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Day 24: Azougui to Atâr

Âtar, Mauritania 
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With the proprietor and staff at the Auberge El Medina in Âtar.
Michael Palin - SaharaCassa, a youngish man, elegant and rather aristocratic, runs tours into this part of Mauritania, and I would not dream of questioning the validity of anything he says were it not for his playful but confusing habit of hopping from intense seriousness to hooting laughter in the same breath.

On our way south and east we pass through a remarkable landscape, where the constant, unblinking process of disintegration and decay that characterises the Sahara takes rich and varied forms, from spectacular, Rio Grande-like mesas to soft sand dunes, crumbling escarpments and moon-like rubble-strewn plains. In the midst of this austere beauty is the small town of Atâr, neither austere nor beautiful. But today and tomorrow Atâr will be in a world spotlight. The Paris-Dakar Rally is coming to town.

The Paris-Dakar arouses mixed emotions. For the organisers, it is the most gruelling event on the motorsport calendar, pitching man and machine against one of the harshest environments on the planet. For opponents, like the French Green party, it is 'colonialism that needs to be eradicated', costing sums 'equal to the annual health budget of some of the countries the race crosses'.

In 1999 it was held up by bandits whilst crossing Mauritania. In 2000 threats from Algerian fundamentalists forced the contestants into an air-lifted leapfrog over the country, and last year the driver of a back-up vehicle lost a leg after hitting a land mine near the Moroccan wall.

But the Paris-Dakar, now commonly known as The Dakar, as Paris is no longer its obligatory starting point, has, since its inception in 1978, survived wars and rumours of wars, fatalities and serious accidents, to grow and flourish, carried on by its own obstinate momentum and man's insatiable urge to do things the hard way.

Somewhat ironically for a town surrounded by desert, Atâr suffered from catastrophic floods in the 1980s and all buildings of character seemed to have been washed away and replaced with nondescript concrete and breeze block. One exception to the overall dusty brown of the narrow streets are the Total gas stations, which are a riot of liberally applied red and white paint. Total, it turns out, are the sponsors of the Dakar Rally.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 24
  • Country/sea: Mauritania
  • Place: Atâr
  • Book page no: 84

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