The Tarfaya Strip and Western Sahara Travel Guide
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Few travellers venture south of Goulimine unless bound for Mauritania or Senegal. Certainly, the dead-end administrative town of Tan Tan has few attractions, though surfers in particular may want to check out the rather more appetizing beach resort of Tan Tan Plage. The last town in Morocco proper, Tarfaya, is really just a sleepy little fishing village that sometimes gives the impression of having been all but forgotten, but it has a charmingly lazy air about it. Once over the demarcation line into the Western Sahara, things change, and the towns of Laayoune, Boujdour and Dakhla, are bright, modern places by comparison, settled by pioneering Moroccans enticed with state subsidies. Smara is the only really historical site in the territory.
Of more interest to many travellers than the towns of the region is the surrounding landscape, and you are sure spend much of your time here travelling across vast, bleak tracts of hammada (stony desert); there’s certainly no mistaking that you’ve reached the Sahara proper. Returning, if you don’t fancy a repeat of the journey, there are flights from Dakhla and Laayoune to Agadir or the Canary Islands. And once you’ve reached Dakhla, Dakkar and Banjul are actually as close as Marrakesh and Casablanca.
Although the area covered by this chapter was all formerly under Spanish rather than French colonial rule, French has now almost entirely replaced Spanish as the dominant second language throughout the region.
The region’s economic importance was long thought to centre on the phosphate mines at Boukra, southeast of Laayoune. However, these have not been very productive in recent years, and the deposits are not especially rich by the standards of the Plateau des Phosphates east of Casablanca. In the long term, the rich deep-water fishing grounds offshore are likely to prove a much better earner. This potential is gradually being realized with the development of fishing ports at Laayoune, Dakhla and Boujdour, together with industrial plants for fish storage and processing.
The sea is guarded by cliffs most of the way to the fishing port of BOUJDOUR, 188km southwest of Laayoune. The beach is dirty with dangerous rocks – the nearest beaches suitable for swimming (if you have the transport to reach them) are 20km south, below the cliffs, and 40km north, just beyond a military checkpoint and fishing settlement. The nearest thing to a sight in town is the lighthouse, though it’s not open to the public, and the soldiers guarding it won’t be happy if you try to photograph it. If you need a bank, the BMCE and Banque Populaire both have branches with ATMs.
SMARA (also written as Es Semara), once an important caravan stop, is today a garrison town, occupied by the Moroccan army (so be careful where you point your camera). Otherwise, it’s a small, sleepy old place, with not a lot going on, though there’s a souk every Thursday, and a festival every April featuring musical and other entertainments. Because accommodation options are so dire, it’s wise to avoid spending the night here, by making an early start from Tan Tan or Laayoune to get here, and heading off before transport dries up.
Smara’s only link with its past is the remains of the palace and Great Mosque of Ma el Aïnin, the “Blue Sultan”, a local ruler who tried to oust the French colonialists at the beginning of the twentieth century (see The Blue Sultan). The palace, near the oued, contains the residences of Ma el Aïnin’s four main wives, one of them now occupied by the gardien and his family. The attached zaouia is well maintained, but usually closed, except on Fridays. If you knock on the door, however, someone should open up and show you around, usually for a fee. Though plastered over, the zaouia is, like the rest of the palace, built of black basalt from the local hills. What’s left of the Great Mosque, a separate building further away from the river, is less well preserved, but you can still see the mihrab, and rows of basalt arches.
The approach from Goulimine to Tan Tan runs along 125km of straight desert road, across a bleak area of scrub and hammada. There are few features to speak of en route: a café and petrol station (55km from Goulimine); a small pass (85km); and finally a crossing of the Oued Drâa (109km), invariably dry at this point, where you may be asked to show your passport (as you also may coming into Tan Tan). A piste from here heads west to a last French fort at the mouth of the oued.
Tan Tan is a drab administrative centre of around 70,000 inhabitants. Because it’s part of a duty-free zone, along with the rest of the Tarfaya Strip and Western Sahara, a lot of shops sell goods such as radios, computers and electric razors. Aside from its moussem (see Tan Tan Plage), Tan Tan’s one claim to fame is that it was a departure point for Hassan II’s famous Green March to occupy the Western Sahara (La Marche Verte, or el Massira el Khadra).
In colonial times, the Oued Drâa was the border between the French and Spanish protectorates. The land to the south, the Tarfaya strip, was part of the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco, along with the area around Tetouan and Al Hoceima in the north. It was not considered part of Spain’s two Saharan colonies (together known as the Spanish Sahara), of which the northernmost, Seguiat el Hamra, began at the 27°40´ N line just south of Tarfaya, while the southern one, Rio de Oro, began at the 26th parallel, just south of Boujdour. In 1958, two years after the rest of Morocco gained independence, the Spanish gave back the Tarfaya strip, but they kept the Spanish Sahara until November 1975.
