The thirteenth century desert town of Chinguetti, is the closest thing to a tourist hotspot in Mauritania.

Independence Day

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.

Akjoujt

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

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.

Oudane

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.

Back to Nouakchott and then south to Diawling National Park and the border with Senegal.

Boujdour - The Place for Cold Conger

South from Laayoune with driver naji and guide Khalil. The seaside town of Boujdour in Western Sahara is expanding rapidly, a spread of toytown houses still under construction. There’s a huge welcome gate flanked by statues of ostriches, the main thoroughfare is lined with stylised lamps and there’s an imposing lighthouse.

Dinner in a  restaurant on the outskirts of town, as it's the only one that's open, unless I want pizza. It’s early and most of the charcoal under the rows of clay tagines on display is just being lit. The waiter says that conger eel  is the only dish that can be served imminently, so, with foreboding, I settle for this. The leathery fish is still cold and the food can only be described as nasty. Back to my hotel, but I’m not going to be sleeping for some time. It’s the local football derby in Casablanca and it’s being televised, to much excitement. It seems that the entire population is watching in the hotel bar below. The whole building vibrates when there’s a goal.

Where the Sahara Meets the Sea - and the Road Disappears

South to Dakhla, off-roading for the most part, right by the crashing waves. There are mini dunes here, rolling into the ocean, the desert meets the sea..

Fishermen have set up camp  at intervals, building fires behind rock slabs  and we sit and drink more of the noxious tea with a hospitable group. The children are braving the ocean in their trunks; I admire their fortitude. Its breezy, even when the sun comes out, and I’m keeping my jacket on.

The fishermen invite us for a barbecue calamari lunch, but the road beckons. We speed on, spraying sand, dispersing flocks of white headed gulls and stopping to check the route with the locals, as the dunes shift constantly. The tents here are larger and decorated with flapping textiles. Guide Khalil says that people come for the weekend – but I’m not sure that's accurate information. Some of them seem to have brought goats.

Driver Naji struggles to find a safe way back up to the main road, the sand has shifted into new dunes since his last visit and he can't see the track, but he eventually locates a suitable path and instructs us to climb up ahead, just in case he's miscalculated. Then he careers over the sand and rocks to the top of the cliff.

Dahkla, Western Sahara

This area is famous for its wind surfing and my hotel is a very up market all-inclusive beach club with wooden cabins, its own sports centre and fabulous sunsets across a huge stretch of rippled beach and the arid peninsula opposite, to Dakhla town. Like much of Western Sahara though, it’s still under construction. I have to be careful not to fall into the deep excavations as I make my way round to the restaurant at dusk. The hotel manager, Oliver, sits with me at dinner and we try to compete with the live music. He’s a delightfully polite and very attractive young Mauritian, so it’s absolutely not a chore.

Dakhla town is some 25 kilometres across the water, down a narrow peninsula. At the very tip, a conglomeration of small fishing boats, maybe a thousand altogether, pulled up onto the beach, pennants fluttering. In the main port, up the road, the larger trawlers are unloaded. The auction hall is a bustle of  men in white coats, arms wind milling, shuffled plastic boxes and chutes of ice.

Lunch is fish, what else? Grouper, baked quickly in a very hot oven surrounded by a medley of sliced vegetables. It’s delicious, eaten in a Mediterranean style  blue and white waterside restaurant.

The White Dunes - and the Hungry Camels

Les Dunes Blanches is an astonishing  valley of alabaster dunes and outcrops of dusty white pinnacles, inhabited only by a herd of camels. Khalil entices the camels to the car with the crackling of cake wrappers and one female with a cute calf, snowy to match  the landscape, ventures so close I’m in danger of being drooled over as she reaches through the window. I can vouch for the fact that they have very big teeth.

Thankfully, the animals move away, rolling gracefully up the dunes and calling loudly to each other from mesas across the valley. Beyond this, ghostly fingers of  peninsulas, dropping into the sea, dots of feathery flamingos, rippling flat sand and pools with perfect reflections. At the end, a giant dune, a blustery  platform for admiring the whole panorama.

The FCO Red Zone, Western Sahara

Next, the border with Mauritania. Endless flat white desert topped with scrub and enlivened by the odd mesa. Nothing but emptiness for 300 kilometres. The occasional truck careers past. Road signs are cause for excitement. The highlight is the crossing of the Tropic of Cancer.

This part of Western Sahara is coloured red on the FCO map. Khalil says it's not a problem. This is only because there are land mines left over from the war..... .................

Into the Sahara Desert

My plane landed  over a sand sea in the Sahara Desert, to the south of Laayoune, an intricate pattern of interlinked crescent dunes. Today we’re driving across it, heading south towards Mauritania and off-roading on part of the route of the now defunct Paris-Dakar rally.

Phosphate Mining

First, we pass the phosphate mines that make the country an attractive proposition economically.  There’s a conveyor belt more than 60 miles (100 km) long, carrying phosphate from the mines to the piers southwest of Laayoune. We follow this, despite notices forbidding entry to anyone not employed by the mines (the guards just nod us through) and head across a desert track.

