We stayed in Dakar for a few days to get the visas sorted out for Ivory Coast and Mali. Dakar was a bit of a surprise for us, and of course it was not the nice surprise one gets when they discover things were nicer than expected. As I had mentioned in the last blog, we started badly in Dakar with the hotel and we were desperate to see the good side of this city I had actually heard of before we started to plan this trip. I think most people have heard of the Dakar Rally before, I sure had. I had a vision of an international style city with wide roads and busy shops and of course with rally cars everywhere. The reality was about as far from my vision as it could get. Apart from a main boulevard along the coast, the streets were like most West African streets being narrow, busy and full of rubbish and people. We had our first accident on those streets and of course it was with a taxi.
We were waiting and waiting at an uncontrolled intersection.. well it was actually a roundabout but I had never seen a roundabout operate like this one. We were inching along in the traffic wondering what the problem was as I could see the road a few hundred meters ahead was not so busy. We soon saw the problem. The main road was in front and to the left, but the road on the left was blocked and the cars were inching across the roundabout and blocking it for people (like probably only me) from going straight through. From the time we had arrived on the African continent I had employed the ‘might is right’ technique for getting through intersections meaning I have a bigger car than you so let me go first and it worked really well up to that point. I inched out into the traffic that was moving about walking pace and was promptly cut off. Hmmm, I kept going getting further and further in to the roundabout that was a normal 2 lane roundabout with cars 4 and sometimes 5 deep, plus motorbikes... Directly in front of me were 2 taxis and I wanted to get into the 6 inch gap between them, and pass through to the now clear road ahead of us. A few more inches… Christine said look out, we are getting close to this guy and I am sure I would have said something like ‘well he’s going to wait for me now..’ and kept inching forward. At this stage I have to say I expect to get this car all the way around the world by road without so much as a scratch anywhere, but I have always been a bit of a dreamer and as I got closer and closer I could see this vision coming to an end here in Dakar. A few more inches… I could now see the driver in the taxi to my left, the one that was attempting to get between me and the clear road ahead. As we have a dark window tint, he couldn’t see us. A few more inches… It was a game of chicken that this driver didn’t expect to be playing with a near new Toyota 4x4 with Euro plates and I think I should have known better too but here we were in a hot and dusty traffic jam and all he had to do was wait 3 seconds while I slipped through and he would be no worse off for his kindness. A few more inches…. ‘He’s not stopping’ Said Christine now pretty much looking down on his car. Even though we were pretty much stationary, she grabbed at the arm rest and center pocket to brace herself for the inevitable contact and sure enough, bump… he hit us and we were wedged together now causing further traffic problems…
The taxi driver was quick to open his door, but rather casually walked to the front of his absolutely shitty taxi and said with arms outstretched ‘look at my car’ as if to say the small impact we had just had was responsible for the numerous dents and scratches from bumper to bumper of his car. We now had the window open and was telling him to back up so we could carry on, or at least clear this intersection. What we had managed to achieve was to now block any further cars from coming from the left and cars behind us were now weaving past us and to freedom. All the while the driver was no doubt thinking of the new car he could get with all the money he would extract from these crazy Europeans that dared drive on his road and touch his car. He was making for the passenger side of our car and was walking around. In front, and to the right, the road was now clear… I turned the steering to the right and hey presto, we were untangled. Although I never looked at his car and any damage he might have caused himself by hitting us, he has only hit our rather thick and solid steel wheel rim and when I turned the steering to the right his car rolled backwards into the car behind him. He hadn’t pulled on the hand brake and had to run back to this car to stop it moving. Hehe.. I just drove off and disappeared into the Dakar traffic never to be seen by him again. I was relieved to see no damage at all to our car other than a smudge of Dakar taxi yellow on the wheel rim that I wear with pride. Remember, when you get out of your car, always put the handbrake on.
