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No.86 Bikepacking Mauritania – Iron ore train ride, multiculti and sand

Jun 5, 2019 | Africa, Blog, Mauritania

“You’ll see, when you’re out of Morocco, you finally made it to Africa” I was told this again and again. And when I got closer to the Mauritanian border, it felt exactly like that. The border post was already noticeably more run-down than the one on the Moroccan side, not to mention No-man’s Land.

I was greeted in a friendly manner; my passport was checked, and the uniformed man sent me to the visa office. Moroccans, tourists, Moors, Senegalese, and other black Africans were already waiting.

Women sat on the ground to the left, men stood to the right in a row. Interestingly, women were called first. Some of those present had been waiting for hours.

The first thing that caught my eye was the gaping hole in the wall next to the door latch. Possibly the key to the lock had been lost, so the door had been forced open, destroying the masonry.

Now, the latch had to be released by reaching into the broken wall and freeing the latch manually. Which made a heck of racket; this must have happened a hundred times a day. I doubt civil servants at home would put up with this for even a day.

Visa cost 55 Euro; in cash; valid for 30 days. The border guard wished me a great time. “You will like it,” he added.

From Mauritania on to South Africa every country I visit will be new territory for me. So far, I have seen only a small portion of the African continent. Altogether only six countries.

South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Madagascar, Uganda, and Egypt. So, quite a lot of countries to look forward to.

Mauritania is the ninety-second country I’ve visited. I have traveled fifty-eight of them by bicycle.

At the first police check, the French woman Charline, with whom I had been traveling for a few days, and I were asked to enter a small hut next to the road. A policeman was lying on a pallet. Garbage, food leftovers, and general chaos piled up around him.

Another policeman brought him tea. Still lying down, the uniformed man took our passports and scribbled our names on an ancient looking scrap of paper he found under his pallet.

He then handed his empty glass back to his colleague without making eye contact. Turning back in our direction, he returned our passports stretching out so far with his long arm he almost rolled off the bed.

Charline and I grinned at the exact same moment and broke into laughter about a second later, which resulted in questioning faces around us. It had been something of a comedy, but also a little horrifying for both of us to see how people live under such filthy conditions.

The “nothing really matters” philosophy was unspoken in the air.

Shabby tents fluttering in the wind outside the gates of the city were my first sight approaching Nouadhibou. I had to swallow hard a few times. That was Africa. The Africa that I wanted to see and experience, but also had tons of respect for.

Omar, a young Couchsurfer host which is the counterpart to the Warmshowers community, just for backpackers, waited for us at the first intersection. We had met briefly at the border. However, more travelers had already arrived at his house. One from the US, one Brazilian and two Swiss.

Something seemed off, and my impression was the family wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about having so many people visiting at the same time.  So, I said goodbye the next morning immediately and moved on by myself again.

Nouadhibou brought-on culture shock. Garbage piled up everywhere on the streets. Cows and goats were eating plastic and paper. People were driving around in totally wrecked cars.

Donkeys with their packs and even dromedaries were strolling through the alleys. It had something of the flavor of India. Everywhere small stalls, lots of dust, dirt, and chaos.

Nations and cultures abounded. Tunisians and Lebanese cavorted between blacks and upright nobly dressed Moors.

Pizza and water pipes. Baguettes and French palmiers in the patisserie. In between beautiful black women sat frying small dough balls in hot fat. Children playing ball and little girls dressed up with golden ponytails.

Once again, I noticed how comfortable I felt among blacks. Just like I did in Belize. Their direct open nature is precisely my thing.

A Senegalese asked me how I found Mauritania? “I haven’t seen anything of it yet,” I replied. “And how do you like it”? I asked. I heard, “Moors are racists.”

I wanted to go inland, and the best way to get there was to take the iron ore train to Choum. One of the longest freight trains in the world. It rides empty from the coast in an easterly direction, only to return filled back to Nouadibhou.

As a touring cyclist in Mauritania, one is very limited as far as the choice of roads is concerned. The Sahara sand dominates life, and in order not to get stuck in the sand, one has to choose one of the few tarmac roads. And Mauritania with its small population, has hardly any of them.

