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© 2011 Sabrina Swenson. All Rights Reserved.
March, 2016

Mauritania. Most have never heard her name. The fairly large, yet oft forgotten, Mauritania sits in western, North Africa. Officially it is the Islamic Republic of Mauritania and is bordered by Western Sahara, Algeria, Mali and Senegal. Approximately 90% of its land is within the Sahara desert. 

Originally Mauritania wasn't even on my list of have-to-go places, however, with my boyfriend working there for a month, I decided to visit. When I did a Google search looking for the highlights of the country, the list was thin. I decided to make the best of it and set off for Nouakchott, the capital. 

The first day we set out for the only highlight in town; the port de peche (fishing port). I wasn't so sure how exciting a fishing port could be, but after parking and heading towards the beach, we where greeted with a stunning sight. Around fifty wooden boats were in the water just offshore fishing. Hundreds of people were on the sand carrying, cleaning or hauling fish. There were people everywhere. The scene was buzzing with activity. Boats, most flying the flag of Senegal, would run ashore where several men waiting would pull the boat over on its side. The fishermen would then give baskets of fish to them where they would proceed up the beach to be cleaned. Once the boat was empty of its catch, the men on the beach would help push the boat back in the water where it would continue to fish. It was a huge, busy operation and everyone knew what to do. I noticed one small child happily playing in a bucket. With a lack of toys, he was simply given a dead fish to play with. 

The next few days we drove around seeing what else the capital had to offer. There wasn't a whole lot of interesting things in this dry, dusty city and so out to the pool it was!

After a couple days in Nouakchott, I decided to head off to the countryside on my own as my boyfriend had to stay and work. I hopped a local minibus headed North five hours to Nouadhibou. The highlight of my trip started in this dusty place where empty streets and a whole lot of nothing exists. Mauritania is known as having one of the longest trains in the world, up to 1.6 miles in length. The train starts in the iron mining center of Zouerat in Northern Mauritania. It then travels 437 miles, approximately seventeen hours, to Nouadhibou on the coast were the cargo of iron ore is processed. I asked around and finally found where the train loaded. Although the primary function of this train is to haul iron ore to Nouadhibou, since there is a serious lack of other options, there is one small passenger car at the end of the lengthy train. I was warned in my travel book, as well as by locals, including the man who was selling tickets, that the passenger car left a lot to be desired. Cramped and small, most people had to stand or sit on the floor for the entire length of the trip. As for me, I thought I'd do as some of the hearty locals did. I decided I would hop in an empty iron ore car for free and ride the rails like a hobo! While waiting for the train to arrive I noticed most people standing at the end of the stop waiting to get on the passenger car. There were some locals, however, which were waiting at various positions the full length of the platform, which was actually just sand! They had boxes of goods they were transporting to Zouerat. With not a lot of options for such a lengthy trip, they simply filled up an empty iron ore car and rode for free to Zouerat far in the interior of the country. While waiting for the train I ran into the only two other tourists waiting to board. A young Frenchman who worked for the French railroad and loved trains and a young Lithuanian man who wanted to get photos and video for a documentary. Both stated they were going to ride in an empty car and I asked if I could join them. The train finally rolled in, Africa late, and the locals quickly started loading their boxes of good. Since there is no time table and no conductor that makes announcements, the locals loaded the boxes as quick as they could as the train was liable to leave at any moment. I handed my backpack up to the Frenchman who was already in the car and then hoisted myself up and in. As you would expect, there was absolutely nothing in the car except remnants of iron ore. One of the locals, who spoke excellent English, was loading goods two cars away. He was very friendly and chatted away the entire time he was loading his cargo. He eventually asked if we wanted to join them in their car and we told them we'd come over at the first stop. Shortly thereafter the train lurched and we were on our way.

