A Horse With No Name

Night Shift

I took a sip from my canteen, staring past the little roundabout in front of me. It was unbelievable that someone had taken the effort of building an actual roundabout complete with curbs and signage in what was closer to the middle-of-nowhere than most other places I had been. In the past two hours since my last fuel stop I had passed a grand total of three trucks and one car. Coming across other traffic here was like meeting a fellow hiker on a remote alpine trail - where one nods a polite greeting and perhaps exchanges some pleasantries and knowledge of the road ahead, glad to have found another living soul. I couldn’t speak to the truck drivers of course, but their honking and waving made it clear that they were surprised to find me out here, and I returned their greetings and peace signs by enthusiastically flailing my arms and slaloming as they flew by.

The morning had started with a cool breeze around El-Ouatia where I had croissants and porridge for breakfast on the tiny seaside boulevard. The stories I had heard about the road ahead through Western Sahara invariably included the words windy and boring, but the wind didn’t seem so bad today and I had convinced myself that I wouldn’t mind some peace and quiet after Morocco with all its colours and smells, people and animals. Yesterday late afternoon I had passed a sign just south of Guelmim that said "Tan-Tan: 120km. Ad-Dakhla: 1000km" and staring at the map over breakfast I discovered that there was very little to fill the enormous space in between. Tan-Tan is one of the southernmost cities in Morocco, and El-Ayoun and Ad-Dakhla are the only other towns of note in Western Sahara, an area half the size of France with less than one percent of the population.

Known simply as The Southern Provinces in Morocco and listed as a disputed area on most United Nations documents, the history of Western Sahara is peculiar. Covered entirely in desert and inhabited by only about half a million people it is one of the most sparsely populated countries on earth, and a grey area on many statistical maps – no data available. No brief description could do justice to the struggles of the Sahrawi, or Southern Berbers, against first Spanish, and later Mauritanian and Moroccan meddling, but after a long period of near-civil war and instability it was relatively quiet around the time I passed through. The Moroccan government was in control of the cities and the road linking them including the economically important phosphate mines and kept an uneasy ceasefire with the Sahrawi tribes confined to the inland oases. The Sahrawi are represented internationally by their Algerian government-in-exile, the Polisario Front, and continue their struggle for independence and international recognition.

Moroccan control of the coastal road manifested itself mostly through police checkpoints at every gas station and township, sometimes hundreds of kilometres apart with absolutely nothing but sand in between. At each of these stops I was politely questioned, and a note was made of my passport number, vehicle make and model, and of the exact time I passed through. The idea was that if some vehicle was hijacked and its occupants kidnapped, the Moroccan police would be able to determine roughly where along this endless featureless road it had taken place by going over the checkpoint ledgers. And so I had ridden from checkpoint to checkpoint all day, from El-Ouatia down to El-Ayoun, then further south with the ocean on my right and the endless desert on my left. Not only humans, but plants and animals were sparse too, limited to a few raptors on the seaside, and the occasional flock of wild camels who stood munching on what little plant life there was just off the roadside. After a cool morning start the little temperature gauge on my dashboard eventually settled for 38 degrees Celsius, and even though I was wearing the lightest of motorcycle mesh suits the heat was blistering, and the breeze generated by riding felt like someone pointing a hair dryer from across the room.

Ad-Dakhla lies at the tip of a long peninsula, and sitting at this roundabout in late afternoon I found myself trying to decide if I should make the long detour and find a place to stay in the city, or instead to try my luck at the next settlement which according to my map should be half an hour south along the main road. After some internal debate I decided to press on southwards toward Mauritania. I took another sip of water and munched on a piece of pre-packaged cheese, then stowed the remains of my lunch in the tank bag. When I eventually came across the location marked on the map it turned out that the cartographer had severely overstated its size and importance. El-Argoub was no more than about four houses on the roadside, with a few men skulking around an empty shop. They explained that there was no gas, no food, and no places to stay here, and directed me back towards Ad-Dakhla. I didn’t feel like riding back for an hour only to have to redo all of it the next morning, so with the sun descending quickly I went on, a little nervous about the prospects of finding a place to stay.

