Sunday 5th December; 5:30 AM
up to the sounds of
he fact that I wake up at this stupid hour of the
morning has also a lot to do with the jetlag I’m trying to get over. I arrived
yesterday at 2:40 in the morning, after a series of flights and inter-flight
boredom lasting two days, during which, as usual, I slept very little. The
n Heathrow, flight connection time was, to say the
least, generous. I spent it by taking the metro from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2,
and then by having a real breakfast, with real espresso coffee and two cold
croissants, and browsing the small collection of shops in the departure hall.
Because my flight to
s with the flight to
hen we got back to the hotel (Residence Galaxy), I
was shown my room (just large enough to fit a dirty-looking double mattress,
and the rest of the apartment: a simple kitchen, TV and satellite reception,
and two simple rooms, one of which with en-suite bathroom. I took out the
bottle of gin I bought in tax-free, and we both poured a stiff drink before
sleeping. Al told me that alcohol restrictions seemed to have been tightened in
the past weeks, and it gets increasingly difficult to get booze.
aturday morning, I woke up around 10:00 AM and had a
breakfast of cornflakes and tea. Al looked like he’d been up for quite some
time, and was keen to go and check his email. He passed me 50,000 UM (1000
ouguiya ~ 3€), effectively 10,000 UM per day for the next five days
(subsistence allowance). I decide to join him and check my email as well, and
half an hour later we were walking through the dusty streets of
oday, I ended up spending the time typing up stuff, having a much needed shower, and watching more television, while Al has gone back to the cybercafé to finish checking and answering his mail, in what he hopes will be a faster connection. By the time he’s back, it’s lunchtime again, and we’re off to the same place as yesterday, now eating a shawarma, and, you’d never guess, watching Eminem on bloody MTV again. I spent the afternoon typing a bit more, watching a bit more television, and basically getting bored until finally Hadrami turned up to get my passport and photographs. He only stays a short while, but displays his splendid unfettered sense of dry humour. And now, well, now it’s just waiting for gin-tonic time, and dinner, with, perhaps another movie on the television. What a sad life it is we lead eh?!
Monday, 6th December 2005
fter breakfast Al and I walked to OMRG and arrived there by 9:00. I found Limam in his office playing around with installing (or trying to) ArcGIS 9.0. I tried to help him, but failed eventually because the license is a non-floating one (I guess). We got stuck into Geosoft soon enough, and Bellal and a few other guys joined in. I jumped from ArcView 3.2a to Geosoft and to Excel all the time, trying to pass on as much techniques as possible. Limam also showed me some digital maps, and which I’ll have to try and get on my thumb drive somehow. In the afternoon they brought around some typical green tea with mint, three cups as is customary. At about 17:00 I started feeling tired and hungry, and luckily my students were also getting tired. I got a lift from one of them back to apartment where I found Al waiting. We went to a Moroccan restaurant in the evening where they actually served beers…
Thursday 9th December 2005
ell, I had a few more busy days full of instruction
and sorting out hardware problems. Limam and Bellal are keen students
(especially Limam), and they can, I think, comfortably make any map needed for
the project. This is just as well, as I realised yesterday morning that I can’t
take the Geosoft license to
ellal drives me to town and we end up on the side of
a busy street surrounded by lots of men in white or blue mou-mou’s waving thick
wads of all sort of money around and trying to get in the car. I sit there
thinking “we’d better get out of here”, but notice that Bellal is not showing
any sign of discomfort (yet), so I decide to ride this out. He has opened his
window a tad and is exchanging all sorts of pleasantries and indignant retorts
in Arabic. The guys on the other side of the glass are alternatively laughing
out loudly or on the verge of being really pissed off. The language of business
seems to be universal, and I understand quite quickly that Bellal is in the
process of tough pre-negotiation. I settle in for what will undoubtedly be a
lengthy and tedious half hour (at least), and merely provide some information
to Bellal once in a while. “Yes, I have 400 USD to change”. “They are in 50$
notes”. “Yep, I also have €”. “No I want at least 2200UM per dollar” and so on.
After about 20 minutes, Bellal seems to have made his choice of the numerous
“traders” waving their wads of money in our faces, and invites one in the car.
