The thirteenth century desert town of Chinguetti, is the closest thing to a tourist hotspot in Mauritania.
The historic town of Chinguetti is nearly seven hours drive from the capital, Nouakchott. We travel via the ‘city’ of Akjoujt, where there are big celebrations planned, as it’s Independence Day and it has been chosen as the national centre for the festivities this year. All the cities take turns. Akjoujt is reached via another scenic desert road. To begin with, it's very blustery, churning up the dust, so oncoming vehicles are just pinpricks of headlights. Guide Ahmed says that it’s always windy on public celebrations - just like our rain on bank holidays.
An early lunch of grilled mutton in a roadside cafe. It’s rather too red for comfort and covered in indigestible fat. However hard I chew I’m not getting anywhere with it and I’m spitting some out it out into a tissue. I hope, unobtrusively. Driver Naji mops up the rest with every evidence of enjoyment. He doesn’t even seem to mind if the lump is pre-chewed. But perhaps he hasn’t noticed. It’s frenetic business today, with visitors from Nouakchott spilling into town for the Independence Day celebrations. (Unfortunately, we’ve missed the ceremonials, most of the crowd are on their way home). Nearly all the men are wearing blue embroidered robes covering matching trousers – called a daraa. It’s a billowing affair, the wide sleeves often hoisted up onto the shoulders, creating a superman cloak effect.
I’m on a low couch in what seems to be the men’s salon. The women and children are in the back room, snoozing across the divans. It’s a shut your eyes and try not to breathe outdoor toilet and a man is skinning a sheep in front of the door. Most of the clientele ignore me, but a couple of men are eager to chat. I’m the only woman in town with her hair uncovered.
The Road to Chinguetti
Past numerous young camels and a delightful fluffy new-born. Then, jagged grey mountains, the peaks imposing behind the ongoing sand sea as they retreat into the distance. The road climbs alongside a line of starkly towering mesas and over a pass running alongside a dramatic gorge. Once at the top, a bone shaker of a track runs across a vast desert plateau, to Chinguetti.
Chinguetti is reputed to have the second oldest minaret in continuous use anywhere in the world and the whole of the old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. An old town tour begins with a visit to a library of old Islamic manuscripts, where I manage to accumulate four guides. The crumbling old town, with its narrow streets, is quaint and the famed minaret is picturesque, though non-Moslems have to clamber onto nearby roof tops to view. There’s also a foreign legion fort. Because this is Mauritania’s tourist mecca there are consequently hawkers and assorted artisan stalls and ‘boutiques’. ‘Mais tu es riche, ‘a woman protests when offered 500 ouguiya in return for a photo - she is basket weaving. The other highlight is the shaft of a sandstone mine, that looks more like a well - frighteningly narrow - the stone trundled away in wheelbarrows and used for house construction.
I’m staying in a very pretty little stone guest house, it’s built riad style, with a central courtyard (fountain and fragrant bougainvillea), tower (for views across town), roof terrace and an exceptionally smelly toilet block.
There’s just time for a sunset view across a huge sand sea, from the top of a dune, before dinner.
For me, the highlight of Mauritania is the spectacular journey, off - road across the desert, to another ancient town, Oudane. It’s time to play the theme from Lawrence of Arabia again. Eighty kilometres of honey coloured sand, along winding wadis and cresting dunes, past several small date palm dotted oases. We stop to draw water from a well, cranking up the leather bucket. Half a dozen very thirsty donkeys are grateful to have their trough filled. A tranquil picnic lunch, with a glorious view, under the largest shady acacia tree we can find.
Oudane, like Chinguetti, has a UNESCO listed old town (even older) and a new. The old consists of a vast and sprawling stone citadel atop a hill. A pair of goats stand sentinel and bleat mournfully down at us. A rock hyrax peeps out of the crumbling wall. This citadel only requires three guides. There are ancient rock carvings to be admired too, when Naji has located them, in a gully, on the other side of town, with the aid of his GPS. Much to my amazement, his GPS shows all the barely discernible routes across the desert, which is just as well, as the sun sets nearly an hour before we complete our return across the dunes, successfully avoiding the odd wandering camel.