- Polisario Front.
What we know:
Sand, Harmatten, Dunes, Camel, Tuareg, Mistral, Refugees.
Leaving Morocco’s haunting sounds hanging on a drying sea breeze we cross its disputed border into the Western Sahara.
In the shifting sands as to exactly where the frontier is anyone’s guess. This little bit of the Sahara is the size of Britain with a two thousand five hundred kilometres electrically monitored fortified wall (longer than the wall of China.) It has a capital city called El Aaiún not marked on our map. Indeed it does not make the grade for any large yellow letters on our map anywhere.
Perhaps it is one of those “here today gone tomorrow” part of the African Continent. All the same it is difficult that night to ignore it, or, for that matter to get any feel of being fenced in.
We settle into our twenty-second pitch of the trip, a wild pitch. (Wild pitches are when we set up camp in a spot of our own choosing.) It has been a long hot day reflected by Florence’s choice of name for the night game of dominoes ‘Desert fire.’ The girls hit the sack. There is not a noise or sound to be heard.
With the simmering of another desert day over, I sip a Paddy whisky, disappointed that there is no feeling of nearness or farness but I have a strong feeling of time. My time feelings, I suppose, are because the essence of reality is time itself. I am looking for time to heal the wounds of the lost of our livelihood. My hope is that later or I should say deeper into Africa I will find time that is born out of death not subjugated to speed or the science of my western culture. One day = 86,400 seconds. The uninterrupted view to my left the real desert is a constant reminder of where we are and where we were going without an EPIRB. (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) I sleep fitfully.
Morning, Fanny has been up since six am. Florence and I sleep on to seven. The air is cool and my Essaouira surf leg strain seems a lot better. An oil change, new filters, cut knuckles, black fingernails. By 9 am I am looking like wildcat oil driller rather than a respectable Paddy on his way to South Africa by car with his beloved and child.
The day brings several more police control checks points before arriving in Tan Tan. Here we strike it rich with the cheapest fuel in the whole of Morocco at 2.95 dirham per litre. We fill to the brim.
Hugging the coastline we pass a few more forlorn shipwrecks that I am sure many an insurance company wondered just how they managed to hit the largest continent in the world. Cutting inshore we hit our first Sahara traffic pacification dune sign. It sends a bottle of cooking oil into the bilges, coating all of our tinned food in a fine smear of sand and sunflower oil.
“You didn’t read that one did you”?
A small mound of yellow sand that is smooth, solid and silky has sent Williwaw into a sideways skid. “The desert waves are certainly different from them there Atlantic rollers,” Is met by a silence of a non-sharable bananas being peeled.
Pitch number twenty-three. With a long days drive under our belts we are at long last in sight of some real size dunes. Not quite the dunes you find in coffee table magazines that advertise the latest 4X4, or deodorant.
That night I read that large grain sand moves in short hopping movements and smaller grains by air.
Seif Dunes – ridges run parallel to the wind and at right angles.
Barchan Dunes – that can go up to fifty meters high and ten kilometres long.
Crest Dunes – move from one location to another.
“It must have been a crest dune that nobbled us today.” If it was it did not matter as I was now paying the price, another repack was under way. I reminded the girls that there were ninety-five armed conflicts going on in the world and we did not need to add another over some god dam cans – I lost.
Before hitting the sack the two fish purchased in Tan Tan are consigned to the quicksand – the depths of the Sahara. A tin of baked beans is washed down with the last of our wonderful French brandy and a slice of birthday cake. Three a.m. Fanny is outside battling the wind in search of one of her noises. I refuse to leave my sleeping bag to go and look for something that goes bump in the night; Revenge for the repack.
After two months it is high time she learns to relax with the sounds of camping. To be able to identify rustling leaves as against leaves rustling, mice scurrying or rats gnawing, or Bob piddling. It’s far too late now for leaves but what will it be like when the paddy paws arrive, the bark of a hyena, the laugh of a Baboon, the buzz of a mosquito. Only god knows!
I assure her that no one has seen us leave the road and the nearest village is miles away and there are no marauding animals or Bushmen to worry about and that the chances of being run over by a camel are as remote as winning the lotto.
