Sample Itinerary Mauritania. This is the second part of my trip to Mauritania. To see the first part, check out sample agenda Mauritania.
Ben Amera is the third largest monolith in the world. The first two that claim that record can be found in Australia. Ben Amera rises over 630 meters (over 2,000 feet). A monolith is a geographical feature comprised of a singular giant rock. It is pretty cool.
After a lazy breakfast at Zaida’s Auberge, the gear was packed, and we were back on the road in our trusty steed, the pickup. Around lunch, we arrived in Afar, one of Mauritania’s larger towns, which is tiny. I eagerly whipped out Tripadvisor to check out the restaurant options. I wanted to avoid another meal of goat stew. I fell into mild depression, when Tripadvisor produced zero dining options. I settled on a coke and took a brief walk through the market. One local offered her hand in marriage at one of the vegetable stands, but I politely declined.
We headed back on the road and stopped for another Baba lunch special. I had informed Zaida, the organizer of my tour, that I was a vegetarian which I later confirmed with Baba when I met him on the first day. Now, I am not really a vegetarian, but I often lie when traveling overseas. There are two reasons for this. One, I look at this as risk reduction. I am often dismayed when it is 40 Celsius, and I see someone wheeling several hunks of raw meat in a wheelbarrow and watch as a chunk of meat falls out on the ground, and then is simply placed back in. I figure without meat, there is one less variable to get food sickness. Second, I am a really picky, unadventurous eater. I am not one of those brave souls, dining on khash (cow hooves) or tuna eyeballs. Hence, if I am only eating vegetables, I am ensured I won’t be eating anything out of my narrow food universe.
But in Mauritania, they had a different definition of what a vegetarian is, or simply were too lazy. Baba would create a giant simmering pot of stew, either filled with goat or camel. Two things I would never eat. But instead of making two stews, one with meat, and the other vegetarian, Baba would simply spoon out everything but the meat when serving me. I didn’t bother to say anything, and oddly I just rolled with the punches. But this meal was different.
As we sat on the mats in the desert, lounging under a tree for shade, I spooned out my first bite, and was immediately on alert. I immediately quizzed Baba what mystery meat had been simmering in the stew. He responded with fish. My eyes flashed with anger. I am a fake vegetarian, but I really, really don’t eat fish. I unloaded on Baba for a moment and pushed away my fish stew in disgust. In simmering silence, I turned to my back up, peanut butter and bananas. On many trips, I bring a jar or two of peanut butter for emergency rations. I ate in anger.
A bit before sunset we arrived at Ben Amera, a giant rock placed in the desert.
This was to be a night of wild camping. Baba, Elboo, and Zaida (who decided to join the road trip) set up the tents and began cooking dinner.
I placed myself on a low sand dune and watched the rich sun dip below the horizon.
As evening set, rain thundered down. Baba was surprised again that rain had joined us for a second time during our trip. It is odd to see rain in late March in Mauritania. I tucked myself into my tent and again hoped for a dry night.
Iron Ore Train
The Iron Ore Train is considered the longest train in the world. The train snakes up to 2.5 km (1.6 mi) and is overloaded with iron ore. Over 200 carriages are pulled through the desert by three or four locomotives. The total length of the track is 704 km (437 miles). Iron ore is loaded onto the carriages in Zouerate and eventually brought to the Atlantic Ocean to the city of Nouadhibou.
After a desert breakfast and a drive around Ben Amera, we headed to what might be considered the apex of the trip. Around 4 pm we arrived in Choum, which sits near the border of Western Sahara’s corner. Choum, just a village, reminded me of a town in the Old West, at any moment I expected a tumbleweed to roll through the sandy main square. The village smelled of poverty.
The Iron Ore Train bears no resemblance to the German train system. In other words, it is anyone’s best idea when the train might roll in. We approached several workers, resting in the shade. There guestimate was the train would arrive around 9 pm.
This gave us some time to eat a dinner by the side of the tracks. There is no train station. Several people just lounged next to the tracks, biding their time. I also picked up a thick but expensive blanket in Choum. This set me back $30.
