What we have done

Crossing No Man’s Land // Mauritania

Moments after driving through the arch of the Mauritanian border, I burst into tears. We had just made our way across the infamous ‘No Man’s Land’ and found ourselves swarmed by fixers trying to ‘help’ us across the border. The gendarmerie were trying to instruct us where to park, but with our little French and the huddle of men clamouring for our attention, we were struggling.

It was probably for the best, because the gendarmerie noticed me crying and immediately barked at the fixers to back off and leave us alone. Apparently this is a pretty awful border, and the fixers never let up, so those tears cmae in handy because we weren’t bothered again.

So why was I crying: the most intense feeling of relief I have felt in a long time.

Morocco’s southern border post is located in Western Sahara, territory that they currently occupied by Morocco against the desires of the Western Saharan peoples. So not technically in Morocco. And thanks to the Moroccan government’s efforts to maintain control of this land, Western Sahara is the world’s longest active land mine.

Western Sahara

And while most of the route is on a well maintained highway, removing any concern of hitting a landmine, between the Moroccan and Mauritanian border posts is a little strip of land known as ‘No Man’s Land’ that we also had to cross. The ‘road’ here is nothing more than a few kilometres of well-trampled sand. If you follow the just-discernible tracks, you won’t get into trouble. But its not foolproof, and sadly a few years ago, two French travellers in a 4WD went too far wide hitting a landmine. One passenger died, and the other was seriously injured.

We knew we’d be fine with this, taking it slowly. However a few weeks prior, tensions had escalated between the Western Saharan party and Morocco, which had raised international concern and had resulted in the Western Saharan party taking guns into ‘No Man’s Land’ which is an agreed no-arms zone, and pointing them at the Moroccan gendarmerie.

As we made our way across the stretch of desert, we saw the Polisario, on behalf of the Western Saharans, in their makeshift uniforms, sitting behind the burnt-out carcass of a ute. A stark comparison only thirty metres away were the Moroccan gendarmerie, sharp in their uniforms and well-maintained vehicles. And stuck between it all was a UN vehicle, presumably designed to maintain the peace and reduce tension between the parties. With the Polisario’s semi-automatics pointing nicely at the Moroccan gendarmie, we were eager to move through quickly. And in the midst of it all, we found ourselves slowly edging past rusted old Mercedes taxis were running back and forth, and locals walking across the land, often carrying nothing more than a small bag. A sign, perhaps, that this was a daily occurrance for many, or at least common. But despite the casualness, when we reached the Mauritanian border, I was relieved to have made it to our next destination.

As we hopped out of the 4WD, we were guided to the gendarmerie office to register our arrival in Mauritania. From there, we made our way to the immigration office to buy our visa. I stepped into the office, and glanced around not registering anyone in the room, until a head popped up in the corner, raising from a prayer mat. Yup, I had interrupted a man praying to mecca, which, in a foreign Muslim country where many deem women a distraction during prayer time, is not a great way to start of your request to enter!

Waiting outside patiently, we soon found a jumble of people around us, all men vying for a visa too. We quickly got shoved to the back, but before I could protect, the visa officer spotted me and call Kev and I in. Fortunately, instead of getting refused entry, we’d found ourselves getting some great service.

We were relieved to buy our visa there – Mauritania has a history of flipping between offering visas at the border, and requiring that they be purchased at the embassy in Rabat, Morocco. Most overlanders buy their visa in Rabat, but we decided against this a while back due to timing. The visas have a short start date, and knowing we wanted to spend three months in Morocco, we didn’t want our visa to run out before we entered Mauritania… especially since they’re €120 each!

The officers issuing the visas were slow to work, watching YouTube videos in between taking our visa pictures and fingerprints, recording our details and issuing the visas. From there, we went to the police to record our visas in the system, and were greeted by friendly faces who asked about our travels and offered us mint tea while we waited. Quite the opposite experience to the many locals traipsing into the office alongside, who we required to drop a ‘small gift’ into the draw before getting police approval to enter.

Finally, we made our way to the customs to get the last required document – the ‘Temporary Import Permit’. A quick chat, a €10 fee paid and we found ourselves with all the formalities out of the way. Minutes later, we were buying insurance for our 4WD, and then in the car, waving goodbye to the border officials as we entered Mauritania.