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Western Sahara

23th September to 26th September 2009

sunny 42 °C

Western Sahara – Weds 23rd September 2009

We’ve crossed through the High Atlas, Middle Atlas and the Anti Atlas. The mountains are done with us, make way for the desert.

The area of land south of Morocco, north of Mauritania and bordering Algeria in the north-east is currently regarded by the UN as a non self-governed territory. Formerly occupied by the Spanish, who pulled out in the 1950’s, it has been fought over by the Moroccans, Mauritanians and Saharawis (Saharan desert nomads currently residing in the refugee camps across the border in Algeria). There is currently a ceasefire (thank goodness) but the UN are frustrated in its unsuccessful attempts to organise a referendum on the future of the Western Sahara.

Morocco have moved into the top 2 3rds of the territory, an area thought to be rich in phosphates. The Moroccan government have also built a system of fortifications stretching 1000 miles along the edge of occupied Western Sahara. Longer than the Great Wall of China, both Moroccans and Polisario, the guerrillas acting on behalf of the half million Saharawis, have troops positioned near to the wall. The Moroccans have mined the border keeping the Polisario from their own land and the Polisario fly the flag of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic – a land that doesn’t officially exist.

The coast is well known for it’s abundant fish populations and frequented by fishing vessels from many European countries. There are still ‘no go’ areas littered with unexploded land mines so for each bush camp we head just far enough off the road to hide among the sand dunes. Driving through this inhospitable, sandy, barren landscape I find it hard to understand why anyone would want to make this arid area their home.

The day has been long, driving is in fairly uninteresting surroundings although now and then the road runs along the rocky coastline. We have stocked up on plenty of food and drink for our 3 day desert crossing. We just need to fill the water tanks, jerry cans and find fuel - fortunately there are plenty of fuel stations along this busy route.

Our first bush camp is just off the road before the ‘border’ into the Western Sahara. The ground is very hard, rocky and I’m glad I bought a second mattress today.

Western Sahara – Thur 24th September 2009

The further south we go, the less pretty it gets - scruffy plains of rocks and rubble. It feels like this landscape could go on like this for days, nothing ever changing. There is no escape – the skies are cloudless and colourless, the wind is constant and dusty and there is no obvious place to go to the toilet. Now and then the sea appears to our right, small sand dunes and tussocky grass rise up out of the course terrain but quickly return back to stony desert. The landscape goes on and on as far as the eye can see...and beyond. Even the rocks here look tired of existing.

Some observations while travelling through the Western Saharan desert:
- The number of petrol stations, often half a dozen along a very short stretch of road, all basic, battered by the elements and lacking in anything but a ready supply of petrol and biscuits.
- The pungent smell, similar to rotting flesh, that periodically floods through the truck windows and greets us at every stop.
- Small groups of roaming camels, eeking out a meagre meal from the sparse tufts of unappetising grass sprouting sporadically between the sand and rock. Both camels and grass are evidence that life can and does exist out here.
- The paths and frequent neat stacks of rocks marking out routes from nowhere, to nowhere.
- The random appearance of a human being in one of the most inhospitable places on earth.
Our second bush camp is at the base of a large sand dune and while dinner preparations are underway I sight the bush toilet and dig the green waste holes. At least the sandy ground reduces the need for a pick axe tonight. The setting is lovely but the litter, mainly plastic bags, ruins the landscape. We pitch our tents, light a fire with dried grass and camel dung, crack open the wine and settle down to a great barbeque of kebabs and sausages among the dunes.

Western Sahara – Fri 25th September 2009

Happy Birthday Roger, 57 today. After a rendition of Happy Birthday I start a sweep stake for the number of times we get stopped at police road blocks today. Some optimistically say 4, others more realistically opt for 11. At 10.30 we have already been stopped twice. The winner(s) will receive a bottle of Africa’s finest red.

