Mauritania and Senegalese border

After a few days of rest and repair, followed by another day of doing nothing. I finally got myself together to leave Morocco. A big group of Dutch overlanders had come into the campsite then night before and I’d heard from one of them that they’re would be about 50 cars in their group crossing the border today. I was in two minds about this. Perhaps it would making getting through the border a nightmare, on the other hand at least I’d have some company. The group had been up late having a bbq on the beach and getting pissed but they still managed to beat me out of bed and were on the road by 7 am. I, on the other hand was looking for excuses to delay leaving further, mostly due to plain laziness but also there was a bit of reluctance to leave Morocco, cos after the 3-4 weeks I’d really got a feel for the place. I knew it would be like this. I’d mentioned to friends before leaving home, that I wasn’t looking forward to having to re-adjust to new currencies and cultures every week or so.  To make matters worse the weather wasn’t so good either with quite strong winds also making me reluctant to hit the road again. I forced myself to get ready and I managed to get out of the campsite an hour after the Dutch crew, who by the way are doing a challenge for charity where they buy cars for no more than 500 euro and drive them to Dakar, then sell them and give the profits of the sale to local charities. I rode back up the peninsula onto the mainland and headed south for the border. The view on the way out was a bizarre contrast. To my left (east) there was thick low-lying grey cloud which was made the view colourless against the white sand, but to my right (west) there was a sandwich of blue sky, white/yellow peninsula, blue sea and yellow earth . I kept switching between looking at the two, marvelling at how whey are both produced by the same landscape at the same time.

After 3 hours of riding I caught up with some of the Dutch. It looked like they were waiting for some friends who had been pulled over for speeding to get away from the cops. After another hour I was at the border, and there was a huge queue of cars lined up to go through. I rode up the wrong side of the road to get to a petrol station, which didn’t have any petrol, when some of the Dutch told me to ask if I could go through the border now as I wasn’t with their group. The guards agreed and I hastily filled out some forms and went through into the Moroccan bit of the border.

I have to say the experience of leaving Morocco was nothing like when I came in at Tangers. All the officials were very friendly and helpful, even though the pace of work still needs a lot to be desired. I had befriended a French couple in the border who were traveling with a flat-back van on top of a tilt-and-slide truck, both of which they planned to sell in Mauritania. I followed them into no mans land which was exactly as a no mans land should look. There was loads of wrecked cars and sand dunes There was no road, except a track similar to the one in the video in my last post and loads of that fine sand that has been making me go arse-over-tit a lot recently. Through picking my path carefully and fighting with the handlebars as the front starts to slip, all with my feet down just in case, I managed to get through without the bike ending up horizontal again. The no mans land was so wide that the other side of border couldn’t even be seen until riding half way through. The guards on the Mauritanian side of the border were also very friendly and I impressed myself by having a few conversation or sorts in French.  All in all it took 2 hours to get through the border, whereas the large Dutch group were there for 5 hours or more and ended up paying a lot more than everyone else for some reason. There were loads of money changers about and one went off and arranged some insurance for me. He demanded a large tip for this service and I refused at first, but later gave it him anyway cos he had been so polite about it and in a non-hassling way. He directed me to a campsite and said that the Dutch group would be staying there. I had got on well them the night before so I thought I’d head to the same place to see them again.

