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mountainA Spot of Midnight Rabbit-Hunting in Mauritania

We were warned in Timbuktu. “Don’t go through the desert back to Mauritania, you must be crazy!” They told us. “If Al Qaeda don’t get you, the bandits will. And some of the bandits ARE Al Qaeda,” they whispered in hushed voices throwing suspicious glances as though one might be hiding just around the corner.

But lacking the week required for the leisurely boat journey down the Niger River and bus ride from Bamako to Nouakchott, we didn’t have much choice. Besides, the truck drivers assured us there hadn’t been a kidnapping for years on The Road of Hope that runs right across Mauritania from its eastern border with Mali to the western coastline.  Well, at least not for four months when two Italians disappeared from somewhere near this very border.

But our driver seemed totally unconcerned as he threw our few belongings into the back and loaded a couple of octogenarian Mauritanians on top, squatting over our backpacks. It had taken us three days to get this ride. Every time we tried our luck with a pickup, we were informed that the driver had decided not to leave today, perhaps tomorrow God willing, or our friendly


Tuareg host hummed and hah’d when we told him who we were planning to ride with and said, "My friends, I don’t know this hillsman. He may be Al Qaeda. Better to wait until tomorrow or next week, God willing."

No matter what plans God had in store for us, my partner and I decided to seize our fate with both hands, so we bundled ourselves into Mohamed’s truck and prayed for his mercy. The pickup lurched forward and clattered over the bumpy track leading out of Timbuktu. The clay houses and fences lashed together from twigs dwindled into smooth desert and the road soon petered into nothingness. Mohamed didn’t let up his speed, rattling into ditches and bouncing over the sand. The sun set behind the dunes.

The moon rose in the star-struck sky. Mohamed never strayed from his course, an ill-defined line through the Sahara visible to him alone. Some time shortly after midnight, he veered suddenly to the left and screeched to a halt.

The two snoozing on the back sprang to life as Mohamed hitched up his robe and pushed back a cover from the dashboard. He pulled a shotgun from behind the steering wheel and raised it to one shoulder.

huts
I glanced meaningfully as my partner dozing on my shoulder in the front seat. "And now they kill us," I whispered.

But Mohamed had other prey in mind. With one finger he switched the headlights up to highbeam and a little rabbit froze before us in the glare. Mohamed turned to us and his lip raised gleefully at one corner. "Breakfast," he said and leaned out the window.

Crack.  The rabbit fell to the ground.

A wiry man leapt from the darkness behind us and gathered the animal into a hessian bag. Mohamed wiped his moustache with one hand, returned the shotgun to its place under the cover, cranked the engine and swerved the truck around to whatever godforsaken path he had been following. At dawn, we were jostled from sleep. ‘

“We sleep here three hours,”’ he said gruffly. We lay between tufts of grass arising from desert sand and no sooner had we fallen asleep then we awoke to the smell of burning flesh. The two old men were bent over the fire and they shoved a metal bowl with a few morsels of tough meat before us.

desert campfireThe elder of the pair with a snowy white beard looked tired, so we ushered him into the front seat and took his place on the back.  We clung to the net that held our baggage precariously onto the truck and swung from side to side as our driver veered wildly over bumps.


We passed through a ramshackle cluster of tents and clay buildings stranded in the midst of vast sandy fields.  On the tracks that passed between the houses, women wrapped in long brightly-coloured veils carried baskets on their heads. Boys kicked a ball around in the dust or squatted, drawing lines in the dust with one finger to mark out a game.

They scooped dirt in their hands and piled little stones into the holes and moved them around one by one as the small crowd of onlookers cheered or hissed. As we drove by, every head turned to stare at the two foreigners clinging for dear life to the back of a truck. “TOUBAB!” (White person!)


truckMohamed drove straight through the village and screeched to a halt outside a tent on the outskirts. It was constructed from blankets roped around poles, and was flanked by two smaller tents on either side. Mohamed got out, announcing: “Meet my mother!”

We clambered down and he held up a flap for us to duck under. The tent was remarkably spacious on the inside, with carpets and cushions laid on the floor and in one corner an elderly woman was bent over a tiny gas stove.


She sat cross-legged on the floor and passed us glasses of goat’s milk. Her shrunken body was engulfed in layers of dark veils. “Drink, drink!” she beckoned us.

Mohamed’s wife was nowhere in sight, presumably relegated to the one of the smaller tents. Their family had fled
Mali during the Tuareg revolt of the 90s but by the time things had settled down his mother was adamant they would not return. She was tired of running.

Our respite from the journey was only brief, Mohamed was eager to press on. So we jumped back on the truck, trying to cover our faces from the onslaught of dust and the intense midday heat. The sun beat down relentlessly and in each town we passed through, the entire population lay sprawled on mats under makeshift tents lining the roads.

Whole towns lay horizontal for hours of the day, a carpet of bodies with sweat pouring from faces and down chests, men, families, children spread out together, and in the corner of each tent an older woman cooking up tea.


campWe reached Nema and the Road of Hope still stretched out through the desert before us, inviting us to three more days and nights of bumpy riding on the back of a truck. But Mohamed was returning to his village.

We offloaded our bags and wrapped scarves around our grubby faces. Sand had mixed with sweat and clung to our cheeks and hid under our fingernails. Under the layer of filth my skin was burnt bright red.


Mohamed shook our hands and got back in his truck. “Hey! We didn’t pay you!” we shouted out as he began to drive off. He stopped the truck and stuck his head out the window. “I know,” he said and smiled for the first time.

We struggled through the heat haze to where the next lot of trucks were loading up. “Last places!” one driver cried and pointed at the back. The luggage was piled high, a goat was strapped and bleated in panic as it dangled dangerously over one tyre, in the centre a woman clutched her screaming baby and twelve other people perched on top of the mountain of bags held onto each other and dug their nails into the net below them to avoid flying over the edge.

The driver hoisted us up and I fell sideways into the mess of baby, basket, beast and bag. The engine whirred and the truck jumped into action, sending us tumbling into each other. I grasped wildly onto someone’s head. The goat cried, the baby bleated.


So much for Al-Qaeda, forget bandits, the biggest threat we faced was falling off the truck. Three more days....

Claire Harris




Claire Harris is a writer in exile who has spent the last decade travelling, working and writing around the world. This is not nearly as glamorous as it sounds and usually involves scraping by on a diet of muesli and cheap wine. Occasionally together.


Read another story by Claire Harris:

Taking a Slow Boat to Timbuktu






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