Crossing the Border into Senegal
After having heard horror stories over and over again about the Rosso border, we decided to heed the advice and cross into Senegal from Mauritania via Diama. Having never been to the Rosso border, we cannot attest to whether or not the rumors are true. However, crossing at Diama was painless and quick so we highly recommend this route. It is much closer to St. Louis than Rosso is, so if that is your next destination, crossing at Diama makes more sense anyways. It is good to keep in mind, the border closes at 6pm and doesn’t open until 9am so you want to leave yourself plenty of time to get there if you are coming from Nouakchott.
As was the case all over Mauritania, we were constantly stopped by checkpoints and discouraged by police from hitchhiking to the border. At one checkpoint, the policeman insisted we pay to return to Nouakchott and go to our embassies to organize transport to the border. We were at least 50 km outside of Nouakchott, determined to get to Senegal that day, and had interacted with many checkpoint police by this point and hitchhiked enough around the country to know that this policeman’s reluctance was less founded on concern for our safety and more for appearances. We told him we would just continue on and he acquiesced.
At this point, you may be thinking it reckless to doubt an officer’s opinion about the safety of travel in his country. However, in this part of the world, officers routinely act out of self-interest (by requesting payment for their services) or out of internal bias toward lower-class members of society. Because of this, you cannot always trust that police and military have your best interest in mind and you have to trust your gut and instincts.
We continued along with varying degrees of success, often having cars stop, invite us along, grab our bags and then quickly change their minds upon finding out we were not paying customers. We fended off a group of kids who surrounded us demanding we give them a cadeau (french for present) and were relentlessly insistent that I hand over my watch and shoes. Fortunately, two older guys who were also on their way to the border, yelled at them and must have used some pretty convincing words because they left us alone after that.
Finally, we scored a ride in a lorry truck with two guys who were going to a small fishing village within 40 km of the border. They were lovely men, sharing their bread with us and making tea in the cab, with an open flame propane burner, we assume unaware of the potential fire hazard they were creating. Shortly after they picked us up, we were stopped at another checkpoint by officers highly suspicious of why we were traveling with these men. They demanded we all get out of the truck, we showed them our passports (fiches were not sufficient), and the driver was made to show all of his documentation as well as giving his personal information to the officers. We knew they were conducting the stop for our safety, but the way they were addressing the driver sounded demeaning and suspicious so I felt guilty for interrupting their journey to have him be accused by these policeman after having done us such a favor.
The officers let us continue and we apologized to the driver for the hold up. Even though I understand the necessity of the checkpoints, for future crossings, we ducked behind the seats so that we would not be spotted by the police causing further hassle and delay. Again, I hear the concerns of people thinking all of this sounds like we are asking for trouble, but when hitchhiking, you become very good at reading people and understanding threatening vs non-threatening body language. In Arab culture, offering to break bread and share drinks with someone is a sign of hospitality, which means they will not do you any harm. Men driving lorries are employed by a company to transport goods to a destination. They have accountability and there is not time allotted in their tight schedule to randomly, pointlessly murder a few tourists. So we trusted these men and continued the arduously slow journey in their bumpy truck towards the border.
It was a painfully slow trek and we were grateful for the ride but also became very aware of the 6 o’clock deadline we had to get to the border before it closed. Around 4 we stopped in a village for lunch, which they kindly shared with us. We could tell we were getting close to Senegal because the dish was spicy and full of flavor. We were even more determined to get there.
While we were eating a man came to the truck and offered to take us by taxi to the border. The road was shit, he said, and the truck would be extra slow and uncomfortable for us. He wanted more money than we wanted to spend (obviously, we were trying to spend no money, but we were a bit tempted because we were cutting it close to get to the border on time) so we declined his offer and chose to stick with the truck. I wouldn’t say that I regretted the choice, but the road was definitely in far worse condition than I was expecting and the hour or so that it took us to get through it was taxing on my already exhausted body. There were huge potholes our driver tried, to no avail, to swerve around, and every bump shook the entire cab making the journey feel as though we were traveling in a washing machine. And not the new quiet ones, but the ones that you use at a cheap laundromat that only work when accompanied by physical abuse.
We were beginning to assess the surroundings, as we often do when we believe we will not make it to a destination, for places to throw up the hammock. The terrain was more kind than other places in Mauritania for hammock camping as there were actually a few trees but I was skeptical of this new landscape. For starters, it was a marsh. We had no idea about the tides or the wildlife or the people that made their way through this remote area at night. It reminded me of home so I thought, if I was an alligator (or I guess in this case, a crocodile), I would totally live here. Gabe was more inclined than I was to camp, so I was just hoping that we would make it to the border on time.
A little before 5:30, we came to the fishing village the truck was stopping in. We had not seen many cars pass us heading for the border, so we were skeptical that we would find a ride at this time of day. In a great stroke of luck, another lorry was coming the opposite way and stopped to talk to our driver. The other man asked about us and our driver said we were trying to hitchhike to the border. “There is a pickup truck right behind you with a family inside who are heading that way, but there are no other cars so if they pass you, you will be stuck here”, he told our driver. The man coming from the opposite way kept his truck blocking the pickup long enough for us to get our stuff out of the lorry. Gabe ran up to the car and asked if they would take us and they agreed. We didn’t have any time to properly thank our previous ride for all that they had done for us, but we exchanged quick thank-yous and big smiles and threw our stuff and ourselves into the back of the pickup.
