Updated On: June 13, 2006
Current Location: Dakar - View Route
Distance Since Last Update: 140 miles
Total Distance: 9,527 miles
Current Weather: 80's, Sunny
Wild Eats: Yassa and mafe washed down with a few cold Flags
Wildlife: Warthogs, monkeys, nile monitor lizards, tons of birds.
Activities: Taking on dodgy borders, dodgier police checks and deep mud.

 
  St. Louis - May 30, 2006
I should preface this entry by noting that, a little behind schedule, I’m sitting on the beach in Toubab Dialao, writing this entry as I watch several kids fishing from make shift rafts that they’ve fashioned out of plastic storage sacks. It underscores the remarkable resourcefulness that we see demonstrated daily in Africa.

Eager to get the Senegal border crossing behind us we quickly began breaking down our camp. Last night we got very little sleep, partly because we were ravaged by thousands of man eating mosquitoes which managed to penetrate the mesh doors on our tent and partly because we were woken up at 4am by marauding warthogs as they stormed through our camp. After a quick detour to say goodbye to our new friends, the charcoal farmers, we hit the piste for Diama. Aside from stopping for a few police checks (all wanted cadeaux – non got any) and to allow a nile monitor lizard and several families of warthogs cross the road, we made good time and arrived at the border around 11am.

Crossing the border proved to be every bit as challenging as we’d been warned. First there was the matter of getting out of Mauritania, which proved considerably more difficult than getting in. After having overpaid on the insurance scandal the previous day, we were determined to make it across for as little as possible. First stop, the customs office, where we needed to get our carnet stamped. Eric and I were taken into a small office and the door was closed behind us. In exchange for stamping our carnets, the official requested 10 euros. We protested saying we’d already paid the 10 euros when we entered and he countered that, that was for the entry stamp and this is for the exit stamp. To make it seem more official he pulled out a giant book and began flipping through pages of hand written receipts which apparently have been given to other unlucky travelers. And so “discussions” began, finally agreeing on a two trucks for one deal. That brought the border crossing tally to 5 euros.

Next there was the gate-keeper. Yes, that’s right, there’s some guy in a booth with a book or receipts demanding money in exchange for opening a barrier gate which blocks the road. We had no intention of paying him and after some debate with him over the legitimacy of his office, decided to ignore him all together, proceeding directly to the police checkpoint.

Inside the police post, we were lead into another office where the officer closed the door and told us to sit down. As we were seated at the table he began filling out paperwork and studying our passports. Interested in test driving a new tactic, I took the opportunity to soften him up a bit. Noticing ashes on the table, I asked if he minded if I smoked (I don’t smoke). He said it was fine and as I pulled out a cigarette I asked if he would like one as well. He replied that he would. I then proceeded to light my cigarette, nearly singeing my eyebrows in the process. I then lit his, taking care not to do the same. As he filled out his paperwork and I watched my cigarette slowly burn down, we chatted away as if we were old friends. Along the way, another officer entered and joined in the conversation. We were all chatting and laughing away until finally, the conversation turned to business. With a serious look the officer pushed our passorts across the table and demanded 2500 Ugs each (approx. $10 each). And so began another lengthy back and forth debate. The gist of our argument was this….. we only had 1000 ugs between us which we’d kept in case of a last minute emergency. We had no euros or dollars as we’d been planning to hit the ATM when we reached St. Louis, Senegal. All was going to plan and we were almost home free. All that remained was for me to reach into my pocket, rummaging around for effect, and pull out the 1000 ugs. So I reached into my pocket, rummaged around for effect, pulled out the note, and placed it on the table. Only the note sitting on the table was a crisp, new 20 euro bill, not 1000 ugs. Oh no! My heart sank. Damn. I’d checked my pockets before hand just to make sure the only note was the 1000 ugs. I have no idea what happened. Perhaps it’s that I have too many pockets in my fancy North Face trekking pants. Perhaps it’s that we seem to have no less than 5 currencies floating around at any given time. Regardless. we were screwed. The officers went unto an uproar reciting what we’d told them about not having any money. They were pissed. But then again. This is Africa and we were dealing with corrupt officials. Discussions began all over again. This time a bit less friendly than before. I won’t go into the details. Let’s just say they weren’t willing to make change. In the end, we paid them 10 euros (5 euros each) and made them agree that they’d deal with the gate keeper. That brought the tally to 10 euros to get out of Mauritania, the same price we paid to get in.

Happy to be out of Mauritania, we headed across “no man’s land” towards the Senegalese border with new resolve. We’d heard others had paid as little as 20 euros and as much as 50 euros to get across and we were hell bent on getting across for as little as possible.

