The disputed region of Western Sahara in north Africa is under the control of the Kingdom of Morocco. Easily accessible via domestic flights from Casablanca, Morocco annexed the vast territory after the departure of the colonial authorities of the former Spanish Sahara in 1975.
While this de facto annexation is controversial and not internationally recognized, it is a fact on the ground and the Polisario guerillas intent on an independent country for the Saharawi people of the region languish in camps across the border in Algeria where they have resided for decades, since the fighting ended in the early 1990’s.
The region is sparsely populated and for good reason - the harsh desert environment is a difficult place for people to live. Other than settlements like Laayoune and Dakhla on the long peninsula sticking out from the mainland, human presence is scarce in the vast, arid emptiness of the Sahara Desert, where even camels struggle to survive.
Better known as one of the world’s best kiteboarding destinations in the windy summer months, the Dakhla area has a number of excellent right point waves and a small crew of dedicated local surfers.
With the heavy military presence, one of the best waves at La Sarga is easily accessible but in a restricted area controlled by the Moroccan Royal Marines and it is difficult to impossible to get official permission to surf. A well-connected Moroccan surfer-entrepreneur has recently built an accommodation facility in front of the right point at La Sarga, so now it is apparently surfable anytime it breaks, but you must be a guest of the hotel or be asked to leave the area by both the hotel security and the Moroccan Royal Marines.
We started our desert quest at the nearest wave to the small city of Dakhla, the right point at Foum El Bouir. The wave is a solid right point a short distance from Dakhla, in front of a desert botanical garden nourished by water from a nearby sewage treatment plant.
The wave is reliably offshore early in the morning with long groundswell lines down the point for surfers, then when the afternoon northwest starts, the kiteboarders come out to take advantage of the favorable winter sideshore wind for kiteboarding.
Our research on the area before the project showed the most amount of North Atlantic groundswell in the month of January along with the least amount of wind, with light wind conditions throughout the month. Not good for kiteboarding, but ideal for surfing. This proved to be quite accurate, as we had ideal conditions for the entire trip with a cold and bone dry offshore wind out of the Sahara every morning.
We soon set out for one of our main goals on this project, a righthand point wave about one hour’s drive from Dakhla. On satellite images it looked perfect, a well-shaped point wave in the Sahara Desert and considering there was a paved road to get there, we expected to see other people surfing.
Fortunately for us, the point was empty, at least of surfers in the lineup. There was no one surfing but the beach was quite busy, as it was octopus season in Western Sahara.
During octopus fishing season, thousands of migrant fishermen from Morocco come to Western Sahara for a few months, living in an informal tent city on top of the cliffs and fishing for octopus, which is processed in factories in Dakhla and exported frozen to the European Union.
Octopus season in Western Sahara is a big business and the fishermen are there to make money to support their families, as much as they can in the short season for fishing.
The waves at this point are a problem for them to get their boats in and out of the water, so there were rumors that a breakwater could be constructed to block the waves at one of the best point breaks in Africa and create a harbor for the fishing boats. Quite possible, as right now fishing certainly generates more revenue for the government than surfing and kiteboarding put together at this location, far more revenue.
There are several new hotels in the Dakhla area, to take advantage of the ideal warm and dry winter conditions for European holiday makers, but with the disputed status of the entire area, it is unknown if tourism can become a viable source of revenue for the Moroccan government.
Kiteboarding already does very well in the windy summer months, with world class conditions and hundreds of rabid kiters patronizing several kiteboarding camps in the area, but surfing is still in its infancy in Western Sahara.
One afternoon, when we had a bigger swell than normal, we ventured to the far south of the Dakhla Peninsula, to try to surf the wave at La Sarga, a long sand-bottom right point next to a fishing village that takes a bigger swell before it can break. Most importantly, La Sarga is offshore on the prevailing northwest afternoon wind.
As the wave is on the grounds of a base of the Moroccan Royal Marines, we were told by everyone we asked: “You can’t surf there, the Marines do not allow any surfing and you can get in a lot of trouble”.
We parked and checked the surf, long backlit righthanders, no one surfing at all, so we decided to go out and see what happens. Sure enough, as I was looking through the lens and shooting the first set waves, three people came out of the headquarters building for the Royal Marines and started walking across the sand.
They enquired in French if we had permission to surf and I said we did not. The officer replied that we would have to leave immediately and not come back, as surfing was not allowed at La Sarga. I said “OK, merci monsieur”, waved the boys to come in and we packed up and left.
We were not finished with La Sarga, not at all. Over the next week or so, while surfing at the many other waves in the Dakhla area, we plotted and schemed how to get around the no surfing rule before the next bigger swell, so we could surf La Sarga again on the offshore afternoon northwest wind, which is mostly onshore for Foum El Bouir and the other waves on the Dakhla peninsula.
We came up with and discarded various plans, before deciding on one that might work. Emiliano had struck up a friendship with the secretary of the hotel where we were staying and she agreed to type a “carte blanche” letter on hotel letterhead that stated we had permission to surf at La Sarga from a fictitious Mr Mohammed, Director.
We had the letter typed in French, signed it with the fake official's name and put a few stamps on there to make it look more authentic, then placed it in a clean white envelope - now all we needed was a good swell forecast, big enough for La Sarga to work.
We got the favorable forecast a few days later and made our plan. We knew there were a few low buildings near the end of the wave we could park behind, unseen from the Royal Marine base building, where they certainly had binoculars to watch the beach for trespassing surfers.
On the designated afternoon, we parked and waited behind the buildings watching the waves; it certainly looked good with long, offshore, head-high lime-green backlit waves and no one surfing. Everyone put on their wetsuits behind the buildings and with the “permission to surf” letter in my jacket pocket, we made our move.
Emiliano, Sam, Tristan and Erwan paddled out from the end of the wave and I emerged from behind the buildings with lens and tripod, casually strolling up the beach to get the best angle.
Just as I had set up and taken a few shots of the first wave ridden, sure enough the door opened at the Royal Marines building and three people stepped out, the same officer and two Marines as a week or so previous. They began walking across the sand.
We exchanged handshakes and greetings in French, then the officer asked again if we had permission to surf at La Sarga. I said “Oui” and handed him the sealed envelope. He and the two Marines said they would study the letter at their headquarters and left. So far, so good.
The four surfers were under strict orders not to waste any waves, as we did not know how long we could surf before we were all rounded up, handcuffed and frogmarched to a Moroccan prison where we would have to eat cockroaches for sustenance, so every wave was ridden and photographed with ruthless efficiency.
After 40 minutes or so, the door at the Royal Marines headquarters opened again and the same officer and two Marines started walking across the sand. When they arrived, we exchanged polite greetings in French again and the officer stated “Votre lettre blanche est inauthentique. Vous et vos amis devrez partir, maintenant” which meant they knew the permission letter was fake and we would have to leave, now.
They watched carefully as I signaled the surfers in the water to come in and began to break down the camera gear. We shook hands again and exchanged pleasantries, then walked in opposite directions down the long and empty beach.
A very favorable outcome for us, the fake letter had given us one hour of waves, plenty of material from the beautiful right point at La Sarga. We had entirely avoided the gruesome Moroccan prison scenario as we had not even been arrested.
Merci beaucoup to the Moroccan Royal Marines of La Sarga!
Text: John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE
Images: John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE