Day 43 (17 November) – Into Mauritania to Nouadhibou
Ready to leave Dakhla… Finally… It had some nice places and the time spent in Dakhla was great and relaxing but there is nothing really to do if you are not into surfing (I guess it is one of these places that is ideal for surfers).
It was border crossing day, crossing into Mauritania. We were very curious what the country would be like. Mauritania is located right in the Sahara, is about twice the size of France and has a population of only 3.3 million. The country has seen one coup after another and the last (and first) democratically chosen president was within the year also overthrown by a coup in 2008. Another remarkable thing the LP tells, is that Mauritania is believed to have up to 100,000 slaves and that anti-slavery organizations, like SOS-Esclaves, continue to work with runaway slaves helping to free them (they successfully freed nearly 50 slaves in 2008). But not to forget, Mauritania has been in the news a few times for kidnappings and has a “No travel except necessary” advise by the foreign state departments…
Let’s see. Driving to the border was again still a long way from Dakhla. We stopped at the last fuel station before the border to fill up with cheap fuel and wanted to get some coffee with our last few Dirhams. Until we saw a group of 40 Dresden cars waiting to leave for the border also. We decided to get a head start and not end up in the queue waiting for all the Germans to be finished.
At the Moroccan border side (Morocco claimed Western Sahara after the Spanish left in 1975) it was very quiet. We arrived just after midday and it was around the time of the Tabaki (slachtfeest for Muslims). We started the formalities in the soaring heat of the day. They checked our passports, inspected the car thoroughly, filled in the car papers, all of this at multiple offices: police, customs, some other people inspected the papers, than again into an office with the papers… Reasonably fast procedure for African standards and we were driving out of Morocco!
Between the borders is always a strip of land which is no mans land, but this was something special! A few kilometer over a road that looked like it was bombed all over the place, a tough off road part with the cars bouncing all over! Warning signs along the road for minefields, old crashed (or bombed) cars spread along the way… And the strangest thing were the people around, trying perhaps to exchange money or be a guide through the minefields? We didn’t stop for them since it was still in between the borders… One time we saw a whole family with some kids sitting next to a few crashed cars and caravans. We read earlier that if you get stuck on this track (it’s hard to call it a road) you would have to pay 1000 euros to get pulled out, and it looked like it was not difficult to get stuck. And you were not aloud to walk into Mauritania or Morocco! Perhaps they were just unfortunate and got stuck at World’s end…
But our well maintained Land Rovers manage to divert the mines and we arrived at the Mauritanian border (it really was a few kilometers and you cannot see the other side). We parked our cars and started formalities, police office, drove to the next check stop sign, customs, drove to the next check, car import (10 euros), and as soon as we wanted to drive on a guy asked as 1 euro for community tax for parking the car, Paid parking at the border??? What kind of nonsense is that?!?! As if we had a choice to park here or just continue to drive on… So I got some change (coins of 50, 20 and 10 cents) from the car and handed it to the “tax officer”. But he could only except 1 or 2 euro pieces, while it was 1 euro for two cars… And this we of course did not have. Fortunately we could also pay with Dirhams and because of skipping the coffee earlier this we did still have!
Finally car insurance, we got for 10 days (the minimum) for 5200 currency units. How much is that? Luckily the exchange is on the desk next to the insurance! We got 350 Ougiya for 1 euro so the insurance is 15 euros. Not too bad.
All border formalities settled we drove ahead to Nouadhibou, the second largest city in Mauritania. From other travelers we read that Mauritania is full of police checks and it makes life easier when you have a “Fiche” (a piece of paper which states you name, date and place of birth, name of father and mother (in Africa most have no family name), passport number, nationality, destination, visa/police number, License plate, car brand, and all other relevant info, a few asked for the chassis number which I did not have on my fiche). How strange it may sound the police asks for the fiche and if you have one they will not ask for your passport. If you tell them you have no fiche they ask you “No fiche???” and look agitated… (I just misunderstood him the first time I was asked for a fiche) In the end all the police are very friendly and don’t give you any problems.