As I, and probably Bellal, was expecting, we end up with four exceedingly
excited guys in the back. One is in charge of the bundles of money, which he
seems to be able to produce out of deep and hidden pockets of his boubou,
another does a lot of talking, with Bellal as well as his “associates” and
another two seem to be charged with the “dodgy” calculators. As soon as they
have squeezed themselves in the car, Bellal start the engine and moves a mere
50 meters further along the road. Surprisingly, this seems to be far enough to
leave us in relative peace, and no more “traders” are outside the car as the
next leg of negotiations starts. As we are sitting in the front, the four guys
in the back are forced to thrust their calculator-wielding hands in between or
over the seats to show us their increasingly complicated calculations. As they
are tapping values into those small machines, it is difficult to follow their
fingers, and Bellal repeatedly takes one of the calculators to check on their calculations.
Finally, he starts telling me we are reaching a deal and I slowly start taking
out my forex (after having double-checked all front doors are locked and
windows are closed). Money exchanges hands and a lot of counting and
double-counting ensues under watchful eyes. All is in order and the guys relax,
shake our hands, and leave the car uttering all sorts of Arabic and French
pleasantries. I’ve just gained several hundreds of notes of Mauritanian Ouguya
(UM) for my few notes of “hard” currency. So, now we’re ready to do the shopping. I ask Bellal to direct the car
to a good and cheap supermarket, where we can stock up for the trip. He takes
me to a corner shop, dominated by an old bearded guy in the corner, who seems
to spend his time counting and re-counting filthy bills (literally filthy) of
UM. Bellal exclaims that they know each other well, and that the guy is the
“patron”. The shop is small by any standards but, as often is the case with
e finish our meal and get to OMRG where I am let into a plush carpeted office with a large solid wood desk covered with paperwork behind which “le Directeur” sits. We exchange greetings and he asks how the project is going. I talk a bit about the training and he asks Bellal whether he has learned anything useful. Then he asks me what I will do in the desert and how it fits in the Project. I have a hard time explaining what I want to do and why and make it clear that the trip does not directly relate to the project, which is why I am using the weekend rather than sacrifice time during the week. Kalidu understands and starts talking about his interest in scientific work but at the same time he makes it very clear that he can only allow Bellal to come along in the weekend and that my scientific interests should not interfere with the training program. I take the hint and tell him we’ll be back on Monday to resume and finish the training program. I also explain that two OMRG scientists, Bellal and Limam, will be involved in any publications coming out of the research. When we leave the office Bellal heaves a big sigh, happy that all is still OK. He says he’s going to sort out a few remaining logistical things (car rental, fuel, sample bags), and we decide to meet the next morning for our trip north. I look into Limam in his office and find him happily practicing his skills on Geosoft. He just laughs when I tell him it’s a pity he won’t come, and tells me he’s not worried, I’ll be in safe hands with Bellal.
Friday 10th December 2005
ellal has arrived with a Toyota Hilux and a driver.
He presents me a bunch of receipts of some additional stuff he bought for the
trip. They include jerry cans, sample bags, hammer and a few other bits and
pieces. We will buy all the fuel we may possibly need before leaving
oon we’re on the road north, and as we are driving
hree hours later we hit a dirt track that seems to
lead off straight in a barren landscape of the
bit later we’ve
packes our bags in the rooms and are back in the car to look at a few dykes up
north. We soon find some good outcrops and progressively work our way
northeast, along trend with the main dyke swarm. By dark, we’ve collected a
good number of samples and we head back to the camp in the dusk. The sun has
been pounding on us all afternoon, and now we’re all pretty tired. I let a sigh
of relief when the lights of the camp get visible on the horizon. Luckily
enough, Ahmed is waiting for us with some cold beers, and the promise of a hot
meal with ingredients we’ve supplied. He lets us eat in peace, but then comes
back in to talk about the plans for the mine and how things will be in a few
years. It looks like the operation will flow quite a bit of money into the
region, but not quite enough to have a new town in the
Saturday 11th December
his morning, a dense fog hangs over the camp and the
short walk to the ablution block has me shivering of the cold. Luckily, the
water is warm, and a short shower soon has me both clean and warmed up. I get
to the mess but see no one around, and make myself a big mug of “real” coffee.
The BBC is showing a big fire just outside
e take the track up north towards a historic well called the “Agâda well”, and Bellal explains that we can also pass through an old French Fort and a place with ancient rock engravings, if I’m interested. As if I could not be interested? Luckily, after about an hours drive, the sky start clearing up, and soon we’re back in the blazing sun. This is a bit of a relief as I use a sun compass rather than a magnetic one and need direct sunlight to be able to get readings. All along the way up, we cross and pass numerous mafic dykes, which as they are the main object of my study, are not left unsampled. By midday, we arrive at a rounded large hill of granite rising above the generally flat desert plain. We stop alongside a small hut next to a waterwell at the foot of the hill. The well is dry, and the hut is dilapidated and unoccupied. Inside though I can make out a small gas stove and a typical small metal teapot used to brew the Saharan sweet green mint tea. Bellal joins me and explains that whoever passes uses the hut to brew their cup of tea. The hut appears to be an impromptu meeting place for wandering travellers.
