The obligatory desert trek with camel caravan across the
Sahara. Tourists come to Mauritania for its desert, and its
hospitable Saharan culture, unspoiled by mass tourism. There are
signs of upcoming spoilage though in Atar, the principal basetown for
French package tourists, so if you were thinking of going sooner or
later, then go sooner.
The stone mosque in the desert outpost of Chinguetti has been inscribed
as a UNESCO world heritage site, along with the numerous medieval
manuscript libraries also in the old town.
Mauritania is almost all desert, and one of the poorest countries in
the world. However, a discovery of offshore oil two years ago, in
addition to recent price surges in iron ore, has led
to the World Bank rescinding of its debt cancellations, much to the
consternation of Mauritanians. Oil is no sure panacea of poverty,
we have seen in other sub-Saharan African countries like Nigeria or
Equatorial Guinea, but I have more faith in
the more community-minded Arab cultures to distribute the proceeds more
Legueilla Oasis, one of the popular endpoints of the 12 km (feels like
7 km) camel trek from Chinguetti. Prosperous date farming draw
seasonal workers from all around the region, and pays for motorized
water pumps. One of the surreal experiences we had was being
invited for tea in the nearly empty tent of a bedouin and his
daughter. At the end of the tea, he whipped out a pack of fancy
high-tech antibiotic pills that some other tourists must have left him
ages ago, and asked us how to use them. With his very poor French
and my poor arabic, I'm not sure we helped him at all, but we left him
some more useful knickknacks.
Camels rest up and look for chow on nearby dunes in preparation for the
next day's return trip to Chinguetti.
Oddly enough, one of the main objectives of adventure tourists in
Mauritania is to ride the iron ore train, the 2nd longest train in the
world and designed to bring iron ore from mines deep inland in Zouerat
to the port of Nouadhibou for international export. Seats in the
rundown, chaotic passenger cabin (on the left) are not expensive, but
some hardcore travellers choose to climb into the free iron ore wagons
(on the right). Heading inland, these cargo wagons are empty, but
it gets really cold in there at night. Life in the
passenger cabin is more pleasant. We were offered tea by our
neighbours who had a mini-gas burner, and around midnight the young men
on board got together and started singing and playing drums.
We're crossing another iron ore train heading toward the coast with
cargo (and sometimes farm animals standing on top of the mounds of iron
ore!). The route follows the southern border of Western Sahara
more or less. Tourists always alight at Choum after a plodding 14
hours onboard, and need to wait for 4x4 transport onward to Atar.
It was tempting, however, to have accept the invitation by our
neighbours to continue all the way to the mining town of Zouerat.
One of numerous shipwrecks off the coast of Nouadhibou, a coastal
region also renowned for seabirds.
Another kind of wreck, but this one actually still works! Its
owners were terribly reluctant for tourists to photograph this
fishmobile but I snuck this one in quickly. By the time it left
the fishing port of Nouakchott, no surface space on the Peugeot was
left unoccupied. Later we passed it while driving back into the
city. Mauritania is known for buying old cars and many tourists
drive their cars down from Europe via Morocco to sell in
Mauritania. The next country down, Senegal, has tougher laws
governing used car imports, banning vehicles older than 5 years from
<>The very colourful fishing port at Nouakchott has a lot of
similarities with the al-Hudayda fishing port in Yemen (see pictures in
Yemen page) and it makes a lot of sense once you learn that the
original arab colonizers in Mauritania were in fact Yemenites.
This also explains why Hassaniya, the Arabic dialect in Mauritania,
resembles very closely the dialect spoken in the Arabian peninsula, and
very different from the Maghrebain dialects spoken in north Africa on
the other side of the Sahara. In the second picture, the man is
not puking but performing his late afternoon prayers.