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West Africa Overland – Dakar to Marrakech
Explore West Africa in all its variety, complexity, and beauty on this three or four week overland adventure. You’ll travel from Dakur to Marrakech by jeep, stopping for day excursions in some of the most interesting and beautiful places in Africa. This is a big adventure great for those looking for a once in a lifetime experience.
- Take a boat trip down the River Senegal to the Langue de Barbarie National Park for bird watching and scouting for sea turtles and monkeys
- Take in the cosmopolitan city of Dakar with its great music, museums, mosques, and galleries See Touba, the mosque that is the spiritual home of the Mouride brotherhood Discover the pastel coloured colonial buildings of St. Louis
- Be amazed at the stunning desert landscape of Western Sahara – including nomadic herdsmen and their camels, shipwrecks along the coastline, and sand beaches that stretch for hundreds of miles
- Watch the stars as you sleep on the grounds of a Bedouin camp Trek around beautiful Naila Lagoon
- Discover ancient rock art in Tafraoute and experience the traditional Berber peoples Surf in historical Essaouira and see the Portugese cannons that line along the coast of this UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Experience the world famous Djemaa El Fna Square market – complete with story tellers, food stalls, and snake charmers.
- Visit the liveliest fish markets of Nouakchotto
- Visit local hammans to wash away the long days and reenergise for the next.
Each week of this adventure is different. You’ll start out at a relaxed pace with short drives and cover some fantastic scenery.
Once you cross the border into the Sahara the days will get longer but the reward of the spectacular landscape and the heightened sense of remoteness add to the adventure and make it all worthwhile. As you end in Morocco the pace relaxes once again but not the excitement as you finish in one of the most energetic cities of West Africa. This is a land of deserts, sand dunes coastlines, dramatic cliff faces, traditional peoples, fishing villages, and a sense of remoteness that is mysterious and alluring. Enquire today to secure a spot on this epic overland adventure.
Week 1: Northern Senegal and Mauritania
The first week of this Dakar to Marrakech trip will be through northern Senegal and southern Mauritania, where we travel through an area known as the Sahel, a transitional area stretching from the savanna to the dunes of the Sahara. Starting in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, we’ll have two nights to explore this cosmopolitan and vibrant city, so plenty of opportunity to wander and visit some of the sights. Absorb yourself in art galleries and markets, experience the nightlife, or take in some of the troubled history of the slave trade on the beautiful Île de Gorée.
Leaving Dakar behind we’ll drive east for the city of Touba. Arriving around lunch time we’ll have the chance to visit the imposing great mosque, said to be the most visited Islamic pilgrimage sites in all of West Africa. The mosque was built in 1926 to house the tomb of Saint Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, a Senegalese man many consider as a messenger from God. Bamba founded the popular Mouride brotherhood in the late 1800s, and was considered so popular that the French forced him into exile for a number of years in both Mauritania and Gabon.
To this day Senegals famous Marabouts and Brotherhoods still hold significant influence in Senegalese society. The beautiful and ornate great mosque that dominates the Touba sky line is a fitting tribute for a man of such grand standing amongst the Islamic community.
From Touba we’ll drive north to the Langue de Barbarie National Park where we’ll stay at a beautiful campsite on the banks of the River Senegal. The parks name translates as “Tongue of the Barbar” as it lies on a narrow peninsula and was inhabited by the Barber tribe from Morocco for a period of time. You’ll have the chance to go on boat rides and guided walks to look for sea turtles, monkeys, and 160 different species of birds, or you can simply relax in the hammocks by the river and watch the fishermen going out in their colorful boats!
A short drive brings us into the beautiful old colonial city of St Louis, the former capital of Senegal. Originally founded as a trading post, St Louis is located at the mouth of the River Senegal and spread out along a narrow island, reached from the mainland by an impressive cast iron bridge. The old quarter is full of colorful architecture from the French colonial period, with most buildings now home to a number of great restaurants, bars, art galleries, and boutique clothing shops behind the wooden shutters. Walking around the narrow streets is, at times, reminiscent of being in New Orleans or Havana!
During our time in St Louis we will stay at a campsite on a beautiful sandy beach just south of the city, from where a short walk will bring you to the impressive fishing harbor. It’s well worth getting up at sunrise to see the fishermen launch their colorful boats into the river as they head off to cast their nets, and definitely worth visiting in the late afternoon as they return with their catch and the bartering for the fish begins! You’ll see the fishermen working on their boats along the shoreline – it’s quite a sight as dozens of men chisel huge chunks of timer into shape and lovingly decorate them with bright color schemes!
