Mauritania Part 1 Photography - M1key - Michal Huniewicz
If you were to read the UK government travel advice for the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, you would most likely conclude that anyone even thinking of venturing into that place must be a complete idiot.
Surely, if not murdered right away, you will be kidnapped, robbed, or contract Ebola - and all your friends at home will have an opportunity to say "told you so".
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to the provinces of Tiris Zemmour, Adrar, Tagant, Hodh el Chargui, Dakhlet-Nouadhibou and Inchiri (with the exception of the Nouakchott - Nouadhibou corridor).
It was actually pretty safe, and nothing bad happened. The flight was ridiculously early, and, when I was boarding, my ears still hurt after the Nine Inch Nails gig couple of hours before.
"Don't worry", had said one of my colleagues, "you'll sleep when you're kidnapped!" We felt safe, but the military or police were present almost everywhere, and my friend Ammar and I made it through about 50 checkpoints/roadblocks total.
The thrilling experience was somehow ruined by a young family who were on the same flight with us and also spent a week in Mauritania (and also survived).
These are my photos from Mauritania, part 1 - there will be part 2 as well. Both galleries will provide some travel advice, as travelling in Mauritania is generally poorly documented. Also, the rules for entering the country
constantly change - we got our visas at the airport in Nouakchott and virtually no paperwork was needed, but a couple of weeks earlier you could only get a visa in a consulate or embassy. A Nouakchott hotel provided
a letter of invitation for us, but in the end we didn't need it.
Thanks: Mitchell Kanashkevich for travel and photography advice;
Brendan van Son for travel advice; Alioune & Ahmed, our guide and driver, respectively.
Uploaded on: 2014-07-12.
Port de Pêche
This is Port de Pêche, or Fishermen's Beach, in Nouakchott, the capital city of Mauritania. As you can imply from that name, Mauritania, land of of the Moors, is a former French colony.
As a colony, it was rather neglected and forgotten, contrary to other French colonies in that part of Africa. [3
ISO 200, 18mm, f/5.0, 1/320s.
Fishermen at work
Sometimes referred to as the Plage des Pêcheurs, the beach is the lively home to many fishermen, some of whom come from Senegal (Wolof and Fula people [2
ISO 200, 75mm, f/5.0, 1/320s.
The majority of people here on the beach are black Africans, as Arabs apparently don't eat much fish, preferring more nomadic food (camel, mutton, or goat meat). [3
ISO 200, 46mm, f/5.0, 1/160s.
The young girl on the left asked me to take a photo of the older woman on the right, who clearly didn't like it. Only superhuman agility allowed me to dodge that fish she's holding,
which was hurled in my direction.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/60s.
The place is not exactly your typical tourist attraction, people are okay to pose, and, unlike the greedy Maasai in Kenya
, don't expect to be paid.
ISO 200, 50mm, f/1.4, 1/250s.
Here's a girl I met on the beach - she couldn't speak Arabic, French, English, or Spanish, and I suspect she was of the Fula people, from Senegal. Very nice, this one.
ISO 200, 48mm, f/5.0, 1/100s.
Man rushing to retrieve the fish from the boat you can see further in the background. The truth is that all the fish they are able to catch are those
rejected by the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese factory ships beyond the horizon. [3
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/250s.
... And Her Friend
Here's a friend of the previous girl, very cheerful. We tried to get them to give us their postal address so that I could send them their photos, but there
was a major communication breakdown, despite Ammar's linguistic abilities and my body language skills enhanced by verbal bells and whistles, and we gave up.
ISO 200, 80mm, f/6.3, 1/200s.
Men are holding a boat temporarily anchored to the shore so that fish can be taken out. And you thought your job was hard. Also, those guys apparently work there 24/7.
ISO 200, 22mm, f/3.8, 1/800s.
The whole beach smells of rotten fish, and so did the soles of our shoes afterwards. There are also plenty of fish scales and fish bones on the ground.
When back in Nouakchott, only after a while did we realise that the horrific stench around us was actually us; how embarrassing. Luckily, the people were too polite to say anything to us.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/6.3, 1/400s.
