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Casa to Bamako – An EPIC Road Trip

This is a long post, because this was a LONG trip…grab a drink because WOW did we need one when we got through this adventure!!

The Background:
Since loosely developing our itinerary for this RTW trip we have always planned to visit Ghana. It is special to us because I lived and worked there for 6 months back in 2007 and have told Skott many stories about my time there. Skott was excited to see my former “home” and also was looking forward to experiencing Africa for the first time.

We both remember tracing our fingers over the map of Africa as we showed family and friends how we planned to travel overland from Morocco to Ghana. I really have to hand it to Skott for ensuring that we kept the dream alive because there were times that it seemed a little too daunting…but he felt it would be cheating to fly…and he was right because some of the greatest stories and adventures come from the journey itself, not just the final destination.

The first huge chunk of getting to Ghana was traveling from Casablanca, Morocco to Bamako, Mali which officially got us from Northern Africa into West Africa. Our route was 3,949km’s and we were on the road for 8 of the past 11 days!

Here’s how it all went down:

Casablanca, Morocco – Dakhla, Western Sahara (1,617 kms) by bus

After finishing our semi-marathon in Casablanca we needed to start “light” with our travel times so that our legs had a chance to rest up and stretch out. We new that Essaouira, Morocco was a highly recommended seaside city further south so we made our way there by bus. Immediately upon arriving we knew we were in trouble. The city was BEAUTIFUL and we could easily have stayed there a couple of weeks or months. It seems like most cities in Morocco have had this effect on us!

Seafood can't get much fresher than this!

The highlights of Essaouira were walking along the coast, picking out freshly caught fish for a seaside lunch and recuperating from the race in a traditional hammam (though Skott did find his all male side a little too homo-erotic…not that there’s anything wrong with this…but just for his hetero liking perhaps). I have never been exfoliated to the level that my hammam lady achieved…she scrubbed and sanded me down to a pulp..but oddly enough, I have never recovered faster from a half marathon before!

We managed to stay on track and our next leg of the trip took us from Essaouira to Guelmim. Normally Skott insists that we arrive at least 4 hours early for any form of transportation (as if a local bus is the same as an international flight) so I was proud of him when he let us soak in every last minute of Essaouira, grabbing a last minute gelato and running to the make our way to the bus station.

This was a long haul and we didn’t arrive until 11:30pm at night. We had prepared for this ahead though and had a place to stay just a few hundred meters from the bus station. I barely remember stumbling to the hotel doorstep and crawling into bed.

At this point we took a slight detour to Fort Bou Jerif, a small French-run camp situated literally in the middle of nowhere in Southern Morocco. The Fort is near the ruins of an old Spanish/French military fort and arriving on an overcast day was the perfect setting for this eery and desolate land mark. We had a blast bouncing along the piste with Omar-our chauffeur extraordinaire who managed his boat of an old Benz around every rock and cactus. He tried very hard to help Skott with his Arabic along the way.

Fort Bou Jerif

Hiding out in the Fort

That night Skott got adventurous and tried camel “chameau” >tajine for the first time. We both thought it was pretty outstanding! We slept in a traditional Berber tent out in the desert and I must say that I did an outstanding job of not overreacting about the ginormous desert beetles that co-habitated with us. I was so inspired by the incredible nothingness of this place that I went for a quick run in the morning…I’ve been pretty lucky to run in some incredible places on this trip!

Camel Tajine

Our home in the middle of nowhere

Omar was right on time picking us up at 10am that morning and getting us back to Guelmim, to catch our noon hour bus headed for Laayoune. We basically just came and went through Laayoune (though the highlight for me was finding a box of All Bran which lasted me a couple of weeks worth of brekky).

From Laayoune we bought a ticket to Dakhla. This was an exciting ride because we crossed the border into Western Sahara. If you look on any map or globe the Western Sahara is usually shown separate from Morocco and basically has absolutely nothing on it. It is desert…no man’s land but it has quite an interesting history. It was once colonized by the Spanish…then the Mauritanian’s had it for a while and now Morocco, though if I understand it correctly, many Saharan people would prefer it to be independent. Everybody seems to want no-man’s land!?