None of them go to Choum from Nouadhibou.

The train departed around 4pm. Surprisingly, the trip didn’t cost anything to ride in an open freight car.  People helped me lift my bike into the empty wagon and loaded some other passengers’ mattresses in also.  But I had the whole wagon to myself. The other passengers had chosen to pay nearly five Euro to ride in the trains two passenger cars.

If I’m honest, I wondered from the first minute why everyone else bought a ticket and I was probably the only one sitting in the freight wagon. If that wasn’t a mistake!

The elegantly dressed Moors ignored me and I did not feel really comfortable with them.

The train constantly rattled, the wind whistled around me, and the dust I was exposed to was no fun, to say the least.

When the train came to a stop and then started again, a loud noise sounded from the engine all the way back to me at the end of the long train. It almost sounded like a noisy airplane. The louder it got, the more I prepared myself for the sudden hard jerk backward that inevitably came when the train started moving again.

The first time this happened, I bumped my head against the steel wall of the wagon, from then on, I knew better and was prepared.

When the railway line turned straight to the east and tackled the long 500 kilometers paralleling the border to Western Sahara, it became so windy and dusty that from then on, I just sat squatted down with my Buff in front of my eyes and mouth and prepared myself for a long dusty night.

Of course, between protecting myself from the dust and then it being nighttime, I saw little of the landscape, we were passing. But I had only expected, sand and more sand.

It got cold, so I made myself comfy in my sleeping bag laying down on the mattresses, in the bottom of the wagon. Trying to be as comfortable as I could be in the dusty conditions.

At 3 o’clock in the morning, we were finally there. A few people helped me unload the bike from the train, but a short time later I stood there alone in the dark night, at the station in the middle of Nowhere-Land.

Where the heck had I landed?

To my surprise, I discovered the Southern Cross on the horizon. My favorite constellation. A surprise, I had not expected it so far north.

The only person I met was a black man who huddled in front of a courtyard in a kind of dog shelter and startled me as I approached. I hadn’t noticed him at first. I asked him if I could pitch my tent behind the wall he was protecting, but he wouldn’t let me do that. So, I pitched my tent directly at the station.

I was so tired that I didn’t want to think about whether it was a good idea or not.

In the morning, I was awakened by the sound of steps; someone was sneaking around the tent. I immediately unzipped the door and looked into the eyes of a tall man who sat in front of me, looking irritated. Then he disappeared.

A short time later, a woman appeared and asked for money. After I made it clear to her that I would not give her anything, she also went her own way.

In the village, I was surrounded by pushy bread merchants. The authentic Mauritanian bread is delicious, far better than the baguette they were selling here, which tasted like cardboard. It was still warm and smelled really good.

I didn’t know the prices. That is always the problem in the first days of a new country. And I didn’t trust these fellas all that much. But I was hungry.

When the long straight road at the end of the village lay in front of me, I pinched my bum and convinced myself to keep pedaling. So far, the country had been anything but inviting. Mauritania has also been on the list of unsafe countries for years. But no matter what, let’s go.

The landscape was beautiful. The road brand new. No traffic, as I love it. With a tailwind, I pedaled in the direction of Atar, 115 KM. The secret capital of the country.

Upon arriving in Atar, women called out to me from the street, I should come to drink tea with them. In a one-room house, I was welcomed with singing and clapping. On plastic buckets, they drummed out rhythms, and I had to dance with them. We all had a lot of fun.

There was also tea. The half-hour tea ceremony in Morocco seemed to become a 2-hour event in Mauritania. The tea is poured from one glass to the next until half the glass is full of foam.

From time to time, water is poured into it, which is heated on glowing coals. This takes time. A very long time actually.

And in order to prolong the activity a little further, you always drink 3 glasses of tea. And each of those present does the same. If there are 10 people sitting in the room, you have to be patient until it is your turn again.

The glasses are washed briefly in between but still stick neatly to the fingers, no wonder with all the sugar that is used.

A few kilometers later, a man ran after me. He also wanted to invite me into the house. His wife sat on the floor, chopping up dromedary meat, which she hung on a clothesline outside. Flies populated the whole room.

