Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Wind, sand and stars

6-10.02 - Aït Melloul - Tarfaya - Dakhla, 1169 km, five rides.

This is the furthest south we're going. In the beginning the road doesn't bring many surprises. It's Morocco the same as usual, with red buildings, souks dripping with Moroccan bounty, dirty streets and people riding donkeys. Once we reach Guelmim a long ride across the most monotonous landscape I've ever seen begins. It's hot beyond words, there are no trees that would provide shade. Between towns, apart from flat road, there's nothingness. What makes people settle down in this inhospitable land?

Despite late start we're going quite fast. But the best of fortune come to us in Tan-Tan. Our drivers Olga and Pablo from Logroño in Spain are heading all the way to Senegal in a van they bought for 400 . They have some concerns about the border with Mauretania - a seven-km stretch of no man's land overrun with landmines. They might as well not get accepted into Senegal since there are some restrictions about cars older than 5 years entering the country. If they don't get admitted to Senegal, they'll go to Mali. They don't know yet how they'll get back to Spain – maybe back with the van, maybe by plane, maybe hitchhiking.

The good point about hitchhiking with tourists is that they stop so often to see places. Together we walk along the edge of a cliff; see a massive hole in the desert formed in one of them. The landscape is lunar in its barrenness. Surprisingly the rivers here hold more water here than almost dry rivers in the north. At night the wind fortifies its might and in some places we can see that even the road got partially buried under thick layer of sand.

In Tarfaya Guido and I look for a place to sleep; the Spanish will sleep in their van but agree to drive us around so that we can find the accommodation quickly. We come across a small hotel for 50 MAD per  person. The conditions are Moroccan and leave a lot to be desired but we don't think we'll stay here more than one night. We're about to take our luggage and leave the Spanish by themselves when they tell us some local offered them an apartment for the same price per night. The owner takes us to a house that is far cry from how the hotel looked like - rooms are cleaner, there's a kitchen with some supplies, shower with warm water, European toilet and terrace. Guido and I pay, Olga and Pablo stay for free...

In the apartment we meet other travelers, Dave and Scott from South Africa. They're making a charity trip from Morocco back to their country and try to get people donate some money to raise funds for kids with autism. They travel using only the public transport, but once they reach Ghana, they'll cheat a little and take a plane to Ethiopia because it's easier to cross Africa on the east than on the west. Why from the north and not from the south? To be back in the southern hemisphere for the winter time. And because it's more uplifting to think you're always closer to home.

When Olga and Pablo prepare the dinner, an unexpected guest comes round. It's a young boy who saw the license plate of the van parked in front of the house and wanted to practise his Spanish. He explains he learned Spanish and French from tourists. I understand nothing from the garrulous discussion but I have a feeling the boy must be very intelligent and witty. Such a chatterbox. He's 18 but looks like 14.

We share food back and forth, both for the dinner and for the breakfast. It's funny because Guido and I offer shitty food in exchange for proper food. Our poor diet consists mainly of bread, cookies, jam and other sweets. Compared to this junk food, scrambled eggs with tomatoes and warm bread with olive oil and garlic taste like a treat.

In the morning we have a look around the village. Tarfaya is located slightly out of the way from the Atlantic Highway and resembles a backward town in the middle of nowhere. It's short on sights and has lethargic and doleful atmosphere; there's hardly any life on the streets. It fades in comparison to noisy and lively villages in the north of Morocco. Even the colors match the atmosphere perfectly. Here's my favorite photo from Tarfaya. It looks almost like a negative.

It's hard to imagine that this village, situated in the middle of waves, is under threat of progressive desertification. To protect Tarfaya from being eaten up by sand, a wall against desertification was erected.

This former military base is associated mainly with French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who often stopped here on his way from Toulouse to St Louis in Senegal. He lived here for a couple of years and this place inspired him to write "The Little Prince." A modest statue that reminds the writer stands on the desolate beach - a small iron Bréguet 14 biplane, the sort of plane he used to fly.

Nearby the monument there's Casa del Mar - a fortress built by the British during occupation in 1882. It can be reached during the low tide, but looks more impressive during the flow. Currently the building is abandoned, falling into ruin.

