The Sahara and a Tent Under African Stars
The desert. At last.
The next day is a slow affair – the ride to Douz is short and we plan to take advantage of a late check-out. After a morning catching up on writing and editing images, we load the bikes excited to hit the road that leads into the Sahara. Our destination for the next few nights is the legendary Camping Desert Club – a campsite that’s become a mainstay to rallye-raiders and 4×4 enthusiasts who plan to pit their skills against the desert. The road from Matmata continues the beautiful turns of the previous day though the temperatures are in the mid-thirties which is making the road greasy. The sweeping roads of the hills descend into a straight road west of Tamezret and on it’s western edge, there is nothing but desert until Douz.
A red sign warns of dromedary crossings and I wonder aloud if we’ll see any. When we started this journey back in July, one of the things I hoped for was to have a picture of our bikes with camels in the background; to have ridden our bikes from Calgary to a place where camels roam free. I have a level of skepticism with animal danger signs – for all the bear signs in Alberta and moose signs in Newfoundland, our personal count for actual sightings is pretty abysmal! But along this road, it doesn’t take long for us to spot our first camel wandering alone about 300m from the side of the road. By the time we see him it’s too late for a photo and we hope for another opportunity further along the road. About 5km later a herd of camels flanks the road on both sides and we pull over to get the picture I’ve been dreaming of for years.
For ten minutes we hang-out on the side of the road with the herd taking pictures of them while they watch us with a mild curiosity. Satisfied with our photos, we continue on and find the road frequently lined with large herds as we ride west. The road to Douz is absolutely straight. There’s no deviation from it’s path towards the town and for an hour a single rise and drop in the road provides the only challenge to our skills. Luckily, the landscape is still so foreign to us that every kilometre is taken in with utter joy.
The sudden appearance of trees along the straight and barren road announces our arrival in Douz. The town is larger and busier than we expected it to be but it has a great energy – much better than Matmata. People are busy milling about the streets and the café patios are filled with men enjoying an afternoon coffee. There’s a huge rallye-raid and 4×4 support community here and the interest in all things adventure-y is plain to see; along the main street, a large garage is dedicated to repairing 4×4’s and motorcycles that have either sheared something or burnt something out along their journeys.
We pull into the Camping Desert Club and we’re met at the gate by Ismael, the daytime guardian whose name instantly brings back fond memories of our time in Ellaouza. There’s plenty of room and at eight dinar a night per bike, the price is right! There’s one other bike parked under a shelter and it’s owner, Markus, introduces himself to us before we’ve even found a spot. “Don’t even look for another place – this is the best campsite in Tunisia.” We don’t need any convincing – it’s got showers, toilets that are clean and sand under the tents – we’re sold. Markus grabs us a coffee and we simply park up the bikes and wait for the mid-afternoon heat to subside before setting up camp.
Like our friend in Ellaouza, Ismael has a great smile and air about him. He asks us to take a look at his bike – a Max II scoot that he’s modified beyond belief. As we approach it a “Chirp-chirp” lets us know that an alarm has been armed which makes his smile grow – but the alarm pales in comparison to the next feature: The bike is fitted with a remote start – perhaps for those freezing days in the Sahara when you just don’t want to go outside in the morning to warm the bike up!? Add to that some fancy lights and aluminum wheels and you can see the love this guy’s put into his bike. It’s just awesome. We already know our time in Douz is going to be fantastic.
Soon another man, Thomas, joins us and tells us about his plan to head to Ksar Ghilane aboard his quad, riding a 100+km or so through the Sahara. It’s ambitious but he’s a veteran of the these parts having been here over forty times. Markus had originally planned to ride there too – though taking the 150km road- and piste-route instead – but changes his plan to spend the evening with us. They tried the Saharan route together a few days earlier but even as a rallye rider he found the big GS too heavy to deal with the dunes and aborted the attempt after five kilometers. Geared up and ready to go, we say farewell to Thomas and watch his loaded quad disappear in a cloud of dust.
