Jun 182016
 

Woke up early to get on the road, and Yves and team already had breakfast ready in the courtyard. Baguettes, pastries, sliced mango, bisap juice and fried eggs. I’m normally not a huge fan of staying in smaller places because of the “forced community” aspect, but Jamm was a fantastic hotel. It was nice staying somewhere more local with hosts who knew the area and made you feel at home. I’d highly recommend it to anyone visiting St Louis!

Small problem when we checked out in that they didn’t take credit cards, but that was easily solved by walking down the street to the ATM and withdrawing some more CFA francs. Bill settled, and still no sign of either of the drivers who had offered to take us to the border. It was pretty clear that they wouldn’t be showing up, but no worries, Yves’ staff had the number of a local driver who was more than happy to take us to the border. He arrived maybe 10 minutes later, agreed to the same rate of 25,000 CFA to the border, and we were off. This car was much more comfortable than the ones the previous day, and the 60 or so minutes to the border flew by.

As we rolled into Rosso, the border town, the vibe of the place definitely changed. Rosso is a border town, on both the Senegal and Mauritania sides of the border which is defined by the maybe 100-200 metre wide Senegal¬†River. It’s also known as Africa’s most difficult and corrupt border, and several people have posted it’s taken 3-4 hours to cross. We were fully prepared for the worst. As soon as we pulled into town, the taxi was swarmed with “helpers” offering to help us with things. Fortunately, I’d contacted my local office and they had helped me hire someone to meet us at the border. Problem was…he was late.

Eventually the Senegalese police became annoyed at us, and demanded we give them our passports…and they wouldn’t take no for an answer. Fortunately, the fixer showed up about five minutes later and we got the bags out of the taxi and headed into the Senegalese police/border post to complete formalities. Same procedure that I encountered back in January when crossing from Gambia into Senegal and then from Senegal into Guinea-Bissau. Write your name in the book, profession, etc, and stamp stamp stamp, you’re out of Senegal. Super easy.

There’s supposedly a ferry that occasionally runs across the river, but the timing wasn’t right, so the fixer ¬†took us down some side streets to a more remote landing where dozens of pirogue canoes were parked. He helped lift the bags up, and we were off:

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In the pirogue, with Mauritania a short distance behind me:

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Looking back towards Senegal:

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After maybe a five minute ride we “docked” on the Mauritania side of the river, and I snapped a quick shot of another pirogue about to head to Senegal. The guy with his arm raised in back was screaming “no photos!”

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We were on the beach now, so this officially made country #194 visited – only two to go!

This is where I expected things to get very interesting. Fortunately, our fixer knew the procedure. He found the chief immigration guy standing by the water, and we all walked back into an office together to “talk.” Fortunately, it was pretty straightforward. American passports are not eligible for visa on arrival in Mauritania, but I had a letter from my local office, signed by some members of officialdom, ordering them to make an exception and grant me a visa on arrival. Fortunately, they had no problem at all with this, and I had my visa in maybe 15 minutes – absolutely no problem at all. Plus, it was all digital stored in a computer and then the visa sticker was printed out. I was pretty impressed by how official everything was for a supposedly super corrupt land border.

Ian was up next. Unfortunately, the visa price had gone up since last we heard, and I believe it was something like 120 euros now. Unfortunately he didn’t have enough, so our fixer was like “don’t worry – I’ll take care of it” and produced enough euros to pay the border guy. No problem at all, and I sensed the less time we spent in the border office the better – since that was more time that could be spent attempting to extract bribes.

Once we both had visa stickers we head to head out of the office, around to the other side of the building where there was a window, and hand over the passports (now including visas) for stamping. No problem at all, and just like that…we were out of immigration. Or so we thought. There was still a very large gate to the immigration “compound” and some shady looking police types hanging about demanding we open our bags for inspection.

I made a little bit of a scene with them, showed them the visa and reminded them that if I was able to get a visa on arrival I know “very important people” in Nouakchott so trying to shake us down wasn’t in their best interest. They relented, and agreed to let us go after recording our details in their logbook.

