Mauritania - Off the beaten track
Arguin Bank National Park
The Banc d'Arguin is a crossroads for aquatic birds migrating between Europe, northern Asia and Africa. Over two million sandpipers have been recorded in the winter, and many species use the national park for breeding also. The sea is crystal clear and shallow (no more than about 3m (10ft) deep 25km (15mi) from shore) and is dotted with sand islands where the birds nest and rest. The only way to see the birds is from small boats, and then only with permission from the national parks service, and a guide. Visitor times are strictly regulated - you are not allowed get close to the birds during the twice-yearly mating season - so plan ahead. A 4WD is required and the trip involves a 155km (96mi) drive along the beach - knowledge of tides is essential - then another 50km (31mi) through desert. Bring your own boat. Arguin Bank is about 250km (155mi) from both Nouakchott and Nouâdhibou, but even more difficult to access from the north.
The legendary capital of the West African medieval empire of Ghana, Koumbi Saleh is Mauritania's most famous archaeological site. Traces of the town were first uncovered in 1913 and since then an imposing mosque has been partially excavated, adding weight to claims that tens of thousands of people once lived there, making it possibly the biggest city in the world at that time. A lack of funds has halted excavation since the early 1980s, but plans have been formalised to complete the work. The ruins are almost 1000km (620mi) by road from Nouakchott. Flights depart the capital weekly to Ayoûn-el-Atroûs, which is a couple of hours' drive from Koumbi Saleh.
If you're exceptionally adventurous and want to see a ghost town in the making, head east to the isolated ancient town of Tichit, 865km (520mi) due east of the capital. It lies in the centre of a massive fault of rock streching almost to the Malian border. As a supply town it once boasted over 5000 people, but you'd be lucky to find 500 now. Visitors are rewarded with beautiful, decorative mosques - the most ornate in Mauritania. On the way, the landscape is a deadly mix of twisted shrubs, bleached bones, bare trees and - yes - sand. Never travel to Tichit without a guide, and check in with the police when you arrive. Believe us, they'll be surprised to see you.