And so began a struggle that lasted some 6 hours. First there was the bridge attendant who demanded 10 euros per vehicle to cross the bridge leading to the border. We dug and refused to pay, citing the same no funds argument we’d used on the Mauritania side. As we debated back and forth the bridge attendant enlisted the help of the head customs official and a police officer. Both said we must pay to cross and the police officer went ballistic, ranting that we had these big expensive trucks and weren’t willing to pay the fee to cross. Getting nowhere the bridge attendant upped the stakes by calling us a taxi to take us to an ATM in St. Louis to get money. We refused arguing we couldn’t afford the taxi. He upped the stakes again by kicking us off the bridge and back into “no man’s land.” So we parked the trucks in a picturesque spot by the water and Sheri and Sharikay stayed with the trucks while Eric and I went back to the border and parked ourselves on the steps of the customs office where we spent the next several hours.

The longer we sat the more attention we drew and finally people started to come by and ask what was going on. One of the officials was a police officer from a nearby checkpoint who pulled up on his motorcycle and asked us what was the problem. From the beginning I think the officer was only talking to us because he was interested in Eric’s sunglasses which he demanded to see. Eric showed him and like a scene out of a B rated action movie depicting third world African warlords, the officer put the mirrored glasses on and said, with an overly dramatic smooth tone in poor English, “Yes, I like the ice. Very nice. I look good, yes? Yes, very good! Sell them to me! I need new ice for riding (his motorcycle).” Eric offered the “ice” (for the record a cheap pair of imitation Ray Bans he’d purchased on the street earlier in the trip) up in exchange for getting us across the border. Initially we didn’t get anywhere however some time later the officer drove off on his motorcycle and from down the road called to me “Come here. You come speak English with the lady.” He was pointing inside a small cafe on the other side of the border. Inside was a Senegalese woman who does double duty as the restaurant’s owner and the only person selling the mandatory vehicle insurance which you must purchase to enter Senegal. I entered, sat down, and listened as she talked with two French expats from Morocco that had just crossed the border ahead of us. She asked in good English what was the problem and I explained our situation to her. As it turned out, the French expats cross this border all the time and between the insurance woman and the expats I got the scoop on what we should be paying in bribes to get through.

Armed with our new found knowledge, Eric and I headed back to the bridge attendant and reopened negotiations. He was resistant at first but then we pointed out the French expat who’d just paid him the same and we reached a deal. Now making progress, we headed across the bridge to get the trucks. At this point we’d been there so long that, no joke, Sheri had baked bread! (Sheri writes: I don’t know what got into me. I’ve never baked bread before and for some reason I got the strange urge to bake bread at the Mauritania border. I only hope it’s the last time I have that much time on my hands at a border – although if Senegal is any indication, I’ll probably emerge as Betty Bisquick). Once across the bridge, we headed for the police checkpoint to get our passports stamped. On the way in we were met by the same officer that had yelled at on the bridge earlier in the day. He was still mad and began yelling at us and refused to process our passports or for that matter even let us into the building. And so more discussions began. This time I pulled out my ace in the hole, apologizing and telling him that, while I try my best, I really don’t speak French and the problems at the bridge were all a big misunderstanding. A language problem if you will. It took a little selling but in the end, it worked and he took us into his office to process our passports. By the time we left we were fast friends and he was giving us all kinds of useful info about Dakar. He didn’t even ask for a bribe. The funniest thing was that the whole conversation was in French and somehow he didn’t make the connection.

With stamped passports in hand, we headed to customs to get the carnets processed. Interestingly, the first question from the customs official was “What did you pay the police officer to stamp your passport?” We quickly replied nothing. Seemingly surprised, he nodded his head, and more discussions began. We netted out paying 5 euros for the carnet (which brought our grand total to get across the Senegalese side to about $12).
Had the customs official not pointed out a major mistake in how the Mauritanian customs officer processed our Carnet, we’d have been more or less finished and, aside from a quick stop to pickup insurance, we’d have been on our way to St. Louis. Instead, it was back to the Mauritania to get the mistake corrected. In an attempt the correct the problem the official ended up making a bigger mess of our Carnet and so we gave up, deciding to sort it out with the CAA instead.

Back in Senegal, we made one last stop at the cafe to purchase our mandatory insurance. This went smoothly and we opted for the cheapest option available (a good decision as we got it renewed later in Dakar for much less than they charge at the border).

