I had been dreaming of visiting Dakhla Bay for almost a decade and, in Easter 2016, I finally made it out there. Sandwiched between the Sahara Desert and Atlantic Ocean, this huge lagoon sits in the disputed Moroccan region of Western Sahara, almost 1,000 miles south of Marrakesh (Morocco). There are no direct flights here from Europe, so your options are either to fly via Casablanca into Dakhla city (at least seven hours) or to endure the 600-mile road trip from Agadir.
It's a considerable effort, agreed, so what's the appeal? For the thousands that flock here each year, it's all about the kitesurfing: fringing the Atlantic but protected from the ocean by a peninsula of land (the Rio de Oro), Dakhla Bay is one of the world's best kitesurf spots. With waist deep waters, warm weather and year-round wind, it's perfect for learners, like me.
On first impressions, it seems that there's little else to do here except take to the water – there are no major settlements for miles, and the barren desert sprawls to the north, south and east, as far as the eye can see. The only obvious attraction is the blue water of the bay yet, as I soon discovered, there's far more to Western Sahara than first meets the eye.
Scattered around the lagoon and merging into the desert backdrop are tens of kitesurf schools and all-inclusive"camps," where food, accommodation, kit hire and lessons are all provided. Most camps are clustered around the northern end of the lagoon but one – Heliophora Riders Camp – sits half an hour further south. I stayed here and, for me, the extra travel time was well worth it for the private beach, utter seclusion and blissfully uncrowded waters.
Days are spent kitesurfing by your camp, or joining daytrips to Atlantic wave spots and other locations around the bay – "downwinders" (kitesurfing downwind only) to White Dune is a popular trip from the northern camps and, from Heliophora, it's a ten-minute drive to the glassy-flat "Dream Spot" – I kitesurfed here with four other guests and we spent a full afternoon with butter-smooth waters all to ourselves.
The windsurfing conditions are equally good, and Heliophora has equipment to hire, although it's far less popular that kitesurfing. For surfing, there are several Atlantic breaks and, on the rare occasion that there's not enough wind to kitesurf, you could paddleboard, kayak or swim in the bay.
Sand dune surfing is another unique local activity, or you could join a guided walk into the desert or out to the lagoon islands at low tide – Henre Island (Dragon Island) at the northern end is fantastic.
Also known as Ad Dakhla, Dakhla city sprawls along the 40km-long Rio de Oro peninsula. With a population of 70,000, it's more of a town than a city, but it's well worth a daytrip or overnight stay. There are plenty of modest hotels in the city itself but it's best to base yourself at one of the nearby kitesurf camps if you're planning to hit the water.
I ventured into the city for an evening, sharing the hour-long taxi ride from Heliophora with four other guests. Founded by the Spanish in 1884, relics of the city's colonial rule include a military fortress, Catholic church and Spanish lighthouse. But this isn't a place of rambling souks, historic walls and ornate buildings like other Moroccan cities. Instead, the attraction is in its lagoon-side setting and frontier appeal – this is the only major settlement for almost a thousand miles.
After haggling for flip-flops and fossilised sharks teeth in the antique shops and open market, we headed to the waterfront. With a shorefront promenade and alfresco eateries, it's a great place for a sundowner, while the choice of restaurants is excellent. Dakhla has one of the largest fishing fleets in North Africa, so local seafood is a speciality – you'll find it everywhere from local Saharan eateries to the fabulous fine dining restaurant of La Maison de The, where we ate.
Farmed in the traditional way, oysters are cultivated by hand at several spots around the bay. While most oysters are consumed locally, some are sold to restaurants in Marrakech and Casablanca. Twenty kilometres outside the city is the area's largest oyster farm, where you can enjoy a rustic lunch of fresh molluscs. More enchanting, however, are the tiny hidden oyster farms, tucked away in secret spots that only the locals know about.
One lunchtime, Rachid, the owner of Heliophora Camp, arranged for five of us to have lunch at one of these secret spots. After rumbling off the road in our 4WD, we emerged at a desert-backed bay with powdery sands and a simple shack with a single table. After cooling our feet in the cove's shallow waters, we were each served twelve of the freshest, tastiest and cheapest oysters I've ever slurped.
Wildlife and Saharan scenery
Dolphins can often be seen dancing through the waters of Dakhla Bay and, while I was there, I kitesurfed past flocks of white flamingos and visited hidden beaches home to nesting turtles. Although the desert environment has little vegetation, the bio-diverse waters that support Dakhla's fishing industry draw spectacular birdlife – from pelicans and cormorants, to gulls, terns and sparrow hawks. Infact, Dakhla Bay is so rich in wildlife that a proposal to create a National Park was submitted to Unesco in 2006.
And although the desert itself may appear barren at first, hiding out in the mineral-rich landscapes are foxes, hyenas and wild camels, along with lizards, snakes and scorpions. The geology is fascinating here too, with chunks of petrified wood on the beaches, and shards of crystallised rocks that litter the desert dunes like glass. The best way to appreciate it all is to join a walking, quad bike or 4WD safari into the desert.
Full of intrigue
While kitesurfing is no doubt the focus of most Dakhla holidays, don't be fooled into thinking there's nothing else here. In the ten days I spent by the bay I merely scratched the surface but, the longer I stayed, the more I discovered – from abundant birds and unexpected marine-life, to sparkling sands and windsculpted rocks, Western Sahara revealed new layers each day. Full of mystery and brimming with intrigue, it truly is a fascinating place.