Motorcycling Mauritania: The Desert Railway Crossing
Three quarters of Mauritania lies under the Sahara Desert. It’s an endless sea of powdery sand, towering dunes and nothingness – not the ideal place to get lost. But, there is an iron ore railway line (nicknamed the Backbone of the Sahara) and a “track” that follows it east for 200 miles. If you can find and stick to it, you might just make it out…
It was still dark when we turned off the main road that leads south across the arid coastal plain towards Nouakchott, Mauritania. The sun, still just below the horizon, cast a pale pink glow across the desert sand. The small village of Bou Lanouar seemed deserted as we made our way along the sandy tracks between crudely-made, square, breeze-block houses. The noise of our engines woke some dogs who followed us, barking.
There is a track that roughly follows the Mauritania iron ore rail line 350ks east into the Western Sahara – before turning north at Choum; it begins somewhere around this village but we didn’t know exactly where. We had been warned not to ride too close to the line itself because of the many bits of metal and discarded sleepers lying about in the sand, so the plan was to make our way into the desert then turn north until we bisected the track.
Easy… although the sand through the village turned soft and deep, especially where it had banked up around the houses, and I felt my back wheel sink and lose grip, the engine of my stripped-down KLE500 begin to labour. I accelerated hard, broke free and struggled my way onto a small rise. Here the sand was firm enough for me to pause and look back.
Mike was struggling. He was in deep sand, still in first gear, back wheel flinging up a rooster-tail of pale, almost white sand. His forward motion slowed and the rear wheel began digging itself in; he took his feet off the pegs and began paddling, urging his DRZ400 through the sand one, slow foot at a time.
The revving engines had woken some kids who emerged from the huts and ran towards us with the dogs. Eventually Mike got his bike onto firmer sand and pulled up next to me, switched off his engine. The sun broke over the horizon and the shrill cries of the children came to us across the early-morning silence like the shrill chirpings of birds.
“How you doing?” I asked, concerned about his obvious difficulty coping with soft sand. He opened his visor. What looked out at me in the pale desert light were eyes that spoke as clearly as if he had said the words himself: fear, despair, exhaustion; the dawning realisation that he wasn’t able to do this…
Riding Buddies and Preparations
But let me step back a little. A year ago my son, Gareth, with whom I have ridden extensively over the past few years, rode the track to Choum solo. I wanted to give it a go but lacked the courage to attempt the desert crossing alone (or, perhaps, I’m just not that stupid). My fears were fourfold: I’d injure myself badly and die before anyone found me; the laden bike would fall on me, trap me under it; I’d break down somewhere and have to attempt to walk out and, finally, I’d blunder into a steep-sided depression filled with powder-soft sand and, alone, not be able to get my bike out.
These were the things nightmares are made of. I needed someone to ride with me, an extra pair of hands when things got rough; a second bike if one broke down. I put the word out and got a message from Mike Vitkovitch: yes, he’d join me. We’d only met briefly once before. He seemed just right: a mature rider with 48 years’ experience; five Morocco trips beneath his belt (although, he pointed out, he’d always turned back once he encountered soft sand); a skilled mechanic who had, on a previous Moroccan trip, got three bikes up and running again after they’d been completely drowned in a wadi when sudden flash flood caught them unawares.
Over the next two months we prepared our bikes for the trip. Two things were paramount: lightness of load and the ability to carry sufficient fuel, water and food for the two-day desert crossing. Mike acquired a 28-litre Safari tank and added a 10-litre plastic container “just in case”; my KLE couldn’t take an after-market tank so I fitted two Rotopax 6.6-litre fuel containers to my pannier rack and would carry the rest of my fuel in four 2-litre cooldrink bottles in my back pack. Add to that six litres of water each and we were already pretty heavy.
To the Border
So, early in the year and before it got too hot for desert travel, we crossed from Portsmouth to Algeciras on the ferry, followed by a long two-day ride across Spain. Watching The Rock slowly disappear into the mist, we crossed the Gibraltar Straits to Tangier; then on through the fertile north Moroccan plains with the Atlas Mountains, snow-capped, a distant purple on our left until, eventually, we reached the coastal plain and the long, long road south.
