On leaving Mauritania and entering Senegal there is one big decision to make. Rosso Or Diamma? Rosso is the main border crossing, crossing the Senegalese river on a four times daily ferry, connected with good roads and highly dubious border officials. We had heard rumours of hundreds of euros changing hands before being allowed into Senegal – when the crossing should be entirely free, as there are no visas for Senegal. Diamma is a sleepy little border crossing that you enter through a national park with roads requiring 4 wheel drive, however the border officials are much less corrupt. Notice the term, much less… It was an obvious choice and as Stanley had proved himself so far, we drove off to Diamma. It was remarkably straightforward, with only a few bribes required, one for stamping the passports, one for the vehicle check. We knew there would be some required, however, we hadn’t quite enough money, so we told the border official and he let us off with paying £2 instead of £4. Very kind. The Senegalese side was much more official and easy, except for refusing to stamp the carnet – this is the only border post that refuses to stamp the carnet and they say it is only possible in Dakar within 48 hours of entry. It’s a real shame for Senegal as it completely restricts the movements of their tourists and meant we were unable to stay in the north.
We headed off for a chill out at Zebrabar – a well known overlander spot in Saint Louis, housed within a beautiful bird national park. We met a couple of other overlanders, and would have loved to stay a few more days. Saint Louis is the old colonial capital of Senegal and a real treat of a town, with a large bridge constructed by Eiffel, of the tower fame, crossing the mouth of the river, connecting the small islands.
We headed off to Dakar, to sort out our Carnet de Passage – it still needed its custom stamp so Stanley could be officially brought into Senegal. We gave ourselves twice as much as time as was required to get there and find the port (I have a similar opinion to African ports as I do to African boats) but were somewhat delayed. The first by a very officious policeman who wanted to see all the paperwork and was overjoyed to discover our left brake light had come loose. Bugger. He had my driving licence and wouldn’t return it until we drove the 9km to the police station and paid 10000 CFA – approx 15 euro. We set off but on arriving at the police station, they had run out of tickets… We had to go back the same direction to the next police station 20km down the road. We headed off and when we saw our police officer we told him they’d told us they couldn’t give us a ticket and he had to give us the license back. He took 10,000 CFA for his trouble – no paperwork. It’s a good job being a Senegalese policeman. We drove on and just as we hit the outskirts of Dakar another car pointed out we had a slow puncture. We pulled off and set about fixing it, fighting lots of well meaning help from the locals (how could a white man know how to change a tyre?), but someone still took the opportunity to try to sell me some necklaces. Covered in oil and dust, it possibly wasn’t the best time. With time getting a bit tight and still the centre of Dakar to traverse, police blocks looking for an easy buck or two to dodge and two hours until our 48 hours ran out, we got stuck in traffic. And then we saw it. The most wonderful sign of all- route de payage. Pay 1 euro and the most beautiful road in the world is all yours! Sold! We found the port and the customs, and after being told repeatedly we were in the wrong place, we were eventually introduced to the custom officer – stamped in minutes for free.
We stayed in Kayar and Dakar a couple of nights, and went for some posh meals, and stayed in luxury – studio flat with a bathroom with hot water, if you went down and asked them to turn the water on. We also took the opportunity to pick up our Malian visas (don’t tell my Mum). On Les Mamelles (the breasts or hills) of Dakar, stands a lighthouse and on the other is a statue, the African Renaissance Monument, designed by a North Korean artist of a very soviet appearing family, which reportedly cost 50 million dollars... this was definitely worth a look so we popped along. Next on the list was Lac Rose – a lake with such a high salt content it looks pink in the right light. Maybe, with the eye of faith. Even if you can convince yourself it is pink, I wonder how long it will remain that way with the amount of salt being pulled out of it. On the plus side, the pink lake did have a huge flock of flamingos – obviously attracted to the pink. Quite beautiful. We headed off, very salty, to the Sine Saloum Delta, a truly gorgeous stretch of coastline where we stayed, the only guests in a campsite in Palmarin, with the beach to ourselves as well as visiting a small island village made entirely of shells, including the graveyard.
