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.
Just back from a two-week camel trek in Mauritania, walking with a mostly French group of 14 from Chinguetti (‘la Sorbonne du desert’) to Terjit (map, left), about 150km. For the first two days over the dunes we were accompanied by a crew filming a report for a French TV station on the return of tourism to Mauritania (see below). Of course tourism never really stopped for independent travellers (compared to Algeria) and despite the killings and kidnappings of a few years ago (including an entire French family in 2007, right). But the recent resumption of charter flights bringing much bigger groups from Paris directly to Atar (not via Nouakchott) was something for local tour operators to celebrate. It is probably the result of revised travel advice issued by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (left). You’ll see they critically (and imo, correctly) extend the ‘travel if you must’ orange zone further east compared to the British FCO. It makes all the difference for local tourism because in that orange zone most of what most people want to see in Mauritania is easily accessible. Our weekly plane chartered by Le Point (with seats sold on to other operators) was packed out. The Vallee Blanche is the longest trek Le Point offer, but in terms of landscape and pace, maybe not their best depending on your previous experience. Horror des horreurs, we even walked along a road for a bit. Our guide recommended the 8-day Amatlich Erg walk – fewer interminable rocky plateaux he said, but then that’s all part of the deal in the desert. Wherever you go, it’s a variety of sand, rock and passing landforms that’s the key to a satisfying experience. I got the feeling that by day 8 or 9 most were counting the days, partly because the 25km/day pace had dropped by over 50% (as planned) by which time the 6-hour lunch breaks were exceeding walking times. The fact it was unseasonably hot, with temperatures of over 40°C in the shade, may have tempered enthusiasm, but actually the morale and ambience of our group was very good; most had done previous tours with Le Point, including Chad which can be a tougher call. The Adrar at this time is usually in the low 30s – as it was on our very last day to Terjit, but most days it really was too hard to move or even stay awake for long, while lying under an acacia between noon and 3pm. The plus side was that being on the trail before dawn was great fun, although I’m not sure what shape I’d have been in had we walked 25km/day for the full two weeks. So in fact the long siestas were the right thing to do. We’re not all huddled round that meagre shade tree on the left just because someone has cracked open their stash of Haribo Yellow Belly Jelly Snakes. We’re gagging to cool down a bit. Much depends on the terrain of course – is dodging trackless rubble worse than sinking into ankle-deep sand? They’re about the same once you add your daily endowment of aches, pains and cumulative fatigue. All this was eased by a hard-working crew (left) plus our guide Mohamed who, it must be said, was feeling the strain after a busy season tramping around the desert with us nasranis. (There was no French-domiciled accompagnateur, not a need for one; with a Brit group it might need to be different.) I was just relieved I had a fully charged Kindle to help pass the long hours inching along with the shade from 11am till 4 or 5pm. By then it wasn’t going to get hotter, or the remainder of the day’s walk was short enough to not matter so much. One night it felt like it didn’t drop below 30°C and after a week of this everything, even your toothpaste buried in your bag, is hot and stays hot. I’ve not been in such heat for so long since an early-80s moto trip to Algeria, mistakenly taken in September when it was hotter still. Oh, and Libya in April 1998 (right); also very hot. Both were quite shock and yet watching our Mauritanian camel crew stride along in their flip-flops from camp-to-camp without rests and after spending over an hour locating and laboriously loading over a dozen camels makes you wonder what you’re whining about. You got to take your cheche off to these guys. As it was, a couple in the group chose to ride when weary, and another couple had reserved camels to ride whenever possible. If you take this option, good saddle padding is essential, especially on the backbone. Me, I like to walk – some days more than others. Sleeping out, I was a bit concerned that le chaleur