From St Louis a long day awaits us as we head north for the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott. Depending on the weather and road conditions we will cross the border into Mauritania at either Diama or Rosso and say goodbye to the River Senegal for the last time. We will spend the night at an auberge in Nouakchott where, weather permitting, you can sleep on the roof terrace under the stars in a traditional Bedouin tent!
Week 2: Mauritania and Western Sahara
As stated in the ‘challenges’ section near the start of this page, our time in Mauritania is limited to a direct south to north transit. Though we would love to head east and explore the Mauritanian Sahara, current travel advisories dictate where we can and cannot go.
Depending upon travel advice at the time, there might be the chance to spend some time in Nouakchott to visit sites of interest. The fish market, or port de peche, is considered one of the liveliest in all of West Africa, and guaranteed to impress with dozens of colorful fishing boats lined up along the beach. It’s also worth visiting the bustling central market and grand mosque to go people watching. Mauritanian men wear a distinctive traditional robe called the Dara which is usually light blue or white with decorative golden trim. Women often wear a wraparound called the Malaffa. Mauritanians are largely descended from the Maures and therefore quite different from people in neighboring countries.
Leaving Noukachott behind, the big journey north into the Sahara Desert begins! You’ll really start to notice the landscape change as we say goodbye to the scrubland of the Sahel and hello to the sand of the Sahara desert.
An estimated 90% of the Mauritania is covered by the Sahara Desert, so you’ll see a lot of sand as we journey between the south and the north of the country!
With luck we will see the world famous iron ore train as we get close the Mauritania-Western Sahara border. This train is said to the longest in the world, sometimes up to 2.5kms long, and carries huge amounts of iron ore from the mines near Zouerat in the eastern Mauritanian Sahara to the coast at Nouadibou. Locals often travel on top of the iron ore out in the open, wrapped up from head to toe to protect themselves from the dust.
As we drive between the Mauritanian and Western Sahara border posts we’ll pass through an area of ‘no-man’s land’ famous amongst travellers for being strewn with land mines. Dozens of vehicles that didn’t make it from many years ago still litter the side of the track, as well as abandoned vehicles from people who didn’t have the correct paperwork to enter Mauritania.
No need to worry though, it’s nowhere near as scary as it sounds! The track is clearly defined and navigated by hundreds of vehicles a day. It’s certainly one of the most intriguing border crossings in the world, as at times it feels like you’re driving through a scrapyard located in the desert!
It will be quite a long day from Nouakchott to the border, so once we’re stamped into Western Sahara we’ll most likely set up camp for the night.
Western Sahara, or Sahara Occidental, is classed by the United Nations as a disputed territory. Many different tribes have called this region their home over the centuries, including the Sahrawi people, who have fought with both Morocco and Mauritania for an independent country since the Spanish left in 1975. Huge swathes of the territory are ruled by Morocco, with a more autonomous region administered by the Polisario further inland closer to the Algerian border.
Our journey through this sparsely populated territory will follow the coastal highway that runs for thousands of kilometers north connecting Mauritania to Morocco.
Over the course of the week you will be treated to some of the most spectacular desert scenery you can imagine, including vast sand dune ranges, dramatic cliff drops into the ocean, ship wrecks littering the coastline, pristine golden beaches stretching for hundreds of miles, nomadic herders searching for pasture for their camels and goats, as well as small fishing communities launching their boats and nets into the Atlantic!
We can’t guarantee where we will stop for each night, but we will aim to spend time in and around Dakhla, Laayoune, and Tarfaya before crossing the imaginary line that marks the ‘border’ between Western Sahara and Morocco.
Dakhla is located on a narrow spit of land stretching out into the Atlantic Ocean. Located just 20kms or so north of the tropic of cancer, the scenery in and around the city is beautiful, with pristine beaches and dramatic cliff faces dominating the view. Dakhla has become a well-known wind surfing destination (yep, that’s right, it can get very windy along the coast here), and it’s well worth going up the old Spanish lighthouse for great views of the surrounding landscape.
Dakhla is a heavily militarized area but ultimately quite a sleepy town. You really do get a sense of being in the middle of nowhere when all roads in and out lead into the Sahara desert!
Heading further north with incredible views along the way, our next stop will be Laayoune, the largest city in Western Sahara, where we’ll have the chance for a quick look around and to stock up on food, water, and diesel. From Laayoune a short drive north brings us to a beautiful traditional bedouin campement where we will spend a couple of nights. The campement is ideally located for access to some of the best accessible highlights in Western Sahara.
