Recent ride through Western Sahara and Mauritania
Replies: 12 - Last Post: Jan 25, 2013 1:00 AM Last Post By: levelo
Dec 21, 2011 11:12 AM
Recent ride through Western Sahara and MauritaniaHi all, i thought i'd tell you about my ride from Agadir to Saint Louis Senegal. I'll break it up so it's useful to the backpackers too (you can stop reading when it becomes irrelevant to your form of travel). If you like surprises, read only the security section which i'll start out with. It's very important that you understand Mauritania's security system, it'll make your and their life easier.
No issues whatsoever with anyone. Police and Gendarms were friendly to the point of being jovial (if you can joke with them in french). There is a police and gendarm check point at the entrance and exit of Tan Tan, Laayoune, Boujdour and a gendarm only at the Dakhla turn. I did not go to Dakhla. They prefer Fiches (your passport info already written out and photocopied for them along with your destination and profession) but are not bothered to write it out if you don't have any, takes 10 min and is a good time to socialize.
You'd have to be blind to lose your way. Its a clear road, bumpy, though i rode 95 percent of it with regular tires and a failing hub. There is one junction, right goes to a black market, left bypasses the black market. There is a herd of camels patrolling the landmined no-mans-land so, assuming there are mines, camels must often explode. Maybe you'll get lucky and see it. You can camp behind the friendly Hotel du Frontiere for a donation price.
They have a very organized tourist friendly system in place to keep you safe. I took the coast road as my visa was due to expire. We spent more time in the campany of Gendarms than anyone else in Mauritania, we had lots of time to chat about everything from girls to security. They are not people to be scared of and, so long as your documents are in order; you'll never be asked for a bribe. I asked if the Atar road was the same and i was told that it is the same system. I forgot to ask about the route to Mali. How it works:
When you arrive at a post, they take your passport info, including destination and profession as well as ask where you intend to sleep. This can be tricky for cyclists, but i'll get to that. They seem genuinely disapointed if you don't have a fiche, and sometimes don't have a pen, so make sure you do. After taking your information, they then call the next post down the road and inform them that there are tourists enroute to their post, they're mode of transport and their ID information. For cyclists they may ask you how fast your travelling so they can give an estimated time of arrival. The posts are never more than 100km apart, some are permanent and others move daily. The furthest we went without a post was 90km, the shortest was 34km. Guards can tell you how far it is to the next post or auberge. There is also a FREE 3 digit emergency number for the Gendarm (116). It's posted regularly along the route and it works (we had to use it..another story)
Don't even think about pulling off and sleeping in the desert without telling the gendarm. There are auberges, though the one we stayed at was somewhat extortionate. The gendarm will also allow you to sleep for free at the posts (we had a great experience doing that, they fed us twice brought us tea and in the morning brought fresh baked bread and a tray of hot coals to keep us warm while we cooked our eggs, nothing asked in return). Some posts are no more than a truck on the side of the road and wouldn't make for a comfortable night. If you stay at an auberge, make sure they call the gendarm to let them know you've arrived somewhere safe, if not they'll drive around all night looking for you. We had one hotel not call (even though we asked them too) and when the gendarm showed up they hustled us into our room to hide, thinking we were in trouble! We had to call the emergency number so they wouldn't search for us all night, which brings me to... if you don't reach a post or auberge by nightfall. We were still 30km away from a post when night fell, found a good place to hide, covered out tracks and slept soundly through the night. The next morning we pushed out bikes onto the road and started cycling. The first car that passed stopped and told us the gendarm were looking for us. In fact, not only was the entire highway keeping an eye out for us, but also 4 gendarms in a pick up had been shinning lights in the desert for twelve hours trying to locate us. They hadn't slept a wink all night, and were more impressed than anything that we'd hid so well. Had they found us, they intended to position a couple gendarms near our tent all night to ensure our safety, which brings me to..
'Is the army that worried about kidnappings and robberies!?!'
