Having done my research on entering Mauritania from Morocco, I came forewarned, but the reality surpassed my imagination.
Moroccan exit is straightforward. Then it's 7 km of mine-ridden no-mans land before the Mauritanian border. Actually, the mines have been cleared for a few km either side, but it sounds more intrepid to ignore this fact. The road is un-surfaced for only about 3 km, and it's possible to walk, but in the heat most pedestrians take overpriced taxis.
My taxi actually cost nothing, because I arranged a price all the way to Nouadhibou, 60 km into Mauritania, but such was the delay at Mauritanian immigration that my driver gave up waiting for me.
The Mauri border is open from 0900 until 1800. The registration office is relatively painless. The visa office is the bottleneck. For 'office', imagine a cell with concrete walls, broken chairs and sand on the floor. Two men sit behind dusty computers scanning peoples' passports, taking their thumb- and fingerprints, and photographing them.
That all takes time, and a disorderly 'queue' builds up, into the open-air courtyard (much more sand). The process is made more complicated by endemic corruption, so those who pay fixers €10, or equivalent in Mauritanian money, are likely to get processed faster, since the fixers are in league with the immigration staff.
Just across the courtyard is a squat toilet full of sand but no water.
Arriving from Dakhla in a share-taxi at 2 pm wasn't the best time, as in front of me were a group of Koreans and some members of a rally team, all presumably being fast-tracked. I didn't pay extra. It took over four hours to get my visa. Then I had to go to another office to get the visa stamped, and that was that. I finally got out of my subsequent share-taxi at the Auberge Sahara in Nouadhibou at 8.30 pm.
I met some interesting characters in the 'queue', including a Japanese chap and the Spanish fellow he had met in Fez, and these two were aiming to ride the Japanese man's motor cycle to South Africa, through as many West African countries as possible. Mauritanian immigration was possibly a foretaste of what lay ahead..
The desert south of Dakhla becomes progressively more sandy such that by northern Mauritania it is often blowing, and occasionally drifting, onto the road.
The currency is the ouguiya, and there are nearly 500 to a pound. However, that is the old ouguiya, still in circulation alongside the new ouguiya, which is a factor of ten less. So, for my 2,500 ougs (five pounds) room at Auberge Sahara, I paid 3,000 ougs but only got back 50 new ougs in change. So, no scam potential there, then...
Nouadhibou ("place of the jackal") is a fishing port and industrial town of some 90,000 people, situated, like Dakhla, on a peninsula. Before independence in 1960 it was called Port Etienne.
The town is the base of Mauritania's largest company, SNIM (Societé Nationale Industrielle Minière), which controls the iron ore mines to the east, and hence the infamous railway that runs there.
Nouadhibou is a place to rest, change money and get supplies from the basic supermarkets. Baguettes are popular at 100 ougs. There are a few cafes and restaurants around, similar fare to Morocco.
Most women wear colourful veils, face exposed. Some men wear a traditional light blue boubou with white, blue or black turban to protect from dust.
The Port Artisanal is full of small fishing boats, worth a visit in the morning or evening, near the carrefour (crossroads) in the heart of central Keran district. There are hundreds of small boats, and this isn't the main port. I've never seen a place that looks, from the shore at least, so disorganised overfished. Most of the workers and inhabitants are black, some Moors but many originating from Senegal.
Despite all my whingeing, in my two days in Nouadhibou, I found the people to be the most warm and friendly so far. Ironically, after all the bureaucracy at the border, I wasn't even required to register at my auberge (unlike everywhere in Morocco) and payment wasn't sought until I offered it.
One thing that still bemuses me, particularly with regard to arriving after dark, is how strange and daunting a place can at first appear, and yet, merely a day later, it feels so familiar.
After two nights in Nouadhibou, I was ready. I bought water, bread and cheese, and took a taxi to the railway station. Share-taxis around town are 100 (20p) ougs per person, but as I was alone the 10 km trip cost 1,000 ougs (or 100 new ougs).
The first empty ore train of the day supposedly leaves around 3 pm on a good day, but this is Mauritania, and mine didn't leave until 10 pm. There is a basic waiting room at the station, but with no lighting after dark, most people went to sit outside in the sand to await the train.
The one passenger car is so decrepit (I saw the incoming train at 1.30 pm), crowded and uncomfortable, with no toilet, that I opted to hop in one of the free empty ore wagons, with three locals, going to Choum.
The moon was full, but everything was dusty, blowy and very jolty when the 2.5 km long train accelerated or braked. You appreciate how pervasive the dust is when you feel it on your teeth.
It was a tough night, and I certainly needed my Dakhla blanket. The ore wagons are nearly five feet high, above the wheels, accessed by a ladder. They like their security checks, but not their elf n safety.
We alighted at Choum, 460 km east of Nouadhibou, around 6 am and waiting there was a minibus going south, two hours to Atar, along a recently sealed road. After fifteen minutes the train continued on to the mining town of Zouerat.
On a map of Mauritania Choum is located at the SE corner of Western Sahara, the borders having being drawn with straight lines during the Race For Africa. When building the railway the French and Spanish disagreed on how the French should cut this corner with their line, such that in the end French engineers dug a tunnel under Choum hill, illustrating the madness of those times. The tunnel was soon abandoned and the route now runs 5 km overland through the Polisario-controlled corner of Western Sahara.
