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Sunday, 20 December 2009


My first trip to Africa involved taking a convoy through Western Sahara from Dahkla to the border with Mauritania. Over subsequent years I repeated the journey and became very familiar with the ins and outs of the convoy.

Years before there had been a violent conflict between the Saharaoui and the Moroccan army and by the time I first took the convoy, it was already a remnant of a security scheme which had outlived its relevance. There was no longer any danger of the Saharaoui abducting tourists to help their plight.

From Bam to the border of Pakistan, Iranian police run a similar convoy. Bam has the same edgy feel of frontier country that Dahkla used to have, and the same desert landscape and clear winter sunlight. It’s the Wild East.

Akbar who runs the guest house recommended by the Droning Planet tells us there is nothing to worry about and the military escort is a well organised formality. He prefers to talk that to listen, and speaks in certainties and offers guarantees. In Iran nothing is certain or guaranteed and I’m mistrustful of his advice. The day before a friend in Yazd who works as a guide has told me if he doesn’t say the government is great when he is dealing with tourists he faces prison. I get the sense Akbar’s reassurances come from the same place.

Sure enough the military escort is as dishevelled and unnecessary as the Moroccan convoy. At least we don’t have to wait for 50 other cars. Our private escort turns up to personally protect us, unarmed and fearful of disobeying his superiors confused instructions. I’m travelling in convoy with Maartin and Marika a Dutch couple with their 2 year old son, Casan, and a 20 year old Hymer campervan. It’s so funny to see this classic Winnebago for sexagenarians being used for a hardcore hippy overland journey to India.

In Dahkla they would tell you the convoy would leave at 9am, but only the German bikers would fall for it. The French car sellers would pitch up at the departure point around 1pm and still have to wait an hour or so before the Mauritanian smugglers showed up. Then with up to 80 cars, the twice weekly sharabang of dilapidated MOT failures from Europe on their way to becoming West Africa’s public transport system would roll out of town for the 400km drive to the border fort where we’d all camp, and have to balance fear of the reputed landmines with prudishness of being discovered taking a pooh when deciding how far to roam with the bog roll.

Swiss overlanders in their pristine Landcruisers and khaki pants would show off largely useless co-ordinates generated by new gadgets called GPS's to unimpressed French dole bludgers sipping pinard in their Peugoet 504, while fat Germans in 4x4 Shoguns would trade details of where to get laid in the Gambia. When they wanted, the Moroccan sentry guards would catch an unsuspecting dreadhead smoking reefer and confiscate their stash to use on the five days of the week when the fort was empty but for the flies and an unending southerly wind.

Then one year, the convoy was no longer. Camping Mousafir still survives as the overlander’s Mecca on Africa Highway One, but now that every other overlander isn’t funnelled into meeting there on Mondays and Thursdays it doesn’t have the same energy, and many bypass the 80km moonscape detour to Dahkla completely.

This journey has a different feel now. Mindful of security, I’m suspicious of the smiling moped that cruises alongside me."Hurry up!" "Wait!" "No stopping!" "Danger!" "Bin Laden!" "Al Qaeda!". Thanks to our escorts, we’ve only made it to Zahedan by the end of the day, 90km short of the Pakistan border. Frustrated and tired we are led around the town by the kindest incompetence to find a hotel that doesn’t match the Dopey Planets' description. We camp on the street, too weary to be worried about kidnapping. The next morning Maartin discovers a used heroin syringe in the gutter under the Hymer, and we evade our Iranian Dad’s Army escort to catch up some time. The police disorganisation is a big reassurance in convincing me there is no risk from insurgents or Baloch separatist but their presence has isolated us from talking to anyone. The conspiracy theory that this is the real motive for the escort starts to fester.

Just like in Western Sahara, the Balochs want to run their own affairs, feeling ignored by a distant central government who extracts mineral wealth from the area but leaves it under developed. Zahedan looks rough, and feels like a lawless Pakistani outpost. In reality it’s a rundown and probably a little less safe than most Iranian cities. Just like in Western Sahara, the Balochs struggle for independence doesn’t stand a chance against the domineering government and will only exacerbate their isolation. I'm curious to know how religion fits into the equation in this power struggle but speaking to anyone is impossible when you're followed by a kalash wielding policeman in green fatigues. All I'm allowed is the prescribed overlanders perspective; edginess and frustrations of a military escort. One day this will convoy will be scrapped too.

In Pakistan we camp in the Customs pound. The Head of Customs, Unis, is fascinated and very complimentary about the bus. He transfers his office into it so we can chat and he can see photos from the trip while his minions bring him papers to sign. He tells each one about the bus in Urdu, and they offer the appropriate nods and grunts of appreciation. No one mentions fuel duty.

He offers me some cans of Chinese beers given to him by the managers of a local mining concession, and has his cooks make us dinner. “You can judge a lot about a country from the way the border is.” observes Maartin in his heavy Dutch accent. Curry, beer and friendly company.

I take pictures of the trucks in the pound as the sun dips, and the porters pull and wrestle me to take their portrait next to the decorated juggernauts. The workmanship on the trucks is more inspiring than any mosque or church I’ve ever seen. Temples to the road. Monuments of highway pride. With 500 horsepower, I bet they really fly too. The drivers are mild mannered and gentle, though I’ve been told they are unforgiving and unyielding behind the wheel. The ear-splitting horns make me skit. I’m dreading hearing them unleashed at me while I’m driving, and I want one for the Biotruck to volley back. I need one. I must have one.


  1. Massive air horns. Essential upgrade for anywhere south or east of Istanbul...


  2. not quite : apparently see
    in Corriere della Sera about 2 Italians kidnapped while travelling through mauritania

  3. Yeah, Ironically now Mauritania which was never a cause for worry has become a kidnap risk for tourists. Two years ago they shot a family of French tourists just days after we passed through with the chocolate powered lorry. There have been Wahabi funded Koranic schools hidden out in the desert since I first visited, but they have perhaps now morphed into jihadist training camps.


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