Mauritania is the little-known jewel in west Africa’s crown - a country of exceptional and diverse natural beauty, with a rich cultural heritage to boot
Chances are, you won’t have heard of Mauritania. I certainly hadn’t, until a friend asked me to visit the country with him last year. And I’m still indebted to him for encouraging me to travel there, for it proved to be one of the most surprising and enthralling countries I’ve ever been to.
Located on the west coast of Africa, Mauritania shares its borders with Morocco, Algeria, Mali and Senegal. Like its neighbours, it’s home to vast expanses of desert – some 775,000 square miles of it (an area about three times the size of Britain). However, in addition to seemingly endless sand dunes, Mauritania also boasts mile-long Atlantic beaches, lush oases and towering rock formations.
Furthermore, the ancient cities of Chinguetti and Oudane are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the country is home to some of the world's most spectacular bird-watching in the Parc National du Banc d'Arguin, the world's second largest monolith after Ayers Rock (Ben Amera), and the world's longest train - a two-mile-long trainspotter’s dream that travels 420 miles in 17 hours.
Despite this wealth of potential tourist interest, Mauritania is one of the world's least-visited countries, with just 40,000 foreigners visiting the country each year (approximately the same number visit the Lake District every day). A former French colony, Mauritania was referred to by its early rulers as ‘la grande vide' ('the great void') and in many ways it remains uncharted territory 200 years on: there’s no dedicated guidebook to the country, its first ATM opened in 2008 and it's one of the world’s few remaining countries to have preserved a nomadic culture.
Visitors flying to Mauritania will arrive in the country’s capital, Nouakchott. The city has grown rapidly in recent years and reflects the poverty of the country – battered Mercedes lumber past donkey-drawn carts and goats on dusty roads and children thrust tacky gifts into your hands while trying to relieve you of your cash. However, locals are friendly and cheery – groups of women move like shoals of tropical fish with their brightly-coloured dresses, silver trinkets and broad smiles, while the men wear traditional, sky-blue ‘darra’ robes and smoke fragrant tobacco in delicately crafted pipes made from copper, silver, ebony and bone.
When in Nouakchott, a visit to the Plage des Pecheurs (Fishermen's Beach) is a must. The beach is about 10 minutes' drive from the city centre and is best visited in late afternoon, as the sun sets and the smell of gutted fish is less overpowering. The white-sand beach stretches for miles, teeming with industrious men in garish yellow oilskins and oversized wellingtons loading donkey carts with fish. It’s dotted with thousands of long, brightly painted boats and the fishermen sing loudly as they haul their vessels in and out of the sea. Their wives and mothers sit in the shade of the boats, descaling and filleting fish with a deft flick of a knife, gossiping all the while.
Nouakchott is not, however, the highlight of Mauritania, so you’ll want to press on with your exploration of the country. The best way to do this is to travel with a local guide and driver-cum-chef in a 4x4, staying in simple auberges in towns and Bedouin-style tents in the desert. Mauritania’s sand dunes are on a par with those of Namibia in terms of beauty but come with the added bonus of being infinitely less crowded with fellow tourists. The desert here is genuinely deserted, leaving you free to immerse yourself in its unique textures, sights and sounds.
However, desert makes up only one third of Mauritania, and there’s plenty more to explore here. Dust off the sand and spend an afternoon in the idyllic oasis of Terjit, which features natural pools formed by a river that runs through attractively landscaped gardens dotted with Bedouin tents, hammocks and basic catering facilities.
The (relatively) nearby Adrar Plateau is truly spectacular - it’s the highest of a series of towering scarps and sandstone plateaus that bisect the country. The peaks are rich in minerals and ores, which are reflected in the varied colours of the rock faces and contrast strikingly with the white-sand scree slopes. Between the peaks stretch wide, grassy plains, where camels and zebra graze in the shade of acacia trees.
I would also advise every visitor to Mauritania to make their way to the ancient cities of Chinguetti and Oudane, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Chinguetti, the seventh-holiest city in the Islamic world, was founded in the 13th century and, despite being abandoned and buried in sand for hundreds of years, much of the original architecture remains. It’s also home to the Ehl Ahmed Mahmoud library of medieval manuscripts, which counts some of the world's oldest surviving copies of the Koran amongst its contents.
Mauritania has so much to offer the few visitors who make the journey there, it’s well worth the effort required to reach it. And, while I don’t foresee 'the great void’ filling up with tourists in the near future, I would urge anyone with a passion for exploration and Africa to visit as soon as possible.
Addicted to Travel is currently the only UK-based company to offer tours to the country, with an eight-day 'Adrar Adventure' (from £1,029 per person) and the 22-day 'Trans-Sahara Great Adventure', which takes travellers from Morocco to Mali, through Mauritania (from £3,335 per person).
When in Nouakchott, stay in the central but slightly characterless Mercure Marhaba Hotel or the basic but charming Auberge Menata, which has private rooms, dorm accommodation and a comfortable public dining and lounge area.
The Auberge du Maure Bleu is a delightful, leafy oasis by a wadi on the southern bank of Chinguetti’s old town.