The Auberge Monod was handy for the town but depressing enough for one to question the rationale of trading the comfort of one’s home for the facilities of a Dickensian jail. Its most distinguishing feature was the semipermanent smell of sewage, a turbo-charged wave that would sweep through perhaps twice an hour giving the impression of a septic tank being emptied out into the wardrobe. A point I felt obliged to raise with the proprietor the next morning only to be reminded, and even given a demonstration, that I must always flush the toilet after using.
I walked around the town soon after the sun came up, profiting from the sight and sound of the streets slowly coming to life. In truth it wasn’t a pretty picture, just a typical higgledy-piggledy desert town of mosques and market stalls with robed men, colourfully-dressed ladies and stray animals wandering around in the alleyways of sand and garbage. However the people were calm and extremely friendly and there’s always something pleasurable about returning home with a hot fresh baguette wrapped in newspaper, even if it is to be consumed knee-deep in the fumes of human excrement.
The boys arrived ahead of schedule and we set off on the journey east for Chinguetti. A glance at the map had already revealed there was no proper road but still it seemed strangely shocking to be driving over mounds of virgin sand with nothing to offer an indication of distance or direction. Mohammed was evidently untroubled, he was in his element, the desert was his place of work and he seemed to enjoy it. We bounced at speed across the incredible and little-changing landscape – how did he know where to go? – and at one point he parked the jeep on the slope of a beautifully formed dune so we could all get out and play like children. We were the only people around for miles and miles and miles.
Or so I thought, until twenty minutes later, when we spotted a man walking through the sand. He was alone, except for a few camels, and to all intents and purposes he was my first ever desert nomad. It was an exciting and totally unexpected moment; I asked Mohammed to stop at a respectable distance and just had to go over and say Bonjour.
I must say the chap looked rather taken aback, indeed anxious, at the sight of a man from the north of England running clumsily through the sand towards him. Whether he was a particularly timid nomad I can’t be sure but his handshake was lettuce limp and he seemed a trifle miffed at my turning up uninvited and disrupting his morning’s work. Conversation didn’t go well either, “Bonjour. Etes-vous une nomade?” prompting nothing more than a furrowed brow and the exposure of a row of teeth that had seen better days.
A relief, then, for all concerned when Mohammed came over to offer some explanation (in Hassaniya) for my inane and embarrassing behaviour.
There are many strange ways to earn a living but surely few can compare to that of the life of a nomad (at the time of independence 90% of Mauritanians were nomadic, today less than a quarter of that figure). I thought about the Kyrgyz family huddled in their tent in the sub-zero wilderness of the Pamir Mountains and now this chap wandering about in the blinding heat of the desert, grazing his animals by day and retiring each evening to his canvas home once the sun goes down. And then what? For sure he will never experience the emotion and the pain of Strictly Come Dancing or Manchester City’s inconsistent away form but then the threat of starvation if the rains fail to show is probably all the drama he needs.
Chinguetti is to Mauritania what Timbuktu is to Mali. Important for what it used to be rather than what it is today, this town flourished as long as 800 years ago as a centre of Islamic learning and a major hub along a trans-Sahara route travelled by thousands of men and their camels. This was back in the days long before a caravan was a holiday home on wheels and the story goes that as many as 30,000 camels once passed through Chinguetti in a single day.
I’d read this basic history and should have been prepared. But when we arrived there in the heat of the day and parked the jeep up in the old town, the sense of abandonment and dilapidation was at once overwhelming. The streets and alleyways were all but deserted (perhaps not surprising in the middle of a desert) with just the souvenir vendors to show from an alleged population of 4000 people. Despite this being the country’s number 1 tourist attraction, I saw no tourists.
We wandered through the labyrinth of tall stone walls, those great survivors. The old mosque stood proud as the focal point within one of the many empty compounds and we clambered up onto a rooftop to get a full view of its rectangular, almost castle-like tower. Only then, looking down from the top of the ancient city and the phenomenal sand dunes that surround it, did I start to appreciate the fullness of its charm and the extent of its vulnerability. Surely – one day – these huge waves of sand will completely take over.
The intensity of the heat and the silence of the desert added even greater impact to what was truly an extraordinary picture. Was it sad that almost everybody had left or merely an indication that man should not be meddling where Mother Nature is destined to rule? The tranquillity, and my thoughts, were finally broken by the voice of a lady who proved an unyielding determination to exchange her hand-made jewellery for the money in my pocket. I was soon to find that “Merci, Non” was not an answer to her satisfaction and, in the absence of any other visitors, she decided the best policy would be to stick around with me for the rest of the day.
Unfortunately for the poor lady (non-)vendor I didn’t hang around that long. Having originally planned to spend two days in the town the realisation very quickly dawned that two hours was probably more than sufficient to allocate to the admiration of a maze of ancient walls. “We could stretch it to three”, I put it to the boys, thus allowing time for lunch and a visit to the library.
Extract taken from Ten Letter Countries.
9781780880754, £10.00, published 10th April 2012
The Ten-Letter Countries is an insight into the history, geography and politics of twelve fascinating countries through the eyes of The Alphabet Traveller. Each country David visited had 10 letters to its name. It follows on from his earlier adventure, The Four Letter Countries