Whilst in Senegal, there had been much talk as to whether or not it was worth going to the Gambia. Other overlanders had been telling us horror stories regarding the police there – constantly looking for problems and bribes. After much umming and ahhing we decided, we’re only here once and went for it. After hours on the roads in Senegal, which will one day be excellent but currently jarred the hell out of both us and Stanley, we went through the easiest border crossing so far. For a start they speak English – something I for one was really struggling to grasp. One police man even said “We speak English here. Where are you from?”… England… Pardon Monsieur. Also, the roads are perfect and the police were extremely polite and helpful. We crossed over the Gambia river on a ferry (so my no boats rule lasted less than an hour in the Gambia) and drove to Banjul, the capital. The problem with the Gambia is the check points. It’s not that they’re hard or they are looking for bribes. There are just a lot of them. Probably twenty-five on the 100km road to Banjul. We arrived exhausted and stayed in the Gambia for a couple of nights in a lovely German run campsite.
The Gambia is an odd fish. It is very West African, the people friendly and helpful but it has the strange mix of budget travel. Sitting on beaches which 60km up the coast we had been the only people sitting on for days, here in Gambia were packed with tattoo ridden Brits, flip flop sellers, horse rides, massages and people selling a lot more than that. A very odd experience.
We returned to Senegal and at the first town got James driving licence taken off him for having luggage on the back seats… Well, they’d already checked the fire extinguisher was in date so what else did they have to fine us for. The bloke was quite hard so we paid a small cut of what he wanted and got the license back. We are starting to sour to Senegal.
Tomorrow, we shall head for Guinea Bissau an extremely poor country just south of Senegal, which is basically an Archipelago, full of tiny islands and estuaries. What better place for a Landcruiser?
We set off at first light from Dakhla, aiming to get to the border early. As we passed further south, there was a noticeable increase in both police and military presence and there were multiple stops at police check points to hand over our fisches – a document we’d written with all our details on. At the checkpoint just before we left Western Sahara, we stopped and were greeted by a very officious looking policeman. He asked for our fisches and then found we were from Great Britain (no one really understands that Ireland is a separate country, much to my enjoyment and James disgust). He then proceeded to tell is a joke in flawless England, after discovering which part of London I was from and how near this was to “the Cockneys”. An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotmans…. This was not the hardcore police state we were expecting. He waved us off and wished us Good Luck in Mauritania.
We got to the border and flew through the Moroccan side, with the only hiccough being when the drugs dog launched into our car, only to complete his most thorough assessment by peeing on Stanley. It never ceases to amaze me that people are surprised you don’t know your way around border posts and wander aimlessly from one window to another until someone takes pity on you, but even saying this we were through in half an hour and out in to No Mans Land.
No Mans Land is an area of about 3km between the Moroccan and Mauritanian border which remains disputed. It was, once upon a time, covered with landmines placed in one of the many conflicts. Prior to going, we had been told to stay on the path to avoid accidents, but there was certainly no sign of landmines now with people wandering through the burnt out cars. It felt quite ominous, and we drove quickly over the non-existent roads. Later, we met a group of Dutch birdwatchers who overcame this feeling to bury 4 L of wine to ensure they had a tipple on their return trip!
Entering Mauritania felt like we were finally reaching Africa. The people were much darker, it was substantially hotter and had the African influence. We went from one office to the next, repeating our itinerary and having our details entered in various books. It was certainly poorer than Morocco, with some on the more senior Military officials sitting at desks in a shipping container with no fans or AC – alright today in Winter with temperatures of 30 degrees but potentially agonizing in the Saharan summer. After another hour and a half we were done and head off onto Mauritania, only to be stopped within 2km at a police checkpoint. This was clearly going to be a theme.
We spent the night in Nouadhibou, Mauritanias second biggest city - saying that it seems to be its only other city. A very pleasant little place which was friendly with the streets yet more full of donkeys than Morocco, being told about the town by the ladies as we walked around. We visited Cap Blanc in the morning, which is a Monk Seal Sanctuary on a peninsular far out of town. We were shown round by the military officer who seemed to be the tourism official for the town and saw a Monk seal. There are only 150 left in this colony which is the biggest and only viable group in the world, but only one seems to live here, the rest being further down the coast in a military base. It makes the machine gun mounted on top of our guides car possibly a little excessive protection for this one seal, but I’m sure he appreciates it.