The driver sped down the dirt road, making infinitely better time than we had made all day. I love riding in the back of pickup trucks and the late afternoon light was beautiful over the marsh. It was the most lush landscape we had seen in months and I was beyond excited to be out of the desert. The air was fresh and not dust-laden, there were birds everywhere, the smell of trees and a fresh breeze to break the afternoon’s sweltering heat. We got a better view of the wildlife and saw our first warthog and Gabe’s pretty sure he saw a honey badger on the side of the road, I was glad we were not going to have to camp here.
We made it to the first border checkpoint right before 6 and I could tell the driver was negotiating with the officer to let us pass. In the end, he did and we were all grateful. Back in the truck, speeding to the border, we made it right at 6. The officers were lounging around and the atmosphere was relaxed, probably because it was almost closing time. The officers took our passports and asked the usual questions with the obvious answers. Where are you going? Senegal. Where are you coming from? Mauritania. Piece of cake. We got our exit stamps and walked across the river to the Senegalese side.
There were people fishing off the bridge, couples walking together for sunset, kids playing football. It was a breath of fresh air for us and we were relieved to be in a place where we didn’t have to act so conservatively.
The officer at the border was watching football and he and Gabe bonded over talking about teams and players (mostly Sadio Mané). They were laughing as the officer took down our information and began processing our passports. I went to give my fingerprints and the machine kept glitching. He gave me hand sanitizer, which did not help so we tried again. And again. He was also half watching the football, obviously more concerned with the game than with processing our information. He asked for other fingerprints to be scanned but we thought he had finished with mine and now wanted Gabe’s. We were wrong.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?? NOW WE HAVE TO START ALL OVER!” There was much teeth-sucking and head shaking and there was no more laughter or talk of football. He finished in silence but we had our stamps with an hour or so of daylight left.
WE MADE IT! We were both ecstatic to be in Senegal and already our mouths were watering for a sweet, cold beer. The first in weeks. We had a Couchsurfing host lined up in St. Louis (a town we had been told by Mauritanians had a lively party scene) so all we had to do was get the 30km or so to the city. One of the officers asked if we needed a taxi but we told him we preferred to hitchhike. He laughed and said a taxi was cheap (it was. About 4 euro all the way to the city) but we insisted we would try our luck and if not, we could always come back and get a taxi or camp in the much more suitable woods just past the border. There had been two cars behind us at the border that had nowhere else to go but south so we took a gamble that they would stop for us and give us a lift. After all, one of them had already given us a ride to the border. We knew it would take the cars longer to pass through security so we patiently waited and as the sun was beginning to set when we saw the first set of headlights coming towards us. Naively, we thought we were a shoe in as passengers but they sped right past us, cutting into the other lane to do so, a sure sign they would not stop. No worries, we thought, it wasn’t the pickup truck and they will surely stop for us.
They did not. Just as the other car had done, they sped past. It was getting dark now and we had a decision to make. We could camp for the night but would not be able to get a ride until 9 a.m. the following day at the earliest, since that is when the border opened and no other cars would be coming through until then. Or we could go back to the border and hop in a taxi, coughing up the 4 euro to get to town. We opted for the latter. It had been such a long day and honestly, the thought of getting a cold beer was the main driving factor in my desire to get to the city. However, back at the border, they were closing up for the night and all of the taxis had already left. We managed to exchange our Mauritanian money for francs but were told we would have to walk to the town of Diama to get a taxi. They told us it was close, about 150 meters, so we chose to walk.
As we would later find out is a reoccurring theme, Senegalese people regularly underestimate the distance of things. In this case, that 100 meter walk turned out to be a little over a kilometer down a pitch black dirt marsh road in unfamiliar territory, with all of our shit. I was exhausted and it was passed time for that beer I had been waiting so patiently for. We made it to Diama and found a taxi driver going to St. Louis. We had been told that people will quote you a price that is usually ten times as much as you should pay and this was no exception. 50,000 francs to get to St. Louis, we were told. We paid 5,000.
As is usually the case, we found out we would have been better off camping and hitchhiking the next day because it still took ages to reach the city in a collective taxi and once we did, we realized that our host lived in a devoutly Muslim neighborhood. There would be no celebratory beers that night.
- USE THE DIAMA BORDER OVER ROSSO. Even if a few people have good experiences and say the Rosso border is not that bad, the Diama border is assuredly easy and is closer to St. Louis.
- It’s usually better to exchange currency before getting to the border, but the exchange rate we were offered at Diama was not much different than the one our app suggested it should be.
- The border opens at 9 am and closes at 6 pm.
- It’s easy to hitchhike there but leave plenty of time to get to and through the border if you want to continue hitching to St. Louis.
- Your Senegal visa is free for 90 days and it does not cost anything to exit Mauritania (we heard from people crossing at Rosso that Mauritanian officials try to charge people unnecessary fees throughout the exit process).
- The road to Diama is shit, but it was no problem to get rides there and we saw many cars coming from and going to the border (as it got closer to 6 pm, we saw much fewer vehicles so don’t wait until the last minute).