Ask any Moroccan about the status of the Western Sahara and they will insist it belongs to their country, yet the UN is clear that this is still under dispute. Local maps may show this region as a seamless continuation of the hammada around Tarfaya, but many outside Morocco disagree.
This area largely comprises the former colonies of Spanish Sahara and part of the Tarfaya Strip. Crossing the vast tracts of desert here, one does marvel at the dispute. The towns are merely administrative centres, and the terrain stretching away from the N1 is featureless, arid, inhospitable and uninviting. Despite this distinct lack of postcard prettiness, this environment has phosphate, oil and fishing potential – significant factors in the dispute.
It’s one of the world’s most sparsely populated territories, and despite the 1991 ceasefire in the war between Morocco and the separatist Polisario Front, the Moroccan military sometimes seems to outnumber civilians. If you want to appreciate the Sahara and see oases and dunes, the likes of Merzouga, Figuig and Tata are better choices – more scenic, safer and reached via less gruelling journeys from central Morocco. For travellers who need to cross the Western Sahara to reach Mauritania, bear in mind that this is a disputed area and read our safety guidelines.
Due to the volatile situation in the Western Sahara while this book was being researched, the information on Laâyoune and Dakhla has been updated remotely via phone and internet.