The plan was to get the 7.30am bus to the coast. However, however, however… we got a taxi to the southern bus station (a good bet as we where heading due south!) but the bus to Algeciras wouldn’t let us on, and then drove off while we were trying to buy tickets from the CLOSED ticket window!
It wasn’t until the information post opened at 8am that we discovered we were (once again) digging in the wrong place! – The bus left from the Eastern bus station (silly Graham), so wasn’t picking up passengers from our bus station (well, he could have given us a lift, the big meanie).
The next bus for the coast wasn’t until 10am – I really could have done with those extra three hours of beddy-bo-bo’s. Oh well. Matt and I sat off drinking coffee until we were whisked away down to the Mediterranean. There are more boats to Morocco from Spain than there are pregnant BBC weathergirls, so within the hour we had arrived in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in Morocco (opposite Gibraltar, pop-pickers!), which makes up the African side of the Pillars of Hercules.
We took a taxi to the border, and from there we headed to Tetouan for the bus to Casablanca.
It would be here that Matt and I would say our farewells – he had to organise a visa for Senegal (no such necessity for Mr. EU citizen here) and would fly to Dakar and meet me there – I would overland it through the Western Sahara and Mauritania. I met an incredibly chatty Moroccan girl called Fatima on the bus, and (unusually for these parts) she was happy to be interviewed and give her opinions on modern Morocco and the treatment of women here.
Fatima and I shoved Matt in a Taxi and sent him off into the night (this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship) and we continued on our bus – Fatima to Seltat and me all the way to Agadir – I would arrive at 7am tomorrow morning.
The connection to the desert town of Dakhla – the furthest south one can go on public transport in Morocco – was seamless. I had barely arrived in Agadir before I found myself on another bus heading south at 100kph. Coolio!
Cursing myself for not buying a new novel to read in Spain, and for not charging the batteries on my ipod, I spent the day drifting in and out of consciousness, until I found myself a travel buddy in Abdullah – a guy from Western Sahara who was happy to chew the fat over the dastardly Moroccans annexing the former Spanish Sahara in 1975 and flooding it full of Moroccans (the Green March!) so the native Western Saharans would always lose any referendum calling for independence (nice trick – bet they learnt it from the British in Northern Ireland).
He was happy that I was counting Western Sahara as a nation in my Odyssey – we talked about the refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria, where the displaced people of Western Sahara have lived for the last thirty years – Abdullah has relatives there who he has never met. Western Saharans are treated like second-class citizens in Morocco – for instance there are no universities south of the ‘border’ and there are police checkpoints every 100km (REALLY irritating when you are trying to sleep) ostensibly to look for rogue Algerians or Mauritanians, but it makes travel for Western Saharans unnecessarily difficult.
Abdullah thinks nobody in the West knows, much less cares, about the plight of the Western Saharan people (Morocco only wants them for their phosphate!) and I was afraid I had to agree with him. Without a Dalai Lama to tour the world speaking out about this kind of thing, or suicide bombers blowing themselves up, it seems the peaceful, leaderless people of the Western Sahara are never going to get the Beastie Boys to organise a gig on their behalf or get themselves on the front page of the news.
I suggested that one day Morocco might want to join the EU, and when that happens the EU might well demand greater autonomy for the region in return for membership. The EU got Turkey to clean up its prison system and abolish the death penalty, so this isn’t out of the question. But then the EU’s inability to stitch a divided Cyprus back together doesn’t bode well for Abdullah and his people.
Anyway, Abdullah got off at around midnight – I wouldn’t arrive in Dakhla until 5am.
Yawning and creaking, I staggered off the bus. It was still dark in Dahkla. After a particularly weird conversation involving the local police and a desert taxi driver (implying I would have to wait three days for a shared taxi to the border), I parted with 130 Euro [CHINNNNG! See those gold rings fly!] to hire all six places in the desert taxi.
