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WhItE oWL + EqUAtoR NIcARAGUA + JAck LyNch + WEStERN SAhARA KeNyU TAKAhAShI + SPeNceR ReyNolDS + loNg BeAch ISlAND
CAamel Tajines and Sahrawian Tea NewKind of Freedom in Western Sahara Photography and Story by Alan van Gysen
n adventure into the unknown seldom comes without incident, and our journey into the Western Sahara nearly ended before it began.
In this desolate territory, driving at night should be avoided at all costs. One moment we were happily driving along in naive bliss, the next we were jolted into a sober awakening by a deafening thud and launched into the air with our heavy trailer in tow, followed by a terrifying series
of over-correcting swerves and weaves. That we and/or our trailer didn’t overturn was a small miracle. For the next 100 kilometers, our devoted driver Rachid did an amazing job of avoiding the sand dunes that litter roads in this region. The dunes not only threatened our ETA, but, of more immediate concern, they threatened our lives. And I must mention the massive trucks that hog the roads, plus the abundance of wild, roaming camels. Our first lesson in WS: “Caution is the better part of enthusiasm.”
Why are we here? For that elusive uncrowded perfection in our everincreasingly crowded world, and, most importantly, to experience something new, another culture, another land, another stretch of water.
A Bit of History Modern Sahrawis are linked to the nomadic Berber tribes who journeyed from Saudi Arabia and Yemen and settled along the lush, green rivers and rich coastal waters of Western Sahara. With 260,000 people, WS is one of the world’s
1. The Dakhla beachbreak. Spanish ruins are reminders of the historic struggles Western Sahara faced over the centuries. 2. Camels roam free in both the deserts and on the menus. 3. Finding WS waves is never easy.
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most sparsely populated territories, and, aside from its rich phosphate deposits and fishing waters, WS has few natural resources, lacking sufficient rainfall for most agriculture. In 1971, a group of young Sahrawi students in the universities of Morocco began organizing what is now “The Polisario” (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro, two WS territories), a Sahrawi rebel national liberation movement working for the independence of Western Sahara from Spain at the time, and, now, from Morocco. Polisario claimed the
Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in February 1976 and waged a guerrilla war against Morocco and Mauritania. The weak Mauritanian regime was unable to fend off the guerrilla incursions, and a comprehensive peace treaty was signed in 1979. In the mid-1980s, Morocco managed to keep Polisario troops at bay by building a huge sand berm called the Moroccan Wall. The Wall was about 2,700 kilometers long and ran through WS and the southeastern portion of Morocco, acting as a separation barrier between the
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Moroccan- and Polisario-controlled areas. In 1991, after 15 years of war, the United Nations established Minurso, the referendum in WS, and a ceasefire was declared. Unfortunately, Minurso was unable to get off the ground, and the transition period was never completed, identification of eligible Sahrawi voters being its downfall, forcing the UN to suspended its referendum moves. Talks between Morocco, Polisario, and UN mediators have failed to reach any kind of resolution since
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1. Backpacking for untamed surf. 2. Home sweet campsite. 3. Alaia cruise out front. Unridden waves rarely slipped past the tents. 4. South African Klee Strachen attacks a North African point en route to the peace and quiet of Western Sahara. 5. Fisherman and surfers seek different things in the ocean. 6. Mealtime in WS is all about sharing.
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2001, the impasse leaving WS in a state of limbo. Polisario controls about a third of the territory, but the region is economically useless, heavily land-mined, and nearly uninhabited. The barrier mine belt running along the Wall today is recognized as the longest continuous minefield in the world.
Meeting and the Meat Due in part to the aforementioned instability and disputed government, most of the beaches, good waves, and potential world-class setups in WS are off-limits to tourists. To gain access, we needed
special permission from the local powers that be – powers like Mr. Laroussi, President of the WS Interior. Our meeting with him was like something straight from a novel. Laroussi, fitted in suit and tie, casually sat behind a large, polished desk, while five crudely dressed surfers sat on the other side, awaiting their fate, lost in translation and feeling very much like they were in the headmaster’s office. Had it not been for our driver’s skills as a translator, the outcome may have been very different.
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Two servings of Sahrawian tea and an offer of a younger wife to Denny Tolley later, we had Laroussi’s blessing to surf. We were given special permission to enjoy the off-limits stretches of coastline we so dearly desired. If we ran into any kind of trouble with the police or military, all that was required was a phonecall to Laroussi’s office. Now, before leaving civilization, all we needed was a good supply of tea and some camel meat for our tajine, a local type of stew. There weren’t many cows, pigs, or sheep in that part of Africa. If you’re wondering what camel tastes like, it’s
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1. Klee lets loose at Dakhla after hours in the confines of the 4x4. 2. Water collection, “Survivor Sahara” style. 3. The picturesque Ntirift fishing village. 4. Sahrawian markers. 5. Vegetable tajine. 6. Alaia skills by Elliot. 7. Every board works on the perfect points of WS. 8. Klee contemplates the silence. 9. Dan Thornton carves one at Tajine Point.
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similar to lamb, both in texture and flavor, but definitely unique. I preferred the vegetable tajine we had most evenings.
Love at First Sight
Military guards Brahim and Hassan lifted the pole that was blocking our route to the coast. You would be hard-pressed to find a more hospitable pair of military personnel. They invited us into their humble home to share a glass or two of Sahrawi tea before taking our leave, which went a long way toward establishing a friendship during our
10-day stay on their bit of coast. While driving slowly down the winding escarpment that divides the coast, we began to catch glimpses of the beach and point we would call home. Meandering left, right, up, and eventually down, we finally cleared the last rise blocking our view. There it was – everything Denny said it would be. A pristine, tancolored beach with emerald-green water disappearing over the horizon, and flawless, two- to three-foot waves spinning down the point. And, best of all, not a soul in sight.
