We stayed at Dakhla, in Western Sahara for two nights, and although its a fantastic spot if you are a kite or wind surfer, the constant strong wind meant it was a problem to sit outside, and almost impossible to cook outside, besides we were ready to move on to Mauritania.
So we decided to do the next 350km leg of Western Sahara, to the “town” (its very small) of Guerguarat, which would then only be about 50km to the border for the following morning. The idea being, that as we didn’t have our Visa’s to get into Mauritania, we would have a very long day on that side of the border (leaving Morocco would be simple enough).
After about 100km of leaving Dakhla, we crossed the Tropic of Cancer, and no, thats not someone driving down the road in Colonel K, we just overshot the very small and wonky sign.
So we spent the night free camping in the front of a Roadside Restaurant/Hotel, it was a very noisy, busy place and stank of diesel fumes from the garage next door, but it served its purpose, and it was reasonably secure (as it was in the BFO “red” Zone, Advise against All Travel to these Areas). The next morning we aimed to drive to the border, and get there for about 9.00am. We hardly saw a vehicle (theres virtually no one living this far south in Western Sahara), so thought that leaving Morocco would be a very quick and easy affair. WRONG! The queue of trucks (all commercial, no other overlanders), was immense! We pulled up behind the last one on the right hand side, (there were two lanes of them, completely blocking the road), and we sat and waited (for how long we really didn’t know). After about 15 minutes, a Soldier/Policeman appeared and signalled to us to drive up on the bank, around the queue of trucks, and behind the 4 smaller vehicles (a couple of vans and cars). that probably saved us about 4-5 hours. How these truck drivers do this journey on a regular basis I’ll never know. So now we just needed the barrier to be lifted then get to passport control for our exit stamps in our passport. About 30 minutes later, the guard let our queue of four vehicles and a truck through, and we proceeded to park up and join the queue for Immigration for the elusive exit stamp. The queue was actually a passport queue! Meaning that you placed your prized passport on the cill of the window, and waited until it magically reached the window opening (a very small opening), it was very frustrating, only one passport window was open, and the Officer was very slow, even going out for a coffee and cigarette for 10 minutes at one point. Despite this, no tempers flared, and it was all in good humour. Eventually we had our stamps done, and moved on to find an official to check over the truck (inside, to check you weren’t smuggling anything out of Morocco). After telling them we had nothing to declare, the customs officials (3 of them), entered the living accommodation and generally had a good nose about! Once they had all finished, they sent in the dog handler, and sniffer dog. The Labrador type dog went mad, leaping on all the furniture including the table (sandy footprints everywhere), then the handler apologised about the amount of searching but insisted it was for our own security. Then onto the Douane (Customs) Office, to get our vehicle papers stamped to say that we haven’t left the Colonel in Morocco. Then another couple of police checks and we were done! Just over 2 hours just to leave a modern African country, this was going to be a long day!
Then we had to drive the 5km over “no mans land” to the Mauritanian Border post. We had previously read about this off road section, and had indeed read a couple of blogs where they had got stuck in deep sand, or damaged their vehicles. It was amazing, just a series of sand tracks going in various directions, with the odd section every so often over large rocks. There were abandoned vehicles every where, some had been there for years, others were probably going to get towed to one side or the other for repair. We saw a Fiat Estate car with the bottom of the sump completely ripped off on one rock. We had no one to follow, but there were a few odd vehicles coming from the Mauri side (including a couple of very carefully driven Artic Trucks), and so aimed in their general direction, as and when we spotted one!
Eventually we spotted the border, with its ramshackle assortment of buildings, and various barriers, so pulled up behind the first barrier. There were a few other vehicles either side of this barrier, and a few “fixers” milling about looking for business. We had already been told to have a chat with the fixers, and try to find one that might speak a little English, and as this was our first time over this difficult border, without Visa’s, it might be worth our while using one to help us through. We met a Mauritanian called Cher, and we agreed that we would only pay him anything if we found his services worth while, and an amount that WE thought appropriate. Taking on Cher was probably the best thing that we could have done, he took us straight to the front of the queue for our (very high tech) Biometric Visa’s to be processed, to the various Customs, and Police buildings, each time jumping the queues (highly embarrassing for us, but it seemed acceptable for all the officials and locals). We had to pay a ridiculous sum of money for the temporary importation of Colonel K, as they won’t accept the Carnet de Passage in Mauritania, and of course we bought 3rd party insurance from a broker in a cafe at the border. This whole episode at the Mauritanian Border took a total of 2 hours, but without Cher’s help we would have been there at least 5-6 hours I’m sure. We paid Cher 50 Euros, which is a lot for these people but it was worth it, and we learnt an awful lot in those few hours at the two borders.
