November 21, 2015
It’s our last camp in the northern Sahara and during the night, the wind really picks up leaving any of the sounds we normally hear silenced by it’s steady roar. When we wake, everything is covered in sand. Even the inside of the tent has a fine layer of sand covering everything – including us! The burn in my throat is now accompanied by a persistent cough which I’ve noticed in many of the people living here. As we prepare to pack, a couple from a nearby 4×4 say good-morning and a quick chat turns into a couple of hours talking over coffee and sweet chocolate biscuits they’ve brought from Italy.
Mahmoud and Layla are guides working in Libya, Tunisia and Algeria and have some wonderful stories they gladly share with us. She’s Italian and he’s Tuareg – properly Tuareg he assures us – from Libya. He makes the clarification since a fair number of people in the area dress in the beautiful indigo tagelmust (or cheche) that the Tuareg traditionally wear but lack the actual lineage. As they speak, it’s beautiful watching the cultural influences this pair have made upon one another; from the colorful garments and hair wraps on Layla, to the occasional hand gestures from Mahmoud that are unmistakably molto Italiano.
Always sporting a massive smile, Mahmoud captivates us with stories of an entire life spent in the desert. Recounting his experiences of the great challenges and rewards of such a life, he takes us through some of the desert survival techniques he’s learned from years of helping expeditions through the Sahara. He explains that the tagelmust is not simply a cultural style, but a tool that serves many uses – as does everything they carry. From dissipating heat and shielding the face from blowing sand to providing a means of drawing water from deep wells, it’s an essential bit of kit for the desert nomads. It’s a great morning (and education) spent with two wonderfully paired people – it’s a remarkable life they’ve built for themselves here. It’s not every day we get to spend a morning talking about drawing water from a radiator to survive, or how leather tassels can keep flies away and help you find your keys in the sand!
Soon though, it’s time to get on the road to Tozeur. The wind hasn’t let up but we want to make it into town before the heat reaches it’s peak. It’s not a long days ride but we’re looking forward to seeing the salt-flats along the dry lake-bed of Chott el Jerid.
The dirt road leading out of the campground is now blanketed by a healthy layer of sand which provides some quick laughs as we make our way into town. Douz itself is starting to prepare for the day and while there are few cars on the roads, pedestrians are darting into the street without much care for the two adventure bikes currently occupying that spot on the road. From every direction scooters are also buzzing around which makes the roads feel more like a video game than reality – but starting our day dodging traffic is something we’re getting used to. It’s funny how chaos can become comforting after a while. Douz is truly a fantastic place and, with it’s incredible energy and warm people, we’re truly sad to say goodbye.
Between the towns along our route, the gusts of wind are becoming incredibly intense. With little to block them, they run along unimpeded for miles before finally hitting us broadside. The sand blows across the road and little dunes begin to encroach along the edge of the tarmac. As we pass Kebili and enter onto the flats of the Chott el Jerid, the distant sky takes on a deep, reddish hue and the occasional truck disappears into the cloud that’s forming on the horizon. The gusts gather strength and drive sand into our necks like sharp little pins, all the while violently pushing our bikes toward the middle of the road.
Eventually we reach the leading edge of the sandstorm and, once inside, it actually seems calmer and strangely hushed. We can only see about 200m ahead of us and the feeling of being encapsulated in the dim haze is strangely eerie. The sky and desert are gone and all that’s left is the narrow band of road in front of us. We’re in the storm for about thirty minutes before it suddenly ends as quickly as it started and just like that we’re back in the sun. And the wind. We seem to have forgotten about that in our dreamy sand bubble!
Camels are far less common along this stretch of road but they still make an occasional appearance along with the first road signs for Algeria that we’ve seen; every mile brings us closer to the border. Emerging from the Chott, we’re soon we’re passing through busy streets that all seem very beige and somewhat nondescript. We’d heard that Tozeur was a very touristic place but from the streets we ride along it’s hard to understand why. It’s not terrible – in fact it’s sidewalks are bustling with younger men and women early in the afternoon. But compared to the touristic nature of Hammamet, Tozeur seems to represent a grittier view of life in Tunisia.
