“I always loved the desert. It sits on a sand dune. You see nothing. You hear nothing. And yet something shines in silence.” (Antoine St Exupery)
“The desert is a true treasure for him who seeks refuge from men and the evil of men. In it is contentment. In it is death and all you seek.” (Ibrahim- al-Koni)
“Now there was a grey insect-like vegetation everywhere, a tortured scrub of hard shells and stiff hairy spines that covered the earth like an excrescence of hatred.” (Paul Bowles)
It is a long road that leads from southern Morocco towards the Mauritanian border. Cutting its way through the World’s largest desert there are few towns or service stations to break up the monotony of sand, or more commonly rocky scrub-land, that define the Sahara. Images of picture post-card dunes may romanticize the idea of travelling across this vast landmass, but in reality it is a harsh and inhospitable place, much like other deserts I’ve cycled across.
Having spent almost two-and-a-half months slowly meandering way my through Morocco I had little more than two weeks to traverse the remaining 1500km before both my Moroccan and Mauritanian visas would expire.
My French neighbours at the camp-site in Sidi Ifni were quick to point out that I would need more water bottles than the four that were currently on my bike. “Il n’ya rien, rien ici”, they exclaimed pointing at various empty expanses on the map. It was more constructive advice than that voiced by an Austrian man, who laughed when I explained my intention to cycle to Cape Town and replied “I try not to be racist, but those niggers will kill you.” With that kind of attitude I’m surprised he was still alive himself.
They were all part of the elderly fraternity, mostly French and German, who escape the European winter to drive their shiny white, satellite-dish-installed motor homes along the Moroccan coastline. The camp-sites are full of them and many had started passing me the moment I’d neared the coastline a few weeks before. Behind the security of their tinted-window and air-conditioned interiors these grey-haired nomads were seeing the country with somewhat more luxury than me. I found their vehicles a bit of an intrusion upon the landscape – the way they glistened under the sun like alien and unobtainable objects for the Moroccans who enviously watched them pass. Maybe when I’m old, tired, and in need of comfort and adventure in moderation I’ll view them differently. I suppose it’s not a bad way to spend a retirement through the winter.
The desert didn’t begin in earnest until I rode south from the town of Guelmim. By this stage I’d bought a few more water bottles and bungeed them on to the front rack. Ten kilometres out of town I stopped on a bridge over a dry riverbed to watch a caravan of camels being led into the desert. It was a tranquil and timeless scene except for the traffic speeding passed. Apart from tourists crossing the desert most other drivers see the straight roads that stretch to the horizon as an opportunity to kill time by putting the accelerator pedals to the floor.
The further south I went the lighter the traffic became, but cycling on anything other than the main road through the Sahara would have been a recipe for death.
Far more important than the traffic was the wind, both its direction and strength. It is the single most critical issue in determining whether a desert crossing will be boring and fast, or boring, tediously slow and painfully exhausting. On the back of your neck you won’t feel it as the tarmac flies by beneath you at anything between 25-35km/hr. Head on and it can be a gruelling experience as your speed is more than halved and your energy expenditure doubled.
Fortunately for me the predominant winds blow from the north west. I was soon making serious dents into the map with 150km days, pedalling for 6-7 hours and stopping whenever there was a service station. Occasionally the road ran close to the coast, revealing wild and wind-swept cliffs that dropped vertically to wide and empty beaches below. The breaking waves and deep blue of the Atlantic threw life into the oppression of colourless hamada that dominated the roadside. Fishing huts and tents sat perched on cliff-tops many miles away from anywhere. I wondered if the lonely souls standing with their rods were catching fish to sell or merely subsist on?
I stayed in another motor-home dominated camp-site in the beach-side town of El Ouatia, (Tan Tan Plage) but mostly pitched the tent out in the wilderness. When the winds continued to blow at night, which they did on several occasions, I searched for an abandoned building, but soon realised they were human shit-pits for passing motorists. Hollows or slight rises in the land were better options for shelter and invisibility from the road. When the night was still and clear, the stars shone and the moon beamed down it was easy to forget the hardships of the day.