After spending some time in the city, we headed to Lake Rose that’s a little to the north of the city. It’s a salt lake that is 10 times salter than the sea. We stayed at a wonderful campground with Kevin, Stephanie and Pim. It was great. The campground was an addition to what was really a small resort and it had a lovely pool and a restaurant and bar. It is owned and run by a French man and his family and it was a welcome break from the road and we had a great time with our new Dutch friends and shared dinners and drinks with them for a few nights. The salt lake was really great. We had never been in a salt lake before and it was really a strange feeling. I felt like I was wearing an inflatable suit and even my legs wouldn’t sink at all. Around the lake there are several small-time salt works where the workers take small flat bottom boats out and then they get into the water and dig the salt from the bottom of the lake into the boat. Its bought back to shore and piled up to dry, then bagged and taken away. The workers spend quite some time in the water. We had to get out after only 10 minutes as our skin was stinging and the salt was working its way into parts of our bodies that we would rather not have salt in, if you know what I mean... We later heard the workers use shea butter on their skin to add back the moisture lost to the salt.
We said our goodbyes to our travelling friends and we headed off to The Gambia. Gambia is a small ‘micro state’ that’s based around The Gambia river where it widens and heads to the sea. It’s an old British colony and our first English speaking country since we actually left England. Legend has it, the British sailed up the river and fired cannon balls off to either side. They claimed the land up to where the balls landed as British Territory and The Gambia was born. This is a country that has been in the news lately after having its first presidential election for a while and it now has a new president but the old one wouldn’t initially. It was funny to see the place after seeing it on the TV. They really do know how to make a non-story into something that the world might be interested in and the reality is the entire thing was pretty low key. I had heard that troops from Senegal were converging on the place and there was no stability but as Senegal surrounds the country, there are always troops at the border and according to the many locals I spoke to, it was more media hype than anything else.
On arrival, we passed the immigration office without problems and headed to the ferry to cross the Gambia river. It was interesting to be able to chat with the locals in English and I had a very long talk with one guy who followed the car along the queue all the way to the ferry. He was at least 6ft tall and maybe in his mid-20’s. He posed an interesting question. He wanted us to adopt him! He had earlier asked if we had children and upon learning we didn’t, he said that he could be our son. He sincerely said he would be a good son for us and would be no trouble. He would work hard and be very quiet in the car for the remainder of our trip back to New Zealand. I found myself saying ‘Oh, thank you but we are OK for children right at the moment’. I guess for him it was a serious question and later I felt guilty for taking it so lightly. I guess the French talking tourists may get a lot more of this and to shake your head and say we don’t understand could actually be a benefit.
We stayed at another very nice campground run by a German couple for a few days and after getting some shopping and supplies we headed off. Out of the city we could see that although this was a small country, it had been run very badly by the last president who had used it as a personal money making venture for the past 22 years. The roads were bad and the infrastructure was all in a poor state. It was also a country that proved hard to leave! We spent a day driving up the river and we had planned to go back into Senegal via one of the smaller border crossings. We entered the route into the TomTom and off we went. Well, the road we were following was on the mapping software but in reality, it didn’t exist at all. We ended up doing a few large circles and ended up in a field that looked like it was a grain field during the rains. A local came out but this chap, like a lot of the out of towners didn’t speak English. We managed to get him to understand we were looking for the border or frontier as they put it and he sent us in the right direction and after 30 minutes or so of off road and dirt track travel we arrived at an old rusted sign that indicated the border. Oops, looks like we have left the country without going through a border control and we didn’t get our passports stamped out.. Never mind, we headed to the closest town in Senegal and to the police and immigration post to get things sorted out.
