Saturday, 22 November 2008

13: Line dancing in the mine fields

Best not to hammer the tent pegs too hard now - after 30 years of conflict, Western Sahara remains heavily mined and every year there are several fatal casualties

Although this hasn't stopped our early morning jigs

The tailwinds continued out of Laayoune as we continued south through Western Sahara. Wind is the determining factor for a cyclists' mental well-being and nowhere is this more true than in Western Sahara. With a strong tailwind, pre-dawn risings, and kilos of Moroccan biscuits we can make good progress, covering over 160 km on good days. With a headwind we can barely manage a frustrating and energy sapping 100 km. The first person out of the tent in the starry early morning gives the news as to which direction the wind is choosing to blow today. Fortunately the prevailing wind is a northerly one in this region and on most days we end up sailing pleasantly along through the desert. With the road generally staying close to the Atlantic, a cooler climate prevails than would be the case further inland. Many cold evenings are spent bundled up around our cooking stoves, willing on pots of camel and goat stews, before diving into the warmth of our tents and sleeping bags.

Sand streams

Sometimes it is remarked to us, generally by passing travelers in their four wheel drives, that the coastal road through Western Sahara and Mauritania is a long and boring route through a barren, featureless landscape. However, none of us have felt this way about the journey. While the early risings, long hours in the saddle, and the evening chores of building our houses and cooking food, take their toll, there has rarely been, if ever, a dull moment traveling through Western Sahara.

A fishing village between Boujdor and Dakhla

Distances between supplies and villages have been up to 160 km, the equivalent of Belfast to Dublin with not even a building in between. And then... you arrive at a petrol station (with no petrol) that is only stocking bottled water and another variety of tinned fish.

"How far to the next station?".

"120 kilometres".

"I'll have six tins of sardines, ten loaves of bread, and ten litres of water please".

Camel for dinner

We normally manage to be quite inventive with the ingredients from small village stalls and petrol stations, although our diet is heavily subsidised by the seemingly endless varieties of 1 dirham biscuits. Camel, goat, and lamb is taken for the pot where the meat looks fresh, although it's often best not to pay too much attention to the butcher's chopping block as wields his cleaver through the air and splits another camel in half. The meat is kept cool in a water-soaked sock that dangles off Daren's rear rack. Motorists have bestowed gifts of olive oil, bread, and whiskey when they met us.

Three days out from Laayoune and Sven rolled in with his heavily laden bicycle and trailer, to a petrol station where we were savouring the shade and some cool drinks. Sven left Germany eleven months ago and had been trying to catch up with us over the past week as he was told of our pedal-powered convoy at police checkpoints and by passing motorists.

Encounters with locals have normally been limited to those who have come from Morocco to live here, encouraged by a government offering tax breaks and subsidised food. Along the road, newly built villages stand uninhabited, waiting for more people from the north to arrive. Police and military checkpoints have also continued, along with a preoccupation about our jobs. They are friendly encounters, however, with the state's apparatus for maintaining tight control on the territory.

Nearing the Mauritanian border, the traffic thins out and military jeeps and camoflaged oil tankers predominate, rushing between Dakhla and military bases along the heavily fortified border. We stop to rest up at a hotel, 85 km before the border. After a week of living in the sand, everything needs washing and de-sanding. The shower basin looks like a small sand pit after we've all finished hosing ourselves down. Clothes, bodies, and cooking pots greatly appreciate the first splashings of soapy water in a week. Unfortunately Daren injures his foot in a fall during the dark, the evening before we were due to depart to cross the Mauritanian border, and we have to leave our bikes at the hotel whilst we hitch 300 km back up the coast to Dakhla, where the nearest hospital and pharmacy are located, and where this posting is coming from. The good news is that he has been given the all clear and loaded up with anti-inflamatories and painkillers, we'll head back down to the bikes in a day or two before continuing on.

Nearing the end of another day

Dakhla, Western Sahara

Trip distance: 7430 km

Thursday, 13 November 2008

12: Tailwinds through Africa's last colony

Where desert meets the ocean

It wasn't hard to recognise Daren and Tatjana and their loaded bikes in Tan Tan Plage, despite having only conversed over emails prior to that point. They had been camping out for the past few nights and were looking forward to getting some of the sand out of their clothes, albeit only temporarily. We retreated to the campsite for the evening and after they had washed up and scrubbed down we discussed the journey ahead. After getting supplies in town the next morning, we were back on the road south.

A fisherman's hut

It's a good feeling having company again. Now, pedaling along, we can chat or just let distances emerge between us as we pedal southwards, pushed on by cooperative tailwinds. Daren and Tatjana are exceedingly modest when discussing their two-year, around the world bicycle trip that they have planned across Africa, South America, Australia, and Asia.

