It has been an interesting piece of piste - although whoever it was who told me this was one of the most scenic parts of the route, needs their head read. Far from the luscious days between Assa and Tan Tan, with rocky massifs rearing up on either side and a peaceful ramble beside stony watercourses and pretty palmeraies, this has just been one long, flat, windswept bit of desolation. Think "Deliverance" and you may come close to imagining it.
The weather this close to the coast was always going to be a little inclement; but what I didn't really understand is that the problem is not that it changes constantly, but rather, that it does exactly the same thing every day - it is just that what it does is really, really foul. The wind (lejej) starts off as a dull roar early in the morning, just enough to flap the tent about as we pack it up (heavy with the dense humidity that accompanies the nights). By about 10 am, the dull roar has become a whipping gale, making conversation impossible, the camels uncomfortable, and inserting sand into every orifice you never knew you had. Despite the sun being pretty strong, the wind lowers the temperature so that one rarely gets out of heavy clothing, and feels reluctant to stop for long. By early afternoon, when we stop, the lejej is hard enough that erecting the tent is an almighty battle; not to mention the fact that actually finding a place where there is either sand to weigh down the tent, stones to hold it, or - hallelujah - ground actually soft enough to drive the pickets into, is nothing short of a miracle in itself.
Ah, but once inside the tent, we are sheltered from the lejej. And snugly content, one might think. Until you realise that flies are not stupid creatures; they also recognise our tent as an excellent source of shelter and gourmadisation. It must be like coming across the Sheraton on top of Mount Everest for those guys. So we make our tea and eat our lunch with a multitude of crawling black mates in the middle of everything, and then settle in to regard the fascinating sight of gravel hammada being stirred into dust balls by the ever increasing wind. Although MBarak usually deals with it in his own practical fashion...
And then suddenly, it drops. Usually just after we have cooked and eaten dinner, and are preparing to get into bed, the tent stops shaking, the chill drops from the air , and we find ourselves stripping off our layers and taking off blankets. It is not long after this that we become uncomfortably aware that the atmosphere has changed from one of raging winds to one of dense, suffocating humidity; and along with the lovely sound of "drip, drip, drip" as the condensation runs off everything, we are treated to the sultry symphony of that most delighful of insects - the mosquito. "Namoos", in Arabic. Our night is then punctuated by the less than sophisticated utterances of pure frustration, as one by one we are savaged by the little bastards. Mbarak is my favourite - he has adopted the "f" word as his own personal curse, and thrashes about in his sleeping bag saying "f___cking namoos, layla f___cking" throughout the long night. I never cease to chuckle quietly to myself at his exhortions.
Generally I give up at about one in the morning, and venture outside for a sneaky fag and a look at the stars - and to suss out if perhaps by some miracle the mozzies are worse in the tent than on the hammada. But five minutes, a wet bum, six new itchy spots and no sight of the stars through the layer of humidity is enough to send me scuttling back to the stillness of the tent, where at least misery has company.
Daily the thundery purple clouds threaten rain, but generally all they produce is the thick humidity that prevents us from sleeping outside - although MBarak did give it a good go for a few nights, with a tarp and stone interesting little sleeping setup. But even he abandoned it in the end, and joined Madani and I in what we jokingly refer to as "the prison". Ho, ho ho.
But - although you would never know it from this incredibly self pitying whinge session - there have been some lovely highlights. For a start, the constant rain and humidity has meant that the desert has burst into flower; and more exotic, sweet smelling flowers you could never imagine. These purple ones (Madani told me the name, but, ever terrible at science, I promptly forgot it) grow in small clumps and are vibrant and plentiful, usually by cacti. And there are also some very plain looking yellow daisy types that give off the most extraordinary scent - like incredibly fresh citrus fruit mixed with pine needles, invigorating and sharp. The smell of them lifts the heaviness of the lejej from mind and heart, and sweeps across the barren plain with the freshness of Spring. We cut them and thread them through turbans and hair, in a (vain) effort to detract from our own stinkiness.
