Tag Archives: Western Sahara

Sleepless in Western Sahara

It's late at night, and we're driving through the darkness of the Western Sahara in a rattly old Mercedes towards the border of Mauritania when I smell gas.

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“Are you making tea down there?” I ask Amady. He's riding shotgun, and I notice he's fiddling with a propane burner on the floor in front of his seat. “That's crazy.”

“I think it's strange, too,” Amady says. “But the driver asked me to do it.” He balances a small tray on his lap, pouring tea from one cup to another and then back into the pot to cool it off.

I met Amady, a young Senegalese musician, earlier in the day at a sun-baked, fly-infested rest stop on the second day of a 26-hour bus ride from Marrakech to Dakhla, the furthest point south reachable by Moroccan buses.

In Africa, I soon learn, it's typical to spend 48 hours or more on the road. Amady is returning home to Dakar after a visit to Morocco that lasted just four days – less time than it takes to get there and back.

THE IMPERIOUS MOOR. We pass the tea around the car. I've had tea in the Sahara before, but never quite like this.

I've noticed something about our driver: he's rather imperious for a man who drives a jalopy for hire. Perhaps it's an impression created by the neatly trimmed mustache and his gold-framed glasses, or the regal desert dress of his native Mauritania – a dishdasha with sweeping sleeves, armholes big enough to step through and a wide swath of gold brocade around the neck. But he's got the look of a man not accustomed to people telling him what to do. A man who makes his passengers serve him tea.

It's a long, straight road through the Western Saharan wastelands, and I start to worry that the driver might doze off. He stops the car repeatedly to stretch. Finally, we pull into a petrol station. He walks into an empty room and, without much explanation, falls asleep on a dirty mattress.

Come again? I knew we'd be spending the night on this side of the border, but I wasn't expecting this. There are no spare mattresses for Amady and me.

I'm too livid to sleep, even though it's my second consecutive night without a bed. I prop myself against the wall in the corner and weigh my options. I could kick the driver, but that wouldn't help; he does, after all, need the rest more than I do, for the sake of us all.

I start to calm down. Next thing I know, I'm asleep on the dirty carpet, a condition that persists for a few precious hours.

DODGING LANDMINES. We queue at the border before dawn and cross into Mauritania at nine, going off road for several kilometers into an undulating no

-man's-land riddled with mines and wrecked vehicles – travelers who didn't manage to follow the tire tracks of previous cars' have been blown to smithereens in recent years. It's a landscape that's been compared, correctly, to Mad Max.

Time was when Mauritania was not, in fact, the end of the world. It would be nice to tell the grandchildren I saw Chinguetti,

for instance, the country's main tourist draw, about 500 kilometers inland. The Sahara is slowly swallowing the former caravan hub, once a beacon for poets and scholars. But I've decided to go straight through to Dakar, and I see little of Mauritania except a desolate coast.

Amid a chorus of shouting in Hassaniya (Mauritania's language, an Arabic dialect indecipherable to most Arabic speakers), Wolof (the language of Senegal) and French (the lingua franca), we change cars in dusty Nouakchott, the capital, and reach Rosso, the border town, after dark.

We bribe our way through the border, which is officially closed, paying off a gang of Wolof-speaking miscreants who hang around outside the immigration office. I thought I'd be in good hands with a local, but the ordeal nearly brings Amady to tears.

INTO THE SOUTH. Beneath an inky sky, a barely buoyant skiff brings us across the Senegal River, a geo-cultural divide. There's music coming out of the speakers in the town on the other side of the river, with not an Arab note to be heard; nor is sweetened tea served at all hours. We're out of the desert now and into black Africa.

But the journey's far from over. I spend a third consecutive night without a bed when the car gets a flat about 4am. We stop outside a tire shop on the side of road and wait for dawn amid the high-pitched screech of mosquitoes.

I reach Dakar at 10am, 66 hours after leaving Marrakech, and find a guest house facing the Atlantic. The ocean is restless, endlessly crashing against the fine sands, but for the first time in days, I sleep soundly. In a bed.

This is the sixth installment of “Around Africa,” a weekly column in The National of Abu Dhabi.

