Mauritania: Chinguetti & Ouadane

November - December 2004


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Ibrahim's 4WD, a Toyota double cab pickup truck, looked like a reliable vehicle. We loaded our luggage and supplies into the back under the hot, late morning sun, which had now reached 41'c. The planning and organising of these trips always seems to take twice as long as you would expect. Once we were ready to depart we took our seats; everyone wanted to sit in the back of the pickup. After my recent bush taxi ride from Choum I opted for some comfort and took the front seat next to Ibrahim. Even once we had set off from Bab Sahara, we didn't travel far until we stopped to fuel up and then again to pick up another spare tyre. Finally, after what seemed like an age, we were on the open road heading out of Atar, until we stopped again, this time at the police check point on the edge of town.

The tarred road ended soon after we had left Atar and we took a dirt road heading east towards the Ebnou pass. The valley floor we travelled along, surrounded on both sides by flat-topped, ragged mountains, soon narrowed and ahead of us I could see the road twisting its way up to the pass. The dramatic pass lead us up onto another plateau, about 250m above Atar. At the top we stopped beside a roughly built, breezeblock shack, another police checkpoint. A couple of tired looking dogs lay in the shadows, only briefly looking up at us as we stopped, before returning to sleep in the heat. Once our passports had been checked again and all our passport numbers written onto a scrap of paper, the police officer asked us if we had a spare sleeping bag. We didn't and he let us on our way.

The bumpy, dirt road crossed an almost lunar landscape of barren, desolate views, punctuated by rocky outcrops and small rocky hills. About fifteen minutes drive from the police checkpoint we pulled off the road and drove to one of these small rocky hills. Here, sheltered under the rock overhangs are some of the finest prehistoric rock paintings I have ever seen in Africa. On all my previous trips to the Sahara desert I had never had the chance to see anything like this, so I felt very excited. These paintings, in their earthy, ochre colours depicted a landscape that had long since vanished. There were paintings of buffalo, giraffe and elephant, amongst other animals. Groups of human figures danced on the rock face, as if celebrating. The natural contours of the rock had been incorporated into the artwork. The artist had also left his/her handprint on the rock, a signature speaking to us from across the giant divide of time. Today the artist would probably not recognise the surrounding landscape, what was once lush and green was now rock and sand. The timeless nature of the landscape suddenly felt more dynamic, this was a changing environment; it had not always been an inhospitable desert.

After another couple of hours driving across the desert we reached some low sand dunes, which hid the ancient and historically important town of Chinguetti. This was the ancient capital of the Moors dating back to the 13th century. It is still today the seventh holiest city in Islam and once boasted eleven mosques. It was famous for the Islamic scholars who came to the town; their legacy can still be seen today in the many libraries around the old town housing thousands of ancient manuscripts. Today the town is only a shadow of what it once was, with a population of 4,000. The town is neatly divided in two by a large flat wadi, where palm trees grow, tapping the scarce supply of water. We had arrived in the northern half of town, the modern half, where the majority of the population live. It is dominated by an old Foreign Legion fort, which has been restored and is used as a hotel. In the early 1980's it had been used as the set for the French film Fort Saganne, a feature about the Foreign Legion in Algeria.

A lot of the modern buildings in this half of town were built from concrete. There were quite a few exceptions though, where traditional building techniques had been used. I saw a number of buildings built using round mud bricks, a method that predates todays square mud bricks. I had only ever seen round mud bricks before at the ruins of Jenno Jenine in Mali. Seeing these beautifully designed buildings was a first for me in Saharien architecture, Chinguetti is a quiet place, there were very few vehicles and about half of them were like ours, being used by tourists. Local people walked along the soft, sandy streets, the almost absence of any vehicles gave the town a peaceful feel. A number of souvenir sellers had set up their stalls along the street leading towards the market, which is where were we walked to next, to buy some vegetables and meat for dinner that night. It came as no surprise to any of us that we ended up with all the ingredients we needed for a camel stew. The market was the busiest part of town, a narrow street, only about fifty metres long where the majority of the towns commerce happened.

