It is a wonderful thing to go to a place about which so little is publicized that you can’t reasonably have any expectations of it. There’s not much room for disappointment and plenty for intrigue and feeling frighteningly, delightfully out of your comfort zone. Mauritania is one of those kinds of places.
Mauritania is a vast, mostly sand covered country sandwiched between Morocco and Senegal. It’s twice the size of France – the country which once colonized it – and yet very few westerners are even aware of its existence, fewer still would ever plan a trip there. Therein lies the majority of the country’s appeal. Here’s what I learned from three weeks in the big M.
If Mauritanian cities in general are supposed to be an assault on the senses, then Nouadhibou is a full-on tsunami.
Crowds jostle for space in the market where carts overflow with artfully placed fruit and plastic knick-knacks, women sit on the curb stirring large vats of bubbling oil, dishing out freshly deep-fried doughnuts for 10 ouguiya (€.25) a bag. In the centre of it all, a lone cow eats from a trough, immune to the chaos swirling millimetres from its big dopey face. Smiling school children rush to shake your hand and welcome you in French, Arabic, English and Spanish. Occasionally they will point and yell “Chinois!” (there is a huge amount of Chinese trawlers operating off the coast of Mauritania, most foreigners in the city are Chinese). Rubbish spills onto the sand road where barefoot children chase old bike tyres, and gangs of goats patrol the alleys, picking through the debris. Above it all, a luxury Chinese helicopter hovers, on one of its regular trips between the Hongdong International Fishery Development Company, and home base.
Nouadhibou is far from a tourist hotspot. Most overlanders breeze through once they’ve made it through the border, en route to Dakar, Banjul, or generally, somewhere that isn’t Mauritania. That means while tourism infrastructure is basically non-existent, in most places you’ll be greeted with a gracious curiosity that is one of Mauritania’s main drawcards.
On our first day in Nouadhibou, after a long day of waiting at the border, we parked up to camp next to the city’s ship graveyard, which was exactly as grim as it sounds. We were woken at midnight by two men yelling into the tent. The nearby factory had long since closed for the day and we hadn’t had the chance to buy a SIM card, not that we had a reliable emergency contact anyway. It was shaping up to be a bit of a B-grade horror movie. A bleary-eyed peek out the window revealed two military policemen.
“Hello! We are police, are you ok here? Here is my phone number if you have any problems, goodnight!”
The next morning, the same policemen, smiling widely and seemingly thrilled about the late-night distraction we’d provided, brought us a fresh baguette, still warm from the oven.
“Petit dejeuner for you. Welcome to Mauritania!”
And so, with our day having begun the best way possible, we set off to explore the area.
Parts of the Nouadhibou coast are nothing short of idyllic. While we spotted none of the endangered monk seals said to reside on Cap Blanc, the waves lapping gently at the base of the chalky cliffs (once you framed out the plastic bottles and fishing nets) made a picture perfect scene. Overfishing and an almost complete lack of waste infrastructure has left many beaches awash with detritus. On the east side of the coast though, it’s a haven, children splash in picturesque coves and, due to a strong wind, only the heaviest bits of rubbish stick around.
While parked up for a few hours to enjoy the view, we met Mamoudou, a local mechanic pleased to be able to practice his English. We had not one but three meetings over the course of the day, after our first interaction, he came back with his nephews to introduce us, later in the evening he returned again, this time proudly weilding his mechanic certifications. Silence is not the enemy in Mauritania, and when we’d both run out of things to say, Mamoudou was happy enough to sit with us for hours on end, waiting patiently for a conversation topic to arise. We pulled out our world map to show him where we were from, but the conversation quickly turned to fishing. Nouadhibou and Nouakchott, the only two places that could really be considered cities in Mauritania, rely heavily on fish. In the coming years it’s likely a whole new city will spring up around a gigantic fishing port being built by a Chinese company in the far south of the country. Mamoudou pointed to all the countries that had fishing interests in Mauritania – Russia, Ukraine, China, Japan, Turkey and Spain to name a few. He proceeded to show off his international diplomacy skills by introducing himself in Russian, Turkish and Spanish, a skill he’d picked up from his fisherman father. Most Mauritanians speak French and Arabic, but along with those, Mamoudou also speaks Pulaar – the language of his people – Wolof and Hassaniyya.
“And you?” he asked expectantly.
“Ah, just English, only one”
Mamoudou, for good reason, found this greatly amusing.
I asked him what he thought of the massive amount of foreign interest in his country’s resources.
He said, “Mauritania is very rich”
He moved a long finger through the thin lines on our map.
“Fish here, iron here, diamonds here. But the people are not rich.”
He pointed to the map again.
Russia – “this place is good to work for, good people, good money”
Ukraine – same again
Turkey – same again
China – “this is not good, they do not let you pray. They do not respect the people.”
And all of a sudden I felt a bit guilty about buying a huge bag of imported treats from the Chinese supermarket in town, by far the flashiest joint in the whole city.
We offered Mamoudou a Coke, a fleeting antidote to the sweltering heat.
He took a deep swig, crumpled his can, and tossed it into the turquoise water of the sea behind him. I may have winced.
“It’s no problem!” he said, “do this!”
He moved to grab my can and gestured tossing it in the sea.
I protested, not wanting to offend him but also not wanting to contribute to the destruction of Mauritania’s otherwise beautiful coastline.
“Is no problem!” he said.
“You drink, you smoke” – two tossing gestures – “in Africa, is no problem.”
