“Where are you now? In which country?”, asks the clerk at the fuel station in the middle of the desert between Dakhla and Boujdour. A trick question with two answers, but only one is right. I look at him and think for a second. He looks scruffy, unshaven but his eyes are fierce – not secret police; all the police here are cleanly shaven with perfectly trimmed moustaches. “Sahara Occidental”, I answer. He shakes my hand furiously and talks about how different his language, culture and history is to that of Morocco. Yet, the flag outside the government building across the street suggests otherwise; it is deep red with the green star of Morocco. There are many flags here – too many even for Africa. Ater two long, boring days in Mauritania I am now in the bit of disputed land between Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco – the Western Sahara (or in French: “Sahara Occidental”). Between 1884 and 1975, it was a Spanish colony known simply as the ‘Spanish Sahara’. After the Spanish pulled out, Morocco conquered the country and now considers it to be its southern province. In 1976, an independence movement known as Polisario declared (with the support of Algeria) the country to be independent under the name of ‘Arabic Democratic Republic of Sahara’. Even the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled in favour of independence. Yet, despite international support in the early years, economic relations with Morocco took precedence over justice and sovereignty, leaving the Polisario out in the cold. Today they control only about a sixth of the former Spanish Sahara, which is separated from the rest of the country by an earth wall put in place on the orders of the former Moroccan king, Hassan II.
We drove through the country in three long days, or if you prefer, we spent three extra days in Morocco. The road is long, mostly straight and surrounded by, you guessed it, the Sahara. That means lots of sand and rock, while you occasionally get a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean out of the left window. When we crossed the Eastern Sahara in Egypt and Sudan it had been blazing hot, reaching temperatures of 54 degrees inside the car. This time it was chilly during the day, and bitterly cold at night. Temperatures dropped not far from freezing with an icy wind-chill. We spent those three days driving during the day and just before sunset would find a place to camp and quickly get into the shelter of our tent. If nothing else was Moroccan, the food certainly was, with delicious tajine, plates full of colourful salad and good meat. For 30 Dirham (3 euros) you get more than you are able to eat.