We (Cor and Grietje van NoFear Travel), travel with our Toyota Hilux 4×4 camper by Africa. The African continent is the Mecca for 'overlanding' with many challenging routes and beautiful destinations. The first African country we visited during our trip to South Africa is Morocco followed by Mauritania. In this article we tell you everything about the continuation of the adventure (the overlanding in Mauritania). Of course you start again by watching the video at the top of the page!
Table of contents
The border crossing Morocco – Mauritania
On our journey to southern Africa, we leave Morocco behind and embark on an adventure in Mauritania. The adventure starts at the border. In Europe we hardly know border controls anymore, in Africa it is something else…
The border of Morocco
First we serve a exit stamp to be achieved on the Moroccan side. Because we arrive at about two o'clock and the customs officers have a break until three o'clock, we have to keep quiet for a while. After checking with a dog and with a scan that inspects all sides of the camper, the necessary waiting time and some ambiguity, we get the stamp and we are wished a good journey in Mauritania.
The border of Mauritania
Then follows a piece of no man's land. A bad stretch of road with a car wreck here and there and a lot of junk brings us to the gate to Mauritania. Immediately we are attacked by a number of 'fixers'. These are men who want to help you across the border for a fee. But we have read that these fixers are not necessary and so we keep them off.
In the meantime, due to all the pre-information and the attitude of the people here, we have the strong impression that they are after our money, fair or not! So watch out!!
In the first terribly old-fashioned, dusty office, the customs officer is sleeping on a couch. When he sees us, he slowly comes to life and starts typing on his historic computer. It all takes a very long time, but we keep calm. This is Africa….
Then back to the next office where we receive the actual visas for 55 euros each.
Internet, car suspension and third-party liability insurance
Then to the police and gendarmerie to finish some papers. All in dirty, dusty rooms with inefficiently working people. We still score third-party insurance for the motorhome and a SIM card with data to use the internet. And finally we can enter Mauritania. After about 4 hours we give each other a high-five…we're there!
We deregister the camper from the RDW (suspend), then we no longer have to pay Dutch road tax. We also cancel the Dutch motorhome insurance, it does not cover in Africa anyway.
We immediately set course in an easterly direction. The wind is blowing hard and the temperature is around 28 degrees. The sand is everywhere, blowing over the road and the air is full of it. We look for a somewhat sheltered spot and find it on the edge of Boulenoir, next to a ruin and a bit out of the wind.
About Mauritania – a little basic information
Mauritania borders the Western Sahara, Algeria, Mali, Senegal and Atlantic coast. The country is about twice the size of Spain and has only 4 million inhabitants, a quarter of whom live in the capital Nouakchott. The area is largely determined by the Sahara. Infinite plains, sand dunes, gravel fields, a few mountain areas and nothing else, define the picture.
A look at the travel advice card of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (here more information) tells us that much of the country is red. So be careful!
The people are for the most part Islamic, religion plays a major role in daily life. We notice that people are generally even more traditional than in Morocco, for example. There is poverty, to be sure, yet we do not have the impression that people are dying of hunger. The standard of living is obviously not comparable to the western world.
Mines and fishing
The country lives mainly from the iron ore mines in the north-east and from fishing on the west side. There are also some minerals that are extracted, including gold and petroleum. There is hardly any agriculture and tourism is still in its infancy in the smallest size. a handful overlanders only visits the country for a few days.
The journey through Mauritania
Towards the unknown
The settlement Boulenoire (Location here ) is a collection of ruins. We drive through it and see that the dirt roads between the houses are full of sand bumps. Some people on the street are a bit hesitant with a greeting, others wave frequently. At a booth that looks like a shop we buy bread. Two French baguettes, apparently that's the standard here. The people speak a "peut Francais", otherwise alone Arabisch. But we'll make it.
Outside the village we look for the off-road track that we can follow along a line on our navigation equipment. Soon the track appears to consist of a lot of sand. We lower the tire pressure to about one and a half bar and continue our route along the railway line. The subsoil varies from sand to various types of stone. The view is flat and infinite. About 400 kilometers of off-piste lies ahead of us. After half an hour we see another man walking with about 40 dromedaries.
There is nothing else!
The Iron Ore Train
We follow the trail of the iconic iron ore train. The train is loaded in the northeast of the country and follows the track for about 650 kilometers in a westerly direction to reach the port city. Nouadhibou (Location here ) to be transhipped into ships. The iron ore is shipped worldwide.
What makes the train special is its length. 200 wagons are regularly tied up, whereby the length of the entire colossus can increase to about 3 kilometers.