We ended up in a really small town that had a police station and a few shops and that was it. The police officer/immigration guy was sure surprised to see us and after he got rid of the odd chicken and some people that were sitting in his office chatting, we think he thought he could finally be a real immigration officer and look at real passports from real travelers rather than the locals who will travel between towns that just happen to be in different countries. He would just wave them on and not look at any documents or paperwork, but this wouldn’t be the case with us at all. After an hour or so and many phone calls to his boss, we were told NO, you cannot pass into Senegal as you need to obtain a visa first. I could see this coming as I listened to him talk to his boss a few times and although I could only understand bits of the French he was speaking, I got the drift of it. New Zealand has a waver for this requirement but he was not going to go against his boss, so we headed back to The Gambia.. just lucky we hadn’t been stamped out or we could have ended up in a pickle for sure. We camped the night and went in for round 2 the next morning, this time at a larger crossing that was on a sealed road. The immigration officer still had a chicken but he also had a goat so we think he was much more senior. This time we had exited The Gambia correctly, but guess what… we were again denied entry to Senegal for the same reason. I went back to the car and thought about what we could do. I decided to call his bluff and went back and explained to him that I needed to call my embassy so they could help me make the crossing. I explained that I would need to tell them exactly where I am and I would also need his name and the name of his boss so our people could help. I was very polite and not threatening in any way. He rushed back to the office, not knowing I had no cell phone coverage and the ability to even make the call and called his boss. The only word I understood from the brief chat was attaché which is what they call the ambassador. He put the phone down and with a big smile said ‘no need to make your call, I have the approval to make a discretionary visa for you and your wife’. It took 3 minutes and we were back in Senegal and heading to Mali.
Much has been said about Mali and it has had some bad press lately with some pretty bad attacks on hotels where westerners stay and there was a fresh kidnapping not too long ago. The extremists in the north have had a hostage in captivity now for 6 years! This has had a real effect on the locals in the capital city Bamako. Before all this, Bamako was a real international city and would have been the first we would have visited since we arrived in Africa but the attacks in 2015 changed all that and now the only tourists that come to the place are the odd intrepid backpacker and the overlanders, because Bamako is still the best place to get the travel visa for Nigeria. It’s not fair on the locals of the capital because it’s a long way from most of the trouble and generally the people in the south of Mali, where the capital is, are very moderate and from different ethnic groups altogether. This is a real example of the problems faced when borders are drawn on a map without thought for the people living there. The trip to the capital from the Senegal border was a breeze with some of the best roads we have seen so far. While we were waiting for our visas we stayed at a hotel/hostel called The Sleeping Camel. It’s an interesting place that was once the Moroccan embassy and it’s next to the German and Senegal embassies so there are about 30 heavily armed police and military within 20 meters of the place all day and night. We feel very safe all be it within a compound more like a prison than a campground. The yard has enough room for 3 or 4 overlanders to park and camp, but with the temperatures hitting 38 to 41 every day and a minimum of around 35 at night, we ended up taking a room with air conditioning for most of our time there. It was mainly so Luxy could sleep all day in comfort though. Most of the other guests are UN police and military, aid workers and the people who remove land mines and they are there at breakfast and dinner with the full uniform on including all their guns. The place is owned by an Australian and an American, so I have been able to watch as much rugby as I liked! It’s a lot of fun! They have had bands and parties, they have quiz nights and generally try to forget the fact that the city is under military rule and in a state of emergency. Before the attacks in 2015, the hotel was very busy being one of the most popular places for westerners to meet and stay. The remaining hostage that has been held for 6 years now was on a trip that left from The Sleeping Camel so its famous for more than one thing here.
We have started to meet some more overlanders too. As The Sleeping Camel is the only overland camping area within the city we all end up here at some stage. We have met James and Patrick who are heading to Capetown on motorbikes. They are not travelling together but were here at the same time. We also really enjoyed meeting Mike and Sue from Canada who are travelling around Africa in a converted Land Rover army ambulance. They are an inspiration as they are both in their 70’s and have already been around South America 10 years ago. But the most amazing people we met were a couple from Japan who are driving around Africa in a 660cc Mazda van that was designed and built for city postal delivery work. Think a Nissan Cube only smaller…
The third passenger is also doing very well. Luxy has started to travel much better and will now walk around the back seat and sometimes we get to have her on our laps while we drive on the smoother roads. She is however feeling the heat and is pretty much laying around for 20 hours a day preferring to wake us at 4am when the temperature is down to the mid 30’s and she feels like running around again. She was completely comfortable with her harness on until she lost it somewhere at the Sleeping Camel… She has started to follow us when we walk around at wild camps, sometimes for 100’s of meters and she will mostly come when we call her. We will next look to getting her used to walking on the leash and being carried around amongst other people. We eventually expect to be able to take her with us sightseeing in a small backpack when she is sick of walking herself. Sounds like a hard job but the training is extremely intensive as she spends nearly every waking moment with us so we really do expect to be able to achieve this.