Wheat fields and olive groves disappeared to be replaced by sand and rock; sheep gave way to goats and the occasional camel which observed our passing with the disdain one has come to associate with the breed. Agadir… Sidi Ifni… El Quatia… Tarfaya… Laayoune… Dakhla, the road at times blurred for hours as we rode through dense coastal fog or, on other endless days, the dreaded Harmattan howled from the east, carrying with it a wreath of desert sand so thick that the road itself seemed fluid, eddying and swirling, settling into small tongues of sand that grew and threatened to swallow it all up silently, as the desert does.
We rode hard, ten hours a day, marking our progress in frustratingly small centimetres across the map. Finally the border: Morocco-Mauritania.
Borders and Bureaucracy
No-man’s-land was like something out of Mad Max: hundreds of wrecked and abandoned vehicles dumped among the dunes, the track between border posts a moonscape of rock and sand. Brushing off touts like sticky flies – “Change money? You want Mauritania? Dollar? Euro…?” “I take you – just five minutes. Otherwise one hour. Fifteen dollar. Give me passport. You want?”
Sweltering in the heat, we made our laborious way through a bewildering maze of bureaucracy, entering obscure offices, windows taped over with cardboard, where bored officials stamped forms and held out pale-skinned hands for our passports. A fat, uniformed official tapped the pocket of a Mauritanian man standing in the line in front of us; the man took out his wallet and opened it. The official fingered through, selected some notes and dropped them into a drawer.
Next to his desk, on the floor, an old man crouched in front of a photocopier and copied documents. Our tout, whom we hadn’t been able to shake loose, tugged at my sleeve: “Ten dollar. You must pay,” pointing to the fat, uniformed official behind the desk.
There was no use arguing, even if I had known the language. Our money too went into the drawer. “Am I going to get a receipt?” I asked sarcastically and was ignored.
Mauritania… Nouadhibou. We were entering sub-Saharan Africa now for real and it showed. Julian Nowill, un-organiser of the Plymouth-Dakar Old Bangers Rally, calls it “…an outlaw town run by criminals. What can I say, this place feels like Somalia.”
Welcome to Mauritania!
We shouldered our way through the snarl of carts pulled by donkeys, cars and trucks newly resurrected from the scrap heap (driving here on one side of the road only seems optional). Few tyres have any tread on the vehicles in this town, lights are optional and cracked windscreens de rigueur, doors and boots often held closed with rope or wire. On a dusty pavement, two goats ate a cardboard box; a camel, trussed up like a turkey, bellowed his anguish at passers-by, exposing long, yellow teeth.
At a petrol station we met a French biker arguing with the attendant, a black youth wearing shorts and an open shirt. “Impossible!” the Frenchman insisted. The youth was charging him for more fuel than the capacity of his tank could hold and the dial on the pump was blank.
Later, despite having been thus forewarned, we got done as well: first, we made sure we knew the local price of a litre of fuel; then, at the service station (and before any fuel was pumped), we agreed the price with the attendant and wrote it on a piece of paper. Only then did I allow him to begin filling my tank. When full, I pointed to my Rotopax containers but, quick as a flash, he shut off the pump. I looked at the dial – it was, of course, blank. The youth had a glint in his eye. But Mike had noted the amount just before it shut down. One-nil to us. I instructed him to now fill my spare containers that I know are 6.6-litres each – I mean, it’s even moulded into the plastic. I watched carefully. The dial registered 6 litres… then seven and, somewhere after eight litres, it was full.
He got me. I laughed ruefully and paid up. I would imagine fuel pump calibration inspectors are a little thin on the ground in Mauritania.
Mike and I took a day’s break, our first, to rest up and prepare for the desert crossing. Fuel, water, some food. Check the bikes. Go through all our stuff and leave behind anything unnecessary – we’d pick it up on the way back. I set the alarm for 5am. Neither of us slept much…
Back to the deep sand and the dawn sun flooding the desert surface with a glow of pink and the deep disillusionment in Mike’s eyes… “I don’t think I can do this,” he says to me.
Those who have ridden across or through long sections of deep sand will know that the key is speed. The faster you go, the more the tyres rise to the surface. Go fast enough and you could be riding on tar; slow down and your wheels dig in, sink below the surface, the handlebars begin to twist from side to side like a horse trying to throw the bit; the rear wheel loses traction, flings sand, begins to dig itself into a pit of its own making.
