– visited April 2016 –
„They let you starve, but they also let you speak.” This is how one of my fellow passengers in the shared taxi from the border to Nouâdhibou sums up Mauritania. It is a poor country, the landscape mostly barren, without a nearby water supply, there is little life in these lands.
Nouâdhibou is located on a peninsula that is despite its narrowness cut in half between Mauritania and Western Sahara. With about 120,000 inhabitants, it is the country’s second-largest city. It feels like a very provincial town. The harbour is interesting and I peak over the wall of the football stadium. The artificial grass is the only green around. I ask a fruit seller if I can take a picture of his stall. I frame the picture so that he is in it. As he notices, he objects: “Not me, just the fruit.”
I stay at the Camping Baie du Lévrier which is in the centre of town. I could pitch my tent in the sandy courtyard but as the rooms are only slightly more expensive, I take one. I am the only guest. In the evening I sit in the open kitchen of my accommodation. Two cows enter the courtyard. They have a look around, find nothing of interest, and leave again. The Café Pleine Lune (Full Moon) seems to be one of the best houses in town. The food is French style and delicious. The café is full, there is a Champions League quarter final match, Atlético Madrid is playing Barcelona. There are plenty of young men watching. I am the only person eating something. As the game is over and everybody leaves in a hurry, no empty cups, glasses or bottles remain on the tables. There is much desire to see the game, but little money to have a drink.
Nouâdhibou is connected by railway to the iron mines in Zouérat, 670 kilometres to the east. That is the only railway line in the country. In Europe, railways form a network, linking cities and countries. In most of sub-Sahara Africa, railways are single lines running inland from the sea, to connect a source of raw materials to a port. The freight trains, carrying iron ore to the sea and going back empty, can be as long as 3 kilometres making them some of the longest and heaviest trains in the world.
I’ve been told the wrong departure time and am at the station three hours early. There is a station building, but there are no platforms, there are just the tracks in the mixture of sand and gravel. The train is pulled by three locomotives and is still going full speed as it enters the station. After several minutes of passing train the breaks engage and the train comes to a rumbling stop. At the end of the train is one car that looks like a giant cage, two cars whose purpose I do not understand and one car for passengers. The rules are simple, if you want to ride in this car, you need a ticket. On top of or in the freight cars you don’t. Women and children are mainly heading for the passenger car, many of the young men climb onto the train somewhere else. For some tourists the train, and especially the option to ride for free on one of the freight cars has become an attraction. It is one of the situations where a very unpleasant journey is romanticised as an “experience”. The train goes through the desert, during the day, it can be unbearably hot and at night it can become cold very quickly. Nothing in the desert keeps the warmth. Riding the freight cars is dirty. Very dirty in the empty cars on the way inland to the mine, dirty beyond imagination in the cars full of dusty iron ore in the other direction.
It is not a nice journey; the passenger car turns out to be an old Dutch car and if you are my age you might still remember them from your youth. Each compartment outfitted with six comfortable seats that could be pulled into the middle to essentially create a sleeping area. In the Mauritanian version the seats are long gone, raised platforms on which the seats had once been mounted are all that remains. The windows are long gone either, but if this makes you dream of a train with open windows, light and airy with the wind blowing through, you are mistaken. Metal plates have been welded onto the window frames with only little slits remaining. It is darkish inside the car. And it is crowded, with many families occupying a whole compartment. We leave Nouâdhibou at 4:30 P.M. and ride into the night.
We arrive in Choum at 3 A.M. in total darkness. There is no station building, and the only lights are provided by a few cars that had been waiting to pick up passengers. A few police officers were one the train, one of them left the train with me and told me to come with him. We follow the train for a bit and suddenly he takes a right turn and says we need to go this way. It is dark where we are and dark in the direction where we are heading to. He could take me anywhere. I ask where we are going. Communication is difficult, my French has room for improvement and I have the feeling his is not much better. I understand he is searching for the local police station. We reach a small compound that is not marked (at least not recognizable to me) by anything. He bangs at the door. Nothing happens. He does not seem sure that this is the station. We head to some other houses, we are lost. The train is blowing its horn and not for the first time. With the characteristic rumbling running through the long train, it sets itself in motion.