A few hours later, right as dusk fell, I came across a tiny gas station with a police checkpoint. The road here in the south was better than before and looked recently surfaced, the yellow lines still brilliant. The red-and-white plastic barriers however were cracked and broken in several places, and the light mounted on top had broken long ago. After going over my papers the officer in charge explained that the Mauritanian border was still three hours away and closed at night any way, and invited me to join them for tea. His lieutenant sat at a table under a large parasol fanning himself with his cap, while a third, much younger policeman lay sleeping in the back of their pick-up truck. The gas station was surrounded by walls lined with piles of sand and rubbish, and the entire building looked like a post-apocalyptic construction site, unfinished and with rebar sticking out in places. A large canopy had been erected but the wooden panelling had been bleached white in the sun and the concrete was slowly returning to dust.

Despite the eerie look of the place I felt extremely relieved and was more than happy to join the little gathering, seated on plastic garden furniture. The station itself was run by two attendants who managed the pumps and the shop, powered by a diesel generator. Not long after I sat down they served the little assembly a meal of rice and fried fish which I gobbled up eagerly. The remoteness of the location seemed to pull everyone together since for the time being there was simply nowhere else to be but in each other’s company. Conversation was made difficult by my meagre French but with the senior officer translating I managed to explain where I’d come from and how I had found myself here on this desert island at nightfall. I showed them the pictures from my trip: foggy Swiss mountain passes, green Portuguese hills, and the rock of Gibraltar sliding by in the distance. My stories of falling over in parking lots in Zurich and getting cussed at by beggars in Tangiers amused them greatly, and in return they showed me pictures of family getaways and birthday parties.

The senior officer explained that he and his men were from El-Ayoun in the North, and that this particular station was their most remote assignment, only surpassed by the border station with Mauritania further south, which had the luxurious amenities of a restaurant, and army barracks with dorms and showers. They would be posted here once a month for five days at a time, keeping watch over the traffic and occasionally making the two-hour drive up to Ad-Dakhla when they ran out of cigarettes. Their current assignment was due to end tomorrow afternoon when their replacements were expected, and they were eager to get back to their families. On the table sat a heavy ledger which they used to document traffic, each day delineated by a black marker. The entries for today, October 4th, were limited to just seven lines, including mine.

After some time one of the station attendants dragged out an old mattress for me and put it down next to my bike, before lighting a bunch of candles on the table. Just then his colleague turned off the generator which powered down with a satisfying hum, and the whole place went silent. The youngest policeman was woken up and the senior officer went to sleep in his place, while the five of us sat sipping tea and whispering quietly late into the night, the desert around us pitch-black, the Milky Way so bright that it was throwing a shadow under the canopy. At one point the lieutenant motioned for silence, listened carefully and then announced gingerly: “There will be a truck in twenty minutes”. Sound carries far in the desert, especially at night with no civilization for miles around. Sometime later, right as he predicted, the younger officer ran into the road with his flash light and the ledger to take note of the souls passing by at this late hour. I woke up early the next morning and found the young officer snoozing at the table while the others slept in the truck. The station clerks were fast asleep behind the counter in the shop, so I took some water and biscuits from my luggage and strolled around the compound while enjoying my improvised breakfast. It was only just after 5, yet slowly light appeared over the desert in the east. Different shades of blue turning ever brighter, followed by purple and red, with the changing palette coming to a abrupt bright end when the sun appeared on the horizon. Meanwhile the silence was stunning, with no hints of life, and every noise and disturbance absorbed by the sand. I quietly loaded up the bike then softly woke the policeman to say goodbye, leaving some money for the food and tea. Using what little English he knew he wished me a safe journey, and shook my hand intensely.

