Think of Mauritania and you are likely to imagine the burning sands of the Sahara, nomads swathed in wind-blown robes and camel trains moving through the heat haze. All correct… but don’t forget the fishing fleet.

Travelling across the Sahara to Mauritania’s Atlantic coast I arrive at a place called Nouadhibou. Here, where the desert meets the ocean, I see something that takes my breath away – hundreds of multi-coloured wooden boats crashing through the unrelenting surf towards the open sea.

Twenty to 30 men in each boat, hang on for dear life as their vessels are bucked skywards by waves Californian surfers might pray for.

These are les pecheurs du Mauritanie – the fishermen of Mauritania, and the country’s best-kept secret.

There are many, even in Mauritania, who don’t know about them but, let’s face it, most Mauritanians have probably never even seen the sea. And yet off this coast are some of the richest fishing grounds in the world.

In fact thousands of fishermen work these perilous waters and have done for centuries.

Their sturdy open boats, about 40 feet long, are painted in the brightest and breeziest of colours. But don’t let that fool you. This sort of fishing – mostly done at night when fish rise to the surface to feed – is incredibly dangerous. Men, indeed whole boats, are frequently lost at sea and never seen again.

Les pecheurs du Mauritanie, many of whom come from neighbouring Senegal and the Gambia, are said to be fearless. So it’s with some trepidation that I join a boat one night as it sets out for the ocean deeps.

There are no lights, charts or lifejackets but the crew, 23-strong, are sprinkling the boat with water from an old plastic bottle. It’s magic water from a local witchdoctor and will, I’m told, lead us to fish and protect us from danger. I try to look reassured.

Powered by an old outboard motor we head out accompanied by a sister boat – it’s safer to hunt in pairs. The excitement is palpable. The men start stamping their feet and chanting: “Dolle, dolle, dolle.” It means: “We are the force.”

One young Gambian called Happy-Happy tells me: “We haven’t caught anything for days so need a big catch tonight.”

Four hours later, and 10 miles out to sea, there’s splashing in the water and the tell-tale glint of fish-scales. “Herring are jumping!” the skipper shouts.

A vast net, released over the side, is dragged in a wide arc through the raging sea.

Chanting in feverish rhythm the crew start to pull the net in: “Dolle, dolle, we are the force! Be strong like a man – not like a woman.” OK, it’s not politically correct, but it’s effective.

Eventually, our sister boat comes alongside to help wrestle in a net bursting with thrashing fish.

Read more, see more great photos

Read more, see more great photos

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