Two-thirds of Mauritania is covered by desert, which expands southward every year, so desert is pretty well all you get to see. But in this case, for much of the time, it really is the sort of desert you think of when you say the word: myriad yellow dunes, Moorish castles, nomads, oases and wandering camels. Stunning.
French sovereignty over the Senegal River and the Mauritanian coast was recognised by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. However, European "pacification" of the entire country did not begin until 1900, closely tied to the development of the other French possessions in West Africa, particularly Senegal, on which Mauritania was economically, politically, and administratively dependent until independence. Unusually, however, the French in Mauritania adopted a system that corresponded more to Britain's colonial policies of indirect rule, relying extensively on Islamic religious leaders. After World War II, Mauritania, along with the rest of French West Africa, was involved in a series of reforms of the French colonial system, culminating in independence in 1960.
Mauritania remains a Francophile country – nearly everyone still speaks French and baguettes spill out of wheelbarrows along the streets.
Mauritania is cripplingly poor; about 21 percent of children under five are chronically malnourished and recent climatic changes have worsened the situation. The nation has experienced a dramatic 20-year drought, which has caused widespread desertification. Approximately 90 percent of the country is now considered desert land, 40% of the population still exist below the poverty line. Mauritania depends heavily on iron ore exports, fishing and offshore oil wells.
Mauritania is reported on the Internet as one of the safest countries in Africa, particularly the coastal region from Senegal to Morocco and all very calm to me. However, the FCO advise against travel to much of it and against all but essential travel to the Nouakchott - Nouadhibou corridor. So this is generally where I'm visiting, with time in the south at the desert towns of Chinguetti and Oudane, the 'tourist hotspots' of Mauritania. Through Diawling National Park and into Senegal.
The northern border, with Western Sahara. Three hours after we started border formalities I’m still waiting at a cafe while driver and guide, Naji, buys car insurance. I’ve been standing outside one battered door or another all afternoon waiting for officials to eat their lunch and watch videos on their phones.
The careful redevelopment, officialdom and uniforms of Morocco’s occupation in Western Sahara have given way to the comparative chaos of Mauritania. Outfits are no clue to anyone’s role. Army personnel seem for the most part to be wearing the same shade of green, but there the similarities end and there’s a diversity of headgear from flowing turbans to beanies to huge brimmed fluffy berets.
Nevertheless, their equipment is relatively modern. No laborious writing by hand in logbooks here. I have an on-arrival visa printed out on and stuck into my passport. And I have a new guide, introduced as Ahmed. We head for Nouadhibou.
Driver Naji has relinquished his Arab robes in favour of trousers and shirt today – change portends. There’s still more desert, though there are acacias (if larger) for another two hundred dry kilometres. Then, over a small hill and suddenly we are surrounded by lush vegetation, lagoons and mud banks. We swing right into the Diawling National Park and some warthogs scamper to meet us. There’s a waterfowl of one kind or another posing every ten metres and hosts of lotus flowers. Even a pair of huge monitor lizards. (Naji says they’re crocodiles so we have to double check). It’s a proper ’Scotty's Beamed Me up ’ moment. Astonishing.
Diawling National Park is not without controversy. Opened in 1991, it spreads round a floodplain on the delta of the Senegal River. This is the boundary between the park and the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary, in Senegal. The establishment of Djoudj had a huge impact on the local tribes. They were both displaced from their homes and denied access to grazing and fishing.
Both parks are home to monkeys, wart hogs, a few spotted hyenas and wild donkeys, but are famous for the diversity of their bird life. The larger mammals all disappeared due to drought and hunting. The last West African lion in Diawling was shot in 1970. Some of the region's worst malaria is found in this area, due to the construction, some years ago, of a dam. The dam also put paid to other species like the manatee, crocodile, and hippopotamus. Bilharzia and invasive plant species have also taken hold.
Nevertheless, it's a welcome splash of green as we head to the border crossing at Diamma. A raised and very ridged mud track and a bridge over the Senegal River, some benevolent officials, a wave goodbye to guide Ahmed and I’m across the border, into Senegal.