I was given milk, which I thankfully refused. And, of course, tea, although I left here after the first one because the people were somehow strange. Either they stared at me all the time, or they ignored me. Here again, my name was laughed at loudly.

One woman suddenly started asking for money. She pointed to the children and mumbled something to me. Unfortunately, I hadn’t closed my bag correctly, and the bicycle was out of my sight. The more intrusive the people became, the more I wondered whether something was missing in my bag.

A few km away from the house, I checked everything and noticed that my charging cable was no longer there. So once again, my impression had not deceived me.

In all my time as a cyclist, something was stolen from me only twice. Once the rear light in Ukraine and now the cable. I’m careful parking my bike and baggage, but I don’t overdo it, and I am not planning on changing this in the future.

Most people are honest, and I don’t want those few who aren’t to spoil my fun. Freedom and well-being often start with not worrying. Worries paralyze, and I try to avoid them as much as possible.

Shortly before dark, I reached Atar and was immediately enthusiastic about the place. Colorful life and many different races were present. The houses were lively, and some people made a friendly impression, especially blacks.

I stayed 8 nights at Bab Sahara, a camp run by a Dutchman. For 5 Euro a night, I could enjoy stimulating conversations, with overlanders. Long-term travelers who were exploring with big 4×4 camping trucks, backpackers, and people with jeeps.

Austrians, US-Americans, Dutch, Germans, Norwegians, and French.

I love such encounters, enjoying the common ground of travelers. Even if our experiences differ because our modes of travel are different, still our interests are often similar.

What I find interesting are the different views of life of individuals from various nations. We Germans and Dutchmen who were present were all very grateful and glad to be born where we were, but we also look at our countries critically and try again and again to admit our mistakes and find reasons why things are the way they are.

The conversation with the US citizen, on the other hand, was completely different. Even after two years of Trump and this fella’s own travels, he was still convinced the USA is and remains the greatest country on the planet. According to him, there is no doubt.

I am always amazed by the arrogance that some US citizens bring with them. Even though I am almost jealous, obviously many of them have too much national pride, but I definitely have too little.

In the village, I got to know people, and I enjoyed staying longer in one place. Tallest, was a friendly Senegalese, who stood out from the crowd with 2.02m (6’7-1/2”), hence his nickname.

He spoke four languages. Wolof, Hassani (the Arabic dialect spoken in Mauritania), French and English. It was simply remarkable how easily he switched back and forth between the four languages. There were so many nations here that he could use his languages all the time.

A painter from Guinea-Bissau, who wanted to sell his tourist stuff, was called Picasso.

At the Moroccan Restaurant, people got together for a conversation in the evening. He definitely had the best food in town.

Unfortunately, also Hitler was mentioned here once. A few young people wanted to congratulate me for having had such a great leader and wondered why I didn’t react so enthusiastically about their statements. Sometimes I am tired of the topic.

I also heard the names of German soccer players like Rummenigge and Beckenbauer. For the most part, I tried to ignore the frequent question, “can you take me to Germany?”

I found; Mauritanians generally don’t like to be photographed. Before I use the camera, I always try to develop a rapport with people. But here it was difficult. I was yelled at by people whom I neither wanted to take a photo of or wasn’t planning on taking a photograph of. I had to be very careful.

With sad feelings, I rode on. Atar had captured my heart, although there was not really anything to see.

Riding in a storm and with bad visibility, I cycled towards Nouackhott, the capital of the country. Four hundred and fifty kilometers of tarmac road lay in front of me. In between two settlements. Arriving late in the evening at the first, I asked around for accommodation and was invited by a man.

I was allowed to camp on his grounds and eat with them. Couscous from the big bowl. Mauritanians eat with their hands. The couscous is formed into a little ball in the hand before it is led to the mouth. But before doing so, they mix it with the vegetables or meat in the middle of the bowl. As in Morocco, everything is cooked forever.

The Sahara provides people with an extremely hostile habitat, and I often thought, why would anyone want to settle here? There is nothing. Hardly any water. Hardly any trees. A few plants. How did the people survive here before there was a road?