might bring out the spiders and snakes everyone talks about in the desert. I heard later that the guides had indeed spotted a snake on night one, and again at Berbera guelta, but I never even saw any tracks. I suppose the good thing is that, besides being too big to eat, at night a reposing human is not much warmer than the surrounding desert and so not that alluring. Compared to my Algeria camel trips (here and here) I have to say the service was as good if not better; it’s only a shame the fresh lunchtime salad couldn’t last beyond day one out of Chinguetti. After that it was cous cous/rice/pasta with tinned fish and hard veg at lunch, and the same but with veg stew in the evenings, plus soup and tinned fruit for afters. That said, we got two goats (right) which we didn’t have to buy, sandbread baked every night and pancakes every morning. And there was never a shortage of water, even for washing. After a while you do crave fresh fruit and veg as well as cool, clear water, but despite what you might call a ‘high-carb’ diet I managed to lose 4kg which I happened to have going spare. Heat kills the appetite which is why I’m currently dressed in three ski suits while doing Hot Yoga next to the radiator. One thing that spoils the Mauritanian desert vibe for me is the endless ‘gift shops’ unrolled at many desert stops and every nomad camp. In this way Algeria feels more sauvage; on the Immidir treks we might come across a family of feral goat nomads in 11 days and never ever see car tracks. But as I recall from the late-90s, wayside trinket markets were always the way in the Adrar, as it was in the Aïr of Niger. And anyway, not everyone may have as replete a collection of cheches, stone tools, teapots and other desert souvenirs like me. At one place I noticed a women selling an unusual fulgarite necklace among her collection of silver jewellery. The large group size didn’t really bother me, perhaps because much of the chat went over my head, but probably because it was a good group and anyway – resting or on the move there is plenty of space, it’s not like being stuck in a bus. Plus you imagine people who choose to take a two-week walk in the desert in March aren’t going to be complainers. Having said that, you do wonder if Homo Sapiens’ mysterious Great Leap Forward; the so-called advent of behavioural modernity 40,000 years ago is attributable to the invention of the comfy chair. Or maybe that’s where it all went wrong. It’s interesting to observe how the Frenchies (and the few Belges) are much more casual about desert walking than some Brits brought up on the exploits of tormented ex-public school masochists like Thesiger, Lawrence and maybe Michael Asher. Le Sahara to them is just a holiday destination like Vanuatu, not necessarily a place to pit yourself against the elements to within an inch of your life.
Straight out of Atar into the desert. Great value at €1200 + €55 airport visa Pre-dawn starts. Feels like a proper desert trip Sand-baked goat x 2, merci beaucoup A shady acacia just when you need it Great crew from Mauritanie Voyages Wheat flour sandbread, not heavy tagela Afternoon at Berbera oasis You’ll get plenty of dune walking in
Lack of prolonged remoteness (to be expected in the Adrar) Flatish landscape out east Trinket stalls every day Pace slowed too much (but just as well) Nescafe – in the end, undrinkable whatever you try Missed fresh lunch salads and fruit, too Oued Abiod; the better places were off it
You can watch the 4-minute French TV report here. We didn’t encounter the army patrols featured in the film – they were up north shot later (so to speak). But it reminds me how brilliant drones are for desert filming. Makes me want to do more walking in the Sahara, but maybe not in a springtime heatwave.
Carnet ATA: Pour le Sénégal seulement Visas Mauritaniens: Double entrée, demandés via Lyon visa service. Visas Sénégalais: Multi entrées, demandés au consulat de Lyon. Guides: La Mauritanie au GPS (Cyril Ribas) Le Routard 2013 pour le Sénégal et la Gambie (pas très fiable) Lonely Planet pour la Guinée Bissau.
Le voyage 1. Ferry Sete – Tanger le 28/9/13 avec GNV.
3. 11/10: On retrouve nos amis à Dakhla.
4. 12/10: Frontière Mauritanienne: c’est le souk côté Marocain car il y a pas mal de monde et l’organisation des files d’attente laisse à désirer. On y passe au moins 4h! On retrouve notre guide Fadel, coté Mauritanien. Bivouac au début de l’ancienne piste vers le Banc d’Arguin (Pour les points, cf. bouquin Cyril Ribas).
