Eyelids dusted off, camp packed and of we go into the desert proper, heading for the capital of Mauritania the city of Nouakchott. The plan was to head along the border area towards the west coast and travel along the beach to Nouakchott. By the time we got our gear together we were the last to leave the border post and head out into the desert. We had secured an old army GPS system before we left London. Back in 1994 these units were not a small unit stuck onto your windscreen. This GPS was huge and didn’t give much more information than a heading that you could follow. I had never heard of a GPS until I was shown this unit so it was all rather exciting. Shaun was in charge of this incredible device while my job was to find a way safely through the desert in the direction Shaun pointed.
An interesting observation was that over a few kilometers I had a tendency to drift to the right which meant that every so often I would have to cut to the left and get back onto to the correct heading. Shaun had us following an old road that had been built by one of the armies in the years gone by, but had been unmaintained for years. Therefore there were massive half moon sand dunes creeping around the place blocking the road. I had to navigate over, around and amongst these dunes while trying to head in the right direction. We traveled like this for 2 days stopping every so often to check out old ruins from what would have once been a military outpost defending that bit of the sandpit.
It was during one of my little sorties to get back on track that I realised I had angels watching out for me. Some time back we had come down off a plateau onto some lower ground. Where the old road had disappeared from view under a series of massive dunes leaving me with a decision of going left or right and trying to find a way around them. There was no way we could climb them with the overloaded and underpowered Landrovers. The sand was so soft and fine that it would have been tough going just trying to walk up the dunes. I decided to stay true to form and head to the right of the dunes. Because the dunes covered a large area this decision was really a case of head into the area and weave our way through the dunes as best we could. After some hours of weaving the dunes became smaller and the desert floor started to change into a plain covered in low lying desert shrubs. By now I was quite some kilometers of course. Shaun and I consulted our maps and compass to make sure the GPS was telling the truth and agreed that we should cut across country and find the old road.
So turning hard left we headed off on a slow bumpy crawl across this shrubby dry landscape with only a way point on the GPS to look forward to. For me it was great fun picking a driving line every 10 meters before I could work out where to head next. At times there was barely enough space for the 4wd to fit between the plants and every so often I would have to drive across the top of them hoping the dry timber wouldn’t puncture a tyre, rip a vital fuel or brake line out. About half way across this area I came to just another plant where the sand had built up all around the base forming quite a mound of sand. So that I could get past I had to head straight towards the plant and allow the sand to give way under the weight of the Landrover and slide it around the plant so I could get back onto the correct heading.
Unbeknown to me this sliding motion saved my life because under the surface of the sand right where the drivers front wheel would have gone if I hadn’t slid, was a landmine. The two 4wds behind me told me later that it was clear as day sitting where my wheel track would have gone, uncovered as I slid past. When we finally made it back to the road and the others came and told us how close we came to dying it sent chills up my spine. I knew my parents prayers for safety were being answered in that moment.
As the day was getting on it was decided that camp was a good idea so that evening was spent in the peaceful lee of a sand dune under the chandelier of stars thinking about how good it was to be alive even if I was only just alive.
The next morning we headed out following this old road that slowly disappeared into history leaving us following the GPS way points plotted in by Shaun. It was late morning when we started to find lots of vehicle tracks merging into a number of well defined trails that crisscrossed each other but all headed in the same direction. As we came up a small rise we entered a small clearing amongst a few small dunes with a sentry who indicated for us to stop. It seemed we had found a military outpost in place to keep an eye on all who traveled through the area, at least that’s what we thought.
We stopped and started to climb out of the vehicles when another soldier in full uniform strode towards us with his rifle pointed towards us in a very menacing way.
