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The Mauritanian flag features a crescent moon smiling heartily in a field of green, an image that is far from appropriate for the country it symbolizes. 60% is desert, a figure which is growing as the Sahara claims more land. A small tract of arable land around the Senegal River in the southwest and the Atlantic coastline offer the only green scenery.
Smiles may be a little easier to come by, but less intrepid travellers will find the dusty landscape and exorbitant heat very demanding. It is these conditions which have made Mauritania almost exclusively a destination for adventurous spirits, who will be attracted to the archaeological excavations of Koumbi Saleh (the capital of Ghana, West Africa's first empire) and the extraordinarily desolate ghost town of Tichit. Mauritania does appeal to one other type of person: the bird lover. The small areas of lush land it has are blessed with a suprising abundance of bird species.
French colonization gradually absorbed the territories of present-day Mauritania from the Senegal river area and upwards, starting in the late 1800s. The history of French colonial policy in Mauritania is closely tied to that of the other French possessions in West Africa, particularly to that of Senegal, on which Mauritania was economically, politically, and administratively dependent until independence. Colonial administrators relied extensively on Islamic religious leaders and the traditional warrior groups to maintain their rule and carry out their policies. Moreover, little attempt was made to develop the country's economy. After World War II, Mauritania, along with the rest of French West Africa, was involved in a series of reforms of the French colonial system, culminating in independence in 1960. The capital city Nouakchott was founded at the site of a small colonial village, the Ksar, while 90% of the population was still nomadic. With independence, larger numbers of ethnic Sub-Saharan Africans (Haalpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof) entered Mauritania, moving into the area north of the Senegal River.
On July 10, 1978, Col. Mustafa Ould Salek led a bloodless coup d'état that ousted the President, who would later go into exile in France. Power passed to the military strongmen of the Military Committee for National Recovery (CMRN). On December 12, 1984, Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya deposed Haidallah and declared himself Chairman of the CMSN. Like other rulers before him, he promised a swift transfer to democracy, but then made little of these promises. Opposition parties were legalized and a new constitution approved in 1991 which put an end to formal military rule. However, Ould Taya's election wins were dismissed as fraudulent by both opposition groups and external observers. On June 8, 2003 a failed coup attempt was made against President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya by forces unhappy with his imprisonment of Islamic leaders in the wake of the US-led invasion of Iraq and his establishment of full diplomatic relations with Israel. The coup was suppressed after one day of fighting in the capital when pro-Taya military forces arrived from the countryside. On August 3, 2005 the Mauritanian military, including members of the presidential guard, seized control of key points in the capital of Nouakchott, performing a coup against the government of President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya who was out of the country, attending the funeral of Saudi King Fahd. Taya was never able to return to the country, and remains in exile. The new junta called itself the Military Council for Justice and Democracy. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall emerged as leader at an early stage. Dissidents were released, and the political climate relaxed. A new constitution was approved in June 2006. Elections were held in March 2007, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was elected president and Vall stood down. On August 6, 2008, Mauritania's presidential spokesman Abdoulaye Mamadouba said President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, Prime Minister Yahya Ould Ahmed Waghf and the interior minister, were arrested by renegade Senior Mauritanian army officers, unknown troops and a group of generals, and were held under house arrest at the presidential palace in Nouakchott. It was an apparently successful and bloodless coup d'état.
At 1,030,631 km2, Mauritania is the world's 29th-largest country. It lies mostly between latitudes 14° and 26°N, and longitudes 5° and 17°W (small areas are east of 5° and west of 17°). Mauritania is generally flat, with vast arid plains broken by occasional ridges and cliff-like outcroppings. A series of scarps face south-west, longitudinally bisecting these plains in the center of the country. The scarps also separate a series of sandstone plateaus, the highest of which is the Adrar Plateau, reaching an elevation of 500 metres. Spring-fed oases lie at the foot of some of the scarps. Isolated peaks, often rich in minerals, rise above the plateaus; the smaller peaks are called guelbs and the larger ones kedias. The concentric Guelb er Richat (also known as the Richat Structure) is a prominent feature of the north-central region. Kediet ej Jill, near the city of Zouîrât, has an elevation of 915 metres and is the highest peak. Approximately three quarters of Mauritania is desert or semidesert. As a result of extended, severe drought, the desert has been expanding since the mid-1960s. To the west, between the ocean and the plateaus, are alternating areas of clayey plains (regs) and sand dunes (ergs), some of which shift from place to place, gradually moved by high winds. The dunes generally increase in size and mobility toward the north.
