Although the route south from Dakhla heading into the rest of Africa has always been a playground for overlanders, Mauritania still remains a little more than a transit stop between the better-known attractions of West Africa. It took me a while to convince Rochelle to cross that border and pay a visit to this mystery of a country. Her worries of course were not without a reason and had to do strictly with security, as the country was notorious in the past for kidnappings and terrorist attacks against foreigners.
It is such a shame because Mauritania has some tremendous secrets to reveal. I traveled with a friend back in 2009, in my West Africa quest and although I just rushed through, I did get a good vibe about this country and always wanted to come back and spend more time here. Back then, with only a 2WD drive car, I didn’t even attempt to step off the main road and into the Saharan sand, something that was about to change this time with Voukefalas.
The question that most of you will ask at this point is: Why should you come here? One thing is for sure, Mauritania is not a place for vacation. Come prepared to face the real Africa with its poor but impressive cultural diversity population and with one of the continent’s most harsh land, as 75% of the country is covered by desert. Is that all? The answer is no. At the same time, get ready for some real adventure that lies ahead. There is unparalleled scenery, epic sand dunes, eye-popping plateaus, ancient caravan towns and Africa’s biggest monolith waiting for you to discover. The choice is yours but if you just breeze through, you will surely miss out on a truly incredible country. The best tip to remember is that no one in Mauritania is in a rush, so you shouldn’t be either. Be patient and the country will reward you.
In order to reach Mauritania, we needed to cross the no man’s land (about 8km of sand) that separates Morocco from Mauritania. It is renowned for its notorious mine fields placed by the Polisario Front, back in 1995. Nowadays the area is controlled by the UN but that hasn’t stopped the violent incidents between the two fronts. The moments of silence in the car proved that there was stress building up and after that first shock, we both quickly left it behind and moved forward into completing the border formalities on the Mauritanian side.
Then we took the road to Nouâdhibou, the country’s second biggest city. With the new tar road connecting the Moroccan border straight to Nouakchott, Nouâdhibou, which is no bigger than a fishing port, has lost much of its status as a traveler’s destination. It’s a good base, though, and a great introduction to the new country, with a setting that is appealing and the world’s longest train crossing straight through it. It is a 2.500 m long mining train that is a sight to watch as it carries coal from the desert to the coast. With enough time on our hands, we decided to give it a go and spend one night here, in a camping where I had stayed back in 2009, owned by Mr. Ali, a figure that is hard to forget once you get to know him. Ali’s campground has been a stopover for overlanders for decades but as Nouâdhibou is fading in time, the same seems to happen to the Baie du Lévrier, Ali’s campground, that wasn’t hard to recognize as it was just as I had left it back in 2009.
The fresh climate of the city and Ali’s hospitality were a great introduction to REAL AFRICA, at least for Rochelle. So the next day we took the long, hot, straight tar road that leads you through the desert into the capital. These 480km seemed to last forever as we got caught in a sand storm that made the area look even more scary and hostile than it already is. With the empty coastline on one side and the absolute nothing on the other, we pushed through with only a few stops at the army roadblocks that were slowing us down for a quick chat. Don’t get us wrong, they were really friendly and helpful soldiers that gave us a sense of security through the whole route. Our next stop was the barely 50 years old Nouakchott that has to be one of Africa’s strangest, ugliest and most unappealing capital cities we have ever seen. In our attempt to explore the so called beach that stretches in front of the city, we were faced with dirty, polluting factories and fish product industrial areas.
It was a huge slap bringing us face to face with Africa’s poor conditions of living and the survival techniques that these people need in order to make it through the day. Back in the actual city, another surprise was waiting for us as the city’s urban planning is nomad style. That means that the city is simply plunked down 5km from the coast, as if on an overnight caravan stop and left to grow by accident. Although we tried to find some positive aspects, that was not possible and after two full days the conclusion was that the capital is defiantly not the highlight of the country. Nouakchott is sleepily idiosyncratic (also laidback and amazingly safe) and we could do nothing else than treat ourselves to a comfy guesthouse to park and camp, followed by a meal in a basic restaurant.
Two days later and as Africa slowly started settling down in us, we took the road for the undoubted jewel in Mauritania’s crown, the Adrar region. This is where the epic Sahara has on display the great desert in all its variety; ancient Saharan towns, mighty sand dunes that look sculpted by an artist, vast rocky plateaus and mellow oases fringed with date palms.
For desert lovers, the Adrar region is a must. Here is a tip though; the region’s main hub, Atâr, is nothing to write home about. So unless you are interested in arranging local tours, organize camel rides or 4WD trips into the dunes, there is no need to spend time here. The large roundabout that stands and marks the centre of Atâr and the market is probably all you need to see to understand that it is time to move on. At least that was the case with us. So after some basic supplies, we moved to Azougui, a tiny village around a main sand drag. Here the highlight was the local children.
We are not sure if we amused them or if they amused us but they hanged around our tent and we spent our time playing with them in the beautiful dunes that surrounded our camping spot. This was when Rochelle felt the real beauty of the African culture and a turning point.
Next up was one of the most attractive of the ancient caravan towns in the Sahara, Chinguetti. This two-street town is shrouded with ancient Saharan historic aura. The town was once famous for its Islamic scholars. It was the ancient capital of the Moors and the last stop of the caravans before the long journey to Timbuktu. We found out that some buildings still standing here date from the 13th century.
