Published: June 24th 2012June 24th 2012
No mans land
We set out across no-man’s land with certain sense trepidation. The three kilometre stretch of unpaved road between the two respective countries customs posts was heavily mined during the 70s as part of the on going conflict over the Western Sahara. The twisted remains of various shattered vehicles offered a sharp reminder as to what happens if you strayed off the marked path. In the distance we saw the cluster of windswept buildings that represented the Mauritanian border. As expected the place was chaos, money changers, taxi drivers, truckers and border police were all vying for business. The Mauritanian Gendarmerie had the swagger and look of uniformed thugs and you could see their eyes light up when they saw our vehicle. We had back on the Moroccan border decided to employ the services of a ‘helper’ who guides you through the chaotic border process and seeing what was unfolding before us we were glad we had. We parked up the car and I went with the ‘helper’ to get our passports stamped, there was no way we would have found the correct office on our own, nothing was signposted. While I was sorting out passports Gill was looking after the car
Trying to avoid the dust
and already one of the Gendarmeries was banging on the windows of the car asking her to hand over her sunglasses while I was inside a dark fly infested office trying my best not to cave in to the fairly aggressive demands for a ‘gift’ from the AK47 sporting immigration officer. Back outside a group of officers had gathered around the car waiting for the vehicle inspection. Now I say vehicle inspection in the loosest of terms, it was really just seen as an opportunity to steal stuff. The moment the tailgate was opened they descended like magpies pulling out tool kits, spare parts, radios and any other shiny stuff. “For me yes” came the repeated calls, “no, put the air compressor back”, “for me yes”, “no, the laptop is not yours”, “for me yes”, “no, I need that”. One chap was trying on Gills reading glasses to see if he could appropriate them for himself. The fact that they completely missed the hidden bottle of champagne, the bottle of gin and the box of wine, all contraband items in the Islamic republic spoke volumes about their priorities. One guy did find a Malaysian 5 Ringgits in the side pocket
Local bus service
of the door (no idea how it got there) and he got rather excited, “how much is it worth?”, “Oh…….about £25” responded Gill. He smiled and slipped the note into his shirt pocket before walking off. Stupid corrupt twat. After changing some money we paid our ‘helper’ and finally managed to escape the hellhole border and make the dash to Nouckachutt, the Mauritanian capital. In fairness, the police at the dozen or so check points were nothing but polite and professional, a far cry from the gangsters at the border.
I always get suspicious of guidebooks when they start talking about ‘scratching beneath the surface’ or ‘giving a place a chance’ as it is usually a desperate attempt to put a gloss on things that are really not particularly interesting or inviting. The truth is the only places people travel to Mauritania for is the stunningly beautiful Adrar region and the Nature reserve along the coast that is home to millions of migratory birds. Sadly the Adrar region had become too unsafe with the threat of kidnapping being very high so we had crossed that off our list and just aimed to transit through the country
The old colonial quarter
as quickly as possible. It was an exceptionally bleak journey to Nouakchott, utterly barren with the odd nomadic settlement breaking up the monotony. It was almost dark by the time we reached the capital, the sun had not yet set but the thick red dust that shrouded the city was already bringing a premature darkness and we were keen to reach the campsite. The city seemed to be fighting an on going battle with the desert with the streets covered in sand and locals wrapped up to keep the dust out of their eyes. Sadly when we found the campsite it had clearly been abandoned and the site had been taken over by squatters. It was a bit scary as various blokes surrounded the car wondering what to make of us before we turned around and sped off. Thankfully we found a hotel nearby and asked if we could set up camp in their car park. It was a stifling hot night not helped by the fact that two dozen mosquitos had made their way into our tent and savaged us while we slept. The next day, grumpy, blotchy with bites and tired, we sped off again keen to get
Local school trip Senegal style
to Senegal. Mauritania had not really endeared itself to us, and perhaps we were guilty of not really giving the place a chance but we could not help but feel that it was an exceptionally drab country with little to draw you in. We were glad to leave Nouakchott and make our way south, at least this part of the country had bit more greenery and the suffocating dust had seemed to have abated. We were keen to avoid the border of Rosso which by all accounts was even worse than the border we had crossed the day before in terms of hassle and corruption and decided to head to Diama instead. This required a bit off road travel as it is a less frequented border but it was worth it as we did skirt through a small nature reserve that hugged the Senegal river and we managed to see a surprising number of warthogs, these quite aggressive, magnificently tusked creatures would dart out of the bushes in front of us causing us to brake or swerve. They would than turn and face the car, belligerently staring at us as if they were going to charge. Despite the porcine distractions
we made great time to the border and with minimum fuss passed through immigration and customs. We also met a lovely Portuguese couple, Alex and Lucy, who were driving ahead of us through the nature reserve with their northern Irish friend Frankie. They were all veterans of this route through Morocco and Mauritania as they ran a business ferrying European cars to The Gambia. We spent about an hour on the Senegalese border sorting out our visas before being let loose.