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 its 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.
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 ryad 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. 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.
Nouadhibou and Nouakchott, the two largest (and more or less only) cities in Mauritania must be contenders for the best place names in the world. How can you not visit?
An arid peninsula surrounded by shimmering blue ocean leads to Nouadhibou, the second town of Mauritania. It’s a dusty hotchpotch of yellow ochre and beige buildings, ramshackle shops lurking in alleyways and minarets. Traffic has materialised from nowhere, a jam of vehicles, tricycle vans and donkey carts. The driving is frankly atrocious. No-one bothers to use their indicators as they veer right and left with gay abandon across the oncoming traffic.
Nouadhibou has little to excite except for the shipwreck cemetery, adjacent to the port, which like nearby Dahkla in Western Sahara, is right at the tip pf the peninsula. It boasts that this boat mausoleum is one of the largest in the world, with more than 300 wrecks from all nations beached on the shores. Though the cemetery is diminishing in size, as the wrecks are being dismantled, the parts paddled ashore on dinghies, to be sold as scrap.
The road south is much as it was in Western Sahara, just a little more unkempt. we've swapped guide Kahlil for guide Ahmed , who is young and keen and gorgeously attired like Naji.
Camels line the plastic strewn verges, waiting to be milked, flocks of goats wander past. The nomads watching over them from pavilion style tents. Flat sand dotted with acacia scrub stretches to the horizon, every so often a gorgeous cluster of caramel coloured crescent dunes; these are cleared with ploughs, where they spill onto the tarmac. Naturally, driver Naji indulges in some dune bashing and there’s a whistling cargo train to chase. What’s the point of a Landcruiser otherwise?
The actual road is narrow, not quite a two-lane highway and trucks thunder past, asserting their dominance by holding to the centre and refusing to reduce speed. We lurch off- road to avoid them, juddering at the impact of the compressed air. There are copious roadblocks manned by soldiers who take an interest in our passports that is in direct proportion to the size of the queue waiting. Most of the traffic is heading north. Otherwise, there is just the odd wayside settlement, a miniature walled mosque, a few cuboid dwellings and some more goats.
Lunch is grilled chicken and chips in an empty restaurant, battling the flies. Unsurprisingly, vegetables are far from abundant in these areas. As usual, my guides follow up with foaming bitter tea ceremonially poured from aloft. When done properly the liquid is shifted from cup to cup to pot and back again for several minutes. It’s a serious business.
Every so often we encounter the sea, where the Sahara Desert spills into the ocean.
Five hundred kilometres today, too many gendarmes halts to count, and we’ve finally reached Nouakchott, nestling on the coast and at the edge of the desert. Nouakchott means ‘place of the winds’; there are a lot of sandstorms. Despite this disincentive, it’s the largest city in the Sahara and was designated as the country’s capital only in 1960. It’s therefore one of the world’s newest capitals. The approach, on the airport road, is certainly a wide and modern highway, but it soon narrows, and we’re back amidst honking cars, inching very slowly indeed when we need to make a left turn. I shut my eyes. The vehicles are mainly French and German of seventies or eighties vintage and boxy. A rust bucket taxi bumping along in front of us is full of holes and the front wing is hanging off. 'Come fly with me'.
It’s Independence Day this week and there are an abundance of flags and banners for sale in the capital; civic buildings are festooned in banners of the national colours. Red, for the blood shed in the independence struggles, was only added to the previously plain green and yellow flag last year.
The highlight of Nouakchott is the spectacularly colourful landing of hundreds of fishing boats at Port de Peche, with its fish market and numerous factories. Lines of men in woolly hats and PVC dungarees chant as they lift the boats onto rollers and manoeuvre them through the foam and up the steeply sloping beach. Seagulls wheel overhead screaming, women with bright headscarves squat in the sand spreading some of the catch in anticipation of an early sale and sad-eyed donkeys with carts wait patiently for the rest of the fish to be unloaded, as it is showered with ice, packed into crates or sacks and heaved onwards.
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