We continued walking from the market following the road down to the wadi, where a steady procession of people walked between the two halves of the town. Men in billowing blue robes and headscarves and women in bright, colourful long dresses strolled along in the wind, which had begun to pick up and now whipped along the flat wadi, funnelled by the dunes surrounding the town. The towns football pitch was also in the wadi, where a group of boys were playing a game, which Josh and David couldn't resist joining in for a kick about.

The old part of town, Le Ksar, is built on the gentle sandy slope leading up from the wadi. At first it looked like a ghost town, the ancient stone buildings being swallowed by the sand dunes, which silently crept their way along the streets. About half of these buildings, the oldest ones dating back to the 13th century, are now unoccupied. I spent the late afternoon exploring the narrow streets and alleys. Some streets where almost blocked by dunes, reaching up to the roofs of the buildings, which I had to scramble over. The atmosphere in Le Ksar felt timeless, as though nothing had changed here for hundreds of years. Small herds of goats meandered along the streets, scavenging for anything edible, which included almost everything from fallen palm frongs to cigarette packets. Occasionally I would turn a corner to find a group of young children playing along the alley, the shy ones would quickly retreat to a doorway and watch me pass. The more confident ones would walk along side me for a while saying, hello and trying to shake my hand. I didn't hold their interest long and soon found myself back in a deserted alley.

Roughly in the centre of the old quarter is the architectural gem of Chinguetti, the 16th century stone mosque. The square minaret can be glimpsed from many of the surrounding alleys, reaching up towards the sky. The intricate stonework of the minaret looked like a work of art in itself. Crowning the minaret are five ostrich eggs, representing the five pillars of Islam. Nearby to the mosque I found a doorway, with a sign above saying Biblioteque. I poked my head around and saw Paul and Becky, together with a number of other tourists, sitting in the courtyard. This was one of the many private libraries to be found in Chinguetti. I sat down in the courtyard and listened to the library's guardian describing the various books and manuscripts in the collection. Unfortunately I did not understand much as he spoke in French. Paul helped out doing some translation for me, but it was difficult to keep up.

We had planned to sleep out in the desert under the stars on this trip. Once I had left the biblioteque though, the wind had strengthened and blew at almost gale force along the wadi. Palm trees were bent double; sand and dust filled the air like a heavy mist. Suddenly everywhere people were fighting the wind as it gusted through the town, scarves wrapped around their heads and covering their faces. Our group met up again at Ibrahim's 4WD and we decided to abandon our plans of camping out in the dunes. Instead we checked into an auberge in Le Ksar, the Maison de Bienetre. We stayed in a traditional bedouin tent in the courtyard, where Ibrahim quickly set to work making a welcome pot of tea. Despite being sheltered by buildings all around us the tent flapped violently in the wind. I think if we had slept on the desert floor tonight we would have woken up buried under the desert. We self-catered in the auberge's kitchen that night and after a couple of hours work and slow cooking, had a bowl of our very own camel stew for dinner.

During the night, as we slept the wind eased off and by morning it looked like it would be a nice day. The stormy weather had blown through and the skies had cleared of dust and sand. From the roof of the auberge I watched the sun rise above the dunes, the morning light suddenly creating life and colour in Le ksar as the ochre coloured buildings slipped from shadows into golden, morning sunshine. The square minaret of the mosque, now bathed in early morning sunshine almost glowed like a beacon above the surrounding buildings. Camel drivers and their herds began to gather in the wadi, the groans and protests of the camels the only sound drifting across this town. They waited patiently to take groups of tourists on a trip into the surrounding dunes. Its a far cry from the cities heyday, when caravans of up to 30,000 camels, laden with salt used to pass through; today there are less than 100 camels in Chinguetti, all now engaged in providing desert trips for tourists.