We soon arrive at our hotel for the next couple of nights and with sand worked well into every pore, we’re excited for a good shower. The man at the front desk, Abdallah, is good-spirited and helpful, quickly drawing a map of everything he thinks we should try to fit into our visit to the area – some of which proves to be golden. The Ksar Jerid is decent, the rooms are clean and the water-pressure is strong – all the makings of a great place to stay! After cleaning up we grab a bite to eat down the road before returning to the hotel bar to catch up on some writing.
The wifi here is $5TND per hour which is still something I’m having trouble getting used to. A new gentleman is standing guard at the front desk and is somewhat cooler than Abdallah. After negotiating the fee for the internet and returning to the bar, the new man walks in a few minutes later to “remind” me that it’s only valid for an hour, wagging a finger at us like we’re delinquent children. Slightly annoyed at the apparent distrust we seem to demand we continue working until, predictably, the man reappears fifty-five minutes into our time to let us know our hour is up. Also, seeing Nita’s laptop open he demands an additional $5TND for the second access. This guy’s a drag. Paying up, there seems to be some confusion as to what we’re doing – whether we’re going to remain online or not. I assure him that we’re just working but, like clockwork an hour later, he returns to the bar asking for another $10TND – even though we’re not online! With a little edge building in my voice and looking obviously aggravated, our dudley-do-right host relinquishes and returns to the lobby. Unfortunately, the great experience Abdallah established earlier is long-gone – as is my good mood.
After hours spent working, we finish the evening with an incredibly decent buffet dinner at the hotel before making our way back to the room for a well-earned sleep. The feel of clean sheets is welcome though I have to admit I already miss the tent and the sounds of the desert as I fall asleep.
With internet access not nearly as frustrating as the day before, thanks to Abdallah (wink-wink), the next day is spent working in the bar. The weather is changing and, unbelievably, heavy rainfall is in the forecast! With that in mind, we decide to spend an extra night at the hotel to wait out the thunderstorms before heading north. Besides, keeping up the stories on the website is proving difficult and a day without interruption is needed to get to a place where Nita and I both feel ahead of the game. We befriend the daytime bartender, Jarrell, and his frequent visits with coffee, water and peanuts is exactly what we need to keep going.
Before we know it, seven hours have passed and, with backs aching, we wrap up the day with a sudden surge of tourists in the restaurant for dinner. Whereas the day before had been practically empty, tonight there’s a line-up out the door. Many of the folks are wearing colored wristbands which means they’re part of a tour and will likely only be here for the night. It’s a bit of a shock to see so many tourists, but it’s nice to be eating surrounded by people for a change!
We spend our last day in Tozeur walking it’s streets. There’s a constant hum here and it’s streets are a hotbed of action. The cafés are full, the stores are busy and everywhere we look people are working or talking, coming or going. The energy here is interesting; it’s not welcoming nor is it unwelcoming – it’s just people going about their business with an honesty that seems rare in a town that’s deemed touristic. Perhaps that ambiguity makes it disquieting for some; we watch two foreign men who are obviously uncomfortable scramble into a cab before getting out at a super market less than four blocks away. We don’t feel unsafe here in the slightest – people just don’t seem that interested in tourists and sometimes that’s unnerving, and others it’s exactly what we want.
Small cafés here have the usual barbeques burning with freshly slaughtered lambs but also offer camel meat – something we haven’t see yet. One café has camel heads adorning it’s front window. They’re for sale though how you’d cook them is beyond us and our interest in them seems to be of interest to the people talking beside them – but only for a moment. Our walk takes us along the length of the town and back again, all the while the smell of barbequing meat fills the air and the sounds of Arabic fills our ears. Everywhere we look, buildings and walls are made from the bricks that made Tozeur famous. Made by hand, the bricks from this city find their way all over Tunisia and are an integral part of the Uqba, the great mosque in Kairouan and one of the holiest places in Islam.
