Hubby was accompanying me on this trip, and he was delighted to see the french equivalent of the FCO had just downgraded the security risk on Mauritania from ‘advise against all travel’ to ‘advise against all but essential travel” – by my standards lately that is like visiting Disneyland. We were heading to Nouakchott and then up into the Sahara to visit the ancient towns of Chinguetti and Ouadane, which used to be on a well travelled french tourist route, but the tourists stopped coming in after a few incidents in 2007. Good news is that twice weekly charter flights resumed for the three month winter season from December 2017, so perhaps there is hope to rejuvenate the tourist industry. Most people I told we were coming kept getting Mauritania mixed up with Mauritius…., its a bit different. Mauritania is between Western Sahara, Mali and Senegal – 90% desert, 29th largest country in the world, with only 3 million people. It became independent from France in 1960, and after numerous coups, has been ruled by the same more or less corrupt ruler for the past 10 years.
We had another passenger with us – Keith. I had been following Keith’s global travels on my nutters facebook group of world travellers. Sadly Keith passed away having only visited 157 countries. His legendary family made pottery stars out his ashes and are doing their utmost to make sure Keith gets to fulfil his dream of visiting the remaining countries in the world by sending him post-humously off to new countries with a variety of tour guides. You can follow Keiths adventures here on this facebook page and see him in some of the photos below…
We flew via Casablanca (which is a remarkably good airport for Africa fyi….), had a few hours of people watching and then boarded the multi coloured flight to Nouakchott (well all the colours except european). The visa on arrival process was pretty efficient by african standards, we were fourth in the queue and made it out in half an hour (pity those who were 50th in the queue). The posh new airport was pretty lovely and the people here are utterly chilled out. The men have lovely white and blue desert robes (bobos) and the women are all colours of the rainbow. Our taxi was pretty dodgy, but we made it into town – which was much posher than I imagined – loads of brand new modern buildings on well built streets – and passed out at the Auberge Diaguili.
Up a few hours later to an excellent breakfast of coffee, baguette, croissant and yogurt (yay for the bakery legacy of french colonisation). And then our driver arrived more or less on time to take us to Ouadane. We headed out of Nouakchott on the main road to Atar – it is one long endless stretch of tar with barely a bend for 400km. I am not sure how they stop the desert from engulfing it on both sides. As we leave Nouakchott there is a curious evolution in architecture. The houses begin to look more like concrete tents, and sure enough after a few more kilometres, the houses actually turn into multi coloured tents. Apparently the true nomads don’t like sleeping in towns, so even those that have been forced to move to Nouakchott for work will return to the desert fringes of the city to sleep in these tents at night.
The road seemed endless, but we had plenty of stops ….. the Mauritanians are in love with paperwork, and I lost count of police checks we had to stop for. My forward planning for this trip had been bit haphazard, and I was reading the guidebook in the car, where they advised us to bring plenty of photocopies of a fiche (effectively your itinerary, passport numbers and visa numbers), as apparently that speeds things up, as they don’t have to take your passports for ten minutes to write everything down. Oh well….next time.
After three hours of desert we stopped in Akjoujt for tea – three cups as per the tradition. Nothing is fast here, so we lounged on the cushions on the floor and were amused by the restaurant owners yelling at their pouting son waiting for our tea. Appropriately restored with tea so strong and sweet you could use it to de-rust the car, we headed off again. A couple of hours later, we arrived at the beginning of an amazing marscape heading up to the Adrar plateau at Atar. It was very hazy, but stunningly beautiful. We stopped in Atar for provisions (biscuits, laughing cow cheese, bread and water) and had a chat with the enthusiastic shop owner, and headed off to Ouadane on the 4wd highway.
Ahmed our driver persuaded us to stop at the neolithic paintings just out of town. One of the few downsides of travelling so much is that I have already seen lots of amazing things, and these paintings were underwhelming compared to the rock paintings at Las Geel. However, the young man who lived on site was fascinating and very keen on the history, and he was worth stopping to chat to. We had an amusing chat about dates, as I realised that we always date things in AD and BC, and wondered how they described BC in a muslim country. Apparently they also say BC, as they recognise Jesus lived…., my favourite comment from the guide was ‘well you have your stories about Jesus, but the Koran is clear and I know the truth’.
in total it was 550km from Nouakchott to Ouadane. The last 150km offroad but on a pretty good 4wd track which Ahmed was blasting down at 90-100km an hour, which was fine most of the time, but there were a few hairy corrugated corners. We arrived in Ouadane around 5pm and were honestly a bit disappointed. The Lying Planet describes it as ‘one of the most enchanting semi ghost towns of the Sahara…with the houses ‘tumbling down the hill’. Hmmmmm, it is pretty, but enchanting might be stretching it. In the right light the stones look lovely, but the rubbish was off-putting, as was the smell of baked urine. We went for a stroll around town! We had fun watching the local kids learning their Quran, and had a chat with a few ladies, and then we ended up in the new town where we were offered several camel rides and I got told off by an aggressive young lady for not covering my whole body.
