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.

3 thoughts on “Cycling to the Sahara: Ksar Ghilane (Moany)”

  1. Well thanks Tina! It was incredible – you should definitely come here, if perhaps not by bike, then definitely by train and boat. Gorgeous!

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