Seven a.m. Our Fanny is not a happy bunny this morning. “Anyone, seen a camel?” I try. How was I to know that just around the corner from our campsite a camel train was in motion with eighty-five, no sixty-five of the buggers according to Florence coming our way. Fanny is not counting she is pointing. I take a photo of Williwaw framed between the legs of a fine specimen a Tuareg Dromedarie one hump model favoured in these parts. (Photo No )
With 136-litre water fill capacity, nostril flaps, heat vents and an average steady speed of two miles an hour for fourteen to eighteen hours day it is great value for money. Alas the Tuareg Dromedarie model is on the way out to be replaced by power assisted steering; air-conditioned, stereo, 26 litres to the hour, Toyotas, Nissans, Cherokee, and Jeep. (Not a Land Rover to be seen)
We break camp in an atmosphere of – first up the hill gets the middle cross. Fanny has taken the hump. Her humour threshold for the rest of the day mirrors the gravel covered plains, the bare rock surface, the depressions, mountains, sandy wastes of our landscape. Thank god we not are taking the long route to Timbuktu: A sense of distance at long last with time.
Back on to main drag. We have not gone more than seventy clicks and its encore your profession? Your father’s names, your mother name, your wife’s name, don’t tempt me; have you any wine? Three more police stops we arrive in Laâyoune. A small modern town, with a lavish road gate entrance. It consists of a big square, a football stadium, a Mosque, a Catholic Church, and Hotel Al Massira full of UN fat cats. Otherwise known as El Aaiún, Laâyoune the capital missing from our map.
Pulling up alongside a dozen UN four by four vehicles I reckon it might be safer to stay under UN protection tonight rather than camp. A cold beer, a swim, England v Spain in the European cup, a large bed in an air-conditioned room has no difficulty in winning some brownie points with Fanny.
I swear I must avoid repacks, and as a result inflicting the girls with my temper.
It has not been possible up to now to get them to allocate a stable living place for each and every item in the back of Williwaw. Fanny insists in putting things into unmarked plastic bags. It drives me to distraction when looking for something in the dark never mind in the searing heat. My fingers are crossed that it will improve with time. There is also still no awareness of the tent pegs, guy ropes, the danger of lighting the stove too near, in, or up wind of the tent. A little attention to detail is required if we are to avoid an accident. If any stitches are required I will need sedation first if they are as a result of a needless accident.
Sitting in the hotel lounge, watching the match suddenly a singing River Lee voice from Cork is ordering pints, while a flat Molly Malone accent from Dublin is asking me the score. Where else would you expect to meet a retiring Dublin Cop, and an Irish Naval captain from Cork harbour? In Laâyoune of course, living proof that the Sahara with all its daunting features is unable to form a barrier to cultural movement.
Before I could order another drink I am taken under the wing of the UN, and given the whole low down on the Western Sahara. “You know that at one time there were over three thousand of our people here and two thousand troops approx in this area and all because King ……. II flagrantly violated a UN resolution.”
“Thank Christ for that.”
From 1975 – 1988, Morocco tried to control this part of the Sahara. Why? A goal for England, no reply.
“Phosphate deposits”! – “Sorry what did you say”? “Morocco already had the world’s largest deposits of phosphate” It’s a free kick. “The UN proposed a cease-fire to be followed by a referendum”. Missed – a corner. “King II ran out of bread. (Money) The electrical bills got on top of him. That fence keeps blowing fuses”.
“Algeria dumped the Polisario Front for similar reasons too expensive.” “How long are you staying?” “Just passing through on our way to Cape Town” Yeah! “Not much rain around here.” The final whistle. “You should have been up in Spain a month or so ago, it rained nonstop.” “How long have you fellows been here?” No answer.
By dinner time I have a new rocket gasket fitted in the UN service station by a qualified mechanic. Received two bottles of pure alcohol from the medics to dilute our mosquito deterrent neat Deeth and made radio contact with Dakla to confirm convoy times to the Mauritania border.
