The Western Sahara Adventuring Into the Forgotten Badlands of Terra Incognita by Damjan Vrencur
The feeling is genuinely strange. It’s not the first time we (Janja, my wife, and myself) found ourselves alone in the middle of the desert, at least 150 km from the nearest settlement, but this time it’s definitely a different experience. To say the land we are exploring now is not a very popular overlanding destination would be quite the understatement. Word has it that the Western Sahara is one of the most non-travelled parts of the biggest desert in the world. The rare locals living here have two main occupations: smuggling and banditry. And the land is covered with unmarked minefields, left after the sixteen-year armed conflict ended with a ceasefire in 1991. “What the heck are we doing here?” would be the only plausible reaction.
But we chose to come here, fully conscious of the possible perils. After researching the subject, it seems that all “knowledge” on what lies within the Western Sahara is really based on rumors, with a positively untraceable history. You could count the overlanders that were able to describe this land from their own experience on the fingers of one hand. No expedition reports, no photos on what lies behind the horizon, no observations from the coastal route that connects Laayoune with the Morocco-Mauritanian border post at Guerguerat.
In our reasonable vicinity, fairly easily accessible, there still exists a land the size of Colorado of which we—and by we, I mean the worldwide overlanding community— know roughly the same as pioneer settlers knew about Colorado two hundred years ago. Tens of thousands of square kilometers spread out unexplored, untrodden by the feet of Westerners. The more we dig for information, the more we understand what Western Sahara really is to a modern overlander: an existing, true, unique Terra Incognita. One of the last of its kind. We just can’t resist. “We should give it a try,” is the consensus. After all, if it proves uninteresting, we can still spend some quality weeks overlanding in Morocco.
So we arrive and after three days on a ferry crossing the Mediterranean, two full days of driving south through Morocco and then another two days of dicey driving deeper and deeper into an unknown desert, we are here. Where exactly? The screen of the GPS plotter is empty apart from the information on longitude and latitude, as there are no reasonably detailed GPS maps for the Western Sahara available for general use. The printed maps we have are old Russian topographic charts and while they prove themselves quite usable as far as important landmarks are concerned, they are painfully outdated regarding the wells, settlements and pistes that connect various parts of this country. Where exactly are we? And what bearing should we take?
At the coastal town of Boujdur, we leave the paved road, turning east. The well defined track that we choose soon splits into three or four minor tracks, each of them heading in its own direction, each connecting some remote well, oasis, maybe even a small settlement, with the coast. The tracks all seem the same to us, even to the point that we don’t really care which one we choose. This indifference is hard to explain, let alone justify, but then again, from our viewpoint, everything is new and each track will lead us to some sort of discovery. Unable to explore them all, we are satisfied in knowing that effectively, there is no wrong choice. The rough plan is to push east as far as seems reasonable and then turn southwest, heading towards the coastal city named Dakhla. We are quite successful following this idea, choosing tracks that generally lead in the eastern direction.
We cross a flat, stony hamada during the first fifty or so kilometers. Outcrops of grass are definitely not abundant but they evidently offer enough food for numerous herds of camels—interesting animals, unbelievably well adapted to the harshness of life in the desert. Poetically called the “ships of the desert,” camels were the means of transport that not only facilitated the trans-Saharan trade but made it possible in the first place. Although the camels in the Central Sahara today perform “beast-of-burden” tasks similar to those for which they were introduced to the Sahara around two thousand years ago, here they are mainly raised as a source of staple meat for the locals.
The herds we see seem to wander unattended in search of a day’s graze but this is only a first impression. A closer look reveals that every camel carries a sign on its neck, certifying that the animal in question is property of a tribe or family. After a while, we spot shepherd boys, shyly hiding here or there, a nomad tent pitched in the questionable natural shelter provided by a small, rounded ridge that could hardly justify the name. The end of the day catches us at what seems to be the edge of this relatively fertile and populated flatland, just as the terrain became increasingly uneven, beginning to break into more and more articulated valleys. We choose a convenient spot protected by some bushes and acacia trees for a bivouac.
At the end of an intensive day on the trail, a well-planned and smartly implemented camping solution pays off immensely. Satisfyingly tired, a bit hungry, with heads full of fresh impressions that demanded, even cried out to be recollected, rethought and arranged, we aren’t particularly eager to break our backs in order to prepare our shelter for the night. So we are quite happy about the simple but effective (and above all time saving) organization of our overlanding gear, a collection of cherry-picked, field-proven quality equipment, together with practices that we developed and evolved during our years of overlanding together.
It’s a sort of ritual, carried out almost mechanically, without words. I stop the engine, unload two heavy-duty aluminum storage cases from the trunk plus the two foldable chairs and a table. Meanwhile, Janja checks the water in handy bottles and refills them from a built-in water tank if necessary. I erect the Maggiolina roof tent—a sturdy and practical design that packs together with all the sleeping gear, with no setting of a bed necessary and no time-consuming arranging the next morning.
