It was about a half day ride across some still relatively green mountains that took me from Sidi Ifni back to the RN 1 which would take me all the way to the Mauritanian border. My Sahara leg I had defined as the about 1700 km long distance between Guelmim and Nouakchott.
At Guelmim, my door to the desert, I stopped only to stock up on food and water and then headed off into this world of rocks and sand, this vast emptiness of a size beyond imagination. In the north there is still a reasonable population what meant I came across a town each day, most of them small though. I took it in steps of about 100 km per day first, what soon proved inefficient due to the strong north-easterly wind which pushed me along. I could easily maintain 30 to 40 km/hr for sustained periods, and I decided I would plan for bigger days.
The road cuts through a vast area of what is locally called hammada. It is a featureless, arid, inhospitable and uninviting landscape. Sometimes the ocean is visible but rarely the coast itself which is about 50 to 100 meters down a steep edge. At first now and then the road crossed dry river beds surrounded by dunes some of which hosting flamingo populations. The few towns here are rather functional administrative centres and short of specific sights.
The one worth mentioning is Tarfaya, the place where pilot and author Antoine de Saint-Exupery lived and dreamed up his popular story ‘The Little Prince’. A monument was erected in his memory, a Breguet 14 biplane, the sort of plane he used to fly on the airmail route from Toulouse to Saint Louis.
A map printed outside of Morocco will show the Western Sahara as its own country, or disputed territory, which comprises largely of the former Spanish colony named Spanish Sahara. When it was abandoned as a colony Morocco raised claim on it and poured in a large number of troops to stamp out resistance. The UN brokered a ceasefire but the promised referendum has yet to materialise. Morocco has strengthened its hold ever since pouring money into large infrastructure projects and attracting people from the north to live here tax free. Most western governments regard the status of the Western Sahara as ‘undetermined’. Morocco treats it as an integrated part of the country. Whatever the complicated geopolitical status, to the traveller it is much a continuation of Morocco. There is no sign as to when you enter the Western Sahara, and in most cases luckily people are just as open and hospitable as further north in Morocco.
From what I could see the economic activity here is very limited, limited by the harsh surroundings. Most towns aren’t much beyond a petrol station, shop, cafe and restaurant serving to the passing traffic. Add a hotel or two and a campground to the larger ones. Presumably the occasional herds of dromedaries, and the very occasional goats belong to someone. I heard about phosphate mining and some off shore oil exploration.
I spent Christmas in Laayoune, a modern and large city, by far the largest in the Western Sahara. I splashed out on a nice hotel as my Christmas treat, and it wasn’t difficult to find decent food. Around me was of course not the slightest hint of Christmas, no decoration, no celebrations. It was just another busy evening as I had seen so many in Moroccan cities. I had a few phone calls with family and close friends then went to enjoy my posh hotel room. Earlier, I had thought I would be a bit sad that day, but I wasn’t. I was actually quite happy.
Further on I made excellent progress. The strong north-easterly wind allowed for high speeds most of the time. Only when the road turns and twists, what happens occasionally there were some more exhausting stretches, most of them were short though. All the forthcoming depends on what direction of the wind you are facing. Temperatures were relatively pleasant by day, probably not higher than 30 degrees, albeit it is really cold over night and in the mornings. Daylight starts only by about eight and between nine and ten the sun is high enough so that it is comfortable. The increased weight from the water I carried was dragging a bit. On top of the water bottles I usually carry I have one 1.5 litre bottle strapped to each pannier bag and another 5 litre container on the front rack.
After a break day in Boujdor I had what was probably my roughest night so far. Lacking of any shelter, or features in the landscape to hide I asked at a petrol station whether they would allow me to pitch the tent up behind it. They insisted however that I slept in front of it, claiming this was safer, as they were open all night and had security. Like most properties it was walled for the wind but this one wasn’t planned very well and the wind was blowing inside the walls as well. Hence it proved a challenge to pitch the tent up in the howling wind, and of course it was impossible to use the poles on the tarmac. When I went to sleep I was not expecting a quiet night but the noise was still massive. Each lorry that called in sounded as if it would soon run over me, and most drivers did what the local drivers do, honk their horns on arrival. I managed a few hours of sleep before in the morning I was woken up by rifle fire. When I poked my head out to see what was going on a guy was out shooting the straying dogs. Slightly confused the first question that came to my mind was what dinner they had served me the previous night. But then I remembered Muslims can only eat herbivores, and they probably hadn’t been waiting for the first foreigner to pass by so I decided I was safe. I was done with this doubtful rest though, and as usual, rough nights are good for early starts.
As well I noticed that I had lost an essential item back in Boujdor and decided to backtrack and search for it. I found an empty lorry going the other direction which gave me a lift. Well, my loss turned out to be final but back at the campsite in met Steve, a friendly English guy who gave me a lift back to the Dakhla intersection with my bike on the roof.
Now that there is only one road left I meet a lot more travellers. There are plenty of people in camping vans fleeing the European winter. Others are on motorcycles or 4WDs, many having a trans African route in mind. Most of them are French but I also met Brits, Germans, Austrians, and Czechs. Motorists kept telling me that there is another cyclist not far behind me, I still don’t know who this was, but it was good to know that I am not alone.
