Dakhla, Western Sahara

Trip Start Sep 11, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

It seems like an awfully long time ago that we left Fes. We always intended to spend a few weeks in Morocco, mainly because it is a country I have wanted to visit ever since planning grandiose Saharan motorbike tours many years ago, none of which ever saw the light of day. We have been here for the best part of four weeks now and seen some wonderful sights, fantastic scenery, experienced a taste of getting off road and into the desert, and encountered perhaps more than our fair share of minor problems and petty corruption.

On the down side we started to find ourselves spluttering to a halt at the most inconvenient of moments with what appeared to be an occasional lack of petrol to the engine. After waiting for 10 minutes or so and turning the engine over several times Bronwen started again and ran normally, until the next time. This got worse over the course of several days, culminating in a frustrating afternoon when we only managed around 1 kilometre between problems. Up to this point we suspected the heat was causing "vapour lock" (the petrol evaporating before it gets to the carbs, then liquidising again as it cools), but after a lot of head scratching and tinkering (and much lower temperatures in the mountains) decided it was more likely dirt somewhere in the system. To cut a long story short the problem turned out to be the fuel filter inside the petrol tank occasionally closing up, rectified in about 15 minutes with a bit of water pipe. We are about 2,000 km further on now and running as close to a dream as is possible in a 30 year old 3 ton ambulance (more soggy than wet!).

Problem sorted we headed off to our first taste of the real Sahara at Erg Chebbi, a huge set of sand dunes near Merzouga, close to the Algerian border. Catching sight of the sprawling mass of sand, shimmering gold in the afternoon sunlight, really is quite a breathtaking sight. Whilst attempting to sit quietly and have a cup of tea without attracting attention, we inadvertently did what it seems impossible to avoid in Morocco, attracted attention. The reflective mood having been broken by polite but repeated offers of accommodation, we accepted Mohammed's offer to park Bronwen for free outside his Auberge. We assumed that he would be after our money in other ways - guide, meals etc, but were glad of the relative protection from other touts that his offer presented. After parking up and taking a walk through the dunes we spent the evening dancing and singing (yes, dancing and singing!) with the local Berbers who "just happened" to be on hand to entertain us and their Spanish guests. As this still cost us nothing other than a little of our English reserve, the next day we signed up for the tourist camel trek into the Sahara - cost, about 2 weeks of our budget!

The trip turned out to be worth the outlay. After putting on our best "Tourist on an Excursion" attitudes we mounted our camels (named Bob and Jimi - Marley and Hendrix) and were led off into the dunes, trying hard to look like Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia but succeeding in looking more like Benny Hill on a Blackpool donkey. Anyway, neither of us fell off, and Claire even managed to master riding with no hands. After two bum numbing hours sitting on Bob Marley's hump we spent the night at an Oasis in a Berber tent, being taught some (rather dubious) constellations by our guide Ahmed and chatting to a Belgian couple sharing our tent. Claire managed to repay Ahmed by teaching him the art of Poi (twirling tennis balls round on bits of string). Not sure who got the best deal there. Decided to climb the largest dune to watch the sun set which took an hour to slog up, 5 minutes to roll, slide, and scramble back down. The whole effect was only slightly marred by the fact that every 4WD and motorbike in the Sahara seemed to use the Oasis as an overnight stop. Camels on one side, Land Cruisers on the other.

Moving on we decided to avoid the tarmac road and take a 250km track across the desert to get from Merzouga to Zagora. Rather foolishly we took this route on the advice of our host at Erg Chebbi who drew a basic map on A4. About 30km off road we started to doubt the wisdom of this when we realised the map only covered the first third of the route. We needn't have worried as on the few occasions we were unsure which way to take we managed to easily rope in a small child to direct us for the price of a pen and a few sweets. Despite the oft mentioned risk of straying into Algeria and being arrested (mainly mentioned by prospective guides wishing to save us from such a fate for a not so small consideration) we spent a fantastic couple of days driving a mixture of sand, rocky scrub desert, and dried lake beds. At one point all 3 tonnes of Bronwen seemed to leave the ground after hitting a hidden dip at speed, luckily no obvious damage other than a couple of shocked passengers. Spent a wonderful night totally alone under the stars, which doesn't happen very often here - usually someone appears in even the most seemingly remote of locations.

Arrived in Zagora and spent an interesting evening with Wolfgang, a lone German tourist travelling Morocco for the umpteenth time in his 4x4 with luxury trailer/kitchenette. Claire got to practice her long forgotten German (very successfully) as he spoke no English. I managed to follow the general conversation for a while until it all became too much like hard work and I stopped bothering to listen. Luckily Wolfgang had 10 litres of Pastis in a Jerrycan which kept us going for a while. As it was the end of Ramadan (1 month of "nil by mouth" during daylight hours) we ate in Zagora and watched the celebrations, these seemed to consist mainly of middle aged men sitting outside cafes drinking tea, whilst every other person in town promenaded up and down the long and dusty main street all night. Apparently things are a lot more dynamic in Marrakech!