It’s four hours drive to the border, so I kinda justified the cost – there is no real public transport, it’s shared taxi or nothing, and if you ain’t got nobody to share…
Only (I found out later) I think the cop meant that I would have to wait three hours, not three days. Heures and Jours aside, it was a looooooong trip. Then I had to wait in the baking sun OF THE SAHARA DESERT NO LESS for an hour to get my stamp out (oooooh, they love taking their merry time about things, don’t they, border guards?). There is 3km of MINED no-mans land between the two borders (keep to the track!) and so I hitched a lift in an oil truck through the barren, littered track that joins the two countries (who haven’t seen eye-to-eye since Morocco’s great land grab of 1975) – we CRAWLED at 4kph.
Finally… dirty, sweating and tired… I get to the Mauritanian border.
In my 2006 edition of Lonely Planet West Africa it clearly states… you can get your visa on the border.
In my 2007 edition of Lonely Planet Africa it clearly states… you can get your visa on the border.
I checked this on the internet last November, before I left… you can get your visa on the border.
Visa, s’il vous plaît…
No. Not here. Rabat.
WHAT? The desert SHOOK from the barrage of expletives that issued forth.
Rabat is 2000 kilometres away.
A shrug…”the rules have changed. Here are all the people I have turned back…” – a list of perhaps a hundred or so names, passport numbers. Smug. Ha ha silly westerners cannot break into Africa.
I try to bribe him, but he’s not shiftin’.
Sorry, Mauritania, did I miss something here? Let’s get this straight… YOU ARE ONE OF THE POOREST COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD. Over 90% of your population live on less than a dollar a day. I (thank my lucky stars) come from the FIFTH richest. I have a wad of dollars in my pocket ready to spend on your transport, your food and your accommodation – AND YOU WON’T LET ME IN. Instead, that money is going to be spent in MOROCCO – you know, those ne’erdowells that ‘STOLE’ Western Sahara from you.
Africa already reminds me of the joke about the man who asks God if he can win the lottery; God agrees, but after three weeks go by without a win, the man asks, what gives? God suggests that it might help if the man went out and bought a ticket.
God damn you, Mauritania. God damn you to hell.
I turned around and headed back over no-man’s-land. This is the ONLY viable overland route into Sub-Saharan Africa. I had no choice.
I got a shared taxi back to Dakhla. I had to share the front seat with this guy who had NO volume control and an amazingly irritating Peter Lorre-like voice. Christ, I have never wanted to throw somebody out of a speeding car so much in my life. I actually looked at the handle a couple of times to see if I could make it look like an accident.
I tried to close my eyes and go to sleep, but this utter —- kept on tapping my shoulder EVERY FIVE MINUTES to show me some utter CRAP animation / music video / MENU(!) on his mobile phone. Oh man, you have NO idea how much I wanted to throw that damn thing out of the window (and the phone). On top of that, he kept getting a picture of himself out of his pocket, pointing at the picture and then pointing at himself, like I was meant to be impressed by this new-fangled technology.
I had to put up with FOUR HOURS of this jerk.
Then he sat there with the crappy tinny distorted phone speaker blearing RIGHT NEXT TO MY EAR that utter bobbins Middle Eastern music that sounds like a cartoon character being thrown down a VERY deep well.
etc. Ad Nauseum ad infinitum.
By the time I got to Dakhla I was ready to kill, kill and kill again. And I’m a lover, not a fighter.
And just to add injury to insult, the tooth filling that I had done a few days ago in Barcelona FELL OUT.
Any lesser mortal would have given up at this point. But I realised what I needed was a POWER-UP KEBAB…
A tasty shawarma and a coke increased my hit-points to 125 and I started to see the funny side.
Is this the best Africa can throw at me? Ha! Even if it takes me the rest of the year, I’m going to crack this nut, no matter how many sledgehammers I get through. Going back to Rabat is just like having to start again on level 1-1.