New Years Eve was a funny night too. I passed a walled house in the middle of nowhere. A guy came out and waved at me and I stopped and after some chatting I thought I could as well ask whether he would let me pitch up the tent on or behind the property. It was late in the afternoon and I had almost done my planned distance for the day. He seemed happy with having a guest and I was given an empty room with a rug to sleep at what was obviously a road maintenance facility. He made tea for me and soon two road workers came. They fetched me for more tea in what was sort of a living room with mats and cushions laid out. I was not allowed to enter however before I had washed my hands and my face, and then was once more directed back to wash my feet, and my hands again under the supervisory eyes of one of them. Then I was allowed to lie down with the others. There was a charcoal stove in the middle and tea was poured ceremonially. In fact hours were spent on pouring tea into cups and back in the kettle, brick sized clusters of sugar thrown in and every half hour or so a glass of tea would fall out of the process. This was however by no means a quiet setting. One guy was glued to his mobile phones heaving loud conversations while smoking considerable amounts of funny smelling stuff while the other two in turns got up for prayer and me, the only quiet one, I really enjoyed being in the middle of it. I was given food later and by about ten I retreated to my room to sleep.
The traffic became extremely light after Dakhla. This is generally a good thing since cars are the natural enemy of the cyclist, but it also made me feel more lonely at times. Towns that were on my map weren’t there in the real world.
I had another break at the Motel Barbas, a well known hotspot for overlanders. It is a pretty lonely outpost in the middle of nowhere about 80 km north of the Mauritanian border. By then the Sahara had come upon me. Physically, this stretch is not all that difficult. It’s flat, the road is good and there is some sort of supplies available every 150 km or so. But it became more difficult mentally. It was the same, long and lonely cycle every day with minimal changes in my surroundings, and distances here are staggering. Days blurred into each other and so did the overnight spots. Loneliness struck and I got homesick.
Closer to the border the landscape became more attractive, however with all the mine warning signs straying off the road would not have been all too smart. I arrived at the border in the afternoon where I had a few hours to chat with the stranded lorry drivers. These are the same guys that threaten me on the road, I thought, but they were a lot kinder when not driving.
The next morning I got into the queue, where drivers quickly suggested I get in front since customs wouldn’t bother me anyway. The police stamped me out, then I had to register with the military and gendarmerie before I was given way into the no man’s land between the countries. It is a sandy piste first, that divides into a number of meagre tracks after about a kilometre. I tried to follow the cars but this wasn’t easily possible, since through the sand I had to push quite a bit. It is heavily mined, so you don’t want to get it wrong. It is ridiculous. There is an all sealed road across the Sahara, but for whatever conflict nobody wants to put tarmac onto this tiny stretch. Or clear the mines at least. But then, no man’s land is only about 4 km long and all in all it is less scary than I thought it would be.
Entering Mauritania was an earnest process but easy enough still. The first town I reached was Bou Lannouar, about 50 km after the border, and it was evening by then since I had been slowly struggling against the wind. From roughly the border onwards two new dimensions entered the game, the headwind and the ubiquitous sand. Sand all over my clothes and skin, sand in the face, sand in the eyes, sand stuck to the handles, sand filled shoes, and another sandblast whenever a lorry passed. Sand in the food and eventually sand in the sleeping bag.
Besides the elements there are other complications with travelling in Mauritania. Due to the security situation you think twice about wild camping anyway. The government however is desperate to keep the route safe. There is a gendarmerie roadblock at least every 50 km, and when you pass one you are registered and the next one is informed you are coming. I heard stories of travellers who didn’t make it to the next roadblock in time and slept somewhere in between with the result that the gendarmerie came searching for them. Certainly there is pressure to keep moving.
A few hours past Bou Lannouar, with sand all over me and fighting the headwind I probably hit the absolute low point. At one stage a thought crossed my mind. What if Steve would pass by and offer me a lift? Would I say yes and stop suffering or no and stick to do every meter on the bike? But then, I was fantasizing, by then he was well ahead of me.
A few hours later I heard the horn and a familiar car stopped at the roadside ahead of me. I couldn’t believe it was Steve, and he offered me a lift. It took a few minutes to make up my mind but I went for it.
I am typing this from Nouakchott, where my arbitrarily defined Sahara leg finished. I arrived here dirty, salt stained and covered in sand. I had never planned to stay here for any substantial time, but I needed the break. I am not yet out of the desert, but the Senegal river is about 200 km down the road from here so it can’t be far any more. I pushed it through the desert because I wanted to get through it, and I am through and happy. And the break is doing me good.
There is not a lot to see in Nouakchott but I am still not disappointed. It is a unique place. It is probably what comes out when nomads decide to build a capital. It is only 50 years old and albeit only 5 km from the beach the centre faces the desert. There are no great sights, if any specific ones, but therefore a lot of heat and dust. People in blue robes and headscarfs are roaming the streets, whose fathers and grandfathers may well have not been settled yet. Albeit it does not look as open and friendly as in much of Morocco on first glance I have met some genuinely nice people here. It is a relaxed enough place however to sort things out, do some shopping and house keeping, go visa hunting, and hang out, there is no hassle whatsoever. And for a novice western traveller like me it is a random enough place so that I am proud I have visited. (I admit the photos are a little meagre, they don’t like cameras here so I had to be discreet)
Besides the vast emptiness the thing I will remember most of the Sahara I think is the wind. It is strong wind, and constantly strong, no such thing as gusts. It’s nice on the bike as long as it blows from behind but something to get used to when off the bike. It teaches you all new ways of pitching up a tent, preparing a sandwich, and be extremist about having your bags closed. The biggest delight is probably the star gazing by night. There are many of them, the sky is all glitter. It’s really amazing. And for the first time in my life I saw the zodiacal light.
I am very proud that my bike has never let me down either. There was not a single breakdown, and a recent check revealed no technical issues. It was suffering though, the chain ring shows noticeable signs of wear now which I assume originate from the sand the chain attracts. As soon as I am out of the sand, it will get a good clean.
By now it is hot, and wandering around Nouakchott in the afternoon hours is quite uncomfortable. My departure will be early in the morning, and I will need to plan for a break after midday. However this may well become a pattern across West Africa.