We Crossed the Sahara 2
The return journey
Not content with crossing the Sahara North to South The Brigadier and Dave French who is Irish turned around and did it again - desert action with added Mrs Peel.
continued from Issue 3
"You must be bloody mad!" I said to Dave French who's Irish. He'd just been outlining a 'little tour' that he'd planned for himself around the Casamance area of Senegal and in the western part of Mali. Looking at the map, it seemed to me that he was planning to take in half of West Africa, with a number of the roads he'd planned to ride either non existent, or very poor. "Well, Oi've been speaking to yer man over there and he reckons that all this is tarmac now" said Dave pointing at a huge swathe of empty map marked 'ensablee' - sand.
I pursed my lips, thinking back to Zebrabar and the 'helpful' German chap who told us that Banjul was an easy day's ride from St Louis in Senegal - nearly two days as it turned out. I had come to treat 'local' knowledge with a degree of caution. Either folks operated in a different temporal zone to the rest of us, or they had breezed through difficult routes with four wheeled drives, equipped with desert tyres and enough spare fuel to keep the Afrika Corps on the move for a month.
My own plan involved easy stages as far as Nouakchott in Mauritania, allowing the opportunity to spend some days taking a more relaxed tour of the country that we had blasted through on a tight schedule a few days before.
However Dave was determined to give this route a go and more careful study of the map showed that although completing it involved a tough schedule of all day riding, the only real issue was a question mark over the 100km of 'road' between Diema and Nioro in Mali. "Oi'l turn back if that section turns out to be shite" said Dave.
Another modification of plans had also materialised in the form of Barbara who had arrived at Banjul complete with riding gear. We had only been married a few weeks when Dave and I had departed and she'd been feeling quite left out of things, being more used to accompanying Dave and myself on other long distance trips on her own bike. Upon arrival in Banjul she declared that she was determined to come at least part of the way back as long as the bike was capable of supporting the extra weight.
A bit cautious about the whole thing, I loaded up my GS Dakar with all my kit and the admittedly very small number of things she'd brought with her, filled the petrol and water cans and set off for a long test ride on Gambia's dreadful roads with Barbara comfortably sat on the back.
As with everything else that the bikes had endured on the way to Gambia, the GS seemed to take the additional person and weight in its stride. There was no appreciable loss in power or braking and the rear suspension only required minor adjustment to compensate. Handling was fine.
I consulted Dave. "Ah, it'll be a roit laugh" he said. "Yer-one is much more entertaining than you anyway. Besoides, you can have that honeymoon that you missed out on while Oi go off and do me Mali tour; indeed, indeed."
I groaned. The pair of them had manoeuvred me into a corner. Dave got his Mali tour and Barbara got her wish to see the Sahara as well.
All in all we spent four days in Banjul. Riders for Health had been fantastic hosts, sending Ali, one of the founders of Riders in the Gambia, to look after and ferry us about in a 4WD.
We had spent a morning in discussions with Therese, 'Riders' Gambia Operational Director. She had briefed us on the system of Transport Resource Management and we learned that 'Riders' are managing the maintenance of the majority of healthcare vehicles in the country, in addition to the approximately 150 motorcycles which are used for primary healthcare activity.
The following day, Ali took us on a field trip to one of 'Riders' regional centres. This involved crossing the Gambia River again on the dreaded Banjul to Barra ferry, more opportunities to experience claustrophobic overcrowding of vehicles and people, while trying not to think about movies such as 'Titanic'.
We saw 'Riders' bikes in action and spoke to some of the health workers who were gathered under a huge Baobab tree with their bikes. All were keen to tell us about their day to day work and describe some of the problems that they encounter.
The trip back to Banjul in Ali's Toyota was interminable, involving a sweltering wait in the sun at Barra Terminal. Hustlers were everywhere, though aside from being concerned about pick-pockets we didn't get hassled too much. More disconcerting was the fascination with which some seemed to view Mutch. Our esteemed Editor had an uncomfortable 20 minutes while a very small chap stood stock-still at his window looking at him with a nearly eyeball to eyeball serial killer stare.
All good things have to come to an end though and it was with a heavy heart that Barbara and I packed our GS in the pre-dawn gloom on December 1st. Dave was also planning to head south later that day, leaving Mutch to catch a flight back to London the following day. Both of them came to see us off from the car park of the Bungalow Beach hotel and picking our way through potholes, I turned the GS in the direction of London, 3,500 miles away.
We planned to make Kaolack in Senegal that day. A tough 110km of variable road. It didn't take long to get to the Banjul/Barra ferry and this time we were loaded almost immediately.
Leaving Gambia along the badly potholed main road, we arrived at customs in good time in case of problems. This time all was straightforward.
More worrying and tense was being pulled over by some 'customs' officers a few miles into Senegal. These characters were dressed in bits of mismatching green uniforms and had a group of thuggish looking characters in civilian clothes and with a battered 4WD to support them. They had already pulled over a 'Touba' bus and were busy searching every corner, throwing things on the road and having heated arguments with the occupants.