The Desert Foxes

Then we get into the dunes proper. The views are nothing short of stunning. Guide Naji is wearing his traditional Sahrawi robes, the blue perfectly complementing the gold of the sand. Ebony sprinkled silver dunes stretch to the horizon. There’s the odd nomad with his herd of goats. Three camels are chewing lethargically together - creating classic Sahara backdrops. There are snowy bleached bones littering the surface.

A diminutive desert fox, with huge ears, peeps out of his den in the sand and scoots off rapidly into the distance , leaving a trail of tiny pawprints.

Desert Picnic

Lunch is eaten on a rug behind some acacia scrub. Chicken, cold fries, carrot and beetroot. Naji and  Kahlil, use the acacia thorns as cocktail sticks and make a fire out of some sticks, so they can brew tea in a little blue pot. It’s strong and disgustingly bitter. They add copious amounts of sugar. I pour mine away while they're not looking.

Alone in the Sahara Desert?

There’s that stillness that comes when no-one else is around no-one around. That is, until we meet two Landcruisers heading past us, into the wild. Kahlil has told me I’m the only tourist in Western Sahara this year. He’s obviously been stretching the truth a little. When challenged he says he meant in Laayoune. No-one goes to Laayoune.  The cars are  two more of Naji’s fleet, one is driven by his brother; Naji's one of eight children, lived in a nomad tent until he was 15 and has never been to school. He’s taught himself fluent French and Italian and is happy to chat with me, tolerating my bad French - incroyable.

We continue our journey to Boujdour and the coast.

Laayoune

Laayoune (or El Aaiún ) is the capital (or principal town see Western Sahara in a Nutshell) of Western Sahara. About 40% of the population live here in this seaside city. The modern city is thought to have been founded by the Spanish captain Antonio de Oro in 1938. In 1940, Spain designated it as the capital of the Spanish Sahara. Tourism is virtually unknown but the tourist office have hopefully dubbed it 'The City of Sands'.

Moroccan Occupation

Woken by the sound of the muezzin. We’re on the same time as central Europe here, in Laayoune, but on a more westerly latitude. The sky is  full of cloud rolling in from the Atlantic, on these wintry mornings, so it’s dark until nine o’clock. The people in the shops are gloomy too – guide Khalil says it because they don’t like getting up when the weather is like this and often stay in bed until midday. I don’t notice that their mood improves as the day progresses.

Crimson Moroccan flags flutter on most of the buildings and are draped across the facade of anything remotely civic. This is a sparsely populated country with few urban areas, but these are under development as Morocco strengthens its foothold. And this is the capital. (I’ve tried asking guides Khalil and Naji about politics, but as far as they’re concerned this is Morocco and they’ve never heard of any conflict or a dividing wall.)

Laayoune is a small, very quiet, but up and coming town, surprisingly  modern There’s a lot of building work, streets being re-laid, It is divided in two by the dry river of Saguia el-Hamra. The town is divided in two by the dry river of Saguia el-Hamra. On the south side is the old lower town, constructed by Spanish colonists. here's the cathedral - still active. The traditional and busiest area, La Zone Populaire, is crammed with tiny booths, market stalls, fruit barrows and open air juice bars.; To the north glass buildings and a huge palm decorated square with those sleek tent style canopies.

Laid back Laayoune

Dinner is a typical feast, a fried fish platter - a huge heap and very tasty indeed in an open fronted restaurant. Then my new guides, Naji and Khalil, and I wander round a small community fair,  jam-packed with locals. There's  a children's' carousel,  a whirling waltzer and a brightly illuminated jump-and-smile, while all the passengers scream and ooh and ah.  Next door a tented Arab market, stalls  stuffed with trinkets, clothes and Turkish delight.

Tomorrow I'm off into the Sahara Desert...

Getting into Western Sahara

I only have an hour at Casablanca to connect to Laayoune, but it’s a very straightforward connection. The only slight obstacle is trying to work out whether my next flight to Laayoune is domestic or international. Morocco regards Western Sahara as its own territory and has occupied roughly 80% of the area for many years. Naturally, therefore it’s domestic.

I Hope You're Not a Journalist

At Laayoune I’m the first to the immigration counter and the last out to the baggage area. No visa required, but the immigration officials are almost paranoid about checking I’m not here to work – this is not a tourist destination - and insist on calling my guides to vouch for me. Fortunately, Naji (who owns the company but only speaks Arabic and French) and Khalil (who speaks English) are waiting outside and advocate for me. Then I have to navigate customs, where my bags are thoroughly searched. Alarmingly, my cameras indicate to the man on the scanning machine that I am a journalist. Naji and Khalil have to do their stuff again.

Finally, I’m allowed though, to Laayoune, the capital, (or principal town of the area, depending on who you believe), on the western edge of the Sahara. It’s a shame that my bag isn’t here too. It obviously didn’t have the same easy connection.

What is the History of Western Sahara?

Western Sahara has never been a nation in the modern sense of the word. In ancient times it was home to Phoenician colonies, who disappeared with virtually no trace, There is too much desert to encourage any kind of development. The land has existed as a trade route - a link between the Sub-Saharan and North African regions. In 1884, Spain claimed a protectorate over the coast from Cape Bojador to Cape Blanc, and the area was later extended. In 1958, Spain combined separate districts together to form the province of Spanish Sahara.

Is Western Sahara an Independent Country?