5. 13/10: Déjeuner à la plage d’Arkeist, baignade et bivouac.
6. 14/10: Traversée Banc d’Arguin –> Benichab. On quitte la piste de Nouamghar vers Tessot.
Croisement vers Tessot: N 19° 28.249 O 16° 18.330 (km 0)
Points sur la (belle) piste: N 19° 28.281 O 16° 17.244 N 19° 24.716 O 16° 04.127
On rejoint ensuite la route Nouakchott (vers le Sud, km 30)
Croisement de la piste pour Benichab (sur la gauche, juste après une station-service): N 18° 52.840 O 16° 09.736 (km 97)
La piste suit une direction Est Nord Est jusqu’à Benichab.
Points sur la piste: N 18° 56.507 O 16° 05.012 (km 110) N 19° 00.305 O 16° 01.321 (km 120) N 19° 22.417 O 15° 34.351
Benichab: N 19° 28.130 O 15° 25.642 (km 212)
Benichab: A Benichab, il a fallu discuter ferme pour pouvoir bivouaquer plus loin sur la piste d’Akjoujt. Depuis qu’on a quitté le bord de mer, il fait très chaud (pointes à 46-48°C!)
7. 15/10: Akjout puis traversée pour bivouaquer au pied des dunes de l’Amatlich. Pour le parcours Akjoujt-El Abiod, on a utilisé les points du guide de Cyril Ribas car Fadel ne connaissait pas.
Akjoujt: N 19 44.700 O 14 23.040
Croisement (sur la route d’Atar): N 19 54.897 O 14 05.388 Puit Tabrenkount: N 19 48.686 O 14 02.149 Entree Amatlich: N 19 42.926 O 13 42.535
8. 16/10: Traversée de l’erg le matin : C’est vrai que l’Amatlich c’est pas trop facile! Mais il y avait une bonne trace et le collègue qui était devant moi est un super pilote, donc derrière on voit bien les difficultés et plus facile à négocier: aucun plantage pour les 3 voitures mais il a fallu forcer sur le champignon!
Sortie Amatlich: N 19 45 445 O 13 46.241 Puits d’Amazmaz: N 19 41.241 O 13 25.965
Puis détour vers la guelta
d’Amazmaz: pas facile à trouver la piste pour y aller et en plus elle est pleine de caillasses mais une fois arrivée à la guelta c’est le pied: baignade et bivouac.
9. 17/10: En route vers la passe de Tifoujar, on traverse de jolis villages.
Hassi el Tisram N 19 47.243 O 13 25.248 El Meddah N 19 54.930 O 13 19.607 El Gleitat N 19 58.306 O 13 17.624 Passe de Tifoujar N 20 05.537 O 13 11.882
(La passe de Tifoujar, je ne connaissais pas, c’est splendide!), grande et belle descente vers l’oued El Abiod (toujours aussi beau malgré le temps gris et toujours aussi chaud), Oujeft et bivouac sur la piste de Terjit (avec, en plus de la chaleur, un sale vent).
Toungad: N 20 03.193 O 13 07.208 Oujeft: N 20 01.609 O 13 02.940
10. 18/10: Terjit, courses à Atar et bivouac près de la piste d’Ouadane.
11. 19/10: Ouadane, Déjeuner à l’auberge de Zeida (left): elle est très sympa et elle nous a cuisiné un super plat.
Départ par le désert pour Chinguetti et super bivouac en route après un très joli village.
12. 20/10: Chinguetti (left), visite et déjeuner sous 1 bosquet dans l’oued et départ pour 1 visite à la passe d’Amodjar (que l’un des équipages ne connaissait pas). Puis direction le mont Zarga pour récupérer la piste de Tidjika. Bivouac juste avant Zargas.
13. 21/10: Piste vers Tidjika (right), en suivant les points du bouquin de Cyril Ribas sauf quand la construction de la nouvelle route Atar-Tidjika nous a obligé à dévier (assez loin, d’ailleurs).
