West Africa

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West Africa

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7. West Africa

My route around West Africa

This is just a quick summary of the 6 months I spent travelling around West Africa, for a more detailed account there are links to my blog and my ebook at the bottom of the page.

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This trip came from a growing desire to see the Sahara and I was pushed over the edge when I visited some dunes in Vietnam while at the same time reading Michael Palin’s fabulous book. I intended to circulate the Sahara from Morocco to Egypt but my £4000 budget turned out to be painfully naive as I only managed to travel down through Mauritania, Mali and The Gambia before flying home from Senegal six months later.

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Morocco

I flew to Tangier on the 5th of October 2009 to begin what would turn out to be the hardest trip I had done (as I stated at the time but may revise later) and definitely the toughest travelling conditions I had come across. We spent a few nights on the coast (a night in Tangier then a few in Asilah) acclimatising to the country, dodging carpet sellers and hash dealers. From the coast me and my travel partner (my Spanish girlfriend at the time) went to the lovely mountain town of Chefchaouen, a pretty blue town with some cool looking architecture and a great place to get an introduction to the Islamic culture .

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Asilah – a nice coastal town

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West Africa - (5)a scene in Chefchaouen

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West Africa - (7)Chefchaouen

West Africa - (12)There was blue everywhere

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Fes

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We spent a few days in Fes, a great city which oozed history with tiny little streets, tanneries and an old medina, then we moved to Meknes, where we slept on a mattress full of bed bugs in a cheap hotel and they devoured the right side of my body giving me very irritated skin for the next 12 days.

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We visited one of the tanneries

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that day was yellow dye day

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We then travelled through the mountains stopping a night in Midelt before arriving at Erg Chebbi, my first taste of the Sahara in the massive patch of sand 50km long and 5-10km wide with dunes hundreds of metres tall. We stayed a couple of nights and did some hiking on the dunes but it was too touristy for my liking and the people too money grabbing so we didn’t explore the dunes further.

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there were loads of groups heading off to sleep a night in the desert at great expense

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The view was amazing

West Africa - (45)Erg Chebbi – a massive sand pit

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West Africa - (64)A view of the Todra Gorge

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we drank pints of the typical mint tea

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From the dune patch we went to Todra Gorge, a cliff-sided canyon in the eastern part of the High Atlas Mountains where we went on a hike and were spoilt with some amazing views as the river carves its way through the mountains. The last few hundred metres are the most spectacular, where the canyon becomes really narrow, it was as little as 10m wide in places and reminded me of Zion Nat.P in Utah. From the canyon we went to Ait Benhaddou, a really cool village made from mud where we slept on the roof, drank lots of tea and I chose to eat my Moroccan flakes there.


West Africa - (78)Ait Benhaddou – totally made from mud

West Africa - (75)Ait Benhaddou – eating my flakes

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We crossed the mountains to Agdz and stayed in a mud hotel before moving further towards the desert and Zagora. Here we drank booze with the locals, buying it from a Warehouse Out of Town, before taking a tour to Erg Chigaga, another huge patch of sand where we rode camels, wore turbans and watched beautiful sunsets and sunrises.

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the room at the mud hotel

West Africa - (100)interesting but not comfortable


West Africa - (107)me flying my kite as the sun set…

West Africa - (113)…the sun rise the next morning

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the main square in Marrakesh

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about to climb the mountain behind us

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the beds on the roof

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We went to Marrakesh, which was an interesting city, lots of hustle and bustle and interesting things going on. We ended up staying 4 days sleeping on the roof of a cheap hotel then took a couple of days out of our busy schedule to climb Mount Toubkal in Toubkal National Park. In the end we made a mistake, took a wrong turning and ended up on a different peak missing the summit by a few hundred metres, I was pissed off at the time but it made no difference the experience was great and the views were stunning.


West Africa - (143)the sun rising from our very own little peak

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me looking to see if there was a way to reach the summit from where we stood

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We spent 3 days in Essaouira, another cutesy coastal town then travelled to Tafraoute to camp in the desert next to some rocks that had been painted blue and red by a Belgian artist. It was really cool (and a bit surreal) to see this huge piece of art in the middle of the Moroccan desert but being the desert we didn’t stay long and carried on south until we found out that we needed to go to Rabat to get a visa for Mauritania.

