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.
Laayoune (or El Aaiún ) is the capital (or principal town see Western Sahara in a Nutshell) of Western Sahara. About 40% of the population live here in this seaside city. The modern city is thought to have been founded by the Spanish captain Antonio de Oro in 1938. In 1940, Spain designated it as the capital of the Spanish Sahara. Tourism is virtually unknown but the tourist office have hopefully dubbed it 'The City of Sands'.
Woken by the sound of the muezzin. We’re on the same time as central Europe here, in Laayoune, but on a more westerly latitude. The sky is full of cloud rolling in from the Atlantic, on these wintry mornings, so it’s dark until nine o’clock. The people in the shops are gloomy too – guide Khalil says it because they don’t like getting up when the weather is like this and often stay in bed until midday. I don’t notice that their mood improves as the day progresses.
Crimson Moroccan flags flutter on most of the buildings and are draped across the facade of anything remotely civic. This is a sparsely populated country with few urban areas, but these are under development as Morocco strengthens its foothold. And this is the capital. (I’ve tried asking guides Khalil and Naji about politics, but as far as they’re concerned this is Morocco and they’ve never heard of any conflict or a dividing wall.)
Laayoune is a small, very quiet, but up and coming town, surprisingly modern There’s a lot of building work, streets being re-laid, It is divided in two by the dry river of Saguia el-Hamra. The town is divided in two by the dry river of Saguia el-Hamra. On the south side is the old lower town, constructed by Spanish colonists. here's the cathedral - still active. The traditional and busiest area, La Zone Populaire, is crammed with tiny booths, market stalls, fruit barrows and open air juice bars.; To the north glass buildings and a huge palm decorated square with those sleek tent style canopies.
Dinner is a typical feast, a fried fish platter - a huge heap and very tasty indeed in an open fronted restaurant. Then my new guides, Naji and Khalil, and I wander round a small community fair, jam-packed with locals. There's a children's' carousel, a whirling waltzer and a brightly illuminated jump-and-smile, while all the passengers scream and ooh and ah. Next door a tented Arab market, stalls stuffed with trinkets, clothes and Turkish delight.
Tomorrow I'm off into the Sahara Desert...
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