I found the Auberge Bab Sahara in Atar, checked into a 4-bed tent and headed for a much-needed shower.
I'd ridden the oft-touted "longest train in the World", which felt a lot better after the event than during. It was an experience, but not one I'd recommend to anyone other than a devout masochist. A bigger cynic than I might wonder why, with all the money generated by iron ore, there isn't even a semblance of investment in passenger comfort or station infrastructure.
Atar is a peaceful town near the Adrar Massif, which looms to the north-east. The street lights are solar-powered, subsidised by the Chinese, no doubt in a long-term trade-off. Donkey carts abound. Goats are everywhere. Camels lope around, chewing on trees, even outside Bab Sahara. Baguettes are sold out of wheelbarrows at the market.
Less tourists come through here than in the Sahara's halcyon days, but it feels safe. Though there are more security checks than Morocco, they are lax because most only require a fiche rather than a passport to endorse the information. Last year France dropped Mauritania from it's red list and weekly flights resumed to Atar. The ban was first imposed by Sarkozy in 2007 in response to the killing of four Frenchmen, sending tourism through the floor.
I saw no other foreigners in Atar, apart from a few Germans and French at Bab, all with their own transport, and a Polish woman who spent a night in the tent, returning to Morocco after her fifth visit to Mauritania. And at 10 pm a German chap took the third bed. He is a winter resident of Chinguetti, and kindly gave me a lift there next day.
Chinguetti is about 80 km from Atar, passing rare Meso-Proterozoic (late Pre-Cambrian) stromatolites in blue-grey sandstones, up through the red-brown Amojjar Pass and onto the Adrar Plateau, around 700 m in altitude.
The road is only surfaced through the Pass, and on top is at hard ferrous sandstone, ribbed and jarring in a boneshaking Peugot, but gradually degrading to looser gravels and sands, which often drift across the track.
The old town of Chinguetti, Le Ksar, has a famous stone mosque and five 16th century libraries, a UNESCO site. They are surrounded by small co-operative shops selling trinkets, but with few tourists to buy them, though a big group came following the Saturday flight into Atar.
Despite two fiche stops en route, no checks were made in Chinguetti, although the Gendarmerie was across the dusty square from my auberge. Perhaps they don't envisage tourists escaping, or AQIM insurgents infiltrating, through the dunes.
There are even less foreigners here in the fifty-degree celsius heat of summer. One local influx occurs in August, for the date harvest, when the town's population quadruples. The resident expat community, in winter, consists of three French people, one Spaniard and a German.
The town has a resident population of less than three thousand, having halved in the past twelve years. The desert caravans have gone and nomads get fewer every year. Dates, carrots and water don't support many people without trade, so tourism is the main hope to save Chinguetti, but the creeping desert will probably have the final say.
I stayed at Auberge Zarga, with breakfast and evening meal, for 4,500 ouguiya, about £9. Abdou has a small pet porcupine in his yard that helps clear up bugs. The tap water is drinkable, coming from wells that tap under the oasis.
Then there are the dunes, fifteen minutes walk away, or thirty to be clear of litter. The mighty Sahara Desert stretches east for thousands of kilometres, all the way to the Red Sea.
Another 90 km north-east is the old trading town of Ouadane, and another few km from there is Guelb er Richat, often called the Eye of the Sahara, a circular structure visible from space. It is thought to be a highly symmetrical, deeply eroded geologic dome rather than the result of an asteroid impact.
Time limitations didn't permit me to get to Ouadane, as this route is only done on demand, when enough passengers are accrued. I needed to push south again, and so it was a smooth 4x4 ride back down to Atar, taking just 70 minutes, at 2,000 ougs.
There were ten of us packed inside, including three kids. The other five passengers jabbered away in animated Arabic, often in two or three simultaneous conversations, talking faster than Peter O'Sullivan in the final furlong.
After another night in the dorm tent at Bab Sahara, it was a 5-hour minibus drive south-west, along the surfaced road, to the dusty capital, Nouakchott.
Before Independence in 1958, the French colony of Mauritania was run from Saint Louis in Senegal. Nouakchott was a tiny fishing village, but was chosen as capital due to it's central coastal location, dominated by neither Moors nor black Africans.
Today the city houses about a million people, many in shanty towns and some who are more nomadic than permanent residents. About a third of Mauritanians live in Nouakchott. The great growth was driven by long droughts in the 1970s, and the city's vast underground reservoir is due to run dry in about thirty years, because it isn't replaced by rainwater. The city is a microcosm of the Saharan, indeed African, dilemma, where the main growth seems to be in population and mobile phone use.
I spent a couple of nights in the dormitory tent on the roof at Auberge Menata, near to the Saudi Mosque in the centre of Nouakchott. At 2,000 ougs, this is one of the cheapest options for accommodation in the capital, and it caters to campervans as well, so it's a good place to meet other travellers.
Mauritania gets some bad media coverage. Slavery was only officially abandoned in the past few years, and supposedly lives on, as it no doubt does in many countries. Female genital mutilation and the outlawing of homosexuality are other contentious issues that raise ire.
However, on this trip I had my travelling hat on, and most people I met were very amenable. It was a pleasure to spend some time in what is a harsh and unforgiving environment.
There's not much to see in Nouakchott, apart from the beach and Port de Peche. For me, it was just a place to relax before heading further south, out of the Sahara.
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