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Day 31: Nouakchott to St-Louis

Michael Palin - SaharaIt's 127 miles from the capital of Mauritania to the border with Senegal. Both countries were once part of Afrique Occidentale Française, a huge slab of the French colonial empire. As we drive out of Nouakchott this morning, we are reminded of the new world order.

The American embassy is a fortress, bristling with razor wire, sprung with alarms and guarded by armed men. The Presidential Palace, a drab grey mass, of considerable size and very little beauty, was built by the Chinese.

However, the French influence lives on. As we pull up in the town of Tiguent we're ambushed by half a dozen children, heavily armed with baguettes, who crowd around the doors, shouting and jabbing loaves through the window until we submit and reach in our pockets for our last few ouguiya. The bread tastes good; a richer, stickier consistency than French baguette and with the added ingredient that marks it out as fresh - Saharan sand.

The French language remains the lingua franca and the one in which we're interrogated at a series of army roadblocks.

At one of these enforced halts, a tall, thin, young soldier in camouflaged fatigues approaches our vehicle and examines the contents carefully. His eyes flick towards us.

'Parti à Rosso?' he asks.

Yes, we reply cautiously. We are going to Rosso.

He looks us up and down, slowly, then appears to come to a decision. We hold our breath.

'Vous avez une place?'

He wants a lift.

As we near the Sénégal river, the bleached white shell-fields of Nouakchott give way to terracotta dunes dotted with spiky grass scrub and acacia trees just tall enough to provide shelter for the Fulani herders. As the sands of the Sahara blow in from the north and east, they're forced progressively closer to the Sénégal river.
Only ten years earlier, the issue of land ownership along the border brought Mauritania and Senegal to the brink of war. Senegal kicked out Mauritanian traders and Mauritania allowed equally violent reprisals against 'southerners'. Today relations are better, but the security presence is strong enough to make filming a delicate task.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 31
  • Country/sea: Mauritania
  • Place: Tiguent
  • Book page no: 102

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