November 6, 2010

On reflection, Rosso Border Crossing........

For overlander types familiar with traveling North South via West Africa, here is a summary (for the record) of what to expect if you go via Rosso into Senegal from Mauritania.  If you are just interested in reading about what one of the worst border crossings in Africa is like, read on.........

In May 2010, the wife and I left the UK to travel South to Cape Town and had the pleasure of going through Rosso a few weeks ago (Oct 2010). Rosso is one of the links between Mauritania and Senegal.  Its one of the crossings people dread on this kind of trip and really try to avoid.

1) The Rosso crossing is not as bad as people say as long as you "try" and stick to the following......You can avoid it and there is a better crossing at Diama that is reachable when the rains finish. West Africa had suffered some late / heavy rains in Sept / Oct 2010 and we found the route to Diama closed / flooded. Thus if you have no other option Rosso it is!

2) The border / crossing is true African experience and most of the blogs / posts on the topic are right, so if you have read up on it most of what happens is no surprise and you can arrive "prepared". Keeping your cool is key and take your time - dont get rushed and be firm but polite with the "masses" that "welcome" you.

3) Chaos starts way before you get to the border heading South from Mauri. We were "introduced" to a "guide" 15km North of the border who "chased" us in a Merc. When I say chased, I mean he and his 2 mates drove at speed to cut us up and stop us several times to make sure we "knew" that "they" were our "chosen" guides for the crossing and the people to buy insurance from etc..... These guys seriously intimidate the locals and offers of "free" help were jumped on quickly!!! Attempts to shake them off (changing direction, going back to previous police post etc....) simply resulted in them turning around and chasing us the other way. Easy to escape on motor bikes - less so in an aging Land Rover or push bike. These guys have a well rehearsed routine - with each of them fully understanding French and English they will stand right next to you and listen to your conversations. Try and be polite and talk in private when you are on the move.

4) As soon as you reach The Blue Gates (they have erected on both sides of the river) crowds gather..... you have no choice but to go through them to start the processing. This ensures that Westerners are "greeted" by the right "gang" that happens to have first pickings that day / time. Just ignore the idiots / kids / beggers / scammers and drive through the and do not stop and a few inches from the gates they will miraculously open for you...... WELCOME TO ROSSO!

5) Parking is just down by the river. Park up and lock all doors etc... if you are on bikes..... leave your partner with the bikes and walk in with all your paperwork. If you were solo this would be hard work to secure your gear....pick pockets and thieves are ACTIVE and alert to all your moves, with young kids acting as distraction artists (singing, begging etc...) while older, more skilled Oliver Twist types try door handles, locks, bags etc.... etc.....

6) Police and customs are in on the scam..... they so not get involved in disputes and the "guides" are basically their slave / gimps that do their bidding (fetch tea, read out documents etc....) so kind of feel good about their position in the pecking order.

7) To avoid involvement of the "help" is a hard task..... even when (as we did) ignore all attempts of help, and handing our paperwork over to the police etc.... you realise that this gets given straight back to the "help". We accepted this and as we had not lost our cool with them things actually progressed quite smoothly and friendly.   A kind of Stockholm Syndrome begins to prevail !

8) While you keep your money in your pocket YOU hold slightly more power than them - its your cash they want - remember this and avoid handing money over in dribs and drabs. Make sure you state you will pay the "fees" when EVERYTHING is complete and all paperwork is back in your hands.

9) If you have more than 2 people in your group (we had 6 in our party) it helps to divvy up responsibilities. This helps create confusion for them and several people will stick with you to make sure where the "money is". Its kind of fun to keep this "show" going right to the end.

10) Ignore the B S""T info about needing insurance before you cross etc..... buy it on the other side. The "help" will cross the river with you and when you get to the other side a "handover" is made to "help" No. 2. Again, be friendly, don't loose your cool and work with the guy.

11) We bought a 6 month Carte Brun for 3rd party insurance for the Landy for West Africa Community Countries for 100 €. You will need to get this as its an easy bribe point at the numerous check points that exist on the way to St Louis. We got asked for it at least 6 times before St Louis along with a series of other items, like warning triangles, high vis jackets, fire extinguisher etc...etc....

12) When the helper gimps have finished with the paperwork the fun begins. There are some legit. fees to pay, ferry ticket, passivant etc...but the rest is fake. Here is what we paid as a guide (per couple / vehicle).
  • Ferry ticket 23€
  • Passivant, processing, tax 25€
  • Insurance, 6 month Carte Brun 100€
  • "Help" fee 21€
For sure we got ripped off but also we got off lightly compared to what other people have paid in the past. The insurance alone probably saved us at least a few fines on the way to St Louis.

13) Bear in mind we avoided all the smaller scams (parking fees etc...) and bar one of our mates getting his hat nicked and me getting my pocket felt (a kid stole my ferry ticket receipt HA HA HA), we were finally let out of the Blue Gates in Senegal side at approx 8pm (dark by now) having started the process at 3pm (way too late). We then had a 120km drive in the dark to St Louis.....It was dark and the crowd was intimidating but we stuck together and got through it.

What would we do different next time / advice we would offer:
  • Go to Diama for sure - but we cut it too fine with the rains - check the weather situation in advance - ideally with Zebrabar people.
  • Catch the earliest ferry - we made a bad choice because of the closed road to Diama and so ended up on the last ferry (fools)
  • Unless you speak absolutely fluent French and insist on speaking with the Chefs at each post and probably use a line along the lines of reporting them when you get to Dakar, it is better to work with the "help" - I sensed that no one wants to rock the boat at Rosso so this is probably a futile strategy - so agree a price for the lot before you start and ONLY pay it when you get THROUGH the gates.
  • You do hold some power and its your cash they want - withhold it for as long as you can - if you can go as a group it helps.
  • You dont have to worry about your documents going missing as you can stick with the paper chain - just hold your nerve and keep your eyes peeled
  • Dont do what one of the people in our group did (a traveler we met along the way) and tell them that you are "scared", this helps transfer power to them and probably a racking up of more fees on the "scam meter"
  • Going there with a "I am going to not pay a single bribe" attitude is probably going to rock the boat. Softly, softly works best.
All in all - Rosso does exactly what it says on the tin! Its a sorry looking, poor place, full of people trying to make a quick buck. It looks like one or two main gangs hold control and they work with the officials - I am not sure how you could change this.

Its a real shame as Senegal is a nice country and this is "introduction" is just a let down which you quickly get over, especially over a bottle of wine discussing the revenge scenarios you might employ should you ever pass by on the river in an "Apocolypse Now" style gun boat and an unlimited amount of ammunition !! ;-)

Enjoy it and good luck !!

Nick & Vicki
Stonehenge to Cape Town 2010/11

We use Chris Scott guides - Fantastic resources!
Overlanders' Handbook: Worldwide route and planning guide (car, 4WD, van, truck)  Sahara Overland, 2nd: A Route and Planning Guide (Trailblazer)  Morocco Overland: 45 routes from the Atlas to the Sahara by 4wd, motorcycle or mountainbike (Trailblazer Guides)


Merv said...

Great write up!

Roger-the-blogger said...

.... and I thought Diama was a pain the the arse!!