He comes across as a man to be slightly wary of; one of the many men in this part of the world adept at exploiting any opportunity to make a few more Ouguiya whenever you let your guard down. Cora and Justus, the owners of the Auberge in Atar called him. They also warn me not to pay any attention to any ploys he might try to use to get me to go use another hotel, and to insist on simply being driven to my destination, the Auberge Rose des Sables in Chinguetti. It’s not really possible to avoid his services, as he’s the only taxi driver going to Chinguetti on a daily basis. After getting my luggage and myself on board of the inevitable old Mercedes, I’m quickly joined by a kid of about 18 years old who announces himself to be a guide, capable of showing me chinguetti, leading camel tours, and much more. He’s a typical faux-guide; great at selling his services but probably of spectacularly little value as an actual guide. I politely decline his offer, but he stays in the taxi with me as the
driver makes circles around Atar, trying to find other customers going to Chinguetti. When no one shows up he drops us off at his “office”, which is a room without door or wall separating it from the street, filled with some seats and a woman sleeping behind a desk. The taxi driver continues to search for clients, and I get some supplies at the store across the street. A shop nearby has some tape on constant repeat, and at maximum volume; I think it’s something like Quranic texts, but I’m not sure. I wonder if the people living here, who have to endure it all day every day, find it as annoying as I do. Two hours later, the taxi driver comes back with no additional clients. That means that the faux-guide and I have the option of either paying for the four empty seats in addition to our own, or waiting to see if tomorrow is a better day. We barter for a discount and end up paying 6000 Ouguiya (about 15 euros) per person, whereas a single seat would’ve cost 2500.
Between Atar and Chinguetti are the Adrar mountains, a series of table mountains made of rock ranging in colour from copper through deep purple to almost black. The first part of the road, up to the plateau on top of one of the mountains, is made of surprisingly good asphalt. It was built by the Chinese in exchange for fishing concessions in Mauritania’s part of the Atlantic. Overfishing is a major problem in this part of the world, but I suppose at least building a road is a better way of paying for it than depositing a sum to the Swiss bank account of whoever is in charge of fishing concessions… As soon as we reach the top of the plateau the asphalt stops and we’re on a gravel road. The plateau is an interesting place; slightly cooler than the lower lying Atar, there’s quite a lot of grass and shrubs inbetween the patches of bare rock, and a couple of acacia
trees; all in all, it looks like it’s half-way between the Sahara and the Serengeti. I can imagine these plateaus having been full of animal life before humans got guns, and apparently there’re rock drawings of all kinds of wildlife (including giraffes) to be found here. On the eastern side, the plateau slowly slopes down again, and it’s getting sandier by the minute. Some 80 kilometers after leaving Atar, and just before we reach Chinguetti, the driver gets the car stuck in a miniature dune that’s crept over the road, and the three of us spend some twenty minutes shoveling sand to get us free again. Upon entering Chinguetti, the driver “accidentally” drives straight past the road leading to Auberge Rose des Sables, and tells me of an excellent hotel just a bit further. Thanks to Cora and Justus’ warning I’m alert enough to not fall for it.
‘About five’ says Cheich, the owner of Rose des Sables, when I ask him how many tourists there’re staying in Chinguetti today. Chinguetti was founded in the 13th century, and it used to be a famous stopover for caravans of salt, gold, ivory and slaves making their way from sub-Saharan Africa to Moroccan and European markets, as well as a major center of Islamic learning. According to local tradition, Chinguetti is the seventh-holiest city in Islam, and five pilgrimages to Chinguetti equal one hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca. There’re several libraries with centuries-old manuscripts on Islam, mathematics, medicine, and law, often maintained by a single family throughout the centuries. With its beautiful desert setting, its libraries and its stunning mosque made without any mortar to keep the stones together, Chinguetti is not only Mauritania’s national pride, but also by far its most popular
tourist sight; which is why the town is being overrun by a horde of five whole tourists today. I’m not sure which aspect is more to blame for that low number: terrorists giving all of the Sahara a bad reputation, this year’s tourist season being over due to the rising temperatures, or the fact that most people have never heard of Mauritania, let alone the tiny place deep inside its desert that’s its closest thing to a tourist trap. Either way, Cheich allows me to choose from any of the rooms in his Auberge, since there’s no-one else staying there today. He’s a very friendly man, although he does seem eager to sell me a camel trip. I’d hoped to find other tourists to make the trip with, but he tells me that very few tourists attempt it outside of the winter months. I end up booking a five-day trip from Chinguetti to Ouadane, another ancient caravan town some 100 kilometers away.
After finalizing the details of the camel trip, I decide to explore the town of Chinguetti. The Auberge is in the newer part of town, which is not very interesting; just a bunch of fairly modern houses with very sandy streets inbetween. The new part of town is separated from the old part by a wadi (dried-up river bed), where I encounter several groups of boys all playing football. When I say ‘ça va?’, the younger boys invite me to join them for a game. Since they’re all barefoot, I decide to take off my boots. Soon, it’s obvious that not only
is my fitness level sorely lacking (running around in the sand wears me out in just a few minutes, while these kids go on for hours), but also I’m a total wuss where my feet are concerned. Hidden underneath the sand are small pebbles, larger rocks and some manmade objects; I’m in pain every time I hit something, and soon my feet feel sore and bruised, but the boys don’t even seem to feel it. Oh, and in case you wondered: my technical footballing ability is about equal to the 10-year-olds in the group; any older, and they beat me easily.
Half an hour of football and a significant dent in my ego later, I give up and make my way across the wadi and into the old town. Some of the houses here date from the founding of Chinguetti; none look modern. The alleys winding between the houses are covered in deep sand. The far end of the town is being absorbed by the dunes of Erg Ouarane (Erg is the Arab word for dune field; this one is about 60 by 120 kilometers). In its days as a key caravan town, the old town had 20,000 inhabitants and each winter hosted caravans of up to 30,000 camels. Now, with many houses lacking electricity, difficult to reach, and under threat from the advancing dunes, many of the houses in the old town have been abandoned. Still, there’re people living here; many of them are too poor to afford something in the new town. Also, the ancient Friday Mosque is still being actively used. The sun is
setting, so it’s prayer time, and the adhan (call to prayer) is helping me find the mosque. Some twenty or thirty men and boys enter the building; I hear them softly pray as the minaret (with five ostrich eggs on top; four point to the North, South, West and East, and a fifth that points the way to Mecca) is glowing in the pink light that’s lingering on the horizon. A group of women (all black, I notice) assembles around me, trying their best to sell me jewelry ‘for your wife, your girlfriend, your sister, your mother’; no matter what argument I use to indicate that I have no need for jewelry, they won’t give up. I politely smile and make my way back across the wadi and into the new town and its handful of street lights, before the old town gets too dark to see anything. After a chat with Cheich, I go to bed early; tomorrow, the camel man will be at the door at sunrise.