Cycling to the Sahara: To MP3 or not to MP3?

Long-distance cycling will always, at some point, become an arduous task. Whether it’s Tunisia’s flat expanses of eye-watering desert or the hard shoulder of the A1, there will come moments when every turn of the pedals seems a pointless trial of will.

Long, straight, dull.

At these moments, it is tempting to push aside the present and to try to make time pass faster by plugging in your headphones and listening to something totally dislocated from now.

The juxtaposed sound of Bob Dylan crying about racial murder in Louisiana or spiral rhythms dropping from the decks of a DJ in Bristol can bring an odd comfort to cycling on a bleached-out main road in Tunisia, as trucks torment me with their dust-devil exhaust pipes, the sun soddens my shirt and the squeaky crank of my sand-choked chain drills into my brain.

But dislocating by MP3 is not all good. Music focuses the mind on the subject or the mood of the song. This is great if you are in trouble (I whole-heartedly believe that Nashville Skyline saved my life when I was cycling through northern France with a broken bike at 4am in the morning), but where would your thoughts take you if you were cycling in silence? What could you learn, what could you understand for yourself?

I haven’t used my MP3 player the last two days – not even on the 136km main road from Sfax to Gabes. I preferred fantasy and my own thoughts. At the risk of sounding like I’m going insane, I have conversations. Not just with myself, but with my friends. These are real conversations: they make me laugh. I wouldn’t possibly laugh out loud if I was just making up these conversations on my own. No, my friends are there with me, telling jokes.

In Tunisia, it also feels rude to have headphones on, certainly when going through towns and villages. Every person you pass on the road expects and offers a greeting. It is hard to greet someone when you’re listening to heavy metal and conversation is impossible.

I shall keep my MP3 player. If nothing else, it is good for blocking out the snoring coming from the hotel room next door. But I am certainly using it far less on the road. The birds are calling to me…

Cycling to the Sahara: Matmata Motobylette Man

Story goes: I cycled to Matmata, a small town dug into the ground on the way to the Sahara. In the seventies, George Lucas sprinkled tourist-gold over the town by filming Star Wars there. Henceforth the town was cursed to be a place of pilgrimmage for cultic cinema-goers wishing to see the spot where a fictional character wasn’t born.

Matmata le jour.

For me, it was a nice spot to stop after a big day of cycling the day before. So I sat on a wall overlooking a green-coated wadi, watching the sun fall between two palm trees as the mosque gave the dusk call to prayer.

A young man barks up on a motobylette behind me. A motobylette is essentially a bicycle with a motor gaffa-taped on the back. He greets me. I flinch, instinctively.

I flinch because it is customary in Matmata for locals to tout tourists for business. It is all part of the curse. This business involves invading the privacy of various put-upon residents for the purpose of ogling their homes / Star Wars sets, ostensibly on Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tataouine. I hope this makes sense to some of you readers, because I had no idea what they were talking about.

The Millenium Falcon. Oh no, it’s a bicycle. And my foot.

The other business is desert touring. Everyone here seems to own a stable of camels, horses, 4x4s, quad bikes, motorbikes and numerous other conveyances to rent for the purpose of desert safari. These propositions are usually fairly swiftly dealt with.
“You want tour of desert?”
“No thanks, I’m going there alone.”
“Oh, you have 4×4?”
“No. I have a bicycle.”
“Ah, yes, okay – I put bicycle on car and into Sahara.”
“No, I’m cycling there myself.”
At which point the proposition usually founders.

Good cycling terrain.

Anyway, once the propositions are over, quite often these men just want to chat.

So the young man on the motobylette told me that he was from the Gdouma clan and that I was staying in the Gdouma clan area of Matmata. Apparently, the Gdouma clan are found only here in Matmata and in Senegal. And in Canada, but mainly in Matmata and Senegal.

Why? I ask. And so motobylette man tells me the story of the Gdouma clan.

A long time ago, a Gdouma man travelled to Matmata across the Sahara from Senegal. He fell in love with the beautiful Matmata women and stayed. He married and had children and his children had children and their children had children and so on. Over the years, the Gdouma skin grew whiter and whiter, until today they are indistinguishable from their neighbours. Now the motobylette man lives just 14km from where the first Gdouma man arrived all those years ago.

I ask him if he’ll ever go to Senegal, to visit his ancestors – he could take his motobylette. He objects, saying he’ll run out of gasoil – Tunisia is not a rich country, it has no gasoil. So sell the motobylette and take a camel, I say. He laughs. I’m not joking. He says he’d rather go to Canada, but the government won’t let him.