By mid morning we were all ready to embark on the next stage of our journey to Ouadane, about 120km north east of Chinguetti. We drove along the Piste du Batha, by far the most scenic route, which passes through the sand dunes. The piste is not a well-travelled route; the shifting sands hid the tracks of previous vehicles that had travelled this way. Occasionally we would pass a small herd of camels close to the piste, standing in the dunes watching us pass before returning to whatever it is camels do in the middle of a desert. About half way along the piste we reached a ridge of low rocky hills where we stopped to take in the view. Ahead of us a huge rock strewn plateau stretched as far as the eye could see. Half way towards the horizon, like a mirage, shimmering in the baking heat I could see an oasis, the unmistakable green of palm trees hiding a tiny outpost of human civilisation. This was the oasis of Tanouchert, the most remote inhabited oasis I had ever visited. From the ridge overlooking the plateau we decided to walk to the oasis while Ibrahim drove ahead of us to arrange lunch. The inhabitants of the oasis seem quite well set up for feeding passing tourists such as us. We relaxed in a bedouin tent, sheltered from the fierce rays of the early afternoon sun, while lunch was prepared for us.

The afternoon drive took us across a less scenic landscape of sand and rocks until we reached a sandy hill and ahead of us we could see the ancient city of Ouadane, nestled along a rocky escarpment next to an oasis of palm trees in a flat and sandy valley. This city really did lie at the end of what passed as a road in the middle of nowhere. Continue travelling east from here and you would not see any more civilisation for thousands of miles; just sand, rocks and more sand. The Berbers founded Ouadane in 1147 and for 400 years the city was an important staging post along the caravan route to Oualata, in the south east of the country. Like many other cities in the Sahara though, Ouadane went into a steady decline when the caravan trade was transferred to a competing city in the late 16th century.

Today the old part of the city, which clings to the escarpment is deserted, the stone buildings in ruins; the city just a ghost of what it once was in its heyday. The city wall still stands at the bottom of the escarpment protecting the buildings above. One section of the wall juts out onto the flat, sandy floor of the oasis to protect a well, which was designed to supply the city during times of attack or siege. The main street, the Way of the Intellectuals, is a narrow alley, which begins at the city gate, next to the old stone mosque, built in a similar style as the one in Chinguetti. The dusty, narrow alley winds it's way up the escarpment passing the houses belonging to the cities founders. Along the way there are many viewpoints looking out over the lush oasis below and along the escarpment, crowded with stone buildings. This city felt dead, as though you were walking around an archaeological site rather than a living city like Chinguetti, where you would meet locals walking along the alleys. Here the only locals I met were the souvenir sellers, who all had gathered in one place, next to the best viewpoint of the city.

The Way of the Intellectuals finally led up to the top of the escarpment to the second mosque. Sitting on this rocky plateau overlooking the old city and the oasis below is the modern city of Ouadane, a messy, unattractive looking place, where the few hundred residents of the city now live. It was getting late in the afternoon and I didn't have time to explore the new city so my first impressions may have been proved wrong if I spent a little time there. Instead I rushed back down the escarpment and out into the oasis to capture some photos of the city lit up by the setting sun, the stone buildings glowing in deep organic colours.

Ibrahim picked us all up from outside the mosque next to the city gate and we drove back out into the desert to the top of the hill from where we first glimpsed Ouadane earlier that afternoon. The weather had improved a lot since last night so we set up camp for the night behind some low dunes, which protected us slightly from the wind, which always seems to blow out in the desert. By morning I can't say there were many happy campers around. During the night the temperature dropped to a cold 12'c, especially considering that two days ago when we left Atar it was 41'c. Ibrahim did what he always did and got the pot of tea going for breakfast, which soon cheered everyone up, especially me, as you can't beat a nice cup of tea.

We drove straight back to Atar following the Piste du Dhar Chinguetti, a rough, stony track which cut across the plateau in almost a straight line back to the ancient rock paintings. From there we retraced our route back down the pass and back to Atar, arriving back at Bab Sahara in time for lunch.