Well, we’ve had dust storms and drizzle, sunburnt toes and suspected dehydration, a smashed laptop screen and a broken front rack bracket, stunning landscapes and more stars than either of us has seen in a long time. It’s only been a week but there seems to be so much to write – and again, I seem to have written a dissertation, sorry. Just look on it as just balancing out all the microblogging?
On our first night south of Guelmim, a civil servant we spent the evening with told us: “Don’t expect the Sahara of old. There are more and more population centres along the road all the time. For the real Sahara, you must get away from the road.”
The tarmac sections of this westernmost trans-Sahara route – through Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania – have recently been joined up; the road is now completely asphalted, and it has the traffic to prove it. On top of that, Morocco – which occupies part of Western Sahara – has been busily working to populate the territory with its own people, starting with the “Green March” to Western Sahara in 1975 and continuing today with tax breaks. And then there’s the general rural / urban drift, and the increasing settlement of nomadic communities. The result is a fairly busy Sahara.It’s also a less, um, duney Sahara than you might imagine. This is “hamada” – rocky desert – although there are plenty of stretches of dunes, and enough wildlife to get the binoculars and magnifying glass out several times a day: two-inch long stag beetles, purple and red flowers, strange, bulging succulents, yellow and white butterflies and, as I mentioned before, a lot of flies. There’s a surprising variety of bird life too – although not, to our knowledge, in the national park famed for its avifauna where we wild camped one night (its thriving mosquito life can’t be faulted though…).
There are still hints of the “Sahara of old”; stretches of the coast are dotted with shipwrecks. While many camels now travel in lorries, we’ve watched a horseman in a black hooded cape, riding a black horse come galloping out of the desert, dust flying, with about 30 camels following him. And the Tuareg (“the blue men” – one of whom told us “we are nomads, like you”) still live in these parts, although the ones we’ve met have swapped their camels for Toyota Land Cruisers and tend to trade in silver and jewellery rather than salt and slaves.
While there’s rarely shade between towns, we’ve passed through at least one town or village every day – each very individual (one might be an old Spanish port, the next just a series of Landrover workshops) and usually colourful. In Tarfaya, we sipped coffee in a cafe whose centrepiece was a whale vertebra surrounded by plastic flowers. Tobacconists have asked us whether we’d prefer contraband or non-contraband cigarettes. And we’ve been served by a cafe owner who spontaneously and loudly complained to us about the marijuana shortage since all the police came to town for the elections; his cafe was full of policemen at the time.
But the same obsessions that grip the rest of Morocco still apply here; last week, municipal election fever was everywhere. Groups of chanting young women and men gathered on pavements, and streets were littered with election flyers (using pictures – of tractors or scales of justice, say – rather than words to describe each candidate’s priorities; many Moroccans are illiterate). And, when children spot us, they still freeze for a couple of seconds while they desperately try to remember the phrase they’re looking for, then erupt in a chorus of: “Donne-moi un stylo!” (Significantly, only a few ask for a sweet or money; 90% ask for a pencil.)
The military presence became more obvious as we headed south; bridges and mobile phone masts were all guarded, and police check points became more frequent. Most checkpoints just involve short, pleasant exchanges and a mild bout of bureaucracy but one brought an unexpected gift, donated by two Frenchmen on their way to Mali: two beers. Two ice cold beers. Two ice cold, German beers. (“You must drink them while they’re still cold,” they said, so we called it a day a few hundred metres later.)Huw and I are both a bit desert obsessed: there’s the space, the silence and the tuning in of the mind to tiny details which would pass you by in a more cluttered environment. But there’s also the optimism; deserts demonstrate just how brilliantly life can sustain itself in the most unlikely environments (although, to be fair, the mysterious algae growing at the bottom of my water bottle did that a few weeks ago). They also reinforce your faith in human nature; the remoter it gets, the more people look out for each other. Most truck drivers give us a wobbly thumbs up sign (requiring a thumbs up or a thumbs down response) to check we’re OK. Some offer us bottles of water (we’ve not had to accept yet). And, if we’re stopped at the side of the road, crouched over some bug with a magnifying glass, people will stop to check whether we have a problem (clearly we do, but that’s another story).
In towns too, hospitality has become an art form. Carrying an empty plastic bottle? It’s not only filled with water but put in a fridge in a shop down the road for a while. Sitting in a hotel restaurant thinking of ordering food? If the hotel staff are eating at the time, you’ll probably be invited to join them and eat for free.
And then there’s the heat… I’d resolved not to moan about it but, on the understanding that you know that we know that any pain we’re feeling is entirely self-inflicted, can I just say:
The Sahara in summer is really, really hot!
We’re by the coast with its helpful breezes but still, perspiration evaporates so quickly that you don’t so much sweat as exude a film of crystalline salt. For several hours a day, our sandals burn the soles of our feet. And (the most telling indicator, for anyone who knows Huw): coffee is always served with a glass of water here, and Huw has, sometimes, downed the water before touching the coffee…
By far the hottest day was the day we crossed into Western Sahara (we crossed into the Moroccan-occupied part of this disputed and partitioned territory, so there was no hint of a border; to Morocco – as we were told in a lowered voice the first time we mentioned to a Moroccan that we were going to Western Sahara and as McDonalds’ has had to learn – this is “Moroccan Sahara”). Again, we’d failed to get up early so again we were cycling through the heat of the day. It was heavy, still, and the few gusts of wind there were hit you like a hair drier blowing hot air in your face.
Suddenly, off to our right, a glow of orange dust appeared and swept towards the road. It was a tiny dust storm and in it, I could no longer see Huw, three metres ahead of me. A few seconds later it had passed, the temperature had dropped by a few degrees and the slight headwind had turned to a roaring tailwind. Glorious!It didn’t last and soon we could only cover a few kilometres at a time before stopping for a long rest, crouching behind piles of rocks for shade. I’m not sure whether it was dehydration, heat stroke or a bit of both but it was certainly an odd feeling – shivering in the heat and feeling extreme exhaustion/lethargy to the point I almost fell asleep while cycling. Although we kept downing litres of water (we had plenty), it seemed impossible to drink enough to rehydrate without feeling nauseous. Lesson learned: it’s time to start doing what the locals do and taking a siesta from lunchtime time until six pm.
We made it to Laayoune that night, albeit hours after dark, pushing the bikes and getting lost in the city with twenty children trailing behind us.
And we’ll be in Laayoune for a few more days, waiting for a parcel to arrive (now that my laptop is no more, we need another external hard drive for the sound recordings) and getting to understand the strange undercurrents in this Moroccan-occupied, UN-observed territory, whose people want self-determination, and whose phosphates Morocco wants.