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After the pleasures of Morocco, I now pointed the bike south for the long stretches ahead. After a late morning start, it was steady progress towards the coast, skirting the package tour city of Agadir through healthy looking agricultural land and onto Goulmine for the night, a smallish town where I found lovely fresh fish at a roadside café for dinner. According to the 1952 Odé guide to North Africa “The hirsute nomads meet here. Their gate is majestic, their gaze absent, and they wear daggers.” Apparently now the camel souk is mainly for tourists bussed down from Agadir. After this it was barren, desolate coastal desert. Mile upon mile, day after day. Speeding through on a bike, it just seemed so barren of anything. Laayoune the capital of Western Sahara used to have its water shipped in from the Canary Islands off the coast. My guidebook tells me, “there are still isolated communities of nomad fisherfolk, the Chnagala or Harpooners, who fish the coast with nets and harpoons. They are not vassals to desert tribes in the way that the Imraguen of Mauritania are. Traditionally it was the Chnagala group which collected the valuable ambergris from the whale corpses which washed up on the coast.” At least the warmth made a welcome change. Pictured below is one of the many wrecks that litter this stretch of the Atlantic Coast.

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Western Sahara had been a Spanish colony, abandoned in 1975, claimed as a territory by both Mauritania and Morocco, then eventually ruled from Casablanca. However the local indiginous people had been left out of the equation. Since then, there has been an ongoing conflict, the Polisario as they’re known, fighting to claim back their territory. Based in refugee camps near Tindouf in south western Algeria, their struggle is losing impact as any profile they had in the West is diminishing. When speaking with some local men in Boujdour one evening “Where are you from? Ah, Ireland, its like England?” I asked, I thought discretely, were they Moroccan or Saharawi, the name for the indigineous people. Answering me, one of them dropped his voice, glancing nervously towards the door to see if we were being overheard, and quietly replied “Saharawi”. They clearly displayed loyalty to their identity. It was interesting to note they spoke to me in Spanish, not French. It seems the children from the refugee camps are some of the most educated in the world – there’s little else to do. Spain provides the funding. I was curious to find out more about this forgotten about struggle. Meeting with the Irish documentary maker Mark McLaughlin before leaving home, I had been given introductions and been issued an invitation by the Polisario to visit the Tindouf camps, and was in communication with the ambassador in London, investigating the possibility of routing my journey through that part of Algeria instead of Morocco. For various practical reasons, largely involving shortage of time, I decided to pursue this another time. I reckoned the desert culture would draw me back.

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This was just a matter of putting in the miles. I had quite a distance to cover to get to Mali for the new year – my target. Hour after hour, the miles slipped by with little change in the landscape – desolate, inhospitable and God forsaken! There was very little in the way of human habitation, this landscape just could not support any. This is where the extra fuel capacity on the bike came in handy. In the three days down to the border there was just a scattering of towns on the way. In one of them I came across twelve French guys on mobylettes, or scooters, with a back up van. They were the Rhinofanfaringite Brass Band from Valence on their way to Mali to play music there! That was quite bizarre. A friendly bunch, they were taking the pace a little slower than me, averaging two or three hours a day in the saddle.

The Friday before Christmas I received a call on the mobile from my local radio station KCLR, and found myself chatting to Sue Nunn and the good citizens of Kilkenny about my whereabouts. It was very odd to hear the other guests in the studio discussing the various Christmas fundraising efforts in town before I came on, with me on the side of the road in the desert. I felt on another planet!

I calculated I needed to get to the border that Friday if I was to try and get to Nouakchott for Christmas. After seven hours on a virtually empty road without stopping to eat, the landscape became more rocky and hilly, though still parched and I eventually and unexpectedly came upon a long queue of local and European cars, vans and trucks, their owners sitting around in small groups idly chatting or reading. This was the Moroccan border post, where customs were cleared and Immigration stamped us out. And there hadn’t been any activity in the previous few hours – hence the queue. I joined my fellow travellers, learning what I could about the procedures, petrol availability on the other side (none til Nouadhibou), money exchange and various other useful information (such as options for buying a beer in Mauritania). Eventually with daylight disappearing, there was some movement from within the customs office and slowly one by one names were called out, stamped passports returned, and customs inspections made before I was free to leave Western Sahara and Morocco. Whatever about leaving Marrakech, which was still somewhat Western with the various comforts and familiarities of being fairly close to Europe, I had the feeling of striking out now towards more challenging travel. And closer to black Africa!

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My first introduction to Mauritania was the five km track of ‘No Mans Land’ between border posts (pictured above). With the Moroccan border guard lifting the gate and bidding me ‘Bon Voyage’, I was taken aback to see no road before me! On the other side of the gate lay a rocky sandy patch of land with tyre tracks indicating a direction. With darkness falling, this could be interesting. I set off, gingerly picking my way through. The track became indistinguishable from the surrounding scrub, various options spreading out before me, all sand! I had not expected this and felt unprepared. Having little option I continued, gathering a little momentum and headway. After ten minutes, making the mistake of not looking far enough ahead and concentrating too much on the ground immediately ahead of the front tyre, I took a wrong option and found myself riding in deep sand, fiercely trying to recall the advice to keep moving through. But my technique wasn’t up to to it, particularly with the road tyres and top heavy load. The front wheel slid and the bike was down. Now what! I didn’t fancy unloading the luggage to pick up the bike. By happy coincidence, a car was stopped not far away on more solid ground, and the two local gentlemen strolled over and helped lift the bike. With their help, I pushed the bike around and managed to paddle the bike away from the more treacherous soft sand. How was I going to manage the rest of the distance until the Mauritanian border post?
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The light had now nearly gone and I still had a few kms to go as far as I knew. My helpful friend in the car then offered to guide me through, as there was a lot more of this apparently. It was when he asked for fifty euro I began to understand the deal. These boys were onto a good thing, operating in this area of no mans land ‘rescuing’ unsuspecting bikes or cars who’s owners were probably only too glad to pay for the service. Well I wasn’t really in much of a position to refuse, needing the guidance as well as reassurance of someone there should the bike fall again, and agreed the remainder of my Morocaan dirhams, about eight euro. It wasn’t too bad after that and I got through to the border post without further mishap. It was now dark, and I was directed by a youth to a one roomed wooden shack with a glow coming from inside, where another crossing vehicle was waiting. There was barely room for two and when it came to my turn, I entered and had my details entered into a register by an official holding a torch between his head and shoulder. In the absence of electricity, the authorities hadn’t even supplied this guy with a lantern! Onto the customs shed a little further, I had to pay the young guard ten euro for filling out my carnet de passage, the customs document, or passport, for the bike. Despite my protesting - he pointed to a large book offering to give me a receipt - it appeared it made no difference to him whether I used the carnet or a “Laissez Passer” which I knew involved some cash changing hands. Anyway I was through, it was after eight in the evening now, and - in contrast with Morocco - through this very makeshift and casual border post, into Mauritania.