The road from Tarfaya to Dakhla cuts through endless dry and rocky hamada. This inhospitable and uninviting landscape is what 70% of the territory of Western Sahara comprises, far cry from how most of us imagine a desert with looming dunes of yellow sand that we pass only occasionally. Distances between major human settlements are vast. Western Sahara is one of the least populated countries in the world, with density of 1,9 person/km2. Sometimes we pass tiny, isolated fishing villages situated along the coast. Gas stations are infrequent as well, so it's better to refuel to full when you pass one of them. 

I've never seen anything so remotely like this. In northern Morocco we always traveled through some spectacular scenery, my jaw grazing the ground as we passed the juxtaposed colors and terrains. Here the changes in our surroundings are minimal. The desert reaches as far as the eye can see, views of the ocean are sporadic, there are no points of orientation, the land is flat, which altogether adds up to the sensation that you haven't moved too much, even if hours have passed. Yet there's something mesmerizing about driving along this stripe of asphalt in the barren landscape. Wind, sand and stars... and your thoughts. I'm wondering how much different this place was in the times of Saint-Exupéry, if anything has remained from the landscape he was so familiar with. How such an empty place could have become such an inspiration?

Although the road doesn't serve many cars, its condition is beyond any expectations that I had. There's no spot where it misses asphalt, there are barely any potholes or bumps. It could be an envy of people who have to go through the drudgery of driving on dilapidated Polish roads connecting some major cities.

In Western Sahara the road is infested with police checkpoints. Western Sahara, though recognized by many countries as an autonomous territory, is occupied by Morocco. There are no border crossings, the currency doesn't change, but so does the language - local dialect Hassānīya isn't mutually intelligible with North Moroccan Arabic. The police controls are a little tiresome, especially if you consider that gendarmerie stop you so often. The policemen are very kind, as usual. Passport, car insurance, date of entry to Morocco, profession, toys for the kids, we have no toys. Merci, bon voyage. Some policemen suggest we made photocopies of passport to make things easier and faster.

In the middle of the road The Spanish stop to help a guy from Mali driving a Spanish car. His wheel exploded and on the top of that it's the second wheel he's changed in four days. We're 60 km from the nearest village, Echtoucan, passing traffic is very low and there's no mobile coverage. The spare wheel Olga and Pablo have is too big, so they decide to help the stranded guy and bring him the wheel, which would mean another delay and it's slowly getting dark. Fortunately the mechanic in a local garage informs us somebody else has already fetched it, so we can continue our way south without coming back. Too many things have already made the trip drag - getting last supplies before the desert, looking for seafood for Pablo in Boujdour, our drivers chit-chatting with locals, stopping for photos, not to mention.our friends the gendarmerie.

Summing up, between Tarfaya and Dakhla we had ten controls. On the turn-off leading straight to Dakhla we were stopped three times. Passing cars bring some entertainment in tedious routine of the gendarmes, but after having spent over ten hours in a car every delay in the trip is among the very least of our anticipations. Another control comes after around 20 km and when we optimistically think that's the end of dealing with gendarmerie, another policeman makes us stop just eight km before entering Dakhla.

The Spanish will sleep somewhere on the seaside, Guido and I have a recommendation from Igor. His first words when we sees us are "How come did you guys get here?" Eventually when we said "See you in Dakhla," these words weren't said for nothing. Igor is oohing and aahing about Dakhla, the coolest place, no tourists, no people. It turns out that he's not staying in the hotel he suggested to us, but with a guy he met in a tea shop, whose grandfather established this hotel. We're dead tired, so time for longer chat will come later.

Well... compared to the room we got in the "recommended" hotel, the hotel room in Tarfaya we gave up for the apartment was a luxury. The bed is falling apart, the cleanliness of the linen is questionable. Turkish toilet, cold water, three showers, one without door, one locked, one with door barely closing. 30 MAD per person. We might think about trying some other place for the second night.

First impressions of Dakhla are confirmed right off the bat. The thing that sets this city apart from others is that we're in the middle of nowhere, not quite on the tourist route. It remains unknown to most tourists visiting Morocco who don't bother going so far south unless they're on their way to Mauretania. The better for us. Solitude is something you rarely experience in this country and it's a bliss not to be surrounded by swarms of people once in a while.

