Travel Website Logo
Travel Journal
Dan Walker’s Travel Website
Travel Photos

Travel Journal

Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.

Journal Entry:

Wednesday, October 25, 2006 10:48:23

Arabia 2006: 2 - Western Sahara

Monday, October 23, 2006

As always seems the case when one wants a good night's sleep it doesn't happen, and it didn't. Marilynn drove me to the airport at 6 AM where the line-ups were short, the procedures relatively painless and the flight on time. A new addition to the Costa Rican security check is removing shoes - pressure from the US they tell me.

The fall colours of the trees were gorgeous on approach to the Newark, New Jersey airport. Procedures there were a surprise - I was first in line at immigration, and the fellow didn't ask questions or look through my passport - I'd expected a lot of questions about my Arab visas - he just stamped me through and said have a good flight. Security was equally easy, in spite of all the warnings of more detailed searches.

A short stay in the President's club and I was off to find the plane to Paris. There was a delay of almost an hour due to an undisclosed "emergency", but we finally boarded. Mario at Continental in Costa Rica had scored on the seating again - after 6 months on standby I failed to get a paid upgrade, but the aisle coach seat was one row behind business class and there was no one seated next to me. The seat was bum numbing uncomfortable, but when stretched out my feet were in business class.

Paris was pitch dark at 7:30 AM. The efficient shuttle bus delivered me to the correct terminal for my connection to Casablanca, where an attempt to get into the Air France lounge was defeated when they informed me that, in spite of Continental's advertising to the contrary, my President's Club membership was good only in terminal 2A - not a lot of help when the plane leaves from 2F! France has now enacted a law banning smoking in all public areas, but the men's washroom was full of smoking passengers.

The plane left an hour late after waiting for a group of connecting passengers. It was a pretty bare bones 3 hour 10 minute flight on an Airbus 318/319, made bearable by having two side-by-side seats to myself - one for my legs and one for my backside. The first class section, which I declined when I found the price was five times what I paid for economy, was exactly the same configuration as coach class - three seats on each side with rows closely spaced together. There was only one passenger in the 30-seat section. There was no entertainment, food was a bread and cheese snack and the half full plane had only one lavatory with a perpetual line up. It was absolutely filthy by the halfway point. I can't imagine what it would be like if the flight were full! Better to wait for Casablanca airport where the bathrooms were surprisingly clean and odour free.

Casablanca customs had short line-ups and minimal formalities. My Royal Air Maroc flight to Laayoune had been cancelled, so I had been transferred to a Regional Air flight with an Air Maroc code-share. When Regional would not accept my ticket it was necessary to trudge off to Air Maroc's office at the opposite end of the terminal. An agent phoned Regional, a heated discussion was held, and I was passed to another agent who pasted a sticker on my ticket. After another two block hike back to Regional the ticket was accepted and I headed for the boarding gate -- right next door to Air Maroc! The exercise helped ease the grogginess as it got the blood circulating!

A two man, fairly lax security post cleared me then hit me up for money. It wasn't a serious shakedown; just a request with a smile and a comment that as there is so much money in Canada and so little here it should be shared. I declined, and there seemed to be no hard feeling - one of those nothing ventured nothing gained shots I suppose.

The three-hour trip to Laayoune via Agadir was on a turbo-prop ATR 42 aircraft, which was not quite full. To make room for my legs I was moved up to where two seats faced back and two forward - there was only one other person sitting there so it worked well. Others were booked for the seats, but when they saw my predicament they cheerfully located themselves into the no legroom seats.

Between Casablanca and Agadir, farmland gave way to rolling sand dunes, then to dry mountains with scattered villages of white houses. Near Agadir where irrigation was possible there were vivid green farms, stark against the colour of the desert. Agadir has grown enormously since Marilynn & I were there in 1979.

The stop was not long. Two people boarded and most got off, leaving a total of 11 passengers for the trip to remote Laayoune. We followed the coastline south, where I could see the beach Marilynn and I rode along on a motorcycle after being invited for tea by three Bedouin tribesmen in their fishing shack. That came about after a decision to go cross-country across trackless desert, following the sun to the coast. Marilynn walked most of the way, as I couldn't keep the motorcycle upright in the soft sand with both of us on it. A memorable experience!

On the Air France flight to Casablanca the announcements were in French & English. All announcements were still bilingual, but in Arabic and French. We were soon flying over trackless, lifeless desert that stretched to the sea. In the distance it was possible to see the Canary Islands. Deep canyons scared the terrain where rivers once ran, and cliffs surrounded flat sand where lakes once existed.

We flew over the City of Laayoune, which was larger than I had expected. It is a red city - the buildings are a pinkish red colour. The airport had an excellent, wide, paved runway - undoubtedly built for military purposes. There were four UN transport aircraft on the tarmac.

My tiredness, which was threatening to overwhelm me, retreated as the adrenaline started to flow and I became anxious to explore new territory. There was another immigration check at the airport, where they were quite suspicious of my intentions. Tourists don't often come here. Eventually the group that had gathered to figure me out decided I was OK, and I carried on to where my guide met me. No need for a sign with my name on it - I was the only tourist and he was the only guide! He started out speaking English, but when he found out I could get by in Spanish he switched as he is a native Saharan, and Spanish is his second language.

He ensured I was looked after at the Al Massira Hotel and we agreed to a 9 AM start in the morning. The hotel is fairly basic but nice, with public rooms wonderfully decorated in Arab motif. The staff bent over backwards to assist their lone tourist!