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part of the masterpiece

West Africa - (155)my tent among the cactus

West Africa - (152)the scenery was amazing – great rock formations

West Africa - (160)we camped a night on the beach

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the view from the bus window for countless hours

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there were loads of soldiers walking the streets

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Western Sahara

From the point that we turned around to go get visas it took us nearly 2 weeks to get to the border with Mauritania as I decided to see some of the Central Northern part of Morocco while I was there plus I also flew to Barcelona for 4 days. I spent 2 days getting a visa in Rabat before spending a day in Casablanca, 4 in Barcelona, another night in Casablanca followed by a 31 hour bus ride to Dakhla in the Western Sahara. This part of the world is officially a province of Morocco but the people consider themselves to be a separate state. We spent a few days hanging around as there isn’t much to do and noticed a huge military presence and a sense that the people were being forced to be Moroccan. I consider this to be a separate state but will need to return one day to have flakes, hopefully when they have regained their independence.

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There were no public buses going from Western Sahara to Mauritania, the only option available to us was to take a taxi, which turned out to be a bargain as it was a decent distance and the taxi driver helped us with all the border crossing tomfoolery i.e. the paperwork, the bribing and finding a way through all the pushing and barging Africans. Between border posts there was about 5km of No-man’s land which was quite a tense drive as there was no road, just sand and we were driving through an area full of land mines, with very few markers telling us where to drive, only the rusty, burnt out cars.

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Mauritania

Mauritania was a country very well insulated from the western world which made it fascinating to travel through. The taxi driver dropped us outside a hotel in Nouadhibou but all the hotels were far too expensive for my liking, even the price to camp in their gardens was too high so we had to make other arrangements.

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The remnants of unsuccessful attempts to cross no-man’s land

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The Mauritanian border post

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Commando and his house

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Luckily the people were very friendly and we met a guy called Commando who insisted on lending us his house, meaning we ended up sleeping in a shanty town. It was a wonderful act of kindness, an incredible experience getting to see how people in that part of the world live and it really made me feel like a proper traveller rather than a tourist. We didn’t stay long in the area, just long enough to see the large number of shipwrecks off the coast which were supposed to be the result of an insurance scam.

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Me inside his house trying to find somewhere to sleep

West Africa - (181)Some of the shipwrecks

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We left on the iron-ore train, a train that can be several kilometres long and carries iron from an inland mine to the coast to be exported. You can ride the train for free, although it does come at a cost as there are still remnants of iron filings in the carriages which fill the air when the train moves making it hard to breathe and pretty uncomfortable. There was a carriage at the back which you could pay to sit in but I stayed on the free part the whole way being quite stubborn and determined to make my budget last. In the wee hours of the morning we arrived in Choum and followed some of the locals into pickup trucks which drove us to Atar and the floor of a house that one of the passengers invited us to sleep on. Next day we got a hotel room and I had the longest couple of showers I’ve ever had trying to remove all the iron from the numerous parts of my body – it even stuck my eyelids together as at one point weeping tears from my eyes mixed with the filings and made a kind of adhesive.

West Africa - (191) me jumping on

West Africa - (194)this train was one of the shorter ones


West Africa - (192)a train heading to the coast

West Africa - (193)trying not to breathe in the iron

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our taxi to chinguetti

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The ancient old town

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Next day we explored Atar but the way of life in this area is more about surviving than enjoying oneself so again there wasn’t much to do so we soon left on a pick-up truck (they act as public transport in this area) to Chinguetti. We didn’t know what to expect but found an ancient town being swallowed up by the desert surrounded by really beautiful and dramatic dune-filled desert scenery, it was so nice we ended up staying 4 days and I chose this to be the place to eat my flakes.


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The sand looked a different colour depending on the suns position…

West Africa - (214)…it looks whiter here

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One of my favourite corn flake eating moments

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We went back to Atar en-route to the capital Nouakchott, where we spent a couple of days arranging a visa for Mali. Travelling meant getting squashed into cars with locals, who were very friendly and offered us food and drink but on one journey a woman prayed and chanted about 80% of the time which at first added a certain atmosphere but became tiresome after a while.

