Words:Sam Bleakley Photos: John Callahan/

Surfing from a sinking ship

Mauritania is not the comfort zone that Morocco has become, but this is what brings us here. Herman Melville said that no true place is ever on the map. I take this to mean that the soul of a place cannot be contained by the political boundary of a country. Mauritania, like many post-colonial nations, is scarred and searching for an identity. Modernity here is an uncomfortable fusion of tradition and progress, two giant forces ¬– pulling opposites – giving the place a twist, a hump, a sense of discomfort. It sits anchored on the Northwest African coast like a docked ship awaiting repairs, one side gathering industrial rust and sinking into the cold Atlantic, the other, sand-swamped. All travelling brings you face-to-face with contradictions, but in Mauritania, such contradictions form a lifestyle. While cherishing its nomadic roots, such tradition is broken on the steaming wheel of the iron-ore trade. The land itself shifts with time as mountainous dunes are reshaped by ceaseless wind, and yet people attempt to lay down political boundaries; these western-Sahara markers not moving with the wind, but with the decisions of bureaucrats who no longer live in the heart of the desert but in run-down cities at the rim.

On top of all that, there’s simply no map for the location of landmines that litter the access routes to a wealth of incredible waves on Mauritania’s Ras Nouadhibou peninsula in the north. This southernmost extension of the Western Sahara is disputed territory – land that Spain abandoned as its colonial network collapsed that was then claimed by simultaneously by Morocco, Mauritania and the Polisario Front. The latter is a nationalist organisation fighting for control of the desert and what appears to be one of the most sparsely populated areas in the world. It may seem strange to an outsider, but this is their homeland, littered with land mines or not. In the midst of our research prior to the trip comes the headline: “Four French tourists shot dead in Mauritania,” from Aljazeera news. They had pulled off the road, inland from the capital Nouakchott, started their picnic, but refused to hand over their money when confronted by gunmen. “It’s a rare incident,” emailed French surfer Erwan Simon. “Mauritania is a safe country, but we have to be careful and keep a low profile.” Days before our departure Aljazeera alerted: “Three Mauritanian soldiers shot dead by armed men in a clash in the north,” then “Dakar Rally cancelled due to Al-Qaeda threats.” But our crew absorbed all this with the outlook of seasoned travellers – always respect local traditions. Only real time would make sense of the news of the day.

Our own mapping of Mauritania’s surf potential began with the beachbreaks of Nouakchott - ‘the place of winds’ in Hassaniya Arabic. In Nouakchott (pronounced ‘Nwak-Shot’), a sharp wind from the northeast slashes at the wave faces. The water is colder than we expected, as duck-dives beneath inky sets bring us sharply to our senses. A long-derelict industrial wharf shelters the take-off, which turns shallow and hollow as the tide pulls away from pale sand. Along the pier fisherman cast long nets into the lineup, pushing us deeper behind the sections. Nicolas Campos and Thierry Vergnol, two of only six local surfers in Mauritania, take time out to watch the newcomers. You can see them contemplating the horizon for surfing’s future in Mauritania. Spain’s Raul Garcia puts on a Curren-esque show, mixing flow and speed. “We need to get Raul into those long right points up north,” says John Callahan. By afternoon the wind has gone cold in the shadowed sun and we freeze at the thin fringe of the desert. Heading back to central Nouakchott, the four-wheel drive gets stuck. “Poussée?” asks Emi, meaning, “shall we push?”. But white Africans Thierry and Nicolas are masters of sand driving. They release air from the tyres to regain traction. They go fast and with an eye for the sinuous track, just like surfing.

