No mans land between the Western Sahara (Morocco) and Mauritania is a maze of rough, rocky tracks crisscrossing the land mined hamada (stony) desert. Bumping and crawling along in 1st gear for 5kms (whilst watching massive trucks and others do the same) highlights the fact that there is beautiful tar on both sides of the border posts and shows it as yet another piece of crazy governmental non-cooperation. It also comes complete with its own second hand car dealers, black market money changers and general wheeler dealers and it was easy to see how the likely stolen Mercs we had done battle with the day before had quickly changed hands (the driver of the car I had driven into at the border had shown me the Italian registration plates he was taking back north an hour after the border closed for the evening).
After clearing Mauritanian customs and immigration, buying 3rd party insurance and changing some Euros for Ouyigiya we entered Maurtiania well rested and in surprisingly good spirits given the 25 and a quarter hours (!!) it had taken us to cross the border. We quickly covered the 40kms to Noudhibou and settled into our oasis of a campsite (Camping Baie du Levrier) in the middle of the dusty town. A fantastic, clean and well run spot the owner informed us that his previous South African guests included a group led by a very memorable big bearded man giving out mosquito nets!
That afternoon we explored the tiny portion of the Park Banc d’Argin located on the tip of the Nouhibou peninsula. It’s a beautiful if strange feeling spot with small dark red sand dunes and numerous ship wrecks lining the lagoon side of the peninsula (given lax maritime laws, Noudhibou became a ship grave yard and the EU funds earmarked to be used to remove them don’t appear to have been done too much good just yet). The park has been specially created to protect the “le Phoque Moine” (yes, it is quite awkward to say aloud) – the much endangered Mediterranean Monk Seal, of which, according to the information centre there, there are only 400 to 500 left. Luckily for us, the ranger there managed to call one up for us by whistling from the top of the cliffs and it was great to see a local person so passionate about the animals that he was protecting. The Maude crew also braved a quick swim in the sea below a huge wreck placed on a sandbank right at the end of the peninsula.
Unfortunately, given the recent foreigner kidnappings in the region and the British foreign office’s continued advice “against all travel to Northern and Eastern Mauritania” we (like most other tourists) decided that it would be wise not to spend more time than necessary in Mauritania and to cross as quickly as possible. So, the next day we completed the stark but beautiful 500km black top desert drive from Noudhibou to Nouakchott. I, for one, certainly travelled very wistfully looking down the desert piste turn-offs that would have taken us to the Adrar and Chinguettii or the down the coastal route through the Park Banc D’Argin. Although the stong hot wind was inhospitably blowing the sand in lines across the road, beautiful desert scenery taunted us the whole way down – well, we will just have to come back another time! After all our concerns about Mauritania, we were quite surprised by the number of tourists and passed a few convoys of French retirees in motorhomes, banger rally vehicles and other 4×4’s. There was also a reassuring military presence and we had to stop 8 to 10 times to dish out fiches along the way.
The northern edge of Nouakchott is dotted with nomad’s temporary camps as their camel caravans arrive in town and it certainly felt like we were arriving at a frontier town. It was also interesting to see water stored in large portable (when empty!) pvc sacks at each camp. We spent one night in town, camping at the beach in an expat bungalow hotel (Hotel Sabah) next to the fishing boat port. There was more and more vegetation as we travelled south towards the Senegal River and for the 1st time we saw cows – a definite sign that we had crossed the desert and were approaching sub-Saharan Africa! The area just north of the Senegal river is dotted with acacia trees and we could just have been driving in the Kalahari.
Rather than cross the river into Senegal at the notorious border point of Rosso, we decided to cross further downstream at Diama and spent our third and final night in Mauritania at a magic bush camp on the Senegal River flood plain in Diawling National Park. The flood waters were mostly dried up but the wetland birdlife was fantastic with huge flocks of pelicans, flamingoes and white-faced whistling ducks. We also saw (and walked into at camp) many “Phacochere” or warthogs – our first mammalian wildlife. A fantastic spot, it was great to camp in relatively familiar bush surroundings and sounds.
The next morning we birdwatched our way to the border, avoided paying our Euro10 per vehicle fee to the customs official, I was instructed by the immigration official that Danielle is my “femme” not my “mari”, we paid our community tax and then bid our fond farewells to Mauritania.
It really struck us that Mauritania has so much to offer tourists and that a couple of attacks have done so much to damage its infant tourism industry. Our visit was uneventful, thank goodness, but fleeting – hopefully things stabilize soon, we would love to return to explore properly someday!