“But what about the fish and the other things in the sea that could die?” I asked.
He gave an easy shrug.
Mamoudou had told us earlier his dream was to live in the UK. And once you’ve seen a Mauritanian wearing a balaclava and gloves in the 30 degree winter, you’ll realize what a serious commitment that is. What Mamoudou didn’t need to tell us was that the chances of him getting a UK visa in Brexit-era Britain are akin to a snowdrops chances of survival in the Sahel.
What I think Mamoudou was trying to say with his indifferent shrug, is that when a young, hard-working and educated man can’t get a visa to the country of his dreams despite speaking five more languages than your average human, that man may have more immediate problems than the lifespan of a horse mackerel that’s likely to be dredged up any second by a Chinese trawler, but of course that is just a guess.
We left Nouadhibou, and headed inland to the vast and sandy Adrar region, a place still blacklisted from many guidebooks and most certainly the New Zealand Safe Travel website. Terror attacks and kidnappings in the country between 2007 and 2009 meant flights into Atar were cancelled, and generally, tourism in the area dried up completely. Locals told us the area has been safe for some time, but the convoy of American paratroopers we bumped into seemed to think differently.
“Don’t go to Choum man, that’s where all the bad shit goes down.”
By that point we had already been to Choum, and the only act of terror we experienced was an old lady trying to sell us two cans of Coke for €10.
Driving in the Adrar, especially off-road, is surreal. You’ll find yourself wondering how there can possibly be 7 billion people on this planet when there’s no sign of a single one of them. We spent five days driving through the desert which was mostly flat and completely bare as far as the eye could see. Occasionally we’d pass a tiny settlement, with homes made out of discarded railway sleepers and a handful of people crouching in the shade. In great contrast to Morocco, none rushed to the car to ask for money or gifts, but stayed put, eyeing us warily.
One constant companion on the way from Nouadhibou to the Adrar is the two and a half kilometre long iron-ore train. It’s one of the longest in the world and chugs through the desert several times a day. Even for non-locomotive enthusiasts, it’s spectacular to see, and that’s before you notice the herd of camels strapped to the flat-deck of a car, or a flock of sheep balancing on a mound of iron-ore.
Once you’re back on the road, the efforts to draw tourists back to the region are clear. There’s a brand new tarseal road complete with shiny new signs linking Atar and Choum, along with a heavy military presence on the way to the capital of Nouakchott. The vast majority of the guards at checkpoints dotted throughout Mauritania, are without being facetious, an absolute delight. They are genuinely pleased to have you, a few of the young bucks might ask for a gift, – “un petit cadeaux monsieur!” – only to be playfully swatted away by an older superior.
About halfway down the country, just off the coast is a 100 sq/km dust cloud, and somewhere inside that dustcloud, if you can find it, is Nouakchott. Mauritania’s capital had previously been described to us as “an absolute shitshow” to be avoided at all costs, but seeing as we needed to get visas there, we had a sentence of at least a few days.
As a backpacker or overlander in Nouakchott, you may find yourself in the unique position of being rich enough for the beggars and street hustlers, but far too poor, badly-dressed or at the very least, far too un-French, to expect any kind of decent service. Almost all of Nouakchott’s most appealing hotels, auberges, cafes and restaurants are located in the same area as all the foreign embassies, so if you’re not clearly a businessperson or diplomat, you can get used to being refused entry at higher end hotels, or at the very least, being the recipient of several withering, Miranda Priestly-esque looks.
In a city where the cars, and many of the homes are in such appalling condition they appear to be held together with dental floss and optimism, it is beyond strange to find yourself on the receiving end of such blatant snobbery, but then again, the sheer mystery of what might happen next is all part of the Mauritanian experience.
The highlight of any visit to Nouakchott is the daily fish market, an orgy of colour and stifling smells. Dozens of men and boys work together to bring wooden pirogues to shore amid the crashing waves. Fish heads are lopped off at an alarming speed. Women with babies strapped across their hips sit ashore and fry up the catch of the hour. You can almost guarantee you’ll be the only tourist witnessing it all, and that is something special in itself.
Mauritania is incredibly poor, it’s polluted, almost nothing grows there, and most of the people we met who passed through said they couldn’t wait to leave, and yet the memory of Mauritania that sticks most stubbornly in my head is this.
As night fell in the Adrar one evening, we clambered up the side of a tower of sand and shale to perch underneath a layer of white-gold stars. So many stars. It was like they’d been splattered on from somewhere higher up. The entry-level art project of God or Allah or whomever had the creative foresight to will such an impressive landscape into being. Far beyond the rocky hills was a town, lights from fires winked in the distance, but the biggest light of all came from the iron-ore train, which started its slow chug towards us just as we nestled into our hole in the rock. It’s surreal, to be in a place so vast and barren, and to hear the sound of a train. The night was so still that the distant roar pushed out any other noise that might have filled the atmosphere, and even though we were hundreds of meters away, that train could have been making its way through one ear and out the other.
Nothing in Mauritania moves quickly, including the iron-ore train, and so we sat and watched as a mile long centipede of metal and rock meandered it’s way through the black expanse below. Lights teased us, blue sparks from the wheels glinting for a millisecond, the brief silhouette of a passenger as they tried to light a cigarette. We watched as the train grew smaller and smaller, until a seam opened up in the universe and it disappeared. It was as if it had driven into a giant black envelope, and for that I was grateful, for in bleaker times I could pull it out and remind myself that even in a place as strange and barren as Mauritania, there’s a bit of magic.