Dakhla is a city of 100,000 in the Moroccan-controlled sector of the disputed Western Sahara territory.
I had a long weekend with school at the end of February and saw a decent flight deal to Dakhla in the Western Sahara. I was intrigued by not only the unusual political status of the territory, but also its location where the Sahara meets the Atlantic Ocean 400 kilometers from any other city.
To get to Dakhla, I had to fly through Casablanca, Morocco. Because Dakhla is controlled by Morocco, it is considered a domestic flight. However, I interestingly did not clear customs in Casablanca. The domestic flight took 2.5 hours- longer than the journey from Barcelona.
February 28, 2020: Jeep Tour to the Mainland
I landed at 1am. There, I cleared customs and got the coveted Dakhla passport stamp. My hotel (Dar Rio Oro) picked me up at airport the and drove me the 5 minutes to the hotel. I checked in and went to bed around 2.
I woke up and got a superb breakfast at the hotel at 8:30. Dakhla is on the Central European time (same as Spain and Morocco) despite being so far west. As a result, the sun doesn’t rise until 8:30 AM this time of year (it also sets after 8pm).
The owners of the hotel are a couple named Fatima and Phil. Fatima recommended me I should go on a Jeep tour, which I already knew. Luckily for me there was a French couple going on the big all-day Jeep tour, the one which I wanted to do. Since the price is per Jeep, I got to go for 1/3 of the price I was expecting to pay ($50 vs 150-200). It’s nice when this happens.
We took our time and left at 11. First, we stopped in town at a local butcher to pick up some camel meat. The butcher ground it right there.
Then we were off. Our first stop was an ostrich farm.
Then we drove around the amazing Dakhla Bay.
On the north end, we pulled onto a dirt road which soon turned into a rough 4×4 trail. We bumped up and down through the most desolate of terrains. After 15 minutes or so we reached sand. All of a sudden the ground was covered in crabs. We continued for another minute towards a humongous sand dune. This was the legendary Dune Blanche (White Dune). It was about 100 feet tall. Sort of like Mont San Michel in France, it is only accessible at low tide. At high tide, the dune becomes an island.
I climbed up to the top of the dune and looked out at the scenery. Sand and water everywhere! This is mars on earth- the most otherworldly scenery I perhaps have ever seen.
We continued past camels and camel herders and somehow again reached a paved road- in pristine condition might I add. We drove south along this lonesome road. There were a few abandoned buildings and a gas station but not much else. This must be one of the most remote places on earth.
We pulled off the road onto another paved road then took it for 10 minutes. During this time we crossed the Tropic of Cancer. This road ended and we were now rolling through the desert. No roads or even tracks. Just desert. We climbed over rocks over sand and over plants. The desert was endless and since it was relatively flat there were few landmarks. This was the real Sahara.
Eventually out of nowhere we reached an area with plant cover. This was the Imlili oasis. The oasis had about 50 small pools of salt water filled with small fish. I walked around for 10 minutes or so. There wasn’t all that much to do- the highlight was really the drive in.
As we were leaving a camel family walked over towards us. There were about 6 including a baby with the umbilical cord still attached!
We then drove to a Berber village in the middle of the desert. We went into a tent and a guy cooked the camel meat that we brought. We lounged and chatted about this most unusual territory.
The land today known as Western Sahara has been inhabited by the Sawahari people for millennia. However, due to the harshness of the climate, they never had the population density to create any sort of government. As a result, the land was nominally claimed by kingdoms over the centuries, but in reality the Sawahari people were able to live peacefully as nomads.
In 1884, the Spanish claimed the land as Spanish Sahara and built the first cities. The capital Laayoune was a phosphate mining community. Dakhla was built as a whaling station. The Spanish lighthouse still remains.
After gaining independence from France in 1956, Morocco made claims to the land based on historic boundaries. After a brief war with Spain over a different territory, Morocco set its sights on controlling the territory. First, they got the United Nations to declare the land a “Non Self-Governing Territory” a designation that means it is not a formal part of any UN member and does not govern itself. On November 6, 1975, 350,000 Moroccans and 20,000 Moroccan troops marched into Spanish Sahara in an event known as the Green March. Spain was caught off-guard by the encounter and one week later, signed the Madrid Accord which ceded the territory to a temporary joint-rule by Morocco and Mauritania. The Sawahari people would then get to vote on how the territory would be governed.
Both countries occupied their respective territories. After 4 years, the local Polisario Front had overwhelmed the Mauritanians. The Mauritanian government then ceded the land to them. However, just in that moment, Morocco invaded. This launched a 19-year war between Morocco and the Polisario Front.
A cease-fire was signed in 1991. Morocco now controls about 80% of the territory and is separated from the Polisario by a sand wall.
The status quo hasn’t changed since 1991, but both governments are trying to use non-violent channels to stake their claims. The Polisario Front established diplomatic relations with 40 countries and became members of the African Union in 1984 under the name Sawahari Arab Democratic Republic. This upset Morocco so much that they only rejoined in 2017. Morocco, for their part, has been building up cities like Dakhla and encouraging Moroccans to move there with tax incentives. They hope that the budding tourism industry will give the Sawaharis enough of an economic boost that they will approve of the Moroccan rule. Ironically the “Non Self Governing Territory” designation that Morocco fought so hard for is one of the main hurdles in convincing the world that Western Sahara is part of Morocco.
Despite what the world says, the reality on the ground is that the land near Dakhla is Moroccan. I don’t see that changing soon.
