We left Nouakchott hanging on to the tandem as we bumped over the dusty, unmade roads and through the chaotic traffic to the shanty outskirts and past the huge livestock market. This was a whole new experience, courtesy of Mike and Mary, who offered us a lift to the Diama border crossing to Senegal. We leapt at this generous offer as it gave us the chance to go off piste, through the national park and avoid the Rosso crossing – notorious for hassle and extortion. We heard of travellers parting with anything up to 800 Euros to get through.
The narrow main road south had tarmac, with plenty of cracks and deep holes and the usual raggidy edge, but this time we were the big vehicle! The villages became far more colourful soon after leaving the capital, with brightly painted, modest little box shaped houses centred around small, simple mosques. We left the white sands of the beach behind for rich orange dunes and the umbrella foliage of the trees.
It’s hard to describe our mode of transport. A vehicle designed by Mike and Mary and built over two years on to a Mercedes off-road fire engine chassis. At first glance it looks like a huge motor home but after being expertly piloted for two days by Mike, there seems to be no terrain it can’t handle. And we certainly put it to the test.
We left the tarmac and headed west down dirt tracks and eventually beyond, far from the madding crowd of the capital. Apart from the occasional herder, we saw nobody, but delighted in seeing plump donkeys grazing in little packs replace the camels. The foliage filled the sandy gaps as we finally said farewell to the desert.
The wetlands of the Diama National Park had everything a naturalist dreams of. No gift shop, cafe or signage. A few villagers reliant on fishing from the green fringed waters, which teemed with bird life. If ornithologists have their own heaven, this is it. The dirt track became a muddy washboard road and with time moving on, we turned off into the bush and tucked ourselves away for the night. Mike lowered the electric steps, we dropped our gear out and then we stood, surrounded by the sounds of Attenborough’s Africa. The steps were raised as the door shut and we uttered the words “Jurassic Park” in unison.
Despite the flat terrain, we were on the edge of the watering hole so the ground was rough, stippled with sun baked footprints. Even here in the bush the obligatory goat herd materialised and asked for a cadeau. Firefinches fell from the trees in clouds while egrets swept through and the black kites circled and all the time a cacophony of exotic calls. This was the Africa of my dreams. The calls of the boar could have been the roar of dinosaurs and later their snoring interrupted our dreams.
We sat and ate our slightly old bread for dinner on a decaying log as the sky coloured to signify the end of another hot day. Being a watering hole, we dashed into the tent in an ungainly panic as the clouds of mosquitoes gathered. We lay and listened to their whining as they knocked impatiently on the tent and then ran the gauntlet again in the morning before releasing the mass that had gathered between the tent flysheet and inner. Africa sang its best lullaby right through til its morning alarm call.
Border crossings are always rife with rumour and despite this being the quietest place to pass into Senegal, we knew there was a game to be played. We left Mike and Mary – each man for himself and all that – and agreed to meet the other side. And so the border game began. The rules seem to depend on who is playing and what mode of transport you choose. By bicycle, the whole process was relatively quick. We laughed at the ‘requests’ for money and gifts from both the customs and police in each country. We resisted handing over the bike or paying a fine for not having registration documents for it or a driving licence to be able to ride it. Eventually we were through without any cost. We sat and had our first Senegalese coffee while we waited for Mike and Mary, who were playing the game in a higher league than us. Mike plays a shrewd hand and held his ground and eventually we saw them moving across the bridge towards us, only 14 Euros out of pocket and with 72 hours to get to Dakar and get their carnet stamped.
Relieved to see that wildlife does not respect political borders, we saw our first patas monkey and headed towards St Louis.