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Entries about sahara

In the Footsteps of Caravans

Thirst, camels and fishy pasta – or how it is to walk through the Sahara. And a little bit on how to measure remoteness with Coca-Cola.

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Getting water

Getting water

The thirst was the worst part. I wanted something to drink constantly. No more than twenty seconds would pass by from a mouthful of water had been swallowed until I wanted to take another sip. But I had to walk it off, rationing my drinking to every half hour or so. Otherwise, we’d run our of water.

I didn’t expect walking through the Sahara would be easy, but my need for water surprised me – I would easily go through 8-10 litres a day – and I usually handle extreme heat well… The afternoons, in particular, were though, when the temperature, in the shade, rose to 40-45 degrees. Do I need to say that there isn’t much shade in the Sahara? And what shade we could find was only any help during our breaks. The hours walking would be endured in the burning sun. It all reminded me of when I was 18, and my parents took my sister and me on a vacation to Egypt. Temperatures there were high too and at some point one of the other tourists placed his electric thermometer on a rock in the sun to see how hot it was out of the shade. The thermometer crashed at 63 degrees, and we never got the final answer.

"Shade" in the Sahara

"Shade" in the Sahara

However, this trek was the main reason I had ventured out into the Sahara. While it is impossible to join a real Tuareg caravan – unless you bring a camera crew and the backing of a large broadcasting network (again, I’m looking at you, Michael Palin). Luckily, it’s possible to arrange one yourself. The word ‘caravan’ might be overdoing it as we only had one camel and that doesn’t really make a caravan, but the idea is the same. Anyway, what was eventually a ‘camel trek’ was my effort to follow in the footsteps of some of history’s most remarkable travellers. The caravans were the ships of North Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Connecting the Mediterranean, China, the Indian Ocean and Sub-Saharan Africa these traders (and their camels) brought silk, ebony, gold, wild animals and much more to Europe. From Mauritania and Morocco traders would regularly cross the Sahara or travel the length of it by foot. If you have ever visited Morocco or Egypt (or just seen the pictures in the brochures), you might have the idea that camels are for riding. That is only the case for the sick and the fatigue (and the worrier, but that’s another story). The traders of the caravans would walk. Camels are pack-animals here, and the load they carried was goods only. Using precious camel-power to carry the merchants themselves would limit the potential profit. So better pack a few extra kilos of products on the camels and then walk by its side. So that’s what I did.

Ali and his camel

Ali and his camel

Every morning Ali – my nomad guide and ‘camel-driver’ – and I would get up with the sun, around six a.m. He would brew tea, and we would eat the bread he had baked in the sand the previous night. Sidenote: Baking in the sand is simple: First, light a fire to heat the sand beneath it and push the fire aside when the sand is hot. Then, put the flat, raw dough in the sand and cover it with more sand. Third, light another fire next to the buried dough downwind so that the flames will heat the sand covering the doe. Once you have followed those three easy steps, let the soon-to-be-bread linger there for half an hour, after which it’s possible to uncover a baked piece of bread. Brush off the few grain of sand that sticks and voila – you have breakfast. Even through Ali put plenty of sugar in the tea, three shots of tea and a loaf bread is not a lot of energy to start our walk on. This tended to be an issue, as I would get hungry again within a few hours. But I’m not one to complain, so I didn’t.

Tea Break

Tea Break

Before we could leave, however, Ali had to find his camel. Yes, find it. In the Sahara. Camels aren’t tied down overnight as you’d might expect. Instead, Ali would tie its two front legs together, reducing any steps the camel could take to ten centimetres or so. This limits the camel’s range, but during the night, it’s still possible for it to get quite far on ten centimetre-steps. Often the camel would be out of sight by the morning, and Ali would then have to track it down.