As I rode into Nouadibhou, I was passed by the famous iron ore train that is supposed to be the longest train in the world. I didn’t think it was that long, but it was still good to see something that Ive been reading about for ages. The directions I’d been given by the tout to get to the campsite were to just go straight and keep going straight so of course loads of T-junctions and dubious roundabouts came into view. I rode past a fairly decent looking hotel and I wandered what the prices would be so I took a detour to have a look. At about 40 euro a night I wasn’t going to be staying there but I started chatting with 3 gentlemen from Greece who were in town on business. They invited me to join them and they gave me food and scotch. I was enjoying the company when I remembered that I still hadn’t found a place to stay for the evening so I went off in search of the campsite again. I was having no luck finding it, and every time I pulled over to try to use my gps, someone would approach me and try to give me advice, although I’m not sure that this was always done out of generosity, as I got the impression that some where looking for money. One guy even tried to get on the back of the bike to show me the way. I have no idea were he thought he was going to sit. On my head perhaps?
Nouadhibhou is a shit-hole really, with goats rummaging through the rubbish that is piled high at the sides of the streets. The roads sometimes disappear under sand, and I made the mental note to not ride in the dark now matter how short the journey would be.
At the campsite, the room I was promised had suddenly gone up in price so I opted to camp. As I was setting up my tent and young guy called Musa came over and introduced himself as a guide of the camp. We got talking and he said he can show me a very good inexpensive restaurant. We wandered out of the campsite, which now had 4 police guarding the door (some of the Dutch told me that they had an armed escort of 4 land cruisers with machine guns on the back from the border to the campsite – where was mine!). Musa explained that there is a large police presence for such big groups these days, although no one seemed to care that just me and him where wandering the streets. The restaurant he took me to was fantastic, but far from local prices. I was wandering what the deal was, as he sat there watching me eat my dinner. Am I going to get hit for a tip or what? I asked about tourists selling cars in Mauritania after big African trips and it turns out that he does a lucrative sideline in arranging the buyers. We spent the rest of the time in the restaurant looking at cars on ebay to buy and bring over (apparently, old Mercedes 190 and old-style Toyota Avensis sell very well, but have to be diesel). I was never asked for any money when we got back to the campsite but we arranged to go sight seeing the next day. I’m going to have to be up front with him. How much does he want? I’ll negotiate a fee then we can forget about it.
Back at the campsite, the huge group of Dutch overlanders were listening to banging tunes and were doing some maintenance on their vehicles. From inside my tent it was like being at a festival. I passed out after a tiring day.
The next day I talked to Musa and he said that I just give him whatever I want but people sometimes give him 6000 or 7000. I thought that this was expensive but since he didn’t want to agree a price I’d just pay what I thought the tour was worth. The Dutch group set off early in the morning and then we set off to see cap blanc, the tip of the peninsula that Nouadhibou is located on. I went on my bike with Musa on the back. The road was bad as any I’d seen so far with some of it completely sand. I was doing okay until Musa confused me and I rode into a particularly sandy bit. The bike slipped but I managed to keep it upright. Musa walked while I got it through the sandy bit alone, dropping it at one point. There really wasn’t anything to see at cap blanc except a large shipwreck. Riding back I went through the sandy bit again solo. I was fighting with the handlebars as the bike slid about, sometimes ending up going sideways but I was proud when I got it through okay. Next we went to see the village were the workers from the iron ore mines live. The houses were noticeably better than the rest of Nouadhibou’s shanties. We stopped by the fish market which really wasn’t anything to see either, then we went for lunch at a Senegalese place that sold at local prices. The food was great and at 300 (80 cents) was good value. Musa took a phone call and told me he would be back in 5 minutes. I sat in front of the Senegalese TV not understanding any of it for at least 30 minutes when I started chatting to another guy also called Musa. He invited me to his place for some tea and we went and listening to his bad collection of hip hop and reggae tunes. He was very friendly and showed me photos of all his girlfriends. When I realised that he was engaged, it dawned on met that Mauritania is a country were polygamy is practiced and Musa told me that he can have up to four wives. The other Musa showed up and said he had to go to Nouakchott to try to sell a car. I gave him 3000. He didn’t look at it and put it in his pocket. Later I felt bad about it as it isn’t his fault that there isn’t anything to see in Nouadhibou but my instinct was that he had inflated the price anyway. I saw him later in Nouakchot, and he didn’t mention it. He just gave me his details incase I wanted to sell my bike!
I returned to the campsite which now had the gate wide open and no security whatsoever. I guess with the big group gone, nobody cared anymore.
Later that evening a met a French couple, Jem and Christine, who are traveling to Burkina Faso with their two children. We went back to the same restaurant and treated ourselves to nouvelle cuisine and beer.  The next day I set off for the capitol, Nouakchott. Before I got to Mauritania I had been told that Mauritania has no roads but there was a sealed road in very good condition all the 450 km to Nouakchott. What was annoying though was the constant checkpoints. I stopped about ten times, each time presenting the policeman with a ‘fiche’, basically a photocopy of my passport with some other details written on it. As I got further south, the landscape started to change from full-on sand dunes to flatter, less sandy terrain, similar to Morocco or southern Spain. I guess I’m on my way to entering sub-saharan Africa. I met two bikers from Belgium. We rode along together for a while but then split up when they didn’t have fiches and the police had to write down their details. They are riding through to Burkino Faso so I’ll no doubt be seeing them again.

Jem and Christine were at the Aurbege Sahara when  I arrived. We could only stay there one night as the placed had been reserved by the Dutch group for the next night. Some of the group were already there as mechanical problems had caused them to stop for repairs. Other than that, the place was pretty empty. I went out for food with the French and we got ripped off in a restaurant over the road (always ask the price!) . I’d took a bed for the night in the auberge. I put the mosquito net down around me and fell asleep. In the morning, I found that I’d slept touching the net and my left arm had been bitten about  30 times by mosquitos. Definitely in sub-saharan Africa now I thought.

