November return to Nouakchott

The Journey from The Gambia to Nouakchott - Mauritania - November 2005

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.

As often happens between travellers of like mind, he offered to  delay slightly his departure to fit in with my plans, if I would like to accompany him on his journey across Sénégal and into Mauritania, where he would drop me in Nouakchott on his way through.
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.

His past experiences of driving many times from Europe down to The Gambia had taught him the 'financial benefits' of keeping to the local speed limits and observing the rules of the road. I had heard of some pretty expensive occurrences to do with Toubabs driving their own vehicles in Africa and the avariciousness of some country's police and gendarmes. However, at the Sénégalese border we had no problems .. apart from the time it always takes to process perfectly correct papers .. and after some cool drinks we carried on towards Kaolack, on the usual badly potholed roads.

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.

Seeking something to drink for a late night beverage, we asked if we could buy any cold beers. A secretive look appeared on our host's face and he whispered that he could arrange it for us if we wished !

Huh, what was this all about .. cans of Heineken and bottles of tasty Flag or Castel lager-type beer are normally available everywhere in Sénégal ?

Then I remembered my experiences a few years earlier when I had visited
Touba ( the Holy City of the Mourides, some 5 kilometres from Mbacke, which is the Islamic religious centre for Senegal and The Gambia ) to witness the sight of between 2 and 3 million pilgrims attending the annual Grand Magal celebrations. Not only was enough drinking water difficult to find with so many people gathered together in one place and at least 20% of the attendees intent on using the crowded occasion for pick-pocketing everyone they could .. but smoking any form of tobacco, drinking alcohol and driving or riding in anything other than horse or donkey carts was strictly prohibited and rigidly enforced.

As a non-Muslim, a full-time smoker and an occasional drinker of cool beer in such temperatures, a 'quick' donkey cart ride to the then more liberal town of Mbacke, was often a 'necessity' !!

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.
Politely declining their offers to sit down and join them, partially because we wanted to continue our journey a few more kilometres and mainly because of one persistent pest .. who had had a Heineken or two too many and wouldn't stop asking us to treat him to another gallon or three .. paying a very reasonable price for four cans, we left them to it.

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.

That is a fine of CFA 12,000 ( 12 UK pounds but worth at least 10 times that in equivalent local value ) we were told, payable only at the central police station in St. Louis .. which would take at least an hour for us to return to the crowded town and sort out. As he started to write out the summons, we tried some friendly conversation.

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
( which went straight into his pocket ) the ticket disappeared and we were allowed to carry on with our journey.
Our feelings on the questionable relationship of his parents can easily be imagined !

Obviously this was a well-practised con .. I suspect that the taxi driver was in on it. The policeman's English was probably that good because he stopped and coerced money out of so many Toubabs. If there was any doubt whatsoever, on my return journey in a bush taxi, the same guy stopped our taxi and singled me out. After some thought as to what he could try on this one, he demanded to see my Yellow fever certificate .. something which few Toubabs bother to get and rarely if ever have to show .. and which is probably a very good money-spinner for him. My yellow fever certificate was produced along with a few choice words and his crestfallen face made my day. Another one added to my slowly growing list of corrupt officials .. please beware if you are taking this route ( the only route ) North out of St. Louis.

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.

Negotiating the border posts from Sénégal into Mauritania was a far more gentle and pleasant affair than at Rosso.
A request for 5 Euros from one of the officials on the Senegalese side was politely refused when all he could come up with for a reason was that 'it was usually paid as a present'. We carried on our journey after a lot of joking on the Mauritanian side, including negotiations for the future purchase of Roeland's Toyota, swapping of cigarettes for glasses of Attaya ( the local strong and sweet tea ) and hints, not demands, to sponsor local community projects or add to their 'fund for the provision of a working telecommunications system in their offices'. As well as the very hot temperatures,

it was a warm welcome into Mauritania from the officials in this far-flung outpost. They told us that their government had instructed them to welcome Toubabs and other visitors without giving them undue hassle or unnecessary baggage searches. To give them due credit, they did exactly that. Merci monsieurs, I hope you have your new radio system now !

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,
my 3x digital zoom was insufficient to get any good close-up pictures of the thousands of birds .. but my pictures will hopefully show what could be achieved with more time .. and / or a boat .. and the proper photographic equipment.

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.

Thanks to Roeland's grim determination to keep driving we made it to Nouakchott by about 10.00 pm, well after dark and went directly to where I thought Gabriel's house was. Only it wasn't there or anywhere else we searched for nearly an hour. When driving myself I can remember exactly where I have been, but during my last visit, Gabriel had chauffeured me around and being somewhat tired after two long days of travelling, to me everywhere in the dark looked the same. We had tried telephoning him from earlier but there had been no answer. I knew we were roughly in the right area, so we tried telephoning again from another café and were ushered into a sleazy-looking back bar containing some bored-looking "young ladies of the night", the bar owner and no one else. He didn't know Gabriel from my description, but would be pleased to try to telephone him for us. Hot and tired, we asked if we could buy a beer whilst he was trying and a pained expression came over his face. Seemingly, three days before our arrival, the new government of Mauritania had decreed that no more alcohol should be sold in the City !! Hence the reason behind the look on his face and a complete lack of customers in his bar .. only the bevy of bored and now under-employed 'young ladies' !

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.