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Unreported Africa: Lassarga

The sign that leads you to Lassarga (or Lassaraga) near Dakhla in Western Sahara.

My Journey Through A Remote Fishing Village in the Disputed Territory of Western Sahara

I could feel the salt air stinging my lips.  Lips cracked dry by days of working in the desert.  The ocean was literally rubbing salt in to my wounds.  We were in the windswept coast of Dakhla in the disputed territory of Western Sahara and my lips were stinging like someone had slapped me.

Fishing dinghies and buoys adorn the sand spit at Lassarga.

There is a constant wind in Dakhla.  A wind that fuels a niche kite surfing tourist market yet barely any other tourism exists there.  The town, which lies at the pointy end of a south facing peninsula of sand, has no tourist markets and no souvenir shops.  It boasts a small number of very good restaurants that cater to business visitors but few others.  Nearly all of the visiting tourists stay at fully inclusive kite surfing resorts at the north end of a bay that is home to Atlantic Humpback dolphins and a variety of seabirds including gulls, terms and cormorants.

The Canary current runs rich with ocean life, feeding a small fishing industry and a plethora of seabirds.

At the very southern edge of town lies the tiny shanty town of Lassarga.

Lassarga, or Lassaraga as it is locally known, consists of a small collection of fishing shacks behind a fleet of blue and white fishing boats that are not much larger than dinghies.

Tiny fishing boats lined up on the sand spit at Lassarga.

Approaching Lassarga, the amount of rubbish lying around the settlement is instantly visible.  Stray dogs and cats wander about, scavenging for bycatch from an artisan fishing industry that harvests fish, crabs, cuttlefish, prawns and octopus from the waters surrounding the peninsula.  The air of Lassarga is perfumed with salt, fibreglass, rubbish and  the rotting detritus of bycatch that was thrown aside in favour of a more delectable catch.

Street scene at Lassarga.

Although my lips are stinging, my sense of smell is alive with memories of my own childhood growing up on a fishing trawler in Australia.  This was my first visit to Lassarga and somehow the visions of rubbish dissipated behind a strong nostalgia for my childhood.  A childhood spent around the daily tasks of mending nets, maintaining boats and salt of the earth fishermen whose livelihood relied upon the seasonal fruits of the sea.

The sand is dotted with the tools of the fishing trade in Lassarga.

I am the only woman here.  Mindful of the impact I may have on this masculine place I ask a young lad if it is ok to enter the shanty town on my own.  He waves me on with a nod of affirmation.  I pull the shawl that I have with me out and indicate that I’m putting it on, out of respect for the conservative locals who are Muslims, and who might baulk at a woman entering a world that is normally alien for wives and daughters.  The young lad laughs and gestures to me that the shawl is not needed.  That it is ok for me to go through the village.

Textures of Lassarga. The huts are made from the remains of wrecked fishing boats.

Wandering down sandy lanes strewn with litter I notice that many of the fishing shacks are made with the pieces of old boats, driftwood and fishing nets. Shielding their occupants from the weather is a patchwork of abandoned tarpaulins and plastic garbage bags strung together with twine.

Huts made of old boats, fishing basket sides, timber and tarpaulins, all strung together with twine.

I disturb a feral dog who had found a half dried starfish.  His incidental snack that may be the only thing he eats all day.  Further down the path a feral kitten squeezes its way under a rusting iron door.  Plastic containers, metal tin lids, plastic bottles and other litter is everywhere.  It is a mishmash of rubbish and shacks woven together by a network of sandy paths strewn with the remains of life.

Feral junkyard cat in Lassarga.

At the edge of town a fleet of rusting tractors lies waiting to haul fishing boats out to sea.  Beyond them, across a neck of sand, lies around two hundred tiny blue and white fishing boats.  Each one beached on the sand and surrounded by the essential equipment for the catch – nets, floats, anchors and buoys.

Ready to go to sea at Lassarga.

I walk out across the sand spit and I can feel the litter crushing beneath my boots.  Occasionally I spot murex shells, kelp and fragments of fish net cast aside by the last high tide.  And then I feel lost.  The smell of the sea, the nets, the fibreglass and the paint transport me back to when I was a kid growing up in Australian on my family’s fishing boat.  Back then my playground was the islands of the Great Barrier Reef and the fishing wharves of Gladstone and Cairns.  Fast forward forty years and I am in a similar place on the westernmost extremity of Africa, except the playground of the fishing kids here is the wild beaches washed clean by the Canary current and islands with curious names like “The Dragon”.

A collection of seashells I found on my walks through Lassarga.

