Tarfaya – on the edge of Morocco and Western Sahara

Tarfaya – on the edge of Morocco and Western Sahara

adventure travel & photography

Destinations: Pakistan ◦◦ India ◦◦Turkey ◦◦ Egypt ◦◦ Bulgaria ◦◦ Mongolia ◦◦ Bangladesh ◦◦ Jordan ◦◦ Russia ◦◦ Turkmenistan ◦◦ Iran ◦◦ Kazakhstan ◦◦ Japan ◦◦ Hong Kong ◦◦ Greece ◦◦ Ukraine ◦◦ Syria ◦◦ Morocco

Type: Photo stories ◦◦ Places ◦◦ Documentary ◦◦ Black and White ◦◦ Fine Art Prints ◦◦ Seascapes ◦◦ Urban

The story

Here, on the edge of the Sahara Desert, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote his novel Southern Mail (Courrier Sud). This is also where the idea for his most famous work — The Little Prince — was born. The fact that the French writer lived and worked there, as well as the scant information about this place on the internet, helped me make the decision to see this place in person.

The small dusty town is located near the undefined border between Morocco and the territory of Western Sahara, about 700 km from Marrakech, in the extreme southwestern corner of the Kingdom.

There was almost no traffic on the road. On one side lies the sea, on the other the desert. Nothing remarkable, but at the same time, it felt surreal. Only the rare cars and trucks traveling down a one-lane road with unequal borders interrupted my thoughts. The distance between the cars was sometimes so small that my adrenaline kicked in. I was fined for not obeying a stop sign at a roundabout in the middle of nowhere. I hadn't even noticed the policeman parked nearby in his car. After taking the money, he gave me a pink receipt written in Arabic and let me go.

Almost unnoticeably, I've reached Sidi Akhfennir, a dusty desert town with a couple of small restaurants and a hotel. The military patrol wrote down my ID data in a dirty notebook. It is well-known that journalists and photographers are not welcome in Western Sahara. Although I am not a photographer, nor a journalist, I covered my camera just in case.

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They wished me "good luck" and let me go. "Why do I need luck?" I wondered. I had read that the last incident in the region had occurred in November 2011, when three Europeans working on a humanitarian mission in a refugee camp near Tindouf in western Algeria had been kidnapped. Somehow I was sure that nothing like that would happen to me.

Recommended book: Western Sahara : War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution

Salt Fields of Khenifiss National Park appeared, with the Naïla Lagoon and the pink flamingo. I stopped often to enjoy the desert and the ocean. The sea took on a bluish hue and the landscape definitely took on more pastel tones. At any moment I expected the Little Prince to appear in front of me, sitting on a stone by the side of the road.

“Please draw me a sheep,” he says.

“I cannot draw,” I replied. “But I promise to send you a photo of a sheep because I like taking pictures and I have a nice camera.”

The imaginary conversation helped me avoid falling asleep during the boring drive. Then I arrived in Tarfaya.

Books by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
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I hung around the dusty streets of this godforsaken place, trying to picture Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in the small room of the local post office where he had worked as manager in the 1920s.

It occurred to me that in a place like this it, might not be that difficult to start writing.

I tried to imagine the little planes landing not far from the post office. At that time, airplanes could not fly long distances without refuelling and for this reason, there were post offices all over West Africa where the crews could take food and rest, in addition to refuelling. The stories about planes crashing in the desert and their crews being kidnapped by hostile nomadic tribes were well known. They were perhaps one of the reasons that the great writer defined this place as “the pure idea of nothingness.” That was my impression too. Confirming this feeling of emptiness and isolation, the museum dedicated to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was closed, to my great regret.

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The immensity of the beaches and the ocean around the city reinforced the sense of infinity and wilderness even more. Even the children playing football on the beach and surfing couldn’t help this sense of isolation. The semi-submerged Casa Mar (House in the Sea) stands squarely in place, reminiscent of the magical setting of a surreal film. The strange building is actually a fort built by Scottish trader Donald Mackenzie in the late 19th century.

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I felt like the people hanging around weren’t far off the idea of grabbing my camera and hitting me on the head with it while running on the beach, only to make fun of me. Of course, they weren’t that wild, but I just felt it that way.

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While walking on the outskirts of town, I saw the wreck of the “Assalam” ship owned by the Spanish company Naviera Armas, which sailed regularly between Puerto del Rosario in Fuerteventura (Canary Islands) and Tarfaya. The bad weather was believed to be the main reason for the unfortunate event, but experts are still not entirely sure if this was the only reason. “Assalam” was a 42-year-old Panamanian-flagged ship with a Cuban crew. It is still a mystery as to why the passengers spent 24 hours without help and care, without money and food on the deserted African coast. In the rush to abandon the ship, no one took anything. They couldn’t make calls because they didn’t have money to pay for them. The scandal that followed was enormous.

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I was sitting on a small pile of sand just in front of the wreck. A piece from Exupéry’s Little Prince came to my mind, "People start out in express trains, but they no longer know what they're looking for. Then they get all excited and rush around in circles..." I thought that my trip to Tarfaya looked like a rush around in circles.

Was all the effort worth it? Has this trip added anything to my life? What have I learned? What is the added value and should I always pay attention to it when traveling?

Tarfaya

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