Driving through the vast, sun-bleached landscap of Mauritania, you’d be forgiven for expecting to see a tricked-out post-apocalyptic hot rod from Mad Max: Fury Road on the horizon. Instead, a solitary, turbaned figure tending a herd of goats tells the story of survival amidst millennial-old geological forces. Mauritania, with one of the world’s lowest population densities, is almost equally divided between Moors of Arab-Berber descent and black Africans, a striking cultural combination that is part of its appeal.
There’s no doubt that Mauritania has some of the continent’s grandest scenery. The Adrar region offers up epic sand dunes, eye-popping plateaus and green oases, plus Africa’s biggest monolith. The TagÃ¢nt has similar charms, and both hide ancient (and World Heritageâ€“listed) caravan towns Chinguetti, OuadÃ¢ne and OualÃ¢ta. Millions of migratory birds winter along the coast at Parc National du Banc d’Arguin and the expanding capital Nouakchott is where modernity takes root in the desert.
One of the more attractive of the ancient caravan towns in the Sahara, Chinguetti is shrouded with a palpable historic aura. It was once famous for its Islamic scholars, and was the ancient capital of the Moors; some of the buildings date from the 13th century though according to mythology, its original founding is recorded as 777. Chinguetti butts up against Erg Warane, Mauritania’s biggest stretch of dunes, and more than enough to meet expectations of the great Saharan sand ocean.
The highlight of any visit 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 of great interest are the five old libraries, which house the fragile-as-dust ancient Islamic manuscripts of Chinguetti.
The Adrar is the undoubted jewel in Mauritania’s crown. It’s epic Saharan country, and shows the great desert in all its variety: the ancient Saharan towns of Chinguetti and OuadÃ¢ne, mighty sand dunes that look sculpted by an artist, vast rocky plateaus and mellow oases fringed with date palms. For desert lovers, the Adrar is a must.
Sitting on the edge of the Adrar plateau, 120km northeast of Chinguetti, Ouadane is one of the most enchanting semi-ghost towns of the Sahara. Like Chinguetti, Ouadane was a place of scholarship and is home to over 3000 manuscripts held in private libraries. Only 20 to 30 families still live in the old town.
Parc National du Banc d'Arguin
This World Heritage listed park is an important stopover and breeding ground for multitudes of birds migrating between Europe and southern Africa, and as a result is one of the best birdwatching sites on the entire continent. It extends 200km north from Cape Timiris (155km north of Nouakchott) and 235km south of Nouadhibou. The ideal way to approach the birds is by traditional fishing, best organised from the fishing village of Iwik.
Other Places Of Interest
Port de Pêche
The Port de Peche is Nouakchott’s star attraction. Lively and colourful, you’ll see hundreds of teams of mostly Wolof and Fula men dragging in heavy fishing nets. Small boys hurry back and forth with trays of fish, which they sort, gut, fillet and lay out on large trestles to dry. The best time to visit is late afternoon, when the fishing boats return. Before or after, it’s no less an impressive sight with the pirogues crammed like sardines on the beach.
Do not swim here or nearby, there’s a strong undertow and people drown every year. Otherwise, it’s pretty safe as long as you’re vigilant and sensible with your possessions, although people can be sensitive about photography.
Stretching along the Baie du Levrier in the middle of a narrow 35km-long peninsula, the fishing port of Nouadhibou marks the end of the road in many respects. The rail line from from the interior ends. The country’s northern border is a few kilometres away. Shipwrecks are marooned in the waters south of the city. From the air, the divide with Morocco, mostly empty desert bordering the Atlantic, is stark.
The city itself sprawls north to south; mostly low slung buildings, paved roads petering out into sandy pathways a few blocks from the main artery. Often bypassed by travellers making a dash to the capital or to the Adrar, its sleepiness is its selling point. North of the centre, the Baie de l’Etoile resembles a mini Banc d’Arugin and a destination for intrepid kite-surfers. Daily life â€“ the call of the muezzin, afternoon football, joggers hugging the coastal road â€“ feels close.
Réserve Satellite du Cap Blanc
A small nature reserve with an excellent information centre, dedicated to the colony of endangered Mediterranean monk seals (phoque moin) that live here. Resembling elephant seals, these grey-skinned animals were hunted since the 15th century for their valuable skins and oil. The protected colony here of roughly 150 seals is one of the last on earth (less than 500 worldwide). The colony is at the foot of the cliffs; you have a reasonable chance of seeing them swimming offshore.
The reserve is near the lighthouse at the southern tip of Cap Blanc. To get there, cross the rail tracks near the fenced-in SNIM refinery on the edge of Nouadhibou; the piste (track) is sandy and sometimes rough for the final 8km. Also near the lighthouse is the spectacular wreck of the United Malika, a cargo ship beached on a wide sandy beach and looking all the world like the set of a Hollywood movie.