Nouakchott’s recent coastal sprawl has been poorly planned and built on land slowly subsiding into the Atlantic. Up-welling salt water has already claimed new neighbourhoods, now abandoned, except for a few feral cats. The rest of the city creeps towards the desert. Hastily constructed to become the capital in 1960, it has low-walled, canvas-roofed houses, the signature of the nomad uneasy with settled life. We drive through this city dodging the traffic, which is mostly braying donkeys driven on by stick-wielding charioteers. Battered Renault 12s hang together with rope. The bone-dry air slows rusting and skeletal cars inherit the look of the afterlife in this life. Piles of dust and sand bank up against bare, bleached walls of rudimentary buildings bristling with hi-tech satellite dishes. Among silver-inlaid boxes of the foire artisanale (silver market) touts sell mobile phone cases and telephone cards. Welcome to the global village. Swaddled head to toe in robes, the locals greet us with warm smiles and clasping handshakes. The city is the safest African capital I have ever been in – a transition between Arab North Africa and Black Africa. Bright, swirling robes meet stiff geometric patterns, the epitome of Islamic Africa. There is sharp contrast between those who appear to float rather than walk, and those who appear to shuffle, their slippers wearing thin, perhaps reflecting the twin forces of ‘progress’ and ‘tradition’. Nicolas’ family B&B, (called JMC Organisation, after his father’s initials) is homely and humble. It has an air of colonial France about it. I feel like a character from a Tintin comic. This would be a perfect place to start a modern Africa episode: the foreign reporter tries to get the scoop on why the Dakar Rally was cancelled. Are western tourists welcome in Mauritania? Is Mauritania a sinking ship or a vessel trying to right itself?

Tourism and terrorism are the topics at dinner. I learn that the trickle of mostly French sightseers fly inland to Atar. From here they can visit the ancient Berber caravan centre Ouadane, or Terjit, a verdant oasis perched high on a cool plateau. “Above all,” says Thierry, “there is Chinguetti, the seventh holiest city in Islam. All of Mauritania was once known in the Arab East as bilad shinqit – the land of Chinguetti. It is legendary for scholars, mosques and madrassa [religious schools].” The sprawl of labyrinthine streets and walled courtyards sits on the edge of an immense sea of sand, growing dunes drowning Chinguetti, while the desert climate is paradoxically ideal for the preservation of its Koranic manuscripts.

“How do you feel about the rally being cancelled?” I ask Thierry. Every year he works as an official on the gruelling car, truck and motorcycle race that cuts through Mauritania before ending in Senegal. “It’s the first time it has ever been called off,” he says. “This year the French organisers admitted bowing to terrorism. The Sahara desert is a difficult place to protect the thousands of people involved, even though the government deployed 3,000 soldiers to do that last year. But I think it was cancelled because the French government put pressure on the organisers, not because Al-Qaeda threatened the race itself.” “Everyone in Mauritania thinks it was a bad decision to cancel,” says Nicolas. “But some say the Dakar had already lost its heart – too commercial – and that it won’t ever find it again. The tourist killings were very sad, but the media blew things out of proportion. Hundreds of tourists die around the world each year, and the media don’t speak much about this. In the 12 years I’ve been here I have always felt safe. The country is stable and peaceful.” Nicolas’ family moved from Senegal to Mauritania in 1995 because it offered a new horizon for desert and coastal tourism. The rally business forms 40% of their annual income.

North to Nouadhibou

The sky is still jet-black as we load the cars to head north to Nouadhibou in an early morning start. Along the way we encounter countless police checkpoints. They sit idly in tent entrances, drinking mint tea and smoking. Thierry stops the car, leans his head out the window and says, “Salut Chef,” a common French-Africa greeting. He morphs into Arabic. He explains that he runs the business that makes all the Police and Army clothes in Mauritania. This has an instantaneous and magical effect, and we are waved through. After a cluster of checkpoints we hit a five-hour stretch of straight asphalt breeching empty desert and make good time. I think of how strange this ‘route 1’ mentality must be to people used to the elliptical voyage, moving out in an arc from the oasis and curving back by a different way. The desert is a restless body unable to sleep because of the nagging wind, and we ruffle the body even more with our racing tyres. Thierry talks about the time he spent with the nomads, living with camels, and travelling away from a water source and back in huge petal shapes across the sands.

