Places I Remember – Mauritania

There are places I'll remember, all my life, though some have definitely changed! Some for ever, not for better, some are gone off the prudent-traveller map, and some remain. Some are no longer as safe as you would like, especially bearing in mind that your travel insurance is not valid if you travel to areas with certain Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warnings. One does not like to be a timid traveller, but..... we all have our own limits. Some are in areas where diseases like Ebola lie in wait, but most are unsafe due to the modern-day illnesses, terrorism and kidnapping. These "lost" and "vanishing" places hold magic memories for me, and I will share a series of the most fabulous ones. MauretaniaA few years ago I found myself heading into the interior of the Sahara Desert in Mauritania with two white-robed drivers, a Mauritanian geologist, a Bedouin guide, a cook and 2 goats. We drove for some days from Nouakchott, past occasional camel herds, over flat hardpan where we could skim along at 80km/hour, through sand dunes where we endlessly bogged, with sand so hot that we blew tyre after tyre and had to shelter in the sparse shade of thorn trees in the middle of the day, sitting on brightly coloured woven mats and drinking mint tea. Mauretania_sahara_desertWe passed signs saying, "Do not Proceed. Danger of Death". We passed near Morocco, past the Disputed Territories of Western Sahara, where the ground is mined and the women walk ahead of the camels and men. mauretania_sahara_camelsWe passed occasional herds of donkeys and of camels, some of the females wearing their "bikinis" as a contraception device. Picture 037We carried a lot of spare tyres, but had at times to pull into tiny mud villages where a tyre repair station would do its best. These were often a shipping container, and the heat inside must have been indescribable. While the tyre was being fixed I would be invited to sit down on a mat placed in the street in front of someone's house, and given mint tea. In the evening the whole village would emerge with their mats into the dusty street with braziers and dinner, a scene of pleasant community. mauretania_sahara_goatAt night tents were pitched, mine a large one with a red and yellow draperies across the 'ceiling' and red mattresses patterned with gold stars and blue velvet cushions. A goat would be killed some nights and cooked over a fire sending sparks floating up to the clearest skies on earth. We would set off in the morning at the first faintest pink light, to get as far as possible before the heat. The respect and courtesy I met with in these impossibly remote areas was impeccable, especially when you consider that many times there was no cover to hide behind to use the toilet, and even when I walked off a kilometre, the Bedouin can literally see crystal clear for miles. They would all take a keen interest in the 'other' horizon until I returned. It would have been so easy to be made uncomfortable, but this never happened. Five times a day the men would all wash tPicture 025heir hands and quietly walk off into the desert to say their prayers.Coming from a post-9/11 environment, I grew to understand Islam differently, and to respect how profoundly it governed their every move, and the respect shown to women and strangers, and the ethic of hospitality. At least, that is how it was in Mauritania, in the Sahara. mauretania_sahara_desertOne day truly in the middle of nowhere, in loose white sand dunes with no vegetation for indescribable distances, we came across a tiny corrugated iron hut loosely fenced with broken tyres, in which there was, inexplicably, a young man living. We pulled up to have mint tea in the shade of his awning and to my astonishment a truck happened by seeking medical help for a member of their party. I was able to give them what they needed from my little medical kit. We never saw another human for 2 days. mauretania_villageThe economy is based on fishing, and the beach at Nouakchott has thousands of colourful long boats drawn up on the sand during the day, as far as the eye can see, with busy donkey carts mostly handled by young boys taking the fish to the processing houses on the edge of the sand. All the Air France staff on my plane came in with small eskies so they could take fish home to Paris. Now this area has a big red "Do Not Travel" warning from DFAT due to kidnapping of tourists. I feel real sorrow that I can probably never go back, but this adventure was one of a kind, and not possible to repeat. You can tell how much I loved this place by the number of photo I have crammed in! I am so glad that I had the chance to go there, but the good traveller looks forward, not back.
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