There is something about less visited countries that draws me toward them. I want to see a jewel in the rough, to give attention to the underdog. I want to see something rare, something fewer people have seen, something worth talking about, something that challenges me in unexpected ways. Due to a very low population, a brutally inhospitable desert climate, ongoing threats of terrorism from active cells in nearby Mali, and an on-again-off-again political standoff with Morocco, Mauritania is one such country.
Few people with whom I speak know much about the country of Mauritania. Even those who are familiar with the name rarely know where it is. It’s one of those countries that never seem to appear on anyone’s radar. Perhaps it’s because there is so little there. After all, 90% of Mauritania is covered by the Sahara Desert.
Or, perhaps it’s because of the extremely low population density. According to Wikipedia, not including remote territories of larger countries, Mauritania is the 8th least densely populated area in the world.
Or, perhaps it’s because it still has huge numbers of present-day slaves, even though it was outlawed a few decades ago. Active slavery doesn’t exactly elicit tourism.
Interestingly, Morocco and Mauritania have a long, entangled history. Once part of the same ancient Moor/Mauri (Berber) empire of Mauretania, the empire was eventually absorbed into the greater Roman empire before being divided into two, then three, smaller provinces. These borders now roughly mirror the current borders between Mauritania, Morocco, and Algeria.
Considering Mauritania is just south of Morocco, it was just a matter of time before I visited. I’d planned a trip earlier in the year, but plans fell through. I’d though Algeria would be first, but Nissrine’s interest in Mauritania won out.
We weren’t certain how the land border-crossing into Mauritania would go, especially since Nissrine is Moroccan (see above), so we opted to fly directly from Casablanca to Nouakchott. This way, we hoped the visa process would be easier. According to information online, all visitors are granted visas as long as one comes through the airport. Land borders, from what we read, are a bit trickier.
It was easier, yes, but more efficient, no. Everyone coming to Mauritania needs a visa, so one would assume the process at their brand new, Saudi-financed airport would go smoothly. After all, the airport was one of the nicer ones I’d been to in Africa. Sadly, though, the two men sitting at the visa desks in a cramped little office, though working as quickly as they could, took nearly two hours to issue visas for those on board our plane. I am grateful we were the only plane at the time.
Thankfully, even though we were quite late, leaving the airport after midnight, we were able to reach the owner of the auberge, despite some miscommunication about our arrival time. We were even luckier, though, that Nissrine overheard a fellow Moroccan speaking on his phone and struck up a conversation. He, apparently, comes to Mauritania often and had arranged a car. He kindly had the car take us the rest of the way after dropping him off at his hotel.
The proprietor of the auberge, Eric, is a fascinating Frenchman who has been living in Africa most of his life. He’d spent much of it as a long-haul trucker driving all over Africa. Now, married to a Mauritanian woman, he had settle down in Nouakchott and ran a nightclub for ex-patriots as well as the auberge. Though certainly quirky, he was a fountain of information and resources. In fact, he’d been imprisoned two or three times for selling alcohol at his nightclub.
Sadly, much of the information came too late. Since we had to move on to Nouadhibou and later Dakhla, we weren’t able to head inland to see some of the sites he recommended, such as Atar, were there are ancient engravings, and the old trading city of Chinguetti, Mauritania’s only UNESCO Heritage site.
We felt a bit stuck in Nouakchott. There were a couple of interesting things, but overall, truth be told, there’s not that much to do in the city. We went to the fishing port and did a bit of shopping. Nissrine bought a traditional Mauritanian wrap worn by Mauri women, called a milheffa (right), and I bought a traditional gown worn by Mauri men, called a teraya (below).
Speaking of the outfits, one of the stranger aspects of Mauritania is the significant gap between the two classes of people. The upper class, those with Arab/Berber heritage and lighter skin, hold most of the power and positions within the country. The lower class, people with darker skin and from Pulaar-speaking areas and other sub-Saharan countries, often live in abject poverty and are frequently enslaved. In fact, Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery. Depite this, it still exists. According to a CNN article, Slavery was not made a crime until 2007 and 10-20% of the population remain enslaved.
