The story so far…
In Part 1 of Shipwrecks to Camel Treks – Navigating Mauritania’s Highlights, we told you about the heavily monitored road between Nouakchott and Nouadhibou and the quest to see the majestic but rusting hulks of doomed ships, dumped by governments and corporations when they were no longer useful.
After returning to Nouakchott, we set off for the Adrar, a highland natural region of the Sahara Desert. The 6-hour bus ride was more sparse, only one stop with any real substance. And even that was barely a strip of civilization. Knowing that Tim had a bad leg, it would have been real nice if they’d parked near the bathroom, but it wasn’t to be. It was one of those stops where Tim was lucky to be a guy, and I decided I could hold it.
Our destination was Atar, an ideal spot from which to launch our adventures into the desert.
Atar is sandy city of 25,000 people. It’s dry and hot and gave just a small preview of some of the challenges we would run into as we dove deeper into the Sahara.
We stayed in a wonderful place called Bab Sahara. It’s a popular base for overlanders in this region and with good reason. The owners, Leoni and Justus, a couple from the Netherlands, are absolutely wonderful. The place has a range of accommodations and prices, wonderful food, and now, thanks to me, a lovable house cat named Perky (who recently had a couple of kittens). We’re not getting paid to say these things. It simply turned out that Bab Sahara is a respite and a delight in this challenging land, and they are awesome.
Anyway, the center of Atar is a 10-15 minute walk from Bab Sahara, including some hilly terrain. So when it came to going into town, I was on my own. If Tim had come along, the trip would have taken at least 30 minutes and stressed his still-healing leg a little too much.
The first couple of trips into the city, I got a lot of attention. Not unusual, but the question is always whether it’s because I’m white, a woman alone, or just a foreigner in general. People were cautious, and a bit hesitant.
In fact, on my first walk in, it was a holiday and all the kids were off from school. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but my strangeness had attracted their attention. At first it was curiosity as they started to gather in a crowd. I could feel they were wound up from being off for the holiday. Then one kid threw a small rock at me. I, and another nearby adult, called them out and put a stop to that real quick. The incident definitely put me in a sour mood that day.
However, that was the only bad incident with the kids. As time went on and they got used to seeing me (I always greeted them if they were staring at me), I ended up with a miniature fan club. One day I even had an escort back to Bab Sahara, a different kid holding each of my fingers.
And my proudest moment of getting to know the kids came when a group of boys who usually played football (soccer) in a sandy lot, came over as I was walking out of town. They kept their distance but were smiling, and a few shook my hand when I offered it. Somewhere in that, it became a game of tag and we were having all sorts of fun. I don’t think they were used to adults joining in their play, and especially not the big, old foreign woman. They stopped when I indicated I was tired and we parted on smiles and laughs.
Mauritania is definitely a male dominated society. We saw very few women outside the realm of their home. The groups of students were always male, the shopkeepers and pharmacists were mostly male. Except for a couple of food vendors, women were rarely in business situations and not highly visible on the street.
I bring this up because after a couple of visits into town, one young man who was helping me add money to my phone’s SIM card started to say something about the hat I was wearing confusing the storekeepers. I don’t dress traditionally female, and that seemed to be an issue, though he tried to say it wasn’t. Indeed, the next time I went into town, I left the hat behind and things went a lot smoother.
The center of Atar is made up of a barely used traffic circle, a couple dozen produce carts and a handful of useful shops that branch off into the surrounding streets. Don’t bother going to the restaurant listed in the Lonely Planet guide. Despite its prime location on the corner and the implied menu choices, all they have are disappointing chicken sandwiches that will take 45 minutes to acquire.
The BIG Rocks of the Sahara Desert: Ben Amira and Aïsha
There are rocks, and then there are ROCKS. Ben Amira is a giant rock that rises 2076ft (633m) from the ground. It’s Africa’s largest monolith, considered second only to Australia’s Uluru in the world. The catch? Geologists think Ben Amira is actually LARGER than Uluru if you take into account the portion of the rock beneath the Saharan sand.
Aïsha is a slightly smaller rock off to the west of Ben Amira. While it doesn’t quite match up in size, it more than makes up for it in artistry. In 1999, a dozen artists of international fame celebrated the millennium by carving into the boulders at the base of Aïsha. They etched deep into the stone creating animal shapes as well as abstract. Some of the artworks are installation pieces that go beyond the boulder’s surface and use multiple stones in specific configurations to create their effect.
While this can be an overnight camping trip, we opted to make it a long day trip out of Atar. It requires a sturdy 4×4 because once you leave the main road, the dirt track will bounce you around like lotto balls in a cage. Desert driving is a special skill. I noticed that while we followed the tracks where other trucks had traveled previously, our driver didn’t drive IN the tracks already made.
Off-roading this way is a lot of fun!
The route took us through Choûm, one of the stops for the infamous Iron Ore Train. We crossed the tracks. Fortunately they were empty. This train is 2.5km long, the longest in the world. Whew, what a wait that would’ve been, though an awesome sight I’m sure. After a quick stop with security (see our discussion of fiches in Part 1 of this article), we were on our way.
We stopped to photograph Ben Amira. Honestly, it’s sort of like you’re getting mooned by a giant rock. Tell me you don’t see the same crack I do.
It wasn’t until we got to Aïsha that we set up for our picnic lunch. Our driver found some branches, made a fire and made us foamy nomad tea in the shade of a scrubby desert tree, while fighting the gusting desert wind. It’s not always so windy, we’re told, but it is November and winter is at our feet.
The winter wind was also responsible for running away with my hat, the one that had gotten such an odd reaction in Atar. I chased it down, laughing the whole time. And let’s just say the wind was so great that while using the facilities, (behind a bush), it was vital to make sure we were facing the right direction.
We drove back and took a closer look at the sculptures. I thought they were going to be full 3D renderings, or at least relief-style carvings, but I don’t think the artists had that kind of time. Stone carving is a very slow process. Most of the designs are etched into the surface without changing it dramatically. Though they did use the boulders very creatively, choosing images that complimented the stones they carved. Some of the artists moved the rocks around, thus creating an art space with little, or no carving. Those evoked the feeling of ceremonial sites and places of reverence.
We headed home, as we came to call Bab Sahara, and the ride back was fun, but enough hours on the rough track is tiring nonetheless. The driver stopped and made us tea once again while he checked the air pressure in the tires. Three cups, as always, gave us a chance to stretch and breathe.
If you’re heading into the Adrar, don’t miss Ben Amira and Aïsha. It’s a fun day trip, definitely worth your time and energy.
In Part 1, we covered our arrival to Mauritania and our trek out to see the Shipwrecks of Nouadhibou.
Part 3 covers our arrival in Chinguetti and my…(ahem) challenging camel trek into the Sahara Desert.
Don’t forget to check out our Travel Photography Portfolio for Mauritania.