The story so far…
In Part 1, we covered our arrival to Mauritania and our trek out to see the Shipwrecks of Nouadhibou.
In Part 2, we visited Atar, and the giant rock Ben Amira.
Now, onto the camel trek…
Chinguetti – Base for Camel Trekking in the Sahara
Imagine a Saharan town, with low buildings almost the same color of the sand that encroaches on every street and walkway where they bothered with paving. There aren’t too many people and despite a lot of the buildings being run down or abandoned there’s enough civilization to call it a town. As you move through this place you suspect that if everyone left, without the will of the people to hold back the sand, the desert would reclaim it in a week. This is Chinguetti.
There are two main reasons to come to Chinguetti, camel treks and visiting the old library. We did both. Part 4 covers our library visit in the old town of Chinguetti.
Camel Trek into the Sahara Desert
One of the things I really wanted to do during our trip to Mauritania was a camel trek into the Sahara, to meet real nomads and experience their way of life. We were hoping that Tim’s leg would be healed enough by this time for him to join me. Unfortunately it was not to be. He stayed at the wonderful Rose des Sables, a traditional auberge, in the care of the owner, Souleiman. Without him helping Tim, I wouldn’t have been able to go on the camel trek.
I was very excited when the camel driver showed up in the morning, and maybe a little bit nervous. I had signed up for not just the ride out to the oasis and back, but the overnight stay in the nomad camp. I didn’t know the distance at the time, but it turned out to be a 9 mile (approx. 15km) ride, each way. The camel guy spoke no English and my French at the time was pathetic and my Arabic non-existent, so it was a long, quiet ride.
Those of you who follow our Instagram might remember the rough-around-the-edges post I made the morning after. This is the full story.
We walked with the camels out of town. There is a ‘no riding’ rule anywhere cars can drive. When we were far enough out, I mounted the camel. He was a sturdy one, and I’ve seen what they can carry, so I wasn’t worried about my weight being too much.
There was a small problem, however. Once he stood up, I and the saddle, were listing to the right. I pointed this out before we got started and they knelt the camel down. Instead of straightening and tightening the saddle, he chose to place me behind it. While my weight was not too great, the saddle could not be secured tightly enough to not bother the camel.
I ended up sitting almost directly on the camel’s hump with just a blanket between me and his back. A blanket and rope collaboration held me in tight across my lower back and I had the wooden saddle to hold onto.
It all seemed pretty comfortable – at first.
Lunch in the Desert
After an hour, or so, of riding, we stopped for lunch at the camel driver’s home, a dim cement box lined with thick carpets in a town that wasn’t much more than a collection of partially finished cement boxes and thatch huts. I wasn’t sure quite what we were supposed to be doing, but he pulled out the familiar makings for tea. In the middle of the three cups, he tossed me a baguette and a small can of tuna. No utensils or anything else except the bottled water I had packed. His tea making was lazy with almost no foam. (See Part 2 for a discussion of proper Mauritanian tea pouring procedure.)
Okay, so I was just a job to him. Maybe he didn’t realize that I would know what the lack of foam meant. Maybe he resented having to make the trip for only one person, especially a woman, or for someone who wasn’t in great shape. Though he had to have been told, to know what size camel to bring. So now I felt a little at odds with my only guide with no way to really communicate.
I didn’t fear anything would go wrong, but I was less than happy.
After lunch and a short, but much needed, rest, we walked the camels through the oasis. At this point, I’m debating calling it quits and heading back to Chinguetti. I’d probably have to pay the full fee for the overnight camel trek, but the ride was already challenging and I wondered if I’d gotten in too deep. With my feelings about the guide, I just wasn’t sure.
Keep Going – or Turn Back?
But, I couldn’t go all that way and bail on something that I’d always wanted to do, could I? I mean yeah, I was fat and out of shape, but I could handle a camel trek for one night, right?
I thought about the camel driver and I decided to take him out of the equation. He wouldn’t actually do anything bad, so my feelings toward him were irrelevant. This was about how much I wanted to do this vs how much control my fear had over me.