We finally crossed the border into Senegal shortly before 7pm. The drive to St. Louis marked a stark contrast to Mauritania. Women walked along the sides of the road dressed in brightly colored dresses with baskets on top of their heads, fruit stalls selling mangos were everywhere, and there was one police checkpoint after another. On the short drive into town we were stopped three times. These checks were less benign than Mauritania as they were clearly trolling for bribes. On the first stop Sharikay and Eric were cited for not slowing down fast enough. Bribes were paid. We were stopped and asked to get out and show our warning triangles, our fire extinguisher, our brake lights, our headlights, our turn signals, our documents, even our vaccination certificates. Fortunately we made it through unscathed albeit a royal pain in the ass, especially after the ordeal at the border. Welcome to Senegal!

Just after dark we arrived at Zebrabar, a camp located on the Senegal River just outside of St. Louis, which came highly recommended by other overlanders. Everyone was just sitting down for a large group dinner. We joined them. Good food. Cold beer. Good company. Perfect weather. It was the perfect antidote to a long, trying day spent at the border.

 
 
 
 

St. Louis - May 31-June 6, 2006
The next few days were spent at Zebrabar – a true reprieve after the rigors of the desert. We took the time to relax and explore St. Louis and the surrounding area. We used kayaks to explore the Senegal river and view the areas abundant bird life. We braved the never-ending gauntlet of police checks. We went running in Parc National de la Langue de Barbarie. We ventured into St. Louis to take in the St. Louis International Jazz Festival and grab some Vietnamese. We crossed over to Guet N’Dar, a small fishing village where colorful pirogues line the beach and woman line the river banks boiling and drying fresh fish.

We also, took a day trip up to Parc National aux Oiseaux du Djoudj, a park that’s said to be one of the best locations for birding on the planet. Our trip into the park proved more eventful than we’d expected. As we were exploring along one of the main dirt tracks we noticed a side piste that cut off to the right into the marsh. There were a number of tire track along the piste and the ground seemed dry and hard as a rock. We made it all of about 100 meters when the ground broke through and Betty began to sink into a hidden layer of deep mud. Before we could do anything about it Betty sunk all the way down to the chassis. It was a mess. There was nothing to winch off of and the ground was too soft to set an anchor so out came the shovel and sand ladders. The mud was thick and gooey, which made digging exceedingly hard. It took two hour of digging, the sand ladders, construction of a makeshift bridge made of dead branches, and several attempts to get Betty back onto firm ground. Tired, hot, and dirty, we were relieved to be free. With marsh on both sides, turning the truck around risked getting it stuck again so we decided to slowly drive Betty backwards until we made it back to the main track. All went well until just before we reached the main track and then, without warning, the ground caved in again and Betty sank tail first into mud so deep that the rear left side was buried in mud half way up the back door. Damn! We thought we were home free and now we were in a bigger mess than before. After surveying the situation, we found a small lone tree some 5 meters away in the marsh. It wasn’t an ideal setup. The tree was small. Quite possibly too small and it was 2:00 relative to the front of the truck. Nevertheless, it was the only option that wouldn’t require the Hi-Lift Jack (for the record: the worst invention every in the history of the world) so we gave it a go. Lucky for us the small tree held and Betty started to rise out of the mud. We got the truck 75% of the way out and then reset the winch using the ground anchor and gave it another go, this time pulling it out the rest of the way. Success, even if we did put a large gash in the sidewall of one of our XZL’s.

Before departing for Dakar, we decided to get Betty’s oil and filters changed and stock up on some spares. At Zebrabar’s suggestion we used Elton, a local mega gas station. It was a good choice as they we able to take care of everything much faster than I would have been able to do myself and it cost next to nothing. It was just getting dark when we left Elton and started down the gauntlet towards Zebrabar. To this point, we’d been lucky. We’d been stopped by the police too many times to count but had always come away unscathed (Sharikay and Eric by comparison had been beaten up pretty good and were fined three times). As we stopped at the last check before the campsite, the officer asked for the usual paperwork including our insurance. He’d stopped us before and it was a real pain the last time. This time, he looked at our insurance documents and said there was a major problem. He went on to say we had falsified the documents – a major international offense that included time in jail. We were livid. By this point we knew the game well and understood that he was looking for a big bribe. Having been stopped so many times before we were in no mood to deal with this. He pointed to the expiration date on the insurance papers. The date was handwritten and the woman at the boarder had made a mistake when she originally wrote down the number. She had corrected her mistake by writing over it and had signed her name under it. The officer was now claiming that we had changed the date ourselves to extend our insurance. He explained that we would need to wait until he got off duty and then he would take us to the police station where we’d be held over night for a hearing the next morning. We of course knew that his motive was simply to get a fat bribe in exchange for letting us go. So we decided to wait him out and just sat there as he walked off and dealt with other cars. As he stood in the road stopping other unlucky motorist, we could hear him singing as if it was a nursery rhyme “James Elliott. Falsification of documents! Falsification of documents! Not good.”

