A cavalier travel booking took me to the country of Mauritania in December 2020. My decision was as brilliant and beautiful as the people and places I encountered there with the added adventure of speeding across sand dunes and catapulting myself into a hopper car on the Mauritania Railway.
The Pandemic had the best of me and after my wonderful trip to Namibia with Trekkup, I was determined to keep travelling to countries that would take me (and my growing count of negative COVID-19 tests and travel quarantines) away from the monotony of working from home, grocery deliveries, and the sedentary car in my parking garage. During the UAE's National Day holidays, I signed up with five other intrepid travellers; Mattia, Aishah, Mahmoud, Sophia, and Dan to seek adventure and explore the Saharan country that only three years earlier was known for the odd tourist abduction(s) along its borders with Western Sahara and Morocco. Someone provided me with a 2017 intelligence report that I read enroute to Morocco that made me second-guess the booking – But all that has changed with rigorous border patrols. Now intrepid tourist are increasingly discovering an adventurous route across the Sahara: The Mauritania Railway.
Before I take you on that wild train ride, I found that Mauritania offers much more in peculiar, adventurous, and fascinating places than just the sand of the Sahara.
Our journey crisscrossed the northwest part of the Country; guided by Abdul. He dressed in a daraa, a traditional blue garment that was inherited from the tuareg people; dyed with indigo (you can read more about it in The Blue Men of the Sahara, a BBC article). He was an excellent model in many of our photos. Abdul's knowledge of his country, along with our drivers keen guidance through the Sahara desert, took us from Nouakchott to Atar, Chinguetti, Ouadane, Choum, and Nouadhibou.
In Chinguetti, two curious young women followed us through the labyrinth remaining from the second-oldest village of Chinguetti that we explored. After we exchanged smiles for some time, I asked her for a photograph and captured one of the most beautiful images that I have taken.
As we drove through the endless sand dunes, our drivers miraculously parked at the tiny Oasis de Tanouchert where we were invited to a traditional tea ceremony by the family who lives there. I'm still baffled that they found this place in the vast desert dunes without GPS. As soon as we arrived, the adults, mostly the woman of the home we visited, seated us in a tent on carpets with a few bolsters and pillows for a tea ceremony. The children waffled between disinterest and mild curiosity about the tourists who dropped in on them. This young girl, with her expressionless stare, stayed in the tent where we were offered tea and dates; simply observing the entire affair.
Chinguetti | A city that moves with the sand
An eery fate awaits those buildings constructed in Chinguetti – a city that's always thinking of the next move: There are at least three iterations of this town in various stages of being overcome by sand. All that we saw of the oldest part of Chiguetti was the mosque that has largely fallen out of use and a few other stone structures – I speculated that a couple were still occupied when I saw the colorful laundry hanging outside to dry.
In the next section of Chinguetti, we walked between the city walls and looked over a labyrinth of uncovered pathways and roofless rooms. It's navigable and the mosque in this section of town is still used. In Mauritania, five ostrich eggs on the the top of a minaret mark the cardinal directions and a fifth reflects the sun in a particular direction toward Makkah.
We only saw the modern town from a distance as the sunset on our way to our guesthouse. A strip of trees indicate what the entire region used to be – a fertile savannah. We saw cliff drawings in nearby crags with giraffes and cows grazing the landscape with people tending them. As the sky darkened, the lights on the horizon indicated a small enclave of people still inhabit this desert town to welcome travelers, mind the important libraries, and farm what they can; but many have left the drifting sands in search of better opportunities.
Before Mauritania was a Roman province in North Africa, the region was known as the Land of Chinguetti and the city was a trading center on the route that Muslim pilgrims would take to Makkah. In fact, UNESCO identified the Ancient Ksour of Ouadane, Chinguetti, Tichitt, and Oualata World Heritage sites for their cultural significance as religious and trading centers.
Chinguetti | The Libraries
Part of Chinguetti's religious importance can be found in the Libraries of Chinguetti – hidden behind some of the doorways of the town. We were privileged and a little lucky to spend some time with a librarian, Abdullah Habbot, as he cracked open some dusty boxes and pulled out some extremely dated books in his collection. Chinguetti's importance on the route to Makkah means that he is a keeper of many ancient religious texts. I was surprised that this library also included many books about science and math. Seeing the careful geometric lines and symbols neatly printed or drawn on delicate pages reminded me that geometry and many principles of mathematics were founded in Mesopotamia and the Arab world. Part of the reason I moved to the Middle East was my love for Islamic design that is an artistic representation of those geometric discoveries, so I was fascinated by this connection of math, art, and religion in the books we saw in Mauritania – linked together by the religion of Islam's annual pilgrimage route to Makkah.
For more information, The Washington Post has a beautiful pictographic story about the librarians and Libraries of Chinguetti called, Mauritania's ancient libraries could be lost to the expanding desert.
The Tea Ceremony
We experienced many Mauritanian tea ceremonies along our route; the most memorable in the Oasis de Tanouchert. After driving across endless sand dunes, our drivers intuitively knew where to stop at this small refuge in the desert. A family invited us into their tents and we rested on a luscious carpet while the tea was carefully prepared by pouring sugary tea water from a small pot on the stove to cup to cup to the pot and back again – until just the right amount of flavor and frothy foam formed on top of a tiny serving of tea. This was repeated until we all had enough (and then some).
More important than the tea, it's apparent that these ceremonies give time to hosts and guests: Time to rest and time to talk.
The Richat Structure
Also, called the Eye of Africa, the Richat Structure, a mysterious geologic feature in the middle of Mauritania is best seen from space – NASA's Earth Observatory will give you a brilliant view of what I'm talking about. Although the formation of this place had multiple creation stories, it's now commonly, and scientifically, thought to be a dome that has eroded away to leave a ring of mineral-laden layers that stretch across a diameter of about 40 kilometers.
Suffice to say, that visiting a place that is scalable to outer space doesn't look quite as amazing when you're seeing it up close from our earth-bound human perspective. Despite our lowly terrestrial view, there was a special feeling about standing in the middle of something bigger than ourselves. The igneous and sedimentary, multicolored rocks we found were other-worldly and were formed with bullseyes and waves in the middle of them, along with fossils, interesting textures, and fascinating designs. On our way out of the Richat Structure, some women and their kids were selling some stones from around the area.
When I think of visiting a Saharan country, my mind goes to shades of brown and orange sand. Yet, as in most every place on Earth, humans find a way to distinguish themselves rather than camouflage themselves in their environments. From cloths to packaging and household items and boats, I constantly saw the colors of civilization around us. It broke the monotony of the desert and beckoned us to experience Mauritanian hospitality in those enclaves and cities. Perhaps more than anything else, I came to appreciate color in Mauritania is a symbol of hospitality.
Seeking Adventure on the Mauritania Railway
Everyone does it – I mean, those who need to transit across Northern Mauritania. A few trains a week tow a passenger car where you can book a ticket to squish in with other honest passengers for the 12+ hour ride. But the others, the rest of us, seek adventure as stowaways atop the iron ore as it travels from the mines to the sea port on the Mauritania Railway.
Our group waited for this creaky iron machine in the town of Choum. Since the schedule is uncertain, we spent the day with a family in the village. They brought us to their school, let us play games with their kids, and sang songs to pass the time. Around 9pm we got a call that the train was on its way, so we made our way toward the tracks with our gear for the night ready to be quickly loaded. We prepared for a short three minute stop to select our railcar, climb in the hopper, hoist up our gear, and arranged blankets over the iron ore for a more comfortable ride.
We didn't wait long before one of the world's longest trains slowed to a stop. Our guide found a suitable car and we commenced our embarkation. Since I was sick during the day, I was the weakest to climb aboard first. They gave me a coveted flat spot at the bottom of the mound of iron; although, most of the night, I had everyone's feet slouching into my side. This stop was about 10 minutes long before the engine lurched forward and we slowly departed Choum. With my head and face covered with a balaclava and goggles, I slept uncomfortably in my iron cradle. We stopped several times during the night at various depots across the desert. I popped my head over the rail car's edge as we crept by Ben Amira; the world's second largest monolithic rock (after Uluru in Australia). Even at night, I could see it's shape under the moonlight.
It's in these moments, when I feel anonymous to the world, that I experience an unforgettable moment. The leading left corner of our railcar was reserved for our toilet. I got up in the middle of our journey when everyone else slept to use that corner. I also took some time to stand in the front of that car, feeling the forward momentum in the mild wind on my face and listening to the wheels churn against the track while the cars wobble along under their heavy loads. My eyes were fully adjusted to the dark and I could see desert dunes and the train snake endlessly to the horizon. I felt free.
In the morning, almost exactly 12 hours after we departed Choum, the train made its first slow stop in Nouadhibou, the port city where the iron ore would be emptied into container ships. We made a swift escape from our dusty overnight accommodation; covered in black ore residue. Disembarking at the same time we saw the other passengers who snuck on board; many with styrofoam bins. These businesspeople load up their bins with fish from the Port Artisanal in Nouadhibou and ride the train back for fresh fish deliveries in the desert.
As for us, our drivers arrived in perfect time to collect us and we headed to a motel to wash up and rest.
There was so much more to this adventure seeking trip to Mauritania. The country may be an unusual tourist destination, but the culture, people, history, food, and landscapes provided endless unforgettable and adventurous experiences. One of my fellow travelers, Mahmoud Al Ali compiled a video of our entire journey across Mauritania here (Instagram).
The Mauritania Railway and Other Tales – This trip to Mauritania in December 2020 and was booked through Trekkup Dubai. This blog is not sponsored.
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