Into the desert from the Mediterranean
Friends were impressed, sort of. When asked if I was taking a winter break, they got a smile and the reply, “I’m off to the Sahara.”
“What, on one of those four-wheel drive safaris?”
“Nope. On me bike.”
As jaws thudded to the ground, I assured them I was not trans-navigating the great emptiness, just going for a nosy round one corner of it, curious to see, smell and hear what the mother of all deserts is like. (‘Sahara’ is a derivation of the Arabic word ‘sahra’, meaning ‘desert’.)
“On a bicycle? Camping?”
About then, they recommended counselling. I agreed, sand dunes are stubbornly resistant to the forward motion of thin tyres powered by human muscle. It is also true that most pedals across the Sahara belong to expeditions undertaken by extremely together or extremely reckless cycle explorers, neither of which was an appropriate description for my sedate approach to touring. I bluffed it out, conscious I was riding into the unknown, confident I would do nothing stupid, satisfied I had prepared myself for a hairy time.
Fundamentalists in Algeria ruled out entry into the largest slab of the Sahara in North Africa. I had enough to contend with without bringing politics into the equation, so Lybia and Egypt also fell by the way. To reach the Moroccan desert involves first crossing the Atlas Mountains, and states south of the 25th parallel required all sorts of visas and jabs I hadn’t the time or money for. Tunisia, however, offered cheap flights, easy access to the Grand Erg Occidental (one of the vast seas of sand dunes) and the Chott El Djerid, a large salt lake bordered with palmeries and oases, dry for at least ten months of the year. In the 14th century this wasteland swallowed up thousands of camels and their attendants who strayed from the trail marked with palm stumps. I had no wish to join them, but to experience such a forbidding place was a must.
Tunisia is also possibly the friendliest country in the Arab world, an important factor when crossing an alien landscape following off-road (piste) routes that feature on your map and nobody else’s. A rapid scan of discrepancies between cartographic publishers at Standfords London map shop indicated local help was going to be crucial to staying on course, and not wandering onto the thin salt crust of the chott.
From the Mediterranean coast to the desert is a steady slog in winter. Warm south westerlies skim across the Sahara, gently squeezing between the Jabel Tebaga and the foothills of the Dorsale mountains. They are unstinting, grow stronger in the afternoon, then die as you crawl into your sleeping bag and die. (Mohammed’s Law!) Under wheel the tarmac was coarse but okay, when it was there. When it more often than not wasn’t, passing two-stroke scooters kicked up enough dust to transform me into a powder puff drag queen, but it was a ride worth tackling. There is a night train that will whisk you blind into Gafsa, the gateway to the desert, but I needed a couple of days to acclimatise.
It wasn’t the weather which, during a winter’s day, ranges between a warm British spring and a cool summer. It wasn’t the money, the culture, the food, or the language (French and Arabic). It was the desire to travel towards the desert, to see its margins and discover how the arid wilderness of sand dunes emerges from the dry fertile farming country of the coastal plain – how the Mediterranean mutates into the African.
On the map there were just six communities between Sfax and Gafsa, a distance of 169 kilometres. On the ground there were that many in the first 25 kms – small farming settlements, the grandest encompassing little more than a mosque, café, store and a handful of homes, all whitewashed. As I rode west, the distance separating villages grew in proportion to the amount of dust whipped up by the ubiquitous ‘put-puts’. Between each, parade grounds of olive groves disappeared over the horizon, the gap between ranks of gnarled trees growing at an equivalent rate.
Land was becoming poor and cheap the closer I travelled to the desert. By the time I creaked into Gafsa, I was riding through scrub – slim pickings for the few flocks of lop-eared sheep that were now the sole indicators of landuse. Signs of human habitation had whittled down to a rare adobe dwelling seen through binoculars, with maybe a donkey enclosure woven from olive tree prunings and palm fronds. Now and again, out of nowhere, a child appeared beside the road to gawp, or a snarling dog gave chase. My Dog Dazzler saw heavy action.
Aside from sand, sky and space, the only element of nature that seemed to increase in the transition from dry to parched landscapes were the birds. The desolate borders of the Sahara are home to a baffling variety of larks and wheatears, most noticeably the crested larks that hopped onto the road to check me out, ran in front for a few seconds, then bogged off for a snack. Holes in the veld no doubt led to the Shangri-Las of gerbils, lizards and desert rats, but I saw none of them. A skulking prairie fox gave me a wide berth one evening, and left its calling card during the night. Except for encapsulated in key fobs at souvenir grottoes, I encountered no scorpions, spiders, mosquitoes or snakes. Had it not been for the herd of camels I spied in the distance, grazing in the flood plain of the Oued El Melah, it could have been a Spanish plain. My first night wild camping in the desert it had the audacity to rain.
Rumbling away from Metlaoui, I was beginning to think the white sands that graced so many tourist posters were somewhere way down south. Suddenly the road plunged through less than a hundred meters. From the crest it ran straight as an arrow into the heat haze of infinity. Far off, tufts of stubble were the crownings of date palms and the oasis where a hotel bed awaited. A car pulled over and an Arab teacher of French handed me a bottle of orange juice. “Trés courageux,” he kept repeating, as I pointed to my goal, “Trés courageux.”
So far the journey had been plain sailing. Yes, I had been hassled by kids and had the odd run-in with a drunk Lothario or miserable bastard, but when every other vehicle pips an “Assalama”, when folks never tire of waving and shouting “Bonsoir” before midday, it was hard to feel anything other than at ease in the country.
