Sunday 2 June 2013

Viven : How we crossed from Mauritania to Senegal

Dear Viven,

This was one hell of a ride.  Crossing over the Senegal River was also where we crossed into the Africa shakedown.  The Mauritanian gendarmes began asking for gifts, and we began refusing, before the border, and once there we did our best to avoid the costs and bribes and hustles – but in the end, we probably paid more than we should have.

The information in this letter is accurate at the time we crossed the border on 1 June.  We are one British and one Canadian, driving a 1996 right-hand drive Toyota Hilux Surf from Paris to Tanzania.

Our previous crossing was from Morocco to Mauritania.  While in Senegal, we will cross in and out of the Gambia, and then depart from Senegal to Guinea-Bissau.

Not required in advance.

Insurance and Carnet
We were told that we could purchase Brown Card insurance (or Carte Brun, covering much of west Africa) in Laayoune, Western Sahara, but decided to get it at the border.  There, we elected to purchase one month as of the day of purchase.  Our carnetde passages, meanwhile, was now in our possession after an eight-day wait for DHL.  In the end, we had to drive to the airport in Casablanca to pick up our parcel.  But that’s beside the point: our 25-page carnet (one page per country) is valid for Senegal, and was not required for Mauritania.

French is Senegal's official language, and it is broadly spoken.  Most police and gendarmes speak it well, though some struggle.  Senegalese speech is often too fast, and numbers can be difficult at first to understand: 150 is pronounced 'son-san' (cent cinquante) and 500 is pronounced 'san-son' (cinq cent).  Wolof is the common tongue, while Arabic is also widely spoken and understood.

Senegal uses the West African Franc (CFA), which is interchangeable with the Central African Franc (also the CFA).  We decided to acquire our CFAs at the border.  This is not recommended: if you do this trip, I advise you to get the francs either before you travel, or somewhere in Mauritania or Morocco.  We did search in Morocco, but with no luck; and arrived in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott on a Friday afternoon, with all the bureaux de change shut for the rest of the weekend.

The Route, and the Border We Didn’t Cross
We drove across Mauritania, bypassing Nouadhibou and stopping for fritters and bissap juice at the plage des pêcheurs in Nouakchott, and then toward the crossing at Rosso.

We had been warned that the Rosso crossing (by ferry over the Senegal River) was notorious for being jammed with hustlers, and that we could cross much more smoothly at Diamma.  Because the road to Diamma starts at Rosso, we decided to see if the hassle was really that bad, and if we could still catch the last ferry.  We arrived in Rosso by 7:30pm, before close at sundown, and once we entered the town we had dozens of men, some on foot and others in their cars, shouting at us, demanding to help, asking where we were going.  We avoided this – even though one hustler stalked us in his car and even cut us off dangerously so he could get out and sign us up with his border-crossing expertise – and got ourselves to the large metal gate for the border, behind the gas station.  As soon as I got out I was assailed by the dozen or so men who wanted a piece of our passage.  There was no guard at the gate, and we wondered if we had indeed missed the last crossing.

One plainsclothed man arrived, puffed out his chest, and in a very harsh voice said, “Je suis le capitaine des gendarmes, où allez-vous?” (“I am the captain of the gendarmes, where are you going?”).  I didn’t believe him, said “Senegal”, and turned my back, reapproaching the gate.  A gatesman appeared and ignored me.  His message was clear: pick a hustler for me to get a cut, and you can go through.  It was impossible to find out if the last ferry had left yet.

The ‘captain of the gendarmes’ appeared behind the gate and started yelling at me, at the same time as trying to persuade me to go with him.  Another man grabbed me and I had to growl, “Ne touche pas!”, which brought some calm in the crowd for a moment.  I asked the gatesman where is the turning to the road to Diamma, and he was still mute.  The ‘captain’ then tried to persuade me that the road to Diamma was 100km back on the road to Nouakchott (which I knew to be a lie).  I said fine, thanks, goodbye, and then he shoved his fuck-you finger in my face.  I laughed, left, and got back in the car.  The hustler who had cut us off in his car pursued us down the road.  We shook him, and asked an older woman passing by, where is the road to Diamma.  She told us (it was about 50m away from the Rosso crossing), and we went.