Joli bivouac à l’écart: Il faut noter que pour tous les bivouacs, Fadel nous a demandé de choisir un coin un peu éloigné de la piste ou de la trace principale pour des raisons de sécurité.
Pour tous les points de la piste Chinguetti-Tidjika, voir le bouquin de Ribas.
14. 22/10: Puis on a rejoint le magnifique Oued Rachid (right) pour le remonter.
Super bivouac non loin de l’oued.
15. 23/10: On continue à remonter l’oued, passage pas facile à trouver vers la fin car les pluies ont fait des dégâts. Et on découvre une guelta: avec une magnifique séance de troupeaux à l’abreuvoir.
Arrivée à Rachid (left), quelques courses pour un super picnic à l’ombre (il fait toujours aussi chaud!) au bord de l’oued.
Puis Tidjika pour refaire les pleins et on récupère la piste vers Boumdeit.
16. 24/10: Passe de Néga (on toujours pas vu les singes!), Boumdeit et bivouac près de la piste vers Kiffa (le cram-cram commence à devenir envahissant et il fait toujours aussi chaud!).
17. 25/10 : Kiffa, puis route vers Aleg. Arret devant la stele à la mémoire des 4 Français et leur guide assassinés en Décembre 2007 (right).
Beaucoup de contrôles sur la oute à partir de Kiffa. Bivouac à l’écart de la route après Sangafara. Nous quittons notre guide Fadel à Aleg, cela a été un très bon compagnon de route et un bon guide. Fadel Habib: 00222 22 44 38 04.
18. 26/10: Route (c’est goudronné maintenant) vers Boghé, Rosso; bivouac avant Rosso.
19. 27/10: Piste vers Diama et passage de la frontière Senegalese sans problème. Nuit à Saint Louis.
Ever thought of buying an old Merc, driving it 2000 miles across the Sahara and selling it easily for a 400% profit? Chris Scott went along for the ride.
The phone rang. ‘Chris, it’s Andy. Wanna lift to Mauritania?’ ‘When you going?’ I asked. ‘Now. I’m in Lyon.’ ‘Er, how about I meet you in Malaga.’ ‘OK.’
Andy was a 23-year-old engineering graduate trying to put off a career in designing aerodynamic egg cartons. Having fallen in with some wheeler-dealing grape pickers in France, he’d joined a bunch of them driving old heaps down to Mauritania to sell. With the right car; ideally a German-registered diesel Mercedes roadworthy test failure, one could pay for the trip and come out with a few hundred quid. On that trip Andy had indeed tripled his money but had got set-up by the buyer and summarily stiffed by the Mauritanian customs, handing over half the grand he’d made.
This time with some lucrative contraband, forged documents and three passengers along for the ride – myself and retired grapeurs Sandrine and Pascaline – he was ready to stiff back at the wily traders and corrupt Mauritanian officials with a vengeance. The plan was the same: drive £300-worth of ’82 Mercedes to Mauritania, flog it on the side and fly back for another.
Flogging bangers in car-starved West Africa is nothing new. In the 1980s, ratty 504s and the like dragged themselves across Algeria to Niger and Togo. A good sale paid for a beach break and a flight home with a suntan. Trouble was, making a quick African buck still involved crossing 2000 miles of Sahara desert – no easy feat for a knackered and overloaded Morris Marina. Summer saw most disasters – foolhardy young European thinking they were in for a big adventure. Some got lost and disoriented in sandstorms or open desert and weren’t found for years.
These days civil unrest makes Algeria about as desirable as Iraq and so the irrepressible river of trade has found a new course – down through the Western Sahara to Mauritania and Senegal, what I later dubbed the Atlantic Route. Distances are long but the tarmac’s good, the fuel’s cheap and the Moroccans are cool. All you have to do is get in and out of Mauritania without getting busted for smuggling, blown up by mines or ripped off – a ‘Winter Sun Special’ with attitude. Anyone can do it, but before you start tearing through Exchange & Mart remember it’s the combination of sub-roadworthy cars from Germany added to the blind-eyed desirability for Stuttgart’s three-pronged star that gets the biggest profits.