We went back to the Auberge for dinner – delicious pumpkin soup, dense baguette, followed by the amazing local wholemeal pancakes (ksours) and spice mystery meat and vegetable stew . We were the only guests. We were staying with Zaida, a ‘famous’ (in Ouadane at least) former slave who runs a guest house. Honestly, she was worth making the trip for. In all my travels around North and West Africa, I have never met an African woman so free of spirit. Zaida has two sons, is more or less my age (though looks 10 years younger), and she divorced her husband many years ago. She now runs a successful auberge (though challenging no doubt with the lack of tourists). She chain-smokes Winstons and barks commands at her boys to get things done around the auberge, but she has one of the biggest smiles I have seen in years. I asked how she got on in Ouadane, given she isn’t wildly traditional, and her response was brilliant – ‘eventually people get tired of talking about you and move on to talking about something else’. We lounged around after dinner on the cushions, and then headed off to sleep, waking occasionally in the night to the sound of torrential rain. We woke up to lots of plopping rain, thunder and lightening – and we had a grand breakfast of coffee, baguette with about half a jar of amazing hibiscus jam, and sat watching the rain come down.
The plan for the day was to head through the sand dunes to Chinguetti, passing by the oasis at Tanourchert. We headed off with Ahmed in the 4wd to the desert. After about an hour it became abundantly clear he didn’t know where he was, where he was going or where the track was. Hmmmmm, about that time, I began to question my lackadaisical approach to this holiday. As a frequent outdoors person, i am rarely caught short, and know that I should have 2-3 days of water, food, a working beacon and a compass when I head to the desert, as well as make sure the 4wd has a shovel and some back up fuel. In a country where safety precautions are limited to praying five times per day and saying Inshallah a few times for good measure, I should have known better. All we had was a litre of water and some food – which was more than the driver had. Between Steph and I, we figured out where we were (his phone GPS was working), and where we were going (the compass on my watch was working), and Ahmed finally confessed he didn’t know where he was and asked where we should go. We headed in the right general direction and then, inevitably, we got stuck in a sand dune. We were lucky and managed to dig ourselves out of the deep sand with our hands, and with a bit of pushing from Stephane and I got back on the hard sand. I wasn’t wildly confident that we were going to get to Chinguetti in the 4wd, but at least we knew where we were, and I was confident that we could walk the 30km to the nearest road with a 1 litre of water provided my compass kept working. Fortunately, we found some nomads shortly after getting stuck, and after 2 hours of being pretty much lost, we found the 4wd tracks to follow the rest of the way to Chinguetti.
Chinguetti in the distance was a sight for sore eyes, with the lovely dunes of Erg Warane alongside, although up close it was littered with as much rubbish as Ouadane. We found the lovely Hotel La Gueila, and checked into our room off a delightful courtyard and settled in for some iced tea. We then headed into town to check out one of the famous libraries – Chinguetti is a famous centre of islamic scholarship. We went on a tour with Saif the librarian – a true ‘bavard’ with a knack for drama and embellishment. The manuscripts were fascinating but we escaped after the ‘short tour’ of 45 minutes.
After that we went for a gentle meander around town, or what was left of it. The sand has started to reclaim the village and it was amusing to see doors and windows half blocked. The levels of harassment in Mauritania are quite low, but we were still hounded by a few of the boys who were demanding ‘cadeau’, and some energetic women who were keen to sell us some jewellery, and then I got told off by some young boys for showing my ankles (literally i am covered head to toe, and to the wrists), but they are quite conservative. We had a long chat with Sylvette – another extraordinary woman to find in the middle of the desert. She has been here for ten years and built the hotel with a local ten years ago. Its an impeccable hotel, and her food was amazing. But more interesting was listening to the stories she told – she has travelled most of the world, but fell in love with this corner of it and decided to move here from Paris – which is quite a cultural shift for anyone, let alone a woman in her mid sixties. I do wonder how you get on with healthcare in the middle of the desert, but I didn’t want to ask. Sylvette fed us a fantastic dinner – soup, chicken with lemon and olives and potatoes, a pineapple cake for desert, and we retired to bed at 9.30 like old age pensioners.