The next day, me and Christine went to get visas for Mali at their Embassy. The embassy staff were all very friendly and said that we would get out passports back at 3 pm. As we were leaving, we met two bikers, Laas from Holland and Eddie from UK. They were both staying at the auberge that we intended to move to so we said we would see them later. Next we went to the Senegalese embassy which was just around the corner. Christine needed to make some inquiries about bringing her camper van to Senegal as they didn’t have a carnet de passage en duanne document. A carnet is a document that allows you to temporarily import your vehicle into another country without paying any import tax. They are issued by motoring associations and they require a large deposit, sometimes up to 8 times the value of the vehicle. My carnet had required a deposit of £2500 to be left with the RAC in UK, but I had got it ‘just in case’ and had never really expected to have to use it. What was a surprise was that the official in the embassy told me that I also needed a visa, which came as a complete surprise as everyone had told me that I didn’t need one. I found out on the internet that he was talking bollocks and that all EU citizens can go to Senegal without a visa. We spent the rest of the afternoon riding around to try to find a working cash machine (ATM) and then moved to the other auberge. It was great chatting to Eddie and Laas about their journey. They had ridden the road from Nouadhibou to Choum, which is a route that I had wanted to take, but I’d been put off it by people telling me that it is too difficult. They confirmed that you would have to be a complete idiot to do it on your own as it was a 250 km sand track with no fuel stations. I was jealous of their adventure, but they also said that they were envious of aspects of my journey as I had gotten to know the Moroccan people more. Traveling as a group made them prefer to wild camp all the time, without meeting as many locals as I had done. Eddie and Lass were to go their separate ways with Eddie going to Mali and Laas to Senegal. Me and Laas agreed to ride together, but he wanted to ride out the following day as he had already been in Nouakchott for a week. I pointed out that the border would be rammed with 50 other Dutch cars and that we had better wait another day.  Jem, Christine and family would be coming too. I spent the last day in Nouakchott arranging Senegalese insurance for the bike and then I went to visit the fish market with the French.

In the evening, me and Jem went to see the uncle of a guy I knew. I ‘d met Mamadou through Nourdin in Rabat. He was a very friendly guy and he insisted that I go and see his uncle, Amadou (confusing isn’t it!) in Nouakchott. Me and Jem road through the crazy early evening traffic and pulled up outside a power station in the south of the city. We were greeted by Amadou and invited into his house, which was a hive of activity with kids running around everywhere. Mamadou had told me that his uncle speaks English but this wasn’t the case and I was very glad to have Jem with me to translate, although those two were getting along so well that I reckon I probably only got half of what was going on! Amadou is a teacher and besides teaching Mamadou and the rest of the family has has also set up two private schools. He explained to use that the government schools in Mauritania are a complete waste of time and only the very poor attend them. We found out that the starting salary for a teacher in Mauritania is 35000 Ouigya a year (under 90 euros a year). It suddenly put my tip to Musa into perspective! We had to leave Amadou’s before it got too dark as I did not want to face the crazy driving and mixed conditions of Nouakchott’s roads in the dark. We go the impression that Amadou had expected us to stay for dinner but he was a very relaxed about it and told us we are welcome to come and stay with him anytime we like. Jem particularly enjoyed the experience of meeting a normal middle-class Mauritanian. By the way, if you look up Mauritania on the wikipedia you’ll notice that there are huge human rights issues with the country. There is vast social inequality between Mauritanians of Arab origin and those of sub-saharan origin with most positions of power or money being held by the Arabs. You can see this everywhere in Nouakchott. All the money changers are Arab and the only black guy at the insurance office was making the tea. Even at petrol stations, you would speak to an Arab guy, and a black guy would be called out to fill your tank.  Mauritania is also known for modern day slavery with an estimated 20% of the population, all black, being enslaved by the Arab elite, although I doubt any of this would be visible to the passing tourist.

