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Tunisia Day 7: Pod Racing to Mos Espa in the Tunisian sahara

Le Crap! It’s late in the morning again. We overslept, or more accurately slept later than we intended. Yes, we are on vacation and can do whatever we want.  But we try to fill our days with activities. Not as hard as the spring or summer trips, though.

The Christmas/New Year’s trip is not only the shortest and therefore the hardest to recover from jetlag, but the Fall Sept-December is generally our most stressful time of the year for school and work. Sometimes we just need the sleep.

The contrast between the slightly humid and dark inside and the dry, bright sun outside is disorienting, like two different worlds. We proceed on foot through the town ot Tozeur to find an excursion or two.

Alarmingly we have only 6 hours because we got up so late.  We have to be back  before sundown and our evening massage-hammam appointment.

We pick up a loaf of French bread for Emma at a local street store and visit 3 different Agence de Tourism, all of which have the same answer: ‘No cars or drivers today, it’s very busy.’

One agent is nice enough to help us call Safar, the english speaking daughter that we mistakenly thought was our AirBnB host two days ago. She answers back ‘no drivers today or tomorrow, maybe next week’.

‘You can rent a car?’ the agent suggests?’  I groan.

Tozeur has a few places of interest and they all require vehicles to get to.  One is called Tamerza 60 minutes to the north.  It’s a  waterfall in the desert, small, and packed with people. It has it’s own tourist town nearby called Chebika that doesn’t sound interesting to me.

A second destination is 45 min to the west: the old Star Wars set of Mos Espa used in ‘The Phantom Menace’ and a few other movies.   We definitely want to see that. There is also a giant salt flat (or shallow lake) depending on the time of the year. It’s one of the biggest in the Sahara and is called Chott El Jamid. It sounds cool and worth a visit.

And there is a fourth I am looking for called the ‘Star Wars Canyon.’ According to one book this is where more of the films were shot but there isn’t a lot of information about it. I really want to go because it also looks like good day hiking. We could use that right now. We’ve had a lot of city walking. (I later find out this is also called Sidi Bouleil and is nearby Tozeur. We’ll have to find it next time)

I groan because one of my adventure planning rules is ‘Don’t rent a car.’ It’s partly practical – cars and drivers often don’t cost that much money and local drivers are safer. In addition, neither Amanda nor I like driving and it’s 10x more stressful in another country.  And here we don’t even have a data sim for google maps.

‘No cars today or tomorrow.’ the rental guy says in French.  I guess I don’t have to worry about driving.  Now I’m more worried that we are going to miss all the desert adventure I had intended (but poorly planned.) Amanda asks ‘Should we ask about the quad bikes?’ Even if it’s possible, going on quad bikes to any of these places sounds really slow, dusty and terrible in traffic. It’s worse than being the driver of a car.  But we don’t have many more choices.

And we are in luck! He can do two quad bikes with a third guide in an hour to the Mos Espa Star Wars spot 20 miles west of our current location. It costs about 240 dinar which is $100. We throw on some sunscreen, eat a quick meal next door and leave on two very old quad bikes. Both bikes have misaligned steering and very stiff seats, but they get us out of town.

We drive off through traffic, past the hotel at which we will later take a hammam, to the outskirts of town, past a military base to the point the buildings end and there is nothing but asphalt and desert ahead.   The guide signals left, and we turn off the road straight over the Sahara desert.

On the ‘brochure’ (a piece of cardboard with washed out photos taped on)  there were a few pictures of quad bikes in the sand dunes.    I figured we would just drive 20 miles along the roads and take the turn off at the last minute for the star wars set. Instead we are doing the whole thing through the desert on loose sand tracks. It’s so fun!  They really undersold this excursion and we would never have found it if there had been drivers with cars.

The ground is mostly flat, with scrubby little bushes with the tiniest of green leaves. To the naked eye they look like dead, twisted bushes about 10″ high. The bikes aren’t great, but they move as fast as we want to. Lily feels safer with Amanda driving, Emma is behind me yelping ‘whoop! whoop! whoop!’ with each little bit of air we get.

It’s dusty but cold in the desert this time of year, we keep jackets and long sleeves and scarfs to keep some sand out of our mouths. It’s exhilarating and beautiful. Far in the distance are the mountains, which are probably fascinating but we won’t get to see this trip.

We slow down after about  45 minutes and visit a mini version of Chott El Jamid, the enormous salt lake to our south. This one is shallow.  The edges are shelves of hardened salt on which you can walk!

The guides hardly speak to us at all, smoke cigarettes and chat as the Americans ooooohhh and aaaaaahhh at the boring thing they have seen all their lives and probably take for granted. To us, C’est super cool.

