Francis Tapon has hiked across America four times, walked across Spain twice, and has traveled to 100 counties. He has written two books, Hike Your Own Hike and The Hidden Europe. He is creating a TV series and book called The Unseen Africa, which is based on his four-year journey across all 54 African countries. He is a TEDx speaker. He has a Religion BA from Amherst College and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Please enjoy this week-in-the-life of Francis while searching out the unseen in Africa.
Day 1 – Wednesday
6:00 AM – Crawl out of my sleeping bag in Morocco proper. Kick Soufianne Ousaadi, my cameraman, to encourage him to wake up. He curses at me in Arabic and I reply with sign language: the middle finger. It’s the start of another fun day goofing around with Soufianne. We’ve been traveling for 10 days and we’ve been getting along great—part of our enjoyment is insulting each other.
8:00 AM – Drive to Samara, a town in the Western Sahara.
9:00 AM – We slow down at the checkpoint. Morocco (and West Africa in general) has checkpoints just outside every town and a few random spots in between. It’s for safety and control. We tell the police we’re going to tour around Samara. He has a grave look. “How long?” he asks.
“Just for the day. We’ll leave before nightfall,” I tell him in French.
He winces. “Do you really have to stay long? There’s a bit of tension in the city. There’s been protests last week. We wouldn’t want you caught in the middle of that. It would be better if you leave after lunch. Is that possible?”
“OK, fine. We’ll do our best.”
10:00 AM – We pull aside on a side street and park. I put my wireless mic on. Soufianne discretely prepares the bulk professional camcorder while in the car. When we’re ready, we jump out into the street when there are few people and we quickly film our initial impressions of the city and the experience so far. Soufianne tells me, “Don’t be an idiot and talk too much.”
If the police saw us filming, we’d be in trouble because we have no permit and given the tense situation, we’d get scolded even more harshly and probably fined. After a couple of minutes, we jump back in the car and drive off.
1:00 PM – We have lunch. Camel is on the menu. It has some tomatoes on it and seasoning. It tastes fine, but a bit pricey. We shop for some clothes that Soufianne wanted to buy. He bargains hard and ultimately gets his bou-bou—a classic Muslim outfit. While shopping, the police calls Soufianne and they ask, “Are you guys still in Samara?”
“When are you leaving?”
“Don’t worry, we’re leaving soon.”
2:00 PM – Before leaving I really want to film a billboard of King Muhammad VI—he’s the current king of Morocco. This is gonna be tough. There are police everywhere because the billboard is next to the police station. I’m loitering. This isn’t good. The police are looking at me. “A foreigner is loitering. What’s he doing?” they must be asking themselves. Finally, I interact with a vendor and hide behind a pole just so that the police can’t see me well. I film with my mini camera for a few seconds and then leave.
3:00 PM – We say goodbye to the police at the checkpoint. They’re happy we’re leaving.
9:00 PM – And we’re off to camp in the Sahara and underneath the majestic Milky Way. I tell Soufianne, “Big day tomorrow, so we have to wake up early, you lazy bum.”
Too tired for Arabic, he just answers me in sign language.
Day 2 – Thursday
6:00 AM – Crisp clean air and silence are our company this morning, as usual.
8:00 AM – We head to Laayoune, which is sometimes spelled La’younn. Google Maps (and others) spell it El Aiún. Regardless, it’s the biggest city in the Western Sahara. It’s a fine seaside city, but we don’t spend much time there. We need to go into the interior to see a friend of Soufianne.
2:00 PM – We arrive in the phosphate mining town of Boukra or sometimes spelled Bu Craa. We’re hoping to camp with his friend, but he’s got a tiny one room place that already has a friend there. Besides, for security reasons, they don’t want us there since it’s the dorms for the miners. I take a shower there and we go to see the mines.
6:00 PM – We film as much as we can, but then the road to Guelta Zemmur is closed to foreigners. So we have to backtrack to Laayoune.
8:00 PM – We camp on the way to Laayounne. Cheaper than a hotel.
Day 3 – Friday
8:00 AM – We’re trying to get to Bir Anzane. Why? It’s in the middle of nowhere in the Western Sahara. I like to go to unseen places.
5:00 PM – We’ve been driving all day, following the stunning coastline and then take a left into the desert. We find a turban-covered dark-skinned man who is trying to hitchhike. We pick him up and hope that he’s not a suicide bomber.
8:00 PM – Our hitchhiker says that we can camp with him and his boss in Bir Anzane. They manage 600 camels. We leave the pavement as we near Bir Anzane. He says not to veer off the tracks because there are landmines. He shows us what’s left of an exploded mine that went off . . . just a couple of weeks ago. I was hoping he’d say “years ago.”
It’s dark. We follow a sandy track with our headlights. Mines. Hard not to think of them. Still, Soufianne offers some obvious advice, “Don’t be an idiot and run over any mines.”
After 15 minutes, we get to a campsite with a couple of tents up. A guy in military uniform comes out. Am I about to kidnapped? He tells me to come into his tent. He has a turban on that covers most of his head. We enter the tent. He tells us to sit down.
In a few minutes he brings out some . . . tea.
All is well. We sleep well.
Day 4 – Saturday
6:00 AM – We wake up as we prepare to track down the camels and give them water. We get into my car with one of his workers.
8:00 AM – After driving off-road in areas where there is “low risk” of having mines, we finally find hundreds of camels. We spend the rest of the day feeding them, giving them water, and making bread in the sand.
8:00 PM – We sleep in the tent with the camel owners.
Day 5 – Sunday
6:00 AM – We pack and leave Bir Anzane and head back to the coast a different way.
1:00 PM – Lost. But we have a GPS, so we’re not totally lost. There are just many ways to go in the desert.
8:00 PM – Another camp in the middle of nowhere.
Day 6 – Monday
6:00 AM – Head to the coast. We hit a road that takes us there easily.
8:00 AM – Drive to Dakla, the most touristic city in the Western Sahara.
1:00 PM – After stopping a few times, we arrive in the beautiful beach town of Dakla.
7:00 PM – We have dinner and stay with a policeman who is relative of Soufianne. His family adores having visitors—especially the kids.
Day 7 – Tuesday
8:00 AM – I take Soufianne to the bus. I kick him in the butt to say goodbye. Then we hug. He’s going back to Ouarzazate, a city in Morocco. I head south to Mauritania! It’s the second African country. One down, 53 to go on my four-year trip through Africa.
To see the process of making bread in the Sahara sand, watch our Kickstarter video and spread the word about the project!
Francis is traveling through the remaining 40 African countries from now until 2017 as part of his tv series and book called The Unseen Africa. He is the author of Hike Your Own Hike and The Hidden Europe. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.