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Day 29: Nouakchott

Michael Palin - SaharaAfter one night at the Monotel Bar-El-Barka I realise that my appreciation of the simple life is a cracked and broken vessel. Maybe it's a question of age, but the delight I have taken in switching the air-con on and off, flushing and re-flushing the lavatory, caressing the bedside light and reading the laundry list from start to finish, including the women's section, suggests to me that I am not cut out for deprivation.

If twelve days of desert travel can reduce me to gibbering delight at the sight of one of the world's shortest room-service menus, what is to become of me when we turn east again, back to the sands?

There is water outside my room that is just for swimming in. It's surprisingly cold and refreshing. The only other occupants are two Mauritanian children, who seem amazed by the whiteness of my body, which, fresh from a long English winter, is very white indeed. They stare open-mouthed, as if seeing a ghost.

Thirteen years ago, whilst filming Around the World in 80 Days, I was stuck on a Yugoslav freighter moving agonisingly slowly across the Bay Of Bengal. The tiny mess room was dominated by a map of the world. To help pass the time, my cameraman, Nigel Meakin, and I competed with each other to memorise every African country and, for extra points, the name of its capital. Mauritania was a tough one, but Nouakchott was a match winner. Nouakchott was the Holy Grail of obscurity.

Which is why I experienced more than the usual frisson of first-timer's excitement when I saw the name on the airport building, and why I immediately bought up all three postcards in the hotel shop. And why I'm rather ashamed to learn that this city we could never remember is the biggest in the Sahara.

I take some comfort from the fact that this is a recent development. Nouakchott, whose name, my guidebook tells me helpfully, may mean 'Place of Wind' or 'Place of Floating Seashells', was only created in the late 1950s, and even by 1980 had less than 150,000 inhabitants. Then came fourteen years of drought and an influx of refugees, which has pushed the population beyond the million mark.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 29
  • Country/sea: Mauritania
  • Place: Nouakchott
  • Book page no: 97

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