Exposure

Traveling Through the Most Forbidden Land in the Sahara

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Photo: Michal Huniewicz

Michal Huniewicz is a UK software developer with a knack for photography and a penchant for visiting places most tourists wouldn’t touch. The Saharan country of Mauritania certainly qualifies as one such place. If you were to read government travel warnings for the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, well, you wouldn’t go. Hazards include being murdered, kidnapped, robbed, and contracting Ebola. The country is also nearly impossible to access. “The rules for entering the country constantly change—we got our visas on whim at the airport in the capital city, Nouakchott, and virtually no paperwork was needed. But a couple of weeks earlier you could only get a visa in a consulate or embassy,” Huniewicz says.

Despite all of those hindrances, Huniewicz and his friend, Ammar, set out on a trip through Mauritania last year. Here, Huniewicz shares a few of his favorite encounters, experiences, and images including a wild ride on the world’s longest cargo train, taking shelter in an oasis, and encountering Berber cameleers.

Photo: Michal Huniewicz

The highlight of the trip was riding one of the longest trains in the world across the Sahara. The Mauritania Railway train is a 1.8-mile long beast transporting iron ore—the bedrock of Mauritanian economy—from an inland plant to the coast 437 miles away. Anyone can just hop on and travel on it for free.

With the most extreme temperature change from day to night I have ever experienced, we had to dig holes in the iron ore, against the edges of the wagon to sleep in overnight to stay warm. It was freezing and we stuffed dirty clothes into our shirts and jackets trying to stay warm. Over roughly 14 hours aboard the train, we covered 286 miles.

Photo: Michal Huniewicz
The land along the tracks is mostly barren and desolate and inaccessible to the north due to Western Saharan landmines. The Sahara is more diverse than I expected, and the landscape changes rather often. Still, there is almost no water. The closest sign we witnessed was a dried up lake bed covered in salt.
Photo: Michal Huniewicz
The dark spots and dots throughout this image are not a purposeful effect, they are signs of dust and sand on my camera’s sensor. Between the harsh light and never-ending flurry of sand, the Sahara provided some of the most difficult photography conditions I’ve ever experienced. This lens was shortly retired and rendered useless after our journey.
Photo: Michal Huniewicz
Fourteen hours after boarding the train we made it to the coast of the Atlantic in the city of Nouadhibou by the Tropic of Cancer. The Mauritanian train stops pretty much in the middle of nowhere, with not much but packs of taxi drivers awaiting the passengers. The delicious, fresh smell of the ocean was in the air, and completely oblivious to how dirty we were, we decided to stay for the night in the best hotel the city had to offer.
Photo: Michal Huniewicz
Bridging the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa, Mauritania was once a fairly bustling area, with busy caravan routes between Morocco and Timbuktu, transporting salt, gold, and slaves. It was the cradle of the Almoravid dynasty—short-lived, but ruling the fairly vast lands from Mauritania to Islamic Spain, with its headquarters in Marrakesh, a city they founded. Later, it became a forgotten and neglected French colony, and therefore many of its citizens still speak French.
Photo: Michal Huniewicz
This is Port de Pêche, or Fishermen's Beach, in Nouakchott, the capital city of Mauritania. It’s where local people are able to catch fish, but only ones rejected by the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese factory ships beyond the horizon.
Photo: Michal Huniewicz
The skyline of Nouakchott, is dominated by Mosque Saudique. With birds singing outside, its Garden of Eden-like interior offers a calm and cool refuge on hot days.
Photo: Michal Huniewicz
The days of the caravans are not entirely over. One can still see plenty of camels in the Sahara. During our travels to the Eye of the Sahara—also known as Guelb er Richat—we stumbled upon a well on our way. At 98-feet deep, it was a vital source of water and our cameleer explained that is was cared for by the entire community and not owned by any one person.
Photo: Michal Huniewicz
The Eye of the Sahara is a mysterious rock structure of unknown origin, possibly caused by an asteroid impact, or a geologic dome. It took us half of a day to reach it, but we were rewarded with a cup of tea from these women, who showed us selfless hospitality.
Photo: Michal Huniewicz
Desert travel used to be incredibly tricky, with deceptive landmarks guiding you through monotonous landscape. Miss an oasis and you could die. We were lucky enough not to miss ours, the enchanting Terjit oasis hidden in a steep gorge and surrounded by the Land of Thirst. Fresh water, dripping from the cliff, collects minerals on its way and becomes highly refreshing.
Photo: Michal Huniewicz
Many oases are turned into small settlements because of a resources like shade and water. Not surprisingly, these communities are not well off. Shockingly, these two girls were offered to Ammar and I as wives, which is not an uncommon practice in this part of the world, as many people are desperate to secure a better future for their children.
Photo: Michal Huniewicz
Chinguetti, a medieval trading center founded in 777 AD, is sometimes referred to as the seventh-most holy city of Islam, although this isn't something all Muslims recognize. It was famous for its libraries, which were traditionally run by elders, and they were free to use. Having one was a symbol of status rather than a source of income. The libraries also contain documents describing trade-related activity from previous ages, when tens of thousands of camels would enter or leave the town daily. These days, Chinguetti is quiet and desolate. There are still some libraries you can visit, but their number has been decreasing for centuries. This is the Al Ahmed Mahmoud Foundation Library.
Photo: Michal Huniewicz
Towns such as Ouadane, located on the edge of the Adrar Plateau, are made up of populations of 20 to 30 families or less. They will most likely cease to exist some time in the future, as most of their population is moving to the coastal cities, where life is meant to be easier. An Arab saying goes, “No one lives in the Sahara because they want to.”
Photo: Michal Huniewicz
Our driver, Ahmed, looking at the Adrar Plateau road that lies ahead. Heavily settled in the Neolithic era, the Plateau is now almost devoid of water or anything else for that matter.

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