We start our engines.  Am I the only one that thinks about landspeeders and pod racing?  The landscape changes and it’s even more desert-like.  Now there is just… sand. Not a bush or even a rock as far as the eye can see. It feels the end of the earth.  We’ve been here once before on an overnight trip to the Moroccan Sahara almost 10 years ago. It’s in environments like this that one remembers that the earth politely allows us to survive, and we are fortunate. An environment like this is powerfully harsh and hazardous. But it’s fun to visit! The quad bikes love the deep sand with that small engine buuuuzzzzzzz.

Amanda waves ‘slow down!’ and I beep the horn to signal the guides ahead to stop.  Amanda’s bike is broken. She can’t start it. The guides take off the seat and start tinkering.

They can’t get it started either.  Other groups drive by and soon we have a group of 5 guides surrounding the bike. More tinkering. No start.

‘Emma, why don’t you take it for a spin?’ I say about my bike.  She, shrugs and obliges. “sure, yeah.’  ‘Use the rear break.’ She learns quickly.

At home she’s been reluctant to get a driver’s license for no reason except a bit of laziness. Realistically with Uber, Metro, busses and friends she gets everywhere she needs to go. But this interests her.  She asks if she can drive it when we start the trip again.  ‘Sure’ I say.

Emma will have to wait.  They need to tie Amanda’s bike to mine with a scarf and I am asked to tow it behind me.  Amanda and Lily drive the guide’s quad bike. With a second bike in tow I can’t be as aggressive.

After another 20 minutes of pure sand desert, we see many 4 wheel drive trucks. (‘Voiture Touristique’ they call them here.) We’re at camel mountain which is not a mountain at all but a small hill.  Still, anything that rises up over the infinitely flat sandy desert deserves to be called a  ‘mountain’.

We’re told to climb it and take some photos. Presumably they are fixing the quad bike. There are quite a few people here, 50 in total maybe. Several Tunisian youths sing songs and bang on a drum. We take a few photos. the view is stunning but hard to capture in an image because it’s simply flat and sandy and goes on for miles and miles and miles.

We descend, sit at a little cafe and order mint tea and water. The little glass of mint tea is super sugary but made with fresh mint like elsewhere in North Africa. It costs about $.50. There are some boys making bread directly in the coals of a fire they burn with desert brush. THey dust off the coals and voila! fresh bread.

Emma and I negotiate to buy a Desert Rose. These are basalt crystals formed by the heat and time and lots of sand. We’ll put it in our Dining room museum of travel stuff.

‘How do you say “tired” in French’ Amanda asks me. “Je Fatigais, I think’ She tells the guides she is tired and doesn’t want to drive. The have not fixed her bike and she doesn’t want to drive the guides bike with two people on back.  The girls will go with the guide and Amanda can sit with me.

Just as we start my engine to leave, a big flat bed pick up rolls right next to us.  It has =a new quad bike to replace hers. Amanda perks up! “Oh I’m ready to go, let’s go!’

I snark ‘Not so fatigais now are you?’ Lily laughs.

More sand. Desert. Cold. The sun is heading toward the horizon, changing the light to orange pink.  We only have an hour before it’s gone completely and we all wonder what it’s going to be like driving back in the dark.

15 minutes of riding more and we pull up on a much larger area. It’s Mos Espa! From La Guerre Des Etoilles!

The conical water harvesters are just wood. The buildings are basically paper mache and somewhat dilapidated. But it’s the set from an iconic film series.

I was told to expect hawkers and headaches and huge crowds but it’s really not so bad at the end of a day in winter. In fact in a back corner there are no people and we get good photos. The sun is setting and the moon rises overhead, almost like the memorable twin sun scenes of the first movie.

Lily is so revved up that she does one of her vlogs.  Lilys vlogs don’t get published anywhere that we know of, but she does one when she is most excited. We put some sand in a bottle for our home collection of sands across the planet. We have sand from the Moroccan Sahara, Gobi Desert, Nazca Desert, Black sand from hawaii and iceland, pink sand from Indonesia and now sand from…Tatooine.

‘Go go!’ say the guides. They point at the setting sun.  I let Emma drive our pod out of Mos Espa.  She’s extremely attentive and focused when she wants to be, and she is clearly enjoying it. I feel very safe.

Voiture ‘Toristique’ fly past us on the road at high speed. She does a good job staying right and not getting rattled.

The night falls. It get’s really cold. The gibbous moon provides a little light but our quad has no headlights. We stay on the

highway only as far as the local city ‘Nafta’ and then get back on desert tracks which are bumpy but safer. It’s about an hour and a half back to Tozeur in the dark of the desert.

We drop off the bikes and walk bow-legged to the Hamam. We could not have timed it better. The only bummer is they don’t have any massages for us like they promised. The Hamam is super hot and we have it nearly to ourselves. It’s glorious to get the sand off. It’s even crusted up my eyelashes.

Back at the apartment, we make buttered noodles because that’s all we have and some comfort food is needed. Amanda and I eat local olives she found and they are dazzling – preserved lemon and harissa.

Despite getting a late and difficult start, we ended up with quite an adventure today.

 

 

 

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