Traveling through West Africa by car – From Spain over Morocco, Mauretania and Sengeal to Gambia

Endless bumpy desert roads, berber and beduine tribes, countless police- and border stops and the road fee and car tax negotiations with highway police and gendarms that go along with them.

Traveling West Africa by car is a real adventure! Just taking off without any prior knowledge may increase the adventure factor, but some basic information can make the voyage much more pleasant. Read on and save yourself a lot of annoyance and money.

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I recently made the trip from Spain to Gambia over Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal by myself (video report here) and will now summarize my experiences in this blog post.

This article is for everybody who considers traveling in West Africa by car.

Necessary documents

  • Passport (valid for at least 6 more months);
  • Driving license (if you´re from the EU you´re standard driver’s license will do the job, otherwise you might need an international one)
  • Registration document of the car (in french: “Carte Gris”)
  • Car insurance (green card, in french “Carte Verte”, it´s a green double-sided page that you can request for free from your car insurer). The carte verte is only valid in Morocco, for the other West African countries you can purchase an insurance at the border of Mauritania.
  • per country: 10 copies of a paper listing data of every passanger in the car (french “Fiche”, you will get stopped many times by the police and the gendarmerie – without the fiches, they will register all your passport details manually, thus the fiches will save you a lot of time). Be sure to include: Name and Surname, passport number, Date of birth, Nationality, Date of issue of the passport, date of expiration of the passport, a note about who the owner of the car is + license plate of the car)
  • A visa for Mauritania (you can get it from the Mauritanian embassy in Rabat, Morocco, see below)

Note: I went with my own car. If your car is rented or you´re driving somebody else’s, it might cause problems. I have no information about this, but you should check this issue before you´re leaving to Morocco.

Communication and languages

  • Morocco: In the northern parts nearly everybody speaks spanish. Down south you get along with french (second official language)
  • Mauritania: French
  • Sengeal: French, some also speak english
  • Gambia: English

The route

Spain -> Morocco

From Tarifa or Algeciras, you reach Tangier, Morocco in just 40 minutes by ferry. A ticket costs 35 € per person, while for a car you will be charged 65 €.

There are several companies that operate regulary and a ship can be found almost hourly. On board, you must not forget to fill in the entry form and stamp it. Shortly after the start of the journey there is usually a queue lining up where you can get the form and also hand it in. You will also need to show your passport.

After leaving the ship you will pass the Moroccan border, there they will ask you for your passport, the carte verte and the carte gris. Under certain circumstances, your car will be searched too. There are a few assistants working with the border police. They will offer their help for filling out the required forms.

As as always in Morocco, the first question is “First time in Morocco?”. If your answer is “Yes”, prices will rise. I paid a total of 10MAD (11 moroccan dirham = approx. 1 €) at the border and I think I got away quite well.

Morocco

The roads and highways in Morocco are easily navigable. The highways often cost tolls, but it stays within limits. For the entire distance, I paid less than 30 €. You should absolutely respect the speed limits; the Moroccansdo a lot of surveillance (mostly during the daytime). The rule is: 10% faster than allowed is within the limit. If the limit is 60km, you can go 66km max. If they catch you on camera, it is not easy to get away without paying the fee or paying less. They argue that the photograph was recorded on the memory card and it is not in their power to delete it, so be sure to respect the limits. If you get caught with other things, like not wearing a seatbelt or not following driving rules, you can always try to negotiate and pay less, or give a souvenir instead of money.

Mauritania visa in Rabat

It is best to ask for the visa in Germany (note the start date of the visa, as the simple ones expire in 30 days from the granting date). Otherwise, the only way of obtaining it is the Mauritanian embassy in Rabat (6, Rue Thami Lamdawar, BP 207, Rabat-Souissi).

The embassy officially opens at 09:00 a.m. The schedule for applying for the visa runs only from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.

Around 7:45 a.m. a queue forms outside the closed door, while the embassy sometimes doesn´t open until 09:30 a.m. Expect to lose around 1.5 – 2 hours in line, while you will be able to pick up the visa the next working day between 3 p.m. – 4 p.m. (as of 11/23/2011).

Necessary documents:

  • 2 passport copies
  • 2 passport photos (either black & white or color)
  • Approx. 340 MAD (31 €) for the Visa fee
  • The form to fill out (you will get it from the entrance door of the embassy)

Tricks for emergency situations:

  • If you arrive after 11:00 A.M. you may still be able to ´arrange´ the documents with the park rangers, for the right fee. He will take care that the completed form is submitted on the same day to the respective desk and that you can pick up the visa the next day
  • If you arrive there in the morning and you want to take the visa the same day, the parking attendant may also help you, for the right amount of course.

