There are many gueltas in the Sahara desert, and they’re often a lifesaver for nomadic herders. What makes this particular guelta special, though, is that it is one of the last places in the Sahara desert where the West African Crocodile still lives.
The sea is dotted with hundreds of pirogues, waiting to be brought ashore. The beach is littered with thousands of men, women and children, whose job is apparently to bring the fish from the boats to the traders. It’s a dramatic scene, and one that repeats itself every afternoon.
Chez Zaida is run, ofcourse, by Zaida. She’s a veritable powerhouse of a woman; black, fairly muscular, dressed somewhat in between Western and traditional styles, and giving her almost all-male staff orders in a calm but extremely authoritative way; there’s no doubting who’s boss here. Not that Mauritanian women are generally the stereotypical meek lambs; despite, or perhaps because of, the Arab culture and Islam placing much of the power with men, many women here have a whole lot of attitude.
His voice isn’t a pretty one; it’s rough, dry, and has only a limited range before it breaks. Neither is he a particularly talented singer; he’s off-pitch much of the time (and not in the desired quarter-tones of Arab music either), and changes between high and low notes are never smooth. Still, it’s an evocative sound; full of soul, and with a sparseness that perfectly matches the desert around us. The pale pink light at the horizon announces another day; he just finished his morning prayers. Now he’s singing verses from the Quran, while making tea on the camp fire that drives away the morning chill. This morning is the same as countless desert mornings experienced by his father before him, and his grandfather before that. His name is Salima, and he’s from a centuries-old line of Moorish goat herders. Sometimes he makes some extra money guiding tourists on his camels. That’s why we’re sharing breakfast in the middle of the Sahara desert this morning.
‘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.
15 – 16 March, 2014 ~ I feel the urge to pinch myself; am I really going to do this? The madness of what I’m about to do hasn’t really sunk in yet. Finally, more than two hours after its scheduled departure, the train arrives. Three diesel locomotives chug by; five minutes later, the lone passenger car, at the very end of the train, becomes visible. Inbetween are somewhere between 1.6 and 2.3 kilometers of open-topped freight cars. This is Mauritania’s economic lifeline; the iron ore train – one of the longest trains in the world – on a continuous journey back and forth between the mines of Zouerat, deep in the Sahara desert, and the port of Nouadhibou.
14 March 2014 ~ ‘How long will you stay in Nouadhibou?’
‘I think just one night.’
‘Do you know where you’ll be staying?
‘Not yet, there’re a few options in the Lonely Planet that seem okay…’
‘You can sleep at my house if you want?’
He says it casually, as if it’s nothing special. Considering that I’ve known him for all of six hours, and we’ve spoken no more than fifteen minutes during that time, I find it incredibly generous.
11 – 14 March 2014 ~ ‘This is not really Morocco, you know?’ I’m surprised to hear the man sitting at my restaurant table say it; it could get him in a lot of trouble if the omnipresent Moroccan police hear it.
After a short stop we continue our journey, and for the first time I get to see the landscape we’re driving through. It’s literally awesome. Western Sahara is probably the most appropriately named territory in the world; it’s simply the Western end of the desert. Beyond it, the desert abruptly stops and the ocean begins. It’s a wild coastline, with cliffs and small secluded beaches, sometimes with a shipwreck slowly being broken down by the elements. It stretches on for more than a thousand kilometers, and apart from three small cities, a few tiny settlements and the odd fisherman’s shack, it’s completely deserted.
9 – 10 March 2014 ~ Not another one! The ocean is as relentless as I am helpless. Wave after wave comes in, and I’m floating around, holding on to my surfboard like a shipwrecked sailor to a piece of wood. Just paddling into the surf has exhausted all my upper body strength. Now that I’m in the right place, I can no longer generate enough speed to properly ride the wave, let alone push myself up to stand on the board. The best I can do is sit up, enjoy a glorious second or so as I’m on top of the wave, feeling the energy pick me up and push me forward, and then try not to get completely sucked into the vortex when the inevitable happens and I capsize, again.
7 – 8 March 2014 ~ Could it be possible that I’m not the world’s clumsiest person after all? Ingrid, one of my walking buddies in the Afella Ighir gorges, and I leave Tafraoute together. Joining us in the private taxi are two Englishmen. They are avid rock climbers, and were having a lot of fun scaling some of the more remote granite and quartz cliff faces of the Anti Atlas; there’re lots of routes here that have never been climbed before. It stopped being fun right around the time they dropped the key to their hire car somewhere during a climb…
4 – 6 March 2014 ~ The second, unguided part of the walking tour takes place some 30 kilometers South of Tafraoute, where the real desert begins. The guide agency drops me off at Aït Mansour, a village at the beginning of a narrow, winding gorge in the bone dry landscape that has an oasis running through it. The narrow line of green palm trees snaking through the red rocks is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular sights I’ve seen so far.
27 feb – 4 march 2014 ~ ‘I like rock music, like Nickelback, Thirty Seconds to Mars, and the Backstreet Boys.’ For a few seconds, looking out the window and concentrating very hard on the mountainous desert landscape passing by is all I can do to stop myself from laughing out loud and insulting my new friend, Marouan. He got on the bus at a small town, about one third into the distance between Ouarzazate and Taroudannt, and is on his way to Agadir, where he studies English.
25 – 27 feb 2014 ~ As we descend from the High Atlas mountains, I’m absolutely amazed by the sparseness of the landscape, the way the mountains turn into plains with zero vegetation, which turn into blue-purple mountains again on the horizon. I hadn’t expected this part of the country – so close to the green Atlas mountains – to feature exactly the kind of epic desert landscapes I had been dreaming about. Caravans coming from the other side of the Sahara, carrying gold, slaves, ivory and more, used a string of fortified oasis towns in the Moroccan desert as stopovers. Skoura was the last in this string of towns; here, the goods were transferred from camels to donkeys and taken across the Atlas mountains to the large cities near the coast.