A fairytale with an anti-climax

25 & 26 March 2014
Atar & Terjit

The day after the wedding is a slow one, as such days are supposed to be. I enjoy the breakfast which Anja, the German carpenter, brings in from a trip to the market. Later that afternoon, she will leave for Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, to start her trip back home. Spring and summer are her seasons to work; in autumn and winter, she travels around Africa. It sounds like a pretty good life, although you have to be okay with not really building up much. Before leaving, she gives me a little bag of dried green leaves. When I look puzzled, se informs me it’s Artemisia, which can be used to make a tea that is supposed to prevent malaria. She co-owns a farm in the Casamance region of Senegal, where Artemisia is grown and promoted among local health professionals. I am sceptical about its effectiveness, but some Googling does reveal the tea to be reasonably effective – although it’s highly controversial in the medical world, because it might end up leading to the malaria virus becoming resistant to the most advanced pharmaceutical treatments. Still, I accept the bag, and wish her a good trip home. I will remember her fondly; my conversations with her have certainly been thought-provoking, and she would also prove to be one of only two solo travelling women I’d meet in all of West Africa.

During lunch, Justus, the co-owner of the Auberge, tells me the latest West African news: there are apparently some cases of ebola in Guinee. This sounds worrying, since Guinee is on my itinerary. Another quick Google search tells me that while ebola sounds very scary, outbreaks usually only last for a few weeks, and usually have “only” a few dozen casualties. Since I won’t arrive in Guinee for at least another month or two, I have nothing to worry about, at least where ebola is concerned. As soon as I will leave the desert, I’ll have to be careful of malaria though. Thankfully I have a box with 300 state-of-the-art malaria pills, and now a little bag of controversial herbs to make tea with, in my backpack.

For a few hours I’m the only guest at Auberge Bab Sahara, but then I’m joined by Adrian, a French accountant of roughly the same age as me, who quit his job and went travelling (amen!). He flew out to some place in West Africa, and is backpacking his way back to Europe. Also arriving at the Auberge are Edgar and Katie, a Swiss couple who enjoy offroading in the desert using their early ‘90s Toyota Landcruiser. He’s retired and drove to Mauritania from Switzerland; she’s still working, and flew to Atar to meet up with him. After exploring the Adrar region, they plan to make their way straight South, over the piste (unmarked path through the desert), to the ancient caravan town of Tichit, on the border of the Sahara desert and the Sahel semidesert. I’d love to join them, but my sisters’ birthday is coming up, and I have promised them to be in a place with wifi on that day, to congratulate them over Skype. Before that, I will have one more day to spend in Atar. I’m curious about the dinner invitation by Coumba, the sister of the bride at yesterday’s wedding. Cora calls her for me, and as luck would have it, Coumba can make it tomorrow evening.

The following day, Edgar and Katie invite Adrian and me to join them on a trip to an oasis, about 50 kilometers from Atar, called Terjit. Apparently it’s located in a ravine. Having already seen a stunning palm oasis in a ravine in Morocco (at Ait Mansour), I’m not terribly excited. However, they seem like nice people, and I don’t have any plans until tonight’s date with Coumba, so I decide to join them anyway. After half an hour or so on smooth pavement, during which we marvel at the stunning views of the plateau mountains and discuss the similarities between traditional Moorish music and 60’s acid rock, we turn left at a military checkpoint – where Edgar is asked for some “cadeaus” for the soldier’s wife. He gives him some candy in colourful wrappers, which the soldier happily accepts. The little side road to Terjit is normally a straightforward dirt road, but there seem to be road works going on, perhaps to lay down asphalt. Whatever the case, it has made the road impassable for any vehicle other than a die-hard offroader –such as Edgar and Katie’s Land Cruiser! Edgar clearly enjoys steering the car up and down the banks of dug-up sand and rocks, and although it’s not quite comfortable from the rear bench, it is good fun. Arriving at the oasis, we pass by a group of houses – some mud-brick, others made from palm leaves – until we reach the first trees, and a make-shift parking lot. A narrow and very sandy path takes us to the core of the oasis.

