Camping in Disputed Territory - Western Sahara
Western Sahara, as the name suggests, is predominantly desert. It is a sandy piece of disputed territory controlled by Morocco with a reputation for refugee camps and passion for camels. The Sahrawi people who live there are fiercely nationalistic and continue to demand their independence.
I found Western Sahara to be a place of surprises and contradictions. It has a glamorous history as a stop off point for Aeropostal pilots including Saint-Exupéry author of The Little Prince. He was a pioneer of international post flight who transported mail between Casablanca and Dakar.
Pilots risked their lives to fly letters around the world, occasionally crashing their planes, flown without the benefit of modern instruments, into the desert. Driving through the empty, dusty streets of Tarfaya today it is hard to imagine that 100 years ago this was a station point for these dashing adventurers. Now it is the sort of place where it’s quicker to find a stray dog than a shop.
Although officially in Morocco not Western Sahara, Tarfaya is a place that belongs to the desert and pastel coloured sand covers everything. And Saint-Exupéry’s 18 months here shaped his writing. It seems a million miles away from the croissants, well-stocked bars and smart hotels of St Louis in Senegal, another hub for the pilots.
Despite the interesting aeronautical history Western Sahara is not a tourist destination. We were only there because it is on the way from Morocco to Mauritania. After a day of driving on ruler straight roads through desert we pulled over to camp on what looked like a deserted beach. A few moments later, a battered Land Rover pulled up and parked near our newer, shiner one. A fisherman called Ali and his son, also Ali, got out with their fishing rods. They proved to be particularly adept at hooking fish out of the rough sea while our efforts proved futile. Fishing stopped for us when one of my friends stepped on a sea urchin.
The Alis switched their attentions to collecting prawns. Soon they had collected a bucketful and came to share them with us. The older Ali fried a few prawns on our camping stove and we pealed them and ate them together the hot juices running down our chins. Then invited us over for a cup of tea, gesturing to a scruffy Bedouin tent a few hundred meters away.
The pale, blue tents, so low you can’t stand up in them, blended into the landscape. I hadn’t realised they were inhabited. We walked over and we welcomed inside by the man, his son and many giggling sisters and nieces. We drank cup after tiny cup of hot mint tea poured from a silver tea pot high above the glasses. It transpired that they were not nomads as I had assumed but teachers from the nearest town on holiday. Camping wasn’t their usual way of life, but just like us, something they do occasionally and with great excitement. They were having an excellent family holiday.
Later, back at our tent, as we were preparing for bed we were accosted by uniformed men flashing powerful torches in our faces. I feared we were about to be arrested for camping in the wrong place but again my assumptions were off. These were members of the national guard patrolling the beaches to look for the bodies of would-be emigrants. Men, women and children lose their lives in the desperate and dangerous quest to reach Europe and their bodies wash up regularly on these beaches. Western Sahara is the closest point of Africa to Europe just 40miles across the Atlantic from where we were camping lie the Canary Islands, and for many the chance of a better life. People from all over West Africa pile into overcrowded boats and under the cover of darkness attempt to reach the islands.
Meanwhile, Morocco sells lucrative fishing rights in the waters off Western Sahara’s coastline to European countries. And here in the European Union we welcome the fish, but not the people.
Lynn Morris is Director of Atlantic Rising.