My officer will not proceed with the train, he will remain in Choum until the next train passes 24 hours later. We can’t find the police station in the darkness and there is no one around. I tell him I have a “fiche”. He likes that, no need to go to the police station anymore. I give him one my “fiches” and we go further into the town, I should rather say village, towards a place where some light is visible. We arrive at a small square where several jeeps are waiting. Yes, they go to Atar. They seem ready to leave but tell me they would go later, not now. Ok, I’ll come with you. You have to go with the flow in such situations. There is nothing you can do anyway so it is best to take cues from the locals. I get out my sleeping pad and lie down in the sand to have some more rest. After a good sleep of an hour, we leave for Atar shortly after 4:30 in the morning. I sleep most of the way, the journey of 110 kilometres takes nearly four hours.
I head to one of the hotels described in my guidebook. I need information. The Auberge Bab Sahara, with its spacious garden that looks like an overlander’s dream, looks deserted. But I am lucky, someone shows up and even has a connection to Chinguetti for me. We approach a checkpoint. As the officer in charge realizes that there is a foreigner onboard, he exclaims “fiche, fiche”. I hand him a paper and we move on. The landscape is beautiful, barren desert and becoming more mountainous as we approach the Adrar Plateau.
My driver brings me to the Auberge la Rose des Sables (Hotel Sand Rose) telling me it would be a good place. I am received by an older man. He is very friendly but he does not look healthy. The whites of his eyes are marked by jaundice. His hands are trembling. He shows me a room. The room is simple but okay, the price is low but I am somehow feeling that I might want to have a look at other places. I politely decline the room. He lowers the price immediately. That was not my intention and as I realize that he is desperate to have some business. I take the room.
My hotel is in the newer part of Chinguetti and the walk towards the old town is, to be honest, painful. Once a touristic centre, Chinguetti is hurting and it is plain to see. All the hotels I pass look empty and deserted. UNESCO recognized Chinguetti lies at the edge of the desert and was at the centre of several trans-Saharan trade routes. The indigenous Saharan architecture of the old town features houses constructed of reddish dry-stone and mud-brick techniques; the flat roofs are made from palm trees. Many of the older houses feature hand-hewn doors cut from massive ancient acacia trees, which have long disappeared from the surrounding area. The streets are narrow.
The Stone Mosque is not a grand building but very beautiful with its square minaret capped with five ostrich egg finials. The old town has five important manuscript libraries of scientific and Qur’anic texts, with many dating from the later Middle Ages. Unfortunately, there are so few tourists that the libraries are only open by appointment. I am lucky and stumble upon a small group of tourists as they enter into one of the courtyards. I poke my head in and am warmly welcomed by Saif, the custodian of the library. You shouldn’t expect a library as you know it. The simple room is filled with shelves and these are filled with white boxes that contain the manuscripts. Saif gets a few out. I have no clue what these manuscripts are about, I cannot understand (nor properly read) the language they are written in but I have a deep respect for these texts. Once Chinguetti had been a centre of learning and people devoted great efforts to these books. To write them, to collect them, to read them. And most of these books are small, tiny stepping stones in the endless quest to make this world a better place.
The library has a historic lock. The key is a wooden stick with a few pieces of metal sticking out. Inserted into another piece of wood, the key makes the difference between being able to pull that piece of wood out and to be able to open the door or not. I struggle to handle the lock but in the hands of the custodian the lock behaves as it should. Saif emanates that warmth that comes from really enjoying to show others the wonders of the world.
