Borrowed by the amateurs of African adventures, the coastal road leading to Mauritania, through the Western Sahara, is not lacking in charms, but can also be monotonous sometimes …
The Atlantic coasts were already known by the Phoenician traders. The introduction of the dromedary, at the beginning of the Christian era made possible to renew interrupted commercial contacts with sub-Saharan Africa following the intense desertification of the Sahara which began in the third millennium BC.
This region remains unique. Unfortunatly tensions are still vivid despite the various UN resolutions, the many treaties, the Green March and the annexation of Western Sahara by Morocco.
Dunes, surf and fishing
550 kilometers separate Laâyoune from Dakhla. The road bordering the Atlantic coast passes through Boujdour, a small locality surrounded by beaches and cliffs, where intrepid fishermen throw their immense throws into the turbulent waves, all in a precarious balance.
It was formerly called Cape Bojador by the Portuguese navigator Gil Eanes, who first touched his shore in 1434. It became a small haven of peace over the course of time, and the locality now dedicates itself to fishing, surfers and windsurfers attracted by the waves and regular winds offered by the ocean.
Until Dakhla, the sinuous road along yhe coastline, is lined with picturesque fishing villages and cliffs. Many beautiful colors, often ocher, overlooking the blue and sometimes almost green of the ocean’s immensity. A permanent and disproportionate contrast with the brightness of the regs and ergs which alternate perspectives.
Sahara, Step by step
If Guelmim is not yet the great south, it’s a “must go” place to visit. Situated on the banks of Wadi Noun, this village was once important for the caravan routes of Timbuktu. The Anti-Atlas sag at his feet.
Here, in addition to the Berber language, You can feel the South influences. Many people speak Hassanya, the Saharawi language.
125 km of road, crossing an immense reg, separates Guelmim and Tan-Tan. Travelers are accomodated with two enormous white dromedaries erected at the entrance of the city. Essentially a city stage, the travelers often prefer El Ouatia, about twenty kilometers on the coast.
This is also a large sardine port in the southern Moroccan, and Tan-Tan is, as well, bordered by long beaches, often chopped of cliffs and relaxing calanques. As in many places of this part of the coast, surfing is practiced there.
The road runs south, framed by regs, that do not end, and the ocean spreading its rollers. This is from the lagoon of Naïla, before Cape Juby, that ergs and dried salt lakes make their appearance.
The Naïla lagoon, south of Sidi Akhfenir, is home for many pink flamingos, waders and migratory birds that make a salutary stop here.
This small town planted on Cape Juby was the starting point of the green march in 1975. It also served as a stopover for the airmail service, of which one of the most celebrated representatives was Antoine de St Exupéry.
A place of passage on the road to the south, it remains exempt by mass tourism, exept for surfers and windsurfers who are who are attracted as much by the quality of the waves as the beauty of the place. A must for them.
Laayoune, the great city of the south
From Tarfaya to Laayoune, 100 km further south, the road is lined with ergs and solitary dunes surrounded by rockery. It runs along two dry lakes irregularly fed by the too low flow of the As Saquia el Hamra. The wind that spreads over the bitumen creates real moving traps.
Laayoune, founded by the Spaniards in 1932, has been experiencing rapid population and urban development in recent years. Mainly due to the new provisions giving tax advantages to the “northern” Moroccans who settle there and to the phosphate exploitation of the Bou Kra’s mines. It has become an important economic hub. Laâyoune also becomes a popular site for water sports enthusiasts and fishermen.
Smara, a city in the desert
230 km southeast of Tan-Tan and 240 km east of Laayoune, Smara is historically the cultural center of the Saharawi tribes. A city built in the middle of the desert at the end of the 19th century by a Mauritanian Sheikh named Maâ El Aïnin after the Sultan Moulay Abdelaziz’s request. It was destroyed by the French army in 1913 and rebuilt on its own ruins.
The remains of its ancient ksar surrounded by ramparts and pierced with 5 doors, and also its old kasbah are still visible. This repression had the effect of destroying also the old mosque’s “medersa” (coranic school) and its library in which were carefully preserved 5,000 old manuscripts.
On the banks of the river As Saquia el Hamra, Smara now presides over the destinies of the region. Its center with tiny ocher and square houses, surmounted by white domes, is absolutely awsome.
The ex Spanish ‘Villa Cisneros’ is the second city of the Saharan Provinces. Built on the peninsula of Rio de Oro, it has a splendid bay with fish, oyster parks and protected areas which are attracting more and more travelers.
From Dakhla you’ll have the opportunity to go to the hinterland, take the road on 230 km to the south-east to reach the Douar of Aouserd.
Close to Mauritania, this rural commune, episodically and mainly frequented by nomads, has the peculiarity of owning few buildings. Nevertheless, its population has increased from 672 souls in 1994 to 5832 ten years later.
Its interest lies mainly in two neighboring funerary and rock sites. ‘Oulad Aâtia’ and ‘Bou Lariah’ are strange places. The two imposing tombs are rounded in diameter and each have a huge obelisk engraved with Tifinagh inscriptions, the Berber alphabet, and hieroglyphs.
These tributes to unknown personalities might have thousands of years old. A neighboring site is lined with paintings and rock engravings, showing us an environment populated by large animals, testimony of a Sahara before the desertification where water and plants were to abound.
Arrival in Mauritania
After Dakhla you have to join Guerguerat, a border town before Cape Blanc. This town faces the ghost and sandy town of Lagouira, which is now only populated by some irreducible fishermen of the Imraguen ethnic group.
In the eleventh century, the Almoravid Berbers of the Zenagas tribes, originally from the Adrar in Mauritania, founded an empire that stretched from the present Mauritanian north to the Iberian peninsula and to central Algeria.
From the thirteenth century, the nomads Mâaqil, originating in Yemen invaded the Moroccan South. Rejected by the Merinid Sultan, they settled to the west of the Oued Drâa, from which, gradually, during the 15th and 17th centuries, they invested all the Moroccan South-West until the present Mauritania.
Nomads like the indigenous Berber populations, their encounters gave birth to the current Saharawi people.
A decisive twentieth century
At the beginning of the 20th century, three agreements were signed between Spain and France in order to establish their zones of influence, fixing the southern and eastern borders of the Rio de El Oro (Paris-1900); then the northern one encompassing the Saguiet El Hamra region and the Tarfaya area to the Drâa (Paris-1904).
The Treaty of Madrid in 1912 confirmed these boundaries as well as the status of the Spanish enclave of Ifni.
If the year 1912 marked the establishment of the French protectorate signed with Sultan Moulay Hafid, it also marks the destruction of the cultural city dear to the Sahrawis, Smara, built in the middle of the desert at the end of the 19th century by Sheikh Maa El Ainin due to the Sultan Moulay Abdelaziz’s request.
Numerous skirmishes led by the Sahrawis and the Aït Baâmrane Berber tribes of the Ifni’s region will mark this first half of century. They culminated in the “Sidi Ifni War” with the siege of the city which lasted from October 1957 to April 1958.
However, it was not until 1969 that Spain abandoned its enclave, and just in 2010 that Ifni was released of the provincial guardianship of Tiznit.