‘This is not really Morocco, you know?’ I’m surprised to hear the man sitting at my restaurant table say it at all, let alone out loud in a public place, let alone at a border crossing. It could get him in a lot of trouble if the omnipresent Moroccan police hear it. He’s a Saharawi, the traditional inhabitants of the Western edge of the Sahara desert. Genetically they’re mostly Berber with some Arab and black African thrown in;
I enter it in the middle of the night. By now, the bus has been driving for six hours already. After leaving the relaxed seaside town of Sidi Ifni, the only stops have been at Guelmim and Tantan. Now we’re on the N1, Morocco’s longest National Autoroute. Despite its prestigious name, and the fact that this is the most important trans-Saharan highway west of Egypt, the road is terrible; so rough that the bus is rattling all the way, and not even wide enough for two busses or trucks to pass each other without moving onto the hard shoulder. Later on, I meet a German overlander who suffered eye damage when a truck
After a short stop (during which the sun comes up and 2-year-old Said makes a drawing in my notebook) we continue our journey, and for the first time I get to see the landscape we’re driving through. It’s literally awesome. Western Sahara is probably the most appropriately named territory in the world; it’s simply the Western end of the desert. Beyond it, the desert abruptly stops and the ocean begins. It’s a wild coastline, with cliffs and small secluded beaches, sometimes with a shipwreck slowly being broken down by the elements. It stretches on for more than a thousand kilometers, and apart from three small cities, a few tiny settlements and the odd fisherman’s shack, it’s completely deserted. The N1 is hardly ever more than a kilometer away from the coastline, and sometimes as close as
From 1884 until 1975, it was pretty clear what the area was: a Spanish colony by the name of Rio de Oro. Not that this chunk of flat, bone-dry land, the size of Great Britain, has any gold, or even any permanent rivers for that matter. In fact it has so little of anything that one can’t help but wonder what all the fuss is about. Still, that didn’t stop the Moroccan government and the Algeria-based Polisario movement, made up of displaced Saharawi, from fighting a 16-year long war over the territory, followed by a cease-fire starting in 1991 and lasting until the present day – and probably well into the future. The International Court of Justice came to the conclusion that the Saharawi people have a sufficiently independent history to allow them to determine for themselves whether they want to be part of Morocco or not. The referendum needed to answer that question hasn’t taken place yet, because the Moroccan government and the Polisario can’t agree on whether the masses of government-subsidized Moroccan immigrants should get a vote.
Lunch is at a restaurant that’s part of a tiny settlement whose raison d’être is simply to cater to travelers on the N1. The menu consists of fish which can be had fried, fried or fried, with either bread or fries on the side. Being the adventurous mixing-it-up kinda guy that I am, I go for bread. I must say the fish is amazing; but then it ought to be, as it’s pretty much the only food that can be produced (or in this case caught) locally, and a fresh supply is literally only meters away. I meet an American photojournalist named Max. He’s on a different bus than I, but also headed to Dakhla; his plan is to continue towards Mauritania within one or two days, after which he’ll go to Dakar for an assignment. Since my basic plan is to go to Mauritania as well, he suggests we meet up at a Dakhla hotel rooftop. Several hours’ more desert driving later, my bus enters the Dakhla peninsula. It’s some 40 kilometers long
Meanwhile, my plan to find Max and plan our journey to Mauritania together is thwarted by the hotel’s rooftop bar being closed for renovations, and I can’t find him anywhere else. So I spend the next few days scouring the peninsula, trying to find other tourists who want to go South, but it turns out most of them are perfectly happy to be at end-of-the-world-Dakhla, and have no intention of diving into West Africa’s chaos. Eventually I give up and just book a place on a shared taxi to Mauritania, and spend the rest of my time in Dakhla stocking up for the journey ahead and enjoying the weather. I visit the locan Ensemble Artisanal to buy some Saharawi type earrings for my sisters, watch a football match on TV (Barcelona-ManCity, after a few men on a terrace invite me to join them), and try to send the birthday presents I bought to my sisters. Long story short, I get sent from the post office to customs and back, with the predictable result that by the time I’m back there, it’s too late to send my package that day – despite a customs officer, with typical Southern-Moroccan