What a difference a border makes. Senegal was an explosion of colour; the women were all dressed in vibrant yellows and electric blues while men sported neon green and fluorescent orange print shirts. Also noticeable, something absent in Mauritania were smiles, everyone seemed happy, we were waved at by shopkeepers, school children and taxi drivers as we drove by, there was an infectious positive vibe and we lapped it up. It was a short drive to St Louis, the former French colonial capital, and we made our way to the Zebrabar campsite, a bit of an institution on the overland trail. It was a tranquil place by the sea, well run with a bar and restaurant
Gill admiring the view from the Zebrabar watchtower
and compared to recent accommodation excellent clean facilities. After our marathon run from Rabat we were more than happy to park up for a few days and do pretty much nothing but relax in the hammocks dotted around the site reading and soaking up the sun. It was also another chance for me to crack open the fishing rod again and try and make amends for my previous dismal and borderline fraudulent attempts at sea angling. I found a wonderful perch on the end of a small wooden jetty and like Huckleberry Finn I cast a line and sat dipping my toes in the crisp water while nursing a cold beer. I could not help, in a rather mean spirited fashion, but think of what people were up to at that moment of time back home. Within a few minutes I felt a tug on the line and pulled in a small spotty fish, not quite a main course but definitely an h’orederve at least but Gill made me put it back as she reasoned it could have been Nemo’s dad and that would be mean. Still, I had caught my first fish! Shortly afterwards I pulled in another specimen
Dakar street party
that looked a bit more meaty and dinner like but this thing terrified me by inflating itself to the size of a football while deploying an impressive array of razor sharp spines. No way was I eating him so threw him back as well.
The following day was Gills birthday so we scrubbed the dust of the desert off us, put on some nice clothes and made our way into St Louis. The French feel of the place was still very much evident as grand colonial houses, hotels and former administrative buildings that would not have looked out of place in Marseille littered the town. Despite the slightly faded grandeur St Louis was a beautiful place and we soon found the best restaurant in town and blew our budget on fine wines and food to celebrate Gills 20th
anniversary of her 17th
While in St Louis we also found ourselves victims of our first robbery, this time by monkeys. The simian gang had raided a birthday box of goodies that Gills sister Tara had presented to us before we left London. We had stupidly left it unattended by the car and by the
time we had arrived on the scene they had already scoffed a bag of chocolates and were now trying to make off with the marshmallows. I gave chase to the long tailed thief and he took off at speed across the campsite. I have never chased a monkey before and it occurred to me if he had stopped and faced me I would probably not know what to do. He had a fine set of fangs on him and I probably would have let him keep the confectionary. In any case he dropped the bag and disappeared into the bushes.