The single desert road runs south along the coast, now and then offering views of the clear blue sea from the crumbling coastline. Shipwrecks litter the coast with small temporary tented fishing communities rising up from nowhere – with no road transport and few nearby settlements I wonder where the demand is for their catch. We stop for lunch along the sun-bleached rubble strewn wilderness using the truck as windbreaker, sandbreaker and sun shade. Almost immediately we pull off the road, a car draws up and asks us where we are going and where we have come from. He is apparently a government official warning us not to get too close to the dangerous collapsing cliffs!

Heading deeper into the desert, small areas appear to be mapped out for development. In the middle of nowhere, roads have been laid, street lights erected, but construction of buildings has hardly started. To stake their claim on the Western Sahara, the Moroccan government encouraged 350,000 people to relocate south on the promise of new opportunity and cheaper taxes. Perhaps these ghost towns are evidence of an over-optimistic plan.

Our camp tonight is along a firm gravel track leading nowhere, neatly marked either side by rows of carefully placed rocks. As we drive further east towards the sea, the neat rows of rocks extend into larger rectangular and circular areas for no apparent reason. The place has an almost eerie feel and we joke of alien abduction and weird happenings that start to feel totally believable out here. We can’t get too close to the sea for fear of the truck getting bogged or blown up by land mines so we pitch our tents within one of the unexplained marked out areas. The wind picks up so tents are pegged to the max and the kitchen tent is erected alongside the truck for a wind free cooking experience. I dig a deep long drop toilet behind a mound a fair walk from the camp but the way is lit by the bright light of tonight’s moon.

As it’s too windy for a fire, Claire stacks up some wood and embeds her head torch deep within, effectively illuminating the sticks with the red torch setting. We sit round our pretend fire and present Roger with his birthday card full of limericks and an apple caked complete with three lit candles.

The tent flaps continuously throughout the night and by morning the inside of the tent is covered in a thick layer of sand and dust ...it seems to find a way into your very soul!

Western Sahara – Sat 26th September 2009

We have now not washed for 3 days which has been surprisingly bearable thanks to the weather. Today, however, the temperature rises to approximately 42 degrees. The open windows on the truck don’t even offer any relief, the circulating hot air similar to the feeling of standing too close to an open oven door. All the water in both our bottles and the truck tank is warm enough to diffuse a T-bag. We are gasping for a cold refreshing drink. Beer would be nice but in Mauritania alcohol is banned so it could be a while before we taste a cold one.

We have lunch of spicy vegetarian bean-burgers and potato salad at the Moroccan border where we can also use the toilet prior to our anticipated lengthy border crossing. We have stowed all the alcohol on the roof between the tents under the tarpaulin. We discuss briefly what we will do / say if questioned about the alcohol and set off on foot to the passport control. Darren drives Tortuga through a large building complete with modern scanning equipment. Once out the other side, the truck is searched inside and out by 4 officials for drugs and weapons. A lot of arm waving later, Luca has charmed them over the alcohol and we are allowed to leave Morocco, just one bottle of red wine lighter.

Despite the truck search and waiting an hour for the passports to be stamped we still have to endure 2 further passport checks by police before we have even reached the gates to ‘no-man’s-land’. No-man’s-land’ is a litter strewn mess of car wrecks. I’ve never seen such a wretched looking place. It takes 15 minutes to cross to the other side and if the bottles have survived the bumpy drive I will be very surprised – everything inside the truck was displaced as we were also thrown from side to side. Our Mauritanian guide ‘Achmed the finger’, bizarrely finds us in no-man’s-land, drawing up alongside us in a car, frantically waving a Dragoman postcard out of the window. Luca had been trying to contact him for weeks and there he is in the most unexpected of places! He boards the truck and at 4pm, some three and a half hours after starting out journey across the border, we are finally on the road in Mauritania proper and heading for the coastal town of Nouadhibou.

Mauritania - 27th September 2009

We arrive at Camping du Levrier where we dump our bags and sit in a tent in the courtyard sipping tea with Achmed. Tea is central to nomadic life, with a complex sequence of pouring and re-pouring from cup to cup eventually forming a frothy top. It’s sweet, slightly minty and gone in just 2 sips.

Posted by hilarywh 10:22 Archived in Mauritania Tagged backpacking

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