A Travellerspoint blog

Crossing Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland

It has been described as "one of the world’s most dangerous border crossings." I figured it would be an interesting 45-minute stroll.

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Leaving Western Sahara

Leaving Western Sahara

There are plenty of exaggerations and wild rumours when it comes to travel stories. Admittedly, I don’t hold back bragging about any credible danger I might face. That’s, however, nothing compared to the bad reputation that the border crossing between Western Sahara and Mauritania has among travellers in this corner of the world. The official name of ‘No Man’s Land’ only adds to the mythical stories. While a German traveller was tragically killed in 2007 and another seriously injured when their car hit a landmine, the dangers of the border crossing do not merit the stories in my opinion. I’m not one to talk ill of the dead, but only the careless and the ill-prepared have anything to fear from this hopeless corner of the planet...

Did these blow up?

Did these blow up?

I’ve always preferred to walk across borders. Many are determined by rivers, mountain ranges or high walls. Moving across these at a walking pace gives me time to feel and reflect over the transition from one country to another – and often from one culture, one languish and one mindset to another. No Man’s Land might just be one of the wildest such passages I’ve ever done. The four kilometre trip is not just a walk through the Sahara Desert along a web of unpaved desert tracks; it’s a walk through what is, essentially, a good illustration of what the post-apocalypse will look like. It’s a scenery that I’ve never come across before during my travels – and for me, places that don't remind me of anywhere else are rare. These are gold.

Car Wrecks of No Man's Land

Car Wrecks of No Man's Land

Thousands of cars and, weirdly, television sets litter the desert here. It’s as if civilisation had been destroyed from one day to the next and the desert had taken over. Add to this the claimed danger to your life from those tens of thousands of landmines. Scam artists warmed me as I began my walk. "It’s dangerous, you'll need a guide" they told me. "There are mines." Some even yelled "BOOM!!" after me. But trust me on this one. It’s a scam, nothing more. Sure, a few of the cars looked like they’d been blown up, but most had been abandoned here for one reason or another. But these tracks are well worn and even though it, at times, can be difficult to figure out which track that is the most direct, all lead between those same two border posts. Stick to the tracks, and there’s no danger what-so-ever.

Stay on the.. road...

Stay on the.. road...

Though it is still very, very cool to brave this walk alone if you ask me… It can surely be turned into a good story. But for once, I am not in a bragging mood.

What shouldn’t be done, is what the Germans did. They drove off the tracks. Not just a little. A few kilometres off the tracks. Either they didn’t know about the mines or they didn’t care. Regardless, their fates could easily have been different – something that’s only make their story even more tragic.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 05:11 Archived in Western Sahara Tagged desert travel cars border_crossing border mines dangerous landmines danger mauritania western_sahara no_mans_land Comments (0)

The Last Colony – Travelling West Sahara

It was just past four a.m. as I walked out of the bus station. The police car slowly followed. It kept shadowing me as I walked down the road, maintaining a distance of 400 metres or so. I, purposefully, made it easy for it to follow me.

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Western Sahara on the map

Western Sahara on the map

You might have seen it on the news. On one of those world maps where countries are marked in different colours according to their performance in something. If you’d noticed that weird gray ‘no-data-available’ area in the upper left corner of Africa, you’ve noticed Western Sahara.
The “disputed territory” has had this ‘gray status’ since 1975 when the Spanish left their last colony in Africa. They left so completely that they even duck up the bodies from their cemeteries to re-buried them in Spain. The term ‘disputed’ is diplomatic lingo for “someone is not following international law” - in this case, that ‘someone’ is Morocco. For non-diplomats, most of Western Sahara is occupied by Morocco. The long story short is that the Spanish let Morocco and Mauritania “have” the territory when they left. This against the direct will of the local population, the Sahrawis, who according to the United Nation’s Charter had a right to self-determination as a colonised people. They still have this right, now just under Moroccan rule, not Spanish. Hence, Western Sahara has been named the Last Colony of Africa.

The so-called border post

The so-called border post

Spectacularly, back in 1975 Morocco had 500.000 unarmed civilians march into the territory in what is known as ‘the Green March,' claiming it in a glamorous way as Moroccan. The army had moved in six days earlier. Mauritania eventually had enough of the local population’s resistance and left. Morocco swiftly moved into that territory too. And the reason for all is? Natural resources. (What else?). Western Sahara is home to the world’s biggest reserve of phosphate, and the waters off the coast a rich – making the fishing rights here big business. A ceasefire eventually put an end to the fighting in 1991. Since then, Morocco has occupied around 80 per cent of the territory. The 20 percent left to the local population is eventually nothing but sand, with no natural resources. Hence, about half of the Sahrawi population currently live in exile in refugee camps in Algeria.