Walking under the Sun

Walking under the Sun

Once the camel had been found and packed, we would walk for three to four hours continuously. No breaks, just keep walking. The only times we would pause was when Ali stopped for a few seconds to navigate, which he did by the sun. Our route was pretty easy, though. Due west for the first three days, then west, south-west for the final two. I could probably have asked for breaks, but Ali didn’t stop me, and I didn’t stop him. Something that Ali did praise me for – if I should brag but a little – and we could easily have done the trek in four days, not five. Though it’s still wouldn’t be the three days Ali would use to cover those 90 kilometres had he been by himself.

We would break from the afternoon heat around 11 and seek shelter from the sun under one of the few trees around. They don’t provide a lot of shade, but it’s better than nothing. Lunch (and dinner) would be rice or pasta with onion and canned sardines – all five days. Not very exciting, but it can stand the heat; obviously a decent quality of food out here. We would stay in the shade until four in the afternoon. Besides lunch, and drinking tea, there isn’t really much else do to than nap and read. So I have now finished the one book I brought with me…

Inside a Nomad Tent

Inside a Nomad Tent

The afternoon walks were the tough ones. While they only lasted for two hours, and the lunch had somewhat re-energised me, the heat was tormenting. The sun's rays had become ridiculously hot during the afternoon – the best resemblance I can come up with is standing too close to a giant bonfire. The morning walk would also still be in my legs, and I spend most afternoons watching the minutes pass by on my watch, wishing that it would be quicker. Once we’d stopped for the day, more tea was served before we would have another fishy serving of rice or pasta and once the sun had set, around nine, I was usually ready to crash on the thin blanket that, laid out in the sand, pretended to be a proper camp.

Desert "Camp"

Desert "Camp"

So passed the days. When so much of my day was spend walking and staring at the sand, there’s a lot of time for thinking. Just to give an example, in my head I manage to rewrite and perfect my opening line for a stage play I did during my first year of high school... hat was 15(!) years ago. I also came up with a range of lines worthy of Hemmingway for this blog, all of which (except this one) I have since forgotten. In general, I felt good. Sure, it was a challenge, but I wasn’t too exhausted, too thirsty (despite what I wrote above) and my legs weren't too sore – but I guess that is all relative. A notable exception was the second day when the strong winds that have followed me ever since Western Sahara suddenly decided to leave me alone. This made the heat (even more) unbearable, and I profoundly struggled through the second day. On the other hand, on the fourth day we were ahead of time and only walked for an hour-and-a-half before reaching an oasis for our mid-day break, meaning that most of the day was spend lying around during nothing – absolutely bliss. Even after that we still manage to arrive at the final oasis of Terjit before noon on the fifth day, giving me an extra half day to regroup.

Terjit!!

Terjit!!

And just to end this blog on another little side note: There are a few “travellers’ rules” to figure out when you are somewhere really remote – somewhere truly off the beaten track. I usually go with the ‘Coca-Cola Rule’. It’s a pretty simple, but clear, rule: Just ask the question, “is it possible to buy a Coca-Cola or is there any Coca-Cola merchandise [signs, parasols, small plastic tables, etc.] around?” If neither of those two criteria are fulfilled, you can indeed claim to be somewhere remote. The UN have actually considered using Coca-Cola’s deliverance system to provide humanitarian aid to isolated provinces, simply because the company is so efficient in spewing itself out everywhere. Though, neither in Chinguetti, Ouadane nor on the trek was there any signs of Coca-Cola, but as soon as we walked into Terjit, I saw a Coca-Cola poster. Though they didn’t have any Coca-Colas I could celebrate my arrival with (alcohol is illegal in Mauritania), it still marked the point where I knew that I had returned successfully from the desert.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 03:32 Archived in Mauritania Tagged desert travel trek adventure walk camel sahara exploration mauritania atar chinguetti adrar Comments (2)

Cities of the Sahara

Ancient caravan stops in the desert, which today moves to the sound of the sand blowing through the air and the guitars’ insisting sounds of the past.

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Heading into the Mauritanian Sahara, I had to pass through a few unavoidable cities and towns. The region's central city is a garrison town and administrative centre, and nothing worth talking about. However, there were a few other places.

