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Explore Africa!

Surf magical waves in the land of voodoo.


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This story first appeared in "Surfer's Path" magazine in 2003
Click HERE for photographs of this trip. (opens in a new window)

It was no problem I'd confidently told my friends, we can get money from a cash point when we reach Nouâdhibou, "Trust me ", I'd said, "I've been there before ". They'd trusted me and now here we were in the middle of the Sahara desert, stuck in no-mans land without our passports, surrounded by landmines and with nothing but a packet of biscuits and a litre of water to keep us going, oh and I was buried up to my neck in sand whilst wearing two wetsuits.

The original plan had been simple enough, fly into southern Morocco, rent a jeep and cruise into the Sahara searching for surf. We'd wanted a soulful kind of trip, rootsy and back to the basics, we were going to be fully self sufficient, camp out under the desert stars and fish for dinner every night....;It's amazing the ridiculous ideas that you can come up with whilst sat at home in-front of the TV, I can't even cook a fish, let alone catch one. However, even I have to admit that the blind stupidity with which we'd
managed to turn ourselves into refugees was impressive and to be honest I can only blame it on the atmosphere around us, you see, the problem with Dakhla is that it has an air of excitement to it, it's a frontier town with all the trimmings, much like the American Mid-West must have been a hundred and fifty years ago, it's a place to come and rest and enjoy yourself after spells in the tough lands beyond. If you want food and drink you can get it here, a beds no problem and maybe, believe it or not, even a girl. And like the cowboy states of old, guns are visible on the streets, carried by soldiers and police guarding Morocco's furthest frontier. If you thought the country to the north of town was wild, just wait till you take the road south, the road that slowly peters away to nothing and takes you back in time to Mauritania. It's impossible to resist the frontier excitement that hangs over the town.

Aside from myself there were four others in the group, all friends from my home town, fellow bodyboarders Rob Waldron, Mark Portwood and Tom Bircham and the token stand up surfer of the trip, Eugene Tollemarche, one of Britain's best underground riders. It was the first time we'd been on a surf trip together and judging by the curt "No ", response I've received every time I've suggested another trip to them it was probably our last. In fact I'm coming to the impression that they're holding me alone responsible
for the events that unfolded in and around Morocco's furthest frontier. It is of course a charge that I disagree with, I mean I had nothing to do with the aeroplane carrying us out from London being struck by lightening or by us being held back for further questioning by Moroccan immigration officials just because of a little oversight on my part with some entry and exit stamps during my last Moroccan trip. Well, OK maybe that was my fault, but it certainly wasn't me who snapped the key of the rental jeep with a mere two and a half thousand kilometres of desert between the spare and us.

Anyway these were all problems that were behind us, and now, as I lay buried up to my neck in the sand cocooned inside two wetsuits in an effort to keep warm during the icy desert night, I reflected on the chain of events that had led to us becoming refugees.

It had all started a few years ago, after my first trip to the Western Sahara, that time I'd pushed on right to the end of the desert and on into West Africa, but it was the Western Sahara and Mauritania that had left the deepest impressions and the most unanswered questions, for it was here, that I felt, I had the best chance of finding high quality, empty waves and so I vowed to return one day.

This new journey had begun way up to the north, right in the heart of Morocco. There's a lot of coastline between the towns and cities of northern Morocco and Dakhla and that means lots of opportunities to discover virgin waves. We'd found a few and probably drove past many more, right points and heavy beachbreaks; many of the coves and
bays we checked had both. And after several days of hunting we found the wave of the trip, a powerful right breaking down a boulder strewn point, some of the waves were fun in anyone's language, fast and walled up with plenty of room to play with and maybe even a chance to tuck under the lip and race the section. Others though were tricky, even on bodyboards, with the swells hitting the take off spot with such speed and ferocity that they mutated into square, treble lipped heaving caverns of water that exploded into a messy climax of compressed air, sand and spray.