TAN TAN PLAGE (also called El Ouatia), 26km from town, and just off the coastal route to Laayoune, is a fishing port, responsible for a large percentage of Morocco’s sardine exports. It has a shadeless and often windswept beach that gets quite crowded in summer, and is increasingly popular with surfers, though not very good for casual bathing due to its large breakers and strong currents. With a large number of small hotels and restaurants, however, it’s a lot more attractive as a place to stay than Tan Tan itself.
The N1 road from Tan Tan to Laayoune hugs the coast, passing over dramatic oued mouths and through sand dunes as it rolls down through the southernmost slice of Morocco. The only towns of note are Akhfenir and, 3km off the road, Tarfaya. The Western Sahara starts at the village of Tah, where a red granite monument flanking the road commemorates the 1975 Green March. Once south of the border, you begin to traverse real sand desert – the Erg Lakhbayta – before crossing the Seguiat al-Hamra (a wide and usually dry river) to enter Laayoune.
TARFAYA is a quiet little fishing town (population 6000) that’s probably not far different from its years as a staging post for the Aéropostale Service – when aviators such as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of Night Flight and The Little Prince) used to rest up here on their way down to West Africa.
Oddly enough, Tarfaya was actually founded, at the end of the nineteenth century, by a Scottish trader named Donald Mackenzie, and was originally called Port Victoria after Britain’s queen. Mackenzie had a fort built, now known as Casa Mar, which is just offshore – a few metres’ swim at low tide. The Spanish called the town Villa Bens. These days Tarfaya is a lazy, do-nothing place. The main street, Boulevard Ahmed el Hayar, running roughly east–west through the town centre, has two banks (with ATMs), a handful of cafés, and a couple of internet offices (one next to Attijariawafa Bank).
The Aéropostale air service is commemorated annually in October by a “Rallye Aérien”, with small planes stopping here on their way south from Toulouse to Dakar. A monument to Saint-Exupéry in the form of a plane stands at the northern end of the beach. Nearby, a Musée Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Mon–Fri 8.30am–12.30pm & 2.30–5pm; 10dh) has exhibits on the air mail service that Saint-Exupéry pioneered, but (despite being in the formerly Spanish zone of an Arabic-speaking country) with explanations in French only.
The hotels all serve meals, and the cafés along the north side of Av Ahmed el Hayar have excellent and very cheap fresh fried fish, or fish tajines.
Transport can be tricky getting to and from Tarfaya, you may have to wait a few hours before anything turns up, or you may even have to resort to walking to the junction on the N1 (3km out of town) and hitchhiking, or at least trying to flag down passing buses and shared taxis.
Tourists can travel freely in most Moroccan-controlled parts of what are called the Saharan Provinces (an administrative area created to include the former Spanish Sahara, while not coinciding with its boundaries), but do check first on the political situation. 2010 and 2011 saw violent clashes between Saharawis and Moroccan settlers and police in Laayoune, Smara and Dakhla, among other places, and you should be aware that protests often involve violence, and should be avoided. Government advisories will have up-to-date information if any problems have arisen. Apart from this, the only obstacle would be for visitors who admit to being a writer or journalist: a profession not welcome in the region, unless under the aegis of an official press tour.
Otherwise, visiting Laayoune, Smara, Boujdour and Dakhla is now pretty routine, though it does involve answering a series of questions (name, age, profession, parents’ names, passport number and date of issue etc) at numerous police checkpoints along the way. This is all usually very amicable, but time-consuming (you’ll be asked for these details four times, for example, between Laayoune and Dakhla). To save time it is a good idea to print out and/or photocopy several copies of a sheet with the following information listed, preferably in French (as given here in brackets): family name (nom), given names (prénoms), date of birth (date de naissance), place of birth (lieu de naissance), marital status (situation familiale), father’s name (nom de père), mother’s name (nom de mère), nationality (nationalité), occupation (profession), address (addresse – which should be given in full), passport number (numéro de passeport), date of issue (date de déliverance), place of issue (lieu de déliverance), expiry date (date d’expiration), purpose of visit (motif du voyage – tourisme, for example), make of vehicle (marque du véhicule – you may of course have to leave this one blank), vehicle registration number (matriculation – ditto), date of entry into Morocco (date d’entrée en Maroc), place of entry (ville d’entrée) and police number (numéro de police – this is the number stamped in your passport alongside your first entry stamp into Morocco, typically six digits and two letters). For marital status, you could be single (célibataire), married (marié if male, mariée if female), divorced (divorcé/divorcée) or widowed (veuf/veuve). Armed with this, you can then give your details to police at every checkpoint, which will save them having to ask you for the information point by point.