On my first foray into Lassarga I thought I might have been there out of season.  Wandering through the sea of fishing boats at the end of the spit I had only met three ageing Saharawi fishermen sitting on the sand mending their nets.  It felt otherwise deserted. For a while I sat with them, trying in vain to tell them how I used to also sit with my family and mend nets when I was a kid.  I asked if I could take their photo, they politely declined so I slowly excused myself from their gathering to continue my stroll.

Mending nets on the sand.

Further into the boats I was stopped by an outbreak of raucous laughter.  I’ve always been drawn to an infectious laugh and eventually I found the owner, a smiling Saharawi fisherman called Haj.  Drawn by his presence I wandered over to say hello and introduce myself.  I asked him what he was up to and he motioned that he was painting his boat.  A couple of minutes transpired where we tried to work out if we could find a common language to communicate and in the end we both laughed and gave up.  I motioned to ask if I could take his photo and he said yes.  I was so happy that he did because my overarching feeling about Haj was one of tremendous kindness.  He was just such a lovely man.

A portrait of Saharawi fisherman Haj.

I ran out of time that day and my work in the Sahara beckoned so I had to leave to get some sleep before another marathon drive into the unknown.  Lassarga, had, however, left a lasting impression on me and on every return we had to Dakhla, I hounded my patient partner, Mark, to go back there.

Haj’s catch at Lassarga.

Dakhla’s coast is characterised by the sea.  Wandering around the windswept expanses of each promenade I noticed men returning to town on tiny donkey drawn carts with their catch, or parked tractors waiting to be filled with fish caught by rudimentary fish traps off the coast.  I look at it all and realise that artisan fishing of this style will never create problems in our world.

The lineup of boats on the sand spit at Lassarga.

Instead the world of these fishermen is changing at the hands of much bigger operators, with bigger trawlers and larger nets.  Raping the surrounding seas by catching tonnes of fish, are trawlers from Morocco (who has claimed Western Sahara by a sovereign right), Spain and Russia.  The little guys I met struggle to get by on the catches of their minimal patch, just as my own family did many years ago before the industry changed in Australia.

Going home with fish for dinner. Dakhla.

On my second and last visit to Lassarga, I instantly noticed more gulls flying around the dinghies on the sand spit.  Some guys had brought in a catch!  Fascinated by what they might have caught, I strode down towards them and found small numbers of fishermen offloading cuttlefish, octopus, fish and stingrays.  This time the air was perfumed with an added smell of burning wood and I realised that some of them were cooking fresh fish for breakfast on the beach.

Grilled fresh fish on the beach for breakfast.

Lured by the smell I wandered over and was instantly invited to join them.  The fragrant freshness of the fish was divine and I felt truly spoilt.  While I tried to speak with the fishermen responsible for my impromptu breakfast I pulled out my phone and started to show them photos of my last trip to Lassarga.  They instantly recognised Haj and said to me “That’s Haj!” while they pointed out to other boats on the periphery of the fleet.  In the distance I saw Haj again, unloading his catch of fish.  I yelled out “Haj!” and ran over to show him the photographs I took of him.  He laughed his infectious laugh.  This time he was with his two sons and in very broken English we worked out they were both on Facebook so I said I would send them the photos of their dad if they connected with me there.  I left them my card so they knew how to find me.

Haj.

After I left Haj and his boys, I went looking at the catches of other vessels.  Nearby some guys had brought in some rather large octopus and as I tried to find out from them what the Saharawi name for octopus is, one of them, another kindly Saharawi fisherman called Ahmed, invited me to tea.  From a tiny mound of coals and ashes, I was served a glass of hot strong tea poured from a ceremoniously high held tea pot.  The tea was sweet, strong and pungent but it served as a wonderful dessert after my fresh fish cooked on coals for breakfast.

Tea with a kind Saharawi named Ahmed.

Reluctantly I started on my stroll away from the fleet.  Time was running away from me again and I had to go back to work.

Waiting for the catch to come in at Dakhla.

While I may have left Lassarga for the last time, a big part of it never left me.  Visiting there transported me back to my childhood in so many ways.  Yet it was indelibly different.  At Lassarga I was not only transported through an entirely alien culture, I was kindly escorted with tea.  Tea with the Saharawis.  And if I concentrate hard enough now I can still feel the taste of tea and salt on my lips.

Motorcycle trailer details in Dakhla.

2 thoughts on “Unreported Africa: Lassarga

  1. sylvia Adam says:

    Inger as usual U have taken advantage of some wonderful scenes. It seems SOMEBODY has a lot of BLUE PAINT…..:)

    • inger says:

      Hi Sylvia, yes there certainly was a lot of blue paint being splashed around in Lassarga. So much so that I left with a trace of it on my hand from Haj, who shook my hand while his hands were still wet with it. I didn’t mind walking around with a trace of Lassarga on my hands for a few days. Lassarga itself left a bigger trace on my soul.

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