ON THE PULL I met up with Andy at Malaga airport, mumbled greetings to Sandrine and Pascaline and had a quick appraisal of the car which on the surface looked a snip at £300; strict roadworthy tests prematurely age cars in Germany. Catching an Algeciras ferry in the nick of time we cruised through the Moroccan frontier controls despite a stash of duty-free whisky, car radios and mobile phones, plus a home-made Green Card. With a tank full of duty free fuel too, we headed into the Rif mountains, where roadside kids offered lumps of hash the size of cricket balls. Dazed by one of Pascaline’s baguette-sized rolls-ups, we drove through the hills into the night, finally lurching into the pound-a-night Hotel Marrakesh in Rabat.
Officially the land border with Morocco and Mauritania is closed so in Rabat I had to pull a little scam of my own. I bought a flight to Mauritania, used the ticket to apply for the ‘entry by air only’ and then cancelled the ticket. It’s something they don’t tell you about in the guide books, but the practise is widely accepted. The French girls didn’t need visas and Andy was borrowing a French mate’s passport to save money. With a few days growth and some cucumber in his cheeks the likeness was pretty good, and anyway these Europeans all look the same.
That done, we hit the road to Essaouira where we were meeting Sandrine’s brother, Christophe. As we drove I noticed Andy was adapting quickly to Moroccan driving techniques, a combination of screeching bend-swinging, impulsive stops or U-turns and lane-clogging coasting while he peeled an orange or fiddled with the wiring. All he had to do now was take up smoking, spitting and perfect his mid-conversation ‘crotch-lift’, and they’d give him a passport there and then.
By mid-afternoon we were clinking mint teas with, Christophe, an affable guy who’d make friends with a brick before you could say ‘Come ON, willya!!’. Christophe had just sold his business for a packet but had also been dumped by his wife, so joining us to cross the Sahara and flog his seven-year-old 740 Volvo seemed like a good move. Like Andy’s Merc (before he readjusted it), the 740 had a healthy 300,000 on the dial, but looked and handled a whole lot better than the tired old Merc whose TUV failure read like a parts manual.
Morocco is not a heavy country – it’s one of the friendliest and most laid back I’ve visited – but it does have its fair share of police check points. Next day, chasing Christophe along a shoreside corniche, Andy gunned the three-litre Merc past a lorry and over a bridge at 120kph. Hitting a dip with a diff’-splitting scrape, we drove straight towards a gesticulating policeman.
Although Andy had already joked, grovelled and argued his way out of a couple of pulls, this one looked serious. The officer had clearly modelled himself on bad-ass US movie-cops. He sauntered slowly towards the car, knowing he had us nailed, and demanded ‘Papers!’
‘Bonjour officer’ Andy launched in jovially, ‘How are you, salaam alaikum, la bas?’ (Arabic greetings).
‘Alaikum salaam’ answered the policeman slowly. ‘Do you normally drive like this in your country?’
‘Hey, it’s no problem officer, I had excellent visibility and there was plenty of…’
‘Passaport!’ he cut in. Andy handed over the document.
‘Driving licence! Registration!’ Andy complied, now chewing his lip. The guy flicked through the documents with a sneer. This was not the time for the cheekiness Andy had used earlier.
‘The fine for overtaking on a bridge is 400 dirhams’. About £25.
‘FOUR HUNDRED DIRHAMS!!!’ Andy exclaimed as if it was a mid-week double rollover.
‘But Monsieur, we don’t have such money, we’ve just filled up and we’re heading for the bank in Tamri.’
‘Then you must face the tribunal in Agadir. Overtaking on a bridge is in contravention of International Law. The fine is 400 dirhams.’
