Miles on the clock: 40,205
Loic was waiting at the airport in Dakar. We'd met briefly one night in Southwest China three years earlier and he'd slurred over the umpteenth watery beer that I should get in touch when I reach Senegal.
I unboxed and built my bicycle on the roadside before following his motorbike to the bungalow room he rented. I dumped my kit and we headed onto a Reggae party with Rose, his Burkinabé visiting ex-girlfriend from when he lived in Ouagadougou.
I spent a week with Loic, getting to know him, seeing the city with him, meeting his friends, visiting the Mauritanian embassy for a visa, and sharing plenty of Gazelle beers. Senegal is a different world from the Central Africa that I'd recently left. The sun-bleached streets were strewn with sand and populated by emaciated horses pulling makeshift carts with old car wheels. The markets were relatively thriving and the 95% Muslim population wore long robes, often striped with bright colours.
My passport was stamped with a Mauritania visa which promptly had the word annulé scrawled across it in front of my eyes. A new order from the capital that morning had put an end to Mauritanian tourist visas being granted in Dakar. I was told that I could chance it at the border but might get rejected. This was the final visa of a 4.5 year journey and had become an unexpected headache.
Fully expecting to be visa-less and back in Dakar within a week, I hugged my new friend goodbye. He said he hoped to visit the UK next winter so we parted with "à plus tard". The route out of the haphazard city was busy and hard to follow. I accidentally cycled onto a motorway and was stopped at a toll gate. Two traffic police informed me that I'd broken the law and that the police were on their way. I was ordered to lean my bike against the wall and wait. Looking around, it was quickly clear that these men had no car. I was doubtlessly soon to be fined so I took a running start, jumped onto my bike and pedalled away as fast as I could. I span hurriedly onward for half an hour before ducking into a mosque and chatting with the imam until I deemed it safe to rejoin the road.
Brightly dressed pastoralists ambled behind skinny flocks and I was often reminded of romanticised images of 7th-century Arabia from an illustrated children's Koran I once thumbed through.
I reached the border town of Rosso and passed out of Senegal before paying a boatman £1 to ferry me across the unbridged river to Mauritania. Immigration told me I could get a visa but that I'd have to wait. I then watched the visa officer sleep in front of me for two hours before he stood up, announced that his lunch hour had arrived, and wandered off. An hour later he greeted me as if I'd just arrived and stamped my passport.
The north side of the border had a lot of Arab men wearing pale blue daras (baggy robes worn over baggy pants with billowing crotches). Most were in attitudes of recline. Large, patchwork tents and semi-permanent lean-tos dotted the dunes through which the road and I carved passage. Hardy goats bleated as they rose on their hind legs to reach the higher greenery on nearly bare bushes. The temperature oppresses. The Sahara proper had begun.
One afternoon a great northerly storm rose up and began rolling blackly towards me. With nowhere to shelter I sped at it with rising excitement. There is a seductive sense of insanity about hurtling at a dark, towering horizon, strobing with lightning, as fast as adrenalin spun legs will take you. I thrashed happily at the pedals with mad abandon. Primal stupidity drove me for a time into the whistling wind but sense failed to fly entirely. Just as the swollen raindrops began to smash horizontally into me, I approached a tent and hauled the bike across the sand to it.
I thanked my hosts and rejoined the shimmering, rain-polished road. The glorious cool after the tempest drew me on and I neared the Atlantic. A salt-tinged breeze buffeted my left side and, exhausted, I finally pitched my tent on soft sand.
I slept deeply and woke early. Coffee and bread by moonlight for breakfast before I sensed the air had become ominously still. Over my shoulder another vertiginous storm stack raced up and blotted the moon. Meekly, I pegged my rainsheet over the inner sanctum of my tent and awaited more ridiculousness. The pitter-patter on canvas lasted moments before growing to a deafening drumming. I sat upright using my arm to brace the bending side of my suffering tent: a fixed and flimsy sail in a furious gale.
Later that manic morning I reached the ugly outskirts of Nouakchott. Dusty, bleached and beige. Prohibited, and inexplicably built three miles from the coast in heat-blasted desert, Nouakchott seemed a strange place to return to. Nevertheless, I found my way to the guesthouse I'd stayed at in 2007 and spent a night on the roof of the neglected building. Tourism seems to have ceased in Mauritania. The manager put it down to the rising fear of North African Islamic extremism in western nations.
Beyond the city there were no more tents. Occasional checkpoints were manned by friendly police who insisted I camp near them for security reasons. I started rising at 3am and utilising the cooler and less wind-blasted night. No more rainstorms but I hunkered inside my sleeping bag one night during a roaring sandstorm. There was a two inch layer of sand inside my tent when I finally emerged from my grainy cocoon feeling more desert moth than butterfly.
A day later I arrived at the border, crossed a couple of miles of roadless no mans land and crossed into Morocco. I was relieved. I hadn't relished my time in Mauritania. The first KM marker of a long road nonchalantly announced the distance to Europe: 2,337km.
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