dispatches aperture poste restante etcetera

Crossing the Sahara
By Gregg - 15 Jun, 1999

Page 3 of 8

At around 7:30 we took off again driving as a group for one final hour. We would camp here for the night in a dirt car park that had a couple basic concrete buildings. This area is referred to as a fort and is surrounded by land mines.

One of the buildings was designated for Mauritanians, the other for foreigners. Some folks had tents or slept in their vehicles. Ev and I bummed a sleeping pad thus sparing us a night sleeping directly on the concrete. Tanguy nursed his ankle. Someone strummed a guitar.

In the morning, the vehicles queued up soon after we awoke. But then we just sat there. Slowly the passports were returned. This was our last interaction with the Moroccan military. After awhile we headed out to cross the strip of no-man's land between Morocco and Mauritania.

There was no longer any pavement and we picked our way through the terrain slowly. The sand wasn't too deep—mainly it was rocky desert. After about 6km, we picked up the remains of what was the old 'Spanish Road' (from when this was the Spanish Sahara). But most of the pavement was under sand and it was still slow going.

Ten kilometers further on we reached the first Mauritanian border post—a small stone shack. One at a time, each of us passed our passport through an opening in one of the walls to a man sitting in the dark interior. He checked visas (for the few of us who needed them. French, and of course Mauritanians, didn't) and asked questions—address, father's name, mother's name, religion, telephone!—and entered all the particulars in a log book. Our passports were kept—to be returned at the end of the convoy run. A French soldier stood inside the shack as well. (Apparently the French still have some sort of presence here but this was the only evidence we saw of it.)

As the occupants of each vehicle were processed, the driver was told to drive ahead about 100 meters and to join the growing queue. Between these two points was a steep mound of sand. The logical path for a vehicle was just to the side of the mound. This way was soft sand, but flat. But for some unfathomable reason this way was blocked by a barricade forcing vehicles to go up and over the mound. Many of the vehicles got stuck trying and as they did those of us who had already checked through would help by digging sand and pushing.

Riding in a four wheel drive I was begining to be amazed that ordinary two wheel drive cars would make this journey. During the next few days, the way would be even more difficult; very much so. Even the four wheel drive vehicles would get stuck repeatedly.

The ordinary cars would get stuck often but ultimately they would successfully complete the journey. At least most of the time. Some of these guys did this this run regularly. Once before they had started out with four cars and by the end only one remained. For them this trek was part adventure, part business. Typically, an old battered Mercedes is bought in Germany and given a cheap paint job that makes it look better than it is. The car is then driven to Mauritania where it is sold for a profit; not much, but enough to pay for the trip and maybe a little more.

There were about ten of these 'eurobangers' in our convoy. By the time the cars reach Mauritania they're that much the worse for wear. One Peugeot amongst us, driven by three French guys, had the entire length of one side ripped up. They'd rolled it in a ditch in Spain when the driver fell asleep at the wheel.

One car in the convoy stood out from the rest; a late-model Mercedes in mint condition. It was being driven by a Mauritanian. Later we would get the scoop. Cars are stolen in Europe and taken to Italy where their identities are changed. New papers are drafted. Moroccans working in Italy buy them there and drive them home to Morocco where they are sold to Mauritanians.




  Border Sketches
  The Mosque Alarm Clock
  Big Boys and Tonka Toys
Crossing the Sahara

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