South from Laayoune with driver naji and guide Khalil. The seaside town of Boujdour in Western Sahara is expanding rapidly, a spread of toytown houses still under construction. There’s a huge welcome gate flanked by statues of ostriches, the main thoroughfare is lined with stylised lamps and there’s an imposing lighthouse.
Dinner in a restaurant on the outskirts of town, as it's the only one that's open, unless I want pizza. It’s early and most of the charcoal under the rows of clay tagines on display is just being lit. The waiter says that conger eel is the only dish that can be served imminently, so, with foreboding, I settle for this. The leathery fish is still cold and the food can only be described as nasty. Back to my hotel, but I’m not going to be sleeping for some time. It’s the local football derby in Casablanca and it’s being televised, to much excitement. It seems that the entire population is watching in the hotel bar below. The whole building vibrates when there’s a goal.
South to Dakhla, off-roading for the most part, right by the crashing waves. There are mini dunes here, rolling into the ocean, the desert meets the sea..
Fishermen have set up camp at intervals, building fires behind rock slabs and we sit and drink more of the noxious tea with a hospitable group. The children are braving the ocean in their trunks; I admire their fortitude. Its breezy, even when the sun comes out, and I’m keeping my jacket on.
The fishermen invite us for a barbecue calamari lunch, but the road beckons. We speed on, spraying sand, dispersing flocks of white headed gulls and stopping to check the route with the locals, as the dunes shift constantly. The tents here are larger and decorated with flapping textiles. Guide Khalil says that people come for the weekend – but I’m not sure that's accurate information. Some of them seem to have brought goats.
Driver Naji struggles to find a safe way back up to the main road, the sand has shifted into new dunes since his last visit and he can't see the track, but he eventually locates a suitable path and instructs us to climb up ahead, just in case he's miscalculated. Then he careers over the sand and rocks to the top of the cliff.
This area is famous for its wind surfing and my hotel is a very up market all-inclusive beach club with wooden cabins, its own sports centre and fabulous sunsets across a huge stretch of rippled beach and the arid peninsula opposite, to Dakhla town. Like much of Western Sahara though, it’s still under construction. I have to be careful not to fall into the deep excavations as I make my way round to the restaurant at dusk. The hotel manager, Oliver, sits with me at dinner and we try to compete with the live music. He’s a delightfully polite and very attractive young Mauritian, so it’s absolutely not a chore.
Dakhla town is some 25 kilometres across the water, down a narrow peninsula. At the very tip, a conglomeration of small fishing boats, maybe a thousand altogether, pulled up onto the beach, pennants fluttering. In the main port, up the road, the larger trawlers are unloaded. The auction hall is a bustle of men in white coats, arms wind milling, shuffled plastic boxes and chutes of ice.
Lunch is fish, what else? Grouper, baked quickly in a very hot oven surrounded by a medley of sliced vegetables. It’s delicious, eaten in a Mediterranean style blue and white waterside restaurant.
Les Dunes Blanches is an astonishing valley of alabaster dunes and outcrops of dusty white pinnacles, inhabited only by a herd of camels. Khalil entices the camels to the car with the crackling of cake wrappers and one female with a cute calf, snowy to match the landscape, ventures so close I’m in danger of being drooled over as she reaches through the window. I can vouch for the fact that they have very big teeth.
Thankfully, the animals move away, rolling gracefully up the dunes and calling loudly to each other from mesas across the valley. Beyond this, ghostly fingers of peninsulas, dropping into the sea, dots of feathery flamingos, rippling flat sand and pools with perfect reflections. At the end, a giant dune, a blustery platform for admiring the whole panorama.
Next, the border with Mauritania. Endless flat white desert topped with scrub and enlivened by the odd mesa. Nothing but emptiness for 300 kilometres. The occasional truck careers past. Road signs are cause for excitement. The highlight is the crossing of the Tropic of Cancer.
This part of Western Sahara is coloured red on the FCO map. Khalil says it's not a problem. This is only because there are land mines left over from the war..... .................
My plane landed over a sand sea in the Sahara Desert, to the south of Laayoune, an intricate pattern of interlinked crescent dunes. Today we’re driving across it, heading south towards Mauritania and off-roading on part of the route of the now defunct Paris-Dakar rally.
First, we pass the phosphate mines that make the country an attractive proposition economically. There’s a conveyor belt more than 60 miles (100 km) long, carrying phosphate from the mines to the piers southwest of Laayoune. We follow this, despite notices forbidding entry to anyone not employed by the mines (the guards just nod us through) and head across a desert track.