Border Morocco – Mauritania

UntitledThe border opens at 9 a.m., but cars start lining up the night before. We arrived around midnight. At that time there were more or less 50 cars ahead of us (shown also in our video summarizes the trip). When leaving Morocco, you pass three stations: the police, customs and the gendarms. How to not pay the demanded fees is described below (link). After the border, you continue through the no-man´s land, a 3km ungoverned road without asphalt. It is highly recommended to follow one of the trucks, as they can show you the way. Otherwise you might get stuck in the sand. Some stay there forever, as the numerous car wrecks testify. After no-man’s land the fun starts all over again: Mauritanian border, police and gendarmerie.

Overall the process lasted from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. If you pay all the fees you might save an hour, the negotiating and acting takes some time, but with the right attitude you can have a lot of fun ;-)

In total, we paid 100MAD (8.75 €) to the Mauritanian police, but at that time we weren´t very practiced in bargaining yet. With more patience and by applying the tricks described in the next section you can for sure get away without paying this fee.

At the Mauritanian border, hustlers will try to sell you an insurance for Mauritania (3 days = 160MAD = 15 €). The police will tell you that, without an insurance, you must pay a fee of 20 € at each of the following police stops. We weren´t asked a single time for an insurance in Mauritania.

It is advisable to bring some euros to the border, they can be easily exchanged into the Mauritanian currency (1 € = 389 Ouguiya). Even better is to directly bring Ouguiya from Morocco. There are no ATMs at the border, only a Western Union office. Since we had no euros, we exchanged 400MAD into 14 000 Ouguiya, which was a fairly good exchange rate. In Nuakchott, the capital of Mauritania, there is a petrol station and ATMs.

Mauritania

In Mauritania, one should avoid driving at night, at least this is recommended by the local police and the Foreign Ministry. We spent a night on the roadside, sleeping in an abandoned hut. At night, a man with a flashlight illuminated the room, but we were left in peace.

There are not many gas stations along the way. You should keep an eye on the tank and use the few opportunities you find.

Border Mauritania – Senegal

The shortest route to Senegal is via Rosso. There you have to take a ship. On the other side, you pass the border to Senegal. Rosso is not the nicest place in the world. When you get out of the car, several Mauritanians want to help you with the necessary transactions to take the ship and to leave Mauritania. There is a lot off ripping off, cheating and, according to some Internet reports, also stealing going on.

We were already used to the hassle, but Rosso, after the long drive, was too much even for us. We decided to take a 110km road (the first 50km are OK, then it is bumpy) to Diama.

I bought West African car insurance in Rosso (about 15 € for 30 days). I can not remember if it was possible to buy the insurance in Diama, but since you have to pass Rosso anyway, you can also quickly buy insurance there.

However, it is impossible not to be harassed on the way to the insurance salesman. Someone will show you the way and try to charge for it afterwards.

Even though I was only asked for 0.50 €, I refused to pay because of the audacity of my “guide”.

He said that our car would have an accident, because we are bad people. Nothing happened to us ;-)

On the road to Diama you pass approx. 5 police stops + a stop at the entrance of a national park. At the border, the usual procedure: police Mauritania, gendamerie, Mauritania, border control, police Senegal, Senegalese police.

Important Note on car imports: If you go with an old car (older than 8 years) to Senegal, there might be problems. They want to ensure that nobody does business with auto exports. I’ve heard many variations about how they try to prevent it. A friend said they would charge 400 € for each car (older than 8 years) entering the country. This is something like a custom fee, because they assume that you will sell the car. If you only want to transit Senegal, you might be accompanied by an escort, which ensures that you really leave the country (very expensive). In my case, they wrote into my passport that I entered with a car and gave me three days to leave Senegal. Otherwise, I would end up in prison (they repeated that three times).

Psychological tricks for dealing with police, gendarmerie and border posts

UntitledIf you add up all the stops, from Morocco to Gambia you will be in contact with the police and gendarms about 25 to 30 times. At the border, they will always ask for money. If we would have paid all the fees that were requested from us, we would be 300€ poorer.

We got away with paying a total of about 15 €. It wasn’t easy, but a lot of fun!

Here are some useful tricks:

The appropriate Look:

The fees are flexible and adjusted according to what the policeman estimates you can afford to pay. It helps to have a shabby look. My outfit consisted of torn jeans and a Jimi Hendrix-esque headscarf. I also hadn’t showered for a long time.