Our first 10 km riding together, however, had us all nervous about the 1600 km trek to the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott. An exceedingly stiff cross wind from the interior had scooped up the fine sand and we were riding through a fog of sand, occasionally getting blasted off the road by both wind and passing trucks. This unhappy state of affairs retreated, however, and we were soon breezing along the escarpment above the Atlantic coast. Similarly our first night camping together, in small dunes just off the road, didn't bode well initially. With the sun having just set, our chosen site was apparently also the preferred home of mosquitoes and we were all gorged on before we could get the tents up and the fire going. Blood spatters from the swatted parasites now added to the other grime. Soon they retreated too, however, and the almost full moon magically lit up the surrounding dunes as we sat around the fire.

The following day we were back on the coast, passing the fishermen's huts perched atop the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. We had debated about the need to venture 4 km off the road to Tarfaya for supplies, but the lack of a shop beforehand decided the issue for us.

Tarfaya appeared as a dusty, small town at the edge of the known world. We stopped at the first shop we came too and went in to get water, bread and various snacks for lunch. Twice I refused a young teenage boy's demand for a dirham. Leaving the shop, Daren paused to take a photo of the town's dusty and deserted street. I too reached for my camera, but instead I found a gaping hole in my camera bag. A rush of anxiety as I mentally retraced my last steps and I quickly realised, with a sickening feeling, that it must have been lifted out of the bag whilst we were in the shop. None of us could believe it. The town appeared so quiet, so calm and uninterested in us. My poor communication with the shop owner made the initial discussion sound more like an accusation than a query. Gradually more passersby became interested and then the tide turned. A young and frightened looking boy on a bike had spotted another boy dipping his hand into my handlebar bag. After some more moments I was assured that my camera would arrive momentarily. Nobody wanted to involve the police, which was fine by me too.

Approximately three quarters of an hour passed since we'd stopped at the shop and my camera was returned by the same boy who had been asking me for a dirham. He scarpered off before being lynched by the dismayed crowd that had now gathered. The event over, everyone dispersed and after thanking those who had helped recover my camera we rode out of Tarfaya. We didn't look back. With a happy ending, and yet another demonstration of the power of using local community networks to resolve issues such as these (this is not the first boomerang camera incident I've had, see a previous post about South Africa), it was also a timely lesson in not being too casual about leaving bikes and gear unattended.

Sunrise over the tents, our first morning in Western Sahara

After another beautiful camping spot, overlooking the Tah depression, we rode the remaining 80 km into Laayoune yesterday morning. The capital of Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, Laayoune is dominated by soliders, police, and white, UN labeled Landcrusiers - all testament to the unresolved conflict between the Moroccan government and the Sahrawi people, that has persisted for the past three decades. The sandy territory has been dubbed by some as 'Africa's last colony'. For southbound cyclists, Laayoune also represents a chance to stock up on essentials before continuing on.

Daren and Tatjana scout for local football talent in Laayoune

Laayoune, Western Sahara
Trip distance: 6680 km

Want to find out more about Western Sahara? Here's some good bedtime reading...

For a general introduction see the wikipedia article.

The International Crisis Group have a couple of very readable reports published in mid 2007 that examine the development of the conflict and also try to identify potential solutions to the current stalemate.

There are a number of pro-self-determination blogs on the Western Sahara issue, including: Western Sahara info -

Swiss-based ARSO -

Western Sahara Resource Watch -

And two US-based bloggers...

For something from a Moroccan perspective try...

Friday, 7 November 2008

11: Follow that swallow

As I rode out of Tafraoute after a six day sojourn, there was a sprinkling of snow on the mountain tops of the Anti Atlas. It was definitely time to continue the migration south and escape the tentacles of the northern hemisphere's winter months. As I dropped southwards out of the mountains, I passed through one village where a little boy made the customary plea for a pencil. Muttering "no" as I pedaled on, I thought I heard him say something else. Turning around to look at the kid, with his school bag on his back, he was holding out his half eaten bread roll towards me and saying, "Tiens", or "take", with a big, innocent smile on his face. I wanted to give him every pencil and pen I had on me. I wanted to run over and hug him for restoring my faith in small Moroccan children. Instead I stuttered out a "non, merci". Shouting a thank you in Arabic for good measure, and waving unsteadily, I pedaled on elated.