We got on the 80 km road to Diamma at about 8:30pm, and did not arrive until 12:30am.  While the road is relatively straight and flat, and runs parellel to the Senegal River, it is a terrible set of dirt tracks, often with one raised up and one down low, covered with potholes and rivets caused by the heat.  For about half of our journey we were unsure of whether it was indeed the correct road, as there was almost no other cars, we could not see the river, and the road more resembled a farming byway than the route to an international border crossing.  In the wet season, which is about to begin, I can imagine that this road is impassable to most vehicles, even 4x4s.

That being said, we did encounter another car and its driver who called himself ‘Chere’, broken down and in need of a push.  Al, me, and two others from a truck pulled over got him going again.  We found Chere about 15km further down, again broken down.  We tried to give him a boost, but it was the starting motor that was failing.  That, and he was out of fuel.  So, another push, a 5L gift of fuel from one of our jerry cans, and a bon chance, and he made it.  We caught up to him in Diamma, where of course the border was shut, and spent the night in our tent to keep out the mosquitos.

The Border We Crossed
We awoke at 8am and began the crossing by 9.  Diamma is a dam to drive across; there is no ferry, and traffic is light, so the operation is relatively smooth.

There were three posts to pass on the Mauritanian side: gendarmes to open the front gate, Douane (Customs), and police to exit-stamp our passports.  Chere told us we would have to pay €10 at each, but for some reason we weren’t asked at the first (perhaps because we had helped out Chere, who seemed to be pals with the gendarme).  At the second, we tried to haggle and argue and profess having no money, but the guard didn’t care and was happy to send us back to a bank however many hours away or to Rosso.  We paid him US $10 plus OUM 500 (about €1) to make up the exchange difference.  We paid US $10 to the Douane officer, and then another OUM 500 in ‘Commune Tax’ (parking), same as at the crossing from Mauritania.

At the other side of the smallish dam, we were forced to pay OUM 3,500 (equivalent to €9, haggled down from OUM 4,000) in order for the Senegalese officer to open the gate.  There was a piece of paper he handed out for this which included the amount, so there was little we could say or do.  We checked in with the police to stamp our passports for entry, and the officer asked for €10.  We gave the officer $10 and asked for a receipt.  He said no, we asked for the money back, and he gave it back, along with our stamped passports.

The third checkpoint on the Senegalese border was for Douane, where a friendly orange-shirted officer said our carnetde passages was not valid for Senegal, then shrugged it off – c’est pas grave – as if doing us a favour.  He inspected the truck more thoroughly than anyone else so far, and asked to see the bag full of books on our roof, handing one or two to his underling to flip through.  We said the books were for work.  In the end he asked for €45 and, by mistake, we immediately agreed, as we assumed this was a standard rate for the visa, which we did not get in advance.  Seconds later, when we realised that, no, this was a bribe / gouge, it was too late: we had agreed.  We paid, repacked our roof bag, crossed the last barrier, and were in Senegal.

The last stop was insurance and money changing, where there was only one option: a woman who did both of these and ran a café, and who was thorough, calm and had all the prices listed.  She also had children to whom she continually yet kindly insisted we give cadeaux (gifts).  We did not.  We exchanged €100 at a half-decent exchange rate (€1 = CFA 640 instead of the actual €1 = CFA 655), and bought one month of Brown Card insurance (usable in most other West African countries) with just under half of that money.

The whole process took about 90 minutes, from beginning to end – a little longer because we chatted to the Douane officer, who gave us some advice (probably in thanks for the big donation we’d unhappily given), as in, for the future, say all of your belongings are for your work; and because we had a bottle of water and a break in the insurance seller’s café.

What We Needed
  • Money: €94, and US $20, and OUM 4,000
  • The white Douane paper, issued on arrival in Mauritania
  • Passports with Mauritanian visas and entry-stamps
  • Vehicle registration document
  • One page of our carnet de passages for entry into Senegal
  • Enough fuel for ourselves and one other on the road to Diamma
  • Mosquito protection for the night
  • About one hour, plus more for breaks and chats

In the end, the actual crossing was quiet and hustler-free, but only after a tough go in Rosso and the drive to Diamma, and a nice old rinsing of our cash.  We’ll get better at this.

Happy trails,


The road to Diamma - when it was still decent