Guelmim, on the 89th day of my Moroccan stay. The next day I should have left the country, but I was still about 1300 km away from the Mauritanian border.
As arranged the evening before Mohammed met me at the café in my hotel in the morning to get started on my visa extension. We then took a taxi to the hospital.
Hundreds of colorfully dressed people sat or queued in front of the many treatment rooms. It’s a constant feast for the eyes to see how beautifully and vividly the women adorn themselves here.
We had to wait for about an hour before Mohammed’s doctor friend showed up. Another gentleman waited with us; he needed a certificate for his mother who had come from Spain for a visit.
The doctor’s certificate we were seeking was not legal, so its issue should of course remain secret. But in the end, it had been extremely conspicuous, because the three of us entered the doctor’s room together and I was immediately pushed outside again.
Now with the certificate in hand Mohammed and I drove to the police station. The police officer in charge complicated things, even more, having no desire to take care of the case and wanted to send me further down the road to Laayoune, saying the police there would be able to do everything much better and faster than him.
Undaunted Mohammed phoned his police friend again to apply more influence before he left me alone.
I continued talking to the officer and made it clear that I would leave the police station only after being granted my visa extension because it was impossible for me to make it to Laayoune within one day and tomorrow was my last legal day in Morocco. I also ignored his suggestion to take the bus.
In such situations, one must always be sensitive. Don’t demand too much or accept too little. A confident appearance, but just don’t let the mood change; then you end up empty-handed.
After about an hour I was offered a ten days extension, this wasn’t enough for me because it was a considerable distance to Mauritania. Understandably, none of those present knew how long it would take to cycle 1300 km by bicycle. So, I continued to gamble.
Furthermore, I had the doctor’s certificate stating I had been sick and was in no condition to push myself too hard.
My persistence, paid off, three hours later I finally got my desired 20-days extension.
Radiant with joy, I sent Mohammed a WhatsApp message thanking him again, without his help I would certainly not have made it.
I was looking forward to Western Sahara and had had enough of Morocco for now, although I loved the country a lot.
Luckily for the moment, in Guelmim, I wasn’t aware of what lay ahead of me.
The wind raged as I set off. There was tons of traffic – one truck after another, no shoulder and the frayed roadside ended in the sand.
Strong side winds constantly pushed me toward the ditch and then as each passing truck momentarily blocked the wind I was frightfully sucked back toward the road and the spinning wheels of the vehicles a microsecond later as the trucks passed I was again blasted with the full force of the crosswind driving me back toward the ditch, an endless battle to stay upright.
To be on the safe side, I unpacked and reattached my rear view mirror and always tried to ride into the ditch in time when two trucks traveling in opposite directions passed me at the same time.
Sand kept whipping around my ears. Occasionally there were sand drifts on the road, which of course whirled up again and again. So, I always had sand in my eyes and between my teeth and didn’t know how to avoid it.
And then the number I had in front of me. Still 1300 KM. Extremely motivating! In these conditions it wasn’t hard to see the days ahead weren’t going to be fun and from the start, they weren’t. But among touring cyclists there is a saying:
>> A bad day on the road still beats a good day in the office <<
And with that in mind, I pushed on for Mauritania!
Laurent, the cycling Frenchman, whom I had met before, had started at the same time as me in the direction of Western Sahara. But he had cleverly taken a parallel track because he didn’t have to go to Guelmim as I had.
But it was clear that we would soon meet again because the gravel road, he had taken ended shortly before Tan-Tan.
I spent the first night at a boarding school, having stopped at a shop in front of it, I was offered a small guest room next to the mosque, grateful for the hospitality especially after being treated to a delicious soup for dinner. In the morning I continued riding in the heavy wind and desolate landscape.
Luckily, I was under time pressure; otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have gotten out of bed at all.
In Tan-Tan, the nearest town, the police checks started. Passport control. Western Sahara was annexed by the Moroccans many years ago and has been an unsafe area ever since. The German foreign minister of affairs even warns against traveling there. But at this point, I had not yet reached the former Western Sahara border.
