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Crossing the Sahara
By Gregg - 15 Jun, 1999

Page 1 of 8

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Three days and two nights on regular buses had taken us from Fès south, through Agadir, to Dakhla—a distance of some 2000km. After having settled into Fès for eight days, we were on the road again. Dakhla—deep in the Western Sahara and the jumping off point for convoys across the desert to Mauritania—is a small town with a big military presence. The UN is there as well, acting as peacekeepers in advance of the perpetually postponed referendum regarding Western Sahara's future; should it become independent or remain part of Moroco.

From Dakhla, it's at least four days of travel to reach Nouakchott—the capital of Mauritania—partially because of the distance and lack of roads but also because of the inordinate amount of checkpoints and bureaucracy you have to deal with, particularly in Mauritania. In addition, for the first two days you must travel with a military escorted convoy which moves at a rate determined by the slowest vehicle.

The convoys run twice a week—on Tuesday and Friday. One might expect this route to be quite popular as, with the southern borders of Algeria, Libya and Egypt closed, this is the only land route open across the Sahara. But I guess most people choose to fly as the convoys are small (15 to 100 vehicles).

Our hope was to hitch a ride in (or on) a vehicle going in the convoy. We were unsure whether or not this was possible; most everything we'd read online and in in the guidebooks talked about having your own vehicle. Before arriving in Dakhla we knew we might have to cool our heels for awhile trying to get a ride. After arriving we were far from thrilled with this prospect. Dakhla was a depressing place. Not much there beyond a few dusty cafes and restaurants. Dry and hot, it had the feeling of being out on the fringes. And we saw no women on the streets.

But that was during the day. At night the town came alive—the central market staying open past dark and the cafes and restaurants bustling. Women were everywhere—many wearing the vibrantly colored melehfa typical of Mauritania. We were greeted by smiles and good nature as we walked out the entry road—Dakhla sits at the end of a narrow penninsula—in search of the camping area where we expected to find folks who would be heading south in the next morning's convoy.

We'd only run into a few foreigners in the town center—a couple of French guys going with the convoy who didn't have room for us in their Peugeot and an Italian guy, his father and a friend who were in town for a fishing vacation.

We'd run into the Italian guy earlier in the day; at one of three checkpoints—simple shacks along the road between Laayoune and Dakhla—where Evelyn and I—the only foreigners on , the bus—were obliged to give all our particulars while the rest of the passengers sat and waited.

We didn't reach the camping area; it was too far. So we resigned ourselves to heading out in the morning with packed bags, food and water for two days, and crossed fingers.

In the morning we jumped in a taxi and headed out of town in search of the camping area. The taxi driver dropped us off at the military checkpoint at the edge of Dakhla. We were a bit confused ; there was no campground in sight. Apparently, taxis are restricted to the city limits. So there we were with our packs and our nine liters of water and a couple more kilometers to go. The military guard told the next car to come along with room to give us a lift out.

Camping Moussafir was pretty much deserted when we arrived. There was one Suzuki dirt bike and a guy throwing gear in a Nissan Patrol 4x4. The guy who'd given us a lift out pointed at a door just as a man came through it. Evelyn asked him about the convoy.The man replied that they'd already left. Hmmm. We knew the regular schedule was gather between 10:00 and 12:00 and start on the road at about 1:00. It was only 9:00 now and we thought this was the gathering place.

A spiffy late-model Mitsubishi Pajero 4x4 appeared—a man driving and a woman in the passenger seat. They were with the guy in the Nissan and they sure looked like they were going south with the convoy. The Nissan driver—Roger, we soon learned—offered us a a lift back into town. We threw in our packs and climbed aboard.

The folks in the Pajero were Thierry and Laetitia. They had come together with Roger from France and yes they were heading south with the convoy. We told them we were hoping to hitch a ride and after a visit to the bank in town, they said we could ride with them. So that was that—we had our ride!

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Now we had plenty of time and thus found ourselves back at the cafe where we had started our day; only this time joined by the French trio. After breakfast and chit-chat about travel plans, we returned to the military checkpoint at the edge of town. By this time, vehicles for the convoy had begun to gather and an attempt to organize them was underway by the military officials. You'd think they'd never done this before.



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