The scenery around Dakhla was astounding-rippling orange sand meets right up with the crystal blue ocean and it’s quite a sight to see. The area is also an incredibly popular kite surfing location and watching hundreds of coloured sails on the water is gorgeous.

But beneath the surface, I found Dakhla is rather strange. There are so many different people living there-Senegalese, Saharan people and Moroccan’s and there seems to be a bit of tension in the air…not to mention, military personnel on every street corner. Perhaps if we were there for longer, we would see a different side. But after one hotel with a broken toilet and the next night spent in a different hotel that turned out to have a huge family of cockroaches sharing our room, I wasn’t feeling all that encouraged to stay an extra day. It ended up being fairly fitting that our “Cockroach Hotel” was October 30th…sppppooookkkky.

Dakhla, Western Sahara – Nouakchott, Mauritania (824 kms) by Grand Taxi

4am was our departure time onwards from Dakhla and this time we were crossing another boarder-into Mauritania. I’d like to say that I rode in style and arrived in the capital, Nouakchott lookin’ groovy. But actually, I spent the 12 hour drive riding in “bitch” (the middle “seat” between the driver and the side passenger) because although we were told there would only be 4 people in total in the car, there were 7. It was over 30 degrees outside, there was no air conditioning and the ladies in the back didn’t want the dust on them so no windows were cracked. I arrived frazzled and soaked with sweat, but I’m happy to report that Skott was looking no better.

The highlight of the drive was our “lunch stop” where we stopped at a 10 building town for a plate of huge sheep bones with a bunch of knives jammed into the meat for eating. I’ll admit that I skipped lunch, but I found it hilarious when the little boy in our troop, probably only about 2 years old, picked up a HUGE lamb bone and started gnawing away on it.

A "town" along the road in Mauritania.

Nouakchott, Mauritania – Bamako, Mali (1,451 kms) via Land Rover as part of a caravan

We found a great traveler’s hostel in Nouakchott and the staff helped us sort out getting our Moroccan Dirhams exchanged to CFAs (the currency for Mali and Burkina) on the black market (for a better rate than the bank). Then a VERY COOL turn of fate took place. I met a guy in the kitchen at breakfast who was driving through Mauritania to Mali. He was French and he was driving in a convoy with 4 other vehicles of Frenchman on a trek to Bamako. Wheels started turning and I put on my best smile and asked if there was any way my husband and I could join.

Then things happened really fast.

The man sorted out that one person, Andre, had room for us but wanted to know essentially, “What’s in it for me?” (This is now kind of funny looking back on because we ended up having an amazing time with Andre and I think we all grew on each other).

We offered 150 Euros to bum a ride. Done. They told us they were leaving in 2 hours and we would need the following:
-150 Euros (where to get these in the middle of Mauritania we did not know)
-extra copies of our passport
-40 “fiche” (a one-pager of our passport and travel details in French required for the checkpoints along the way)
-Enough CFA’s to look after 3 days of accommodations, food and anything else that came up.

We were super impressed with ourselves when we got all of these tasks done with time to spare. Whew!

Andre’s vehicle turned out to be more comfortable than any form of transportation we had taken in a LONG time. There was tons of room in his Land Rover and he even had air conditioning and fun French tunes.

Our first day was cut pretty short after our departure was delayed about 3 hours and two flat tires on one of the vehicles. But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We ended up staying in a small town, Boutilimit, with a local Mauritanian that one of the French men knew. A HUGE crew of kids had a blast receiving soccer balls and jerseys from some of the guys we were traveling with and Skott probably spent over an hour with them taking photos of them and their buddies and showing them the results. We had “Mauritanian Couscous”-chopped up spaghetti with sheep meat, eaten by hand, and slept in a big tent behind the family’s compound.

Welcomed with open arms and even fed "Mauritanian couscous"

The next day, once again, 4am was our start time. We drove and drove and drove through what seemed like endless desert. We saw a few desolate desert towns along the way with a few square homes made of concrete and, for the first time on our travels, wild camels.

The French Crew

In total we gave out 35 fiches to 35 military, police and “duane” stops along the way. One traveler I met mentioned that this is like a system of checks and balances-having all three of these groups ensures that no one is corrupt I guess.

