We left Nouakchott with optimism, I had been looking forward to Senegal since we started the trip – safe and friendly according to the FCO and the capital Dakar held obvious interest for James.
The border crossing was expected to be difficult – we had been told at the embassy that the Diama border crossing was closed so we had to go up to Rosso which is reputed to be difficult, corrupt and slow. To get a head start we were up at 4am and leaving camp at 5am in the dark.
We arrived at the border at 9am and finally left on the Senegalese side at 5:30pm! Not that much out of pocket but hot and harassed. Things have apparently improved at Rosso, I dread to think what it was like before! Unusually the strip of no-mans land between leaving one country and entering the other is a river so a ferry crossing is required to physically get from Mauritania to Senegal. The queuing system all seemed chaotic and time consuming but in the end the local guys managed to get us and the truck on the same ferry after only a couple of hours wait.
Taking photos at borders is normally impossible unless you wish to lose your camera or your freedom! But waiting to cross at the ferry provided a rare opportunity to capture the confusion and chaos.
First impressions of Senegal – disappointed. We were greeted by very persistent and mildly aggressive street traders leaning in through the window refusing to take no for an answer. The border town was run down and looked less affluent than much of Mauritania. Gone were the warm smiles and friendly waves as we drove by – replaced by annoyed looks or complete disinterest. The word I would use to describe the atmosphere and demeanour of the people is hard.
We were supposed to head straight for the Zebra Bar, a well known beach-side stop off for travellers with a bar and restaurant – much to our excitement after 11 days of beer-free Mauritania! But we left the border too late to make it all the way so ended up spending the night on the side of the road about an hour past the border.
This first camp was interesting however. The landscape of Senegal is different again from both Morocco and Mauritania – trees had appeared along with water and what looked for all the world like savannah grasses. The field we camped in could have been in Botswana or even Tanzania in the dry season and I was starting to feel a bit more at home.
The other major change was the sudden disappearance of the Arabic influence. The country is still predominantly Muslim and the second language is still French – but first the language is an African dialect and many, many more people speak English, especially the police and officials but also many of the locals. The people are all in typical African dress with almost no hijabs or Boubous in sight. I started to feel as though we were getting much closer to the Africa I love.
The next day we headed for Saint Louis, a small colonial island town famous for its beautifully crumbling architecture. I was disappointed to be heading straight for another town but at least we could get our SIM cards and currency and we both enjoy looking at interesting colonial architecture.
Sadly the trip just seemed to be going downhill at this point. The island was choked with cars, hot, dusty and noisy and the streets and main square were being ripped up in road works. We couldn´t find anywhere to get a SIM card and were standing on a stifling street miserable and hot wondering what on earth we were going to do for the rest of the day. But then two other members of our group wandered by with a very different view on the town. We joined them on their walk and started to see the town through their eyes – we saw pretty buildings, talked about the history of the place, came across some brightly coloured fishing boats. We even joined up with a few others for a very nice, relaxing lunch overlooking the river.
But all in all we were keen to get away and find some peace and quiet.
By the time we arrived at the Zebra Bar that evening we were both frazzled and becoming a little stressed – not least because we knew we were due to drive straight to the busy capital city of Dakar early the next morning to continue the endless chase for visas. The original plan was to relax at the Zebra Bar for a couple of days but timescales were slipping and we were at risk of being delayed in the city over a week-end again so Steve was keen to get going.
In fact, despite the lovely surroundings at the camp site, the misery weighed increasingly heavily on me over the course of the evening. We were all enjoying a couple of beers or wines, settling into the peace and quiet but knowing more noise and chaos awaited us over the next few days. I spoke to Steve at length about the plans and he assured us that only a few people needed to go to the embassies on fact-finding missions the following day, the main work would take place the day after. We agreed that if James and I hung back for a day we would not be missed. So that´s what we did.
And it was a fabulous day! We had a lie-in, I trained then we spent two hours with a fisherman exploring the river and island as well as the sea shore on the far side.
The fisherman told me to take my boots and socks off to disembark on the island then insisted on keeping them in the boat as he departed leaving us for an hour to wander about. I wasn´t too keen on walking about for an hour in my bare feet and was even more nervous when we realised the beach was covered in crabs of all shapes and sizes….but after only 10 minutes I was grateful to him for forcing my hand as the soft, warm sand sank under my feet and the waves lapped over my bare feet.
It was exactly the day we needed and reminded us why we are here doing what we are doing.
The wildlife at the campsite was everywhere, the whole ground was covered in holes dug by sand crabs who came out at night and scuttled about. They were very shy and very sweet, scuttling out of your way as soon as they heard your footsteps.
The next day we set off early with a plan to meet everyone at the Cameroon embassy at 10am. We would miss the Sierra Leonne embassy as we were too far away to get there in time but that visa could be applied for at a slightly higher cost and we were more than happy to make that compromise!
