Lonely Planet calls it "a place apart", "a Muslim country with a black African twist" and the new traveler's Shangri-la. With a population of only 3 million people (Moors of Arab descent ad black Africans) and with a surface exceeding 1 million sq. km, Mauritania is certainly a place we would return to sometime, well deserving more exploration.
Only recently opened to tourism, the country is still largely rural and half deserted, with population concentrated in the capital of Nouakchott, the port of Nouadibou and a few more trade towns. The nomads with their camel herds and blue and black clothing unfortunately are history, but we caught glimpses of that past while riding the south roads. There the bobo
(the mauritanian typical menswear: a cotton or silk robe, with huge folds and opened on both sides to ankle line) changes fashion, an indigo blue, reminding the blue men of the past, is preferred to the regular white or light blue. Also homes are rarely of brick and mortar and many people live or spend their day under an open or closed tent (which sometimes is actually a covered platform placed near the house).
Entry to the country is not easy in any sense. The Mauritania visa is a bit of a hassle. We applied in Rabat and got ours 48 hours later, but be prepared to face unfriendly staff and long waiting hours. The one month visa/ one entry is 340 Dh (30 Euro), and you need 2 photos, a photocopy of your passport and the form given at the embassy. Applications are received M-F 9-11 a.m. and passports are picked up daily from 12 to 13. After the smooth exit from Morocco, we rode the no man's land that leads to the Mauritanian border, a dirt road with huge potholes and sandy patches, littered with car wreckage and exploded tires. A number of "helpers" assaulted us within minutes, offering to take care of the border formalities for us, to sell insurance or change money. We calmly refused or ignored them and walked straight to the police office on the left, cutting the line as everybody does, sure that we'll get noticed. The police officer introduced our passport data into the computer using a fiche, then we walked into the building on the right, which is the customs office. There we were issued against 100 Dirham the Autorisation de circuler de vehicule etranger valid for one week. After that we walked further to the left side of the road again, into another building, where we waited for our passports to be scanned and were asked to provide with a local address. Finally, at the barrier another officer will check the passport and visa. Mauritania is 1 hour behind Morocco, so little after 2pm we were off to Nouadibou. Try to make this border in time, it closes about 4pm.
Nouadibou lies on a narrow peninsula, in the beautiful Baie of Levrier, where some of the most fish abundant coastal waters in the world have generated a big fishing and industry operation. The road to here is crossing a former minefield which has been largely cleared, you are advised though to stay on the tarmac. The tracks of the longest train in the world, that carries iron ore - a major income source here, run parallel to the motor road. The last carriage of the 2,5 km long get quickly filled with passengers and make quite the scene.
Exhausted after the long ride through blazing hot desert and a little stressed by the definite change in pace and atmosphere, we rolled into the main street of Nouadibou, Le Medien, under the strong impression of shabby garages and shops, the piles of dirt lining the street and the inevitable heat stricken dead donkey.
Confusion once dissipated, also did all sort of internet rumors. Contrary to all information we could find online, there is a working ATM at the Societe Generale bank on the main street. Roaming did not work, but cheap public phones are everywhere, and soon we were talking to our contact in the city, a Romanian family residing here for 20 years. During the following week, the Romanians proved instrumental for our initiation into the mellow, chillout life of Nouadibou. The main shops, banks and activities line the Medien which leads to the fishing and industrial ports situated in the south. East of Medien is the stadium and the artisan port (with traditional wood boats being repaired or built, fish being sun-dried and fishermen going about their daily work); to the west you'll find the fresh produce market, the mosques and the main chinese supermarket. Fishing industry and mining are the main business here, so most vegs and fruits are imported from Morocco, Spain and France. We found a mango bonanza here, savoring delicous fruits from Mali. We sampled on the fresh Mauritanian dates, just in season in Atar and the south. Not so sweet and less suitable for drying, these are fiberless and tasty.
