November 2018: Sometimes I visit a region just because I am in the area, and I figure it would be a shame to at least not pop over for a visit in case I never have a chance to return again. This was the case with Western Sahara. I was in Mauritania to ride the iron ore train with my friend Richard, and I couldn’t bare the thought of not visiting Western Sahara since we were so close. But continuing on via Western Sahara was actually easier and cheaper for us anyways. It was cheaper to fly onwards to our next destination, Mogadishu, Somalia via Dahkla , Western Sahara than it was via Nouadhibou, Mauritania. This is because all flights out of Mauritania are limited and more expensive but from Dahlka it is easy to connect to Casablanca, a major travel hub in Morrocco and from there onwards. So, we decided to cross to Dahkla from Nouadhibou, the terminus of the iron ore train we rode from Choum. This would only give us two days and one night in Western Sahara. But at least we would

 

 

 

About Western Sahara

Western Sahara is a vast arid desert that lives up to its name being in the far west of the Sahara Desert. At the surface, Western Sahara appears to be an empty wasteland, but it actually contains untold reserves of phosphates, and offshore oil and gas and rich marine fisheries. It was also once a Spanish colony and when the Spanish pulled out in 1975, Morrocco to the north and the indigenous people of the region, the Sahrawi people looked to fill the power vacuum.  This has led to a war between the two that has lasted ever since killing thousands. The conflict has left Morocco controlling about 80 percent of the disputed territory building a wall to separate Polisario controlled areas.  The desert between them and borders of the surrounding countries of Western Sahara have become one of the most heavily mined places of the world.

The Polisario controlled areas are located near the border and in the southeastern section of Western Sahara, while Morocco controlled areas are in Dahka and western sections of Western Sahara. To cross into Western Sahara from Mauritania we had to cross a kind of no man’s land, maybe one of the most unique land borders I have ever crossed.

 

 

Route I took across Western Sahara

AA strip of land along the border of Mauritania and Western Sahara brokered by the United Nations was established as a buffer zone or neutral demilitarized area between the forces to allow cross border traffic. But on occasion conflict between both forces has occurred in DMZ. Only a few months before our trip, the Polisario started setting up checkpoints in the DMZ and forcing passengers to pay a fee to enter. This led to fighting between them and Moroccan forces which has continued intermittently ever since.

We entered the DMZ after crossing Mauritania immigration just 30 minutes before it closed for the day and now, we were in no man’s land and at the mercy of the taxi drivers waiting on the other side to take people the few miles to the Moroccan immigration. The DMZ is a no man’s land and there is no pavement. There are still many land mines and crossing the border means staying within a narrow crossing area that is claimed to have been demined. We hired a taxi, a beat up rusted old sedan and the driver drove us over a series of almost 4WF twisted and rutted tracks weaving around abandoned wrecked vehicles that looked like they had been stripped for parts. The no man’s land evidently is a thriving place for selling stolen cars weapons and anything else illegal since no one controls it. There were also makeshift houses and random people walking around the DMZ, who I later read are migrants crossing to Europe or Sahrawi refugees.

 

No mans land

No mans land

Our driver suddenly stopped the car, leaving me worried that he was setting us up to be robbed, a valid concern in the lawless border area. But the man in Spanish explained he had to piss. I took the opportunity to get out and do the same to take in the scenery, something straight out of the set of a Mad max post-apocalyptic movie. I didn’t wander far in case there were land mines nearby.

After another 20 minutes we reached the Moroccan immigration and crossed into Western Sahara that Morrocco occupies and administers the immigration for. We negotiated a price with a taxi driver to take us 4 hours to Dahkla . There were giant murals of the Moroccan king instantly portrayed on the highway to remind everyone who controls the area.

 

Giant billboard of King of Morocco 

The road to Dahkla was empty with few towns and absolutely no land features. Breaking down would scary and I made a point to try and stay on the good side of our impetuous driver, who was putting off some bad vibes. Our driver only spoke Spanish and explained to me that he is a proud Sahrawi person and no friend of Morocco, and he would often lower his window and smoke a cigarette. My friend in the back seat asked him to not smoke but the driver didn’t comply, and this led to a shouting match between the two and an exchange of some pretty aggressive pejoratives and me feeling very worried about being dumped in the middle of the desert on the side of the road. I did my best to temper the tensions between the two at least until we arrived at our hotel in Dahlka in the dark. As soon as we stopped not in Dahlka, luckily close enough to our hotel, our driver and my friend couldn’t bottle up their anger with one another anymore and we decided to jump out of the taxi. I had our money ready and promptly paid the taxi driver and we walked over to our hotel to have a late dinner in the very Moroccan feeling coastal city of Dahkla .

 

Endless road to Dahkla

I woke up early in the morning to explore Dahkla and watch the sunrise and full moon set over the Atlantic Ocean near a Spanish colonial era lighthouse guarded by a vicious pit bull that was used during colonial times as a prison for Sahrawi dissidents. the lighthouse stood over a desolate stretch of sandstone ocean cliffs on the edge of town. 

 

Moonset over Dahkla

Seacliffs by lighthouse

Spanish colonial era lighthouse

Spanish colonial era lighthouse

From Dahkla we flew to Casablanca on a domestic flight in the afternoon. Since Morrocco considers Western Sahara to be theirs, we didn’t need to pass through another immigration. From Casablanca we continued our travels onwards to Somalia. As for Western Sahara, if I return someday, i would love to visit the other side of the wall in the Sahrawi territory, which can only be safely reached via Algeria and through local contacts.

 

 

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