The sands of time in lively Mau­ri­ta­nia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - EL­SPETH CAL­LEN­DER

I AR­RIVE from Paris in Mau­ri­ta­nia’s cap­i­tal of Nouak­chott, a city be­ing slowly con­sumed by the Sa­hara Desert.

The view from my aero­plane win­dow of its suf­fo­ca­tion by sand is repli­cated at close range later in the day when I wan­der the back­streets in search of food. The al­most-coastal air is as warm as the grains sift­ing through my thongs.

The wil­lowy trees and easy ex­change of French and Ara­bic greet­ings lull me into be­liev­ing this city — in fact, the whole of this West African coun­try — is a tran­quil oa­sis. But I am de­ceived.

I find a bak­ery and step inside to join the throng of lo­cals.

‘‘The woman can go to the front,’’ a man in a long robe shouts in my gen­eral direc­tion and I move for­ward into a sea of blue and white tu­nics. Be­hind a glass panel three young men are in per­pet­ual mo­tion within their con­fined space.

Af­ter I’ve ob­served sev­eral trans­ac­tions, I poke a note through a hole in the di­vid­ing wall, lock eyes with the next pair that sweep past me, and call out in French for one baguette.

A mo­ment later the money is whipped from my fingers and a red plas­tic bag skids down the counter con­tain­ing my pur­chase. I step back into the quiet lane, clutch­ing my bread.

I hag­gle for richly coloured bed­ding in the dis­con­cert­ing half­dark of a mer­chant’s shop. I change money on the street with se­ri­ous young men who jab their cal­cu­la­tors and talk faster than I can un­der­stand. I take a high­speed taxi ride for a few hot blocks in a beaten-up Mercedes emit­ting smoke and dis­torted Ara­bic pop.

Beyond the city, where the af­ter­noon heat is as heavy as camel’s breath and the open spa­ces far greater than my imag­i­na­tion, I ex­plore the desert for a fort­night by four­wheel-drive.

In­ter­minable stretches of silent, sand-swept bi­tu­men are in­ter­rupted only by ex­plo­sive ar­gu­ments in Ara­bic be­tween my driver, Mo­hamed, and armed police. They de­mand that his pas­sen­ger, who is ob­vi­ously a tourist, must pay to pass their check­points. But Mo­hamed wins ev­ery time.

A pri­vate tour one morn­ing of an an­cient dwelling, el­e­vated high above a rocky plain where foot-sized scor­pi­ons pa­trol like tanks, ends abruptly when a snake ap­pears. The cus­to­dian flies into a wild flap to kill it.

Days later, in the pro­tec­tive shade of a Be­douin tent, I am roused from my af­ter­noon nap and chal­lenged to a game in which the win­ner of each round must pelt a camel’s drop­ping out into the dunes with a war­bling yell.

The fur­ther I ven­ture into Mau­ri­ta­nia and the more space and si­lence I ex­pe­ri­ence, the more height­ened and dra­matic th­ese mo­ments seem.

There’s the screech of brakes when Mo­hamed stops the ve­hi­cle to chase and catch a na­tive lizard. There’s the vo­ra­cious devouring of camel meat scraps by a teth­ered jackal at a tiny road­side mar­ket. A goat cries as it’s about to be slaugh­tered in a vil­lage square; the stab­bing pain as a thorn of bib­li­cal pro­por­tions nails my thong to my foot and my pan­icked shouts cause sev­eral peo­ple to rush to as­sist in its re­moval.

The jour­ney ends back in Nouak­chott and I board my plane to re­turn to France. Look­ing down again at the sandy city through the win­dow, I see what ap­pears to be a tran­quil oa­sis. Then my ban­daged foot throbs in my shoe and re­minds me not to be so eas­ily de­ceived.

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