We arrived in Nouadhibou and it starts to look more like Africa! The main street crowded with cars, busses, donkeys, bustling with people, small shops on the sides, rubbish all over the place… We setup camp at Campsite Abba, next to the Chinese restaurant Le Merou, which in the Tracks4Africa (GPS) is mentioned best in town! Stanley and I went there for diner, a very simple place BUT with beer being served while alcohol is strictly forbidden in Mauritania. I ordered something called “Onions stir-fried beef”, which was nothing more than onions stir-fried with beef… and a bit of rice.
Day 44 (18 November) – To Parc National Banc D’Arguin
On the campsite are also a rally tour of ~28 motor riders, 3 support vehicles and a enormous overland truck (I guess for materials and food) touring to Senegal. They all had their tents on one side of the camping and we had a few nice chats. The group left early in the morning and we took our time to drink a coffee and pack up.
Nouadhibou is located, as Dakhla, on a peninsula and after driving of the peninsula we headed South over a desert highway. The road up to now were in perfect condition but, although rarely, sometimes you had a pothole to divert. The scenery, in contrary to Western Sahara, was stunning. It was still desert and flat as Holland, but it looked like a green soccer field with sand dunes in the distance. There was a little grass growing every 20 cm or so, but in the distance it looked like the whole desert is a grass field. The sand dunes behind the fields have a nice gold color between the green and blue. Difficult to describe but marvelous although once again endless…
After a few police check stops we made it to Chami where we took a right turn into Parc National Banc D’Arguin. It was supposed to be “One of the best” birding places on earth according to the LP, but we hoped for a little more than Souss Massa in Morocco. Driving to the fisherman’s town of Iwik you had to go over desert like off road tracks and over sand dunes. A guide said it was very difficult to drive and find your way, but the park map had GPS coordinates on there. It’s a beautiful desert and with an 4x4 and a little of off road experience it doesn’t take much effort to go round in the park.
In Iwik we stayed at an empty campsite. Stanley tried to tell the owner what we wanted in perfect French but not much of it reached the young guy. In the end I tried to tell him the same things but this time in my French, a few words and a lot of hand gestures, and all things became clear: he spoke as much French as I did and talking in complete sentences is just too much for us…
In the evening after diner the young owner made some tea for us. He appeared to be the true master in tea making. Each time he made tea, and it is common to drink cups of tea, he made tea twice: first without sugar and once with sugar (and lots of sugar). The tea without sugar was used to create foam in the cups by poring the tea from great heights (around half a meter!!!) from one cup into another (and the cups are small). After the foam was created in the cups he chucked away the sugar-less tea and made new tea, this time with a lot of sugar added. Then poor the sugar tea into the cups with the foam and voila: Mauritanian tea. After most meals they do this three times…
Day 45 (19 November) – Birding at Parc National Banc D’Arguin
At last some time to do some real birding, hopefully… We arranged for a guide and a boat, because most of the birds are on the islands offshore. Early in the morning we went to the fishing village Iwik, which as seen on the photos is not much. The waters outside Mauritania are one of the riches seas on the planet with fish. And so, on international waters huge ships (including some Dutch fishing ships) sweep their nets through the sea, and in the end leaving nothing for the locals.
So we took the sailing boat for one and a half hours to a small island. From the boat you could see huge flocks of birds, everywhere! Compared to Souss Massa (Morocco)… No, you cannot just compare the two places. If you are into birding this truly is heaven. All the birds that migrate from the North and the South end up in these regions and Banc D’Arguin is a perfect spot for the birds. Just sitting in the boat and enjoying: flamingos, Spoonbill, pelicans, white-breasted cormorant, western reef heron, the list goes on and on. And the numbers must be in the thousands! To difficult to explain, a recommended place to visit a view days.