Riding with a mighty tailwind, I rode towards the sea and arrived in El Quatia, a small coastal town only 20km from Tan-Tan. From here the road turned 90 degrees, following the sea, returning me to the horrible side wind, I packed it in for the day.
At a campsite, I met Laurent and two Russian cyclists. For the Russians, the heavy traffic was pretty much typical since it seems they had cycled from St. Petersburg only on the main roads.
A lot of French people stayed here with their caravans. The site was a super unattractive place, and I found it hard to understand why these snowbirds would choose to spend the winter here over so many more attractive places in Morocco. Well, everybody to their own.
The Moroccans in this area were suddenly rather unpleasant. Pushy. Men just sat next to me without asking. They weren’t very friendly, and their attitude was macho-like, always a turn-off to me. At times I was completely ignored. Another negative was I saw almost no more women here.
Laurent and the two Russians rode way too fast for me. I couldn’t keep up with the pace, but I caught up with them almost every evening. Somehow that was motivation for me, via WhatsApp I always knew where they were. It was astonishing how well the internet connection continued to work.
The road running on straight as an arrow, mixed with the dreary landscape was enough to put me to sleep. The traffic became much less, but it was still way too much for me to enjoy. I also wondered where they all went?
About 20KM before Tarfaya I got my first police escort, as always “for my safety.” In town, I looked for a room and later enjoyed some delicious fish. Honestly, I felt myself already ticking off this part of my journey; it’s people along with the landscape as not worth seeing. I didn’t like it here and found little pleasure in the area.
It’s possible too with the brutal conditions and boring riding that my negative response to the area was written on my face and was in part responsible for the response I received in return.
It was all about arriving. Taking the bus would have been an alternative, but of course, that was out of the question for me. I’m a cyclist, and I’m convinced that I have to face up to the unpleasant routes and that I can’t just pick the best pieces of the cake all the time.
I believe that only when I have seen the less exciting areas can I enjoy and appreciate the good ones.
The fish, on the other hand, made me happy. From now on it should be my reward for the day because it was really delicious here!
There was an alternative route from Tarfaya to Laayoune, so luckily there was less traffic. But the wind was very strong again. The sand was whipping around my ears all the time.
At one point a car stopped, and the driver said he had seen me that morning in Guelmim. Some, 450 KM away. “Uh, no, that was not me. It must have been another cyclist”, was all I could offer in response.
I hardly took any pictures. First of all, I was afraid for my camera and lenses with all the sand. Second, everything looked the same anyway, and besides that, my mood was not there to take pictures. In the evening I was merely tired and realized once again that “less is simply more.”
I need time for my photography and real contact with the people. It doesn’t work without that.
For these reasons, I usually don’t cycle 100 or 150 KM a day, feeling I miss out on too much. It’s far more to my liking not to rush, having the freedom to take my time with my photography and leisurely enjoy my surroundings taking in the details and little things, this is what excites me. When for whatever reason I’m rushed the enjoyment is likely to be completely missing.
My little speaker helped me keep my head above water, listening to the fascinating German podcast Weltwach, addictive adventure interviews.
Luckily, there were days when the wind was at my back, and I managed 165 or 150 KM without really having to do much. Western Sahara is known among cyclists to have winds blowing mostly from north to south. Well, in theory.
From Laayoune, the traffic became much less. There is a large harbor there, so now I understood where all the trucks were headed. Here I spoiled myself again with a cheap hotel room. A hot shower and tasty fish were essential to keep me happy.
There were plenty of police checks and again and again asked where I was staying. Some of the policemen were very friendly, others rather pushy and appeared to be annoyed.
With the strong wind, I wasn’t very interested in camping anywhere wild anyway. So, finding shelter indoor wherever I could and therefore spared from problems with the police.
It was time to change my tactics. Crosswinds blew pretty consistently until around 3 pm, after this they often blew to my back, so I began riding mostly at night. That didn’t fit to the thinking of the police at all, but they didn’t stop me.
