Mauritania is an Islamic republic at the western tip of the Sahara Desert that reaches into the Atlantic Ocean. It borders Senegal to the south, Mali to the south and east, and Algeria and Western Sahara (a disputed area between Morocco and the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Republic) to the north.
Mauritania existed as a tribal kingdom of the Berber Mauri people whom Strabo recorded in the 1st century under this name (Mauri), people living opposite the Iberian Peninsula. The Arabs conquered the region in the eighth century, bringing Islam, Arabic culture, and the Arabic language. In the early 20th century, Mauritania was colonized by France as part of French West Africa. It gained its independence in 1960, but has since experienced coups and periods of military dictatorship. Not surprisingly, most of the country is desert of all kinds, rocky, sandy, flat or with sand dunes, with almost no mountains, with some savannahs and small rainforests on the southern border, along the Senegal River. The subsoil of this place has abundant natural resources, including iron ore, oil and other minerals, but Mauritania is a poor country with very low GDP per capita and serious humanitarian issues. Its economy is based mainly on livestock, fisheries and poor agricultural production. Mauritania is not a human rights advocate, and it was the last country in the world to abolish slavery, just in 1981. Almost 100% of the population is Muslim and in addition to Arabic, French is also widely spoken. Mauritania is considered one of the least visited African countries.
Mauritania is a sparsely populated country with a population of four million people in an area of 1,000,000 km2, about double that of France. The inhabitants are a mixture of two main ethnic groups with distinct skin tones, the light-skinned Beidane, of Arab-Berber origin, and the dark-skinned Haratin of African descent. There is also a percentage of other West African ethnic groups. Despite economic hardship, harsh environment and strict religion, Mauritanians are extremely friendly and kind people. Poor but honest… These characteristics make the country one of the safest in Africa, despite travel warnings about terrorism, issued by some Western countries.
I didn’t meet anyone in the entire country pushing to sell me anything or scam me, not even one person to be rude. On the contrary, the kindness, gentleness and friendly disposition were exemplary.
Mauritania is generally flat, with vast, arid plains and low rocky ridges. About 3/4 of Mauritania is a desert that is expanding due to climate change.
The highest plateau is that of Adrar, reaching an altitude of 500 meters.
Some vegetation zones and rainforest traces stretch along the Senegal River. In the center and north of the country only sandy desert is found.
The famous “Eye of the Sahara” (Richat structure) is an impressive rock formation in the shape of concentric circles, on the Adrar Plateau near Ouadane. It has a diameter of 40 kilometers and is visible from space.
The main cities are the capital Nouakchott with about 1,000,000 inhabitants and Nouadhibou on the northern border of the country. Both cities are by the Atlantic Ocean. Other smaller towns and attractions include Atar, Chinguetti and Ouadane in Adrar Province, Tichit and Oualata in the southeast.
Where Sahara meets the Atlantic ocean.
Shortly after entering Mauritania airspace, the pilot of the aircraft announces that we can admire the famous ‘Eye of the Sahara’ from the left side windows. This giant circular geological formation also known as the Richat Structure has been a topic of fiction in the recent past, with some claiming it fits Plato’s description of the lost city of Atlantis and others claiming it was the result of a meteorite impact. In fact it’s a geological dome, with layers of sedimentary rocks that have eroded and appear as concentric rings. It has a diameter of 40 kms and although it is very close to the small town of Ouadane that I intend to visit, it’s only visible from space or even a flight altitude. Since I’m not planning to travel into space soon, I’ll make sure to book a seat in the right window on the return flight, for even better observation and photography of the phenomenon. The rest of the flight to Nouakchott Airport reveals magnificent images of the Sahara.
I have admired the desert many times, from the ground level and from above, but it always exerts an inexplicable attraction to me. Its spell has fascinated the nomad people for centuries, making their home in these hot, dry, inhospitable areas, sown with golden grains of sand, innumerable like the stars of the universe. And there appears a line where two such opposite worlds meet, the gold of the Sahara touches the indigo colours of the ocean, scattered with dots from fishing boats. Then the landing gear touches the ground…
I think it’s the first time I see an airport that has only desert around, as if it were the only surviving human structure in a dystopian fantasy film.