Clearly this was trouble. These guys were fakes. There were no IDs and no guns, but there were machetes. The whole thing felt very menacing. Fortunately, this was one of many times when Barbara's command of the French language helped to make a situation easier and although one of the green-clad toughs insisted on taking a cursory look in the Metal Mule boxes, after some conversation we were waved on our way.
We stopped for lunch and the heat of the day at a lovely clean little cafe further on and set out along a worsening road, aiming to get to Kaolack before dark.
Crossing the huge lake full of stinking sewage and smouldering rubbish which marks the southern edge of town (people actually live in this hellish mess), Kaolack seemed if anything more chaotic and filthy than before. But checking into the Hotel Paris, Barbara and I took off to enjoy the colonial delights of Chez Annour, where food and beer were gratefully consumed.
We rose pre-dawn expecting another blistering day and set off towards Dakar. It only took 20k to realise that we were absolutely freezing. The cold(ish) fingers of winter were slowly finding their way into Senegal, bringing much cooler nights than we had become used to.
A welcome coffee break at Mbour allowed an opportunity to plan the rest of the day. Our destination was Dakar where we hoped to spend two nights and take a look at one of Africa's more developed cities. Besides, the idea of taking a BMW Dakar to Dakar had seemed a good one when originally planning the trip.
We soon wondered if we had made a huge mistake. To get to Dakar, one leaves the main loop of road which is Senegal's primary network and heads off down a bumpy dual carriageway to the capital itself. This promising road soon gives way to a nightmare of traffic congestion, heat and fumes as the dual carriageway passes through a number of 'suburban' towns. Every one of these places is a bustling medley of crammed vehicles, street markets and checkpoints, with an all pervading stench of unwashed bodies, burning rubbish, sewage and rotting food hanging over the whole scene.
Then the nice(ish) main road simply vanished, to be replaced by gravel and holes and ruts - hell for any kind of motorcycle. Loose stones, bits of rubbish, broken glass and wire, all competing to see what can puncture tyres the fastest.
Fortunately, the tarmac reappeared and although undulating and potholed it felt good to be able to get ahead of the tooting lorries and homicidal taxis as we headed into Dakar itself, the tall buildings of the city rising out of the smog ahead of us.
Dakar mixes modern infrastructure development with the grubby semi-chaos more associated with other Senegalese towns. Any panoramic photograph of the city shows a modern skyline with impressive structures. Only at street level do you get a better feel of the real Dakar. Only main routes are tarmaced, with most side roads a mix of rubbish and potholes. It's a busy place and vibrant with small business and a colourful mix of people going about their daily life, an almost extreme mix of rich and poor. Then there's the hustlers.
Stopping outside a reasonable looking hotel, it took about 10 seconds for a dishevelled chap to latch onto us offering to be our guide, offering to take us to 'his cousin's' hotel and so on. The hotel we were outside was full and after a minute or two trying to figure out the map, we took a risk and followed our new 'friend' to what had been billed as the best accommodation in town - if you believed what you heard. The Hotel was on one of the main streets in Dakar, a bustling place full of shops, markets and street trader stalls.
Barbara went in to check things out. I stayed with the bike, wary of the potential for theft. Hustlers immediately zoomed in on me, doing their best to flog their various wares in a much more aggressive manner than I'd encountered elsewhere. The more I said "no", the harder the sell became. Things were getting rather uncomfortable and the crowd of desperados around me was growing when suddenly the minarets of the local mosques started their sonorous wailing. As if by magic, the hard sell stopped, out came the prayer mats and relative peace descended as the call for prayers was answered.
Although the street around me didn't exactly grind to a halt, the faithful made it their business to make life difficult for those who didn't have a mind to observe the mullahs. Lines of genuflecting men spread out from the pavements right across the road, bringing the traffic to a halt. These guys seemed to have no concern for their safety, with two characters practically under the wheels of a bus which had only just pulled up in time.
Barbara reappeared. "It's a poo-hole, lets get the hell out of here." Easier said than done I thought as she climbed aboard and I started the engine, trying to figure out how I could avoid running over one of the prone figures on the street.
We stopped a few streets further on and consulted the map again. The Lonely Planet recommended the nearby Hotel Oceanic, so heading along some rough side roads, we pulled up in a quiet street outside what proved to be a very nice, if faded and basic, French colonial hotel.
Later that day we took a walk to see what Dakar had to offer. The city has a bad reputation for muggings, scams and petty theft. But aside from endless hassle from street traders and hustlers we didn't feel at all threatened.
There's plenty to see in Dakar if you're into cities with a different feel - a real clash of the modern, with traditional African sitting uneasily beside this. Modern buildings jostle with old French structures, with tin huts or rubbish strewn waste ground in the gaps. Traffic noise, fumes and crowds of people sit alongside an exotic range of colourful street trade. Food sellers were everywhere, preparing offerings from rickety stoves on the pavements. Stalls selling wood carvings, ethnic jewellery and other touristy items often also sold small birds and animals.
