Shallow Graves – Mauritania/Western Sahara, Africa

Shallow Graves
Mauritania, Africa

I hardly thought I would end up evacuating the Saharan desert on Christmas Eve, contemplating my fate at the hands of a few half-starved Mauritanian Arabs. It was cold, but we were burned and exfoliated by sandstorms. On that dreaded night when all good boys and girls go to bed early, 10 shell-shocked adventurers – wrapped up in all their clothing, sleeping bags, woolly hats, turbans, gloves and Moroccan blankets made of camels’ nostril hair (or something equally scratchy) – evacuated the desert on the back of 2 trans-Saharan goods lorries. We attempted sleep on backpacks, spare tyres and bags of aphrodisiac twigs, waiting for Father Christmas to visit us in the Sahara on his flying camel, Rudolf Ahmed-Ali.


Prayer, fasting and sleep. Ramadan means you stop for them all. Facing Mecca, our mercenary rescuers repeatedly snorted the Saharan sand and wailed between the changing of tyres.


Enlighten me as to Arabic signing for, “Nature’s calling!” from the back of a moving trans-Saharan cargo truck to a driver without a rear-view mirror. With no Engen 1-stops in sight, we scrambled around for a bush or sand dune to pee behind, which is like reaching for the end of that rainbow. Whilst the Arabs definitely have it sorted… with wind chill factor and direction in mind, and not forgetting privacy they use their ‘jelabah’s’ like porta-loo’s!


After waiting for low tide, we wish each other ‘Christmas’ sans the ‘Merry’ and share our stashed sweets for breakfast, whilst bombing it down the beach at dawn like a horse who knows it’s nearing the stables. First sight of capital city, Nouakchott or ‘Nookachooki’ as it came to be known is very ‘special’. Our welcome is spelt out in smoke signals spiralling up from an endless graveyard of burning rubbish heaps the size of circus tents. It says, “If you are able to read this message – you are dehydrated and breathing in too deeply!”


Wagging his wrist as if fly swatting, Mahmoud shouts, “Gelas!” (finished). This tells us it is time to bid our saviours farewell. With the whites of our eyes peering through sand-caked sticky sun cream, we remove our turbans, scrape the sand out of various orifices and fall off the truck onto dead legs. At this point we gratefully looked back on our trans-Saharan guide, affectionately named ‘Mr. Poopy Pants’ after he lost sphincter control on Day 1. He generously offered us the no-alternative option of £500 to save ourselves from shallow unmarked graves in the desert – how could we refuse? It is not ours to question a man born in the desert, yet has an inexplicable fear of lizards (about the only other living thing out there).


From our carefully prioritised ‘evacuated’ loot we ate spaghetti ragout from the tins and got tipsy on punch. Through these rose-tinted glasses we marvelled and laughed at our narrow escape and most bizarre Christmas ever. We debated our futures and the possible outcome of those still with the truck out there in the desert, wondering how we would find and deliver a new clutch plate to them. And as we Christmas’d in a hut on the beach, the 5 left behind erected tents in a severe sandstorm, rationed the water and ploughed into the ample food reserves and alcohol stored under the floor of our expired yellow bread delivery truck.





Travel tips:


  • Get a reputable guide for crossing the Sahara and arrange convoy with one other vehicle.
  • Alcohol is illegal in a few African countries – hide reserves well.
  • The initial leg of the Western Sahara is riddled with landmines, so do not go wandering off for a pee.





Megan Woods is from Johannesburg, South Africa. She has always wanted to travel, not so much to see, but as to experience and understand where others are coming from. So she left South Africa straight after University in 1997, to see what lay beyond her ‘blinkered’ conservative South African landscape. She’s seen a bit of Europe (way too civilised), travelled independently through the Middle East and done a below-budget 8-month trans-Africa overland trip which changed her life. Her list of places to go and things to do keeps getting longer. When her life resembles a bumper edition of ‘Far Side’ comics – then her work here will be done, she will have accomplished all her goals, and she can die a happy, well-travelled and enlightened being.

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Older comments on Shallow Graves – Mauritania/Western Sahara, Africa

CJ Heidrich
23 June 2009

Awesome