We share a coffee at the campsite with Markus before he suggests grabbing a thé a la menthe at the edge of the Sahara. Why would we refuse? Tea in the Sahara sounds like a fantastic idea. Markus grabs his bike and we follow along with Nita on the back of mine. In the hour or so since our arrival, Douz has completely changed – the streets are bustling with scooters zipping to and fro and the mosquito-like whine of their engines now fills the air. There are more women out, though they seem to be heading either home or to work rather than stopping along the streets at the plentiful cafés and the shop doors are starting to open again after a mid-afternoon siesta. Once again any sense of road-rules have gone out the window; everyone is either driving the wrong way down the streets, pulling u-turns or simply stopping to catch up on a missed conversation and blocking traffic in both directions. It’s fantastic. Unlike Sicily where it all felt incredibly dangerous, here there’s a rhythm to it that seems to make sense – and more predictable. As the day nears dusks, Douz is coming to life again.
We arrive at a gritty little hotel at the edge of the desert and it provides an interesting mix of visuals for us to process. About 500m from where we’re sitting, a sea of dunes begins to rise from the horizon, while immediately in front of us local entrepreneurs have set up go-karts with paddle tires for a desert track. To our right, a group of sedate wild dogs lay strewn across the sand hoping for some relief from the heat while an older French man dressed in an airline captains uniform offers ultra-light flights over the dunes. Adding to the mix, a steady stream of camels come and go, led by their keepers searching for tourists to entertain. Any green that we witnessed on our way into Douz has been wiped away from this part of the earth.
After spending an hour or so taking everything in, we head to a nearby hotel whose rather plush setting holds the promise of beer and free wifi to touch-base with the family at home. It’s been a while since we’ve had internet access and we know they start to worry when we’ve been out of touch for too long. The hotel lobby is filled with American tourists, which may be a good sign for Tunisian tourism – it’s nice to see that people are ignoring the often bleak media reports about this country.
While we enjoy the cool of the hotel bar, Markus tells us about Les Palmiers, a restaurant that Thomas had introduced him to a few nights before. Its simple menu and friendly staff have made it a favorite place of his and he explains how he feels a certain sense of duty to share what he learns with fellow travellers – simply knowing isn’t enough. It turns out that part of the reason he’s stayed in Douz an extra day is to impart his local knowledge to us – a lovely sentiment and a gift we feel fortunate to have received.
After a warm welcome, the owner walks us through his garden and takes a moment to reassure us that his guinea pigs and tortoises are not for eating and are, in fact, his dear friends. He’s built a wonderful little home for them in this green oasis behind his restaurant – full of nooks and crannies for them to enjoy. The stairs in the garden lead us to a roof-top meal of brik, merguez and lamb, and a fantastic vantage point for watching the hustle and bustle of the town below. As the evening light turns to black, the roads here become even more chaotic – North African roads are not for the faint of heart. The merguez here is by far the best we’ve had in Tunisia and the smell of barbeque and spices on the night air is wonderful!
With full bellies and an evening of great laughs, we head back inside to clear the tab and take a moment to “Read” the walls of the restaurant. They’re covered from floor to ceiling with rally photos and stickers from adventure-seekers that seem to date back to the eighties judging by the haircuts and graphics. Bikes knee deep in sand, rally cars on their backs (or on fire) and dusty trophy holders. One famous rallye-raiders face shows up over and over again throughout the walls history. It’s easy to get lost in it. Scanning through the hundreds of photos reveals once again a sticker from the Avventure GS group, who we met in El Jem. Its obvious now that this place is a hidden gem amongst the desert adventure community. The secret to Les Palmiers success seems to be in the sharing of it between travellers – much like Markus did with us – and it deserves it. Feeling like a party to some secret society, we vow to return the night after with our own stickers their collection.
We retire to the campsite for a beer by the tent and manage to befriend a tick-covered stray dog who’s just a pup. From being incredibly timid he’s transformed into a playful friend who’s sharp little teeth finally find the terribly made hoody I picked up in Southampton. We say our goodnights and turn-in for our first camp underneath the African stars. There’s no need for a fly on our tent – it’s cool at night but inside the sleeping bags the temperature is perfect. The night is filled with sounds – a hundred dogs barking ceaselessly, a donkey that sounds like the sand-person that knocks out Luke, and the occasional ffrrrrrrrrt from the plethora of scooters that tear around this town. While it makes it difficult to fall asleep there’s actually something truly wonderful about how strange it all seems. After hours of listening, we finally succumb to sleep.
Our eyes open at 4:30am to the call to prayer at the nearby mosque and it’s one of my favorite things about Tunisia. This mans voice is one of the best we’ve heard and the music of the call drifts through the air, through our tent and lulls us back to sleep.
