Western Sahara

WESTERN SAHARA
PART 1, GENERAL INFORMATION
PART 2, BLOG and PICTURES AND GALLERY.

Capital city; DISPUTED
Population; 540000
Currency; Moroccan dirham
Km travelled; 2650 km
Days in The Western Sahara; 43
Languages; Standard Arabic, Hassaniya Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, Berber, Spanish, French

PART 1, GENERAL INFORMATION
GENERAL
Western Sahara is a disputed territory abandoned by the Spanish in the mid 70’s and now a disputed territory on the northwest coast and in the Magreb region. Partially controlled by the self-proclaimed Polisario and occupied by neighbouring Morocco. Spanish Sahara It is one of the least populated areas in the world and mainly is flat desert land. Just under 50% of the total population lives in Laayoune, the largest city in Western Sahara. There is little agriculture in the region; camels, goats, and sheep are raised, and dried fish is mainly exported to the Canary Islands. The Moroccan Government administers Western Sahara’s economy and is a key source of employment, infrastructure development, and social spending in the territory. Western Sahara has a small market-based economy whose main industries are fishing, phosphate mining, tourism, and pastoral nomadism. The territory’s arid desert climate makes sedentary agriculture difficult, and much of its food is imported. Western Sahara’s unresolved legal status makes the exploitation of its natural resources a contentious issue between Morocco and the Polisario. Morocco and the EU in December 2013 finalized a four-year agreement allowing European vessels to fish off the coast of Morocco, including disputed waters off the coast of Western Sahara. Vast phosphate deposits are mined at Bu Craa, southeast of Laayoune. Phosphate extraction, however, presents problems because of the shortage of water. A conveyor belt more than 60 miles (100 km) long, meant to carry phosphate from the mines to the piers southwest of Laayoune, is frequently damaged by Polariso in their fight against Morocco. As of 2011, no other member state of the united Nations ever officially recognized Moroccan sovereignty over parts of Western Sahara. However, the African Union recognized in 1984 the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (alternative name for Western Sahara by Polasario) one of its full members, with the same status as Morocco, and Morocco protested by suspending its membership to the African Union. In October 2010 Gadaym Izik camp was set up near just outside Laayoune as a protest by displaced Sahrawi people about their living conditions. It was home to more than 12,000 people. In November 2010 Moroccan security forces entered Gadaym Izik camp in the early hours of the morning, using helicopters and water cannon to force people to leave.

Who is Polisario?
politico-military organization striving to end Moroccan control of the former Spanish territory now occupied by Morocco. The Polisario Front is composed largely of the indigenous nomadic inhabitants of the Western Sahara region, the Sahrawis. the Polisario Front relocated to Algeria, which henceforth provided the organization with bases and military aid. During the 1980s Polisario Front guerrillas, numbering some 15,000 motorized and well-armed troops, harassed and raided Moroccan outposts and defences in Western Sahara. in the early 21st century. UN-sponsored talks between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan government took place in 2007 and 2008 amid warnings by the Polisario Front of a return to armed hostilities. During our visit in 2011 relations were tense and attacks were common. Rumours of oil have been circulating.

TOURIST HIGHLIGHTS
Amazing that 95 if not 99% of overlanders travel to westernized Morocco while in both Western Sahara and Mauritania sandy tracks, sand dunes are plentiful and offering some real Magreb African life. The paved roads cover all the way to Mauritania making it a quick few days to get to your starting point before starting the return journey exploring North East Mauritania and the Western Sahara. Western Sahara is well characterized by some of the rocky landscapes and one of the expansive sand dunes you will never experience anywhere else. Located in the sub-Saharan desert the sites that are charming for every new traveller makes this part of the world an amazing tourist destination. The Atlantic coastline adds to its mix of plenty, coastal views that are spectacular and breath taking also contributing to the vastness of this region. The popularity of Western Sahara emerges from the fact that it is full of exotic deserts, natural features and amazing history that goes handy with diverse culture.

LAAYOUNE
Also spelt El-Aaiún. The city’s name is an Arabic word meaning “water sources”. For many years, after the Spaniards left, the administration of the territory was bitterly contested by the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front Independence Movement (and government of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic or SADR) until 1991 when the UN broker a ceasefire between the warring parties.
Relatively, peace has returned to the city with quite a number of UN Peacekeeping Forces situated there. Presently, there are about 200,000 people in Laayoune. The city is getting back its vibes after the conflict years. (Morocco offers incentives for its people to relocate to Laayoune and other parts of the Western Sahara) The tallest structure in Laayoune is the minaret of the new Great Mosque located just off Place Mechouar. This building is huge but open only to Muslims.

BOUJDOUR
Originally a fishing village located around a lighthouse. Boujdour is a city in the Sahara, under the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Morocco, near Cape Boujdour. It has a population of 50,000. its beaches, several kilometres long.

