Country number: 59 (if it’s counted as Morocco)
Territory number: 220
When? November 2019, first leg, going on to Mauritania
‘For those of us who have actually been to Western Sahara, there is no question that it is an occupation.’
Professor Stephen Zunes, University of San Francisco
My plane landed over a sand sea to the south of Layounne, an intricate pattern of interlinked crescent dunes. Today we’re driving across it, off-roading on part of the route of the now defunct Paris-Dakar rally. First, we pass the phosphate mines that make the country an attractive proposition economically. There’s a conveyor belt more than 60 miles (100 km) long, meant to carry phosphate from the mines to the piers southwest of Laayoune. We follow this, despite notices forbidding entry to anyone not employed by the mines (the guards nod us through) and head across a desert track.
The views are nothing short of stunning. Guide Naji is wearing his traditional Sahrawi robes, the blue perfectly complementing the gold of the sand. Ebony sprinkled silver dunes stretch to the horizon.
There’s the odd nomad with his herd of goats. Three camels are chewing lethargically together -creating classic Sahara backdrops. A diminutive desert fox peeps out of his den in the sand and scoots off rapidly into the distance , leaving a trail of tiny pawprints.
Lunch is eaten on a rug behind some acacia scrub. Chicken, cold fries, carrot and beetroot. Naji and Kahlil, use the acacia thorns as cocktail sticks and make a fire out of some sticks, so they can brew tea in a little blue pot. It’s strong and disgustingly bitter. They add copious amounts of sugar. I pour mine away while they’re not looking.
There’s that stillness that comes when no-one else is around no-one around. That is, until we meet two Landcruisers heading past us, into the wild. Kahlil has told me I’m the only tourist in Western Sahara this year. He’s obviously been stretching the truth a little. When challenged he says he meant in Layounne. No-one goes to Layounne. The cars are two more of Naji’s fleet, one is driven by his brother; Naji’s one of eight children, lived in a nomad tent until he was 15 and has never been to school. He’s taught himself fluent French and Italian and is happy to chat with me, tolerating my bad French – incroyable.