Tozeur is our last stop in the south and tomorrow we’ll begin our journey north along the Algerian border and into central Tunisia, an area where we’ve been told by locals to take care. Even though there’s still a week left here, it’s hard not to feel as though our journey through this place is quickly coming to an end – one that Nita and I will be sad to see over. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Back at the hotel, Abdallah once again lets us know it is fine to go online with a wink and a nod, and Jarrell greets us with a smile in the hotel bar. He’s still appreciative of a well-deserved tip from the previous day and, as the afternoon progresses, he brings fresh fruit and croissants to the table as a thank you! How lucky are we? Finding out that we’re leaving the following morning, Jerrell asks us to visit in the morning and we promise to stop in before we hit the road. Dinner at the hotel is quiet again and we spend our time eating alone in the large hall; we may very well be the only guests in this entire place.
Our plan to ride on the Chott el Jerid has been thwarted by the heavy rains that have fallen during the night. The hard salt shell that makes it an appealing ride will be soft the idea of breaking through and getting bogged down in thick mud with a fully-loaded bike doesn’t sound like a great time. And really, after our last Star Wars themed fiasco we’re happy to give it a miss. Rather, Abdallah has suggested a route to the north along the Algerian border through the Oasis at Chebika, Tamerzah and the canyon at Midès that connects Tunisia to it’s neighbor.
After enjoying another great breakfast at the hotel, we pack the bikes and head back into the bar to say our farewells to the lovely men who’ve made our stay in Tozeur a little more personal. Over a coffee, we share photos of family on our phones before saying goodbye and good luck in three languages. We make a quick left out of the hotel gates and soon we’re once again in the middle of chaotic north African traffic.
After Hammat al-Jarid the road disappears and is replaced by a mixture of dirt, packed gravel, sand and, surprisingly, mud. The first 70km runs along the Chott el Gharsa and is so much fun! Completely unpaved, the remaining road is wide to allow the large trucks enough room to pass one another on their run to the various constructions zones. Passing the trucks provides a sick kind of pleasure as we each disappear into a cloud of dust as pass them only to emerge into a completely flat and barren landscape. Ahead of us, water trucks dowse the ground to keep the dust down but only work to make the road incredibly slick for two wheels; slowing down for the these patches actually makes the experience quite fun once we’ve grown accustomed to the bikes moving around beneath us.
The next hurdle is a large group of camels who’ve blocked the road to enjoy some of the water that’s pooled there. Four of them simply stare at us as we turn off the engines to wait out the roadblock – we’re not sure that charging the camels on the bikes is a great idea and besides, it provides the perfect opportunity for Nita to snap the quintessential camel-blocking-the-road pic that we’ve been waiting for! On the other side of the blockade at bulldozer makes it’s way towards us and soon enough he’s cleared the pack off of the road. With camels, size does seem to matter.
Another brief stint in the mud makes way for some hard-packed washboard which makes us feel as though the bikes are going to shake themselves apart. Picking up the speed a bit helps and soon we back onto a nice gravel road that winds it’s way toward the emerging mountains to our right. Stopping for a little bathroom break, I make my way into a shallow ravine to get a little privacy (it’s pretty flat, don’t forget!) and mid-way through a large black tick emerges from the bank in front of me and chases me as I try to finish up and not get my feet, ahem, wet. Telling Nita about my backward chase through the desert, the story is only made funnier by the discovery later that my retelling was caught entirely on the GoPro – not exactly the makings of a GoPro athlete!
Tick-free and no longer desperate, we make our way back onto the piste which has quickly become a mix of large rocks and sections of soft gravel. The going is slow for a little ways but we’re still having loads of fun. There’s something about a route like this that makes us feel like kids again; it’s almost as if we’re up to something we shouldn’t be. After about 100km we see the palms of Chebika nestled into the nearby hills. The road takes us through the oasis and the sheer density of it’s foliage is truly breath-taking. A far cry from the cartoon oases that deliver a small pond and a couple of trees, Chebika has thousands of trees and an intricate network of waterways. It’s absolutely stunning.
