Whilst sitting waiting for the Mauritanian Embassy in The Gambia to issue me with a travel visa, I had been in conversation with Roeland, an experienced West African overland traveller from Belgium. He was similarly waiting for a travel visa to enable him to drive back to Atar in Northern Mauritania .. a mountainous area that he knew well.
How could I refuse this generous offer ?
Despite all my travels across West Africa, I had yet to ride on a long distance international journey with another Toubab, driving his own vehicle .. surely it would be yet another interesting experience.
Our journey started at the Gambian Ferry Port in outrageously high temperatures and with a five hour wait whilst the only ferry on duty, slowly ploughed its way back and forth to Barra on the north bank of the River Gambia. After some extended and surreptitious negotiations as to the amount of a 'present' to be given to one of the officials on duty, we finally jumped a few places in the queue, rode the ferry and headed off into the Sénégalese countryside.
Kitted out with just about every possible accoutrement for long distance
African travel .. Roeland's 18 year old Toyota Land cruiser was pretty much full up with only enough space for the two of us. Although not the fastest vehicle on the roads, it was as strong as an ox and carried us
throughout our long journey without faltering. Mosquito nets fixed over the open windows gave us comfort and satellite navigation provided a reassuring independence of movement.
Reaching Kaolack we turned off towards Touba, not wishing to get involved with an extended route via Dakar .. and eventually arrived in the
town of Mbacke for a meal and something to drink at around 10.00 pm, in the pitch blackness of a moon less African night. After a short search we found a local restaurant serving some tasty food and very
welcome ice cold packets of milk and bottle of fizzy soft drinks.
It seemed that the Touba 'influence of abstinence' had spread to Mbacke and more out of curiosity than a desperate need,
we followed one of our host's friends through the dark streets and alleyways for some distance, finally entering someone's
private house and finding a core of friendly beer drinkers sprawled in the lounge, cold Heineken cans in hand.
Driving onwards through Touba and seeing its Grand Mosque beautifully illuminated against the dark sky, we found a suitable place for me to pitch a tent in a field of rice straw stubble next to the road, and for Roeland to set up his internal sleeping arrangements in the rear of the Toyota. Preparations finished, we had a cold beer, put the world to rights whilst looking at the incredible array of stars .. and finally went to sleep at around 2.00 am. The night was warm, the stubble was not too uncomfortable .. but the noisy insects were deafening and a right pain in the derriere !
Shortly after dawn the next morning we packed up and headed towards Louga and St. Louis. Occasional halts at police
checkpoints were no problem, but as we headed North out of St. Louis we had to swerve around a taxi which suddenly
stopped on the side of the road without pulling off onto the verge, as is normal practise. 100 metres further on, there was
a policeman in the middle of the road with his hand up signalling us to stop. What now we thought ? Evidently we had
touched the single white line in the middle of the road .. a heinous crime as far as he of the straight face and menacing looks was concerned ! Polite explanations of the reason that we were avoiding the taxi fell on deaf ears.
His English was very good, with a large smile and great enthusiasm he recited almost the entire list of teams in the UK
football leagues, recent results, names of players and even knew all about Norwich City's dismal results in the first division
.. not exactly on the tip of the tongue of most UK football fans !! However he still continued to write out the summons and
would not budge an inch, despite the pleas of ( supposedly ) fellow football fans. His overbearing manner returned .. the
ticket was written, it could not be altered and we would have to return to the centre of St. Louis. 'Miraculously', after some long negotiations and with a mock grudging acceptance of our final offer of CFA 10,000
Turning left off the main road which goes to the notorious border crossing point at Rosso, we headed down an almost
finished new road to the equally new Daima Barrage over the River Sénégal, which is the most Westerly crossing point
between Sénégal and Mauritania. Not only did we want to avoid the hassle and corruption at Rosso, but Roeland wanted to
show me the delights of the Diawling National Park. Established in 1991, it covers about 16,000 hectares of former flood
plain on the delta of the River Sénégal and is an important area for the study of tropical and Palearctic birds.
Previously, I had heard very little about the Diawling National Park .. had I realised what a mecca it is for wildlife
photography, but with vast distances involved, I would have taken a camera with a more capable zoom lens. As it was,
Our plan was to follow the raised track towards Rosso, but turn left a few kilometres before the town and join up with the
main road to Nouakchott at Tiguent further North. We would have been following the coastline and according to Roeland,
would have seen much more of the wildlife of the area at much closer quarters. Sadly, the Mauritanian custom's post at
Daima did not have any facilities for issuing Roeland with the necessary insurance papers to drive in Mauritania, and our
plans to drive to Nouakchott to obtain them were thwarted at the very junction where we wanted to turn left. A couple of
pleasant policemen were on duty and whilst sympathising, insisted that without correct insurance we must go straight to
Rosso and get some. So we had to continue another 20 kilometres or so to Rosso, luckily finding an insurance office quite easily and without too much of a delay, obtained the necessary papers.
Still, no one was answering Gabriel's phone, so we retraced out steps to an area that I was sure was local to him and stopped at a small open-all-hours corner shop. On describing Gabriel, his car, his house, his employment, what he normally wears and anything else I could think of .. initial blank faces of the two shopkeepers led to a hubbub of chatter, young boys appearing out of the darkness and a general free-for-all discussion amongst thirty or so people. Eventually one young lad was elected spokesman and asked us to follow him, as he thought they knew the Toubab we were looking for. Lo and behold, barely 200 metres away we were very relieved to find Gabriel's house and a slightly anxious Gabriel, who had no idea his phone had a problem and was wondering where the heck we had got to !!
Thanking our young guide and 'saviour' in the normal fashion, he scampered off to spend his present in the shop and we sat down to a tasty meal provided by our host, who had kindly offered Roeland accommodation for the night. Talking late into the night, catching up on news and relating tales of our journey .. falling asleep afterwards was no problem.