The first one is bitter like life,
the second is strong like love, and
the third is sweet as death.
– Tuareg proverb, on the traditional offering of three cups of tea
For centuries, nomads settled in oasis towns deep in the Sahara in Mauritania despite challenging living environments of droughts, tribal warfare, and colonization. Today, climate change causes lowering water table, salinization, and extreme weather patterns that threaten these last great oases in the thousand-and-a-one-night like remote Adrar province in Mauritania. From Nouakchott, the capital city, it’s a 3000km round-trip journey across desolate desert country to Terjit, Oudane, and Chinguetti where once caravan traders, scholars, pilgrims, and explorers roamed in search of hope, faith, and enlightenment…
I have been on the road for nearly a year since I left Canada in July 2020. The pre-Covid plan of crisscrossing Africa, clockwise, from Algeria to Mauritania for two years has become increasingly untenable. Border closures, cancelled flights, constantly changing pandemic measures, and arbitrary airline and immigration officers’ rules make movement a quasi-nightmare. For months, Algeria remained closed, and Air France cancelled my Paris-Algiers ticket, so I began my grand voyage in Tunisia. By the time I made it to Mozambique in April 2021, the South African variant was raging and Madagascar was closed. I studied the map and saw two possible routes: inching up West Africa from Angola, or fly out to North-West Africa and come down South. I chose the latter, as the multi-step visa process for Angola sounded daunting and uncertain. Here is the story of how I arrived in Mauritania a full year earlier than planned, discovering the last great oases of Terjit, Oudane, and Chinguetti…
June 10 2021 The Approach: Arriving in Mauritania
With a negative PCR Covid test and an air ticket in hand, I feel confident about flying out to Mauritania despite numerous mishaps along the way this past year: red no-fly list, the wrong test, sudden country closure…
“Can I see your return ticket?” A young woman airport agent asks at the Blaise Diagne International Airport in Dakar, Senegal.
“I’ll be flying out directly to Mali from Mauritania,” I respond.
“Can you show me your return ticket?” she asks again.
“I don’t know how long I’d stay in Mauritania, so I haven’t booked my ticket yet,” I explain.
“We cannot let you board without proof of a return/onward travel ticket,” she says. “C’est la reglementation/It’s the rule!”
“I will be returning to Senegal first, overlanding in Rosso,” I hope my quick thinking comes to my rescue.
“But foreigners are not allowed to overland into Senegal!” she continues.
“That’s not true. I know one can!” I reply.
After close to half an hour of arguing back and forth, asking and being denied to talk to the supervisor, trying to entice the help of other agents in vain, I am finally allowed to proceed to immigration because the must-show-return-ticket rule is apparently “by discretion, depending on whether an agent could trust the passenger”…
Every obstacle only makes a trip doubly enjoyable. Just the very fact of arriving in Nouakchott feels like a miracle. The visa on arrival process is pleasantly simple and painless. Surrender fifty-five euros and you’re in. It helps that only a few flights are operating. Mauritania remains completely out of the regular tourist circuit. I hitch a ride with a visiting Saudi Arabian businessman and arrive Chez Triskell just when beautiful desert night falls…
The spacious auberge in the former mansion of legendary Mauritanian singer, Dimi Mint Abba, is surprisingly bustling. A group of Moroccans and Mauritanian French have been stranded there for months when the land border was closed and flights to France cancelled. “That really helps,” Sebastien, the French owner, says, smiling. When Covid hit and tourists stopped coming, he opened a restaurant in order to keep the hostel afloat, churning out local staples like camel steaks as well as French classics like tarte tartin. An energetic long-time resident, he also organizes artisan fairs, especially favoring products from women cooperatives.
“This is a very simple country to visit. Nothing to worry!” he says reassuringly when I tell him I have arrived in this country a full year ahead of schedule, totally unprepared. “There’s not much to see in Nouakchott; a few days here are plenty,” he continues. “Take a mini-van to Terjit oasis, then head up to Oudane. Arrange transport to the Richat Structure. Then get down to Chinguetti – in this order, easier to find public transport… ” In a few broad strokes, Sebastien maps out my itinerary the first evening.
“What about this part of the country,” I ask, pointing my finger at the vast North Eastern part of the territory.
“There’s nothing, absolutely nothing!” he says.
