My most powerful personal memory of Mauritania is walking for two or three hours on a beach not far from the northern edge of Nouakchott for several hours and not encountering a single human being.
Mauritania is a very large country with a very small population. This sandy desert nation in the northwest of the African continent covers nearly 400,000 square miles (1.5 times the size of France) but has a population of only 3,350,000 people (a mere 5 per cent of the population of France). So I should not have been surprised at the vastness of the Mauritanian littoral and of my solitary presence there.
Unlike the African coastal lands in Senegal and southwards, which are highly populated areas of the continent, the beaches of Mauritania are virginal and not yet blemished by tourist resorts. Occasionally one will find the small fishing village. Ecotourists will be delighted to discover that a large section of the coastline has been dedicated to nature and protected as a national resource, and one of these areas, the Parc National du Banc d’Arguin, is considered one of the finest bird-watching preserves in the continent.
I am Senegalese myself, from that lovely coastal nation just south of Mauritania, and I have often visited Mauritania since childhood as my father was in the mining business and Mauritania’s economy is highly dependent on extractive industries. Since I don’t drive, on my last trip I took a so-called “bush taxi” from Dakar, sharing it with five others, for a fee of six thousand CFA francs (equal to about twelve American dollars). We crossed the Senegal River at Rosso, where a ferry took us to the other side. Our destination, of course, was Nouakchott, the transformed fishing village on the Atlantic that became Mauritania’s capital city in 1957, with independence from France.
You can still see nomadic tents in Nouakchott, along with the new mosques and government buildings that international aid programs have helped to build, and you can also see the ever-present Saharan sand, wave upon wave of sand, encroaching on city streets and public spaces like some great tsunami from the limitless Sahara Desert. The rain of sand in Nouakchott is akin to the fall of rain in other cities. A few times a year, massive sandstorms will literally deposit hundreds of tons of the fine, orange, gritty desert sand on the city.
Be sure to schedule a stop at La Grillade, which I consider to be the best eatery in the city, at Ilot K No 36 B, a wonderful place run by a charming couple who are dedicated to using only the freshest local ingredients. The menu is mainly traditional French, emphasizing seafood, but they have some of the best couscous in all of North Africa.
On the outskirts of the city are a number of beaches used by locals and expatriates, of which two are among my favorites, Plage Pichot and Plage Sultan. Though the rich seaside amenities of the sort one finds in Tunisia and Morocco, and even in Senegal, are not available here, both have modest restaurants (grilled seafood, cooked on charcoal) frequented by Nouakchott’s large diplomatic community and oil industry expatriates. If you go swimming, don’t forget that you are in the Atlantic Ocean, not the calm Mediterranean, and that tidal currents can be fierce and fatal.
Nouadibou, to the far north on the border with Spanish Sahara, which in my lifetime was a gritty industrial port for iron ore shipments from the gigantic iron mines of Mauritania, has reinvented itself as the charming fishing village it once was before the French colonization, replete now with wonderfully rustic seafood restaurants where you can eat delectable treats that only hours before were alive in the sea.
Many visitors to Mauritania report that it is like visiting North Africa at the turn of the century – they mean the turn of the 20th century, not the 21st – a land free, pretty much, of the detritus of modern civilization. This is one of the last places in the world where vistas are not broken by telephone poles, multi-lane asphalt highways, or cell towers. Think of scenes in The English Patient and you will get the idea.
But it would be wrong to think that a small population in Mauritania means no population. On the contrary, Mauritania’s nomadic civilization has created a number of World Heritage-cited caravan villages, each of which points to a human past that stretches back millennia. About half of Mauritania’s three million people can claim Moorish, Arab descent ethnically, while the other half are black Africans who migrated in from the south.
This is a country very few tourists will put on their agenda, and that is one of the reasons that it will always be near the top of my travel agenda for fun and education.