No, they aren't. No one here is. They're worried that YOU don't feel safe in their country. They know the risk is minimal with the new security measures, but they're worried that if you spend the night in the desert you'll be cold, thirsty, hungry and scared. They understand that cyclists are reasonably self sufficient but they don't know if they all are or to what extent. The first thing they asked us was 'are you hungry??'. After the night search, the gendarms from the next post came and met us a enroute, a couple hours later. They asked if we wished to be escorted to their post. I told them we were comfortable on our own, but if HE believed we were at risk, then yes we'd like the escort. He thought about it and admitted that he really didn't think there was any risk, but thought we'd prefer it. They left, but kinda hung around a bit, sort of stealth shadowing, passing us every so often. As it turned out, we ended up getting hammered by a cross wind choked with sand. The road became dangerous, trucks would break the wind and cause us to veer towards them. We caught up to the gendarms and they gave us a 50km ride, to their post, where the wind had subsided. They gave us some tea and sent us on our way.
You should also be aware that if you arrive at a post in the afternoon you may have to convince them to let you through. Sometimes it's easy, if the next post or auberge isn't too far off, but if it's 70km to the next safe haven they'll want you to stay with them. If you do get through, make sure you call them if you don't make the next post. If you're having trouble getting through, keep in mind that if you do get kidnapped in the night, it'll take another 5 years of inactivity for Mauritanian tourism to recover. Try not to let your ambitions become selfishness.
In Tiguent, 100kms south of nouakchott there's an non descript auberge 1km south of town..just about the last thing you see on the way out. it has black banner with the word 'tourism' in the name. Ask the dude in the shop to the right side of the gate.
In short, the gendarms were incredibly friendly and helpful. I never felt in danger at all. There's a free emergency number so if your wheel self destructs you can call the gendarm, they will pick you up, bring you to their post and help you get to the next major town. A lot of this requires some french such as 'J'ai besoin de aide a kilometre ___'. Might be a good idea to write down some key phrases and numbers.
The police were genuinely helpful and got our passports stamped for us, nothing was asked in return...but don't buy barge tickets if your not in a car, no one checked ours...
A couple italians took this route from Rosso without problems...as a bonus you get to see a lot of birds from the park on the senegalese side.
Road and wind:
Got hit with cross winds all the time. Slammed by a consistent head wind from tarfaya to laayoune. Good tailwind from the curve at laayoune plage, but it disapeared after boujdour. It was crosswinds from there too km 200 from Nouadhibou. Expect an awful head wind for much of that 200km. Don't know what happened to those 'legendary tail winds' when we passed. The roads themselves are excellent all the way to Nouakchott. They crumbled into a mess for the last 50km to rosso. If your ass is hurting i suggest you take the Gendarms recomendation at km 34 from rosso and 'reposer' with them for the night.
Food and water:
No issues in western Sahara. Lemside has a gas station with a restaurant, snacks and bread. Boujdour is buslting, find food by going left after the grand taxi stand (going south) After boujdour there is a gas station 142kms away and another two 150kms away, all have a restaurant, snack foods, sardines and tuna, bread and eggs. All tap water we tasted was brackish, we drank bottled. El Argroub, 35km past the dakhla turn off has fruits, veg, eggs etc and a restaurant negating the need to visit dakhla if you don't want too. The town 'Ain Berda' on the Michlin map does not exist at all, nothing at all, but not on the map is the bustling town of ctr bir gandouz, 80km from the border and is your last chance to stock up on fresh food before nouadhibou or nouakchott if you plan to skip noadhibou. 4km before bir gandouz there is a 'Danger! Mines!' sign on the right side of the road. The police told us there are only mines on the border...
Mauritania is a different story. After Nouadhibou we found only sardines, cookies and pasta along the route. There are lots of places that just sell cookies and pop. The gas station at km 235 had bread and vache qui rie cheese as well as simple hot sandwhiches. Bottled water and other drinks was available throughout, though we kept 10L each, often consuming 7 or 8 L between stops. The gas station at 235 is on a spring and has free safe tap water. 100km from Nouakchott you'll see people selling the same white bag and bottle of yellow stuff. It's dried fish and fish oil. The dried fish is excellent bike food and costs 2000 for 500g (about 6 euros or 8 dollars, it takes a lot of fish to make 500g dry, and these people are really poor). Other cyclists have said they found eggs on the route, i had to decribe just what and egg was to everyone i asked ('it comes out of a chicken...no the thing that makes another chicken..') On the south side of nouakchott there's ample snacking opportunity and tiguent is a bustling well stocked town.
