Travelling in Western Sahara. Reproduced by kind permission of 4x4 Magazine.
A Land of Hope and Glory.
Toby Savage treads carefully in Western Sahara.
As a second Horned Viper slithered from underneath the tree we had chosen for a shady lunch break, we wondered whether we should move on before one of us suffered a fatal bite. Fortunately our local guides were used to such things and dealt the snake a lethal blow to the head with a large stone. This deadly creature is pretty common in the Sahara, but I had never come across one before, more due to my lack of observation, than an absence of snakes. They curl up in the shade just below the surface of the sand showing only their camouflaged head, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting gerbil that ventures too close, or your leg if you inadvertently stand on them.
Led by Dr. Nick Brooks, of East Anglia University, five of us were visiting remote Western Sahara at the invitation of their government, the Polisario. We were the first UK Archaeological mission to venture into what has been until recently, a war zone. Hostilities between the Polisario and the invading Moroccan forces only eased off in 1991 and there is a tension there today that could erupt into viscous fighting at the drop of a hat, or Kuffaya to give it a local slant. Our mission was to find new sites of Archaeological interest to help build up a picture of how life has evolved in the harsh desert climate over the last few thousand years. Evidence of this is expressed in cave paintings, rock art and the structure and design of burial tombs. Our little group has a wide experience of Saharan Archaeology stretching from Egypt in the east, through Libya to Algeria, but this small and barren outback on the extreme western edge of North Africa had, for years, been out of bounds. Northern Algeria, to which Western Sahara is now joined is still on the Foreign Office list of ‘No go’ destinations. This is reflected in the almost total lack of Europeans visitors.
Despite being one of the poorest countries in the World, relying almost totally on foreign aid, the Polisario are keen to promote links with European academic establishments and to this end supplied our group with guides and transport for our 10 day excursion into the wilderness. All of the vehicles in Western Sahara are four wheel drive as it is a country without tarmac. Most of these are Spanish built Santana Land Rovers dating back 20 to 30 years so we were relieved to be given V.I.P. status in the form of two youthful Toyota Land Cruisers resplendent in white to reflect the fierce heat of the sun. Our guide, Bashir Mihadi had been the Polisario’s UK representative and spoke excellent English learned on his five year stint in Leeds, and drivers Sidi Mohammed and Mohammed Salim had an unrivalled knowledge of their country having served originally in the Spanish army, and more recently in the Polisario army.
From the Algerian border town of Tindouf we headed first to Rabouni, one of three refugee camps where the Saharawi people, the natives of Western Sahara, now live as guests of the Algerians. As our ten day trip would have to be self sufficient we stocked up with food and water for the duration. No small task when you consider that this involved carrying 150 1.5 litre bottles of mineral water, sacks of rice, pasta and vegetables, on top of our own belongings and camping equipment. The cavernous interior of each Toyota was stuffed to capacity as we all squeezed in, joined by a cook, Ibrahim, who we employed at $10 a day. Easing the heavy vehicles out of the camp gates and onto the track the big six cylinder diesel engines made light work of the load. Our destination was Tifariti, an army camp a days drive away, but en route we wanted to stop and look at a known rock art site called Sluguilla. Leaving the comparative urban environment of Rabouni we were soon in a landscape of flat gravel stretching from horizon to horizon on a narrow track marked by the occasional half buried tyre. The dust thrown up by our cars meant that it was advisable to keep a good kilometre between each to avoid chocking on each others dust. This all worked well until we arrived at Sluguilla with no sign of the others. We had split up already! This was not a good situation as we had the water and they had the food. With no communications and no passing traffic to give a message to, we had no option but to wait. After four hours there was no sign of them so we assumed they had passed us and proceeded to Tifariti. Mohammed Sidi, our driver scrawled a note in the sand at the side of the track ‘T-7.00’ (Tifariti 7.00 pm) and we headed off into the sunset.
We arrived at Tifariti around midnight. No sign of the others, but we were greeted by the customary tea, followed by a big plateful of cold Camel vertebrae and rice. Perfect after a long day on the road. We were shown basic accommodation in the army barracks and bedded down for the night to digest the Camel after the customary antics of killing off the local cockroach population. Bigger and livelier than usual I noticed, but no match for the heal of a size 11 boot. The resultant crunching of shell a satisfying sound. The others turned up the following day. They had stopped to look at a tomb, the driver had noticed his spare wheel was missing and gone back to look for it and they had probably only missed us by half an hour. We found these antics rather unnerving, but our drivers and guide accepted it as a daily hazard of living in a country with no infrastructure. They had, they claimed, seen our note in the sand that morning.
