Crikey reader Dave Keetch writes: You know you’re a bit off the beaten track when you start having to fill in applications and hand over wads of cash to cross a border. Yep, you’re not in Europe anymore, white boy.
It had only been a week or two earlier that the proverbial had hit the fan for travellers crossing the Sahara through Mauritania and onward to Senegal and Mali. Mauritania was no longer issuing visas on the Moroccan border. They had been doing it for years. Corrupt border officials had also been lining their own pockets for years too. Not anymore. I guess the Mauritanian Government was looking to have some control over who was entering the country.
Travellers making the very long, dusty and usually uncomfortable journey through the Western Sahara to the Moroccan/Mauritanian border were turning up without visas and were promptly being turned away. The first thought for a seasoned traveller was that it was an extortion attempt, but a steely gaze turned to one of hopelessness when it dawned on them that no amount of bribery was going to prevent them from having to turn around and travel several hundred kilometres back in the direction they had just come from.
Dakhla, the final pocket of civilisation before the 300km journey to the border, had turned into ‘little Europe’ as countless backpackers and 4WD junkies found themselves stranded. It was a further 1500km back toward Morocco’s capital, Rabat, where the Mauritanian Embassy were now issuing visas. Believe me when I say that the 1500km journey is not one that you want to repeat once, let alone twice, in the space of a couple of weeks. ‘Little Europe’ devised plans. One group pooled some money together and flew a fiery Frenchman named Pierrick (who I would later meet at a Ghanaian Embassy, but that’s a whole other tourist visa debacle) to the embassy in the Canary Islands. He was entrusted with a stash of passports, cash and the hopes of several dusty and drained trekkers. Another few had placed the same level of trust in three Pom lads who had decided to take their 4WD back to Rabat.
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Luckily word travels fast, especially on the internet, and I had found out the news only days before heading to Rabat from the north of Morocco. It was at the Mauritanian embassy I met the Poms, who were surprisingly upbeat after the long journey and at being faced with about a hundred other people waving application forms at a bloody hole in the wall. It was madness. Coupled with the madness was that it was my first mid-transit visa application, the forms were in French, and I had no bloody idea what I was doing. Furthermore, time was running out — the embassy would shut for a three-hour lunch break at 11am and they only take visa applications in the morning. I didn’t want to come back tomorrow.
A dreadlocked French fella helped me with some of the translation, but he soon admitted to me that he left half the forms blank because he thought the questions were stupid and irrelevant. And so, I gave up and did the same — I just wanted to hand the forms over and be done with them. Fighting through a sea of people — I used my size and my partner used her innocence — we edged near the front. Finally at the window faced with a little man perched on a seat, we, funnily enough, felt a great sense of relief at handing over our passports, photos, forms, and wads of money. The relief was quickly knocked from my lungs when he told me to come back in a couple of days to collect my things.
So for two days I had a lump in my throat and a knot in the stomach. I worried incessantly to my partner that they would reject our applications. She remained calm until I remembered that I had ticked the ‘Male’ box on her form — she wasn’t so calm after that. Our journey had hit a road block. I looked at flights to Senegal and Mali. I buried my sorrows in cheap Moroccan sweets and pastries.
Two restless days and two sleepless nights had passed. I took a taxi to the embassy alone. I was up. I was down. I was ready to beg and plead in broken French. The embassy was quiet that afternoon – a far cry from the chaos of the other morning. “Two Australian passports please,” I said. “Ahh, Australian — long way,” he replied with a smile. He handed over the two passports. Bon Voyage!
I could barely contain my excitement. Or was it relief? Amid the clamour of my heartbeat and the rush of adrenaline I wondered how it was possible to get a visa after completely fudging the application forms. Maybe they like Australians.
Back at the hotel we saw cause for celebration. The only problem was that I hadn’t seen a shop selling alcohol since we’d been in Morocco. We stuffed our smiles with cheap Moroccan sweets and pastries instead.
Dave Keetch recently spent five months travelling through West Africa.