Africa, Travel

What’s it like in: Ghana? 

‘What’s it like’ is a mini-series of blogs answering the burning questions about African countries which don’t enjoy a huge amount of good publicity in the world of travel and media.

Beautiful, modern and tourist-friendly, Ghana is Africa for beginners, a place where everyone speaks English, corruption is rare and the music isn’t loud enough until glasses are rattling off the shelves in the next village. Want to ease yourself into the African way of life? Ghana is the perfect place to start. 

Where is it? 

Screen Shot 2019-06-10 at 11.18.59 AM

Ghana shares its borders with Côte d’Ivoire to the west, Togo to the east and Burkina Faso in the north. You’ll find gorgeous beaches from Axim to Cape Coast, soaring desert temperatures in the north, and refreshing waterfalls in the mountainous east.

What can I see there?

fullsizeoutput_34f

Elmina Beach

Heaps. Ghana is the most visited West African country (by non-Africans) by a long shot, it’s teeming with German volunteers and Americans finding themselves, as such there are plenty of well set-up tourist attractions. Unlike many West African countries, where tourism is a bit of a D.I.Y experience, there are excellent visitors centres at popular spots, and there are often guides available.

fullsizeoutput_351

Elmina

You can sip a cocktail under the palms at Elmina, and learn about Ghana’s slave trading history at Cape Coast Castle. Shop for gorgeous, multi-hued traditional West African fabrics at Accra’s sprawling Makola market, and go for a casual wander around Jamestown, a coastal fishing village with vibrant street art, ramshackle wooden bars and a pretty lighthouse.

Want to head off the tourist trail? Head to the Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop in Teshie, the original home of Ghana’s weird and whimsical hand-carved coffins, or simply pull up a chair at a small local chop shop, you’ll find yourself deep in conversation with the locals in no time.

fullsizeoutput_353

Fish coffin, Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop

fullsizeoutput_35a

Mount Gemi, Amedzofe

The Volta region is Ghana’s crowning glory. It’s clean, green and home to wandering roadside baboons and misty mountain ringed villages. Take the winding road to head to Ghana’s highest settlement of Amedzofe, a picturesque and prosperous village where you can take in the view from Mount Gemi or descend the precarious rocky slope to Ote Falls.

fullsizeoutput_358

Ote Falls, Amedzofe

fullsizeoutput_36b

Wli town

 

In Wli you can take an easy unguided walk to bathe under West Africa’s highest water falls as tens of thousands of bats circle overhead (go at the right time and you’ll have the whole place to yourself) or take a guide and make the two and a half hour climb to the top.

fullsizeoutput_35c

Lower Wil falls

To the north, you’ll find the bustling Ashanti city of Kumasi, and Mole National Park, one of the cheapest wildlife parks in West Africa which is home to elephants, leopards and rare birds.

Are the people nice?

fullsizeoutput_365

Dora and Prisca, Wli

Yes! Open, honest and friendly, it’s super easy to strike up a conversation with a Ghanaian, and you can learn a lot about local politics and religion.

Ghana is overwhelmingly Christian, with churches representing every possible denomination scattered across the country. Allegiance to Jesus is plastered on every car, bus and shopfront, and businesses have names like ‘By His Almighty Grace Kitchen Supplies’, and ‘Jesus is my C.E.O Plumbing’. Ghanaians love to celebrate life, and even death – funerals are often vibrant, raucous affairs, with mini street parades, deafeningly loud music and dancing. If you go for a weekend drive you’ll invariably see huge marquees set up for either funerals or weddings, where the music will be pumping until the early hours. There’s a bit of a technique to the Ghanaian hand shake, which is punctuated by clicking your fingers with the other persons. It’s not a proper handshake until there’s a loud snap, and you’ll have people in fits of laughter if you can’t get it right after a couple of go’s.

One down side to the tourism in Ghana is the persistent begging, which is often more accurately described as ‘demanding’.

Cries of “money, give me some!” and “lady, you buy me food now!” come thick and fast in some areas, and children as young as two are trained to wave and chant “MONEY” at passing tourists. Handing out cash to everyone who asks isn’t doing anyone any favours, so use discretion, be jovial but firm, and you should get through without any major problems.

Is the food good?

fullsizeoutput_355

YES. And the tastiest grub is found at little street-side stalls and chop shops, so you won’t even have to set foot in a proper restaurant for a good feed. You can pick up an overflowing tray of fried chicken, jollof rice and thick slabs of fried yam for 10 cedi ($2.80/1.65 euro), or get your fingers dirty with a bowl of kenkey and fried fish for even less. Meals like kenkey (ground corn dough) and banku (corn and cassava dough) are eaten with your fingers so there are often bowls of water at tables for washing your hands, don’t confuse this for drinking water, or you’ll be the laughing stock of the village for quite some time.

If one of your guilty pleasures is a big ol’ dirty bowl of Indomie noodles, a la high school lunchtimes, rejoice! Ghanaians are obsessed with Indomie, and you can pick up a pre-cooked bowl with sides in just about any town or village you’re likely to pass through.

Is it safe?

Absolutely. Begging is the only hassle you’re likely to endure in Ghana, and given it’s usually teenagers trying their luck, things are unlikely to get tense. The police and military are generally professional, and serious crimes like kidnapping are practically unheard of. 