“They see the minute differences in the dunes,” he says. “They know a place just by the change in grains. They can always find their way.” But with borders drawn across paper maps in bureaucrats’ offices, most of the people have been deprived of their nomadic existence. They now live in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou under the spell of ‘development’. Police checkpoints appear with unnerving regularity as we enter the sprawling cement and sand of Nouadhibou – industrial, gritty and lined by a ship graveyard. Iron ore and fishing are the lifeblood of Mauritania’s fragile economy, and here, in Nouadhibou is its grinding, wasteful reality. We bypass the city for the west coast before sunset. Trying to breathe in a sense of place, we get the stench of rotting fish. Plastic bags spill over the landscape. “They need more goats here to clean up all this trash,” says John. Thierry stops to speak to some local Imraguen fisherman about the border and the land mines. The border no longer runs north-south down the narrow peninsula. It has shifted to a new west-east direction, although this has not yet been recognised by the UN. “People who drive by the same route every day still occasionally find a mine,” a fisherman warns. We stick diligently to the tracks, steering over the railway line that brings iron ore from Zouerate to the port, then through the neglected minefields. The terrain becomes extreme. In the Toyota Hilux, Brahim powers through the sand and sharp rocks as if born to it. Flocks of black winged seagulls wheel in great clamouring rings, then our jaws drop as we finally see the coastline. There are sandstone pointbreaks and slabs in both directions. The choice is overwhelming. Chilled deeply by the Canaries Current, the water is even colder than down south. We begin to wish we had brought our 4/3mm wetsuits and shiver between infrequent set waves. As the sun drops, we have to race to get back across the peninsula. Thierry’s caution for land mines lessens as he leads the convoy back, at high speed, along our morning tracks.

The Polisario Front: permission to surf?

At Cap Blanc a spectacular shipwreck clings to the sand, the most impressive of hundreds allowed to beach in insurance scams. The northeast wind howls, stirring up a thick cream haze. We revel in the moment’s lack of people, apparent lack of land mines and multitude of pointbreak set-ups. “It’s illegal to pass through La Agüera without a permit,” says the soldier. This once beautiful colonial Spanish town, high up and overlooking a bay and natural harbour, is now bullet-holed, burned-out, abandoned and blown over with sand, another legacy of ‘border mentality’. From the ruins emerges a well-manned Mauritanian army post. For silver-tongued Thierry the fact that he makes the General’s uniform is not enough. Fortunately, Thierry knows a government official in Nouadhibou who will arrange our permits. In the evening I brush up on the history. La Agüera was built in 1920 when colonial Spain established an air base here, close to French Fort Etienne (now Nouadhibou). This was the southern point of Spanish Western Sahara, ‘won’ through a series of wars against the local tribes. Modern maps still use a border between Mauritania and Spanish possessions that runs down the middle of the Nouadhibou peninsula. That now appears to have shifted to the north. So why are the Mauritanian troops in La Agüera? In 1973 an independence movement – the Polisario Front (a Spanish acronym for the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro”) – emerged among the local Sahrawi people, in reaction to Spain’s colonisation of the Sahara. Facing an armed uprising, Spain gave in. In 1975 they rapidly and chaotically split from their colonial possessions, even repatriating Spanish corpses from cemeteries. Morocco and Mauritania moved to annex the territory, meeting staunch opposition from the Polisario Front, who demanded full independence. Funded by Algeria, over the next few years the movement grew tremendously as Sahrawi refugees flocked to the camps in Tindouf, Algeria, and the well-organised guerrilla army swelled to thousands.

In line with most national liberation movements of the 1970s the exiled government of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) turned to Communism with backing from Libya, the former Soviet Bloc and Castro’s Cuba. The socialist rhetoric finally waned (along with the Cold War) and the movement began focusing on Sahrawi nationalism. But the war smouldered on and the land mines spread. The Polisario Front used motorized hit-and-run raids over great distances with speed and surprise. In 1979, after repeated strikes at vital iron-ore mines, Mauritania withdrew all its forces from the disputed territory. Morocco extended its claim, and built a huge sand wall enclosing the economically useful parts of Western Sahara and gradually contained the guerrilla fighters of the Polisario Front. In 1991 the two sides signed a UN peace agreement. But the mission failed, and the area is still paradoxically defined as a ‘Non-Self-Governing Territory’. Only the east is Polisario-controlled, but barren and heavily mined, with just small numbers of Sahrawis herding camels back and forth to Tindouf. Welcome to Melville’s ‘true place’ that is never on the map. At the core of the dispute lies the question of who qualifies to be registered to participate in the referendum. Internationally there is a generally neutral position on each side’s claims. But Polisario forces have consistently denounced so-called Al-Qaeda terrorism, describing their struggle as a “clean war of national liberation.” “We shall not give up one inch of our beloved Sahara, not a grain of its sand,” responded King Mohammed VI of Morocco. Like many Moroccans, he believes his country stretches from Tangiers to La Agüera. “They think the Western Sahara belongs to them,” says Thierry. “But La Agüera formed part of an area administered by Mauritania before it gave up claims to Western Sahara. It is an anomaly, a place left behind, outside the Moroccan wall, abandoned by both Moroccan and Polisario forces in 2002. It has become a political symbol for Mauritania, which does not recognise Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara. So it is guarded by a Mauritanian military outpost, although not formally Mauritanian territory.” Armed with permits we pass through La Agüera with relative ease. The concentration of mines is thick around the town, but the tracks are well used and clear. We do not stray. La Agüera is a strange black hole, where time stands still and snipers watch and wait around the town. Soldiers appear from the shabby barracks, their General joining us as we explore the area. He seems hostile. “British and American people cannot stick to a relationship or be loyal to their family,” he says. I show him my wedding ring and talk about my daughter, but he doesn’t believe the ring is real because it isn’t gold coloured. Bored with the conversation he turns to Nicolas, asking why he has Rastafarian dreadlocks. “It’s mat, not dreads,” claims Nicolas. “It dates back to prehistoric man, long before Rastas.” The General starts claiming that it was actually Mohammed the prophet who first had a long beard and matted hair and thus was the first Rasta.