The beach is easy to reach via taxi - it is actually quite far from the city, but every driver knows how to get there. The same applies for going back.
The taxi drivers use the same sordid tactics as usual - so never accept the price they give you initially; they just want to rip you off.
ISO 500, 11mm, f/2.8, 1/50s.
Fish in the Market
What you can find here is swordfish, barracuda, sea bass, and red mullet. The market doesn't smell nice at all either...
ISO 200, 52mm, f/4.8, 1/125s.
Sunset at Port de Pêche
The allegedly fresh fish we ordered in a TripAdvisor-recommended restaurant in Nouadhibou (another coastal city) smelled, unfortunately, exactly the same as the beach. I waited for Ammar to eat some before I told him it wasn't so fresh after all,
so that it wasn't just me getting sick afterwards.
We then attempted to disinfect our stomachs with the strongest drink available in town - Coca-Cola... - and somehow managed to retain the food in our digestive tracks for the usual, healthy amount of time.
That's right, booze in Mauritania is very hard to come by, illegal to bring into, and probably no bottle contained as much alcohol as the one with my antibacterial soap.
ISO 200, 95mm, f/5.3, 1/320s.
Sunrise in Nouakchott
At sunrise, it was time for us to head off to the Red Zone - the Adrar province of Mauritania. Nouakchott ("Place of Wind"), as you can see, isn't exactly beautiful,
and while in 1980 it had only 150,000 inhabitants, now it's well over a million (actually, 800k to 2m, depending on the estimates [4
]). The price for this
growth is urban chaos, and no one seems to care about the natural environment. Except for the Port de Pêche and the frenetic fishermen, the city seems rather slow.
was the Warsaw of Africa, then Nouakchott must be the Kołobrzeg (ugly Polish coastal city) of Africa.
ISO 200, 200mm, f/5.6, 1/125s.
You see plenty of those on the road from Nouakchott to Atar.
Travelling in Mauritania is a bit tricky for foreigners - most roadblock/checkpoint policemen will require a fiche from you. A fiche is a piece of paper with your data on it, and we needed on average
5-10 a day.
Brendan van Son prepared a sample fiche
you can use; I used his template and never had any issues. But write your country name in French!
The police sometimes expect a small bribe (baksheesh) from you if you expect to get your passport back. I was told that threatening to call your embassy works well too, but Poland or the UK do not
have their embassies in Mauritania. So we bribed.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/640s.
From now on, flush toilets were to be but a mirage.
On a different note, halfway through the way to Atar our car (we took a local minibus, pretty much the same as a Kenyan matatu
) stopped, and this veiled man appeared.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/1600s.
It's Camel Milk
It was camel milk for everybody! How refreshing.
"... I've already had a lot of camel milk today", I said, and rudely refused. Ammar chickened out, too, but then he didn't on another occasion.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/400s.
Girl from Azougi
After reaching Atar, we met with our guide, Alioune, and our driver, Ahmed, and headed to the ancient city of Azougi. There wasn't much of it left, but I took this portrait of a local girl.
Azougi is where the Almoravids set out on a quest to gain more land, founded Marrakesh, and then forever changed Córdoba
in Spain [3, 5
ISO 200, 44mm, f/4.5, 1/800s.
Reaching the oasis
Then it was time to visit the ancient oasis of Terjit.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/5.0, 1/640s.
Many caravans perished because they missed their oases, and you must know it's not safe to rely on camel tracks [6, p. 53
]. The Terjit oasis is well hidden in this crack in the rock.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/8.0, 1/160s.
The oasis is a fairy tale-like place; I found absolutely enchanting.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/100s.
There is even fresh water dripping from the cliff, and you can use the cup to drink some from the bucket. The water falls through the rocks, collecting minerals along the way.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/50s.
Tent in the Oasis
When we visited Terjit, there were only local people there (well, domestic tourists), so it didn't feel overly commercialised at all. There is, however, a possibility of staying there for the night, if you're a tourist,
and there is a small fee to pay to enter.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/50s.