I have also learned from one of their American ‘comrades in (peace keeping) arms’, that the cost of desertification in lost production to the world is estimated to be $28 billion dollars a year. While rehabilitating, cutting the spread of the deserts in half is estimated to be $4.5 billion a year, a ratio of loss to cost of 6: I. I am none the wiser. ” What more buddy I get x amount of US Dollars for searching for voters, while this Bangladeshi trooper sitting beside us is being paid in toilet paper for the same job.”
“How much is that Dad?” “Not enough to buy a packet of crisps Honey”. Florence is suitably blasé.
We all breakfast together. After over a month of eerie tongue warbler morning call to prayer the sound of blunt church bells notes is totally out-of-place. Our American friend is more worried about getting enough turkeys flown in for thanks giving than going to church. To boost the congregation to nine we accompany my two country men to church. Standing in church beside them I wonder if in this contrasting world of ours it might not be a good idea if we, its people, shouldn’t start look for a new safety military net other than UN resolutions. Military power can be no longer be a well thought-out intimidation in a world where armies are confronted by enemies that operate without any loyalty to a country, have no base, communicate in a cyber world. Wars are out of date( If you don’t believe me take a peek at the Chronicle of Wars listed on the CD) as is the Western Sahara problem now over twenty years old and still going nowhere fast.
Outside the church I ask two dark blue UN peace keepers where they hail from. Ghana. “We will be passing through Ghana in a month or so.” “Before the rains start I hope” replies a large smile. Not quite one of our considerations, at the moment. We are in the Sahara, for crying out loud with an average rain fall of less than three hundred and fifty millimetres per year.
Later in the morning we are waved good-bye by the owners of two brand new Audis. Tax perks up on blocks: Destination the Emerald Isle. Shake hands with the Chief of Police of Ghana son with a promise to give his dad a shout on our arrival in Ghana.
Our next pitch number twenty-four is in a small sandy wadi surrounded by some desert thorn-bush, more than a match for any Swiss penknife. “This place is obviously used by camels,” says Florence correctly identifying her first African spore. A small sandy brown coloured bird about the size of a hamster remains unidentified due to the lack of a bird book. Florence takes a photo for later investigation. Ad Dakhla is three hundred odd kilometres further down the coast.
We awake in morning coastal cloud cover that has turned the landscape to our left into a quivering, hovering, flat, shimmering, silent, non pastoral world : A world in which distance is challenging to judge. This is not a concern at the moment as we hug the coast cliff face which bears witness to a great deal of erosion. The Canaries islands are only a short swim on our left. (Not far off from quarter the distance to Ad Dakhla) The cooked rock cliffs surface overhangs the coast in large slabs that look ready to crack off at any moment. Stopping for a drink we spot, far below us, a group of shanty huts crouching against the foot of the cliff face. The huts bask in peak cap shadows created by the overhanging rocks. They also solve yesterday’s mystery as to where a truck that passes us was going with a new fishing boat. From our bird’s eye view the fleet is returning from the nights fishing. “Let’s go down and have a look”.
The smell of rotten fish hits us half way down the cliffs of Cap Bojador. We park Williwaw on top of fish bones that litter a soft sandy strip of beach. The returning fleet is lining up to ride the surf into a small gully. Not much notice is taken of us. All hands are required to direct the incoming surging boats onto waiting logs so as to roll them with the minimal amount of effort up the steep beach above the high water mark in one fluid movement.
One by one like Titanic lifeboats out on the waves they await their turn to come ashore with their white hulled, fat beams, high freeboards and open benched interiors, their broad bows sliding backwards down the incoming waves. Unlike Currach’s that dance an Irish jig on the surf these boats are built for strength. Like fat seagulls sitting just beyond the breaking wave they appear and disappear. Their deep bows waves on their headlong surge to shore promises many a broken leg or arm if anyone is caught waiting or standing in the wrong spot. (All are long line fishing boats. Individually baited hooks paid out on a line)
A few small-sized tuna, horse mackerel and the odd small dog shark confirming that the fishing is as hard and unforgiving as the land above us. A tough place to earn one’s living either as a group or as a lone landlubber fisherman fishing from the lofty cliffs.
