Sand dunes crossed by a little green grass

A man died in the dunes yesterday. Dunes that we had walked through a few days before, marvelling at the liveliness of the little shoots that sprang up in the sand after the rain.
The desert was green, a relative greenness of course, nothing to do with Normandy, rather a simple nuance, like a muslin veil thrown over the erg, which one can hardly distinguish when approaching it, but which is undeniably there.
The plants fix the desert. The sand advances in Morocco as in Mauritania, as everywhere. In a few months it is capable of overtaking the wall of the Oasis, after a sandstorm the tarred road between Erfoud and Rissani looks like a Saharan track. Lines of reeds are planted, tightly, to fix the dunes, and prevent them from advancing.

Reeds in the sand of the dunes

Near Erfoud, reeds are used to stabilise the sand

All it takes is one day of the Dakar Rally to destroy all that.

Of course, the Dakar provides a living (somewhat) for the local populations.

The Dakar track

Near Tazzarine, the tracks of the 4×4 in the sand

For 2 or 3 days, a huge amount of tourists fall on a city, the assistance, the journalists, the real and fake VIPs, those who follow the Dakar, those who are offered a return ticket by their company, those who write, those who take pictures, etc… Ouarzazate was jammed yesterday, a very surprising sight on this wide Mohammed V avenue for once covered with cars. You even had to walk a few meters to find a place to park. Not a single rental car available, not a single hotel room free.
For the hoteliers, for the car rental companies, and even for some restaurant owners, the Dakar is a good deal, a few hundred customers at a golden price, and out of season. But for the others? The Dakar transports its own infrastructure, a large part of its supplies arrive directly from Europe… The hoteliers of Ouarzazate are not the nomads of Aït Haddidous whose pastures are partially destroyed by the race, nor the villagers of Tazzarine who see, some years, a new kind of locusts settling in for a day, leaving the tracks weakened, even destroyed.

The Dakar kills

Has there been a single year without a death? A rider, an organiser, or even worse, a child who watches the cars go by and doesn’t push himself fast enough.

Is the game worth the candle? Probably for those who participate. Any death is deeply unjust, regrettable, but to die instantly, in the middle of a race, at the very moment when one’s dream is being realised, is surely less sad, less unjust than to be mowed down by a machine coming out of a cloud of sand, the modern roaring mower, as incomprehensible to these kids from the douars as the first trains were to our peasants of the last century (in fact of the penultimate century, I tend to forget that we’re now in the 21st).

A Moroccan child looks at a 4x4 from a distance

Is it really an encounter?

The Dakar was an adventure, it was the possibility of a beautiful race open to the anonymous as well as the great, it was the immersion in superb, difficult and grandiose landscapes. It has lost all that, becoming a huge organisation, a money-making machine. It has never, ever been the discovery of the desert.

The desert is solitude, endlessly repeated landscapes, time passing without anything moving other than the feet of the nomad walking with his dromedary. It is the wear and tear of time and nothing, the sun that burns, the salt that burns, the cold of the night, the dryness of the lips, and the fatigue of the eye dazzled by the reflections on the black stones. It is the silence, where one perceives little by little the tiny movements of insects, the distant echo, faint as a dream, of the music of the oasis, the sudden fall of a little sand under the step of a bird.

How to discover the desert when you do in one day what took the nomads more than a week? How to really see the landscapes, amidst the clouds of sand from cars and trucks? How to feel the heat wrapped up in protective suits and helmets? How can you hear the furtive slither of the snake that joins the Little Prince amidst the roar of the engines?

The most accurate thing about the Dakar is its name in French. The Dakar is a raid, a rapid incursion into the territory of the other, to steal it and leave it poorer than before. The little film showing Elmer Symons lying dead next to his motorbike and the wreckage of his motorbike has been played over and over on television. The Dakar does not even respect its participants.

Sand dunes crossed by a little green grass

It takes but a little rain for a huge green slash in the dunes

(This is a translation of a post originally published on the website of our tours agency, in January 2007. After business and website closed, the French version can be read here).

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