One of the best value restaurants in town is the 'La Dagorne' which was fortunately adjacent to our hotel. The food is French in flavour, clean and low priced. Relaxing after a good steak, we considered our options. Neither of us was keen to spend another day in Dakar, but we didn't want to get too far ahead of our itinerary. Our musings were interrupted by an Essex voice from behind saying "Sorry for interrupting, but why don't you check out the Ile de Goree?" Essex man and his wife were on a package holiday. They both felt similarly to us about Dakar and had escaped to the small island just a 15 minute ferry ride from Dakar. They related a tale of tranquillity and historic interest that sold us on staying in Dakar for another day.
And indeed it was so. The small Ile de Goree turned out to be a wonderfully peaceful place of great beauty. No motorised vehicles are allowed in the narrow streets which seemed to be straight out of the French colonial history books. Hustlers were much rarer and certainly more polite and it was pleasant just to wander through the town exploring the narrow paths and enjoying the calm ambiance. Wandering out of the down and up towards the World War Two fortress of Le Castel at the northern edge of the island, we explored the extensive fortifications which include two 16 inch guns which sank the HMS Tacoma during the war (the ferry to the island goes around the site) This impressive ordinance apparently became famous as the weapons which were the inspiration for the movie 'The Guns of Navarone'.
Among other island attractions, we visited the pace known locally as Maison des Esclaves - the House of Slaves. A famous doorway opens directly from the slave cells to the sea, where ships would lie waiting to transport their tragic cargos to the New World. It's one of those places which makes one sit back and think for a bit and the building has enormous spiritual significance for black Americans in particular, whose ancestors were shipped as slaves to America.
Remembering our buttock-clenching entry to Dakar, we elected to leave before first light the following morning. The noise of generators during the late night power cuts didn't do much for a good night's sleep, but we were still able to get on the road in good time to beat the local rush hour. Heading north towards St Louis, we stopped in Thies for perhaps the nicest coffee and breakfast of the whole trip. Thies is one of the more pleasant towns in Senegal. More or less hassle free and clean quiet streets, with plenty of official-looking Government buildings.
Heading onwards, the heat shimmered on the road ahead as we avoided badly driven Touba buses and kept a weather eye on the rear view mirror for the numerous overloaded Mercedes which were being driven like formula one racing cars. Several rehydration stops brought a variety of people out to make small-talk, or stare in wonder at the rich western 'Two-Bobs' (us) who had entered their impoverished lives for a brief moment or two. Young boys would yell "Dakar, Dakar!" at us when they saw the model name on the GS. The Dakar Rally, which was due to start just after we arrived home, is big news in Senegal.
Finally, we reached the causeway piste which led to Zebrabar and once again had the great pleasure of a Swiss welcome to that wonderful and peaceful place.
The trouble with Zebrabar is that it can kind of 'eat you up'. An odd way of describing the effect the place has perhaps, but it becomes very easy to let the world go by in timeless fashion, the day's agenda only dictated by mealtimes and the sunset. We took one of the ethnic round huts that overlooks the estuary and enjoyed the company of fellow travellers, read books, or walked the beaches, taking amusement from annoying the huge colonies of Fiddler Crabs which covered every available inch of shoreline sand in the area.
This time there were more motorcyclists. Fellow two-wheeled travellers who were also hiding from the world for a few days. All had BMWs and were happy to laze about with us and chat over numerous large bottles of 'Gazelle' beer.
Also taking time out were a couple of Dutch lads who were driving an old, but very well equipped Toyota Landcruiser. One of them had been north as far as the border with Western Sahara and had enjoyed several days driving desert and bad piste along the route of the ore train. He had made it to Choum and Atar, but had spent so much time digging himself out of sand that he headed straight down the main road to meet his mate who had flown into Dakar. Their plan was to re-enter Mauritania and drive up the beach to Nouakchott.
Martin, our Swiss host remarked
"Two things. Don't cross the border at Rosso and secondly, avoid the brown sand -- stay on the yellow sand." He stopped for a moment of reflection. "Brown sand is waterlogged. Bad news"
"So that would be the end of that then?" I asked.
"No" replied Martin "But it could be days of digging to get out. Much good work." More beer was opened as we all reflected on Martin's interpretation of 'good' work.
The following day, our two Dutch friends packed up their Landcruiser and headed for the Mauritanian border. We wished them well not expecting to see them again. However just as the evening dinner bell was being rung, the pair appeared again looking hot and dishevelled.
"What happened?" I called out.