It was easy to lose track of time at the Zebrabar but we soon felt the lure of road invading our thoughts. We had to get to Dakar in order to get some of our vehicle documents stamped and approved, why they could not do this at the border we don’t know so with reluctance we fired up Tyrone and headed south to Dakar. Senegal’s capital was a frightenly polluted place, thick smog hung over the city and although we had read about the infamously bad traffic we were not prepared for the gridlocked mayhem that greeted
us. It was survival of the fittest and we soon worked out that to get anywhere you had to be pretty aggressive. Thankfully Tyrone towered above most of the old local cars and we bullied our way into town. It was actually quite fun tooting the horn, waving your fist and generally making highly animated despairing looks at other drivers. You soon realise it is all part of the game and none of the shouting was personal but all part of the pantomime circus that driving in Dakar is. We stayed in backpacker’s hostel in the colourful suburb of Yoff and made our way to the customs office the next day in the port only to find it closed. It was a Friday and the place would not be open again till Tuesday as there was a public holiday on Monday. We would have to find somewhere to hole up for a few days. Dakar was far too expensive and we did not fancy fighting the traffic again. It was a pretty modern city and a great place to go if you like your nightlife but we ended up heading to an area called Lac Rose, a pink picturesque lagoon
about 30km outside of Dakar which is a popular weekend retreat for some of the more monied Dakar residents. We managed to blag the use of a swanky hotel car park to sleep in. They also let us use their pool so in fairness we did not do too badly. The only issue we had was being pulled over by another bent copper who wanted 12,000CFA for ‘not driving around a roundabout properly’. By this stage we were getting more bold and adept at dealing with these contemptible pricks and argued at length that he was in fact talking bollocks and called his bluff to issue us a ticket. He let us go but it still cost us half an hour of wasted time.
After a few days of lazing by the pool we dragged ourselves back to Dakar, got our Carnet stamped at customs and headed south to The Gambia. The roads started to deteriorate as well with potholes and dirt tracks becoming more frequent. It was also impressive to note the sheer volume of dead animals by the side of the road, camels, goats, cows and chickens all littered the tarmac, a sort of animal
Claude, our host in our home from home
Basra Highway. Arriving late afternoon at the border we were pulled in to the Gambian police station for ‘questioning’. The policeman conducting the interrogation, a fat man with an uncanny resemblance to Forrest Whitaker’s Idi Amin, had clearly watched too many Hollywood films as he tried to intimidate us with his various ‘probing’ questions about our reasons for visiting his country. Every time we answered a question he would form a church with his fingers, lean back in his chair and let out a loud ‘hmmmmmmmmmm’ or ‘interesting’, before scribbling some notes down. Various theatrical pauses, shakes of the head and consultations with unseen characters outside the room added to the sense of parody. Eventually he decided we were not a threat to national security and let us go after trying to persuade us to sell Tyrone to him.
We raced east down the north bank of the river Gambia to the old British trading post of Georgetown, a small town situated on an island in the middle of the Gambia river. We arrived just in time to catch the last ferry across the river, a small craft capable of just about shoehorning Tyrone on board without
Gill finally with a tan
capsizing. It was a short crossing but we managed to catch a superb sunset over the river before the tranquillity was broken by the ferry clumsily docking on the opposite bank. Georgetown was a charming enough place if not that exciting. It had a collection of old British trade buildings, warehouses, administrative offices and the like. The locals had evocatively renamed one of the buildings the ‘Slave House’ claiming it was a processing facility for the slave trade. This was a bit naughty really as the slave trade had been abolished by the British long before the buildings had been erected and no slaves had actually been transported from Georgetown so it was a very cynical attempt to cash in on a bit of guilt tourism.
We stayed there one night before crossing onto the south bank of the Gambia and heading west to the Atlantic coast. At was roughly a 250km drive through some very pleasant parts of the country, well we were unable to enjoy the sights for too long as their seemed to be checkpoint every five minutes, we counted 22 in total for that trip. Most of police or military were harmless enough,
A bit rough around the edges
just saying hello and wanting to break up the monotony of the day by finding out about our thoughts on ‘Vane Wooney’ and ‘Man-a-chester Yoo-nited’. There were a few invariably fishing for ‘gifts’ of pencils and cigarettes but our standard excuse now was that the previous checkpoint and cleared us out of goodies. One thing that does puzzle us when dealing with African police is that after trying to extort money, cigarettes or pens from you they then want to swap phone numbers and insist on coming to London to visit you. “I come to London and you show me round yes”. “Erm, sure, you can sleep on the sofa and I shall show you Buckingham Palace”, “Excellent, I shall like that most very much”.
