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Day 28: Chinguetti to Nouakchott

Michael Palin - SaharaAround a quarter to seven the generator coughs into life, which means electricity and hot water will be available until half past nine, when they turn it off again. Up onto the battlements for a last reminder of the panorama of Chinguetti, this quintessential image of the desert. It requires a vivid imagination to evoke the glory days of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when Ibn Battuta came down here from Tangiers, when there were seventy-six libraries in the town and when the constant coming and going of camel trains between Morocco and the fabulous kingdom of Mali made Chinguetti one of the centres of the civilised world.

Now the desert is quiet. The trade has gone elsewhere, by ship around the coast, on overland trucks that can't cope with the fine sand seas that enclose Chinguetti.

But, splendidly isolated as it may feel, Chinguetti is only 1200 miles from the coast of Europe, and if not trucks and boats, then aeroplanes may yet be its saviour. There is a growing curiosity about the desert, and as more tourists brave the Sahara south of Morocco this particular combination of landscape and history could well bring some money back to this historic city.

These tourist-board thoughts come to me as I wait at the small airstrip outside Chinguetti. I'm cadging a ride to Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, aboard a Cessna, from which Nigel has been filming the desert sands.

We peel off the baking tarmac and into the air, spreading panic amongst the camels careering below us. Soon the ancient crust of the old Saharan plateau pushes through the desert sands, exposing fault lines that reveal shiny, fractured, black rock and reminding me more than anything of the world's second largest desert, Antarctica.

After two hours in the air the colours begin to change. The charred blacks and browns of the escarpment give way to a green and white landscape as we slowly descend towards Nouakchott. The green is from stands of trees and fields of crops, a reminder of what irrigation can do in the fiercest of deserts, but it's the white that predominates, a great spreading undercloth of limestone and salt, as if the desert had been bleached as it reached the sea.

Our plane banks and turns and as it begins its final approach to the Mauritanian capital I can just about make out the Atlantic Ocean, away to the west.

Below us, streets and cars and palaces and office blocks and other visions of a way of life I'd half forgotten race up towards the plane. After where we've been, the thought of descending into the midst of a million people seems a great anticlimax, and the more I look forward to the creature comforts of a big city hotel the more I feel that I'm betraying the desert.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 28
  • Country/sea: Mauritania
  • Place: Chinguetti
  • Book page no: 96

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