Part 2: Senegal to Morocco: Impressively Bleak

The road out of the Mauritanian side of Rosso was rough. There were so many impressions of the road to Nouakchott and the next 3 days were so strange and interesting, I’ve decided to share them as the fleeting thoughts I jotted down as we traversed Mauritania. Read on for the story of Senegal to Morocco. Scrub turns to beautiful orange sand dunes, camels, goats, people with flowing robes of blue, white and black and turbans to guard from the desert. The real desert – the Sahara. Skeletons in the sand – cars, cows, this place claims everything. Close call passing a car, our extra passenger starts shouting match with driver – so much more dangerous! Major insults being past back and forth - woah this is a different place! Lasted a long time; they’re pointing fingers in each other’s faces, yelling. But, then they made up, passenger bought snacks for everyone and then proceeded to invite us to stay at his home. Huh. Maybe Mauritanians are really nice, but just direct? Incredible desert sunset. Can’t believe I’m in the Sahara. Nightime arrival. So. Tired. Dusty. Hot. Africa – Arab Africa – it’s a different place.


We paid our driver a bit more than the regular taxi fare to drive us across town and stop at a bank plus deliver us to the Auberge Sahara (on the road to Nouadhibou). Thierno offers to come in the morning for breakfast and to help us get to Nouadhibou. WOW. This guy is amazing. Thank you Senegal.

Auberge Sahara great for meeting travelers, but not so clean. Our room littered with cigarette butts. Gross. Mama Africa across the street had excellent plates (I recommend the beef) for cheap. We went back there for lunch. Upon paying for the room, I asked the group of gentlemen in the office what the best way to get to Nouadhibou would be and the owner, Mohammed Sidi, said, “oh well, if you want you can come in my car, and if you’re not pressed for time, I’m accompanying 15 French RV’s for a night of camping in the desert and then we’re going to Nouadhibou. If you want to camp with us I’ll loan you a tent and then drive you all the way to the Moroccan border the next morning.” Wow. 30euro buys us transport (with A/C!) to the desert and to the border, meals, a tent, and the experience of witnessing an entourage of French RV tourists. We didn’t sleep – too worried about the potential for bed bugs, while getting eaten by mosquitoes and trying not to breathe in the everlasting scent of stale cigarettes.

Nouakchott -> Nouadhibou

The road = flat, expansive nothingness. Blue sky on the left signals reflection of the ocean, yellow on the right signals reflection of the desert. Again with the fiche – we used 4, with the potential for 3 more but since we were with Sidi who apparently knew everyone on the road, we didn’t have to use as many. This land is like a painting – orange sand dotted with flecks of green brush. Camels – more of them than people here. Wind blowing ripples in the sand dunes like mist – incredible. And this is just the side of the road. Camping in the desert – not so glorious as it sounded. It’s the uninteresting part of the desert. French RV tourists are kinda… unincorporated or unaware of their surrounding culture. Spent most of our time hanging out with the Mauritanians, drinking tea, chatting. The soldiers are really nice. Wished we’d planned to stay here longer.

Nouadhibou -> Moroccan Border

Nouadhibou = under-developed, spread out, strange town we couldn’t figure out. French RVs stayed near an expensive hotel (that we ended up staying in for too much – despite being told it was a 4-star hotel we’d get for cheap…some other kinds of 4 stars I guess, and it was NOT cheap), inconveniently out of the town center. How the heck do we get a taxi? Where to eat? Why are ouygias (the currency) so darn expensive?? I do not get this place at all. People are aloof, not open like in Senegal/Mali. Got to have lunch in a home though. No one wants me to take their picture. So glad we’re not staying here longer. Up side was getting to tag along with the RV tourists for their music/cultural night, their ride and tour of the world’s longest train – the iron ore train that travels 650km east into the desert, and a trip to the market. We got a big chunk of shea butter for $.35. YES. Nouadhibou is still strange. It’s surrounded by beautiful ocean, but the developments are in the center of the land, not on the water. Massive amounts of undeveloped space, littered with trash. I know the people are nice here, but how do you access them? At least we tagged along with the auberge owner and got a ride to the Moroccan border, nice!

