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Loaded with enough water and food for the day we started the engines. Today's ride was not a very long one; leaving Tozeur we passed along the Marabouts that we had visited yesterday and then engaged on the road that leads north around the Chott El Jerid. Along this is the entry to a National park (view on Google maps).
For a while I had the impression that my GS had some trouble with the steering or suspension, so Florian swapped bikes with me for a while. The GS had no problem ("it's all in your head, Mr Tweedy!"), but I enjoyed the ride on the XChallenge anyway ;-) - The track is generally not difficult to ride, but we noticed a large number of potholes, particularly in the eastern part of the road, leading to some souvenirs on the engine guard of my GS.
We stopped for a tea halfway between Kebilki and Douz. This is where we noticed two things: (1) tea and coffee are much better, and much cheaper, if you enjoy them in little locations outside the typical tourist regions. In this particular case, Tourists will usually stop in Kebili or Douz, but rarely in between. (2) We were café racers :-)
Douz, the largest of the oases in western Tunisia, is the most popular destination among the oases south of Chott el-Jerid. It also has all facilities for travellers, from hotels to workshops. For the next five nights, we put up our tents at the "Camping Desert Club", well known to most Tunisia travellers. Since the place has a washing machine available, we also took the time and did our laundry.
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The Tour of the sandroses is something we had done last year and we had liked it very much. Thus, it was a good moment to repeat that experience, which is also a nice occasion to practice sand riding.
We rode from Douz to El Faouar, then followed last year's GPS data (and many car traces) towards the south. I have the impression that riding here was different from last year - the sand seemed deeper, the surface more brittle. As a result, the front wheel could roll on a steady surface, but the rear wheel frequently broke through the fragile surface and sometimes lost traction. The zig-track track that I'm leaving in this picture illustrates this a bit.
After a while, we reached the water source (view on Google maps). Perhaps 100 m in diameter, this is a green spot in the middle of the dunes, with water flowing into a stone basin. Recently, a military outpost with a radar was added here. The soldiers were very friendly; they spend about one week out there and apparently enjoy the contact with visitors.
Sandroses are crystals of gypsum, formed by slow evaporation of water near the surface. They are found in all sizes, from fingernail-sized pieces up to meter-high sculptures and are frequently sold as souvenirs - but also difficult to transport since they are fragile. Reportedly, the only source of sandroses in Tunisia is the area where we were now (view on Google maps). The sand was perfect for riding, we had lots of time and no luggage, so ... time for some "action shots"!
The way back led us first to El Faouar, where we enjoyed a few drinks. From El Farouar, we continued on tarmac towards Douz, but a few km before reaching Douz we turned south again and "strolled" through the Oasis: view on Google maps.
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The day started with a group of camels (actually dromedars) that were on the campsite. The guides were preparing them for a trip into the desert over several days and the amount of luggage that such a camel carries is truly impressive.
This day was intended as a "training day" for our upcoming two-day trip to the Mount Tembaine. In particular, I wanted to see if I could handle the GS - that is, the oldest bike of the three, with the least ground clearance and the worst suspension - in this terrain.
Starting in Douz we headed east and after a few kilometers a rocky road turns towards the south. Apart from the harsh surface this was easy to ride and after a while we encountered the first serious stretches of sand. In these parts, the track is actually between 5 and 20 m wide and the sand is pretty dusty due to the traffic. Since there are dunes of about 2 m height to the left and the right, one cannot easily search another path, so the only rule is "gas it!". Indeed I soon gained confidence and managed to pass these sections better and better - and certainly much faster than last year.
This was also the first time that I noticed the "suction" effect of some of the sand stretches: you ride on a mostly solid surface, and suddenly there are a few nasty spots where the sand is so fine that it sucks your wheels in. On one or two occasions this braking effect was so strong that I almost went over the handlebars, so I really took care to put my weight backwards as much as possible after that!
Shortly after passing a pump station from Perenco Tunisia, we arrived at the Café Portes du Desert (view on Google maps). Like most desert cafés, you can eat and drink there and even stay for the night should the need arise. However, the most remarkable thing is the decoration: Most of the walls are covered with stickers, business cards or similar things and even a number of T-shirsts are hanging from the roof. Of course we left our business cards there, too :-)
During our stay, the wind got stronger. Since we could still see the blue sky above this was not a "real" sandstorm, but riding became much more, uhmmm, "interesting": Finding your way through a bundle of track and traces with a sight of a few meters is quite challenging. In addition, the fine sand immediately penetrated into almost every opening of the motorcycle - within a few minutes, the turn signals, switches for high beam etc. became "sticky" and even the starter button would no longer work on every try (when we were back to Europe, I indeed cleaned the bike using a strong vacuum cleaner!). Anyway, we made it safely back to Douz, and while the storm continued to blow we enjoyed a shower and the protection of the oasis.