"Beer." They said in unison giving a good impression of zombies who had had enough for the day. Over dinner they related a sorry tale of woe. Arriving at the Diama Dam crossing into Mauritania, they had left Senegal and presented themselves at Mauritanian customs. Our man who had flown into Dakar didn't have a visa for Mauritania, with this only being available at Rosso. So they both had to turn-tail and re-enter Senegal, trying to persuade themselves that Rosso couldn't be that bad.
It was. Leaving and re-entering Senegal in the same hour meant that officials were able to gleefully declare that 'there was a problem'. When this had been finally sorted out hours later (they didn't say how much had to be paid) and exit visas had been stamped, a 'problem' had been declared relating to their Toyota's Carnet. Again, the out/in stamps on the same day were the issue.
Hours later, they started to get desperate. Fantastic sums of money had been quoted and the correct official was either 'not there', 'at lunch', 'at prayers', 'five minutes away', 'ten minutes away', 'almost here' and so on. The guy was actually sitting in the corner waiting for Dutch patience to run out and money to come his way.
Officially they had left Senegal, so the Rosso authorities had them by the balls. Both weren't budging on the financial issue and with the last ferry about to leave for Rosso Mauritania and the prospect of a dodgy night on a lawless quayside, they re-entered Senegal and high-tailed it back to Zebrabar, 90 minutes away.
Both were totally exhausted. It had been a burning hot day and they were completely demoralised and extremely angry at the way they'd been treated.
I listened to all this with mounting concern. I had been considering the northern route for some days and was concerned about the wisdom of tackling the 100km Diama/Rosso Piste two-up. Not because I was worried about the bike, more because of the time it would take me as an inexperienced off-road rider to traverse the route two-up. I also knew that the Rosso to Nouakchott road was poor enough to make it dangerous to ride at night and the Diama route meant riding from Zebrabar to Nouakchott in one hit.
Therefore, my plan had been to brave Rosso on the way north, with this idea based on reports that it was a great deal easier than trying it north/south. Our Dutch friends experience did not auger well for this though.
Another funny thing about travel is that sometimes other people's bad experience hardens one's resolve to try and overcome the difficulties encountered. So after thinking about things further and discussing the whole thing with Barbara and other travelling folk, we decided to go for it. Martin, our Zebrabar host, shook his head and smiled. "send me a postcard from Rosso." He said.
That evening we heard from Dave. He'd been keeping in regular contact via text message, or through the many teleboutiques - phone shops - that are a feature of Africa. He was now in Ayoun el Atrous having completed 150km of tough piste between Diema and Ayoun and was running ahead of time. He expected to reach Nouakchott a day early.
After a last night of good company and the wonderful peace of the palm-fronded coast, leaving the calm of our Senegalese oasis was a wrench, but the journey had to continue.
The 150km run to Richard Toll, where we planned to spend the night before tackling Rosso, was one of the less pleasant rides on the trip. Douane officials at several checkpoints conspired to burn up time and it was a very hot afternoon. The road took a turn for the worse and for a time it seemed as though the piste might have been a better option as I steered the Dakar around an obstacle course of bike sized potholes.
Richard Toll lies alongside the River Senegal in what can be described as serious malaria country. It's the centre of Senegal's sugar industry and is dominated by a large processing plant which emits a noxious stench. The edge of town is lined with the usual shanties, but even the centre of this commercial centre is very shabby and run down.
Arriving there at last light, it initially proved impossible to find somewhere to stay among the busy streets and markets. Stopping the bike outside the Chateau de Baron Roger, the Claude Richard designed gardens of which lend the town its name (Richard Toll means 'Richard's Garden), we both began to wonder if we'd made a big mistake. The combination of a run down town of ultra inquisitive people, buzzing clouds of mosquitoes in the dusk light, combined with no tent and nowhere to stay, could have very unpleasant consequences.
Finally, after yet another run up the main street, Barbara spotted a battered sign for the Gite d'Etape, the hotel that we'd heard about and heading down a dirt track we found ourselves outside what we took to be an abandoned building. A small wrinkled figure appeared from behind a low wall.
"Yes this is the hotel. We have rooms. I take you though."
We parked the bike and walked around the corner to be greeted by yet another of those wonderful inversions that Africa can spring upon the traveller. Dirt, dust and decay was replaced by a serene view across well tended lawns, a swimming pool and open-air bar, towards the best aspect of the River Senegal that we had seen so far.
Raiding the Border
5am. Furious packing and loading took place, while Barbara negotiated the bill for the previous night. We got away before 6, stopping only to fill up with 'Super'. Then a dash up the Rosso road as quickly as the light of a fast approaching dawn would allow.
What's this? Oh no, not another checkpoint. This guy is OK. He's regular Douane. Very friendly. Tells us to "ignore everything you see and go straight to the ferry port gates. Don't stop, don't talk to anyone - they want to take all your money." A friendly wave and we're on our way into town. Rosso. Full of dead trucks, filth and ruined or half patched up buildings. People stirring into life from piles of blankets all over the pavements and in every available doorway. People catch sight of us and try to run alongside shouting "Stop! Talk to me - I can help you!" We push on without slowing. A few minutes later and we're weaving in and out of closely packed vehicles. The gates. Stop, put the GS on its stand. Act deaf and stay focused.