The General changes his tone dramatically as we surf one of the excellent right pointbreaks. Tristan throws huge fans of spray, Erwan launches an air, Emi whacks lips, and Raul slips behind the curtain. There is a long wait between sets that follow a desert rhythm, slow time. But the waves are consistently good when they arrive. The General attempts a coup on John Callahan’s camera work, but fails. He disappears, and reappears with his own video camera. From the slabs of sandstone he starts dictating the session: “Catch the wave together. All five of you,” he demands. “NO!” he shouts at Raul, who is getting out for a well-earned lunch break. “Go further,” he says when we fall or kick out. We up the ante and he eventually tires of filming. Wind-chapped and hungry we break open baguettes and fill them with tinned tuna. Flies inevitably gather. I’m not sure what is more frustrating – dealing with the flies or the General asking countless questions. “What’s this for? Why do you need that?” – he points aggressively. You could see he was itching to have a go. “Do you need to be able to swim to use these boards?” he asks Erwan. Following another good catch, the small fleet of Imraguen fisherman join us. “Can we buy a board for 30,000 Ouguiya (less than 100 euros)?” they ask. They want to use it as a safety and rescue craft on their boats. “Some fisherman died on the reef,” they tell Erwan. “No one can swim, so we could not save them. The boards will help if it happens again.” We surf more sessions under the General’s dictatorship. Unlike the flies, that continue to bug us, his intensity lessens and he turns out to be genuinely friendly and thrilled by surfing. The next group of surfers will be welcomed.

The Raft of Medusa

Nicolas’ Toyota Landcruiser has developed a faulty battery and a damaged gearbox. Thierry accompanies him home, alongside a shower of French motorists heading south to Mali. Mauritania is just a stopover. The same might be said for the thousands of Africans who attempt to migrate from Nouadhibou and Nouakchott to the Canary Islands (and Europe) every year. Specially painted boats take 100 people for 400 euros a head. Since an exit visa is 4,000 euros, and few people have a passport, this is the desired route. The boats inevitably get turned back if they make it, but most migrants drown. History is repeated. The French frigate La Méduse infamously sunk off the Bank of Arguin, south of Nouadhibou, in 1816. Théodore Géricault painted the horrific scene of the survivors clinging in desperation to a raft. ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ is in the Louvre, Paris. The painting was a highly controversial anti-Bonapartist political statement. Ultimately it marked the end of the neoclassical style and became an icon in French Romanticism. A group of Senegalese men know all about the fate of La Méduse. They are biding time to board a boat to Europe. In the interim they have a job earning 200 euros a month in the Cyber Café. But they will not leave before they have seen ‘the Grand Marabout’ witch doctor, even thought his spells are useless against immigration laws.

By early afternoon Nouadhibou is buzzing, the stalls adorned with hanging chunks of camel meat and spilling over with fruit, vegetables, spices and pungent dried fish. But all is not well. A woman appears from a shop, swathed in blood-red cloth, “Psst!” We stop. She walks closer, inspecting us. “Américain?” she asks. “Les Etats-Unis,” answers John. A long pause ensues. “Américain, BLAHHH!” she says, sticking out her tongue and giving an aggressive thumbs-down. In response to each of our nationalities, she says, “Italien, BLAHHH! Français, BLAHHH! Anglais, BLAHHH!” A small anti-western protest gathers around her and we slowly slip away. At distance, we burst into laughter, but this was a nervous response. From her perspective the decadent west deserves scorn.