DAKHLA
A heavenly town in the western Sahara when you come from West Africa (first western city with lots of development happening and great sandy beaches and lagoons. Right between the waters of the Atlantic and the sands of the Sahara. There are miles of beaches throughout the city that give you an opportunity to relax or to participate in a whole array of water sports. The bay of Dakhla lies on a peninsula at the mouth of the Rio de Oro. The warm, turquoise waters of its splendid lagoon harbor migratory birds, pink flamingos, tortoises, monk seals, rays and humpback dolphins. You can enjoy them from the southern tip of the peninsula at Punta Sarga. Dakhla is also the gateway to the desert and to sub-Saharan Africa for a great off-road adventure towards places like Zug in the far South East of the Western Sahara.

MAHBES
Coming from Smara on our way to Assa in Morocco we were told to leave the area and return to the coast (this was 2011) by the Morocco army and UN observers. The army was building a wall at the time (called a berm) to keep Polisario out?

SMARA
Also called Samara a major city (55000 people) in Moroccan controlled area of the Western Sahara. It is also surrounded by the Morrocan Wall. We were told the structure is around 2500km long made of sand and it separates the morrocan occupied land on the west from Polisario on the East. Since 2008, a demonstration called “The Thousand Column” is held annually in the desert against the barrier by international human rights activists and Sahrawi refugees. In the 2008 demonstration, more than 2,000 people (most of them Sahrawis) but also Algerians and others) made a human demanding the demolition of the wall. I must be honest we never heard of this or its existence.

ZUG
Small town in the far East of The Western Sahara, just 170km North East from Atar in Northern Mauritania. (We could not cross the border here and had to drive to Guerguerat on the main highway RN1. The only Erg (Sand Sea) in Western Sahara (known as “Galb Azefal”) is located nearby, where it runs Mauritania into Western Sahara and back into Mauritania. Zug is in the part of Western Sahara controlled by the Polisario Front. During our visit the Spanish where building a hospital in town. It also is home to the head of the 1st military battalion of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

BIR GANDUS
Also called Bir Gandouz is a Berber village in the Western Sahara controlled by Morocco. As a rural commune of Morocco. It holds a Moroccan military post. Although sometimes called so, it is not a border post. The border post to Mauritania is to the west on the RN1 at Guerguerat although the stamp given there bore the name of Bir Gandus.

GUERGUERAT
is a small village in the far south west of the western Sahara, 11 km from the border with Mauritania and 5 km inland from the Atlantic Ocean. The village is under the control of Morocco. The Moroccan passport control stamp bears the name of Bir Gandouz, a nearby village. Morocco sees this frontier post as the southernmost barrier protecting the European Union and coming from West Africa, we had to pass a scanner with our motorhome. At the time we were told by others it was possible to cross into Morocco or Mauritania via the beach track? But we never tried. We also were told that Polisario was planning/claiming the area near the beach and open its own border? For Morocco this border is very important as they export vegetables to Mauritania (especially to Nouadhibou) and it is the only way for Moroccans to leave their country by land without a visa to another country. The importance of Guerguerat to the Polisario lies in the fact that this is the only location where it can exert pressure on Morocco by isolating it from Mauritania.

CLIMATE
There is no bad time to visit once you stay to the coast as temperatures are pleasant all year round with a great sea breeze in summer. The best time to visit inland is in the winter when temp however in the high 20’s but nights are nice and cool and sometimes even cold.

Laayoune
Summer; 15 at night to 32 during the day
Winter; 13 at night to 24 during the day
Rainfall; Minimal

Dakhla
Summer 15 at night to 32 during the day
Winter 13 at night to 24 during the day
Rainfall Minimal, Sept wettest month 14 mm

Boujdour
Summer; 15 at night to 32 during the day
Winter; 13 at night to 24 during the day
Rainfall; Minimal
Zug
Summer 20 degrees at night to 50 degrees during the day
Winter; 12 degrees at night to 33 degrees during the day
Rainfall minimal

Smara
Summer; 18 degrees at night to 50 degrees during the day
Winter; degrees at night to 30 degrees during the day
Rainfall; minimal

PART 2, BLOG and PICTURES AND GALLERY.

WESTERN SAHARA 2011

The next few days driving via the coast road to Mauritania. Ask any Moroccan and he will tell you the Western Sahara belongs to them. However, the UN does not agree. The road to Laayoune is long and boring, but not for us. The unofficial border between Morocco and Western Sahara (used to belong to Spain until 1975) is just South of Tarfaya. From here we noticed UN, Army and Police. And we were told not to photograph any of them or the military Installations. We were booked for violating Moroccan traffic law! My response was, “Mate, according to the UN this is disputed territory”. Morocco is not Africa so there was no way I could buy myself out of this one! The fine was 700 dirham (84 AUD or 50 Euro). I was supposed to have stopped before entering the roundabout. Yes, it did have a stop sign!