Keep the throttle pinned with little or no forward motion and, eventually, your bash plate will rest on the sand, your rear wheel down to the hub. Climb off, then, and walk away: your bike won’t fall over. It won’t move forward either, unless certain things are done.
Of course, the faster you go, too, the more damage you’re going to do to yourself or your bike if you come off, hit a rock, fly through the air from the steep crest of a dune or somersault when your front wheel drops into an unseen hollow. It’s a fine balance between speed and safety that not even the Dakar riders always get right.
I say to Mike, “You’ve got to get your speed up. You need to be at least in second gear – just hit it. Rev the guts out of it. Get the wheels on top of the sand.” He nods, uncertain.
Searching for Tracks
We press on, blinded by the rising sun, blundering across a wild landscape of small dunes and hummocks of sand, looking for the track. We’ve left the village behind now. Mike is making better progress but still very slow, lagging behind. At this stage I’m pretty certain we’ll have to give up. 350ks to Choum across sand like this, and Mike struggling already, simply not possible.
And then, to my relief, random tyre tracks begin to coalesce out of the desert into what might almost be called a “road”; to our left, the rail line, laid on a raised sand causeway, disappears into the sun-haze; in front and to our right, a flat sand sea that extends to the horizon. I am filled with a sense of euphoria – we’ve found the track and it’s firm and clear. My fears begin to drop away; we can do this thing and, if it’s like this all the way, it’ll be a breeze.
I stop and Mike pulls up next to me. I want to express my excitement but he is still unhappy. He admits that the first few hundred metres through the village had drained him physically and mentally. An experienced biker, he had suddenly been confronted with riding conditions he hadn’t encountered before and which, as yet, he didn’t believe he could master.
We press on, following the track as it makes its way across a firm desert surface. Gareth had downloaded his year-old track onto my GPS and there it is, a thin red line across the screen, comforting and secure. All I have to do, I tell myself, is follow it.
I can ignore the myriad tracks that fan out across the desert, diverge and reunite; tracks that might lead somewhere but all too often disappear into wind-blown sand. I must admit to being a little fearful. Mike doesn’t have a GPS and mine is old and had stopped working twice on the way down the Moroccan coast. I no longer trust it.
My deepest fear is that it will pack up half way across and the comforting red line that I cling to like a visual security blanket will disappear. Of course, there is always the rail line and, however far we go off track, by late afternoon the setting sun will show the direction of north and we’ll find it again.
Chasing the Thin Red Line
The track angles away from the rail line and it disappears. It would do this for two days, creeping towards the rails and running alongside them then angling away into the dunes until all sense of direction is lost. But I have the thin red line on my screen. If we follow it, it will lead us to Choum.
Mike is getting the hang of it, as I knew he would. His many years of riding are coming to his aid. Occasionally the firm track disappears under long stretches of soft sand and, riding faster now, he is managing. We are making progress.
And then Mike, who at that moment is ahead of me, crests a small rise and his front wheel drops into a hole. If I’d been in front it probably would have been me. Pure chance. You can’t see it until it’s upon you – and then it’s too late. He goes down hard. When I reach him, he is holding his wrist and side.
“You OK?” I ask him, concerned. He nods. Nothing is broken. Although he’s in pain, we lift his bike out of the sand and press on. The sun lifts itself higher above the horizon; colour, what there is of it in the desert, leaches away and shadows all but disappear. The desert stretches to the horizon in every direction, pale and empty. During a water break, Mike looks out across the sand, and says, almost to himself, “The endlessness of it…”
And yet, as anyone who has travelled through the Sahara will know, the desert is ever changing: the sand varies in colour from a blinding white, deepening through every shade – pale brown, red, even, in places, a black so deep it seems to shine; soft, firm, yielding, deep-soft and, in places, the dreaded fetch-fetch that seems to suck your bike down, sap all the power from the engine, leave you fighting for forward momentum.
Rocks of every colour and texture – small, sharp, rounded, large, isolated erratics and long sinuous ridges emerging from the sand. Sometimes you crest a dune and, before you, stretching into the smudged heat-haze of the horizon, is a flat plane, white, pale brown or dark grey like a bruise and you relax, knowing that, at least for a while, it will be easy riding. And you fly along, the wind cooling your face and you know that you can do this all day, loving it.