Chinguetti

Chinguetti

The cities of the Sahara’s caravan trade seems to have one thing in common. They rise out of the Earth, more like growing three than buildings. Or, I could be mistaken, are they being consumed by the sand and rocks they stand on? It’s impossible to tell. Chinguetti, the most famous of Mauritania’s caravan stops (at its height 32,000 camels passed through here every day), seems at one with the sandy dunes that engulfed the ancient city. A hundred kilometres to the northeast, Ouadane’s crumbling houses, mosques and city walls give off the impression that the stones have just tumbled down the mountainside, randomly forming the buildings that now form a ruined ghost town. Regardless, there’s something in the air in these place. Something more than the dust and the sand always blowing in from the desert surrounding them. The whistling sounds sand-grains make as they fly through the air hits at a whiff of history, that simply won’t leave the cities.

Ouadane's Old Quarter

Ouadane's Old Quarter

These cities were not only important for caravans. Medieval Islamic scholars congregated on these towns, as the caravans did not only bring goods and trade. They also brought knowledge. These scholars began to collect manuscripts and books, not only religious texts – Koranic verses and Sharia law – but also history, cosmology, Greek philosophy and Babylonian laws.
All this a thousand years ago, when Europe was still caught in the Dark Ages, and people through that the Earth was flat. 400 years before Copernicus figured out that the Earth moves around the Sun (not the other way around) did these Islamic scholars draw Solar-centric illustrations in their books – in the middle of the Sahara. More than 15,000 of these books are still stored in private libraries in the desert cities of Mauritania.

Librarian with his manuscripts

Librarian with his manuscripts

This is something that simply makes my academic heart melt. History and knowledge are dear to me – my brain having taken damage permanently from my bachelor’s degree’s minor field, Philosophy. These texts are such an important and invaluable part of human history and it is almost inconceivable how they have survived here – in the middle of the Sahara – for hundreds and hundreds of years. Stored away in small dusty libraries, in crumbling houses, surrounded by the massive dunes of the desert. The fact that these have survived is a tribute to our abilities as humans to take care of our shared history. To quote the Internet: “Faith in Humanity restored.”

Desert mosque sunset

Desert mosque sunset

History isn’t the only attraction here. Once the scorching sun is setting over the horizon of dunes life, return to these ancient cities. Blankets will be spread in front of peoples' house and the tea will be prepared. An important evening ritual here is to keep one’s friendships alive and well. People will thus make rounds. From house to house, from blanket to blanket. Many friendships go back to peoples' childhoods; some go even further back. Families, who have been close-knit for generations. In these cases, keeping the relationship healthy is not only a matter of social comfort – it is a duty to one’s family, one’s parents and grand-parents that are not taken lightly.

Spontaneous concert

Spontaneous concert

Central for knitting the social fabric of Mauritanian social life is two things: tea and music. The only thing that possibly can interrupt these ‘rounds of friendships’ is when the musicians bring out their instruments. Lead by an insisting guitar (these days more likely to be electronic than traditional) men and women alike will gather, spontaneously, around the musicians. Though these a subtle affairs, with most people sitting down, all will join the musicians. All bands will thus have one or two ‘lead clappers’, who will lead the crowd by showing the rhythms of the claps. Often, when there is more than one band clapper, they will clap different rhythms. They are thus equally a part of the group than the guitar, the singer or the drums are. As an attendant, all I have to do is pick one of the clappers and follow his lead.