Even on a bicycle you move too quickly to notice the real details in the landscape. Yes you see and smell the rotting carcasses of unlucky camels and dogs that lye in various stages of slow decay at the roadside, or a small snake that so very nearly made it across, but only when I stopped to leave the tarmac and pitch the tent did I see the many fossil shells embedded within the rocks and scattered amongst the sands of this former ocean floor, or some prehistoric arthropod whose home I’d disturbed.
My days were very simple. I’d wake at around 7am, boil water for a coffee and make an omelet (tomato, onion and laughing cow cheese) to eat with bread, then slowly pack up my gear and be on the road at around 8.30am. Within an hour I’d usually be bored of listening to the wind or sound of rubber on the tarmac, so would plug in my Ipod and have it playing for most of the day. It was a total saviour and I can’t remember how I crossed the long desert roads of Egypt and Libya without music to accompany me. The Rolling Stones for an hour might be replaced by a recent Giles Peterson podcast or the soothing vocals of Serge Gainsbourg. Most of the time I’d put it on random and when the battery ran low I’d attach my solar panel to a pannier to ensure it would be fully-charged again the following day.
A police check-post might appear at the roadside before a service station or town. There were many of these and the formalities were always the same. “Destination Monsieur?” (Mauritania), Profession? (it must have seemed odd for them to hear a sweaty cyclist say Professeur d’anglais). My passport details would then be written down before being wished “Bon route” and continuing on my way. If my water bottles needed filling (I occasionally carried 10-12litres when there was a big distance on the map with no marked settlement or knowledge of a service station) I’d do it here, else wait until I passed a service station or town. If it was lunchtime when I passed through the latter I might search out a cheap eaterie and on several occasions I’d get a plate full of fresh fried fish for 10Dirham (1Euro). When not eating in a town I’d make sardine sandwiches at a scenic spot (shade a bonus) and wash it down with a litre of coke. I never drink coke in England but on the road it breaks the monotony of water and is a great energy fix. I also have a theory that the acid helps kill any nasty bacteria in the stomach.
I might have cycled anything from 50-80km by this stage and would aim to do the same in the afternoon, perhaps stopping once or twice to eat a packet of biscuits or some fruit (tangerines are very cheap and in season at this time) or dates. I’d wait until sunset before looking for a suitable spot to pull off the road and pitch the tent, by which stage I’d be famished again. Water would go on the boil whilst I chopped up some tomatoes, onions and garlic (bought if possible in the last town) and then enough pasta for two servings would be thrown into the water. When the pasta was done I’d put it on the side and fry the vegetables in olive oil, adding some tomato paste and water to make a sauce. A tin of tuna or a beaten egg would later be added to the sauce before seasoning it and throwing it over the gargantuan quantity of pasta. I’d demolish this within 10 minutes, belch with gleeful satisfaction then light a cigarette and cast my mind back over the day and the think about the road ahead. If I wasn’t asleep soon after I might read a little, listen to music or write in my journal.
After several days of desert camping I reached Laayoune. This is the unofficial capital of the disputed western Sahara, but governed like the rest of the vast swathes of desert around, by Morocco. There is little to denote one is in an a disputed zone other than the large UN presence in the city. Nor does it feel that you’re surrounded by desert. Moroccans get to work here tax free and there is money being invested in new buildings and shops to ensure central control over this distant outpost.
I rested for a day here before pushing on south, the traffic now lighter and the service stations and towns much further apart. Boujdour looked like a village on the map, but in reality it was a sizeable town, at least by Saharan standards. A Dutch man approached me on the street as I was stocking up on supplies from a small shop. He’d driven north from The Gambia and told me about meeting a Japanese cyclist crossing into Mauritania the previous day. I knew it was Hiromu san whom I’d met several weeks previously. I was hoping to catch him up, but had received an e-mail a few days before that said he didn’t have time to wait for me. His girlfriend would be in South Africa in one and a half years so he had to go quickly to keep to his schedule.
The Dutchman wondered how I dealt with boredom on the road as he found it taxing just driving across the Sahara. I told him I thought of food and sex a lot. He laughed and said “In Holland we have a saying. Keep the mind on zero and the side on infinite” . That might work as well I thought.
