This is the second largest city in Mauritania but not that you could tell. The town really sits on the edge of the desert by the sea. There is not much to see and do and most of the travellers here were simply passing time to recover from travel or about to embark on it. There is a ship grave yard opposite the train station and a few markets to see.
Iron Ore Train
This 2.5km train is supposed to be the longest in the world and transports iron ore from the mines in the desert to the Atlantic coast in Nouadhibou. It certainly is the dustiest train in the world. Getting on was a mission with the pushing and hustling crowd, and once inside the sand blew straight in off the Sahara onto the people brewing tea on the floor, our books, babies, everything.
I bought a ticket from an obscure ticket seller on the platform who had a SNIM shirt and a briefcase. Everyone thought that was the most interesting thing they had ever seen, ie. a foreigner buying a ticket. It is best to buy the ticket before you get on as it costs more. The train arrived about 3pm and we reached Choum about 2am. The train does not stop for long so there was a lot of pre-preparation to get off but fortunately everyone was so tired there was not the hustle like when we first got on. The only way you tell if the train is about to stop is it slows right down. It takes a long time to bring 2.5km of carriages to a stop.
Fortunately one of the women on the train was going to Atar and I journeyed with her through the night in a jeep taxi until we arrived in the town at dawn. She then invited me to her house to rest and recover. In the morning her family fed me and then the man of the house drove me to a hotel. It was a good impression on me of the warmth of people in Mauritania. I liked the town at first sight. It was already a hot steamy day by mid morning and it was pleasant to just rest at Bab Sahara where I stayed and plan my next few days. The owner helped me get a car out to Tirjit oasis nearby in the afternoon.
There was a French morning in the car and we chatted (me in very bad French). She had bought a piece of land behind my campement so we had dinner together and she showed me where she was going to build her house. The next morning I walked to the oasis and some caves. It was very pleasant to see some green vegetation for a change. In the afternoon I hitch hiked with some French travellers to the gendarmerie and then waited there with shepherds, military men (who proposed marriage to me) and other hitch hikers to a lift into Atar. A really kind goat seller eventually stopped and took me in. It was a fun ride, goats bleating in the back and numerous police stops. The police were very strict about his documents and at one place we were delayed and they offered to pay me for my “services” for the evening.
The same goat seller gave me a lift to the capital the next day where Duigs was waiting for me. The journey was incredible. He kept stopping to buy or sell goats at tiny villages on the way or pick up other hitch hikers. It was phenomenally hot. There is no water out in the desert and the road was hot and the engine overheated so it was quite unbearable. It was fantastic to meet up with Duigs and we spent an evening out in Nouakchott and planned how we would get to Senegal.
I had a bit of time to look around and enjoyed the markets in Nouakchott which were bustling with fish, meats, cloth, people etc. The sea was also quite clean and the fishermen very friendly. Many come from Ghana to work here and speak English. We stayed at the Auberge Menata which is run by a friendly French girl and her Mauritanian partner. They have fantastic meals and you can get private rooms, dorms or sleep in the tent on the roof. We opted for the latter. There were a lot of travellers staying here and many had cars they could lock inside the safe compound. It was very central and there was some useful maps of Africa in the common areas.
We headed to the Rosso taxi gare for cars to Senegal. We had already negotiated quite a good ride when a French/Algerian man and his Carribean wife offered us a better deal. It was pretty squashy and really slow and meant we arrived at the border 10 mins before closing. The police deliberately tried to hold us up and then asked for bribes to speed up the process. We could understand little of the negotiations as they were all in French and it was frustrating not understanding.
Eventually one of the senior offices came out and let us through. However each barrier we went through there was someone else wanting more money. We also had to pay for our luggage on the boat, the last of the evening crossing the watery barrier between Mauritania and Senegal.
The crossing was lovely, a boat full of people, the setting sun and the promise of Senegal ahead. Unfortunately when we arrived the border was officially closed and the police demanded payment for their services. We finally exchanged some money (terrible rates) and got into a cramped Peugeot and headed to Saint Louis.