Like a brave man that I’m not I stepped back behind Shaun whilst muttering something about not knowing how to speak french so you should talk to him. The soldier would have been barely 20 years old but it seemed he was in charge of this outpost and he very quickly had those in his charge armed and positioned around us so that we had nowhere to go. Shaun asked with crude french what was going on to be met with a very stern “PASSPORTS” to which we all jumped and produced our passports from various hidden locations on our bodies. Once they were in “young fellas” hands he wandered back to the command post without so much as a word. We were well and truly confused by this so just stood around under the watchful gaze of the perimeter guards. A short time later the ‘young fella’ returned to inform us that our documents were not in order and that we would need to resolve that problem by paying the fine, to which Shaun told him that wasn’t the case and that we wouldn’t be paying any fines. Shaun’s lack of respect for ‘young fellas’ self perceived authority was met with a fair bit of yelling and gun waving and a very dramatic storming back to the command post. By now Shaun was starting to realise that this was not an authorised confiscation of our passports but somehow we had to get them back so we could go on with our trip. We had a team meeting and it was decided that Shaun and I should go over to the command post and have a little chat with “One day I’ll be a big man”. I’m not sure why I got relegated to the roll of bouncer for Shaun but I figured I could run faster than him and I wouldn’t hesitate to run without warning.
The command post was a small dusty concrete structure with very little furnishings and what was there was simple and rough. “My gun is bigger than yours” was sitting at a table with the passports spread out before him. Without looking up he indicated we could be seated. Shaun tried to lighten things up by chatting away in his broken french, to be honest he could have been swearing for all I could tell. Bottom line was “I own you” felt he had control and wasn’t going to be railroaded out of his extortion attempt by some wanna be James Bond like Shaun. It seemed the situation wasn’t going well so Shaun told “My life sucks” that we were going to go and set up camp in his compound and have a cup of tea. Lets face it, tea fixes everything for the British.
As we fiddled around unloading our tents and having lunch for the next half hour or so “I wanna be King” stayed quite planning his next strategic advance upon us. When he approached us next he informed us that he needed to search our vehicles for security reasons. We agreed as long as we did the unpacking for him, so we began unloading our bags and then producing dirty socks and backpacker undies. This was going along reasonably well until “King is not enough, I wanna be god” came to a bag belonging to one of the flower pot men (see part one) and thought he might unpack the toiletries bag. Well the scream for Bill interspersed with french obscenities not heard since the 18th century was a surprise to all of us. Now I don’t know what Bill had in the bag but maybe it was toothpaste with a little extra kick but regardless there was no way “I’m god” was getting to look inside that bag. This sudden outburst caught “I’m god”” by surprise but he was thankful for his military training, that kicked in with a swift shove with his rifle butt into Bills chest pushing him to the ground then flicking the rifle around pointed it at Bills head.
There was a brief although tense standoff before James Bond (Shaun) calmly started to talk the situation down as well as a few the other soldiers started talking in a local language to “You mean I’m not god”. “Not being god suxs” was in a difficult situation where he had no authority to do anything but needed to see the back of us. We could see him trying to find a way out of this situation that wouldn’t destroy his respect in this sandpit. After a few minutes with no one moving the rifle was lowered and “I feel stupid” stormed of back to the command center followed by a number of the other soldiers obviously feeling defeated. But we still had a problem, our passports.
We were all somewhat stunned by what had just happened especially Bill. By this stage we had been in the compound for a few hours and were keen to move out. As we tried to work out how to get our passports back we heard a bunch of yelling coming from within the hut when all of a sudden our passports came flying out the front door. We raced over and grabbed them and frantically, started throwing our stuff into the 4wds keen as to get our toys and leave this stupid sandpit. Just as we were about to pull out one of the soldiers who had been quietly sitting in the background the whole time came over to my window. In perfect English he instructed us that when we left the compound we needed to stay on the main trail as this was the cleared pathway through the minefield in front of us. What the!! it turns out all that outpost was there for was to warn us about a flipping minefield and had nothing to do with passports.
As we headed out of the compound struggling to get our heads around all that had happened in the last 2 days we had no idea that the fun was only just beginning. But fun of a different kind. My kind of fun.
I’m MadMatt stay safe on the trails.