There have also - for the first time since we left the great dunes of Erg Chigaga - been a series of sand dune clusters, enough to make it look like we really are in the Sahara of the films. There is also an ancient Spanish road (of sorts) which runs across this piste, and it is quite a funny old sight to see it disappear into the depths of the larger dunes. It doesn't matter much where the road goes, since anyone travelling this piste finds their own route through it anyway. The sole problem here is that of landmines, of which there are many, the twisted wrecks of cars along the route dismal proof. I have seen more pieces of live ammunition along this piste than any other part of the Sahara; we are all in agreement that after here we will follow the road, since the following piste is in much the same state. I don't fancy winding up buried beneath a pile of camel meat, no matter how good it may taste cooked.
Between the beginning of this piste and Laayoune there is just one small settlement, by the name of Hagunia. On the map it actually looks like it may constitute something reasonably substantial - that is to say, there is an actual proper dot with a name attached, indicating some kind of life. By the time we were close by Madani and I were in frenzy of excitement - the problem, you see, is that we commenced this stage determined to quit smoking, and thus without our usual plentiful stash of contraband.
Personal note to self:
NEVER, NEVER ATTEMPT TO QUIT SMOKING IN THE SAHARA.
Particularly when there are two of you.
By day two MBarak was on his hands and knees begging us to auto stop somewhere, anywhere, to buy ciggies, and by day three, he was hailing down every passing nomad and begging for nicotine in order to prevent the imminent double murder of Madani and I. Finally he found one kind soul who donated a pipe and some tobacco, which we fell on with unseemly ravenous ferocity. And so it was that all three of us looked to Hagunia with a kind of lustful anticipation, envisioning a little shop with row after heavenly row of cigarette packets, and - in MBarak's case - a sexy little nomad wench behind the counter (you really do NOT want to know how much time he dedicated to describing this particular fantasy).
But - inevitably - it was not to be. Hagunia, after a week of walking, was no more than a place with (okay, major bonus) a well; two slightly deranged military gentlemen on some kind of punishment duty; and - only in Morocco - an extremely officious bureaucrat who demanded passports and gave us unending pointless advice. He told us he was the head of the local citizen's association, whoever on earth the local cit's may be. He also told us very sternly to beware of the deadly family of polisario camped in the next tent.
That would be the incredibly genial old man who invited us for tea and offered to slaughter a goat in our honour, then.
It was the day after this that I took a tumble down a nasty piece of hammada on the way to water the camels, and managed to tear half the ligaments in my ankle; unfortunately there was sod all I could do about it, since we were way beyond the black stump, so to speak, and the chances of hitching to Laayoune were next to nothing. In the end I walked on it for three days until we found a lift into town, where Madani and I spent a pretty stressful couple of days getting x-rays done and trying to find a lift back out to the camp. It was a semi-deranged MBarak we found, worried the water would run out, and without a soul to speak to.
So it was that when we limped here to the outskirts of Laayoune earlier today we were a bit of a sorry old bunch, although extremely glad to be putting the mosquito piste behind us. Unfortunately Madani has been on the hunt for contraband booze since we arrived in town, and has yet to find any, which is rather worrying - after a stretch that long and ugly one has the need for all things sinful. But at least we have blessed cigarettes, MBarak has a halfway decent camp, and if I am really lucky there will be a hammam open tomorrow, since I have sand in places that don't bear thinking about.
I guess my love affair with the desert had to diminish sometime, and this stretch has really been a sod. I never mind the heat, cold, wind, or rain, if I can just have a few moments of glory in the night; but this time, those moments were precious few, and the walking a painful grind. But there were moments of beauty, and I try to hang on to those; and besides, Inshallah, there will be plenty more in time to come, and this will be but a frustrated smoker's bad dream.
I will write again in Boujdor - hopefully just two weeks away.
Oh dear, that sounds suspiciously like inviting trouble...