A Whole Lotta Sand

Day 1 – Slow start

Not even half a day in reality. By the time we’d had breakfast, packed our panniers, checked emails and then carried the bikes down the narrow stairs of the hotel it was nearing the end of the morning. We had decided to cycle the twenty-or-so kilometres to El Marsa port where we would stop for lunch before beginning the Western Sahara ride for real. However, by the time Lars had been to the ATM and pharmacy; we had stocked up on food at a small kiosk; stopped again for unnecessary, luxury, imported food items at a large supermarket (the novelty was too great to ignore) on the outskirts of town; had our passport details recorded at two police checkpoints; battled the 20km against a headwind blowing a fine layer of sand off the dunes and onto my sweat-laden face and bare arms; before finally finding somewhere to eat in El Marsa and devouring the large platter of seafood that was lunch… it was nearly 4pm before we were on our way south and even then I was soon distracted by the sight of two camels in the back of a truck that I had to stop and take several photos before continuing once again.

In the end, luck was on our side and once we were riding southwards, we were aided by a strong tailwind, which meant cruising along at an average of 30kmh. So by the time the sun was setting and we were leaving the road for a spot to camp by the beach we had covered 90km for the day.

Day 2 – Good day. Tailwind. Longest distance of trip (178km)

My decision to sleep with the inner of the tent up only so I could admire the starry sky as I drifted into slumber backfired when in the middle of the night I was awoken by an intermittent dripping on my face. Surely it wasn’t raining in the desert?! It definitely wasn’t raining – forcing open my eyes, I could clearly make out Orion overhead and the moon still high in the sky – no clouds. Just a heavy layer of condensation that had formed on the mesh which was finally giving under its own weight. For the first time since northern Spain, it was time to put up the outer of my tent.

I emerged from my fully-erected tent to a cool, misty morning with the shore’s defining features enshrouded in a damp fog. The first hour’s cycling to Lemsid was easy-going, although the lunar-landscape was largely veiled by the continuing mist and the tops of the radio masts remained hidden from view. Occasionally the cloud cleared and some sunlight would brighten patches of ground and when the chirping of the birds pierced the grey fog, it didn’t seem quite such a desloate place.

Eventually the sky cleared and the wind once again picked up so that we were cruising down the Saharan highway with the sun beating down on our already red faces. Progress was easy to ascertain, not only by the concrete blocks marking each kilometre passed but also by the radio masts which seemed to be spaced every 5km or so and then there were the numerous police checkpoints too. We made it to Boujdour, a sizeable, modern, lively tow,n for lunch and Lars was optimistic of some internet time too. Being a Friday afternoon however, the internet cafes were closed and the servers were down anyway.

Making the most of the tailwind, we decided to stock up on food and water and continue cycling until dark. On leaving Boujdour, the desert scenery of the morning continued, the only noticeable difference being the absence of any electricity pylons whatsoever. Just stony, flat ground all the way to the horizon.

As the temperature cooled late afternoon, the cycling became enjoyable once again with the sun hovering over the hazy sea on the right and the moon rising in the darkening sky over the lunar-like hammada on the left. With the illusion of the large African sun plunging into the sea, we pulled off the road and put up the tents.

Day 3 – Hard Day. Struggled. Dodgy guts.

The previous night I didn’t get much sleep – the wind, which during the day had blown consistently in our direction of travel, continued to blow but now in erratic gusts which meant that wherever we had pitched the tents, they would have rattled throughout the night. The restless night (I was back to taking repeated trips to the desert loo too) did at least mean that I was awake for a lovely sunrise, the sun leaping up from the desert horizon to shine fresh light and warmth on another day.

The cycling started well, but then we rounded a bend and hit a headwind and a hill simultaneously. Progress slowed dramatically and the going got hard. I was lacking energy and when a small cafe came into view I was relieved to say the least. Being polite, I let Lars have the first omelette – but regretted it when the second took so long to arrive. Patience during pangs of hunger aren’t common with me! A 3-egg omelette, bread, biscuits and a large bottle of coke devoured, I was beginning to feel my normal self again. It was a short 7km to a gas station for coffee and a slightly further 40km to Echtoucan, a small ‘town’ that in reality was little more than another gas station, for lunch. By this stage, my stomach was aching and I was feeling very tired. The 40km would have seemed even tougher if it wasn’t that the road weaved between a series of escarpments – the view changing with every bend and rise and fall of the road.

We again decided to carry on, filling up with plenty of water and food, but progress was tough with the wind blasting head on. Our perseverance was rewarded with a change of fortune when we rounded a bend and finally got the tailwind we were quietly hoping for. It was flat. It was fast. It felt like flying. I was feeling good!

We camped in a gully, complete with animal skeletons, down the side of the canyon which was by now running parallel between the road and the coastline. But even here the wind managed to wildly blast the tents through the night. The combination of wind and damp air meant that the fine sand blew and became encrusted on absolutely everything. It was impossible to remove – all attempts were futile and succeeded in only moving the sand from one undesirable location to another.