Tea on the way - literally

Tea on the way - literally

The other central element to Mauritanian life is tea. Tea is a cultural ritual in many countries, but in few is it obsessed over as it is in Mauritania. Tea here is not just ‘a cup of tea’. It is the fuel for conversation and as such, it is no small business. Tea will be offered to an arriving guest; by merely passing in front of someone's house; or – in the middle of nowhere – when the taxi-brousse driver needs a break. But make sure you have the time before accepting a tea-offer. Brewing tea correctly in Mauritania takes no less than 40 minutes and easily more than an hour. Two pots and at least three classes are required in an endless ritual of pouring the tea between the pots, between glasses and between glasses and pots the taste of each serving is perfected. Tea here is not one glass, but three. The first strong – this one is for health. The second neither too strong or too sweet – this one is a life without too many extremes. The last glass you get served is very, very sweet – this one is for love. The glasses large shot-glasses and the upper half consist of white foam made in the pouring process. Drinking the tea actually takes a fraction of the time it takes to make it. The mean time is filled with conversation.
Mauritania is a conservative country, and it is easy to see in daily life. I found it worth it to slow down and appreciate this in the Sahara towns historic setting. Especially since I was about to head further into the Sahara for something that would be a rather challenging walk. More on that in a few days.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 05:57 Archived in Mauritania Tagged people desert culture history travel adventure sahara mauritania chinguetti adrar ouadane wadane liberaries Comments (1)

Africa’s Wildest Train Ride

The continent got some crazy train rides, but riding through the night on a cargo train meant for transporting iron ore, not passengers, compares to nothing else.

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Waiting in the Sun

Waiting in the Sun

I happily endured a few extra hours of scorching Saharan sun to get the worst seat available. The shady area around the station building was reserved for those who had been intelligent enough to buy a ticket for the one passenger carriage that makes up the rear of the train. It wasn’t like the tickets were sold out either. Or too expensive. But I was here to ride the Iron Ore Train and I wasn’t going to take the easy option out as other, more famous, travellers had done before me (Michael Palin, I’m looking at you). To travel this train, you simply jump into one of the open waggons, endure the scorching sun, the freezing night and the impossible dusty twelve-hour journey. During those twelve hours, this train will bring me from the coastal city of Nouadhibou and 400 km into the Sahara.

The Iron Ore Train

The Iron Ore Train

This train is the longest in the world, averaging2.5 km in length and maxing out at 3 km. That’s between 250 and 300 waggons. It’s also one of the heaviest when these are loaded with iron ore dust. From what I’ve been told that also makes it the dustiest train ride in the world. But initially, the dust wasn’t a problem, the sun was. The train leaves once a day; at any given time, between two in the afternoon and midnight. So once you’ve shown up at the station, it’s basically a waiting game. For this train passengers aren’t the priority, the iron dust is. I turned up about a quarter to three, with no train in sight. The first hour was spent explaining the police why I was in Mauritania. Not in a controlling manner; they were clearly bored and wanted to chat. And their office was in the share, so I was in no hurry to get out of there.

Dust!

Dust!

I’d come prepared, for the sun, the cold and the dust. My long ski underway has been surprisingly useful in Africa. I’ve used it for hiking in the jungle on previous trips and wore it for much of the mishaps in the Banc du d’Arguin. It covers me from the sun; it transports the sweat away from my body and it isn’t as hot as you might think. Come night; it will also help keeping me warm. For the dust, I’d gotten a flour sack for my backpack and I’ve practised my turban/terrorist-scarf skills for a few days now. It worked out pretty well, but still amateurish compared to the Mauritanians, who are experts at covering their faces from the dust. People will go most of the day with scarves covering their face, and at times, it almost looks like Mauritania is a country inhabited by bank robbers.

Fighting for a bench seat

Fighting for a bench seat

While waiting in the sun, I quickly made friends with a handful of locals… Well, some of them where Mauritanian and somewhere refugees from the Sahrawi camps in southwestern Algeria, who worked as seasonal workers in Mauritania’s harbours. Oh, and they probably made friends with me – not the other way around. I tried to explain to them why I wanted to ride in the carts instead of the more comfortable carriage. They didn’t understand it. Why wouldn’t I just share the room in the carriage with them? I played the tourist card, telling them I was there for the experience of riding in the empty iron ore carts – “tourists are weird”. Truth be told, not even all the people crazy enough to go to West Africa is crazy enough to do this. I, however, had been looking forward to doing this for months.

And riding in the carriage has some drawbacks to it too. Getting a seat on one of the two benches along the walls will require vigorous infighting with around 50 locals. They will all be better at it, more experienced and less merciful than me; I would most likely end up sitting, with too little legroom, on the floor. It’s going to be overcrowded and stinking hot, so I’d rather try my luck with the dust.