However, like I said, the spirit of the frontier, it's hard to resist and for us it was the coast south of Dakhla that had the real pull. It used to be that you could only head south of Dakhla in military convoys, and they didn't stop for surf until they reached Mauritania's second city, Nouâdhibou. The last time I came I sat in a truck and watched several hundred kilometres of almost unknown coast fly by the window. Now though Morocco feels that it's safe enough to let you fend for yourself, but only on the main road, the desert either side of you continues to harbour the detritus of war, five million landmines lie buried and unexploded under the drifting sands. It all began back in the '70's, after the then King of Morocco, Hassen II marched 300,000 unarmed civilians into what at the time was the Spanish Sahara and claimed the region for Morocco. Spain threw in the towel instantly; it wasn't worth getting in a huff over a bit of sand. However not all of the territories in-habitants were completely bowled over by the idea of being Moroccan, even less so Mauritanian or Algerian, both of whom quickly put in
claims and troops of their own. And so started a bitter little war between Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria and the Polisario Front, (representing the native Saharawi people). It is a war that, thanks to the regions lack of significant oil reserves or strategic importance, has been largely ignored by the rest of the world. Mauritania and Algeria pulled out long ago and Morocco has effectively beaten the Saharawi's into submission and taken control of the country. Today around 150,000 Saharawi's are living and dying in Algerian refugee camps waiting for the day that they can return to a homeland that is now one of the most heavily mined places on earth. And if you think that's a mess, then Mauritania will turn you to tears. It doesn't have war, but it does have state supported racism, slavery, extreme poverty, draught and famine, a xenophobic government, growing Islamic fundamentalism and little hope.

We never actually planned to cross the Mauritanian border, just to go as far as the furthest frontier and then turn around, but things started so well, we were just waved through the military road blocks with no more than a cursory glance and a few questions, in the end we couldn't really do anything else but try our luck. However as I wrote in the very pages of this magazine after my first trip down Africa's desert coast, "Mauritania is a no bullshit kind of country ". You need visas and lots of other official looking bits of paper, none of which we had. It's just not the sort of place you go to on the spur of the moment. But when it came down to it the road only went one way - would you turn around?

It was whilst we were still around a hundred kilometres from the border that Tom began to question our preparations.

"So, do you really think they're going to let us in without visas? "

"Well if they don't then we just come back " I tried to sound as level headed about it as possible. He didn't seem convinced and tried another approach,

"Well have we actually brought enough cash with us to go to Mauritania ?"

"Of course "; I reassured him, "And anyway we can get money from a cash point when we reach Nouâdhibou. Trust me, I've been there before ".

Somewhat to our surprise when we reached the Moroccan side of the frontier we were met by border guards who were friendly but adamant, yes they would allow us to continue onto the Mauritanian border post and try our luck without visas, but because we didn't have the papers for our jeep we'd have to leave that back up the road and hitch across the border. By now I'd had enough time to feed so many stories to
Eugene, Rob and Mark about the waves we were going to find in Mauritania that it was out of the question to give up. And so, retracing our steps fifty kilometres we found a suitable place to leave the jeep for a few nights and prepared for a long wait for a lift, whilst Tom became ever more pessimistic about the whole thing,

"There's no way there will be a cash point there. It's Mauritania for god sake, how are we going to get home again ?"

His cries were falling on deaf ears, a jeep with a Mauritanian driver had already stopped and Eugene, delighted to have found someone other than us to speak too, was negotiating a price for a lift. Tom was still swearing under his breath about what a bad idea all this was when we cleared through the Moroccan customs and passed into no-mans land. The very moment we left Morocco, the road, which up until this point had been largely smooth tarmac, disappeared under a sand dune, never to re-emerge. As a pothole threw us all forcibly from our seats for the umpteenth time in a hundred metres I tried to reassure everyone that it was only fifteen kilometres to the Mauritanian border post, Tom shot me a withering look and curled himself up into a corner.

