, so I went to the Casbah to explore the pretty blue alleyways and drink mint tea overlooking the river estuary. It was cold and I was dressed for deserts, so the best thing to do was be in bed by 7pm, even though I was not in the mood for sleeping.
I spent the next morning of drinking coffee and people watching, then collected my visa and headed to the train station for the 15:30 Marrakech express via Casablanca. I arrived into Marrakech late in the evening and found a flea pit on the edge of the vast Djemma El-Fnarr square with its snake charmers, food stalls, musicians, three legged monkeys, story tellers, beggars and lunatics. I ate pastilla, a local speciality which is spicy chicken and almonds in layers of flaky pastry with liberal sprinklings of icing sugar. After a day of exploring the souks and monuments such as Bahia palace and the Saadian tombs, I was perking up and ready to move on from the beaten track and to head over to the ditch.
The bus south through Western Sahara was a 24 hour journey which gave me time to think. My thoughts ranged from extreme sorrow to wondering how much a hit man costs, but as the trip progressed, I managed feeling excitement about the journey as well as curiosity to what the future would hold. The Moroccans I meet on the bus were the nicest I’d met and the first not trying to sell me something. In fact, they ordered tajines, olives and drinks at the various stops and wouldn’t let me put my hand in my pocket.
We crossed the mountains and next morning, I awoke in desert proper. It was flat, desolate, full of camels and with a cliff drop into the Atlantic on the west.
We passed stunning turquoise lagoons full of kite surfers on the Dakhla peninsular. The town itself was an urban mess. I took a room in the Sahara Hotel and explored the tiny town centre and beach front, which reminded me of the sixties shopping precinct of my home town. I met and chatted to many Senegalese and Guineans, mainly about if I could help with British visas. The answer was, and is, no.
From here on, there wasn’t much bus transport – there wasn’t much anything actually – and so I took shared taxis which squeezed lots of people in and covered vast distances quite cheaply. I left the following morning, crossing the tropic of Cancer and down through the desert to the Mauritanian border. As with all deserts, the scenery changed constantly, with scrub, bleached out sand dunes, gravel plains and even fields of rusty red flowers.
There had been numerous road blocks throughout the region, each of which I had to state my all my details, then wait whilst they photocopied my passport. At the border itself, I was told the official had gone to lunch, so stood waiting in the windswept wilderness for an hour or so. He returned, gave me the stamps I required and we drove into the three kilometers of no mans land. This section was a very slow bumpy ride. We were overtaken by a herd of camels. Mauritanians emerged from the haze with their distinctive blue robes, from which they pulled wads of cash for exchange and phone credit cards for sale. At the Mauritanian customs I had a ten minute interrogation as to what my water purification tablets and sun screen were for. There was a wait whilst they searched the car, so I flicked through the photos I’d taken on the camera screen. Mistake – although I knew not to take photos at a border, and hadn’t intended to, the officials became very angry and demanded to look at every photo. I’m not entirely sure why they’re so defensive as the border post is a concrete box in the middle of some sand dunes, but heigh
It’s fair to say that Mauritania was one of the more challenging countries that I have visited. Despite being twice the size of France, many people I spoke to had not heard of it (I mean back i
n the UK – Mauritanians have heard of it) and certainly couldn’t place it on a map. I only really knew it as a place where slavery still exists. Although this was made illegal in 1980, there are thought to be around 100,000 Mauritanians still enslaved.
I was heading to Nouadhibou, a dusty junction town in the featureless desert and main settlement in the north of the country. Everything was more run down than Morocco. The cars were wrecks – the only one without a broken window was owned by the Chinese working at the port – and reggae boomed from their sound systems.
I stayed in a concrete room with thin foam mattress at a campsite run by Mohammed. There wasn’t much to do. I wandered around, soaking up the ambiance and walked past the port to see ship wrecks strewn across the bay, and men salvaging metal piece by piece, welding wearing sun glasses. Mauritanian television alternated between reports of remote agricultural meetings, where people sit around plastic tables looking embarrassed, and close up shots of people in prison, who also looked somewhat stressed.