There are a number of optional visits you could go on from the campement, including a 4×4 jeep trip around the Sebkha of Oum Dba. This stunning area is a rugged depression, with a beautiful display of colors on show as you’d expect from a salt flat located in the desert! Mount Gara is located in the middle of the depression and is well worth climbing to experience commanding views of the surrounding landscape.
You could also take a 4×4 jeep trip to the Sebkha of Tah. Spread over a huge expanse at nearly 100 meters below sea level, you can walk around the depression on the surrounding cliffs to get a wonderful contrasting view of the salt flats against the sand dunes against rocky outcrops. A truly beautiful natural phenomenon!
Our next stop will be Tarfaya, the first significant town we will reach after crossing the imaginary dividing line separating Western Sahara from Morocco. Tarfaya is the closest town on mainland Africa to the Canary Islands, just a short distance from the coast here, yet considering its geographical significance is a sleepy and laid back place.
Tarfaya has an interesting history. In 1975 hundreds of thousands of Moroccans gathered here as a staging point to launch the ‘Green March’ orchestrated by King Hassan. This was the event that saw Morocco stake its claim to Western Sahara after the Spanish agreed to leave the territory. Over a period of 4 days the Moroccans marched south into Western Sahara, before turning back again towards Tarfaya.
We’ll spend a few hours around Tarfaya for a chance to visit sites of interest, including:
- A number of shipwrecks along the coastline which make for a dramatic scene as the Atlantic waves pound against them
- The house of Donald Mackenzie, a Scottish man who founded a small trading settlement called Port Victoria on a rock off the coast in the 1870s. His abandoned house still stands on the rock and is affectionately known by the locals as Casa De Mer
- The monument to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who managed the Aéropostale during colonial times as mail was flown back and forth between France and Senegal
- The fishing harbour where small boats compete with huge trawlers from all over the world for the huge variety of fish life
Our next stop will be the Naila Lagoon, a beautiful lake surrounded by rolling sand dunes in the Khenifiss National Park. The lagoon is home to a large number of migratory birds such as flamingos, grey herons, and whimbrels, as well as a huge variety of fish.
We’ll camp for the night a little further along the coast from TanTan for our last night in the Sahara, so enjoy the remoteness of the desert one last time, as the scenery will soon start to change as we carry on north for the next leg of the journey!
Week 3: Western Sahara and Morocco
From TanTan we’ll start climbing on windy roads into the Anti-Atlas mountain range, and head for a small town called Tafraoute. Stunningly located in the heart of the Ammeln Valley, Tafraoute is a small Berber town loved by travellers for having some of the most spectacular views and sunsets anywhere in Morocco. The town sits approximately 1200 meters above sea level and is surrounded by pink granite rock. When the light reflects off the surrounding cliff faces at sunset it really does make for a spectacular sight!
The town is also famous for its painted boulders. In 1984, a Belgian artist called Jean Veran took a team of workers with a huge amount of paint and sprayed a number of boulders in a myriad of bright colors. Some call it a magnificent sight, others say its graffiti – we’ll leave it to you to make up your own mind!
The scenery in and around Tafraoute is made even more stunning by an abundance of palm, olive, and date trees which dominate the surrounding valley, as well as brightly colored traditional Berber architecture nestled in amongst the cliff faces. We’ll spend a couple of nights in Tafraoute for the chance to go hiking, rock climbing, and to experience the traditional way of life of the Berber people.
Leaving the mountains behind, the trip heads back to the coast to visit the charming and tranquil town of Essaouira, or ‘Swerah‘ as the local people like to call it. The town is famous for having a vibrant music and art scene, with many artists selling their work in small boutiques and the Gnaoua World Music Festival held here every year.
The Portuguese built a series of fortified walls and ramparts in the 1500s to protect their trading interests in the town, and to this day many of the old canons still remain pointing out towards the Atlantic against invaders. Essaouira has been listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2001, and has been visited by the likes of Orson Welles, Jimmi Hendrix, and Winston Churchill over the years.
One of the best things about Essaouira is the shopping – you’ll find the prices more reasonable here and the traders much more willing to negotiate. There is a superb array of items on sale in the medina, from leather goods to jewelry to carpets to artwork.
Once you’ve had enough of wandering the narrow cobbled streets looking for bargains, its well worth walking along the top of the old walls for a fantastic view of the old town and ocean, from where you’ll be able to see all the colourful fishing boats moored up in the harbour. If you’re a fan of the recent hit TV series ‘Game of Thrones’ you will most likely recognise the walls as they appeared in a number of sequences in the show!