Now Andy saw a chink. If this guy was quoting ‘International Laws’ then he might as well proclaim the Fifth Amendment of Alpha Centauri.
‘But monsieur, in England there are no such laws. I was trying to keep up with my friend and the bank will close soon.’ Andy pleaded.
‘Were are you going?’
‘Oh, just down to Agadir to the camping – a short holiday, it’s all we can afford.’
We stared intently out of the windows as their confrontation cooled. Body language altered, tones mellowed and after a while we were sent on our way with a reprimand.
‘Zat was a close one.’ said Sandrine.
”International Law!’. Do me a favour!’
MINEFIELDS AND NO-MAN’S-LAND Next morning, we left the popular portion of Morocco to tackle the drab desert coast of the Western Sahara where plains of rubble and low escarpments drop into the Atlantic’s pounding surf. This is disputed territory between Saharawi nomads – united under the Polisario Front – and the expansionist Moroccan government greedy for the region’s minerals. An ageing British FCO’s travel warning put Western Sahara among the most dangerous countries in the world, which just proves they don’t get out much. The Polisario guerrilla war had been quiet for years while a UN referendum was set to solve (or re-ignite) the dispute by the end of the year. For the moment the Polisario sat and waited.
Besides, fuel was discounted to nearly half price to encourage Moroccan settlers and so help win any referendum so, with tanks brimming, we set off to cover the 900 kilometres to Dakhla in time to sign on for the military convoy to the border.
The twice-weekly convoy had been running for about five years, escorting southbound travellers the last 500km to the end of the road and the minefields of No Man’s Land. Officially it existed to offer protection from Polisario kidnappers, but now the one-way route was just an excuse for more form filling and stamp collecting in the expensive and soulless garrison town of Dakhla.
We camped by the beach and after a day spent acquiring this paperwork as well as the provisions for the journey (which could take anything from two to four days to Nouadhibou, the next supply point) we joined the convoy queue at the edge of town check point. In front of us was a mixture of European estates, 4WDs, ancient Saviem campervans plus the ubiquitous Mercedes vans and cars. People milled around, inspecting each other’s cars or snacking until a commotion from the guardhouse signified that we were off. Car by car the mile-long convoy gradually unwound itself and began to roll south across desiccated valleys, over sandy crests and past distant cliffs.
On the way down we assisted a decrepit van with a holed radiator and then stopped to help out a group of Mauritanians standing alongside a C180 up on its jack. Apart from its hand-painted number plate, the cool white Merc looked suspiciously roadworthy.
‘This looks in pretty good nick mate; what did it cost you?’ enquired Andy, as he rolled up his spare.
‘Oh you know, it wasn’t so expensive’, replied the veiled Moor fiddling with his tyre nuts.
‘Oh yes. Special offer was it?’ teased Andy.
‘Yes, my brother has a friend who has a garage. It was a good price.’ The wonder was that the stolen Italian car had managed to cross Europe at all…
That night the whole convoy camped outside the fort marking the southernmost limit of Moroccan territory. The whole area was said to be surrounded by land mines, a fact which tended to temper one’s desire to wander too far when trying to have a secluded crap. Having checked in with the guard, we squeezed the Merc among the other cars, had a candlelit snack and eventually spread out our bags in the dirt and dozed off.
By 10.30 next morning the convoy was ready to cross No-Man’s-Land into Mauritania. This was the sharp end of the trip, sixty-odd kilometres of bare rock, soft sand, and check points that would keep us moving in stops and starts till 2am the following day. And then there were the mines, deadly relics from the Polisario wars which still wiped out the odd car that strayed or tried to sneak through illegally off piste. Half an hour and a couple of boggings from the fort, we reached some crumbling tarmac from the Spanish colonial era, close to the twisted remains of a blown up Land Rover just 30 metres from the road.
