The land the map forgot

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Ramadan ended this week, but in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania fasting seems to be almost second-nature - as Stephen Wells found out, when he was stuck in the Sahara with a tin of sardines.

On the western edge of the Sahara is a blank area four times the size of Britain - perhaps the cartographer couldn't be bothered to finish off this part of the atlas. The borders are suspiciously straight; a sure sign that there is absolutely nothing here worth fighting over. So just what happens in Mauritania?

We enter the country by crossing the Senegal river in a barely floating pirogue with 30 people. The local currency is the ouguiya. There's no famous statesman or monarch on the notes, but a camel. The first taxi after the border looks full, to my untrained eye. However, the driver has no such reservations and somehow manages to squeeze 12 people into the ageing estate car. We reach the capital, Nouakchott, which is slowly being eaten by the desert. Sand piles up against the sides of buildings like snowdrifts. There's only one other European in town: the bloke I'm travelling with. This is certainly a good place to come if you want to avoid coachloads of camera-waving tourists, and it is similarly devoid of backpackers trying to get away from it all and ending up tripping over other backpackers.

The local people are the Moors, who were traditionally nomads. They stroll over the sand in blue sheets and flip-flops, making the place look like a giant beach toga party. At the edge of town there is a bus stop taking people inland. A driver takes a camel note and says that we will leave in half-an-hour. We leave nine hours later, when the Mauritanian definition of "full" has been achieved. The road is brand new - perfect straight Tarmac with flat, stony desert either side. There is no other traffic, and the next town is 200 miles away. As the sun sets, only the mesmerising white road lines can be seen. It will be a miracle if the driver stays awake.

Suddenly we fly off the road into the desert and back again to avoid a donkey with a death wish. They run forwards when scared, so you have to drive behind them. A few hours later we are again woken from our slumbers by more frantic swerving and strobe lights. This time it's a camel. Apparently they charge headlights, so you have to remember where they are, then turn the lights off until you're past, with occasional flashes to check you're on course.

The town of Atar is an ideal place for sitting around drinking green tea. This is served in tiny glasses and poured from a fantastic height for maximum frothiness. The climate does not lend itself to anything more energetic. It hasn't rained for two years. At midday it's a toasty 45C, so you tend to break into a sweat with the exertion of turning the page of a book. The next car onwards does not leave for days, so there is plenty of time to accept offers of a drink. However, this is a Muslim country so there is no point asking whether there are any lagers in the fridge. Arabic is the official language, but French is widely spoken in this ex-colony. Language apart, colonisation had little impact here. Sand, it appears, was not a hot commodity.

Three days and dozens of glasses later, the rattling hunk of junk arrives: a geriatric Land Rover that is being denied the right to die peacefully. Sixteen people squeeze in and we head off-road to Chinguetti, leaving the last bit of Tarmac behind. Magnificent red, rocky hills break up the horizon of this lunar landscape. Sadly, the vehicle gives up while climbing the first hill. Things are not looking great. Only one car passes every three days, and unfortunately it's ours. The driver seems surprised that an engine can overheat by being overloaded and driven uphill under the Saharan sun. The other passengers remain stoically silent. They appear to have the nutritional demands of air plants. They drink and eat nothing, while I worry whether my vast jerry-can of water will last the journey.

If we are stuck for days, then there is always the empty goat. It appears to have been totally hollowed out, given a scrub, filled with water, tied off at the neck, then strung up by the legs. Apparently, the skin sweats and keeps the water cool. Unconvinced, I stick to my plastic can and contemplate lunch. Mauritania is not a culinary extravaganza. It is mainly limited by the fact that nothing grows here apart from the odd date palm. In town you can buy camel couscous, but as far as packed lunches go, it's tinned sardines or nothing.

So I'm stuck in the desert, hundreds of miles from any water, and all there is to eat is fish. I attack the tin with a penknife and practise chewing without my teeth touching to reduce the grating of the omnipresent sand.

The driver wants to try starting the Land Rover but there's no starter motor, so we have to push. My body's temperature gauge also goes off the scale. When it is eventually resurrected we have to climb the mountain pass on foot, with the Land Rover limping behind. After a catalogue of further breakdowns we arrive at the beautiful desert oasis of Chinguetti. It is a stereotypical desert scene, with camels, date palms and rolling dunes of golden sand as fine as talcum powder. It is the seventh holiest site of Islam and in its heyday as a trans-Saharan service station for salt caravans it boasted 30,000 camels. Nowadays there are just a few dozen, and the Moors' ancient capital is being reclaimed by the desert. The pace of life is wonderfully relaxed. At night the stars are dazzlingly bright; the Milky Way is a huge splash of white across the sky.

The north-west Atlantic coast can be reached only by train, as the "road" is not even a track. The train starts in the desert at an iron ore mine and travels 400 miles to the port. At a mile-and-a-half long, it's an absolute monster. It is not meant for passengers, so you have to ride in the open-topped wagons. There are 250 wagons to choose from, and about 40 people climb aboard. The desert view is stunning, and the ride is free. The drawback is that you are plastered in red ore dust as soon as the train starts to move.

The coastal town of Nouadhibou lies between two extremes. The land is a lifeless desert, but the sea is one of the richest fishing grounds in the world. Millions of pelicans and other birds migrate here to fill their bills and bask in the sun. To return to Nouakchott from here is easiest by plane. Air Mauritanie has two planes and four airstrips, so air traffic control tends not to be too hectic.

Mauritania is a strange but unforgettable place, with a certain sandy charm. There are no specific sights to add to a postcard collection, just fascinating people in a bizarre landscape. I buy some tea with my last camel note and climb aboard, hoping that sardines are not on the menu.

Getting there

The writer flew via Paris to the Ivory Coast and travelled overland to Mauritania via Senegal. The most direct approach to the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, is by air via Paris, from where Air France and Air Afrique have daily flights. This way in could be expensive, however; the Africa Travel Centre (0171-387 1211) quotes pounds 534 return from London, including tax, for travel in February.

It could be cheaper and easier to get a charter to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, then travel on one of the Air Mauritanie flights from there.

All visitors need a visa, for which the cost is about pounds 13. Unfortunately, this cannot be obtained in the Mauritanian representative in London; you can get one from the Consulate en route in Paris or Las Palmas, but need to allow sufficient time for the bureaucracy.