Western Sahara: desert cycling and kitesurfing
From Guelmim, I had two days to Tan-Tan, a city that welcomes its visitors with two gigantic camel statues placed in the first roundabout. Here, I also encountered a military/police checkpoint where I had to show my passport for them to take notes about my passage through the area. This turned out to be the first checkpoint with 15-20 more to come until the border to Mauretania. The military didn’t like that I camped in the wild and seemed very concerned about my safety throughout the whole coast. When I asked why, I got different answers like smugglers or land mines, but I usually didn’t bother except for a couple of times when they insisted on me staying in the villages because of mined terrain. One morning, the military guys from the last checkpoint appeared in a car and asked where I had spent the night. They claimed to have been looking for me half the night. It’s hard to hide well in the desert but I usually find good spots :-)
Between Tan-Tan and Tarfaya, I experienced incredibly strong winds. The wind was so strong that I even rolled up my flag, and Jenny can testify that when this happens, we’re talking serious stuff á la Patagonia. Dunes had formed on the road in many places and sometimes, when crossing a bridge or other elevated road surface, I had to lean into the wind with a notable angle and it hurt when the sand hit my legs and face. Even though the wind came straight from the side, I could only do around 8 km/h. The sand danced over the road like northern lights dance on the sky – beautiful! From the edge of canyons and riverbeds, sand came rushing up like fumes from exhaust vents. When I was struggling in the saddle I thought about whether the elements (wind, water etc.) produce more sand by erosion and grinding, than what is again formed back into mountain and rock by deposition and sedimentation. It felt like the sand was taking control.
When I reached Tarfaya, I spent the night in a very lousy (but cheap!) hotel. I should have known better… The next day I had bed bug bites all over my body (back, shoulders, legs, forearms, elbows, hands, neck, butt – you name it). When I showed one of the army guys at a checkpoint later that day, he laughed and asked if I’d spent the night with camels. Then a funny thing happened later at night. I arrived to Western Sahara’s biggest city Laâyoune and felt like having a cold beer, something that is rare in this area. So I went to the most prominent hotel in town and found a hidden bar. Here, I met some guys working for the local television, and when they heard my story about the bed bugs they called for a man sitting at another table. This turned out to be the governor of the village where I got the bites, who upon seeing them looked a bit embarrassed and invited me to stay in his house in case that I would like to return.
Western Sahara was in the early 19th century a Spanish colony, but is now since the mid 70’s “occupied” by Morocco. The Moroccans themselves claim that this is Morocco. Among the people living in the region as far as I can tell, about half think that they belong to Morocco, and the other half want to be independent. United Nations still insists on the region being a non-self-governing territory, and I saw lots of UN cars in the capital of Laâyoune. The liberation movement is called POLISARIO and this group represents what is called Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, a partially recognized state that claims to control 20-25% of the area of Western Sahara.
When the region got occupied by Morocco in the mid 70’s, thousands of people fled to Algeria where refugee camps where set up. Today, estimates say that between 50,000 and 150,000 people still live here, and they are very dependent on foreign aid to survive. In the years between 1980 and 1987, Morocco built a 2,700 km long sand barrier called the Moroccan Wall that runs across the whole region. This wall is considered to be the longest continuous minefield in the world, initially home to more than 7,000,000 landmines. This is almost on par with Cambodia, Iraq or Afghanistan.
I spent New Years’ Eve hunting bed bugs that I was afraid had hitchhiked their way here in my belongings (and I did find one), before heading out to the same one and only bar in Laâyoune where I met a group of Spanish cyclists to share a beer with. That was it, not much party to talk about in this part of the world on the 31st of December 2013.
Just outside of Laâyoune I came across a conveyor belt that I had heard was the longest in the world (98 km). It is used for bringing phosphate from the desert and the mines of Bou Craa, out to the port. From here, most of it is shipped across the Atlantic to be used as a key ingredient in agricultural fertilizers. 85% of the worlds’ phosphate reserves are found in Morocco and Western Sahara. Obviously, there is a lot of criticism targeted towards the companies that import natural resources from occupied territories, and I cannot comment on how much the Sahrawi people actually gain from this lucrative business, but I’m sure it’s not much.
The monotonous, dry and stony desert landscape with its straight and flat roads gave my mind a lot of time to relax. Most people find this boring, but I like it, since it gives me time to reflect and think about life. My mind travelled back to Sweden, into the future, to work, family and friends. These subjects often come back to me even though I’m not actively thinking about it, and maybe it’s because of my age and my current situation that this should feel natural. But I don’t feel comfortable painting any solid ideas of what should happen after this trip inside my head, instead I keep on dreaming high and low about everything and nothing. I think that I am afraid about life going too fast, there are still so many things out there to see and do!