Still a long way to go.
Mauritania.. ever heard of the place? Before we started to plan this trip, we had never heard of it either. I don’t think they have ever attended Olympic games, I’m pretty sure we have never had a delegation of Mauritanian officials visit New Zealand and I can say with certainty that I have never bought anything that has ‘MADE IN MAURITANIA’ proudly stamped on it. It’s a country of around 3.5 million people located on the west coast of Africa in the Sahara Desert belt. Its north border with Morocco is a mess and is covered in land mines left from the fighting between Morocco and the people of the disputed Western Sahara. Its eastern border is with Mali who have been in civil war for several years and it’s also not a safe place to visit. 90% of the country is arid land and offers pretty much zero to any population other than iron ore which they mine. The country is governed by a military junta that took power in one of several bloodless coups in the last decade and although they have bought some prosperity to the country they were all quick fixes that won’t offer long term wealth, like selling the costal fishing and mining rights to overseas countries.
So here we are anyway wanting to cross this country. We had read much about the border crossings and this was one of the worst we had to deal with mainly due to corruption of the officials. We had heard that arriving late at the border will be a benefit as they might choose to rush you through before it closes at 7pm but it was closed when we arrived so we had to just wait. It was a Friday which is the Islamic Sunday so it was not very busy at all with a dozen trucks and 3 or 4 cars waiting only. Typically, it was really windy and although we tried to get shelter we couldn’t find a decent place even behind trucks in the queue so we decided to get a room in the hotel at the border. I use the term ‘hotel’ loosely as from the outside (and the inside really) it looked just like a Moroccan roadside restaurant. The hotel was for the truck drivers and was pretty basic but clean enough for a Moroccan truck driver, so it will be OK for us.
When we went to the hotel we gave up our place in the queue for the border. No problem as it’s a real thing in Morocco to queue jump and I am a fast learner and after nearly 2 months in Morocco I had become quite proficient in this practice so from the very last in the queue to getting through the gate in 3rdposition was a small win for me and after some easy procedures on the Moroccan side, we were off to Mauritania. Due to wars and border disputes, this border has a no man’s land that’s about 3kms wide. We need not have worried about our position in the queue as getting across this stretch was very interesting. The border has land mines and a supposed road to follow. Well, we could not see any road that’s for sure and it was just a stretch of rocky desert dotted with armed guards, UN observers, and piles of rocks to keep inside of each side of the mined area. We had employed the services of a ‘fixer’ at the Moroccan side and he met us here to help us with the paperwork (mostly in French) on the Mauritanian side. The negotiations had been tough and we had a crowd of people around the car all touting for the job of fixer for us and although we paid €15 for the job (which was €5 too much) he was a nice chap and I got my moneies worth by chatting to him while we waited for the officials.
When we arrived on the Mauritanian side we had several places to visit in some pretty run down looking shacks compared to the Moroccan side. This included getting a biometric visa with photos, immigration stamps and a temporary import permit for the car. The last stop was police where we were fingerprinted and sent on our way. As we had a local helping us with all this, we were not asked for any money by the officials!
Our first night in Mauritania we wild camped just outside of a shanty fishing village. The village consisted of around 1sq/km of tarpaulin and old roofing iron shacks just up from the beach. We set up camp and within a few minutes we had our first visit from the locals. Around 8 or so men came over and stopped a few meters from our camp and proceeded to sit and watch us. I went over and introduced myself and chatted as best I could. One of the men could speak about as much English as I could speak French so we sat in the dirt and tried to make conversation. It didn’t take me long to work out he was trying to convert me to Islam. He put in a pretty good effort, but was unsuccessful and I am still a non-believer despite his efforts. People came and went, some just sat and watched us, some said hello and some just held out hands for money. It was well after dark that the last guy left after sitting alone for over 30 minutes. We didn’t know what he was waiting for but we did offer him food and drink which he didn’t take.