The temperature climbed steadily as I emerged from the mountains and joined the N1 south at Bouizakarne. The strip of asphalt runs all the way through to Nouakchott, capital of Mauritania, and represents one of a limited number of possibilities for crossing on a sealed road from North Africa into sub Saharan Africa. As the principal road south into Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, the road is predictably heavy with goods and passengers being brought north and south. With only enough room for two trucks to pass each other, I had to settle for riding on the dirt shoulder at times. This unpleasant state of affairs was initially compensated by the friendly waves and hoots of the passing truck drivers, although fatigue had set in and this unwanted attention became somewhat tiresome, merely adding further cacophony to the dust and diesel fumes.

Guelmim. I'm sitting outside a cafe, drinking tea, when a camel runs straight through the red light of the town's main intersection and on down the road. Described by my photocopied guidebook as a 'small, dusty town with little to offer the passerby', it feels like Las Vegas to me after the journey through Morocco's southern interior. Pizza, smoothie-type drinks made from avocado - fantastic, and a supermarket stocking peanut butter, and, wait for it - porridge oats! Although despite my apparent enthusiasm for the latter I indulge less and less these days.

I spotted Olly and deduced that he was the owner of the GB-registered motorbike parked in the lobby of the hotel. Hailing from Bristol, Olly was also enroute to West Africa and over a late night tea and an early morning breakfast we swap stories and information about the road behind and the road ahead, his a slightly more condensed and speedier version than mine. I receive word that my two potential riding partners for the journey south will be a few days in arriving. As I watch Olly loading his bike, I spot two cyclists replete with touring panniers, pull up at the end of the street. I say hello and ask them where they are heading? The young Swiss couple tell me they are headed to the ruins of the nearby old French military fort, Fort Bou Jerif. A scene reminiscent of Stanley's encounter with Dr. Livingstone follows. Overhearing that I'm Irish, they ask if my name is Julian Bloomer. It transpires that they had met Jean and Patrick in Marrakech (two French travelers I had met a couple of weeks back in Merzouga) and the guys had told them about meeting me. It's a small world. The other day I received a reply to an email I had sent to Daniel Harmen, an English cyclist currently in Guinea, and he said he had met some people recently who told him that there was Irishman coming down from Morocco on his bike. It could be another Irishman, but then again. As I say, it's a remarkably small world, even if you're on a bicycle.

Olly heading for Western Sahara

I make a pleasant day trip from Guelmim to the ruins of Fort Bou Jerif, on an unloaded and sprightly Rocinante. There's a campsite beside the fort, a popular stopover for those heading south apparently. I chat to a Dutch couple and a South African couple who are heading to the DRC and South Africa respectively in well-equipped overland vehicles. There is music, laptops and Bovril. It's all so tempting and looks like fun. I leave before I get overcome with emotion. Nick, an English motorcyclist, passes me by on the way back to Guelmim. He's heading back home after several weeks touring Europe and Morocco. He likes the idea of cycling. I like the idea of his motorbike. The grass is always greener on the other side.

Fort Bou Jerif

To anticipate the trucks I buy a rear view mirror from a bicycle shop in Guelmim. Its meant for a motorbike and is a lot larger than I would have wished for, but it will do the job. Perhaps I'll get an engine next.

Life in the desert

On the road to Tan Tan. It seems less busy than the other day. I'm happy to wave to honking truckers today. The new mirror is fantastic. I can anticipate when I need to be close to the verge and when I can relax and move towards the centre of the road. Hard to believe how cold it was in Tafraoute a few days ago. It's hot again. I pull into one of the only settlements along the route just after midday. I have my own sandwiches so I just take a coke, happy to be out of the sun for a bit. Oil and coke seem to be the main products heading south. Two bloodied goats heads eyeball me from a nearby table. Presumably they are to demonstrate the freshnesh of the carcass on offer to customers. The flies are horrendous. Everywhere. I have to keep the lid on the bottle and take quick gulps whilst avoiding drinking a fly too. The only other customers, a group of truckers, tuck into their goat tagine, encouraging me to join them. I decline politely, and head back outside where it's about Gas mark 5.

A long way from home...

Twenty kilometers before Tan Tan I'm waved through a police checkpoint. Five dogs follow me in hot pursuit but soon give up the chase. They seem to have much less resolve than their mountain cousins. Outside Tan Tan I pass the first police checkpoint where all the details from my passport are noted. This becomes increasingly common the closer one gets to Western Sahara. The officer in charge of the biro looks at my bicycle, and then at me. "You are on a bicycle?", he says, studying the column for 'type of vehicle' in his ledger. I nod and smile to affirm that I am indeed sitting on a bicycle. We exchange jokes, with neither of us understanding the other, and then he waves me on into town.

Tan Tan isn't Guelmim, but it's not a bad spot. A collonaded main street bears testimony to the town's history as part of Spanish-Morocco. There's a hustle and bustle along the street. I'm in a €5 per night establishment, with a balcony overlooking the main bus park. Tomorrow morning should be a treat. Still, the owner is friendly and the shower is hot. I change into civvies and go to find food, water, and the internet while the muezzin calls the devout to prayer.