Where should I stay?

fullsizeoutput_370

Campsite at the Stumble Inn, Elmina

Unlike other parts of West Africa, where budget options are few and far between, there are plenty of places to stay in Ghana that are both comfortable and easy on the wallet. In Elmina, the beachfront paradise of the Stumble Inn provides bungalows, camping spots and plenty of shady areas to rest with an ‘African mojito’. The breakfast menu is spot-on, so you can start your day with French toast and grilled pineapple or chocolate and banana pancakes for as little as 15 cedi ($4.20/2.50 euro). In Accra, you’d be hard-pressed to find a friendlier spot than the Sleepy Hippo, a three storey hostel with a rooftop terrace, a fantastic restaurant and ever-smiling staff. There are also plenty of gorgeous campsites in Wli where you can pitch your tent or park your car for a pretty reasonable price.

fullsizeoutput_36c

Kids at Wli falls campsite

VERDICT: Should you go? “Yes, my sistah/brothah!” *enthusiastic hand clap & snap*

PS: You can check out our visual diary from Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana here.

Advertisements
Standard
Africa, Travel

What’s it like in: Senegal?

‘What’s it like’ is a mini-series of blogs answering the burning questions about African countries which don’t enjoy a huge amount of good publicity in the world of travel and media.

There’s just something about Senegal, it oozes charm and elegance. There’s a wonderfully diverse range of things to see, the food is fantastic and the people are impossibly good-looking. What’s not to love?

Where is it? 

Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 5.48.08 PM

Senegal is a coastal West African country which shares its borders with Mauritania and Mali to the north and east, and Guinea and Guinea-Bissau to the south. That means it enjoys a bit of the dry heat from the desert in the north, and starts getting greener and steamier the further south you head.

What can I see there?

So much stuff! There’s a lot going on in Senegal, whether you’re a city person, prefer to get amongst untouched nature or sprawl on an empty beach, you’ll find a place you could happily linger for weeks on end.

fullsizeoutput_303

Saint Louis

In the former colonial capital of Saint Louis, the pastel paint of the old French-style buildings is peeling, and Saint Louis is ushering in a new era of vibrant African art and music. There are myriad shops selling locally made art, (I particularly loved the women-run La Liane l’atelier des femmes), and wildly painted pirogues cram the river’s edge. There’s an incredibly relaxed vibe in the UNESCO protected old town of Ile de N’Dar, and you can sit down to a delicious traditional Senegalese meal at a cozy restaurant for a ridiculously low price. Taking a lazy stroll down the lanes is a delightful and hassle-free experience, and on the wider streets you’ll dodge yellow taxis, horse drawn carts and the kaleidoscopic local buses called car rapides (rapidity not guaranteed). All things considered, Saint Louis has got to be one of the most atmospheric cities in West Africa.

fullsizeoutput_304

Saint Louis

fullsizeoutput_319

The Gambia River, Wassadou

The interior of Senegal can be unbearably hot and humid at certain times of year, but it’s time to embrace all the aesthetic problems that come with 38 degrees, because a trip to Wassadou is absolutely worth it. Look for hippos on the edge of The Gambia river, or spend an afternoon watching a 200-strong gang of baboons play in the afternoon sun. There’s a huge array of bird life in Senegal, so you’ve got a perfectly good reason to crack open a glistening La Gazelle beer, sit back and do nothing on the pretext of ‘important wildlife research.’

fullsizeoutput_31d

The Gambia River, Wassadou

fullsizeoutput_31f

Cap Skirring

Yes, the town of Cap Skirring is a smidge touristy (by West African standards, forget about battling crowds), but get yourself a kilometre or so away from the fishing boats and you’ve got miles of perfectly clean beach patrolled only by herds of cows who traverse the sand in their hundreds and always seem to know exactly where they’re going. Gaps in the pines provide perfect spaces for wild camping, so you can nod off with the sound of the waves just metres away.

fullsizeoutput_334

Cap Skirring

Just a few minutes drive away from Cap Skirring is the tiny village of Diembéring, which boasts a huge and majestic Kapok tree smack bang in the village square, welcoming locals and lively festivals.

fullsizeoutput_321

Diembéring

Are the people nice?

fullsizeoutput_32d

Boys in Diembéring

Yes! They’re also some of the sharpest dressers in West Africa, men strut the streets in traditional-style suits made from the brightest possible prints, while women rock tailor-made dresses and matching head wraps fitted to perfection. Aesthetics is everything in Senegal, they are sport obsessed, with football, basketball and traditional Senegalese wrestling being the most popular, and you can spot Adonis-like figures pounding the pavement or doing endless amounts of crunches on the beach at all hours of the day. A traditional wrestling match is absolutely worth seeing, boys as young as four square off against each other to see who’ll hit the dirt first, but it’s all in good fun and sportsmanship.

fullsizeoutput_324

Wrestling at the Diembéring Music Festival

The Senegalese, particularly men and boys, love having their photo taken, and if you walk around with a camera for a few minutes you’ll likely be asked to take a few lads pictures while they pose the house down. Women and girls are a bit more shy and might hang around curiously until you ask them yourself. The vast majority of  Senegalese are Muslim (around 92%), but it’s practised in a much more relaxed way than in Morocco or Mauritania, meaning there are still plenty of opportunities for beer and booty-shaking.

fullsizeoutput_30e

Schoolgirls in Saint Louis

Is the food good?

fullsizeoutput_338

Thieboudienne in Ziguinchor, 1000 cfa

Hell. Yes. Senegalese food is straight up delicious. Like a lot of African meals, sometimes it doesn’t look like much, but what you lose in pretentious plating is made up for with delicious flavours. Yassa poulet (braised chicken with lemony onion sauce), mafe (peanut based sauce with rice) and thieboudienne (fish with vegetables and tomato sauce) are all incredible and available at just about every restaurant and local chop shop for as little as 1000 cfa (NZD $2.60/1.50 euro). Other than the local beers, the best way to beat the heat is with a frozen bissap juice, small plastic sachets of icy purple liquid, made from hibiscus leaves, sugar and water. They taste better than just about any ice block on the market, and you can pick them up for next to nothing.