As it turns out, my scepticism was completely unjustified; Terjit oasis is one of the most stunning places I’ve ever seen. It’s not the kind of kilometres-long narrow gorge that Ait Mansour was; it’s only a couple of hundred meters long, and it begins quite wide. The sand is soft and the palms are quite densely packed, but other than that, it’s nothing special yet. But the deeper into the oasis and closer to the source we get, the closer to each other the rock walls enclosing the oasis get, until they are only a few meters apart. In between them is a little source in the ground, from which a little stream flows, providing most of the water for this oasis. The rest of the water – and this is what makes Terjit stand out from other oases I’ve seen – comes dripping straight out of the rock walls. Over the millennia that this oasis has existed, the dripping water has created moss, fern and herb-covered stalactites. Being in the middle of the world’s biggest hot desert, this really does look like a scene from a fairy tale. The locals clearly agree, as this oasis was apparently the scene of the coronation of several ancient princes. It is still popular with Mauritanians today; most of the visitors here are locals, sometimes coming all the way from the capital. They come here with their entire family to place a carpet on the sand, enjoy the coolness and some fresh dates, and generally be merry. Many of them put a bucket or a jerrycan underneath one of the stalactites to collect the flavoursome water. The kids love playing and swimming in the pool. That’s right, Terjit even has not one, but two little pools, created using some small dams. And amazingly, the water is the perfect temperature for some supreme relaxation.

Neither Adrian nor I waste any time at all getting into the pool, and it’s an incredible treat. Unfortunately, as I try to take some photos with my underwater camera, I notice that the battery is empty. And since I was so arrogant to think that I had already seen the ultimate oasis in Morocco, I haven’t brought any other cameras with me. Which is why all the photos you see here are by Michal “M1key.me” Huniewicz and David “Toubab” Nevill – thank you very much for allowing me to use your photos, guys!

After half an hour or so in the water, Adrian and I explore the source of the oasis. As we get closer, the gorge becomes so narrow, and the palms so dense, that the only way through is to climb a narrow path halfway up the rock wall. The source itself is at a slightly wider, sandy “cul de sac” in the mountainside. The contrast between oasis downstream from the source, and the desert once you pass it, could hardly be stronger. We climb the mountainside to see if there is anything else around here, but apart from some goat droppings, there is nothing but scorching hot sand and black rocks.

Once we’re back in the oasis, we join Edgar and Katie for a picnic, Mauritanian style, lying on a carpet near the small auberge that’s run by the locals. Some boys bring us dates and fresh oasis water, to supplement the food that the Swiss couple brought – including some fresh Swiss cheese and chocolate that Katie was able to bring on her flight to Mauritania! The local boys serving us get paid to do so, but they make us feel truly welcome, like family guests. This, together with the good food, the good company, and the stunning (and cooling) surroundings, make for one of the most blissful afternoons of my entire journey.

[This video was also recorded at Terjit, probably during the rain / harvest season (around July), when many Mauritanians go from the city back to the oases where their families originated, to participate in the harvest, escape the heat, and be merry together. It also shows off some of the more African influences in Mauritanian music, with the chanting call-and-response vocals. The extended version also shows some dancing around 6:30, 8:30 and 20:00; it also contains a song that, to my mind, is slightly blues-y]

All good things must come to an end though, and after several hours, we make our way back to Atar. In preparation of my date with Coumba, I put on my nicest clothes – which aren’t all that nice, as I only brought functional backpackers’ clothes, as I never expected to be having any dates in Africa. We agreed that she would pick me up to bring me to her parents’ place at 8 in the evening. As 9 o’clock comes around, I’m not too worried yet; this is Mauritania, after all. However, by 10:30, it’s becoming obvious that there won’t be a date tonight. Cora informs me that Coumba is probably trying to stall the timing of our date until after her just-married sister moves out of the house, so that she can go on dates without a chaperone. However, I don’t have time to wait for that; if I am to be in the capital, with its hopefully decent internet, in time to Skype with my sisters on their birthday, I have to leave tomorrow morning. And so what would always have been an unlikely date, unfortunately, never happens.

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