The highlight of any visit though is a wander through the labyrinthine lanes of Le Ksar (Old Town). The principal attraction is the 16th-century stone mosque (no entry to non-Muslims). Also make sure to pay a visit to one of the five old libraries, which house a plethora of ancient Islamic manuscripts as well as scientific books that were kept in almost perfect condition from the dry desert climate of Chinguetti. I couldn’t help myself feeling proud of my heritage when we came across some books that had Greek mathematic equations from Pythagoras. Rochelle made fun of that as she claims “The Greeks were everywhere”.
Our camp owner, Mr. Mahmout, mentioned that Chinguetti rubs shoulders with Erg Warane, It is Mauritania’s biggest stretch of dunes, an area that meets even the most demanding overland traveler’s expectations of the great Saharan sand ocean. In case you wonder if we went dune bashing, yes, of course we did and yes, of course we got stuck. With the help of a local, we did manage to get out using desert grass as we had no Max-tracks.
A great tip added to our off road experience in the overlander’s quest. Back in Chinguetti, we found a new gang of kids. Of course we amused them as they amused us over a quick football match for me and a couple of photo sessions for Rochelle with the young girls. It is one thing that is the top highlight in all of Africa; kids that play with you nonstop!!!
We thought that we had seen it all but Mauritania always has more. So we moved to our next stop, Terjît. We have never visited an oasis quite like Terjît, about 40km south of Atâr, where palm groves pop up creating a small forest in the side of great red cliffs. We had read that at the forests head, two springs tumble out of the rocks. One is hot, the other cold, and they mix to form a natural swimming pool, the perfect temperature for a dip. Unfortunately the main spring has been taken over by Auberge Oasis de Terjît, where a mattress in a tent by the trickling stream is on offer.
Although that part was not exactly what we had pictured in our mind, especially Rochelle that even took her swimming gear, our small campsite made up for it. Camping between the cliffs and the dunes definitely rewarded our effort to get here. It was simply a bliss spending time here but it was time to start our course north because in a month or so we will be shipping our car to Australia and we needed to reach the UK. So off we were, back to Nouakchott and then to Nouâdhibou, only this time the weather was on our side and the exceptional desert views paid up while our camera was trying to catch every single moment of the unique life in the African desert. After a total of ten great days, we said goodbye to Mr. Ali and took the road back to Western Sahara and the Moroccan border.
Our return was a bit smoother (two hours only) than our exit (four hours) on the border formalities. After we were scanned clear in Morocco (our drone was never found) we drove all the way back to Dakhla, where we had the car serviced at almost 6:00 pm o’clock and only for 55 Euros, something that would have cost us minimum 300 back home.
That night we slept in a parking lot, just outside the city, which about 120 European campers have turned into an informal camp ground. It was another place to add in our list of odd places to stay in, though our trips around the world. With Christmas coming up though, we decided to fast track our Western Sahara crossing and head back to our favorite spot in Mirleft. Except the great fresh water hot shower (we were talking semi salted showers throughout Western Sahara) and some of the best pizza, we were rewarded with a very interesting Christmas party among elders from France while dancing the night away to all the 80’s hits. Next was Agadir that feels unlike anywhere else in Morocco. It is the country’s top destination for sun, sand, pubs and pizza, while for us it was nothing more than a quick pit stop to repair our windshield that got a small crack while crossing the Western Sahara. As the villas, fun parks, golf courses and development projects colonizing the coast around Agadir were too crowded for our taste, we pushed a bit more to the north.
Here we could find sandy empty coves every few kilometers. After spending a couple of nights there, we moved to Essaouira, the city we picked on our way down to celebrate the New Year. As I mentioned in our previous post, the charm of this place is that although touristic, it hasn’t been entirely taken over. Therefore the picturesque kasbah, with its narrow alleys and the magnificent ocean views were worth our time here, while 2020 found us in a local bar, celebrating with a rather international crowd the beginning of the new decade. After a week of rest and a detailed cleaning to remove the Sahara sand that had literally taken over everything we owned, our course north brought us back to our familiar Marrakech, in order to visit a friend, Casablanca to visit the Grand Mosque and finally to Rabat.
The country’s capital, although crowded, gave us a calm feeling that you cannot find in any of the other imperial cities. A walk through its Medina, as well as its souq, can be a great experience to get the city’s tranquil rhythm (rare for a capital) without the need to escape every time a local salesman pushes you to buy something. As you can imagine, Rochelle picked this place to do all her last minute shopping. So after a couple of long hours of walking around the shops, we retreated to the beaches further north, near Kentira.
As a final destination and before the end of our African quest, we picked the idyllic fishing village of Moulay Bousselham.
It is a tranquil place with a sweeping beach (empty for most of the year), friendly people, good fish restaurants and an impressive, internationally important wildfowl reserve. A great place to spend a few days, with little more to do than strolling along the beach and eating good fresh fish from the camping’s restaurant, served directly to your tent. Moulay Bousselham is named after a 10th-century Egyptian saint who is commemorated in one of the koubbas (shrines) that line the slope down to the sea, and guards the mouth of the river. Moroccans seeking a cure for psychological problems are locked into the tomb for 24 hours.
Across the river is also the shrine of Sidi Abd el-Galil, believed to cure sterile women.
Somewhere here our African adventure came to an end. After spending our last morning in Tangier, we drove the last 70 kilometers in the African continent, boarded the boat and crossed back to Europe. For our adventures there, as well as our crossing to Australia, you will need to wait until our next post.