Hope that helps enough but not too much! No time to spell check so forgive me..it's a sticky french keyboard!
Edited by: jibs00
Edited by: jibs00
Dec 22, 2011 4:21 PM
Dec 23, 2011 3:38 AM
Dec 26, 2011 4:29 PM
Jan 7, 2012 11:10 AM
4Thanks for taking the time to do this dude. Very detailed report indeed. Although I totally disagree with your assumption that the Mauritanian army is not worried that a tourist, be it on a bike or in a car, gets kidnapped or shot at by a bunch of would-be jihadists. It HAS happened in the past on that very road and the French embassy in Nouakchott has come under fire not very long ago. The last thing they want is another tourist flown back in a bodybag so they have beefed up their security measures and are keeping a close eye on anyone passing through. They are not doing it for your well-being but because they are terrified that someone may harm you. What I don't understand is why they still haven't set up a convoy system that would be much easier for them to handle logistically. That's what the Moroccan authorities did for a very long time on that same road south of Dakhla, albeit for different reasons.
Jan 7, 2012 11:38 AM
5I forgot to ask: did you get your Mauritanian visa up in Rabat and did it start running from the date of issue?
I sort of plan to ride the same route next winter if all hell doesn't break lose...
Edited by: levelo
Jan 7, 2012 11:52 AM
6If I can jump in... I just got my visa in Rabat a week ago and it starts on the date I requested which is fortunate as I won't be at the border for a couple weeks yet. But I think it all depends on who happens to be processing the requests because the next day someone else got a visa that started immediately.
Jan 7, 2012 12:17 PM
Jan 15, 2012 8:32 PM
Jul 1, 2012 10:20 PM
9Levelo: They aren't worried about jihadist. You throw that term around a bit too loosely. Bandits, yes, there are bandits, people have been attacked by them and the French in particular (ie the former colonial overlords) are not exactly liked by a lot of people. In speaking with the military at the checkpoints, as well as civilian Mauritanians, no one was concerned about Muslim extremists as being the source of problems along the road. Banditry on the other hand is possible, but is no more a risk in Mauritania than in Morocco or Senegal. Not very long ago a bomb went off in Marrakesh... people still flock there.
My post was less about what can or cannot happen, but about keeping things in perspective.
Deven: Due to visa constraints, we pressed through the country in 9 days.
In know it's months late, but hopefully this still helps others.
Jul 3, 2012 12:52 AM
10I totally disagree Jibs00.
The checkpoints were set up on the main road right after 3 NGO workers were ambushed and kidnapped back in 2009. The kidnappers were probably bandits hoping to cash in by selling the abductees to AQMI but these events were linked to the spreading of jihadism in northern Mali and northern Mauritania.
As far as Marrakesh is concerned the bombing of that restaurant was directly linked to Islamism, not banditry.
And by the way the 3 workers kidnapped on that Mauritanian road were Spaniards, not French nationals, and I don't think the country you are coming from matters to them.
Jul 19, 2012 7:27 PM
11As i said, it's about keeping it in perspective. Yes, bad things happen in Mauritania to the tune of up to a couple a year as an average, though most of the incidents cited in the travel warnings occurred in 2009. The coast highway is the one road people can take from Europe to Sub-Saharan Africa, and thus, there is quite a bit of traffic on that highway. The Spanish you speak of are the only incident to occur along that stretch of road in the last 3 years And now there are check points along the entire route. So, obviously, the military would believe that without the check points, they could have another incident. My point was that with the check points, they no longer believe there's much risk of another incident. It's not impossible, just unlikely.
Anyhow, the entire point of my post was to give perspective for others from someone who's been. What i wrote is based on the information i gathered along the way from military and civilians and i believe it to be true, particularly in regards to the coast highway. There are dozens of European vehicles on that highway every single day, an incident or two every decade is not, in my opinion, worth worrying about. Looking at the travel advisory now, it would appear the military does have a handle on things. Everyone has their level of risk taking... though i must say, if one or two incidents along one highway is enough to give someone the willies, then Africa might not be the best choice for independent travel.
Jul 24, 2012 8:50 AM
12Fair enough jibs00. I'm on the road now and will hit the Mauritanian consulate in Rabat sometime in September before heading south.
I will write a report when I'm done with that part of the continent.
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