The signs of withdrawal were weighing heavy in my driver’s eyes. He needed his fix. So the first nomadic encampment we passed through after several hours driving through the salmon-pink dunes, he pulled over. Our 4WD scattered bleating goats and hobbled camels.
As always, a nomad woman was ready. We removed our shoes and stepped out of the desert into her tent. It was festooned inside with patchwork rugs and from the tent’s dark recesses were the watchful eyes of her many children. A primus-stove soon flickered into life as she fished dried green leaves out from a see-through plastic bag. It was time to write the day off.
Whoa there! What were you thinking? Mauritanians are addicted to nothing more than sugary mint tea. Life revolves around it. They can’t go a few hours without their beloved brew before getting the shakes. The ritual of preparing and drinking it can take hours. So much so that travelling in Mauritania is a lesson in going nowhere slowly.
‘Mauri … where?’ was the general response from friends when I told them I was visiting this vast Saharan nation. Although virtually anonymous, Mauritania is actually surprisingly close to the UK, just south of Morocco. I entered the country from one of its nightmarishly grim cities, Nouadhibou, located on the country’s Atlantic seaboard. Taking time out before boarding Mauritania’s only train, I visited Nouadhibou’s remarkable ships’ graveyard of rusting trawlers and tankers marooned at high tide.
After 10 hours spent aboard the groaning iron-ore bogeys of a 3km-long train heading for Zouerat opencast mines, I was dropped off in the true Sahara, near Atar on the Adrar Plateau. It’s here that my desert adventure really began. People are a rare commodity, so there’s virtually zero public transport and roads are little more than vague tracks of hardened sand. I hooked up with Mohammed ould Dah, an Arabic- and French-speaking Moor, and his 4WD.
Tourist attractions are as scarce as blades of grass. We visited several of the Adrar’s ancient and rather deserted oasis cities, Chinguetti is renowned for its fabulous underground libraries bursting with flaking Korans and centuries-old books etched by Arabian scholars, while Ouadane is a crumbling Berber city harking back to 1147. Built on a lonely bronzed escarpment, few of Ouadane’s once imposing buildings remain standing, but evenings see it recapture its majesty as the sunset scolds the ruins honeycomb-yellow. Nearby, at Tin Labbe, we took in some fantastic vertical caves said to be inhabited by troglodytic locals. This turned out to be nonsense.
To really get the most out of the country, however, you need a guide to immerse you in the extraordinary local culture. Travelling with Dah opened up the nomadic Moors’ rich archaic traditions. They roam the desert plains hustling trains of camels between the oasis and waterholes.
Yet, I quickly suspected Dah’s desire for me to experience as much traditional hospitality as possible was tinged with an ulterior motive. Once, after leaving Tin Labbe, I noticed him beginning to sweat. Nothing, of course, to do with the baking yellow disk overhead frazzling the surrounding stony desert to 40°C – in fact, it had more to do with the two-hour period since his breakfast cuppa. Fortunately, local custom dictates travellers need never pass nomad camps without expecting to be fed and watered, so we called in on a family sheltering in their traditional white cloth tent.
After exchanging lengthy greetings and sipping zrigi (camel milk and sugar) from a gourd, a tray of dates appeared and the tea began to boil in a colourful metal teapot. For 40 minutes or so, it was poured back and forth into small cups and infused with enough sugar to threaten diabetic overload. The result? A tiny mouthful of super- sweetened tea that you hurl back as fast as physically possible, before slurping loudly and emitting a long satisfied mmmmm”. This guarantees you cup number two. “First cup is hard like life,” Dah explained. “The second cup we add more sugar so it is sweet like love.” I considered preparing a will. By the end of the third cup, the day was ebbing away.
The hospitality may have been uniformly warm, but the desert scenery proved ever-changing. The broken yet spirit-level flat chunks of escarpment near the Gouremajar Mountains; ruined desert forts; 4000-year-old rock paintings near Agrour depicting grassy plains once awash with game; and mammoth dunes near Zarga where the dunes resonate musically to nehana, the hot late afternoon winds.
Yet, a week camping amid those dunes has its price. Sand invades just about every bodily crevice known to mankind. Terjit Oasis therefore provides a magical relief. The baking heat was here nullified by a film-set oasis of shady date-palms. Gentle birdsong and trickling water replaced the piercing screeches of black kites and vultures circling for easy pickings. I bathed in the refreshing water and we ate seasoned camel meat served with couscous. Sometimes tough like leather or slithery like liver, camel is revolting. But custom dictates it’s rude to say no, so you must simply grin and bears it.
That evening we strolled to another nomad camp for yet more tea. Totally impromptu, a few other herders descended upon the camp from out of the bush and music ensued. Several men belted out a metronomic drum beat on plastic water-containers, while the family’s three daughters with kohl-etched eyes sang intoxicating songs about Saharan life – they were sounds so sweet that if I wasn’t high on caffeine, it would have lulled me to sleep.
Getting there and around
Royal Air Morocco (020-7439 4361; www.royalairmaroc.com) fly via Casablanca to Mauritania from the UK. Overland travellers can pick up lifts from Dakhla in southern Morocco.
Regular buses run between the two major cities, Nouakchott and Nouadhibou. Iron ore train runs daily from latter to Choum (Atar) in the Sahara at 3pm and costs a few pounds. Once in the desert its possible to pick up infrequent yet crowded 4x4s (called ‘taxi-brousse’) between main tourist sites: Atar, Chinguetti, Ouadane, and Terjit. Allal Amatlich (+222 546-4718, email@example.com) can arrange car and driver if you want to get off track.
November to March is the time to travel before temperatures skyrocket.
Visas are required by most nationalities and very easy to obtain from the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, 8 Carlos Place, W1 (020-7478 9323).”