After a thorough searching of Colonel K for Alcohol, and another Police officer checking we had the right papers, we were through!, No bribes given, but a very expensive border crossing, made worse by the fact we didn’t get our Visa’s in Rabat (the Visa’s alone cost us 240 Euro’s), and they won’t accept the Carnet de Passage. Anyway it was good to be back on tarmac again, and we headed off to the coastal town of Nouadhibou, this is on a very similar sandy peninsular to Dakhla, the only difference this time is that it is split down the centre by the border.
The first campsite that we found (and the most well known), Camping Abba, was closed with the big gates chained and padlocked, so we retraced our steps back through the town’s main street for about a kilometre to another Auberge, that also offered you to park in their courtyard. The entrance was right in the corner of a lay-by that was full of cars, and it looked a pretty narrow gateway, but we squeezed the Colonel through and parked up in the Courtyard. We then went for a short walk up the main street to get some fruit and a bit of veg.
While paying for the camping (we were only staying one night!), the owner suggested a route down through the National Park on the coast between Nouadhibou and the capital Nouakchott, and produced this map that looked to me to be hand drawn, complete with GPS Waypoints.
His instructions were to get to his favourite campsite, its best to take the tarmac main road for 120km and then turn off the road onto a track (clearly marked) and then enter the GPS Coordinates for point number 23. The distance from the tarmac to the piste at waypoint 23 was about 30km, ok sounds easy, we’ll do that!
Next morning we left early to make the most of the cooler morning, and after several check points and handing out “fiche’s” each time, we were very soon in the desert, and with virtually no traffic. When we got to 120km as instructed we looked for the track, nothing, just every so often a vehicle track heading off in that general direction. Now bearing in mind, we were on our own with a copy of a map (which was a photo on an iPad), in the middle of the desert with the thermometer showing 48c, with no decent tracks visible, oh and in a 10 tonne truck, we decided to head to Nouakchott and if we saw a decent piste heading that way we would take it. We didn’t see a track going off to the right for miles. Obviously with the winds in the desert, tracks get covered by the shifting sand very quickly.
This really is a very inhospitable environment, the heat and sand really must be taken responsibly and seriously, without another vehicle with us, if we got into trouble we would be on our own! The chances of another overland vehicle crossing this section of desert and coming across us is very slim. Mauritania is big, its twice the size of France! And it seems like we are the only people travelling South at the moment.
After about 500km we hit Nouakchott, the traffic was unbelievable, every car (and I mean every car) is smashed up, dented, windows smashed, and the taxis are worse!
For the first time in my life, I’ve actually seen gridlock happen, proper gridlock! At this one particular crossroads, there were cars, mopeds, donkey and carts, mini buses, and of course us, just jammed together, even the mopeds couldn’t move. This believe it or not is only 2 lanes wide, with 2 way traffic, and by using the pavements etc, 6 lanes have been created! By the way we managed after a lot of hooting of horns to turn left by the Star Petrol Station in the photo.
We found a nice little Auberge (no sign outside),that we were allowed to park in their secure courtyard, very close to the centre of the City, and after a bit of research managed to find the address of the Mali Embassy (thank god for local Sim cards and 3G connections).
We were told by the young lad taking our camping money, that the best way to get to the Embassy was to walk back to the main road, and stop a taxi. After trying this a couple of times (the first not knowing where it was, and the second telling us we need to be on the other side of the street), we crossed over and a guy stopped in an old Merc (a private car), and asked where we wanted to go, after telling him he said he would take us. After a quick weighing up of the risk’s (kidnap is a threat here), we decided he looked respectable and at least the car looked in fairly good nick, we jumped in the back, and thanked him. Ten minutes later we saw the Malian flag outside a building and paid him 500 Ouguiya (about a pound) for the ride and thanked him profusely.
We were told at the campsite that the Embassy didn’t open until 9.00am but we needed to get there early as its a Friday and they will close at Noon, and to get near the front of the queue. We arrived at about 8.20 and thought we would just hang about the entrance, then a local appeared from round the corner and pushed the door and walked straight in, so we followed. After about a 5 minute sit down in the very grim waiting room (floor to ceiling in plain white ceramic tiles, and looking like an apocalyptic operating theatre), we were given a couple of application forms, and filled these in (in French). These were given to a very pleasant man, with copies of our passports, two passport photos for each of us, and of course our actual passports. He said they would be processed same day and to come back at 11.00am. After a couple of coffee’s and a croissant we went back to the Embassy at about 10.30, and was done and dusted by 10.45am, all in all this was a very pleasant experience, and the staff at the Mali Embassy were very helpful and polite.