The train arriving

The train arriving

The train rolled up at around five p.m. in a cloud of dust that only grew larger for each passing waggon. At least they were empty going into the desert. I picked some nice-looking locals and followed them up into one of the carts. Their friends, in the meantime, were busy loading the neighbouring cart with ten goats. If the goats could do this, I could too. We settled in, in the cart’s shady side. My new companions came armed with thick jackets, blankets and a small teapot. I’d broad along my trusted travel sweater, a windbreaker and a sleeping bag. For a bit of comfort, I’d copied numerous homeless people and brought a thick piece of cardboard to sit on.

The train sets out with what is by far the most frightening sound I have ever heard. Like a building coming crashing down on top of me or a thunder rolling ever closer. Instinctively I duck down into the cart, just before the waggon receives a heavy pull, moves forward and bumps into the waggon in from of it. In the same instant, the waggon behind ours does the same. The sound is the continuous ‘clonks’ of carts hitting each other, getting closer and closer. It was the same ever time we had stopped and during those twelve hours, I never got used to it.

Killing time0

Killing time0

Once the first excitement of rolling out had settled, this train ride – like most train rides – get pretty boresome. The landscape ‘outside’ is endless desert, impressive but dull. Whenever I got up to enjoy it, the dust storm generated by 250 train waggons hits me at full force. The interesting bits of the journey are experienced inside the cart. The little teapot, somehow, produced endless amounts of tea, which were generously shared amongst everybody. The talks quickly fell on football. Did I like Barcelona or Real Madrid better (Spanish football is the only football worth anything here)? I tried to play it diplomatically, as I actually prefer Athletic Madrid to the two formers, but that wouldn’t do. I had to pick one. Then, I’m easily a Barca-man, to the great satisfaction to that half of passengers who share my conviction. The other half insisted that Danes don’t know anything about Spanish football.

Despite the languish barriers, conversation flew relatively easy and day turned to night. This is where choosing the open waggons really pays off. The desert night’s sky is unrivalled, and if you haven’t seen one, you need to head to your nearest desert right away. Just lying on my back in the open cart, enjoying the view, made time fly. Suddenly, we arrived at Choem, in pitch blackness. Until the waiting pickups turned on their blinding headlights, ready to drive us the final kilometres, further into the Sahara.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 05:17 Archived in Mauritania Tagged desert train africa sahara nouadhibou mauritania wildest iron_ore choum Comments (0)

Stupid, but Lucky – Part Four: How Not to get Kidnapped

In the past sixteen years more than 90 Westerners have been kidnapped in the Sahara. I do not want to add to that number.

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Map of Sahara kidnappings. Source: Sahara-Overland.com

Map of Sahara kidnappings. Source: Sahara-Overland.com

The aim of this blog post is not to frighten anybody. Nonetheless, kidnapping is a frightening topic to discuss and to write about. Yet, I would argue that it is also a necessary topic when travelling certain parts of the world. Hell, when I choose to go where I am going, not looking into this stuff would make going here twice as stupid. Simply because kidnapping is going to be the most serious threat to me in particular parts of West Africa. In particular Mali, Niger and, less so, in Mauritania and Burkina. But is this not just paranoia, you ask? Let us go through the numbers:
Since 2003, 95 Westerners have been kidnapped in 28 kidnapping incidents across North Africa (see map) and most of these kidnappings have been in the Sahel area. Sahara-Overland has a detailed page if you are interested, but the outcomes are as follows: 49 hostages have been ransomed. 18 were freed in army raids while four have died in failed raids. Two have been released voluntarily by their captors; six have been executed by them and four have died in captivity, usually due to health issues. 12 are still held by their kidnappers.
So, what is the good news? Most victims have either been living permanently in the region or have been part of larger organised tours. Out of those 95, only 15 were travelling independently and only three of these were not ‘overlanders’, driving their own vehicles. So I am not exactly part of the main target group. Further, no tourists have been kidnapped since 2014 in the entire Sahara. Then again, this might just be because fewer people visit the area due to the risk of being kidnapped…

