Cycling to the Sahara: Dinosaurs in the Rain

If you’re ever cycling from Ksar Hallouf to Tataouine, look out for dinosaurs. They can really nip your ankles.

Extinct meets endangered: T-Rex vs cyclist.

If you’re ever cycling from Tataouine to Jerba, look out for the rain. Seriously. I’m in the middle of a desert and it’s been raining. All day.

If you’re ever looking around the Roman ruins of Gightis, watch out for the “hands-on” guide. Uncomfortable invasion of personal space inappropriate in an underground Roman cistern.

A hole into which you should not be tempted. Unless you want to be pressed up against a wall and shown crumbling concrete.

And if you’re ever on Jerba, look out for two clowns called Ali and Walid. They drink beer fast and they don’t like to pay for it.

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So now I’m on Jerba. It was nice to get on a ferry to the island. Especially a FREE ferry. However, I was under the impression that I only had 10km to cycle across the island to Houmt Souk, Jerba’s main town. So I was horrified when I found out it was 21km. Up hill, into a headwind, on ripped-up roads. The last 8km or so was drifted with sand too, so I had trucks blowing grit into my eyes, my mouth.

But finally I arrived: Paradise Island’s Pearl of the Mediterranean. Me, I was totally underwhelmed. It looked pretty ugly. To be fair, though, I arrived through the bus station. No bus station is ever that nice. Not even in Paradise.

Perhaps not pretty, but one of Tunisia’s two cycle paths.

I am feeling the slave / master reflex a little in Jerba. I am holiday, I should be in total command of my time. But I worry that I should be visiting all the souqs, the fish market, the beach, the synagogue, the fort… And suddenly I’m not the master at all, but a slave to my guidebook.

So instead I go for a tea and an omelette sandwich at a resolutely local cafe.

The cafe is frantic. People urgent, hands pressing an argument, flying prose. Flick of lighters, suck of cigarettes. Short coffees, sugar, go faster. Even the two old men sitting in front of me are apparently having a desperate, life and death conversation about the kind of fabric the cafe chairs are made of. I blame it on the dust. Dust makes everything a little chaotic.

The cafe just happens to be on the main road from Houmt Souk out to the Zone Touristique, where most of the European tourists stay. Lots of taxis are passing, filled with young men and women in revealing clothes, on their way back to the beach. The cafe has suddenly filled up, surrounding me claustrophobically. So I decide to join the young things out on the beach.

Or I try to. I take the road for 10km, but only get as far as a rocky shoreline, blown about with plastic bottles and old crushed cans of beer. Cardboard boxes stick into what ever thin strip of muddy sand there is. Somewhat underwhelming for Paradise, but the sun’s starting to set so I should head back.

Me in a happy drunk’s hat. Shortly before meeting less happy drunks.

Then Ali comes up to me. He seems nice. Tells me the beach is another 10km away. He speaks some English so we chat for a bit about my bike trip. He likes the rips in my shirt sleeves – air-conditioning! Then he introduces me to his brother, Walid. Walid is way more sketchy, he’s erratic and seems convinced that I can speak German. I can not.

Ali and Walid invite me for a drink, a tea or coffee. I tell them I’ve got to get back to Houmt Souk before the sun sets. But I finally, fatefully, agree to a quick cup of tea.

They take me to a hotel bar, but we leave pretty quick. Ali tells me that they didn’t serve tea. This seems unlikely, but fine.

So we go into another bar, where Ali and Walid have a long argument with the waiter, who seems to have some objection or other. Sensing something fishy, I walk out of the bar, back to my bike and – lo and behold! – the waiter has no more objection.

Ali spins a spurious story, saying he’d been trying to procure us an outside table, so I could watch my bike in safety. I ignore his lies and the waiter brings out two beers for the brothers and my tea. And the bill, which I think a little odd. Then the waiter asks for the money upfront. I ignore him. This was a mistake.

At last! The beach? AKA Scene of the crime.

I drink my tea quickly, seeing the sun set. Ali downs his beer and suddenly looks very unwell and very drunk. The waiter brings out two more beers and another bill. He again asks for the money. I say I’ll pay for a tea.

