So, is this what the Sahara is all about?
By now I could taste the haze, my nose and mouth were full of sand
But let's start at the start back in Gabés...
Nice place, Gabés. The by now usual plus's of Tunisian towns - the friendly people, good-natured drivers, good cheap food, passable wine - were in abundance in Gabés. The town itself was a bit nondescript, not improved by thick smoke from a nearby petrochemical plant, but I'd passed a nice day in and around the palmeraie and the souk (supposedly a slave market in bygone times) but the Sahara beckoned
The plan for the day was to head away from the coast to Douz, a town about 150 kilometres away, on the fringes of the Grand Erg Oriental a vast Saharan sand 'sea'. The past few days had been quite hot so an early start seemed the way to go. The streets were deserted as I headed north, retracing my route into town, past the fading black and white sign indicating the road to Libya, past the louage station and past a long line of roadside stalls chock full of bright coloured pottery and ceramics, bags and hats woven from local esparto grass and heaps of other tourist tat. The road was good tho narrow, but that wasn't a problem as there was a wide rideable verge (for once without a marked drop from the pavement) and I made good speed. The road ahead looked straight and fairly flat. A rugged range of mountains drifted in and out of the hazy view on the left. On the right? Nothing much, but that was cos not too far away was the Chott - a vast salt lake
From my experiences so far in Tunisia this was an unusual road; the seemingly ubiquitous olive groves that on most roads to the north seemed to stretch forever in all directions were nowhere to be seen, there were few houses and no road side cafés nor even any of those little stalls that dotted every other roadside selling petrol (gas) in large plastic containers
By now I had established a sort of rhythm to my Tunisian riding days; shortish bursts of activity followed by longish stops in roadside cafés, drinking coffee, chatting with the other habitues, often providing impromptu 'master classes' in trike riding skills. But today, without roadside cafés, I just had to keep on riding. Was I hanging out for a coffee...?
A fair while later, off on the right, near what seemed like a deserted blockhouse, were a couple of utes (pickups) and a flock of scrawny sheep - goodness only knows what they found to eat, there seemed to be no green at all. As I rode on towards the blockhouse, a couple of men appeared and as often happened they called out to me and made 'come here' gestures. Why not? So, I gently rolled over to where they stood. The usual greetings ensued quickly followed by the usual invitation to drink tea. Now tea in Tunisia is something of an acquired taste, but I was missing my coffee ( maybe the caffeine 'hit'?) so while the guys walked the twenty or so metres to the blockhouse I rode alongside and with each metre we seemed to gain yet another small child into the retinue until when we finally stopped we had quite a small crowd. The blockhouse was in fact a couple of basic houses and as I was to find out, three (related) families lived here, hence the crowd of kids
Four small stools were set up sort of midway between the houses, I was guided to one, my two newfound friends took theirs. Our small talk was just that; my French and Arabic language skills were being sorely tested. It seemed almost by mutual consent that we ceased conversation as large glasses of cool water were placed on the fourth stool, quickly followed by a bowl of bright green olive oil together with a large baguette. Then came a bowl of small olives and another of harissa - the omnipresent scorchingly red-hot pepper paste - and last of all slices of apple and segments of orange. I knew the drill, a little of everything (making sure that the little of harissa was very little) so that the remnants could be given to the onlookers. But today, that didn't happen. By now we were making desultory conversation about cell 'phones (they couldn't believe that I was without one) when a young girl appeared and solemnly shook my hand before she launched into 'twenty questions'. Leila was a secondary school student who spoke really good English. We went over much the same ground as her father and uncle had already done before venturing off into deeper waters. Everyone had a question, they would ask Leila who would in turn ask me and then translate my answer. I barely had time to sip the heavily minted and sugared tea that had appeared by my side. The exchange was as fascinating for me as it was for my audience, I learnt a lot about the families and their world and their worldview. Remember April 2003? George W had let his dogs of war loose, it was the topic of the moment...
I spent over an hour talking to these wonderful people, but it was time to push on as I still had a long way to go. I was invited to stay the night, and on politely declining that invitation was offered a lift into the next town, Kebili. I declined this also but I was just not permitted to decline taking the remnants of the bread, olives and fruit with me. So, after tying a large plastic bag full of food onto my panniers and on promising to stop in again on my way back to Gabés, I was back on the road
Interludes like these help make cycle touring such a great way to explore a new world. I had plenty to think about as I rode off into the growing haze. There was a little wind about but nothing to bother about and the haze was obviously dust but again, nothing to bother about. It didn't seem to take long to reach Kebili and with only 28 kms to go to Douz, I pressed on, feeling quite good about the day and the ride
The road was now narrower and the pavement not quite as good but the mesh seat of the trike acts like a sort of suspension the bumps didn't worry me too much, I powered on. Thank goodness I'd swapped the Tioga slicks I usually use (Comp Pools) for some treaded Maxxi's (Hookworms, if you're interested) so the trike tyres were getting a bit of grip in the sand growing patches of whitish sand. The wind had come up and the twin safety flags were crashing into each other in the blustery conditions. By now I could taste the haze, my nose and mouth were full of sand. Ride back to Kebili or go on to Douz? The wind was coming from the rear three quarter so it seemed like Douz was the go; for better or worse
In short order the safety flags were whipping about perilously and visibility was fading by the minute. By now I could feel the wind tugging at the bike and of course this was the time that the front derailleur started to act up. The trike has a triple ring up front and I just couldn't get the big ring no matter how hard I tried; stuck in second as it were just when I wanted to crank up the speed and lay down the k's to get out of what had by now become a full blown sandstorm - sorry, couldn't resist the pun! Anyway, here I was just grinding away when all the olive oil and tea kicked in, I needed a nature stop. A dash offroad and all was well, well maybe. Pulled up next to the trike was a police car and when I appeared a couple of big dour cops headed my way
I'd been stopped by cops lots of times; mostly they wanted to check my passport and note the details for some bureaucratic reason or other, but sometimes they just wanted to shoot the breeze with the crazy guy on a bike and sometimes they just wanted to make sure I was OK; carrying enough water and so-on
Anyway, this time, again my language skills were sorely tested but it was quickly apparent that these guys were more interested in my welfare than anything else and after a bit of a pantomime it was decided (by the cops) that it was best to hitch a ride the rest of the way. Who was I to argue? So we upacked the panniers from the trike and manhandled it onto the roof of the police car. Some rope was produced from a chaotic mess in the boot (trunk) and in next to no time the trike was firmly tied to the car and we drove the rest of the way into Douz. Wasn't all that comfortable a drive; to tie the trike to the roof all the windows had been wound down a bit, with the obvious result!
Not quite the way I expected to arrive in Douz, still, with the sandstorm raging I was quite happy to be driven right to the door of a hotel. Turned out the hotel was owned by a cousin of one of the coppers. Ah well. After the young go'fer in the hotel helped make arrangements for me to meet the coppers the next day and to carry the trike up onto the roof I was taken to a nice, if basic, room replete with it's own shower and hot water. Couldn't wait to take a shower. When I did so, I couldn't believe the face that stared back at me from the bathroom mirror - a frightening mix of red wind burn and caked white sand
Afer a fabulous shower I realised I was a bit hungry and thought of the goodies I'd been given earlier in the day, so, expectantly I undid the plastic bag to find that all that nice homely food was buried in what must have been half a kilo of fine white sand! Just then came the knock on the door Hey mister wanna do the camel ride tommorrow? Special price just for you
Ah well, maybe a camel was a better way to go in the Sahara