Out of the gate, down another couple of alleys and sidestreets, and into this very shady looking courtyard:

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Here we were “invited” into a shop, to “do some business.” First order of business, I had leftover CFA francs to get rid of, and no problem, they exchanged those at a very safe rate. Then, came the shakedown. Ian only had Dollars, and they had fronted him like 120 euros to pay his visa. They were willing to sell him euros for dollars, but at a terrible exchange rate that took like 15-20%. Fortunately he scrounged up like 60 euros so only got fleeced for about $15-20 in bad exchange, but still not great. Then, we were given the “bill” for crossing. Pirogue charges, border tax (which is legit), money to “make things easier” and finally “a small tip for me.” All in, they asked for 7,000 in local currency which was only like $20, so a very small charge for getting through the whole border in under an hour.

Bill settled, the fixer walked us over to the driver he had arranged for us, and we were off!

We were just a couple of miles out of town, when we hit the first police roadblock. I’d read there were several of these on the road to Nouakchott, and the easiest thing to do was have pre-printed “fiche” where are a copy of your passport and all your details – name, where you are coming from, going to, etc. That way, you can just hand them over and not have to wait for the police to copy all the details from your passport. We handed them over, and he waved us on – super quick.

As soon as we crossed the river, the landscape changed – we were clearly in the desert now:

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The first 15-20 miles of road were pretty good, but after that it was much poorer the rest of the way to Nouakchott, with the desert overtaking the road in many places:

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Wild camels roaming free:

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Not too much else to say about the drive. Took maybe three hours max from the border to Nouakchott, and probably about 10 stops by the police to hand over the fiches – all in all pretty easy. When we got to the city we had the driver take us to an ATM to get local currency to pay him, and piece of cake. Definitely having everything pre-arranged made things go much smoother and it wasn’t at all as bad as I read from people online.

I understand that having a fixer for this border crossing is pretty essential if you want to get through in any reasonable amount of time and hiring one on the spot probably isn’t the best option since they have the upper hand then. Thanked our driver for his help, and he gave us his business card to give to anyone else who might want help making the trip. With that, it was late afternoon and time to explore Nouakchott!

Jun 172016
 

Our only plan for the day was to make our way north from Dakar to St Louis, Senegal in the north so we could continue to Nouakchott, Mauritania the next day. It would probably have been much easier to fly, but the only airline on the route that sells seats is Mauritania Airlines which does not seem to be bookable anywhere online, and several calls to their supposed office in Dakar also went unanswered. The flights clearly exist and can be purchased, but the difficulty of doing so was enough of a pain that we opted to go the overland route. When I worked in Dakar a few years ago everyone told me how nice St Louis was supposed to be, so this would be a perfect excuse to see it.

Getting to St Louis is pretty straight forward. First, you have to take a taxi to the Gare Routiere in Dakar, and from there you can pick up a taxi all the way to St Louis. We ended up hailing a taxi right outside the Radisson mid-morning, and I offered the driver 5,000 CFA for the ride, which a google search indicated was the going rate since the station is quite a way out of town. The driver was happy to accept 5,000 for the ride (about $9) and off we went.

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The station was indeed quite a way out of town, nearly 30km and it took the better part of an hour to get there. Of course, the minute we got out of the car we were swarmed with the local taxi touts asking where we were going. I told them St Louis, and we wanted to buy an entire taxi. The other option is to wait for a taxi to fill up. The sept place (seven seat) taxis are really cramped old converted Renault or Peugeot station wagons with two rows of seats that they cram three people into, and if you’re the lucky seventh you get to ride shot gun. The going rate is 5,000 CFA per seat plus another 500 CFA for each bag. I offered one of the drivers 40,000 CFA to buy out the whole taxi if he would leave right now and take us all the way to the hotel instead of the taxi station in St Louis, and he agreed.

We were off…sort of…we got stuck behind a number of donkey carts on the way out of town…

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After about two hours of driving the temperature had risen from a pleasant low-70s fahrenheit in Dakar to nearly 100 degrees around Thies halfway to St Louis. It was scorching hot in the taxi, and the front seat where I was sitting had no padding left and the steel crossbars in the seat were jamming into my back and legs. I was glad when the driver said he wanted to stop and buy some mangos:

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Apparently it was mango season, because they were everywhere on the drive:

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I also took this opportunity to switch to the second row of seats in the back to get a little bit of padding. The back seats are definitely not made for tall people, and I had to kind of lay sideways in the seat to not jam my head into the roof of the car, but it was much more comfortable than the front seat. It was tolerable for the four hours or so we were in the car, but anything much longer I’m not too sure how I would have fared.

