Updated April 2022
The N1 Atlantic Highway down the coast of ‘Western Sahara’ to Mauritania is straightforward and safe and essentially a continuation of Morocco. More here. The border to Mauritania has re-opened to foreigners.
Many current maps, not least Google Maps, identify a territory called ‘Western Sahara’. The dashed border along its northern edge gives a hint that there is no actual country called ‘Western Sahara‘.
The map on the left was drawn for my Morocco Overland 3 guidebook and shows how this area actually breaks up in the real world.
In late 2020, just before the election, the Trump administration took the bold step of being the first country to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over its entire ‘Western Saharan’ territory; aka: ‘Greater Sahara’. An interesting article. As of September 2021 the State Department map depicted ‘Greater Morocco’. So too did the BBC, until they changed it back in September 2021. All these maps are misleading as they fail to identify the 2000-km long Berm (shown on the maps above; more below) which is the de facto border between Moroccan territory to the west and the Polisario Free Zone of the SADR to the east.
In 2022, after a two-year stand off which saw ferries suspended, Spain and Morocco reached a rapprochement to the benefit of Morocco’s status over the disputed territory. In April 2002, Moroccan missiles again bombed Algerian trucks on the Tindouf Route, presumably for taking the short-cut through northern PFZ territory.
What does this all mean to the desert traveller?
Covid-permitting, you can easily travel down the all-sealed N1 Atlantic Route in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara to Mauritania with no problems bar a few checkpoints and where a fiche (click to download template) is handy. Fuel is discounted south of Tan Tan and fuel stations are frequent enough in the desert between the main towns of Laayoune and Dakhla However, despite what some current maps may suggest, the Berm is not going away so you cannot get anywhere near the western Mauritanian border. Stick to the west side.
Origins of ‘Western Sahara’
The former colony of Spanish Sahara, (left) was relinquished by Spain in favour of Morocco and Mauritania in 1975. This was against the wishes of the indigenous Saharawi (‘Saharans’) population and their Polisario Front which had been agitating for independence since the 1960s. A few months later the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was declared by the Polisario.
Michael Mercer’s 1975 book, Spanish Sahara describes the region’s geography and history, and Skeletons on the Zahara is another good read set in the area. John Lodwick’s pompous and convoluted The Forbidden Coast (1956), is less so.
By 1979 Morocco had annexed the resource-rich west of the territory to which it had long made claims. As a result of that, a war broke out with Algeria (allied with Mauritania for a while) who both claimed to support the Saharawi and the SADR.
In 1991 the UN brokered a ceasefire and a plans for a referendum to decide the future of the territory. MINURSO bases are still dotted around the territory (a 2021 MINURSO map). But by this time Morocco had populated its part of the territory with northern Moroccans so as to win any referendum which has been repeatedly postponed since then. Laayoune today has a population of some 200,000, most of them northerners benefitting from ‘frontier territory’ subsidies and other inducements.
In the meantime Morocco began building a series of defensive berms, spreading in successive waves further south (above; fanack; good info here), until by 1987 the current 1500-km long militarised wall or Berm divided the territory longitudinally, like a modern Great Wall of China. The Atlantic side – two-thirds of the territory – are known as Morocco’s Southern Provinces. East of the Berm as far as the Mauritanian border is the Polisario Free Zone (PFZ), barely developed, far less occupied and supported by Algeria which also hosts many Saharawi refugee camps over the border around nearby Tindouf.
From Google maps you can see the Berm cuts a corner off northwest Mauritania for about 50km (left), so dividing the PFZ into two regions. Not all maps displayed on this page accurately show this delineation, and who knows if this is a former ‘forward line’ of the Berm which is currently unmanned. It is almost certainly mined. Whatever, it forces the Saharawi of the PFZ to cut across Mauritanian territory in the vicinity of Bir Mogrein when they want to get from Tindouf and the northern PFZ where the SADR administrative body sits, to the less populated southern sector. One can speculate that the Mauritanians tolerate these transits as long as the non-Mauritanian Saharawi (ethnically Moors, anyway) stay north of a certain area, perhaps well north of Zouerat. Further south one hears the latitudinal ‘railway border’ between the PFZ and Mauritania is respected by the army and police of both sides, although it’s said Saharawi nomads seasonally pass over the border and back.
Inland travel is much less common. A couple of roads and pistes lead to mines, small Saharawi settlements and Moroccan military bases embedded along the landmined and patrolled Berm. Zoom in with Google sat and you can see these installations clearly. We travelled in this area in 2019 (below; well away from the Berm) and there’s even a French guidebook listing routes (above right). But the rather dull landscape and risk of landmines when away from well-used pistes (particularly in the south) puts people off. See this, summarised in the box, left.
The Dakar Rally (below) used to run from Smara or Guelta Zemmour in Morocco, briefly across the PFZ and into northern Mauritania, but since at least 2002 tourists cannot cross the Berm – formerly with least difficulty along the main piste linking Guelta Zemmour with Bir Mogrein.
A couple of travellers have traversed the PFZ’s southeast corner which is used by locals as a shortcut between Nouadhibou and Zouerat to avoid the Azzefal dunes (left). But as a foreigner, once noticed or arriving at Zug you may be escorted via a couple of UN-bases northeast to Arounit close to the Mauritanian border and south of Zouerat.
In the PFZ you may find Spanish more commonly spoken than French, and it’s said you can get by with no visa or invitation letter, use Mauritanian ouguiya and buy cheap Algerian fuel.
A 2017 report from the area.