Mauritania has been a surprise. We had imagined a country of vast desert stretching endlessly into the distance, an Islamic republic with an inward gaze unwelcoming to tourists, an undeveloped infrastructure where we would be unable to find creature comforts. Mauritania is never talked about as a tourist destination; instead, it is a “red zone” on most Western nations’ travel advisory websites. On top of this, our stressful 21-hour drive through Sudan seemed to have left us with a slight phobia of the desert. No wonder we entered Mauritania with more apprehension than excitement.
From the moment we entered Mauritania, it has challenged our every expectation. A warm humour emanated from the border guards as they stamped us into the country. When we arrived in Nouadhibou, a fellow passenger paid for the taxi ride to our first auberge. The iron ore train seemed to be full of students – both male and female – returning home for the school vacation. The gendarmes manning roadblocks were courteous and offered us assistance with finding onward transportation, never with any hint of a request for money. The people seemed accustomed to the sight of tourists; even in remote areas we found simple but comfortable auberges and we were constantly told that “oui, il y a beaucoup de touristes!” We never felt judged or threatened or any hint of danger. And the offers of tea were numerous… so numerous, in fact, that we felt like our teeth were beginning to decay from the sickly sweet beverage.
And the landscape… The Mauritanian desert is magnificent and varied. The fields of sand are broken up by towering sand dunes, stunning canyons, and verdant oases. We visited Chinguetti, an ancient desert caravan town (and apparently Islam‘s seventh-holiest city), and formerly on the route of the Dakar Rally. The crumbling ruins of Chinguetti’s old town are famous for a 16th-century stone mosque as well as numerous libraries which hold fragile Islamic manuscripts, some made from the skin of gazelles. The town borders upon a field of sand dunes, which rise up like a mountain range stretching into the distance. We walked to the top of a giant dune, and burned the soles of our feet while running down.
The roads through the Sarahan region wind through surprising ranges of canyons and mountains. Within a red-tinged canyon, we found the oasis of Terjit, where fresh water trickles down and leaks from the rocks. We spent the day hiding within the oasis of palm trees, emerging in the evening surprised to find the rest of the world still suffering under a heavy heat. Supper was mutton, freshly slaughtered for Eid-al-Fitr and cooked on a fire. Our auberge that night consisted of an open space where we could lay down our camping mattresses. But that is all you need, in these regions.
Mauritania has thus been a disarming surprise. Within its harsh desert, there are unexpected landscapes. Beneath the intimidating turban and sunglasses, there are hospitable spirits and human faces.