In Chapter 10 of Desert Travels the cantankerous 101 leading my first desert bike tour was stranded at the Tin Taradjeli pass (above). As so often happens in the Sahara, the next person to turn up happened to be a diesel mechanic. Steve soon got the 101 running and, long story short, the following year we decided to team up and do a big Sahara trip together: him in his Land Cruiser, me in an old Land Rover 109.
For both of us this was the desert trip we’d each been planning in our heads for years. When travelling together briefly with my bike tour the previous year, we’d quickly established a shared passion for exploring the Sahara and set about doing a big trip together, each with his own 4×4. Though I’d been keen to head for the Ténéré Desert in Niger, we’d settled on keeping off the tarmac where possible and decided to head down to the Guinea’s highland jungles and the Mauritanian Sahara.
Nineteen ninety was not such a good year for me: post bike-tour debt, a bad crash leading to hospitalisation, followed by homelessness, a smaller bike crash which at least put an end to my dozen years of despatching. And finally my Land Rover, all set for a desert adventure with Steve, blew up in darkest Sussex at 2am, while I was doing some late deliveries.
As a way of keeping the tip on the rails Steve invited me to ride his XT600Z instead. I wasn’t that keen on bikes by that time, plus it would leave me dependent on him. But I accepted his offer and we met up in France, the bike towed on its back wheel with a similar arrangement I’d used on the 101.
Unfortunately, as so often happened in those days, all my films were lost on a flight in Mauritania. Since then I’ve learned: do not put things you cannot afford to lose in the hold baggage. What few photos I have were shot by Steve.
As agreed near Timbuktu, in Tidjika Steve went his way towing the XT, and I went mine. I met some American Peace Corps Volunteers and my travels in Mauritania took on a whole new direction.
Once in Tidjikja, I flogged my crash helmet to a delighted policeman. This time Steve didn’t even try to persuade me and drove off towards Nouakchott.
While reworking Desert Travels ahead of a small reprint, I came across this video from 2005 about an Italian expedition that set out from Bamako for Oualata north of Nema. Oualata was once as celebrated as nearby Timbuktu for being a place of Islamic learning, and the video spends a lot of time depicting the intricate bas-relief patterns for which the houses of Oualata are famous. As DT recalls, when I was there in 1989, no time was allowed to have a good look around, far less stay over.
Then, amazingly to me at least, the Italians manage to track down a surviving Nemadi family, a survivor of the pariah-like tribe of dog hunters mentioned in Bruce Chatwin’s semi-fictional Songlines study of nomads. They live in what the vid calls the ‘Sarakolle’ desert. Not heard that designation before, but it seems Sarakolle also means Soninke, a tribe who live along the Malian border but who are indigenous to Africa and not Moors. Some sources attribute or connect them to the Imraguen fish catchers north of Nouamghar, also outsiders in Mauritania’s Moorish culture. Wiki makes a link for the etymology of ‘Nemadi’, something to do with Azer or dog master, but I just assumed it means ‘people from around Nema‘, like Saharawi. As you can see, the guy doesn’t wear the usual blue robe and his tent is not a Moorish raima, but more of a bent wood humpy. His camel too has no saddle to speak of and it looks like he sits behind the hump. But other items like the three-legged tea table are also used by Moors. At no point in the vid is Nemadi man separated from his ancient rifle.
I thought the Nemadi used to live along the Dhar Tichit beyond Oualata. There is a place call Aguelt Nemadi (Ogueilet en Nmadi) about a hundred miles NNE of Tidjikja or 300 miles NW of Oualata. That might mean ‘Nemadi waterhole’ but lost in the dunes, it looks a pretty lonesome spot on the map, perhaps a watering hole on the old caravan route between Tichit and Ouadane.
The video has no commentary, a few Italian subtitles and some great music. It looks like they set out to cross the 400km to Araouane in their Sixty-series Tojos, but something broke so they came back. The Nemadi guy appears at about 25m.