Mauritania is a mystery to many travelers. While some intrepid world travelers have been visiting for years, only recently have travel warnings lightened to the point where more people are going with less hesitation. If you read government websites, you might think it’s still too dangerous. In talks with other travelers and our own experience, we don’t feel like this is the case.
There is, if anything, an uncertainty about foreigners in the Mauritania. Our impression was that while some people were very warm and welcoming, many seemed guarded in their interactions. We chalk this up to a lack of familiarity with tourists, and a language barrier. They spoke French and Arabic, and we only knew a tiny bit of French. Don’t get us wrong, Mauritanians aren’t unfriendly, but they needed a little time to warm up to us.
Mauritania is a fascinating country. Not always easy, and not always comfortable, but interesting and definitely worth a traveler’s time.
Staring Down Immigration in Mauritania
Despite coming from Morocco directly to the north, we decided to fly into Mauritania. The land route through the border has a reputation for being difficult, and it was unclear if there would be walking involved. Tim was still recovering from his broken leg, so we decided to fly into Nouakchott International Airport.
Even though Tim was not wheelchair bound at this time, it was certainly the easier, and faster, way to get him through the airport. That meant we were first on the plane, and last off. But it also got us to the front of the Immigration line. Several hundred passengers, all waiting for officers at 3 stations to process their papers at 2:00am.
The tiny office of our Mauritanian Immigration Officials contained a file cabinet, a desk with computer, a camera on a stick and a fingerprint scanner. There were two chairs squeezed between the desk and the wall. I took one, but Tim stayed outside in his wheelchair.
Two stern faced officials, one wearing mirrored sunglasses – at 2:00am, studied our passports carefully. Mauritania has visa-on-arrival so they had only those, and the hastily filled-out landing cards to look at.
Sterner faces I have never seen. When I handed over the exact €110 (€55 each), I saw the corner of one official’s mouth turn down. He looked at me, judging. If they were looking for a little extra in the fee, they weren’t going to get it here. He might have been just a little disappointed that I was prepared and informed. Or surprised. He could have been surprised. Remember, stern faces.
After what seemed like an eternity of data entry, I got my picture and fingerprints taken. I stepped out of the room and they slid Tim in. I couldn’t see how they got the equipment to reach and take his images, but they worked some tiny space magic. All in all, it was very professional.
Customs, getting our luggage and a SIM card and dealing with the ‘handlers’ at the airport was the usual chaos. Amazingly, the owner of the auberge where we were staying was waiting for us in the parking lot – at 3:00 am.
Nouakchott – A City Without a Center
Somewhere between the airport in Agadir, Morocco, and Nouakchott, the airline lost one of the rubber feet on Tim’s walker. This was his main method of getting around at the time, so finding a replacement became a priority. On our second day in Mauritania, Ahmed, the owner of the auberge, was kind enough to drive us around looking for one.
Despite Nouakchott being the capital of Mauritania, there are not many tall buildings. Main roads are paved and look a bit like US suburbia, but side roads are still packed sand that’s no more than a few months of neglect from being reclaimed by the Sahara.
Traffic is caused by poorly used traffic circles rather than any true excess of cars. Even after having been through hundreds of traffic circles, they still baffle me. I’m not sure the people that drive them have a much better idea of what’s going on than I do.
In the so-called center, near a hospital, the dusty streets were crowded with people and a few carts and shops. Never terribly busy, I have to say that this might not have been the center of the city, but it was the most populated area we saw in our time there. It was sort of the same throughout, a main paved road that was fairly busy, with the sandy side roads. Definitely a clash of old world and new. Donkey carts and camels parked on the side of the road were not an uncommon sight.
We visited several pharmacies, leaving Tim in the car because they were all fronted by stairs and bad pavement. Finally, we were directed to a bevy of medical supply stores. While several of them sold walkers, none sold replacement rubber feet.
Of course, being from the US, this seemed odd to us. If you sell something, you would generally sell its replacement parts – or someone would. But as we discovered throughout our trip, replacing and repairing things was not Mauritania’s strong suit.
One of Mauritania’s downfalls is that almost everything is imported. This not only makes things expensive, it makes them hard to find. If there’s not a significant need to make something worth importing, it doesn’t get ordered.
Ultimately, Ahmed called upon someone a few days later who set out on a search and found us an overpriced, but usable, rubber foot. It’s crackly and old but hasn’t fallen apart yet.
The Road to Nouadhibou: Fiches and Security Checkpoints
After getting everything straightened out in Nouakchott, it was time to head to Nouadhibou to see some shipwrecks.
The ‘bus’ was a 12-seater minivan, comfortable enough for a five hour ride, and they gave us water and snack cakes. They kindly moved passengers around to accommodate Tim’s bad leg.
At one point, they made us all give them our ticket receipts. Then they folded them up and put them in a bucket and held a raffle, for what we did not know (they were speaking Arabic). Lo and behold, my ticket was drawn and I got a refund of my ticket cost. Yay! (Though I’m not sure one of the employees didn’t have a hand in that happening.)