Western Sahara is a tax-free zone, which we can notice when we get groceries, look at gas prices (just 5 MAD per liter!), compare hotel fares. This decrease in prices is also an incentive offered to settlers from the North by the Moroccan government to encourage them to migrate South. The aim of this colonization is also to reverse the proportions between indigenous Sahrawi people and newcomers before a referendum concerning the affiliation of Western Sahara takes place.

Spain held this this territory until relinquishing it in 1976 when Morocco and Mauritania came into the picture. Mauritania renounced its part in 1979 and since then Morocco has occupied its area together with Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Morocco occupies major part of Western Sahara and SADR controls the eastern section of the territory. To this day the dispute over the affiliation of this area has not been solved. Morocco arrogates the right to control vast part of Western Sahara mainly because of phosphate ores and oil supplies. SADR, on the other hand, claims that Moroccan occupation of its part is illegal, indicating severe abuse of human rights, manifested mainly by bombardments of the Sahrawi refugee camps, forced disappearances of Sahrawi citizens, imposing restrictions concerning participation of the Sahrawi in political life in Morocco and military use of children.

Western Sahara is one of taboo topics of the highest sensitivity in Morocco and should be treated very lightly. We had decided before that if somebody wants to know about our opinion, we'll emphasize how little information we have about the subject and that we'd like them to tell us more. Surprisingly one of our hitchhiking drivers starts going through the meanders of complicated history and asks us what we think about this issue. Fortunately he's from the North of Morocco and doesn't expect our answer to follow certain pattern.

His political knowledge is a knockdown. After Western Sahara he starts talking about communism and even asks me to remind him the name of the first Polish president after the change of regime. It's the first time somebody in Africa has mentioned a Polish person and knew something more than just "dobra, dobrze."

He has a good knowledge of nearby area and drops us off on a campsite near the beach. In spite of hordes of campervans so close to us, the beach looks quite abandoned. After some climbing we find a tiny sandy strip of paradise behind huge rocks. It's so ridiculous. It's middle of the winter and while freezing temperatures are sweeping across Europe, just 20 km north from The Tropic of Cancer the temperature reaches 30°C, a respectable temperature for a very hot summer day in Poland. It takes all my self-restraint not to strip all my clothes off and run in the water. This place is soulless but I don't want to be the object of curiosity for some slouching men peeking from behind the rocks.

Dakhla gives great opportunities for lovers of all water sports. As driving along The Atlantic Highway we passed signs "attention camels," so here we see "attention surfers" signs and take silly photos by one of them. On our way back to Dakhla we can't believe our eyes when we notice the green van coming from afar. Yes, it's the third day in a row we see the Spanish, who camped on the beach are planning to reach the border with Mauretania and cross another border the following day. Good luck, Olga and Pablo, hopefully we'll see each other again.

A fisherman who picks us up suggests that we get close to the ocean as well. He takes us to a spot that's being raided by windsurfers, which is not a surprise since the wind is blowing like crazy. What shocks me about this place is how dirty the coastline is. It seems that nobody cares about the cleanliness of this place. From here it's close to a lighthouse, which will be a perfect spot for the sunset.

Back in Dakhla we meet Scott and Dave, who came here by bus from Laâyoune. Together we discover the center, visit the souk, see a monument in the shape of Dakhla Peninsula and the same shape tiled on the ground, indulge ourselves with cheap food. Unfortunately we didn't manage to see Igor once again - he's fishing and camping outside the town, which doesn't surprise us.

Eventually we stay at El Wahda for the second night. At five in the morning a loud phone ring makes me wake up out of my sleep. On the top of that, the guy who answers the phone cranks up his voice, yells relentlessly and does nothing not to disturb the sleeping guests. Well, for 30 MAD you can't expect to have any lap of luxury. On the contrary, whatever is different that what we have at home is highly desired.

It was definitely worth hitchhiking all the way through the endless nothingness just to reach the furthest south we can go overland from Europe without needing a visa. I wish we could continue this ride towards the tropics, drive with the Spanish or anybody else willing to pick us up, feel the excitement of crossing the desert on unpaved roads, pass landmine fields, meticulously search for a safe place to camp, wonder whether we'll get admitted to another country or not. Lack of visas is the first problem, but most of all, it's the time. Once you get infected with the African sickness, it never lets you go. Let's return north before we change our mind and try to find some loopholes to go much further than The Tropic of Cancer.

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