Travel: To the front of beyond

The desert-bound former French colony of Mauritania may sound like a hard place to reach - but not for much longer. By Paul Keller
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Medulla, my wiry guide, was carefully inspecting the patch of ground where we hoped to camp for the night. His wizened, sandblasted face was a picture of concentration as he wandered round the site in billowing white boubou and plastic flip-flops, stooping to look for tracks in the white sand. Suddenly he smiled: "We camp here. No snakes or scorpions. Nothing to worry about - except maybe jackal."

We were on the edge of the Sahara desert, with no settlements for miles and only a wooden tent mallet for protection. The campsite checked for reptiles and creepie-crawlies, I pitched my tent while Medulla got down to the task of brewing up tea, the intensely sugared, minty brew which lubricates almost every social occasion.

This desert-bound former French colony sounds desperately hard to reach as well as desolate. Once it was the centre of a thriving slave trade fed by the ancient salt route between Morocco and Senegal; but, improbably, it is now available to British package holidaymakers as an add-on from one of our favourite holiday destinations. Twice a week, Air Mauritanie flies from Las Palmas on Gran Canaria to Nouakchott - the only capital city in the world that rhymes with Bagshot.

On my first night in Nouakchott I was struck by the sultry African heat, the little knots of people squatting by the roadside to cook on makeshift stoves, the echoing Muslim call to prayer and the clouds of dust kicked up by the passing cars, buses and donkey carts. Nouakchott has evolved dramatically since it was built four decades ago, but tradition still plays its part. A visit to the Marche du Cinquieme, one of the capital's main souks, reveals all the ingredients of the traditional Mauritanian household - sacks of couscous and rice, green henna dye, exotic spices, nuts and drums of camel milk, and delicious gooey yogurt.

Just outside the town lies the Plage des Pecheurs where local fishermen bring in the day's catch. The beach is alive from morning until early evening as hundreds of people come to pick over an abundance of fish. As boys trot up from the boats with bucket-loads of fish balanced on their heads, large African women with brilliant headscarves haggle ferociously down to the last ouguiya, their sharp voices carrying across the shore.

What really tempted me to Mauritania, though, was the chance to drive through the unspoilt desert wilderness that stretches for hundreds of miles east from the Atlantic towards Timbuktu in Mali. I suppose I expected scenes from The Arabian Nights to greet me.

In some places I wasn't far wrong. I hired my guide in Nema, a windswept desert settlement a few hundred miles from Mauritania's south-eastern border with Mali. Once we had agreed a fee for five days' guiding, Medulla climbed into the jeep with an enviable lack of fuss. Up to that point I had travelled without a guide, but I needed one to reach my ultimate destination, the desolate outpost of Oualata. I had hired a four-wheel drive car inNouakchott and driven for four days before heading off-road to Oualata. Mauritania's east-west road is nicknamed the "Route d'Espoir" (the Road of Hope), but "hopeless" might be closer to the mark given its ruinous, pot-holed state. In places the road is no more than a cratered track and there were times when I had to plough along dirt paths parallel with the road to avoid breaking the axles or shredding the tyres. It takes you on a bumpy ride through miles of arid hinterland and the large market towns of Aleg, Kiffa, Ayoun el Atrous and, finally, Nema, where the Brazilian- built bitumen road simply runs out.

The rewards along this arduous journey were the sight of vast stretches of wilderness unrolling ahead; night skies filled with thousands of stars; and sudden glimpses of nomadic life. In the heat of the afternoon I would pass a cluster of nomads lounging under an acacia tree in the bush, smoking long pipes. Men in turbans and blue robes would loom up out of the desert on camels, and then the caravan would disappear again like a mirage.

We bought bread from a baker whose shop consisted of a small mud hut with an oven built into the wall. Later, as I savoured the still warm bread, Medulla smiled slyly and told me that bakers often knead the dough with their bare feet to get the right consistency. Everywhere we went, beautiful Arab and African children ran up to us and demanded "Bonbons, stylo, cadeau, photo!" in an unceasing mantra.

We reached Oualata after a day of driving through scrubland and dunes overgrown with vicious camel thorns. I felt an incredible surge of satisfaction as I climbed out of the jeep, my hair and face covered in white dust. The strong Saharan winds that howled through the town seemed to have bleached the colour out of everything.

Medulla showed no interest in seeing Oualata so I was left alone to explore its dark alleys and houses, their doorways decorated with beautifully elegant Moorish decorations. Oualata is one of Mauritania's most ancient towns. Political prisoners were once held here as it was reckoned too remote to escape from.

Mauritania had certainly lived up to its reputation as one of the world's most off-beat destinations. Perhaps the flights from Las Palmas will change that, but the process is unlikely to be especially brisk.

Fact File

Getting to Mauritania: Paul Keller paid pounds 420 for a London-Paris- Nouakchott return flight on Air Afrique (01293 596600). The low-cost way to get there is to find a cheap charter to Las Palmas (available from all the leading charter airlines) and to transfer to Air Mauritanie's twice-weekly flights. He rented a car from Europcar (pounds 400 a week).

Getting to Gambia: Jeremy Laurance's ticket cost pounds 393 for a Gatwick-Banjul return through Nomad Travel (0181-906 4151). Bed and breakfast accommodation at the Novotel cost an additional pounds 60 per night. Other operators to the country include Airtours (01706 232323), First Choice (0161-745 7000) and The Gambia Experience (01703 730888).