The plan was to set off early the next day so that we could be through the border and be set up on a beach somewhere in Senegal before night fall. But we didn’t hit the road until about half ten. It was the first time in my journey so far that I’ve had to wait for others to be ready, but the inertia of a group is just one of these things you have to expect, and still I was glad to be traveling with people for a change. Me and Laas got out of the jammed traffic rather quickly but we were overtaken by Jem and Chris when we had stopped to oil bike chains. We overtook them again at a customs checkpoint when they were being searched but we got waved straight through. We didn’t see them again until the border. The road down to Rosso wasn’t in as good condition as others but we were still able to cover the 200 km in just a couple of hours. The border at Rosso is famous for being one of the worst borders to cross in all of Africa, with a combination of corrupt officials and thieving locals on both sides of the Senegal river  trying to rinse you for all of your cash and possessions on your way through. For this reason we had decided to cross the border at Diama, which is next to a national park, 100 km west of Rosso. The two places are joined by a ‘piste’ or dirt road that we had heard was in relatively good condition and could be smashed in a couple of hours ride. As we arrived at Rosso, we decided to get some extra fuel for the off-road ride to Diama and we pulled up at a few stations until we found one that actually had had petrol (they don’t have unleaded in Mauritania but the bikes run fine on leaded – Laas’ bike is a TTR600 which is very similar to mine and has the same engine). I was paranoid from all the tales I’d heard about Rosso and I made a dick of myself when I thought I’d been short changed but I hadn’t doh! Rosso turned out to be no hassle at all and once we had told the touts that we already had Senegalese insurance the directed us to the dirt road. The ride was fantastic. The piste was a raised dirt road but there were tracks that lead off to both sides and we were able to ride side by side at some points, but for the rest, whoever was behind had to deal with dust clouds being churned up by the rider in front and we both just revved and hoped for the best as we bounced through some of the more extreme obstacles.

At one point we were stuck at the side of the piste when the track ran out and we were riding on an incline trying to keep the bikes from trailing off into the wetlands to the other side. Later, Jem told us that he had seen a truck roll over on the same incline as he struggled to take his high sided camper van along the track. I was in the lead as we approached the checkpoint to enter the nation park when a family of wild pigs ran in front of my bike. There was nothing I could do. To brake hard at that point would have planted me head first into the dirt for sure. I sounded my horn but unfortunately I hit one of the smaller pigs. Laas saw it crawl away, visibly hurt for the collision. I was feeling like shit about it when I got the the checkpoint the guards were all excited and said that I had to pay for hitting the animal (I doubt they had seen it but they definitely heard the horn!). I was pleading that it was an accident and the whole situation got very heated. Laas calmed me down and we asked for someone to go back and kill the pig. After some phone calls, the boss arrived (Arab) and he took us to look for the injured pig. We couldn’t find it anywhere and I tried to argue that It must be okay because it had wandered off, but they still wanted me to pay. The Arab boss, spoke only in arabic to the guards and said that I have to pay 50 euros. They had already tried to fleece us for ten euros each to enter the park. We had heard that it was only 1000 ouigas and had kept that amount back. Luckily two Spanish guys drove through in a land rover and changed some euros for us to sort that problem out. As for the pig, I’d removed most of the euros from my wallet and left one note of the smallest denomination that I had left, a twenty, with which to try to haggle. For the first time, the boss spoke French with us and said its too little, but after a little shoulder shrugging he agreed that 20 would have to do. I paid and we continued on the last 11 km to the border, with Laas narrowly avoiding collision with another two families of pigs. I thought that maybe someone was in the bushes letting them loose as we road past! At the border we met our first corrupt guard. A policeman wanted 5 euros each for what, I couldn’t quite tell. I told him that I had heard it was free and he gave up quite easily. The next guard, the customs official wasn’t that easy. He demanded ten euros each for us to leave the country. I told him that I have never seen a country were I have to pay to leave (other than airport tax in Thailand anyway) but he was having none of it. We went outside to chill and show him that we were not in a hurry when Jem and Christine arrived in the van.  They got past the first guy and then successfully got past the second without paying, but the guards had seen us all talking together and demanded them back into the office. They came out of the office again and said that we should go back in and argue after they had gotten through into no mans land. We waited till they were through and then went back to try again. This time we had another guard, black, who was getting very aggressive with Laas. Christine came back and threatened to call the embassy. Everyone left the office except for me and I tried to start a conversation with an arab guy in a tracksuit who was watching TV in the next room. The arguemnent continued for hours and it had gotten dark now when it turned out that the tracksuit guy was infact the boss (surprise surprise) and he joined in with a ‘what appears to be the problem’ even though he had been there throughout and knew the whole story. Christine was amazing and kept up the argument that we were all traveling together. I even showed them photos of us all together at the beach to back up the story. I guess they saw us as completely different groups, with one French-speaking group in a camper van and another group of pigeon french-speaking bikers. Eventually they backed down and we got our forms stamped without any money changing hands. The last guy had to stamp us out of the country and he didn’t seem to mind when I pointed out that he had written my bike down as being a Yamahaha! We all headed across the Diama dam to Senegal, but were stopped at a barrier were a guy demanded 8 euro each for crossing the dam. Jem went straight to arguing with the guy and managed to get the van a free pass but the bikes would have to pay (same story). However they stayed with us through solidarity and we blocked the road with our bikes and the van. I even started to play the harmonica. We decided to show them that we could wait all night and me and Laas cooked up some pasta at the side of the road. Other cars came through (we had to move the bikes), and although they did pay something, no one would tell us what was the right amount to pay.  We set in for the night and ate and drank wine in the camper van. Me and Laas slept in my tent by the side of the road. In the morning I got up to film a video when it all kicked off. You can see where I realise its all going pear shaped and headed back.