The wind never ceased. Sand was everywhere. Dromedaries and abandoned houses. People from time to time, but they weren’t particularly interested in me.

The Harmattan, the seasonal wind from the Sahara, is said to blow strongest in February and March. The people themselves told me it blows all year round.

To protect myself from the wind and sand, I asked in a small shop if I could put up my tent somewhere. A boy slept there in the middle of the dirty shack where they sold some basic food. Flies crawled around on his mouth and eyes, but nobody seemed to mind.

The mother cooked tea disinterestedly. In general, the women here are very corpulent. Wrapped in long clothes, they often make a very dull impression. What surprised me the most was that the people really have a lot of time, but the rooms in which they are always in are quite often in miserable states.

I couldn’t find out if the children in the area were going to school or not.

The door of the hut that they made available to me had to be cleared of sand with a shovel that they provided for me in order to have access.

And then, suddenly there was no wind. Finally. I sat in the sand by moonlight and enjoyed the moment. These are the minutes in the desert that I love. The peace, the vastness, the beauty, unfortunately too rare in this area. Finally, I could cook outside again and enjoy my meal without the ingredient sand.

But the next morning it was there again, the wind and with it the sand in the air. In my eyes and ears and between my teeth.

My zippers hardly worked anymore. All my things had an enormous layer of dust.

Not only children ask for a cadeau, i.e., a gift, but adults also. There must have been busloads of tourists who just randomly distributed things, believing in helping people or relieving their own compassionate thoughts.

All they achieve is begging people who see a tourist as a gift rather than a visitor who wants to get to know the country.

This also makes you suspicious as a tourist, because you never know if someone will only want money from you in the end when the person approaches you in a friendly way.

There were police checks. They ask for a fiche, i.e., for the copied personal data. Mostly they are very friendly and also in this corner of the country they live under desolate conditions.

Akjouit was the only city between Atar and Nouackshott. A mining settlement. I found the atmosphere in the city very interesting and therefore stayed two days.

Shortly before the gates of Nouakchott, I spent the night with dromedary owners. Again, I wanted to find a sheltered place for the night.

First, I was asked for my watch, another one wanted my bicycle. When I photographed the dromedaries, they asked for money. One woman also complained that I had parked my bike in the wrong place. One man wanted to marry me, and with his Mercedes, we should drive together to Germany. All this within the first few minutes.

They themselves drove a brand-new Toyota pick-up and owned lots of dromedaries, lived in the city and had their black servants there who took care of everything.

If it hadn’t been for an extremely nice black man there who had given me a very good feeling when I arrived, I would have cycled on in the dark.

With the curious eyes of children, I shared my evening cooking ceremony at the fire. I went into my tent early but was woken at midnight when someone pushed cooked spaghetti under my fly.

In the morning, I was shaken by a man who raised the outer tent and stuck his head under it to call me for breakfast.

Nouakchott did not give the impression of a capital. It is probably the only capital where I ever had to push my bike. There seemed to be more sandy tracks than tar roads. As soon as one leaves the three roads that lead to the center, one sinks into the sand.

A lot of garbage and dirt. No place where I wanted to stay longer.

In the end, I stayed with Warren. A Brit who sweetened his time as a Warmshower host. He works as a teacher and is happy about every cyclist who takes a break with him for a few days. I immediately liked his British humor.

Because the Mali embassy was on strike, I stayed with him for almost a week until I had the necessary visa.

The only notable and magnificent building in the city was the American Embassy. The giant American flag flaunted in the wind.

I didn’t like the country very much, even though the month I was there I didn’t really get the insight I had hoped for. With many unanswered questions, I cycled towards Senegal. The road with its potholes continued to run through a desolate landscape. The wind always at my side.

Inside I thought, I am glad that I can leave this misanthropic country with its little life-hungry people. Although I really found it very interesting, in the long run, it gave me too little, probably the inhabitants feel the same.

Regrettably, I supposedly couldn’t reach the best scenic areas by bicycle, so in the end, Mauritania isn’t really suitable for cycle touring.