Busy to get know better our new friends, we enjoyed a relaxing week, filled with fishing trips, a swim in the turquoise waters of the golf and with gourmet dishes. Our host cooked the most amazing meals, a fusion of spanish, french, asia, romanian and african inspiration. We ate trout ceviche, octopus spanish salad with smoked pimento, grilled camel meat, Romanian polenta, garlic squid, Senegalese tchebu chien and countless types of fresh fish fried or curried.
To the end of the peninsula we rode through Cansado, a small dormitory-town built in the seventies, housing the families of the port staff. Mauritanian women in vividly colored transparent scarves were walking the quiet streets and at corners tons of kids were playing football. Further to the south, the very tip is reached is an offroad piste. After a triangular intersection you take the first right turn, than keep right as tarmac becomes a bumpy ride, with big areas of sand and some rocky plateaus. We rode this piste without the alu boxes, but still took a small tumble and lost the safety pin of the new chain somehere along the way.
The mirage of white sand further behind the deep red ore-colored landscape is Cap Blanc, our destination.
A beautiful and tranquil place, the cape is both a magnetic field anomaly and an ecological wonder. Here sometimes birds get lost; also here the Canary current meets the golf current causing rich nutrients to infuse an extremely fish abundant water. The Satellite Reserve of Cap Blanc, with 4.2 km of coast and an area of 210 ha (including a fringe of 400 m sea water where fishing is prohibited), is one of the last 3 protected areas in the world that are home to the most endangered mammal in the world, the monk seal. The other 2 are the National Park of Banc d'Arguin and the Islas Desertas (Madeira). Our Romanian friend is one of the main people who work in the reserve. Here only about 180 monk seals live in a breeding colony that is isolated demographically and genetically. We weren't lucky to spot any seal during our 2 trips at the Cap Blanc, but we were rewarded with hoards of gulls and pelicans and privileged to see from 2 m a probably dissoriented Rupel's african vulture.
Time flew by and soon we were saying goodbye, heading for the grueling ride through 500 km of scorching desert from Nouadibou to Nouakchott. The route is dotted by over 10 police checkpoints, ensuring safety after the past attacks and kidnappings that marred it. Everybody we met told us to never stop along the way, unless at a roadside tent that serves drinks and food or at police control. The most difficult part was indeed a 100km ride starting about 150km from Nouadibou. There the hot harmattan becomes unbelievably hotter and you can feel your own skin mummifying under the suit. At less than 1 Euro/l, gas is available in Nouadibou, 45 km outside the city, than 80 km further and finally at the 250km mark, where there is also the main pit stop, with a caffe and restaurant where we recuperated for an hour. The Fiche d'Etat Civil is essential in Mauritania, saving you time and hassle at the numerous police checkpoints.
Looking like preserved lemons, we showed up in Nouakchott, where pools of water from the day before downpours were still rendering some street unpassable. The main streets are Kennedy and de Gaulle, with the market at the carrefour, where also many changers are to be found. The restaurant and street food scene disappointed us. Most places are westernized, selling fast food of fried chicken and fries, or shaworma and similar quick eats. The market is quite basic, with many imported fruits and a few vegetables on sale. Here we discovered that Guinea mango is superior to the Mali variety, with an orange and intensely flavoured flesh.
Our meal of choice in Nouakchott was the diminutive restaurant Chez Astou, where Astou herself serves everyday from 2 to 4pm a spicy thcheb, the national dish of Senegal. To find this not so spotless but yummy and authentic place, take left from de Gaulle at the grand market, then again left.
Tchebu chien is a rice and fish dish, with fish fried with spices, then curried with vegetables, while the rice is hydrated over the cooking vapor, then finished in the pot. We become friends with the family, discussing recipes and enjoying strong green tea prepared with great artistry by the Astou's father. According to the Mauritanian custom, one must accept the first 3 glasses of tea, but the subsequent ones may be refused.
Hedi is 25 and she helps her sister at the restaurant
Center image is Babs, one of the girls' brother, who runs a Senegalese shop and plans to go work in Burkina or Mali
If you miss the 2-4pm tcheb interval, you can still pass by the restaurant, where in the evenings Astou serves sandwiches of baguettes with a beef stew, hot sauce, fries and salad for only 300 ouguiya. At the outskirts of the city we saw similar shops with senegalese food, but we didn't try them.
