Driving from Europe to Africa – part two: held to ransom

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The journey from Africa to Europe overland through the Sahara is taken by migrants every day. William Montgomery took this journey in reverse, on a 3,500 mile trip through one of the most hostile environments on the planet, in a two-wheel drive city car.

<p>Plage Ouakam, Dakar (Photo: William Montgomery)</p>

Plage Ouakam, Dakar (Photo: William Montgomery)

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The town of Rosso is split in two, Rosso Mauritania and Rosso Senegal, divided by the Senegal River and the now an international border. It was previously one settlement when this part of Africa was a French colony.

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Crossing the border requires you to get on a ferry. On each side of the border there are small and chaotic compounds where you leave your car while dealing with customs formalities.

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I arrived in Rosso Mauritania at around four in the afternoon. On entry to the town I was flagged down by a man in a high visibility jacket. The man got on his moped and led me to just outside the compound area. I parked my car next to the gate and handed my documents to a local police officer.

Within seconds my car was surrounded by dozens of local men, including a big and intimidating middle-aged man with huge bloodshot eyes dressed in shorts and a green polo top that was too small for him. This was the local chief.

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The chief, who spoke a little broken English, said I would need to pay for Senegalese car insurance, and ‘tax communal’, before boarding the ferry.

By this point my guide had long gone.

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I had €120 with me that I thought with a bit of local currency conversion would be more than enough to get me across into Senegal.

I had spent €70 crossing into Mauritania yet I had to pay €55 for a visa on arrival, the rest I spent on insurance.

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There was no visa requirement for me in Senegal. The only expenses I expected to encounter was again insurance and perhaps a few small negotiable bribes. I had already reached my bank withdrawal limit for the day so I was unable to access any local currency.

With the situation quickly deteriorating I explained to the chief I might not have enough money for the crossing and wanted to turn back.

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However, he claimed that because I was already booked on the ferry I was unable to turn around – something I initially believed but later realised was likely untrue given my car was still officially in Mauritania and my passport was not stamped out of the country.

Feeling as though I had no choice, I left my car and reluctantly followed the chief through the filthy backstreets of Rosso to what was a shack. I handed a man behind a wooden counter the €100 the chief required to pay for insurance and let me into the border compound.

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Having paid the money I wasn’t given anything in return but the chief now allowed me to drive my car into the compound.

The Mauritanian compound area was effectively a small car park. It was filled with people, mainly men from both sides of the border as well as child beggars who would wash your car when you weren’t looking and then demand some form of payment.

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After parking my car in the line for the ferry the chief quickly returned and asked for more money for the ferry ticket, something I was initially told was free.

I said to him I had no more money and he responded that he would pay for me out of kindness. I knew I was getting into a trap but it was a trap I was already knee-deep in.

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He produced a flimsy Senegalese car insurance certificate which I initially believed was fake, given the severe misspelling of my name. The chief then took me to get my passport stamped out of Mauritania.

William Alexandreson – my Senegalese doppelgänger?

With my passport stamped I was at the chief’s complete mercy.

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This was when he began to get aggressive. Banging on my car door and yelling, he demanded the money that he had supposedly used to buy my ferry ticket and car insurance.

I was now his captive, trapped in the border compound, completely helpless and unable to board the ferry until I found the means to pay. I’d have to find the money soon, as this was the last ferry of the day, due to leave within minutes.

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Convinced my bank cards weren’t working, I began panicking and unable to think logically. I wanted to go to the police but aside from being in on the operation, I wasn’t officially in Mauritania so there was no chance they’d help me.

The chief demanded I pay him 8,000 ouguiya (around £170), conveniently the maximum withdrawal amount from the local cash machine before he would let me on the boat.

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The only hope I had was the emergency card in my wallet, which had previously not worked at Mauritanian cash machines. I left the compound, re-entering Mauritania illegally and the chief took me to the town’s ATM where mercifully the card worked and I handed him the money.

When I got back to the compound he handed my documents over to his friend.

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I boarded the ferry with Mamadou, the chief’s Mauritanian associate, in the passenger seat and from there it was a swift crossing to the Senegalese side. I suspected a similar scenario on the Senegalese side of the border yet I was mildly relieved as I knew there was little chance Senegal would be as backwards as Mauritania.

Mamadou was a better character than the chief – but also appeared quite thick. He was short and cleanly dressed in a Bayern Munich polo shirt along with a clearly fake Gucci cap with a sling pouch bag wrapped around him. Mamadou spoke little English.

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Entering Senegal at last

When we arrived he took my documents to the immigration area. The police on the Senegalese side certainly looked less threatening than Mauritanian authorities, wearing French-style gendarmerie outfits, as opposed to Mauritanian militia type dress.

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However, almost immediately upon arrival there was an issue – something with a potentially disastrous outcome.

The police officer who viewed my passport explained that I had to have previous authorisation from the Senegalese embassy in Nouakchott to cross at the Rosso border, not something I was aware of.

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The officer threatened to send me back to Mauritania.

Returning to the Mauritanian side would be a serious issue. I’d again be in the hands of the chief, this time completely empty-pocketed and without access to money which would prevent me from even buying another visa for the country, leaving me stranded.

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I initially believed it was an attempt to get a bribe out of me and I offered to pay the man the remaining €20 I had in my wallet but he declined. Clearly taking pity, the officer eventually decided to stamp my passport for which I was and still am extremely grateful.

Cigarette and espresso in hand, Mamadou led me to a number of rooms with my documents where they were checked and stamped. Following a car search Mamadou got back in my vehicle and said we would now go to the vehicle Douane office, a kilometre away from the border complex.