Petrol and diesel are subsidized in the Saharan provinces (basically the Western Sahara), and cost about a third less than in Morocco proper.
The Saharawi people who live in the Western Sahara are largely descended from Arab tribes who moved into the area in the fifteenth century, and established themselves definitively with victory over the indigenous Sanhaja Berbers in the 1644–74 Char Bouba war. They speak an Arabic dialect called Hassania, which is much the same as that spoken in Mauritania, and somewhat different from the dialect spoken in most of Morocco. Their food and music are also more like those of Mauritania than of Morocco. However, Hassania-speaking Saharawis are not confined to the Western Sahara, and many live in southern Morocco too.
Spain held part of the Saharan coast in the early sixteenth century, but the Saadians drove them out in 1524, establishing Moroccan control over the coastline. In 1884, while European powers, such as Britain, France and Portugal, were carving up the rest of Africa, Spain got in on the act and declared the coast between Boujdour and the Nouadibhou peninsula to be a Spanish “protectorate”, gradually extending its boundaries inland and northward by agreement with other European powers. The Spanish didn’t actually have much control over the area in practice, but built ports at La Gouera and Villa Cisneros (Dakhla), with occasional forays into the interior to “pacify” the Saharawi tribes. Full colonial rule was only introduced after the Spanish Civil War, when the territory was split into two colonies: Rio de Oro, with its capital at Villa Cisneros, and Seguiat el Hamra, with a new, purpose-built capital at Laayoune.
Following Moroccan independence and the 1958 return of the Tarfaya strip, Spain merged its two colonies to form the Spanish Sahara, which was considered a province of Spain itself, much like Ifni, Ceuta and Melilla. But it was only in the 1960s, after the discovery of phosphates at Boukra, that Spain actually started to develop the territory.
By that time colonialism was out of fashion. Britain and France had pulled out of most of Africa, and only the Fascist-ruled Iberian states of Spain and Portugal still held onto their African colonies, with international pressure mounting on them to quit. In 1966 for example, the UN passed a resolution calling on Spain to organize a referendum on independence in the Sahara. Meanwhile, as education became more widespread, the Spaniards were confronted with the same problem that they and the French had faced in Morocco thirty years earlier – the rise of nationalism. The Movement for the Liberation of the Sahara was formed in 1967, and in 1970 organized a protest in Laayoune against Spanish rule. This was brutally put down, and the Movement was banned, but Spanish repression only succeeded in radicalizing opposition. In 1973, a group of militants formed the Frente para la Liberación de Seguiat el Hamra y Rio de Oro (Polisario), and began a guerrilla campaign for independence.
Under pressure from Polisario, and with its dictator General Franco on his last legs, Spain began to consider pulling out of the Sahara, but Morocco’s King Hassan II now claimed sovereignty over the territory on the basis that it had been under Moroccan rule before Spanish colonization. The case went to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, which ruled that, though some Saharawi tribes had indeed paid allegiance to the Moroccan sultan, the territory had not been substantially Moroccan before colonization, and its people were entitled to self-determination. In accordance with this ruling, Spain reluctantly agreed to hold a referendum on independence. Under pressure at home over domestic issues, however (see Elections and coup attempts), Hassan saw advantages in waving the nationalist flag as a distraction, and the next month led a “Green March” (Massira el Khadra) of 350,000 Moroccan civilians (subsequently replaced by soldiers) across the border to claim the territory. At the same time a secret agreement was hatched in Madrid to divide the territory between Morocco and Mauritania as soon as Spanish troops had withdrawn.
The Madrid signatories had, however, underestimated the Saharawis’ determination to fight for their independence. In February 1976, when Spanish forces left, Polisario proclaimed the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and fought back against Moroccan and Mauritanian occupation, backed by Algeria, and sometimes Libya, who saw the Sahara as a stick with which to beat their regional rival. Thousands of refugees fled into Algeria, where they settled into increasingly unhygienic Polisario-run refugee camps rather than submit to Moroccan or Mauritanian rule. Algeria ceded the territory around the camps to the SADR; 200,000 people still live in them today.
Polisario’s early military successes were impressive, and Mauritania in particular did not have the resources to beat them. In 1978, the war’s destabilization of the Mauritanian economy brought down the government. The new regime made peace with Polisario and pulled out of the Sahara (apart from La Gouera and the western side of the Nouadibhou peninsula, which Mauritania still occupies). The Moroccans moved in to replace them, but by the early 1980s they had been pushed into a small area around Laayoune and Dakhla, and the phosphate mines lay idle. Polisario guerillas even managed to infiltrate into Morocco itself. But the Moroccans fought back and, beginning in 1981, built a series of heavily defended desert walls (berm) that excluded Polisario forces from successively larger areas. The sixth wall, built in 1987, established Moroccan control over two-thirds of the territory, including all its economically important parts and the whole of the coastline. Polisario, now confined to areas behind the berm, particularly the region around Bir Lahlou and Tifariti, increasingly turned to diplomacy to gather support, with some success. In 1985, the OAU (now the African Union) admitted the SADR to full membership; Morocco left the organization in protest.
