Day 1-5 Senegal – Mauritania – Senegal
”Come back in an hour. The visa officer is sleeping”.
It is five minutes to three in the afternoon and we have just arrived at the Mauritanian side of the Senegal-Mauretania border at Rosso. Recently Visa on arrival has become available at this border. However, the internet has informed me that no visas are issued between 12 and 3 pm. Hence our arrival is now finely timed – had it not been for the officer taking a nap.
Our West African odyssey started a few days earlier when our family of four (me, Charlotte and our kids Ava (10yrs) and Jonas (8yrs)) landed in the airport in Dakar. To the surprise of no-one the temperature was 40+ degrees at the immigration waiting line that seemed to never move forward. Travelling with our two children we were asked to wait in the family line that was considerably both longer and slower than the other lines. After a long wait we had the good fortune of spending another wonderful hour waiting for the luggage. My daughter Ava celebrated the waiting time by puking a few times in a bag. Of course there was no working ATM in either arrivals or departure sections. A taxi took us to our basic hotel that was also extremely hot and featuring many mosquitos. Welcome to West Africa.
The next morning, we were supposed to leave early for Mauretania. But Ava was still sick. “I will just fan myself in the car and I want to go to a new country” she said bravely. Still we postponed the departure. I spent the time driving around in a taxi trying out ATMs until I finally found one that was working. When I came back Ava was fortunately feeling better and at noon we could finally start our northbound journey.
”But that car is a thousand years old!” is said in french to the Master Taxi dispatcher at the Beaux Marachaines Gare Routiere (Bus station) in the outskirts of Dakar. It had taken an hour getting there in despite of a distance of only a few kilometers. In a chaotic mess of trucks, diesel fumes, yellow cabs and donkey carriages we had finally found our way to the Gare Routiere.
“Well, then it suits you perectly!” the dispatcher cheekily replied. The car in question was a Renault station wagon from about the time of the invention of the wheel. The roof was torn giving the passengers an opportunity of a direct view of the sky above. It was so rusty that it seemed a miracle that it was actually still drivable. The car was a so called “sept place” – a seven seater taxi with the front seat and two rows of three in the back individually for sale. Unfortunately, the first available “sept place” to Rosso had only 3 remaining seats vacant. That meant we had to wait for these 3 seats to fill up, then wait for the next “Sept place” in line and then wait for 3 other passengers to fill up the next car before we could go. (unless we wanted to buy all seven seats in car #2 in which case we could leave immediately).
While waiting I got talking to a friendly local guy who was a passenger in the other “Sept Place”. He informed me that the border at Rosso stopped issuing Visas On Arrival (VOA) after 6pm. A pretty essential piece of information (that my elaborate research also on various French websites had failed to reveal). Realizing that we wouldn’t be able to make it all the way to the border in time we changed our plans and opted for a night in Saint Louis about 2 hours before the border.
Normally I do not advertise for hotels – but hotel Diamarek Sur La Plage in Saint Louis calls for an exception. Situated on a narrow peninsula – called Hydrobase – it has beach on both sides of the hotel (where else do you get that?) – luxurious two bedroomed bungalows right on the sand for less than USD50 a night, a big pool in the middle and nice French food and cold beers. Nice.
The next afternoon we finally find ourselves – after a good night’s sleep – at the Mauritanian border. At the Senegal side we are swarmed by touts who want to sell us their old grandmother and their possibly even older donkey. With a little pirogue (dugout canoe) we reach the other side of the river in the DMZ where we are met buy a young and skinny immigration officer with a uniform that he does not quite fill out. He takes our passport and leads us to the office – where we are kindly informed that they will keep our passports for an hour while the immigration officer in charge of visas is taking his afternoon nap.
When he finally arrives the visas are issued straightforwardly. There is a fingerprint reader, camera and we even get nice printed visas in our passports. Price has recently dropped from Euro 120 to Euro 55 pr person.
With our passports stamped we to our surprise still get stopped at the gate. Obviously photocopies of our passports are now needed. I am therefore sent into Mauritania to obtain these (even though I have still not formally been granted permission to enter the country) in a small photocopy shop. “Pas Possible” (not possible) the guard at the gate still says when I return. It turns out that the guy at the photocopy shop mistakenly has copied Charlottes USA visa instead of the main page of her passport – so again I am sent back to the shop. Only to discover that now of course the shop is closed…No need for things to be too easy in West Africa.
After almost two hours at the two borders we are finally allowed in. Of course a very insisting guy at the border claims that the hotel I have booked (which has been hard to book since no normal hotel booking sites offer scruffy hotels in forsaken border towns – but the cool French site called Jumia – that I last used booking for Chad – fortunately had been able to help me) is under renovation. We ignore him and find our Hotel Bowbe easily. It looks like something that is only seconds away from collapsing. It is fully booked we are informed but thanks to Jumia they have kept their “best room” for us. The “best room” has many mosquitoes, no mosquito nets and a bed where the springs are almost laid bare. I am sure it would make any fakir really happy but for us sleeping requires to carefully position vital body parts such as elbows and knees (and more..) inside the mouths of the springs in order to ensure any sleep.
The top restaurant in town is called “Kiff” – they have an air-conditioned VIP-saloon and very pretty waitresses. Very pretty waitresses who kindly inform us that it is strictly forbidden (Interdit!) to play UNO (childrens card game) in the restaurant (a world first prohibition for us).
Rosso is quite rough like many other border towns. There is a feel of lawlessness and an air of smuggling and transit in Sahel hanging over town. Berbers with loose robes and desert scarfs tugged around their faces linger about. Except from the chaotic market where I take a few photos with my 300mm Zoom there are not many attractions in Rosso,
After two short days in this very photogenic country it is already time to go back to Senegal (yeah too short for such a big ´country I know) if my ambitious travel plans should be fulfilled. Unfortunately, there is no time for riding the adventurous Iron Ore train in the north of the country (google Johnny Wards trip report from there if you wanna know more). But it is on the Bucket list and hopefully I will one day return for this.