For a detailed trip itinerary, click here or for more info on the company that runs it (African Trails) visit:

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Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Police, Scorpions, Goat's Head Stew, Al Qaeda & More Police…and Camel Spiders too. (Essaouira, Taghazout, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Nouadhibou, Nouakchott and Ayoune el Etrasse.)

….After “The Night of the Tent Slasher” (I’ve already filed for movie rights for this name) we had to head to the Essaouira cop-shop to get a police report for insurance purposes. We went to the ‘gendarmerie’ first thing and the place was as you’d imagine it in this part of the world – a sweaty, grimy, filth-pit with broken old chairs and crooked tables for desks. There were even old-fashioned type-writers. The gendarmes we spoke to had faces that told many tales too – broken noses and heavily scarred cheeks that gave way to the occasional smile; the few teeth unveiled telling of a thousand Third World cigarettes.

We were fortunate enough to have Ian (the Canuck I mentioned in our previous entry) with us who could parler avec le gendarmes and expliquer what happened on our behalf. The sympathetic police told us to “come back later – it’s Monday morning and we don’t want to deal with this right now”. So Lara and I spent the morning exploring Essaouira, bartering for new bits and pieces to replace those that had been stolen…I bought an awesome pair of “Ran Bay” sunglasses for about 50 dirhams and Lara got herself a "genuine" “D&G” watch that, when it’s not rusting all over her wrist, tells the correct time at least once a day. I also got a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and didn’t get charged extra for the chunks of rancid meat that had worked their way through the juicer which had no doubt been used to mince meat earlier that day.

We went back to the cop-shop at 3pm (sans our Canuck friend) thinking that everything had been explained and that we’d just be picking up our report. In fact, we had to start again from fresh. Without Ian there, it was down to my GCSE French from 13 years ago to summarise, on paper, what had happened. The guy who was taking our report (Mr Teeth) didn’t really understand my epic summary (or “Une Summarrie Epique” as they say in France) so he called upon the English-speaking head honcho (Mr Scar – Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves had done a job on this guy) to help me out. As I explained our story in English, he proceeded to sing “Frere Jacque” over the top of my explanation…something told me that these bozos weren’t taken us seriously. Two hours passed before Lara, me and our Yank friend Neal (the one who’d had his boots stolen) got our reports and got t.f. out of there. Despite me having two bad stories from two different trips there (read previous blog entry), Essaouira really was a cool place.

The letter that we had to wait all day AND pay for.

After Essaouira we followed the coast southwards through various stunning clifftop lookouts and quaint wee surf villages.

One stop that stands out was called ‘Taghazout’ (or something like that) where we all stopped for a surf and swim…it’s also the place where the whole town had a fit of laughter at the expense of the “muezzin” who had a coughing fit mid-way through his call to prayer. (Aside: as romantic the sound of these calls to prayer can be, after a while the nasal drone can cause the ears to itch…Lara woke up to one at 4.30 one morning thinking there was a big mozzy buzzing around us.)

As we followed the coast further south we passed through Western Sahara. Although this place is officially part of Morroco, the inhabitants are fiercely independent. As we passed through there, the landscape got more and more desolate – and you’ll see from the below just how little there was between us and the horizon everywhere we looked.

A typical bush camp in Western Sahara - nowhere to hide!

This made toilet time at bush camp particularly hard for the girls. One night, feeling all chivalric (read: bored and wanting something to do), me and a couple of the homies decided to build a throne/shelter for those in need to hide behind. The project started off well, with big flat stones for foundation but as it got high enough to hide a person in squatting position, we had to look further afield for good stones. This is where I interrupted a little green scorpion with little man complex…he didn’t like us at all…and nor did his friend who was chilling under another rock nearby. Apparently these boys could pack a pretty mean punch. Needless to say, the throne didn’t get used after all of our efforts. Scorpions don’t make good toilet paper.

Scorpions don't make good toilet paper.

That day happened to be April 1st and Lara was on cook group that night – as much as I’d have liked to have played a prank with the scorpion, I have my limits. Instead, it was Lara and her Kiwi cook-group mate (Sonya) who pranked us by serving up a boiled goat’s head…the veggies in the group were not amused. Conversely, I couldn’t get enough of the stuff…it was devilishly Moorish! (Boom! Boom!)

Lara's Goat Head Stew.

Zah (from Jo'burg, SA) gets busy with the goat's head

The next few days were more of the barren landcape til we reached the Morocco/Mauritania border. Being a strict Islamic republic, Mauritania is a dry country so we stashed all our booze (including a 50quid bottle of whiskey I bought at Gatwick airport) into a wee locker under our seats and bolted a plank of wood over the top of it. We didn’t realize that this would show up in the X-Ray machine on the Morocco side. They knew we had the stuff and told us so…this is where the lubricative (is that a word?) qualities of booze come in…our driver gave the customs fella a couple of bottles of cider in return for a blind eye to the rest of the stash. The douanes stuffed said cider under his shirt and with a wink and a smile wished us “Bonne chance a Mauritanie!”

Then we passed through “No Man’s Land” until the Mauritania border where the crossing was a little less vigorous. A stamp in the passport and an obligatory rip-off attempt by a local tout (before we’d even got into his country!) and we were on our way again.