Janja starts preparing the food, our tried and true MSR stove unpacked from the storage drawer. While I’m putting on my overalls to make a routine mechanical check of the vehicle, I already catch the first smell from the field kitchen, guessing what is on tonight’s menu. Finishing the check, assuming everything is as it should be (and it usually is, this is a Land Cruiser, after all), I help with the kitchen if necessary. We clean up and fifteen minutes after stopping, all the crucial work is done and we can relax and enjoy the evening as we please. The next morning, it will take us roughly ten minutes to pack the camp and drive away, leaving nothing but some marks in the sand—marks that the desert wind will take care of in a day or two.
Setting forth, we descend from a stony plain and enter into a vast depression, filled with light sand that won’t support the weight of the vehicle very well. The track dissolves and we are soon completely on our own, trying to negotiate a passage to the hills that are protruding on the eastern horizon. It takes us two bold hours to cover these fifteen kilometers. Our tires are deflated for soft sand driving, all three differentials are locked (thanks to Toyota for equipping our HDJ80 with reliable factory lockers on both axles) and still there is a lot of struggle when the going is too soft to remain optimistic about our chances of reaching the other side.
These salty desert plains have an ominously treacherous name in the Arabic language: sebha. It is evident from the very way this word sounds—primeval and rough—that crossing a sebha is a serious thing. Thus we feel a deep relief when, approaching the other side, the ground finally becomes firmer and the going easier. But there is no time to celebrate a successful crossing. Another obstacle is rising before us, fueling our anxieties. We reach the hills that we first spotted from the other side of sebha and now we see that these are no hills in the usual meaning of the term—these are sand dunes.
Tom Sheppard, a legendary desert explorer, once wrote about driving through fields of sand dunes. “Avoid them if possible.” It is one thing when you are on a short trip, in a company of friends with their own overland vehicles or in a reasonable vicinity of civilization, where you can find help and get assistance if things go wrong. On such occasions, bashing over sand dunes can be a relatively carefree and fun experience. But when you are alone, one vehicle more than one hundred kilometers from the nearest settlement and far off the regular tracks, you think twice before you dive into a sea of dunes.
This is what Tom (who has done many of his amazing desert trips solo) had in mind when writing those words and this is exactly our situation. From the topographic map, we learn that this field of dunes should be, although more than 150 km long, quite narrow at 10 kilometers or less. We proceed with due caution, searching for the easiest passages and religiously sticking to assessing by foot before driving over crests. The progress is slow but steady and it isn’t long before the flat space between the dunes widens and finally we set our eyes on the vast plain that stretches to the other bank—more river than sea of sand. A monotonous view, it’s true, but we are quite content to see that the terrain promises no further technical difficulties; we are more than ready to trade a bit of adrenaline for a leg of easy, peaceful driving. After all, it is already afternoon and time to start searching for a suitable spot for the night.
It will be more than two weeks later, when returning north, following fast tracks not far away from where we are standing now— the tracks that remain from the heyday of the Paris-Dakar rally—that we will meet a knowledgeable elderly Saharawi who would speak basic French and so we will learn about the names of the areas we drove through previously. The stony Hamada is called Imrikly; the treacherous sebha is known as el Mohor; and the long but narrow field of dunes bears the name Ifrafir. The vast sandy plain that now spreads before us is part of the great Oued El Khot, a very important dry stream that stretches far to the east, over the inglorious Moroccan version of the Berlin Wall, crossing the Polisario Free Zone and finally vanishing in the sandy sameness of the Mauritanian Empty Quarter, possibly the biggest sand pool on Earth.
The decision has to be made. Today we will make a camp here, in the shelter of a big sand dune but where to turn tomorrow?
Shall we continue east or perhaps it’s now the right moment to curve our course more to the south. We are aware that pushing to the east has its sensible limit. Doing so, we will sooner or later bump into a Moroccan army patrol, supervising the area along the “wall of shame,” the 1,800 km sand berm that separates this part of the Western Sahara, occupied by Morocco, from the part that is controlled by the Polisario Front partisans. It’s true that there still exists 80 km of more or less empty, potentially very interesting and picturesque desert between us and the infamous wall but we want to be 100% sure to avoid this militarized zone.
A glance at the topographic map helps with making a decision. The area east is depicted as a more or less monotonous set of dry streams, while the southern direction looks more promising regarding overlanding action. We will start following the strip of sand dunes that we have just crossed, the strip that according to the map extends far to the south. We will cross it again near its southern edge and then proceed southsoutheast. The terrain there seems to be more uneven and fast changing, thus promising an eventful drive in a picturesque landscape. We will aim at reaching another band of dunes that stretch parallel to the coast and then more or less follow it until the end, not far from the paved coastal route that will finally lead us to the city of Dakhla.
Following this plan should keep us busy for another two or three days. After that, we will find a hotel in Dakhla and take a rest for a day, maybe two, writing, arranging photos and making plans for our next disappearance into the inland of the Western Sahara.
One thing is certain. What we have experienced confirmed our belief that the Western Sahara is a surprisingly interesting country, so far unjustly overlooked by the 4×4 overlanding community. It’s only a small part that we’ve seen so far but the seed that has been planted into a fertile soil has germinated and the consequent growth cannot be stopped. According to the maps, the south promises to be even more picturesque, with larger basins of sand and mountain ranges. We cannot wait….