There are some fantastic sea food restaurants in Essaouira, many of which regularly host live bands, so you’ll have a great night out if you head back into town for the evening once you’ve recharged at the hotel!
Our last stop on this trip sees us head east for a short drive into Marrakech, the most southern of the 4 imperial cities of Morocco, where we will stay at a small hotel within walking distance of the major highlights.
One of the most spectacular sites in Marrakech is the main square in the old town called Djemaa El Fna. By late afternoon the square starts filling up with story tellers, snake charmers, and food stalls. By the evening the square is literally heaving with activity, which makes for a truly incredible sight when viewed from above on the surrounding roof top terraces.
Located just off Djemaa El Fna, the medina is easily one of the most impressive in all of North Africa. Narrow cobbled streets play host to hundreds of traders selling everything from silverware to slippers to spices to lanterns to carpets, it really is an incredible place to wander around and take in the hustle and bustle of a modern day market thriving in an ancient setting.
There are old palaces, mosques, madrasas, riyadhs, art galleries, and museums to look around in the city, as well as plenty of great restaurants and coffee shops. You could also visit the tanneries, where raw leather is washed and soaked in a myriad of colours before being left out to dry in the sun before going off to market.
The tanneries are a short drive from the center of the old town, but definitely worth visiting to witness dozens of men walking around the ancient clay pits full of colourful dye!
If the hustle and bustle gets too much you could always visit a local hammam to wash away the day. It’s one hell of an experience as you lay on heated marble flooring and people scrub and massage and stretch you whilst throwing hot water all over you.
Rest assured the last of the Saharan dust will disappear after 30 minutes in the hammam!
Week 4 (2017 trip only)
The 2017 departure is 1 week longer than the 2016 departure. The map at the very bottom of this page will show that the trips are almost identical except that instead of heading from Taffroute directly to Essaouira as we do in 2016, we instead intend to head east into the Sahara and then loop round to the coast and Essaouira via the Anti Atlas mountain range.
Therefore from Taffraoute we will head east towards Zagora and onto a small town called Oulad Edriss. On the way we will stop to visit a number of other ksars along the highway. You’ll really start to see the landscape change as we leave the Anti Atlas mountains behind and descend into the arid plains on the fringes of the Sahara desert.
We’ll spend these 2-3 nights in and around Oulad Edriss, Tamegroute, and Zagora. This is a real highlight of the trip with a number of places to visit and things to do:
- Trek amongst the vast sand dunes and oases of the Sahara desert and sleep under the stars!
- Learn about the traditional way of life of the desert nomads
- Visit the Koranic library in Tamegroute to see the ancient Sufi manuscripts
- Visit a pottery workshop in Tamegroute, famous for its green glazed ceramics
- Visit ancient ksars that once supported merchants travelling on the highway to and from Timbuktu
- Learn how to cook the Berber way!
This region is one of the most photogenic and fascinating parts of Morocco, with vast sand dunes, desert oases, palm trees, camels, history, culture, and friendly local people dressed in their traditional clothes – an experience we’re sure you’ll always remember.
From the Sahara we’ll head north east for a 2 night stay at Todra Gorge, a deep canyon carved through the Atlas mountains by the river Todra. This is picture postcard Morocco at its best, with palm and date trees nestled in small Berber villages at the side of the road, making for a beautiful drive as we climb further into the Atlas mountains to reach Todra from the town of Tinerhir.
The most spectacular part of the gorge is a 600 meter long section that narrows to as little as 10 meters wide in places. The steep red-tinged cliff faces either side of the gorge are truly spectacular, especially when the sun sets, creating a wonderful warm glow and reflection in the sky.
You’ll have a free day for hiking in and around the gorge and the surrounding mountains. If you’re feeling adventurous there is the possibility to go rock climbing or horse riding. If you want a more relaxed time you can simply walk around the gorge admiring the scenery. The river Todra flows all the way through the gorge, irrigating the beautiful palmeries on the way. with local people stopping to wash their cars and water their mules as they pass through, which makes for a wonderful sight!
From Todra Gorge we’ll drive west through the Anti-Atlas mountains for an afternoon visit to the ancient ksar of Ait Benhaddou. Ksars are a fortified city, with decorative ramparts and houses made out of mud bricks. The route we drive along is dominated by a number of ksars, as this was the primary highway for merchants and traders travelling from Marrakech to the Sahara desert and back again.
