Western Sahara: the original 2009 recce trip!
In the autumn of 2009, I became the first UK based 4X4 tour operator to explore Western Sahara, penetrating the shimmering expanses of the Sahara Occidental, accompanied by a handful of like-minded adventurers. Hardy souls, each and every one of them, enticed by the prospect of being the first to recce this unforgiving and potentially hostile desert environment. So we stifled our trepidation and embraced with anticipation, the opportunity to venture forth and be the first UK group to do so. This is the story of our experiences, all those years ago...
It’s late on a Sunday afternoon at our meeting point, a campsite in the south of Spain not far from the port of Algeciras, and I’ve just fired up the braai in preparation for our first BBQ feast of the trip. By now, everyone has arrived, following the tedious 1,000km slog down the length of Spain. Engines are ticking as they cool, and strangers are chattering as they all become acquainted. There’s the usual charge of suspense in the air, only this time it’s a bit different, amplified by the unknown, and with palpable twinges of nervousness. There is an unspoken acknowledgement of the possible risks which lie ahead, generating amongst the group that near intoxicating, heady combination of intermittent excitement, occasionally interrupted by pure fear. It’s a powerful mix of emotions, prevalent in conflict zones and danger situations, and is the motive which fuels those pursuits of habitual adrenaline junkies all over the world.
Mindful of the intrepid nature of this expedition, the vehicles have been prepared accordingly, most resembling Mad Max machines, bulging with extra Jerry cans, recovery equipment and all the other accoutrements required for such an undertaking. Truth be told, we’re all secretly a little proud of our efforts, each taking turns to scrutinise one another’s (perhaps over-prepared) motorised dromedaries. The last minute checks are completed, final adjustments implemented, and we’re all ready to get aboard the very first ferry of the following morning, to disembark on the shores of Morocco, a gateway to the Sahara, and a delight in its own right.
Having reassured the wide-eyed customs officials that we’re not invading their country to execute an impromptu coup, we’re cleared to proceed and begin our lengthy transit to the deep south, via the excellent new motorways skirting the west coast. Thinking back now, I remember this was the trip when, in the lead of our convoy, I encountered an oncoming vehicle travelling on the wrong side of the motorway! Fortunately they were chugging along slowly and dodged us without incident, but it did serve as a stark reminder that not for a moment could we let down our guard, especially not on this particular adventure. During a previous trip through Morocco, I found myself in the unfortunate position of having to intrude on a game of football, which was being played on the brand new, recently opened motorway!
After a few days, which included an exhilarating traversal of the spectacular Anti Atlas mountains, we arrive at the desert town of Assa, where we take the opportunity to restock with provisions for the expedition proper, which is about to begin. The terrain has morphed from rocky mountain to sandy desert, the ambient temperature has soared while the relative humidity has plummeted, and we can feel that things are about to get serious. Not serious as in dangerous, but serious as in don’t take any unnecessary risks. We drive the cars more sympathetically and, where conditions permit, we prefer to circumvent any challenges which we would otherwise relish. The penalty for getting things wrong down here could be harsh, potentially compromising the safety of oneself and the others. After following the Draa Valley south westerly for a while, we swing due south, enjoying lovely warm days of desert driving, and sparkling starry nights of wild camping, on our way deep down south to Western Sahara.
It’s not all soft sand en route however, we’re also required to cross a more technical mountainous section, the descent from which rewards us with an enormous salt pan, stretching as far as the eye can see, baked hard by the searing sun, smooth and level. At last we can give the cars a good blast. Respite from the bumpy terrain doesn’t last, and it’s not long before we’re back to the ever changing hamada of gravel, stone, rock and sand, which contrary to popular belief, covers most of the desert. Good quality tyres are essentials!
We are aiming for the frontier town of Smara, from where we will follow one of the old Paris Dakar Rally tracks, running the length of the interior, at one location just nudging the Mauritanian border. It’s a fascinating town, so we pause a while to mooch around and explore, before relaxing at one of the many high street cafes, where we enjoy numerous glasses of the most delicious fragrant coffee. We depart in due course, rightly suspecting that will be our last experience of civilisation for the best part of the next week. Seeking out the track, I remind myself that I am responsible for the welfare of those who have placed their trust in me. But I have done my homework, researching and planning to the nth degree. I've ensured that I know the critical details: locations of fuel, water and unmarked mine fields.
We have an absolutely fabulous time over the days which follow, marvelling at the many splendours of the desert. We experience a type of remote solitude impossible to imagine, appreciating that we are hundreds of kilometres away from the next town or village, crossing an area seemingly unvisited for millennia. We see the most incredible desert geology, at times featuring vast exposed seams of ancient fossils. One of our group finds a knapped arrow-head, lying peacefully in the sand for who knows how long. Vegetation is scarce, comprising the ubiquitous Acacias, and resilient xerophytes. Neither is fauna plentiful. Besides occasional sightings of dromedary and elusive desert fox, animal encounters are primarily of the arachnid inclination, with no shortage of gnarly scorpions and camel spiders.
We eventually reach the most southerly point of the route I have plotted, from where we turn west to join a coast-bound track, a drive which turns out to be surprisingly hard work due to the nature of the terrain. It is very arduous going, but by no means boring, and we encounter tremendous rifts, ravines and gorges, all of which require careful navigation to avoid calamity. By this stage we are all looking forward to reaching the coast, and the change of scenery which will be on offer. The desert scenery is beautiful, but it does go on a bit, and after a few days the Acacias all look the same. The mirages are something to behold though.
The coastline is indeed a revelation, and we begin making our way back north along enjoyable tracks overlooking the azure blue of the Atlantic. These cold waters are reputed to be some of the richest fishing grounds on the planet, and as such are heavily patrolled by the Moroccan authorities. There is a prominent naval presence on the water, and the entire coast is spotted with military lookouts. The predominantly sandy tracks give way to occasional sections of rocky hamada, and we also find ourselves having to bypass a sizeable area of waterlogged salty marshland, not a place to get stuck. An imposing concentration of massive dunes threatens to halt our progress at one stage, though by hook and by crook, we are able to prevail, getting through them and continuing our passage north.
Exiting Western Sahara and back into Morocco, the tide favours our timing and we are able to enjoy the exhilarating beach drive along the renowned Plage Blanche. This fantastic and speedy endeavour is best undertaken between half and low tide, to avoid losing your vehicle to the sea, as some have. Thereafter we continue meandering up the coast, sometimes camping on the beach, at other times using conveniently located campsites. It’s a relaxing time now the risk is behind us, and we slow our pace to enjoy the balmy weather, enjoying the occasional swim at some of the beautiful beaches, though the Atlantic can be a bit chilly!
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