The next morning we awake to find Markus has walked into town for breakfast and returned with yogurt, bread and baklava – not a terrible start to the day by any stretch! He’s changed his original plan of heading to Ksar Ghilane to meet up with Thomas and is, instead, heading to Tozeur for the night before heading to Gafsa. It’s a leisurely morning before he packs up and we say goodbye. We’ll be heading through his town in Austria in the next couple of months and make a plan to meet up before he makes a quick left out of the campground and down a long sandy lane.
Alone at camp, we have a chance to catch up on writing and pictures – the air is still and the temperature is reaching it’s mid-afternoon peak. We’re most certainly in the desert; a round of laundry hung from our line dries completely in about twenty minutes and even the wasps nest I nearly tie the line around is completely still. Our noses are crusty even after a much needed shower and the fine dust has settled in the back of our throats making us both feel like we’re coming down with a cold. Everything is covered in a coating of grit and while we work the flies are ceaselessly feeding on our legs and faces. Nita and I smile through the constant barrage knowing that to truly fall in love with the desert, we have to grow past what simply annoys us. And we are falling in love with the desert.
In the afternoon we finally meet Sophie, the owner of Camping Desert Club. She’s been sick with a cold for a few days and her energy is low but we can tell she’s a lovely woman. We talk a while about post-revolution Tunisia and the hardships it’s produced for the facility – and Sophie. Her staff has been reduced and a dispute with the landlord left the campsite closed for nearly nine months which left many travellers believing that the legendary site had shut it’s doors forever. Luckily it hasn’t, but the hard times mean that people like Sophie have to return to their homeland to work in order to bring enough money into Tunisia to keep operations like this running. Camping Desert Club is definitely a labour of love for Sophie and a place we’d be heartbroken to see disappear. The steady flow of coffee from the restaurant, the showers, shaded sites and guardians onsite 24 hours a day make it a great place for over-landers.
Along the way she’s adopted a large number of cats and, somewhat grudgingly, this latest pup whose fur is constantly moving with the largest ticks we’ve ever seen. A testament to how tasty the pup is, the ticks make no effort to relocate to us – they’ve found a heavenly world that offers them everything they need. Unfortunately for this little guy, they’re a constant annoyance that he scratches at ceaselessly. Trying to fit in with a family of cats isn’t working out incredibly well for him – his attempts to befriend a new mother often results in a stiff swipe and yelps of pain from his freshly cut nose. There are no handouts for this little guy from his new family.
Sophie explains the animal soap opera to us and tells us that the kittens are at home in the fridge which has Nita and I both raising an eyebrow. Taking us behind the bar, she opens the old fridge and, nestled in the back behind some bottles of water, are a group of kittens quietly meowing. Of course the fridge is turned off but the insulation provides some protection from the heat and the occasional stray predator. Still, cats in a fridge is a memory that wont leave our memories anytime soon!
As the sun begins it’s drop toward the horizon we set out into Douz to take advantage of the cooling evening air. We stop for merguez and brik at our favorite little restaurant, Les Palmiers and to deliver a sticker for their window that we’d promised the night before. The owners are wonderfully kind men and remember us from our visit with Markus. We spend a moment chatting about their business and our travels before walking back to camp in the dark. We turn off of the main street and make our way along the blackened side streets and while the path is lined with men and our presence is noticed, at no time does it feel unsafe. The only peculiarity remains the complete absence of women taking part in the night life. This is a different world from ours and all around us we see affectionate greetings between friends and fathers playing with their boys; the night definitely belongs to men here.
Back at camp the wind has picked up and we put the fly on the tent to keep the dust out as best we can. Tucking in for the night, the sounds of bluster drown out the barking dogs and braying donkeys, but the cats have chosen to take shelter by the wheels of our bikes. We watch a movie in the tent before getting too tired to continue and fall soundly asleep as the winds howl fills the night air.
All’s quiet the next morning; the wind has calmed and everything outside is covered in a fresh blanket of sand. We’ve been waking up early which is perfect for a trip into the Sahara. We quickly get ready and without showers or breakfast we make a right down a dusty road and in less than a kilometer we’re at the edge of a dune sea. To our right, camel owners wait in the already warm sun to take tourists for camel rides into the desert. Some offer three day excursions but to be honest, this late in their season, I can’t imagine what the heat would be like. We set of down a fairly packed piste which gives way to a few inches of soft sand before finally hitting a finger of a dune. The bike moves freely underneath me but seems to settle into a flow of side to side movement. It’s disconcerting and exhilerating but the idea of picking up a heavy bike over and over again makes this a short venture.