I rode in the slowly warming morning breeze for what felt like an eternity, until I reached the southernmost Moroccan border post at El Guergarat. There was a large parking area where dozens of trucks and a handful of cars sat willy-nilly, the drivers asleep or lounging in the shade, most of them obviously not going anywhere anytime soon. A small restaurant sat between the parking area and the border post, the latter consisting of a row of one-story white buildings on either side of the road, with a narrow concrete canopy flanked by parking spaces in the middle. The lot of it was surrounded by fencing and barbed wire, even though there was nothing but desert to be seen for miles around. A squad of soldiers was strolling around looking dejected, while a few customs officers in blue uniforms were turning a pair of Mercedes taxis inside-out, suitcases lined up on a tarp next to the cars while the passengers sat in the shade observing the scene.

The process for entering Morocco a few weeks ago had been simple: an immigration officer had looked at my passport and decided it was legit, then stamped it for entry. A police officer accompanied by a customs agent asked me some questions and glossed over my luggage before waving me on, and finally a second customs agent inspected the paperwork for the motorcycle, and added the registration data to his ledger. The entire process was fairly efficient, taking only about thirty minutes, made easy by the fact that most people at the Tangiers ferry port spoke at least rudimentary English. I had imagined that leaving Morocco would entail the same steps in the reverse order, however things were complicated by the fact that signage at this particular border post was strictly in Arabic, and everyone around me seemed to be busy and not interested in my presence in the slightest. I took off my helmet and jacket and gathered the paperwork, then approached the officers working on the taxis. They glared at me for a second, and then without saying a word pointed towards one of the white buildings. OK, I thought, I guess I’ll have to figure this one out by myself. Inside the office I found a row of desks, just one of which was occupied by a man talking in hushed tones on the phone, but who seemed to be disagreeing tremendously with the person on the other end of the line. The walls were covered with newspaper clippings, old-fashioned wanted posters complete with a reward and gritty photograph, and several lists marked right-to-left, everything being written in Arabic. Upon noticing me the man shouted what sounded like a last few insults, then put down the phone and produced a jovial smile. I explained that I was looking for immigration, trying to exit Morocco. “You want go Mauretanie?” he asked, putting the stress on the very last syllable, and I nodded. “Vrai?.. OK”.

He took a booklet and a case full of large wooden stamps from under the desk. The ceiling fan above whirred softly, offering a much-needed reprieve from the steadily building heat outside. After studying my passport for a while he made some notes, stamped it, and handed it back to me. I asked him what I should do with my vehicle. He started gesturing and explaining something, but halfway into his answer must’ve realized that I spoke no Arabic. He got up, grabbed my arm and walked me to one of the offices further along where two smartly dressed customs officers were lounging under a large fan, eating breakfast. Upon his address one of them jumped into action. He grabbed his ledger and quickly walked around the bike taking notes, and requested to look inside the fuel tank for some reason. He asked me a dozen questions about my journey through Morocco, all within the space of about two minutes, and at least half of which I did not understand the purpose of. Before I knew it I was stood outside again, paperwork stamped and sorted, with everyone around me returned to their desks and their rest. The customs officers had finished their inspection of the taxis, and both of them were now parked a little further down towards the actual border. “Well that was easy”, I thought, barely ten minutes in-and-out, all done. When there’s nothing much else to do, even customs can be quick and efficient.