Late afternoon turned into dusk, which transitioned into night. It was a cloudy night, with some light sprinkles. The stars were hidden by the cloudy night. We sat in thick darkness with the flame of a couple of fires providing some faint light.
Finally, I caught a rumble in the distance. It grew louder and I noted the faint light of the lead locomotive. The train began the long braking process, as hundreds of wheels squealed and screeched to a stop.
I noted the lone passenger carriage, as dozens thronged around the car jockeying for position. Directly in front of the passenger car was an iron ore carriage. Baba shouted for me to move into action. I shimmied my way up, hoisting my bag and my heavy blanket. There were several narrow steps, not really a ladder, that I needed to navigate. I then swung my body over the side, but there was a problem. There was no iron ore. It was empty. Baba had directed me into the only empty carriage. I surveyed my environment and it was worse than I had noted. In front of me was a locomotive. In other words, my entire view was blocked by the hulking engine. There was to be no epic ride in the desert, placed on the pile of iron ore, watching the trains twist into the horizon. Within moments the once empty carriage was filled with other passengers including a handful of babies and toddlers. It looked like I had just made twenty new local friends.
A traveler has a couple of options when riding The Iron Ore Train. There is a singular passenger car. The car is decrepit and overflowing with passengers, with every inch covered by people sitting on the floors. You can jam yourself in here for a very uncomfortable ride.
The Instagram-able option is riding in the open-air carriage, sitting on a heap of iron ore. Imagine resting in the carriage, looking out into the horizon as the trains dasappear into the horizon with the stars twinkling in night canvas.
The third option is sitting in an iron ore carriage that is empty. This allows you to get the open-air experience without the discomfort of sitting on the iron ore. This is where I ended up.
The train came to life as the engines roared, and the wheels began to spin. I found an empty space at the bottom of the cold, metal carriage. I was sandwiched between several male tweens and a group of women clutching several babies draped with blankets. I looked at the tweens as they clutched their legs against their chest to keep the cold at bay. I felt bad, they had no blankets and wore only thin t-shirts.
The disparity between the day and night temperatures was pronounced. Stating the obvious, the desert was hot during the day, yet the temperature dropped precipitously during the night. The wind whipping over the open desert didn’t help in the open carriage.
I yanked the blanket over my body and attempted to cocoon myself. My head peaked out while my eyes protected with cheap googles. I stared into the sky hoping to catch a sky of stars, but most were unfortunately obscured by the clouds. I felt a chill creep in as I hugged my body. And then a light sprinkle joined the mix. I shivered as I snickered to myself at the irony of another night of rain in the desert. I slipped into a frigid and uncomfortable sleep.
I half slept, and then I realized I had a problem. I had to take a piss. Most of my new friends seemed to be in some state of sleep. I found a plastic bag and staggered to a semi-open space. I dropped my pants and pissed into the bag. I tied it up and hummed it over the side of the rumbling train. In darkness, I returned and huddled back under my blanket.
The sun crept up. The chill gave away to warmth. I eyed my surroundings for the first time in the light. There was a clump of blankets interspersed with women to my right. A half-dozen babies were sprinkled in the mix. To my left, the boys had their backs against the cold medal sides of the carriage, still clutching their legs to their chest to keep warm. At the far end of the carriage was a small scrum. A man was sitting on his haunches, preparing a fire to make tea. I then noted a small goat in the corner.
As I stood up, I stretched my legs and arched my back. I propped my elbows on the side of the carriage and silently admired the panorama. Sand whipped around. I rewrapped my turban covering my face. I was reminded of my frustration when I stared directly in front of me and saw the hulking locomotive. At times far in the distance, I saw the train twist around the railroad as it curved. The trains faded into the horizon.
Time gently lingered. The landscape was stunning, endless golden sand. White, comfortable clouds drifted endlessly. The day stretched on and on.
The journey was estimated to be 12 hours. But of course, the estimate was short. I nibbled on a small packet of Oreos and hydrated with some water.
And my same challenge developed again. I had to piss again. But this time, it was a bit more awkward since I would not be able to hide in darkness. I draped my blanket over my head and shoulders and cowered in a corner and peed away. There was no toilet and this was the best option. Some of my carriage mates had done the same thing.