Slowing to see where Nita is, it’s obvious the only way to make it work is to keep the speed up and have faith that the bike will continue. As soon as I roll of the gas the bike jerks side to side and the front wheel digs in. We stop to take some pictures and enjoy a moment to take in where we are. Getting going again is a bit harder. My bike digs in it’s rear wheel with every blip of the gas and I have to rock it back and forth before finally breaking free. Once rolling I have to keep on the gas until we find some packed ground to park it on. Nita makes it almost all the way around before her tire digs in up to her axle. With a little push her bike breaks free and in no time she’s parked next to me.
As Markus had said the day before, the bikes are simply too big and too heavy to make tearing around the dunes fun and reminds me of Austin Vince’s words of wisdom: At no point in your journey will you wish you had a larger, heavier bike. I love my bike but I also know he’s mostly right; a light dirt bike here would be amazing. We heard a story of one man trying to make it to Ksar Ghilane through the desert here – a two or three hour journey for someone on a quad or light bike. It took him fourteen hours. I can’t imagine one hour of constantly picking up our bikes in deep sand. We wouldn’t be able to move for a month!
We stop again at the plush hotel to mooch free wifi and a coffee, all the while hoping that they’re serving lunch – the fun in the desert and lack of breakfast has left us hungry. The lovely man who brings our coffee, lets us know that the restaurant is closed but returns a few minutes later with a plate of cakes and croissants! We’re incredibly grateful and when we try to pay he refuses. It’s enough to tide us over until lunch and we take a moment to catch up with the rest of the world.
While we’re enjoying our coffee we hear a familiar voice – it’s Thomas from the camp who’d set out for Ksar Ghilane through the Sahara a few days earlier on his quad. “Hello! I think I’ve broken my arm.” His hand is swollen and hanging limply at his side but he’s remakably calm – almost non-chalant – about it. A few kilometers from his camp for the night, his throttle stuck in reverse running him backwards over an embankment where his quad landed on top him, pinning his arm. Alone, he managed to free his arm and ride the remaining distance to the camp where fellow travellers helped repair the damage to his quad while the campsite put him up in a tent. A doctor at the camp cleaned his wounds, wrapped his arm and gave him tylenol so he could ride the 150km back to a hospital here in Douz – all the with his broken arm dangling.
He’s tough. Or in shock. We chat for a little while before he heads up to his room to take a shower, then returns to join us in the lobby and orders a beer to settle his nerves. Thomas makes a plan to meet us later at camp, before finally leaving to go to emergency and we take advantage of the lunch our friend at the hotel has provided. Just before the heat of the day arrives we make our way back to the camp and find a shady spot to spend the afternoon writing. It’s a great way to while away the hours of stark sun and scorched earth.
The rumble of Thomas’ quad announces his arrival and soon we’re enjoying a beer in the dwindling light. His visit to the hospital was a success; he’s returned with news that the damage is limited to soft tissues and, after four x-rays, a removable cast and a fourteen dinar (€7) tab, he’s already talking about how good his arm is feeling. It’s a relief for all of us though Sophie obviously thinks he should be taking it all a bit more seriously – and it turns out she’s right. A week and 2000 km later, we find out by email that his arm is, in fact, broken. With the pain becoming unbearable, a trip to the doctor in Germany reveals breaks in four places along the radial bone! Bonkers.
Our last evening in Douz is a wonderful night spent talking with friends and planning a future meeting in the coming months before bidding a late night goodbye to Thomas and our night-time guardian who’s mon ami’s, comment ça va’s and frequent friendly taps have made us feel at home here.
The wind is picking up and we shore up the tent before climbing in for a good nights sleep. We’re looking forward to waking up to the call to prayer at four in the morning before falling back to sleep until the sun fills our home with light. I think we’ll be sad to leave Douz – it’s a wonderful place with an incredible energy, and it’s a place we could easily stay in longer. But a ferry is calling and there’s still plenty of this wonderful country left to see. Tomorrow we’ll head even farther west towards the Algerian border and a city called Tozeur. We can’t wait.