Article And Photos By: Tim “Buzzy” Bussey
Originally Published In The January 2012 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine
high-pitched sound of a motorcycle engine could be heard outside the wall that surrounded the Auberge Sahara hostel. The night guard opened the large steel doors and the headlight of a dual sport bike lit up the darkness of the hostel courtyard. After parking along the wall next to my Wide Glide and unloading his gear, the rider came up on the porch, looked at me and said, “So, you must be the American I heard was riding a Harley in Mauritania.” Speaking with a thick German accent, he told me his name was Julian and that he had just rode down from Atar. He got caught riding after dark and told me how he had several near misses with traffic crossing Nouakchott looking for the Auberge Sahara. He didn’t say much about where he was going only that he was heading towards Mali in the morning. I said that I had a ten-day transit visa for Mauritania and was heading up to the Atar region in the morning. We talked for a few minutes then Julian went inside to get a room for the night. Atar was three hundred miles to the northeast of the capital. I had only been in the country for a day and had ridden down from the northern border. I thought to myself that news must travel fast around here for him to have heard that I was in the country. The voice in my head said, ‘Bro, that can’t be good.’ Well at least I wasn’t the only westerner riding in Mauritania.
Tourism in Mauritania is almost nonexistent since Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb began a reign of terror starting with the killing of a family of French tourists in December of 2007. This incident and threats from Al-Qaeda against the Paris-Dakar race were cause for the race to be canceled after running for thirty years. The decision to call off the race was a blow to freedom. Al-Qaeda had not only run off the thousands of people involved in the race but had also isolated Mauritania even further. The Paris-Dakar rally was moved to South America along with the millions of dollars that was spent annually in this, one of the poorest countries on earth. In the summer of 2009, a gunman killed an American professor teaching in Nouakchott. They claimed he was “spreading Christianity.” Then in November of 2009, four Spanish aid workers were kidnapped on the road going from Nouadhibou to Nouakchott, the road I had just taken from the border with Morocco. Early in 2010, “Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb” declared war on Mauritania and continued with kidnappings and attacks on western interests and the Mauritanian security forces. Mauritania is a moderate Muslim country that has only recently come under attack by these extremists. While talking to a Mauritanian of Moorish descent, I asked what the feeling of the local people towards Al-Qaeda was. He replied, “They are a problem for you and they are a problem for us.”
A press release from the Peace Corps in 2009 stated that, “The Peace Corps has suspended its volunteer program in Mauritania due to safety and security concerns. All Peace Corps/Mauritania Volunteers are currently in Senegal; they will not be returning to Mauritania. Although it is the agency’s position that the volunteers are relatively safe in their communities and villages, it is potentially dangerous for them to travel safely in the country.” Tourism had dropped to almost nothing and major aid groups had evacuated the region. The few Europeans staying at the hostel were only stopping over for the night and then heading either south to Senegal or north to Morocco. There are only three major roads in Mauritania. They all intersect in Nauokchott. The north-south road goes from Morocco to Senegal. The east-west route, known as the “road of hope,” goes from the Nauokchott to Nema, 1100 kilometers to the west. It runs through several cities and villages and is the main route for travel to Mali. The road I would be taking ran 440 kilometers to the northwest ending in the small city of Atar. After Atar, desert tracks and dirt roads were the only options.
On this ride I was determined to get to the village of Chinguetti about 2 hours to the east of Atar. Founded in the 13th century, it was the center of several trans-Saharan trade routes. Chinguetti once was a major center of Islamic studies in both religion and the sciences. Today you can still visit the ancient libraries that are now endangered of being buried by the encroaching sands of the Sahara. It was about an eight-hour ride from Nauokchott with only one village along the way that had a couple of gas stations. I left the hostel early and rode into the capital looking for the road to Atar. As often happens in strange cities not knowing the language, I became lost and had to stop several times and try to get directions. Riding through the city was an adventure. The streets were covered in sand. Donkey carts were as common as were old cars and trucks. Women were wearing colorful fabrics called a mulafa that wrapped around the body and then around the head to form a veil. The men wore sleeveless robes of either blue or white and turbans that covered their heads and faces. It seemed that fashion hadn’t changed much since biblical times. I must have looked equally strange to the locals as I rode by on a Harley wearing a full-faced helmet with a helmet camera mounted on top.