Iron ore train
Every day, the two km long iron ore train travels from Nouadhibou, d
eep into the Sahara, near the Algerian and Malian borders. There is one dilapidated passenger car or you can
travel for free in the iron ore containers. I went for a seat so I could get photos, but all the padding had been ripped away, leaving bare metal to sit on and the windows were too grimy to see through properly. The station was another concrete box amidst some sand dunes where a few donkey and carts brought goods for the train and passengers sat waiting with goats – their bleating heads poked out the top of rice sacks.
My fellow passengers ignored me, the only white person onboard. They gossiped between prayers, where they knelt on the floor, murmuring and mysteriously rubbing themselves with black rock. We trundled along at slightly faster than walking pace through sand plains until darkness fell. I drifted in and out of sleep, but it was cold, dust blew through the carriage and the train jolted continuously, sometimes violently. I felt every bump in my sore back. I was aiming to get off at the town of Choum, which according to the bloody lonely planet, you could not miss and is where most people alight.
At 2am, we started slowing. I saw no lights or signs of life. A couple of people jumped off, a truck revved, turned its lights on and pulled away. I was half asleep and figured that can’t be it. Twenty minutes later the guard wandered down and I asked him how long till Choum? “Derriere” he replied, waving his hand back. Oh cripes I thought, a chill running down by battered spine. Okay, I’ll get off at the next stop and try to hire a camel to take me back. There were no roads in this area and I’d been told the end of the train line was deep into alleged Al Quaeda territory and off limits to foreigners.
A mild arrest
At 6 am, as the sun appeared, turning the sky into a raspberry ripple, we reached the next stop – the end of the line. I was also at the end of my line as the fellow bunking above me tested every ringtone of his phone between 4am and 5 am. The guard told me to wait and everyone else got off, heading to work in the iron ore mine. I hung around in the cold, then a gendarme arrived in a jeep and took me off to a shipping container. I was questioned, and attempted to explain my predicament in French. They didn’t look too convinced and told me that for my own safety I’d be locked up in the container for the day. I spent the day sitting, wondering why I hadn’t bought a book to read, and smiling at my guard who made endless pots of ultra-sweet tea.
At the end of the day, the gendarmes reappeared and stuck me in the back of the jeep. We scooted around the town, back and forth, picking up other people. Then we drove out across a piece of desert. I noticed a great tangled roll of barbed wire and then a wooden sign with a large “MORT” in red letters (French for death – as featured in mortgage – pay till you die). It was a mine field, a new tourism experience for me, despite previous holidays in Cambodia, Afghanistan and Vietnams DMZ. This was a thoughtful minefield; old tyres marked a route across the sand and as long as you stayed within 5 or 10 meters of them you were safe. That didn’t stop me having a mild anxiety attack though. I’d come to sort my head out, not have it blown off.
This train station was even more remote than Nouadhibous. Actually, there was no station. Just 10 people and a pile of luggage by the track. We stood like hitchers waiting. And waiting.
That period may have been the low point of the trip. I’d wrapped my head in a tuareg scarf to keep the warmth in and the sand out. Also, so that no one could see my eyes. I wasn’t exactly in the middle of nowhere, but reckoned I wasn’t far away. I could barely communicate with anyone, I had no idea where I’d end up that night or whether I’d eat. I took a walk into the dunes and had the wind changed, the other passengers may have heard the long howls of an animal in pain.
A few hours later, a train arrived and we piled on board. It was in my carriage that I met my first friendly Mauritanians. A couple of young guys were building telephone masts. They spoke about 20 words of English and that’s enough for me to chat for a few hours. They shared some goats milk and when we passed Choum, accompanied me off of the train to make sure I didn’t get stuck in an endless iron ore train yo-yo.
Quite frankly, when I saw Choum I decided not to be too hard on myself for missing it the first time. There was no road or electricity, just five or six shacks built around a central dust bowl. I was taken into a shop and the keeper told me it was forbidden by Mauritanian and Islamic tradition to turn away a stranger in the night. Next door was a room with dirt floor and a bunch of snoring camel herders. I bedded down in my sleeping bag, making sure to set my alarm for 4am when the (once a day) public transport left for Atar, my ultimate destination. It was 2am.