The train and its story is even more impressive because it is possible for adventurous travelers to complete the route on top of a wagon. CNN wrote something about it recently. It costs nothing and you get a “once in a lifetime” experience by driving across the desert. The advice is to wear ski goggles against the dust.
We follow the track for about 400 kilometers straight through the sand. Sometimes we drive stiffly next to the track, sometimes miles away from it. There is little life along the way. Sometimes we see some dromedaries or an abandoned village. We regularly see buildings where people used to live. A pair of upright rails served as a construction for the abandoned structures that formerly served as shelters for railway workers.
About halfway through the track at the (almost) deserted settlement inal (Location here ) we decide to stay overnight. Along the track is a checkpoint of the gendarmerie. They would like copies of our passports and car papers. The friendly gentlemen tell us that there were no passers-by the last two days. Before that, one set of Germans with a Landrover. We ask for some water and are led directly to the well. The man takes out a cup and proudly shows that it is drinkable. Later it turns out that the train sometimes stops at this place and leaves behind a wagon with drinking water.
Then suddenly the head of the gendarmes appears. He appears to be very honored by our visit. He takes us through the village and tells us that there are still 5 families living there with a total of 20 people. And so there are three gendarmes.
He shows us the best place between slums and ruins where we can see the train tonight when it comes by again.
The man is so happy with our visit that in the evening he brings us a bowl of noodles. That tasted good, but it is now the custom that food is mixed with sand.
When we leave the next morning, we receive an extra box of water and he wishes us a good journey. He calls the next gendarmerie post so they know we're coming.
Ben Amira (monolith)
Not far from the railway is the second largest monolith in the world, the Ben Amir (Location here ). Only the Australian Uluru is larger.
A monolith is a single piece of rock/rock, often left over after erosion. It is often located in the middle of an otherwise mostly flat landscape.
The Ben Amira towers 633 meters above the desert surface.
Upon arrival, there appears to be a large pool of water next to the monolith. It doesn't look like it's a permanent lake. Later it turns out that it rained exceptionally here and that is why the puddle was created. We use the water for swimming and have a great night.
It's hot, say terribly hot, 45+. We soon give up our attempt to climb the monilith. Too hot, too stylish!
At the foot of the mountains we photograph a beautifully colored lizard.
Another 60 kilometers through the sand and 100 kilometers on the asphalt before we Tie (Location here ) to achieve. In Atar we see a part of the real Mauritanian culture/street life. Holes in the unpaved streets, a lot of dirt on the way, donkeys, goats, many old cars, traditionally dressed people and chaos determine the street scene. And all that with a wind and 45+.
Atar is on our wish list to spend the night on Campsite Bab Sahara (Location here ), a concept among overlanders. We hope to meet some other overlanders and get some information about the area and Mauritania.
Unfortunately, the Dutch campsite owner himself is not present, he is in The Netherlands. We are the only guests. We realize that post-Covid overlanding is far from underway.
When it also turns out that there is no drinking water due to the recent floods, the electricity supply breaks down and the washing machine does not work either, we decide to pack our bags again. We set course for the capital, Nouakchott, some 500 kilometers back to the west coast.
On the way to Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania we are checked about 12 times. Then by the police, then by customs or gendarmerie. They always want a “fiche”, a paper with passport and car details on it. Fortunately, we have made enough copies to meet the demand.
In Nouakchott we go to restaurant/hotel Terjit Vacances (location here ). This accommodation is also regularly visited by overlanders. You can spend the night in the parking lot and there are clean sanitary facilities. A hotel has recently been built, where we eagerly use the washing machine.
The complex is located on the beach. That's great, then we can regularly go into the sea to cool down much needed.
Soon we get in touch with the owner. He apparently intends to pamper us and offers to join us on a tour through the city. As an entrepreneur, he has clearly grown above the average Mauritanian. It turns out that he also has a construction company in addition to the recreation accommodation. We get in his big Ford F150 and go with him through the city.
We drink a cup of coffee in a modern western cafe and drive on towards the old international airport in the middle of the city. He says that the process of moving to the outskirts of the city is full of corruption, personally organized by the president of the country.
A little later we drive over the former runway where there are clearly no traffic rules.
Then we arrive at a car garage where the owner -because of religious beliefs- does not shake hands with Grietje. We have some technical questions about our Hilux.
While he is regularly on the phone, we go to his office where we meet his father who also lives there.
Then we go on an inspection at a construction project where he is the main contractor. It is a bank building and he proudly shows the large brick safe to which he has the key for the time being.