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finally, a cliff at our backs to protect against the wind and sun.
Before establishing a base camp in unknown wilderness, you must take a number of things into consideration: Availability of water (drinking and cleansing), availability of firewood (fuel, warmth, light), and choice of campsite (protection from the elements) are the top three. We settled for the corner of a picturesque bay, soft sand and all, in front of a perfect right point. There was wood nearby, a well with reasonably clean drinking water, and,
Daniel Thornton wisely advised us of the safest spot, above the highwater mark, to pitch our tents. Elliot Dudley’s “two-second setup” tent was the subject of much envy, but, on the day of departure, we quickly changed our minds about its usefulness. The soft sand suited me well, since my only mattress was my tent bottom and sleeping bag. If this was “Survivor Sahara,” we were the final five, and we had daily camp life quite organized.
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1. Glassy Tajine Point nose glide. Elliot, enjoying our little piece of paradise. This Spread: 1
1. Elliot navigates a crucial section at Ntirift Point, from the front. 2. Dudley’s Dakhla backdoor quad charge.
Surfing near the camp was an absolute pleasure, and we lost ourselves in the timelessness and perfection of WS for 10 days. Besides getting the basic chores down, we were truly free. Surf all day, if you want. Read, tan, go for a walk, enjoy the simple pleasures in life. Boards lay waiting on the sand in the shade, wetsuits flapped in the continuous offshore breeze, and we didn’t even look at the car. Even on the smallest days, we enjoyed flawless waves running down Tajine Point. Longboard, alaia, shortboard, egg, quad fish – every
wave-riding craft we rode was a blast. Surfing was so much fun, and so easy. I even gave boardshorts a go one evening on the alaia, though that was a mistake. Winter offshores in North Africa aren’t to be trifled with, and it took me awhile before I could call myself a man again.
Standing Tall When a solid swell did finally arrive, The Slab behind Tajine Point awoke, and our prayers were answered. Denny told me about this slab a year ago. He had shown me stills
and video footage, and I, in turn, had mesmerized my crew of three international surfers with promises of stand-up barrels. So it was with relief, and maybe even a few tears, that we finally got to see what WS could dish out on our last day within its invisible borders. Dredging, top-to-bottom barrels met our eyes the morning of the swell. At first light, Daniel and I walked over the dune in our jalabas, coffee in hand, and just smiled at each other. The jump-off wasn’t for the meek,
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1. Dan stands at attention at the slab that started it all. His barrel skills from Jeffrey’s Bay paid handsomely with rewards like this. [o] Oldfield
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and I realized only once I was out that perhaps shooting from a bodyboard wasn’t the best decision. The wave comes in deep and launches itself onto the shallow, sand-filled reef, with little-to-no room to move. A few heavy duck-dives later, with a big housing in hand, my bodyboard was ripped from my arms and sent crashing into the rocks that lined the beach. I felt safer and more maneuverable, but I wasn’t in any rush to call one of my crew into a closeout in front of those rocks. Daniel was the first to stroke into a set wave, feeling right at home
in the heavier stuff. Standing tall inside his first tube, he made it look easy. Respect to Elliot for charging the overhead waves on his egg. Unfortunately, he snapped it after only a few waves. His final egg wave would have snapped the toughest board – it was a beast. Klee Strachan, in turn, got his fair share, but had a two-wave holddown and very nearly met the same fate as my bodyboard. At one point, Daniel’s casual approach paid off handsomely in the form of a classic, stand-up beauty. He dropped in and effortlessly glid-
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ed his way through three awesome sections. Had he not just stood there in quiet contemplation, and, rather, opted for the traditional pump and drive, he would have made the barrel. But that would have been boring, and would not have made nearly as good a photo. We couldn’t have asked for more of our last day, and, upon leaving our adopted piece of paradise, I couldn’t help but think of the phrase, “Leave only footprints.”
1. Dan, deep in the belly of another sandy pit, and loving it. 2. Elliot charges toward the slab on his egg. 3. The slab setup was a terrifying mix of treacherous perfection. 4. Desert sunset, empty waves, and a warm fire mark the end of another amazing day.
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1. Elliot begins his 100th run down Tajine Point. 2. Camping in the wild, on the doorstep of three epic waves, was more than we expected. Headlamps illuminate the last streaks of the day. 3. Waiting for our train in Casablanca was an experience.
A Final Contemplation Freedom is defined as a country’s right to self-rule, an ability to act freely, ease of movement, right to occupy place, and free will. Standing on the cliffs above the pristine beaches of WS, I truly felt free. We were free to surf these perfect waves, free to come and go, free to occupy the beach, and free to do as we pleased. I felt free, then incredibly sad.
Here, our crew of four surfers were able to do everything freedom stands for, but, 700 kilometers to the northeast, 100,000-plus Sahrawis are trapped as refugees in another country, behind an impenetrable border, and have no such freedom. Who is to blame? How do we fix this problem? Should Morocco be allowed to claim WS as a Moroccan territory? Should Sahrawis have self-determination? Why can’t the Sahrawis just come home?
While acres of Saharan sand blurred past my dusty window, I was reminded how fortunate we as surfers are in a world still plagued by adversity. We have it all, and we live the dream everyday. Let us not forget to be thankful, seize each day, for freedom is not something we should ever take for granted. Special thanks to Denny Tolley at morocsurf.com.
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Acclaimed Saffa photographer Alan van Gysen guides us into a journey through the depths of Western Sahara via Morocco, uncovering the desert...