Sand Seas and Dunes
Then you look up and, in front of you, as far as you can see, are lines of dunes, a heaving sea of sand – how deep, you cannot tell, but there are no gaps, no flat-bottomed valleys to ease your way through: you’ve got to ride over them and your stomach tightens.
The sun overhead destroys perspective and the first dune could be high and far away or low and right here; your eyes play tricks on you; everything is the same and there’s nothing for your brain to latch onto, nothing to compare, just a continuous, uniform surface of pale sand where all visual cues are lost.
Then the dune is upon you and you accelerate, wondering whether your front wheel will sink away and fling you over the handlebars – but you can’t slow down, you must hit it with speed and take your chances, hope you’ve judged it just right so when you reach the crest you’ll slide gently down the other side, not tap off too early and dig in on the crest or not hit it too fast and tumble down a steep slip-off slope. The dune is firm and you sail up its side and you are happy; you take the next and the next and life is good…
Face Down and Trapped
At some time during the day I hit a patch of very soft sand, the bike slews this way and that and, despite allowing her to make her own way, as you do when riding sand, down I come, my left leg trapped under my soft pannier and twisted rather painfully. I know Mike is somewhere close and hope he’s seen me go down, won’t discover my absence too late and lose me amongst the confusing sameness of the dunes. I try to pull my leg out but it won’t move; I try again, feeling claustrophobic, my face pressed into the sand but it’s trapped.
This is why I wouldn’t solo this track, I think to myself. In retrospect, if I’d been alone I probably would have got free, given time and a little patience. I could have dug my leg out – the sand is soft and yielding. Even though I am face down in the sand, I believe I could have unstrapped my soft pannier or cut it free with the Gerber multi-tool I always keep in my riding jacket. But it’s good to hear Mike’s engine slow and then pause as he turns and comes to my aid. The KLE is heavy and, laden with my extra fuel, water, spares and camping gear, it takes Mike three attempts before he can lift it off my leg.
Sweating, we strip off our kit and drink water. When not moving, the heat rises from the sand like an oven. “How you doing?” I ask him, thankful for his company in this fearful ocean of nothingness.
“Good,” he says, telling me that he’s now passed “beyond enjoyment and into endurance”. He shares again how traumatic the morning had been: “We were looking for a track but there was no track. We were leaving civilization behind. You were supposed to be leading but you seemed to be lost. Then you disappeared into the distance and I couldn’t follow. I thought, ‘He can do this but I can’t.’ But you told me to gun it so I did and suddenly I realised I could. I just needed to get over my fear of crashing and gun it, get my speed up and suddenly it was OK.”
I know the feeling, remember my first experience of sand, the fear of it until Gareth and I learned what to do, how to read the surface, begin to understand the contours of the desert. “I feel good now,” he admits. “I’ve overcome my limitations – but I know I can do better.”
By late afternoon we are both flagging. We’ve covered about 200ks and are hoping to make it to the Ben Amera monolith before we camp. This strange massif rises 633 metres from the flat desert plain, the largest monolith in Africa and smaller only than Ayers Rock in Australia, second largest in the world.
But both Mike and I are tiring when we hit a bad section of soft sand. Battling to keep my bike moving forward, revving my engine in an abusive manner to break it free, I can smell that my engine is overheating. I glance down and see that my temp light is on but I can’t stop, need to get clear of the deep sand first. I keep the throttle wide open until I can feel the sand begin to firm then switch off. It is then that we discover that my fan has packed up. My radiator is boiling, spewing precious water into the sand.
Once again fear grips me. There’s nothing we can do – Mike checks the motor and, although he can get it running, it hesitates and limps and won’t start without a helping flick. We wait a while, staring out into the endless void of sand all about us. With the engines off, the silence is very loud and strangely disconcerting, frightening in a way. In our normal world, we are not used to this absence of sound.
When my engine has cooled sufficiently we press on. We have to stop twice more to allow my engine to cool before we cross the rails onto the northern side and make our way over a flat plain sculpted with dunes towards a smaller massif that rises from the sand and, on its far side, casts a lengthening shadow. We stop the bikes close to a small, stunted thorn tree, instinctively looking for anything living, anything that isn’t sand. We’ve been riding for ten hours.
