We’re in the river near Foundiougne, Senegal. Our ferry is stuck in the sand and the sun just set. It’s beautiful but we’re hoping that we aren’t just waiting for high tide. Once we get across it will be time to find a hotel. We hope to get up some of our other Senegal blog posts soon, but we’ve been busy getting everything sorted out before heading into the countryside.
We’re south of St. Louis Senegal at a place called ZebraBar. Having left Mauritania two days ago, we’re official in sub-Saharan Africa. When we headed home after Jackie’s accident in the summer, one of the biggest disappointments (and therefore one of the biggest reasons we decided to return to the trip) was that we had crossed a into a new continent, but not yet crossed a cultural border into sub-Saharan Africa.
Morocco is very clearly part of Arab influenced North Africa. The parts of Western Sahara that we saw were largely similar. At least outside the big cities, women are covered or not seen walking alone.
After our journey through No Man’s Land, we got to Mauritania and the city of Nouadhibou, or as the graffiti at Camping Auberge Abba said, “Volume 1: West Africa.” Mauritania is an Islamic Republic, but it has a mix of Arab (Berber-Arab?), Berber (Arab-Berber?, we’re not really sure), and black (some of them Berbers as well) ethnic groups. Two unifying factors between all the groups seem to be Sunni Islam and Mauritanian mint tea, green tea with mint leaves and sugar poured back and forth from high heights between a tiny metal tea pot and three little cups until the right taste and level of foam (lots of foam being the right amount) are achieved.
We shared tea with the man who worked at the “camping” place where we were staying along with his friend and a Saharawi man who spoke in alternating sentences to Jackie in perfect French and then to Aron in perfect Spanish. The next day on the road, we also stopped to fill our gas tanks from our gas cans in front of somewhere we thought was a hotel and ended up having tea with several women and one man in one of the women’s home. Overall the western parts of Mauritania seemed perfectly safe and calm. People were warm and might not know any other English, but still would say, “Welcome to le Mauritanie.” Because people had us concerned for safety we stayed in a fancy hotel in the capital of Nouakchott (pretty much the only other city in this country besides the much smaller Nouadhibou in the north). We didn’t get a homey welcome with tea at the fancy hotel, but we did have a suite that was larger than our apartment back home.
Even in a strongly religious, Muslim country things started to look different. Many of the black Mauritanian women, while still covering their hair, wore brightly died fabrics. We started to see people carrying large bundles on their heads. The food began to change also. Tagines were only to be found in the “Moroccan” restaurants. Round loaves of bread disappeared, becoming soft French baguettes,something that has carried over to Senegal.
Senegal is fully across the sub-Saharan cultural divide. While the country is about 95% Muslim, you can easily find beer and liquor and we’ve seen ham on a menu (all of which were illegal in Mauritania). You hear loud music in the streets, women in bright dresses walk around freely, and luckily for us there are lots of small motorcycles and scooters, so gas is easy to find in places that would have only had diesel in Mauritania.
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.
23.914901°, -15.764326° Ocean Vagabond, Dakhla, Western Sahara
In case you weren’t aware, the name of our blog comes from the names of our bikes, which are actually the names of two towns we rode by in England on our then unnamed motorcycles almost three years ago. Those towns are named Holt and Melton Constable. We’ve now got our Holt (Jackie’s bike) and Melton Constable (Aron’s bike) back in our possession and they’re up and running again.
We spent two days in Casablanca, and arrived yesterday back at Ocean Vagabond outside of Dakhla, Western Sahara (this is where Jackie’s accident happened, and we still owe you the story of the accident and how we got home). This morning we went into town to see Holt and Melton again after five months of storage. They were dustier and more covered in cobwebs than when we left them, but otherwise they looked pretty good.
Our motorcycling badass friend, Colin, who along with Freya helped us get home in July (like we said, we owe you that story), was there to help us again. We rolled the bikes out of the garage and pumped up the tires. We put in the key and the engines turned over (a good sign that the battery was still alive), but they wouldn’t start.