Mauritania consists of 12 regions and a capital district (Nouakchott).
The Banc d'Arguin National Park (Parc National du Banc D'Arguin) is located along the northwestern coastline and is heaven on earth for bird enthusiasts as it is both an important stopover as well as a breeding ground for many species of bird on their way between Europe and parts of Africa more to the east and south. You will encounter many birds on small sandy islands just off the coast, so bring good binoculars. Species include sandpipers, pink flamingos, both white and grey pelicans, several species of terns, cormorants, spoonbills, herons, egrets and and waders. As the mating season is mainly in December and January this is the best time to visit and also the most pleasant one weatherwise. If you want to go out on the Atlantic Ocean, try a traditional fishing boat which is good for both the environment as well as the local people. The park is on the Unesco World Heritage List.
In Ouadane, Chinguetti, Tichitt en Oualata you will find the so-called ‘ksars’. These are trade and religion centres in the Sahara desert. These centres date back to the 11th and 12th century and functioned as caravan serais and places of Islamic culture. You can find traditional houses in narrow streets surrounding the central mosque. It is a good way to see how these traditional nomads lived and you don't need a lot of imagination for this as the places often look just the same after centuries. Not many people go here as well, so this only adds to the charm of getting away from it all.
The ruins of Koumbi Saleh are located in the southeast of Mauritania. It used to be the capital of the Ghana Empire. History here goes back to the 3rd century AD. Koumbi Saleh was situated on a central spot of important trading routes and in the 11th century it was one of the biggest cities on the continent. Koubi Saleh actually has two centres. The northern centre was known because of the 12 mosques and the southern one because of the royal palace.
Apart from the labyrinth lanes of the Ksar (see above), this date-palm oasis once was a famous Saharan trading city. Nowadays, it still is the seventh holiest city of Islam and its location near the dunes of the Sahara stretching in all directions beyond the horizon is just excellent. As it is one of the most accessible places inland and a popular place to go further into the desert, it also is one of Mauritania's biggest tourist destinations, although you still won't encounter mass tourism here. Also worth a visit is the modern town with its colourful market. The old and new town are separated by a beautiful palm treed wadi.
Ouadane is a site which is on the Unesco World Heritage List and it is not difficult to see why. The old quarter on top of a hill is a beautiful town in the middle of the Sahara desert and arriving here across the plateau from Atar is a real highlight of your visit to this country. On the hill, the minaret of the new mosque dominates the place but the masterpiece is the older mosque dating back to the 14th century. The town itself dates back to 1147 when it was founded by Berbers. A small museum housing various artefacts from the ancient caravans is worth a visit as well.
Mauritania has a hot and dry climate year round with only in the south a short rainy season from June to October but rainfall is sparse and unreliable at the most. Inland temperatures can rise well over 45 degrees Celsius, especially in May and June, and almost no rain falls here. The south averages only around 300 mm of rain a year.
The coastline is dry with a short rainy season as well, but temperatures are generally tempered by the Atlantic Ocean. For example, Nouakchott (the capital) has maximum temperatures between 30 and 35 degrees Celsius year round, nighs averaging 22 to 24 between June and October and 13 to 17 from December to March. When the wind blows directly from the Sahara desert though, temperatures can rise up to 46 degrees here as well, especially in May and Jun. Rain falls mostly in August with little or now rain in other months.