Some workers at the dam had arrived and although most were polite, one guy was very aggressive and was shouting insults at Jem and Christine then proceeded to attack my tent with a plank of wood. Laas went to defend the tent and whether through an intended act or not, he got hit in the head with a plank of wood (he was okay). I was unaware of this at the time and while talking calmly to one of the guys, the same guy came over and pushed me. He was trying to intimidate but I showed him a wasn’t bothered as he hadn’t even made me move from where I was standing. Later I felt bad about it, especially when I heard from Laas what had happened but what could we do? The angry bloke wasn’t really a threat. He was much older and would have been very easy to defend against but there was about 7 of them in total and I think that decking him would have inflamed the situation greatly. Jem told us to get going and we packed up as quickly as we could and passed through the barrier. The Senegalese border had been relatively deserted all night but now there were loads of people about. There was still confusion as to who to speak to, and I got my passport stamped and then went to deal with customs. This was the big problem as Jem and Chris had been told that they could get in with out a carnet, but then the guards said the complete opposite. A Belgian guy turned up who had been staying near the border for a week as he didn’t have a carnet either and they wanted 200 euros for him to enter Senegal. After a week he had finally got them down to 120! Laas handed over his carnet for his bike and an official spent ages sorting it out. By this time a guide had arrived who claimed to have arranged passage for the large Dutch crew the day before. He was visibly disappointed when he found out that I also had a carnet for my bike (120 euro stamped on my head?). We all got through eventually but the Senegalese import regulations are very confusing. Apparently me and Laas had 48 hours to get our carnets stamped in the capitol, Dakar, but the French had a 72 hours pass. We all decided to go and find somewhere to stay at the beach and unwind for the rest of the day to get over the morning’s strife. The Belgian guy lead us into the nearest town, St Louis and minded our vehicles while we got money, food, and most importantly, shit-loads of booze now that it is now easy to obtain. We went into St Louis and found a place to stay in a campsite that was right on the beach. We set up tents and started to chill out with a few beers when a girl, who was blatantly a prostitute came and sat with us. It was a really awkward situation until the subject was finally raised and I pointed out that none of us was interested. The boss of the campsite had told us that we didn’t need to go to Dakar and that we could extend our pass documents with customs in St Louis and we went to investigate the next day. It would have been great for us as we could have chilled out for another day before facing the big city, but for some strange reason, he could extend our papers but only if we didn’t go to Dakar. I have no idea why this was the case, presumably cos it wasn’t 100% legal and any guard in Dakar would see right through it, but me and Laas decided that it wasn’t for us as any problems with the carnet could result in us losing the deposits and besides we both quite wanted to see Dakar anyway. Problem is though that since it was now Friday, the offices in Dakar would be closed before we could get there and the papers run out at midnight, meaning that we could be stopped at any customs checkpoints and have our bikes impounded. We decided to chill as there was nothing we could do. We would leave the bikes in St Louis and go to Dakar without them. Hopefully we can sort all the paperwork out on Monday since we haven’t actually had 48 hours to register the bikes. Fingers crossed………

Hope you all like the videos. For some reason its easier than uploading photos all the time.

2 thoughts on “Mauritania and Senegalese border

  1. Hi Andy,
    Yes, the videos are a great way of pertraying where you are and nice hearing you spaek about whats going on… sound as though you had an interesting time at the border…!
    Take care mate… looking forward to hearing the next installment..
    Best regards

  2. Hey Chap,
    Looking forward to me weekly installments thanks to Andy McFay for the link. You are gonna love Africa, but watch out for dead snakes even in death they can strike – seriously :-/
    Good luck
    Cheers E

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