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You think you've got problems? Try getting across the Sahara Desert sometime!

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Crossing the world's largest desert by plane; not very glamorous
The train grinds slowly along the Mauritanian border with Morocco, hauling iron ore and a few raggedy travelers through this part of the Sahara, riddled with land mines. "Stay close," our guide warns us. By the light of the moon, we toss our packs (laptops and all) and then jump off the slow moving train into the cool desert night. For the next four hours, we follow our guide through the vast expanse of the Sahara. Not too close, though. If he missteps, I might be sprayed with shrapnel from a landmine. Finally, exhausted but alive, we reach the first border post on the Moroccan side.

My daydream of crossing the Sahara Desert is so vivid as I sit here in my comfortable hotel in Dakar, Senegal. Those few who have made this crossing write that the guards at the Moroccan border will hold you for a few days, take a bribe, stamp your passport and let you join the next caravan northward. But only if there is room to join the journey for several more days of driving through the relentless Saharan sun, and temperatures that reach 50 degrees centigrade (120 F). It is illegal and dangerous, of course, but with a good guide and lots of money for bribes, it can be done. Check this website for all the latest details:

Then again, maybe we'll find another way to get around the Sahara Desert.

I walked up and down the docks with Kevin and Monica, in the hot sun, asking fishing and cargo boats if they would take us as passengers. It was all so familiar, and yet, so different. You know that feeling of Déja vu? "Merci," I tell yet another captain, as he turns us away. "De rien," he says - "you're welcome" in French.

That's it! Darien . . . De Rien - it's all the same!! The Odyssey's long time fans may remember last March, when the team was stuck in Panama, trying to find our way around the Darien Gap--the tiny stretch of land that connects Central to South America which is overrun with drug lords and guerillas and has no roads going through. The port in Colon, Panama, looks similar to this one in Dakar, but here the sailors are African, Chinese, and Bangladeshi instead of Hispanic.

You can't get there from here, take two! This time it's the Sahara Desert that is providing a formidable barrier for the intrepid...ok, maybe a little bit trepid...Odyssey World Trek Team. We found no sea passage at the docks or the yacht club, and we got the same excuses we heard in Colon. Merchant ships said they would get stiff fines if caught with passengers (and the World Trekkers are hard to hide), and the yachts said that it is the wrong time of year for sailing north.

The Sahara Desert
The Sahara, the largest desert in the world

Here are some fun facts about the Sahara Desert:

  • The Sahara Desert is the largest desert in the world. It stretches about 1,610 km (about 1,000 mi.) from north to south and about 5,150 km (about 3,200 mi.) from east to west. The total area of the Sahara is more than 9 million sq. km (more than 3.5 million sq. mi.).
  • The land is almost entirely without rainfall or land water, but it has several underground rivers that flow from the Atlas mountains and other ranges.
  • The temperatures are extreme, ranging from freezing to more than 54.4 C (130 F).
  • You can find animals like gazelle, antelope, jackal, fox, badger, and hyena.
  • The Sahara Desert spreads over parts of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan.

"Well, let's bus north to Nouakchott, Mauritania, and see what we can find there," I suggested at our group meeting.

"I'm sorry, guys," Jasmine said. "Don't get mad, but I just won't go to Mauritania. It's not that I'm a wimp. I could handle the difficult traveling, but there's a lot of racism there. Did you know that they still have black slavery!"

"I can totally respect that, Jasmine," I told her. "I mean, I hate to bust on a country I've never even visited, but I haven't heard a lot of good stuff about Mauritania." It's mostly desert, extremely poor, strictly Muslim, and travel is difficult. Moors (Arabs) control the country, and the black African minority, found mostly in the south, is said to be treated poorly. Slavery was outlawed (for the third time) in 1980, but it is estimated that there are still about 90,000 black Africans who are, essentially, slaves to their Moorish masters.

I met a scruffy, exhausted French couple who had driven down from Morocco just a few days before. (Crossing from Morocco into Mauritania is legal, even though crossing in the opposite direction isn't.) "You won't be missing anything if you miss Mauritania," they told me. "It's miserably poor and it's all desert. It's like being back in the Middle Ages."

In 1989, bloody riots between the Moors and the black Africans led to blacks being airlifted out of Mauritania and into Senegal by the United Nations. The planes didn't return empty, though, because Moors had to be airlifted from Senegal to Mauritania to escape retaliatory attacks.

The north of the county is not peaceful, either. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Western Sahara and Rio del Oro (POLISARIO) has been struggling for liberation from both Morocco and Mauritania ever since the Spanish left their colony of "Western Sahara" and it was divided between the two countries. They haven't been that active lately, but the possibility of armed insurgency always adds to the adventure and intrigue, doesn't it?

What about other ways across the desert? We already looked into the Mali-to-Algeria option and decided that Algeria is too dangerous. Libya, Chad and the Sudan don't really seem like safe options either. Supposedly, it's only 52 days from Timbuktu to Zagora, Morocco, through the desert by camel. Uh, when are we supposed to be in Egypt?

So Jasmine, Kavitha and Kevin decided that they definitely wanted to fly from here. Monica and I decided to try our luck in Mauritania. We took a taxi to the Mauritanian Consulate to get our visas. We entered the courtyard and the building, feeling curious eyes upon us. As we sat waiting for the consulate, a few men--and only men--milled around the lobby, casting occasional stares at us. Monica whispered "I feel that they are very disapproving." I understood why they say women shouldn't travel in Mauritania alone.

Finally, we saw the man we needed to see. He was nice, and told us in English that there had been an increase in the price of visas to his country from 7,000 CFAs (about$12 US) to 70,000 CFAs (about $120 US) per person. Ouch! Guess they're not trying to encourage tourism! We certainly didn't have that kind of money on us, even if we did want to spend it just to get into Mauritania.

So, to make a potentially exciting story dull, we, too, chose to fly. Next stop: Casablanca, Morocco! Catch us there soon!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Team - Kevin Gets a Souvenir from Africa: Malaria
Jasmine - Lac Rose
Kavitha - Jammin'.Groovin'.Diggin' the tunes!
Monica - The Ingredients of crossing the Sahara desert: Sand, Water and Landmines???
Monica - The People on the Bus Go Up and Down, Part II
Monica - Trying to sail the ocean blue!
Team - Bittersweet Recollections: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Mali
Making a Difference - Abeja gets M.A.D.-- she's Making a Difference

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