There then follows “a scene,” in which I voluminously object to paying for the brothers’ beer and they insist this is normal practice. The waiter, meanwhile, looks slightly upset.

Unfortunately, I only had a ten dinar note, so the waiter simply gave me change from 8.800 – the cost of the first two beers and the tea. Rather than cause more of “a scene,” I decided to cut my losses there. I am always acutely aware that one vicious blow from the back hand of an irate drunk could cause irreparable damage to my precious bicycle and would rather be down 6 dinar than a bicycle.

I did, however, give the waiter a stern talking to. He shrugged his shoulders and said that Ali had said we were friends. In fairness to the waiter, he did argue with Ali at the start and did ask for money up front.

As I left, Walid had the cheek to ask for a tip for the waiter. Ha!

But, don’t be mistaken: this is not what Tunisia is like. This is resortland, this is where tourists mean money. And when the tourists don’t show up, as they haven’t been since the revolution last year, that means there aren’t any jobs. And when there are no jobs, seems like a lot of kids want to drink beer – but can’t afford their own supply. So what do they do?

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No, Tunisia is not like this. Tunisia is hot-faced kids working hands like magic wands over street stoves, serving up chapatti filled with salami, cheese, egg, onion, tuna to families and friends. That’s what I love.

Tunisia. Chapattis.

As a side note, being a David abroad has got harder. To people all over the globe, I used to be David Beckham and this time I’ve occasionally maintained my footballing greatness with David Villa, but overwhelmingly it’s been David Cameron.What is sad is that they don’t realise how grievous an insult this is.

Cycling and the Sahara: Ksar Hallouf

Things I’ve learnt today: a prostitute in Medenine costs approximately 78 dinar per hour (about £33). That’s 13 dinar for ten minutes, which is apparently all you need if you’re a Tunisian teenager.

But before we come to that, I feel I should share with you some appellative angst. As you can see from the title of this post, I’m not really sure what to call my little bike ride now that I’ve been to the Sahara. I’m still cycling and I’m still in the desert – and I will be for some time yet, as I intend to pop over to Douz, which is known as the gateway to the Sahara. So how can I be cycling back from the Sahara if I’m yet to arrive at its gateway?

The day started brightly, with me being chased across a desert by a 4×4 containing a deluded campsite owner. He thought I hadn’t paid for my tent. I had. Luckily, this simple assertion was enough to convince him and I continued on my way (into a headwind).

Deluded campsite owners aside, you’ll be pleased to hear that my route out of the Ksar Ghilane was vastly more comfortable than my route in. I hereby recommend the route from Bir Soltane to Beni Khadeche. Only about 10 miles of it is bone-shaking track – and none of it was anywhere near as bad as the best of the Matmata to Bir Soltane version.

Joyous track of painless wonder.

And after that: sublime. The road swerved through a valley dropped with mountains, lined with flowers, filling my nostrils with their sweetness. At this point, I should roll out a few evocative flower names to tantilise your senses. But all I know is that there was a purple one and a yellow one and they smelt good.

The only point of anguish on the road was when my left sandal slipped from the pedal at about 10mph. The pedal continued its mechanically ordained trajectory, racing down and round to bite mercilessly deep into my achilles tendon. Blood bursts in abundance. Another scar for the collection. Like a Roman chariot with scythed wheels, my pedals have sharp metal spikes. I’m sure the manufacturers would argue that they are for extra grip, but I’m convinced the designer was a malicious sadist.

Shuddering to a eye-watering halt, I notice then that my front basket had torn through its moorings and was now dangling, like a ten-year-old’s milk tooth, by a single strand.

But nothing can distract from the beauty of a good bike ride.

Ksar Hallouf, palmerie.

And so I made it in good time to Ksar Hallouf, a pretty little palmerie perched in a valley. To describe a ksar as a granary would be both factually inaccurate and a gross misrepresentation. A ksar is a fortified village, but it is true that often the distinctive architectural feature of the ksar are its granaries.

At Ksar Hallouf, the fortified part of town is up a gigantic mountain, far above the little palmerie where the townsfolk live now. I only mention this because I was led to believe that you could stay overnight in the granaries up there, so hauled my bike and all my possessions up this vertical cliff-face. When I got to the top, drenched in sweat, a guardian appeared to inform me that all the only accommodation was down below in the palmerie.