Colin suggested cleaning the spark plugs, so it was off with the plastic pieces around the motor. As it turned out, we had the wrong size spark plug socket. Off went Colin and back he came with the right one, but we still couldn’t get any good purchase because of the tight space. So, off came the gas tank on Jackie’s bike to allow for more working room, and out came the correctly adjusted and problem free spark plug. In with some starter spray. In with the spark plug. We tried to start the bike and got one putt. Hmmm.
Battery, check. Spark, check. Fuel? In our rush to leave last summer, we hadn’t closed the fuel valves or run the bikes until dry, so there was old gas that had been sitting in the carburetor for the last five months. Colin said that the easiest next thing to try was to open up the carburetor drain screw. With the twist of an Allen wrench, Holt started peeing fuel on the ground for five or ten seconds. We closed the screw, turned the key, pressed the starter button and the engine roared to life. Twist the Allen wrench again, Melton took a little tinkle and we had a second running bike.
By this time the customs office, which was our next planned stop, was closed for lunch. Colin took us to the “Oyster Farm” restaurant, which was really just an oyster farm plus some shaded tables. They served oysters picked 30 meters from where we sat, and octopus and mixed seafood tagines that were so fresh and good that even Aron (who doesn’t like seafood) ate them.
Lunch was followed by picking up our keys and paperwork from Customs in a process that took all of 10 minutes. It took about the same amount of time to look at pictures of the Customs official’s motorcycles on his phone as it did to get our documents and keys. We bought some snacks in town, went back to where the bikes were parked, and rode back to Ocean Vagabond, and successfully rode up the entrance rode without crashing. And here we are, ready to hit the road south again!
As we sit at JFK Airport waiting to fly back to Morocco, it’s time to start tackling the backlog of posts we never wrote when we frantically wrapped up the trip last summer. We had a lot of nice people help us during part 1 of our trip including family, friends, family of friends who took us in when we were soaking wet and dried our clothes, friends of family of friends who let us stay in their home, strangers who brought me a soda and water and let me use their bathroom while I was sitting on the sidewalk in front of their house for 5 hours while Jackie got motorcycle parts… and so on.
On our grueling paced ride through Morocco we had a day of riding a remote, twisty mountain pass through the High Atlas between Marrakech and Taroudant. It was a really hot day and with fumes of gasoline literally squeaking out of the gas cap below Aron’s face, he started feeling sick. Heat plus gas fumes plus twisty turns is a pretty good way to make Aron motion sick, as he has learned at a couple indoor go kart tracks. Aron was just trying to keep riding, but Jackie could hear him suffering through our intercoms and suggested we turn around and stop at the roadside store we had passed a couple hundred yards before, since it was the only “town” we had seen for miles.
We stopped, and Jackie alternated between asking Aron how he was feeling and talking to the owner of the store, our soon to be new friend, Brahim. While Aron was basically incapacitated, Jackie and Brahim made small talk in french and waited for Aron’s motion sickness to pass. Aron sat on the stoop of Brahim’s shop with his head between his legs for about 10 minutes before he started throwing up. Brahim immediately brought him a cold bottle of water, some oranges to eat, and a bucket of water to clean his face and hands.
After 45 minutes with a couple rounds of vomiting and some trips to the squat toilet in the basement of the mosque down the road, Aron started feeling well enough to stand, but he was questioning whether this was in fact motion sickness, since his motion sickness doesn’t usually last this long after he stops moving. We confirmed that this wasn’t in fact motion sickness when a few minutes later, Jackie followed in Aron’s footsteps. She ran off to the the decomposing shell of a Land Rover about 20 feet away, and it was her turn to vomit. First Jackie was taking care of Aron. Then Aron was taking care of Jackie. But mostly Brahim was taking care of us both.