Tan Tan, Morocco

Trip distance: 6355 km

Saturday, 1 November 2008

10: Slowing down in the Anti Atlas

"People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home" - Dagobert D. Runes

"May all your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you" - Edward Abbey

"The journey is the destination." - Dan Eldon

Plenty of time for accepting kind offers to sit and drink a tea lately...

There's a couple of thought provoking travel quotes to ponder on this wet and chilly Saturday evening in the Anti-Atlas mountains. While the pace of movement has slowed down to a virtual crawl over the past week, the bonus has been that there is plenty of time to accept invitations for tea, and to enjoy some time off Rocinante in the hills around Tafraoute. There's a lot to be said for the idea that the slower you travel the more you appreciate it. Rather than take a more direct route from Tata towards the main (only) road south through Western Sahara to Mauritania, I chose to employ one last diversionary tactic and make a last visit to the temperate climes of the Anti Atlas. Well as I sit typing, wrapped up in almost every item of clothing in my wardrobe, it's a bit more temperate than I would have wished for.

Leaving Tata I headed northeast to Igherm, stopping overnight enroute at the oasis village of Tagmoute. Invitations for tea have abounded of late and I reckon that if I were to accept each one I'd be hard put to make more than about five kilometers per day, but I had lots of conversations with people in the villages enroute. Many of the people I've met have spent significant parts of their working lives in Europe, usually in France, and have retired home to Morocco. For many of the migrants, while working abroad provided an income that would have been unattainable at home, it has also meant an often painful separation from their families for many years. Pondering on this hardship the other day, after a brief chat with a man who had spent 28 years working in France whilst his family remained in a village near Tagmoute, I approached the top of what had been the first serious climb in the past couple of weeks since crossing the Middle Atlas. A movement on the treeless hillside brought me back to the present and soon I had made a conscious connnection between the blur and the savage barking that I had subsequently begun to hear. I realised then that I was probably experiencing my third "Encounter With A Ferocious Dog" in Morocco.

Moments before the battle...

When one is climbing an incline of more than 8% on a loaded touring bicycle, with the additional ballast of 4 litres of water - just to make sure the odds are truly stacked against you - the appearance of a rabid-looking, salivating hound who probably hasn't eaten since the last cyclist passed this way, certainly brings out a feeling of vulnerability. If this was a wildlife programme, I was like that aging buffalo that couldn't keep up with the rest of the herd when the lions broke from their hiding. It was merely a case of chasing down the prey. Only I didn't even have a herd. The last and only car on the road had passed by well over an hour previously. Cycling appeared only to provoke matters as Jaws decided which juicy-looking calf he'd sample first. I remembered the three options that I had been rehearsing for such occasions, all of which seemed truly pathetic in the face of this frothy-mouthed canine. The most humane approach, and therefore least effective, would be to spray water from my bottle in the dog's eyes when he came close enough. The second was to wield my pump at the dog and give him a wallop if he tried to move in for the kill. The final option was to pretend I was taking a penalty kick for Ireland that would bring us to South Africa in 2010, with the dog's head being the ball.

I settled on trying the middle option first. As I was unhooking my pump from the bike frame, as if it were a double-barrel shotgun, I realised that what I had presumed to be the echo of the dog's barking was actually a fellow bloodthirsty hound who had come over the mountain to see what all the fuss was about. Delighted at the prospect of sharing the corpse of a tender and succulent cyclist, the slightly healtier looking new arrival performed a flanking manoeuver. Wielding my pump as if it were a lightsaber from Star Wars, I felt ridiculosly ill-equipped to fend off the beasts, and I began to estimate how long I could hold out for. Just as I was trying to assess the feasibility of taking two penalties for Ireland simultaneously, my guardian angel appeared over the brow of a hill. The woman, who was covered in a red shawl, hissed a couple of barely audible retorts to the dogs and within a couple of seconds they had assumed disinterested positions, overlooking their flock of goats, casually gazing over in my direction as an old man might sit and watch young children playing. I said hello and thanked the woman in my best Berber and she looked at me as she walked over to the dogs, but failed to acknowledge my greeting or gratitude. I waved and smiled gratefully, thinking that body language might be a more effective means of expressing my appreciation, but still no acknowledgement of a presence other than a look that seemed to suggest everything was my fault. Finally, fearing that the lady could well change her mind and release the hounds on me once again, I jumped back on the bike and headed all too slowly on up the hill.

Overlooking Aday village and Tafraoute in the distance in the Anti Atlas

Tafraoute, Morocco

Trip distance: 5975 km