After arsing around for an hour trying to find Sukuta camping, another well established overlander haunt we were delighted we had persevered as like the Zebrabar in Senegal it was a well run place by veteran overlanders Claudia and Jo, a German couple who had settled in the Gambia several years before. Again we parked up Tyrone and settled in a for a few days R&R. We made a point of visiting
Gill taking on the termites
the Senegambia strip, probably Gambia’s most well known tourist spot. It’s a street packed with restaurants, bars, casinos and night clubs, all a bit naff to be honest but great for people watching. One feature of Gambia is the sex trade, unusually like most other flesh pots of the world the customers are almost all exclusively middle aged European women looking for a bit of local fun. You could not help but laugh at some of the unlikely ‘couples’ sauntering hand in hand up and down the strip that usually involved some less than aesthetically blessed spherical women wobbling down the street with some ridiculously handsome man more than half her age.
We took the time to visit Banjul, Gambia’s tiny capital city to get our Guinea visas. It was fun to marvel at the election posters of ‘His Excellency Professor President Jemmah’, a former army Lieutenant who achieved the presidency through the trusted use of a coup d’etat rather than the ballot box. He was a modest chap who urged voters to “stop hating yourself and vote for President Jemmah, from darkness he brings light”. The fact that opposition parties are only allowed one week
Rubbish Senegal roads
of election campaigning, no television access and routinely have their party offices raided and supporters arrested by the police suggests a not entirely level playing field.
We idled away the time at Sukuta camping, making various day trips to the bustling markets of Serrakunda or to small fishing villages. By complete coincidence on trip to the shops we bumped into Alex, Lucy and Frankie our friends from the Senegalese border and soon settled down for a few catch up beers. We were kindly invited to dinner by Alex and Lucy and it was lovely to be treated to a civilised meal. Alex had had a fascinating life in the Portuguese army having served for four years in Mozambique. Disgusted with the Estado Novo regime in the 70s he went AWOL from the army and made his way to Belgium and only returned to Portugal once democracy had returned to the country.
After finding out if the Cassamance province of Senegal was safe to visit we took the plunge and decided to head to Cap Skirring, a beach resort town on the border with Guinea Bissau. It was only about a five hour drive or so and we were delighted we had made the journey as it was a lovely spot. On the way down we had been stopped for a drugs search by the Senegalese police, apparently Guinea Bissau has become a virtual narcostate with most of Europe’s cocaine supply at some point transiting through the country, often with the complicit help of the government. In fairness these police seemed a lot more professional and were not on the take, unlike the military officer outside Cap Skiring who pulled us over claiming that it was illegal to have bags inside the car and wanting to fine us 2500CFA for the offence. He got nothing.
There we no campsites in Cap Skirring so we treated ourselves and booked into a basic but lovely clean hotel with air conditioning. The village was a beacon of hospitality, no hassle walking down the street, just smiles and frequent ‘bonjours’. We stumbled into a French bar run by the lovely Claude, a women from Biarritz who had relocated to Cap Skerring. We all hit it off very well from the start and her restaurant bar for the week became our unofficial living room. The beaches near Cap Skerring are argued to be some of the finest in West Africa so we were happy to spend the afternoons lazing on them watching the world go by. I took the opportunity to chat to the local fisherman and they very sportingly took me under their wing as I set up my rod next to them. They then proceeded to take the piss out of me as every 10 minutes or so they landed various orca sized fish and all I could manage were a couple of tiddlers that could just about fit on a water biscuit. Claude back in the restaurant very kindly cooked them up as a starter for us.
It was sad to leave Cap Skerring behind but as ever we could not loiter for too long in one place no matter how nice it was. So we started to make our way to Guinea. Unfortunately the roads we encountered were some of the worse we had seen in Africa yet, truck swallowing potholes reduced our progress to a crawl. Our anticipated one day drive to the border turned in to three and we were forced to camp in some pretty grotty towns in the process. We were getting pretty slick with dealing with border formalities by now and we had everything stamped sorted within minutes and with a cheery wave from the border guards we set off to the Guinea border that lay a further 30km down the road.
We left Senegal behind us and raced towards the Guinea border before it closed for evening. Up ahead ominous black anvil clouds started to form and with them gusting winds started to rock and buffet the car. The trees on each side of us were swaying in the gale shedding branches onto the road. We had never seen a storm form so quickly and violently before, a few minutes before it has been perfect sunshine. A few heavy drops of rain hit the windscreen and seconds later it was a torrent. A fork of lightning pierced the sky in front of us followed by deafening roar of thunder, we flicked the lights on and pushed on ahead. We made the border 4 minutes before it closed.