Rosso Border Crossing: the hellhole everyone says it is

We’ve posted about No Man’s Land between Moroccan controlled Western Sahara and Mauritania. While the process was lengthy and convoluted, the crossing was easier that we expected. Having made it through, our next crossing was a similarly dreaded crossing from Mauritania into Senegal. It was the only other part of this trip we’ve been really concerned about. Since we generally enjoyed our short time in Mauritania and Senegal has been great, keep in mind that this post represents the exception on our trip so far.

In short, we found The Rosso border crossing lived up to it’s terrible reputation.

Some takeaways:
1. If you don’t get a receipt it’s not real (this doesn’t mean you won’t have to pay, because receipts generally come after you’ve handed over your money).
2. Don’t let anyone without a uniform or not behind a desk hold your passport or paperwork (this is harder than it sounds).
3. Get through and get over it. Rosso is the toilet of West Africa, but the rest of Senegal is lovely.

In long…
There are two border crossing options between Mauritania and Senegal. They are Rosso and Diama. On the travelers forums we’ve read, Rooso is widely regarded as “the most corrupt border crossing in Africa.” Mind you that evaluation comes from people who have crossed lots of African borders, don’t through around a statement like that lightly, and know from experience. Rosso is swarmed by people who call themselves “helpers,” are call “touts” on the forums, but should be more accurately described as scammers, cheats, and assholes. Diama is a much smaller border crossing, accessible only by 50 miles of piste (dirt road), but also crosses you into Senegal right near St. Louis, which was our next stop. We could start to tell something was fishy within 100 miles of the border. The police checkpoints stopped being short exchanges of pertinent information (where are you from, what is your profession, where are you coming from/going to?), and started to become awkward conversations. Strategically, Jackie stopped speaking any French and Aron got to drive the conversations including one where a policeman placed a call and gave him his mobile phone in order to talk to a “friend” who spoke English (only marginally and who couldn’t really be heard anyway with a phone shoved in the side of a motorcycle helmet). This “friend” could supposedly meet us at the border to “help” us get through. Playing dumb and ignoring it seemed to work, but only after several minutes of “What? I can’t hear you.” Police started asking us if we were crossing at Rosso (easy to get to, but corrupt) or Diama (far flung, but supposedly better). At the first checkpoint we said Diama. Truthfully we weren’t sure which we’d do. At the second we said Rosso and the cop kept asking the question until we switched the Diama. This game played out a few times and it felt like we were being steered one way other the other, but it wasn’t clear which.

The turnoff for Diama is right in town in Rosso, only a couple hundred meters from the Rosso ferry. About 10 miles away we decided to go Diama. Somewhere around this point, a rundown black Mercedes started driving really close behind us. Annoyed, we pulled over to look at maps on our phones and let the car pass. The POS Mercedes loops around to follow us again. We speed up, it speeds up. We slow down, it slows down, now driving in front of us on the poorly paved road making it hard to see ahead and control our pace. We were in a populated area, so this wasn’t really threatening as much as irritating. We pull over at a gas station to fill up our tanks from our gas cans and to try to get rid of them again and the Mercedes stops down the road. Some guys get out saying they can “help” us at the border. We tell them we don’t want their help and they didn’t get the message until Jackie started yelling at them to get the hell away from us (or however close she could get to at in French).

At this point, another car pulled up, but these people seemed to be traveling towards the border themselves. They said they were going to Rosso, we said we’re going to Diama, and they pointed us in the direction of the turnoff. They also pointed out (for the second time we heard this) that you can’t get road insurance in Diama, so we should get it here in Rosso. They suggested that if we ride two motorcycles any closer than the turnoff to Diama, we’ll get swamped by touts, so Jackie went into town with one of the guys to buy insurance while Aron waited with one of the other guys at the turnoff with the bikes. Jackie frustratingly ended up going to three insurance places before finding one that would sell what we needed for Senegal (and supposedly for all of West Africa) it cost about 100Euros for a month which seemed high, but was also about the same amount we had paid for insurance at the border in Morocco (there was however no receipt). Aron waited awkwardly by the bikes for almost an hour.

At about 2:00pm with insurance in hand, we set off for Diama. At first the road was good, but it kept getting rougher and sandier. To keep this part of the story short, we made it about 15 miles in an hour before we decided to turn around and go back to Rosso. It didn’t seem worth risking an increasingly difficult road that looked like it would take at least two more hours to traverse to get to the slightly less corrupt border crossing.