Western Sahara is not only a flat, dull landscape; the shoreline is frequently littered with small houses made of plastic tarps. Barking dogs and a soldier or fisherman for inhabitants. The plastic tarps constantly flutter in the wind and garbage is strewn over the landscape.
What are people doing here, haunted in my thinking?
From time to time there were ghost settlements. Nothing left but houses taken up by the sand.
There were settlements where people lived in tents as permanent dwellings. Being less polite I could also call them slums, they looked so miserable, and made me feel sorry for anyone living there.
From Boujdour on the distances grew longer and longer between the gas stations and trucker pubs. To sleep in a room, I had to manage these longer distances each day. Well, at least it pushed me forward.
When I took a break at one point, a cyclist suddenly appeared behind me. “Pushbikegirl” called a young woman. Charline from France had hitched a ride from Tan-Tan to here. She was heading for Dakar to visit friends. She followed me on Instagram and so knew that I was somewhere in the area.
It was a welcome change for me. I had someone to talk to, we rode at about the same pace, and Charline was delighted to meet me and seem to trust me immediately.
We kept encouraging each other on, and it helped my mood. Charline was great.
Regrettably, the police were becoming a bit annoying. It was not always optimal that Charline was able to communicate with the policemen in French. Usually, it was easy for me to say I don’t speak French, and their English was limited to three words, so the discussion ended quickly, and I just pedaled on. But of course, this no longer worked with Charline being from France and she was still too insecure to argue with some of their nonsense. Each police check lasted much longer.
But over time, it got better and better, and the advantages of having Charline at my side outweighed the small disadvantages in any case. It was just great to be on the road with her and to fight through the desert together. Quite often we just sat at the roadside and philosophized about the world.
In general, it was of course in our interest that the police wanted to protect us, but like in the first two weeks of my stay in Morocco, the way the officers conducted their duties was often a bit strange.
In Bir Anzarane, a nearly deserted place, we were waved into the house of a couple. The police had previously instructed them to take in cyclists. They gave us tea and soup and let us bathe in a wonderfully warm spring. The smell of Sulphur reminded me of the Onsens in Japan, which I loved so much. The warm water was an absolute luxury, giving my not so positive mood a real boost.
The man had lived there for 13 years, his wife for three. Monotonous as life must have been for the gentleman, he looked out of the open door every time a truck drove past the house. Of course, what else is there to do?
According to him, about 120 cyclists pass by here in a year. He keeps a guest book and proudly showed us the entries of the other touring cyclists.
The police showed up and checked our passports. Where they came from and where they went that evening was a mystery to me.
Unfortunately, the next morning the gentleman began to ask for money, one hundred Dirham per person. So, 10 Euro. The last time this happened to me was in Bulgaria, six years ago, when someone asked me for money after an invitation. But we were convinced that the police were paying them anyway, we ignored his request.
We arrived shortly before dark at the turnoff to Dakhla, a city situated on a small peninsula. The police gave us two options. The first was to cycle to Dakhla and sleep in a hotel. “Bad idea” I answered because I did not want to cycle unnecessary kilometers. The second alternative was to spend the night here at the police station. That didn’t suit us either, because the wind had just changed and we wanted to take advantage of the strong tailwind. Besides, the policemen had been anything but friendly.
So, I said, “we take the third option and cycle on.”
After a short while we noticed a car following us. Believing it must be a police escort.
It was already pitch-dark for some time when we arrived 40 KM later at a barracks. The soldiers were friendly, but they were not allowed to take us in. But 5 KM on we came to a village. With almost no women living in this area, I didn’t want to knock on doors, sleeping only with men in a house was too unsafe for me.
Then we discovered a big building next to a mosque, a kind of restaurant. Lights were still on, and so we knocked at the window. Just then our police escort showed up, got out and started to interfere. The owner of the restaurant was called out to the policemen, and I thought inwardly, great here they are complicating things again.