I grew up in a time in which you could not save your computer games. I’m used to this kind of nonsense.
After some faffing about with photocopies of my passport (so everyone on the bus didn’t have to wait for fifteen minutes at every police checkpoint while they took down my details), I hopped on the bus back to Agadir. It would be 2 days before I arrived in Rabat.
Now I know how Ilsa felt. But at least she had Rick to save the day.
I arrived in Rabat at 5am. I tried to get my head down in a hotel, but they were all full. So I sat in a café drinking coffee and writing up my blog. Eventually it was time to hit the Mauritanian embassy and get a visa into their infernal country.
Outside the embassy, I got chatting with a few others in the queue who were trying to get a visa. They reckoned it would take two days to come through.
No Luke, I am your father…
Two days didn’t mean two days. It’s Thursday today. Two days means MONDAY (the embassy won’t be open Saturday, will it?).
Oh, for the love of…
Racing to get the form filled out, I got my application in (second! – not bad considering it was all in Frog) and they said to come back tomorrow at 12 noon. I tried and tried to bribe them, but they weren’t having it (why is the day that I show up, the day that everyone in Africa turns into Serpico?).
So I vowed to do some housekeeping chores that are way overdue. I headed into the Medina and I got the rips in my jacket mended, bought a new bag for my camera and GOT MY HAIR CUT.
Oh my word it’s SHORT.
Shorter than it has been since 2002. Whoosh! I’m telling you – it’s knocked five years off, I reckon. I’m going to try it out tonight in Rabat; see how old the locals think I am. If anyone says 30, I’ll eat my hat.
Meanwhile, poor old Matt is stranded in Dakar, Senegal, awaiting the presence of yours truly-stuffed here. But he’s made a new friend called Mentor (Odyssey reference ahoy!) who is going to help with getting me on a boat to Cape Verde next week.
I hope. Lorna Brookes is also on the case. Fingers crossed they can pull something amazing out of the bag and get me on the banana boat to only nation state of the Atlantic Ocean.
The rest of the day I spent mooching about (the rather wonderful city of) Rabat, buying stuff at the medina, eating yummy food, drinking coffee and editing videos. That night, I watched a footy match between Morocco and Tunisia with the locals – it was one-nil Morocco until the last bloomin’ minute before the Tunisian’s pulled one back. Bah! After all the excitement of that, I crashed out early. Rabat gave me a chance to chill and recharge the batteries, but that was something I was hoping to do in Dakar!
Tell you what though, it’s days like this – days that I spend pretty much on my own, but where I chat to a ton of locals – that I really enjoy myself. It’s only when I’m back in the hotel room and thought turn homeward that I find myself pining for a Jacob’s Cream Cracker with a huge chunk of cheese on it whilst playing sweary Scrabble with Mand and watching House on the telly. I know that sounds ridiculously pedestrian, but a break from just DOING STUFF ALL THE TIME would be a wow for me right now.
In other news, Matt The Producer has decided to Return To Oz, so it looks like West Africa is going to be a one-man gringo show, same as it ever was, same as it ever was. Don’t worry. Meeting People Is Easy.
I just found out that this change in the rules about getting a visa on the border came into effect LAST WEEK. Bad timing or what? And apparently there is an election this week, and after that, YOU’LL BE ABLE TO GET A VISA ON THE BORDER AGAIN!!
I kid you not.
What a nightmare. I was told to get to the embassy for 12noon to pick up Mr. Passpartout, so I got there at 11:15 like the feisty little scouse I am. And I waited. And waited. And waited.
Whist working on my tan (a lovely shade of lobster for Sergeant Pinko here), I got chatting with a bloke from Belgium called Bernard – he’s lived in DR Congo for the last thirty years. Interesting stuff – talking about the war there (which was largely ignored by the media, even though it was the biggest loss of civilian life since WWII) and he reckons the war was exasperated by the big mining firms – BHP Billiton and the like – to disrupt the production of materials (copper in particular) and therefore keep the worldwide prices artificially high.