Is it safe?

fullsizeoutput_33b

Moody evening, Cassamance

 

Yes. Some governments still warn against travel to the Cassamance region, and while the gun mounts and soldiers are still there, the separatist conflict of the 80s seems very much in the past. Senegalese men are charmers, and will invariably try and chat/inquire about your marital status if you are travelling alone as a woman, but they are usually very respectful, and often want nothing more than a selfie with you. Your biggest risk is petty crime in Dakar. 

Full disclosure, our car was broken into while we spent the night in an auberge in Yoff, but judging by the loot that was stolen and the way they cleaned up after themselves, my guess was that it was carried out by a group of nervous and somewhat remorseful teenagers.

Where can I stay?

fullsizeoutput_313

River beach at Zebrabar

It’s far from the cheapest camping option in West Africa, but a stay at Zebrabar is an experience in its own right, and you don’t even need to leave the grounds to view pelicans floating on the river Senegal, or cheeky monkeys hovering in the trees. A half hour drive from the centre of Saint Louis, Zebrabar is on the edge of the Parc de la Langue de Barbarie, so you can emerge from your bungalow or tent and head straight to a hammock overlooking the water, or climb to the top of the viewing tower for a 360 degree sunset. For overlanders, it’s the perfect meeting point to hook-up with other travellers, and there’s even a mini-garage with a ramp where you can work on your vehicle. Further down country, it’s super easy to camp just about anywhere, and if you’re daring enough, you can drive almost all the way from Saint Louis to Dakar along the beach at low-tide, and pull over for an idyllic night of wild camping along the way.

fullsizeoutput_317

Beach en route from Saint Louis to Dakar

VERDICT: Should you go? Oui, Waaw and Ha (yes, yes and yes in French, Wolof and Mandinka)

PS. You can check out our visual diary from Senegal here.

fullsizeoutput_33d

Local cutie, Diembéring

Standard
Africa, Travel

The Price of Freedom: 33 Hours at the Nigerian Border

IMG_7294

“Miss, where are you going? What are you doing?” the alleged helper clamoured as I fumbled with the toilet keys at the Sémé-Kraké border crossing between Benin and Nigeria.

I resisted the urge to divulge my exact plans for my hot date with the toilet, opting instead for “I don’t need any help, thank you”, through teeth worn by hours of forced smiles at seven previous African border crossings. 

‘Help’ is never far away when it comes to entering Nigeria. Within seconds of our arrival, four men, not in any kind of uniform, descended upon us like a heavy rain. 

“Sir, come with us! You have carnet? We go here!”

“Madam, we are friends, I help you now”

“Don’t worry my friends, Nigeria is a free country!”

The emphatic assurance from border officials or their associates that any West African country is free should send shivers down ones spine, because it usually means the exact opposite. A Trojan horse of a phrase used to disguise systemic corruption and layers upon layers of bureaucratic bullshit. The Nigerian immigration system is a 17 tier gateau of red tape, complications, bribes and general inefficiency. Caucasian people are not really in a position to complain about any of this, as it was the European colonizers who charged into the country, ransacked it’s resources, took the people as slaves, demolished any sense of national identity and meanwhile instilled the idea that filling out stacks of paperwork was the best way to go about things. When the British disappeared in 1960 they left behind a steadfast commitment to doing things the most difficult way possible, and the idea that you can demand whatever you want as long as you genuinely believe you have the right to do so.

In short, the border process was not super awesome.  

Day 1

We arrived shortly after nine, fully prepared for difficulties. In the first room where we were told to wait, we came across an Australian we’d met on the road previously. Bleary-eyed and sprawled on a mattress on the floor of the office, John informed us he’d been there for two days, after paying $200USD to an agency for an approval letter which turned out to be fake. 

10am: We were escorted to another office, and introduced formally to an immigration officer who we’ll call Jacob, who’d be helping with our application. We had been in contact with Jacob for no less than three weeks, but Jacob had wisely chosen our day of arrival to begin working on our application. 

People came and went, fat wads of cash changed hands between fixers (independent operators who take cash payments to help foreigners with the visa process) and immigration officials. Jacob had several loud and overly performative phone conversations where he stressed to someone who may or may not have been on the other end that he was working hard on our application.

“I have slept only three hours my brother! This is now an emergency application, I am working very hard to get these people a visa!”

At around 1pm an official in the office we were in started playing an easy-listening country compilation from his computer. 

In an attempt to sweet talk Jacob into productivity, we asked him what his favourite thing about Nigeria was.

“My favourite thing is the freedom”, he quickly replied. 

Don Williams crooned in the background. 

IMG_7630

2pm: The Sémé border seemed like less of a workplace, and more of a lads club where men (and a few women) of different ages and rank swanned about, eating, napping, reading the newspaper, watching TV, and generally doing whatever the fuck they wanted, with the occasional interruption of stamping documents and answering calls. When serious looking men in berets popped their head in the room (usually when things were getting rowdy) the lads in question stood to attention, saluted, and wiped the grins from their faces faster than you could say ‘Nigeria is a free country’. A few minutes would pass, and the atmosphere dissolved back into one not dissimilar to a classroom of naughty school kids. 

3pm: At various intervals, a grey-haired immigration officer popped in to try and recruit our 19-year-old Swiss friend Geraldine as his second wife. 

Later, a local man of unknown employment came in and tried to convince Oscar to take a second wife. It was starting to seem as if no one was going to leave the building until a member of our party got married at least once. 

3:30pm: While outside washing my hands for lunch, a young female officer asked if she could have my rings. I told them they had belonged to my dead mother, a convenient truth which I had hoped would guilt her into submission. “Give me this one then”, she said pointing to a copper bracelet I’d bought in Senegal, and I wondered how many more dead relatives I’d need to acquire before people would stop asking for my stuff. 

