Big Changes… Into Sub-Saharan Africa

I stayed in Nouakchott for four days. The ‘weekend’ here is Friday and Saturday so things started to happen again on Sunday. Most of them in the mornings since the afternoons got uncomfortably hot and dusty. I had decided to try to get as many visas as possible so that I would not have to go into Dakar further down the road, what, given the recent developments is probably a good thing. Besides the trips to the embassies I was hanging out with Steve a lot, who was chasing visas too, and in between sampled the local cuisine. For the first time the dishes served at the restaurants looked properly African however none of them I learned were very Mauritanian.



The highlight was the visa for the Gambia. Austrian passport holders have drawn the short straw here, we are some of the very few Europeans who need a visa to enter the country. As I presented myself at the embassy, the secretary seated me and we exchanged about five minutes of polite conversation before I was asked what they could do for me. Get me a visa, what else? I filled out the form, then was informed the consul would decide on my application within fifteen minutes, and the fee would only be charged in case it was granted. I was directed to a luxurious waiting room, where I watched Al Jazeera for about half an hour before the secretary returned with a file. ‘I am sorry, I have bad news. We cannot grant you the visa because there is a mistake which we call the sleepiness of the pen’. Instead of the 25th January 2012 I had put in the 25th January 2011 as an entry date. This is diplomacy, I thought. I corrected it, he smiled and headed off once more. Only two minutes. After another hour of lying on the couch and some more news consumption, he returned, once more being sorry that it took a few minutes longer but the good news was, he said, that the decision about my visa was positive. I was handed a receipt that was so large and colourful I thought I might frame and display it when I get settled again. I was asked to return the next morning to pick it up. In fact however, if I would like to stay longer in this air conditioned luxury I was welcome to do so, ‘this is your home’. I was close to asking whether they would allow me to move in. The next day, after another five minutes of polite small talk I was sent to the waiting room once more to wait for two minutes, and after about one and a half hours I got my visa. We shook hands, I told the secretary that if everybody in the Gambia was as friendly as he, I could not wait to visit, and headed off from probably the funniest encounter with a government agency I have ever had in my life.


I didn’t leave Nouakchott very early, eventually. I had a lengthy breakfast, messed around on the internet, said a lengthy good bye to Steve, who was heading east deeper into the Sahara while I was heading south out of it. The four days break had lifted my spirits and I was eager to go, the Senegal river only 200 km down the road, towards a new country, and out of the sand. In the late morning I was ready to take on that final stretch through the desert. I would cycle all day, sleep at the roadside, and in two or three days I would be out. My plan was to cross into Senegal at the Barrage de Diama border crossing. The road there would not only be substantially shorter, it would take me along the river and through two National parks too. It would also avoid crossing the border in Rosso, a place which I had learned was notorious for its corrupt officials. The only downside is it is a piste rather than a sealed road.


Out of the city it was only a few hours until, slowly, my surroundings changed as, very occasionally first, long absent trees became part of the landscape again. By the second day I found myself surrounded by a semi desert. That is, sand with trees. I was still struggling along slowly with a firm headwind and the frequent sandblast. However after the break and the manageable distance ahead I was in good spirits and whatever the difficulty was it didn’t matter. Given the circumstances I made good progress.




When motorists tell you a road is bad, it does not necessarily have to be that bad when you travel on a bicycle. A large number of potholes on a tar road may be easy on a bike, the biggest annoyance being the cars having a much harder time to negotiate them and hence moving a lot slower and much more errand than one can do on the bike. It is a similar situation when there are stones lying on an otherwise smooth dirt track. However on a bike one can only tolerate a very limited amount of sand, and a good piste for a motorist may be an absolute no go for the cyclist.


I turned onto the piste for Diama late on the second day. For about 500 m I inspected it by look and (uncontrolled) touch before I decided it was not traversable on the bicycle. I turned around and headed for Rosso. For the last time I slept at the Gendarmerie roadblock about 30 km ahead of the border.


Day three brought another welcome change when patches of grass grew larger and I finally I found myself surrounded by grassland. I was finally and certainly out of the Sahara. That last few hours in Mauritania were strange however. There was a strong easterly wind and it was properly hot already in the morning. The visibility was very poor. The sky was all red and albeit there was not a single cloud the sun was barely visible. The air was filled with sand, a fine dust that in covered everything. I am sure most of my readers have experienced the Saharan dust clouds that occasionally hit the Alps and very occasionally even northern Europe, particularly in spring. This was a bit like it, just a lot more severe. I saw similar weather once more in Senegal, when I was not cycling.


I headed off early into the headwind and only after a few kilometres an unfamiliar sound erupted from the rear of my bike, followed by a wobbly onward ride. On closer inspection, I noticed what I had suspected, a spoke had snapped. Desperate to reach the border before they close for midday I taped it and moved on but decided to take the little detour once I would be in Senegal and stop in Richard Toll to replace it.