The market in the heart of Nouakchott
Then we would like to continue on foot through the city because you see city life differently.
He drops us off in the heart of the city. It's quiet on the street. Logically, it is Friday afternoon, the people are in the mosque. By coincidence we walk past a mosque that is just emptying. A large crowd (men only) makes their way through the streets. Many go to the market where they eat and drink tea. It's busy, hot and, as far as we're concerned, terribly dirty. This surpasses the souks and medinas of Morocco on all sides.
They are all traditionally dressed men, and we feel like misfits more than ever. The men look gray in their eyes, don't smile and look at us as if we came from another planet.
Then we walk to a more western supermarket and do some shopping. The prices are European.
Outside the supermarket we take a taxi back to the camper. Well, taxi? Besides all the dents, it does not have a single mirror. Grietje hopes that at least the wheels won't fly under it. Costs: € 2,50.
Despite the fact that the fishing port is an attraction for us, it is a deadly serious event for the people who live and work there.
There are many hundreds of beautifully colored boats along the beach. There is no harbor with a jetty, no, the entry and exit of the wooden ships is via the beach. The ships are launched daily across the sand with all their might. The ocean off Nouakchott seems to be full of fish.
As far as we're concerned, the men have a hard and dirty life. When they return at the end of the afternoon, they are visited by porters who bring the caught fish to the market or factory. It is hard for us to sustain it on the market, the stench is so intense that breathing through your mouth is the only option.
Behind the market are many streets with shops where men hang out, try to sell something, mend nets and throw their garbage on the unpaved streets. The distance between what we are used to in the western world and what we see here is almost unimaginable.
We are happy to have seen this side of Nouakchott as well.
Another round through South Mauritania
Because we have the idea that we haven't seen Mauritania enough, we decide to make another round through the south. One of the targets is the white crocodiles in Lake Matmata. It seems that a few crocodiles still live here, after millions of years ago today's Sahara was much more water-rich.
We make a round of about 1800 kilometers and it takes 7 days. The route takes us to the most remote places and to villages where the inhabitants have never or hardly seen a white westerner.
The route consists for about half of asphalt, the other half are cart tracks or there is nothing. In that case, all that remains is a line on our navigation that we follow.
Unfortunately, the road to the crocodiles became too bad for us. By now we had plodded through the sand for 25 kilometers and were already fairly close to our goal. We didn't feel like digging ourselves out at 40+.
We returned to a settlement where we gathered about 60-70 children around us in no time. They whoop, yell, wave, come closer and flinch again. It is the result of the fact that they have apparently never seen a white person. A very special experience.
A few children dare to give it a hand, but quickly withdraw. Most keep their distance. When we drive away they run after us for hundreds of meters.
The isolation from the rest of the world is very great in this village. We couldn't find it on a map either.
Just a day from the diary
We start the day with some chores. While Grietje is doing the dishes, Cor pumps up the tires of the camper again. We are in the sand, about 200 meters from the asphalt, so that last part will be on hard tires. Just checking the coolant and the air filter and a small repair to the drain hose.
Then we are ready to go. Holy shit, the car digs in instead of moving forward. Too late… we're stuck in the sand. Let's deflate the tires again and try again. But alas, we had already sunk too far. Fortunately, about 25 meters away is a reasonable tree to which we attach our winch. Gretel operates the buttons of the winch, while Cor carefully accelerates. A little later we are free again and we can easily bridge the 200 meters to the asphalt. Here we inflate the tires again and leave for a 100 kilometer ride on asphalt to Kiffa, a fairly large village.
Here we can do some shopping. Water, vegetables, fruit, internet credit, diesel, bread, cookies and yogurt are the needs.
Fruit and vegetables are very limited. Actually, only potatoes, onions and bananas are for sale. The fruit has a questionable quality. Yogurt we find on the fourth attempt. Water and internet credit is available everywhere, as well as diesel for €1,37 per litre.
It is hot and dusty in the village. People look at us as if we are aliens. They are not really helpful here and we don't really feel welcome.
The traffic on the main street is one big chaos. We suspect that most of them don't have a driver's license and everything drives through each other. There don't seem to be any traffic rules.
Anyway, we drive on and soon arrive at a police checkpoint. The man asks for our papers and wants to know where the journey is going.
He explains to us where we can best go. Meanwhile, he invites us to come and eat our sandwiches in his tent, where the only shadow of the environment is.
Of course we do, and a little later we eat our sandwich together with the sergeant.