Plenty of road blocks

Plenty of road blocks

This conflict is largely unknown to the wider world. Primarily because no powerful state cares about this easily forgettable corner of Africa.

Travelling here is distinctly different from travelling in Morocco. I’ve had both civilians and police instruct me not to take photos. At all. Of anything. One local Sahrawi, who befriended me, wanted his picture taken and we had to drive out of town for no one to see us. Both police and military presence are massive, and there are at least a couple of military bases in each of the towns I’ve visited.

Let's call him Riad

Let's call him Riad

Entering and exiting any town the buses stop at a police checkpoint and everybody will have their ID’s checked. As a foreigner, the Moroccan occupational force fear that I’m a journalists or human rights activist, who’s only mission is to expose all the violations happening towards the Sahrawis (more on that here and here). My details were vigorously noted at each checkpoint, and at my final destination for the day are the local police warned about my arrival. When I arrived from Morocco to Smara very early in the morning, the local police was waiting for me at the bus station. Just sitting, casually in their car. After leaving the bus station, the police car slowly followed around 400 metres behind me. The last thing I wanted was any trouble, so I made it easy for them. Not turning too many corners in a row while looking for a hotel. The first two I tried were full. After this, the officers clearly got tiered of following me around at 4:30 in the morning. They drove up to me, asked if I was looking for a hotel and the took me to “the best” (at 3€ per night it clearly wasn’t). Being under surveillance has its benefits too.

Local football boys

Local football boys

Smara isn’t visited as often by foreigners as it is inland. It’s also closer to the front line between the Moroccan army and the local rebels. So besides an alert police force, there’s also plenty of secret agents making sure that none of the locals I spoke with would tell me anything about the occupation or any mistreatment going on. This explains why my new friend was so weary of having his picture taken. Luckily, the agents are rather easy to spot with their sunglasses and leather jackets. I stayed out of too much trouble, and they stayed out of my way, though one was spectating me playing football with some local kids in Smara. Those kids would probably have gotten a visit from the police one of these days...

Posted by askgudmundsen 12:46 Archived in Western Sahara Tagged travel security morocco west_africa conflict western_sahara polisario sahrawis smara dakhla Comments (0)

What do Travellers do all Day?

Going to Rome or Marrakesh figuring out what to do is pretty easy. It usually goes like this: Sightseeing at day, a nice meal in the evening before drinking the night away. But what does one do in Western Sahara?

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Welcome to Western Sahara

Welcome to Western Sahara

I’ve seen this question asked multiple times. In novels, on television and online. It has always been kind of rhetorical. It is often answered with “seeing the world,” which is both inadequate and a cliché. Now that I’m here in Western Sahara, where typical pastimes such as sights, good food and alcohol are non-excising, I figured I might try to give a decent answer to what travellers do all day.
Generally, it’s possible to divide my travelling time into five categories: planning, actually moving from a to b, killing time, meeting people, and meta-travel (blogging, editing pictures, etc.).

Planning

Travel planning

Travel planning

Travel planning distinguishes itself from preparing for a vacation. It’s much more low-tech. Hostels don't exist in Western Sahara and those five hotels with online booking is way, way out of my price range. Planning is done on the ground and is more a matter of improvising. Having arrived somewhere, the first thing I need to do is to find a place to sleep and to offload my backpack. I usually head to the primary market – these are more often entire neighbourhoods than actually makeshifts markets. This is where the cheap hotels tend to be located. It usually takes a bit of shopping around to find one that isn’t full, cheap and clean. Leaving any destination also requires some preparation. Hotel staff can sometimes assist with departure times, but most often it’s necessary to head to the bus or train station itself. Booking ahead requires an extra trip to the station, but can be necessary if there're limited options to my next destination. The alternative, to just show up before departure. Once the ticket is secured it’s a waiting game as transportation is always delayed. Then there’s the ‘I need to get a new pair of socks or ‘my headphones broke’ shopping that takes ages because it includes figuring out a decent price, quality and the fact that I have no idea about where the electronic stores are. This quickly takes a couple of hours every day.