When it came right down to it, I didn’t want to chicken out. I knew it would be hard, but I would be very disappointed in myself if I got this close to sleeping in a nomad tent in the Sahara Desert and I let fear stop me from doing it.
This is the key, not who else I had to answer to. I would be disappointed in myself. That should be the measure for all of our tough decisions.
So I didn’t say anything. I re-mounted the camel on the other side of the oasis and we continued on.
The Camel Ride
It was an hour and a half before my back and hips ached so bad that I called for a stop. Between the rope low on my back, and nowhere to hook my feet into to adjust my leg position (true, with or without being in the saddle), the ride was really taking its toll.
So I walked.
But walking in desert sand is not an easy thing, especially when you’re trying to keep up with a nomad who’s been walking the Sahara his whole life. I swear, he had some magic that kept him from sinking into the sand, but it was a mystery to me.
We continued on, with me alternating between riding and walking, switching when I couldn’t take more of one, or the other. It was slow going, probably painfully slow for my nomad guide.
Oh, and the scenery in the desert – tedious. I know some people wax poetic about the stark beauty of the desert, and that some deserts have colorful sand and gorgeous dunes. The Sahara, or at least this part of it, has sand, and scrub trees and a few tall grasses. And you see them over and over and over again.
After a long time, I asked him, through gestures, how much further. He just sort of waved in a vague direction in front of us. If I was having second thoughts, it was too late. We were way too far out to turn back now.
I don’t know the distance from when I asked the question, but it was close to an hour and a half before we saw the nomad camp. Despite my enthusiasm for arriving, I fell behind as the camels and their driver sped up. I approached the camp watching camel butt ahead of me. I didn’t appreciate being abandoned.
But most of me decided not to care. We had made it.
The Nomad Camp – Arrival
With no language commonality and my exhaustion, my introduction to the nomad family was clumsy and unimpressive. I had no tools or energy available to endear myself to them. I got blank and confused stares as I tried to tell them a little about myself.
Shortly thereafter, I was shown to my tent. It could have easily held 5 or 6 people but I had arrived alone and so I had it to myself. I promptly laid out a blanket for a mat, put their crinkly but firm pillow under my head and fell asleep.
I woke in the late afternoon and wandered out cautiously. No one paid much attention until I wandered over to the main living space tent. I was encouraged to sit, and I did. They carried on and of course I couldn’t understand anything. Often you can glean meaning from a conversation from tone and gesture whether you understand the language, or not.
That didn’t happen here.
They spoke with little inflection, to my ear, and few gestures or strong facial expressions. Still, I sat and observed. At one point there was a toddler who, after watching me for a while, decided I was scary. He started crying and could not be consoled. They did laugh a little at that. So did I.
Instead of carrying him off, they let him walk away on his own. I think they told him where to go, presumably to his home tent, but out where there are family and goats and camels and nothing else, kids learn to be pretty independent.
At some point I wandered off to photograph goats and the sunset before returning to the main tent.
Tea and Dinner in the Nomad Camp
The people in the living space shifted continually, as you would expect. At one point, a man in his 20’s appeared, summoned because he spoke a little English. I believe he was a son-in-law.
We chatted as best we could, and he started a round of tea. This man took his time, pouring and re-pouring the tea, time and time again, until a thick head of foam formed. He wanted me to feel welcome, and for the first time on this adventure, I did.
After the second cup, though, the elder man of the family and an adult son showed up and my special foam was gone. They had to be shown preference. I understood their rules, but was disappointed to say the least.
After a while, I was given a plate of rice. They eat from a common dish, with their hands, and they probably assume that guests would not care to do so. It could also be that as a guest I was seated with the men, but men and women didn’t eat together. The men ate first, taking what they wanted and what was left was then given to the women.
If you’re wondering, the food was not very flavorful. Salt, or a spice of any sort, would have been welcome. I’m not complaining, just reporting.
Shortly after dinner, everyone went to bed down. It was 8pm. What surprised me as soon as the sun went down was that they used flashlights to do everything and didn’t have any lantern-style devices. Having to hold a flashlight while making tea or cooking was difficult and seemed like a strange choice.