Up ahead a huge queue lead to the first Mauritanian check point where one car moved off every ten minutes. Having crossed the Tropic of Cancer yesterday, winter afternoons were now reaching a cozy 30 degrees, and as we settled in for the long wait a be-robed Moor came over to check out Andy’s Merc. This was more like it: selling a car in No-Man’s-Land before Customs stamped your passport ‘with vehicle’ was playing well ahead of the game. The guy kicked the tyres, wiggled the steering wheel and looked under the bonnet. He seemed keen but Andy knew better than to rush the deal which was left in the air. While thrilled by this early interest he hatched another ruse to nobble Mori Customs by switching the export plates with the original numbers shown on the registration document.
By 3pm we reached the immigration hut where a guy with a ruler, biro and an exercise book laboriously filled in everyone’s details and took their passports. Up ahead other convoy drivers helped the 2WDs through a tricky sand trap which had already totalled three Dutch Mercedes’ radiators, wrecked by ill-laid sand ladders and too much speed. With these removed, Christophe and Andy tentatively gunned their machines into the pit, got stuck and was heaved back onto the old tarmac and the next three-hour wait.
Mahfzoud, the Moorish car buyer materialised again and Andy laid on the charm, reiterating the superb qualities of his five-cylinder model. A bit of motortalk ensued and then Mahfzoud hopped in for the 50km drive to the main check point. Tiring of the old tarmac, Andy took to the desert floor, occasionally grounding with a thud that bothered the car’s potential buyer not at all. Negotiations advanced until they suddenly came to a head. Andy slammed on the brakes, blocking the track.
‘So you will pay 12,000 francs (£1200), yes?’
‘Of course. I have shown you the cash.’ said Mahfzoud.
‘And you want to buy the car now.’
‘I am ready. Give me the keys and I give you the money.’
Cars pulled up behind us, waited, and then worked their way round.
‘And you will drive us to Nouadhibou.’
‘No, no, I cannot do this.’
‘But how will we get there?’
‘Get a lift with your friend in the Volvo.’
Six people, even in a stately 740, would surely arouse suspicion. The authorities weren’t clueless about this import-tax dodging car trade – they just wanted a piece of the action. Once Mahfzoud got his hands on the car, he’d find his own way back to Nouadhibou, possibly tipping off Customs about Andy’s newly-acquired stash. Smelling a rat in this too-perfect scenario, he moved on.
At dusk we crossed the railway and arrived at the main check point and another crowd of stationary cars. Hustlers, touts and guides up from Nouadhibou pestered weary drivers insistently. Night fell, the stolen C180 slipped through the barrier with a nod and a wink, and a two-mile-long train rumbled past on its 500-mile journey to the iron ore mines inland.
Around 10pm, having ignored this stage in the passport-stamping procedure, we drove on through to the next checkpoint, waited two hours, moved on again and, finally, at about 1am, stumbled half-asleep into another hut where a guy courteously returned our passports.
We were in Nouadhibou at last, no picturesque desert oasis, but a lively port town looking forward to the end of Ramadan. Checking in at the police station next day, Andy had an amazing stroke of luck. Outside, an Algerian caught crossing the border illegally and stranded for a week flipped out and the policemen leapt up to sort him out in the approved manner. Left alone in the office for a few seconds, Andy reached over the counter, inked up a ‘no car’ entry stamp and whacked it into his real passport. Now he could leave the country with no evidence of having brought in the Merc. Perfect.
There was no road back then so I took a bush taxi along the beach route to Nouakchott; 22 people in and on a 70-series Toyota pickup. Andy and Christophe loaded the cars onto the empty ore train and headed inland towards the Adrar mountains. Within an hour of arriving at the town of Atar, Andy sold his Merc to the hotel owner for a juicy £1400. The guy was so delighted with his new purchase, he immediately invited all his guests to join him for a drive round town. How long even the hardy Merc would last there is anybody’s guess, but the gang piled into the Volvo, took a back road out of town to avoid the check point, and headed for Dakar.
Originally published in Top Gear magazine, May 1998