In more recent decades, the tourists came to Chinguetti for the historic sights and for the desert. They would travel overland making Chinguetti the first or last place after/before the endless sands. The beautiful dunes reach to the city limits, some houses have already been abandoned to them. The tourists don’t come anymore because of insecurity. I am in a red zone, all Western governments caution against travelling to Chinguetti. In fact, they warn against travelling to all of Mauritania. You should only go for essential trips to the coastal part of the country (orange zone), and you should not go at all to the areas closer to the Sahara, the red zone. The locals consider this as very unfair and I agree. There is no question that a danger larks in the desert but in all of Mauritania there has been no incident for two years. In this time, you were safer in Mauritania than in China, Canada, the United States, Israel, Australia, France, Turkey, Denmark, India or the United Kingdom. But if a travel warning is stuck on a poor country, it stays there. And it really hurts when one of the few sources of income is breaking away.
I feel safe in Mauritania although you rarely know if a feeling is true. There is a fair number of police checkpoints and this is why the police officer left the train with me in the early morning in Choum. He wanted to make sure I was safe. I have never encountered a “fiche” before. It’s the French word for a card or a sheet and in the Mauritanian context it means a piece of paper with a copy of my passport, my visa and a few more details like my intended route. I have prepared about 20 copies and I am handing them out at checkpoints frequently. Some of the officers note the number of the car, that I am travelling in, on the fiche thereby creating a record of my movements. In case of need they would have a few people to question.
The jeep leaves Chinguetti in the very small hours of the morning. In the heat, travelling in the darkness has advantages. I make a deal with the driver of the shared taxi to Terjit, I am lucky one is going, that I can leave my bag in his car while going on a walk in Atar.
Mauritania is like a retirement home for old Mercedes’s. But instead of an easy life these pensioners have to work hard. And they are battered, showing their use, but still running. At a stream along the way, the driver fetches water to refill the cooling system and douses the whole engine with water. Before we enter the village, he deflates the tires, sand will come soon enough.
The landscape is beautiful. Flat-toped mountains on all sides fall steeply into the valley. As we approach Terjit the number of trees rises and the mountains are closing into. Terjit is an oasis, a spring that flows from the mountains and allows palms to grow in the otherwise barren landscape. Wikipedia says it is “popular with Mauritania’s few tourists.” I can confirm that. The spring is nothing spectacular, you can wade into the water, home to little fish, and if you are determined you can get most of your body underwater in the shallow pool. I spend a few hours reading in the shade and in the afternoon hike up onto the plateau. Having left the spring and its life-giving water behind it is all barren rock.
I had struck a deal with someone for accommodation after I arrived but I didn’t actually see the place. It costs only a few euros. As my host leads me to the Auberge en Tourvine I realize I have made a good choice. My tent, with its comfy bed is situated on a rocky outcrop overlooking the whole valley. It’s high up in the competition for the most beautiful place I ever slept at. I enjoy my food at the small table with the grandiose view. By now night has fallen and the stars are visible.
My guidebook aptly describes Mauritania’s capital: “The city is unassuming and seemingly unplanned, as if on an overnight caravan stop it was left to grow by accident.” Nouakchott is kind of an accident. Mauritania was colonized late as riches were expected somewhere else. It became an official part of French West Africa in 1920 only. The territory of Mauritania was administered from the (nowadays) Senegalese city of Saint Louis. Nouakchott, nothing more than a small fortified village, was chosen as capital as Mauritania was heading towards independence (1960). Independence has not always been kind; Mauritania was and is poor and backward. Slavery was formally abolished in 1981 only, the last country in the world to do so. NGOs insists that in some parts of the country, slavery informally still exists. Politically, Mauritania has seen several military coups, the last one in 2008, only eight year prior to my visit.
Nouakchott is only a few kilometres from the sea, but far away as the town is in no way making use of its near sea location. The harbour is something separate, a few kilometres away. Nouakchott has a few paved roads, all else is sand and gravel. It is hot, it is dusty. I can think of few other sights than the Saudi Mosque (named for the source of money for its construction) or the Moroccan Centre (named for the source …). I like the road named for John F. Kennedi and the cheery guys wanting to know what I am doing here.