"I'll stay with the bike," says Barbara.
I head through a wicket gate. Think about riding the GS through - it's wide enough. Too many guys wanting me to do just that. Sense a trap and move on. Customs. It's shut. I bang on the door. Sleepy uniform answers.
"Stamp this." I say, thrusting the Carnet in his face. Bleary eyed he looks at me, takes the Carnet and slumps behind a desk. "OK It's early, but no problem. A nervous wait as he reads the Senegal page from top to bottom.
"Sign here and here" I indicate.
"Stamp here and you keep this part". "OK," he says. "I've just been posted here, this is the first one of these that I've had to do. Boss always looks after Carnets." He motioned towards a snorting bundle of rags which partially hid the form of an obese caricature of the African border official. Clearly the guy who creates and solves customs 'problems' in these parts. Bang! Down goes the stamp.
"No, no money". He says, I offer the guy a full packet of cigarettes - he's clearly in for some heat when boss-man finds out that he 'let one go'. He refuses, smiles and shakes my hand. I'm outa there. Back through the gates. Next stop police. Two or three guys run alongside. "You need my help, police here police there, no not police yet, change money first". Ignoring them, I enter a low building guarded by two tough looking characters with rifles.
Now comes a language barrier. Police with heavy gold braid seem fine enough, but my French isn't up to the questions. A tall, slim and quite beautiful woman carrying a bag of bananas says in perfect English.
"They only want to know how many miles you are travelling today." She translates. Stamps in both passports. No cadeau needed for the Police. I offer a few Francs to the woman. She gives me two bananas.
Senegal, some of the best people in the world - and some of the worst.
Back to the gates. The 'gate-keeper' announces himself - a portly gentleman in flowing robes. "I get you in, 10 Euros."
"No" I say. "5,000 francs". This is about 7 Euro. A short conversation. He agrees.
Off to the final building. The sun is up, everyone's awake. A queue outside the police station. One hustler is different from the rest. He's been following me about, but not making a fuss, or giving me hassle. I take a risk and talk to him. He's Gambian. Stuck at Rosso for some time, looking to raise money to get though to The Gambia. Maybe true, maybe not. He's chewing one of the narcotic sticks that are ubiquitous in these parts; so perhaps his dream of home drifts away each day in a haze of mild addiction. He's quiet and unassuming, so I ask him for help getting to the front of the growing queue.
It seems like a moment later and I'm standing in a crowd around a table which is empty apart from a tall pile of driving licenses and insurance documents. Mine keeps finding its way to the bottom of the pile as different hands emerge from the waiting throng to rearrange the order of documents. My Gambian moves in from time to time to move my papers to the top of the pile, muttering under his breath in the local tongue to those around him.
A yawning and stretching cop appears at a large man-sized hole in the wall between two offices. With a great flourish he pulls a ledger and a pile of stamps from a locked cabinet. The muttering stops as the policeman with great ceremony sinks into a chair behind the desk.
He opens his ledger and lays out his stamps. The throng presses closer around the desk and the document rearranging takes on a new fervour. The 'Emperor of the Desk' ignores this quiet flurry of activity and waits for a moment.
As if on cue, money starts to appear. CFA notes start waving about, some money is swapped between individuals and documents get moved about on the pile.
"Offer 10,000 franc" says my Gambian. I proffer 10 Euro instead (6000 CFA). The addition of my European money to this strange tableau prompts more muttering, but at this point the cop takes the documents at the top of the pile. Some CFA notes from the one of the hands go straight into his pocket as starts writing laboriously into the ledger. Document shuffling continues as the cop reaches for the next set of documents and in an easy motion transfers money to his pocket with one hand while he starts writing with the other.
Meanwhile, the Gambian has been muttering furiously to those around him and it seems as though my documents are now staying somewhere near the top of the pile. More hands, more money and the order of documents changes again. The Emperor ignores this new activity and reaches for the top set of papers. Mine! My 10 Euro disappears in an easy motion.
"Profession?" barks the cop
"Employe" I reply. A few moments of laborious handwriting and I'm done.
The Gambian follows me as I track down the portly gatekeeper, who has already unlocked the gates in anticipation of my arrival. Out to the bike, scatter the crowd of hustlers as the GS engine starts and we're through the tiniest of gaps which the gatekeeper has opened for us. The gates slam behind to a clamour of yelling from the crowd outside.
We've done it in under an hour. Clearly, the early start at Rosso was a good plan, but what now? The ferry is on the other bank, about a quarter of a mile away and is showing no sign of moving.
"It comes at 9am, I get you straight on". My Gambian said. The problem is that 9am African time could be any time at all.
