The map was red with a blob of orange by the coast, the UK government’s website advises against all travel to the red part and all but essential travel to the orange part, ‘There is a high threat from terrorism in Mauritania, including kidnapping. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers.’ This was to be my first trip of 2017, and I was nervous. My life exists on the road, constantly seeking adventure and new experience with surfing as the guiding force. But Mauritania was so far from the beaten track that the usual excited expectation was absent, in its place a red and orange blob of ignorance and fear.
I am writing this having returned, entirely safely, from Mauritania with a head full of colour, the red and orange no longer representing fear but now a swirling pattern on a woman’s head scarf or the bleeding beauty of a Saharan sunset. The beginning of our trip was blessed with exceptional waves. Next to a derelict wharf in the capital, Nouakchott, milky blue waves spun across the man-made sand bank, lifting the local’s fishing nets up in the air as they arrived then dropping them down again as they passed. We surfed here for three days, riding barrels and racing across the fast-breaking faces of the waves. There are five full time surfers in Mauritania, a remarkably low number given the quality of the surf, and we quickly became used to surfing by ourselves. A luxury becoming ever rarer as surfing booms across the world. The fishermen would wave to us every morning, hooting when big waves approached, whistling to us before giving thumbs up with wide smiles when we faced them and waved. We surfed just inside of the line of fishing nets, and felt protected by their presence.
The surf dropped off after a few days and we turned our back on the sea to journey inland to the Sahara. The Mauritanian people are historically nomadic, skilfully travelling throughout the harsh sands of the desert. As a coastal person the thought of being so far from water made me uneasy, I’ve always felt a sense of claustrophobia in landlocked places. But the further we travelled inland, towards the holy Islamic city of Chinguetti, the more comfortable I became. After two days of driving we reached Chinguetti and stood that evening on its eastern outskirts looking out over the vast beauty of the Sahara. At that moment I could have been standing at home in Cornwall looking out over the Atlantic. The dunes rose like waves, curving and writhing dramatically to the horizon. Just as I am constantly drawn to the sea, so I was drawn to the desert. Its emptiness pulled me towards it like a vacuum, because it isn’t really empty at all but a dynamic expanse of mysterious energy. Tears wet my eyes.
Our time in the desert was emotionally powerful, we could have stayed a long while, wandering its outskirts and staring into the endless sands. But we got back on the road and headed to the northern port town of Noadhibu on the fractious border between Mauritania and the disputed Western Sahara. After a frustrating chain of identical police checks we drove into the gritty, industrial town nestled beneath a belt of land mines. The air smelt foul but familiar, a powerful blend of salty air and rubbish. This part of the country is home to a series of magnificent point breaks, waves rumoured to rival the famous point breaks of Morocco a few hundred miles to the north. But for us they would remain rumours, google map dreams to be viewed only by computer screen. A military camp spans the entire stretch of coast where the waves lie with access afforded to permit holders only. We were restricted to surfing the less prestigious waves at the southern tip of the peninsular, hounded by pseudo-military national park rangers dragging us around the cliff to see non-existent seals and asking us for our sunglasses. One day access to the military points will be opened up, but not in the near future as the military deadlock between Mauritania, Morocco and the Western Saharan people continues.
We travelled back south, more accustomed now to the regular police stops. The wind had swung north in Nouakchott and was likely to remain so for a few months, or so the locals told us. The fishermen grinned, the north wind brought the fish. But the surf was messy and broken up, we surfed anyway, refreshing respite from the desert sun and sand, but the waves were far less appealing than at the start of our adventure. After two weeks we were jostled through the chaotic airport and boarded our flight to Casablanca then London and home. So here I sit, my internal map of the world a step closer to completion, privileged to have met and been welcomed by an invisible people.