After leaving the Embassy we decided to walk back to the Auberge, about 1.5 miles away. And whilst we stood out like a couple of sore thumbs, we felt safe walking back, stopping only to buy a couple of Baguettes. After quick lunch at the Colonel we thought we need to catch up on some clothes washing, as we hadn’t done any since leaving Agadir in Morocco, and it was building up big time! So Jac washed in the truck, using hot water, and I rinsed on the outside sink (theres no hot water in these places).
After finishing our chores, we sat down with the map, and done a bit more research into the border crossings into Senegal. There are two options, Rosso or Diama (pronounced ja-ma).
The first option Rosso, is by far the bigger main border crossing, that involves a ferry across the river, and tarmac roads both sides of the border, but it is known as the “armpit of Africa”, and is generally recognised as the most corrupt border crossing on the Continent. We also know that the Daf will fit on the ferry, but can’t find out how much we will be charged for it.
The second option Diama, involves a 100km off road piste to be driven, in order to reach the dam that you drive over. This is a much smaller border post, and we are unsure of the condition of the piste (we know it becomes impassable in the wet season), or indeed if they will let a 10 tonne truck drive across the top of the dam. It is also known for its corruption, but at a much lesser extent than at Rosso.
So Rosso it is! At least we know we can cross there. Another early start to get to Rosso as early as possible (about 200km South), and after topping up with 100 litres of Rim Oil (yeah I know) we headed out of town and to the border, and through the many road blocks/checkpoints. Check out the loading on this truck at one checkpoint.
And we saw this one van, full of onions, that had to empty his load to be able to jack the van up to change the wheel.
At one road block, we were approached by one guy who was selling insurance for Senegal, so after a brief discussion and a lot of haggling we followed him to his “office”, this was about 20km away, and was a very very scruffy room on the side of a petrol station (also very scruffy). Obviously this guy was acting as an intermediary and took a rake off of the premium, we eventually agreed for 3 months cover for not only Senegal but all the countries that use the CFA currency (Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin, Niger, and of course Senegal). As the old bloke behind the desk was writing out the document, I noticed that the registration number had been entered wrong and the expiry date was in August and not September. It took us ages to convince him that it should be September for 3 months (or he was trying to pull a fast one! mmmmm), anyway we were soon on our way, but not before the salesman tried to convince us that it was a legal requirement for each person entering Senegal to have a minimum of 120,000CFA in local currency, we weren’t having any of that crap! But we did change up our last small amount of Mauritania Ouguiya for a stupid rate.
He also told us that there was a problem with the large (truck suitable) ferry at Rosso! Bugger, all our plans gone to rack and ruin then! By this time we were at the beginning of Rosso and parked up across a dirt track between two buildings, I asked him where the piste to Diama left the road and he pointed to the truck, that tiny little track was it. The piste is fairly easy to follow as you are literally along side the Senegal River, as long as you keep that immediately to your left you can’t go wrong, but it is very corrugated most of the 100km (about 60 miles), and we left the main track a few times when it was really bad and dropped down the side to drive on the slightly better route, if available.
The Photo’s really don’t show how rough and corrugated this track is, but although the suspension of the Daf T244 is firm in the extreme, and the shaking through the steering caused by the corrugations was quite punishing, both us and Colonel K survived unscathed. The piste takes you directly through a National Park, and though it was in the heat of the day, we did see the odd Warthog, Baboon, and lots of long horn cattle. In places it is very lush along side the river (though you never once see the actual main body of water as the rushes are about 3 metres high and very dense). The flocks of small birds (finches, warblers etc), flying up in front of us, was amazing, and there were Kites wheeling about above us.
After about 65km we had to stop to pay for travelling through the national park, we didn’t have enough CFA or Mauritanian UM, (it wasn’t a lot of money, about £2.00 per person I think), and they wouldn’t accept US dollars (the world is changing…), so we ended up giving them a 20 Euro note, and obviously they didn’t have change in any of these 3 currencies! If you are coming to North or West African make sure you bring lots of small Euro notes or coins. Then after taking the left fork in the track, you carry on to the Mauritanian Border post.
We were the only vehicle there, going in either direction (our suspicions confirmed after only seeing about three 4×4 vehicles on the entire 100km stretch, all coming towards us), the trouble was when we walked into the first building the officials were all sitting on the floor around a big pot of food eating their dinner!, (the only guy not eating was laying on his bed watching TV). We were told to come back in a bit, this was going to be a long day. But 5 minutes later, one of the officers came and took us back into the “office” and we had our details taken, passport stamped, vehicle papers stamps, very quickly, about an hour maximum. We never paid any money, and although we were asked for “presents” we gave none, even to the top man. It was all quite friendly, if a bit chaotic. As we were leaving one office approached me in the driving seat and once again asked for a “cadeaux”, (a present in french), of course I declined, he then persisted and asked for “a cadeaux for the General”, at this point I decided to change tactics and use my complete lack of French to my advantage and replied “Canadian? No I’m English”, with this he looked at me with astonishment and just went and lifted the barrier!