86895A3C-7243-45CD-9720-2BE6B475D076

3:45pm: We shared a bowl of semo, a maize-based paste, and egusi soup made with bitter leaves and chunks of goat. It was delicious, things were looking up. 

4pm: At the very least, we weren’t alone, over the course of the day we shared a waiting room with two Indian oil and gas workers, a man from Barbados called Andrew and his Nigerian friend Precious. Traveling with a local wasn’t helping Andrew’s case, it was day two of waiting for them, and so we waited some more. 

IMG_7108

Mercifully, the playlist changed from Don Williams to Craig David. 

5pm: As Craig David’s 7 Days played for the fourth time in a row, I started to wonder if it was some kind of musical foreshadowing of what was to come and how many days we would be required to stay at the godforsaken Sémé border crossing. There would be no making love on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday nor chilling on Sunday, but there would be mild sexual harassment and the loss of feeling in our arse cheeks, which is nearly the same thing. 

5:30pm: We heard word via WhatsApp that our Aussie associate John had been escorted to the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos, and quickly flung into a cell because of the fake paperwork debacle. 

“How long will he stay in the cell?”, we asked Jacob. 

“I don’t know. Everybody has their role to play”, Jacob said, ominously. 

At 5:45 a whiff of hope, a call from one big boss to another to say that our application had been approved, on the condition that we create a fake business, apply for a business visa instead of a tourist visa, and pay an application fee of $40USD. We had already paid the application fee when we applied for our tourist visas three weeks prior. We argued the second fee. It did not work. 

1FA8B2FC-E468-41B3-9326-22B6E2CE2592

At 8:30pm Jacob fell asleep, his energy had dissipated as quickly as our collective will to live, and he was snoring gently while I lay on the tiled floor, waiting for a cartoon anvil to fall from the sky and end my misery. 

9:45pm: We enquired about cheap hotels nearby, the closest was called the Freedom Hotel. Given our newfound understanding of the concept of freedom, a word which was beginning to lose all meaning, we opted to stay at the border 

The hours melted into one another. I paced the empty halls mindlessly. Geraldine valiantly fended off the advances of Jacob. Oscar called the company which operates Nigeria’s e-visa payment system from Connecticut about our problems. The people in Connecticut didn’t much care about our problems.

IMG_7105

23:58pm: Geraldine was writing notes in her diary. Jacob asked “What are you writing about? Are you writing about the Nigerian border? Is it the best?”

In fairness to Jacob, he had been there all day with us, watching dog videos on his phone while he waited for something to happen. He assured us he was doing it out of the goodness of his heart, and that he never asked unfortunate travelers like us for a penny. We concluded that Jacob must have an astonishingly short memory, as he’d asked for a tip of $140USD the day before. 

The man playing the Don Williams/Craig David mix tape had gone home. The hum of the air con provided the backing track to our existential contemplations. 

IMG_7295

1:08am: The afternoon rains had soaked the mattress in our roof tent to the core. Aussie John’s mattress, clean and dry, beckoned from behind a locked door which no one had the key to. Oscar opted to sleep outside on the concrete, where he was routinely poked by guards checking he was still alive. I folded back the car seat and waited for whatever punishment the morning had in store for us. 

Day 2 

8:30am: Stinking and cranky, we stumbled back into into Jacob’s office to ask what was happening with our application. Jacob told us to be patient, as if the concept was entirely foreign to a group of people who’ve just spent 22 hours at a Nigerian border post. 

10:30am: Defeated, we retreated to Benin, to wait for an approval of an approval. In Benin, at the very least, we could go for a wee without stragglers enquiring about our intentions in the toilet.  

2:30pm: A message from Precious and Andrew who were still at the border. I was starting to feel quite deeply for Andrew, who had left a Caribbean island paradise to spend 12 hours at a time in the company of Don Williams. Meanwhile, Aussie John had messaged to inform us he’d escaped the cells of Murtala Muhammed Airport, but was now under house arrest at the home of his Couchsurfing host, who had had to drive to the airport and relinquish his own passport in order to to bail John out. 

——

Days passed. In hindsight they kind of melt into each other but I can tell you two things that definitely happened. We definitely went back to Porto-Novo, Benin. We definitely spent an estimated 27 collective hours on the phone to Connecticut-based customer service representatives called Garry and Harry who took turns blocking and unblocking our card so we could attempt to pay for our illegitimate business visa. Our payment eventually succeeded 6 days after our initial debacle at the border.

Day 8

IMG_7628

We returned to the Sémé border at 11am, and to be honest it was nice to be greeted by the staff in the office as if we were old friends, because by that point, we kind of were. At the very least, we were deeply familiar with each others napping schedules. 

11:30am: Geraldine’s elderly suitor returned and said she wouldn’t have had to wait eight days to travel to Nigeria had she stayed with him as he would have used his wings of passion to fly her over the border. 

12pm: Jacob finished a tense call with someone. “Nigerian visa is not child’s play my friends!” he said with an unsettling amount of glee. “Nigeria is the USA of Africa!”

12:30pm: Jangly guitar gospel music had replaced Don Williams and Craig David on the computer speakers. I wondered if Jesus’s glory would shine down on us today, or ever. 

1pm: Movement. Sweet, sweet movement. We were informed our elusive approval letter had been sent and our government-issued chaperone Victor was ready to go to the airport, the only place where we could actually get our visas stamped. This meant we would metaphorically still be at the Nigerian border until the airport immigration officials decided our fate. It would be a 4-5 hour drive depending on the traffic but we didn’t care. We had tasted the air outside the Sémé border office, and it was fresh. 

898a229d-630b-4152-bce1-69c1dc3a2b25

By 1:30 Victor was guiding us out of the border gates. Geraldine and I took turns sitting on each others laps in the back, which proved a pleasantly squishy alternative to the metal bench seats to which we had become so accustomed.

