Last days in the Western Sahara

sand angel

Leaving Dakhla was tough. It had rained all night and the clouds were still hanging low in the morning. If we stayed, it would be for the sake of indulging ourselves in another day of good company but with bad weather. Plus we’d done the wheel build that was necessary for us to carry on and we felt a duty to our plans to continue pedalling south.

It’s sometimes easy to forget you’re on holiday when cycle touring. Days can be tough mentally or physically, or both, but yet we find ourselves adding to the strain by setting targets and making extra demands on our bodies. I’ve never worked out why, but it’s probably some kind of neurotic impulse.

As we said our goodbyes, everyone we spoke to said they’d never known rain in Dakhla before. A couple suggested it was us English that had brought it with us. We told them we were leaving, so the rain would probably come too. It didn’t.

We rode through warm weather, but not hot. The wind stayed behind us all afternoon even though it was travelling faster than we were, gently pushing the tandem down the road. No hills, no big effort, no sweat. What I’d describe as the perfect cycling day.

There’s a petrol station with a cafe 100km from Dakhla beach and that’s where we stopped. The police were waiting for us. We’d been stopped 50km back and the cop had said he’d call ahead, ‘pour votre securitie’. The cop at the gas station showed us our camping options, either outside on the tarmac or in a large empty room with a large mat on the floor ‘pour votre securitie’. We opted for the latter, which turned out to be a prayer room. For the first couple of hours, every 20 minutes or so, someone would come along and answer the call to prayer.

You have good days and bad days on the bike. The next one was a bad day. Not for any particular reason, we were just lifeless. The tarmac seemed to cling to the tyres, the crank arms churned rather than turned, there were more inclines and they took on the appearance of hills when viewed through our resentful eyes. In reality it was just one of those shit days. You can psychoanalyse such days as much as you like, but there’s rarely anything deep going on.

We were happy to find a camping spot on the beach after 100k. Two campervans had paved the way so we joined them. They pointed out the military buildings somewhere to the left, the police somewhere to the right and the marines somewhere out in the Atlantic Ocean. It may have been hogwash, but nonetheless we felt very protected. As soon as we pitched the tent, I went from feeling depressed to feeling blessed, watching a multi-coloured sunset on the horizon. Africa really knows how to set a sun. Janyis cooked up some noodles and life was good again.

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After a good start the following day, we got a puncture 8km before the gas station where we’d planned to stop for the night. I fixed the puncture but the heat of the sun made the self-adhesive patch useless. So I changed the tube, but neither of my pumps would inflate it. In the end we hitched a lift in the back of a van.

The services had a shop, a hotel and cafe. Round the corner was a guy who fixed punctures on trucks and sold tyres. On my way there I saw a couple of sheep sitting in the shade of a HGV waiting to have their throats slit for tomorrow’s tagine.

Ten minutes later I went back to the cafe with the tube repaired, 10 new bike patches, 2 truck patches and a large tube of glue.

I love travel and I love the feeling of being out there, but I can’t ignore the glaring fact that I’m a spoilt western tourist. I prefer the places I wash my hands to be free of grease stains, grime and dust. I like my cafes to have fewer flies than customers. I like hotels where the sheets were clean on this morning rather than last month, or the month before and I prefer cockroaches to live in harmony with their own environment rather than mine. These traits of the privileged mind come under attack in places like Morocco, particularly because we actively seek out the cheapest place in town to spend the night. But they serve as a reminder that I am just a tourist. Just because I ride a bike, it doesn’t make me some kind of explorer. When I see 4x4s or mobile homes cruising past us, it’s easy to believe that we’re the ones taking the path of greatest resistance, and are somehow more connected to our environment. It’s true that we see more, hear more and smell more, because we travel slower and we’re not in a box, but it’s arrogant to believe we connect with a culture very different to our own and where the standard of living for many is so vastly at odds with our own. And we can always go home if we don’t like how the desert dust makes our skin feel. We don’t need to stick around and try to scratch a living out of that dust.

And so we’re approaching the end of Morocco. Sitting in the tent listening to the generator powering this border post, this is our last night before Mauritania. The desert sun has been strong today, as it has for the past couple of weeks. There have been times we’ve needed help on the road – water, food or mechanical issues. The people who helped weren’t from one country in particular, or from one income bracket. Their skin colour didn’t determine their reaction and nor did ours. Which shows me that none of these things count. It shows me that people are alright, or not, based on their willingness. It’s a personal choice and we’re grateful to all those who made a personal choice to help us ride our tandem through Morocco.

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