With regards to hassle Rosso is possibly the world capital. This is people who claim to facilitate the border crossing, and money changers. Unfortunately I was in need of the services of the latter since I still had a wad of Ouguiyas in my pocket and it was a Friday, hence the bank was closed. I found myself a bit intimidated when all of the sudden I was encircled by a crowd of about about 20 young men all being eager for business. ‘Do you want to change money?’ ‘Give me a break, man.’ Five minutes passed, but the crowd remained in place, in silence. ‘You want to change money now?’ ‘Yes. What’s your rate?’ ‘How much do you have?’ ‘None of your business. What exchange rate do you give me?’ ‘How much do you have?’ Irritated, and slightly intimidated I broke out of that crowd that besieged me. Somehow I talked my way into the closed bank nearby. The clerk wasn’t particularly excited to see me in there but finally consulted his computer and wrote the official exchange rate on a piece of paper and the range I should look for to get in the streets.


Different to what I heard from veteran travellers to West Africa the border crossing itself was perfectly swift for me. No man’s land this time was just the river which I crossed on a pirogue in five minutes. The change from Mauritania into Senegal could not have been any bigger. For starters, there was no more sand. I headed for Richard Toll, what was about a 20 km detour for a break and to fix the bike. The town isn’t anything special but still it was all different. There was music in the evening, and colourfully dressed and smiley people. I don’t know what it is, it seems people here enjoy life just a lot more. It is a whole different atmosphere.



In reflection, Mauritania, or the part I went through leaves me a bit startled. In my memory, it was all a bit grey. Even beyond the unforgiving landscape there was very little colour, no music, few smiles. People were very hospitable with me, where I wanted to sleep I got a good spot, was usually given food and water. It was certainly a higher degree of hospitality from strangers compared to what you would in most cases experience in Europe. Beyond this however it was very earnest, with little talking or friendly gestures. Further more, the way people are dressed was certainly a bit intimidating to me. With their long robes and headscarfs you don’t see a lot more that the eyes of many people. Having spent three weeks in the desert it is completely clear how their dress developped, the space between their ears would otherwise by now be filled with sand. However it creates an air of distance and unapproachability, as all the mimic and munch of the body language is cut out. But then, if you are a desert dweller, you probably cannot be very dependent on interaction with other humans anyway. My guidebook said one of the most interesting things about visiting Mauritania is that you see the transition from North Africa to Sub Saharan Africa. In my experience, this place was just very different all together. Morocco and Senegal are by no means similar, but I experienced both places as colourful, welcoming and friendly, in their particular ways, while in Mauritania, I felt alien and for most of the time cut out of the world.


Of course it was not all grey. I had this endless and very pleasant conversation about life and religion with Gabriel, a student who approached me when I was sitting around in front of the main post office in Nouakchott. A man went well out of his way to guide me to a public phone which I couldn’t find. And I had a great time over lunch with Oumar, an impressively educated office worker with whom I am still e-mailing back and forth.


Wherever you travel in sub Saharan Africa get used to be called a foreigner. It started in Nouakchott, at the fishing port. ‘Toubab’ said a teenage boy with a jerrycan clearly addressing me, before he held out a small fish. I contemplated for a few seconds whether I wanted it, but decided I wouldn’t have it, wouldn’t want a fish at all. He held out a different one. I declined once more. Only when I walked away I realised the unavoidable had happened… In the meanwhile, it has become part of the soundtrack on the road. Whenever I get near a village I come to hear it, and a bunch of kids running towards me, waving and shouting ‘Toubab, Toubab!’ until I wave back.


A broken spoke is a nasty repair. Replacing it is easy and quick however then, in all likelihood the wheel is not perfectly round, or ‘true’ in cycling talk, any more. Truing a wheel is a little more difficult, and it requires a lot of patience and is very time consuming.


With the spoke replaced I headed off to Saint Louis, about hundred something kilometres down the road. Saint Louis was the first French settlement in Africa and during its heyday the capital of their colonies called Afrique Occidental, French West Africa. The historic centre was built on an island in the Senegal river which it has of course long outgrown. Like most other colonial towns and cities I have seen so far it is sort of a dream town. Dreamt up and planned in Europe and then placed into a beautiful tropical spot. Nicely decorated houses with patios and balconies surrounded by gardens with palms, mighty administrative buildings, some bars, hotels, a theatre and a park. Today some of these buildings are beautifully restored while others are crippling in a dire state of disrepair. It is a relaxed place with a comfortable pace. Wandering through the narrow streets and hanging out in the cafes certainly give a feeling of its passed glory and the difficult encounter of cultures.





I left after two days to a village named Gandiol about 20 km south, where I have stayed since on the beach under palms. Truing my back wheel once more I noticed the loss of my tools. Whether I forgot to pack them or someone found them before I lost them I don’t know. The truth is I was careless back in Richard Toll and as a consequence it’s gone. A small problem now would leave me stuck at the roadside, so I chose to give myself a longer break and wait for the parcel with the replacements for all my essential losses so far. For the past days I could not believe how lazy I have been, just hanging out at the beach and a trip to town every now and then.



I have been in and around Saint Louis for more than a week now, and my stay will be longer, until my parcel arrives. Yesterday, I caught a fellow Toubab carrying a parcel that was mailed in the US out of the post office. I asked how long he had been waiting for it and he told me two weeks. Inshallah.