Leaving Essaouira, we had a 1,700km drive ahead of us to the Mauritanian border and only 4 days before Em’s visa expired. Kev had been fortunate enough, having returned to Australia for a week to surprise his father on his 80th birthday, to get a new three-month visa on his return to Morocco. And to top it all off, we still didn’t leave town until well after 2pm, making sure to do a final shop at CarreFour (the last international supermarket we’d see for a long while) and grab a cheeseburger from McDonalds!Knowing that the only campsites along our path were AUD$15+ per night, and that we’d be pulling in just before dark and heading off early, we opted to free camp through Western Sahara and our first night was spent tucked behind a hill in the back of our 4WD.
Even the service stations here adhere to the Moroccan idea that the more colour, the better…
The next day on the road, we made our way through the southern end of Morocco proper on the hunt for our last bites of Morocco’s greatest offerings: msemen, an amazing crepe/roti like bread that we’d often stuff with cream cheese and fresh tomatoes. Sadly, we couldn’t get any and satisfied ourselves with chicken and chips.
We were making a good pace, and figured we’d reach the border with time to spare, but as the sun fell on the second night we were greeted by some less than positive news. The gendarmerie, who are stationed at regular intervals in southern Morocco and Western Sahara, advised us that the road toLaayoune , at the north of Western Sahara, was blocked by flooding and we’d have to head inland. Grabbing our map, they plotted out the only other available route adding 700kms (another tank of fuel!) and at least another day to us reaching the border. In our broken French, we asked about whether we’d be fine to drive across the water in our 4WD, but they were insistent that this was not possible.
Em started stressing about overstaying her visa, and although it was not the wisest decision given the advice we’d just received, we continued to head south to camp for the night instead of making our way inland.
The next morning, we hit the road and encountered another gendarmerie turning traffic around because of the blocked road. Damn!
So, we did what we thought was best and went straight to the service station to fill the tank up before backtracking the 150km we’d driven last night PLUS the 700km detour inland. And filling up here was a blessing in disguise – the service station attendants knew of a route that locals were driving via Dchira, a small town so small that it wasn’t registering in our Sat Nav as an alternate route. Just 20km inland from El-Aauin, it only added on 30km to our trip, and potentially avoided the floods that were blocking the road.
From there, we followed the highway to just before Laayoune where the next gendarmerie officials were on top of their game, and pointed us in the right direction. Unsurprisingly, we were one in a line of maybe thirty cars following this route, with similar numbers coming along this detour in the alternate direction.
Sweet relief in the form of a simple road sign! We were on the right track.
The floods don’t look too significant…
… until you see the water lines left in the surrounding hills. Well above the the roof racks of our 4WD!
By mid-afternoon, and only a few hours behind schedule, we had made it to Laayoune – and Western Sahara!
Before leaving for Western Sahara, we had prepared a simple document called a ‘fiche’ which lists your basic details – name, passport number, occupation, vehicle your travelling in, destination etc. Morocco keeps a close on its tourists, allocating them a ‘police record’ number on entering which you have to provide at every hotel/campsite you stay at, and in Western Sahara, where things are more complicated they also request the fiche.
Western Sahara is the only territory in Africa that remains occupied today, having been under Moroccan rule since the 70s. Currently, 100,000 Saharawi refugees are living in camps in Algeria, landlocked by the landmine-line berm constructed by Morocco along the Algeria border acting as 21st century ‘Berlin Wall’ and keeping families apart. In the last year alone, 17 landmines exploded resulting in 37 injuries, including deaths .
A Saharawi rebel group, the Polisario Front, represent those seeking independence. Naturally, tensions between Morocco and the Polisario have remained since the 70s when Morocco took occupation, and over times this tension flares. And a month before we left for Western Sahara, this dispute started popping up in the news again. Morocco had entered an agreed ‘buffer zone’ with weapons, the Polisario alleged they were breaching the ceasefire agreement and established their own military post in the buffer zone.
Days before we arrived in Laayoune, French activists and journalists had been arriving into town to protest the occupation of Western Sahara and so everyone was on alert – especially the gendarmerie. Handing over our fiche to the gendarmerie usually is no issue, but right before we entered town, we noticed they’d taken particular interest in mine. Listing ‘lawyer’ on documents is usually a safe bet, but in the instance, probably not wise! A few calls were made, a few nervous minutes passed and we were finally waved on our way.
Australia might have the largest wild population of camels, but we still get so excited every time we see them!
A small tent town, populated by local fisherman
Argued to be a means of keeping the Saharawi peoples ‘content’, fuel is heavily subsidised in Western Sahara and so we stocked up in our favourite little foldable jerry can
From Laayoune, it was a long and straight 850kms to the Mauritanian border, which we covered easily in two days. Bad roads often see us driving sloooowwly (as in 25km/hr – Kev LOVES this 4WD) so it was great to be able to take this road at 100km/hr and knock it off quickly. And the views across the Sahara really speak for themselves – so beautiful, so barren!
The next few days were fairly uneventful: free camping beside lone teahouses on the side of the highway, early nights in bed, early mornings up, long days on the road, terrible sing-a-longs to Triple J’s Like A Version albums, sneaky treats from the junk-food haul Kev had brought back from Aus. And soon enough, we found ourselves at the border for Mauritania.
Giving Ron, our 4WD, a breather in the heat. Long days in 40 degree heat saw our engine a little warm
This sweet little pup snuck under our 4WD and spent the night with us. The number of times I have *begged* Kev to pick up the strays we see along our travels…