Then we get into the dunes proper. The views are nothing short of stunning. Guide Naji is wearing his traditional Sahrawi robes, the blue perfectly complementing the gold of the sand. Ebony sprinkled silver dunes stretch to the horizon. There’s the odd nomad with his herd of goats. Three camels are chewing lethargically together - creating classic Sahara backdrops. There are snowy bleached bones littering the surface.
A diminutive desert fox, with huge ears, peeps out of his den in the sand and scoots off rapidly into the distance , leaving a trail of tiny pawprints.
Lunch is eaten on a rug behind some acacia scrub. Chicken, cold fries, carrot and beetroot. Naji and Kahlil, use the acacia thorns as cocktail sticks and make a fire out of some sticks, so they can brew tea in a little blue pot. It’s strong and disgustingly bitter. They add copious amounts of sugar. I pour mine away while they're not looking.
There’s that stillness that comes when no-one else is around no-one around. That is, until we meet two Landcruisers heading past us, into the wild. Kahlil has told me I’m the only tourist in Western Sahara this year. He’s obviously been stretching the truth a little. When challenged he says he meant in Laayoune. No-one goes to Laayoune. The cars are two more of Naji’s fleet, one is driven by his brother; Naji's one of eight children, lived in a nomad tent until he was 15 and has never been to school. He’s taught himself fluent French and Italian and is happy to chat with me, tolerating my bad French - incroyable.
We continue our journey to Boujdour and the coast.
I only have an hour at Casablanca to connect to Laayoune, but it’s a very straightforward connection. The only slight obstacle is trying to work out whether my next flight to Laayoune is domestic or international. Morocco regards Western Sahara as its own territory and has occupied roughly half of the area for many years. Naturally, therefore it’s domestic.
At Laayoune I’m the first to the immigration counter and the last out to the baggage area. No visa required, but the immigration officials are almost paranoid about checking I’m not here to work – this is not a tourist destination - and insist on calling my guides to vouch for me. Fortunately, Naji (who owns the company but only speaks Arabic and French) and Khalil (who speaks English) are waiting outside and advocate for me. Then I have to navigate customs, where my bags are thoroughly searched. Alarmingly, my cameras indicate to the man on the scanning machine that I am a journalist. Naji and Khalil have to do their stuff again.
Finally, I’m allowed though, to Laayoune, the capital, (or principal town of the area, depending on who you believe), on the western edge of the Sahara. It’s a shame that my bag isn’t here too. It obviously didn’t have the same easy connection.
Western Sahara has never been a nation in the modern sense of the word. In ancient times it was home to Phoenician colonies, who disappeared with virtually no trace, There is too much desert to encourage any kind of development. The land has existed as a trade route - a link between the Sub-Saharan and North African regions. In 1884, Spain claimed a protectorate over the coast from Cape Bojador to Cape Blanc, and the area was later extended. In 1958, Spain combined separate districts together to form the province of Spanish Sahara.
Western Sahara (Arabic Al-Ṣaḥrāʾ al-Gharbiyyah), is a disputed territory, partially controlled (20%) by the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (supported by Algeria) and partially occupied by neighbouring Morocco (with tacit support from France and the United States). Western Sahara was formerly part of the colony of Spanish Sahara. The land was relinquished by Spain, after pressure for independence, but phosphate deposits made it an attractive proposition for both Mauritania and Morocco, so independence didn’t happen. Morocco got there first.
A guerrilla war with the Polisario Front contesting Morocco's sovereignty ended in a 1991 cease-fire and the establishment of a United Nations peacekeeping operation. The UN sought to offer a choice to the peoples of Western Sahara between independence (favoured by the Polisario Front) or integration into Morocco. But the proposed referendum on the question of independence never took place due to “lack of agreement on voter eligibility”. An approximately 1,000 mile long defensive sand berm, built by the Moroccans, runs the length of the territory, roughly separating the two sections. I tried asking Khalil and Naji about politics, but as far as they’re concerned this is Morocco. They’ve never heard of any conflict or a dividing wall.
Western Sahara is virtually all desert and is very sparsely inhabited. It has a population of just over half a million people.
Tourists are rare in Western Sahara and there are few people outside Layounne. The main danger is from landmines. There’s a 30 kilometre militarised zone either side of the Berm containing landmines and there are a number of fatalities in this zone each year. You are not allowed to cross into the eastern side. Thid is even more sparsely populated with no diplomatic presence from any country. The FCO advise against travel cross the border with Mauritania because of land mines. Again. this area is coloured red on their maps. I'm hoping it's safe as long as I to stick to the road, as I'm going south to Mauritania.
Wikipedia says that the land here is 'Among the most arid and inhospitable on the planet'. So, there isn't much to see n Western Sahara except desert and a couple of small coastal towns. And I'm going to be driving through both....
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