In 1988 a UN plan for a referendum, to choose between incorporation or independence, was accepted in principle by both sides, and 1991 saw a ceasefire, with the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force called MINURSO, but the years since have seen the UN aims frustrated, with arguments over the voting list leading to repeated postponement of the referendum; Morocco in particular has brought in large numbers of supporters to vote its way should the promised referendum ever be held. In theory, it will still take place, but observers are sceptical. Having invested so much in the territory – not only in military terms, as subsidies, tax concessions and infrastructure building have all been a heavy drain on the Moroccan economy – it seems inconceivable that Morocco will relinquish its claims. In 2002, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI stated that he would never give up any part of the territory, but the king has tried to be conciliatory, granting a royal pardon to hundreds of Saharawi political prisoners, and inviting refugees to come home. In 2007 he proposed a new settlement based on limited autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, which Polisario inevitably rejected. In 2010, Saharawi residents set up a protest camp at Gdim Izik near Laayoune, at first to protest against discrimination, but with calls for independence soon added; Moroccan police dispersed the camp by force, killing a number of people and sparking riots across the territory. Protests continued into 2011, and in Dakhla, Moroccan settlers and Saharawis came to blows. Meanwhile Morocco has started building little villages along the coast to establish “facts on the ground”, and, as an important strategic ally of the West, is unlikely to face much international pressure on the issue. Truth is, prospects for independence are bleak, and limited autonomy is probably the best the Saharawis can hope for.
Some 544km from Laayoune, on a long spit of land, Dakhla (formerly Villa Cisneros, capital of Spain’s Rio de Oro colony), is just 22km north of the Tropic of Cancer. Under Spanish rule, only the colonists and people working for them were allowed into town – the Saharawi nomads who lived in the desert were excluded. In 1975, the Spanish left and the Mauritanians moved in, to be replaced four years later by the Moroccans. Since then, Dakhla has grown somewhat, but it retains a lazy, sun-bleached atmosphere, with whitewashed, low-rise buildings and an easy-going feel. Europeans in camper vans head down in winter, drawn by the deserted beaches and year-round sunshine – even in January it’s hot, and this is the furthest south you can get by land without needing a visa. Dakhla has also been developing a small surfing scene, with windsurfing and kitesurfing increasingly popular pursuits at the northern end of the lagoon, and there are a couple of surfing supply shops in town.
While Dakhla is generally quiet and peaceful, deep tensions underlie this apparent tranquillity, and occasionally they surface. The Saharawi neighbourhood of Oum Tounsi hit the news in February 2011 when it came under attack by Moroccan settlers during the now-abolished annual Dakhla festival. One factor behind the attacks was the resentment of settlers at the subsidies given to returnees from the Polisario camps in Algeria if they accept Moroccan citizenship, but the continued opposition of Saharawis to the Moroccan occupation remains the most serious issue. Further clashes between settlers and Saharawis erupted after a football match in September 2011, leaving eight dead. The Moroccan news agency Morocco World News, calling Oum Tounsi “a stronghold of smugglers”, blamed “ex-convicts” for the trouble, adding that unnamed foreigners had taken advantage of the violence to carry out “activities of subversion”. For all that, Dakhla is generally peaceful, but the periodic appearance of SADR flags in Saharawi neighbourhoods invariably leads to raids by Moroccan forces, and the tension between settlers and Saharawis does not look like going away any time soon.
With a population of around 200,000, Laayoune (Al Ayoun, sometimes spelt Aaiun in the Spanish colonial period) is the largest and most interesting town in the Western Sahara, though it was only founded in 1940. The city has the highest per capita government spending in Morocco, and soldiers, billeted here for the conflict with Polisario, have been employed in many construction projects. The old lower town, built by the Spanish, lies on the southern slope of the steep-sided valley of the Seguiat el Hamra, with the new upper town, developed since the Green March, on the high plateau beyond.
The population growth – from little more than a village when the Moroccans took over – has been aided by massive subsidies, which apply throughout the Western Sahara, and by an agreement that settlers should initially pay no taxes. The fact that most of Laayoune’s residents are here by choice – only a minority of current residents were actually born here – gives the place a dynamism and pioneering feel that contrasts quite sharply with the weight of tradition that hangs heavy on cities like Fez and Marrakesh. The result is that, although Laayoune has little in the way of obvious sights, its atmosphere is quite a change from that of towns in Morocco proper.