The first couple hours of the journey were the most pleasant, as we were all still fairly clean and the sun was still shining. I snapped away with my camera although with endless sand and a flat terrain, most of my pictures of interest were of the locals on either side of us. All started the journey by wrapping their heads in a form of turban and the three of us did the same. I also had a kerchief around my neck and over my mouth and big sunglasses on over both. Alas, this didn't come close to keeping the loose iron ore from flying up, around and into my eyes. I was forever cleaning my eyes the entire trip. We rolled on into the desert and the kind local from two cars over would periodically bring us a small pot of tea with a couple small glasses. He'd crawl up and over the cars with great ease to get to us. He then would give us the glasses, pouring each of us a small glass or two of tea. He'd then take the glasses and back he went just as quickly as he came. We noticed smoke coming from the corner of their car and realized they had started a small fire with coals. They kept it lit the entire journey therefore having a steady supply of mint tea accessible. 

As the sun went down on the desert and one of the longest trains in the world, I got some beautiful pictures of the pink sunset. It was now four hours into the journey and the train finally stopped for the first time. As it came to rest, we grabbed our bags and headed over to the locals car, two cars away. They came over to help us with the bags and we let them. The Frenchman went first, he put his hands up on the top of the car and hoisted himself up and over into the next car before continuing over the second car. I was next and as I struggled to hoist myself up to the top of a car almost as tall as I was, I cursed myself for not lifting heavier weights at home so I could get up and over easily. I gave up and used one of my legs to get myself up and over the car. At this point, only about thirty seconds into the stop, the familiar churning of the wheels started again and the train started to accelerate. The Lithuanian quickly made it over and we were both now trying to quickly climb into the locals car as the train reached top speed. I thought to myself, this really isn't a good idea! We eventually made it over and into their car safely where we sat on the many crates of good they had stacked up. There were five locals and all were smiling and chatting amongst themselves. They had the hot coals burning in the corner and were making yet another pot of mint tea. The English speaker was translating for us and we had a good time sitting around talking about American music and a variety of other topics. I was the first to get sleepy and nodded off a few times. At this point it was after midnight and it was the first time the temperature had dropped. Until then I was quite comfortable in a long sleeve shirt. At this point I put on my down coat and hat. I propped my backpack near the side of the car, being careful not to put it right up to it. At several points, with such a long train, you could hear the train accordion. Once you heard the banging coming down the train, due to the car tongues crashing against one another, you knew to hold on or risk being thrown off your feet. As such, I didn't want my head up against the side of the car as if would have delivered quite a blow when it would accordion. After closing my eyes for a while the local said I could lay down in the back of the car where there was an empty space where I could lay down flat. I climbed over the crates of fruits and vegetables and laid down, once again using my backpack as a pillow. I had laid there for some time getting colder and colder, in spite of my clothing, when I felt a warmth engulf me. I woke to find the kind local had draped a heavy blanket over me before retreating to his corner. A while later the two other tourists were laying down as well, however, they had brought sleeping bags to keep them warm. Note to self, bring a warm sleeping bag to sleep in the desert no matter how hot it is during the day! I woke several times during the night due to the bang of the occasional accordion, the freezing temperature and sometimes due to the loose cabbages that somehow always made it back to roll around my head, no matter how far I threw them. 

The next time I woke, it was daylight. I cleaned the thick, chunky sleep and goo from my eyes and lashes. It took quite a while as the iron ore had constantly irritated my eyes. Once clear-eyed I stood to watch a brilliant sunrise. The only difference was now I, and all the other occupants of the car, were filthy dirty. Iron ore dust was everywhere. Not only my clothes, hair and eyes, but also my bag, which I think will never be the same. 

We eventually rolled into Zouerat which was evidenced by the large iron ore extracting equipment. The train was moving at a snails pace at this point and took forever to come to it's final resting spot exactly seventeen hours after it had begun. Once halted, we began gathering our things and crawled out of the car, filthy dirty from head to toe. The locals were used to it and we three tourists didn't care as it was a trip to remember forever. I said goodbye to the iron ore train and the two other tourists, sad that the epic voyage had ended. 

