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Day 14: Tinfou to Tindouf

Southern Morocco 
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Southern Morocco. Bedouin tribesmen secure their camels in the teeth of a gale. Many now depend for their livelihood on the demand for camel safaris from increasingly adventurous tourists.
Michael Palin - SaharaBeyond Mhamid the desert stretches away into Algeria, the second largest country in Africa. It is not best friends with neighbouring Morocco, and one of the reasons lies beside the solitary tarmac road that runs across this flat and rubble-strewn landscape. Above a walled compound on the outskirts of Tindouf, a flag slaps and cracks in the wind. The flag - a chevron, three horizontal bands and the moon and star of Islam - belongs to none of the countries whose frontiers meet in this desolate spot. Not Algeria, Morocco nor Mauritania. It is the flag of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, and you will scour the atlas in vain for its name, for officially it doesn't exist.

Inside the compound there is an almost cloistered hush. The wind has dropped and the stillness of the surrounding desert deadens noise like a fresh snowfall. In the middle of a quadrangle of sand and stones people are meeting and talking softly in the shade offered by an open-sided thatch-roofed shelter. Around the walls of the compound runs a single-storey block of rooms providing accommodation and other facilities. The writing on the walls provides a clue to the mystery of the Saharawis. 'Tienda' above the shop, 'Comedores' above the refectory. Another clue is in the faces of those talking. Over half are clearly not African. They're light-skinned, with chunky moustaches and round, earnest faces.

There's a WC prominently indicated, one of a row of privies in an ablution block. As I push open the door I'm hit by a sharp whiff of uric acid rising from the damp sides of a hole in the mud floor. We who are used to having our body waste disposed of instantly forget that in the desert flushing lavatories appear only in mirages.

Our host for the next few days is a short, wiry man of middling age, eyes creased and narrowed. With his hands sunk deep in the pockets of a thick quilted jacket and his body angled forward as if braced for the next sandstorm, everything about him suggests stoic defiance.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 14
  • Country/sea: Algeria
  • Place: Smara Refugee Camp
  • Book page no: 59

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