Thursday 30 May 2013

o : The Sahara

The Sahara
225km north of Nouakchott

Dear o,

The sand of the Sahara hisses at you.

Under the sun it blasts your face and screams, and drifts on and off the road forming dunes of gold or brown or white on either side.  It twists into swirling devils and always, always, always gets where it wants to go.  It is swallowed by the sea and sent back onto the hard and stout and crunching plants; plants that, despite their disposition to the hot and dry, make no sense out here because they are alive.

But now, in the night, you can only hear the sand hiss.

The heat persists as well.  We crossed the border to Mauritania late this afternoon and arrived here, across the road from a busy truck stop, around dusk.  Its been hours since we cleared the back space of the truck and set up our bed – hours outstretched and as still as possible, hours downing litres of water, hours with the doors wide open letting the wind in.  The wind is strong and welcome, of course, and is better than hotboxing the whole truck – but it still feels like the air blown from an oven only a few feet away.  The sky, at least, has lost its haze since the dreary dusk (the sun looked more like the moon on the horizon) and I can see the Big Dipper through my side of the wind tunnel.

The precariousness of the Sahara, which is the Arabic word for desert, is plain to anyone who looks at a geographical map of the world.  From a top view down there is no interruption to its yellow surface save for the Mediterranean coast, the Nile, and the odd swirls and punctures and blotches of darker orange or heavier brown.  It is the world’s hottest and third largest desert (next only to the Arctic and Antarctica), and here in the middle of it I feel like a visiting alien on life support.  I don’t belong, Archer doesn’t belong, the roads don’t belong.  I have lost count of the abandoned cars and trucks off the road, stripped of their parts, tortured by the sun for months or years or decades, and slowly being gulped down into the sand.

And yet, there is life here.  The square tents and iron huts are motionless but not empty; a closer look shows a pair of dangling feet at the entrance.  Trucks stopped on the side of the road have barren cabins, but underneath them are men sleeping on mattresses.  The odd, lonely, burned-up wanderer walks the road and maybe waves at us, maybe doesn’t.  There are hundreds, thousands, of camels, all across the desert, and though they seem wild they are branded; their keepers are not far off.  The gendarmes who stop us for a few questions and a copy of our fiche wear sunglasses and green scarves around their head and face, but typically show their mouths to say hello.  One of them gave us a big salute and a pat on my shoulder. 

That is Mauritania.  But most of the Sahara along the Atlantic, and most of our drive, is where your map will say Western Sahara, a long stretch of yellow bordered by a mix of solid and dotted lines.  Two governments claim this harsh land: Morocco, which controls the coastline and much of the interior, and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which controls only the far eastern edges, bordering Algeria and Mauritania.  Wars have been fought here, if you can believe it.  And Morocco – which issues license plates showing the total territory of Morocco, including the Western Sahara, in red – is ready for another.

This morning we visited Dakhla, the Western Sahara’s second-largest city next to Laayoune, which we passed through yesterday.  It seemed that most of the inhabitants of both cities wore green uniforms, and the cities themselves are built and gridded with military precision.  Meanwhile, Dakhla feels like it is waiting for the flood, perhaps of water, but more importantly of people – Moroccans, of course, not Sahrawis, who are immigrating under government subsidy.  There are vast town squares, grand new halls of justice, long stretches of waterfront terraces and cafes, and fields upon fields where there are no roads or buildings or any sign of civilization at all, except for a complete and ready grid of streetlights waiting to be turned on.  Dakhla, and to some extent Laayoune, have been built pre-gentrified.  They’re just waiting on the gentry.

On the road south of Dakhla all the way to the Mauritanian border was the longest distance between gas stations (only about 150km), and the most barren of humans.  And still, transmission towers spring up at regular intervals, each one with a metal or mudbrick home built alongside its walls, housing a lonely guard who watches the sun and the traffic go by.  For about 50km before the border the desert turns to rocky outcrops and hills, and atop many of these are rock formations, similar to the Inuit inukshuk, and I wonder who makes them.  Is it these bored guards, or truck drivers waiting on a generous passerby for a few more litres of fuel,  or the windswept wanderers on the road, or the camel herders, or people I haven’t seen?

Many of the rock formations have collapsed, many are perhaps half-built.  But what is astonishing is how many have stayed standing in the intense winds, which batter them day after day.  The apex rocks point up, alone and barely supported, and yet they remain.  They are not really guiding the way, like the inukshuk, but instead declaring, there is life here.  The hissing, blowing, tormenting sand knocks them down but still we build them up.

Life in the Sahara, especially human life, is precarious.  I have no doubt of that as I pour hot water down my throat (it doesn’t help) and my lips begin to dry up without the help of the sun.  It is clear to me what happens when civilization is let go, as in the No Man’s Land between the Morocco and Mauritania, where the road is a stitch-up of rocks, cars that get stuck get left, and without any authority over the kilometer stretch of land, you can probably get away with a murder or two.  I have never seen anything quite like that in my life.

But life is here.  If I wasn’t passing through, and so tired by the heat and the wind and the sound of the hissing sand, I might build a rock formation of my own.  I don’t know why or what I’d try to say.  Maybe, I’m here.  Or, better rocks than hissing sand.  Yes, the rocks will turn one day to sand, but the nature of life in the Sahara is not so nihilistic.  For now, they are rocks, and they point, and they remain.



Watch for camels crossing the road - we did have to stop a few times,
but thankfully not at night.

The Sahara meets the Atlantic

Kitesurfing in the Bay of Dakhla

Abandoned car in the Morocco-Mauritania No Man's Land

Garbage in the Morocco-Mauritania No Man's Land

The open road

Rock formations