The next morning, we headed to the capital city, Nouakchott and had a look around. It’s different… and the country’s poverty is evident as the city is far less developed than anything we had seen further north and trash is a much more visible problem, especially plastic bags and water bottles which are everywhere. That night we stayed at a campground out of the city run by a local that had been educated in the USA so we were able to chat with him about the things to see and do locally. He was a great help with finding the best supermarket for a resupply of some much-needed items. We did explore the area a small bit but the roads were pretty bad and the landscape was just desert so we decided that we wanted to push on south to Senegal. We stayed a night close to the Diama border crossing which is a less popular crossing and supposed to be less corrupt than the Rosso crossing. It was a great wild camp just off the dirt road that leads to the border with an incredible night sky and we had a peaceful sleep and Luxy was able to play in the sand, stick her paw down lizard holes and climb trees until she was exhausted.
The next morning, we headed to the border. We had 3 buildings to visit on the Mauritian side. The first was a police check where they asked for €10 to complete the paperwork. I said NO in French (non) and in English I told him to please complete the job so we could move on. After some hesitation, he did his bit and we moved on to building 2 where I produced my passports and vehicle documents and the temporary import permit for the car was stamped for exit. Same thing here, €10 was demanded and again I refused to pay anything and they let me go on. Next, we were stopped by an un-uniformed bloke in the street wearing a high vis vest who asked for a 500MRO Vehicle tax (500MRO = $2.03NZD) which we paid as we knew this was a legitimate charge and moved on and parked outside the last building marked POLICE. This is where we completed the last immigration process and after some more fun and games and demands for cash, they stamped our passports. The official indicated that he had not completed the process and would do so once we paid. I went back to the car and we looked at what he had done… it looked OK to us, but we were still a little worried, so I got out of the car and started to walk back to the last office then thought about it again and decided the best thing was to just exit. Christine got out and lifted the last and only gate and we casually drove through (while looking in the rear view mirror for raised guns and running guards) they never even lifted their heads from looking down at their smartphones. We were at the Senegal border.
A dam at the mouth of the Senegal River is where we cross and they really have you here as this is the only crossing other than the Rosso crossing where you have to take a ferry across the river. We had heard the price can be very high for the ferry depending on how much money they think they can extract from you where as the dam crossing has a fixed price of 4000CFA ($9.20NZD).
The process here was not too different to the last border crossing other than they were wearing different uniforms. The first stop we paid the tax for crossing the river and were given an official receipt! Great… We proceeded to the next building that was the immigration office. We produced our passports to the policeman who then asked for our vehicle registration as well. Not unexpected as we have to pay a known fee for the temporary import of the car. We knew the fee was 5000CFA and we had 3 x 2000CFA notes which we handed over expecting the TIP in return. The policeman then started asking for euros not CFA which we thought was a little strange, but what did we know and this was an official border police guard. I said no to the euros and after some light discussion I gave him the 6000CFA. It’s not unusual when buying something for the seller to signal with waved arms that that’s the end of the transaction, eg no further negotiations and no change... that’s it. We received this signal and didn’t think too much of it and moved on. Hang on, the next building is the TIP building, not the one we have just been in… I realised we had been tricked into thinking we were getting the import permit but we had just paid a bribe and not the fee as we thought. I walked back to the office and smiled to the same guy and motioned that I could get euros after all. He said a lot in French that I of course couldn’t understand but didn’t reach for his pocket. I pointed to the door and said ‘they are leaving-they are leaving, they have euros’ and still smiling nicely held my hand out and said ‘I will change’. He eventually gave me the money back which I grabbed, stuffed in my pocket, said thank you very much in English, and left. I now had the upper hand as he had done his job and had nothing to bargain with, and I had the money. We did of course have to pay the 5000CFA to the man that completed the TIP and true to form, I didn’t receive the change for the 6000CFA I gave him, but we had completed the crossing anyway for very little more than expected. Welcome to Senegal.