Western Sahara (Arabic Al-Ṣaḥrāʾ al-Gharbiyyah), is a disputed territory, partially controlled (20%) by the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (supported by Algeria) and partially occupied by neighbouring Morocco (with tacit support from France and the United States). Western Sahara was formerly part of the colony of Spanish Sahara. The land was relinquished by Spain, after pressure for independence, but phosphate deposits made it an attractive proposition for both Mauritania and Morocco, so independence didn’t happen. Morocco got there first.

A guerrilla war with the Polisario Front contesting Morocco's sovereignty ended in a 1991 cease-fire and the establishment of a United Nations peacekeeping operation. The UN sought to offer a choice to the peoples of Western Sahara between independence (favoured by the Polisario Front) or integration into Morocco. But the proposed referendum on the question of independence never took place due to “lack of agreement on voter eligibility”. An approximately 1,000 mile long defensive sand berm, built by the Moroccans, runs the length of the territory, roughly separating the two sections. It's the second longest man made wall in the world. I tried asking Khalil and Naji about politics, but as far as they’re concerned this is Morocco. They’ve never heard of any conflict or a dividing wall.

Does Anyone Live In Western Sahara?

Western Sahara is virtually all desert and is very sparsely inhabited. It has a population of just over half a million people.

Is Western Sahara Safe to Visit?

Tourists are rare in Western Sahara and there are few people outside Layounne. The main danger is from landmines. There’s a 30 kilometre militarised zone either side of the Berm containing landmines and there are a number of fatalities in this zone each year. You are not allowed to cross into the eastern side. Thid is even more sparsely populated with no diplomatic presence from any country. The FCO advise against travel cross the border with Mauritania because of land mines. Again. this area is coloured red on their maps. I'm hoping it's safe as long as I to stick to the road, as I'm going south to Mauritania.

What Is There to See in Western Sahara?

Wikipedia says that the land here is 'Among the most arid and inhospitable on the planet'. So, there isn't much to see n Western Sahara except desert and a couple of small coastal towns. And I'm going to be driving through both....

Facts and Factoids

  • The word Algeria comes from the Arabic name for Algiers, which means island - El Djazeira.
  • With a population of approximately 40 million, Algeria is geographically North Africa's largest country by area. Before 2011, when South Sudan became independent, Sudan was the largest.
  • The official languages of Algeria are literary Arabic and Tamazight (Berber). French is a semi-official language and the currency is the Algerian dinar.
  • The renowned Algerian novelist, Albert Camus, played as goalkeeper in the football team for the University of Algiers, which may therefore be the world’s only university to have had a Nobel Prize-winning goalkeeper in its team.

Is Algeria All Desert?

  • The Sahara Desert covers 80 per cent of Algeria.

A Very Brief History of Algeria

  • Algeria has a long history of invasion. The ancient Numidian kingdom initially just covered modern day Algeria, but later expanded, across what is today known as Tunisia and Libya. After invasion by the Phoenicians it became the Roman province of Numidia. The Arabs, Ottomans and French followed.
  • Over a million Algerians were killed in the fight for independence from France in 1962, following colonisation in the nineteenth century.

Is Algeria a Poor Country?

Algeria has the third most important economy in the Middle East and North Africa, but many of its people are poor. The national rate of poverty in Algeria is reported as 23 percent.

Is It Safe to Go to Algeria?

The latest FCO bulletin on Algeria:
‘Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Algeria, including kidnappings. Terrorist attacks have focussed on the Algerian state, but attacks could be indiscriminate and include foreigners. There’s also a risk that lone actors could target foreigners. You should be vigilant at all times and take additional security precautions, especially in: towns and cities; the southern, Libyan and Tunisian border areas; rural and mountainous areas in the north; and the Sahara.
The Algerian authorities devote considerable resources to the safety of foreign visitors. In cities there’s a clear security presence, which can feel intrusive. Authorities will want to know your travel plans when travelling outside major cities and may assign police or gendarmes to protect you.’

This is all entirely accurate. We have an armed guard most of the time in the desert. but no hint of trouble anywhere. The Algerians so far (except in airport queues) have been very gentle, polite and respectful. There is no hassle or belligerent selling. But there are very few tourists and not many souvenir stalls to promote anyway.

What to Do in Algeria?

I'm visiting:

The Algerian Sahara

Today, my tour group is flying from Algiers, on to Timimoun in the middle of the Algerian Sahara. The plane of the moment is a 72 seater ATR and we’re delayed for 45 minutes in the bus, waiting for two more passengers. It turns out the missing pair are Alec and Alison, the Australians who couldn't come on the tour. Fortunately, the weather is good and it’s a fairly smooth flight, once ground control take the off the manifest, so not too much Rescue Remedy is called for. The clouds begin to part and reddish brown rocky sand with patches of rippling dunes is increasingly visible. I’m sitting next to Riva, an extremely entertaining 78 year old, who still practices equalities psychotherapy. As Martin points out, ‘There’s only one more Riva to cross.’ The flight takes two hours and we’re only half way into the largest country in Africa.

