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!