Now you know I’m not one for conspiracy theories (they always rely on the false consensus that politicians are clever WHEN THEY’RE NOT – the US government can’t even steal some papers from a hotel without getting found out by Dustin Hoffman) but this is the old equation Africans x Resources ÷ Multinational Corporations and quite honestly, I can well believe it.
Finally, at 1pm, I was called in to get my visa. Got it. Thank the maker! By 2pm, I was on the bus BACK DOWN SOUTH. Bye Rabat, I liked you. A bunch of guys who had also fallen into the same honeytrap as myself, were heading down as well, all of us feeling utterly jibbed by the whole damn system.
That night we stopped at a food place – and this one was a veggie’s worst nightmare – you had to go to the butcher (and stand between the headless hanging lamb carcasses dripping blood and sinew on the floor) and order your cut of meat (straight off the wee beastie itself!), then take it over to the barbecue area, get it cooked up nice and proper, slap it in some bread and gobble it down. Yum!
As my good friend Ben Dadds once observed, if we weren’t supposed to eat animals they wouldn’t be made of food…
The bus dropped me off in the desert town of Tan Tan at 7am. The guy in the ticket office back in Rabat assured me there was a ‘connecting bus’ to Dahkla – the ‘border town’ with Mauritania (you know, the one that’s 400km from the actual border).
Oh yes, there was a bus.
But it didn’t arrive until 11pm.
Luckily there were a group of us that had fallen into the same Mauritanian border no-visas-here honeytrap, so we clubbed together and took a shared taxi the 1000km to Dahkla. Nobody spoke particularly good English, and my French is slightly worse than appalling so it was a bit of a lonely trip, I spent most of my time listening to my iPod. I did, however, pay double so I could have the front seat all to myself.
After all this nonsense, I deserved a luxury or two!!
Once we got to Dahkla I was shattered. The border closes at 6pm, and we didn’t arrive until after 8 – we where slowed down by the RIDICULOUS number of police checkpoints (seriously – I am NOT exaggerating when I say that there were two within 20 yards of each other!!) at which we had to hand over our passports, have all the information (slowly and methodically) written down by Arabic Rain Men, be queried about where we are going and how we are going to get there and what our professions were etc. etc. They must have a big problem with British and French people illegally crossing over the SAHARA from Algeria to rape and pillage and murder their way through Western Sahara.
I stayed in Auberge Du Sahara camping in Dahkla and would thoroughly recommend it. It only cost about a fiver and they even made me dinner. In the morning, twas another bit of shared taxi malarkey to the border. There I met Michel, a French guy heading to Dakar in his van. He took me the killer 3km over no-mans land, and there we waited.
We had arrived at the border around 11am. By 4pm we had finally got our passports stamped into Maur-f-ing-tania. Seriously. Was the border very busy? Was it hell. I’ve seen more people at a pro-paedophile rally in a sink estate in Croydon.
There is an old Moroccan proverb, A guest is a gift from God.
I think there’s also a Mauritanian proverb. A guest is about as wanted as blood in your stool.
Can I recommend you NEVER go to Mauritania? Seriously. 0/10.
The worst of it is, Michel didn’t have a visa.
THEY CHANGED THE RULES AGAIN.
You can now GET A VISA ON THE GOD-DAMN BORDER!!!!!!!
I screamed, but the desert didn’t seem to care.
But every cloud and all that jazz, I did get to see the Iron Ore train made famous by Michael Palin in ‘Sahara’…
…which was pretty cool. It’s over 4km long, making it the longest train in the world!!
Michel took me as far as the bus ‘station’ (the side of the road) and I got on the coach to Nouakchott, the capital of this inhospitable land. The road was good and the desert scenery was nice.
That night, I stayed in a really good camp site/youth hostel on the edge of town and in the morning headed over to get a ‘sept place‘ (a shared taxi) for the border with Senegal.