At around 4:00 we made it back to Rosso and surprisingly the guy who helped us with insurance, Mangane or some name like that, hadn’t crossed to Senegal and was still hanging around at the border. He must not really have been traveling and Somehow he inserted himself as our “helper,” navigating the passport checks and customs paperwork on the Mauritania side of the river, which were relatively easy, but usually incorporated some sort of fee (with receipt). Jackie handled the paperwork, while Aron watched the bikes and ignored rude comments from the scammers who were growing tired of being systematically ignored (Note: these jerks need to work on their English language insults if they’re going to accomplish their goal of getting under your skin. “Your wife bad” just doesn’t cut it). General practice of the scammers is to hold on to you passports and paperwork between stops making it difficult to remove them from the equation.
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We crossed the river to Senegal on one of the later ferries of the evening. The ferry is pretty crappy and so are the docks on both sides, requiring you to drive through 10 feet of shin deep water to get on and off. Mangane rushed us on saying it was the last ferry (it wasn’t), and he had to get back to other side (potentially because he had a Chinese guy to scam who was still on the other side). Instead of being done with him, he called a friend who met us to “help” on the Senegal side. When the boat stopped on the Senegal side, the shout-y border official took our passports and drivers licenses (something that requires digging in bags and pockets with both hands, while yelling at us to get off of the boat. Then he disappeared with the paperwork.

The Senegal side was a whole new level of screwed up. Here, the biggest issue was that the border and customs officials didn’t really acknowledge you existence, instead directing all conversation through the scammers (who they were most likely in league with) and thereby further removing you from control in the situation. At this point in the process the scammers (including Mangane who somehow reappeared after our “last ferry of the evening”) count of fatigue setting in. We had all the correct paperwork (visas for Senegal, Carne de Passage for the bikes, insurance) and Jackie still spent an hour or more navigating the various rooms and getting paperwork stamped by dismissive officials. Aron got worried waiting at the bikes and eventually found Jackie. After getting a signal that she didn’t need help, he quickly left the room before the official saw him to avoid changing the dynamic. Ten or so minutes later, Jackie came out with stamped passports, filled out Carnes, and passavants (temporary vehicle permits, which we didn’t really need but paid for). Somewhere in this process, one of the scammers pocketed about 30 or 40Euros that he was supposed to exchange and we had no local currency.

This is when they started demanding 50Euros per bike in payment for their “free help,” but couldn’t explain what we were paying for. Jackie, run down from the previous two hours, didn’t know what to do. Aron asked her if we had all the paperwork we needed and she said we did. We had been parked in to our parking space by some asshole in uniform who was getting his car washed. On Aron’s suggestion, Jackie went to the exit gate to see if there was any reason we couldn’t leave. Aron found a way out of the parking space by backing up and driving around a van. After some angry words, we made a break for the exit gate. We had no local currency, but the guard accepted a slight overpayment of 5Euros to open the gate. Aron pulled his bike up to the gate with a lot of engine revving to get people to step back and get their hands off of our bikes, Jackie passages through, and with some more screaming engine noises we pulled away as someone on the busy road yelled, “Go away! Go away! You are free!” At this point it was twilight and we basically promised ourselves not to drive after dark on this trip. Richard Toll was the closest town and after about 10 miles on good roads and not many minutes after dark, we found a hotel for the night.

The next day (Christmas day), we left for ZebraBar, a camping and bungalow site south of St. Louis, which was our intended destination for the first night in Senegal. ZebraBar was pretty filled with overland travelers. We compared our insurance with some German guys in a sweet Toyota Land Cruiser and realized we hadn’t gotten the proper “Carte Bruin” insurance for all of West Africa. They asked us about our Carne. They had gone through Diama the someday we went through Rosso. They told us there were no scammers, but the border officials were plenty crooked and had refused to stamp their Carne, stating they didn’t have the facilities for it (Note: the facilities consist entirely of the red customs stamp they had used on the German guys’ passavant and a pen). When we got to Dakar a couple days later we found an office for the insurance company we had purchased from on the Mauritania side only to be told our insurance was counterfeit, lacking a hologram and the proper stamps. So much for that 100Euros, although our supposedly counterfeit insurance had already gotten us through one police stop in St. Louis. We bought real insurance with proper full West Africa coverage from another company and paid about 30Euros total.

Oh yeah. In case we didn’t sell Rosso as bad enough, there was also a dead body inside the gated Rosso immigration area. We each separately saw a guy in a yellow shirt laid out and face down in the sand. Someone told Jackie he was passed out drunk. Neither of us stared long enough to see if he was breathing, but both of us have our doubts.

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One thought on “Rosso Border Crossing: the hellhole everyone says it is

  1. Holy crap! Good job navigating that border crossing. Sounds crazy. Also, Rachel, aB, Leanne and I went to ZebraBar! Haha, that’s funny. Did you slackline? 😉

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