We settle down to wait as the morning heat starts to build. A crowd of hustlers which had accosted Barbara, came through the wicket gate and were once again hanging around the bike giving us general grief. We did out best to ignore this and waited quietly. In the meantime small hands persistently ran their hands over our luggage, testing the bungies, trying out the locks on the Metal Mule boxes. I wandered down to the waterfront to sit quietly and smoke a cigarette. It was really quite a nice spot. If it wasn't for the air of desperation and hassle, Rosso Port would even be described as a lovely place. People plied trade in food, fishing boats were being prepared for the river and young women, naked to the waist, washed clothes in the river.
Then a flurry of activity from across the water. Distant shouts and the sound of a roaring, worn diesel engine. The ferry started its slow journey over the river.
It's arrival prompted a dodgems style jostling of vehicles large and small. Ferry workers tried to keep some order in the loading process, but were largely ignored. Seeing a gap I rode down the ramp and onto the ferry, ignoring someone in dirty overalls who was gesticulating for us to stop.
Similarly to Barra, the ferry departed only when it seemed about to sink with the excessive weight of overloaded vehicles. The worn engine thundered as we crossed to the Mauritanian side and the huge crowd of waiting people on the ramp and surrounding jetties. Once we docked, all hell was let loose. Uniforms and civilians ran up the ramp shouting and pushing. Engines roared and the car behind us tried to push the GS off the boat. Almost losing balance on the bike, I just got it upright again when an angry individual in 'police' uniform started yelling "give me your papers, your passport, your Carnet NOW!" into my face.
I wasn't going to fall for this fake cop routine and I knew that I was entitled to be seen by officials in the proper office, so I held my ground. This guy got angrier and angrier. Things were starting to look ugly, when Barbara said quietly "I think he may be a genuine customs guy." I looked him up and down again as he continued to shout at me. It didn't seem that we were going to get past this guy, so I handed over our papers.
He promptly vanished and we moved the GS up to a group of buildings which housed customs and immigration.
A hustler appeared holding our papers. "You follow me." he said. I couldn't believe it. The cop had given our papers to a hustler!
I followed our new 'guide'. Firstly the Carnet. Mauritanian customs were no problem. The guide gave him the carnet and it was quickly stamped. No cost. The officer looked at the guide and said to me, "This person is dirt. He is nothing. Get rid of him if you can."
Once out of the office I made an attempt to get our papers back. I seized the Carnet and stuffed it in my jacket, but the guide started yelling "crazy English, you know nothing of our ways, you are mad" and as if by magic three or four other 'guides' appeared to support him. Further seizures of papers were no longer an option, but I was glad that I'd recovered the Carnet. Losing this would have been an £8,500 disaster.
Although this institutionalised corruption was making me seethe (it seems that the cops work with the hustlers to effectively extort cash from travellers who then share their ill-gotten gains between themselves and the police), our unwanted guide was quite efficient. Within 10 minutes we had passports stamped and vehicles registered. Then I was led over to pay for the ferry and finally had to pay off the guide and his mate who had apparently performed some unknown service or other. We'd heard some horror stories about how much people had been forced to pay, but the whole deal, including the ferry ticket came to about 35 Euro.
We headed north, keen to put some miles between us and Rosso before stopping for a break. We had taken on the reputed worst border in Africa and survived without losing all our money and we felt pretty good about it.
Once the Senegal River valley is left behind, the green countryside quickly gives way to red Sahel sand, with large numbers of Acacia trees growing in the arid wilderness. Buildings give way to huts and a busy business like air gives way to quiet stillness and isolation.
Although we were back in the desert, it didn't seem that hot. Certainly it was hardly a mild summer's day, but the ambient temperature wasn't bothering me that much. Acclimatisation I suppose.
As we rode, the sand changed hue from red to different shades of yellow and orange and back to red again. Camels started to appear, sometimes eating the spiny Acacia, sometimes standing still. We saw the occasional person when we rode through villages of corrugated iron huts.
We approached Nouakchott about mid afternoon. Acacia-filled Sahel had already disappeared to be replaced by sand and rocks. Huge deep-desert style dunes were now becoming the norm. We also started seeing more traffic of the tragically battered and broken Mauritanian variety.
We headed for the centre of the city this time. I had no desire to show Barbara the Dante-esque desolation of the area of town near the beach and we were both becoming concerned about how we were going to find Dave in the Mauritanian capital. We turned off the good quality dual carriageway which traverses the city, down a broken street, covered in rubbish and broken glass, looking for someone who could give directions.
By the entrance to a very clean shop, in what was a pretty rough looking area, sat a man in blue Mauritanian robes washing his feet in a dirty bowl. Keen to help, he was quite happy to guide us to the two hotels if we were OK to follow him in his Mercedes.
After a five minute wait he appeared in the ubiquitous MOT failure of a car and stopping by us, he motioned over to a group of about six friends who had been hanging around trying not to look too interested in us. They all piled into the Mercedes and we set off, en-convoy back the way we had come.