Security in the Sahara

The latest FCO bulletin on Algeria:
‘Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Algeria, including kidnappings. Terrorist attacks have focussed on the Algerian state, but attacks could be indiscriminate and include foreigners. There’s also a risk that lone actors could target foreigners. You should be vigilant at all times and take additional security precautions, especially in: towns and cities; the southern, Libyan and Tunisian border areas; rural and mountainous areas in the north; and the Sahara.
The Algerian authorities devote considerable resources to the safety of foreign visitors. In cities there’s a clear security presence, which can feel intrusive. Authorities will want to know your travel plans when travelling outside major cities and may assign police or gendarmes to protect you.’

So far, we’ve avoided any security convoys. There’s been a heavy police presence in the cities, but apparently this is because the gendarmerie are  busy with important football matches. Robbie deems this a good thing. He says they slow everything up and the bus is often required to wait for ages at changeover points. However, they are ready for us at the airport and escort us the five minutes’ drive into town. Disappointingly, they are aboard a Nissan 4WD. I was hoping for an open top truck and muscly men with AK47s perched on the back. They have demanded to know all our plans and will be with us tomorrow when we go into the desert. Though we are allowed to go on, into Timimoun on our own.

Timimoun

Today's walking tour of Timimoun is more than a little chaotic. We trail after Robbie who keeps losing his way, exclaiming that things have moved since his last visit and blaming his confusion on the heat. And it's only Spring. The temperature gets up to 45 Celsius, on average, in July. It’s a typical oasis town in that there are gates, fortresses and stockades with pointy crenellations and plenty of date palms. But it’s very different from those in the UAE. For example, the walls (except for the newest constructions) are made of red mud. This area was once part of the Sudan.

Most of the sand strewn streets are eerily quiet. We’re unsure why, until we come across all the women gathered under one awning, dressed in their most gorgeous finery. There’s a wedding taking place. Unsurprisingly, the villagers are not keen for us to participate. The darker skinned peoples of this isolated desert outpost are far more reserved than their coastal cousins and very few are keen to be photographed. One little boy runs away, terrified, at the sight of a camera.

So we decamp to the main street, where there are some photogenic beehive shaped structures and a little market. The large hive shapes, known as marabouts, are saints’ tombs, liberally sprinkled across the desert. There are a lot of holy men. Some of the tombs in town, like the walls, are fake, built purely for aesthetic reasons. Our hotel is wonderfully located with views across the palmerie to the sandstone formations and dunes of the Grand Erg Occidental (Western Sand Sea). It’s an excellent place to watch the sun go down.

Our Leaders in Algeria

Today, we are once more way down the police priority list. We have been instructed to venture out on our own and take one of the hotel employees with us. Robbie is ecstatic, but I’m less sure. I don’t think, ‘We haven’t needed them so far’, quite cuts it. Briham, the designated escort, looks the part in his flowing white djellaba, (clothing here is much more traditional than that worn up north) but he isn’t armed. At least it’s an opportunity for too many Life of Briham jokes, with Middle Eastern type scenery as props.

And we aren’t going to be able to rely on the dynamic duo who are our leaders either. George has a nose bleed and looks fetching with cotton wool stuffed up his nostrils. Jamie has turned his finger septic by picking at a splinter. Martin’s theory is that this all a ploy to enable them to plunder the pristine first aid kit. (At this point I should say that they are actually both very good at their jobs and they take all the ribbing in good part). In addition, Robbie has produced a very battered straw hat from his bag and proceeded to try and unflatten it, restoring it to some of its (very ancient) former glory. I’m wondering if we should have left it in the tiny museum. But it suits him.

The Sebkha Circuit

The Sebkha circuit is the sightseeing trip in Algeria. Our drive takes us, precariously (it’s not really bus country) along some very narrow tracks past abandoned villages and mud fortresses (ksars). One old Ksar has a network of caves underneath - still used by villagers to escape the extreme heat in the summer months. The route continues along the edge of the cliff with stunning views of the Sahara - arid land, flat-top hills, oases and of course the sand dunes

There are also more stretches of social housing. The accommodation is free, but unsurprisingly the Algerians are  not very keen to take up residence. Most of the people in work in Algeria are hired by the government and there isn’t much employment available round the Algerian Sahara. There are also an irrigation system, a handicraft shop and an imagined view of the sebkha (salt lake), after which the circuit is named. The access track is 4WD country only. Thankfully, we can see it from the hotel instead.

Some of the village roads are closed, as the wedding is still going on when we wander out for dinner. The bridegroom is processing around on a panoplied horse, his expression changing in succession from sheepish to proud and back again. His friends also take turns riding his steed and bearing the ceremonial gun and sword that accompany him. We're having our own simultaneous celebration. It’s fellow traveller Wendy’s birthday today and Mohammed has obtained a fancy cake. Though he has to be really strongly persuaded before he will remove the numerals he has added, to celebrate her exact age. The bridegroom is posing on an island in the pond behind our outdoor table as we sing Happy Birthday. He lets off a gunshot to add to the air of excitement (and confusion).

The Road to Taghit

It’s a stunning drive northwest to Taghit, through desert that turns all shades of yellow and gilt. There are perfect flat topped mesas, amazing huge dunes and more red ochre ksars. Today, we are travelling in convoy, police front and back. And I can now see why Robbie thinks our escort is a nuisance. Not only do we have to hang around at district boundaries while they change over, we also have to make our coffee stop at ‘my cousin’s café’ instead of the planned stop in the one town we traverse. This is despite Robbie’s vociferous remonstrations. The word ‘dickheads’ echoes down the bus. But at least AK47s have been flourished.

