The strangely festive mood that pervaded the Berber-style tent camp bivouac on the beach at Oum Labouir was strained by the knowledge that barely two miles away, rioters were battling in the streets of the small peninsula city of Dakhla on the southwestern coast of Morocco. Details of what was going on were sketchy, but we were assured that we were safe.
Had all gone according to plan, this would have been the third of four nights of free concerts highlighting the fifth annual Dakhla Sport and Music Festival. And the towering stage in Dakhla’s central square would have been rocking to the sounds of reggae king Alpha Blondy and “The White Zulu,” South Africa’s Johnny Clegg. Instead, there was mayhem in the streets and we were holed up in a seaside bivouac forced to make the best of a bad situation.
“That’s Africa,” observed a member of Alpha Blondy philosophically. “It’s happened to us before. We’re used to it.”
Well, it had never happened to me. In fact, prior to accepting the invitation to cover the festival, I had questioned whether a trip to Morocco during this period of political instability in the region was the best idea.
“Morocco is different,” I was told again and again. It didn’t seem that different at the moment.
Here I was surrounded by a bevy of super-cool musicians, laid-back surf-gypsies and international journalists, all sipping from an illicit stash of beer and wine, smoking (cigarettes) and generally having a grand old time, while outside the tent the night wind blew and the surf pounded on the shore. Later, when the members of Alpha Blondy decided to perform an impromptu concert for the camp, it felt like we were all fiddling while Dakhla burned.
The next day the army was called in and order was restored. But by then five people had been killed, houses and cars had been set ablaze and the festival staff had no choice but to announce the festival was officially cancelled.
It is unlikely that the incendiary political tension that is endemic to Morocco’s Western Sahara will be resolved by next February. Nevertheless, the organizers of the Dakhla Festival are determined that Dakhla’s sixth annual celebration of surf and song will rise phoenix-like from the ashes but with enhanced security.
So would I consider returning? Absolutely!
The people who said, “It can’t happen here” may have been wrong, but it is unfair to compare the political atmosphere in Morocco to countries such as Libya, Egypt, Tunisia or Yemen. Certainly Morocco faces regional issues in the Western Sahara. But there is no systemic movement against the country’s monarch, King Mohammed VI. In fact, the situation is quite the opposite. Morocco’s king is seen as a forward-looking democratically-oriented monarch who is working to advance his country.
The events that transpired in February should not dissuade anyone from considering a visit to the Dakhla Peninsula, a unique, and as yet relatively undiscovered tourist destination. It is a land of stark desert landscape of volcanic stone and white sand dunes bordered by the azure waters of the Bay of Dakhla and the Atlantic Ocean.
The peninsula is much like the Baja California of 25 years ago, before the onset of mega-hotels, aromatherapy spas, spring break and supersize tourism. It is a wind-surfers paradise, a place were small cabana hotels (like Camp Dakhla Attitude) can only be reached by four-wheel-drive vehicles, where fresh seafood is cooked on open charcoal fires along with traditional Moroccan tajines (pottery cooking pots) filled with succulent beef, lamb and couscous.
There are also a number of more easily accessible hotels, such as the Lagon Bleu and the Calipau Sahara, both of which are scenically carved into the cliff face overlooking the bay. The former is modest and comfortable with a lovely dining room, the later distinctly elegant and styled in traditional Moorish architecture. Everywhere an atmosphere of Franco-Moroccan congeniality abounds, and knowing French is an asset. To sit on the deck at the Lagon Bleu sipping a cold glass of Casablanca beer and looking across the bay as sunset turns the distant hills of Africa deep purple is a moment to cherish.
Dakhla’s relative isolation, however, may not last too much longer. Organizations such as Club Med (which has a major presence in Morocco) are already showing interest. Golf resorts and 3,000-room hotels cannot be far behind. Fortunately, forces that promote a greener, more socially-minded agenda are fighting against the exploitation of the region.
It is possible to drive to Dakhla, but by far the most practical way to get there is to catch one of the five flights that leave weekly from Casablanca. The city center is a bustling place of small shops and seaside eateries. The newest hotel, the Sahara Regency, is right on the main square, which also serves as the focal point for the music festival, and its rooftop bar makes an excellent viewing spot.
Unlike Morocco’s principal tourist destinations, Dakhla is a modern creation. Most of the city was constructed in the last 20 years. Until 1986 there was no real road connecting Dakhla to the cities to the north. The city contains no ancient medina with its labyrinth of alleyways filled with metal workers and rug merchants hawking their wares. The major industry is fishing, though it’s clear that for Dakhla tourism is the wave of the future.
An alternative to staying in a European-style hotel is the Berber tent camp bivouac where our group was housed. The bivouac offers a real taste of Moroccan living in the Berber tradition with meals served under an enormous communal tent.
The camp is located on the beach just a few miles from the city center. The amenities, however, are limited. There is no heating, and hot water is limited and dispensed from a hand-held shower fixture that resides in a small bathroom anteroom equipped with a marine toilet. The beds are fine (linen and plenty of covers are provided), and there is electricity and lighting. These tents lack certain fineries, but they make up for it with the sound of the wind ruffling the tent and the surging of the surf as their occupants fall asleep.
WHEN YOU GO
General information: www.visitmorocco.com
The main airline servicing Dakhla is Royal Air Moroc.
Information on the Dakhla Festival: www.dakhla-festival.com
Where to stay: Bivouacs Lemnaouar Hivernage, Rue El Imam Abou Hanifa Gu‚liz 4000, Marrakesh, Morocco. For reservations: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hotel Sahara Regency: www.sahararegency.com
Hotel Calipau Sahara, www.dakhla-hotel-sahara.com
Camp Dakhla Attitude: www.dakhla-attitude.ma
The Lagon Bleu Hotel: www.lagonbleudakhla.com