After leaving Dakhla and Ocean Vagabond, we crossed hundreds of miles through the Sahara on smoothly paved highway. It was desolate and empty, but easy travel through beautiful sand dunes and desert scenery. So why were we so anxious and worried about our next few days on the road? Because of the ominously named No Man’s Land, a roughly 4km stretch of unclaimed, unpaved desert surrounded by land mines (if you stray too far off the track) between where the Moroccan military’s control of Western Sahara ends and where Mauritania begins.
The day before leaving Morocco and entering Mauritania, after some off-road riding practice with Colin, we set off for Hotel Barbas about 85km north of the border. It’s pretty grand and tall building for the area (the middle of nowhere), situated behind the second, more run down looking gas station you pass when coming from the north. They pretty much insisted that we pull our bikes in to the gated and tiled courtyard of the hotel, which was fine with us. The hotel is pretty far south and seems more removed from the Moroccan control we saw in Dakhla. We got the impression that speaking Spanish gets you just as far as French.* (see footnote) The next morning, we set off around 9am for the about an hour ride to the border.
The politics of Morocco and Western Sahara are beyond us, but in sight of border checkpoint it’s clear that the Moroccan military is in charge here. There was a long line of cars waiting to be shuffled into the border control area, and we got in line and waited. And waited. And waited some more. It was a long line, and we were pretty surprised at how slowly it moved.
Then one very nice, or maybe just surprised, man who was walking past us to his car (which was parked behind us in line) shouted (in French), “You know this line is for cars only, right? You can go to the front of the line.” So Jackie rode up to ask the Moroccan police officer at the front of the line if this was true, and it was! Apparently motorcycles are treated differently than cars, and so we got to form our own line. We were first.
We made it into the border control area, and went through more passport checks than we ever thought imaginable. The man at the gate checked our passports. A man inside checked them again. He brought them to another man, who stamped our passports. Then the second man spent 30 minutes writing down every detail of our information by hand onto a piece of paper (a nice little paragraph in red pen). Then there was the customs check. Then a check for our bikes. Then the customs form again. Then the police man at the exit. Then we had to stop and get in line to have our passport and registration details written down on a giant ledger. Then one final check, and we were free (to cross into No Man’s Land).
As soon as we entered No Man’s Land, we were bombarded by people wanting to exchange money. We traded 50 Euros and all of our Moroccan Dirhams for Mauritanian Ougiya, and we think we actually got the better end of the deal. Probably because Jackie confused them a bit with our negotiating (we negotiated a price for Euros + our remaining Dirhams, and then traded that price for Euros only and ended up getting more Ougiya for our Dirhams. You’re probably confused too).
Then we began the drive through No Man’s Land, which turned out to be quite a bit easier than we had expected. This means that there were only two parts with soft sand, no signs of land mines or easy ways to go completely off track, and the rest was a relatively clear path of rocky bits (like going up and over speed bumps, potholes, and curbs every foot or so). The track was relatively wide and sometimes confusing, but if we were ever lost then we could just wait for another car to come by and follow that car’s tracks. Note that we did NOT follow the Audi being led off into the soft sand by a couple guys on foot. But they eventually made it through behind us, anyway.
After about a kilometer or two, we could see the Mauritania side (which made navigating very easy). When we arrived, we were approached by a man who could “help us get through without paying too much.” We thanked him for his offer, but decided against his “free” help – an offer like that is never really free. Then we went through all the Mauritania checks. First some officers took down our passport information. Then we filled out some customs forms and got them stamped. (Note that we had to pay 10 Euros per bike for this. There was an official receipt, so we paid it.) Then an officer stamped our passports. Then we got sent into a special room for foreigners where they took our fingerprints and photos (this part took forever, since the fingerprinted machine couldn’t seem to capture Jackie’s fingerprinted despite having four different officers push on her fingers, trying to get them to work). Then one final check to exit and we were free.
Finally done with the border crossing, we stopped to see if we should buy insurance. We eventually decided against it because a) we were only in Mauritania for a very short period of time, and b) no one seems to check. We plan on buying some in Senegal though, which should cover us for the rest of our trip. A few kilometers after the border, there’s a police checkpoint where they checked our passport again. After that, fiches were sufficient.
Overall, the whole process took us nearly 5 hours. Colin said that the general rule of thumb is that if you get through before noon, go to Nouakchott. Otherwise, go to Nouadhibou. So, we spent the night in Nouadhibou, where we made some Mauritanian and Saharawi friends, and enjoyed a relaxing night of conversations in multiple languages and tea (much more welcoming than the “National Tourist Office”).
* Western Sahara is the former colony of Spanish Sahara that the Spanish gave up in the 70’s and the Moroccans then claimed. As far as we know, the Moroccans consider it their land, but the UN considers is an occupied country. There are Moroccan military checkpoints at pretty much every town along the main road where you have to hand them “fiche,” which is a little piece of paper with your name, passport details, address, etc. After a couple questions they wave you through. We think they’re basically looking for journalists. Anyways, French is the language of the Moroccans, and Spanish is still spoken by the people of Western Sahara, known as the Saharawi.