We continue on the asphalt road for a while and arrive in a hamlet where the road surface suddenly changes into an off-road track.
We switch on the 4×4 and go deep into nature again. Then we drive through incredibly beautiful landscapes with great views. Along the way are sometimes tiny villages or just separate structures where people live.
They keep goats, donkeys and cattle in large numbers here. The path is often unclear and so we sometimes have to search between the trees for the right way.
Slowly the landscape changes and it becomes wetter. That means a different vegetation and we see more and more different birds. Here and there we have to cross a river, where Grietje first checks the depth and subsoil on foot.
At one point our road comes to a dead end against a pond/swamp. We must turn and find another path. As we turn we see a huge lizard. The animal is at least 75 centimeters long and we take a picture from the car.
A little further on is an open area with some grass. Oh well, it's half past four, and it's terribly beautiful here, we decide to spend the night here. Maybe we'll spot more animals tonight or tomorrow morning.
While we are writing this, some boys pass by in the distance, waving happily on donkey carts. A little later a goatherd follows who returns with his herd to a village on a hill, about 2 kilometers away.
Untouched nature and off-road slopes
The tour through the south suits us fine, we enjoy the unspoilt and pure to the maximum. The off-road slopes are sometimes very challenging. Often the path disappears and we have to look for the right direction ourselves.
Several times we have to pass through deep puddles and river fords. The last one was very exciting because we first had to go down steeply, through half a meter of water and then straight up again.
You can see from everything that nature is getting wetter. We see much more green grass, trees and sometimes an oasis. Sometimes it is so wet and hot that it is reminiscent of a tropical rainforest. But what do you want, we also drive close to the Senegalese border, the south of the Sahel.
The animal kingdom is also changing in composition. Dromedaries have been exchanged for huge herds of cattle. The goats and donkeys stay. We spot a large lizard. We can just get a picture of it before it goes into the swamp.
And birds come in large numbers. Many species, birds of prey, waterfowl and other colorful specimens abound. We'll take a picture if we can.
Finally we go along the southern border, along the Senegal River to the west where we reach the Rosso border crossing (location here ) because of the many bad reviews about waiting times and corruption. We cross the Senegalese border at Diama (location here ).
Our image of Mauritania
The number of photos is limited this time. The reason for this is the respect for the local population. We like to capture what our eyes see, but you also don't want to give people the idea that we are "watching puppets". We did take a sneaky picture here and there, but it doesn't give an overall picture of everything we've seen.
After almost 3 weeks in Mauritania we have a reasonable picture of the country. Our recent comparison material is Morocco, which is still fresh in our minds. In Mauritania, many aspects are just a bit more extreme. The Islamic faith is the basis of everything. This has been deeply implemented in people's daily lives.
We experienced the people very variable in friendliness. Here and there we were welcomed and they had the intention to pamper us. But we were also treated with caution or even ignored. Ignorance and unfamiliarity is the reason we think. Based on the last part of the route we have to adjust our opinion a bit, the people here were very friendly, we were invited to a village community and spontaneously offered couscous in a remote settlement.
Standard of living
The standard of living is in many ways incomparable with Western customs. That does not mean that one is unhappy. We have seen many happy faces. There is little or no contact with the rest of the world, especially in remote areas where there is hardly any form of transport, except a 4×4, which only a few have.
People have grown or bought enough food, whether or not they have grown or bought it themselves. Many even have a cell phone.
We see few working along the way. That is also not possible under the weather conditions. The vast majority are lounging under a shelter or tree.
The quality of the roads
The quality of the roads is very variable. We have seen new beautifully paved roads, but sometimes you end up in the heart of a village where even a 4×4 has trouble with the holes and the mud. But the huge unexpected potholes in some asphalt roads are the most annoying. They don't stand out and if you go through them in a small way, it will cost you a tire or shock absorber. We have never traveled to a country where we have been checked as often as Mauritania.
We had to hand over a copy of our passports and car papers at least 50 times.
Fruit and vegetables are poorly available. There is nothing except potatoes, onions, bananas and sometimes a few grapes. Food prices are higher than we were used to in Morocco, often towards European prices.
For overlanders and adventurers
We do not recommend Mauritania for anyone looking for a sun, sea, beach holiday. There are few accommodation options in the sense of hotels or auberges, especially if you go deeper into the long. But for adventurers, overlanders with their own 4×4 and overnight accommodation, it is a true paradise to be discovered. Below is a short video of the route we took.
Seen a mistake? Ask? Remark? Let us know in the comments!