As opposed to what most people think, there is a paved road that runs along the whole coast through the Sahara desert down to Senegal. But you actually don’t see the ocean that often since the road is placed a bit inland to avoid it being eaten away (yes, it has happened that they had to move it in some places!). So once I felt like reaching the water to take a mid-day swim. I found a small road and in the end of it a tiny fishing settlement. Here, I met a Spanish-speaking fisherman who invited me for some freshly fried calamares, sardines and corvina – delicious! There were about 20 huts in this settlement and only men, no women nor children. They came here to fish during several months, and then went back to their families with the money they earned. Everyone did not work every day, so the ones who went out gave the others a part of their catch, and vice versa. No money involved, just exchange of fresh fish every day. He also told me that before Morocco placed lots of military personnel in the area, they made more money bringing hashish over to Gran Canaria some 240 km away from the coast. 10 minutes after I left the settlement, I came across a military checkpoint and although I was full, I was reluctantly invited to share a big plate of couscous. The hospitality in this area is incredible!
When I left the town of Boujdour, I had a strong wind in the back and according to the map the road would be perfectly straight for hundreds of kilometers, so I aimed for a record day. I only got a few kilometers and then I started to feel some play in the crank arm. Damn, I didn’t have such a big allen key. So I slowly cycled back to find a mechanic. When I was almost back, the whole crank arm off and there I was standing with my SPD shoe still clipped in, the pedal and crank on the ground. And when I stand there, slightly surprised of what just happened, a homeless guy appears from out of nowhere, makes an army salute and then forcefully tries to kiss my forehead against my will. The stinking bastard manages to do this not only once, but three times. Standing there feeling even more surprised and a bit abused, I calm down when I realize that my beard is longer than his. Somehow, it felt like it compensated for the situation and I reached down to unclip my shoe from the pedal.
I found a mechanic and continued from where I had started. After a while, a van and a man called Bill stopped and asked if I wanted some oranges. Of course I wanted some oranges, this man really knew how to make a cyclist happy! He told me that he knew how much these things meant for people like me. Bill had made his own world cycle tour 20 years ago and was now on his way to Dakhla to kitesurf. Wait a minute I thought, me too! So we agreed upon meeting in Dakhla a couple of days later.
The events that happened during this day don’t end here. After lunch, I pass a softly hilly area with shapes and colors that reminded me of the computer game Motocross Madness that I used to play as a kid. I feel that I am in a nice flow during my attempted record day and while listening to Swedish House Mafia’s “Greyhound”, I start hearing helicopter-sounds that keep on increasing in volume and base. I had time to think: “Hmm…I don’t remember downloading this remix…” before three helicopters fly past, at maximum 15 m above my head!
The helicopters turned out to be a part of a variant of the Paris-Dakar rally. Shortly after, hundreds of cars and motorbikes started to pass me. I spoke to some Czechs along way and they gave me a t-shirt and their “emergency food bags”. Another car gave me beer! So I had a small party for myself later that night. Who would think that I would camp in the Sahara drinking Czech beer, eating salami and peanuts while listening to some flamenco music from Paco de Lucia? Tired and happy after having covered 202 km’s and averaging 27.9 km/h, I ended this lovely day lying on my back, placing my head outside the tent to watch the stars while playing some flute. Before I fell asleep, I listened to R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” and nostalgically remembered when I slow danced to this song with a beautiful girl called Maria Björklund (send me an e-mail if you read this!) during one of the teenage summer camps at Västkustgården.
I arrived to the peninsula of Dakhla the following day. The town is located at the tip of it, and 25 km’s north where the peninsula starts lays a shallow bay with perfect conditions for flat-water kitesurfing for both beginners and professionals. Usually, there are very stable and strong winds here year round. There is a free public beach here with the logical name “KM 25”, where about 150 camping cars and mobile homes can be found. Italians, French, Spanish and Germans were the most represented countries that had escaped the European winter in favor for sun, fishing and surfing.
Where should I start… I fell in love with this place! There’s nothing at the same time that there is so much! I made many friends here. José & Touty, José Español, Luisa & Rene, Bill, Tit, Freya & Amandus and Gabriel just to name a few.
During the days, I collected mussels, razor shells and clams together with the master chef José, who later prepared I don’t know how many delicious meals. One day, when the water was flat as a mirror, I borrowed a SUP board from Gabriel and paddled out into the middle of the lagoon to fish. I caught nine fishes, amazing! Me and Bill drank wine and mint tea and shared many many laughs from our cycling trips. I drank beer and did bike maintenance together with Tit while listening to his great travelling experiences. Touty and Daniella taught me how to cut plastic bags in a certain way to make a single thread from them. With this thread, we then crocheted bags and containers – 100% recycling! I hope that I can teach people along the way about this, because there is always plastic in abundance in these countries. I even met homies from Sweden at the camping who invited me to have “Fläskfile med Béarnaisesås”!
I ended up staying two weeks in KM 25. Unfortunately, I had extremely bad luck with the wind and didn’t get much time on the water. But I did get some, and it was great fun, but I didn’t have time to take pictures of it.
I will end this blog post with a lovely quote from Bill and his world cycle tour that he did 20 years ago:
“I used to have this big, foldable beach ball with a world map on it. Sometimes I inflated it just to see where I was.”