As the sun began to set things got a little less comfy & admittedly I had a few knots in my stomach. Let’s just say “it’s not that great” to travel in the dark in Mauritania and the French men wanted to get across the Malian border before the sun set but at every military stop we were slowed down. As I nervously kept watching the sun sink lower and lower, they had to make a close call-sleep overnight at one of the last military bases on the Mauritanian side or boot it 30km forward, cross the Mali border and get to Diema to spend the night (preferable and more comfortable). Andre noticed that I was looking a little frantic, and in his sweet and almost grandfatherly way, turned back and said “Awww…Shawna…ne pas de problem. Ne pas de problem. C’est bonne!” I’ll never forget Andre : )

Shortly after the border, the 76 year old who was leading the pack had a bright idea-let’s get the only woman in the crew to lead us across the next check stop because the police/military/duane (I am actually confused who was who) won’t think twice about her. This is the first time I got to put my International Drivers License into practice. I’m also proud to say that I remembered how to drive a standard!!

We arrived in Diema and had beer for supper. Usually I would have a little trouble with this, but after that journey, I was only too happy to get a bit of a buzz on and my nerves had shot my appetite anyways.

Once again, our French “diplomat”, Pierre, had a local contact in Diema and we stayed with a local family. This time on a mattress under the stars. It was actually quite beautiful and they were kind enough to offer us the use of their shower too-cold, but outstanding after the couple of days we’d had.

Camping out at a friends

Day 3 of our convoy was a long and tedious one. We had some “bureaucratic” matters to look after because of the vehicles and “C’est L’Afrique”…nothing is easy. It took about 4 hours to get the 4 vehicles cleared to continue on to Bamako. Successful negotiation was again celebrated with beers and then onwards we went with just around 4 hours to go to make it to Bamako (the capital of Mali…where most of the French were selling their vehicles and then flying home).

More jerseys given out along the road

When we arrived we bid a fond farewell to our crew and when it came to paying Andre, he refused and insisted the ride was “gratis”-free. But the experience was simply priceless-we had traveled a route that VERY few foreigners can say they did.

A fond farewell to our driver Andre

Mali is just one country away from Ghana so we were getting close. We decided to make our way through Burkina Faso to get to Ghana so we had to chill in Bamako for a few days while we waited on our visa (side note-here’s a little irony for you…Burkina Faso is in the top 10 poorest countries in the world and yet, this is the MOST expensive Visa we have come across so far…sadly it’s doubtful that the money ever makes any impact on those in need in Burkina).

Unexpectedly, we stayed a few extra days in Bamako because it was “Tabaski”,or as I knew it in Ghana “Eid”-an Islamic holiday equivalent to our Christmas where a sheep is sacrificed and eaten and lots of dancing and celebration takes place for a good couple of days. No buses were running from the Sunday of Tabaski until Tuesday.

The story continues in our next post…a little time taking in the UNESCO heritage sites of Mali…and in my opinion, the best tour we’ve taken so far.

Spot the cow on the bottom? He had a much less comfy ride than we did!

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6 Responses to “Casa to Bamako – An EPIC Road Trip”

  1. Collette November 18, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

    Epic trip indeed! This is amazing!!! Good for you guys. Loving it!

  2. PostcardFromBK November 19, 2011 at 5:01 am #

    Epic indeed! Looking forward to reading the rest of the trek part 2…
    PostcardFromBK recently posted..Reporting In From Creamfields Buenos Aires

  3. Matt November 21, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    sounds like a great experience to keep in your memory bank. :)

  4. kristine January 5, 2012 at 2:17 am #

    Hello Skott and Shawna! I stumbled upon your blog, and it seems you made the same trip my boyfriend and I will be making this summer… in reverse! We’re interning in Ghana for two months this summer and then making our way from Ghana to Morocco over a span of one month.

    Your blog has been a great resource, but I do have a few questions for you!

    1. What was the hostel in Nouakchott that you stayed at?

    2. Any suggestions for “must see” in Burkina/Mali/Mauritania?

    3. If you had two weeks in Morocco, where would you go? (We have to fly out of Casablanca)

    4. Any suggestions/names/numbers of hostels or guides along the way?

    Thanks so much and hope your travels continue to be amazing!


    • Skott January 6, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

      We will send you an email,which will hopefully answer all of your questions….it is an amazing journey!!! Keep in touch if you need anything else from us!


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