Of course, most of the drive was pretty bland on the scenery front:

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The drive also took much longer than it should of because the road was covered in random speed bumps everywhere. Fortunately our driver was aware of them and slowed down for them (instead of using the common method of revving it and trying to go over them quickly) but it made for a much longer trip than we expected. After nearly five hours we finally made it to St Louis.

Our driver didn’t know where our hotel was in St Louis, but thanks to google maps (which was thankfully accurate unlike many times in Africa) I was able to direct him to it. We asked him if he wanted to drive us to the Mauritania border in the morning, and he agreed to although he didn’t seem to be too excited by the prospect.

As soon as we got out of the taxi, we were swarmed by a couple of guys eager to show us where the door of the hotel was. Um, thanks? “Oh, and also, I have taxi, I will take you to the border tomorrow.” Thanks, so helpful…so supposedly we now had two different groups of guys eager to take us to the border. Plan and backup plan set we went into the Jamm hotel which was a nicely restored group of buildings that had been converted into four rooms around a nice open air courtyard. We met the charming owner and host Yves, got settled in the rooms, and since it was already late afternoon headed out for a walk. Yves asked if we were ok having aperitifs at 7:30p which sounded good, so off we wandered.

It was hard leaving, because in the 10 minutes we were at the hotel Ian, aka the cat whisperer, had already been claimed by Yves’ cat:

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Out for a walk, and the first view was the Faidherbe Bridge, which connects the island of St Louis to the mainland. The bridge was opened in 1897 and supposedly built by Gustav Eiffel of the Eiffel Tower, but there’s no proof at all that he was at all involved in its design:

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Around the main square in town, where we startled a couple of stray goats:

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After walking for a bit we stopped at the Flamingo Hotel which had a outdoor patio right on the river. Ian learned the very important lesson that you don’t leave your glass uncovered next to the river, because the local flies are intent on getting drunk.

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After one beer we were tired of the flies so wandered to the Hotel de la Poste which was old colonial hotel across the street from the grand old post office. Unfortunately, there is nothing grand at all about the post office these days to the point it really wasn’t even photo-worthy. St Louis used to be the capital of Senegambia before it was moved to Dakar, so it was an important transit point in West Africa. I tried my hand at flying the old French mail route at the Hotel de la Poste:

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After walking for a couple of hours we headed back to the hotel, where Yves had set up for aperitifs in the library of the house. There was only one other guest staying at the time (so three of four rooms were occupied) and he was visiting from France and spending a couple of weeks in Senegal. Yves speaks a little bit of English, but the other guest didn’t so unfortunately Ian was sort of left out of the chat. Drinks were offered by the fantastic lady who managed the hotel. I opted for the Ti’ Punch which was pretty potent with rum and some local juices and we chatted for nearly an hour over drinks.

Yves was a fantastic host and when he found out we were going on to Mauritania in the morning shared his stories of driving from France to St Louis via Mauritania. Supposedly this used to be easier to do, but now that the situation in northern Mauritania is quite unstable and Western Sahara also is a bit dicey in the south he didn’t know if it was still safe. This meant now to get back to France involves the five hour drive to Dakar, a hotel for an overnight, then a six plus hour flight to Paris and then connecting on. He also shared recommendations on places to eat and we ended up going to La Kora Chez Peggy which ended up being a quite popular place.

As usual, I ended up with the Croque Madame (which they had named the Sandwiche La Kora) which was one of the better ones I’ve ever had and went perfectly with a bottle of the house red wine. For dessert, they recommended the mango tart with homemade mango ice cream, and how could I say no since they were apparently in season. It was absolutely delicious and I wanted another one:

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Headed back to the Jamm Hotel, and promptly passed out. Long overland travel days always exhaust me, and we wanted to get a relatively early start the next day since the trip to Nouakchott was supposedly quite long and could take most of the day depending on customs and immigration at the border…