An old man rolls up at this point and sends motobylette man off to buy some bread. The old man sits down on the wall next to me.

A few minutes later, motobylette man returns. He failed to find bread for the old man. There’s only one baker in town and he only bakes enough bread for the inhabitants of Matmata, about 2000 people. If it runs out, it runs out. At the moment there are a lot of Tunisian tourists here because of the holidays and they’ve eaten all the townspeople’s bread! Part of the curse, again.

The old man gets up and goes off to the shop to buy flour so that his wife can make bread at home. You see, the man and the wife work together to make bread. The man buys the flour and the woman bakes, motobylette man tells me.

He’s never seen Matmata so green, not in 14 years. Normally there is very little rain, but right now there is a dusting of green over everything. Shrubs sprouting everywhere. Purple and yellow flowers rooting and blooming – from nowhere, it looks like. Later, someone tells me that twenty days ago it even snowed in Matmata. I don’t believe that, but the next morning, when I see the town hung with mist, I think perhaps it’s true.

Snow?

Motobylette man says there are few European tourists here at the moment, perhaps because of the economic crisis. And if there is crisis in Europe, he says, then in Tunisia there is death. And he laughs. He tells me that he is guide, but also not guide. I think he means he is an unlicensed guide. Most people here work with tourists in one way or another. You can see there is nothing else here, motobylette man says: no agriculture, nothing. We must do better, he says. Then he invites me for a coffee or a tea, but for me it’s dinner time.

As I go to my earthwork hotel, the old man walks past with his bag of flour.

Matmata la nuit.

Cycling to the Sahara: On Killer Guard Dogs and Courage

For those of you following closely my twitter feed (ahem), you will know that yesterday I took an unmarked country track from el-Jem to Sfax. This was a slightly risky move, I thought, because the track did not appear on my map and I had no idea where I was or – aside from a vague notion that south was good – where I was going.

A dangerous country track. But why?

But it transpires the risk is not from a danger so tame as getting lost, but from the fact that country tracks are the dominion of killer guard dogs, half-mad slavering demons of Baskerville proportions, whose spine-chilling banshee-howl of a bark is only matched in ferocity by their bone-snapping sabre-toothed bite. That I am not writing this from some heavenly sanctuary is due only to the grace that these murderous predators are limited in speed to 20mph and I, adrenalin gland pumping, am capable of 21.4mph (into a headwind and uphill of course).

The danger posed by these hounds was manifest. However, there was another danger that I was entirely oblivious to: these country tracks are also hunting grounds for robbers and thieves. Bearing in mind that my only brush with petty crime so far has been two kids fooling around, I am less than credulous when a chap called Najjar flags me down from his motorbike and sternly warns me of this danger to which I have foolishly exposed myself.

“In future, take only the primary routes,” he says. I try to explain that the primary routes are disgustingly overrun with trucks and lorries. But he nods furiously in agreement, “Yes, yes, more circulation, more traffic, good. No thieves.” He doesn’t seem to get the point that I’m after a pleasant ride, not a lung-choking coughing-fit.

But then he doesn’t understand what the hell I’m doing on a bicycle in Tunisia right after the revolution in the first place. “You are very courageous,” he says. “Despite all the problems, you are still trying to tour our country.” This is the first I’ve heard of such problems. Even the FCO, that most wanton, craven, petty-fooling of travel advisors – even the FCO declare Tunisia to be safe for innocent holiday-makers. But Najjar disabuses me of this government fantasy: “After the revolution, there are many thieves and catastrophes.”

So Najjar takes it upon himself to escort me to the safety of the main road, chugging alongside me as we cycle through these dangerous country villages full of wavey, smiley people. There aren’t even any more killer dogs. “But why are there so many thieves after the revolution?” I ask. “Because the police are afraid of them,” my bodyguard replies. “They are in confusion after the revolution. There are many problems now.”

Najjar faithfully leads me to the main road, where the trucks thunder and the lorries roar. His duty discharged, Najjar bids me farewell and leaves me with 17km of main road to survive. I am secure in the knowledge that I face the mere threat of extinction by fumes or tyre treads. To be honest, I’d rather thieves and knaves. In fact, his very kindness and concern is exactly what makes me feel secure in my dealings with humanity here in Tunisia.

Main road. Safer? Nicer?

But what struck me most about this episode was that Najjar called me courageous (regardless of whether he meant it or not). I do not feel this courage. I was ignorant of these robber dangers (and, by the by, I don’t believe a word of it, insha’allah) and ignorance of a danger doesn’t amount to courage in the face of that danger.

