West Africa

West Africa
In the dim morning light, a glance down at my watch confirms it's 6:30am. We broke camp and left Dakhla (Morocco's southernmost town) an hour ago. I ease my grip on the handlebars and take in a deep breath. The wind drying my face does little to relieve the anxiety I feel as we ride south to the notorious Mauritanian border. Lisa is tucked in behind me, her single cylinder thumping a steady rhythm.

We travel south on the margin of civilization, deep within the disputed territories of the Western Sahara, a vast uninhabited and inhospitable stretch of barren desert, long fought over, with Morocco and Mauritania laying hostile claim. To our left the Sahara silently reaches out, shifting sand lit by the fast rising sun. It is 9:00am and already 100 degrees.

Treacherous Sands

We are, however, among new friends. After a chance meeting with them in Dakhla, Lisa and I ride ahead, followed closely by José, in his short wheel-based 4x4, with David and Katja, in their Land Rover pickup, taking the rear. We will act as scouts, defining the route that best avoids the worst of the sand and relaying the information via our radio systems, and they will carry our heavy bags in the Land Rovers.

The going gets tough in Mali.

Dry-mouthed and on tenterhooks, we pull up and stop a few feet past the first checkpoint to drink some thick sweet coffee served from the back of David's 4x4. As we check through our returned papers, each of us retells the horror stories we know of doomed attempts to reach Nouakchott, Mauritania's capital. José mentions three Frenchmen, who, upon crossing into Mauritania, turned off the trail and were blown up in minutes. David then darkens the gloom with stories of sun madness, death by dehydration and poor souls forced to drink radiator fluid to survive. Whether it's a tale of sudden or agonizing demise, the theme is the same, and none of us feel the better for having broached the subject.

The bloody war between Morocco and Mauritania is long over but a terrifying legacy remains scattered ahead: thousands of pressure-sensitive mines still hidden in the loose sand. And the few wanting to pass this way have been on their own for the past two years, ever since the discontinuation of the twice-weekly military convoys from Dakhla to the Mauritanian border. The safety of Mauritania-bound travelers is no longer a responsibility Morocco wants.

At the second checkpoint gentle application of the rear brake on the loose sand brings our bikes to a sliding stop. We are deep within "no man's land." A cheerless guard in a low stone building checks our documents while rats the size of cats scurry behind him, occasionally pausing to dine from the wooden bowl on the floor that the guard had eaten from just moments earlier. He asks us for a cadeux, a gift, and seems overwhelmed when we hand him a small bottle of eyewash. What for us is a simple saline solution for him is a miracle potion.

Skirting unchecked bush fires in Senegal is a daily hazard.

With our papers stamped we are underway again, though night will soon be upon us. Every alarm bell in my head is ringing. Ahead of us: 45 miles of minefield. Our only guide, a narrow electronic 'breadcrumb' trail on the GPS screen. Nerves and riding the soft sand in the dark are getting the better of us. The 4x4s overtook us a while back and now regular, our falls are increasing, and with each one the distance between us and our companions grows. Hard on the throttles of our bikes our wheels spin furiously, digging deeply into the soft furrowed sand. Up ahead, the dim lights of the 4x4s fade as we fall farther behind. I pull alongside Lisa, and after some discussion we resolve to stay put until daylight arrives or our friends return. Our fear growing with each passing moment, we dare not get off the bikes or move a step to the side because of the mines. Cutting through the darkness, David's flashlight finally strikes Lisa's bike, and we're relieved beyond measure to have been found. Taking our new position between the Land Rovers, we ride deeper into the minefield. Falls come and go, and at 10:00pm we clear the last few feet of mined terrain and can see the distant blush of town lights through our dusty goggles.

A chaos of shanties, air thick with dust, and narrow dirt roads teeming with clapped-out cars signal our arrival in Nouadhibou. We have been in the desert less than two days, but the small town is intimidating after the solitude and silence of the Sahara. Inside the refuge of the Auberge Chinguetti we violently gulp down mouthfuls of water from thin plastic bottles, spilling as much as we drink. Our bodies are spent - this is beyond adventure, verging on madness. Still dressed in our dusty riding suits, we haul our heavy bodies onto the filthy bunk beds and fall asleep within seconds.

The route to Nouakchott is much more difficult than the journey to Nouadhibou. The sea of sand has towering dunes so immense that skirting them is impossible. An overwhelming landscape, without markers, trails, fuel or help. Heading south, the bikes are sliding in the deep soft sand as we crest the top of the Leurier Bay. A few hundred feet to our right we can see our four-wheeled companions make their own way. We are speeding across the Sebkha Aoueïtal, a wide stretch of salty sand flats. Up on the pegs, I snatch a glance at the speedo, the needle at 65mph and rising. The front wheel of my 1100 GS, no longer ploughing the sand, is instead skimming the surface. The adrenaline-fueled exhilaration is almost overwhelming and a far cry from our slow nervous ride through the minefield. We quickly relay the warning of 'super' soft sand ahead through our radios to José, David and Katja, watching them sweep even wider to avoid entrapment.

Our limbs are heavy and cramped from the massive effort of being up on the pegs for 12 hours at a time. These past four days south from Nouakchott have been the toughest riding either of us has ever tackled. Resting inside our tent, sheltered from the cold desert wind, we look out into the night, feeling the dizzying solitude of the Sahara.

Having fun with street kids in Senegal.

The Sahara has stripped us of ego, of what we 'imagined' adventure to be and the ideas of who we thought we were. Exhausted and dirty, we are all the richer for the experience and also a little sad that all too soon we'll be past this part of our journey. But right now, I'm happy to lose myself in this land without echo. Tomorrow we'll race the tide the last 114 miles along the desolate beach south to reach Nouakchott and spend New Year's Eve in the Mauritanian capital.