IMG_7188

There were 24 police, military and federal road safety checkpoints on the 87km drive. It took 4 hours. There were the all too familiar requests for food, money and gifts but the highlight was a 15 minute standoff between an impassioned Victor and a pair of federal road safety officers who claimed right hand drive vehicles had been banned in Nigeria since 1972, and that one of our tyres was expired. As we argued our case, an overloaded taxi van with no license plate, a missing headlight, and a gaping hole where the sliding door used to be chugged past, a cloud of black smoke spewing from the exhaust. 

IMG_7215

5:45pm: The Murtala Muhammed airport, ringed by a halo of pre-storm glow, loomed in the distance. 

6:15pm: We sat down in an office with a man who, after a few minutes of paper shuffling and quiet contemplation, decided he couldn’t help us. 

6:45pm: We were escorted to a crowded room, told to sit and not to use our phones lest we expose state secrets, or something.

7:30pm: With little ceremony and a decidedly underwhelming ink stamp, we were officially welcomed into Nigeria. Vignettes from our month-long Nigerian immigration experience swirled in my mind like a kaleidoscope of horror. We had made it. Outside, it promptly started to pour. My jandal broke and so I hobbled, barefoot, through the mud as waiting taxi drivers pointed and laughed. It was the perfect end to the perfect nightmare. 

818053EC-9BD9-4E40-A598-71CA311181D2

Our 33 hours at the border wasn’t a complete loss. I read most of a very good book on the Libyan revolution, I wrote this blog, I’m now deeply familiar with the musical stylings of Don Williams, and I can now claim to have heard just about every possible reason to hand over money to any given authority. Geraldine can go back to Switzerland knowing she has plenty of romantic options should she decide to settle in Nigeria, and Oscar can continue his life knowing that things can’t possibly get any worse than that time he spent 5 hours trying to sleep on urine-soaked concrete while being routinely nudged with boots and sticks. 

Who’s to blame for the state of the Nigerian immigration system? Is it the colonizers of old? The wealthy tourists who prop up corruption by paying hundreds of dollars under the table to ensure an easy crossing? Is it in fact the fault of negligent Connecticut based customer service representatives Garry and Harry, who I’m pretty sure was actually the same guy changing his voice slightly so he could blame the last lot of issues on Garry and/or Harry. After four long weeks I still wasn’t sure of anything except the fact that I could really do with a strong drink, and the assurance that I would never have to endure the freedoms of the Sémé-Kraké border ever again. 

Standard
Africa, Travel

Mauritania – Observations on a mysterious land

It is a wonderful thing to go to a place about which so little is publicized that you can’t reasonably have any expectations of it. There’s not much room for disappointment and plenty for intrigue and feeling frighteningly, delightfully out of your comfort zone. Mauritania is one of those kinds of places.

Mauritania is a vast, mostly sand covered country sandwiched between Morocco and Senegal. It’s twice the size of France – the country which once colonized it – and yet very few westerners are even aware of its existence, fewer still would ever plan a trip there. Therein lies the majority of the country’s appeal. Here’s what I learned from three weeks in the big M.

Nouadhibou

fullsizeoutput_18d

Main drag, Nouadhibou

If Mauritanian cities in general are supposed to be an assault on the senses, then Nouadhibou is a full-on tsunami.

Crowds jostle for space in the market where carts overflow with artfully placed fruit and plastic knick-knacks, women sit on the curb stirring large vats of bubbling oil, dishing out freshly deep-fried doughnuts for 10 ouguiya (€.25) a bag. In the centre of it all, a lone cow eats from a trough, immune to the chaos swirling millimetres from its big dopey face. Smiling school children rush to shake your hand and welcome you in French, Arabic, English and Spanish. Occasionally they will point and yell “Chinois!” (there is a huge amount of Chinese trawlers operating off the coast of Mauritania, most foreigners in the city are Chinese). Rubbish spills onto the sand road where barefoot children chase old bike tyres, and gangs of goats patrol the alleys, picking through the debris. Above it all, a luxury Chinese helicopter hovers, on one of its regular trips between the Hongdong International Fishery Development Company, and home base.

Nouadhibou is far from a tourist hotspot. Most overlanders breeze through once they’ve made it through the border, en route to Dakar, Banjul, or generally, somewhere that isn’t Mauritania. That means while tourism infrastructure is basically non-existent, in most places you’ll be greeted with a gracious curiosity that is one of Mauritania’s main drawcards.

On our first day in Nouadhibou, after a long day of waiting at the border, we parked up to camp next to the city’s ship graveyard, which was exactly as grim as it sounds. We were woken at midnight by two men yelling into the tent. The nearby factory had long since closed for the day and we hadn’t had the chance to buy a SIM card, not that we had a reliable emergency contact anyway. It was shaping up to be a bit of a B-grade horror movie. A bleary-eyed peek out the window revealed two military policemen.

“Hello! We are police, are you ok here? Here is my phone number if you have any problems, goodnight!”

The next morning, the same policemen, smiling widely and seemingly thrilled about the late-night distraction we’d provided, brought us a fresh baguette, still warm from the oven.

“Petit dejeuner for you. Welcome to Mauritania!”

And so, with our day having begun the best way possible, we set off to explore the area.