Only 30km down the road we were stopped again. This time the Moroccan Army was checking passports, car-papers and license. Plus, the usual question, “Where are you going?” The road south looks very similar to driving across the Nullarbor, except we drove a lot closer to the edge of the ocean most of the time. The further south we got the more sand encroached over the road. Around 30km north of Laayoune, we set up a bush camp with some local Bedouins. This was a great experience for both of us. Our first town is Laayoune where the army is in control and we had to stop five times for inspections and the usual question, “Your destination?” Since we have been driving in the Western Sahara, we have seen a lot more police and army personnel. Laayoune is now the principal city of the Western Sahara. It seems to be mostly Moroccan because the Spanish and Sahrawi people have been out-populated by Moroccans who have been lured to the region by good wages and tax-free goods. After filling up with fuel (5 dirham) or $0.66 AUD or 0.50 Euro cents, we continued south because we felt that the town was not very appealing. In 1957, Polisario was established. The Polisario Guerrillas waged a war against the Spanish and later the Moroccans and for some time the Mauritanians. In 1975, the Western Sahara was abandoned by the Spanish. The area was then reclaimed by both Mauritania and Morocco. After Mauritania ceased its claim, Morocco’s King Hassan organized a march in which 350,000 Moroccans walked to Tah to stake their claim. Over 100,000 soldiers poured into the Western Sahara to stop Polisario. The UN brokered a cease fire 10 years ago promising a referendum where the Sahrawi people could choose between independence and integration with Morocco. But this has not yet eventuated. Late in the afternoon and after another 4 police and army checkpoints, we arrived in Dakhla. After driving along, the coast for most of the day with spectacular scenery, ocean on one side and the Sahara Desert with its huge sand hills on the other, we were in for another surprise. The lagoon around Dakhla is up to 12km wide and only 20Km north of the tropic of Cancer. Perfect yellow sandy beaches on a peninsula that reaches out 40km into the Atlantic Ocean. This area has some of the richest fishing grounds in the world and is also a Mecca for windsurfers and amateur fisherman. The city of Dakhla is a very modern city and in our opinion, would have all the ingredients for a tourist destination, if it wasn’t for the political situation. we decided to drive South along the border with Algeria. But after we found we were lost and both our GPS and tracks for Africa were incorrect our planned route needed to be cancelled (We travelled alone) to make matters worse we also found ourselves in more severe sandstorms. At night, we huddled inside the truck with 80 … 100km winds buffeting it back and forth. This went on for several days and we could only travel each time the wind stopped for a few hours. Because we were traveling alone, we decided to return to the main tarred road south of Dakhla. Arriving in Dakhla we spend a week at the lagoon enjoying warm weather. We reluctantly left Dakhla after a week. However, we know we will be stopping here on our way back to Europe. We heard disturbing news on the radio that a bomb blast in Marrakesh killed at least 15 people and that there are public demonstrations for reforms in Morocco. Also reports of demonstrations in Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso were less than positive. our plan is to reach the Border in 2 days and get across the border into Mauritania. Driving south from Dakhla, we wondered why people would fight over this part of the world. However, it is not difficult to find the answer. Resources!

  • Phosphates: Reserves in Western Sahara are estimated at 10 billion tons. Morocco would be the world’s largest exporter of phosphates (the key component of modern agricultural fertilizer).
  • Fish: The fishing grounds off the coast of Western Sahara are possibly the richest in the world. In 1995 Morocco concluded its latest deal with the European Union under which 477 mainly Spanish fishing vessels can fish there for four years in return for $650 million from Brussels.
  • Oil: Geological surveys have indicated significant oil reserves, but these are not yet exploited.

Here are some facts about Western Sahara.

  • 46% of children have low height for their age due to nutritional deficiencies.
  • 10% of under-fives suffer from acute malnutrition, 46% from chronic malnutrition.
  • 71% of children under five have moderate to severe anaemia
  • 19% of women have poor Vitamin C status.

The spectacular scenery was a mix of coast and ocean and the rolling dunes of the Sahara Desert. After another three or four road-blocks, we arrived at the border. Two hours later we left the (Moroccan) border! The person responsible for signing us out had an appointment with a doctor and in typical African style; no-one else could sign us out. Lucky, he never died. The road (wheel tracks in soft sand) now passes through 7km of no-man’s land, which is littered with landmines, so we advise everyone to make sure that you stay on the right track. I also think the 7km is a drive back into history as the Mauritanian border is one of complete chaos, which includes fixers, black money dealers, army, police and customs, all after the many stamps. Two hours and a thorough check in our Motorhome looking for alcohol which is strictly forbidden in Mauritania, we were free to go with the signboards displaying the words “Welcome to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania”.