Our 3 days in Marrakech proved far more successful than Fes, despite arriving in the dark to find the campsite was now a 4* hotel and having to bribe our way out of an unwitting traffic offence. The main square (Djemma El Fnaa) comes alive at night with thousands of people encircling miscellaneous groups of storytellers, acrobats, musicians, and others. Of particular note was the man playing guitar with a live chicken on his head, the transvestite belly dancers, and the snake charmers with very bored looking cobras being prodded into action with sticks (surely missing the point of playing the music?). The rest of the square is filled with food stalls, all vying for our business under a permanent haze of steam and cooking smoke. We ate a meal there which included a very sweet pigeon pie. For 6 days since I have had quite severe stomach upset which may or may not be linked? The most amazing thing about the spectacle is that it occurs every night of the year, and the crowd is predominantly Moroccan. We also made our first purchases in a Souk - I am now the proud owner of a very silly looking but quite practical hat sold to me by a woman with nice eyes (that's all I could see of her), and we also have a cheap but practical plastic carpet to sit on, selected after intensive negotiations with a very nice old man who spoke very little French and refused to lower his prices.

During the last few weeks we keep seeming to have odd encounters with people and finding ourselves in slightly bizarre situations. After breakfast by a mountain lake two small girls appeared and did our washing up, then insisted on stroking Claires hair for a few minutes as payment (if only that worked at home!). Then whilst trying to have a quiet night by another lake (maybe it's something in the water) two brothers managed through their persistence over several hours to persuade us to come to their house to eat. About a dozen of us crammed into the main room on the best carpets and as we couldn't really communicate (they spoke only a Berber dialect, very little Arabic let alone French) we all watched a Jackie Chan film on the proudly displayed DVD player. Afterwards the tagine was brought out and the best bits offered to the guests (ie us). Unfortunately the best bits constitute the liver, testicles, and penis of the animal (discovered to be a sheep after running through a list of animal noises). As I hadn't had the presence of mind to claim to be a vegetarian when Claire did so, I had to uphold our honour and tuck in. Liver sampled with no problem, testicle eaten with caution and to be honest can't say it was that bad although I wouldn't rush to Sainsbury's to order any, however I really baulked at the penis. It crossed my mind it might be easier to eat if cut into smaller pieces but the thought of slicing it up made me cringe. Despite the crowd of expectant faces all watching me and giggling I managed to joke my way out of it, eventually pushing it round the bowl and hiding it under some potato. I don't think it fooled anyone. Poor sheep. This was topped recently by a very serious looking Gendarme at one of the many roadblocks in the south pushing his head in the window and asking "Do you have anything for me?", taking this to mean a cadeaux/baksheesh/bribe Claire feigned ignorance and asked "Pardon? What sort of thing?", his face cracked into a broad grin and he exclaimed "Bon-bon Bon-bon, I am only a small policeman!" in imitation of all the small children who pester us for sweets. After handing over 6 sweets for the 3 policemen we received smart salutes and "Bonne Routes" all round. Very surreal.

Unfortunately Moroccan officialdom on the whole hasn't been too kind to us. So far we (I) have been pulled over 3 times by the Gendarmes, twice for crossing a solid white line in the road, once for allegedly running a red light (it was flashing green, honestly). These little encounters should officially have resulted in 1200 Dirhams worth of fines (about 70) but the very friendly policemen seemed more than willing to negotiate and accept considerably less for cash. How kind.

We have now switched out of sight-seeing mode and are heading due south on the long road from Agadir to Mauritania, 1200km of tarmac at 60kph sandwiched between the Sahara and the Atlantic. Sand has already taken its toll on our digital camera, resulting in the unforeseen expense of a new one selected at length from a choice of 2 in Laayoune. On the petrol front though things are really looking up, the cost has almost halved since crossing the old Morocco/Western Sahara border. A geed thing as the Western Sahara is as long as the journey from the South of England to the highlands of Scotland - and just one straight road.

Next stop Mauritania.....
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bokibg on

Hello from Belgrade
My name is Bosko. I live in Belgrade - Serbia. I just looking your photo album from the trip on west Africa. For me there is finest landscape in Africa specialy Western Sahara, Mauritanija, Senegal and Cape Verde island. Your presetation with short comments is the best i see.
Sorry for my bad English.
Best regards, Bosko

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