Ben Amira, Mauritania, Day 236

Ben Amira monolith, Mauritania, Africa

Sheldon arrives at Tanouchert oasis mid-morning looking mangier than ever. He says he had fun, walking in the mornings and riding his camel after lunch. He spends all of 15 minutes exploring Tanouchert and suggests we move on to our next destination, Ouadane, yet another dilapidated Saharan town further to the east. It’s at this point that Ahmed realizes that our current itinerary is a day longer than we have paid for. He wags his finger menacingly. Either we pay more or do less.  Christi is dead set against spending more time or more money so we eliminate Ouadane in favor of Ben Amira (the third largest free-standing monolith in the world after Ayers rock and Mount Augustus, both of which are in Australia). Unlike Ouadane, Ben Amira is in the same general direction as Choum, our final destination. The only reason to go to Choum, incidentally, is to catch the famous Iron Ore train out to the coast at Nouadhibou. And while Sheldon, Christi, Ahmed and I let the train take the strain, Mahmoud will drive the Toyota Hilux back to the car rental agency in Nouakchott.

To save some time and avoid the endless police checkpoints, Ahmed decides to strike out across the desert. The locals in Tanouchert think Ahmed is crazy to go off-piste and I tend to agree with them. Mahmoud heads into the desert, while Ahmed stares intently behind us and then ahead of us somehow calculating the mental path he wants to follow.  I just hope his magnetoception is switched on. The route is not promising. We encounter lots of bumps, quick turns, and unexpected twists – it’s like being in a bumper car at an amusement park – but amazingly we arrive in Atar in time for a quick lunch. After eating and stocking up on a few supplies we continue. Choum is 80 km due north of Atar and Ben Amira is a further 80 km to the west of Choum.

We leave Atar on paved roads, which gives me an opportunity to mention another quirk of Ahmed’s. He is continually brewing tea on the floor of the front seat of the Toyota – as we’re driving along. He actually has a small propane burner on which he puts a tiny tea kettle. Once the kettle is boiled he makes sweet, black tea which he pours into small glass tumblers and offers to us. Ahmed never spills a drop either. You have to drink by the way; you don’t refuse the hospitality of a Tuareg. He only does this on paved roads, I hasten to add, because our off-road driving is spectacularly rough. We are literally creating our own trail across the Sahara. Of course, the Tuareg have been doing this for thousands of years, and no doubt Ahmed would be able to save himself should anything go truly wrong, but Christi, Sheldon, and me would be screwed. Fingers crossed Ahmed knows what he is doing. Interestingly the scenery here is different. No longer do we stare out over a sand sea, instead we dodging between and around large black basalt formations. Photography is not an option as the vehicle pitches, bumps, and zig zags, which is jolly uncomfortable.

Later that afternoon, Sheldon confirms that Ahmed has decided to bypass Choum altogether now and heading straight for Ben Amira. The short cut will ensure we reach Ben Amira tonight and will allow us to camp out under the stars. This is all very well if, like Sheldon, you’re carrying your our tent, mattress, and mosquito net. Christi and I now have nothing to protect us from a cold night in the Sahara Desert. Despite the time-crunch, Ahmed never passes up the opportunity to stop and drink tea with local nomadic groups – mostly camel herders. Perhaps he’s asking for directions! To give you a sense of the remoteness in which we find ourselves we eventually hit the train tracks of the famed Iron Ore train. There’s not a trace of humanity anywhere on the horizon, but as long as we remain near the tracks we’ll be fine. We follow the tracks west for several more miles and come across the tiny train station of Ben Amira. There are no camping supplies available to rent or buy, so an uncomfortable night lies ahead.  A few miles north of the train station is the giant basalt monolith of Ben Amira itself . We arrive and set up camp under the shadow of Ben Amira 8.5 hours after leaving Tanouchert as the sun sets over the Sahara. In the rapidly fading daylight Christi and I lay out our sleeping bags on a tarpaulin base and then help prepare dinner: camel stew.  Using a single pot, hastily bought by Ahmed in Atar (together with some cutlery) plus charcoal that Sheldon acquired, we add carrots, tomatoes, garlic, onions, and the camel, which cooks on the famous propane burner for an hour.  Then we add rice and let that cook until the rice has absorbed all the water from the stew.  The resulting meal is surprisingly good; sleeping on corrugated ridges of sand in the chilly Sahara with dust blowing in our faces all night much less so. But what the hell, we did it.

Blog post by Roderick Phillips, author of Weary Heart – a gut-wrenching tale of love and test tubes.

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