We find a small place to sit while over-looking a path towards the waterfalls where we can enjoy a coffee and about three bottles of water. The temperature is well into the thirties and the shade is a welcome relief. After a short rest, a quick walk takes us into the palms and by a pool of water where frogs flop into the water as we pass them. The sound of their ribbits fills the air like some tropical bird and we make our way around a corner towards a lovely little waterfall. It’s truly a marvel that this exists in the desert.
With a long day still ahead of us, we get ready to hit the road in front of an impromptu audience; some teenage boys have gathered in front of the bikes are staring at us as we prepare to leave. There’s an interesting thing that happens in Tunisia – folks will stare, unsmiling, with a certain intensity that can be quite uncomfortable – but throw a smile their way and they (mostly) snap out of it as if they were in a trance. Nita tosses a smile in the direction of the eldest and, as if awakened from some slumber, he returns a generous smile and wave in our direction. No language needed!
Shortly west of Chibika the dirt roads are replaced by tarmac that’s in decent – if deteriorating – condition, though the condition of the road isn’t what’s dominating our thoughts. This stretch of road is simply amazing for riding! The black tape or pavement takes us into the hills and ascends to their peaks through a seemingly unending series of twisting turns. Some stretches switch back over and over to reach a peak before dropping down an incredibly steep descent and tight left hand turn that reveals a spectacular view of the mountains lining the Algerian border. No words can accurately describe this place. The rock-faces have alternating bands of color running through them in patterns that remind us of the many carpets we’ve seen here. If ever design has imitated life, this is it.
In reality, this stretch of road meanders for about 20km – if that – but it feels endless. At Tamerzah the twisting nature of the road moves from frenzied to relaxed and soon the swaying back and forth has us in a wonderful rhythm that allows us to actually look to the left and take in the Algerian landscape in absolute awe. Over the headset Nita chimes in “I’ve never seen anything like this. Anywhere. It’s amazing.” Her sentiments reflect my own thoughts perfectly. This landscape, at this moment, is something neither of us will ever forget.
As we pass through Ain el Ouchka, we detour towards Algeria to try and find a canyon in Midès that offers a wonderful view of the valley that runs between the these two countries. With a little hunting we find free spot to take in the view and it’s impressive. The mountains here are incredible and the valley puts into perspective just how close we are to Algeria. We travel a little further down the road and past a sign that leads us to the canyon itself. Instantly, after hours of seeing almost no-one else, we’re bombarded once again by men offering tours of the area. “You want to see the Star Wars? The English Patient? Right over here. 100m” The swarm is growing. This is Star Wars Canyon where many of the jawa scenes were filmed and we’ve happened upon it by accident.
Other than the guides the only other people here are two other riders – an older swiss couple who have little interest in talking to us about anything. Nita’s typically warm greeting is met by a grunt from her and a nod by him. Can’t win them all! It reminds us of a story Thomas told us about a Swiss couple he met on the ferry who gave him the same warm welcome – this has to be them! Now surrounded by guides, people selling crystals and a date-man, we high-tail it out of there for a view of the canyon from the vendor-free hills. To our left the border post into Algeria sits quietly; there’s not the hub of action you’d expect at a border but rather a hushed stillness. We’re less than 3km from Algeria.
The road rolls gently north along the border for a little while longer before running east along plains towards Al-Rudayyif – a small town that provides perhaps the most joy-filled riding moments of our travels so far. As we enter town the streets are lined with school-children who find it impossible to hide their excitement at our arrival. Through the length of the town we find ourselves waving the entire time. On one stretch of road, a line of kids offer their hands in the air for high-fives – something we happily give. Other kids run alongside the bikes yelling and waving – their smiles a gift we get to carry without concern for space. Even the adults get in on the festivities with some of the men acting out a wheelie hoping I’ll follow suit. If I was any good at them I would! I’ll have to practice…
Good feelings and warm-welcomes become a theme for the rest of our journey to our home for the night – a campground called Alhassan. In every town we’re met by friendly faces, running children and warm smiles. It dawns on us that we’ll always be an anomaly in the places we visit. No matter how familiar a place may become, how normal new landscapes and new faces may eventually be, we’ll always be an anomaly in the lives of the people who live here.
