Following our refreshing bucket of warm camel’s milk, we dozed on carpets and cushions in the shade as Kebab’s sisters poured tea back and forth between tiny glasses in the Sahelian tradition. Around lunchtime we came to life and along with our new pal Jacob took a pickup track out of the small town of Atar and back into the desert. After a few miles of plains with nomadic looking settlements and plenty of scrawny looking camels, we started zigzagging up the side of a mountain to a pass – scenery straight from a wild west movie. I was imagining we’d descend down the other side but it seemed that we’d risen to a plateau upon which we continued, passed the obligatory police checks (by now we’d photocopied our passports and handed them a sheet, rather them to painstakingly copy every last detail as we waited) towards Chinguetti.
Chinguetti: ancient Saharan caravan town, the seventh holiest town of Islam and once famous for it’s Islamic scholars. It’s now a mostly ruined collection of stone buildings and mosques amongst a vast sea of sand dunes stretching as far as the eye can see. Exactly what one might expect from the Sahara.
First we had to pass through the new town – a collection of concrete shacks, shops and camels. Most places in Mauritania, including Nouakchott the capital, barely look any different to the nomadic tented settlements that must have preceded them. On the other side of a sand valley lay the old town where some people still live in the ruins and some newer buildings have been built. We went to several hotels, Shaun and I picking an attractive French owned place, Jacob going for the more basic option. We wish we hadn’t bothered – aside from the attractive decor and lovely garden there was little to recommend. Surly bored staff, no tea offered (even the humblest abode provides enough until you’re sick of the stuff), mosquitos and near European prices. The next day we moved over to Jacobs where the concrete box room was perfectly comfortable (and mozzie free), the owner welcoming and friendly and constant offers of food and drink.
The big issue in Chinguetti was lack of tourism. There were a number of hotels, all empty. Then there were quite a lot of highly persistent ladies with trinkets, usually carrying a skinny baby and clearly desperate for a sale, which makes for an uncomfortable experience when wandering around. Two ladies saw me hanging out my freshly washed socks in the hotel garden (they dried in 3 minutes) and greeted me across the fence.
“Where’s your wife?”
“Senegal, not here.”
“No wife in Mauritania? Now you have one.”
This wasn’t what I’d imagined in the seventh holiest city of Islam. It seemed that aside from anything else, they were really interested in the financial support that a man might bring and by the time Shaun and I walked out of the gate, a full scale market had been set up with several women vying for our attention. “Later, later” we said and went on our way.
Over the course of the next couple of days we ended up buying a number of odds and sods that weren’t strictly necessary, including a white turban (that Khady bagsied as a new head scarf), dates and a traditionally painted tea pot. We were hungry, the first hotel said they didn’t serve food (at all) and the guide book said there were no restaurants. This was untrue as we saw several but most of the trinket ladies would invite you to their houses and cook whatever you wanted (as long as it involved tinned fish, rice, onions and tomatoes).
A nice young lady made us tea, cooked up the fish and tomato sauce into which we dipped hunks of bread and then started drumming on a sauce pan and chanting. Every so often she’d throw back her head, roll her eyes and let out a shrill cry whilst warbling her tongue – in a manner similar to the Malian Tuareg rock band Tinariwen – if you’re a fan, or want to know more, check this:
In fact, it was around this time that their former manager, and one of the founders of Timbuktu’s Desert festival, Andy Morgan, shared on social media that if he could go anywhere on holiday, it would be the Little Baobab. He’ll be welcome.
So, why is there less tourism? Recession in Europe, less people travelling on their way to West Africa given fears over ebola. Fears of terrorist attacks and danger. Every Mauritanian that we discussed this with was at pains to explain that Mauritanians were good people and any problems were with other nationalities. In fact, I haven’t heard of issues involving tourists in Mauritania since about 2007. Anyway, I explained “we’re English our government don’t pay ransoms to terrorists so why would we worry – we’re worthless to them. It’s the French and other nationalities that need to be worried.” Strangely, Shaun wasn’t reassured.
We had a wander around to an attractive old mosque built from red rocks and then into one of several old Islamic libraries. The caretaker gave us a tour in French – I was happy to realise I understood about 70-80% – showing us old artefacts, doors that were opened with keys that looked like toothbrushes except they had nails instead of bristles and the library of ancient books that he flicked through with gloved hands.
As we left, the sun was setting over the stone town and we returned home for a very deep sleep – so deep that my face became a feast for the mosquitos.
The next day, after changing hotel, Jacob, Shaun and I wrapped our heads in white turbans and headed to the dunes. Feeling like Lawrence of Arabia we marched further and further, taking in the curves of the deep yellow sand against the bright blue sky and the sea of sand that stretched as far as the eye could see.
After an hours walk we arrived at an old mosque amidst the dunes and a village of grass huts.
That evening, Shaun and Jacob played chess. After about ten minutes, Jacob had won his 2nd or 3rd game. I’m not that good, Jacob had told us “but I do teach chess and used to play for England – a long time ago though…”