Morocco had only been a very short boat ride away from Spain and had felt quite similar to the West, at least in the major cities, so I was naively excited to finally go to a truly exotic country, far away from home, where no-one that I knew had ever been before. The metal gate at the end of the customs area was open, with no-one guarding it. In front of me stretched a landscape of dunes and rocks, and the tarmac road ended just a few meters beyond the gate, giving way to a dusty gravel trail. In the distance a long line of parked vehicles stretched out, steel carcasses stripped down to the frame, tires, doors and garbage piled up around them. Driving off of the last bit of tarmac onto the sand was like reaching the end of civilization, and falling off a cliff. I carefully started making my way forward, and after rounding a little hill I was faced with a scene that might have come straight out of Mad Max. Directly on my left was a line of little signs featuring the unambiguous skull and crossbones and the word mines. Behind them a rocky field stretched out, with several lines of low barbed wire and small rods protruding from the sand, leaving little to the imagination. In front of me the path split into several wide branches, not all of which appeared passable, with small dunes and what seemed to be deep, loose sand all around. On the right still were multiple rows of derelict cars and trucks, and I noticed tarps strung up in the distance, and saw fires burning. There were, it seemed, people living in this no man’s land between the two border posts. I moved slowly on one of the more reasonably looking trails, but after some distance it curved down to the right and into a large sand bank. I tried to carefully brake, but the bike skidded and my feet sank in the soft sand around me while I desperately tried to keep my balance, half rolling half sliding along. After a few seconds during which I felt I was surely going to tip over I managed to come to a full stop. The front wheel was buried almost as far as the axle, the belly pan firmly hugged the sand. I had no traction either with my feet or with the rear wheel, but for the moment I was at least upright, and stable. I could see a more solid kind of road about thirty meters ahead, but there was absolutely no way that I was getting there on my own.

After sitting like this for a few minutes wondering how on earth I was ever going to get out of here, I could hear a car approaching behind me. It was one of the Mercedes taxis, and the occupants had already had the good sense to get out and walk along, yelling and pushing while the driver was desperately trying not to get stuck. I motioned for them to steer clear of the sand around me, at the same time begging for help in every language I knew. After the taxi had rounded the trap and found more solid footing the driver got out and together with the male passengers trudged over and started pushing me. After a few minutes of hard work on their part during which I tried not to spray sand everywhere by giving it too much throttle I was back on the trail. There were a few kilometres still to go to the Mauritanian border post, so I was glad to have the Mercedes in front of me as a kind of scout, slowly finding us a way through this dusty sandpit. There was no road of any kind to be found, and I doubt there ever had been, since in the eyes of both the Moroccan and Mauritanian governments this no man’s land and the people squatting in it is also no-ones responsibility, falling outside of either country’s boundaries.

The Mauritanian border post was in distinctly worse shape than its Moroccan counterpart; the buildings dilapidated, the road existing only in name between them until the tarmac resumed after the large boom barrier that marked formal entry into Mauritania. I joined the immigration queue behind the passengers of the taxi, and the officer in charge duly checked our passports and stamped them for entry. He noticed my jacket and the tank bag I was carrying and explained that to properly import my vehicle I would need to find someone in the office across the road. Trudging up the little embankment on the other side I discovered that the "office" was in fact a rusty shipping container into which doors and windows had been half sawed, half hacked. It was occupied by a short man wearing a dirty white robe and spectacles, sitting behind a desk full of papers and empty plastic bottles. I explained in my best French that I wanted to temporarily import my vehicle in order to continue to Senegal, and without looking at me he held up his hand for the paperwork. “Khalil is not here yet, but I can do it for you. You must pay twenty-five dollars”.

“So this is how we do it, huh?” I thought. “How long until he arrives?”, I asked. “I don't know. But I can help you now”, he said, turning to me with a sly grin. I had been expecting a moment like this in my encounters with the Moroccan police but it never came, and now that it finally did I was prepared. “That’s OK, I will wait”, and without waiting for his response I stepped out of the metal box and sat down in the shadow outside the door, slowly unpacking my bag, defiantly displaying that I was in fact not in a hurry at all and certainly wasn’t going to pay this little clerk anything for doing what his government already paid him for. Out came my book, a bottle of water, and a snack in the form of pre-packaged la-vache-qui-rit cheese and potato chips. The man shot me a vile look but remained at his desk, not saying another word. Not 20 minutes later Khalil showed up, wearing black pants and a neat light-blue dress shirt with his name and official function pinned to his chest. He spoke excellent French and some English, and after shooing his co-worker away from his desk he made short work of the formalities and apologized for the wait, for he had been at mid-day prayer.

Followed chronologically by Land Cruiser