Returning to the cliff top every now and then we pass a stone shelter with a few plastic blue barrels of fresh water standing outside. They mark the landlubber high cliff fisherman’s spot. Whatever about the fishing village these shelters which have no signs of drying racks, cool rooms, pickling jars. They are a total mystery to us with regard to how their occupants actually make a living. Not even Moby Dick would stay fresh for more than a few minutes in the heat, never mind a sardine waiting for the next passing car.
Closing in on Dakhla, we descend down to sea level. Here sea water is trapped in large salt farms > forming large squares of different shades of white they looks like a giant chess board that have plummeted out of the blue sky and landed right in front of us. Dakhla is still thirty-nine kilometres out on the end of a peninsula.
The land locked side of the peninsula clings to still blue water that acts as a cosmic mirror for the sky. The impression is that there is no sky or blue water, both ostensible integrating into one and the same. The sand running out to meet up with the water’s edge is smooth and flat: Mile after mile of it. Totally and utterly unmarked and undisturbed it is begging to be walked upon.
Small islands give the illogical hint of hovering in the air just above the water’s surface. It is hard to resist turning the wheel and heading straight for the still blue glass.
Two more check points outside the town. A quick visit to the town’s only hotel. An expensive dump has us pitched for the twenty-fifth time back along the two kilometers of tar road leading into town, in a pink walled compound guarded by a very pale skinny white dog that befriends Fanny on the spot. Light rain in the night and the smell of rubber for a change, has Fanny on her toes for the night. Where or what the rubber smell is no-one will ever know as for the rain it is all the more frightening for being incalculable.
Driving back into town in the morning we pass Dakhla’s military. Red flags with a green star hang lifelessly all over the place. Dakhal itself is a town at the end of a cul-de-sac. A complete dead-end. Lacking any heart its drab buildings are painted white with blue doors. The only reason we are here is to join the compulsory convoy to cross the Western Sahara.
All of the next day is taken up with ever-increasing circles of reporting to the police, reporting to the customs, reporting to the army: Buying a shovel, two blankets, a bag of imported spuds and replacement cooking oil. Departure is tomorrow morning, hopefully, with general assembly at seven am outside police station.
Dinner that night to Florence’s horror is a Senegalese woman with dangling breasts. She serves us from a large pot in one of the many shanty restaurants. The spices rings alarm bells. It would not do to be caught short in the middle of the convoy tomorrow. Avoiding the water over dinner we stop for a beer on the way back to our compound. England is beaten on penalties by the Krauts – not a good omen for tomorrow. Three days later, a motley looking lot assemble in the early morning on the street outside of the police station, for the ‘Once a Week’ convoy.
The group consists of a rust bucket of a Peugeot with a large fridge strapped to its roof, driven by a hard looking French sleaze. A Toyota Hatchback with a mobile home unit welded onto its chassis, driven by a French couple in their late seventies accompanied by two dogs. A clapped out, Merc truck with half a bus hitched behind it, driven by Spanish gypsy type in the company of two young wild ones. (One is a girl younger than Florence with sprouting knockers the other unidentifiable.) The rest is an assortment of spanking new 4X4’s, sporting Rock of Gib number plates, driven by wealthy Arabs, all with large plastic twenty-five litres containers strapped to their roofs. Not forgetting three hitchhikers > One German with no visa >Two French students desperate for a lift after a week in Dakhla. We are packed to the doors so cannot help.
An antiquated Land Rover with twenty odd black table-cloth wrapped heads sitting in the back > A taxi, paying passengers. Plus > an odd assortment of clapped out lorries, which are also carry paying passengers.
“All non-nationals to report to the Army compound with four photos each in the morning.” > Where no doubt the usual Raybans of importance, will be waiting in the morning. .
Surrounded by wanted posters it is the usual form filling > Room to room > desk to desk> Passports. After a lot of finger rat a tat tatting one hour later we are back outside non-the wiser as to when the convoy is going to leave or from where.
Over to the customs to get the carnet (Williwaws Passport) stamped. “Is this your car, where is the registration number, open this box that box”.
