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Day 24: Azougui to Atâr

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Michael Palin - SaharaWe find accommodation, albeit modest, at the Auberge El Medina, on a corner where four sandy streets meet. An unattended donkey trots past as we push open the heavy metal doors into a courtyard bordered with pink oleander and yellow hibiscus. Mats are laid out for communal eating and two large tents stand at one end of the yard. Privacy is not a characteristic of desert life. The idea of a room of your own is alien to a country whose traditions are nomadic and gregarious, but the proprietors of the Auberge El Medina have judiciously spread their cultural options. On the other three sides of the courtyard are five rooms with locks on the doors. However, each room has at least six beds in it.

Walking outside after we'd settled in, I had expected to see a town gripped by Rally fever, with banners, bunting and bars open all day. There are, of course, no bars in the non-alcoholic Islamic Republic of Mauritania, and the lack of bunting and banners is explained later in the afternoon when the Rally finally hits town.

It comes, not along the road, but down from the sky. A series of distant rumbles heralds a steady flow of cargo planes, amongst them a Hercules and three or four high-winged Russian Antonovs, descending to the south of the town. They bring in the Rally, keeping it as exclusive as any travelling circus, a self-sufficient unit effectively isolated from any reliance on, or interaction with, the local people.

Atâr airport is in very good condition. The Rally organisers have seen to that. It stands on the outskirts of town, an immaculate collection of domed and arcaded buildings standing out from the surrounding half-built houses and empty walled compounds like a Christmas present on a rubbish tip. A small city has sprung up on the tarmac, huddled around a dozen planes and half a dozen helicopters, all of which, apart from an elderly cream Dakota belonging to the Mauritanian air force, are only here for the Rally.

One Antonov freighter is fitted out as a hospital, another as a catering store. Still others belong to the big works teams, whose riders bivouac in matching tents pitched in the protective shade of the wings. Striped marquees have been erected for the administration and the press, lap-tops cover trestle tables, mobiles are constantly in use (though it's impossible to get a mobile signal anywhere else in Mauritania), fridges full of cold drinks hum away in the desert sun.
Âtar, Mauritania 
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The First World flies in for the day. Âtar airport becomes media city as the Dakar Rally hits town.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 24
  • Country/sea: Mauritania
  • Place: Atâr
  • Book page no: 85

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