My next stop was to be Chenguetti, 250 miles away in a desert region. I took a local 4x4 which was necessary to traverse the desert sand. Founded in the 13th century as the center of several trans-Saharan trade routes, Chenguetti is a small city forever threatened to be buried by the encroaching desert. I hired a guide to take me through the labyrinth of passages of old town on foot. Most beautiful was the Mosque of Chinguetti, for which I had a great view from the top of a nearby building. The library was also of interest and contained important manuscripts of scientific and Quranic texts, many dating from the later Middle Ages.

After Chinguetti I planned to head back to the capital, however, while looking at my map saw the oasis village of Terjit was pretty much on the way. I decided to stop. My driver pulled up to the small village and we walked through the streets to a small path around large boulders which eventually opened up to a beautiful, palm-filled oasis. We sat down next to the bottom of the boulders where the temperature was far cooler. I rested while my driver and his brother, made lunch. The area was in stark contrast to Chinguetti's desert scenery. Here, numerous green palm trees lined the small stream running through the area. It was the most peaceful place in Mauritania. After lunch and several cups of tea, we climbed back into the car and continued the long drive back to the capital.

On one of my last days in Mauritania, my boyfriend and I drove out to the camel market, just outside of town. The herd was large and locals could be seen amongst them inspecting the possible purchase. We were persuaded to leave after just a few minutes, however, as apparently if you're not buying, you must go! Since our need for a camel that day was not great, we continued on. 

Although Mauritania was never on my list of places to visit, I'm so glad I went. I was reminded once again, although a place may initially look like it has nothing to offer, you never know what you'll find. I actually had one of the best times in this country. Nothing can quite compare to riding the rails in an empty iron ore car seventeen hours through the heart of the Sahara! Mauritania, I now know your name!

My first glimpse of the Port de Peche. This was the most fantastic fish market I've ever seen!
No toys to entertain your child? No problem! Just give them a fish!
Waiting in Nouadhibou for the world's longest train to arrive. The train carries iron-ore from Zouerate seventeen hours to the coastal town of Nouadhibou. In the opposite direction, it's empty.
It finally arrives! Africa late, of course.
Loading up cargo for the seventeen hour ride to Zouerate.
Locals loading cargo behind me.
Getting wrapped up for the long iron-ore filled journey!
Our empty car, except for the remnants of iron-ore!
Meeting the full iron-ore train in the opposite direction.
A kind local who kept bringing us tea, from two cars over.
Heading East through the sands of Mauritania.
Only seventeen hours to go!
It took me 30 minutes to brush my hair out when I was done!
A spot of tea!
After four hours the train finally stopped briefly and we crawled over to the locals car. They had made a fire in the corner and gave us more tea and fed us!
Yea, that was my bed for the night! I rested my head on my backpack and covered up with the dirty blanket the kind locals gave me (which without, I would have froze!) Crates of fruit and vegetables were next to me. A few cabbages got loose and rolled around my head all night long!
The locals car full of crates of fruit and vegetables.
After arriving in Zouerate, I hopped local (very crowded) transport to Chinguetti. The bread was a gift from the guys up front. They bought a loaf for each of us girls!
Arriving in Chenguetti, one of the more attractive of the ancient caravan towns in the Sahara. Some of it's buildings date from the 13th century.
The butcher shop in Chinguetti.
My guide taking me through the old town.
Wandering through the labyrinthine lanes of Le Ksar (old town) of Chinguetti.
The library which houses the fragile-as-dust ancient Islamic manuscripts of Chinguetti.
Chenguetti's 16th-century stone mosque.
The view between Chenguetti and Terjit.
My driver and his brother leading me to the beautiful oasis of Terjit.
Terjit has a streak of palm groves and is hemmed in by great red cliffs.
Making tea.
Returning to Nouakchott.