I leave the hut and look up the hill. As is always
the case, I can’t resist climbing all the way up to absorb the views. Looking
north I see three wonderful mafic dykes snaking their way along northeastern
direction and towards Western (or Spanish)
It appears to be located near the foot of the rounded granite outcrop I stand on, but several kilometres to the east, and I decide to walk to it rather than go down to the car and drive around the hill. Bellal and the driver are still down and I shout at them that we’ll meet at the Fort. At first they don’t seem to quite understand what I am talking about, but when I resolutely turn my back on them and start walking East they get it, and soon I see their car disappear around the hill. The walk on the crest of the hill does my legs some good, and by the time I get to the slope going down towards the fort I feel invigorated. When I get down, however, I realise that the Fort is still over a kilometre away. I can see that the car is already there, and can make out Bellal and Ahmed wandering around the ruins. As I approach the structure, I notice some shiny objects in the sand, which upon inspection appear to be old broken glass bottles. A bit more rooting around reveals the remains of what was a barbed wire fence or something surrounding the Fort. I can imagine the French “foreign legion–type” legionnaires, getting pissed in this godforsaken place, and chucking their empty bottles in frustration at the poles of the fence.
A bit more looking around also shows the rusty remains of sardine tins, and unrecognisable bits and pieces of what may have been pots or pans. The ruins themselves are just that: ruins. The remains of the buildings are made up of cream-coloured brickwork. None of the roof is remaining, and there are accumulations of wind-blown sand everywhere, making it clear that the desert is slowly reclaiming this site. The Fort actually has several remains of outbuildings, some of which may have been stables, ablution facilities or solitary prison cells. The entire site has an overwhelming sense of desolation about it. Looking around, apart from the granite outcrop to the west, there is simply nothing interesting to see. All that’s visible are flat, monochrome, featureless plains stretching all the way to the horizon. This must have been one of the most unwanted postings for any French recruit.
fter a short break at the Fort we set off further north, and soon I can make out an elevated elongate hill in the distance, which Bellal points out is the Agâda dyke. When we get there, it is indeed an impressive dyke compared to any we sampled before. The 100 meter thick body rises some 20 meters above the surrounding plateau, and stretches all the way to the horizon on both sides. We find a track that passes through a low break in the dyke, and as we drive in, we see a few camels and an old battered Land Rover. Here, in the middle of nowhere is this man with his two teenage sons. Bellal starts talking to the older guy in Arabic, probably explaining what we are doing here, and from the excited exchanges, I get the impression, not for the first time, that he actually may know this guy from the time he was mapping here. The two sons follow me, and one of them starts asking a lot of questions in pretty decent French. I explain that I’m after these black rocks, and that I find them interesting, and he just nods through all this as if he understand exactly why it can be so interesting to study these rocks. I ask him about school, and he says the new term will be starting next week, and that he’s attending school some 50 kilometers north, along the railway line to Nouadjibou. As I climb the outcrop and listen to him, I notice that some of the flat surfaces of the boulders have geometric shapes on them. I look a bit closer and find vague carved figures of what look like antelopes. I point them out to the boy, all excited, but he just shrugs and says that there are a lot of these carvings all over the place. I still take out my camera for a few shots.
Bellal has by now joined me, and also looks a bit surprised that I am taking an interest in these particular carvings. He then mentions that these carvings here are nothing compared to the ones he planned to show me, if we have time. I take the hint and start sampling the dyke double-time, and soon we’re on our way, first a bit along the dyke, which needs to be sampled in a few more spots, but as the shadows start to lengthen, I give up my sampling and Bellal takes us to where the carvings are located. At first we are driving straight on, but as we are getting in the general region of the carvings, Bellal seems to be having a bit of trouble locating the precise site. Finally we part at the edge of a flat-lying granite outcrop that develops in a low elongate hill, and he walks straight towards part of the outcrop that is literally covered with all sorts of organic and geometric shapes. I can recognise lots of antelope-like creatures, some with extremely long necks, possibly giraffes, and stick-like humans. Most of the stick-figures are shown in groups of three or more, holding hands. There are also geometric figures, such as a boomerang-shaped object, and rectangular sets of bowl-like depressions, possibly used for a ball-game of some sort.