Moving between destinations

Standard Western Sahara Road

Standard Western Sahara Road

Then there’s the process of travelling itself, that is, moving from a to b. Distances are wast in Western Sahara; neighbouring towns are – at least – a three-hour bus ride away. (This is a country larger than the UK with only half a million inhabitants). However, arriving at a new, unknown destination is one of the joys of travelling. So is being on the move. You sort of has to like this bit. At least if you don’t want to have a miserable time on your travels. Yes, the landscape outside the window has been impressive, but dull dessert for the past three hours, but I’m moving. That feeling of progress is after all the essence of travelling. Though the rally-like driving down here makes it a rather nerve-rigging feeling too. On days where I’m moving between places, this takes up no less than three hours of the day. It can easily take up an entire day if waiting times are long or if it’s an eight-hour trip. Don’t even get me started on those 20 or 36-hour rides. Luckily, those are rare and yet to come.

Killing time

Weirdest. Sculpture. Ever.

Weirdest. Sculpture. Ever.

A sort of sightseeing is possible in Western Sahara, but sights are of a different kind. You might have learned about a few tings from fellow travellers or the guidebook. A lighthouse, a market or whatever. Those are usually crossed off the bucket list rather quickly. From there on it’s a search for new interesting tings to do. It usually takes a few walks around town, but once in a while, you strike gold. I’ve come across the weirdest statue I’ve ever seen, an idyllic harbour and a girls football match with all female spectators at the local stadium. When nothing comes up, my usual retreat is the tea-houses, where numerous men are hanging out killing time on their own. I join them. Smartphones and Wi-Fi reached Africa years ago, so many places give me time to catch up on the world, read (I’m becoming a big The Guardian reader) or have a chat with friends back home. This is not a vacation and time is not limited, so I can enjoy that ‘making the most of it’ does not require a constant rush. These breaks also give me a chance to check in with other travellers online. Is there’s something I’ve missed in town? The best gems are often hidden, and I just might need help finding them. If there nothing online, I’m have the options between another walk around town or another cup of tea. If I’m not moving between destinations, this can take up the entire day and no less than a couple of hours are spent in this fashion.

Meeting people

Meeting the locals

Meeting the locals

These are the spontaneous moments that for most travellers make it all worthwhile. Especially if they don’t like that whole moving from a to b part. These meetings are always spontaneous and once they’ve happened you simply just have to push everything else aside to enjoy it. Most travellers are more concerned with meeting the world than seeing it. These encounters are not solely a matter of the locals being friendly. I can help them along. A general greeting when I enter a café. By offering the person next to me on the bus some of my snacks. Or engaging locals with simple questions – like yesterday when a question of when the boats were coming in resulted in a tour of the harbour and tea with the workers there. These are the meetings that can lead to invitations to local homes, new friends and a better understanding of the country. I just hope they happen as often as possible.

Meta-travelling

Blogging on the road

Blogging on the road

Any travel blogger will tell you the same. Travel blogging is a lot of work. Two hours every day is a low estimate. Writing drafts, dismissing drafts, editing and proof-reading – all takes time. So does photo editing (a painstakingly lot of time) and uploading them. And I’m not even spending the time, that I probably should, on promising my blog around the web. For those living off their travels it’s a full-time job – they just always get to decide where their office is. I’m just happy that alcohol is so hard to come by. That leaves plenty of lonely nights to meta-travel...

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Posted by askgudmundsen 15:44 Archived in Western Sahara Tagged travel planning sighseeing blogging how_to what_do_travellers_do meeting_locals western_sahara Comments (0)

Stupid, but Lucky – Part Four: How Not to get Kidnapped

In the past sixteen years more than 90 Westerners have been kidnapped in the Sahara. I do not want to add to that number.

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Map of Sahara kidnappings. Source: Sahara-Overland.com

