Set in a desolate corner of Saharan West Africa, Mauritania doesn’t exactly draw the crowds. It’s so desolate, in fact, that aside from the rock-strewn western shores (protected, and strikingly resort free), you’ll find deserts that stretch much further than the eye can see (occasionally broken by a lush, enormously welcoming oasis), scarring canyons and immense mountain-top plateaus. The whole place is so startlingly hot that even if you’re the kind of hardy traveller who’s slipping into their sandy boots at the mere thought of Mauritania, you’ll probably want to restrict your visit to the slightly less overwhelming winter season.
Capital Nouakchott is little more than an oversized fishing village, where you can eye the relentless roll of the ocean at Port de Peche, and admire the sparkling catch whilst sipping a sweet mint tea. In the evening, try to gain an invite to a mechui – a nomad’s traditional banquet – where you can sample whole lamb roasted over an open fire, stuffed with rice and eaten with the bare hands.
Nouakchott is also the gateway to the desert, where you can don your wilderness wraps and sit astride your camel for the lengthy ride to the magnificent town of Oudane, a formerly-opulent, boxy oasis town with charming architecture and memorable sandy streets. Alternatively, there’s the dusty iron-ore train (the world’s longest), which clatters across the desert in a way that can’t fail to shake you to the bones, or – for the refined traveller – an astonishing, if extremely toasty ride across the sands in a hot air balloon.
If you’re sick of the desert (even the hardy need a break), you can drift amongst the endless, flocking sandpipers in the Parc National du Banc d’Arguin, or drop into the Islamic holy city of Chinguetti, with its square-towered mosques and views across seemingly endless wavy dunes.
It’s certainly not a chill out holiday destination (you’d do well to find a high class hotel in the entire country), but, having only abolished slavery 30 years ago, Mauritania has a real ‘step back in time’ feel. That and endless searing sands…