After many hours in the hot, dry weather of the Sahara (at one point, the temperature apparently reached 50C...), the oasis offers an unbelievable respite. Some people just sleep on the sand.
ISO 200, 48mm, f/4.5, 1/60s.
We couldn't dawdle though. After my photography equipment freaked almost everyone out, this courageous boy agreed to pose as the only one!; and then we left.
ISO 250, 36mm, f/4.2, 1/60s.
These houses were mostly empty, and Alioune told us they were for local tourists, but it wasn't hot enough (!) for them yet. We travelled in the Sahara,
also known as the White Man's Grave, in May, which in the days of camel travel was considered a sign of madness (in the case of Europeans anyway). [6
For me, the temperature was just unbearable, and it didn't get much colder at night (almost 30C).
One morning, after a nearly sleepless night in a hot oven of a room filled with lizards, I found that the externals of the inadequate air conditioning system were nevertheless covered with snow
as it did its best to keep me cool. It was the only caravansarai room to have aircon anyway - Ammar had a heat-related near-death experience in his windowless U-Boat style room.
ISO 200, 62mm, f/4.8, 1/640s.
Here, another oasis town, where there were a few people after all. I took the picture while Alioune and Ahmed prepared tea for us, right after I idiotically scratched my new sunglasses.
Boy, did that piss me off!
ISO 200, 200mm, f/8.0, 1/125s.
The mountains near Atar. If you read Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, you will find out that the French aviator actually landed on one of those flat mountains in Mauritania in the early 20th century.
He suspected being the first human there ever, and found meteorites on its surface.
Millions of years ago, these mountains must have formed part of a plateau.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/10, 1/100s.
Kids in Atar
Atar is in the Red Zone, but it didn't feel dangerous at all. On the other hand, last year the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi didn't feel dangerous either, and still I missed the terrorist attack only by 24 hours.
In one of those streets we met a family with pretty daughters, who invited us into their home. To my and Ammar's bitter disappointment, they didn't offer us the daughters, but they did offer us tea, which was nice as always.
ISO 500, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/40s.
Meet the Imam
There, we also got to know this jovial man, who was supposedly an imam.
ISO 3200, 50mm, f/1.4, 1/20s.
Meet the Camels
The following day, we travelled towards the Eye of the Sahara (Arabic: Guelb er Richat, which apparently means the Heart of the Sahara). There was a well on our way, 30 metres deep;
we were told that such wells were cared for by the entire community and not owned by anybody.
ISO 200, 42mm, f/8.0, 1/1000s.
I heard that in other Saharan countries, the locals sweep the Sahara to hide the footprints of other tourists, for a more genuine experience.
Not so in Mauritania! There's no need. More tourists visit the Lake District in England every day than Mauritania every year. We only saw three tourists in the Sahara during the entire stay.
ISO 200, 48mm, f/4.5, 1/1250s.
Mechanical Ship of the Desert
Here's our 4x4 that reliably carried us across the desert. According to Ammar (who obviously doesn't mind repeating the same word twice in one sentence, obviously),
"the vehicle is a Toyota Hilux, reputed to be one of the toughest commercial vehicles on the planet."
ISO 200, 18mm, f/16, 1/125s.
Look, water, at last! Ha ha ha! ...
Fata Morgana is a superior mirage, and has led many astray. The immense Saharan heat makes light play various optical tricks - when Saint-Exupery was stranded in the desert,
he saw lakes, Arabs, crosses, all of which were just a mirage.
ISO 1400, 80mm, f/5.0, 1/8000s.
Welcome to Mars
It was hard to believe that under the Sahara there is water, and in large quantities. There are in fact underground seas. [7
Millions of years ago, large parts of the Sahara were covered by seas, and fossils of whales have been found in the sands. Whales, all right. Just thousands of years ago, the Sahara
was green, covered with lakes and forests. [10
] Now, it's a complete wasteland.
ISO 200, 200mm, f/9.0, 1/250s.