Travel tip: On both sides of the border of Mauritania and Morocco there are 4km of no mans land. This means that if you don’t have a car – you must take a taxi or bus through the checkpoints on either side, and then past each “Poste Police”. You cannot walk across the ‘no mans land.’ Since it doesn’t belong to any country, the “road” is barely a path beaten into the rock – and it’s 4km long. It is also apparently heavily mined, which is why you can’t go on foot. Coming from Mauritania, basically you’ll have to cross 2 sections of 4km areas to actually get into Morocco. I imagine taxis can be expensive: it’s a niche market. We’re happy we had a ride. On the Moroccan side, our auberge host’s wife runs into another tourism friend, who, like Thierno, befriends us and helps us make the crossing. He is dressed in a billowing sky blue boubou with a white turban and has the kindest face. We have Moroccan breakfast – flatbread with olive oil and jam, and mint tea together. Yay.

 Western Sahara

The differences between where we’d been and where we arrived were stark and noticeable. #1: No trash. None on the Moroccan side. #2: Actual buildings, meaning, real structures that probably have working plumbing and aren’t crumbling. Combined with the trash, Jon points out this is a country that pays attention to detail. #3: Open and friendly border guards and police, all with a smile ready to help you get through. Basically we weren’t met with the skepticism that said, “why are you coming to Mauritania, no really, whatever you say we won’t believe you…”

Not surprisingly, the beginnings of Western Sahara are the same as northern Mauritania. Impressively bleak. I was delighted at the presence of any kind of topography, a pile of rock here, and a distant sandune there – anything calling out – I’m interesting look at me! But for the most part the drive presents itself with the challenge of simply appreciating the flat and expansive nothingness.

Dakhla is a small but developed town on a spit of land, like Nouadhibou, surrounded by blue/green ocean that changes color depending on the direction of the sun. Apparently the bay creates a haven for kite surfers. Perhaps another trip. I’m intimidated by Moroccans thus far, and thrilled when I meet Senegalese in town. I realize how little I know about Moroccan culture – good thing there’s time to learn. The food is good and cheap, and the weather is great. We’ve stayed in Dakhla a few more days to help Jon heal another small wound, which is getting better Allhumdililaay. This sleepy town is a nice intro nonetheless. It’s easygoing, no one hassles us, and we met THE guy with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. He is so happy, and it makes us happy. His name is Ibrahim, although we call him Aladdin. I am happy to be here – and very much looking forward to the beauty that I know awaits in this North African country.

450km to Layounne tomorrow. Then to Essouira and Marrakesh.

What are your strangest travel experiences?

Senegalese Taranga to Mauritanian Spirit

I’ve been trying to come up with a clever phrase to describe the experience we’ve had in the last week – and it’s been a challenge. Rifs on the movie title Extremely Loud Incredibly Close come to mind – extremely hot, incredibly dusty; extremely kind, incredibly strange – but the one that seems to fit the best is one that the writers of Rough Guide: Morocoo coined: impressively bleak. St. Louis, Senegal to Dakhla, Morocco has certainly been one of the more curious experiences I’ve had in my (short) life. I’ve divided this into 2 posts because it was just getting so long. The first part is Senegal to Mauritania. The Second is Mauritania and into Morocco. Enjoy!

Dakar -> St. Louis

We woke up early after only a couple hours of sleep on Feb. 10 after going dancing in Dakar with our hosts Dieyna and Abdou and the two LC students who are studying in Dakar, the same as I did 10 years ago. Senegalese night clubs don’t get going until 2am so we didn’t get home until about 5am. It was a fun night, but exhausting – nonetheless I was happy to get my fix of live mbalax and people watching.

We headed by taxi to the Gare Routière Pompière to take a bush taxi to St. Louis. The 150km ride was long but not horrible (I am SO tired of sitting on the middle bump!) and we arrived at the St. Louis Gare Routière in the late afternoon. We took another taxi 12km to the Zebrabar – a campement outside of the city that’s beachy and is right on the River Senegal in the Parc Nationale de la Langue de Barbarie. The accommodations were cheap, but the meals were outrageously expensive. Bummer.