Beni El Abbas, our oasis lunch stop, is described in the itinerary as ‘The White City’. But its arched colonnades and casbah are perplexingly, yellow ochre, with cinnamon shading. ‘Well’, frowns Robbie. ‘I think it was white when I came ten days ago. They’ve redecorated’. It brings a whole new meaning to go out and paint the town, but not quite red in this case. We tour a tiny hospital hermitage (four monks, five nuns) founded by Charles de Foucault and a ramshackle museum stuffed with all manner of paraphernalia, documenting local history through the ages. From here, we skirt the Grand Erg Occidental with tantalising glimpses of dunes, until we reach the western most tip at Taghit.

Taghit

I follow a camel track (hoof prints in the sand) up a steep and stony hillside past a lone marabout (they are cuboid with domes aloft in this region). On top of the mountain I’m king of the world for a short time, gazing out over the sand sea. The golden barchan crescents overlap into the rock of the hamada. There are whoops echoing from far down below, where more intrepid folk are teetering over the dunes in quad bikes - wadi bashing.

Other hardy souls are climbing the track to the top of the granddaddy dune. It towers 120 metres behind the village. Martin has pointed out that it’s a shame there isn’t a Terry in the group. Then we would have 'Terry and Dune'. Doh! The dune with the village, fortress and casbah spilling down the hill in front, would be impossibly picturesque, if it weren’t for the satellite mast placed strategically in the backdrop.

South to the coast again to Oran and Tipaza

Brazil - Facts and Factoids

Brazil - here come some superlatives: the largest country in both South America and Latin America, the world's fifth-largest country by area and the largest country to have Portuguese as an official language. It borders every other South American nation except Ecuador and Chile, and makes up just under half the continent. This is one of the most multicultural and ethnically diverse nations. It has more Roman Catholics than any other country (61% of the population). It is megadiverse ecologically, most notably containing the vast Amazon Basin, where processes like deforestation cause massive global concern. Brazil has a total of four million plant and animal species. The Amazon River (mainly in Brazil) is the world’s largest by volume of water discharged. Brazil has been the world’s largest exporter of coffee for more than 150 years.

I’ve flown out to Brazil from London overnight, along with a lady carrying a poodle in her handbag and several cats in wicker baskets. One escapes and they have to appeal for its owner to come and catch it, over the PA. Some members of the tour group are also on board. Candida is alone, but she’s being met by boyfriend Kurt, who’s been travelling in Peru and Chile. He’s waiting at the airport with a bottle of pisco sour and it’s the first time I’ve been inebriated before nine in the morning. We’re giggling in the back of the bus all through group leader Gabi’s introductions. I'm sure she's really looking forward to this tour now.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Brazil's capital is Brasília, but its most populated city is São Paulo. And I'm starting in Rio de Janeiro, Rio was founded in 1565 by the Portuguese, when it was the seat of the Captaincy of Rio de Janeiro, a domain of the Portuguese Empire. Then, in 1763, it became the capital of the State of Brazil, (still part of the Portuguese Empire).

Brazil remained a Portuguese colony until 1808, when the capital of the empire was actually transferred from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro (Because Napoleon was invading). In 1815, the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves was formed. Independence followed, in 1822, leaving the Empire of Brazil. Rio de Janeiro subsequently served as the capital of the independent monarchy,, until 1889, and then as the capital of a republican Brazil until 1960 when the capital was transferred to Brasília.

Rio remains Brazil's most well known city and surely one of the most famous cities in the world with Copacana and Ipanema Beaches, (don’t leave your belongings unattended), views from the towering summit of Corcovado topped by the immense statue of Christ the Redeemer (too much traffic and too many people) and the cable car up to the huge Sugar Loaf Mountain, from where the late afternoon views of Rio across a scattering of hills and islands are breath-taking.

I also squeeze in the bright, but sad favelas (of City of God fame) and  a football match at the renowned Maracana Stadium.  Lower league  Fluminense are playing Santos and there is plenty of horn blowing and drum rolling, but  not many spectators. Football is the country's obsession. Brazil is the most successful international football team ever. They have won the FIFA World Cup five times – more than any other country – and are first in the all-time rankings.

There's also plenty to try in terms of food and drink. I've already sampled feijoada, the local bean and meat stew that is traditionally eaten on Sundays, along with pigs' ears, manioc, pork scratchings, greens and garlic and been to a buffet restaurant where you pay according to the weight of the food on your plate. And I've been to  several bars. Candida and Kurt are a bad influence and I’ve already learned to love the national drink, the caipirinha. A typical serving costs about 50 pence and is lethal. One is usually plenty. Kurt and Candida go one better than just getting drunk and participate in a mock wedding at one bar. The ring is a free gift.

Iguassu Falls (Poor Niagara), Brazil and Argentina

Next, Iguassu, home to one of the world’s largest waterfalls. and arguably the most spectacular. There's a story that when US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Iguassu Falls, in 1944, she is said to have exclaimed, "Poor Niagara!" At 1.7 miles wide, with 275 drops, Iguassu Falls are more spread out than Victoria Falls, but there are more tourists. The horseshoe shaped Devils Throat is the largest and most popular waterfall section, a curtain of 14 separate falls. The air is full  of spray, so decent photos aren’t easy, but the upside is plenty of rainbows. And, we view for over four hours, thrills, spills and soaked to the skin.