Camping, Stars and Shadows
Taking bottles of water, we labour up a long slope of soft sand that has gathered against the leeward side of the massif where there is shade and sit looking out across the desert, pleased with what we’ve accomplished.
Other than my broken fan, the bikes are coping well; Mike’s confidence has grown throughout the day; he’s beginning to “read” the sand, learning to allow the bike to find its way instead of fighting it, discovering its sweet spot. There is, at this moment, a deep sense of closeness between us – something that is felt, I am sure, by all who share adversity together and overcome.
The shadows lengthen; we return to the bikes and erect our tents. Later, as the sun sets golden over the horizon, I walk out into the desert and sit quietly by myself, watching the stars begin to appear in the surreal half-light of reflected sand and listen to the deep silence all about me. And I understand why holy men throughout the ages have sought communion with God in lonely desert places like this.
The second day dawns clear and still. We pack up in the cold half light and make our way through a small dune field to the rail line, cross it and find the track.
The early morning is crisp and cool, favouring our bodies and my engine, the low yellow light seeming to set the small grass tufts that grow between the dunes ablaze. Occasionally we come upon small habitations – a building or two and a few camels. There are no wells here: water is kept in large bladders that lie on the sand; these, we are told, are kept filled from water carriages pulled by the train.
Most of the structures are made from abandoned metal railway sleepers which litter the desert surface close to the tracks. These are particularly dangerous as occasionally we come across them unexpectedly, half buried in the sand. Once I hit the sharp edges of one that lay on the slip side of a small dune. I was sure I must have punctured my tyres but we are running at normal pressures because of this very reason and all is well.
This is always a dilemma when riding across the desert: soft tyres travel easier over loose sand, the softer the better, but with so many rocks on the desert surface and half-buried under the sand, you are bound to puncture a tyre. And repairing a puncture in the heat of the desert doesn’t bear contemplating; rather ride with hard tyres and struggle a little more in the sand than hassle with punctures.
At one lonely shack made from sleepers and mud and flattened oil drums, we are invited in by a solitary man tending his camels. We sit in the shade on carpets laid soft on the sand and he heats water for tea, serving us the bitter liquid in clear glass tumblers sweetened with lumps of rock sugar the size of a baby’s fist. We drink together in companionable silence, expecting nothing more from each other than the blessing of human proximity in this empty and lonely part of the world.
Meeting men who, with the generosity one always finds in the loneliest places of the world and who offer you all that they have, is a humbling experience and compels one to look again at the selfish and affluent lives we ourselves lead.
Thankful for this brief meeting and with the bitter-sweet taste of tea still in our mouths, we fire up our engines and press on. The endless variety of the desert landscape continues to inspire and challenge, each surface requiring a different level of skill, a different approach.
Two surfaces stand out in terms of enjoyment, though: first, the horizon-wide flat plain of firm sand where you open wide the throttle and, in top gear, your tyres sing across the sand at sixty miles an hour; and you know you’re riding too fast but you can’t slow down, thinking: Can I push it to seventy? Seventy five?
And then there are the dunes. Crossing high virgin dunes takes one back to the childhood joy of the roller coaster, the surge and lift as one rises from the plain, the dune surface smooth and firm like an unmarked snow piste; above, the skyline is blotted out by the crest-line hiding a sharp dip of unknown steepness… judge your speed to breast it just right, a slight tightening of the stomach muscles because behind is a hidden land that will only be revealed once you’re committed… yes, all clear, just a steep, smooth sand-slide to the firm plain on the other side or, perhaps, a short flat section to pick up speed before the front wheel rises up the whale-back of the next dune.
Sometimes we would come across old tracks, deep and filled with blown sand, the ridged edges just protruding above the surface. Tracks like these, some say, will remain etched into the desert surface for years. One learns to be wary of these, however, because the sand that fills them very soft and getting a front wheel caught in one wants to have you over. In fact, on this second day both Mike and I dropped our bikes a second time. Nothing serious, just a more pronounced wobble than usual progressing to violent oscillations in the sand; it’s too easy, then, for the weight on the pannier rack to drag you down.