Ahmed, with a Tuareg cameleer. The Tuareg people were once subjugated to some extent by the Arabs, who imposed Islam on them, but certain
customs have remained - it is the men who cover their faces. They are a Berber people who have traditionally lived a nomadic pastoralist lifestyle.
Islamicisation has changed this to some extent, but Tuareg women still enjoy high status compared with their Arab counterparts. [6, p. 302; 11
Fun fact: by feeling the hump of your camel, you can tell how many days more it can go without water. [6, p. 45
] That is, if you know what you're doing.
Also, bare feet are used to steer.
Felipe L Riccio suggested that these people are not Tuareg, so they might be another Berber tribe. [12
ISO 200, 38mm, f/4.2, 1/1000s.
Towards the Mirage
By then we knew it was just a mirage, so we begged him not to go that way, but off he went anyhow...! We never saw the man again.
ISO 200, 42mm, f/4.5, 1/1000s.
Later, we met some locals, who baked amazing bread for us that we gobbled up while it was still warm, and they ate the rest of it in this form: in a bowl with added water.
ISO 100, 56mm, f/4.8, 1/80s.
Contrary to common belief, sand dunes (called ergs) cover only 15% of the Sahara, while 70% of it is gravel plains. [8
ISO 100, 80mm, f/5.0, 1/400s.
Coffee is not at all popular in Mauritania. The country runs on tea, which is usually served in a small glass with a serious load of sugar ("Can I have some tea in my sugar?").
Someone told us that it was customary to have three rounds of tea, and it was a bit rude not to drink all three. If you get the fourth one, you are being asked to leave.
ISO 100, 38mm, f/6.3, 1/200s.
Most of those men were equipped with binoculars, to keep an eye on their camels and sheep.
ISO 100, 27mm, f/5.6, 1/250s.
Ahmed and Alioune left us in the middle of nowhere for a while, which was a strange experience. As soon as they drove off, I decided to seek refuge in this
hut (my pee was already the colour of brown rice tea from dehydration), while Ammar faced the sun more bravely.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/13, 1/125s.
To the Eye of the Sahara
And this is where we got lost. Driving there was no easy business, and I suspect we moved at the average speed of 5 km/h, jolting up and down in the car, the wheels often causing little rock avalanches.
More or less comfortable in the car, I thought of slaves who used to be forced to walk across the Sahara, often in such hostile environment. They were also the
first ones to be deprived of water in the case of shortage, as the caravan was searching for the oasis.
One of European travellers recalled a surreal scene of slaves being led across the Sahara to the coast of the Atlantic, roaring with laughter as one of the enslaved boys
was doing the impression of the auctioneer of the slave market. [6
As we will see in gallery part 2, slavery is still commonplace in Mauritania to this day.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/800s.
Tea in the Eye of the Sahara
These women, inhabiting the centre of Eye of the Sahara, made some tea for us. It brought a tear to my eye that they didn't expect anything in return.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/250s.
The Sahara is more diverse than I expected, and the landscape changes rather often. Still, there are obviously no rivers or lakes, although we did see an
empty bed of a lake, covered in salt. Water is so rare and precious, that many Muslims living in the desert use sand for their ablutions. [6, p. 71
As it often happens with nomads, they have traditionally been only moderately religious anyway. [6, p. 42
Not unlike in Bosnia, people in Mauritania claim to practice the authentic Islam - Islam of moderation.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/3200s.
Eventually, after 12 hours, we made it to the ancient caravan town of Oudane (Wadan). Once prosperous from the trans-Saharan gold, slave, and salt trade, especially during the time of the Ghana Empire,
it has been in decline since the 16th century, like most of the region, losing its battle to human migration as well as sand.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/4.5, 1/125s.
An empty and completely dry riverbed outside of Ouadane, rather depressing! The town became a bit more lively when it was time for me to barter though - according to Ammar it was "insane,
with all the wailing and gnashing of teeth", and I won, but not before I brought up coming from a poor country, various diseases running in the family, and whatnot.
ISO 200, 35mm, f/4.5, 1/80s.
The Ruins of Ouadane
Today, Oudane looks like a heavily bombed setting for Saving Private Ryan.