We weren’t hanging around in Mauritania for too long – just the 5 or so days in transit as it was our only way out of Morocco over land (the Algeria border is closed).We’d been warned of bandits, landmines, kidnappings and the Al Qaeda in general so, rightly or wrongly, we weren’t too concerned about not seeing much of this country…

As we drove through it was easy to see that we were moving from the Arab part of Africa to “Black Africa”: a heady mix of the vibrant Senegalese and Malian influences was seaping out through the streets where shanty towns and mud huts stood side-by-side with small mosques and Moorish buildings. I read in the “Africa on a Shoestring” LP (or “The Bible” as we’ve come to know it) that slavery was only abolished here in 1980 and that the slaves/immigrants had all been brought here originally from the neighbouring countries (i.e. Mali and Senegal) by the Arabs.

Our first stop in Mauritania was the town of Nouadhibou – we found a campsite there with showers so we stayed a couple of days. On the first night we were all kept up til 4am by the sound of infectious bongo beating. We were later informed that that day (April 4th) was the 50th anniversary of Senegalese independence - unfortunately we had all been too tired to go and investigate at that itme in the morning…seems like we missed out on a stormer of a party.

Eventually we left Nouadhibou and headed for Nouakchott (the capital) where we camped on a picture perfect beach (beautiful place with rolling waves, golden sand, and water at a perfect temperature: just cold enough to be refreshing without having your nether regions crawl back in from whence they came).

Camp spot down on the beach in Nouakschott

The next day we headed into the centre of town where our group split: the 4 Saffers and Yoichi (Japanese lad) left for a week in Senegal whilst we headed on to Mali where we’d all eventually reconvene for a few days of R&R (as if this whole thing isn’t R&R!)in Bamako – the capital.

The journey from Nouakschott to the Mali border was pretty uneventful until the last night: We’d spent several days trucking all day passing some of the sparsest landscape I’ve ever seen – aside from the occasional rocky hill, the loooooooooong straight road was pretty unforgiving: the horizon peppered with “dust devils’ (think, mini-tornadoes) and the roadside strewn with the carcasses of goats, donkeys, cows and dogs at all stages of decay.

(LBM: input to story = We are also now experiencing real African heat in the back of the truck on drive days. 2nd day in Mauritania we made a poll to see who could guess what the highest temperature would be during the day. The guesses ranged from my 39 degrees to AK’s ridiculous 46 degrees. (Much laughter and piss taking at this prediction!)

(AK won)

AK: You’re god-damned right he did.

For these few days I was in the front with the driver (Mark – good bloke from Oz) and helped him out with my basic French at the numerous checkpoints along the way. These checkpoints were getting really annoying as they seemed to happen every 5 clicks or so and they gendarme would always demand “donnez-moi un cadeau!” to which I replied “je n’on ai pas”. Onwards we went to the border and as our penultimate day in the road in Mauritania drew to an end, we headed into the bush about 30kms shy of a place call Ayoune el Atrousse (or something like that). The bush camping on this night and the previous night was perfect: a gentle cool breeze to help us deal with the night-time lows of 29 degrees and not a single sound other than the odd donkey breying in the near distance or the occasional flatus emitting from (usually) the Yanks tent or the girls’ tent (they called it “Girl Power” but I’m petitioning to get it changed to “Wind Power”….actually, I think we all passed the buck on this one, but I digress.


  • Penultimate night in Mauritania.
  • 30kms outside Ayoune el Etrasse.
  • Just eaten dinner.
  • Brushing teeth.
  • About to get into tent.
  • One of the girls calls out.
  • We go to see what’s happening.
  • Two big black guys in military uniform with AK47’s (I told our crew not to worry as they had their very own AK) shining torches in our faces.

After the initial panic, we woke up Ian who translated what they were saying: it turns out that after we crossed one checkpoint at about 5.30pm we were expected at the next checkpoint within a couple of hours….but we never showed up (as we’d gone off-road to bush camp). The search party of numerous cop wagons had been out looking for us for hours and they finally found us by seeing our torches from the road. They escorted us to the nearest police station (they sat in the back of the truck with their AK’s on their shoulders!) where we had to spend the night with a random old French guy who’s car had broken down after dark. The next morning we spoke with said Frog who explained to Ian (although I got it from the mad gesticulating that the Frogs and Wops are so famous for) that we were crazy as this was an Al Qaeda hotspot. Only two months ago an Italian had been kidnapped in the same place.

We all found the experience quite sobering, some went as far as saying they were disappointed in the company for taking us there. (Here's what the Foreign Office has to say on the matter.) For me, this is why we signed up. Roll with the punches that adventure throws at you. Besides, I was too busy trying to find the camel spider that had fallen out of Ian’s tent when I was packing it up to care about terrorism and kidnappings. Spider camels are massive. (If you don't believe me, check this photo that made them so infamous.)

Next stop, Mali…



  1. OK have spent about an hour catching up on all the news after a month in totally civilised RSA - while there read the bikers 'down under' epic - I'm telling you, Ewan and Charlie, this is much more eventful! Love the spiders!Proud of you Lara - doing good. XXX

  2. so did u eat spiders then?