Cycling to the Sahara: The Vanishings of Kasr el-Jem

Was it an elaborate hoax, devised to ensnare gulled travellers? Or could it be a mirage in the minds of weary-sickened tourists? And yet The Internet insists it exists… The hoax runs deep.

I arrived in el jem very hot and sweaty (as expected). I cycled immediately to the only hotel in the town. According to my guide book, the only point in its favour was that it was easily found, being located directly next to the train station. This didn’t bode well for a comfortable stay (“surly” was the epithet the guide book chose), but at least a stay I would have.

I did indeed easily find the train station. But of the hotel there was no sign. Even after three tours of the curious architectural sculpture that adorns the square in front of the majestic train station, I still couldn’t find the damned surly hotel.

Not a hotel. Neither can it be called a sculpture. It’s just a piece of masonry.

So I asked a local, who was just falling off his moped. He nodded and shook his head and waved his hand around, seeming to indicate a complicated set of cycling instructions. “No, no,” I insist, “the hotel is near to the station!”

A friendly English speaker intervenes at this points and translates the terrible truth: the surly hotel has closed down. Its easy-to-find location was clearly not enough. “But happily,” he goes on to translate, “there is another hotel a little way out of town, just two or three kilometres.” Excellent news. “What’s it called?” I ask. “Ksar el-Jem, the Palace of El-Jem.” And the man gives me detailed instructions: head for the main road to Sousse (the one I had studiously avoided on my way in), past the gas station and it’s right there – two or three kilometres only.

And so I set off.

With bear cycling instinct, I find the road to Sousse first time. Borne on the same strong wind that I’d fought my way through to get here, I am highly gratified when I fly past a gas station after about 2 or 3 kilometers. But I see no hotel, palace or otherwise.

I stop and ask a group of people inspecting a broken down moped, a moto they call them. One of them claps me on the arm and points further down the road. “Hotel? Yes, yes. There is: two or three kilometres – on the left.” I thank him and press onward. As I fly past the crossed out el-Jem sign, I decide that the first man must have meant two or three kilometres out of town.

I cycle on and on, seeing nothing remotely like a hotel. In fact, they appear to be farm buildings, wheat silos and the odd mechanics. I must say it doesn’t look promising, as the dust scuds into my face from the barrelling rumble of construction lorries and the sun sinks its teeth into my neck.

Then I pass a huge billboard announcing: Hotel Club Kasr el-Jem, and showing off its keyhole swimming pool. Truth be praised! There’s no indication on the billboard of where the Kasr is, but I must be on the right track. And so I faithfully persist in pedalling.

I end up cycling four miles without seeing a hotel. I stop and ask a soldier who’s just climbed out of a coriander truck. He shakes my hand, happily, repeating after me: “El-Jem, el-Jem,” while pointing redundantly down the road back to the town. I guess he doesn’t understand I mean Kasr el-Jem, the hotel.

I shout over at some workmen who had been wolf whistling at me. One of them saunters over, smiling sheepishly. I ask him for Kasr el-Jem. He seems to understand me, but still points back down the road. “Two or three kilometres. Yes,” he says, firmly. Okay. This is possible, I have come a long way down this dusty road. So I start cycling back towards town. Perhaps the hotel was in the building where that billboard was. It looked like a wheat processing plant, but you never know…

So I stop at the billboard to ask some farm workers. “Buongiorno!” they shout back, confusedly. I ask them for the Kasr el-Jem hotel. “Yes, Kasr el-Jem – two or three kilometres,” they say, pointing in the direction of el-Jem. Hmm. I’m beginning to get a little pissed off with this hotel, so I vow to ask every single person I see.

I stop at a café, just inside el-Jem city limits. “Kasr el-Jem? Yes!” he says, promisingly. He stops smoking a dead chicken on a barbeque, leads me onto the road and points back the way I’ve just come. “500 meters,” he says. Well, I think, that’s so specific that it must be right! “With a door like this,” he adds, indicating a huge blue studded door ahead of us. 

With my tail up and a close eye on my odometer, I cycle back out of town again. I stop at the first building I see with a huge blue studded door and wheel my bike inside the compound. It doesn’t look promising, I have to say – motorbike and car parts litter the ground. Some are fixed up on the outer walls of the white pasted building. It could be décor?

So I shout over to a couple of men working on a car. One of them comes over. “Kasr el-Jem hotel?” I ask, in my best Arabic. He waves his hand back in the direction of town. “Two or three kilometres,” he says. I slap my cycle helmet in disbelief. “Impossible!” I refuse to accept his judgement and repeat myself in a kaleidoscope of every language I know: “Hotel Kasr el-Jem, nuzul Kasr el-Jem, l’hotel Kasr el-Jem!” But he is adamant, flapping his hands towards the town: “Yes, yes! Two or three kilometres!” I shake my head. He leads me to the road again and firmly shoves me in the direction of town. “Two or three kilometres!” I look at him hopelessly one last time. “On the left or on the right?” But he doesn’t understand: “No, straight on. Two or three kilometres.”

So I give up and have to cycle back past all the helpful people who tried to direct me to this damnedably mythical hotel.

What do you think?