Every once in awhile when you are travelling, you come into a situation that shouldn’t be shared with your parents back home, at least not until you are certain you have made it through the ordeal unscathed.
For example, telling your folks that you have contracted malaria while you are currently dealing with the hallucinogenic symptoms of this rather unlikable virus, is bad idea (ahem, smooth move Shawna). Waiting until you are removed from the continent of Africa and have survived all the ailments before talking to your parents about what “might have been” is a much more ethical way to communicate these sort of stories back to the people who love you most.
And so taking our my own advice, I bring you a story that took place not yesterday or last week, but several months ago while we were travelling through Western Africa. I would like to call this story:
Our Very Slight Brush With Terror In Mauritania
Middle of Nowhere, Mauritania
We initially wrote a little bit about our time in Mauritania in our Epic Road Trip post. In a nutshell, we wanted to travel through Western Africa from Morocco all the way to Ghana on land. No planes allowed.
We were pretty certain this would be challenging, but doable. The only sticky point for us was Mauritania. We were really getting mixed reviews on the safety of the area. From most accounts it seemed quite harmless, but although instances were rare, this was a part of the world where the occasional Al-Qaeda kidnapping took place. There is hardly a positive spin you can put on a kidnapping, so this was a situation we were hoping to avoid.
Again, I need to emphasize the reality of what we were dealing with. People were not and are not being taking hostage on a daily basis. In fact from our research there have only been eleven kidnappings in Mauritania since 2007 (if anyone has updated stats, please don’t hesitate to prove me wrong). You would have to be an extremely unlucky individual to get yourself any trouble. Avoid night travel, and make the trek in a larger group and you should further increase your chances of arriving to your destination without incident. This was our plan… everything would be fine.
And so we decided to move forward. We actually were quite impressed with how everything fell together for us. Our bush taxi from Dakhla, Western Sahara to Nouakchott, Mauritania was smooth sailing… or at least as smooth as you can expect with Shawna and I squashed up front with the driver in a beat up old Cadillac for 13 hours in the unforgiving sun. Surprisingly, the sun-cooked sheep which we were offered for lunch was actually pretty good!
In Nouakchott we also found ourselves on the right side of lucky, when we met a clan of Frenchmen who were taking the exact route we were hoping to. They had brought five vehicles from France to sell in Mali, and were happy to have us as part of their little caravan.
Team France didn’t ask much from us: only that we were prepared with several copies of our ‘fiche’. A fiche is simply a copy of all sorts of basic identification information, detailing everything from name and age to movie preferences and what your cousins do for a living. Along our trip we were expected to come across several military police checkpoints, and at each stop we would need to have one of these available.
They recommended we make 50 copies…. FIFTY!?? How were we ever planning on getting to Mali if we stopped every 20 minutes to hand over our ID. Wow!
We needed two days to hit the Mali border (and one more to make it to the capital city of Bamako). Short of a flat tire within the first two hours, day one was fairly uneventful. The Frenchmen were close with the number of police stops we would make. After the first day we had already handed out 17 photocopied fiches to the Mauritanian officials.
After an amazing stay with a local family sleeping under the stars we continued towards Mali early on day 2. The flat tire had cost us several hours the day before, and these guys needed to be across the border by today or they would risk missing their already booked flights back to France.
Our second day was a blast. We enjoyed practicing our limited French with our driver Andre. We also spent a little time off-roading in some areas where the main road was flooded in sand. All in all, everyone was relaxed and in great spirits. One moment that will always stick with me is when Shawna, after we had stopped for a side-of-the-road bathroom break, came running back to the vehicle giggling to me that she had ‘just peed in Al-Qaeda territory’. We were just so incredibly out in the open, that if she was being spied on by one of the bad guys, they definitely would have spotted her white bottom.
We continued passing through the military checkpoints all day, and although this slowed us down we were more than happy that they were there for our safety. Dusk however was slowly coming in, and at about 6PM we were stopped at one particular checkpoint and told that we were not able to go any further and that we were to spend the night camped next to the military police. It was just not best to be on the road after dark, they told us.
This of course did not go over well for the rest of the guys who were on a really tight timeline to get to Bamako. They already new there would be an administrative nightmare waiting for them at the border (when you are bringing private vehicles across, this is apparently the way it is), and for them stopping was not an option. They were confident that if we sped it up that we would make it to Mali with a little light still left in the sky.
Our votes didn’t count for much, as we were just along for the ride. I am not sure that I actually would have preferred to stay in the middle of the desert with the police anyways, but regardless it was not really an option we had. The crew wanted to move forward, and reluctantly the military police let us drive on, telling us to be careful.
At this point, I admit I was probably as nervous as I had been on the entire trip. I knew that if these guys honestly believed there was a gigantic risk, we would not have moved on. Plus, there were five vehicles on the road, which is a lot of work for any bandit to pull over and the sun hadn’t completely set. As much as I told myself everything was a-okay, I was much less than comfortable.
We piled back in and sped away quickly, determined to make it. Looking in the back seat, I felt horrible as I realized Shawna was terrified. She had pulled her scarf over her head so it was covering most of her face as to make herself look as Mauritanian as possible (a policeman down the road actually thought she was!), but there was no disguising the fear.
Maybe this whole overland journey wasn’t turning out to be such a good idea after all.
We drove as fast as we could, our eyes locked on the horizon as the moon was becoming more prominent. We were headed for the border as fast as we could, but every time we hit maximum speed we came upon another checkpoint! In that last 60kms or so, I think we went through eight of them. And at one of them, the guard actually pulled Andre over for not wearing his seatbelt!
I couldn’t believe it – here we are driving like mad in the middle of nowhere, drenched in paranoia and trying to avoid everything bad the night might bring, and a cop pulls us over for a seatbelt?! But sure enough, Andre is asked to get out of the vehicle, and discuss the situation with the authorities for the next seven minutes (which at this point seemed like seven days). A meager five dollar bribe later and we were back on the road.
30kms to go….. 25kms… 20…. 15….
The sun had fully set and it was pitch black when we finally arrived, with a collective sigh of relief, at the small Mali-Mauritanian border crossing. We had made it!
A few hours later, after all the border business was finished we drove into the small Malian town where we would spend the night. We arrived late at night that there was no food available. However, even a normally very health conscious Shawna was completely fine with ‘beer for dinner’ after the day we just had.
We made it to Bamako, Mali the next day and said goodbye to our crew, putting an end to the most unique road trip I have taken.
We ended the trip so happy that we had met up with the caravan of guys who agreed to take us with them. We were extremely thankful for all the security checkpoints that we encountered along the way (we had only 11 of our 50 fiches left), as they were there for our safety, and we were over the moon that we were able to cross Mauritania without any trouble.
So if the opportunity arose, would I ever make this trek again? Hmmm, not sure about that one. But I’ll tell you one thing I am absolutely certain about.
I will always wear my seatbelt when driving in the desert.