We picked up maps for the Banc D’Arguin, a bird sanctuary on the coast, which included GPS coordinates and drove down the main road. At some point along this 400km stretch of nothingness in the middle of the Sahara, you have to take the leap of faith and drive at right angles to the one road in existence following the GPS coordinates as you drive over the sand. Trust me, that takes a fair amount of trust in satellites and I, for one, will never have anyone tell me my A level in physics was for nothing! We drove like this for 40km until we saw the sea and then scooted down the coast til we found a village of about 30 people and set up camp for the night. Just before the little village, we saw the first people we had in hours – a group of three Frenchmen who were waving frantically at us. Thinking they were being friendly we drove over to the men, dressed in their boxers with handkerchiefs over their head. “Three days!” “We could have died!” they shouted at us in extremely rapid French. After several “Pardon?” and “Repetitez sil vous plait” we got the gist that they been got stuck in the sand somewhere near by and been wandering the Sahara for three days. They had been very close to running out of water and had sent the fourth member of their group off to find the locals, who at that exact moment turned up. Luckily, because we had problems of our own. As a parting gift from my Mum, we had received a small pile of Marks and Spencers chocolates which I had stowed away in the dashboard for emergencies. This had seemed a very sensibly location, in England, when it was 2 degrees, but it had chosen this exact moment to melt through the glove box and cover the car, my legs and my shoes. What ensued was a very unusual situation with James trying to comprehend rapid emergency French from a selection of half naked castaways, while I screamed at him to help me as a swarm of flies descended upon my thighs.
We spent the next few days finding the inner twitcher. Flamingos, Pelicans, Spoonbills - there were some lovely birds. Some very lovely birds, it just turns out James and I don’t really care about birds… This feeling was very much solidified when on one of the nights we meet a large group of twitchers (quite intrepid twitchers I may add) and we teamed up for a day trip on a pirogue in the Banc D’Arguin. We were up at the crack of dawn, and had a rather enjoyable few hours sailing around the islands looking at the beautiful birds whilst having experts explain all about them, and by eleven we were quite happy with our lot. By four o’clock we were still on the islands, but now the wind had dropped and there seemed no way back. The captain explained we were to wait for the wind to come back and the tide to rise so we could get passed the islands. We waited. And waited. By seven o’clock even the twitchers had lost to will to twitch, as we floated 12km off to shore line waiting for the wind to pick up. It did not and eventually James and I fell asleep in the fishing nets, incredibly glad we had had the presence of mind to bring lots of water, and emergency biscuits whilst I thought up more and more inventive ways to have a pee off the boat . We didn’t land til nearly midnight and the only saving grace was at least we both smelt as bad as each other. The guide explained to us that they had very few tourists in the Banc D'Arguin, with 60 people having visited in 2013 and things now worse with the fear of islamic fundamentalism throughout the world. Our twitcher friends later visited the tourist information centre, and after reading the sign-in book realised that only one person had visited so far this year. To be fair, we would have visited but it wasn't on the tourist map so we hadn't actually known it had existed.
Tomorrow we head for the Senegalese border and onto a cold beer, something which I would have been very glad of after 16 hours in a fishing boat. If there are three rules for Africa, they are never pass a passable loo, allow a full day for a border crossing and never get on a bloody boat.
After two nights in Marrakesh, we headed into the desert and then on to Western Sahara. Whilst travelling south, we drove through some truly spectacular scenery, starting with mountainous terrain, which would abruptly stop and lead us into the flat, desolate desert. The entire route is paved with at least a two lane tar road, which is in remarkably good condition, with the sand being shoveled off by permanent road workers based in the remote desert when the dunes decide to move on top of it. The road mostly hugs the coast the entire route which results in driving for hours, only seeing scrubby sand, and then rounding a corner to discover the cliffs dropping off into the violent Atlantic Ocean.
Prior to leaving Agadir, we stopped at the Carrefour and stocked up with supplies, knowing we’d be in the desert for the best part of a week. Lots of water, vegetables, dried sausages, cheese and eggs were squirreled away and we bought some beer too, descending into the ‘cave’ below the store in order to find it.
Liz Jarman & James Nunan
Our trip from Essex to Cape Town & back again
Km travelled : 50818km
Countries visited: 30