The entire area is one giant fossil pit – as soon as you venture off the asphalted road, calcified shells are in abundance, which crunch and crumble underfoot and tyre. The rocks themselves are simply larger accumulations of these tiny shells. This entire area is a geologist’s dream!

Day 4 – Feeling better. Easy day. Really want a shower.

With a tailwind and flat road running alongside the canyon it was once again fast, easy cycling, urged on by the thought of coffee at 60km. Lars, not being a morning person was more than a little angry when we arrived to find the entire gas station closed. I was feeling good and happy enough that there was an open cafe in only another 24km. Lars wasn’t so convinced. With nothing better to do, we cycled on anyway.

The road in the morning ran close to the coast and on one occasion we got our hopes up that there was a town ahead, in the distance, which might even have a small cafe! As we neared however, it became clear the the ‘town’ was nothing more than a ramshackle agglomeration of fisherman’s huts. A kind of stand-alone shanty town.

The amount of traffic on the roads seriously diminished with every town we passed since Laayoune. This afternoon however, we were passed my a number of motorbikes and their 4×4 well-sponsored support vehicles, clearly taking part in an organised event. Apart from these teams, the traffic was mostly cars full of Moroccan’s or Mauritanians and their belongings squeezed into the remaining space, with anything not fitting inside the car precariously strapped to the roof. One friendly chap in a small car stopped to offer us water and see if we wanted anything. Actually, I think he wanted a photo of us as he seemed highly amused by the concept that the two of us might be voluntarily cycling through the Western Sahara. As he pulled away and we waved goodbye, he shouted back ‘I love my life!! You Crazy!!’.

As we have progressed south, it has become noticeably hotter in the midday and colder at night. The wind continued unabating.

Dinner was pasta cooked over an open fire and was devoured in minutes. It was tasty for sure but didn’t stop me day-dreaming of pizza and curry and chinese and a juicy steak washed down with a full-bodied bottle of merlot. I’m eating obscene quantities of unhealthy biscuits and chocolate on top of big meals whenever we stop at a cafe but once again I woke up famished in the middle of the night and had to fill up on bread and jam, yoghurt and yet more cakes.

Oh yes – we passed the Tropic of Cancer.

Day 5 – Deserted towns. Internet? Mines?

The motorbikes and support crews from the day before had obviously camped just up the road as they passed us again first thing. After they had noisily sped by, the road was quiet and we spent endless kilometres cycling side-by-side, spanning both sides of the road, only occasionally glancing behind to check for approaching trucks on the off-chance we hadn’t heard the mechanical beasts of the desert rumbling over the horizon.

We passed a large sign for ‘El Barbas’, informing us of a motel, cafe, restaurant, gas station and mechanic, parking and…. wait for it: INTERNET !!! Lars – animated? Definitely. Too good to be true? Most certainly. The town just beyond the sign on closer inspection from the road looked suspiciously quiet and on turning off into the ‘town’ it soon became clear that this was place was totally deserted. Deserted isn’t really the right word to use. The buildings – blocks of houses neated aligned into a network of streets – had not been deserted, they’d never been lived in. The mosque walls had probably never heard a prayer whispered, let alone shouted through a loudspeaker from atop. The phone lines had probably never connected distant relatives. Some of the house doors were ajar, the metal gates rusting in the salty air. Sand was slowly piling up in the corners of the rooms, odd pieces of litter strewn on the floor having blown in from the empty streets. No internet here! Or water.

We cycled a few kilometres further and came to a functioning, open gas station. Time for coffee, coke and 3-egg omelettes washed down with a second 3-sugar coffee – the staple desert menu for breakfast number two of the day. My stomach being temporarily satisfied, my mind soon turned to thoughts of what to have for lunch and dinner. I decided that the pasta from the night before had been lacking salt and seeing a large salt container staring me in the face, I decided to decant some salt into my empty Nescafe packet ready for the evening’s dinner. What should have been a simple process, took a surprisingly long time complete – the salt sticking to the shaker, me being unable to unscrew the lid and then dispensing large quantities of salt over my already sand-and-sweat-encrusted clothing. Salt decanted, I carefully placed the Nescafe packet on the table, ready to pack away later. No sooner had I done so and the waiter came along and cleared the table. Before I had time to react, the salt-filled Nescafe packet was in the bottom of the rubbish bin. I sighed. Lars laughed. Rather than repeat this laborious process, I thought I’d politely ask for some salt to take away – this time the outcome was successful!

A little later in the day we approached another, identical sign, for El Barbas. No town, deserted or otherwise, was in sight – just a small, derelict building. It being around lunchtime and me feeling hungry, I suggested we stop here in the shade to eat. On entering the room on the left, we found on the floor a makeshift stone table and concrete block seating – how civilised. No internet here though!