Now in serious travel mode, I decided to go for a walk, so climbed the hill to the main road going through upper town, an area of government buildings and upscale apartments and shops built by the Moroccans after they occupied Western Sahara. There were several good-looking clean restaurants, lots of convenience stores and other shops. The drivers here are careful, moving slowly and courteously along. A pedestrian is in no danger. The city appears to be clean - no litter anywhere. So far there has been one surprise after another as my preconceived notions surrendered to reality.

Back at the hotel I changed cloths, cleaned up, did some laundry and headed for the restaurant when it opened at 7:30 PM. I had the place to myself, as dining here is late - the main meal is in the early afternoon. Getting ready for the drought ahead I had a beer and half bottle of Moroccan Cabernet Sauvignon. I was not disappointed - I have yet to have a bad bottle of Moroccan wine. After a meal of shrimp bisque followed by lamb chops I headed back to the room to write, do laundry and climb into an "oh so welcome" bed!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

After a reasonably good sleep, interrupted only when the room reached sauna temperatures and I got up to open the door to the patio, I was picked up by my driver/guide Soubat Bachir. Apparently the air conditioning blows but doesn't cool! We first drove around the city, which is largely shut down today, being "Dia de Pascua", the festival following the end of Ramadan. We drove through various areas, including the old part of town that is now inhabited by its poorer citizens, but was still remarkably free of garbage on the streets.

The town slopes down to a river that runs when the area gets one of the infrequent rainy spells. There are dams across the river that form lakes when there is water. Soubat told me that the entire area is dry more often than not, although for the past while there has been enough water to keep the lakes filled. On the far shore of the lakes the desert begins. Long fences of various types of construction hold back the shifting sands, as the city is completely surrounded by desert and dunes.

We drove to a beach town near the Port of Laayoune, and explored a nice hotel and cabins there. It was built as a resort facility, complete with a big swimming pool. Soubat says it is difficult to get a room during the three hottest months of the year, when people come to holiday from Laayoune and from the interior of the country. At that time temperatures exceeding 50 degrees C are common. There are many holiday homes in the town that are owned by wealthy residents of Laayoune, but today it was nearly deserted.

The Port of Laayoune was fascinating. At fisherman's wharf hundreds of tuna & sardine boats were rafted together. Soubat tells me it is the biggest sardine fishery in Africa. The port is protected by a long, Spanish built breakwater along which the access road runs. Inside the breakwater are the docks and a landfill with buildings for administration, ice loading and other services.

An enormous Spanish owned phosphate mine has its shipping facilities here as well - a long pier built parallel to the breakwater. Soubat says the covered conveyer belts moving the phosphates from the mine to the dock are 100 km long.

Back in town we had a walk through the main suuq, or market area. Most of the shops and stands were closed for the holiday, so there were not a lot of people around. Finding a restaurant proved a challenge, as they were all closed as well, so we ended up lunching back at the hotel. Soubat ordered up a popular salad and mixed plate of seafood that was good, but the quantity defeated both of us. The portions were huge.

Language has proven challenging. Arabic is everyone's first language, however the second language depends on where a person is from. Spanish is the second language of the people from the Canary Islands or long time residents of the area, French the second language of people from Morocco and English the second language of a number of others. Testing to find a common language requires running through the list!

Dress is very interesting, particularly for women. It varies from the Saharan women who are usually fully covered, sometime with the face visible and sometimes not, to women wearing very westernized clothing with no head covering at all. The men of the Sahara wear long white srobes, sometimes with ornate vests, while most dress in western fashion.

The police system is based on the French Gendarmerie, and there are quite a few around. All I met were very courteous and polite. There were some Moroccan military vehicles and a lot of brand new UN Toyota SUV 4 X 4s. It makes me wonder what the UN does with older vehicles; they seem to drive only new vehicles. I asked Soubat what the UN did here, and he said very little. There is no threat or danger, they are here only in case of a revival of the independence movement, something that is not expected as it is now being handled at a political level where a referendum is hoped for, but Soubat feels is unlikely. He would like to see status as an autonomous zone for an interim period, then a referendum. He says about 60% of the population of Western Sahara is Saharan and about 40% Moroccan.

I tried to get this away tonight but no such luck. The guide showed me an internet café near the hotel, and the desk clerk, who said the owner was a friend of his, agreed it would be open after 5 PM. It wasn't, so I fought my way through the swarms of people who have suddenly appeared until I found another internet café about ten blocks away. All computers were busy. It was about an hour before my turn came. There was a major battle with Yahoo, which would not accept my ID and password on the French character keyboard. Thankfully I had my email address and password on my portable hard drive and was able to copy and paste them. No problem sending out the GPS position, but then I couldn't find the story. After searching files all over my hard drive a bright light went on - I moved it to "my documents" instead of the travel file - and 'my documents' is not on my portable hard drive. I'll try again tomorrow from Algiers.

When I finally went to leave, the bill for the forty-five minutes or so I'd been fighting with the system was 34 cents. I had only a 100 Dirham bill, worth about $11.60, and there was no way he could change it, so it was out to a shop to buy juice and a chocolate bar, which gave me change to go back and pay for the internet. Tomorrow it will be necessary to leave the hotel a bit after 4 AM to catch the flight to Casablanca, where I'll change planes for Algeria.