Five hours later we are requested to line up outside the town just beyond the UN compound across from our pink walled camping compound.
There we wait in the heat until three thirty p.m. Our escort arrives, papers are produced again with feeling > then > without any warning we off at one hundred and twenty kilometres per hour. It does not take long for the convoy to be strung out over thirty kilometres. Our armed escort has disappeared down the road and is out of sight within the first hour. We the following bunch immersed in a cloud of fine dust and diesel fumes are left to fend for ourselves.
Not to worry girl there is only one turn to be taken and that is right over the Tropic Cancer just outside El’ Argoub. There is also no need to fear getting lost as there are no sign posts. The only real worry is being blown up by the odd landmine.
Positioned somewhere in the top six vehicles that are now spread from Dakhla to Nouâdhibou, at the mercy of any heat seeking Polisario missile. Convoy my arse says Fanny. “At least they have to stop at La Gouira, it’s the end of the red line on the map.”
El’ Argoub the right turn turns out to be one building, selling fags and tea. We receive an invitation to join the Spanish Gypsy Eugene inside his bus for some pasta. Over lunch the group bunches up once more. Our Spaniard is going down to Senegal to meet his girlfriend who is to join him at Nouâdhibou. The bus interior consists of large sleeping platforms at both ends with a table in the middle.
Without warning the show is on the road again.
What we thought would be a piece of cake formation driving is turning out to be an endurance test. The rising heat of the day brings a stillness of the mind that is intensely personal. Reinforced by the tortured look of our desert landscape, it makes all of us fractious. The straightness of the sand covered road is broken by the odd road traffic sign. Totally out-of-place they are a repugnant pollutant to our shapeless passage.
By the time darkness is falling we all have grown tired of playing with the sky jigsaw of the earth and the desert twilight and we have come to realising just how vital the road signs are. A warning of what is real sand and what is not.
The sun is now setting beyond the reach of man. It merges with the sand to form a quicksilver of light that is blinding with an overall effect of causing the land to intertwine with the sky, in a 3D image. One minute you are on the beaten track the next you’re off. We passed a wrecked Land Rover. Some poor Italians travellers lost their lives to a land mine. The stark remains remind us of the importance of staying on the track for a pee.
Nine p.m. and we are just about to pull over and spend the night as best we can when a flash light penetrates the darkness. Our papers are requested once more. There is no sign of our escort. Another flashing light waves us off the road to the right where we find our Mauritanian friends in their brand new 4×4.
They have set up camp and have long gone to sleep. We learn that our Moroccan escort have disappeared over the ridge into a large army post. We also learn that just down the way is the Mauritania border and that Nouâdhibou is only sixty kilometres further.
Tired and in strong dry wind that bombards very orifices with sand I set up camp.
Pitch No 26. Eugene feeds us once again inside his bus. According to Eugene who has done the trip a few times in the morning, before we leave the hollow, all have to present themselves to the Mauritania border in a group. If one is missing of the list we all have to wait till he or she shows up. With the sand stinging our legs we struggle back to our tent to sleep.
By the time the last of the stragglers pulls in the morning we are in no rush to get up. Oblivious to the possibilities of land mines I wander over the crest of the sand hollow for a leisurely dump. Great minds think alike for I find a few hitched up expensive gold-embroidered Djellabah already hard at it. Squatting down I, wonder just how many gun barrels are pointing at us.
Returning, I find that even out here in the middle of nowhere with all the time in the world Airport fever has taken hold. By this I mean to be first in the queue at all costs > all around us frantic refuelling brakes out. The 4X4 chuck their empty fuel containers willy- nilly to be snatched up by the “less than rich” watching on hollow squatters.
Williwaw attracts some attention as to her possible of sale. However, before I could get the thirty thousand asking price the time had come to see if my doctored visa will stand up to scrutiny under the polished blue sky.
All donations Appreciated.
R Dillon. Account no 62259189. Ulster Bank 33 College Green Dublin 2.
Sorting Code: 98-50-10.
To be continued.
(You will not be surprised to hear that the Donation bucket like the western Sahara remains full of sand.)