With six of us attempting to cram into Brahim’s Hilux we sourced another pick-up. The wagon appeared fine, although the driver’s tinted glasses angled at 45 degrees and half way down his nose did not register high on the ‘you can trust me’ stakes. Neither did his 95% rotten teeth. We filled up with diesel and Brahim led the way. “I’m not so sure this chap is going to be that keen on the off-roading,” I say to Emi and Raul. The moment we leave the tarmac he creeps and sinks. The sand sucks at the pick-up like thick honey. We clamber out, let some air from the tires, and dig around the wheels, only to repeat the endeavour two minutes later. Slowly we progress across the pools of sand, skirting giant rocks and stubborn patches of thorn bush. We’re stuck again. We realise that the driver hasn’t turned on the four-wheel drive. Things should improve. But they do not. Stressed, the driver starts chain-smoking, the ash blowing over Raul and myself in the back. “You must go fast to not get stuck,” says Emi. But the driver does not like being told what to do and starts complaining that the engine is broken. Emi can see that he isn’t pushing down on the accelerator. “Cassé, cassé, cassé!” he claims – “broken, broken, broken!” Then he begins veering away from the tracks, risking our lives through a possible encounter with land mines. We want to get behind the wheel ourselves, but he will not let us. Eventually he notices a flat run across the peninsula where he can easily get back to town. He turns off the ignition, smacks the steering wheel, shouts “cassé”, gets out and opens the bonnet. “Have to go back to fix the car,” he says. It’s a hoax. He cannot handle the off-road challenge. We just had a strange alternative run of the Dakar Rally.

Brahim, Erwan, John and Tristan re-appear. We abandon the driver and load everything onto the twin-cab Hilux with two people in the back. “Good drivers tend to get the job done, but bad drivers make good story material,” says John. As usual, Brahim weaves through the sand skilfully. We surf new spots, sessions flavoured with mint tea. Given the chance Brahim will pull out his rusty gas hob and make an incredible brew, with enough sugar to power a cannon. We decide to take a trip to the Banc d'Arguin national park. Driving south down the highway we breeze through two police checks. At the third they do not like Tristan and myself riding in the back of the pick-up. “Only insured for five passengers,” they say to Brahim. It turns out that there is an insurance broker in a tent just down the road. Another car passes through with eight men wedged inside. After an hour of bureaucratic haggling, we decide to abandon the national park and head back to some huge sand dunes closer to Nouadhibou. We escape with just a small fine.


Roused by ululating calls to prayer we are eager to get back to the Atlantic. The northeast wind is piercing every layer of clothing. Our eyes clog with sand but Brahim’s savvy restores our sight. At every stop he connects with the surroundings, climbing a rock, dune or walking out along a point. He is a fluent reader of the landscape’s script. He breathes through a permanent smile and communicates through his mint tea ceremony. Every glass is perfectly poured and impeccably timed.

Our journey arcs back to another graveyard of ships. Righthanders reel off hulls. Tristan, Raul, Erwan and Emi are drawn to the shallow reef with a sharp, hollow lip beating against the northern ship. But I can’t resist the peak that wedges against the southern vessel. The faces are burning blue, like the gas on Brahim’s burner, with smoking sets offering hypnotically long tubes, the large ones swinging wide and biting into the ship’s stern. Mauritania is on fire with surf potential, though as you see, finding it is a difficult and frustrating task in a country where paradox and juxtapose are a modern way of living. She will continue to try to shape nomads into settlers and fix unfixable boundaries, even as her coastal towns are reclaimed by rising tides. Tread carefully if you go, but take note – her bleached rocks sport empty pristine points, a ship’s graveyard with numerous high quality ‘rust breaks’, and sand banks above and below the water, that shift eternally.

BIO: Sam Bleakley is a professional surfer who travels extensively to the forgotten and undiscovered corners of the surfing world, as well as riding and competing for his sponsor, Oxbow. He lives in Sennen in West Cornwall, UK, with his wife, daughter and step-kids.