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Into the Desert

by Tara

Yesterday's triumphant team repair and our 70 kilometer ride without a flat finally gave us the confidence we needed to take the plunge. Today, we would ride our 25+ year old Motobecane Mobylette into the desert, 150 kilometers to Ksar Ghilane. Last night we prepared by filling the fuel tank, strapping two 1.5 liter bottles of auxiliary fuel to the back, patching the tube from our last flat, and buying an extra so we'd have two spares just in case.

This morning we sprang into action early. Tyler went to the Publinet to tie up last minute work issues while I ran around town buying snacks for the ride and for our stay in Ksar Ghilane (we're told there aren't any stores). I also bought two bottles of water, just in case. Satisfied we'd survive heaven forbid we broke down, I ran to meet Tyler at the Publinet…

…only to find that after ten days of hearing nothing from Hotel Pansea—on the morning of our reservation, five minutes before we were going to leave, they finally responded to our emails by saying they had canceled our reservation without charge as per our request. Auughhh!

We immediately left and went to the travel agency, as planned, to see if Nour could help us out. She was going to call them on our behalf to see if she could get us a discount on the reservation we already had. Since it had been canceled, she offered an even better idea. She could call and make a cheaper reservation for us through her travel agency. It wound up being 100 TND ($87 USD) less than what we had agreed to pay online. Not only that, but we were able to give her some business!

"See?" Nour said with a wide smile, her necklaces and bracelets jangling, "things always work out for the best!" Delighted that the three of us had in some small way "beaten the system" she left us with her business card, cell-phone number handwritten on the back. Our instructions were to call any time of day or night if we ran into trouble. She wished us luck, sure we wouldn't have any problems, and said again how great and "très originale!" it would be when we rolled up in Ksar Ghilane on our Mobylette.

Thank you so much for all of your help, Nour!

With a few deep breaths, we push-started Habib and began our long slow ride down the Douz-Matmata highway. It would be about 70km before we reached our first "checkpoint", the recently paved pipeline road turning south to Ksar Ghilane.

Sky Over Desert

Though we were certain we'd fixed the problem, I still couldn't help being nervous when we left. As we hummed along, ever further into the middle of nowhere, I ticked off the numbered plaster signs posted every kilometer. All the while I repeated the mantra of "every bump is not a flat every bump is not a flat every bump is not a flat" in my mind.

Road to Ksar Ghilane

After some time, I was able to focus on the scenery. It was beautiful. Not the deep dunes I was expecting, but hours and hours of flat, scrubby desert and surreal cloud formations. Every so often we'd pass a dilapidated cafe. Sometimes we'd even see small out-buildings labeled "WC" or "toilette"! I found it highly amusing that in such a vast empty place, where one could literally pee anywhere, someone erected toilets instead of a food shop or fuel station.

When we made it to the turn-off for the Ksar Ghilane pipeline road, just a sign, a little cafe, and two police officers, we cheered and breathed a sigh of relief. If we could make it seventy kilometers, we could make it the whole way. Just as we were about to turn, the police officers whistled and told us to stop. They were curious where we were going. We both thought this was funny since the road only goes one place. We told them we were headed to Ksar Ghilane and they smiled and waved us on. I felt a little sorry for them; their job cannot be terribly enjoyable—standing in the middle of nowhere all day.

Cafe Jlili

Before riding on, we decided to give ourselves and our Motobecane a little break at the cafe on the corner. A short, quiet woman emerged from inside and came to take our order: a cafe au lait for Tyler and a tea for me. While she left to prepare our drinks, we walked around looking at all the graffiti on the walls. Adventurers the world over had written their names on the paint-chipped sides of the building. The names of motorcyclists, 4x4 trekkers, bicyclists, and many others graced the walls. There weren't any Mobylettes though! I was tempted to add our names to the display, but then thought better of it. I would add them when we passed again on our way back to Douz!

Through looking around, we sat at a small table outside and waited for our beverages. When the woman returned a few minutes later, we were a bit perplexed. She must not have understood my order because she brought two espressos and several small plates of cookies, almonds, and roasted chickpeas. Oh well. It felt like a tea party as we sat outside, sipping our tiny coffees and eating off of tiny plates on our tiny wooden table in tiny plastic chairs.

Espresso Cup

When we were done with our drinks, one of the officers came to ask us about our Mobylette. He smiled and nodded as we told him our story, and then exclaimed how impressed he was by Habib's obviously good motor, and the low price we had paid. As we slowly pulled out and headed towards Ksar Ghilane, the officers waved and wished us luck. Now confident we didn't have to listen for every tell-tale sound of failure, we put on our iPods, happy to have something to drown out the steady rattling of our Motobecane.

Us Incoming 4x4s

During the second stage of our ride we were much more relaxed. We passed the occasional Bedouin tent pitched among the hills, a power plant of some sort (we think), and a herd of sheep crossing the road with the help of a Bedouin shepherd.

Road to Ksar Ghilane Road to Ksar Ghilane Sheep Crossing

Seventeen kilometers outside of Ksar Ghilane, the road split in two and we took the fork leading right. We were basically home free! 15 kilometers, 10 kilometers, even if we broke down now, we could walk to Ksar Ghilane!

Tara Tyler Tyler Road to Ksar Ghilane

We didn't have to. We rode triumphantly past the signs welcoming us into "town". The paved road ended abruptly, becoming rocks and sand. There was the occasional fuel station, a stray donkey, a few camels, a rusty broken down car, a few shacks, and nothing else.

Dakar Rusty Car Habib KTM!

As we arrived, a man left one of the palm frond shacks and came running over to us. He was AMAZED we had arrived on a Mobylette. The tail of his Bedouin scarf waving in the wind, he offered to buy Habib then and there for 400 dinar! It certainly would have been a great return on our investment, but it left the question of finding transportation back to Douz (which costs more than our Mobylette)! When we raised this point, the man offered to trade it for a three day camel trek through the desert. We told him we'd talk after our "vacation" and he pointed us in the direction of our hotel.

Sand Dune

Tyler pushed Habib over the rough rocks and sand while I walked, using perhaps better judgment than we had on the way to Ong Ejamel. Into the oasis we went. We passed various campsites, following the signs towards Hotel Pansea. A sandy track through the palms led us to our intended destination. We were greeted by gracious men in traditional Tunisian hoodies who oohed and ahhed at our Mobylette, which we parked proudly next to all the "hardcore" motorcycles and 4x4s already in the sandy parking lot.

Tyler Pushing Hotel Pansea Sign Motobecane Mobylette 88 vs BMW GS1200

Since Nour had arranged everything, all we had to do was fill out a short form in the reception office and we were escorted by one of the friendly staff who carried our bags and led us to our "room"—tent number 901. It felt odd entrusting our few possessions to someone else, even for the brief walk to our tent. We had to remind ourselves that this is what nice hotels do! Arriving at our round, canvas tent, the man showed us how to use the heater and close our door flap (a series of rope loops took the place of a lock), and told us that if we needed anything we could see him at reception, day or night.

Hotel Pansea Tent

Tomorrow we'll explore, tonight we rest. For making the first night of our stay possible, we want to thank my parents and grandparents for their generous donations. It was quite a challenge getting here, but now we really feel like we're in the lap of luxury. Thank you! We love you!