Mauritania - Undiscovered North African Gem

Time was when to talk of Mauritania travel would conjure up mental pictures of luxurious trans-Atlantic voyages in the great Cunard liner of that name. That’s a long time ago now and there are probably very few folk alive now, if any, who remember the actual ship even though they may have heard the name.

Like as not a great many of us don’t even realise that Mauritania is actually a real country in the north of West Africa and therein lies a very good reason to go there. It’s off the beaten track of tourism and so travel in Mauritania, whilst not always easy, still brings you into contact with the real country and its people. It has an element of adventure about it that’s so often missing from modern life.

So what’s it like, this North African gem that’s usually described as being in West Africa? Well most of it lies within the Sahara Desert but it’s not land-locked. It’s wild, unspoilt coast is backed by Saharan dune fields on a grandiose scale. Sand is everywhere, not just in the dunes. There are ancient cities well worn by the scouring sand laden winds.

You’ll find incredibly deep canyons and towering plateaus, vast seas of sand bigger than some countries in Europe with numerous delightful oases like islands in the ocean. The Atlantic coast, where sand dunes meet ocean is a magical place. Miles of sandy beaches and nary a resort to be seen, just natural land and sea-scape. It’s likely to stay unspoilt too since most of the coast lies within the Parc National du Banc d’Arguin which incidentally is regarded as one of the finest places in the world for bird watching.

You’ll find plenty of historical interest in Mauritania. A scattering of historic caravan route towns, remind us of the region’s ancient civilisations. In terms of culture, Mauritania stands apart. The people are of either Moorish Arab descent or black African, almost equally divided. It’s a mainly Muslim country with an unmistakeably African touch. It’s an intriguing mix which only adds to Mauritania’s appeal.

If you fancy something active there’s plenty there for you. Trekking of all kinds is available. Camel rides through some of the most surreal landscapes anywhere are another option. Travel in Mauritania doesn’t have to be by camel though. Hot air ballooning is a fantastic way to experience the amazing terrain without having to actually drive over it, except to get back at the end of the flight of course!

So, what do you need to know about Mauritania and whereabouts in North or West Africa is it? Taking the second question first, Mauritania shares borders with Morocco, Mali, Senegal and Algeria. It has a population of only 3 million in a land area of 1,030,700 sq kilometres. The currency is the Ouguiya(UM) and earlier this year one $1US would buy UM226. The principle languages spoken are Hassaniya (A variety of Arabic), French, Fula, Wolof and Soninké. The climate of Mauritania varies between hot in November through to March, and very hot the rest of the year. The capital is Nouakchott.

You may recall the ancient and historic cities mentioned earlier, well Nouakchott is the least ancient of them all. It was built when the country became independent in 1960. It sits five kilometres from the coast and is a sprawling, unplanned sort of place and travellers mostly use it as a staging post on the way to other places.

Unattractive as Nouakchott may seem it does contain several places that are well worth a visit, notably the Port de Pêche. Go in the late afternoon when the fishing boats come in. Then there’ll be hundreds of men in teams dragging in the heavy fishing nets while little boys scurry to and fro carrying trays of fish and sorting, gutting and filleting the fish which they lay out on trestles to dry in the sun. It’s a fantastically lively and colourful experience you really shouldn’t miss.

Then you’ll want to visit the Adrar, the real jewel in the Mauritanian crown. This is the region where you’ll find what appear to be giant sand sculptures which turn out to be huge sand dunes sculpted by the desert winds, lovely oases where you can relax after your travels beneath a Moorish tent.

Located in the Adrar are the ancient caravan towns of Chinguetti and Ouadâne. Chinguetti was the capital of the Moors in ancient times and has buildings dating from the 13th Century. It’s one of those places where you can almost feel the history around you.

There’s so much more to be said about Mauritania but that’s just a taster for you. Travel Mauritania and see for yourself. It’ll be different from anywhere else you’ve been to.

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