I didn’t hear the alarm. I awoke with a start, checked my phone and saw it was 6 am. The camel herders had left. Once again, I filled with dread, thinking I had to wait another day for the truck to Atar. Fortunately, this being Africa, transport rarely leaves on time. A truck was loading up and there’s always room for one more. I piled in and soon was racing down sand tracks – sometimes just the marks of the previous vehicle. We crossed a plateau, through remote villages with thatched beehive shaped huts, eventually seeing a mass of palm trees and the town of Atar. The driver, Mohammed, beckoned me to his sisters shop and she gave me coffee that tasted like she’d brewed the dirt from under her finger nails.
Escape from the Sahara and goat rings
We were close to some desert towns with ancient Saharan history and spectacular landscapes. Mohammed explained he’d take me in his jeep and I just had to pay him a few hundred pounds for the privilege. I walked out laughing manically and on to the garage. It seemed it was going to be difficult to explore further without a lot of time or money to hire a 4wd and I was tired. I’d almost crossed the Sahara. This was supposed to be a break. I was thinking about the tropical paradise of southern Senegal and decided there and then, no more desert. I needed greenery, cold beers and a beach.
So, I took a shared taxi to the Mauritanian capital of Noakshott for the final leg of the journey, stopping at a nameless two goat town. My first meal in three days was a plate of greasy yellow rice mixed with goat sphincter, tubes and fat.
Despite being an old Africa hand, Senegal was a revelation; a riot of colours, sounds, smells, history, wildlife and super friendly people, bar the occasional rascal. Noakshott had been fun, and I’d finally eaten well in Lebanese restaurants. It was a short taxi ride with what can only be described as psychedelic Sufi chants blasting to the point of distortion, to the Senegal river which divides Senegal from Mauritania. A small boy poled me across in a dug out canoe. Within half hour of arriving in the nation, my taxi was forced to the side of the road as dozens of black 4wd’s passed and I caught a glimpse of President Wade.
I rehydrated in Saint Louis, a lovely island town with crumbling French architecture reminiscent of Hanoi. Then, after a couple of days exploring Dakar, I wound up in a cramped bus bound for Ziguinchor in the Casamance, south of the Gambia. My neighbour on the thin wooden bench where I was able to rest one cheek at a time, was Bassirou, a tailor and singer songwriter. We talked and he told me of his home in Abene. It sounded lovely so I decided to visit.
It wasn’t plain sailing. We arrived in the Gambia as the sunset, crossing the river on a ferry and then continuing. Due to past troubles, there is a military presence and roads are often closed by 8pm. This happened to us, just an hour or two before Ziguinchor. We were in a tiny village with one small shop lit by a candle. It had no food, bar sweet biscuits. I lay my sleeping bag out in the sand by the road side and slept, unlike the other passengers who had no such luxury and crowded around a fire all night. They had the last laugh as I was woken by a goat licking my face.
At 8am, tanks rumbled past – always disconcerting in a poverty ridden African state – and the road opened. We continued on our way as parrots swooped from overhead and monkeys ran across the road hooting.
Abene was my paradise at the end of the desert. It is a small village on a beautiful beach, full of rastas and the beat of the djembe. Bassirou took me to an artists house, where a local diola girl called Khady worked. The Swiss owner wanted a European man to look after the guest house whilst she returned home for a few months. A few months where I was able to rest, think, relax and slowly rebuild myself. As one door of my life closed, another opened.
For me, travel is all about personal growth, awareness and sensitivity. I would recommend it to anyone who’s had a difficult time. Maybe go to Thailand instead of Mauritania though. Sure, some people will say you’re running away and the problems will still be there when you get home. What they don’t realise is that you’ll be a different person. I no longer felt any animosity to my ex and forgave her. That’s not to say I condoned her behavior or wanted to be friends. I simply accepted it was what it was and the upside was that I was now free to do what I should have always done.
Abene is now my home and I live with Khady and our two month old son, Gulliver. His middle name is Bassirou. I’m eating healthy nutritious food every day, building our own home and have finally found the inner peace and the happiness that has eluded me in Europe.
Maybe the “Eat, Pray, Love” analogy wasn’t so off mark after all?