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Rite of passage

Leaving Nouakchott, south to the border with Senegal, I am sad, saying goodbye to the sand and the camels and the goats. They probably have goats in Senegal, but I’m betting they aren’t as cute, running free, wherever they want. It’s cooler for a while, 27/86, not the intoxicating, suffocating desert heat that trumps even the wind through car windows. People still wave at us, wildlife is exciting, we see a squirrel. Too exhausted to pull the camera out now. We veer off-road again, searching for the Atlantic Ocean. We will drive down the beach 100 kilometers to Senegal. I catch something out the corner of my eye. A warthog? Seems improbable. Miles from nowhere and another of those men who suddenly materialize, perhaps he has a Star Trek transporter device. We fill his water bottle. He tells us it’s too dangerous to go further, we will sink. Does he mean in the sand or the ocean? As usual we ignore the warnings and after driving in circles for a while (par for the course) find ourselves on the beach. How romantic! Cruising down the west coast of Africa, wind in our hair, azure sky, deep blue ocean, white beach sand … and tons and tons of trash. A fridge, gnarled green rope, blue plastic buckets. How does a fridge get on a beach?

5 minutes into our wind-in-hair Chariots of Fire type escapade the engine starts to overheat. Same as in the desert, we can’t go but we can’t stop and beach sand is even less forgiving than desert sand. The engine’s in the red. Rick yells “it’s going to seize!'” Seize what? Seize me away from Africa and transport me to a cool infinity pool with a glass of icy pomegranate juice? I should be so lucky. So we stop, grab the sand ladders, dabble our toes in the ocean as we wait for the engine to regain its equilibrium. During this interlude we get the bright idea that maybe we should drive on the harder sand, near the waterline.

“Tide looks like it’s going out?”


“Does, doesn’t it?”

“Know how long tides go out for?”

“No”

“Wing it then?”

“Yeah, okay”

This works much better than driving on the soft sand, and just as we are congratulating ourselves on our brilliance we notice that on the left of us a sharp, meter-high sand bank has appeared, stopping us from moving inland even if we wanted to, and on the right of us the tide seems to have changed direction. The waves that moments ago seemed soothing and benign are now grasping and sinister, tendrils curling our wheels. The sand bank isn’t getting any smaller and the GPS tells us we are in the ocean. Turn left to grave[l] immediately or drown, she says. Thanks for the comforting words lady.

Okay, so she didn’t really tell us we were going to drown, but she did indicate we were in the ocean.

My toes are aching from clenching I’m so anxious. Faster Rick, faster! There must be a break in the sand bank somewhere. Getting stuck in the ocean is a thousand times worse than getting stuck in sand. The kilometers tick over sllllowly and the journey seems never-ending. But finally (I know, I say those words a lot) we see a small dip in the bank, tear over it as fast as we can, continuing into god knows where, we’ve confused the GPS, but we are off the beach and, to our delight and amazement, there are dozens of warthogs running around us, blithely unaware (or unconcerned) of our presence. And then pelicans! 100s! And other long necked birds we aren’t educated enough to know the names of. Have we bulldozed our way into a national park?

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Well yes, we had in fact bulldozed our way into a national park. We discovered this when we were fined on the way out. “You came on the beach? In this vehicle?” the guards asked incredulously.

After taking our money¬†they were helpful enough to tell us that we had missed closing time for the Diama (sp) border crossing to Senegal by 4 hours. The border is only open until 12pm, they said. There’s a campground 67 kilometers in the other direction. Really? What kind of border closes at 12? This is ironic because we deliberately choose the Diama crossing to avoid Rosso, which we were told was an experience even more lengthy and excruciating than Morrocco/Mauritania. As Laurent put it ‘by the end, I wanted to pull out a gun and shoot everyone‘. And from my observation Laurent did not seem the gun-wielding type.

We didn’t want to add 130 kilometers to our trip after doing all that driving, so we hoped our French was incorrect and that perhaps the park guards had said ‘Rick, Justine, the border is open as late as you need it to be and there will be delicious beverages waiting for you on the other side’. We drove the 11ks from the park to the border but no, unfortunately it was closed. A few minutes later a van of five French guys pulled up, apparently under the same misconception we were. They started yelling at the one policeman that was there and we thought it would be really unfair if they got through and we didn’t. But to no avail, so the French guys turned around and went back to the campground for the night.

We however, weren’t budging – at this point we care not what people think of us. We pulled in next to the border control building and set up our tent. Who knows, perhaps camping at the border is a rite of passage for overland travel. We have a makeshift meal – crackers and those little triangle spreadable cheese thingys – and I settle down in our uncomfortable green foldout chairs to observe my surroundings. A swamp on our east side, pampas grass, a village far in the distance. To the west, fields of reeds so high, higher than me, that they block our view. A cow mooing, calling its friends over, then a tall skinny boy in a blue shirt and bright yellow shorts following them. 7 steers with long coiled horns. Sand, still, some type of animal droppings, shells, an empty bottle of coke, empty water bottles, what looks like a sink – maybe a companion to the fridge we saw on the beach, two horses, hobbled, a pile of broken wood. Now three horses. Oh look, the horse is doing a poo. Oh, and so is that man over there. Metal poles stuck in the ground that were once part of some structure, a very large rock, that we will probably drive into tomorrow morning, a discarded pink and brown box of ‘Goed Bezig’ – Twinkies maybe? This a is silly descriptive, because everything is discarded. A used diaper, ubiquitous blue and green UHT milk cartons, rusted tin cans, a plastic blue oil can, one greedy scavenger dog, one shy dog, 2 indifferent dogs. Oh crap, and 70 thousand mosquitos. Picturesque, no? My observations do not last long, I scurry up into the tent and zip it up asap. Instead of the silence of the Sahara we sleep to the hum of insects, the chirping of birds, snarling dogs, and in the distance, the ocean. And despite the dubious surroundings, it is the most restful camping night yet.

Camping at the border – the bathroom is that tree behind me

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