Saharan Sun

Dear all,

After four days in the desert, we are now in Nouadhibou, having crossed the border from Western Sahara (Sahara Occidental) into Mauritania.

After our last update, we rode from Essaouira to Tafraoute in the high Anti Atlas, a day of gentle riding along the coast to Agadir, which included the hills where Argan Oil is produced. This is the increasingly popular alternative to olive oil, which is extracted from the seeds of the Argan Tree. The catch is that the Argan seed is first eaten by goats which are placed into the trees to feast on the fruit. The seeds are then collected and processed after the goats have digested them a little! So think goat-poo oil when you hear about Argan oil. Having said that, it’s excellent and tasty oil! Hmmm

After lunch in an English pub in Agadir, an odd experience, we headed into the Anti Atlas, an incredible afternoon’s riding through dramatic mountain twisties, climbing ever higher to the ancient town of Tafraoute. The town is set in an area of pink granite and dominated by imposing high peaks, well worth a visit.

The following day we headed down to Tiznit and then on out into the Sahara, stopping for lunch at Guelmim, the start of the Sahara proper. A warm afternoon’s ride through increasingly arid landscape brought us to the town of Tan Tan, a very rustic Moroccan town, where the locals regard themselves as Saharan rather than Moroccan.

The following morning, we rode a short 25km to Tan Tan Plage to check out some hotels on the beach there, a fair wind was blowing, which kept us on the cool side, but the riding along the coast after Tan Tan Plage was excellent, with dramatic desert scapes plunging into the Atlantic surf on our right as we rode.

We made some great discoveries that morning; this is a really interesting part of the coast to ride and the Lagoon Naila (Foum Agoutir), with its views over a fish filled lagoon and the huge numbers of sea birds is a definite must-see.

Shortly after this, we met two English guys, Josh and Ed, on their way to South Africa, but on a seriously tight budget. They were both on older bikes with ingenious hand made hard luggage and a light hearted attitude. Meeting them was a breath of fresh air.

The four of us lunched in Tarfaya, the old fishing port near the Western Sahara border, where the traveller can view a memorial to Antoine St. Exupery, the pioneering pilot who flew the French mail service to Dakar in the 1920s and 30s. He wrote three books, of which Southern Mail and Night Flight are well worth a read. He was lost in North Africa in 1943, but is still remembered on the lonely Sahara coast.
IMG_6746smaTarfaya is rapidly converting from a dusty desert fishing town to something entirely different, A ferry now runs to and from the Canary Islands and real estate prices are rising by the week as development money is poised to pour into the town. King Mohammed is due to give his blessing to huge building works here in the next two to three months. Another English guy we met at lunch was in the process of buying a house in Tarfaya to use as a base for his travels and also as an investment. Currently, a good sized apartment can be picked up for around 7,000 (UK).

Later we passed into the Western Sahara, a new monument to five Moroccan kings now standing at the previously unmarked border.

Western Sahara is disputed territory, with Morocco asserting its claim to the country, while the Polisario Front contest this. Until 10 years ago, shooting matches between both sides were commonplace, but a UN brokered ceasefire has held, making the country a safe place to travel as long as you stick to the main routes and towns and don’t stray into the far east of the country, where banditry is a risk.

At some point there is supposed to be a referendum on the future of the country, but in the meantime, Morocco continues to pour money and resources into the area. There seems little doubt that the Western Sahara will remain substantially tied to Morocco in the longer term.

After a night in the UN filled capital Laayoune, we headed south for the 520km ride to Dakhla in the south of the country, a long desert day which started freezing cold and ended under a blazing sun and 30 degree heat. Such are desert contrasts!

IMG_6714smaDakhla sits at the end of a 40km sand peninsular and was a welcome sight after a long day’s ride. This town has also seen massive development and seems to grow in size each time we visit. Our usual hotel, the Doumes was closed for refurbishment, so we stopped for the night in the Regency Sahara, a place that tries ever so hard to be four star. But it was a good night’s sleep aided by a bar which is the only place that serves alcohol in the city.

We met another English guy, who was on a tight itinerary to get home. He had ridden nearly 800km that day and was planning to get back into Morocco the following day. There were also two Frenchmen who had ridden from Paris on two old style Mobylette mopeds. They had been on the road for three weeks and were aiming for Dakar.
Yesterday we departed early for the Mauritanian border. A 300km ride through the loneliest roads we had travelled thus far. The occasional truck or four wheel drive passed us but little else. We did pass two small groups of British registered motorcycles heading north, but didn’t stop to chat.

The landscape on this stretch is kinder to the eye and the Golfe de Cintra is worth a stop. Another pleasant stop can be taken on the beach about half way to the border.

After refilling at the last petrol station, a place that many traveller know as G1 (Gas 1) we arrived at the border at mid-day. Moroccan formalities were straightforward, though we were held up by the final army checkpoint for half an hour waiting with a queue of travellers for a soldier to lazily take our details and ask a few pointless questions.

Then it was out into the minefield and along the 5km rough piste and sand traps, following well established tracks to arrive at the Mauritanian border.

We were fortunate to arrive just before the lunchtime closure had finished and being on a bike, we of course went to the head of the queue! New border buildings are rapidly replacing the old tumbledown wooden huts which used to mark Mauri customs and the Army were well pleased with their new facilities and clean new uniforms, a dividend from the new Government I should imagine.

Army, Police and Customs were cleared in short order and we headed south once again, joining the new road from Nouadhibou to Nouakchott for a short ride along first class tarmac into Nouadhibou.

The town itself is tumbledown and has an air of chaos. Mauritania ranks among the top five poorest countries in the world, but the people have great dignity and honour, falling over themselves to help out. Nouadhibou hosts a large fishing fleet and sits on a coastline which is densely packed with fish. This and supporting industries keep alive a town which has seen a reduction in tourist income since the new road allows travellers to by-pass the area.

We are staying at the Hotel Osian at the small town of Cansado, south of Nouadhibou. The views out to see are dramatic and it’s a good place to take a break, see the port, enjoy well cooked fish at the Canaria Restaurant and view the large numbers of shipwrecks which litter the shore.

Tomorrow we head for Nouakchott and after a night there, we head south and into Senegal. We’ll post a further update in a few days. Mobile phones do not work here.

Our best wishes to you all.

Craig & Barbara, on the road.