We followed the Mercedes for about two miles and were just starting to wonder where the heck we were being taken, when parked by the kerb on the other side of the road was a GS Dakar, with Dave sat astride peering at a map. An incredible stroke of luck to meet him like this!
We stopped and waved. He rode over beaming from ear to ear, his face burning bright red from the desert sun and both his bike and Rallye 2 suit plastered with red mud, dirt and oil. "In all the cities, in all of the world, how did you come to end up in mine?" he said to general laughter and merriment.
We stayed at the Auberge Normandie. A travellers hostel and campsite right in the heart of the city. Secure parking in a high gated yard, room for camping and several dark cell-like rooms with low beds and little. Very basic, but just the job.
It was great to see the mad Irishman again. He'd had a terrific ride and although not having the chance to soak up the feel of Mali had covered considerable mileage though the Sahel and Desert. Casamance and Guinea Bissau also sounded like a great experience and he had much to tell. His GS bore testament to his ride, plastered with earthy souvenirs of his trip. The main cost had been to his tyres. The tread was wearing quite near to the minimum markers on my bike, on Dave's, they were beyond that and heading for 'rizla' status.
Searching for beer, we headed to the Novotel a few streets away. Once inside, the difference between the world of wealth and the realities of everyday Mauritania were laid out to be seen in stark fashion. The Novotel was in an enclosed world of its own, where only the rich and privileged gained access. This was also reflected in the prices. Small tins of Heineken worked out at about £3.50 each. Meanwhile outside on the street, large sections of the populations grubbed a living on the streets, or in the desert on perhaps a dollar a day if they are lucky.
We left to look for more reasonably priced food and ate in a nice pizzeria a few blocks away where at least we knew that the Mauritanian Ougluiya that we were spending would go back into local pockets.
The next day a pre dawn start set us on the long Sahara road to Nouadhibou. This stage of the journey necessitated extra fuel. I had been concerned at the effect on the bike of a full jerry-can in addition to Barbara. Once again though, the GS stoically took the additional high-up weight in its stride and we headed purposefully out of Nouakchott for the last time and rode into the deep desert as the sun rose in the east.
It felt good to be once again riding with Dave and frequent photo and water stops allowed plenty of opportunities for the regular banter which we had enjoyed on the way down. This time joined in with by Barbara, who was careful not to take sides. It helped a long day pass more easily.
This stretch of desert is easily the most featureless of the whole trip, with long marches of dunes giving way within 150k to flat sand and gravel desert stretching from skyline to skyline. Colours were very different to the journey down. This was partly due to the change in the direction that light was coming from and partly because a layer of thin cloud created a different 'feel'.
This time we exploited more photo opportunities and having a photographer in the form of Barbara with us, allowed some decent pictures to be taken for sponsors, plus some opportunities to mess about in the sand, fall off, get stuck and laugh out loud.
On the way down, there had been nothing about the condition of this long stretch of road to excite particular comment, but as the road ran out straight ahead northward on the return journey, we found that sand was increasingly encroaching on the tarmac. It was one of those things which helped to keep the senses sharp.
We took a break at the place which had become known as the Rehydration Tree. This was where I had needed to stop to combat early stages of dehydration on the way down. A group of figures emerged from one of a series of tin shacks which stood some way back from the road. Coming over, they offered us a large bowl of what turned out to be camels milk. I'd never tried it before and was surprised to find that it's slightly lumpy, sweet taste was replaced with a very refreshing feeling in the mouth when swallowed.
Although we still had plenty of fuel due to the spare capacity of our cans, we stopped at a fuel station out of curiosity. Three fuel pumps were there; two diesel, one petrol. One of the diesel pumps leaned drunkenly on its mounts and the rubble forecourt was soaked in spilt fuel. It seemed that an entire family had emerged from a concrete shack to greet us. Lots of smiles all around, accompanies by comments in excited Arabic. Downturned mouths at the mention of 'essence' confirmed the continuing Saharan petrol drought. "But" exclaimed an excitable male member of the extended family; "you give me motorcycle and I give you my son!" and a baby was thrust in my face.
Being eyeball to eyeball with a small snivelling child with a snotty nose took me by surprise. Dave and Barbara laughed until it became clear that the guy was deadly serious about striking a deal. Making apologies we escaped to lots of shouting and waving from a family which seriously needed to get out of the sun for a while.
The road joined up with the route of the Ore Train. "Bloody shame you probably won't get to see the Ore Train." I yelled back at Barbara. "One of the modern wonders of the world you know."
"Oh yeah?" she yelled back "So what's that then?" Pointing ahead I made out a long line of low rail cars and a huge cloud of dust billowing over the road.
We caught up with and overhauled the very slow moving leviathan, the length of it meaning that we didn't get to the front for a good 10km. We stopped and Dave ran across the desert with his camera at the ready.