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Winging it from Marrakech to Mauritania

Leaving Marrakech, I discover I've settled into a pattern: put up with grubby accommodation and sub-optimal meals for a few days of rough travel, then enjoy the comfort of a cozy bed for a period of recuperation. It's a routine I'll likely repeat several times over before this Africa journey is complete, the problem being it's often difficult to move on when you know all too well the rigours of overland travel that await. The key is to start dreaming of the next oasis as soon as you settle.

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In Marrakech, that dream is Senegal, where friends of friends have offered to show me around the capital, Dakar. Using the Wi-Fi of a Marrakech riad guest house, I download the songs of sub-Saharan Africa, the Cuban-inspired mbalax rhythms of Youssou N'Dour and company, to help focus my mind on the next major stop.

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But before that will come a mildly epic ordeal.

HUGGING THE COAST. The bus from Marrakech to Dakhla, the last town to which public transport runs in Moroccan-administered Western Sahara, leaves at 2.30pm and arrives the same time the next day, a 24-hour ride down the coast. It is a distance of roughly 1,600 kilometres. Distance-wise, that's slightly more than halfway to Dakar, but beyond Dakhla there are two international borders to cross and no direct transportation link. I've read that it's easy to hire a car to the Mauritanian border in Dakhla but, truth be told, I have little idea what awaits me. I'm winging it.

Back in the caravan days, traders would spend weeks traversing the Sahara, going over the Atlas Mountains from Marrakech, then crossing the desert to Timbuktu. A rebellion of Tuaregs, the nomadic tribes of the desert in northern Mali, along with reports of activity by a group of unsavoury characters called al Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb, makes that route impossible today. The bus instead hugs the Atlantic, hitting Agadir shortly after dark and then winding through the hills along the coast.

I bid farewell to Marrakech and board the bus. That night, the desolate slopes of the Atlas foothills take on a Martian

complexion in the darkness, and I hardly sleep at all, finally finding a scrunched-up position across two seats that allows me to catch a few hours: on my back, facing the window, head sticking into the aisle, legs crossed beneath me.

When daylight comes, I sit up and face the refreshing sight of the Atlantic, the very ocean I grew up on. We're on a straight coastal road, where the white sands of a vast sweep of deserted beach meet the hammada, a wind-swept rocky desert. It's an end-of-t

he-earth wasteland that stretches for miles, nearly devoid of life save patches of scrub, a few concrete huts, the occasional cement-mixing plant, and plenty of military checkpoints.

WESTERN WASTELAND. Western Sahara, along with Mongolia, is the world's most sparsely populated country – or quasi-country, in this case, since the government in Rabat treats the disputed territory as part of Morocco, with only an inland desert fringe controlled by the Algeria-based Saharawi rebels, the Polisario Front. This rebellion has been dormant since the early 1990s.

In Dakhla, the plan is to catch up on sleep, spending the night in a cheap hotel and negotiating a grand taxi, the local name for a rattly old shared Mercedes, to the border of Mauritania the next day. The bus unloads in Dakhla shortly before 5pm, about 26 hours after leaving Marrakech, leaving us in a dreary-looking fishing town filled with a mix of Moroccans, Mauritanians, Sarahawis and a few groups of white visitors from the Canary Islands, just a short flight away, slouching around looking for a touch of exotica. The place does not exactly appeal to me.

There's no romance of the desert here on the coast – truth be told, I'm not sure the desert is ever that romantic – and the whole region seems like one protracted no-man's-land between the Maghreb and black Africa. I've met two Senegalese men on the bus who tell me they'll try to move on tonight, and I make a split-second decision to join them, thus sharing costs. It helps they speak fluent French and Wolof, the language of Senegal.

Little do I know that I'll soon be nostalgic for the worst of my living conditions until now, for I'm about to spend the night on the floor of a petrol station – and the next on the side of a Senegalese road outside a tyre shop, waiting for somebody to repair our flat. It will turn into a journey of 66 hours. To be continued.

This is the fifth installment of “Around Africa,” a weekly column in The National of Abu Dhabi.

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Looks like I’m trying to draw something, but I don’t know what

I've updated the Google Map that tracks my overland journey through Africa. I'm now in Mali, waiting for visas to materialize, en route to Timbuktu; after that, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, maybe Gabon, little Congo, big Congo, and then I don't know. Continue reading Looks like I’m trying to draw something, but I don’t know what