West Africa

Text: Simon Thomas • Photography: Simon and Lisa Thomas

In the dim morning light, a glance down at my watch confirms it's 6:30am. We broke camp and left Dakhla (Morocco's southernmost town) an hour ago. I ease my grip on the handlebars and take in a deep breath. The wind drying my face does little to relieve the anxiety I feel as we ride south to the notorious Mauritanian border. Lisa is tucked in behind me, her single cylinder thumping a steady rhythm.

We travel south on the margin of civilization, deep within the disputed territories of the Western Sahara, a vast uninhabited and inhospitable stretch of barren desert, long fought over, with Morocco and Mauritania laying hostile claim. To our left the Sahara silently reaches out, shifting sand lit by the fast rising sun. It is 9:00am and already 100 degrees.

Treacherous Sands

We are, however, among new friends. After a chance meeting with them in Dakhla, Lisa and I ride ahead, followed closely by José, in his short wheel-based 4x4, with David and Katja, in their Land Rover pickup, taking the rear. We will act as scouts, defining the route that best avoids the worst of the sand and relaying the information via our radio systems, and they will carry our heavy bags in the Land Rovers.

Dry-mouthed and on tenterhooks, we pull up and stop a few feet past the first checkpoint to drink some thick sweet coffee served from the back of David's 4x4. As we check through our returned papers, each of us retells the horror stories we know of doomed attempts to reach Nouakchott, Mauritania's capital. José mentions three Frenchmen, who, upon crossing into Mauritania, turned off the trail and were blown up in minutes. David then darkens the gloom with stories of sun madness, death by dehydration and poor souls forced to drink radiator fluid to survive. Whether it's a tale of sudden or agonizing demise, the theme is the same, and none of us feel the better for having broached the subject.

The bloody war between Morocco and Mauritania is long over but a terrifying legacy remains scattered ahead: thousands of pressure-sensitive mines still hidden in the loose sand. And the few wanting to pass this way have been on their own for the past two years, ever since the discontinuation of the twice-weekly military convoys from Dakhla to the Mauritanian border. The safety of Mauritania-bound travelers is no longer a responsibility Morocco wants.
At the second checkpoint gentle application of the rear brake on the loose sand brings our bikes to a sliding stop. We are deep within "no man's land." A cheerless guard in a low stone building checks our documents while rats the size of cats scurry behind him, occasionally pausing to dine from the wooden bowl on the floor that the guard had eaten from just moments earlier. He asks us for a cadeux, a gift, and seems overwhelmed when we hand him a small bottle of eyewash. What for us is a simple saline solution for him is a miracle potion.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the September/October 2009 back issue.