 

Parts of the Nouadhibou coast are nothing short of idyllic. While we spotted none of the endangered monk seals said to reside on Cap Blanc, the waves lapping gently at the base of the chalky cliffs (once you framed out the plastic bottles and fishing nets) made a picture perfect scene. Overfishing and an almost complete lack of waste infrastructure has left many beaches awash with detritus. On the east side of the coast though, it’s a haven, children splash in picturesque coves and, due to a strong wind, only the heaviest bits of rubbish stick around.

fullsizeoutput_18b

Cap Blanc, Nouadhibou

While parked up for a few hours to enjoy the view, we met Mamoudou, a local mechanic pleased to be able to practice his English. We had not one but three meetings over the course of the day, after our first interaction, he came back with his nephews to introduce us, later in the evening he returned again, this time proudly weilding his mechanic certifications. Silence is not the enemy in Mauritania, and when we’d both run out of things to say, Mamoudou was happy enough to sit with us for hours on end, waiting patiently for a conversation topic to arise. We pulled out our world map to show him where we were from, but the conversation quickly turned to fishing. Nouadhibou and Nouakchott, the only two places that could really be considered cities in Mauritania, rely heavily on fish. In the coming years it’s likely a whole new city will spring up around a gigantic fishing port being built by a Chinese company in the far south of the country. Mamoudou pointed to all the countries that had fishing interests in Mauritania – Russia, Ukraine, China, Japan, Turkey and Spain to name a few. He proceeded to show off his international diplomacy skills by introducing himself in Russian, Turkish and Spanish, a skill he’d picked up from his fisherman father. Most Mauritanians speak French and Arabic, but along with those, Mamoudou also speaks Pulaar – the language of his people – Wolof and Hassaniyya.

“And you?” he asked expectantly.

“Ah, just English, only one”

Mamoudou, for good reason, found this greatly amusing.

I asked him what he thought of the massive amount of foreign interest in his country’s resources.

He  said, “Mauritania is very rich”

He moved a long finger through the thin lines on our map.

“Fish here, iron here, diamonds here. But the people are not rich.”

He pointed to the map again.

Russia – “this place is good to work for, good people, good money”

Ukraine – same again

Turkey – same again

China – “this is not good, they do not let you pray. They do not respect the people.”

And all of a sudden I felt a bit guilty about buying a huge bag of imported treats from the Chinese supermarket in town, by far the flashiest joint in the whole city.

fullsizeoutput_1ad

Mamoudou and his nephews, Nouadhibou

We offered Mamoudou a Coke, a fleeting antidote to the sweltering heat.

He took a deep swig, crumpled his can, and tossed it into the turquoise water of the sea behind him. I may have winced.

“It’s no problem!” he said, “do this!”

He moved to grab my can and gestured tossing it in the sea.

I protested, not wanting to offend him but also not wanting to contribute to the destruction of Mauritania’s otherwise beautiful coastline.

“Is no problem!” he said.

“You drink, you smoke” – two tossing gestures – “in Africa, is no problem.”

“But what about the fish and the other things in the sea that could die?” I asked.

He gave an easy shrug.

Mamoudou had told us earlier his dream was to live in the UK. And once you’ve seen a Mauritanian wearing a balaclava and gloves in the 30 degree winter, you’ll realize what a serious commitment that is. What Mamoudou didn’t need to tell us was that the chances of him getting a UK visa in Brexit-era Britain are akin to a snowdrops chances of survival in the Sahel.

What I think Mamoudou was trying to say with his indifferent shrug, is that when a young, hard-working and educated man can’t get a visa to the country of his dreams despite speaking five more languages than your average human, that man may have more immediate problems than the lifespan of a horse mackerel that’s likely to be dredged up any second by a Chinese trawler, but of course that is just a guess.

Adrar

fullsizeoutput_1af

Somewhere in the Adrar

We left Nouadhibou, and headed inland to the vast and sandy Adrar region, a place still blacklisted from many guidebooks and most certainly the New Zealand Safe Travel website. Terror attacks and kidnappings in the country between 2007 and 2009 meant flights into Atar were cancelled, and generally, tourism in the area dried up completely. Locals told us the area has been safe for some time, but the convoy of American paratroopers we bumped into seemed to think differently.

“Don’t go to Choum man, that’s where all the bad shit goes down.”

By that point we had already been to Choum, and the only act of terror we experienced was an old lady trying to sell us two cans of Coke for €10.

Driving in the Adrar, especially off-road, is surreal. You’ll find yourself wondering how there can possibly be 7 billion people on this planet when there’s no sign of a single one of them. We spent five days driving through the desert which was mostly flat and completely bare as far as the eye could see. Occasionally we’d pass a tiny settlement, with homes made out of discarded railway sleepers and a handful of people crouching in the shade. In great contrast to Morocco, none rushed to the car to ask for money or gifts, but stayed put, eyeing us warily.

One constant companion on the way from Nouadhibou to the Adrar is the two and a half kilometre long iron-ore train. It’s one of the longest in the world and chugs through the desert several times a day. Even for non-locomotive enthusiasts, it’s spectacular to see, and that’s before you notice the herd of camels strapped to the flat-deck of a car, or a flock of sheep balancing on a mound of iron-ore.

fullsizeoutput_199

Sheep on a train, Adrar

Once you’re back on the road, the efforts to draw tourists back to the region are clear. There’s a brand new tarseal road complete with shiny new signs linking Atar and Choum, along with a heavy military presence on the way to the capital of Nouakchott. The vast majority of the guards at checkpoints dotted throughout Mauritania, are without being facetious, an absolute delight. They are genuinely pleased to have you, a few of the young bucks might ask for a gift, – “un petit cadeaux monsieur!” – only to be playfully swatted away by an older superior.

fullsizeoutput_19a

Tarseal, glorious tarseal

Nouakchott

About halfway down the country, just off the coast is a 100 sq/km dust cloud, and somewhere inside that dustcloud, if you can find it, is Nouakchott. Mauritania’s capital had previously been described to us as “an absolute shitshow” to be avoided at all costs, but seeing as we needed to get visas there, we had a sentence of at least a few days.

fullsizeoutput_1a0

Nouakchott

As a backpacker or overlander in Nouakchott, you may find yourself in the unique position of being rich enough for the beggars and street hustlers, but far too poor, badly-dressed or at the very least, far too un-French, to expect any kind of decent service. Almost all of Nouakchott’s most appealing hotels, auberges, cafes and restaurants are located in the same area as all the foreign embassies, so if you’re not clearly a businessperson or diplomat, you can get used to being refused entry at higher end hotels, or at the very least, being the recipient of several withering, Miranda Priestly-esque looks.

