From Nouadhibou we travelled around 500km to Mauritania’s capital of Noukshott. It was a long and beautiful drive through the vast sun bleached desert. Whilst much Western Sahara looked the same, during the drive across Mauritania the landscape changed many times.
We started off driving through desolate flat white plains, they felt eerie and other worldly. It was similar to no mans land but on a much larger scale. Every so often we would pass the twisted and burnt out bodies of a car, they looked like modern art sculptures against the stark backdrop of white sand and blue skies. From this, the landscape transformed into perfect orange swirling sand dunes, rising from the desert floor. Sometimes we would see a single sand dune, a strange anomaly in the otherwise flat desert. Other times we would pass giant fields of sand dunes stretching as far as the Atlantic sea. As we neared Nouakchott we drove through mile after mile of rolling grassy sand dunes, which reminded me of the beaches in West Wittering I visited as a child. The landscape was the definition of inhospitable and it seemed incredible that people could survive there (despite the fact that most people in Mauritania depend on farming and livestock for a living, just 0.5% of the land is suited to agriculture). In the late afternoon we passed through a collection of brightly coloured wooden huts, where we stopped to buy water and bsuicuits. It was a sad reminder of the impact that humans have. For a 2 miles radius around the small village, the pristine desert we had previously been driving through was littered with thousands of plastic bottles and drinks cans jettisoned by drivers over the years.
Travellers rarely stay longer than a night in Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott. Most people I have spoken to described it as a ‘dump’, referring to the potholed and rubbish filled streets. It is true that it is not the prettiest of cities. Noukshott started out as a small village and quickly ballooned into the country’s largest city and the infrastructure has clearly not caught up with the rapid expansion. On the outskirts of the city there are no roads or pavements, newly built mansions sit in the middle of stinking mud flats, an inconvenience the occupants are able to overlook presumably because they drive everywhere. When it rains as it did when we were there, the roads quickly flood and the dirt side streets turn to mud. That said, we ended up lingering in Noukshott longer than planned. We stayed at a small auberge by the beach around 5 kilometres outside of the city centre. There was a small restaurant which served tasty fresh fish and seafood, it was a lovely place to sit in the evening and watch as the beach filled with Mauritanian families enjoying the sunset. There is a certain sleepy charm to Mauritania, which seemed to rub off on us.
A short walk along the beach from our auberge was the Port Du Peche, Noukshott’s main fish market. Hundred’s of tiny, brightly painted pirogues line the beach. We went in the late afternoon, in time to see the fishing boats returning with the days catch. It was an awesome sight, teams of mostly Wolof and Fula men haul in unison on thick ropes used to drag the smaller boats ashore, singing in time to their work. The larger boats remain at sea and agile men dressed in green anoraks wade out into the water to meet them, returning with huge crates of fish balanced on their heads. It is an impressive feat as the sea is rough and they wade out up to the height of their chests. As soon as they reach the shore they take off at a jog, crates of fish still balanced atop their heads, winding their way through the market crowds that fill the beach, like a line of worker ants. They unload the fish into the back of ancient rusted pickup trucks and then jog back out into the waves. On the beach there are hundreds of people milling around, women sell fish from small stalls, businessmen stand in circles fiercely bartering. On the far side there is an indoor market area where table after table is covered with a vast array of different types of fish and seafood. Further up the beach we watched as around 20 men worked together to pull in a vast fishing net. With each heave of the net they sung in unison. There was something humbling about observing a way of working that has changed little in hundreds of years.
As tourists however, there was a strong sense from some of the fisherman that we were not welcome. It is the only occasion I can think of when I have encountered open hostility to taking photographs. I like to think that I am respectful about taking photographs, I ask people’s permission first and I generally try to be as unobtrusive as possible. Here people were upset by the sight of a camera, whether or not it was pointed at them. At one point I asked a lady if I could take photo of the fish she was selling, she was quite happy with this, though she indicated that she did not want to be in the picture. As I was taking the photo a man walked over and demanded, quite aggressively to know why I wanted to take photos. I explained that I am English and in England we don’t have markets like this but he was still clearly unhappy. After this I put away my camera completely, but even this was not enough. As I stood watching men haul in nets one kept shouting at me ‘no photos.’ I told him I was not taking photos and asked if he could see any camera? We were speaking in French and I did not fully catch everything he said next, but I got the gist. “Why should you be able to come to my country and take pictures of me doing my job, when I cannot come to your country? If you want to take pictures then give me a visa.” It was an understandable anger and one which made me think about the sometimes dehumanising effects of taking photos of people. I also suspected that you would hear a lot worse if you tried to photograph the days catch being brought in at Grimsby harbour.