Nothing except, of course, sand…
June 11 2021 Nouakchott
Nouakchott is a relatively new capital, created in the 1960s when Senegal gained independence and France lost Saint Louis as its capital of French West Africa. To this date, it still feels little more than a trading town. From the auberge, my route to “downtown” passes through a French school and the highly guarded French embassy; the lingering colonial influence is undeniable.
My first day’s visit begins with an exotic gourmet camel liver breakfast in a lively market when a young couple invites me to taste the local delicacy on my way to the National Museum. The tiny musée is informative, with great old photos of nomadic life.
But Nouakchott’s main port of call is the bustling fishing port where one meets more Senegalese than Mauritanians. It is a weekend late afternoon when locals love to enjoy a quiet end of the day by the sea, bargaining for fresh seafood, taking a leisurely stroll. Prayer time! Fisher folks turn to kneel in the direction of Mecca, while others busy themselves hauling heavy pirogues, calling it a day…
June 14 2021 Nouakchott to Terjit, Adrar Province, 400km
The mini-van for Terjit is scheduled to leave at 3pm, far too late for my own preference to venture into the remote Adrar province in darkness. Our jeep does not leave till well after 4pm, and, with two prayer stops, I know we will arrive close to midnight. I have texted Jemal, the auberge owner, about my late arrival but receives no confirmation. “Don’t count on having a signal in the desert!” Sebastien’s warning comes to mind. As we get closer, I get more and more nervous about the potential scenario of having no one waiting for me and finding no onward transport to reach Terjit at this ungodly hour of the day. Finally, at 11pm, the van pulls into a pitch-black crossing in the middle of nowhere deep in desert country, and there, lo and behold, stand the gendarme/police and Jemal, the auberge owner…
June 15 2021 Terjit to Oudane, Adrar Province, 230km
It’s harmattan season, with gusting hot winds all week until my arrival in Terjit. Sweating profusely even while staying absolutely still in my tent, I sleep little. When first light dawns, I head out to visit this well-known town with a child’s excitement.
Set in a plateau, the Terjit oasis is spectacular. Auberge Chez Jemal commands one of the best views, with the palmeraie in the front and the springs in the back, the main attraction here. Local tourists like to relax in the shallow pools surrounded by tall, soothing palm trees.
In early morning, I cross local residents going about their business: Ali, the springs guardian and souvenir vendor; Jemal’s brother, Da, getting gasoline; and an elderly man fetching water. Children, too, are up and running, helping out with chores. The town center is little more a mosque, a few stores, and an auberge which unfortunately has closed since Covid.
By 10am, the heat starts to beat down seriously, and I make the decision to continue my journey rather than staying longer to enjoy the gorgeous town. Except that there’s no public transport to Oudane… I hitch a ride with a young Mauritanian French entrepreneur back to the crossing. There, two gendarmes, Mohammed and Mohammed, offer me tea and help me flag down a vehicle heading to the next junction where I am lucky to get a ride with three pals gathering for a reunion in their hometown, Atar. From the regional capital city, it’s an easy three-hour ride on board an air-conditioned four-wheel drive along an unpaved road to the Oudane oasis. Patience is gold, especially in desert country…
June 16 The Oudane Ruins, Coop Garden, and the “Eye of Africa”
Oudane – meaning the valley of dates and knowledge – is famous for its sprawling ruins that tell an epic story of struggle and survival, strength and determination, and unfathomable resilience of desert nomads. The 11th century The UNESCO World Heritage city was abandoned, built again, abandoned and rebuilt again due to encroaching sand, drought, and termite. The town was once at the heart of the Trans-Saharan caravan trade and was known as a site of higher learning in Islamic scholarship. There is still a strong sense of community and cohesiveness in the new town.
I am lucky to be hosted by Zeida, an indefatigable feminist trailblazer who has been running an auberge for the past twenty years, owns a phone shop, and has a thousand venture ideas in her master mind. Suffering from little rain and lowering water table, little can be grown in Oudane. Most food is transported in from Atar. With a group of women, Zeida bought a small piece of land and created a coop garden to experiment with self-sufficiency.