Once I found my way out of the city, the scenery changed to empty desert. There were few signs of life as I rode further into the desert. A few scattered houses or tents and camels were the only sights until I reached the village that I was told would have gas. I pulled into the first gas station I came to. There was a guy sleeping on the floor of the station and no one else around. I tried to get his attention but he didn’t move. I went back to my bike and started up the engine, cranking it up until he finally came out only to let me know that the pumps were empty. He pointed down the street to where the only other station in town was and they too were out of gas. An older man came up to me and with limited English tried to tell me someone would have gas in the market. As he was trying to help, a crowd of younger guys began forming and arguing about who would show me where I could find gas. Two guys with a truck led me through the market to where someone was selling gasoline out of plastic containers for triple the price of what it was back in the city. I also had them fill up the empty gas can I had strapped on the back of my bike. I had been lucky so far finding gas and I didn’t want to be stranded this far from civilization with an empty gas tank. Even after pouring more gas on the ground than in my tank the two guys expected a tip. I took a picture of the two of them, paid for the gas and found my way back to the main road.
As I was riding out of the village I saw the old man who had tried to help me before the younger guys ran him off. He was riding a donkey cart with two of his wives in the back. I pulled him over and gave him a couple of bucks for his help. As I rode out of the village, a line from an old Doors song began playing in my head: “Strange days have found us, strange days have tracked us down.” I rode for a few hours more then saw some round-shaped buildings with a sign that said camping. I pulled off the road and parked in front of what was a store. I unstrapped the spare gas can and filled my tank up. I went in the store and bought a couple bottles of water. The people inside didn’t seem friendly so I made it a short break and got back on the road. By now it was hotter than Arizona in the summer and I wanted to get to Atar and find the campground I had read about on the Internet. Twenty miles outside of Atar, the road was blocked with a military checkpoint. The soldiers were dressed in army green with green turbans covering their heads and faces and wearing sunglasses. I got the feeling I was in a bad Ninja Turtle movie as one of the soldiers took my passport and began questioning what I was doing. I told him I was going to Atar. He didn’t seem to like the idea that I was in the area. Handing back my passport he said, “Atar, no further, understand?” I replied, “Atar then back to Nauokchott.” Actually I was going a little further but I figured it was best to agree with him.
Riding into Atar I followed the directions that the owner of the Bab Sahara campground had emailed me. I rode down the sand road looking for the place when a guy began waving at me. I pulled over and he said, “So you made it.” I asked if he was Jus, the owner of Bab Sahara, before realizing it was Manual, the German backpacker I had spent the day with back in Morocco. I was surprised to see Manual up in Atar. Back in Morocco he said his plan was to just pass through Mauritania and get to Senegal. I asked what he was doing in Atar. He replied, “You said it was a cool place so I came here.” I laughed and said, “Dude, nobody listens to me.” The Bab Sahara is the “coolest” campground I ever stayed at. Jus, the owner, and his wife are from Europe and have been living in Mauritania for years. The campground was on the edge of town. Inside the walls that surrounded the property there were a few large tents, an outside shaded dining area, a small kitchen that campers could use, and a couple of round style rooms made of stone, one with air-conditioning. Manual was the only other guest at the time besides Hamm, a friend of Jus who spends time each year in Mauritania. Manual was on a budget and was sleeping under one of the open tents for a few euros a night. I thought about it for a few seconds then went for the airconditioned hut.
After getting settled in, Manual and I caught up on what had been going on since we parted back in Rabat. Manual had spent over a week in Marrakesh at a hotel that had an endless party going on before catching rides with trucks down to Mauritania. We talked about there being no tourists in the country at the time and joked about being the only “tourists” with a whole country to ourselves. It turned out that Julian, the other rider I had met back at the hostel in the capital had also been staying at the Bab Sahara. Whenever I plan a long trip, there is always one place that I decide I must make it to for the ride to be a success. On a ride to Central America it was the Panama Canal, for the Middle East it was Damascus and on this run it was the desert town of Chinguetti. No real reason why.