In a city where the cars, and many of the homes are in such appalling condition they appear to be held together with dental floss and optimism, it is beyond strange to find yourself on the receiving end of such blatant snobbery, but then again, the sheer mystery of what might happen next is all part of the Mauritanian experience.

fullsizeoutput_1a2

Parking, Mauritania

The highlight of any visit to Nouakchott is the daily fish market, an orgy of colour and stifling smells. Dozens of men and boys work together to bring wooden pirogues to shore amid the crashing waves. Fish heads are lopped off at an alarming speed. Women with babies strapped across their hips sit ashore and fry up the catch of the hour. You can almost guarantee you’ll be the only tourist witnessing it all, and that is something special in itself.

fullsizeoutput_1a7

fullsizeoutput_1aa

fullsizeoutput_19e

fullsizeoutput_1a5

Fish Market, Nouakchott

—-

Mauritania is incredibly poor, it’s polluted, almost nothing grows there, and most of the people we met who passed through said they couldn’t wait to leave, and yet the memory of Mauritania that sticks most stubbornly in my head is this.

As night fell in the Adrar one evening, we clambered up the side of a tower of sand and shale to perch underneath a layer of white-gold stars. So many stars. It was like they’d been splattered on from somewhere higher up. The entry-level art project of God or Allah or whomever had the creative foresight to will such an impressive landscape into being. Far beyond the rocky hills was a town, lights from fires winked in the distance, but the biggest light of all came from the iron-ore train, which started its slow chug towards us just as we nestled into our hole in the rock. It’s surreal, to be in a place so vast and barren, and to hear the sound of a train. The night was so still that the distant roar pushed out any other noise that might have filled the atmosphere, and even though we were hundreds of meters away, that train could have been making its way through one ear and out the other.

Nothing in Mauritania moves quickly, including the iron-ore train, and so we sat and watched as a mile long centipede of metal and rock meandered it’s way through the black expanse below. Lights teased us, blue sparks from the wheels glinting for a millisecond, the brief silhouette of a passenger as they tried to light a cigarette. We watched as the train grew smaller and smaller, until a seam opened up in the universe and it disappeared. It was as if it had driven into a giant black envelope, and for that I was grateful, for in bleaker times I could pull it out and remind myself that even in a place as strange and barren as Mauritania, there’s a bit of magic.

fullsizeoutput_19b

Standard
Africa, Travel

Morocco: Something for Nothing

You know that sensation when something happens, just for a moment, but it seems to stretch out for long enough to allow your brain the time to wonder “what the hell is this?”. That was the exact sensation I felt as Ibrahim the Moroccan mechanic leaned in and briefly sucked on my neck. You could not have described it as a kiss, there was too much…ingestion. Kiss verses suck. Even if it only lasts a second, you can tell the difference. It wasn’t so shocking that I recoiled immediately, but jarring enough that, when the mechanic asked for a photo with my boyfriend and I just seconds later, my expression could only be described as that of a bewildered sufferer of chronic hemorrhoids.

As we drove off, I looked back at the workshop.

“That guy just sucked on my neck” I said to my boyfriend, Oscar.

“What? The mechanic?? Didn’t he kiss your cheek?”

“Nope, it was my neck, and it was a fleeting but definite suck.”

“That’s fucking weird” said Oscar.

I couldn’t help but agree.

Erg Chebbi post-neck slurp

Things are often like this in Morocco, you can go for a long time believing things are one way, in this instance, avoiding physical contact with men, smiling, touching your hand to your heart and feeling incredibly smug and culturally aware, only to have someone greet you not with a polite but distant gesture but by performing an alarmingly accurate garra rufa fish impression right under your left ear.

Maybe Ibrahim was going for a fashionable French cheek kiss and missed the mark? Maybe the neck-suck is an ancient Berber greeting which I should have returned? Probably, it will remain a mystery.

One thing to know about Morocco is that it is almost impossible to be truly alone there. You can drive for miles away from the nearest village, over dunes soft as flour and through near-impassable river beds, to a place where the only sound is that of a fat black beetle dutifully shuffling a ball of camel shit towards its hole. Wait five minutes in that serene and silent spot and a chair salesman with 7 wicker stools strapped to his scooter will appear like a mirage. “Hello my friend! You want chair? English car yes? Lovely jubbly!”

Stool salesman territory, Moroccan Sahara

The other thing to know about Morocco is that people will ask you for things, and demand them in some cases, whether they need them or not, on the offchance that you’ll give it to them anyway. Thousands of French tourists visit Morocco every year. Most of them drive sinfully ugly but expensive campervans, and most of them make a habit of bringing giant bags of sweets with them for every visit so they can toss them out the window to local children like leathery, pétanque-playing Santas. The effect of this well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful gesture (depending on who you talk to) is that almost anywhere you might choose you stop your car, your bike, or linger in a public place, you’ll be swarmed by either children demanding bonbons, or adults inviting you in for a cup of tea and then asking for a tenner.

The third thing to know about Morocco, is that, even if people aren’t simply putting their hands out and begging, they’re probably thinking about getting your money some other way. Indeed, in a lot of places, opportunistic scamming is basically a national sport. We experienced this more on our trip through Morocco’s more cosmopolitan areas in 2017, but found it was still alive and well this time around. Take this story from our friend Hamid (who swears he doesn’t do it anymore) as a shining example. Hamid is a desert guide who lives in Merzouga, on the edge of the vast and glorious dunes of Erg Chebbi. Morocco is pretty strict when it comes to drugs and booze, but according to our entrepreneurial friend Hamid, that doesn’t stop desperate tourists from seeking it out.

