Western Sahara Part 2: Desert camping disaster

I feel I have talked a lot in this blog about the wind (and my general fear of it), but nothing we had faced in Morrocco had prepared us for Western Sahara. Heading south along the costal road we were hit on our left by the harmattan, the fierce desert wind which sweeps across the Sahara gathering speed (and sand) and which can reach as far as North America. On our right we were hit by the wind whipped up over the Atlantic Ocean. Every so often an enormous lorry would barrel past in the opposite direction, leading to a sudden intense blast of wind and sand and leaving us wobbling around in its wake. The overall result was one long, exhausting, noisy and slightly terrifying exfoliating scrub. In such conditions, the only thing to do was sing…loudly. My particular favourite song being ‘here come’s the wind’ sung (obviously) to the tune of ‘here comes the rain’ and with the addition of a heartfelt ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo…and I say…F*ck you wind!!!’ at the end. 

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I wondered lonely as a cloud, Western Sahara

In hindsight I probably should have listened to Leon when he said given the near gale force winds,  it was a terrible idea to try and camp on one of the remote beaches we passed. But even he was momentarily swayed when we turned off the main road we had been following along the cliff and saw the vast deserted beach with its shipwrecked fishing vessel and sand dunes stretching down to the ocean. This would be our first time wild camping and it was difficult to imagine a more beautiful spot. The officer at the police checkpoint we passed warned us it was dangerous to camp on the beach and told us we should camp next to the military base instead, but that didn’t sound nearly as scenic and so we ignored him. In December two Danish (?) university students were horrifically murdered whilst camping in the Atlas Mountains (the attack was later claimed by supporters of ISIS). Although such attacks are extremely rare in Morrocco, the police are understandably anxious about tourists safety (tourism accounts for ?% or Morocco’s income) and  we figured the officer was just being overly cautious. 

Very soon after we reached the beach we discovered that the sand was not nearly as firm as it had looked at a distance. The back wheel sunk into the soft sand and as Leon tried to drive us out it just spun, digging itself further into the hole. Within moments the bike was buried up to the engine. After an initial panic during which Leon vented his frustration by kicking a completely innocent cactus, which had played no part whatsoever in causing our predicament, we figured that no one was likely to come past and rescue us so we better try and do it ourselves. We unloaded all of the bags from the bike to reduce the weight and using our hands dug out the sand from around the engine and front wheels. In the end we found it was easier to pull the bike onto its side and from there heave it up and out of the hole. It was exhausting work and I don’t know how we would have managed without two of us, but we managed to got her out and after a few anxiety inducing first attempts the engine started and we were able to push her through the soft sand and onto firmer ground. Disaster averted and with no casualties (other than a cactus) we probably should have decided not to push our luck further and  head for a hotel but very unwisely we did not.

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Oops!! 

This was how come we found ourselves in 50 mile an hour winds trying in vain to pitch our tent amongst the sand dunes. We got as far as pegging down the ground sheet, only because I lay, prostrate in a star shape across it whilst Leon inserted the pegs. Even in the relatively short time this took the wind had deposited a thick layer of sand over me so that when I stood up I left an outline of my body on the groundsheet, like the chalk outline police draw around murder victims. Our success was short lived, within seconds the wind had whipped the ground sheet away, easily wrenching our carefully placed the tent pegs out of the soft sand and sending them flying. By this time it was starting to get dark, we were exhausted and loathed to get all of our bags back on the bike and drive 30km back to the nearest town. We spotted a large mound on the far side of the beach, it was much closer to the main road that we would have liked, but it looked to be on firmer ground and we thought if we hunkered down behind it we may get some shelter from the wind. We managed to erect the tent, tying the guide ropes to the biggest looking boulders we could find. Our little camp stove put in a striking effort, its flames bravely battling against the wind to heat up our dinner of instant noodles. 