At the end of the day, I saw a light in the distance at a renovated house. Here I wanted to ask if I could get a sheltered campsite. My nose did not disappoint me. I met rich people and was allowed to spend two days with a family.

With another wealthy family, I was even given a house to myself. Grateful for the hospitality I was woken up at 7 o’clock in the morning. The host brought a baguette, set the TV to full volume, and started smoking and did not speak a word to me. After about half an hour, he disappeared again, and when I wanted to thank him later and say goodbye, he slept.

Did he perhaps have the same thoughts as I had? Did he think this woman does not even sit down with me for breakfast although I got up so early because I know that Europeans are early risers?

From my side, I thought, why did he show up so early and make so much noise here, I had told him yesterday that I like to sleep longer in the morning and he had said that this is not a problem. In general, here you go to bed late and get up late.

Understanding other cultures and always behaving correctly is not easy. Despite everything, there are nations with which I get along better than I could with the Moors.

Also, I do not like the strikingly arrogant and oppressive way the Moors treat the blacks. This behavior smacks of a ruling class and a two-tiered society. The slave trade was abolished here not too long ago. You can still feel that today.

In Rosso, my money was stolen from me in a shop. The first time in my travel life, someone stole a banknote from my pocket, and I can’t explain how it happened. Since I had just exchanged money, I knew exactly what I had in my wallet.

A small amount it was converted only 2.50 Euro, but it is about the principle. Especially since I had just explained to the money changer that I wanted to exchange 10 Euros and not 100 when he gave me far too much money.

Rosso is known for the fact that on the Senegalese side of the border corruption prevails, and travelers are ripped off there continuously, so I cycled 100 km further along the Senegal river to the east.

Trees appeared. Fields. Green color. A relief after all the sand in the last 6 weeks.

In a small settlement, I asked for a boutique, i.e., a grocery store, but there was really nothing to buy there. But what there was, however, were extremely friendly people.

Black Africans, who immediately invited me to tea, where I could buy a portion of hot chips and who asked me if I wanted to photograph them. A great farewell from Mauritania, a country that is difficult to travel in.

At the border in Podor, I was stopped briefly because the Mauritanians supposedly could not give me an exit stamp and wanted to send me back to Rosso. But a short time later, the border official found a stamp in one of the many drawers with nothing in them.

He also asked to borrow a pen to write the departure date in my passport, and took the printer cartridge out of the copy machine and shook it back and forth to be able to copy my passport.

A short time later, a small pirogue brought me to the other side of the Senegal River.
Black Africa, here I come.


  1. Heike, congratulations on your journey thus far on the African continent. And a big Wow for your photos in this blog post. I know you are a professional so not surprised but this set really is special. Honestly they should be big prints displayed in a New York or London gallery.
    I know too how much you love nature and the environment, so it must be extremely hard on you to pass through countries where trash is such a problem.
    Once again thanks for the wonderful stories, photos and for all the work it must take to share them with us. Cheers and Tailwinds

    • Dear Ron!
      Your comment makes me very proud!
      NY gallery 😉 Sounds pretty cool 🙂

      Yes the trash is devastating – breaks my heart several times a day!
      We need to put more effort, money and studies into avoiding plastic!

      Best greetings to Arizona! Heike

  2. Heike a tough go through Mauritania I’m sure you will love Senegal…. great pics as always the faces are the best, hugs, Brent

  3. Hi Heike,
    It’s nice that you can travel by bike and post all these colorful pictures and I can live vicariously safe in my little cabin in the high desert.
    For so poor a country… where does all the garbage come from? Is it they have nowhere to put dispose of it?
    Anyways, thanks for the adventure 🙂

    • Thanks Bob 🙂
      Yes, no infrastructure. They import most of their goods – coming from all over – but have nowhere to put it.
      We, the Western world – need to come up with a solution for this massive problem! It all ends in the ocean – it is simply devastating!

      Best greetings Heike

      • Yes….
        Same in Asia, where tourism has such a negative impact that islands and beaches are polluted so much that governments need to close them for a few weeks or months to clean them up. All single used plastic – because tourists don’t seem to understand the tragedy – or maybe they simply don’t care! just one example for it.

