Winging it - from Marrakech to the Mauritanian border
Leaving Marrakech, I discover I've settled into a pattern: put up with grubby accommodation and sub-optimal meals for a few days of rough travel, then enjoy the comfort of a cosy bed for a period of recuperation. It's a routine I'll likely repeat several times over before this Africa journey is complete, the problem being it's often difficult to move on when you know all too well the rigours of overland travel that await. The key is to start dreaming of the next oasis as soon as you settle.
In Marrakech, that dream is Senegal, where friends of friends have offered to show me around the capital, Dakar. Using the Wi-Fi of a Marrakech riad guest house, I download the songs of sub-Saharan Africa, the Cuban-inspired mbalax rhythms of Youssou N'Dour and company, to help focus my mind on the next major stop.
But before that will come a mildly epic ordeal. The bus from Marrakech to Dakhla, the last town to which public transport runs in Moroccan-administered Western Sahara, leaves at 2.30pm and arrives the same time the next day, a 24-hour ride down the coast. It is a distance of roughly 1,600 kilometres. Distance-wise, that's slightly more than halfway to Dakar, but beyond Dakhla there are two international borders to cross and no direct transportation link. I've read that it's easy to hire a car to the Mauritanian border in Dakhla but, truth be told, I have little idea what awaits me. I'm winging it.
Back in the caravan days, traders would spend weeks traversing the Sahara, going over the Atlas Mountains from Marrakech, then crossing the desert to Timbuktu. A rebellion of Tuaregs, the nomadic tribes of the desert in northern Mali, along with reports of activity by a group of unsavoury characters called al Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb, makes that route impossible today. The bus instead hugs the Atlantic, hitting Agadir shortly after dark and then winding through the hills along the coast.
I bid farewell to Marrakech and board the bus. That night, the desolate slopes of the Atlas foothills take on a Martian complexion in the darkness, and I hardly sleep at all, finally finding a scrunched-up position across two seats that allows me to catch a few hours: on my back, facing the window, head sticking into the aisle, legs crossed beneath me.
When daylight comes, I sit up and face the refreshing sight of the Atlantic, the very ocean I grew up on. We're on a straight coastal road, where the white sands of a vast sweep of deserted beach meet the hammada, a wind-swept rocky desert. It's an end-of-the-earth wasteland that stretches for miles, nearly devoid of life save patches of scrub, a few concrete huts, the occasional cement-mixing plant, and plenty of military checkpoints.
Western Sahara, along with Mongolia, is the world's most sparsely populated country - or quasi-country, in this case, since the government in Rabat treats the disputed territory as part of Morocco, with only an inland desert fringe controlled by the Algeria-based Saharawi rebels, the Polisario Front. This rebellion, not be confused with the Tuareg revolt far to the west, has been dormant since the early 1990s.
In Dakhla, the plan is to catch up on sleep, spending the night in a cheap hotel and negotiating a grand taxi, the local name for a rattly old shared Mercedes, to the border of Mauritania the next day. The bus unloads in Dakhla shortly before 5pm, about 26 hours after leaving Marrakech, leaving us in a dreary-looking fishing town filled with a mix of Moroccans, Mauritanians, Sarahawis and a few groups of white visitors from the Canary Islands, just a short flight away, slouching around looking for a touch of exotica. The place does not exactly appeal to me.
There's no romance of the desert here on the coast - truth be told, I'm not sure the desert is ever that romantic - and the whole region seems like one protracted no-man's-land between the Maghreb and black Africa. I've met two Senegalese men on the bus who tell me they'll try to move on tonight, and I make a split-second decision to join them, thus sharing costs. It helps they speak fluent French and Wolof, the language of Senegal.
Little do I know that I'll soon be nostalgic for the worst of my living conditions until now, for I'm about to spend the night on the floor of a petrol station - and the next on the side of a Senegalese road outside a tyre shop, waiting for somebody to repair our flat. It will turn into a journey of 66 hours. To be continued.
Scott MacMillan is blogging about his journey on his website, www.wanderingsavage.com
Published: December 3, 2010 04:00 AM