We are in Nouakchott, Mauritania, a big sandbox of a city on the Atlantic coast of the Sahara Desert. Now, for a little background...
The Islamic Republic of Mauritania has had three coups in the last decade and a few kidnappings of Europeans in the last year. Slavery was legal until 1980 (!!) and there are still estimated to be about 100,000 people enslaved here. But if you want to get from North Africa to West Africa, it's still the safest overland route through the Sahara desert. Still, I think you'll understand if maybe we weren't the most excited ever about coming here.
But I'll say it now--Mauritania kicks ass. Our week here has been way better than we ever expected possible. The people here have been nicer to us than the citizens of any other country we've been to. They are constantly inviting us into their homes to have tea, to eat dinner, to sleep for free. Plus, there are camels to be ridden in that little place called the Sahara Desert...
We entered the country from Morocco/Western Sahara in a taxi and rode down to Nouadhibou, the "big port city" of 80,000 people in the north of the country. We drove in on a side road around twilight, and the place looked rather dusty and abandoned. Hard to say whether there were more people or goats in the street.
Later, when we got to the main street, things perked up some with some open shops and restaurants, but Nouadhibou is still the kind of place where you stumble across half a goat skull in the middle of the main roundabout and don't think much of it.
But we found an unexpected ATM (yay!) and had a good dinner (chicken and fries and bread and even some salad) at a little restaurant with a pretty big TV (playing soccer on every channel, of course). Our auberge room had its own bathroom with a Western-style toilet and a hot shower (the last of both of those that we've seen). And then the next day, we were off on our first epic adventure--the iron-ore train into the desert.
Did you know that the longest train in the world is in Mauritania? It transports iron ore from the interior to the coast for shipping and has about 2km of cars. It also has one passenger car, built in 1953, and for $4 you can ride 12 hours in it to the middle of the Sahara. Which is exactly what we did.
Here's the inside of the car. We were lucky and got spots on one of the benches along the wall, though it's a toss-up whether that's actually comfier than lying on the floor. Smart people bring their own carpets to lie on.
So, my camel was branded with the initials "M.I." so we called him Mission Impossible. Andy's roared a lot, so we called him Roary. Here's Roary:
-A camel, by comparison, costs around 300,000 ouguiya ($1,200).
Wildlife of the Sahara: We found this guy on Andy's mattress right before he lay down to go to sleep. He was enormous, like the size of my fist. I barely suppressed a scream. Andy killed him after taking this picture because he thought he looked dangerous. We showed the picture to our guide the next morning, who said the spider was very dangerous! (And here I thought our biggest threat would be possibly getting kidnapped...)
OK, climbed is an exaggeration for one of us. I crawled. It was steep!
Here is a shot of both of us on our camels. My camel and I always went first, because we are leaders.
Addendum: Andy and I realized that there were a few important things I forgot to mention in this post. For starters, the title refers to an erg, which is a massive sand dune. We traversed one near Chinguetti. The major takeaway I have about ergs is that they are not so easy for camels to climb, so you have to walk over them beside your camel rather than ride.
Also forgotten...on the iron ore train, there are two other options for travel. You can ride for free in an empty ore container (reportedly a rather dusty experience) or you can pay $12 US for a berth, or bed platform, the height of luxury on this train. Well, on our train there was an old lady who had apparently paid for a berth but didnt get one on the train...and she yelled for literally the first four hours of the trip nonstop to anyone who would listen. She was yelling when our Islam conversion session started and still going when we had finished. Considering that the $12 may have been her life savings, we felt fairly sympathetic towards her, though her stamina was frightening.
OK, more updates from Senegal if we can ever find a decently speedy connection and English keyboard again!