The granaries of Ksar Hallouf.

Back down in the palmerie, I stayed with Saada and Mahamad in their little pension, fancifully reconstructed ancient granaries. Mohamad is 20 and the seventh child of 3 brothers and 3 sisters. After lunch, he took me on a walk in the mountains above the oasis.

Mahamad on top of a ksar, with a legha.

As we walked, we talked. Nothing was off the agenda: house prices, football, drugs and of course the prostitutes of Medenine. He’d only been to her once – it was too expensive. Not as expensive as the other option, though: getting married. A wedding costs 4,000 dinar and involves feeding about 300 guests. A cheap house for the newly weds would be about 10,000 dinar. He’s going to have to wait ten years at least before getting married – and that means ten years before any regular sex. He listened with jealous wonder as I told him how it was in England.

Berber shepherd sleep hole.

Mahamad showed me where the berber shepherds sleep and where they keep water in underground gullies. He showed me two more ruined ksour (plural of ksar). Mahamad picked a bunch of herbs for tea and taught me all their names in Arabic. Taught might be a bit of a strong word, for it implies some sort of retention in the mind of the learner. He cropped me a strip of palm tree to use as a walking stick (in Arabic, a legha – I remembered that one). He also gave me a pair of flints used by berber shepherds to make fire and a porcupine spine.

Allah.

Then he told me that the police have all the marijuana at the moment and asked me if I could bring him a girl from England next time.

I tried to explain that there’s usually more to it than that.

Cycling to the Sahara: Ksar Ghilane (Happy)

So without further ado, and before you all start thinking that I’m having a miserable time worrying about the hideous environmental impact of tourism, here is the Ksar Ghilane happy post.

I’M IN THE FREAKING SAHARA!

The Sahara.

Hurrah.

(Or, as some of you have noticed: I was in the Sahara. But because there is no internet in the middle of the world’s greatest desert, these words, although conceived in the deepest Sahara, were not uploaded for your delectation until now.)

So I cycled all the way from my house in London (ahem) to the Sahara desert (ahem). Okay, so I only cycled from Caterham to Vernouillet and then from Tunis to the Sahara. But still.

Anyway, my point is that it really isn’t far. If you count only miles in Tunisia then I’d be on about 500 miles. That’s nothing! And it includes a totally unnecessary detour of about 80-120 miles around the Cap Bon. Theoretically, you could catch a train from London to Marseille (careful), hop on a boat (careful) and cycle to the Sahara in a week.

What I’m saying is: you should do this.

No, not this. This is just an artfully placed camel.

The Saharan desert is like nothing else on earth. Despite all the tourist petrol rubbish, it takes only a few steps out into the dunes, out into the great sand sea, to feel like the first annointed saint, the first man on the moon, the last man on earth.

Whatever. If you aren’t interested, you aren’t interested. I’ll entertain you instead. By showing you some pictures of men riding on horses. Upside down.

Man riding horse. Upside down. At high speed, I should add.

You see, I appear to have landed in Ksar Ghilane at the time of the Spring Festival. I’m not convinced this is a good thing, especially when my afternoon siesta ( = post-cycle wipeout) is interrupted by a loudspeaker turned up way past 11. Somewhat grumpily, then, I crawl out of my berber tent to learn what the fuss is about. But it would take a heart of iron not to be charmed by the sight of a six-week old baby in the arms of a tuareg horseman riding through the oasis. At 40mph.

Men holding hands. On horses. At high speed.

Aside from the attractions of the desert (4x4s notwithstanding), the attractions of men showing off on horseback and the attractions of European men in tight shorts with their guts out, the oasis also boasts a hot spring. Despite its name, the hot spring is actually luke warm. It is also slightly mineral and very sandy.

Spring. Steaming.

When I ventured into the luke-warm shallows, the spring was populated by impertinent schoolboys from Douz. Impertinent only by English standards, I should add. All Tunisians are impertinent by English standards. Everyone here asks me if I’m alone. I thought one kid was saying hello. “Alo? Alo?” he said. “Hello!” I replied cheerily. “No, a-low!”

A musical interlude.