        We Westerners are pointing fingers to the undeveloped world – but we are the ones to blame.

        Thankfully, there is now a container ship on its way from the Philippines back to Canada.
        Western countries paying for disposal of their trash and are sending one container ship after another to the undeveloped world (it is called Recycling) into a world without proper garbage disposal and WE all know they are not having proper trash disposal. China is no longer accepting the trash – now Indonesia and Malaysia is taking over.

        The more containers are shipped back our way – the more we need to come up with a solution – because otherwise it will pile up where we are and then FINALLY – HOPEFULLY – something might happen!

        Everyone of us is to blame – everyone who is buying anything wrapped in plastic! Politicians who don’t come up with laws to reduce our impact to this beautiful planet because their citizens don’t care and because their economic growth is more important than anything else. Instead some even deny facts and pretend there is no climate crisis (I know different topic) which is giving us even less time to STOP all this. Time is running out!

        We have the privilege of clean water coming out of a tap at home, but people drive with their big cars to the supermarket to buy water in plastic which is shipped from far away – where energy was wasted to produce those plastic bottles = because the industry told them that this water is better for their body – but in reality the opposite is the case! The plastic bottle is then shipped from people’s houses all the way across the oceans and then finally ends up – who know where – probably in the ocean…. The short story of a plastic spoon…..

        It is devastating!

        Thanks for reading.


  4. I’ve fallen back in love with your travels! I think Africa may very well suit you.

    • John….how are you? Thanks for your comment – oh Africa – tough and rough and beautiful and very interesting and so much more 🙂 🙂

      Best greetings to OZ – Heike

  5. Dear Heike, I am late getting to read your blog–yet again my breath is taken away by your photos–you said many people did not like to be photographed, yet you came away with so many incredible portraits. I agree with Ron that these are gallery-worthy. I’m already looking forward to looking at them again, savouring them. Hugs to you.
    p.s. The movement to quit plastic is well on its way, I think–I’m devoted to this cause as are many. I feel that as a person with nutritious food, good water, and comfortable shelter, who has unwittingly contributed to the plastic garbage crisis, I must do more than my share of the work–I hope more and more people in the richer countries will come to feel the same.

    • Dear Catherine…..thank you very much for your lovely compliment! After all I was able to convince the shy guys to smile in my camera 🙂

      Yes, I hope that the western world is finally waking up – but sadly when I see tourists here in Africa they still seem to accept plastic bags and buy water in plastic bottles even if they know it will all end up somewhere on the streets.

      Big hugs Catherine and I am happy to hear you are also fighting for a plastic free world…..

  6. Incredible, and on the same earth as I am.
    I know about plastic in the ocean, I was not aware of it in the sand.
    On the map, east of Atar there is Eye of Africa. No will to see that ?

  7. Hello, I just want to say thanks for choosing to go through Mauritania in your travels. As an outdoor enthusiast myself and being from Mauritania, I can honestly say that it must not have been easy cycling through the desert, you don’t understand it until you are there. I am also quite saddened about your overall experience and I truly hope you had at least a couple of good memories. Although, there are a couple things I want to mention. The people you met in the bigger cities do not represent the majority, majority would be the families that invited you in for tea and food. In terms of the bad “jokes” from men, they literally just do not know any better, this is how they communicate even between each other with very bland jokes haha. You are right in terms of the asking for “cadeau” and “argent” but as you would have noticed that is so normalised due to the amount of tourists that bring toys and give money out. This doesn’t actually help the people in the long run. I, myself, am hoping to cycle Nouakchott-Atar potentially go further and I will definitely take all the things you mentioned on this piece with me 🙂 Happy riding!!

    • Hi to Mauritania! Thanks for your comment!
      It is great to get a feedback from a Mauritanian – very much appreciated.
      In hindsight I really enjoyed Mauritania! But it isn’t the easiest and also not the friendliest destination I have been to. But as in every country I met some very hospitable and welcoming people.
      Best greetings to Africa and enjoy your ride!

  8. Thank you for the read.


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