We spent our first 2 nights in Senegal at a popular overlanders stop called The Zebrabar. Its owned by a Swiss couple and although it was quite expensive for a campground, it was the first place we had camped in that provided toilet paper… They have a restaurant and bar and the first night we had dinner at the restaurant. Now, I am not saying it was their food, but then next evening we were both quite sick with diarrhoea and vomiting… still a nice place regardless and it was cool to see the amazing birds and the big red monkeys that kept stealing Luxy’s food from under the car. She was understandably terrified by them at first, but just like the amazing cat she is, soon got used to them and decided they were not too much of a threat and would watch them from a distance without freaking out and hiding. We also met Maria and her partner Aritz. Maria is French and had been working in Dakar for the last 6 months and was taking a break with Aritz before heading back to France and the real world as she put it. After dinner with them Maria very kindly offered to give us here unused malaria medication. We don’t really know if we have enough of this medication as its going to depend on how long we take to get ‘there and back’ so the offer was accepted and we arranged to collect it from her hotel in Dakar when we arrived. Thank you very much Maria. It was an amazing offer and very generous considering the cost of the medication.
We then headed into Dakar and to what would be the worst experience of the trip so far. We booked a place to stay in the city close to the embassy’s we need to visit for travel visas. We always book low priced places for obvious reasons, but we just couldn’t find this place at all. We had booked through bookings.comwebsite and with this booking we didn’t pay up front which was lucky. After trying to call and text we gave up and booked a much more expensive place for 1 night. It was getting dark and we just wanted to get somewhere. It was a really nice place and cost us the princely sum of $72USD, about 3 times what we would normally pay! This booking was paid in advance when we booked and our card was debited. We checked in, showing them the booking email and we got our room. The next morning when we went to leave things got ugly, very ugly. They demanded money saying we had not paid and no matter what we said, they would not take no for an answer. Christine showed the email again and again which very clearly in bold right at the top said ‘Dear Christine, your booking is guaranteed and all paid for’, plus the debit to her credit card. The owner would read only to where it said guaranteed and then just stop and yell at me ‘it is only to guarantee, it’s not payment’ I kept saying again and again ‘read the rest’ but he wouldn’t do it. I said I was leaving and then it got pretty bad. People started to turn up from all over, the owner was on his phone calling all his neighbours and he and his rather large employee were blocking us from getting in the car. Christine became understandably distressed so I did the only thing I could think of at the time and that was to tackle them both and push them away from the door so she could close it and have at least some security in our vehicle. Before I could get in and drive off his neighbour blocked us in with a car… oh shit. All this time we were requesting the police. We knew we had paid having stayed more than 80 nights in hotels booked through this site but we just couldn’t get him to confirm it, he wouldn’t. Towards the end a French guest that could speak good English came and we spoke through the car window. We were not leaving the car as they wanted us inside the hotel. I asked to see the booking email that shows we have not paid. Come in and I will show it… NO, print it. He then bought out the lady that looks after the booking and said ‘here, she has no booking for you..’ WHAT!! BRING ME THE EMAIL what good is she to this’ So, it went quiet for a few minutes and the owner reappeared holding his head with both hands looking down and the car in front was suddenly gone… What a mess he had made of this.. We of course had paid as we had said, his useless staff had been wrong all along. He started to apologise but the damage was done and no amount of apology would make up for what had happened. Looking back, although I am sure the situation couldn’t have gotten much worse, it might have and I am still amazed I was able to overpower the 2 men to get the car door closed. We were shaken but OK and it reminded me that this sort of travel is not for everyone. We will now always ensure the booking is fully understood by the hotel staff when we arrive…
We will be in Dakar for the next week as it’s a good place to get travel visas for the next bunch of countries we will be crossing. We have met some people!! They are Dutch and are travelling to Capetown the same way as we are. Pim is on a motorbike sleeping in a tent and Kevin and Stephine are travelling in a Land Rover 90 with a roof tent. We first met them in Mauritania and they also stayed at The Zebrabar. We are going to stay with them this weekend and we hope to travel ‘near’ them for a while, especially through a couple of the less fun countries. We think we will end up going different directions but it could also be the start of a loose travel group of people and vehicles heading the same direction. They are on Facebook as ‘Roving Africa’ so follow along with them also for twice the fun!
it's Our Epic Trip...
David & Christine are from New Zealand and are embarking on a trip around the world the slow way, on foot and by personal vehicle. This could get interesting!