We rolled out of bed at 8 to an amazing breakfast – good bread, strong coffee, camel milk jam (like dulce de leche but made with camels milk), homemade yogurt and tonnes of jam. We stuffed ourselves with bread and jam, and chatted to the other two guests – two women in their 30s who work for the UNHCR – an incredible job, but they work crazy hours apparently, and have been in Mauritania for 18 months without making it up to Chinguetti as they don’t get many holidays. They told me the rates of suicide and divorce for women in the UN were extraordinarily high, and the life incredibly stressful, but they couldn’t imagine doing anything else as it would be too boring in comparison. Power to them!!!!, I couldn’t do it. We then motivated ourselves to leave. Staying with people here isn’t really like being in a hotel, it is more like staying in someones house. Sylvette and Sidi felt very responsible with us and had even had words with our driver, to make sure he took us on the main road to Terjit (versus the off track – something we had unsuccessfully tried to persuade him against the day before).
We cruised back along the chinese road which descended down from the plateau into the canyon, got harassed for some more bribes by the police, and took the turn off to Terjit. Ahmed got lost again, but we managed to find the sign to the basic chez Jemal. There were actually tourists there, albeit they all appeared to be young aid workers or french embassy staff from Nouakchott. Terjit is an oasis tucked into a steep red canyon. We ate a huge lunch of goat, rice and dates, drank some tea and napped in the shade with everyone else as it was 40 degrees in the sun, so we decided to leave visiting the Oasis until the late afternoon. We finally roused ourselves off the mats in the shade around 4pm to get moving. We first had to giggle at the aid workers driver from Nouakchott as he couldn’t get his 4wd out of the driveway – it made us feel better about the complete ineptitude of of our driver. The oasis was lovely, albeit the only visitors seemed to be men. We climbed up the canyon at the back of the famous Terjit springs (one hot and one cold, which mix together to make a warm bath at the bottom) and got to the top of the hill, looking down at the oasis. It seemed like the nicest place to leave Keith, so we tucked him into a sheltered spot with a terrific view.
After that we had another bout of lying around on the floor in the nomad shelter (there is a lot of lying about that happens in Mauritania- it is pretty hot)… a bunch of local ladies had installed themselves with a gas stove and the tea accoutrements in the shade, and they shared their tea with us with typically islamic hospitality so we were well restored. Dinner was gritty couscous and carrots, with some soup and dates.
Our accommodation for the night was a little more rustic than we had prepared for (we had no sleeping bags or sheets), but these days I am pretty fine sleeping anywhere as long as there aren’t too many mosquitos and I have enough clothes to stay warm. Sleeping on dirty mattresses on the roof tops in Mali and many nights in mountain huts are a terrific apprenticeship to getting used to sleeping anywhere. We had a mattress on a matt on the sand in a nomad tent. The mosquito net was too small so we ended up with it being more like a sheet Sadly two of the young french aid workers were quite enamoured with each other, but too timid to do anything about it, so they entire camp had to endure about two hours of painful adolescent like chatting from their tent about their social awkwardness and anxiety issues. I got fed up at midnight and yelled out a firm ‘good night, time to stop talking now’ (if i had known the french for ‘just shag each other and stop bloody talking’ i would have yelled that out instead.
Both hubby and I woke up about four and put two more layers of clothes on and huddled together for warmth to go back to sleep. We were up at 7, and I made plenty of noise to wake the annoying aid workers up Breakfast was nutella, nescafe and bread. The light was extraordinary – it was the first time in four days there wasn’t a haze, and the oasis looked amazing.
We finally got moving and then we headed back on the endless road to nouakchott, where we were good tourists and went to check out the main mosque and the fish market. The fish market is the ‘star attraction’ in Nouakchott according to the guide book – and you could certainly smell it well in advance of arriving. The fish smell made me heave, but the thousands of boats were amazing to see, although the crowd wasn’t entirely welcoming! We got to the hotel around 3pm, and went for a walk to round up some food for dinner, an early night is called for after not much sleep in the desert, and the taxi is picking us up at 4.30am
We stayed at Auberge Diaguili in Nouakchott (firstname.lastname@example.org), Auberge Vasque (contact on facebook messenger) in Ouadane, La Gueila http://www.lagueila.com in Chinguetti, and Jemal in terjit