Brahim’s French was perfect, Jackie’s was conversational, and Aron’s consisted of whatever was close enough to English and Spanish words for me to understand. We told him about our trip. He told us about his family and the ethnic Berber village we were in, which consisted of about twelve families total. We watched as he greeted every customer and a majority of the truck drivers driving down the road by name, and as he vouched for us to people who came by as we sat and recovered. It was pretty clear that the whole village new we were there and it felt like Brahim had taken us in as his guests.
We sat and talked to him for two or three hours before thinking about getting back on the road. We didn’t really know how far it was until the next hotel or when it would get dark, but Brahim said we could sleep in the village and motioned to the cement area in front of a storage hut across the street. We decided to get back on the road, but changed our minds when the physical exertion of trying to roll the motorcycles resulted in more vomiting.
After another hour or so of recuperating, we re-parked the bikes and set up our sleeping mats under the stars. It wasn’t the most restful sleep being out in the open with the occasional truck rumbling by, but Brahim told us we would be safe and we trusted him. In the morning, the chief of the village came by with three glasses a pot of mint tea and we sat with him as he cracked walnuts for us and attempted conversation.
We certainly hadn’t planned to spend the night in a Berber village in the Atlas Mountains, and we hadn’t planned to get food poisoning. But if either of those things were to happen (and they did), we completely lucked out on the hospitality front, meeting some of the nicest, most generous people that we met on our whole trip. And we made a new friend as a result.
Brahim’s shop and the decomposing Land Rover.
View of the village from where we slept.
View of Brahim’s shop from where we slept.
Aron and Brahim in the shop.
Brahim in his shop.
Our night’s accommodations.
So we’ve been a bit absent on the blog since July. We promised a couple posts that we’re still planning to deliver, but the big news now, is that we are heading back to finish the trip in December and January. Jackie has recovered really well from her surgery. We fly to Casablanca in a week and half, followed by a flight to Dakhla a couple days later. After we do some maintenance and check-up on the bikes, we’re getting back on the road.
About two weeks ago, we landed back in Boston to get Jackie’s knee some proper medical attention. It’s a good thing we did, because it turns out she had a super rare knee injury that required urgent surgery.
Jackie had an avulsion fracture of the tibia where the ACL attaches to the tibia. This basically means that instead of tearing her ACL, she chipped a whole bone fragment off where the ACL attaches to the tibia. The injury had the same symptoms as an ACL tear (because her ACL was basically hanging useless, attached to the bone fragment), except the surgery is urgent (lest the bone heal in the wrong place). This particular injury is apparently common in children, but incredibly rare in adults. The orthopedic surgeon had only seen this injury one other time in an adult patient.
Last week, Jackie had surgery on her knee to suture the bone fragment back in place so it can heal properly, and now she’s starting to walk with a robot-looking brace.
Unfortunately, this is the end of our epic journey. For now. Jackie needs to heal and learn how to walk again, and then we simply don’t have the time before work starts up again. We need about a month to finish the trip, and we hope we can find the time to do it. But we also have a lot planned this year, so there’s a chance it simply won’t happen. We’ll see.
In the meantime, we’re going to post a few old stories on this blog. One from when we spent a night hanging out with a Berber shop owner in the Atlas mountains, and one from when the incredibly friendly staff at Ocean Vagabond in Dakhla helped us get everything in order before we flew home. Stories are forthcoming soon!
We’re on our way back to Boston. Jackie had a low speed fall in soft sand in Dakhla, Western Sahara on Monday evening. She twisted her knee and it’s very swollen. She can’t walk or support weight on it. Other than that and a big bruise on her thigh she’s ok. There’s much more to tell in another post (helpful new friends, hospitals, customs for the bikes), but our travel insurance said we had 48 hours from the accident to decide if we were going to use our medical evacuation option to get a covered flight home. The closest MRI machine was 1000km away and Jackie still couldn’t walk, so we decided with the clock ticking that going home was best. We’re currently in Frankfurt airport, waiting for our 3rd flight.
If we’re lucky, Jackie’s knee will be good enough for us to return to the trip in a couple weeks. If not, then we definitely made the right choice to come home. We’ll try to get up more of the story when we’re home and let you know what happens next.