Suddenly, the towns seem to simply stop and, still feeling giddy from the people we’ve seen along the way, we find ourselves smiling silently in our helmets as the road to Gafsa stretches out in front of us for miles. The sun is falling in the sky and the last 100km brings a quiet reflection in the golden light that helps bring the day on the road to a close. We stop for one final moment to take in the grand views that surround us; we know as we head into central Tunisia that the landscape and the people will once again change dramatically, and today has been one of the best days so far.
As we approach Gafsa, it’s hard not to notice the return of an unwelcome friend. The landscape is once again riddled with endless garbage – the most we’ve seen in a single place so far. In the distance, a tree has had its leaves replaced by stranded candy wrappers, blue plastic bags and all manner of human debris. Like the tree we find our hearts falling heavy once again – this country has an unimaginable beauty that’s being usurped by it’s people. The streets of Gafsa are lined with cool cafes, restaurants and a young, hipster crowd – the natural inhabitants of what is a university town. Nita comments on how she’d have thought a town like this would be more forward thinking and perhaps lead the way on helping the environment. Perhaps it’s a naïve sentiment – but it is a hopeful one. It’s hard to understand how people can be alright living surrounded by so much garbage. Perhaps it has to get worse before it gets better.
The gate at Al Hassan is locked and two kids who can’t be more than fourteen come by for a chat wearing coveralls. A man pokes his head out of a gate down the way and lets us know he’s coming over. I ask the kids about the coveralls and it turns out they’re studying to become mechanics which brings a look of pride to both of their faces! The gate swings open and with a huge smile the kids disappear down the lane. We’re invited into Al Hassan by an older man who shows us possible sites that all look great. Much like El Kahena, he also shows us a room we can have for almost the same price as a campsite and which comes with a private shower. We take the room which, unfortunately, turns out to be a mistake.
In high-season this place is probably great, but with a last minute offer to take it and in low-season the room has obviously been sitting unused for some time. There’s a lot of dust on everything and when we ask for towels, they’re so toxic from mothballs we actually have to leave them outside to save our burning eyes! Oh well. The campsite itself is pretty awesome – it’s almost like a dinner spot, park and campsite all wrapped up in one. There are well decorated childrens play areas, restaurants and sheesha tents set up around the compound and, since it’s an oasis, the locals come by in the evening to escape the heat.
We’re still feeling excited about the day – it’s hard to explain how satisfying a day of riding like today’s is. It’s difficult and rewarding. Starving, we grab a bite to eat at the restaurant and while it starts well it doesn’t end so. About two-thirds of the way through my salad I notice something moving around in my lettuce – it’s a larvae of some description and my ability to see through it’s translucent body into it’s guts doesn’t help my appetite. With no more food making it’s way into this boys mouth, I show our waiter who seems genuinely shocked while also not knowing how to respond. Instead of offering an apology, he simply disappears only to return with our check.
Killing any accidentally ingested larvae with a healthy helping of Celtia, we watch the people arrive here for the evening. It’s the first place we’ve been where we really see couples being physically affectionate – though even here the young men and women still find corners of the garden or the tents to hug one another and steal the occasional kiss. It’s lovely to see and it makes us realize how much we’ve missed it. To be clear, adolescent Tunisia isn’t devoid of love and affection – it simply seems more reserved when it comes to showing it in public.
Back in the room, we wrap ourselves in our silk bag liners and pull out our sleeping bags before quicklyfall asleep. It’s been a long, wonderful and challenging day and tomorrows route to Kairouan via the Roman Ruins in Speitla will take us through the only spot in Tunisia even the locals have cautioned us about: Sidi Bousaid and Kasserine. But that’s tomorrow.