Through A Minefield Into Mauritania
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999 Days Around Africa: The Road Chose Me
Driving through an active minefield is not something I’m looking forward to. I would go another way if I could, the problem is there simply is no other way to drive from Morocco/The Western Sahara into Mauritania.
About 20 miles before the border I fill the Jeep and auxiliary tank to the brim at the last Moroccan gas station, knowing gasoline is hard to come by in Mauritania. It’s already well over 110F when I arrive mid-morning at the border and the wind is howling relentlessly, kicking sand into faces and threatening to rip paperwork from clutching hands. I slowly drive along the shoulder of the crumbling road, making my way past a line of at least a hundred heavily loaded trucks waiting to leave. All are stacked impossibly high with everything imaginable, and I shudder to think how much each one weighs.
A uniformed officer waves me through a large gate, and another immediately throws up his arms and yells at me for going forward without his permission.
The border region is a large compound dotted with crumbling buildings enclosed by a huge fence, and a large gate at each end. Many uniformed officers sit around, none of them doing anything.
I park the Jeep behind a few other vehicles inside the compound and wait in line to get an exit stamp in my passport, before finding a random officer sitting in the shade who writes on the back of my temporary import permit and points across the road. In a building a man keeps one of the copies of my permit, scribbles on the back of my copy and says I can go.
I move the Jeep forward, and have all of my details entered into a huge paper ledger, before I’m free to drive through the second large gate and exit Morocco. This all takes less than half and hour and is straightforward.
The instant I drive through the gate into “No Man’s Land” the Jeep is surrounded by young men yelling and banging on the windows. Some of them grab the mirrors, door handles and bumpers and hold on as I continue to drive extremely slowly on the remnants of a rough, broken road. They all want to exchange money, sell me something, or guide me through to the Mauritanian border post.
I’m now in an area between the two countries that has no law, no roads to speak of, no signs and I must drive about 1.5 miles through an active minefield to reach the Mauritanian border post. In theory I just follow another vehicle or follow tire tracks to make sure I don’t hit a mine – after all if their tire didn’t set it off, mine won’t either. The problem with paying for a guide is they will say it’s $20, then “guide” you right into the middle of the mines. At that point they demand another $100, or leave you stranded in a very bad place. I’d rather trust my own instincts than deal with that.
In 2007 a French Overlander was tragically killed and another seriously injured after they strayed off course in their Land Rover Discovery and hit an anti tank mine.
The danger is real.
There are a few pickups and 18-wheelers making the crossing, so I do my best to ignore the extremely persistent guides and make my way across, trying my best to keep my tires on existing tracks. I pass dozens of burnt out car and truck skeletons, a clear sign this is no joke. I take the most direct route which is a crumbling rough road built by the Spanish decades ago, broken up by sections of deep sand where I use 4×4 to keep the Jeep moving.
This is not a place I want to linger.
Arriving at the Mauritania border more men want to guide me, all trying to snatch my passport and paperwork right out of my hands. They say the border will take many hours without their help, and I really need them. The military and police will obviously get a cut of any money I pay the guides, so they do nothing to stop the harassment. No matter how many times I say “No, Thanks”, each one comes back for more, tagging along every step of the way. I only speak to officers in uniform, and never hand my passport or documents to anyone that is demanding it. The process means bouncing around multiple unsigned buildings to find customs or immigration offers who are taking an afternoon nap or otherwise doing nothing. I first buy a one month visa, then get myself stamped into Mauritania.
While getting my passport stamped I’m standing right in front of a grumpy immigration officer when he says a car load of Senegalese must all pay to get a stamp – exactly how much is unclear. Each takes their turn handing over a wad of bills – sometimes the officer grunts and waves them away, where they gather more bills and try again. When the officer is satisfied he stuffs the bills into the top drawer of his battered desk – which is literally overflowing with cash.
It’s an eye opener to see such blatant corruption. I’ve been told time and time again Africa runs on bribes, and here it is directly in front of my face.
Across the road I track down an officer who writes up a temporary import permit for the Jeep, which costs ten Euro for ten days. When I return to the Jeep one of the “guides” is demanding I pay for parking, and he even has a receipt to give me. When I try to protest one of the military guys says I must pay, so I give a two Euro coin and move forward. I drive right up to a chain across the road, but quickly determine I’ve missed a step by the way the man there waves wildly and points at another building across the road. A quick visit there to have all my details entered into another giant hand-written ledger, and the guard at the chain smiles widely, then asks for Un petit Cadeau (A small gift), to which I play dumb.
Immediately in Mauritania I park and buy one week of insurance for 18 Euro and change a little money into the local currency – called the Mauritanian Ouguiya, or more commonly “Ogg”.
About four hours after arriving at the Moroccan border I’m finally ready to set off on on the highway South, into country number two.
For all the details on how to Travel Overland in Mauritania, see http://wikioverland.org/Mauritania