May 2015

Mauritania: Zone Jaune ou Orange


Mauritania was the last country in the world I had not yet visited. When it came to the last dozen or so countries, the reason to have left it this comparatively late usually related to the difficulty in obtaining a visa or concerns about personal security. Colleagues who had worked in Mauritania, based in Senegal, had described how starting in 2007, there had been a serious decline in security. Previously, a country considered to have been one of the safest in Africa, became increasingly dangerous.

Two of my former diplomatic colleagues, Bob Fowler and Louis Guay, were kidnapped (in Niger) and held by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in northern Mali for 134 days in 2010. With the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the series of ghastly and barbaric beheadings of innocent western hostages, one could get the impression that all of North Africa, the Sahel, the Middle East and West Asia, as far as Pakistan, is now a part of the world one would be better off to avoid.

But when I drilled down to see exactly what had prompted the alarm for Mauritania, the incidents, albeit horrific, were dated in time. There were four French citizens murdered in 2007. Spanish hostages were taken by AQIM on the Nouadhibou to Nouakchott highway in 2009.  The uprising in Libya and the rise of Islamic extremism in neighbouring northern Mali prompted an international intervention led by the French in 2012. In response, Mauritania  set up a series of security checkpoints on major roads. There were eight between Nouakchott and Chinguetti. I was told by other travelers that the road from Nouadhibou and south to Rosso have similar systems. Biometric identification at the airport: fingerprints, eye identification and photos (somewhat slow and ponderous) are required before getting your visa on arrival.

Each country has its own consular advisories (for Canada see For Mauritania, France has, by far, the most extensive network and most up to date sources. When I visited, about half the country under the French Foreign Ministry website (for France see ) was listed as under Zone Orange (Avoid all but essential travel) and the other half, including part of the Adrar, as  Zone Rouge (Avoid all travel). The two lower levels are Zone Vert (exercise normal security precautions), and Zone Jaune (exercise a high degree of caution).

Shortly before going, I checked a number of travel websites, and sophisticated travelers accounts suggested that, while one should always verify with local sources, at least the major touristed sites (Banque d’Arguin and the Adrar), and the capital of Nouakchott, were reasonably safe to visit. I booked my accommodation for Nouakchott in advance at the Maison Jeloua, run by a French woman, Oliva Llose. Prior to arrival in Mauritania, I asked her directly about security and  the advisability of traveling into the Adrar. Olivia responded that AQIM had never been in the Adrar, and that travel there, in early 2015, was certainly safe.

Travel around Mauritania in the limited areas I visited (Nouackhott and the Adrar) was not only safe compared to say, Miami, or Jamaica, or Peru, but very safe compared to almost anywhere. Although organized tourism has declined precipitously (since travel insurance will not cover those who choose to go where consular advisories to avoid non-essential travel to a country or above are in effect), individual travelers continue to visit in limited numbers, at least recently, without problems.

That said, research is important and it is always useful and very important to reverify and to get the best local knowledge once you arrive. At Maison Jeloua, I met a French woman in her late 60s on her 11th trip to Mauritania. I also met an Italian man on his seventh visit, much of which was spent with nomadic Moors, camping well in the Red Zone of eastern Mauritania. I also met, in Chinguetti, a 19 year old Chinese woman who had made her way from Niger, across through Mali and Timbuktu and who had crossed the border near Nema. (I personally would consider that route highly inadvisable).

Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, is a totally forgettable dusty African city. It is a useful transit point to elsewhere in the country, but otherwise has very little else to offer. The city was fairly relaxed, though I was warned that there were thieves and pickpockets in the central market. My interest was to take a brief sojourn into the Adrar, Mauritania’s most dramatic desert region. I went to the oases of Terjit, Atar and Chinguetti, with a local guide from the area. I did not make it to the easternmost oasis of Ouadane.

What a pleasure it was to visit, and to get an insight into the unique world of the Moors of the desert in the westernmost part of the Sahara. Terjit is a jewel. It is a small desert oasis with water seeping down through a cleft in the mountains protected from the sun by the deep valley cleft and palm trees overhead. A small creek with clear water ran through the oasis. Atar, though less dramatic, also has the desert ambiance. The third town was Chinguetti, now declared a UNESCO world heritage site. There was a certain sense of sadness that a low key and gentle place, welcoming and hospitable to visitors was now virtually abandoned, at least in part  due to the consular advisories which continue to remain in place.

Slightly beyond Chinguetti one arrives at the archetypal sand dunes of the Sahara.  Watching the sunset over the dunes beyond the outskirts of the town with some camels nearby is a timeless visual spectacle of this corner of the northwest Sahara. In Chinguetti, there are small libraries of ancient books, recounting the history of the Adrar over the centuries. There are still options for accommodation, though most are now somewhat fraying around the edges, as the modest tourist traffic which once sustained them, is now a fraction of what it was a decade ago.