There is at least an area of 100 by 100 meters covered by these drawings, with some surfaces destroyed through exfoliation, or covered by wind-blown sand. I am wondering, and hoping that this site has been documented in the past, as there is undoubtedly a wealth of information to be learned from it. It has in the meantime begun to slowly get darker, and we decide to make a move in the hope of still being able to reach the mine camp for the night. Our hopes, or shall I say my hope, as I got the feeling Bellal knew all along that we would not make it, fades as fast as the light fades. Bellal suddenly points to a couple of square tents, barely visible in the gloom, and says: “we’ll sleep here”. And just like that, Ahmed drives off the track, through a bunch of camels and goats I hadn’t even seen, and up to the tents.
e all get out, and an old lady comes from behind the tent and starts greeting us. Some more Arabic ensues, and next thing I know Bellal says all is arranged and we’ll sleep in the tent with these people. Because the men are not around, we’ll wait outside until they come back, which, as they apparently have just gone to retrieve a stray camel somewhere should not be too long. As I take my shoes off and put my gear away in the car, the lady has come back and asks in French whether I’d like to wash up a bit. I say yes, and off she goes again behind the tent. I follow, after having fished out my soap and towel, and find that another, younger girl, has prepared a small basin and some warm water in a metal teapot for me. I wash up a bit, and pass back the bowl and teapot back to the girl who is working on some stew in a separate tent that is used as the kitchen. It’s getting darker and darker now, and Bellal and Ahmed, who have also freshened up a bit and are now wearing a blue boubou, start their prayer session. Mauritanian moslims, and possibly every moslim, pray at least five times a day. They seem to be able to do it in any condition and circumstance, and only need a small mat. The prayer session consists of a convoluted series of kneeling and bowing movements, interspersed by soft prayers and reflective moments. This all seems to be a very personal thing, as, while Bellal and Ahmed are praying, the women just continue doing what they are doing and do not even temper their voices to allow some peace and quiet during the prayers. When the car with the men arrives, in the middle of the prayer session, Bellal and Ahmed even interrupt their prayers briefly, just enough to shake hands, and then continue where they left off. The newly arrived men go in the hut, and a minute later reappear with their own prayer mat and join the prayers. As I sit there in the sand, taking note in my notebook, I really feel like an “infidel”.
fter the prayers, we’re all invited inside where the
lady of the house is making some welcome tea. We all settle into a corner of
the spacious tent and get a bunch of pillows to make ourselves comfortable. There
are five women in total. One very old woman, dressed in black, two younger
women, one dressed in black and another, the one who greeted us when we
arrived, dressed in a white-blue dress. Then there are two young teenage girls
who seem to be doing most of the work and keep on getting in and out of the
tent. One of those keeps on giggling, and has very complicated henna designs
painted on her arms and hands. I look around and am again surprised by how surprisingly
large and comfortable the tent is. The white, tough canvas has been covered
with light yellow linen inside, giving it a nice and finished look. The floor
is covered with carpets, adding to the homely feeling in the tent. In one
corner a whole heap more pillows and blankets are stored, next to some car
batteries and a few metal trunks with household items. The young giggling girl
is setting up a light, connecting some wires to one of the batteries, while a
gas lamp is lit and taken outside, I presume to be used in the kitchen. Outside,
the dark is getting deeper, and the camels are braying softly, as if talking to
each other about the day. That, and the increasing minty smell that fills the
tent as the lady of the house is pouring the tea from one glass to another to
make it form a mousse, makes us all relax. The tea is served in small glass
cups that are washed in a bowl of water with amazing efficiency. There are only
about five full cups worth of tea in one teapot, so the tea-ceremony takes
considerable time to go through its paces. The ceremony, if one can call it
that, involves brewing three consecutive serves of mint tea using the same
green tea leaves, but each time adding fresh sugar and mint (“nana” in Arabic).