But the oasis is a small place – everyone knows that I am alone. There’s only one long-haired, stripily-tanned Englishman in this place that I’ve seen. It’s just that they can’t believe it. They think there must be a story behind it. Perhaps my wife is ill. Perhaps she is following behind. Perhaps she is waiting for me in Douz. No. I am alone. Totally alone. Will be for the whole two months. And I’m on a bicycle. Yes, a bicycle with pedals. No motor. Yes I am cycling on it. Through Tunisia, yes. And then back through France to London. Yes alone. Totally alone.

Alone. Upside down. In the Sahara. Hurrah.

Cycling to the Sahara: Ksar Ghilane (Moany)

This should be some sort of triumphant Saharan-arrival post, but I forgot to take a photograph of me and my bicycle in the sand, so you’ll just have to wait a while for that.

Instead, I’m going to moan on about the misery of petrol-based transport and overweight European men in tight shorts.

To which I think we can all say: yuk.

Ksar Ghilane is an oasis on the edge of the Grand Erg Oriental, one of the great sand seas of the Sahara. It is a miracle. It is also a tourist hot spot, being both easily accessible (if you don’t cycle) and astonishingly beautiful.

Free hot springs at Ksar Ghilane oasis.

I have been to Ksar Ghilane once before, in 2008. In four years it has developed a great deal. I don’t remember seeing so many campsites or so many vehicles or so many petrolheads and tourists last time. Beer, bikinis, men in tight shorts, guts out. It’s embarrassing, but it’s also costly for the sustainability of the oasis. Water is tight and Europeans (me included) loooove water.

But despite the plentiful supply of Europeans, I feel more alone here in Ksar Ghilane than anywhere else I’ve been so far, for two reasons.

Firstly, all the other tourists are in big groups, roving gangs of Italians, Germans and Tunisians all trying to look cool. The employees aren’t much better it seems to me, all sunglasses and crazy stubble beards.

Secondly, everyone else is into one thing and one thing only: pissing about on petrol machines. Quads or bikes or 4x4s. It’s disgusting. Even people you might expect to have an appreciation for the sanctity of the desert. I spoke to one teacher whose eyes lit up recalling her morning on a quad bike. “It’s addictive,” she said. When I said I didn’t like petrol meachines, she admitted that they did rather break the serenity. No shit.

4x4s at Ksar Ghilane.

I resent the noise of the engines, I resent the smell of the diesel, I resent the damage that you can see scarred into the sand. But these people are on holiday, the locals are earning a living and everyone is having fun. Unthinking or uncaring, I know not which.

And, to be fair, driving about on dunes is fun. It is right there, petrol fun: speed, beauty, excitement. It makes you laugh and cry out with thrilling excitement. And the buzz stays with you.

But there’s not much more you can say for it than that. It’s a thrill. It’s not going to teach you much and it costs the environment, but it’s a thrill.

Swarming invasion of quad bikes.

Walking in the desert, by comparison, is a quieter sort of thrill. There is the thrill of being amongst the dunes. There is the thrill from the silence (while it lasts from the 4x4s and quads and bikes). There’s the thrill from the emptiness and the magnitude. And it costs comparatively little.

Walking in the desert doesn’t give you the exhausting, exhilarating thrill of quad bikes. It gives you a vibrating thrill of awe in the sublime joy of nature. You could get the thrill of quad biking on the Oxfordshire downs (and people do: swap sand for mud, sun for cloud and Tuareg for chavs – it’s the same damn thing). The desert does not add much to the quad-biking experience because desert beauty is quiet and difficult. Quads take that away. Walking, on the other hand, does not.

Walking through the dunes.

So I walked across the dunes to a ruined fort. Most people come out here in 4x4s, quad bikes or motorbikes. I remember driving here in a 4×4 myself in 2008, staggering round half asleep, scared my camera would stick up in the sand, taking photos through a plastic bag. It seems absurd, sad even. But I walked here this time. It only took about 45 minutes.

Not many others walk here. But why not?