But we still hadn´t managed to secure a SIM card so were off-line, unable to communicate with the group. We were concerned that plans often change with no notice and we had no idea where they might end up or when. We drove towards Dakar for 3 hours, increasingly worried about being so cut off but in some random fate-filled coincidence found ourselves passing through a small town with an Orange kiosk sitting on the side of the road! I jumped out and spent 20 minutes working with them to get a SIM card and 25 GB of data set up on our Hotspot. We were finally connected….and thank god we were!
The first thing we saw was a stream of Whatsapp messages on the Group Chat There had been a breakthrough at 9pm the previous night with the near-impossible Nigerian visa. The first message had been sent at 9:15pm asking everyone to fill in an application on-line, submit and pay for it and meet at the Nigerian embassy in Dakar at 9am that morning to print and submit the forms. It was 9:30am, we were still 45 minutes from Dakar and we hadn´t even started the visa application never mind been able to print them!
Worse still, the remaining few hundred messages back and forth were from everyone in the group struggling to fill in the form, having IT problems, battling until 4am to get the application submitted. We had no chance and panic set in – if we couldn´t get our Nigerian visas our travels would end at Benin and Southern Africa would again be out of reach.
As we neared the outskirts of Dakar our hearts sank even further. The traffic was the worst we have seen anywhere. Not just the amount of traffic but the chaotic and dangerous driving – they played bumper cars with each other and we were seriously concerned for Henry.
It was gone midday before we finally arrived at the Nigerian embassy, our nerves in tatters. I had completed and submitted both our applications on my IPhone as James drove and we were met by one of the group who ran me to the printers then to the embassy and then someone else jumped in a taxi with me to a bank to pay yet more money over the counter as directed by the Nigerian embassy. It was baking hot, dirty, noisy, the traffic was at a stand still across the city and worse still Henry started having electrical problems and whilst I was running around doing visa stuff James was trying to work out why the central locking wasn´t working and the immobiliser had cut in.
I am painting a picture of our time in Dakar which continued unabated for 5 days. We upgraded for the first two night to the Ibis Hotel which was nice with Kites flying by the window;
We ate out for the first two nights with two others from the group which was also nice;
We also spent one morning at Goree Island which was absolutely lovely and a high moment in Senegal. The island is a shrine to the horrors of the slave trade but also a celebration of what it is to be Africa. Music, colour and life exuded from every inch.
But apart from that we had the 5 days from hell!
We drove Henry into the city four times in four days – running the gauntlet of kamikaze drivers and traffic coming at you from every direction, even driving the wrong way down the road because they couldn´t wait for their own side to free up. We were stopped by a policeman who just wanted to find a problem and we needed to call a French speaking member of the team to talk to him and tell him we were travelling with an important group visiting the embassy in order for him to let us go! We were hassled from start to finish by street traders, people wanting money to ´help´ us park, we drove for 45 minutes to a laundrette to wash our bedding only to find it closed, spent 5 hours trying to buy food as we were on cook group. We spent hours and hours waiting at embassies for nothing. It was 5 days of my life that I hope to forget as soon as possible.
The camp site we joined everyone at after the two nights in the Ibis was a horror! A pump that sounded like a pneumatic drill was going 24 hours a day every day. A bike-repair shop just inside the gates revved engines all day and all night. Bright lights stayed on all night shining straight in through our roof windows. People came in and out all night shouting, laughing, arguing. There was a thief around who stole a pair of trousers and a pair of boots on two separate occasions from two different tents. Kites flew overhead, lovely you would think, until tents were covered in bird poo and dead fish heads – two people being ´hit´ so badly they had to wash their tents and sleep elsewhere whilst they dried. And there was no space, we were rammed in between four other overland trucks with no privacy.
The view was of the beach, albeit a part where boats were repaired – don´t be fooled by the carefully directed photo, we´d just arrived and I was being hopeful!
We secured the all-important Nigerian visas on the fourth day. Only to find that evening that they were only valid for one month and we weren´t due to even arrive for over two months. Therefore all that hard work and delay – not to mention over €400 – had been for nothing and we were back to square one.
We secured our far easier Cameroon visas on the fifth day and Steve declared that we would be leaving for The Gambian border at 5am the next morning. The relief washed over me like a swimming pool, I had barely slept for four days but the early morning start was the best news I had heard in a long time!
It had taken Steve an hour to back into the campsite when they arrived as the entrance was so tight. Trying to get out again at 5am was another challenge. A resident had parked their car right by the gates making it impossible for the truck to get out and after half an hour of trying to wake them to move it Steve resorted to blasting his horn waking the whole neighbourhood!
But eventually we were away, leaving Dakar and all its horrors behind. We were leaving northern Senegal for the tiny country of The Gambia and I couldn´t have been more pleased to go!