The train was slowing down with an ear piercing and seemingly never ending shriek of brakes. Ore dust was pouring out of each car, caught by the wind and filling our eyes with grit. The train's passing seemed never ending - an impressive sight.
Finally the last car passed and Dave wandered back "There's about 150 carriages you know."
Then with a thunder of huge diesels an empty train came the other way, building speed as it came. "Thought this thing only ran occasionally?" said Barbara. "Indeed, indeed. Looks like yer luck's in" said the Irishman.
More pictures and we pressed on, overhauling the first train again. Day was giving way to late afternoon light and we were glad a few kilometres later to see the first of the two checkpoints which mark the approach to Nouadhibou.
While waiting for the obligatory, but laborious long-hand recording of our passport details, the first train hammered by again. This time right by the road. Impressive, huge, dusty and loud. The driver waving from his cab, along with the dust blackened hitchhikers in each car.
"So that's the third time I've seen it" Said Barbara; impressed but trying not to show it. "Bloody men and big machines..."
So finally, Nouadhibou. Remembering the anxious hunt for fuel on the way down, we filled up the bikes before looking for accommodation. I debated getting shot of the fuel cans with Dave, but with no guarantee that G1, the isolated first and last fuel station in the Western Sahara, having gas meant that we felt it best to play safe and ensure that we had at least one full can.
That evening we stayed in another campsite-cum-auberge, which had great, if basic rooms. A meal of impressively large fish and beer at Restaurant Canaria once again and we tumbled into our beds for one of the best night's sleep of the trip.
Another early start and our last day in Mauritania. A deep fog had settled overnight and the roads were wet, creating a nice slippery mess of wet diesel and finely ground dust. Dave was keen to see the ship wrecks which were known to clutter the coast at Nouadhibou in large numbers.
There must be dozens of ships on the beaches outside Nouadhibou. Some are abandoned wrecks, others insurance 'jobs' which had been sailed straight up to the beach and abandoned. Most are ocean going deep water trawlers, others quite large freighters. Riding carefully down the damp coast road in a fog which the sun was doing its best to dispel, the ships started to emerge ghost-like from the eerie early morning mist. We stopped to take some pictures and walked down the beach marvelling at all the wrecked and rusting tonnage which lay with a certain grand dignity at their final resting places. After coffee in a nice hotel, overlooking a bay which seemed alive with closely packed fish, we continued our journey north. The Ore Train went rumbling by again.
"That's the fourth time" said Barbara wearily. "So we're lucky if we see it heh?" I stayed silent. Leaving Nouadhibou behind we took the highway towards the border and after negotiating a few berms of sand across the road, arrived at the placid customs, army and police posts which marked our exit from Mauritania.
Dave went inland to Mali and the site of Simon's accident
Having seen the detailed Mali police reports we searched the maps in vain for the road junction mentioned. No map showed any junction where a side road led to Sobokou from the main Kayes to Diboli road. The police report was explicit on this but the villages were too insignificant to appear on the few Mali maps which we could get hold of. In addition to the names of the villages to be reached from the junction we had the number of kilometres from Kayes. A major road building project had been completed since the accident and properly linked the city to the border crossing into Kidira in Senegal.
According to the pictures when Simon had been coming through this was just roadworks. Now it was a clean, straight, level and fully sealed two lane tar road. Kilometer posts were still haphazard but the surface was absolutely perfect. Inching along so as to avoid overshooting the spot I watched for any sign of a side road. I wondered if I was already past the place as there hadn't been a kilometer post for miles. My enquiry with the policeman at the border had been a long shot and fruitless. While still worrying that the new road might not be following the old road I came to a junction leading to the villages of Daramane and Sobokou. The nearest kilometer post was far away but the odometer matched up. Leaving the bike I walked over to the accident site, stood and looked around. Coming from Kayes and travelling east to Diboli the road to Sobokou led off to the north north east. This was as close to being a baobab forest as these fantastic plants ever form but there were two particularly notable trees. Each baobab is unique and the background of the police photographs had featured a pair of baobabs wrapped around each other. I was already looking straight at it in real life. This clinched the location. Video and still cameras recorded the spot as I walked around and tried to reconstruct the scene in my head as it would have been without the new road. An old service road threading between the trees provided an idea of what the surface would have been like before the project was completed. Rutted, uneven, deeply sandy in places but with roots and rocks scattered randomly in the bulldozed debris. Roadbuilding around here could throw up a range of challenging interim surfaces from impassable clay to well-graded piste. The new road had an unusually good foundation and ran a few feet above the old road. Unlike most places in Africa nobody appeared in the few hours I was there. Traffic was extremely light consisting of a couple of lorries and a man on a scooter. A troop of baboons stood guard high in a distant tree as the sun sank across the African forest. This was a calm and peaceful spot.
Pictures by Craig Carey-Clinch, Mrs Peel and Dave French who is Irish
Motorcycles kindly supplied and prepared by Vines BMW of Guildford. Luggage by Metal Mule