Fine, just fine

4 – 6 dec 2019

Dakhla, Western Sahara

For most tourists, Dakhla is mostly “the city that happens to be at Dakhla Bay”; they’re here for the bay of 40km long and 5km wide that sits between the mainland and the Rio de Oro peninsula (as colonial marketing goes, only “Greenland” comes close for boldness). The bay is long, shallow, and has a near-constant, firm wind from the land side, making for spectacular kitesurfing and windsurfing opportunities. Most tourists don’t stay in the city, but in surf camps dotted along the coast of Dakhla Bay.

 

The ones who do venture to Dakhla the city will find it to be fine. Apart from it being at the center of the broader political issues surrounding the Western Sahara, there is really nothing bad to say about Dakhla. It is modern (the colonial Spanish part is only a few streets large, and even there, most buildings are from the past century), it is well developed due to Moroccan investment and tax incentives (drawing in new inhabitants from “mainland” Morocco by the tens of thousands), and it is mostly functional. Driving is considerate, the temperature is perfectly bearable due to the proximity of the cool Atlantic, there is decent food to be had, and there are concerts and other events being organized. The coastline on the Atlantic side of the peninsula has an old lighthouse and some moderately spectacular cliffs where the locals like to fish and have an inconspicuous beer or two. And yet…

 

…for a frontier town in one of the most remote places in the world, in an area disputed between a nomadic people and a country known for its spectacular ancient cities, in a place where North Africa is slowly starting to melt with West Africa, where there is so much construction and development going on that the air is practically buzzing… Dakhla is really quite tame and, dare I say it, almost boring…

 

I spend a few days here trying to gather my thoughts, stocking up on some supplies, and switching hostels twice in a fruitless attempt at finding a travel buddy. I do meet an exceptionally friendly security guard at the bus station, who upon finding out about my nationality tells me that in the 1980’s and ’90s he had a pen pal in the Dutch town of Uden. At some point his letters stopped being answered, and he still wonders how she’s doing. Unfortunately I can’t find her online or through acquaintances either.

 

My most exciting moment in Dakhla is on the morning after my arrival, when during breakfast, the sun disappears and… rain starts to fall, at a decent rate! The caretaker of my hostel says this happens about two or three times a year, and the last time was in March or April. All around me, people walk out with their hands stretched out, eager to feel the rare sensation of raindrops falling on their skin. Within five minutes, and before I’ve fully realised how special this moment is, it’s gone; the rain fades away, and not long after, the ground is dry again, as if the rain had been nothing more than a mirage.

 

Other Dakhla highlights are a walk to the cliffs and old lighthouse, past the airport with painted murals giving a nice image of how Moroccans view their own country; and some shopping in the Centre Artisanal, where I buy a traditional Saharawi / Moorish pipe (the Saharawi are the traditional inhabitants of the area and are ethnically basically the same as Mauritania’s “white Moors”) that comes with the traditional pipe-and-ground-tobacco satchel that Saharawi / Moorish men tend to carry in the embroidered pouch of their boubou (flowing, airy robes). I also witness a Saharawi wedding party through the gap of the massive party tent, where a group of people are gathered to get a peek at the festivities. The traditional music is loud and hypnotizing, the dancing is exuberant, and there is of course a cameraman with a painfully bright light recording every single moment. Joining the locals in watching the festivities for a while makes for some good evening entertainment. And that’s… pretty much all I have to tell about Dakhla. Time to move on…

 

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