With quick maneuvers I get second in queue waiting for the visa, but there will be nobody behind me. The slow pace policeman gets €55 and gives me another full-page colored sticker on the passport. Equally slow is the person that stamps my entry into the country, initially in a large hall where only an old luggage belt reminds that it’s an airport. Oh, hope my backpack arrives, because I won’t not have a good time in the desert without clothes. As long as my OCD is bothering me, a swarm of flies will take care of me by noising around my face. They are probably impressed by the white, bald head and enjoy the tour, however during the whole trip, the flies will be abundant. I pack the long sleeve in the bag, it seems like an unnecessary weight to me, December in Africa, as you known is warm enough. Fortunately there are two ATMs to get foreign currency via credit card. All right, but did I withdrew enough? Let me make a second transaction, otherwise I will have to hitchhike a camel to finish my trip. The card, however, is blocked, considering the successive transaction in this… otherwise ordinary country, suspicious. Of course the airport does not have wifi or any kind of shop. As I go out, I expect the well-known bunch of African taxi “helpers”, but I find just a couple of drivers, one of them with an original taxi that says officielle-securite on the door. I will not see another, anywhere else in the country. All people ariving have someone relative to pick them up. After a hard bargain and a theatrical performance style “I go on foot” I manage the lowest possible price of 500mru (€12). Gasoline is expensive dear, and the city is about 40 kilometers away. However, I make an agreement with the driver to get me find a local SIM card. All this in French.
Did I mention that I do not speak a word in French? No, I didn’t. Did I mention that I travel alone? Solo? No, I didn’t mention either.
The taxi driver is smart. He finds me a SIM card on some dirt roads in the city without needing to register and he finds my accommodation by calling the landlady because the location on the map was irrelevant. I successfully unblocked my credit card.
An impressive landscape with dramatically eroded plateaus and sand that reaches their peaks, looks more like a Martian than an earthy landscape. As Marie informed me, Jamal has the best camping in Terjit. Of course, there are not many more accommodation options around. I walk on a sandy path, I reach the camp and rest the backpack in the spacious tent.
Chinguetti is a ksar, that is, a fortified village and a medieval trade center.
Founded in the 13th century as a trade route post in the Sahara and a stations for pilgrimages to Mecca, this small town continues to attract visitors who admire its unique architecture, landscape and ancient libraries. High dunes start at the town limits which is threatened by desert expansion.
The city is divided in two by a sandy, dry stream (wadi). The architecture of the Sahara is characterized by houses made of stone and mud bricks, with roofs of wooden beams and foliage of palm trees. Many of the older houses had handmade doors cut from huge acacias, which have long since disappeared from the surrounding area. Many homes also have interior patios.
Notable buildings in the city are the Mosque with the square minaret decorated with five ostrich eggs at the top and a tall aqueduct tower. Chinguetti’s Old Quarter has five major libraries of manuscripts and Quranic books, many dating back to the Middle Ages.
I arrive at a settlement that is in oblivion under the hot sun. There is almost nothing in Choum. No accommodation, no restaurant. There are barely two grocery stores to buy water. The railways cross the edge of the city and after a few meters is supposed to be the country of Sahrawi, an unrecognized state, disputed territory with Morocco. There is no border post but I have read that the area is mined.
THE DESERT TRAIN
(The iron ore train)
It is the longest train in the world, with a length of up to 3 kms. It has been operating since 1963, (with some interruptions due to wars in the region) and transports iron ore from the Zouerat deposits in the Sahara Desert to the port of Nouadhibou in the Atlantic, on a 700km route along the Western Sahara border.
The train has become a travel attraction, with passengers unofficially riding on wagons loaded with mineral. Some consider it as a life experience, a personal achievement or the main reason for visiting the country.
Personally, I consider it a somewhat overrated goal, there are definitely many more unforgettable experiences for an experienced traveler.
But it is definitely a very fun, free and relatively practical way to get to this point where there is no shorter road connection.
The 12-hour distance from the village of Choum (or alternatively 16 hours from Zouerate) to Nouadhibou is mostly under a sky with diamond stars, while at the end of the route the sunrise in the desert is unforgettable. The night is cold on the wagon and you’ll need blanket, sleeping bag and more heavy clothing compared to the daytime temperatures in Africa. But the most important element that affects the comfort of the trip is the intense ore dust that is carried away by wind and covers you with a black layer. A face mask is necessary, the traditional turban becomes useful and for eye protection you need bike or ski glasses.
Nouadhibou is the second largest city in Mauritania and serves as an important trade and fishing center. It is located on a 65 km long peninsula called Ras Nouadhibou or Cap Blanc, half of which belongs to Morocco. As a result, Nouadhibou is located on the border between Mauritania and Western Sahara (Morocco).
Mauritania is an impressive country with extremely friendly people that left me with beautiful memories. The deserted isolation of the place makes it ideal for solitary travel and inner meditation. The time I had available seemed to me enough, if I had more I do not think I would find many more points of interest. Maybe just some small villages in the south, on the river Senegal, which I can explore on a future trip to that country.