“We spent five nights in Mauretania, three of them alone in the depths of two separate national parks. Unfortunately, we searched in vain for travelling companions, and so for safety reasons we were forced to abandon our plans to explore the eastern part of the country, which is richer in local traditions, by driving 200km across sand and alongside a railroad track. We spent a day each in the country’s two largest cities, but it would be unfair to reinforce from such brief experience what we’d already heard from everyone else: namely that there’s nothing to see in either of them. If nothing else, the unbelievable crowds and bustle of Nouakchotti market, and the white headland a few kilometers from the city of Nouadhibou are at least worth a visit.
The Banc d’Arguin National Park is a nesting and overwintering ground for migratory birds, a natural world heritage site, and also home to a grand total of around 500 people. This meant we could do a spot of wild camping here for two nights, the second night close to a herd of camels, without anyone noticing. Here we saw flamingos, pelicans – and mice.
The landscape is also extremely varied: sand dunes, scrub-covered savannah, swamps, salt marshes and totally barren wildernesses alternated. It was also a great country to drive though: you can just go off-road, wherever you please, and steer using the gas pedal, since the sand acts like rails for the steering wheel in any case. The wildest moment was when a ten-inch locust hopped in through the open window and nearly scared the driver to death.
The Diawling National Park is the area of Mauretania which receives the highest level of rainfall. (Not hard – the Sahara covers 80% of the country). This marshland is a breeding ground for mosquitos, and thus for malaria too. People have, in consequence, tended to avoid it, which means it is rich in animal life. It’s also a very fortunate thing to the warthogs that for religious reasons it is forbidden to eat their meat. We arrived just before sunset, and we had just unpacked and eaten dinner when the mosquitos descended: we decided to retreat to our tent. The spectacle which greeted us in the morning, however, more than compensated for any discomfort: I’ve never seen such a profusion and diversity of animal life outside of a museum.
In just one short hour we saw dozens of warthogs, eagles, baby crocodiles, monitor lizards, enormous flocks of birds, and a Mercedes with its broken axle stuck in a washboard.
Even after the chaos of Morocco, driving here came as a shock. The red light may not simply be a decoration, but it’s certainly no more than a suggestion. Even on the country’s principal roads, meter-wide potholes aren’t uncommon, and sometimes there isn’t enough asphalt to drive around them. Still, there’s so little traffic that driving is possible: we saw more burned out cars by the roadside than actual cars on the road.
Mauretania is a poor country, with exceptionally low levels of rainfall. It is moderately dangerous, with a serious litter problem, and there aren’t many sights to see. For all these reasons, it’s unlikely to make the Lonely Planet top ten list. Many times we had the feeling that we were the only tourists in the whole country. (In Nouadhibou, for example, we looked in the three best-known hotels, to see if we could find any other foreigners, but without success). This very fact, however, makes it an interesting travel destination. (2016)