And 15 hours later, the train finally arrived to Nouadhibou. I felt a sense of accomplishment and relief. I was dirty and sandy. Tired and sore. Thirsty and hungry. I flipped my body over the side and negotiated the ladder down to terra firma.
I found Baba in the throng of people, mixed in with bystanders waiting for the train’s arrival. A taxi was hired, and we made our way to the hotel.
Nouadhibou is Mauritania’s second largest city, but still way short of 200,000. It sits on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and is adjacent to the border of Western Sahara (a disputed territory, but defacto Morocco). Nouadhibou, which translates to Place of the Jackal) traces its roots to a small fishing village under the Portuguese. Today, it is an economic hub boasting a fishing village and the last stop of the iron ore train.
I was hoping to spend a bit of time exploring Nouadhibou, but these plans were scrapped due to my late arrival. At this point, I simply wanted a shower and a good meal. I was able to take a decent shower at the hotel. But the meal did not go quite as well. Tripadvisor was lacking in terms of dining options, so I turned to Baba. I informed Baba who spends a month or two in Nouadhibou every year that I simply wanted a pizza.
We arrived at a restaurant. Restau Merou is allegedly 5 stars, at least that is what the sign noted. It also seemed to double as a Chinese restaurant? Not too promising for great pizza.
The restaurant was a bit depressing with only one other table occupied. The restaurant abruptly began shedding stats. The staff avoided our table. I approached the Chinese bartender and asked for a menu, which she promptly refused. I deduced that this was not part of her job description. Eventually menus were produced. And of course, there was no pizza. I but my tongue. I ordered a mixed salad and some pasta. The mixed salad was produced with a giant hunk of tuna. I thought that was a bit odd. Maybe, they should simply call it a tuna salad. It was an uninspiring finale to a beautiful country.
The next day, I crossed into Western Sahara. I arranged for a taxi for about $30 for the one-hour uneventful ride to the border. There is a Mauritania border crossing to get stamped out. The no-man’s land area was quite extensive. This is not a walkable distance and allegedly the area is ringed with land mines. My taxi driver proceeded to bring me to the Moroccan border which was another 15 minutes over non-existent road. Dozens of abandoned cars litter the way. The taxi driver dropped me off and I walked into Morocco.
Cost and Logistics
There is virtually no tourist infrastructure in Mauritania. It is possible to do independent travel here, but it would be challenging. You would have to depend on hitchhiking, sporadic transportation, and taxis. I also believe you would be missing out. It would be difficult for instance to camp at Ben Amera without transportation-guide support.
I elected as I mentioned to travel with a guide. The cost is 1500 Euro for two people, virtually all inclusive. I felt this was a pretty good value, considering the distance we covered and having both a driver and guide at my disposal.
Zaida from Auberge Vasque, based in Ouadane planned and organized my trip. This was done in French via Whatapp, +222 47 68 96 66. I also spoke with Sylvette who owns La Gueila Auberge in Chingueti. She came recommended but she stopped communicating with me on Whatsapp for some time, and I settled on Zaida. Sylvette can be reached on Whatsapp at +222 26 16 49 77. She also speaks English.
I would have added in one more night in both Nouadhibou and Nouakchott. I did not get to explore either city. Otherwise I felt like my agenda was a great introduction to Mauritania. I think an epic adventure, would be the camel caravan from Chinguetti to Ouadane. I will add that to my bucketlist.
Bring Euro, the typical new and in pristine shape. ATMs may or may not work in Nouadhibou or Nouakchott. There are no ATMs outside of these two cities.
Bring some snacks, the food is repetitive.
For riding the iron ore train buy some goggles and some plastic bags to wrap your luggage. Wear some light gloves and bring a scarf. Wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. Buy the heavy blanket in Choum.
Make sure you have plenty of fichier, the paperwork you will have to give the police many times. Your organizer will put this together for you.
Stating the obvious, the desert is hot during the night, and can cool down at night. Bring some suntan lotion. Bring a quick dry towel for showers.
Sample Itinerary Mauritania.