Only when walking can you see the flowers close up, precious gifts of the spring. The sandfall trickle down the dunes, dispersed by your feet. Unexplained hard nodules of sand butting out into the wind. The trails of the scarab beetles and sand ants, propped up on huge stilt legs. The tracks of camels, occasional footprints. Sadly less than occasional tyre tracks. Dunes so big you disappear into them. The cool of the shade-side sand. The heat as your leg sinks into the dune slopes. The sun working on your imagination. The dunes like waves on the sea, making it impossible to tell how far you still have to go. The fort disappearing into the distance, seeming further away than ever.

Desert flowers.

Then suddenly it’s there in front of you. And you see the 4x4s gunning their engines to drive up the steep sand slopes, so nobody even needs to walk up the last 25 metres.

4x4s. Camels. Walkers.

Sermon over. Next time: Happy post.

Cycling to the Sahara: The Road to Ksar Ghilane

Matmata: another man with a 4×4 offers me a desert Safari.
‘No, thanks,’ I reply. ‘I’m cycling to Ksar Ghilane on my bicycle tomorrow.’
‘Oh,’ he says. ‘You know the best way is down this road. More direct than the main route.’
‘Really?’ I ask.
‘Yes, yes. Over the jebel, then – ‘ he makes a motion with his hand as if it’s all down hill from there.
I’m slightly nervous as the road he indicates is not marked on my drawn-from-space road map. So I ask: ‘Is it signed?’
‘Yes, yes. It is direct to a roundabout, turn right and arrive Bir Soltane – after that Ksar Ghilane.’

So, always happy to avoid a main road, I vow to follow his advice.

The next day, it takes me approximately ten minutes to recognise the truth of Tolkein’s aphorism that short cuts make long delays.

Less a road, more one extended pot hole.

The “road” that led over the jebel was, well, I think even a 4×4 would have had trouble to be honest. I certainly didn’t see any attempting it. To cross it on a fully-laded touring bicycle was nerve-shredding. As the front wheel stacked into deep road-scars, I’d wince as the back wheel crunched down with the full weight of my baggage. Every moment I expected to hear the crack of spokes snapping. Up hill was dragging slow, but the down hills were only more dangerous.

And – is it signed, my arse! Unless by “signs” he meant “old men on donkeys” of whom I encountered two, both appearing at critical moments. Once as I pondered turning back at the sight of miles and miles of up and down hills tracked only by treacherous washed-out roads, pot holes the size of meteor craters. And the other when I reached the “roundabout” of my guide’s description. Is it signed? No it is not signed. At all. It’s a T-junction with a choice of east or west. That’s it.

But at least the road surface after the junction is better. If I could reach the road surface, that is. Unfortunately it is covered in an inch of sand, so the bike can only manage about ten metres of swerves before I have to dig the tyres out of the dune. Still, I’d rather swerves than the potential death of the pot holes.

I tell a lie: there was ONE sign. But look at that sand!

This “road” to Ksar Ghilane is also guarded by ten dogs. Thankfully, they were only barkers, not chasers. I think they were gobsmacked to see a cyclist to be honest. Only one shepherd’s dog put in a half-hearted chase.

I didn’t get lost at any point on this “road”, but I think that is only because to be lost you must have had some idea of where you were in the first place. I didn’t see more than ten people all day – a few flocks of sheep and two camels – but not many people who could guide me.

Huh? Is this the Sahara or the Cotswolds?

When I saw a shepherd boy on a donkey, I dumped my bike at the side of the road and marched across the sand towards him. He climbed down off his donkey and started over to me. We met in the middle.
“You are alone?” he asked, after comfirming that this was indeed the road to Bir Soltane. “Very difficult,” he added, somewhat unnecessarily.

The “road” surface was mainly spine-crunching stones about the size of a baby’s head. Every bounce and crack a brief panic at the idea of getting a puncture – or worse, that my wheel spokes would snap at the strain. The surface and the care that I took with it meant that I couldn’t exactly enjoy the view. After the mountains, it would be fair to say that there wasn’t much view to enjoy anyway.

Stark. Featureless. Bumpy.

Every now and then I’d cross a waterless wadi, turned into a sea of gravel. I’d need to push across, of course.

After “cycling” through this god-blasted land for 26.08 miles at an average speed of just 8.1mph, I finally reached the main road to Ksar Ghilane, where the 4x4s roar.

Hurrah – only another 28 miles to go! Into a 14mph headwind.

I’ve never been so glad to see a proper road in my life.