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North Africa Topics specific to North Africa and the Sahara down to the 17th parallel (excludes Morocco)
Photo by Michael Jordan, enjoying a meal at sunset, Zangskar Valley, India

I haven't been everywhere...
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Photo by Michael Jordan
enjoying a meal at sunset,
Zangskar Valley, India



Trans Sahara Routes.

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Old 16 Oct 2018
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Mauritania: Legendary Oualata (from Nouakchott)

I visited the ancient city of Oualata in October 2018, and am sharing my experience (and updated information), as it was problematic for me to find current information for my own trip.

Quick facts/questions:

Travel: Nouakchott-Nema-Oualata
Mode of transport: Public bus (Nour Voyages): 1,100 MRU (30 USD/26 EUR)
Duration: 23 hours (19 hours to Nema, 4 hours to Oualata)
Fiches needed: 5
Wait at police station in Nema: Yes (2 hours going; less than 5 mins return)
Felt safe: Yes
Worth visiting: YES!

In short summary, Oualata is an incredible town with special charm. Words and pictures do not do it justice. The highlight for me actually took place as I was leaving the town on my last day: sunrise, just beyond the town limits, and seeing the Berbers herding countless camel, goats, and cows all across the countryside. Truly one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.

I don't know if it's true, but I was informed that you can practically count on two hands how many foreign visitors the town receives annually. (I was told I was the first visitor this year.) The long distance coupled with the presumed threat of terrorist activity lurking not too far away makes it seem like a daring trip only for the most adventurous among us. I personally felt perfectly say, but will note that I'm African American.

I ended up spending just a day and a half in the town, which was enough. But if you take public transportation like me, maybe you want to give yourself another day or two just to recover and mentally prepare for the trip back. You can walk practically the entire town in a few hours. I even hiked up the hills on which the town sits and still had time to kill. There is an incredible footprint of what clearly used to be a large lake (now dwindled dramatically), over which you can cross to the "other side" of town. I was able to see the camel and cow herders leading their animals to the remnants of the lake for water and relaxation, which was quite an amazing sight.

Apparently the 2018 rain season was quite brutal and knocked many houses down, which you can still see. The mosaics in the doorways are indeed incredible and colorful, though it is important to note that most of the houses do *not* have them. Still, there are plenty to be seen. Although hot (about 108°F/42°C), it was incredibly windy and sandy. I wore shorts, and my legs were covered in sand after just an hour of walking. I'd recommend wearing pants and a turban/veil to protect your skin and eyes.

The Logistics

I booked a ticket with Nour Voyages (Carrefour Touré, Nouakchott) for 1,100 MRU the day before I set out to depart. The bus left promptly at 8 am, and made several other subsequent stops in less than an hour where the bus quickly filled to capacity. There was no AC on the bus, but it actually wasn't bad not having it. The trip was much longer than I anticipated, clocking in at 19 hours. In my opinion, stops were too frequent: we would stop for prayer, drive 30 minutes; stop for food, drive 30 minutes; stop for bathroom, drive 2 hours, then repeat. I feel like these could have been consolidated into longer breaks to save on time. One of the craziest things is that the buses were actually overcrowded and people had to stand up/sit in the aisles, despite having a paid for a seat. I was the only non-West African on the bus, and after making my presence known through my accented French, the bus "staff" - a coterie of guys who take turns driving and cleaning the bus - looked after me, always made sure I was comfortable, and food and water, which was greatly appreciated.

The scenery was quite nice, and Mauritania is far more green than I would have ever imagined. A few lakes and oases of sorts, if you will, along the way.

As others have noted, when we go to Nema, the local police/gendarmerie did their security/identification check of the bus, and I was escorted off the bus with my bags and informed I would have to wait at the police station until the truck to Oualata was ready to depart (which is also based on whenever it fills). Reason being: "For your security, because there are lots of criminals around Nema that would try to take advantage of you." I will say that Nema is one of the least charming places I've been anywhere in the world, so in hindsight, it was actually quite nice to stay with the police. It didn't seem dangerous, just not somewhere you would want to spend any extended amount of time. I had to provide a fiche and the officer assigned to me took me to a shop to make a photocopy (10 MRU) of my Mauritanian visa. All of the police were very nice, and my officer not only took me out for lunch, but also took care of coordinating my seat in the truck to Oualata for me. We went back to the station, where I was invited to join the other officers for lunch and tea. Total time spent with the police was just over 2 hours, before they dropped me off at the office where the truck to Oualata was departing.

The drive from Nema to Oualata is only 120 km, but it took a solid 4 hours (including a break for prayer), because it is quite literally all sand and you're simply following the tracks of vehicles that have previously traversed the terrain. Interestingly, the return route follows a different course, is MUCH smoother, and far more scenic. There is a very small stretch of paved road through a mountainous Pass. You will eventually see way off in the distance on top of a hill, the a large rectangular structure that is Oualata's former prison. Once you see it, you'll be able to pinpoint the town, but know that you still have a ways to go before you get there.

As with Nema, as soon as we arrived in Oualata, I was delivered directly to the gendarmerie, who were also nice. One sketchy thing is that they called for a "town guide" to escort me to an auberge, and he told me that he had to stay with me (again, for my "security") for the entire time I was in the town, at 2,000 MRU per day. I told him I was not interested in having a guide, nor had I received such information before or I wouldn't have come, seeing as I am a student and did not budget for such. He was adamant, delivered me to an auberge (which I did not initially want to stay in), and we ended up having an exchange that lasted for about 30 minutes. I had a Mauritanian friend in Nouakchott who interceded on my behalf, and the guide finally stopped his harassment and left, saying he would not need to accompany me. I decided to stay at the auberge where I was delivered, as by this time, the sun had fully gone down, and I was too exhausted to seek out an alternative. I am grateful that my French was strong enough to argue my point and that my friend was able to intervene from Nouakchott, otherwise who knows what the outcome would have been. Possibly end up being delivered back to the gendarmerie and forced to spend the night there/arrested?! My friend said clearly the gendarmerie and the guide have some scheme going where they each take a cut of the proceeds. That is very off-putting, so I definitely advise potential visitors to beware this.

On the return, I was dropped off at the police station again, and they promptly took me to the Gare and arranged for my bus ticket back to Nouakchott (Sonef Transportation, 1,200 MRU, air conditioned bus). Luckily the bus was leaving immediately, and again, as a foreigner, I was ensured a seat.

I had a lovely time in the Oualata, which definitely did not disappoint and was worth the arduous journey. Although I would recommend it to anyone keen on visiting, I personally wouldn't undertake the trip again.

(NOTE on the fiches: 1 in Nema, 1 in Oualata, 3 on return trip; the bus was never inspected going to Nema, so I never had to provide one.)
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