With the sun behind him the features of the approaching figure were in deep shadow. I was looking at the silhouette of a person holding what looked like a large spanner. Believe it or not, I had slowly started to put my hands up when the figure pointed to one of the rear tyres on the truck and spoke, in French. At first I thought he was telling me we had a flat but then I sussed that he wanted to borrow a jack. Cornflakes, board games, brandy and a trenching tool were just a few of the things I’d found secreted away in the truck over the previous weeks. But I couldn’t remember having seen a tyre jack.
‘Claire,’ I yelled across the forecourt, ‘this guy wants to borrow a jack. Where is it?’
‘In the back’ She never looked up from her book as she yelled back in response.
Now ‘the back’ may not look big enough to easily conceal something as large as a jack but trust me, this truck was like the Tardis. All the seats had storage space under them and tons of stuff piled on top of them. I needed some clues. What I got was Claire humfing across the forecourt but who nevertheless found the jack and had it out in 30 seconds. Claire’s humf, as usual, didn’t last long and her professional curiosity got the better of her so we followed the guy, jack in one hand and spanner in the other, round the corner. I can’t remember the make of the car we were looking at but it would be classified as a ‘boy-racer’ at home.
And there, leaning against this black, gleaming, fully accessorised, insurance agent’s nightmare stood a pair of life insurance agent’s nightmares. What the hell were these two cool dudes doing here? Surely this wasn’t their hood? Where would you do a drive-by out here? There’s nothing to drive-by. Then it dawned - off duty soldiers, maybe. Or maybe not. I’m not sure how reassured the Moroccan Minister of Defence would be if he thought the people guarding the border weren’t savvy enough to carry a jack. I think I’d probably do a review or something. Mind you, you’d also have expected spanner man to have a jack as well. We assumed that the small tow truck parked next to the boy racer was his, and that the overalls he wore under his scarf meant that he was a mechanic, so the need to borrow something as basic as a jack was a bit mystifying.
Even I know to carry a jack at home though I’m not sure I’d know what to do with it. Once the car was raised there was further delay while Claire and spanner man went back to the truck to look for a right-handed, 18cm, ratchet sprocket or something. I don’t think I’ve got one of those in my car. I sat in the sun leaning against a petrol pump and watched the front drivers-side tyre come off. Interesting, as it was the rear drivers-side tyre that was flat. But no, there was more. Next the flat rear tyre was removed and even more interestingly, was put back in place of the front tyre. I must add that this whole process was interrupted at frequent intervals by a lot of debate and the occasional request from Claire for them to ‘get a bloody move on’.
Another mug of coffee later it was all smiles as the jack and the other thing were handed back to Claire. Boy racer now had a flat at the front instead of the back but everybody seemed happy except we were also more than a tad puzzled at this exercise. It wasn’t until was watched spanner man then reverse his truck up to boy racer, attach the towing hook to the front of the car and winch it a foot or so off the ground that we understood. Wedged into the tow truck cab, all three drove off waving effusively as both back wheels of the car rolled smoothly over the tarmac. Spanner man may not have had the tools for the job but we were well impressed with his initiative. Can’t say the same for the other two though, no jack, no spare and apparently no engine either.
Of course we didn’t make it to Tarfaya which is the price you pay for an unintended and leisurely lunch stop. Or at least, I paid the price, once we did stop for the night. Claire, on the other hand, had a great night, thought it all very amusing she did. It’s no wonder I slept for weeks when I got home. In retrospect though, lunch was worth the slightly unusual impending evening entertainment.
First we had a whole afternoon of hammada dotted with the occasional settlement, communications towers, army check points and even once, a single solitary huge sand dune. At intervals on our left hand side were steep gullies in the cliffs that afforded views of stunning deserted beaches and an intense blue sea. These gullies, some almost up to the road edge were always located in places where dry wadis crossed the road. It’s the force of the water falling over the cliffs when in spate that causes these gullies. It won’t be long before some gullies will need either bridging or a detour into the hammada.
The weird thing is that the land seems completely flat for miles yet it must slope imperceptibly towards the sea for water to flow in that direction. If you didn’t know the sea was there then you’d never guess which way the water in the wadis flowed. The other things that were far more frequently spotted at the side of the road were tyres. They cropped up all over the place. Some had been arranged as if marking out a plot of land – they’d been positioned upright and half buried in the sand. Others were just stacked in piles either on the side of the road, stacked in isolated piles some way off the road or over a milestone as in a game of hoop-la. Bizarre it was, as none of the tyres seemed to have just been randomly thrown away.
There was obviously some logic behind this but we didn’t get it. I don’t think for one minute this had anything to do with marking plots of land either. Why, in the middle of nowhere, would you even bother to mark out a single plot? Of considerably more interest on the artistic front were the cairns or pyramid shaped piles of stones at intervals along the road. Well some of them were pyramids but many of them had been built into amazing sculptural shapes and obviously with great skill as not one of them had fallen over or fallen to pieces. We figured that they must’ve been made by the guys who built the road but we’d no idea why. Some of these guys would make a fortune in the UK building dry stone walls and garden features. An exhibition at the Tate Modern even? Not everything was a complete mystery on this particular stretch of the N1 though.
Somewhere along the way we came across hundreds of those huge things made out of concrete that they use to make harbour walls and jetties. No idea what they’re called but they’re shaped like pointy stars and when they’re stacked on top of each other in the same way you’d build a brick wall; the pointy bits all interlock and make a solid foundation. All the spaces between the pointy bits at the top are filled in with rubble and the whole structure is then levelled off. Later on we saw a new port development where these things had been used to make really long jetties with really big container ships moored alongside them.
But it was such an unexpected sight - hundreds of these things in rows by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. I wonder where we store ours in the UK? I wouldn’t have thought we’d got the space. Just south of Laayoune, a large industrial complex was lit up like a bloody Christmas tree; floodlights, street lights, spotlights, stop lights, go lights and headlights all twinkling in the distance. But if the darkness hadn’t been temporarily banished to the edges of our vision we wouldn’t have seen …… the conveyor belt. Yes, rumoured to be the longest conveyor belt in the world, it carries phosphates from Boukra, about 80km to the east, to Laayoune for shipping. And jolly exciting it was too. Another one of those things that I didn’t know existed that I came upon by chance. Serendipity or what? After much careful consideration on the subject of the sights of Western Sahara and their overall scarcity I find myself in the position of calling a conveyor belt a ‘must see’. How sad is that?