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Our fellow passengers

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a big mosque in Nouakchott

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Kids playing in the rubbish

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The goats were eating everything

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Camping in a hotel garden

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We drove through herds of wild camels and from Nouakchott followed the ‘Road of Hope’ spending a night in Aleg, one in Kiffa, then 3 nights in Ajoun el Atrous, having to hang around until the entry date of the visa for Mali. The towns were full of rubbish with kids playing in it and goats eating it, there was meat on tables in the street covered in flies and we were always the centre of attention, for the whole town sometimes. The hotels were expensive so we paid to camp in the grounds but we had to get a room for one of the nights to be able to shower. From Atrous it was hard trying to arrange transport to Mali, we made a bit of a mistake when we chose a dodgy offer and were Almost Kidnapped by Al Qaeda. Luckily for us there were regular police checkpoints along the road and at the second one we came to the guards really analysed the driver’s paperwork and then a couple of armed police officers got in the vehicle and we all drove to a police station. They took us to a taxi rank and told a driver to take us to, and across the border to Nioro. He spoke good English and as we were driving we passed an abandoned truck in a field and he told us how some Italian tourists had been kidknapped the night before. Lucky escape

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This lovely family invited us in for lunch

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driving away from the police station

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Mali

Being in Mali was a big relief, Mauritania was pretty tiring to travel around and although Mali turned out to be the same there was a much higher population so more things going on and the influence from the French meant that the standard of eating was also much higher. Travelling was still slow, we had to stay another day in Nioro waiting for the buses to run and then another day sat on a bouncy bus to reach Segou. Here we arranged a tour and on Christmas eve we slept in Bandiagara, our jumping off point for the amazing Dogon Country.

West Africa - (250)Waiting for the bus to Segou

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Mud buildings on the escarpment cliff face

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me having my fortune told

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there were some amazing carvings

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The Dogon country is home to approximately half a million people, a magical place set on a sandstone cliff (the Bandiagara escarpment) which can reach as high as 500m in places and is full of interesting rock formations that stretch on for a hundred miles. We spent days walking up and down the escarpment visiting villages on the bottom and the top and we were spoilt with some great views over the African plains.
The scenery, the architecture, the wood carvings and the people were all amazing, very unique and thankfully managing to resist influence from the western world. The people are an intriguing bunch, maintaining some interesting and far out beliefs but they live very peacefully, seeming at one with nature and using the vegetation for food and medicine. They have dances with masks and traditional costumes to thank the gods for rain, the god that created the earth from a ball of clay and stretched it into the shape of a woman before making love to it. There are historical links to Ancient Egypt and they talk about amphibian extraterrestrials that arrived from the sky in fantastic sky ships. Spooky thing is that they have advanced knowledge of cosmological facts only recently discovered by modern astronomy. They are particularly famous for knowing that Sirius was part of a binary star system, the second star being completely invisible to the human eye.


West Africa - (303)the traditional dress for dancing

West Africa - (293)My flakes in Mali next to the typical witches hat roofs

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We celebrated the New Year in Mopti camping in a posh hotel so we could relax by their swimming pool and meet fellow travellers to party with. We then jumped on a boat for 3 days to travel up the Niger River to Timbuktu – the scenery was great but unfortunately I got Malaria or some other bug that made me feel really cold despite the intensely hot temperatures. It was still enjoyable sailing passed little villages in the middle of nowhere, stopping in some of them and meeting some interesting characters.

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me feeling shit wrapped up in clothes


West Africa - (325)A beautiful scene on one of the mornings

West Africa - (331)these villagers were fascinated by us

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One of the bands playing at night

Timbuktu is a place famed for being in the middle of nowhere and I can see why, the town was full of history but was basically just a dilapidated, dusty old town in the middle of the desert. We ended up paying an extortionate price to attend a Festival in the Sahara, a great couple of days despite me still feeling pretty bad. The music was typically African with some top Malian artists coming to play, mixing with the locals was a great experience especially the Tuareg who are desert nomads wandering from one oasis to another.


West Africa - (337)a Tuareg friend I made called Mohammed

West Africa - (347)there was a camel race

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West Africa - (358)a cheaper and more authentic festival in Djenne

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After Timbuktu we travelled to Djenne and stayed for 3 nights wandering around town, looking at the mosque and attending another festival with a puppet show and plenty of drums and dancing.

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The mosque in Djenne

West Africa - (359)we made tonnes of friends

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After being ill I felt tired and needed to rest so we decided to go to the beach and started heading towards Senegal, unfortunately for me it took 5 Days to arrive in Cap Skiring due to the old African vehicles, the shitty roads, the stopping every few hundred metres to pick people up and the constant loading and unloading of things from the roof. We had to sit squashed up, on goats and broken chairs, it was a really physically and mentally tiring journey but on reflection was pretty cool, I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind and yearned to be relaxing somewhere nice.