Map of Sahara kidnappings. Source: Sahara-Overland.com

The aim of this blog post is not to frighten anybody. Nonetheless, kidnapping is a frightening topic to discuss and to write about. Yet, I would argue that it is also a necessary topic when travelling certain parts of the world. Hell, when I choose to go where I am going, not looking into this stuff would make going here twice as stupid. Simply because kidnapping is going to be the most serious threat to me in particular parts of West Africa. In particular Mali, Niger and, less so, in Mauritania and Burkina. But is this not just paranoia, you ask? Let us go through the numbers:
Since 2003, 95 Westerners have been kidnapped in 28 kidnapping incidents across North Africa (see map) and most of these kidnappings have been in the Sahel area. Sahara-Overland has a detailed page if you are interested, but the outcomes are as follows: 49 hostages have been ransomed. 18 were freed in army raids while four have died in failed raids. Two have been released voluntarily by their captors; six have been executed by them and four have died in captivity, usually due to health issues. 12 are still held by their kidnappers.
So, what is the good news? Most victims have either been living permanently in the region or have been part of larger organised tours. Out of those 95, only 15 were travelling independently and only three of these were not ‘overlanders’, driving their own vehicles. So I am not exactly part of the main target group. Further, no tourists have been kidnapped since 2014 in the entire Sahara. Then again, this might just be because fewer people visit the area due to the risk of being kidnapped…

Source: The New York Times

Source: The New York Times

The other sort-of-good news is that most hostages are being held for ransom and that the kidnappers are becoming excellent at keeping their hostages alive. To the point where a Frenchwoman with cancer received her medication even though she was held captive in the middle of the Sahara. Danes are not targeted either. This is because the kidnappers are well aware that individual governments, in particular, the German, Austrian, French, Swiss, Spanish and Italian governments, are willing to pay ransoms. Kidnappers, therefore, target nationals from these countries. The governments of cause deny paying any ransoms. Instead, the payments are handled by ‘third parties’. Ransom payments then appear as “development assistance” in the national budgets. The “bad news” here is that no Danes have been kidnapped in the Sahara prior to my trip and I have not been able to figure out how Danes have been released elsewhere in the World. So I do not know how the Danish government would position itself in the hypothetical case that I would need a ransom. Though I do fear, they are on board with the American and British ditto, who do not pay ransom. This, put bluntly, means that I have less of a risk of being kidnapped, but a higher risk getting executed should it actually happen. So that should probably be the first lesson: Know who is the target group, and the do not be part of it.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

The second lesson would be to realise that the kidnappings are rarely spontaneous. By now they are most often planned, and well planned too. The perpetrators need a getaway route, a car and a hiding-place for the first few days. In most cases kidnappings last months, requiring, even more, preperation. The groups in the Sahara are indeed getting more professional, but even they need a few days to figure out your nationality. That means it is possible to take a few precautions. Not staying in the same hotel for more than a couple of nights goes a long way. So does mixing up your daily routines; taking different routes from, say, your hotel to the market; eating at a new place for every meal; avoiding empty streets, and not going out at night. These precautions should be taking when travelling in areas where kidnapping risks are high. Lastly, avoiding public transportation might be a good idea for certain trips. The alternative here is to get your hotel or local authorities to recommend you a reliable driver who can ferry you safely across rural areas where the government have less control.

Me and my reliable driver, Afghanistan

Me and my reliable driver, Afghanistan

Finally, anyone contemplating going to an area where there is a risk of kidnapping need to understand the mental dilemma this brings. I would not travel here if I were not ready to face the risk – nor should anybody else. However, this is a very selfish position to take. Just like suicide is a selfish act. My death or kidnapping will affect my friends and family far greater than it would affect me, and they had no chance to influence my decision about going here. Death is certain for all of us and once we are dead – like before we were born – we will not be around to worry about the fact that we are not alive. All the pain and suffering are left for those we leave behind.
But how great is the danger really? In 2012 10.000 people visited Mali (down from 200.000 in 2011). Out or those 210.000 visitors seven got kidnapped. So the risk is limited. Of the 10.000 people visiting Mali in 2012, just one got kidnapped. The other Mali-kidnapping in 2012 was a missionary living permanently in the country. And all eight people kidnapped got kidnapped in parts of Mali I do not plan to visit. In other words: I am still far more likely to lose my lift to the crazy traffic down here than to any terrorist attack or kidnapping. Not that I plan to get killed in any specific way down here – but if I go, I would rather do it while doing travelling – something that I love – than in a traffic accident back home in Copenhagen.

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titude-mon..ofbrian-650.jpg

And after all that uncomfortable and depressing reading we should probably end on a higher note. So here is a quote from Monty Python’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life:

For life is quite absurd, and death's the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow
Forget about your sin - give the audience a grin
Enjoy it - it's your last chance anyhow.