Mauritania Airways is the national airline of the country and is based at Nouakchott International Airport (NKC) near the capital. International flighst include those to and from Abidjan, Algiers, Bamako, Brazzaville, Casablanca, Cotonou, Dakar, Las Palmas and Paris. All these destinations and Tunis are served by other airlines as well, mainly the national ones like Air Algérie and Air France.
Getting to Mauritania with your own vehicle has become much easier in the 21st century, with paving of the road all the way towards Nouakchott, except a few kilometers of now-man's-land between Western Sahara and Mauritania (still doable by 2wd car though). Also, you can get a visa at the border for around €20 as well. Have your car papers and insurance in order though and expect some hassling if you are going further towards the border with Senegal. Don't wander of the main roads, as mines are a potential risk.
You can cross borders with Morocco/Western Sahara, Senegal and Mali, like described below.
To Mali, the best route to Mali was is from Ayoûn el-Atroûs to Nioro. You can also cross at Néma, Timbedgha (for connections to Nara in Mali) and Kiffa (connecting with Nioro in Mali). From Nouakchott, bush taxis go to Néma and Ayoûn el-Atroûs. From these places you can catch a bush taxi to Niara or Nioro. It’s also possible to travel from Sélibaby to Kayes in Mali.
Border crossings with Senegal is at Rosso, though it's possible at Diamma/Keur Masséne as well. Between Dakar and Nouakchott takes most of the day. Start early, as the border closes at 6pm. Expect soms hassling and paying dubious taxes (being bribes obviously).
Air Mauritanie has regular flights between Nouakchott and Nouâdhibou, Atâr, Néma and other towns.
One of the most appealing train routes anywhere in the world is the train carrying iron from Zouerate to the coast at Nouadhibou. It is known as the longest regular train route in the world and normally its length is as much as 3 kilometres. The whole journey takes around 12 hours, covering a distance of 700 kilometres. To get inland from Nouadhibou directly, this is one of the best and most rewarding ways. Luckily, normal compartments have been added to the train as until just a few years ago the only option was actually sitting on top of the wagons! Although this is still allowed and done by locals, it is not recommended. It is a bargain at about 5 US dollar. Places to get of the train are Ben Amera at 400 kilometers from Nouadhibou, Choum at 450 kilometres (for connections to Atar and Chinguetti) and Fderik at 670 kilometers.
There are decent paved roads linking Nouakchott with Rosso in the south of the country, Néma in the southeast and Akjoujt in the north. A paved road also runs east from Nouakchott to Mali. Most other routes are sand or gravel tracks which require 4-wheel drive vehicle. Although there is not much rain in the country, some regions which have rain means that during and after the rains roads may become impassable. In the dry season tracks can be obscured by drifting sand and in these cases a guide is highly recommended. Traffic drives on the right and there are several companies, both international as well as local, that offer rental cars, mainly in Nouakchott, Nouâdhibou and Atâr.
You need an international driver's licence or your national one.
Many Europeans travel to West Africa with older cars to sell them in countries like Senegal or Gambia. Be sure to have your papers, including insurance in order. Nowadays, apart from a small stretch in the north of Mauritania, the whole route from Europe to Gambia can be travelled along paved roads, although it is much more fun to do some detours sometimes of course, if you have a high clearnace vehicle that is.
Minibuses and bush taxis ply the main routes, but it can be an uncomfortable, crowded and slow experience. They leave when full and it is best to start early to secure a seat to make sure you will arrive in the next town that same day.
Any national needs a visa, but most nationals can get one upon arrival at the international airport or major border crossings for about €30.
See also Money Matters
See also Travel Health
Proof that you had a yellow fever vaccination is only required upon entering Mauritania when you have been to an infected country within 7 days of entering the country. Still, it is recommended that you take the yellow fever vaccination anyway, especially when travelling in the southern part of the country. Also you have to have a cholera stamp (proof of the fact you don't have the disease) when entering Mauritania overland.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Mauritania. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. When staying longer than 6 months, vaccination against meningitis might be recommended, depending on your contact with other people and time of year.
Like most African countries south of the Sahara, Malaria is prevalent in the country. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
See also International Telephone Calls
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