Tuesday 16 January 2018

Morocco: Way out on the western frontier

Desert song

The power of nature: The conditions around the lagoon near Dakhla are perfect for kitesurfing and all sorts of water sports
The power of nature: The conditions around the lagoon near Dakhla are perfect for kitesurfing and all sorts of water sports
Camels in Dakhla

Christopher Jackson

Christopher Jackson takes a trip to the desert in Dakhla, 850 miles south of Marrakech on Africa's western edge.

Does it taste like chicken?

It's funny how some people think that all exotic meat tastes like chicken. Even if it's a carnivorous reptile like a crocodile, some people just assume it'll taste like something of the avian variety. Camel certainly doesn't, it tastes like beef, albeit a bit more chewy. Given the great portions our generous Moroccan hosts served us with, I was easily able to decipher what it did and didn't taste like (chicken it certainly didn't).

Hours earlier though, I'd seen my food very much alive, and in all their awkward splendour too. Four of them, each at least eight feet high, charged across the hard-packed desert sand at great speed as their riders spurred them on with the tap of their heels and the flick of their whips. They were ungainly with long lumbering strides, the heavy thuds of which rung across the desert floor, and yet there was a grace to them, that of an animal in its natural environment.

Its natural environment was just outside Dakhla, about 850 miles south of Marakkech, on Africa's western edge, in Western Sahara. Larger than the UK but with a population of only 550,000, Western Sahara is one of the world's most sparsely populated regions. A Spanish colony until 1975, various powers, including Morocco, Mauritania and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, tried to fill the vacuum of their withdrawal. War raged for 16 years which left more than 10,000 dead. A ceasefire has held between the Moroccans and the Polisario Front since 1991. The Moroccans control most of the region while the Polisario Front controls parts inside its eastern border. Negotiations between the sides are still ongoing.

Camels in Dakhla

Camels... but what do they taste like?

Dakhla, on the edge of the Atlantic, is far removed from the disputed border region and, despite its isolated location, feels very much like a Moroccan provincial city. Once a small fishing village, it has swelled over the past 30 years to a city of almost 60,000. Much of it is less than 30 years old, and from above, as you descend to the airport, you can see how it's built in perfect square grids, like a western American city, which lends it a frontier feel, one furthered by the heavy military presence. However despite the beat of army helicopters overhead, the warships at the city's port, and the many police checkpoints that dot the approaches to the city, there's not a tense air to the city. It seems safe, even laid back, like a Spanish village.

Indeed there are still signs of Spanish influence, most notably the city's Catholic church, but also in the police uniforms, although I doubt that the Spanish police presently wear anything quite as splendid, nor I imagine does anyone else. Even at the desert checkpoint the police wore well-cut pastel blue uniforms with white leather belts, holsters and gloves, as if out on permanent parade.

Whether by intent or not, the conspicuous uniforms are apt as Dakhla, once isolated and unheard of, becomes more exposed to the world. Much of this exposure can be explained at Dakhla Attitude, a hotel 18 miles outside the city. Made up of neatly arranged bungalows dug into the face of a dune overlooking the water, the hotel is popular with water sport lovers the world over, particularly kitesurfers. Indeed only last month it hosted the world kitesurfing championships.

At a banquet held there on our first night I managed a few minutes with the hotel's owner, a man much responsible for Dakhla's recent exposure. He told me how Dakhla's year round winds and its large natural lagoon (the city is on a peninsula) create the perfect kitesurfing conditions, a view evidently shared by the thousands (and growing) that come every year to this water sports mecca.

Other than water sports, the other big draw is the landscape. On our second and final day, we drove out of the city, across the peninsula, a flat arid carpet, toward the desert dunes which rise suddenly rather than gradually as the sand skirts up into steep mounds which stretch across the horizon, forming a wall of interlocking mounds, a natural barrier to the desert interior. The wall is perfectly flat on top, no one mound is taller than the others, as if they'd been smoothed by a trowel, as if the winds had conspired to create the most pristine horizon.

We cut across them, twisting around mounds and bumping over ridges on our way towards the beach, where the sand tumbles down steep escarpments to the shore and where the Sahara slips into the Atlantic.

The wind that blows in off the ocean has edged the sand in the low tide into thin ridges, perfectly parallel to one another, as if shaped by a Zen master. Wind, the most capricious element, has shaped not only the area's great beauty but its prosperity too.

Dunes, dozens of feet high, dot the shore, like watchtowers. We clomped and scrabbled our way to the top of one, to a perfect vista, a spectrum of Atlantic blues and Saharan whites gathered under an empty blue sky, which accentuated the vast spaces of ocean and desert - an enchanting emptiness that transfixed the eye and the mind.

In the afternoon, we drove out of the dunes via the lagoon road where we saw two kitesurfers soar into the air, skirt along the surf then soar again - harnessing the power of wind for the perfect thrill. We drove over the road and then cut across, on to open ground, toward the shore.

At the water's edge, cut into the jagged rock, was a grotto of wooden shelters and tables - an oyster farm cum restaurant - a most palatable setting where we had the most palatable oysters, farmed just a few feet away. As we left, a young woman in a blue veil asked to have her photograph taken with me. Blue eyed white men are still a novelty there.

On our way back we serenely snaked our way along the spectacular rocky and sandy shore where windsurfers with sails bulged caught the consent of the wind and sped across the waves. We came across several RVs, vans and quad bikes (off-road racing is very popular in the area). Two of the RVs were from Germany - more than a 5,000 mile round trip - the most acute evidence of the allure of Dakhla and its elemental attractions.

Book the best value packages to Morocco with travel.independent.ie.

Getting there

There are flights from Heathrow to Dakhla via Casablanca with Royal Air Maroc (royalairmaroc.com). For the Excursions, you can book via local agents: www.dakhla-evasion.com, or Arremal Travels (arremaltravels.com). Dakhla has great hotels including the Calipau Sahara (4*), Just outside Dakhla (dakhla-hotel-sahara.com) and Dakhla Attitude (dakhla-attitude.ma) about 30 or so km from Dakhla, opposite the clear waters of the lake and overlooking Dragon island, collection of 35 bungalows with a restaurant, a bar and a spa.

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