Until recently, Mauritania has had significant security issues. Even now, some governments don’t advise going there unnecessarily, but they have lightened their warnings. This is, in part, due to heightened security within the country. Military checkpoints are a regular occurrence along the main roads. The main roads are also the only ones that are paved, by the way.
Foreigners like us were required to show our passports. Originally the soldiers would have to write everything down in a log, making the ride longer for everyone. Travelers got hip to this and started printing out their pertinent travel information – documents called fiches – to give the soldiers. This was acceptable and everyone was happy. We learned that now they’ll take just a photocopy of your passport, and some bus companies will even make copies for you.
We knew about the fiches, and we were prepared – except…when we got to the first checkpoint I realized that I let them put the backpack with our passports, and fiches, on top of the bus.
They climbed up, unpacked the roof until they got to my backpack, got it down and after some digging and miscommunication, we finally got through the checkpoint. No one acted annoyed. And despite the initial delay, I think most everyone on the bus was glad that we were prepared.
In all, there were seven checkpoints of stern-faced soldiers to get through. Though none were as stern as the Immigration Officer at the airport. I always smiled when I handed the documents over and that even got a couple of these guys to think about smiling back. Though, no, of course they wouldn’t do that. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
The Shipwrecks of Nouadhibou
At one time, Nouadhibou had beaches filled with rusting, decommissioned ships. Hundreds of them. A corrupt government had taken payments from other countries and allowed them to dump their unwanted derelicts on Mauritania’s shore. An environmental mess, to say the least.
Honestly, when I set my sights on seeing a shipwreck, there was one in particular, an iconic one shown in the Lonely Planet guidebook. It wasn’t until later that I learned there were swarms of ships.
Then, upon arriving, we heard that the new government had been getting rid of the old ships. Ahmed wasn’t sure if there were any left. After a few phone calls, we confirmed there were. Ahmed set us up with a guide who knew about the ship and also acted as our driver while we were in Nouadhibou.
On reading the description of the terrain out to that iconic ship, I was concerned that the hike out to it, in the sand, might have been too much for Tim’s leg, assuming it was even still there. So I nixed that goal, and we went to a site our guide knew where there were multiple ships – and that he’d be able to drive us right out on the beach.
On that tour, we learned that our guide had purchased several ships himself, and then had them torn down for scrap metal.
The beach was a mess of trash and debris, but we could see half a dozen shipwrecks not far from shore. In varying stages of rust and decay they sat in the water. What our guide failed to tell us when we suggested a start time, was that we could have gotten much closer to them at low tide. This was definitely a disappointment because Tim really couldn’t see much of anything at that distance. We actually thought they were all the way up on the beach. Tide issues never occurred to us.
Tim managed the sand with the walker, but he wasn’t going to go trudging up and down the half mile of beach with me to take pictures, so he hung back and talked with our guide. Besides the wrecked ships, there was derelict construction equipment on the beach. At one time it was probably part of the clean-up effort. Now it has to be cleaned up.
But they’re getting there.
At the south end of the strip, I saw two men on one of the ships. I became…concerned. I didn’t know if they were doing something nefarious. Thinking I might be doing some grand, journalistic thing, I took pictures anyway. A minute later, a dog started barking and coming toward me. It wasn’t attacking, but it was alerting its owners to my presence and warning me off its territory.
Then I saw a group of men on the shore, obviously connected to the ones out on the ship. They were watching me. At that point, I was alone, too far away from Tim and our guide to be heard if I yelled and uncertain of the situation. Even though the men made no threatening moves, I decided it was time to retreat.
Afterward, I realized they were the salvage crew and there was probably nothing to be concerned about. Part of me says I should have gone up and talked to them – they really weren’t being the least bit intimidating, except in my mind. Then there’s part of me says I did the right thing anyway. Sometimes, especially being a woman, it’s hard to know.
I returned to check in with Tim and our guide, and then went to the north end of the beach for more shipwreck pictures. No dogs or scavengers here. Though a man in a yellow fisherman’s coat walked past. I was tempted to ask if he had any frozen fish sticks.
I went back to the join our party and thus ended our great shipwreck quest. An interesting afternoon, to be sure.
Our next destination was Atar, in the Adrar region of the Sahara.
There is only one way to get to Atar directly from Nouadhibou and it involves riding the legendary Iron Ore Train. It’s dirty and cold and really hard to board and disembark, well beyond our capabilities at this time. Some say it’s the experience of a lifetime, but we heard the flip side of that, too. Maybe next time.
The bus ride back to Nouakchott was similar to the one there, though this time Tim won the free ticket. (No set-up this time, just luck.)
Check out Part 2 – Atar and Ben Amira.
Part 3 covers our arrival in Chinguetti and my…(ahem) challengingcamel trek into the Sahara Desert.
Check out our Mauritania Travel Photography Portfolio to see more great images.