Imagine walking through a palm grove at night looking for a clearing so you can get a glimpse of the stars. To your disappointment you realize the sky is cloudy. But when you shut off your flashlight and stand in silence, the ground lights up around you: thousands upon thousands of glowing insects are glittering on the banks of the water channels, like strings of green diamonds. Fireflies dance among the trunks of the palms. By day this place is almost perfect. At night it becomes an alien world.
Almost perfect — In more prosperous times, snack stalls and bathrooms were built among the palms for tourists, and these are now crumbling in the middle of the palm grove. And of course some idiot kids have started leaving trash around the place. While I was there a Swiss man came to visit for the day. “This place isn’t what it used to be,” he said, “I was here fifteen years ago and these buildings were not here, and it was cleaner…” I quickly tuned out of what he was saying and went back to what I’d been occupying myself with for the past three days – sitting in a tent among the palms, sipping whisky and cola, eating dates, and writing. The Swiss guy still chattered on about the good old days. I should have told him yeah, but you should have seen this place 10,000 years ago before the desertification of the Sahara. It isn’t paradise today, but it’s still pretty damn special, and the time I spent there sitting in a tent doing nothing whatsoever is one of my happiest memories of travel. I should have asked the Swiss guy if he’d ever visited the palm grove at night, when the glow worms crawl out in their thousands along the river bank, and the fireflies dance between the trees, and the frogs and crickets fill the canyon with music. In the daytime hyraxes scuttle up and down the cliffs. To see that life exists here at all is to witness a miracle. And the locals still respect it as the soul of their community, which is paramount. All told, I’ve got no complaints to make about the place. Don’t miss it.
Getting there: It’s tricky from Atar if you don’t want to pay for a direct taxi. I paid 3000MRO for a shared taxi to the ‘barrage’, i.e. police checkpoint, where a road forks off toward Terjit. I then hitchhiked the rest of the way. At the time of writing there is significant work being done on the road, so it is easy to hitchhike with the work crews. At other times I imagine it’s pretty dead in terms of traffic. I ended up walking most of the return journey, which was 12 kilometers if I recall correctly.
The oasis: The beating heart of the place is a system of natural thermal springs. The water doesn’t come out very warm, so I recommend waking up early when the air is still cold and slipping into the piscine to relax in the tepid warmth. Once you’ve been on the train you’ll know what it really is to be filthy, and a warm bath in a palm grove seems more than you could wish for. Just please don’t be an idiot and use non-biodegradable soap. I left a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s there for public use.
The water is perfectly good to drink at the sources.
Hike up beyond the oasis, and then keep going until the uphill levels out, and you’ll find yourself in a beautiful dry wadi with trees and stone-age burial sites. I always camped up here to get a good view of the stars, and spent a lot of time searching for arrowheads.
Accommodation: There’s a large village built up under the oasis, and many places advertise rooms and campsites. Apparently one family owns the oasis, and little or no money from visitors trickles down into the village. This is a shame, but unless you’re hell-bent on supporting underdog businesses, it’s really only practical to sleep in the bungalows attached to the oasis. They’re tiny and lit by candles, but they’re perfectly comfortable at a cost of 1500MRO per night for one person, plus a one-time fee of 500 for access to the oasis. The oasis offers cooked meals but the menu sounded pretty brutal: “cuisine traditionelle du Mauritanie…macaroni et poulet, riz et poulet…”. Not sorely tempted by this, I hiked out behind the oasis to build a campfire every evening and cooked delicious meals of couscous and sardines. Otherwise I subsisted on dates, and several meals enjoyed at the house of my friend Ali. There’s a shop in the village but it has, if possible, even less of a selection than the typical Mauritanian store. You’d be wise to stock up on groceries in Atar.
Tours in the area: The young man who administers the oasis kept trying to tempt me with camel trek packages which tour the nearby oases. The descriptions sounded truly fantastic, and I wish I’d had enough currency to say yes. If you want a slightly better deal for the same tour, ask around the village for Ali (he often sits selling jewelry and dates at the mouth of the oasis). His offer for a 2 day 1 night all-inclusive camel trek was 12,000MRO. Extended trips of multiple nights are possible too of course.
Even if you don’t want to go on a trek, ask around for him anyway because he’ll invite you to dine with his charming family. And I promise the dates he grows are the best you’ll ever taste.