In Nouakchott we bunked at Auberge Menata, where we placed our tent on the roof and spend the days walking the streets or riding around. The must see in the capital is the fishing port (port de peche). We arrived there after driving through a maze of decrepit shanty towns (bidon villes), some still flooded. The tarmac stops in front of a large covered area called etalage de poisson, where fishermen unload the days catch or where other men are cleaning the fish. The image of the wooden fishing boats riding the waves in the afternoon soft light is what captures your eyes. It's a spectacle from another time, animated and colorful. Women and children are sitting on the beautiful clean beach resting or watching the show. On the sides are already arrives boats, piles of nets and weights, fishermen in rubber boots, wooden cases filled with crushed eyes for the fish and lots of people. Too bad we were a bit paranoid about freely shooting photos.
From Nouakchott we drove the 600 km to Kiffa in one day, an exhausting ride that left me weakened and dehydrated, so instead of leaving the next morning to Ayoun el-Atrouss, we had no choice but to spend 2 nights in Phar du Desert, a scruffy but very expensive auberge.
Hitting the 20k mark.
This part of the famous Route de l'Espoir is all tarmac, passing over 18 police checkpoints and the Pass de Djouk, where mountains interrupt the seemingly infinite dunes. In Kiffa gas is only available in one place and the next station is in Mali. 12 km outside Kiffa the tarmac stops and the road is a work in progress with multiple detours, which in some places are full of baking powder (so really challenging for our 2up fully loaded Tenere), but after 40-50km the road turns back to a potholed tar.
People in Mauritania are hard to get close to. We found the street vendors more friendly and honest in Nouadibou, whilst in some southern villages at every stop at gas stations hordes of kids surrounded us aggressively. Sometimes the begging becomes demanding, and sometimes they threw rocks at us. We were actually warned that kids can be more dangerous than adults. Many Senegalesa reside here, selling homeland articles; also Guinea and Burkina nationals are employed by Mauritanians or expats as servants or cooks. The society is strictly confined to a cast system and the two ethnic groups (black and white Mauritanians) rarely mix. Girls are not allowed to leave their home until they get married, around age 16, to a husband selected for them, and who seldom is a cousin. Outside big cities women dont go to school after age 12-13 and rely on men for food and housing. A men will offer his sister a room in their home and food to eat, and a married daughter can continue to live with her husband in her parental house. The bride's parents receive 2-3000 Euro for the wedding party. Men clothing is both functional and a social statement, the apparently simple bobo can cost hundreds of Euro. Women are draped in brightly colored clothing, that can be quite transparent, but do cover their hair. Mauritanian men greet each other with even more elaborate rituals than their neighbours in Morocco.
Food in Mauritania is not a big event. Aside from senegalese women selling sandwiches, muffins, biscuits and small donuts, street food is nonexistent. In Nouadibou seafood is avalable, while in Nouakschott fast food are predominant. Snacks of peanuts and Adrar dates are offered everywhere. Fresh produce is imported, meat is available at scruffy butcher stalls. Bread in Mauritania is the french baguette.
Bottled water is selled in epicerie shops at 200 Ouguiya/ 1.5 l bottle. The general level of cleanliness is not great, the Kiffa hotel being the worst of the bunch. After seeing the kitchen there we strongly advice you to source your own food. A local treat is camel meat and fat, delicious grilled. A strong green tea is served after a meal, with first 3 glasses obligatory. Coca Cola and Marlboro are huge stars here, and most people dispay serious tooth decay (they clean their teeth with a special twig, sold by street vendors).
We never bushcamped, and heard that police doesn't allow tourists to drive at nightime. SIM cards are available countrywide at 2000 Ouguiya from Chinguitel or Mauritel. We haven't bought a modem for Internet, and in Menata Auberge we used the hotel wifi connection.