We follow trails. from the Brazilian side (smaller slice of the national park but better views of the larger Argentine Falls - 80% of them are in Argentina - and plenty of wildlife, like coatis, wandering around), the Argentinian side (many more trails and there’s a close up of the fitfully churning Devil's Throat at the top, where the water plunges over the drop, by navigating a series of catwalks) and  from the very bottom in a bobbing (even wetter) boat.

Pantanal, Brazil

Via Sao Paula to Cuiaba and into the Pantanal. This is the world’s largest tropical wetland, straddling the borders of Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia. It is home to over 1000 species of bird and 300 different mammals. The boat trips here, animal spotting in the remote wilderness, are my unexpected highlight, and I get to see capybara (great name), jabiru storks, howler and Capuchin monkeys, toucans, the striking hyacinth macaw, agouti, a coiled anaconda and numerous Jacare caiman. The locals seem oblivious to the latter and happily fish in the water right next to them, despite the wide-mouthed yawns and glistening teeth. There's a tame caiman (we're told), called Pandora, at our jungle lodge.

Piranha fishing is less exciting and not very productive, but I can enjoy the painted skies of the gorgeous sunset over the river. I’m on my usual challenge to find the most appalling souvenir and this is a rewarding hunting ground. There are stuffed piranhas (to compensate for the ones we didn’t catch) in fluorescent coloured striped gel at the airport, on our departure.

Manaus, Brazil

Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon basin, on the banks of the Negro River, has vast tracts of jungle stretching in all directions. Rubber made it South America’s richest city in the late 1800s and lured many wealthy Europeans to the high life. A quick visit to the extraordinary Grand Opera House, before we board the launch, to our stilted lodge. En route we pass the spot where the dark Negro runs alongside and then converges with the lighter brown, muddy Solimões River. This results in the stripy phenomenon called the “Meeting of the Waters.”

Amazon River

As we're so isolated I’ve stocked up on food I can eat, including a can of cashew nuts. The monkey who scrambles across the moored boats to meet us has obviously encountered these previously. Before I can protect my bag he has purloined my can and is perched high on a branch devouring them. He hasno difficulty with the ring pull. I could swear he’s laughing. The rest of the group certainly are.

To be honest, the much anticipated Amazon is an anti-climax after the Pantanal. It’s quiet and beautiful. We swim by the stilted lodge (no nasties here we’re assured) but there is little new to see. There’s a Caboclo village to visit to gawk at the ‘natives’, long muddy jungle walks and we go piranha fishing – again. This time the guide hauls out some baby caiman for us to admire. Much vaunted river dolphins scoot by. Most of us miss them.

I’ve decided I’m never sharing a room on a tour again. My roommate, German Anne, snores mightily, (deja vu) comes in late and puts all the lights on, and insists on setting the alarm at least 90 minutes before we need to leave in the morning, so she can prink.

Salvador, Brazil

Our last stop is Salvador (Saviour), now the capital of the state of Bahia, It was founded, by the Portuguese settlers, in 1549, initially considered to be the nation's capital, before Rio was deemed to be more practical. It is one of Brazil's most historic cities and still the centre of Brazilian Catholicism.

I read that 'The Pelourinho area, the Portuguese colonial legacy, is regarded as the most important collection of seventeenth-eighteenth century architecture in the whole of the Americas.' It’s a hotch-potch of narrow cobbled streets, gilded baroque churches, and spacious squares surrounded by mansions in need of restoration. 

Salvador's magnificent setting and soaring cliffs protect the bay. So, this is one of the most sheltered harbours on the eastern coast of the Americas. The city has a predominantly African feel. This is not surprising as most of the inhabitants are of African descent (working sugar cane and tobacco plantations); there is a real vibe and some incredibly flamboyant costumes. Bruce and Laurie in the group pose against a cut out for photos and invite me to Fort Lauderdale.

Casablanca

The name Casablanca is so evocative - one of the most captivating films of all time. I suppose it was inevitable that our first stop in Morocco would be disappointing. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just a little bland, quite modern and huge – it’s Morocco’s biggest city. The only compelling sight is the imposing Hassan II Mosque, built alongside the sea. It’s the largest in the country, the world’s seventh biggest mosque and it took five years to complete; it was finished in 1993. The mosque’s minaret, at 210 metres high, is currently the world’s tallest, but that won’t last long. The Arabs are very competitive over their mosques and tall towers.

Also, alongside the port, the remains of Casablanca’s eighteenth-century fortifications - the sqala, And there's a vaguely atmospheric harbour area the French built Quartier Habous, with shops and eateries.

There's a medina, of course, leading from the bastion, with whitewashed crooked alleys, but it's nineteenth century, mainly residential and otherwise features glass fronted shops selling cheap clothes. It's not even very touristy. but I can still be a tourist and indulge in a little henna hand painting, before we move on. The painters are located in the famous main square of Casablanca, based originally on French colonial barracks and known officially as Mohammed V Square. It's more popularly known as 'Pigeons' Square', for obvious reasons. Well, we'll always have Paris.