Occasionally he’d come back to the truck and the conversation would start again. Back and forth we went with the officer as he underscored the consequences fof such an offence and we retorted that we’d paid 50 euros for this insurance and therefore it wasn’t our problem. We stressed that our preferred option would be to go to the border to get it corrected in the morning but that if we needed to go to the police station we would. And so we went back and forth for nearly two hours. Finally, he said that if we paid something here we could go home and get it corrected at the border later. Knowing the going rate was 1,000 CFA’s ($2) I put a 1,000 CFA note in his hand. He of course balked and gave it back saying 10,000 CFA’s ($20). Forget it we said. Just take us to the police station and we cranked the truck up and turned it around, ready to go to the station. With a huff, he said fine and then proceeded to ask us for a ride to the station. “Sorry, I replied. There’s no room in our truck. You will need to find a taxi.” And so the conversation started again. This time he said that if we went to the station there would be a hearing with the judge the next day and the officer said that his story would be that he saw us four days ago and that when he checked our documents there was no problem – meaning that we’d falsified the documents since the last time he saw them. It was completely bogus and Sheri had had enough so she lurched across the front seat towards the officer, grabbing the insurance documents out of his hands. A tug of war ensued followed by a lot of yelling by both parties. Had Sheri managed to hold onto the documents I think we would have just driven off. Unfortunately the officer managed to pull them away from her.

Finally, after much yelling, he lowered his price to 5,000. After a few more “fine, just take us to the police station” he came down to 2,000 CFA’s (a number we’d decided early on that we’d take). Having sat there for the better part of the night, we were sick of dealing with it and we handed over the money. He handed us our documents and without a word we drove away. Asshole!

 
 
 
 

Dakar - June 6-12, 2006
Ready to move on, we loaded up and hit the road for Dakar. Our original plan was to take the coastal route however we started a little later than planned and therefore a few kms down the beach we decided it would be best to return to Lompour and take the main road. This seemed the more conservative approach since both trucks had already gotten stuck on the beach once and we didn’t want to risk having a problem that we couldn’t sort out before high tide came in and washed our truck out to sea.

Back on the main road we passed hundreds of stalls selling mangos and more road kill than I think I’ve ever seen. Goats, cows, chickens! All covered by hungry African vultures making short work of their carcasses. There were countless police checks as well. Most asked for cadeaux but it was all fairly benign. We were talking to Sharikay and Eric on our two-way radios and didn’t see one of the stops until the last minute. The officer raced to the truck and said. Do you have a phone? We played dumb. You mean a mobile phone I asked? Yes he said. No we do not have a mobile phone. But I saw you talking on it, he said. Nope. No phone here. Deflated after watching is shot at a bribe slip away, he turned to asking for cadeaux. Nope, we said. And he let us go.

Just outside of Dakar we tried to find Hippo Camp. We searched and searched, even enlisting the help of two kids on bikes who lead on what seemed like a wild goose chase through back dirt alleys. In the end however they lead us to the camp. Unfortunately, it’s now closed.

It was now almost dark and we still didn’t have a place to stay. On to plan B, we headed for Lake Rose, using a GPS waypoint for a bush camp used by Dutch Courage. We reached the sandy piste well after dark and after some debate decided to go down it anyway. The entire drive was through soft sand which was a bit of a challenge in the dark. Eric got stuck along the way and had to dig out from between two small dunes. Later I got stuck and had to dig out as well. Finally, we came to a clearing and when I hit the spot lights saw what appeared to be a small village ahead. Turns out it was an encampment, Bonaba Cafe, that was more or less closed for the season, however the attendant let us stay anyway and we setup camp right beside the lake.

The next morning Sheri and I said goodbye to Eric and Sharikay and headed for Le Meridian President. A big fancy western hotel owned by Starwood hotels in the US. We’d used points to book a couple of nights as a little R&R break. It was everything we wanted. Modern. Luxurious. A/C. Sit down toilets. Hot shower. Television. Giant pool. Restaurants. Bars. The works. It was fantastic and except for going downstairs to the pool and to eat, we didn’t leave our room for the first 24 hours. We just sat on the big comfortable bed and vegged. Watching TV (our first time in months), soaking up the A/C, and doing nothing! Day two brought more of the same however we took a break from watching TV to go to snorkeling on the beach. We extended our stay another night. Day three was more of the same. It was wonderful. In the end we stayed four days. I must admit though, by the fourth day, the luster of the A/C, TV, and long hot shower had worn off and started to seem a bit too much like our life back in the US. We were ready to get back to the business of travel in Africa and so we departed, spending the next two nights in more modest digs as we finalized preparations for our upcoming trip to Cape Verde.