The Tunisians are not used to free-range travellers, particularly cyclists. They can’t imagine why anybody wouldn’t want to be zapped from one ‘touristique zone’ to another by convoys of white 4x4s. I was dogged by their dust clouds for the duration of my sojourn in the desert, and discovered I had become a sight of special scientific interest to package trippers who really thought I was out on a limb. People do get stranded and die out here, but they are always ill prepared motorists.
At a sign pointing to water (which wasn’t there), I posed for a self portrait with an up-turned bidon. A screech of brakes followed by billowing dust, and a gaggle of blotchy Germans were seen rooting through their white charger for bottles of mineral water. I was fine, I explained, but thank you. In fact I was barely ten minutes from a village, a troglodyte village where the locals still live underground, but they had totally missed it in their hurry to hit the next hot spot.
The oases of Tozeur and Nefta are both sizable towns and far from the stereotype of three date palms and a Berber tent pitched beside a puddle. Set within a depression, Nefta’s oasis is particularly stunning, but it is the great chott they reside beside that deflects the independent traveller’s attention. Like a big damp depression in an endless Mablethorpe beach, the evaporated salt lake extends to a horizon that belies the earth’s curvature.
I crossed on a tarmac causeway laid by the army – 78 kms of seminal cycling that the convoys rattled off in half an hour, never tasting the salt in the air or testing the quicksand. Here I ran into Brazilian Luiz Simoes, one of the world’s most respected wilderness cyclists, and joined his party of six Spanish compadres for a few days. They weren’t the first foreign cyclists I had encountered. I caught sight of a German bloke in Tozeur on a loaded tandem with a six year old ‘stoker’ using kiddi-cranks, and his teeny bopper daughter on a solo. Then there were the three dayglow lycra clad Italians we saw coming from 250 kms away, and the English couple dressed like they were nipping down the beer-off. But that was all. Tunisia has yet to be discovered for the cycling treat it is.
Our route out of Kebili was anybody’s guess. Cross referencing maps with the Spaniards, the Italians and the British, no two charted the same rough roads. There were three possibilities, all pistes, none likely to be waymarked. We were heading into the ergs of the Occidental, beyond the oases, where the only vegetation is rows of palm fronds, pushed into the ridges of dunes to prevent windblown sand obliterating the track.
Sand as fine as salt is not deterred by lines of dead leaves. It found its way into orifices we didn’t know we had. To lubricate a bike with anything other than wax would have been folly. And to expect it wouldn’t find a way to wipe out the frail piste was wishful thinking. Ten kilometres out of Blidet it had overwhelmed an entire village, the jumble of flat roofs peaking out of the desert like recumbent headstones.
Though nobody said as much, it was reassuring to have teamed up with Luiz for the crossing. He is of the ‘extremely together’ variety of adventurer, having pedalled across the Sahara on a route where watering holes are more than 400 kilometres apart. Out here we only needed two consecutive days supply, but clearly he wallowed in the beauty of this corner of Africa’s vast emptiness as much as the novices did.
Without him, some might have turned back where the first dunes buried the piste. There is no riding through this stuff, no matter how fat your tyres are, but Luiz pushed on, experience telling him that somewhere on the other side the firm track continued. Compass skills are essential in this featureless wasteland (which the Spanish relied on the Brit for!) and binos are useful, but a wandering Berber who knows where he is is definitely Mohammed sent.
The desert is subtle and baffling, with few landmarks and none that appear on any map. For those of us from temperate climes, travelling through such an extraordinary environment can be a mystical experience. It is a disarming vacuum, seemingly benign and very romantic. But come tea time, we come into our own, as temperatures plummet and camel dung camp fires become compulsory. On a clear night, the canopy of stars is awesome and the silence creepy. By 5:00 am, the temperatures are sub-zero.
It is necessary to carry clothing and sleeping bags for four seasons. Add water and food, and you are riding a reluctant pack horse unhappy with its footing. Accept the occasional bout of pushing, and the cycling is remarkably easy – flat and slippery, a lot like riding through snow. Here and there, the surface of the pistes are corrugated by infuriating ripples across the track called ‘washboarding’. To smooth the journey, a car needs to cross at a constant 70 km/h. A cyclist just suffers, more so if they are riding a standard tourer. Fortunately stretches of washboarding are short and limited to popular 4×4 routes we tried to steer clear of.
In the south west corner of Tunisia, the Sahara does not demand that you load up your steed with camping gear. On many routes, hotel accommodation is rarely further than a day away, but until you have slept amongst the dunes, the palms, the Berber flocks, you haven’t begun to experience the full drama of the desert’s schizophrenia. This place is potentially lethal, but the only way to make sense of the extreme landscape and climate is to immerse yourself in it.
I did the usual tourist things. I ticked off the camel ride and the souks, visited the locations where George Lucas filmed Star Wars , and dug down for sand roses. None were a patch on the ride across the chott or my first sighting of the Grand Erg Occidental, when nine desert-crazed adults ditched their bikes and ran off to play in the dunes like kids at the seaside. Time, sand and the Algerian border prevented my exploring deeper into the wilderness but, as an introduction to desert riding, this highly accessible bulge of the Sahara must be hard to beat.
Wheeling my sand crusted machine into Monastir airport at the end of the trip, a security guard became curious about what I had done and where I had been. Though it was his country, he was as impressed as my friends back at home. “Trés courageux,” he said (it was becoming a mantra) as he planted a kiss on both my cheeks.
Courageous? I think not. Riding away from Manchester airport into the insanity of a British rush-hour – now that takes courage.