2 days later we headed to St. Louis to stay in the heart of Ile Nord – the old colonial center of St. Louis (which was the colonial capital of all of west Africa in the 18th – 19th centuries). I think I’ve decided to rename St. Louis to Stinky Louis because frankly, this town is rank. The combination of fishing village, trash, river and ocean, not to mention very old plumbing is well – really smelly. If it weren’t for the decidedly charming city center, great bars, actual coffee and friendly people – I don’t think I’d want to spend much time in St. Louis.

Another 2 days later we prepared to say goodbye to Senegal. Although we were ready, Senegal left us with its best. Our last night we had a fantastic meal at a tiny restaurant aptly called Restaurant Taranga, where we ate for a total of 4000cfa ($8) with beverages. Nothing fancy about this place, but the owner was over and above kind. A good laugh at a local boutique, and a nice chat with the door guard for the hotel left a smile on my face and a thought of ‘oh geez, I do love this country.’

St. Louis -> Rosso Border Crossing

I will not lie in saying that given the lonely planet thorn tree forum reviews of this place, I was downright nervous. But before I could act on my nerves, we had to wait almost 2 hours before leaving. We were convinced to take a Ndiaye Ndiaye (big white bus – 25 seats) to Rosso instead of a sept places. We realized as soon as we bought our ticket and boarded that there was no way the bus was leaving ‘toute de suite’ (right away). I knew that these buses didn’t leave until filled, but for some reason I let the driver convince me that we’d leave right away, when really, ‘toute de suite’ in African transportation lingo means ‘sometime today.’ Awesome.

Travel Tip: Don’t confuse Rosso with Ross-Berthio. They are different. When we stopped in Ross-Berthio I was concerned we should get out and I asked the gentleman sitting next to me if this was our stop for going to Mauritania. He said no, and that he was going in the same direction. Ahh, we should share a car! I said. Best. Move. Ever. Our new friend Thierno Ba, gave us one last parting gift of Senegalese Taranga and essentially took us under his wing for the rest of our journey. Not only did he make sure no one took advantage of us, made sure we were always headed in the right direction, and he paid for all our fares, which was incredibly generous.

I can see why people have trouble at Rosso. There are certainly grifters waiting for anyone looking the slightest bit confused, and there are no signs or any indications of how to get from the Gare Routière to the pirogue; or how much it should cost. The single best tool (aside from the fiche) was a sincere and hearty “Asalaam Malekum” coupled with a smile to greet anyone looking official. This and any wolof you might know does wonders for softening officials; and people trying to grift you for that matter. Aside from the extreme heat, all in all it wasn’t a bad experience. The river is a scene, with kids diving and playing in the seafoam green water. It’s a nice last display of the Senegal that’s all out in the open and in your face; the Senegal that teases, and vexes, that’s easy and hard all the same; the Senegal that’s continually fascinating. I smiled as we crossed the River and I looked back to say goodbye, not sure of the next return, if ever.

If you’re reading this and preparing to cross the border, see our lonely planet post for details. Border Travel Tips.


I knew we had arrived into an even more arid place, when dust and sand billowed from the taxi seat as we got in to connect with the bush taxis to Nouakchott. Our cab driver was especially proud that the passenger door was held together by a rope – “C’est uniquement comme ca en Afrique!” he exclaimed with a big smile (It’s unique in Africa!). It’s things like this that you just have to laugh at and call it good. I couldn’t even be worried that I would fall out if the door swung open – there’s a rope there of course it will catch me!

The kindness of our new friend, Thierno, was overhelming in that without having someone speak Arabic or Wolof, connecting from the Rosso Gare Routière to Nouakchott would be difficult. The drivers of the various modes of transport descended on him like vultures, all tugging and pulling. This is a culture of in-your-face dealings. Thierno says they all just want money – perhaps it’s true? People at the border seemed really kind. Getting a coke, we were overpriced, even though there’s a fixed price for everything. Boo. We finally decided to take a 4-seat Mercedes car instead of a shared taxi – more expensive but much more comfortable. We paid for all 4 seats (even though were 3), and then the driver decided to take another passenger. Awesome. This should be interesting.

Next stop: Nouakchott.