So always look on the bright side of death...
(Whistle)
a-Just before you draw your terminal breath...
(Whistle)

Life's a piece of shit, when you look at it
Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true
You'll see its all a show, keep 'em laughing as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you

And...
Always look on the bright side of life...
(Whistle)

Posted by askgudmundsen 05:16 Archived in Morocco Tagged travel tourist sahara mali danger niger west_africa mauritania kidnapping terrorists al-qaeda sahel burkina_faso Comments (4)

Stupid, but Lucky – Part Three: Stop Watching the News

Travelling is an opportune possibility to get behind all those gloomy news reports of wars, terror and catastrophes. For that to happen it is necessary not to judge a country or the safety of travelling there on the news.

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Safety is always an issue!

Safety is always an issue!

The itch for exploration is not the only thing that draws me to weird destinations, political instability, armed conflicts or outright war have always interested me in a professional way and much of my studies have evolved around these topics. Travelling gives me a chance to see and experience what I read about. Afghanistan and Iraq have been the most prominent examples, but places like Iran, Sudan, Palestine, and some parts of Guatemala have also landed me some raised eyebrows and harsh comments from friends and family. So will places like Mali, Burkina Faso or maybe just the entire region West Africa.
With all the stories on the news featuring these areas, it is hardly surprising. Who in their right mind would go to Iran, a rogue state persuading nuclear weapons, or Sudan, a country most famous for genocide and civil war? Let alone quagmires such as Afghanistan or Iraq. However, I try not to pay too much attention to ‘the News’ – their innate nature is to be sensational, to blow the slightest incidents out of proportion and to fixate out minds with circles of vicious news that can both horrify us and keep us glued to the screen.

Iran is actually perfectly safe

Iran is actually perfectly safe

At least, the terrible events regularly featured on the news would not put me off from contemplating a visit to a particular country. Instead travelling these places gives me the opportunity to see beyond the news reports. I mean, imagine what we would think about Americans if we only took our impressions from the news. Gun-loving, religious fanatics, who want Donald Trump to rule the world. Luckily, most of us have fortunately met Americans in person, who have counter-acted that stereotype by been friendly, bright, sophisticated and just kind people. This helps us to get the better picture of the country’s population. How many have ever met someone from Iran or Sudan?
Someone clever once said that the news is full of death and destruction exactly because that is news. That is, for most people, most of their lives are quite, relatively peaceful and mostly concerned with making ends meet. This is probably true for both the London lawyer and the Malian camel herder. Going to West Africa will be an insight into a continent that only features in the News for two reasons. 1) War, hunger and general human misery and (2) those almost racists National Geographic documentaries depicting Africans as backwards tribes living without modern utilities in small huts.
All this does not mean that I wander headless into harms way. Travellers, including myself, spend a lot of time worrying about our safety before and when we head into places like Mali and Afghanistan – why would we not be the ones most worried about our safety in these locations?

Check-Points won't let you pass to an unsafe area

Check-Points won't let you pass to an unsafe area

I usually spend a lot of time, reading up on local news, other travellers’ reports, requiring information about the particular situation on the ground, ask into unsafe areas at embassies and try to outline what the risks would be and where they are actually a concern. I pay less attention to the governmental travel advice, which is always very, very conservative and designed not so much to keep you out of harms way, but rather to limit the government’s hassle of getting one of their citizens out of trouble. That might sound like a conspiracy theory (and I will be happy to fold myself a tin-hat if you can prove me wrong). But Western Governments newer warn about terror risks in other Western countries – and let's face it, there is a danger of getting blown up if you run a marathon in the States, take the subway in Brussels or attend a concert in Paris. But no travel warnings are given. Instead, plenty of warnings are given about countries like Mauritania and Burkina Faso. The former have had zero terror attacks within the last fifteen years; the latter has had one.

I can always try to assimilate

I can always try to assimilate

Interestingly enough, the biggest risk I am running in West Africa is kidnappings. More than 90 Westerners have been kidnapped in the Sahel region since 2003. Granted there has actually only been 28 kidnappings, but a few of them have included large groups of westerners, either tourists or professionals working abroad. How exactly I plan not to be one of those people will be part of the fourth and last ‘Stupid, but Lucky’ blog entry. However, most locals rather want to help you than hurt you – and travelling you rely ultimately on the hospitality and friendliness of the local population. That is why I only bring one weapon with me on my travels – my smile.

Posted by askgudmundsen 16:35 Archived in Morocco Tagged travel news safety safe west_africa governments safe_travel news_reports travel_advise researching_safety Comments (0)

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