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The storm continued during the night, so we were still somewhat undecided if we should start our trip to the Tembaine after breakfast (which is, by the way, available at the camping upon reservation). Florian and myself took the time to stroll across the market in Douz and it was only around lunchtime that the wind ceased. Florian did a quick scouting run, and since his news were good we decided to start!
This was planned as an overnight trip, so we packed mainly the sleeping bags, one tent and lots of water and food. All the rest of the luggage was left at the camping, with the owner informed about our absence and goods of some value locked away in the hardbags, them in turn chained to a solid post.
We took the same road as yesterday morning, arriving quickly at the Café Portes du Desert. After the indispensable tea stop we continued towards Café du Parc (view on Google maps), which is less frequented than its nothern neighbour but nevertheless a charming place. At that occasion we also learned that there is now a whole "ressort" at the Mount Tembain, offering hotel-like facilities.
During all this time, the sky was rather hazy. We did not have a clear view, maybe 2...4 km overall.
From the Café du Parc, the track leads towards the west and hits a national park. Reportedly, it was possible to pass straight through that area in former times, but we found the fence and gates closed - so we made "the long way round" ;-), basically a half-circle to the southwest and south, along the fence of the park area. The "road" was very varying, everything between flat rock surface and sandy stretches was found, so riding here needed quite some concentration.
After a while we reached a section with short dunes and a deep, sandy track leading through. I dropped my bike a few times and at a given moment I was so exhausted that I could not advance anymore. Petra and Florian agreed to stop here for that day and Florian picked a nice place for the night (view on Google maps). He took care that we were sufficiently away from the main track and parked the bikes around the tents so that we would not be overrun by some 4x4 that might drive around in the night.
We enjoyed dinner in this remote area and actually we were looking forward to one of those phantastic Sahara nights unter a stairy sky that all desert travellers are so enthusiastic about. Yet ... we still did not have a view of the Mount Tembaine, albeit we were merely 16 km away.
And the wind got stronger right after dinner.
We withdrew into the tent, but since space was rather limited this was not very comfortable (this is nominally a 3-person tent, which means that you can comfortably fit two people in there ... or three, if they don't move and if they don't care about comfort ;-) Add to that the flattering noise created by the wind on the tent walls and at a given moment we all got up and searched our earplugs ...
The wind was persistent, but fortunately not too strong, so we could prepare breakfast the next morning. The sky was cloudy and still no clear view, even less than on the day before. After a short discussion we agreed that it was indeed a pity to give up so close to our target - but we decided that was it not worth going to a spectacular place when you don't see much of it.
So we headed back the way we had come. The wind got stronger and when we reached the Café du Parc again a few drops of rain were falling. We spent a while in the café, had interesting discussions with the keeper (which is actually the nephew of the coordonnier in Douz, as Florian found out) and finally continued our way under a menacing but dry sky.
Somehow riding was easier today - was it the fact that we partially knew the grounds, or the perspective of being on the way back? Anyway, we safely arrived in Douz. The rest of the day was spent relaxing, taking care of the bikes and chatting with the "neighbours" - indeed a whole bunch of (mainly German) motorcyclists had arrived.
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The night brought a bit of rain, but since we were in the tents we did not notice this until the next morning, when the whole site was covered with a light layer of yellow dust specks. Anyway - we had breakfast, packed, paid the bill for the five nights, said goodbye and left towards our next destination: Matmata.
Instead of taking the direct way from Douz to Matmata (which we knew alrady from last year), we took the road that led towards Kebili and then to El Hamma. At an Oasis southwest of Kebili, we rode on perfect tarmac between palmtrees, and at the southeastern exit of the village we meet this sight ... "The fun starts where the asphalt ends!" (the same spot on Google maps).
The road was actually in good shape and lead us to the east, then the northeast, always south of the chain of the Jebel Tebaga, through a very varying landscape.
We found these metal parts at the side of the road. Parts of an abandoned project, or a space station? Up to you to decide ;-)
The Michelin map for Tunisia mentions a "Monument" along this road, and we found it indeed. Erected by the French many years ago, yet we cannot say to whom it is dedicated ... the metal plate was missing. We had a little break, and during this time we had the company of two kids that were living a few steps down the hill. The parents were nomads that had "more or less" settled here and the elder kid was on holiday visit - normally he would be at school in the nearest city. I was glad to learn that there seems to be quite strong efforts to bring children to school, even in such remote locations.