Anyways, the food was delicious: I would highly recommend camel meal. We then sipped Moroccan tea. I was pleasantly surprised to see my guide Mohammad pour the tea from a super high distance- I always thought this was a gimmick from the Moroccan restaurant I grew up going to in LA.
20 minutes away from the tent was…believe it or not a perfect beach. The name, Portorico, is obviously Spanish. Besides a crumbling Spanish tower, there was nothing here except us and the perfect beach.
We pushed back towards Dakhla. It was now around 5pm. Halfway back, we stopped at the “hot water”. In front of a tiny building, this guy will spray you with hot sulfuric water from a firehose. Four French tourists were doing it. They were laughing so hard. I asked how it was. They said funny but also very nice. I decided to go for it.
I laid down on my back and got hosed. The water was indeed perfect. When I flipped over, the guy gave me very specific instructions on hand placement: one on the groin and one on the face to avoid injuries from the extreme water pressure. Then I stood up and got sprayed. The force was so powerful it was difficult to stand.
Easily the best 15 dihrams I’ve ever spent.
Our final stop was to see the windsurfing camp. Dakhla has very recently become a popular spot for windsurfing- due to the perfect conditions with the lagoon and 300 windy days a year. I could see at least 200 windsurfers out there!
The parking lot was full of RVs from Europe and one from Canada! They must be down here for a couple months. The atmosphere bore a strong resemblance to the dune buggy encampments in Glamis, California.
We arrived back at Dakhla but the sun didn’t set until 8. Truly incredible since we are in the winter in the northern hemisphere.
At 8:30, Fatima made couscous for me and the French couple. It was absolutely delicious. Up until this year (starting in Algiers), I thought couscous was the most overrated dish. It turns out that Americans just don’t know how to make it.
The Dutch biker gang fixed their bikes. They decided to spend one more day before heading south towards Mauritania.
I wandered a bit around the town. At 11pm, the place was packed. I suppose due to the late sunset everything is shifted back a few hours.
With that I headed to bed. I had no idea what was in store for tomorrow. What I did know is that I was in good hands.
February 29, 2020: Around the Dakhla Peninsula
I woke up around 9 today- a much needed long sleep.
After breakfast, I lounged in a bit more. Fatima suggested I drive around the peninsula to see some of the sites here- since I have already gone to the mainland. She mentioned that a car would show up at 11.
Sure enough, there was a Toyota parked in front of the hotel. The receptionist took me to the car. What I failed to understand is that I was driving the car. The receptionist and I drove over to the nearby gas station to fill up. At that point I was on my own to drive around the peninsula! I have driven in Africa before – Cape Town – but I had the feeling that this was going to be different.
The car had a CD of traditional Moroccan music- the perfect soundtrack. I cruised through the town. It was so much fun driving around. People were pretty respectful drivers but at the same time there were very few rules- you can pass people by going into the opposite lanes of traffic. You can drive at 20 kilometers an hour in the middle of the road. I loved the lawlessness!
After leaving town l, I headed south along the cliff tops over the desolate Atlantic coast. 15 minutes later I reached the very end of the Dakhla Peninsula. There was a fishing village.
Hundreds of boats lay empty on a huge sandy spit. The place was decrepit. Intermixed with the boats were structures made of plywood and fishing net. The place reminded me of the Waterworld show at Universal Studios. I am not sure why, but there was very little going on. Maybe it was the weekend. Maybe it was because fishing is a nighttime activity. I don’t know. A few people were fixing their lines. They minded their own business and were completely uninterested in me.
A hundred meters from the boats is the shantytown where the fishermen live. The buildings were made with corrugated steel and netting. They looked pretty bad from outside but were probably decent inside. I suppose it’s difficult to construct anything more permanent on the sand- you can’t dig foundations.
There was even a mosque with a minaret! Interestingly, the town was laid out in a very neat grid with wide streets.
I got back into the car and drove up the coast. I passed a lighthouse- one of the few remains of the Spanish occupation. Before Dakhla, this place was known as Villa Cisneros. The name lives on in the airport code: VIL.
For lunch, I visited an oyster farm called Talhamar. Fatima said it’s the best restaurant on the peninsula. The restaurant is right there on the coast. It truly lives up to the farm-to-table description: the oysters are farmed all of 200 feet away in the bay. Oysters were 40 cents each. I got a half-dozen plus a seafood grill plate. Delicious!!
For a good read: Vice News ran this piece about Talhamar.
I then drove into town. About 100,000 people live in Dakhla. The buildings are all there, but on the streets it feels like 5,000 live there.
My first stop was the port. After a very courteous passport check, I saw a few medium sized boats but nothing looked like it would be sailing all that far. Maybe they were commercial fishing boats or military.
Then I went to the main market. It was small but had produce, fish and meat all in a traditional building. At this point I have cruised around and seen nearly everything of interest in Dakhla. So I headed back and took a rest.
For dinner, the French couple invited me to go to a “really good” restaurant. I got in their car and we drove…right back to the oyster place. I ordered different things this time! The one problem is that it was cold with the wind. Still a fantastic dinner.
We drove back, chatted with everyone and went to sleep.
The next morning I got to the airport at 7am for my flight out!
Dakhla is the perfect 2 day destination for a non-windsurfer. Any more and I would be bored. The highlight was undoubtedly the Jeep ride but getting a feel for the peninsula in my car was also wonderful.