Saturday March 12th. Tan Tan to (20 miles past) Laayoune ~ wild camp
first off – Laayoune is also called Layoune and La’Youn. all depends on which map/signpost/GPS you’re looking at.
Brief description of The Western Sahara;
It starts somewhere vaguely south of Tan Tan – from here on, all measurements, distances or otherwise sort of fade into meaninglessness. It’s a reminder of where in the world you are. The Sun is the best timepiece. Your own butt the best measure of how far you’ve travelled and your gut the best judge of how long until dinner.
There’s not a lot to describe after all. It starts while you’re still in Morocco. Greenish land and scrubby bushes. By the middle of todays run it’s about 50/50 green/brown. By days end it’s mid to light brown and less scrub. This is how it goes – just more arid and less or no plant life from here on.
Life however, goes on. We see markers at the road side. Tyres propped up by stones or stones stacked up with a plastic drum on top. Look close and you see a ‘piste’ leading off the road up to an often hard to see tent or tents, sometimes a house. There’s people living here in and off of the desert! To my Western eye I cant see how or what they live off. Sometimes you cant even see a dwelling. But you know, they are out there. If / when we stop for a problem or a refuel – they appear from nowhere – or you are motionless for long enough to see the shepherd, often a child with sheep or goats, that’s been there all along.
It’s still cold. It rains – downpours through the day. I cannot believe this is the Sahara! We’re all damp. We must push on. But one storm catches us and we must stop for a while at least. We pull up in a petrol station – a rare sight in itself. One cultural step away from the West is that while at home I’d expect to see maybe a shop and often a toilet at a fuel stop – here you become accustomed to seeing a prayer room at most fuel stops. No matter how poor or humble the establishment – they do their best to accommodate the Faithful. A plain room with rugs is all that’s needed. Don’t stare Mr. Western tourist – that would be rude.
Glad to be out of the extreme rain, we make the most of the break and head inside – there’s a restaurant of sorts, we’ll get coffee at least. Once inside we discover this is not just a fuel stop, but is obviously a locals meeting place and hub of the community. We get the sideways stares, glares and curiousity from the locals. Not all is aggression, so don’t go getting paranoid, just have manners, use what little French you got and always say please and thank you – accept anything given you with the right hand, make eye contact / but don’t linger that look.
Whether this is good advice or relevant – i have no idea, but it works for me and i seemed to get along with locals wherever we went. (Apart from Senegal – but that will get enough commentary later!).
Settling down to drink our brew and drip the rain from our clothes onto the marbled floor, we finally take a good look around us. The prayer room at the far end of the restaurant is bigger, plusher than any we’ve seen so far. There are many robed men about, some are Desert people, some are definitely Mullahs (holy men, community leaders, or perhaps “Fundamentalists” – it’s easy to get paranoid and go off in your own head on a tangent that only you would lead yourself on). Tom produces his big video camera and waves it around the room, getting footage to capture the mood. The mood is not a good one and he is told something along the lines of “would you FFS put that effing thing away! – it draws too much attention, costs about ten years wages to these people and they don’t know your purpose in filming and could get the wrong idea!” Tom is miffed – nay, he is peeved! Actually he is downright narked. There’s been more than one ‘little chat‘ about just what he can and cant film. This is largely based on two things; what some don’t want revealed to the wider world about themselves, and what is not wise to film in these out of our depth scenarios. Right now – he is seriously pissed off. I can see why – there’s gems here that explain and show far more than words can about the culture. A simple sweep of the camera around the room would show more than a page of text.
BUT, would it be wise to film? I don’t know if i can get across the feeling, the vibe, the atmosphere of this fuel stop. Beside a village, near the sea, on the main road, at the edge of what we Westerners see as civilisation.