In the end, we were eager to leave to Nouadhibou (continued below) and caught the first plane we could. Had we more time, we might have taken a bus and maybe stopped by a smaller village for the night. Maybe next time.
It was a relief to leave Nouakchott and we were concerned that Nouadhibou would be similar. Thankfully, it was much more interesting. The city occupies most of a long peninsula (more on that later) and is a major shipping port for Mauritanian seafood. It also happens to be the drop-off point for cargo of iron ore carried by one of the world’s longest trains, measuring more than 3 kilometers in length.
While the heat in Nouakchott was stifling despite the occasional wind, coastal Nouadhibou was much cooler and windier. There was also, thankfully, much less sand in both the air and on the ground. Where much of the city streets in Nouakchott were covered in drifting sand, Nouadhibou’s streets were well-paved. Even the feel of the city was different. Here, it felt much more relaxed. This, perhaps, was epitomized by the presence of three restaurants which, despite a national ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol, openly served it. It was frequented mostly by ex-pats and staffed by mostly non-Muslim people from the Ivory Coast.
We were only in town for two days, so we had to make the most of it. Day one, we explored much of the city on foot, met some nice people, and had some delicious, inexpensive, fresh lobster for dinner.
Day two was truly an adventure. Nissrine was able to bargain for a taxi to take us to a place called Cap Blanc (Ras Nouadhibou) at the end of the peninsula. If you look at the image to the left, you will see that the peninsula is split down the middle. The Atlantic side is, ostensibly, claimed by Morocco/Western Sahara, whereas the bay side is part of Mauritania. Yet, to speak to Mauritanians, the entirety is theirs. In fact, the deserted (literally, in this case) Spanish village of La Guera is, from what we understand, now a Mauritanian military compound.
Admittedly, much of our curiosity was simply to visit the extreme southern point of Morocco, even if its claims are disputed. But, what began so simply became a day-long excursion, fraught with frustration. The taxi driver, though he had given a price for the trip, did not even know where Cap Blanc was or how to get there. This should have been our first clue that the day would be challenging. With me directing him via Google Maps, we began our drive south toward the tip.
After several stops for directions and a few wrong turns because of fallen or broken signs, including an awkward and abrupt stop at what ostensibly should have been the Moroccan borderlands, we managed to find our way toward the end of the peninsula. In the beginning, there was an actual road, sort of. But, as we continued southward, the drifting sand had obscured much of the way.
As we approached the railroad tracks of the aforementioned super-long train, we asked a guardian there for directions. The way became more obscured and the sand deeper. The taxi driver became more nervous and, I assume, introspective about his decision to accompany us. Finally, in an open expanse of increasingly soft sand, we stopped and decided to walk the rest of the way.
Thankfully, we did. It was truly breathtaking. We even stumbled upon a very rare species of sea lion lounging on the beach, until Nissrine disturbed his/her slumber by wanting a closer look.
The next day, we made plans to return to Morocco crossing the United Nations enforced “No Man’s Land”. Both of us were a little nervous. We had heard warnings about landmines, human traffickers, and potential conflict along the border. In the end, it was odd, but not difficult.
Leaving Mauritania by land requires passing through several checkpoints, all of which seem to do the same thing: A military man comes to the van, collects the passports of all the passengers, takes them inside his office, then returns with them and we head on our way. In our case, there was one man who was taken off the van at one of the checkpoints and we went on without him. None of this, I am pretty sure, had to do with Morocco. It has its own border process which we went through later.
After the last Mauritanian checkpoint, we enter into the several kilometer-wide buffer zone enforced by the United Nations. The area is not maintained by either side, so there is no pavement, just seemingly random tracks through the desert. It was littered with all sorts of strange items, like we were driving through a dump. Abandoned cars were everywhere as were refrigerators, tires, etc.
Once through, we could see pavement again and the emblem of the Moroccan star. Entering Morocco was much like it is at any other port of entry. The paperwork and process was the same as the Casablanca airport or the Tangier sea port.
Back in Morocco, we caught a bus and headed north toward Dakhla, but I’ll leave that for another post. (Hopefully, coming soon)
Also published on Medium.