The African Queen Pt.2

Bad places to find yourself out of cash:

- Your pants around your ankles in a Mexican brothel somewhere south of Tijuana, wondering where it all went wrong.

- Brokering a methamphetamine deal with a mysterious man known only as ‘Heisenberg’, hoping that’s not ricin in your cup.

- The wrong side of no man’s land, trying to enter a country so off the grid, they refuse to write a guidebook.

The view, driving across a minefield in Mauritania.

The view, driving across a minefield in Mauritania.

So here we are, and it’s fast approaching 6pm. The sun is setting on this post-apocalyptic wonderland, and the vampire huckster freaks wait in the wings, scurrying under stairwells and alcoves. The friendly visa official insists he’s about to close shop, and it looks like all hope is lost. We sleep in the truck in no man’s land, or worse, get exiled back to the Western Sahara.

And then, from some hidden recess of this labyrinth, our saviour materialises.

He is Santa Claus, Jesus, The Easter Bunny, and several other deities personified, offering to pay for our visas, then drive him to the city for repayment. Then he tells us how much commission he wants. Visaless aliens like us don’t have many other potential suitors lining up, so we agree, and the four of us jam into our already cramped three-seater truck cabin.

I can’t shift gears without violating someone’s genital dignity, and the road is a pot-holed moonscape, but our new companion helpfully offers driving critiques all the way to Noaudibhou. After paying off his ‘tip’, we arrive at our lodgings, a small hostel in the centre of town. After a long day, who doesn’t wish for a mouldy mattress, used condom in the overflowing toilet, and chocolate coloured stains on the shower floor? I guess someone else likes a Snickers in the shower.

******

After a night sleeping like three pungent kings, we rise at dawn, and flee for the safety of the road. Our breakdown in Laayoune cost us time and money, and we’re eager to make up ground and get to Senegal, where real Africa awaits us. The endless police checkpoints - I later discover are to prevent kidnappings – dim the pleasure of the open road only slightly. The great stretches of nothingness, only sand blowing across from the dunes, and the vast, indifferent Atlantic Ocean on your right, make for a thoughtful and surreal landscape. We hug the coast road going south, the odd village breaking the eerie silence, as our great white shark chews through the miles and the hours.

 

Stopping for gas is not an option.

Stopping for gas is not an option.

We arrive in Nouakchott thoroughly exhausted, a four hour drive having taken all day due to the incessant checkpoints and dissuading of bribes. Evening threatens as we pull into the city. Despite being the capital, there are no street signs. Anywhere. We have a map, promising modernity and easy navigation, but we’re surrounded by what resembles a giant shanty town. There are no landmarks, just lines and lines of dusty fruit sellers, second-hand phone shops, and derelict petrol stations.

We search desperately for the first hotel, motel, notel, or cat sanctuary. Anywhere with a floor would be good, with a roof even better. I’d sleep in last night’s shower at this stage.

We drive.

Through a dusty backstreet, our truck joining the midfield section of some children’s football game. Nothing.

Through a crowded market, squeezing into miniscule gaps between articulated behemoths churning out diesel fumes. Nothing.

Asking countless locals, gesturing at our ambitiously modern map, praying they can point us to civilisation. Still nothing.

After going round in circles for hours, stopping for bananas and internet, and being involved in a minor car crash, we finally find ourselves at a hotel. Whether its pity, indifference, or disgust, the receptionist finally gives into our frantic, haggard negotiations and lets us share a room. Our budget’s rapidly falling apart, and even though this is the fanciest hotel in town we’ve managed to get it for a (spendthrift) backpacker price.

Before we can relax too much, we hit upon another problem. The charity we were donating the Queen to can’t accept it and - due to customs laws - we can’t drive it all the way to Gambia. Luckily, after a night of online visas, budgeting, and calling everyone we know in West Africa, we catch a break. An Action Against Hunger contact in Mauritania agrees to take the truck, so we will fulfil the charity mission, albeit a bit sooner than expected, and we take the legs on foot from here.

The mechanics who saved the Queen in Western Sahara.

The mechanics who saved the Queen in Western Sahara.

Saying goodbye is always hard. Saying goodbye to your first car, even harder.

We’d shared some good times, some accidents, and some tears, but the Queen had brought us here, safe and sound, against all the odds. Her flaws were only surface level, like the view of the road from the hole in her floor, or the broken speedometer making you guess the speed from the passing camels. As I drive her into her new home in ACF Mauritania and fiddled with the awkward parking brake for the last time, I felt a sense of achievement, but also of finality.

A part of our trip was done - the craziest, most ill-advised and under-prepared part - that fellow travellers had questioned, mocked, and wondered at all the way down. Our love of the road remained undiminished, our driving was thoroughly stress-tested by the anarchic African roads, and we could perform rudimentary checks and repairs. Next to the sat nav-equipped, corporate-sponsored rally drivers that passed us frequently, we felt proudly inadequate, and happy to have made it this far on luck, blind stupidity, and the generous help of the people we met.

But still, we’ve only reached the halfway point, and it’s a long way to Banjul and Legs4Africa, and to the end of this insane odyssey. Until then, I dream of the endless, straight horizon road, and the liberation of something so unwise, but never so uninteresting.