During the afternoon’s ride we passed a lone runner on one particularly long, hilly stretch of road. We had no idea where he was running to in the scorching mid-afternoon sun, but he seemed happy enough and didn’t need any water. Several kilometres further on we passed an army camp – perhaps that was where he had run from. I imagine the curiosity aroused in me and questions that sprang to mind by this runner are similar to those of other people when they pass an English girl and Swedish guy cycling through the Sahara. I suppose it is a little odd.

Shortly before stopping for the day, we passed a ‘Danger – Mines’ sign. We thought it best not to camp too far from the road that night.

Day 6 – Border crossing. Tired and weak.

The sixth day in the Western Sahara was a tough day for me. The dodgy guts had continued through the night and I was plagued by stomach cramps throughout the day.

It was a short ride to our first coffee, coke and 3-egg omelette stop, which we enjoyed in the company of a British couple over-landing to South Africa. Jim and Eileen are the first, and so far only, Brits I have met since leaving friends in Essaouira. This stop, by the way, was signed ‘El Barbas’ – and it really was the ‘El Barbas’ complex, complete with motel, cafe, restaurant, gas station and mechanic, parking and.. oh, no internet here!

The next 80km to the border was hard. The first 30km were just plain boring. From then on however, the road was an undulating series of bends, passing up and down and snaking around rocky outcrops, each of which had on the top a pile of carefully placed stones. These seemingly pointless piles have kept somebody occupied for a very long time. I suppose there’s little else to do out here. By the last 20km, my energy was sapped. If my normal energy level could be represented by a tasty pint of Old Speckled Hen bitter, I was by then running on a combination of the dregs and backwash. Cycling in the heat of the midday sun for a sixth day and my cramping stomach had taken it’s toll. I reached the border well and truly fatigued. Before I could even contemplate crossing into another country, we had to visit the cafe for a large lunch. Fish and chips solved the energy crisis, but within twenty minutes, the stomach cramps were back with a vengeance.

Fortunately the border formalities on the Moroccan side were straight forward. The first police plied me with fresh oranges and Lars with cookies while they checked our passports. Further on, while I sat in the shade waiting for an exit stamp, Lars skeptically opened up the cookies and proceeded to eat them – slightly concerned that they may have been planted with drugs.

We then crossed No Man’s Land, a few kilometres stretch of piste, winding through a desolate, dusty, landscape littered with the wrecks of burned-out cars.

At the first police check on the Mauritanian side, our passport details were laboriously typed onto an old computer. This required two guards – one to read the details, the other to enter a seemingly random collection of letters, bearing no resemblance to our names, nationality or place of birth, with the use of his middle finger only. Rather than the usual questions in Morocco of, ‘Where are you travelling to?’ and ‘Where have you come from?’, Lars was asked ‘Why you take woman with you?’ – Er… (how do you answer that?) and ‘How you sleep?’ – In a tent. ‘Ah, you bring woman to sleep together to keep warm’. – No, we have two tents. ‘Sure’.

At the second police check, we waited at the end of a long line of French over-landers for our passports to be stamped. When it finally came round to us, there appeared to be a problem with my visa. Apparently the one-month visa validity begins on the date it is issued, which was a long time ago and not on the date of entry. By this late stage of the day, with it getting dark and my stomach still giving me grief, I was in no mood for hassle. I think the guard noticed this and half-way through my explanation that it would be almost impossible to cycle from Rabat where the visa was issued to the Mauritanian border in less than a month, he told me not to worry and gave me the stamp anyway. What a relief.

We left the border post in the dark and cycled a short distance before leaving the road and settling down for the night.

Day 7 – Nouadibhou: Internet, shower, hotel, pizza, pastries, bed…

Just fifty easy kilometres into Nouadhibou in the early morning cool and we were greeted by a busy, bustling, noisy, dirty town. What a great feeling!

So for the last few days, we’ve been relaxing in the town. Lars has now left to continue his journey south. I’ve headed east by the iron ore train, the world’s longest, to see yet more desert!

 

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3 Responses to “ A Whole Lotta Sand ”

  1. Helen,
    What an interesting and hard week. I wonder what you will think when you re-read your notes. Thanks for keeping us up to date. My thoughts and prayers go with you.
    Really. Really good wishes.
    Clive

  2. Hi Helen,
    Nice to see the progress your making through the blogs and really enjoying reading them. As you know it’s turning cold here in the UK with fading daylight so it’s nice to hear about the sunsets and warm days your riding through.
    Take it easy.

  3. Ooh, hope you loved the iron ore train (and that your bum’s recovered from the bouncing)! We highly recommend a cool down in the water at Terjit Oasis to recover 🙂 Brilliant reading, Helen – thanks for all the updates.

    Bex
    PS I think you’ve now cycled more kms than us 🙂

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