We get up to go. I help rearrange the tables we’d dragged together while looking at maps and discussing where we’d stop for the night. We now feel a little uncomfortable here. Is it due to Tom and the camera or our own paranoia as the camera rolled or is it truthfully down to the reaction of the locals to the camera? We’ll never know. But I noticed the young man clearing the tables – the one that thanked me for helping put them back in place – the strained look of concern on his face. As i went to get my helmet and do my jacket up, he simply came up to me and quietly muttered “Bon Journee”. Not an unusual farewell from a French speaker – but it was the way he said it, i felt he truly meant it.
Still travelling with an air of paranoia, we took the turn off just past the fuel stop. Dennis lead the way, looking for a spot to camp. He found one practically within sight of the road. I thought this unwise – Ian voiced the same concern, but in more colourful words than i. Given the vibe we’d just left, he thought it better to either continue all the way down this road to the sea – about 5 kilometres and perhaps within sight of the police station he’s spotted a sign for, back up the road. Or keep on going on the main road until we were well clear of the area. I thought either was a much better idea than so visible and obvious here. So, in a move that was becoming a pattern on the trip, as we couldn’t agree – we stopped neither here nor the seaside! We went back onto the main road and continued onwards.
We carried on for some time before we stopped for the night at one of my favourite camping spots of the journey. .. i cant believe i just wrote of camping in a manner that almost expressed endearment!
EDITED. (this writ for the benefit of anyone that read the above on the day it was writ.)
We kept on going. We kept on toward Laayoune,we kept on through Laayoune, and past Laayoune. We hoped to stop sooner.. well, some of us did – Dennis wanted to keep on.. and on. So it was dusk by the time we finally did stop. Now, inexperienced as i am with this tenting lark, i thought that leaving it so late wasn’t good. But (here i shrug – thought I’d best mention that as you cant see me doing it) what do i know?
We want to be low key. We dont want to draw attention, we just want to rest up, relax and get going early tomorrow without any hassle. So we pull off the road toward the sea, the dunes and a bit of cover.
It does look absolutely beautiful! It’s barren, quiet and secluded. The dusk, the clear night sky and only the sounds of nature and the sea for a background soundtrack. Very restful. We dont even need much light – only the head torch to see your dinner. A good meal always settles not only the stomach but also the mind. Just a note to myself – dont try to eat spaghetti with just a spoon – it dont work at all well. We sit back and relax now.
The topic of our passage through Mauritania has come up a few times and by now it’s an issue that weighs heavy on the minds of some. If you dont know much about ‘The Political Situation’ in the country – look it up. Suffice to say that travel is described by authorities as either “essential travel only” or simply “Do NOT travel” through it! There is a slim risk of getting kidnapped by bandits that will sell you to Al Queda or just pick you clean and leave you there…. if you’re lucky. BUT – the chance is a slim one. So, it shouldn’t be a problem, right?
I think I’ve mentioned already that not everyone read the small print about this trip. This issue being er, the biggest bit of small print there is. ANYway – this topic became like a flea bite – you can scratch it and then ignore it, but it kept on coming back to annoy us.
Back to our campsite; of course we thought we were the only ones here. Here being this isolated bit of the planet, away from the town and the hustle and bustle. Wrong, of course – we’d only been there a short while when a local fisherman came along and said hello!
I’m well relaxed at this stage and mentally wander off. I look to the sky – so clear, so many stars and a scattering of… WTF? It’s ash, gently floating through the air and descending bit by bit. I follow its course back to its origin. I look to my right and see the gentle glow of the lights of the town. I remember we passed a chemical plant as we left the town. I’m told that was a phosphate processing plant. Well, lookee here – the ash from the plant arises from the smoke stacks, is taken aloft by the breeze and now – it’s floating down onto us like warm snow in our beautiful campsite! You have to laugh – so far from humanity and yet so so near!
Still – this was probably the most memorable (to me – rank amateur and reluctant camper) campsite we stayed in on the entire trip.
Tomorrow we’ve to be up early, bright and sharp witted. Getting ever closer to the recurring issue that we soon must face head on – Mauritania.
Todays mileage: 210