Just back from a two-week camel trek in Mauritania, walking with a mostly French group of 14 from Chinguetti (‘la Sorbonne du desert’) to Terjit (map, left), about 150km. For the first two days over the dunes we were accompanied by a crew filming a report for a French TV station on the return of tourism to Mauritania (see below).
Of course tourism never really stopped for independent travellers (compared to Algeria) and despite the killings and kidnappings of a few years ago (including an entire French family in 2007, right). But the recent resumption of charter flights bringing much bigger groups from Paris directly to Atar (not via Nouakchott) was something for local tour operators to celebrate. It is probably the result of revised travel advice issued by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (left). You’ll see they critically (and imo, correctly) extend the ‘if you must’ orange zone further east compared to the Brit FCO. It makes all the difference for local tourism because in that orange zone most of what most people want to see in Mauritania is easily accessible. Our weekly plane chartered by Le Point (with seats sold on to other operators) was packed out.
The Vallee Blanche is the longest trek Le Point offer, but in terms of landscape and pace, maybe not their best depending on your previous experience. Horror des horreurs, we even walked along a road for a bit. Our guide recommended the 8-day Amatlich Erg walk – fewer interminable rocky plateaux he said, but then that’s all part of the deal in the desert. Wherever you go, it’s a variety of sand, rock and landforms that’s the key. I got the feeling that by day 8 or 9 most were counting the days, partly because the 25km/day pace had dropped by over 50% (as planned) by which time the 6-hour lunch breaks were exceeding walking times.
The fact it was unseasonably hot, with temperatures of over 40°C in the shade, may have tempered enthusiasm, but actually the morale and ambience of our group was very good; most had done previous tours with Le Point, including Chad which can be a tougher call. The Adrar at this time is usually in the low 30s – as it was on our very last day to Terjit, but most days it really was too hard to move or even stay awake for long while lying under an acacia between noon and 3pm.
The plus side was that being on the trail before dawn was great fun, although I’m not sure what shape I’d have been in had we walked 25km/day for the full two weeks. So in fact the long siestas were the right thing to do. We’re not all huddled round that meagre shade tree on the left just because someone has cracked open their stash of Haribo Yellow Belly Jelly Snakes. Much depends on the terrain of course – is dodging trackless rubble worse than sinking into ankle-deep sand? They’re about the same once you add your daily endowment of aches, pains and cumulative fatigue.
All this was eased by a hard-working crew (left) plus our guide Mohamed who, it must be said, was feeling the strain after a busy season tramping around the desert with us nasranis. (There was no French-domiciled accompagnateur, not a need for one; with a Brit group it might need to be different.) I was just relieved I had a fully charged Kindle to help pass the long hours inching along with the shade from 11am till 4 or 5pm. By then it wasn’t going to get hotter, or the remainder of the day’s walk was short enough to not matter so much. One night it felt like it didn’t drop below 30°C and after a week of this everything, even your toothpaste buried in your bag, is hot and stays hot. I’ve not been in such heat for so long since an early-80s moto trip to Algeria, mistakenly taken in September when it was hotter still. Oh, and Libya in April 1998 (right); also very hot. Both were quite shock and yet watching our Mauritanian camel crew stride along in their flip-flops from camp-to-camp without rests and after spending over an hour locating and laboriously loading over a dozen camels makes you wonder what you’re whining about. You got to take your cheche off to these guys.
As it was, a couple in the group chose to ride when weary, and another couple had reserved camels to ride whenever possible. If you take this option, good saddle padding is essential, especially on the backbone. Me, I like to walk – some days more than others.
Sleeping out, I was a bit concerned that le chaleur might bring out the spiders and snakes everyone talks about in the desert. I heard later that the guides had indeed spotted a snake on night one, and again at Berbera guelta, but I never even saw any tracks. I suppose the good thing is that, besides being too big to eat, at night a reposing human is not much warmer than the surrounding desert and so not that alluring.
Compared to my Algeria camel trips (here and here) I have to say the service was as good if not better; it’s only a shame the fresh lunchtime salad couldn’t last beyond day one out of Chinguetti. After that it was cous cous/rice/pasta with tinned fish and hard veg at lunch, and the same but with veg stew in the evenings, plus soup and tinned fruit for afters. That said, we got two goats (right) which we didn’t have to buy, sandbread baked every night and pancakes every morning. And there was never a shortage of water, even for washing. After a while you do crave fresh fruit and veg as well as cool, clear water, but despite what you might call a ‘high-carb’ diet I managed to lose 4kg which I happened to have going spare. Heat kills the appetite which is why I’m currently dressed in three ski suits while doing Hot Yoga next to the radiator.
One thing that spoils the Mauritanian desert vibe for me is the endless ‘gift shops’ unrolled at many desert stops and every nomad camp. In this way Algeria feels more sauvage; on the Immidir treks we might come across a family of feral goat nomads in 11 days and never ever see car tracks. But as I recall from the late-90s, wayside trinket markets were always the way in the Adrar, as it was in the Aïr of Niger. And anyway, not everyone may have as replete a collection of cheches, stone tools, teapots and other desert souvenirs like me. At one place I noticed a women selling an unusual fulgarite necklace among her collection of silver jewellery.
The large group size didn’t really bother me, perhaps because much of the chat went over my head, but probably because it was a good group and anyway – resting or on the move there is plenty of space, it’s not like being stuck in a bus. Plus you imagine people who choose to take a two-week walk in the desert in March aren’t going to be complainers. Having said that, you do wonder if Homo Sapiens’ mysterious Great Leap Forward; the so-called advent of behavioural modernity 40,000 years ago is attributable to the invention of the comfy chair. Or maybe that’s where it all went wrong.
It’s interesting to observe how the Frenchies (and the few Belges) are much more casual about desert walking than some Brits brought up on the exploits of tormented ex-public school masochists like Thesiger, Lawrence and maybe Michael Asher. Le Sahara to them is just a holiday destination like Vanuatu, not necessarily a place to pit yourself against the elements to within an inch of your life.
Straight out of Atar into the desert.
Great value at €1200 + €55 airport visa
Pre-dawn starts. Feels like a proper desert trip
A shady acacia just when you need it
Great crew from Mauritanie Voyages
Wheat flour sandbread, not heavy tagela
Afternoon at Berbera oasis
You’ll get plenty of dune walking in
Lack of prolonged remoteness (to be expected in the Adrar)
Flatish landscape out east
Trinket stalls every day
Pace slowed too much (but just as well)
Nescafe – in the end, undrinkable whatever you try
Missed fresh lunch salads and fruit, too
Oued Abiod; the better places were off it
You can watch the 4-minute French TV report here. We didn’t encounter the army patrols featured in the film – they were up north shot later (so to speak). But it reminds me how brilliant drones are for desert filming. Makes me want to do more walking in the Sahara, but maybe not in a springtime heatwave.