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.
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.
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.
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