The other passengers sometimes walked around barefoot. The car adapted to our looks, after several hours of driving through the desert.

At one stop, I listened to an interaction between the police and an older, well-established looking French gentleman. He was asked for 30 €, while I was asked for only 10 €.

The right attitude – all the time in the world:

It helps to comeaacross as if you have all the time in the world. The police assumes that you will get fed up after a while and will just pay and leave. The longer you can stand, however, the greater the likelihood that the police will let you go without paying. A friend of mine who travelled through West Africa for 5 years said that, at times, he would cook himself a tea at the border, or even put his tent there and act like he would stay overnight.
Untitled

I remember two situations in which, after some initial negotiating, the policeman said something like: “If you have no money, you must now go back, I’ll give you an exit stamp”. He then grabbed the remote control and watched TV. He wanted to signal: the interaction is over, now I’m watching TV, I have all the time in the world. Outside, there were already other people waiting. He wasn´t really planning to watch TV, but he wanted to demonstrate that he has time. I, however, had more: I waited, used the desperate look and the No-money strategy (see below), and after another 2 minutes, he let us go.

The desperate look:

“TEN EURO?”, a desperate look (as if it was an incredibly high amount) into the eyes of the policeman + stories strategy (see below) + putting your head on the desk of the police man, and he lets you go.

No money – who has no money cannot pay

My co-driver from Finland had perfected this strategy. He really had almost no money and then said things like: ”How should we pay when we have nothing?”, ”But I have no money”, ”Yes, I understand, but I just have none”.

Have the right stories to tell:

UntitledIn Casablanca, my windshield was broken, which had to be repaired, of course for a LOT OF MONEY. It was a true story and every policeman or gendarme had to listen to it. For sure everyone has a similar story he wants to share with the police to trigger a little compassion. Also, it helps to be on a charity mission: for sure you can come up with something good you are going to do in the country. If you however spea in too much detail about your charity plans, they might ask for a contact man in the country, which they will call and ask to confirm.

Gifts and souvenirs:

If the above strategies don´t work, you can offer a low-value gift. In Spain, one can buy 12 bottles of Rioja wine for 12 €. A bottle of wine can do wonders, but don´t try to offer wine in Mauritania.Untitled

At the border post in Mauritania, nothing helped anymore. I went to the car and brought 4 audio CDs to the police. The policeman chose 2  Duke Ellington CDs and Astor Piazzolla. “Two?” I said with a desperate look. “Yes, two.”

“Ok, well … I´ll leave then, let’s see what we listen to in the car now…” + desperate look

He gave the CDs back too me, smiled, and let us go.

Actively addressing the money issue:

Twice, this strategy worked very well. Instead of waiting for the police to ask for money, you bring up the subject yourself. Use the desperate look and say something like: “I know that many here pay fees when they pass, I just want to say that because of story 1 and story 2 + no money strategy, we want to ask for an exception.”

Your last money:

At one point, we had to cross a bridge at night. The crickets chirped and the river flowed below us. On the bridge, a one-eyed man asked us for 4000 Ouguiya. The Mauritanians passed without paying. After applying all the above strategies, especially the all the time in the world trick, he went down to 2000. It was a very hard case. In such a situation, it helps to have a lower amount of torn money in your pocket. You then reach deep into your pocket and take out your last money. Small bills and an assortment of coins are perfect. I counted the money slowly. When the bridge guard saw this, he let us go without paying.

Conclusion:

EVERYTHING is flexible here. So flexible, that we even got one of our fellow travellers into Senegal without a visa. Getting out of Senegal was more difficult, but after exchanging facebook names and a possible date in the future we got her out ;-) .

Whoever has money, has no desire to wait a long time, and pays. Whoever has no money, inevitably negotiates more and thus pays less or nothing at all. We didn´t invent stories, just exaggerated a bit here and there. Everyone must know for himself how far h is willing to go. To leave a bit of money here and there doesn´t really hurt. I personally prefer to spend money inside the country and not at the border, but you have to do what feels right for you.

Dangerous?

UntitledBefore departure, I heard many horror stories. The Foreign Office strongly recommends not to go on any trip to Mauritania (“Only when absolutely necessary”). Even the Moroccans told me that the people “down there” were not very friendly or welcoming.

Exactly the opposite was the case. We were welcomed with open arms, and often invited to stay and eat. Here you find genuine hospitality, usually without financial motives. I wonder why it doesn´t work the other way around. Imagine 4 black guys from Mauritania traveling to your country. Would they be received as we were down here?

This video shows our trip from Morocco to the Gambia.

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Posted by fab on December 8, 2011
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