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We drove to the customs office, now with Mamadou’s associate also in the car, and registered my vehicle in Senegal.

A very rare image of light traffic on Dakar’s inner ring road (Photo: William Montgomery)

The two men then demanded that I drive them to the bank where they would make me withdraw 150,000 francs (around 230 euros).

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Even though I was now legally sound, I could not run from the ever deteriorating situation, as this man had my passport and vehicle documents, once again placing me as their captive.

They told me the nearest bank was about 10 miles away, in the neighbouring town of Richard Toll.

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With the sun going down I knew that with both of them in the car on a 10 mile journey there was the potential for things to get very messy.

I desperately attempted to call the British embassy in Dakar before proceeding any further, but got no response.

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With the embassy being useless, I began negotiating with them – I agreed to go to the bank but with only Mamadou in the car and not his associate. This seemed to spark a heated argument between the two men. After a few minutes of shouting at each other Mamadou agreed to come with me alone.

On our way to Richard Toll we were stopped by the police. The police officer seemed to know Mamadou well.

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I was asked for my driving licence, which I was unable to find. Minutes passed and having searched the car it was nowhere to be found. Surprisingly Mamadou resolved the situation when he found it under my seat.

The police officer then attempted to get a bribe off me because I did not have a tyre pump in my car, but being notably empty-pocketed I was let off.

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Of course, being in cahoots with the scheme, the police didn’t question what was going on.

Arriving in Richard Toll, it was now completely dark. I was fully aware that both my cards were likely maxed out and sure enough I could only withdraw 50,000 francs, 100,000 short of Mamadou’s requested 150,000.

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For another 30 minutes we travelled around this small town and I attempted to withdraw more money from different machines, but it was hopeless.

I offered him my camera, which he refused to take as payment – he clearly did not realise the camera was worth more than 150,000 francs. He also could not grasp that I was unable to withdraw money as I had reached my withdrawal limit, even though it was something I explained to him multiple times.

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Desperately, I explained the situation in extremely broken French to which he seemed to understand and finally, he accepted my camera, 50,000 francs and €20.

He handed back my documents and I rushed off. I was relieved to finally be free and drove directly to the night’s hotel.

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I woke up the following morning in the coastal city of Saint Louis. Perhaps the town’s most notable feature is its colonial French architecture. Saint Louis is a very pretty town and completely unspoilt, although noticeably poorer but less chaotic than Dakar.

From Saint Louis it was a four-hour drive south to Dakar through the Senegalese Savannah.

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The roads were perfect, the landscape beautiful and contrary to the previous night, people incredibly friendly and welcoming. Driving through Senegal is not dissimilar from driving through France with identical road markings and signs.

However, things were still less than perfect.

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An ‘honest’ bribe

In the town of Thies I was stopped by a policewoman who said she was going to give me a fine because she couldn’t understand my English registration documents – not really a justified reason to fine someone.

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I was reluctant to pay the fine so she suggested I make my way to the local police station.

I gave in and offered her 10,000 Francs (£13) to make the problem go away. She led me to her car, an unmarked and suspiciously civilian looking Peugeot 207.

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She sat down in the back seat and instructed me to put the money on the seat instead of directly passing it over by hand. This was perhaps some loophole tactic which would make the payment technically not a bribe. Surprisingly, she then handed me change in the form of 2,000 francs.

You wouldn’t typically speak well of someone who made you bribe them. However, the policewoman was kind and perhaps more honest than others.

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From Thies I joined the newly built Senegalese autoroute network and from there it was a 40 minute drive to my hotel.

This was unfortunately the end of my journey. I decided not to continue further south to Ziguinchor nor drive home.

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I did not dislike Senegal. I think the country is beautiful, full of many friendly people and well developed for a sub-Saharan nation. The development is evident in its brilliant infrastructure, including a modern railway system, motorway network and a brand new pristine airport in Dakar.

New Senegalese registration plates are similar in design to those in Germany or France (Photo: William Montgomery)

For me the newly implemented European style number plates were a good but niche example of the country’s intended direction.

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Senegal has an ambition to become a major tourist destination.

It is currently falling somewhat short. As a tourist many of the local authorities failed to protect and were even complicit in my few hours of captivity.

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However, I still have a good overall impression of Senegal – unlike Mauritania, which I’d go as far as saying that parts of it are an earthly vision of hell.

I stayed a few further days in Dakar, attempting to get rid of my car in a legal and proper way, something that turned out to be practically impossible.

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During that week I became ill, which in Africa is usually always serious, not to mention I also had a minor accident with a mad local taxi driver.

Fortunately, accidents in Dakar are nothing new, so there was no problem there and I surprisingly recovered after two days of being sick.

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However, seven days later and with no progress made I decided to effectively leg it. I left my car by the side of the road before going to the airport.

Plage Ouakam, Dakar (Photo: William Montgomery)

Saying goodbye to the Panda

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In the weeks prior that little, front wheel drive Fiat Panda had got me across perhaps the most hostile region on the planet, not once putting up a fuss. The car started every time I turned the key and it kept running even when I couldn’t – to leave it by the side of the road seemed disrespectful.

I’d go as far as saying the vehicle’s loyalty may have saved my life.

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I was praying that immigration at Dakar airport would let me out of the country even though the details of my vehicle were on the entry stamp page of my passport.

I was airside without mishap and boarded a flight to Paris.

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Less than 12 hours later I was sitting on a train platform in Geneva next to a group of Ukrainian refugees and waiting for my connection to Milan. A couple of train connections later I was home and my few thousand mile round trip had finally come to a semi-successful end.

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