The Western Sahara, Where the Desert Reigns

The Western Sahara, Where the Desert Reigns 1
The remains of the Spanish Fort at Ad Dchira in Western Sahara. MaxGlobetrotter photos.

Western Sahara, a Complicated and Divided Desert Land

By MaxGlobetrotter

Ahmad: my Saharawi Guide to “his desert”
Ahmad: my Saharawi Guide to “his desert”

Western Sahara may not, at first glance, seem to be worth fighting over, but such is the way of man. For reasons that range from simple territorial expansion to deep historical roots, to contemporary mineral wealth, the land has been tossed between external powers for centuries.

The origins, as usual, evolve from the Europeans’ delight in drawing lines on maps. The unsurveyed home of the Saharwi for generations became the host to Spanish forts and flags during the period of the slave trade.

These forts evolved to fishing communities and eventually, Madrid expanded their protectorate, Morocco, south to incorporate the Spanish Sahara. This continued until 1975 when Morocco occupied much of the territory with the remaining lands, mostly by the Algerian and Mauritanian borders, and are now controlled by the Saharwi people.

The dispute will continue, but for travelers, who stay mainly in the coastal regions, the country is a peaceful, safe and most interesting destination.

Lying between the desert and the ocean, to the north of Mauritania and to the south of the parts of Morocco that we know so well lies a rarely-visited, politically charged and quite mesmerizing country, Western Sahara.

Or, if one is in the eastern section of the region The Sarhawi Arab Democratic Republic, and in the west, simply Morocco.

A Bottle of Wine

In Western Sahara, a bottle of wine sitting invitingly on the table (Lopez, Gran Riserva) should have been sufficient warning.

Sadly, my little-traveled Orkney Islander companion failed to take precautions, and with a gusto that can only be described as euphoric nearly drank the hotel’s entire stock.

Camel Legs anyone? Camel meat for sale in Western Sahara.
Camel Legs anyone? Camel meat for sale in Western Sahara.

It was a pleasant wine, its Spanish heritage playing lip service to this curious country’s historical heritage, but not worth the €55 per bottle that the inevitable bill disclosed.

Wine is always expensive in an Arabic country; more so in one that has its own wine industry, and although Western Sahara is not readily identified as “wine country,” Morocco, to which it is currently annexed, is; and a lesson learned in the desert.

So, protecting the grapes produced and perhaps partially the ambivalence shown to alcohol by Islam, imported wine is expensive. Always.

Western Sahara is a country of the desert: unrelenting, unforgiving and unmistakable desert. It is a terrain of undulating sands that stretch from the inland reaches of the Sahara to the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It is an ancient and difficult territory; inhospitable to outsiders, but home to the Saharawi, the ancient and modern inhabitants of this windswept and difficult country.

A Desert Country

Laayoune Western Sahara: the main road through the center.
Laayoune: the main road through the center.
The attempted beach resort at Foum el-Oued Western Sahara.
The attempted beach resort at Foum el-Oued, Western Sahara.

Western Sahara could never be called jolly; it is carved from hardship. It is a country whose people have sought to nurture and sustain a culture, a religion and a way of life for centuries using only the sparse resources of these barren lands.

And they have succeeded.

Western Sahara is a not blessed with fertile soils, but with minerals that should sustain the economy that should sustain the distinctive cultural life of the 200,000 Saharawi who call The Desert home. It has phosphates and, of course, the potential of oil.

It is a land torn by a decades-old dispute, but a country that for visitors interested in learning of the desert and its life, offers a warm and positive welcome.

A Depth of Culture

I have been there twice. To that end, I can say that I have seen pretty much all that there is to see, but that belies the depth of culture and opportunity that I passed by. For visitors, the two cities of Laayoune and Dakhla are the primary centers.

A pharmacy in Laayoune Western Sahara.
A pharmacy in Laayoune.

Dakhla, located in the far south, near to the Mauritanian border is trying to cast itself as a resort, and more specifically a resort that caters to windsurfers.

It seems to be succeeding as more championships are held there, more hotels are being built and the infrastructure of a nascent tourism industry has taken root.

Apart, of course, from the price of Spanish wine.

The Spanish Connection

Spanish, because historically, Western Sahara has been under Spanish control or influence since Europeans started drawing lines on maps.

Tropic of Cancer in Western Sahara.
Tropic of Cancer in Western Sahara.

From the eighteenth century, Spain had taken advantage of the coast for commercial fishing, having previously operated a couple of forts during the time of the slave trade.

In 1884 when the infamous Berlin Conference drew lines all over the African map, to the considerable surprise of its inhabitants, the Spanish formally controlled Western Sahara; and continued to do so for nearly 100 years.

Today, the capital city of Laayoune is a major Moroccan garrison. It is an interesting two-day town that offers an interesting glimpse into the political make up of the country, and the results of pouring almost unlimited funds into a region presumably to impress the local population.

Twenty Km from the Sea

Laayoune Airport, Western Sahara.
Laayoune Airport, Western Sahara.

Laayoune is inland. Lying some twenty kilometers or so from the ocean, it typifies the cities and communities of the Sahara. The original inhabitants, dating back 2000 years, had little interest in the sea. They were people of The Desert and comfortable with a nomadic life revolving around sand, camels, goats, and movement.

The sea was frightening and to be avoided at all costs. Communities, such as they were, developed inland, and only the development of Spanish fishing interests and the need for export ports started to develop coastal communities.

Although they try, beach resorts they are not; developed land adjacent to the sea they are.

From Laayoune to the Desert

From Laayoune, however, the real treat is to head to the desert. Many local guides are easily available through the hotels, and ready to drive you into the empty Sahara for an afternoon, a day or a week.

Their stories are captivating, their driving impeccable and the experience of being out in the bleak empty desert with someone who sees it as a rich, complex environment is unparalleled.

Laayoune is accessible; forty-five minutes from Las Palmas, which is, without doubt, a complete and absolute contrast. Casablanca lies ninety to the north by plane, or by a good road. Morocco is a large country.

From Ceuta in the north to the Mauritanian border is about 2,800 kilometers of decent, asphalt road with a variety of drivers barrelling their way down the highway, and half of which runs through this desert land.

A butcher shop in Laayoune.
A butcher shop in Laayoune.

A Unique Destination

Western Sahara is a unique destination. It is a country divided by a latent civil war, a country of barren wastes, a country of deeply rooted culture and religion.

It is a region of beauty and solitude, of sand and water and a land that introduces its fortunate visitors to The Sahara, and makes them realize how harsh life can be, and how decisions must be made.’

Find Out More About Western Sahara

Visiting Western Sahara–WikiTravel

Western Sahara Travel Advice from the Government of the United Kingdom

Road Safety and other Scary Warnings from the UK Government.

The Western Sahara, Where the Desert Reigns 2
Max Globetrotter, aka Max Johnson

MaxGlobetrotter is a blogger and traveler based in Winnipeg Canada. He owned a travel company for many years, specializing in travel to the world’s more remote locations, and now, having sold the business continues to explore and write. He particularly likes journeys; traveling to see landscapes, meet people and talk about each destination’s idiosyncrasies. Enough churches and monasteries have been visited. Visit his blog at maxglobetrotter.com