What struck me was this: Aristotle tells us that a surfeit of a certain characteristic becomes its opposite (courage in excess is foolhardiness, for example), but perhaps a deficit of a characteristic can become its opposite too – in this case fearfulness or timidity of character appearing to look like courage!

I was acutely aware, the whole time Najjar was telling me how dangerous these roads were, that he could easily have knocked me off my bike and robbed me blind himself. But instead of voicing my fears or telling him to sod off, I followed him and, in my fear, trusted him. Can this possibly be courage? Or is it the act of a weak will – a timid act, if not a cowardly one?

And yet despite this, if the definition of courage is to persist in the face of danger, then demonstrably I have courage in abundance. But this courage doesn’t feel like courage to me (I wonder: does it to anyone? To Shackleton, to Napoleon, to Boudicea?). To me it feels like timidity of character combined with helpless faith in the good nature of others and a need to survive and to push onwards. If this be courage, then I do indeed take courage.

P.S.: Those of a dog-like disposition will be pleased to hear that not dogs were harmed in the making of this bike ride. Yet.

P.P.S.: Those of a dog-like disposition will not be so pleased to hear that dogs and heavy goods vehicles do not make good companions. After swearing vengeance on the next dog that attacked me, I saw only two more dogs: both dead on the side of the road, flies buzzing around their eyes. I can’t say that I was heart-broken with pity.

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.

Cycling to the Sahara: Farmyard Animals

Yesterday was supposed to be a short day. Starting early from Sousse, I should have arrived at my destination by about lunchtime with plenty of time to mosey around the Roman amphitheatre at El Jem.

The amphitheatre at El Jem. From below.

But given the nature of this trip so far, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I only arrived at my destination at 22.30, 70km from where I expected to be.

On the plus side, I did get a guided tour around a Tunisian farm, near Ghanada.

This is me and Ali. He insisted I take photographs of all his animals. So I did.

There were sheep. And peacocks.

And geese.

And a cow (mother). And a calf. Indulging in some light petting.

These chaps were fricking awesome. Hamdi picked me up of the side of the road and near dragged me in for a cup of tea. He introduced me to Ali (above, with his seven month old calf, his ‘marriage’) and Khaled, a young fella who worked for the Garde Nationale and drove a tractor.

They fed me yoghurt fresh from their cow (above), bread fresh from their oven and an enormous egg fresh from one of their geese (above) and we all watched the National Geographic channel together. Then we went on a tour with the camera around their thousand tree olive grove and inspected all the animals. Love this place!

Anyway, I apologise for the somewhat episodic nature of this post, but here is the news in brief:

Hammamet

Disasterous room. The shower instantly floods its feeble curtain, flows merrily into the bathroom, seeps under the door frame and out into the wider bedroom beyond. This seems to come as standard in Tunisian hotels, but this particular shower comes with a cold tap that you can’t turn off. It turns ON all right, but not off. So I had to switch off at the mains, which means that I can’t flush the toilet – unless I’m also having a shower.

Furthermore, the TV when switched on makes a whirring noise, gives off a sparking flash and then nothing. And only two lights work. Otherwise it’s great. Oh and there are no windows, except onto a closed-in courtyard. And the muezzin sounds at about 5.30am. And I wake up freezing cold at midnight. Otherwise…

Traffic

There is an immense amount of heavy goods traffic in Tunisia. I don’t understand it, but they seem to be building vast cities at every turn. However, I have found it is possible to enjoy choking in the dust of a truck or lorry – my favourite are the ones carrying huge bubls of fennel. The air is most delightfully fragrant in their wake. My least favourite has to be the ones stacked with crates of chickens. The stench of poultry excrement lingers most persistantly.

Cheering Crowds

I love cycling in Tunisia. People honk horns joyfully and give me the thumbs up or wave. One driver leapt out of his seat and started blowing kisses at me. Too many people stare sometimes, but there is a wonderful reflex in Tunisian people that, once greeted, they must reciprocate. So all I do is wave or salaam and they return with a smile.

The Saha-who?!

In Haouria, I first told a Tunisian of my evil plan to cycle to the Sahara. A waiter asked me where I was going on my tour. I told him around the Cap Bon. He nodded. Then I added: ‘I hope to cycle to the Sahara as well.’ ‘The Sahara?’ he queried. ‘Yes!’ I replied. He just slapped his forehead and brought me a free plate of French fries.

Next time, I promise to introduce some characters, including Yasser the drunk from Gabes, Wa’el the drunk from Lebanon and Mohammed the drug-dealer from Sousse. Lovely chaps, all.