Hamid the entrepreneur

“Sometimes I went out to the desert with the tourists, we stop for the night, have some food, watch the stars, have nice time. I pull out my hashish and I smoke. I say nothing. They say, “is that hashish?” I say yea. They say “man, can you get us hashish? We’d love some hashish”. So I say yea I can get it, but it is difficult. There is not much hashish in Merzouga, so it’s expensive and there are problems with police. Same with beer. Then they say “oh man could you get us beer too?” I say yes but will take longer. They say they want beer and hashish. I prepare to go walk and say, if I’m not back in one hour and a half, there are problems with police. So I go over one dune, just one big dune, I sit and smoke for 2 hours, maybe 3 hours. I already had my hashish in my bag, this much”

(He shows half a thumbs worth)

“It cost me twenty dirham”

(approximately €2)

“I go back to camp and get beer from kitchen which is already there. I go to tourists and say ‘I’m sorry there were problems with the police, I got a big fine’ they say, “no problem man” and give me two hundred euro.”

That is a kind of swindling genius you really can’t fault, but all the same it gives a certain insight into the national psyche.

So, keeping in mind those above three points, we headed into the High Atlas Mountains with excitement and a twinge of trepidation gnawing away somewhere deep in our skulls.

The mountains were beautiful – tiny mudbrick settlements with horses grazing in front of towering snow-dusted peaks, crumbling roads being whipped by some of the wildest winds we’d ever experienced. About three hours in, we found ourselves on a winding dirt track overlooking a green valley. Around the bend, a house appeared, and two figures running like hell towards us. We lowered the window and a pair of wrinkled hands clamped onto our door frame with the strength of of a pair of hands that had clamped onto many hundreds of door frames in the past.

“Dirham! Dirham!” the old woman barked. Now, we might have been inclined to give the woman some food, but if you give money to everyone who asks for money in Morocco, you’ll barely make it past the border. Besides, she didn’t ask very nicely.

Gently, Oscar pried the old woman’s fingers from our vehicle, and we trundled off to the distant melody of Arabic swearing. It wasn’t for another few minutes, when we heard a metallic clunk and then a dull thud, that we realised we’d forgotten about the second distant figure, and while the woman had diverted us with her vice-like grip, her grandson had climbed onto the boot of our car and begun untying our worldly belongings. If it wasn’t for the fact that aluminum clothes racks make quite a bit of noise when they hit the ground, we might never have noticed. Oscar pumped the brakes, and chased a skinny-jeaned teenager, sans clothes rack, up the road. If the kid hadn’t been laughing and pointing at us, I might have assumed he was in more of a desperate situation.

High Atlas Mountains

On we trundled, down deep into the guts of the mountains, along the valley floor with the light falling and nowhere to camp in the howling wind. We were greeted by a large family who must have heard us coming for miles. They seemed excited, the road had washed out some time ago with no obvious efforts made to replace it. Visitors didn’t pass through often. They spoke over each other in French and Arabic, inviting us in for tea or a meal, we said we had to keep going, but to avoid another attempted clothes rack heist, plonked a perfect round orange into the hands of each family member.

Their reactions were not ones of satisfaction, in fact they looked truly confused. They spoke to each other with unfamiliar words but an entirely recognisable tone. They hadn’t asked for anything, they’d simply wanted to help us out, why are these stupid white people tossing oranges out of the window for no good reason? We left feeling abashed. Onwards into the night in a place we didn’t know the rules for anymore.

The next morning, we came across Omar and his brother, two charismatic young Berber men trying to hillstart their dusty car. We gave them a jumpstart and were invited in to meet the family and have breakfast. The house was toasty warm, with the morning light streaming through the window and a medical reality show playing on the small TV in the living room. After a sleepless night in our tent cowering from the wind, the steaming mint tea and bread with jam was a godsend. As we left, we asked Omar if he wanted anything in return for the hospitality.

Bristling slightly, he replied.

“Porquoi?”

Why indeed, we left reprimanding ourselves again.

Breakfast at Chez Omar

Call it southern hospitality, or luck, but from that point on every single local we met wanted nothing but to talk, and be friends.

In Mirleft, Bokhtar and Ali shared fishing tips and some of their catch. In Dakhla, we spent two days camping next door to Jelili, who kept us topped up to the eyeballs with tea and insisted we join him for a feast of fish tagine, lemony and delicious. At the border of the Western Sahara, a disputed territory and former conflict zone, Abdes, a military police officer, kept us lingering under the blazing afternoon sun as he showed us what seemed to be every picture ever taken of his new wife, a wide eyed beauty with an impressive cake repertoire.

Ali and Oscar with the day’s haul

Morocco is an enigma. The constant clamour of touts and opportunists can make you feel miles from home, desperate for the cool indifference of a Glassons sales assistant. On one hand, people back home aren’t going to mount your moving vehicle to steal your clothes rack (probably), on the other hand, New Zealand Police wouldn’t invite you into the office for breakfast to say sorry after giving you a speeding ticket, and they definitely wouldn’t wave you down to show you pictures of chocolate gateaux.

I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time in Morocco, and travelled many thousands of kilometres within its borders. People sometimes ask me what to expect from the country, and frankly, I wish I knew. You can prepare to be swindled, but you should also prepare to be as surprised by the kindness and humility of the Moroccan people as you would be by a cheeky neck-slurp. Like Forrest Gump’s infamous box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get, and to be honest, that’s at least two thirds of the fun.

Agadir sunset

Etoh’s house, Mid Atlas Mountains

Tata gorge

Standard