|INTRO - After spending six years bringing him up in a Land Rover travelling around Asia and Africa, Miguel Willis's parents settled on living in Oman in the Middle-East when he was nine-years-old. In this, his second travel column, no journey is too tough for our full time wanderer of the world and his brother, Mateo, as they discover the world's biggest shipwreck graveyard in Mauritania
“Welcome to Mauritania, now where is my gift?" In one fluid movement the immigration officer had stamped our passports and presented an open palm. It was going to be an interesting trip.
My brother Mateo and I were taking a bush taxi from the southern tip of Morocco, across the border, to the port of Nouadhibou. He had been commissioned to make a film on one of the world's biggest shipwreck graveyards for Current TV, and always eager to kite somewhere new, I had joined him. The year before I had spent a couple of weeks in Dakhla, Morocco and I hoped for similar conditions further down the coast. Travellers in this part of the world have often cursed the strong desert winds, but for me as a kiter, it sounded ideal. Another attraction was the prospect of remote, empty beaches far off the beaten track. Stuck out on the western edge of the Sahara, Mauritania has been wracked by years of political turmoil, racial tension and grinding poverty. Slavery has only been outlawed in the last few years, yet is still fairly common.
From the border, our journey took us across the desert. Our pick-up truck was loaded to bursting point. The maximum possible number of people were squeezed in on top of one another and then a few more got in. The back was overflowing with bags and more passengers perched precariously on top. On each side were goats lashed in pannier bags, and every time we hit a bump it was accompanied by a bleat. We had been going for half an hour before the smell of burnt-out brakes forced the driver to stop. No one seemed particularly worried, and after a bit of wheel-kicking we were off again. With frequent mechanical stops we made slow progress across the sun-scorched landscape. Whenever the pick-up overheated we would stop at a well and push the camels aside to get a bucket of water to pour over the engine. The prospect of permanently breaking down in the Sahara wasn't too appealing, and it was a relief when we finally arrived at the town where we were to catch the train to the coast.
|At over two kilometers long, this was no ordinary train. One of the longest in the world in fact, it carries iron ore from the interior to the processing plant in Nouadhibou. As it thundered into town pandemonium broke out. People were locked into a press of bodies, a flailing mass of elbows, knees and feet being used freely to secure a seat on the one passenger carriage. Rather than face this carnage whilst lugging our kite equipment, we opted to travel on a wagon-load of iron ore. While laying on a few tons of rocks might not make the most comfortable bed, it gave an unrivalled view of the country. By morning a layer of iron ore dust coated everything, our faces were blackened and my mouth was gritty with the taste of rust. After fourteen hours a cool sea breeze was the first indication that we were about to arrive.
Nouadhibou is situated on a 70 kilometre-long strip of land which juts out into the Atlantic and forms a huge lagoon where I hoped to kite. The town resembled something from Mad Max with buildings constructed from any material that came to hand. Plywood lean-tos amongst the rough concrete shops, roofs made from flattened 44 gallon drums and discarded shipping containers now used as living quarters. Parts of town seemed to be constructed entirely from railway cast-offs and one bizarre house had a fence completely made out of washing machines. The streets were busy with people in billowing robes and headscarfs used to keep out the ever-present dust. Rusted Mercedes that were bolted and wired together shared the roads with donkey carts. Luckily, nothing moved too fast as the driving was 'creative' and it wasn't long before we counted a total of five accidents on the main street.
Next morning, we woke to dust swirling through town and white caps being whipped up in the bay, so we headed to the closest beach. This long stretch of sand has become a shipwreck graveyard, the final resting place for over 100 fishing boats slowly rusting into oblivion. The official explanation as to why there are so many wrecks here is that fishermen from Mauritania bought them to use but were not able to maintain them. Another, and more believable reason is that for a price the local officials provided the necessary paperwork, claiming that the boats were shipwrecked. This allowed the boat-owners in Europe to claim on their insurance. Whatever the true story, they made an impressive backdrop to kite amongst and we were eager to ride and wash off any remaining iron ore.
One of the boom industries here is people-trafficking. Nouadhibou has become one of the main departure points for people trying get to Europe via the Spanish Canary Islands. This year alone ten thousand have made the attempt, and over one thousand have died trying. As many as fifty people cram into tiny fishing boats designed for a maximum of ten, to make the treacherous journey. Our taxi driver who came from Guinea-Bissau explained how each West African country has their own mafia in the town, operating and controlling the flow of people. He was trying to save the two thousand Euros for the first payment to get across. Once there he would owe a further three thousand. Judging by how much he charged us to Cape Blanc, it wouldn't take him too long.
Here was our next attempt at kiting. On the tip of the peninsula lies an impressive shipwreck, the result of a captain trying to take a shortcut across the reef. Unfortunately, the 35-knot wind was directly offshore and across a vicious current with this container vessel casting a huge wind-shadow. So we spent the afternoon watching perfect, empty right-handers and grinding our teeth. Had there been two of us riding it might have been worth the risk but, with the next stop being Central America it was just too sketchy. We needed to look elsewhere.
What Nouadhibou lacked in culture it made up for with the spectrum of characters that crossed our path. Unfortunately for Mateo, he seemed to attract them all. They ranged from Liberian con artists trying to sell passports and provide guided tours of the brothels, to fundamentalists ranting on about Western values leading to the degradation of Eastern ones. But our favourite was Aziz the Moroccan restaurant owner who changed money for us at his 'special' rate, on the black market. Each transaction was accompanied by a bristly kiss on each cheek and the holding of Mateo's hand as he walked us through the restaurant to make a covert transaction in the back room.
After our limited success in finding a suitable place to kite, our last option was the beach upwind. To reach it we passed through a shanty town where fish were being prepared for export. Walking in flip-flops was pretty hazardous as we had to pick our way through discarded offal with its stomach-churning odours. However, once we reached the other side we were rewarded with a pristine beach, and 20 knots of wind blowing slightly offshore which was producing a glassy flat water playground. We had found the place to kite. For the next two weeks it blew here every day and I rode a nine or eleven metre without another soul in sight.
Filming and taking photos proved to be quite a challenge, and we knew people who had been hauled off to the police station for it. The locals seemed very suspicious and were not happy to have their picture taken. Not wanting to experience a Mauritanian jail, or have our cameras confiscated, we kept a low profile by being as visible as possible.
This column is in issue #31