Rabat, Capital of Morocco

I'm on a group 'adventure tour'. And our bus next travels up the coast, to the capital, Rabat. This was, for a time, the base of the notorious Sallee Rovers, who were corsairs. Rabat became the political capital by default, in 1913, during French occupation, as there wasn’t a capital at all at that time.

Although it's not really viewed as important as Casablanca, Rabat’s an old established city and there’s a much more appealing historic heart to explore on foot, the picturesque Kasbah des Oudaias fortress overlooking the water, the twelfth century Hassan Tower, the Mausoleum of Mohammed V (huge and white with a green tiled roof – the colour of Islam), and the Dar al-Makhzen, the king’s official residence, (they won’t even let you close enough to take a picture, unless it's one of the mounted guard.). The utterly charming blue and white painted houses are said to reflect an Andalusian influence.

Morocco - A Very Short History

  • Morocco has been inhabited since Paleolithic Era times and was incorporated into the Phoenician Empire, later followed by the Romans. The Vandals followed (being true to their name and destroying things) Vandals, before the Byzantine Empire interceded in the 6th century.
  • Then the region was conquered by the Muslims in the early eighth century, but broke away from the Umayyad Caliphate and the first Moroccan state was established by Idris I in 788. It has since been ruled by a series of independent dynasties, expanding at times (11th and 12th centuries) to include most of the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb.
  • Colonialism was a constant threat, as Morocco occupies a strategic position at the mouth of the Mediterranean. Morocco was the only North African nation to escape Ottoman dominion. However, in 1912, France and Spain divided the country into respective protectorates, reserving an international zone in Tangier.
  • Morocco eventually regained independence in 1956, as a constitutional monarchy. Morocco’s current royal family, the Alaouites, dates from the 17th century. Mohamed VI has been King of Morocco since July 30, 1999.
  • Morocco also lays claim to the territory of Western Sahara. Spain decolonised the territory in 1975 and ceded its control to Morocco and Mauritania. This led to guerrilla war and in 1979, Mauritania relinquished its claim to the are. However, the war continues with local inhabitants determined to push for independence to rage. Today, Morocco occupies two-thirds of the territory, and both side remain in deadlock.
  • Morocco's long history and varied terrain result in a diverse identity with a vibrant mix of Berber, Arab, and European culture.

Volubilis, Roman Ruins in Morocco

History on board, we're heading east, to Volubilis, a partly excavated Berber/Carthaginian/Roman city, thought to be the ancient capital of Mauretania. The city was invaded by local tribes around 285 AD and never recaptured by the Romans, though it remained intact. It was finally destroyed by an earthquake in the mid eighteenth century. We don't linger. It's raining hard; the storks are melancholy, peering down from their nests atop the remaining pillars, and the mosaics have become small ponds.

Meknes

We take refuge in nearby Meknes, one of the four Imperial cities of Morocco (Rabat, Meknes, Marrakesh and Fez have all been capitals.) Meknes was Founded in the eleventh century by the Almoravids as a military settlement, and became the capital of Morocco under the reign of Sultan Moulay Ismaïl (1672–1727), son of the founder of the Alaouite dynasty. In those days Meknes had a massive palace complex together with extensive fortifications and monumental gates. His mausoleum remains there. Today, it's an adequate shelter against the rain.

Fez, Morocco

Fez el-bali (Old Fez) is the world’s largest active medieval city. It is refreshingly authentic and totally absorbing. As is common in these parts, the old city exists in close proximity to the new. This is one of the largest souks in the world, a fascinating labyrinth of mosques, cafes (lots of men drinking coffee and playing board games) and artisan districts. There are alleys crammed with weavers, carpets (of course), brass workshops, coppersmiths and tanners. The faithful duck through archways into minuscule mosques. There's also another King's Palace. You're allowed to take pictures of the doors on this one.

The tannery area is world renowned and ridiculously photogenic, from our lofty viewpoint. It’s like a huge white mancala board, though the depressions are filled with soaking leather rather than balls. The workers stand in the vats up to their waists as they wrestle with the steeping hides. Dyed skins of varying hues are draped up the edging walls. Although it’s aesthetically enthralling we can’t stay long. The stench is almost unbearable.

And the souk calls. We’re told this is the finest craft work in Morocco and thus encouraged, I acquire a beautifully painted orange and blue coffee table. It’s wrapped in brown paper and sits at the back of our bus. Several of us have also bought djellabas, the one-piece unisex, hooded, coverall garments that are Moroccan national costume. We’ve had a very touristy trying on ceremony in one of the shops, complete with sugary mint tea. (Other outfits were involved too.)

Dubbed Moroccan or ‘Berber whiskey’ tea has become the national drink of Morocco. It was introduced to Morocco in 1854 by blockaded British merchants. Seksou (couscous) is the national dish and we’ve already sampled plenty of this, served up in traditional pot tajines, with a rich meat and vegetable stew. Olives and dried fruit (apricots, prunes, dates) are usually also involved. There’s a huge variety of dates on offer on the street stalls here and the best are extraordinarily plump and delicious.

Merzouga, Morocco

Turning south, we climb steadily into the dramatic Berber country landscapes and fortresses of the Middle Atlas and on to the desert settlements of Erfoud and Merzouga. En route we take in a lively livestock market with sheep tethered head to head (who knew they would tessellate?) and sehirras (witches) dispensing curses and potions. Next, a carpet warehouse (more mint tea). There’s now a beautiful, brightly coloured rug rolled up, next to my table. Haggling involves parting with my watch.

