Going Nowhere, with saudades

3 – 4 dec 2019

Marrakesh – Dakhla

The bus ride from Marrakesh to Dakhla leaves plenty of time for observing the landscape, expecially since I’m seated next to a guy who doesn’t seem to enjoy talking to me all that much. For the first hour or so, there’s a lot of agriculture. Oranges, olives, vegetables; you name it they grow it here, although I think there’s a fair amount of ground water being used to do so. Further away from the city we end up in goat territory, and since we’re only just at the beginning of the rainy season here, every bit of land that a goat has access to has been grazed into oblivion.

The higher peaks of the Atlas mountains are showing a solid amount of snow, and the bus almost reaches the snow limit on its way to Agadir. After the next city, Tiznit, I fall asleep, only to be woken up regularly by bus stops and / or police stops. Contrary to six years ago, I only need a “fiche” (photocopy of my passport) once; at the other police stops they either scan or photograph my passport. It makes for much quicker progress and less annoyed fellow bus passengers, so that’s progress I guess (although I will later hear from other travelers that the police keep track of exactly where in the Western Sahara you are and how long you spent in each place).

When I wake up, we are near Laayoune, and solidly into the desert. Along the coastline, the ramshackle fisherman’s huts and Saharawi nomad’s tents have been joined by red and grey prefab buildings every few kilometers; I initially assume they’re government-provided housing for the fishermen. However, I later find out that each one of those little houses – there must be a couple of hundred along the more than 1,000 kilometer coastline of the Western Sahara – houses three Moroccan soldiers, stationed there fore up to three months at a time. Exactly what threat from the sea they are supposed to counter I don’t know (the other party claiming the Western Sahara as its own – the Polisario Front of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic – only controls a thin strip of territory deep inland, far away from the coastline).

The rains that hit Marrakesh 24 hours ago have made it to the northern part of the desert; Laayoune is grey and cloudy, while Boujdour is even rainy when we pass through. This makes a very joyless looking town look even more joyless. Somehow it’s befitting of the namesake of Cape Boujdour, which until the age of the Portuguese explorers was as far south as Europeans ever managed to sail. The wind direction from Cape Boujdour onwards shifting to North-east (so from land out to sea) year-round, shallow reef-filled waters that wrecked ships and resembled boiling water, and flat, featureless, treeless desert conspired to stop explorers from sailing within eyesight of the mainland, at a time when sailing out of sight from the mainland was seen as an unthinkable risk. Cape Boujdour was therefore seen by Europeans as the end of the navigable world for centuries, preventing them from sailing around the unsurvivable Sahara desert. This lasted until a Portuguese explorer named Gil Eanes discovered in 1434 that sailing far out to open sea and riding out the circular trade winds of the North Atlantic could get you safely past Cape Boujdour and back home; in the process he enabled the Portuguese exploration of Africa, the Americas and India, and over the following five centuries, the European dominance of the world.

Sure enough, shortly after leaving Boujdour we outrun the clouds, due to the shift in wind direction bringing dry air from the desert instead of moist air from the sea. The desert itself is much as it was in March 2014; flat, stony, and dotted with tough, greyish green, dry scrubs decreasing in the space of a hundred kilometers from dog-sized to football-sized to tennisball-sized. At tennisball level, the goats disappear but the camels still persist. The immense distance and the monotony of the landscape are, as ever, intimidating. Shortly before Dakhla, the scrubs disappear almost entirely; I guess this is about as far as the most adventurous of the winter rains ever come.

One thing that is decidedly different from 2014 is the amount of human activity. It’s probably more noticeable because we are driving along the only decent road in a territory the size of Great Britain, but every few kilometers, we pass a mine, a sand or stone quarry, a small piece of infrastructure being built… the Moroccan government really has plans for the Western Sahara. This becomes all the more obvious as we enter the Dakhla peninsula, which is absolutely buzzing with construction. Middle class neighbourhoods in every direction, large scale greenhouses for vegetables, sports fields, all being built at the same time. It feels a bit like China: a massively ambitious and energetic push to modernize, grow, provide material improvements for the population, and so long as we don’t talk about human rights, democracy or pollution too much, everything is nice and shiny.

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