Taxi to Timbuktu

Suzanne Porter travels like a local around the Sahara – and helps you plan your own desert adventure

Suzanne Porter | Issue 76 | 76 december 2005-january 2006

The best plan is to have no plan,” explained my friend, an old pro of desert travel.

He’d spent years notching up thousands of kilometres in the wilds of Mali, Libya, Algeria and Niger in the back of battered taxis brousses, the shared taxis that transport people and possessions across the Sahara.

“You can never tell what’s going to happen – that’s all part of the adventure,” he beamed.
I was hooked.

The next thing I knew I was booked on a flight to West Africa, eager to try out travel Sahara-style for myself.

Like a local

Taxi brousses are the locals’ way of getting around. Decrepit old vehicles, packed with passengers, ferry people between remote towns and relocate families to different parts of the desert when seasons change. The taxis follow well-established routes across the country, varying from flat, pockmarked tarmac to a single set of tyre tracks disappearing under the shifting sand dunes.

Travel by taxi brousse requires both patience and time. They follow no timetables and leave when they are full. That’s not ‘full’ in an ‘each seat is taken’ sense, but ‘full’ as in ‘people packed into every nook, with goats filling in the remaining crannies’.

Filling taxis can take from half an hour, if it is a popular destination, to several days for those more off the beaten track. However, gares routières, the official taxi departure points, are great places to while away the hours. Here, people-watching is at its best. Locals are eager to chat about everything from David Beckham’s latest haircut to the politics of Tony Blair.

Into the desert

My well-travelled friend and I chose Nouakchott, the dusty desert capital of Mauritania, as our starting point. As we pulled into the gare’s dusty parking lot, the ticket sellers descended on us, all competing to flog us places in their allotted cars. The vehicles stood glaring at us in varying degrees of dilapidation, their touts doing their utmost to make them seem appealing. Made up of parts pinched from other cars, some were so unrecognisable that the only thing distinguishing their origin was a battered badge.

A Mercedes was pimped as the next to leave. It was heading for Atâr, a town “three hours’” drive north, and had only three more places to fill.

The taxi was driven up and the proposed seats proudly presented to us. Tickets were priced at 3,000 ouguiya each (around £6) plus 300 more (55p) per bag. We were sold.

Our Mercedes was designed for five people – there were ten of us inside. I had to sit on my neighbour’s lap so we could get the door closed but, as we set off, people soon moulded into their own space.

We left the dusty streets of Nouakchott behind and headed north at a cracking speed. The air was filled with Koranic chanting as we hurtled past stunning dunes of white, yellow and orange sand. Terrified camels scrambled to flee the roadside as we swerved to avoid donkeys stubbornly standing their ground.

Life on the road

Taxi drivers come in varying levels of insanity, from those touched by madness to the totally crazed. With experience, this can be gauged by a telltale look in their eyes, often intensified after one of the regular stops for prayer.

“You must never be scared, for all is already written,” our lunatic driver observed, obviously recognising the fear in our faces. You need to adopt this attitude yourself if you want to enjoy the ride.



Two and a half hours from Nouakchott, the taxi stopped in a small village. The doors were opened and we all fell out of the hot car. Having mentally prepared ourselves for imminent arrival at our destination – wasn’t the journey supposed to be only “three hours”? – we were a little surprised to be stopping rather than just finishing the journey. This point was raised once lunch – a communal plate of bread and sheep bones – had arrived. “But no, we have 180km left!” the driver explained.

It was only after several more taxi rides that we understood the ‘three hour rule’: every journey is said to take ‘three hours’, whether it is, in fact, one and a half or 12.

It’s all good

In Atâr, we decided to go to Zouérat – because the local doctor had told us it was ‘good’. “What is so good in Zouérat?” we asked him. “Why, everything is good!” came the reply. Intrigued, we set off to the gare.

I was eager to try a tip I had picked up from a fellow taxi brousser of buying an extra seat. Not only does this provide more comfort but it also means the taxi will leave sooner as there is one less place to fill. Arriving early, we bought three places in a pick-up truck, two coveted seats in the cabine and one in the back on the flat bed. Keen to ‘get in among it’,

I joined the 23 other travellers perched on the luggage in the back: women and children in the middle; men on the outside, to make sure no one fell out.

Five minutes out of town and we were in the open desert. Everyone chatted amicably as the heavily laden taxi picked its way across the demanding terrain, conversation only broken by laughter as we flew over the biggest bumps.

“Laughing makes us forget how bad it really is!” explained one of my companions, struggling to cushion the impact as he held on tight to the rails.

Spoke too soon

 “There is no reason why we should be late – this journey has been fairly uneventful,” my friend rationalised as we bumped along.

On cue, the taxi ground to a halt and sank gracefully into the soft sand. The men were ordered to push (another rule of taxi brousse travel, with absolutely no exceptions or refunds), while the women directed from inside.

Darkness was falling when the taxi was finally pronounced dead. The fire was lit for tea and we arranged our blankets for a night under the stars.

And then it hit me – the first icy drop cutting through the warm night air and landing heavy in the middle of my forehead. Rain! By the time we had gathered our belongings and raced to the car, we were wet through.

Never have I been more grateful for a piece of advice than when I abandoned my seat in the back of the pick-up for the shelter of my extra place inside. The storm continued for several hours, whipping sand noisily against the windows and rocking the car from side to side. Yet, if you listened carefully, you could just make out the sound of 23 voices, talking and laughing through the night.

It was with great sadness that we said goodbye to our travelling companions, 16 hours later in Zouérat. “But journeys are like that. They unite us and then we must part,” observed one of my new friends wisely.

I never did get used to the parting.

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  • Mauritania

    Mauritania travel information, including maps of Mauritania, food, drink and where to stay in Mauritania plus the best time to travel in Mauritania

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    Guide to meeting the locals, homestays and community-based tourism, including homestay contacts, local guides and community-based travel advice

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