Western Sahara

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”.