The other amazing thing is that on the boat they have a BBQ and we paid 2000 currency units for some food. We were first served tea and than the crew started to clean a yellow mullet. They served us fish soo delicious cooked that we completely finished the fish, leaving only the yellow ‘fish eggs’ for the crew. Maybe they expected to get a bigger share because the second course, another mullet this time grilled with delicious rice, they only served us a small piece of the fish… But again de-li-cious!
In the evening back at the camp, we asked the young owner to make us dinner. He prepared a delicious mullet with rice… It is a very tasty fish with a lot of meat. Not a problem to eat it three times a day!
Day 46 (20 November) – To Nouakchot
We wanted to take our time during this trip but it seems like we once again have to rush… We were on our way to Mauri’s capital, Nouakchot. I had no idea what to expect from it, Nouadhibou was nothing special and there are not really other major cities along the coast (none to be more precise). It seems like there was nothing there except for a few small houses every here and there.
But the road was in perfect condition and brought us passed some stunning views. First driving out of the park, than sand dunes next to the road and endless stretches of pothole free tarmac.
Closing in on Nouakchot for a moment the road looked like a proper highway with oncoming traffic divided and road lights (if they work, one can only guess).
In Nouakchot in the afternoon the buzzing place was the fish market (port de peche), but perhaps it was the still the tabaki today it was fairly quiet to my opinion. You could see on the beach all the brightly colored and decorated fishing boats and on the market there where some men and women selling their fish. We asked around for a mullet and managed to get one for 1800 unit (roughly 6 euros for a big fish). Not the cheapest but money well spend!
We found a nice place to crash for the night: Sahara something. Stanley, Julia and the kids rented a room and I slept on one of the mattresses in a ‘tent’ on the roof. We eat the grilled mullet while watching an episode of Top Gear, once again, perfect!
Day 47 (21 November) – To Saint-Louis in Senegal
After a night in the capital and the simple hotel being an quite alright place to stay, we were going for our last drive in Mauritania. There are two border crossings to Senegal from Nouakchot. The road to the crossing at Rosso is completely tarmac and known to be an ‘a-lot-of-hassle’ place. A much more relaxed crossing is at Diamma (named for the first Senegalese town). To reach Diamma you have to go over dirt roads, but than you arrive just North of Saint-Louis. And the procedure is supposed to go much smoother (but always a tiring business) at Diamma and we don’t like to waste hours during our holidays. So we headed on the tarmac down South, paying 2000 currency units for community tax (or toll or something), until we toke a right turn on the dirt road, still ~100km to do to the border…
The beginning of the piste was easy to drive, just enormously dusty (as most places in Africa). We followed the GPS routes towards Diamma and ended up in a National Park, Du Diawling, so the signs along the road said. The park was another great place to was birds, the road went along a shallow lake with impressive numbers of birds. We had to stop a few times to watch the birds, but also the road started to get worse and worse… Finally we had to continue and leave the birding for some other time, it was still a long drive over a tough and bouncy dirt road to Senegal.
In the middle of the park was a police check point and a guy asking for 1000 units, supposedly as an entrance fee for the park (not that we could go around it anymore or they place noticeable signs at the entrance…).
Finally we made it to the border. Exiting Mauritania went straight forward, paying a few thousand units for police and customs. Once again there was this guy asking for 500 units per car for paid parking, as if you had a choice…
Arriving at the Senegalese side of the bridge over the River Senegal, there was a guy asking 4000 currency units (now in Senegal you use Central Franc Afrique or CFA in short, CFA 650 for an euro), and you can guess what you have to pay for… Community tax… It started to sound suspicious, just asking for money everywhere, and so we decided to check out things first before paying and thus leaving the cars on the bridge. I guess this was not the normal procedure since all the police and customs officers where surprised we left the cars and didn’t pay. We first changed money to CFA, in fact we borrowed money from the lady for the insurance to pay for the bridge crossing. Paperwork was done relatively quickly without hassle, but the customs officer mentioned we had to register in Dakar within 24 hours… (or something, it was explained the next day by the owners of the Zebrabar, which is really the place to stay). We had to pay CFA 5000 for the ….