Freshly assembled it was time for work and we asked our drivers to stick a little closer together as, whilst not dangerous, it was very inconvenient to be split up. Tifariti is close to the border between the liberated territory of Western Sahara and the Moroccan occupied zone to the north. Evidence of military activity abounds in the form of burnt out tanks and trucks, shell cases and Polisario tracked gun carriages dug into defence outposts. Soldiers seemed to crop up in the most unlikely settings and all were delighted to meet Europeans and share a cup of tea with us. With work to do we had to make our socialising minimal and head off into the vast, flat desert in search of Archaeological evidence. The two Toyotas, despite both having upwards of 150,000 km on the clock ran like clockwork. Their effortless power and comfortable ride made the long distances evaporate as we went deeper and deeper into unknown territory. Using GPS co-ordinates calculated from NASA Satellite imagery we knew where we wanted to look, and Bashir and the two drivers knew the area we referred to. We made a competent team. A mixture of high tech wizardary and old knowledge and experience. With only ten days to collect as much information as possible we had to work efficiently. Plans were made to make several one day excursions and one three day one, camping out in the desert. With so much territory to cover in the time it was a relief that much of the terrain was flat uninspiring scenery. When I had mentioned this trip to Chris Scott, author of Sahara Overland, he had said with remarkable accuracy “Uuummm, that's a ... errr....desert’ Meaning that there is absolutely nothing there.
Yet wind the clock back a few tens of thousands of years and this was a rich plain of arable land able to support a large population of nomads. Our day trips took us to the foot of various escarpments that would once have formed the edges of vast lakes. Climbing high up on the rocks we found beautiful illustrations of the animals that once roamed these plans. Gazelle, Buffalo and Giraffe. These are all painted with great accuracy in red ochre. This frail medium has been ruined in places where local tour guides escorting the odd tourist group have splashed water on the paintings to bring out the colour and aid photography. Most of them do this ignorant of the damage they are doing to their heritage. The tragic result is that one site we visited has been totally obliterated, the cave walls just huge sweeps of sponge marks.
The Geo’s of our group wanted samples from dried up lake deposits for analysis in the search for carbon deposits or fossils. Because of the vast distances involved we had to camp out in the desert, so packed the Toyotas with all our possessions in case we did not return to Tifariti, and headed north towards the border between liberated Western Sahara and the Moroccan occupied zone. This is quite clearly marked by a ‘Berm’. A man made wall that stretches right across the country from the Atlantic in the West to the Algerian border. It is patrolled by 160,000 Moroccan troops at a reported cost of a million dollars a day. On ‘our’ side of it are mine fields so caution was the order of the day!
Following a combination of calculated GPS waypoints and our drivers knowledge of where NOT to go we negotiated a route within 10 km of the Berm, clearly visible strung out along an escarpment. Through binoculars we could see army posts every kilometre or so. It felt creepy. The dried up lake we sought is the size of a large English town. Its hard baked surface stretched away into infinity before us. Turning east from the threat of the Berm we drove, at speed, across the totally flat surface to find a central area to take samples. It was late afternoon by the time we had finished and our drivers took us south, away from the danger zone in search of a campsite. We found a spot with a little shelter from the wind behind a small dune with tussocks of grass on top. Although barely two metres in height it provided just enough shelter for Ibrahim to light a fire and us to spread out our sleeping bags ready some sleep later.Given a fire, a couple of sacks of food and two battered saucepans we were amazed that Ibrahim managed to cook a wholesome meal with ample portions. The flames from the fire would have been clearly visible over a great distance in this flat wilderness and, sure enough, we were soon joined by a shepherd boy out searching for his families Camels. Dressed only in an old pair of trousers and a shirt he carried nothing and walked bare foot. He gratefully accepted our offer of food and drink and explained, via Bashir, that he was looking for their three Camels which had been missing for four days. With a value of $800 each this was serious. He was totally confident that he would soon spot their tracks in the sand and find them, despite having been looking for three days and having walked about 40 kms so far. We were humbled by his adaptation to desert life, with our high tech sleeping bags, expensive boots and outdoor gear and gallons of bottled mineral water. This lad was barely 14, had no material possessions, yet was so rich in other ways. We all bedded down for the night and gazed up at every star in the solar system. The Milky Way stretching in a wide ark from horizon to horizon. In the morning he was gone.
With our days running out it was time to head back towards the relative civilisation of Tindouf, more than a days drive across the desert. After two nights roughing it we all needed a shower. Baby wipes and a damp flannel are okay, but in 40+C temperatures the thought of water blasting out of a shower head becomes irresistibly. Our route took us out of the remote desert and into a wide valley stretching, east west, across the country. This forms the vital link for supplies to the outlying Army posts and is the nearest Western Sahara has to a road. We were able to maintain a steady 100 kph on the firm flat surface, and for the first time in ten days saw the occasional other vehicle. Old Santana Land Rovers loaded with the possessions of a whole family on the move, big 6x6 trucks taking supplies, UN badged Toyotas on official business. All these were spread out over a ‘road’ a kilometre wide and without barriers. We finally made it back to the comfort of the Rabouni refugee camp at about midnight and revelled in the opportunity to sit at a table to eat and use a bathroom. Westernisation was starting to creep back.
The above picture is of the team meeting the Polisario Minister of Culture, who granted us a research permit for the next three years. See Nick Brook's web site below for details of further field trips.
Copyright words and pictures strictly I.P.C. Magazines.