Amazing Journeys, Camels and Challenges
Vast desert landscapes, nomads with weathered faces and blue robes, who fit the very definition of exotic, lots of sand and lots of camels! These describe my past week or so in Oulatta, a small desert town and home to this year’s cultural festival of Mauritania. As has often been the case through my African journeys thus far, the last few days were filled with excitement and awe, but also disappointment and frustration.
I want to provide a little disclaimer for my posts because some folks seem to be missing the point of them. To those of you from Africa, or, who spend years of your life in Africa, my view of the world and my blog posts will probably seem very much like a reflection of some middle-class-white-man’s fantasy. And you know what? In a sense that’s exactly what they are.
People love to talk as if they understand Africa or certain countries in Africa. Other whites/westerners who have stayed long enough, love to talk down to those who haven’t spent as much time as them, as if only they are enlightened or truly understand. Some Africans get offended because (in their opinion) I exoticize things and don’t show some supposed truth of progressive youth and incredibly forward urban areas of their country.
I make no apologies. This has and always will be a blog for my personal views and impressions. If I’ve presented something, it’s because I saw it. I try to understand the countries I travel through and I do this through photography. However, I connect with some of them more, with others less. I also don’t have a problem not understanding. I don’t have a problem with not having a purpose, apart from to glimpse into the world of others. Generally I photograph what fascinates me, what I find beautiful. Simple as that.
Back to the journey. Oulatta is remote. It’s about 1,300 km from the capital city of Mauritania, Nouakchott. Over 1,100 km along a paved highway and the last 120 km or so, along a desert track of sand, rocks and a very bouncy corrugated surface. I suppose because of the area’s remoteness and proximity to Mali, some people had told me that it’s dangerous to travel around there.
A caring French professor I met in Atar told me that I MUST enquire about an escort before I go deeper into the desert from Oulatta. So, I did. It turned out that the only escort provided was to Oulatta and the only reason for the escort was that a whole bunch of international press and local politicians were heading to the festival. It seems that the dangers are really blown out of proportion, and while I don’t dismiss that there’s a possibility of some bad-guys taking advantage of travelers in a car, the chances are about as much as getting bitten by a shark while swimming in the ocean. I didn’t care much the escort and would have had a much more pleasant drive had I not joined it, but the police in Mauritania like to make the decisions for you sometimes, so, off we went with the escort. That above is just one of the machine-gun dudes that joined us and possibly 20-40 other cars.
Oulatta is a beautiful little town. There’s a nice view point above it. We went up there, even camped on it, though the shots at sunrise did not turn out to be anything very special.
One of the unique features of Oulatta are the painted walls and doorways of the houses of the locals. While this stuff can be seen in many places in India, it’s pretty unique for Mauritania. We spent a few hours over a couple of days wondering around the town. Of course, with the foreign press and tourists numbering in the hundreds, there were probably more of them then Oulatta residents, so, it is understandable that the residents were a little overwhelmed from all the photo-taking. This was part of the reason why I didn’t stick around for very long and didn’t shoot more in the narrow lanes of this town.
Local men walking through a street in Oulatta on a chilly morning.
Curious children outside of their painted home.
At any festival or gathering there’s bound to be a whole lot of “characters”. Oulatta was no exception. Most of these guys are nomads from the surrounding villages or settlements. Fairly curious and wanting to see a photo of themselves, all of these men asked me to photograph them.
A passing by nomad and his small family on camels.
Nomads waiting to sell their animals.
Nomad looking over his animals as the wind kicks up sand in the air.
Improvisational animal market at the festival. In the back is the most popular car in Mauritania. It is amazing where people manage to get these. It was not an easy road from the last city by the highway – a sandy trail, sometimes fairly deep. I guess great drivers can get almost any car anywhere.
For me the whole thing turned out to be primarily about camel-racing. It’s fairly disorganized and not very easy to follow, but, thankfully with the Landrover, I was able to get some shots that I am happy with.
The way it works is as follows; you find the place where the race starts. You go a little farther ahead, so that you can get the whole line-up of what’s probably at least 200 camels in action. Then, you get in the car and drive like mad to over-take the camels and to get as many more tries at getting something decent.