By 11pm we were tucked in our sleeping bags congratulating ourselves on our intrepidness when we saw a faint beam of light flash across the roof of our tent. We both froze, thinking that perhaps we had imagined it, but a second later we saw it again. We wondered if it could be the glow of headlights, perhaps from another car on the beach, but we could not hear the accompanying sound of an engine. The main road ran along on the cliff above us and we knew that the headlights of passing cars would be fixed on the road and would not be angled far down into the valley beneath it. Someone was clearly shining a torch into our tent. Leon unzipped the tent door and we peered outside. At first there was just darkness, but then we saw the torch beams. At least three people were stood on the cliff above our tent pointing torches at us. We could hear the distant murmur of their voices and then one of them shouted a clearly audible ‘hey!!….hey!!’ It was at this point that I began to feel  scared. Until then I had thought that it may just have been curious passers by who had spotted the glow of our tent (quite why anyone would be ‘passing by’ this extremely remote stretch of road in the pitch black I wasn’t sure). But if this was the case, it was clear that having now fully seen our tent their curiosity was not sated. My experience of Moroccans up until this point was that they were generally reserved and very polite and not at all the sort of people who would wake you up in the middle of the night by shining torches and shouting hey from a nearby cliff. I wondered of perhaps they were drunk, but given that Leon and I had been searching desperately for a beer since arriving in the virtually dry Western Sahara this also seemed unlikely. My other thought was they could be police or national security officers, but I figured that if this was the case they would have announced themselves as such rather than just shouting ‘hey.’ One comforting thought was that if they intended to rob us they probably wouldn’t have bothered announcing themselves… but then, what did they want? Could they be TERRORISTS? 

Leon and I anxiously discussed our next steps. Should we shine our torch back and ask them who they are? Or would that only confirm that we were foreigners and draw more attention to ourselves? If we kept our lights off and avoided making noise would they just loose interest and go away? In the end we figured that now we had been seen neither of us would be able to sleep and even if they did leave us alone, there could be no guarantee they would not come back later. We decided the best thing to do was to pack up as quickly and silently as possible and make a hasty getaway before they realised what was happening. Packing up the tent and loading the bike takes us long enough in the daylight, but trying to do this in the pitch black without turning on our torches was nigh on impossible. We had only just managed to pack away our sleeping bags, when we realised the voices were getting louder. We peered outside again, the torch beams had moved, then men were clearly descending the cliffs and heading straight for us. We frantically began throwing things into bags, but it was too late, we could hear that whoever it was was nearly upon us. We scrambled out of the tent, Leon grabbing our multi tool as a makeshift weapon. For a few moments we considered jumping on the bike and leaving everything behind, but it was clear that there was no time for this either. We saw headlights speeding towards us and second later a quad bike rounded the corner and slammed on its breaks. I immediately saw that its occupants were not in uniform and my last hope that they could be some over zealous police officers faded. At this point (according to Leon) I turned to him and said ‘oh my god, they are definitely terrorists.’ Leon meanwhile was calmly assessing where the best place to stab someone with a multi tool would be. The driver jumped off the quad bike and shone a torch in our faces, ‘fiche?’ It took a second for the significance words to sink in, during which time Leon quickly pocketed the multi tool. I still wasn’t sure exactly who the men were, but figured terrorists and bandits probably weren’t too concerned by passport details. As I handed over the fiche I noticed my hands were shaking. It transpired that the men were in fact immigration officers who regularly patrol the beach. I vaguely remembered reading that the Canary Islands were easily reachable by boat from parts of Western Sahara and the EU had helped to fund additional border control measures. I explained that I had been terrified and thought perhaps they were coming to rob or kidnap us, and both men burst out laughing. They reassured us that we were very safe, they patrolled every few hours and there was also naval base further up the beach. ‘You are very welcome in Morrocco’ one said. After giving them both a cigarette and helping to inflate the tyres on their quad, they left, wishing us a good night and promising to swing by in a few hours to check on us. 

Feeling simultaneously delighted not to have been kidnapped by terrorists and incredibly foolish for my massive overreaction, I climbed into my sleeping bag and waited for my heart rate to return to normal. It was not however long, before the immigration officers were back. They had spoken to their boss and he had decided that it was in fact too dangerous for us to stay on the beach and they were here to help us move our tent to the military base. From look on their faces it was clear that they disagreed but what can you do? I politely enquired what the danger was? Had I been right to panic? Was there really a risk from bandits and terrorists?  “Migrants.” I replied that I would happily take our chances with them. 

Finally left in peace, we settled back into our sleeping bags and tried to get some much needed sleep. Unfortunately this was impossible due to the near gale force winds which battered the tent, bending the poles to such alarming degree I felt sure they would snap and sneaking under the flysheet to spray us in a fine layer of sand. Leon, who it is now firmly establish can sleep through anything was not amused when I woke him up to ask how strong the wind would need to be before it blew the tent (and us) away and did he think it was nearing that point? 

There was probably only one way that the night could have gotten any worse and of course it happened. Around 3am, having finally gotten to sleep in spite of the howling wind and creaks and groans of the tent, I was woken by the unmistakable churching in my stomach, which signalled the arrival of a severe bout of diahorrea and vomiting. I won’t go into details, save to say that neither is particularly helped by gale force winds. The following day we packed up as early and as quickly as possible, vowing that we would be staying in hotels only from here on out. It was at least a week before we saw the funny side, around the same time we stopped finding sand in peculiar places.

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