As each brew takes its time, the tea-maker, or call it master of ceremony, has
ample time to collect all used glasses, rinse them with water, and generally
prepare the tray for the next shot of tea. The tea has to be served with a
layer of foam on top, which is only achieved by the skilful pouring of the tea
from high up, and pouring the tea from one cup to another until the right
“head” is achieved. The tea-maker is allowed to sip from the glasses to check
whether all is in order. All through this ceremony, Bellal and Ahmed are
talking incessantly to our hosts, but unfortunately it’s all in Arabic and I
can’t follow. Intermittently, Bellal explains a few things to me, or I get
involved in the conversation with Bellal acting as a translator, but the talk
mainly is in Arabic. Apparently, two women of the five are distant relatives of
the men, and have walked in from
rearrangement of pillows heralds the impending arrival of the food: goat stew on a bed of rice. Three women carry in the large flat dishes, which are to be shared among three each. I end up sharing with Bellal and Ahmed, and I notice the the two main men get a large dish to share wit two. The food comes with a large bowl of fresh camel milk mixed with some water (“zrig”). We all eat with out right hand, which requires quite a bit of dexterity that the white guy (me) lacks. My fumbling eating raises a few good natured laughs and Arabic jesting around the tent, but I don’t let all that spoil my appetite. The goat tastes “goaty” and the rice, well, the rice tastes like rice. Apart from salt, no spices seem to have been used, but the dish tastes excellent nonetheless. The “zrig” does help to settle the food, and I actually manage to keep up with Bellal and Ahmed as we finish off the entire plate. Stuffed as I am now, I recline on my pillows, and enjoy the soft Arabic discussions going on around me. It’s a real pity I don’t understand any of it.
fter all plates have been removed to the kitchen area outside, the women start erecting a linen barrier right down the middle of the tent, effectively dividing the space in a male and female section. The battery-operated lights get switched off, leaving only the cosy kerosene lanterns to cast a warm glow around the tent. Bellal and Ahmed continue talking softly to our hosts, and Ahmed keeps taking single-shot nicotine puffs on his small traditional tobacco pipe. Before the women finally turn in, they put a large bowl of “zrig” next to me, and Bellal explains that it’s meant I finish it completely before morning. With that as a last thought I turn in myself.
amels and goats get up quite early in the morning, it seems! As do Sahara women! I wake up at the crack of dawn, with rosy-orange light seeping through the tent-opening, and everyone up and about. Through the half-open tent flap, I can see camels running about, and goats looking for edible scraps between the tents. Bellal and our hosts are also up, probably doing their morning prayers. Thinking back to what Bellal told me last night, I quickly drain the bowl of “zrik”. Not a moment too soon it seems either, as Bellal comes in just as I wipe the cream off my lips. Bellal explains to me that we’d better go immediately, and that we can eat breakfast in the car, as our hosts are slaughtering the camel soon, which would force us to stay for an extended brunch of lovely camel offals. I ask Bellal how we can thanks the family, and he simply says we can leave them a box of tins and other provision we will no longer need anyway. This is, indeed, the last day in the field, and if all goes well, we should be back in Nouakchott this evening. It’s hard to believe actually that, from where we are now, in the plain desert 100s of kilometres away from any “civilisation”, we’ll simply be driving for 8 hours or so and reach the bustling mayhem that is Nouakchott.
get my stuff together, and find the “Pater Familias” preparing himself for the camel slaughter. I cannot guess what kind of Islamic rituals are to be followed to do this job. I stand next to him looking at the camel in the distance with its front legs tied together. He looks sideways at me and smiles. Oh, yes! That’s the unlucky one! Meanwhile Bellal has joined us, carrying a small cardboard box full of supplies: corned beef, spam, sardines, creamed rice, bread rolls, sugar, salt and wax candles. Much Arabic ensues, followed by warm handshakes all round, and I take a picture of the host and Bellal in front of the tent. As we are getting in the car, I can see that he’s a bit disappointed we can’t stay for the camel feast. As we pull out of the camp, we pass the unsuspecting beast, which looks at us with those typical innocent and baleful eyes that would make any butcher soft in the knees. I somehow expect, however, that the butcher of this one will have little qualms.
As we drive north to reach the main trunk road from Noadjibou to Nouakchott, we still make a few stops to collect some more samples on mafic dykes along the track. Two hours later we start again seeing the tell-tale signs of civilisation in form of car wrecks, tires and scattered rubbish along the track. By now, I’ve seen enough sands and dunes, and I nod off and sleep most of the way back to Nouakchott. When we do arrive, it’s just around 18:00 hrs. and I get to Al’s flat just in time for a gin-tonic sun downer, and the magical sight of the returning fruit bats, by the thousands, from their day of foraging in the north.
“Oh yes!”, I say to Al, “this is the life!”. Looking into his super-strength gin-tonic glass, and then up to the silhouettes of fruit bats against the orange sky, he agrees.
Bert De Waele©