Merzouga lies on the edge of Erg Chebbi, an area of truly spectacular high golden dunes. There are various 4WD trips on offer, but the huge crescent shaped ridges are begging to be climbed. It’s an inelegant scramble - but they are truly stunning. There’s an optional camel trek on offer, with camping in a traditional Berber-style tent. To my horror, everyone else in the group chooses to camp and it seems churlish to opt out.

I’m glad I’ve chosen to go. The camel ride into the dunes is amazingly serene. The camel saddle isn’t too uncomfortable, or the camel too badly behaved. And it helps to truly appreciate the vastness and splendour of the desert. Though I can’t get the theme from Lawrence of Arabia out of my head. I haven’t quite got Lawrence’s white flowing garb on, but my djellaba makes a brilliant riding outfit. Unfortunately, the long pointed hood turns out to be more Star Wars than French Lieutenant’s Woman, but I’m sure it will make a great dressing gown when I get home. The camping is all that I feared. It seems that the tent is optional too. After singing round the camp fire everyone sleeps under the stars. It’s far too cold to be romantic.

Todra Gorge and Skoura, the Palm Grove Capital of Morocco

Skirting the southern slopes of the Atlas, through rose growing country, and following the Road of a Thousand Kasbahs, a criss-cross of oasis towns and Berber villages surrounded by lush palmerie and olive groves . Along a narrow pass through the towering yellow ochre cliff walls of the Todra Gorges in the High atlas. These 40 kilometres of deep canyons were scoured out by the Todgha (Todra) and Dades Rivers.

Ait Benhaddou

Then west, to UNESCO classified Ait Benhaddou. It’s yet another breathtakingly photogenic site. The mud-brick built town nestling into the hillside, is studded with arches and crenelated towers. This fact has not gone unnoticed by the movie industry. Scenes from Gladiator, Jesus of Nazareth and Lawrence of Arabia were all filmed here. One of the small village houses – earth floors and chickens running round -- has a room dedicated solely to a signed portrait of Russell Crowe in his Roman costume.

Facts and Factoids

  • Morocco’s flag is red and green (traditional colours in Arab flags) with a pentacle that represents the five pillars of Islam.
  • One of the words for “money” in Morocco is wusakh d-dunya, or “dirt of the world.” Moroccan money is formally called the dirham (abbreviated DH), but it is commonly referred to as flous.
  • Morocco is one of the world’s largest producers of illicit cannabis. The word “reefer” derives from the word Rif, a northern area of the country.
  • Traditionally, the liver, not the heart, is considered to be the symbol of love in Morocco.

Essaouira, Morocco

Our westernmost stop, coastal Essaouira, features more charming blue and white houses. Perhaps because of the filming in the area Essaouira has been something of a celebrity hangout for some time. Orson Welles stayed here in the 1950s, Cat Stevens and Jimi Hendrix in the next decade and the inventor of the first pedestrian crossing light, Leslie Hore-Belisha, is buried in the Jewish cemetery. Maybe this is why the shops here in the old walled Medina are even more enticing. The local craftsmen have a deft and unique touch and it’s impossible to resist the delicate boxes and exquisite jewellery. The beach is pretty and the sunsets gorgeous.

Marrakesh

To be honest, Marrakesh (the Red City) is something of an anti-climax after Fez and all the other stunning sights. It’s interesting, of course, but ultra-busy, with too many tourists and too much hassle. Would be guides trail you all the time.

There’s plenty to do. The medina (old town) is huge - it’s easy to get lost - and the riyadhs are elegant and shady. When I’m not in and out of the souk I manage to cram in the Koutoubia Mosque and its tower, the Saadian tombs, the Ben Youssef medersa, the Dar Si Said Palace (now the Museum of Moroccan Art), the The Bahia Palace ( mid to late 19th-century), the Menara Gardens, the Majorelle Gardens (designed by Yves San Laurent) and a visit to a traditional Hammam. (They are quite vicious with the exfoliation - it’s like being attacked with a Brillo pad.)

I mustn't forget to mention the Mamounia Hotel. This Five Star establishment is an institution boasting a host of celebrity guests: Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, Ronald Reagan, and Helmut Kohl to mention just a few. They like to quote Churchill, who apparently said “This is a wonderful place, and the hotel one of the best I have ever used.” He had good taste. It's a relaxing place to sit by the pool (striped awnings) or sip a cocktail in the ultra smart bar, if you don't mind the hole in your wallet.

The best option, in Marrakesh I discover, is to find a roof top café and look down on the Djemma-el-Fna (huge main square), watching all the street food vendors, storytellers, musicians, jugglers, acrobats, snake charmers and clowns. It’s far more relaxing up top, and in any case, no-one will let you near their act in the square, particularly if you have a camera, unless you’re paying up front - especially the snake charmers.

There’s just time for a final shopping flurry. A last purchase is a huge copper lamp. It’s been an expensive trip. And it’s a good job that Royal Air Maroc are so relaxed about carry-on luggage and baggage allowance. My newspaper covered lamp sits in the overhead bin and the rug sails happily into the hold, stuffed inside my table.

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