Sleeping in the Nomad Camp
Being December, I’d been warned that it would be quite cold at night in the desert and I was prepared. After the long day it didn’t take much for me to assemble a better version of a bed and go to sleep.
But 8pm is a very early bedtime, no matter how tired I was, and at 2:30am, I found myself wide awake and all alone in my nomad tent. The cold was creeping in under the edges and I was thankful for the flashlights I brought (one with a lantern option).
After a while, my body remembered how much tea and water I’d had. Even if the feeling isn’t urgent, I can’t get to sleep if I need to pee. I didn’t have a choice.
Have I mentioned that the bathroom was a sandy ravine?
Though saying something is sandy is quite redundant in the Sahara. Everything is sandy.
Anyway, I screw up the necessary boldness and courage and head out into the night, hoping the cold doesn’t make my body change its mind at a crucial moment. Flashlight in hand, I trek out a distance from the camp and take care of business, trying not to tip over the wrong way in the soft sand.
Success! And I head back to my tent. But then I remember that I’m out here with no light pollution and I look up to see more stars than I have ever seen. I find Orion and a few other constellations as well as star clusters and the like. On the romantic side, I would have loved to stay outside gazing at the stars, but it was just too dang cold, so after a bit I went back in the tent.
Of course, now, I’m too cold to get back to sleep. And, oh, I have a cell signal out here? Really?
So I goof off online for a bit and then add more blankets to my bedding and I fall back to sleep.
The Morning After and the Return to Chinguetti
The next morning was rough. I was a tired mess. I had to re-pack and then went out for breakfast, which turned out to be some tea and biscuits. Honestly, not enough to get a day like the one I had ahead of me started on.
This breakfast was left to the women and I tried to connect with them some, as the opportunity hadn’t really been there the night before. But they were very reticent. I got a little smile out of a younger woman, but they didn’t seem comfortable interacting with a stranger.
There were no goodbyes. When I and the camels were ready, we just left. The ride back to Chinguetti was as grueling and silent as it had been getting out there, and I think I spent more time walking because of the parts of me that were sore. At least the camel driver didn’t let me fall too far behind.
By the time we pulled back into Rose des Sables, I was done with the desert. Tim was all ready to greet me with excitement and happiness and all I had was grump and growl. Knowing I was coming back, Souleiman had fired up the water heater just for me. I was so thankful. It definitely rates as one of the best showers I’ve ever had.
Am I glad I did it?
If nothing else, it was an accomplishment. I didn’t let fear stop me and I did something that I’d always wanted to do.
Did I enjoy it?
Camel trekking into the desert was way harder than I’d imagined and my guide did little to make it more bearable. I’ll note that he did do a few small things, here and there. I’m not sure what was going on culturally, or otherwise, with him and I’ll fully admit that some of my feelings may have been reacting to misinterpretations. All I can do is tell you what happened and how it made me feel. I’ve tried to represent that honestly.
Unless you’re in quite good shape or have a driving desire to spend the night in the desert, like I did, go for the short route. You’ll get plenty of the camel riding experience and see as much as you need to see without all of the discomfort.
Final Thoughts on the Camel Trek
I went, I learned about the nomadic lifestyle, and some things about myself. It’s definitely one of those events I look back on with a little more fondness as time passes. I might do it again, one day, in a different place if I have some really driving goal, but it’s not high on my list of experiences to repeat.
Travel isn’t always glamorous. It can be hard in a lot of ways, but there’s potential for great rewards. Usually it’s better to have done something and had the experience, good or bad, than to never do it at all.
Experiences like this are what make life interesting.
Don’t forget to read Part 1, where we covered our arrival to Mauritania and our trek out to see the Shipwrecks of Nouadhibou.
Or, Part 2, when we visited Atar, and the giant rock Ben Amira in the Adrar, not far from Chinguetti.
Part 4 – The Old Library at Chinguetti – with video
And of course, there’s our Mauritania Photography Portfolio of our best images, many if which don’t appear in the blog posts.