“With all this extreme weather, we are not sure how we can keep growing anything. We haven’t had any big rain for twenty years,” she explains, showing me the water tank and pipes. The soil is salty and the crops – tomatoes, moringa, millet, carrots etc. – do not look healthy. “Salinization is our biggest threat,” she sighs…
In the afternoon, Zeida helps me organize an excursion to the nearby mysterious Richat Structure, known as “the eye of Africa.” The eroded dome, 40 kilometres in diameter and flanked by three concentric rings of layered sedimentary rock, appears like an eye from space. Driver and guide, Ahmed, brings along his friend, Mohammed, who has never been to the famous site. The three of us set out in Zeida’s outsized Hilux at 3pm and reach the outer ring shortly after four. It takes another hour to skirt two additional rings to reach the center with a panoramic view of a surrealistic desert volcanic landscape.
After a prayer stop, Ahmed and Mohammed are ready to begin the mint tea brewing ritual to enjoy in this epic spot but have forgotten the lighter. The wind is so strong that I could barely stand still anyway. Mint tea would have to wait till descent where a group of nomadic women welcome us to their makeshift tent with three rounds of the invigorating sweetened drink and their long tales…
It is getting dark; the thought of driving back in this inhospitable terrain in the night is terrifying, however tantalizing. Finally, we get going and the inevitable happens, getting stuck in the sand… fortunately, only for a few minutes! What a spectacular and unforgettable adventure, surfing through dunes with howling harmattan winds in remote desert country…
June 17 The Ancient Libraries of Chinguetti
Sadly, I say goodbye to Zeida. We talk about creating a micro-credit program in Oudane and hope to make it happen. For the moment, I continue my journey along the caravan route to visit one last oasis town, Chinguetti, 130km away. Abdu, the auberge owner and also a traditional theatre actor, volunteers as my guide. In classic desert hospitality, he brings me to his home before showing me the old town and the oasis…
Chinguetti, the 7th holiest city of Islam, is famous for its ancient libraries. A historic caravan town dating back to the 13th century, the city was once a center of Islamic scholarship in West Africa. In Bibliotheque Ahmed Mahmoud, guardian-curator, Seif, goes into a long soliloquy about the history of the city, the tradition of scholarship, and various Mauritanian traditional practices like “fattening” women by forcing them to drink ten litres of diluted milk mixed with couscous…!
If drought and salinization are permanent threats in Oudane, desertification is the biggest headache in Chinguetti. Sand piles up in narrow paths between alleys of abandoned houses. When seasonal flash flood hits, the old and new towns are cut off. Efforts by UNESCO to plant trees and remove sand have saved the town a bit of time, but for how long? At the rate of 30 miles per year, it is only a matter of time before the new city would have to find yet another new home. A Sisyphean struggle!
From Chinguetti, it’s 400km through desert plateaus and open plains before arriving in the mining town of Zouerat. There, to wrap up my Sahara adventure, I catch “the deadliest train ride in the world” on board an iron ore wagon for 700km to reach the coastal fishing city of Nouadhibou and then the last 500km back to Nouakchott. As the South African Nobel laureate writer, Nadine Gordimer, warns: “A desert is a place without expectation.” The pandemic has upended so much of our lives. I consider myself fortunate to be able to take full advantage of the unexpected changes.
It was as if there were no names here, as if there were no words. The desert cleansed everything in its wind, wiped everything away… The men knew perfectly well that the desert wanted nothing to do with them: so they walked on without stopping, following the paths that other feet had already traveled in search of something else.
– Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, Desert.
THE LAST GREAT OASES IN MAURITANIA
This story is part of a photography book, Timeless: A Year of Minimalist Travels Across Africa During the Pandemic. Through ten photo essays, this book brings to viewers vast tracts of geographical and socio-political landscapes: age-old medinas, Berber and Carthage ruins, and the desert dunes of the Great Sahara in Tunisia; the disappearing tribes of Omo Valley and fervent faith in Ethiopia; the endangered gorillas of the Virunga Massif and peace education in Rwanda; community living in Malawi; picture-perfect pastel-colored Ilha Mozambique; a post-colonial journey along the Senegal River and traditional life in Casamance; the old towns in The Gambia; the last great oases and “deadliest train ride” in Mauritania; the dying art of puppetry in Mali; and the irresistible temptations in No-Stress Cape Verde.
As Teju Cole writes in the Foreword for the 10th edition of Bamako Encounters, African Biennale of Photography in 2015, “Time, in multiplicate, is the African habitus.” The series explores rapidly changing African temporality based on ancestral, religious, colonial, social, digital, Anthropocene, and transnational time. It is at once a documentary photography journey – on history, memory, place, identity, modernity, and displacement – and a meditation on minimalist and “timeless” living.