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We had to wait 5 hours for this taxi to fill up so we could leave Djenne

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cows on the beach in Cap Skiring

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The termite mounds that were everywhere

Senegal

In the end we stayed for 3 weeks in Cap Skiring, walking along the beach and eating freshly caught fish before we decided to explore some of Senegal. We started with a 5 day tour of the Pays Bissari, another area full of indigenous villages, waterfalls, beautiful scenery, a couple of schools and the area’s hospital. We drove through the Niokolo-Koba National Park and saw some warthogs, deer/gazelle type things and loads of cathedral termite hills. On one of the evenings we walked along the river and came across 4 or 5 hippos sticking their heads out of the water, amazingly they are responsible for more deaths than lions and crocs. On the last day we visited the most impressive village of this trip and the least affected by the western world with boobs hanging out and interesting piercings. It was a cool moment sat in the town half way up a hill looking out over the surrounding countryside full of baobab trees, chatting with the locals about their animists beliefs; interesting people. We had lunch in Kedgegou then went to a nice hotel with a pool to end the tour, the really nice tour.


West Africa - (389) hippos just chillin’

West Africa - (396)The view from the village on the last day

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From Pays Bissari we travelled into the East of The Gambia; the taxi journey crossing the border was incredible, the oldest car I had seen thus far which was just metal and seats, no lining on the roof, no dashboard. I was genuinely scared when this vehicle headed towards the border with 7 people inside and 3 on the roof, a roof that was bending for most of the 20km journey which took over an hour and a half.

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You couldn’t pay someone to take it away in the west

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me in chains – they kidknapped a lot of people from these parts and forced them into slavery

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The Gambia

The Gambia was a great country for me because I could communicate with the locals, in every country so far the adopted language had been French, which I can get by in but cannot form relationships. We went to Janjanbureh (formerly Georgetown) and made some friends, one of which showed us the former slave prison and took us on a Boat Ride to see some more hippos up close.


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West Africa - (433)we saw loads of monkeys from the boat

West Africa - (419)I shared my gambian corn flakes

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From Janjanbureh we took public transport to the Gambian coast settling in Sunyang for 5 days to enjoy the beach and the lovely weather while at the same time observing the ‘Female Thailand’ with Male Prostitutes parading around and middle aged western woman making friends with them.

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West Africa - (436)Sunyang beach

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the public transport

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Senegal Again

Travelling by mini-van was slow, so we slowly made our way up the coast spending 2 nights in Joal Fadiout, a town with an area on the mainland and an area on an island made of shells. There were shells everywhere, the ground was covered, there were piles all over the place and some of the walls were built with, or decorated with shells, although they were crumbling pretty badly.

West Africa - (443)a wall in fadiout

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it was our first proper town in months

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We went north to spend 3 nights in Toubab Dialao, a beach town with nothing to shout about, before continuing on to spend another 3 in Saint Louis, a stylish French colonial town built on an island in the middle of the Senegal river.


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West Africa - (448)a bridge over the senegal river

West Africa - (445)the port in St. Loius

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The trip was wrapping up now as we were flying out of Dakar in a couple of weeks. We headed south stopping for a few nights at the Parc Nacional Langue de Barberie, a beautiful park 20km south of Saint Louis at the end of the Senegal river where the beaches are white and full of crabs.

West Africa - (455)miles and miles of deserted beaches

West Africa - (451) they were great to play with

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West Africa - (452)mean looking though

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A Baobab

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We went to N’gor just outside Dakar looking for somewhere to relax before our flights but the rubbish thrown all over the beach was absolutely horrifying, one in particular was about 2 metres deep in rubbish and the liquid forming in the rocks looked like some dodgy acid or something. Luckily N’gor island (about 100m off shore) was nice enough and gave us the chance to escape the crap on the mainland, there we stayed for 8 nights before flying home on 28th March 2010.

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Rubbish beach

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West Africa - (458)Kids playing with rubbish in the sea


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West Africa - (457)N’gor island

West Africa - (461)My Senegalese Flakes

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For More Details

My Travel Blog Link

For A country by country look at this trip with bigger photos

 Morocco   Mauritania   Mali   Senegal    The Gambia

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My Book Link

diary extracts from this trip and all the other trips I went on in my 1st 10 years

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