There were a lot of warnings about traveling the Sahel, mostly because there is a high threat of kidnapping in Mauritania and surrounding countries by Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQ-M). More about the situaton here. Despite these foreboding warnings, my research into the matter puts the actual risk as fairly low - less 1 in 100,000, but of course the consequence could be quite high. It is much more probable to have serious injury or illness IMO.
Because security is such a major concern, there are more than 50 checkpoints throughout the country where you much leave a "fiche", a strip of paper with your personal and vehicle details so (in theory) if you don't show up at the next checkpoint - they send out someone to find you. Not sure it would actually work like that - it is highly doubtful communication between posts is that organized.
Mauritania is really the start of west africa, where daily life is degraded of most refinements and boils down to the essentials. Scruffy, scrappy, dirty, messy, sandy and very black. Everything is surprisingly expensive - not sure how ordinarly people live.
Not only is it dangerous, but gasoline is hard to come by, as we found out when we nearly got stranded near Kiffa. I was also told it was pretty hard to even get a visa to enter Mauritania as an American. Americans had apparently been waiting weeks to get thier visas, but as so many things with adventure traveling - you shouldn't take anything as gospel. Since there really wasn't any choice about going through Mauritania to get to the rest of Africa overland, I took the plunge. Ready to pay an expediting fee (bribe) I showed up to the embassy in Rabat (Morocco) and asked if it was a problem with a US passport. They asked if I didn't have a 2nd passport, which I didn't, so they said it would be ready the next day - which it was.
The border was pretty rough, but the people are nice, maybe a little friendlier and smilier than Morocco actually. When finally got out of the seriously shitty no man's land onto the tarmac in Mauritania, the first soldiers we ran into were much more interested in a tv they found than checking our papers. The border process made Morocco look positively european by comparison. Waiting waiting for the customs guy to fill out the entry papers on the computer, hunting and pecking his way through the form.
Finally on our way to No-idea-boo, the first town in Mauritania, everything is broken and nobody speaks english, with the slight smell of shit everywhere, with goats all over the roads, donkey straining to pull carts overloaded with rebar and propane canisters. Total traffic chaos, endless late model mercedes beeping horns, people walking right through it all, with trash and sand blowing around, and grunge everywhere. On the plus side it is finally warm now, 25+ celcius, cooling down to under 20 by morning.
Once on the road to the capital, Nouakchott, we reconnected with the other Tony at a popular overlander albergue right in the center. A bolt holding one of my gas cans came loose and fell out, and I ran out of chain oil. Since the bolt was SAE and not metric, looking for a new one turned into a 3 hour ordeal. Some kid at an aluminum shop took it upon himself to find the bolt for me, and he drove us around from one grungy/sandy shop to the other throughout the "city". Finally found a bolt that fit after about 3 hours. Finding purpose specific chain oil turned out to be a lost cause, and I settled for gear oil after a few stops.
Heading out of Nouakchott, we got caught up in a real african traffic jam, complete gridlock. Understand that in addition to the regular one lane each way tarmac, there are dirt/sand tracks to either side, which normally has taxis and mopeds wrangling around the tarmac traffic. When things get jammed up, these tracks do as well - so you have 4-6 lanes of traffic jam each direction, people jockeying for one inch of advantage, gridlocking the roundabouts. It took us 40 minutes just to go a kilometer, dodging mopeds, donkey carts, and pushy taxis. Finally out of the city, we headed off toward Aleg, the next town.
Tony P has a neurological issue with his ear and wind noise, and can only take 4-5 hours on the bike before he starts to have problems, so we moved at a somewhat laconic pace through Mauritania. Leaving Nouakchott, we headed east towards Mali going through one dirt town after another - repleat with incredibly grungy food stands - passing the blackened dirt of tire repair outfits, lots of donkey carts straining to carry thier loads, trucks belching out thick black dirty diesel.
We were plugging along until about 250 clicks west of Kiffa, when we realized there were no more big towns, and none of the ones we had passed through since Nouakchott had regular petrol at all. Not seeing any mopeds (which are everywhere else) it became clear - there is no gas. I MIGHT have been able to crawl in (because the F8 is very fuel efficient), but both the tonies were absolutely going to run completely out well before Kiffa. We scoured town for some black market petrol, but nobody had any to sell. We talked to anyone who might have some, and they in turn called others. No go.
Finally, the head of tourism for the area came by and he spoke excellent english. His plan was to get a taxi to bring 20 liters from the capital Nouakchott, 500 kilometers to the west - which would take at least 5-6 hours, and we settled into a long wait. He returned about 10 minutes later with 20 liters that he got from the local military.
So we headed off to Kiffa where we finally found regular petrol - enough to get us to Mali where there would be more - and beer - finally. Heading out of Kiffa, there was a diversion of about 30 kms of piste (dirt track) that paralleled the main road that was under construction. It wasn't that bad, but not far into it, there was a military convoy of over 100 vehicles that were charging fast on the dirt, blasting us with dust. It was reassuring to see this show of force, most of them armoured pickups with machine guns on top and a bunch of soldiers in the bed. They had a few anti-aircraft gun versions, which was odd, since it seems the Mauritanians would come under air attack. After they passed you could finally see where you were going.
Usually we stayed less than a kilometer apart, and waited at the next checkpoint for each other to catch up. Most of the time I would be up front, and they others would trickle in shortly behind me. As we finally almost to the border, and had heard that the security situation was not good, we were waiting for Tony G for quite a long time, more than 20 minutes. This was unusual - I turned around and went through the last checkpoint again - talking to the soldier who was concerned as well. Ohhh god, this is how it goes, thinking to myself, and despite worrying I would be heading straight into what got Tony G, I still thought it more likely that he got stuck in one of the many sand holes along the way. Backtracking 10 kms I was really getting worried, when, to my relief, I finally saw his headlight. Turns out he had a tech issue in one of those sand holes. Phew.
Getting to the border at around 2pm, we thought we would get through in an hour. Between exiting Mauritania and entering Mali, it turned into a 2.5 hour ordeal.
We were asked for at least 2 bribes, which we got out by calling thier bluff and sitting them out. Tony G blogged about most of the details here. In these kind of situations, you really don't know if you are getting a legitimate official fee, or if it is just baksheesh. Challenging the official might get you in a real jam. One thing that worked really well is asking for a reciept, as this would be proof that they got a bribe, and presumably in a world of shit if we reported it.
Mauritania was interesting in a difficult way to describe - it is that quality of a place which has virtually no tourists or touristic value, is considered unsafe to travel through, and has little or no scenic assets. It is a place you have to get through - and these can be some of most interesting for overlanders - although I am not sure I can pinpoint why these places haunt your memories more than more touristy lands. They just do.