Their decision was, we were to camp in front of the building. At which point I said “this is not a good idea at all. After all, it’s supposed to be an unsafe area, so you don’t ask two women to sleep in front of a building.”
In the end, we were allowed to sleep in the loft of the restaurant. The owner was super friendly. He quickly made us hot chocolate and showed us where we were to spend the night.
The police slept in their car in front of the building. We didn’t know why they did this, because the building was locked. In principle, they kept telling us that all they cared about was that they were responsible for us. And they also said that the area was safe, they only did their job.
Again, the next day we rode long into the night, and when we arrived at a café, the owners and Laurent were already waiting for us.
Delightful people, they welcomed us. Sahrawians, not Moroccans. The owner spoke Spanish and cooked us tasty tortillas and rice with squid at 11 at night. The police had already instructed him to inform them when we arrived. Truck drivers had told him where we were on the road. So, he knew we were still coming.
We were provided a room and homemade bread with olive oil or almond paste dip for breakfast. Superb! And in the end, we didn’t even have to pay for anything. Great hospitality!
On the seashore not far from the house there were tide pools. The sea was calmer that day than usual. The tide was low which allowed me to climb a little on the rocks discovering crabs and fish as I went.
This time of discovery and exploring was exceptional, a lovely break and escape from the long days of endless wind and monotony of the road.
As we rode off, the owner of the café told us that he would give a truck driver a meal for us.
True to his word, about 2 hours later we heard loud honking, and I called out to Charline with joy “our food is coming.” And so, we two girls had tasty rice with vegetables and squid in the middle of the barren landscape. To top it off, cold drinks.
That was like Christmas and birthday in one day.
Something that always surprised me was that not a single tourist ever stopped to ask if I or we needed something. And hundreds of tourists drove by. Not that there were problems with keeping water bottles full or other supplies in Western Sahara, this was no issue. It just surprised me;
I would have liked to have had a chat, also surprised that none of the tourists stopped to ask where I was going or where I had come from. An exchange between travelers is usually a matter of course or maybe not?
Odd too, there was a mix of snowbirds in their white RV’s and long-term travelers in their overlander trucks, so seemingly people interested in experiencing something. But they drove past without stopping.
Not so with some of the Moroccan truck drivers who stopped and gave me oranges or water. This kind of roadside consideration and kindness that is always a positive motivator wherever it occurs.
Unfortunately, there was no possibility to spend the night at the border. The guest houses were supposedly all fully booked. So, we asked the police if they had a suitable spot for us. First, we were offered a place to camp inside a small hotel. The offered area stank of piss and was a corridor used by all the hotel guests; this wasn’t going to do.
I looked around the other buildings, but we were not allowed to sleep there. Instead, instructed to camp next to the border fence, where they could keep an eye on us.
“Next to the border fence, where the trucks thunder past us?” I asked.
In the end, the police organized and even paid for a room for us, one which earlier had supposedly been booked. In any case, the police were full of surprises all the time in Morocco; it never got boring with them. Most of them were very helpful and friendly.
We pitched our tent in the hotel room; the droves of flies were particularly intrusive that evening.
I was delighted to have finally reached my destination but knew too that the wind and the barren landscape would certainly not stop suddenly at the border to Mauritania.
But at least I had the long distance behind me, and that was what mattered at the moment. In the end, I made it much faster than expected. I had been on the road for 14 days.
The border crossing was easy; my 20-day extension wasn’t an issue. Thankful for having experienced a great country I rolled my bike towards the 5 KM No-man’s Land separating the two countries, sure that I would return to Morocco one day.
No-man’s Land is an understatement. It is five kilometers where the asphalt stops and every kind of junk and garbage piles up on the roadside. A place where supposedly cars are smuggled in and out. Where no laws apply and don’t stray off the road for the area is full of landmines.
It looked like a battlefield. Probably the most neglected border region I have ever passed. That is how I imagine a war zone.
But the five kilometers passed quickly and then there was the Mauritanian flag fluttering in the wind. A new country lay before me. Let’s see what I can tell you about it.