The remaining motor homes that were now on the road were all heading to Dakhla. This is the last town of any significance in Morocco and sits perched at the end of a windy peninsula. It’s earning a name as a top kite-surfing destination. Sure there is beauty in the sense of isolation and remoteness down here, but like most other Saharan towns it lacks character. It’s a very long way to drive your motor-home for a holiday that’s for sure.
The winds, which had mostly been in my favour for the previous ten days, now started blowing from the south. Once I left Dahkla and rejoined the main road to cycle the remaining 350km to the Mauritanian border I was confronting them head on. There was practically no traffic now other than a few shared taxis, army trucks and the odd overland vehicle driven either by westerners or possibly Mauritanians or Senegalese.
Relief from the elements came in the form of two cans of a beer and an Italian man insistent on cleaning and re-oiling my sand-filled chain. He was driving a motor home alone and had just returned from the Mauritanian border thinking that he could get a visa issued on the spot (you could before November 2009). “I love people like you. It is great what you are doing”. With 100km in my legs I wasn’t really thinking of beer at 2pm in the middle of nowhere, but as he went about removing the sand from my chain I gulped down the warm beer and thought what a pleasant surprise that someone in a motor-home should stop and offer help.
He was telling me about riding a motorcycle across Australia when a white transit van pulled up alongside. Three Senegalese emerged (one man and two scantily-clad women) saying they had no fuel and could I give them some. Sure enough the last service station I passed was over 100km back, although I’m sure they must have made this journey before and known when to fill up. The Italian reluctantly siphoned-off 5 litres and made some off-the-cuff remark about this being Africa and that I’d face lots of challenges ahead.
I had one of my most frightening on-the-road experiences early the next day. Having just downed a bottle of coke and scoffed a packet of chocolate biscuits from a fly-filled forecourt of a service station, I was pursued by a pack of ten dogs. They had been dozing in the shade of the petrol pumps minutes before, but now decided to join me on the road as I pedalled off. Had there been one or two I would have followed the standard procedure of picking up a stone and motioning to throw it at them (works 50-70% of the time) else squirted them with water from my water bottle (a new and surprisingly effective, if somewhat wasteful tactic whilst on the move). Ten was just too many though and they were rather cunning at surrounding the bike. I started to walk, thinking they would lose interest, but twenty minutes later none had given up the game. Finally a car approached from behind and I waved it down to stop. The driver was French and had long dreadlocks. Half his teeth were missing and his eyes were bloodshot. I guessed he’d spent a long time in Africa and taken a lot of drugs. He explained that I should hold onto the roof rack so he could tow me along to out-speed the dogs.
At 30km/hr they were happily running alongside the car. Up to 40km/hr and it was the same. I tried to explain that he should lower his speed a little and maintain a constant pace, but amongst the cacophony of barking and wind he continued to accelerate to 50km/hr. Most dogs had given up the chase now, but several were still in pursuit. By this stage my bike was leaning into the side of the car and I was losing balance. He continued to accelerate and the bike started wobbling. I glanced down at the computer reading 58km/hr and had a flash-before-my-eyes vision of skidding across the tarmac before being mauled by these hungry canine monsters.
I let go and managed to regain my balance whilst the Frenchman disappeared ahead of me. Two remaining dogs ran alongside as my speed dropped to 30km/hr. After another kilometre they finally stopped. I felt victorious but wished I was carrying some weapon. Nothing would have pleased me more than to put a bullet in the heads of every one of these foul creatures.
I reached the border feeling like I’d ridden to the end of the earth. For the last few hundred kilometres the map and road signs had been little use in telling me exactly how far the Moroccan immigration post was. Only the increasing number of soldiers standing at random outposts in the desert and signs warning me of land-mines indicated that I couldn’t be far.
I hadn’t left myself much time to enter Mauritania before the 30-day validity of my visa expired. In fact it was valid until the 3rd of February and it was now 3pm of the same day. Before entering Mauritania however I had several kilometres of no-mans-land to traverse. I’ll save that experience, as well as my journey into Mauritania for the next post.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this and would like to receive future posts via e-mail, you can do so here. I also use Twitter for short updates. Many thanks for those who’ve made recent donations to the Against Malaria Foundation, although it seems you don’t have to cycle a big distance to raise a lot of money for an important cause.