ISO 1000, 36mm, f/4.2, 1/50s.
The Kids of Ouadane
Located on the edge of the Adrar plateau, Ouadane is now home to only 20 to 30 families. There is an Arab saying: no one lives in the Sahara because they want to.
Given how harsh life in the desert is, it does make one wonder why they haven't moved out yet...
ISO 400, 50mm, f/1.4, 1/200s.
Such empty houses must have once been teeming with life. Today, they are okay and more or less safe to visit, although there is nothing particularly interesting inside.
ISO 280, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/50s.
From the Roof
Ouadane from the roof of one of the houses.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/100s.
Musee de Ouadane
Museum of Ouadane. I am not sure if this place is ever open. As we arrived in Ouadane pretty late, I got up very early in the morning (before the sunrise),
which wasn't easy, to take pictures in good light. Of course, there was plenty of clouds and it was rather grey - in other words, London.
ISO 360, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/50s.
The town was empty, but not completely. In one of those edifices I found a madrasa (or madhara), a Quranic school,
with lots of children huddled together in a small space, learning the Quran by heart, but I was asked not to take pictures.
ISO 400, 200mm, f/5.6, 1/50s.
The tower is probably the most often photographed object in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
ISO 200, 70mm, f/5.0, 1/100s.
We left Ouadane early to photograph a madhara outside of the town, but it was, sadly, closed.
ISO 220, 80mm, f/5.0, 1/50s.
It was time for us to head to Chinguetti, in hope to take pictures in another madhara.
This sort of anaesthetised nature is typical of Sahara - more than nothing, but not enough to sustain a lot of life.
ISO 200, 44mm, f/8.0, 1/800s.
On our way, we found this grave with no inscriptions. We saw quite a few of those, and it did not seem like anyone could identify who was occupying them.
Felipe L Riccio suggested that this was not a grave at all, but a military marker. [12
ISO 200, 18mm, f/8.0, 1/800s.
Before reaching Chinguetti, we made it to this oasis town, but it wasn't as pure as Terjit, so to speak. We were immediately surrounded by people selling souvenirs,
and I felt obliged to buy some so that I would have more time to take pictures.
ISO 200, 70mm, f/5.0, 1/800s.
And we were offered wives. These ones, among others. We didn't feel obliged enough to buy any.
ISO 200, 75mm, f/5.0, 1/640s.
This slightly older man was fit enough to run in the desert.
ISO 200, 200mm, f/5.6, 1/400s.
Hitchhiking Down a Long and Lonesome Road
He asked for a ride and we said okay.
ISO 200, 50mm, f/4.8, 1/200s.
Tuareg Boys and Ahmed
Soon after we dropped him in the middle of nowhere, we met those three Tuareg boys. Behind them, Ahmed.
They had a little dog with them that was so scared and so submissive, we feared he must have been treated rather badly. He didn't want any water or snacks from us, but,
like any dog, seemed to enjoy being scratched.
ISO 200, 38mm, f/8.0, 1/500s.
Just like the Tuareg people I read about, they too simply wanted to take our stuff, and reached for my camera and sunglasses without restrain.
ISO 200, 50mm, f/1.4, 1/8000s.
Elegant in the Desert
We ended up giving them some protein bars they didn't know how to open.
ISO 200, 50mm, f/1.4, 1/8000s.
Tuareg means "abandoned by God". [6, p. 8
] About a hundred years ago, those guys would have attempted to rob and kill
everyone who dared to venture into their territory, just like the Maasai around the same time or a bit earlier. Now you can just go there and you're fine.
Civilisation, I guess?
ISO 200, 50mm, f/1.4, 1/8000s.
Men and Their Camels
They offered us tea, and a bit later those two men appeared, hoping we would be doctors, as one of them had a problem with his eye.
This happens often in remote places in Africa - you are taken for a doctor. Unfortunately, we only had painkillers to offer.
They would soon leave, I would bleed from the nose, and we would head to Chinguetti. Please stand by for gallery part 2!
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/800s.