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


julie said...

Hi ! It's been ages since I've checked ur blog and I realised that I've missed a lot ! Im gonna print all ur posts and read them; looks damn great !
Bon courage pour la suite du voyage.

Sven said...

Hi, Sven here. I'm back in the civilisation, Nouakchott.
Yeah. And I found a very good place to relax. Auberge Menata, 1500 O. Rue Tevragh-Zeina. Hope you found my signs along the route.
See you soon. I heard about you, cycling 80 km behind me.

roland said...

Hello Julian,
Roland here. Just caught up with your diary and reading it in stages.
Saw Margaret and Vicki in Mount Usher recently-weather here very Christmas card like, deep hoar frost and cheeky robins on holly berries.
I envy your journey though I don;t like to see dogs when cycling-don;t envy you that.
Best Wishes,
Roland and Annette 30th Nov