The Mauritanian border is marked by a flag pole, a blown up car and what's essentially a garden shed in which were living a couple of extraordinarily bored soldiers. They were friendly enough though and keen to talk with us, at some point in the conversation I slipped in the news that we may inadvertently have forgotten to get visas. Some
general muttering in Arabic followed before the elder of the two turned back to us with a smile and told us that they'd be delighted to let us into their country anyway, all it would cost was half of our remaining cash. I've rarely seen someone look as pained as Tom did when he handed over almost the last of his money. Don't worry we reassured him, we'd be at a cash point in Nouâdhibou in no time, Eugene turned to the border guards for back up and was met with laughter,

"Cash points in Mauritania? Don't be silly. "

We finally made into Nouâdhibou and low and behold no cash points, no big chain hotels in which to get a cash advance, no money transfer centres, just lots of sand and dust. Tom did cheer up momentarily when we found a place to stay, the manager of which claimed he could arrange transport for us out to the beaches along the west coast of the long peninsula on which Nouâdhibou sits and then he'd get us back to the Western Sahara and we could pay him on arrival in Dakhla.

In between readings from the Koran the TV relayed pictures of what the President had done that day, what he'd done on this day last year, what he'd be doing tomorrow and what he'd looked like when he'd last done the same thing. The audience in the little café where we'd chosen to eat a meal to celebrate our arrival in Nouâdhibou couldn't
decide which was the more interesting viewing, the President watching a military parade or Eugene trying to explain to a man who lives in a country where no vegetation actually grows that he only wanted to eat, well, vegetation. In the end our vegetarian couscous meals arrived, complete with most of a goat. Pushing his plate away with a look of resignation Eugene asked how much the million Ouguiyas we'd been quoted by our hotel manager for the two day surf trip and journey back to the Western Sahara actually was,

"Oh I don't think it's much " replied Rob before reasoning "It's Mauritania, everything's cheap ". Rob's sense of reason has never been up to much and a few quick sums revealed that it was actually over two thousand Euros. A strange noise emanated from the corner of the table where Tom was sat.

By two that morning we were counting our remaining money for the twenty-third time that night, each time hoping that we'd somehow overlooked a thousand Euros. We'd realised that we actually had no choice now but to cut our losses and try and hitch back
to our jeep as quickly as we could. The following morning found us sat in a dusty bit of waste ground at the edge of town almost as soon as the sun came up, waiting for some form of transport north. Six hours later a vehicle, that at one period in a long forgotten past had been a transit van, pulled up and offered us a ride not just to the border, but all the way to our jeep. In exchange all they wanted was every single penny we had, aside from enough for a packet of biscuits and a bottle of water. I really thought Tom was going to kiss the driver.

As we trundled along at a speed that probably amounted to somewhat less than walking pace our fellow passengers and us were in high spirits. For us it was because we seemed to have got ourselves out of what could have been a very expensive situation and for our fellow passengers it was because they'd got some foreigners to practise their one line of English on, over and over again. When we finally reached the Mauritanian border post we were greeted like old friends with handshakes, laughter and

"You see we told you, no cash points in Mauritania. Why did you only stay a day? "

We smiled as best we could and waited for them to hand our passports back. After a good bit of waiting we asked for them back,

"Oh no don't worry we'll keep them for you, we'll go and give them to the Moroccan border guards right now. Off you go, your drivers waiting for you ".

It's a bizarre feeling being a refugee, a strange kind of hopelessness, here we were, stuck in the middle of the Sahara desert unable to move more than a couple of hundred metres in any direction for fear of treading on a landmine, arguing over the division of a pack of banana cream biscuits and forbidden to move north or south just because someone thousands of kilometres away had at some point, drawn a random line in the sand that marked the end of one country and the beginning of the next. It was dark by now, but the stars were bright enough for me to clearly see the other four, curled up in their warm sleeping bags, I'd foolishly left mine back in the jeep, believing I wouldn't
need it, in fact I'd told the others to leave theirs behind as well, but even back then they were learning not to trust me. I tried to wriggle a bit deeper under the sand in an attempt to keep warm and as I was doing this two thoughts kept going through my head. What else but surfing would drive a person to get themselves into this situation? And what would I do if I needed a piss in the night whilst wearing two wetsuits? Of course when we'd finally reached the Moroccan border, several hours earlier, it was already shut for the night and our passports, well they were nowhere to be seen, "Don't worry ", our driver had reassured us, "It's no problem, trust me, I've been here before !"