Source: The New York Times

Source: The New York Times

The other sort-of-good news is that most hostages are being held for ransom and that the kidnappers are becoming excellent at keeping their hostages alive. To the point where a Frenchwoman with cancer received her medication even though she was held captive in the middle of the Sahara. Danes are not targeted either. This is because the kidnappers are well aware that individual governments, in particular, the German, Austrian, French, Swiss, Spanish and Italian governments, are willing to pay ransoms. Kidnappers, therefore, target nationals from these countries. The governments of cause deny paying any ransoms. Instead, the payments are handled by ‘third parties’. Ransom payments then appear as “development assistance” in the national budgets. The “bad news” here is that no Danes have been kidnapped in the Sahara prior to my trip and I have not been able to figure out how Danes have been released elsewhere in the World. So I do not know how the Danish government would position itself in the hypothetical case that I would need a ransom. Though I do fear, they are on board with the American and British ditto, who do not pay ransom. This, put bluntly, means that I have less of a risk of being kidnapped, but a higher risk getting executed should it actually happen. So that should probably be the first lesson: Know who is the target group, and the do not be part of it.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

The second lesson would be to realise that the kidnappings are rarely spontaneous. By now they are most often planned, and well planned too. The perpetrators need a getaway route, a car and a hiding-place for the first few days. In most cases kidnappings last months, requiring, even more, preperation. The groups in the Sahara are indeed getting more professional, but even they need a few days to figure out your nationality. That means it is possible to take a few precautions. Not staying in the same hotel for more than a couple of nights goes a long way. So does mixing up your daily routines; taking different routes from, say, your hotel to the market; eating at a new place for every meal; avoiding empty streets, and not going out at night. These precautions should be taking when travelling in areas where kidnapping risks are high. Lastly, avoiding public transportation might be a good idea for certain trips. The alternative here is to get your hotel or local authorities to recommend you a reliable driver who can ferry you safely across rural areas where the government have less control.

Me and my reliable driver, Afghanistan

Me and my reliable driver, Afghanistan

Finally, anyone contemplating going to an area where there is a risk of kidnapping need to understand the mental dilemma this brings. I would not travel here if I were not ready to face the risk – nor should anybody else. However, this is a very selfish position to take. Just like suicide is a selfish act. My death or kidnapping will affect my friends and family far greater than it would affect me, and they had no chance to influence my decision about going here. Death is certain for all of us and once we are dead – like before we were born – we will not be around to worry about the fact that we are not alive. All the pain and suffering are left for those we leave behind.
But how great is the danger really? In 2012 10.000 people visited Mali (down from 200.000 in 2011). Out or those 210.000 visitors seven got kidnapped. So the risk is limited. Of the 10.000 people visiting Mali in 2012, just one got kidnapped. The other Mali-kidnapping in 2012 was a missionary living permanently in the country. And all eight people kidnapped got kidnapped in parts of Mali I do not plan to visit. In other words: I am still far more likely to lose my lift to the crazy traffic down here than to any terrorist attack or kidnapping. Not that I plan to get killed in any specific way down here – but if I go, I would rather do it while doing travelling – something that I love – than in a traffic accident back home in Copenhagen.

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titude-mon..ofbrian-650.jpg

And after all that uncomfortable and depressing reading we should probably end on a higher note. So here is a quote from Monty Python’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life:

For life is quite absurd, and death's the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow
Forget about your sin - give the audience a grin
Enjoy it - it's your last chance anyhow.

So always look on the bright side of death...
(Whistle)
a-Just before you draw your terminal breath...
(Whistle)

Life's a piece of shit, when you look at it
Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true
You'll see its all a show, keep 'em laughing as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you

And...
Always look on the bright side of life...
(Whistle)

Posted by askgudmundsen 05:16 Archived in Morocco Tagged travel tourist sahara mali danger niger west_africa mauritania kidnapping terrorists al-qaeda sahel burkina_faso Comments (4)

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