The Diama Dam was plenty big enough for Colonel K to drive over, and at the Senegalese border we took on the services of a “fixer”. As the border was quiet, very quiet, we probably could have got away without using him, but he spoke a little English, and it made sense to take him on. Again several buildings and various officials later, we ended up standing outside the Customs building waiting for our temporary import document to be sorted (as its a small border post they can’t deal with the Carnet de Passage). Through the window Jac noticed that the top man had run out of Marlboro cigarettes these were the same brand that we bought four packets of in Western Sahara “to ease our passage through certain situations”, so Jac disappeared off to the cab and returned with a packet of 20. She gave them to me, I discreetly knocked on the office door, entered, dropped the cigs on his desk and left again. Before long we were invited into the air conditioned room (the first air-conditioning we had experienced for a few weeks), having a bit of banter, Jac was sitting on his bed (obviously in the office), and the paperwork was being completed. Apart from the cigarettes, no bribes were paid and, as Senegal dropped its requirements for a Visa for EU citizens at the beginning of May, it proved to be an easy and cheap border crossing (not what we were expecting). We paid the fixer 40 Euros, and continued onto the town of St Louis to find a bank with a ATM so we could get some CFA without being ripped off (obviously the rubbish we were told about each person having to have 120,000 CFA in cash at the border, was just that, rubbish).
The difference between Mauritania, and Senegal, separated only by a river is astounding, both culturally and geographically, the land on the South side of the river is covered in very lush vegetation, and the people are running around, laughing, wearing the brightest colours possible, though both countries are predominantly Muslim.
The quality of the tarmac roads is also quite impressive (so far), compared to Morocco, and Mauritania, with very few pot holes, or broken edges, they are also wide enough for two trucks to pass easily.
After causing small mayhem in St Louis town centre, we drove back out to find a campsite. We had already read online about a place called Zebrabar, just South of the town, a popular stopover for overlanders, so we headed there. its about 15km out of town, then about 3km down a track, passing a few other campsites along the way.
Guess what? No other overlanders! But what a fantastic place, right on the beach/river front, and run by a very friendly Swiss couple, that have built the place up (literally from nothing) over the last 18 years. There are also beach bungalows here if you are on a bike, or fancy a bit of comfort. The dinner (a 3 course meal) in the evening is excellent, it is also inside the national park. So our plan is to chill here for a bit, before heading off again. The only spanner in the works is that our Temporary Import Document, is exactly that, TEMPORARY!, it only lasts for 3 days. The only place we can get our Carnet stamped is in Dakar, nearly 300km away. So we acquired the services of Arona, and his trusty Dacia Logan for the day yesterday, to take us to Dakar Port, sort the Carnet out and get us back to Colonel K for the evening. It cost us 90,000CFA (£100.00) to do the nearly 600km round trip, and Arona proved invaluable in the customs building, we had to see 5 different officials, on different floors, and none spoke English at all. But within an hour we were completed and had the first page of our Carnet completed. We got Arona to stop at another ATM, to top up our CFA’s (we can use this currency in quite a few countries that we plan to travel through), and we stopped at a street seller to purchase a local Sim card for the iPhone, and buy a few gb of internet use. The owner of the site also asked us to stop on the way back and buy her some mango’s (3 bowls worth), so we did that and bought ourselves a bowl, and Arona a bowl. Mango’s are in season here at the moment and they are everywhere, you get between 8 and 10 mango’s in a bowl, and each bowl was 1,000CFA, or fractionally over £1.00. They are fantastic!
Dakar was exactly what we thought it would be, a huge sprawling city, that is packed to the gunnels with traffic, and people, lots of street hustlers at lights, so been there done that!
As we had already had lunch on the way back from Dakar, we declined dinner, and just settled down for cheeky evening Gazelle beer (63cl for about £1.20).
This is one of the residents of Zebrabar, apparently they have recently moved in and are proving to be a bit of a nuisance.
Hopefully Martin and his family won’t think the same about us!
We have been away nearly 3 months now, and have covered nearly 6,000 miles (9,600 km), met some fantastic people, and are having some great experiences. We have not seen or met other Overland travellers since we met John Barratt in Dakhla, including the drive to and from Dakar yesterday.
Our plan is to stay at Zebrabar for a bit, then cross into Gambia, then back into Senegal, then head East over to Mali, to the capital Bamako to obtain a couple of Visa’s (Burkina Faso and hopefully Ghana). After Senegal, we will have to be a bit more careful again in Mali due to the on going security situation there (we are watching this closely).
Anyway thanks for reading, and I hope its not too long and boring!