Getting to Grips
We cross the rails again to eat a brief meal at the foot of the Ben Amera monolith, this strange, smooth dome of rock rising incongruously from the flat plain, then we press on – just 64 miles to Choum and the end of the track.
Once I stray too far south and we have to turn sharply across the desert to find it again. We are a few kilometres away from the rail line and all around me are small dunes, humps and hillocks of sand, the sun almost directly overhead. The responsibility of leading falls heavy on me at this time and it is a relief when we find the track again and, later, see the dark outline of the rails in the distance heading like a ruled line across the sand.
By now, deep-sand riding has become unconscious for both Mike and me, muscle memory taking over: an automatic feeding the engine more fuel when a de-acceleration signals soft sand, quickly shifting down as the engine begins to lug, finding that sweet spot where you’re travelling on top of the sand, not wading through it; your engine is unstressed and happy and you’ve got a handful of throttle and a few gears to spare.
Mike tells me that he’s moved now from “concentrating on riding to just riding”, and he’s right. Now we can relax and enjoy the image of a vast, flat plain emerging from a band of confused dunes, knowing that, for a time, the going will be easy, then seeing, in the distance, the pale yellow crests of a dune field kilometres wide and, in place of fear, the knowledge that, although difficult, we have the ability to cross it.
It is later that I come again to realise the importance of not travelling alone in the desert. Carelessly, I ride into a wide, deep bowl of very soft sand; fetch-fetch is the term I have heard used for this horrible stuff – sand that reacts in many ways like water. I feel my wheels sink deep, the engine note drop quicker than it has before and I know I’m in trouble.
Quick change down, and again, and again, the engine note falling instead of rising with each down-shift, my forward motion dropping to a slow walk. First gear now, the engine screaming, back wheel already settling into the sand. I struggle across the base of the bowl and start clawing my way up the other side, paddling with my feet. But I know I’m not going to make it. As a last resort, I swing the bike to one side, attempting to turn down the slope again and get a run back at the other side… then I give up. My bash plate rests on the sand, rear wheel buried to the hub.
Mike, riding behind me, has seen me struggling and powers across, parks his bike on firm sand. My body rapidly overheating, I strip off my gear. What to do? Together we lift the front wheel and drag it free (thank goodness it’s not a GS1200) then dig the sand away from the rear wheel and engine. There is a small hump of firm sand in the base of the bowl and, together, we push and drag my bike onto it. Resting, we plan our next move, select what looks like the best line; then, with Mike pushing, the small momentum given by running down the firm side of the hump and me paddling and revving the guts out of my overheating engine, we make it out.
Could I have got out alone? Probably, but it was good to have Mike with me. Alone, I would have stripped off all my luggage, lain the bike on its side to free the wheels, dragged it to face the base of the bowl, let the tyres down to .5 bar and, yes, I think I could have got it out. But I’m glad I didn’t have to.
Coffee in Choum…
At last the desert begins to ease; there are small signs of humanity amongst
the endlessness of sand. The track becomes more clear, wider and firmer, more like a dirt road. A 4X4 passes us, the fine dust hanging still in the air. We come across the iron ore train, stationary, men throwing stuff from a wagon onto the sand while other men, wearing the traditional boubou and turban, drag it away and load it onto battered Series 2 Land Rovers.
The low, squat buildings of Choum appear. We have made it. We fill our tanks with fuel decanted from plastic drums kept in a dark, dusty shed then sit on plastic chairs and, amongst the flies, drink strong, sweet coffee which has never tasted better…
About the author
Lawrence Bransby is an exceptionally experienced motorcycle traveller. With five and a half decades of adventure travel, mostly on a bike, often alone. Trans-Africa; four increasingly long trips into Russia including the last, a solo, trans-Russia journey on an old DR350; three journeys into Central Asia; Vietnam, the USA, Canada and Alaska, two journeys into Morocco and Mauritania – a cornucopia of adventure stories and reflections from the long, hard road that have taken him to places most would-be adventurers can only dream of. He’s also authored eight awesome adventure motorcycle travel books. Here’s a link to all of Lawrence’s books on Amazon.
Check out his latest book: Two Fingers on the Jugular – an account of his solo, trans-Russia journey on an old DR350 including a double crossing of the Road of Bones.
And you can read more of Lawrence’s articles on Mad or Nomad here:
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