The whole thing was definitely exhilarating. There were two races and the first one was a bit of a downer because someone joked around and there was a false start, which ended up with some camel-riders racing all the way to the finish line without realizing they’re efforts don’t count. Less camels turned up for the actual race.
The next and final race was the best. Everyone raced along a dusty track and this not only put almost everyone in the clear, but, the kicked up dust created a nice effect in some of the images.
I arrived in time to get a quick glimpse of the celebrations. The man with the raised stick, I believe is the winner. Amidst the chaos it was hard to tell 100%.
Chit-chat after the camel race. I wish I could listen in and understand what these men are talking about. It is something like “Did you see me make that corner bend?” or “How’s the family and your household?”
The whole event was colorful and the sun was setting, making for some very vivid imagery.
Cameleers arguing after the first race. There was a lot to argue about. One young man complained of another pushing him off his camel, though he did get up and apparently get a place.
After the event is finished, the cameleers hang around while the spectators try to hitch a ride on the back of some very smoky Toyota Hiluxes.
The participants of the race head back to their camps around Oulatta.
Rather randomly we stumbled into a house with traditional music being played on an electric guitar. We were invited in. This man was the leader or a traditional traveling band, basically playing in the houses of rich folks. In this case they were playing in the home of the local Sheikh.
One really cool thing throughout the festival were the spontaneous burst-outs of dances. Usually a few women and an improvised drum were all that was needed to “get the party started”.
Men in Oulatta, I guess as men all around the world are usually slow to join, so, when this fellow got into the action, it was much to the delight of all the surrounding women. There’s an amazing energy around these dances. You just sort of gravitate to them when you hear the music. I joined in one myself during my last trip and Josh got “jiggy-wit-it” this time, only to be complemented in a rather strange way. A young nomad man told Josh “You dance very nice, like a woman.”
A couple more images from the viewpoint above Oulatta.
So what was the frustrating part of this little journey? Partly the usual things that frustrate and annoy me. People trying to rip us off, which is fine or rather to be expected in the big tourist destinations, but, you don’t expect to be quoted 30$ to take a shower by a village woman who initially offers you “help for a small amount of money”. No thanks, I can wait for the shower.
The nagging for cadeu (gift) can get obsessive. Sometimes kids are intelligent and you can see it in their eyes. Other times, they just have zombie eyes and there’s nothing that’ll distract them from asking and asking again.
The most frustrating thing of course was self-inflicted. I somehow screwed up the clutch in my car. The road was quite rough from Oulatta to Tigjigja. The track would disappear and at certain moments I’d just find myself hopping from sand dune to sand dune. The whole thing was crazy, like a movie. The clutch went out in a small town called Tichit. With 270km of sandy tracks to go to the nearest paved road, we miraculously made it with a semi-broken clutch. We were VERY lucky to have made it. Getting stuck in the sand would mean many days till we’d even have a chance of getting the car pulled out.
Once we got to a highway we drove about 35km towards the capital and then, the clutch died completely. I always felt that tough moments and need for help reveals whether the people of a certain region are truly nice and helpful, or, not so much. It turned out to be the latter in this case, as I was charged an exorbitant amount of money to get towed back to the capital. Anyway. There are enough kind souls too. A Lebanese man who owns a garage in Nouakchott, where I fixed a small part before was ridiculously helpful. The man got me back on my wheels in 2.5 days! If anyone needs a mechanic in Mauritania, Nouakchott, he’s just around the corner from the Star petrol station and Auberge Sahara. Honest, elderly man, who to me seems to be from a “no-bullshit-generation”.
I thank my lucky stars. I stress again that I was very lucky not to get stuck in the middle of nowhere and I still have enough time for another quick journey into the “wild”. That’s exactly what I’ll do from tomorrow onwards.
See you all in a bit!
P. S. – Still shooting with the Fuji x100s and loving it! The only images not taken with it are the camel racing (shot with a 70-200 on a Canon 5D MKIII) and the one of the two nomad friends with the sand blowing.