We stopped for coffee/tea in the first café in El Hamma and we had barely killed the engines when a younger man sitting at a table jumped up and called "I do have a motorcycle, too!". He went away and a few minutes later a Yamaha XT 600 stopped there. The bike looked "well used" and lost oil, but it was running :-)
From El Hamma we continued southwards and the landscape changed again - we left the desert and entered the rough mountains north of Matmata. The road alternated between fast streches, some sand and rough, rocky mountain paths - the last of these right before we arrived at today's destination, the Hotel "Diar El Barbar" above Matmata (view on Google maps).
In spite of the relatively fresh temperatures, Petra and myself just had to test the swimming pool. I admit that I was much less time in the water than she was, but already these 20 seconds were very, verrrry refreshing :-)
Supper was served as a huge buffet and this time we recognised (much more than last year) the presence of the other tourists. Indeed the hotel is pretty much taken by bus tourists that stay for just one night and the atmosphere at supper and breakfast thus resembles that of a train station during the rush hour. It's a pity: the hotel as such is a nice place and the personnel is friendly.
We spent the night in the same room - Number 202 - as last year. It is a nice suite with two double rooms and reportedly it was occupied by George Lucas himself when we was turning Star Wars a few years back. I just wonder if they tell that about every room ...
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This day was dedicated to the exploration of the mountains south of Matmata. We left the Hotel and our first little ride of the day brought us to the minuscule village of Beni Metir ( view on Google maps). We would not have noticed this spot without the travel guide book and indeed it is worth the stop: Beni Metir is one of the troglodyte villages that is still fully "operational". We saw a few people (that did not approach us, but seemed not to be afraid either) and one particularity of the village is its Marabout with five domes.
Arriving further west in Tamezret, we followed the minuscule path that leads to the old village of Zraoua. Albeit the path soon gets broader and starts to appear like a road, it is a rough transit; we were sweating quite a bit when we finally arrived at the village.
Zraoua (view on Google maps) is a rather big village that was abandoned not too long ago. Most of the buildings are more or less deteriorated, but there are still a few people living here - we met one family that was first very shy, but finally we made a bit of contact when they could proudly show their heep. Apparently they are living from sheep and the women we saw were indeed spinnung the wool to make clothes. Quite a contrast to our high-tech equipment ...
From Zraoua we returned to Tamezret and from there east to Matmata. In the morning, Florian had asked for the next gas station at the hotel reception, and he understood "Matmata". Well ... we circled around Matmata, but the only gas "station" is a garagist at the central place, selling gas from jerrycans. Since both the DRZ and the XChallenge have a catalytic converter sitting in their exhaust system, we could not run the risk of taking leaded fuel, so the only option was to find a real, official gas station. Indeed the next one is located in Matmata Nouvelle (probably Florian had overheard Nouvelle in the morning ;-) and the ride there is even a nice one since most of the distance is covered on a nice mountain road.
We gassed up and had a long lunch break where we ate the sandwichs that I had bought in Matmata. From there, we continued south via Beni Zelten and Toujane, which in turn brought us back on the track we had planned for that day anyway.
A Ksar (plural: Ksours) is a kind of fortified village, sometimes also considered as "fort" or "castle". Generally, ksars are situated on mountains to make defense easier and are build entirely within a single, continuous wall. They have lots of attached houses or cellars, but these are not designed really for living (only in case of attacks) but as storage locations.
And Ksar El Hallouf (view on Google maps) was the first of a series of ksours that we visited. The ksar itself is situated on a hilltop right above the village and the huge central place indicates that it served not only storage or shelter but also as a place to hold huge meetings and gatherings. Funny enough, the convex surface of the (huge) courtyard dwarfs the two-floor ghurfas quite a bit and if you consider the mountains as a backdrop, the place appears much wider than it is. Indeed most of the other ksours that we visited later on appear narrow and rather high in comparison to Ksar El Hallouf.
We had planned to ride across the Jebel Mogor ... but quickly learned that this should better be done with light bikes and without luggage: the path is steep, narrow, and the size of the rocks is such that they can easily throw your front wheel off the track. Thus, Petra and myself waited, Florian explored and in the end we decided that we should better stay on the "regular" road this time.
Ksar Joumaa (view on Google maps) is situated on top of a hill, almost like a crown. The ksar itself is abandoned and in a bad state, but the construction as such and in particular the view are definitively worth the ride up there.
Tataouine (lexicorient.com; view on Google maps) is not a particular attrictive site in terms of tourism, but the city is a friendly and lively place. There are plenty of cafes open at least a few hours into the night and people here are open and interested. Even at day there are things to see, as Tataouine is by far the most important market place in its region.
We checked into the Hotel Hamza, which is situated just a few hundred meters from the center. The hotel turned out to be a nice, clean place and the owner is a kind guy with an excellent sense of humour: "I would give you the password for the garage, but you could probably not type it since it's an arab keyboard". With that, he took his key and unlocked the door of the room where we could lock away the motorcycles.
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