Ait Benhadddou is the most famous ksar, having featured in many films over the years includingGladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, and Prince of Persia. It’s a truly impressive setting, with some families still living within the walls of the UNESCO listed buildings. You’ll get some incredible panoramic views from the top of the surrounding mountains and the Ounila river running along the entrance to the city below.
The next day we’ll continue west to the Atlantic coast and Essaouira, as per week 3 of the itinerary further up the page, and then carry onto Marrakech and the end of this epic adventure.
Additional Trip Notes:
Start point: Dakar, Senegal
Finish point: Marrakech, Morocco
The first week of the trip will be pretty easy-going, with relatively short drive days on reasonable roads visiting a number of fantastic highlights.
The time this trip spends in Mauritania will be limited due to current travel advisories. Though we would love to explore more of this little visited and truly fascinating country, security is of the utmost importance, so the trip will be limited to a direct south to north transit through the country over the course of 2 or 3 days.
Once over the border into Western Sahara there will inevitably be some long drive days, but you will be rewarded with some spectacular landscapes and a true sense of remoteness as we drive along this stunning and remote stretch of the Atlantic coastline.
The last week of the trip in the deep south of Morocco will be pretty easy going, with reasonable drive days on decent roads, and a chance to unwind and relax amongst some of the most fascinating sites Morocco has to offer.
Be prepared for a true overland adventure along a route dominated by stunning landscapes and scenery!
How much spending money should I bring?
In a lot of the countries we travel through the tourist industry is in its infancy so there isn’t too much to spend your money on. Saying that though, we try to make our trips flexible to allow people to do what they want to do when we visit places rather than making it too restrictive – so there will be opportunities for optional excursions/trips at most places we stop along the way.
Based upon passenger feedback we suggest that €10 – €20 Euros a day should be sufficient as an approximate ‘spending money in addition to kitty’ figure. But obviously personal spending can vary a lot depending on the individual and how much you want to eat out in restaurants, drink alcohol, buy souvenirs, upgrade to rooms, and use email etc. It’s better to over-budget than under-budget.
You may well spend more than this figure when we are in the cities, but remember there will be parts of the trip where we go quite remote and at these times there will be hardly anything to spend your money on, so you will find it balances out accordingly.
Please note that on occasions we will eat out in restaurants when we are camping in towns and cities to break up cooking off the truck, so please bear that in mind when planning your budget.
With regards to what form of money to bring – it is best to bring a mixture of forms of payment.
Certainly you do not want to totally rely upon ATM’s – they often don’t accept foreign cards. Paying with a credit/debit card is also very unreliable. We advise you to bring a VISA card if you do want to withdraw cash, as Cirrus/Maestro/Mastercard/American Express are often totally useless in the region.
As a general guide you should bring plenty of cash, predominantly in Euros but also some American Dollars. Traveller’s cheques are an option if you want to cut down on how much cash you carry but they are becoming incredibly difficult to cash these days.
Dates: 11 Apr 2016 to 01 May 2016
Price: 1,000 GBP per person plus kitty of 300 USD
Trip length: 3 weeks
Dates: 17 April 2017 – 15 May 2017
Price: from 1,200 GBP per person plus kitty of 380 USD
Trip length: 4 weeks
All accommodation costs included. Approximately 6 nights in a hostel/hotel, the rest mixed between campsites/campements with basic facilities and bush camping (no facilities). The longest stretch without facilities should be 3 nights in a row. There are numerous options on this trip to upgrade from camping to a basic room if you want to pay extra.
All food whilst camping is included in the kitty, though occasionally we might want to put a lunch or dinner on hold whilst camping if we find somewhere funky en route or are invited to eat in a local village.
“When it comes to exploring West Africa there can’t be a better bunch to travel with than this passionate independent tour operator. Their unique trips in the region offer exploratory travel to countries and places that no other overland operators venture to.
Instead of just passing through the region as part of a Trans Africa Tour, or only visiting a few tried and tested countries, they take their time and travel as far off the beaten track as possible.
The overland adventure trips they offer focus entirely on West Africa and nowhere else – so you can be sure you are getting a trip run by crew who are passionate and entirely focused upon this magical part of the world.
We love that if you compare the trips to other companies offering tours of West Africa you will see they travel at a slower pace and visit many more places.
The crew oozes a passion for this wild and under visited region.”
West Africa Overland – Dakar to Marrakech
- Trip Code: AWA256
- Dates: 11 Apr – 01 May 2016/ 17 April – 15 May 2017
- Price: From £1,000
- Depart: Dakar
- Arrive: Marrakech
- Length: from 20 Days
- Adventure: Explore West Africa in all its variety, complexity, and beauty on this overland adventure.