Taken for a Ride in a Star Wars Desert World, Mos Espa

Dave the motorhome is breathing a sigh of relief, having avoided taking on the challenge of driving 50km of rough piste road across the Tunisian desert, instead he’s chilled out nestling on the 10 meter commute between the campsite owner Amar’s house and his office at Camping Beaux Reves, Tozeur.

Takeaway was order of the day yesterday. A chap had walked alongside us a couple of days ago, talking English and surprising us by only extolling the virtue of the take-out place, and not making a play to flog a camel/4×4/quad/horse/buggy ride or some such. His name, it turns out, is Samir, and he eventually made a sale to the tune of 4TD, about £1.80, for four Berber Pizzas (also known as metabka).

After making a brief foray into the shop to establish a rough price, I came away confused. There is a price list on the wall, in Arabic, but we only spotted it later. As I walked up to the place I found myself being questioned by the owner of the shop next to the littoral hole-in-a-wall food joint, who translated between me and the owner. Once he’d established I wanted four metabka, and that I was staying at the campsite, he told me 5TD and I told him thanks, I’ll be back. 5TD per person? Dunno, but I was given a tour (they squeezed me in alongside the owner, his wife and a bouncing nipper), explained all the ingredients and proffered a spoon for me to taste the spicy filling.

Later on all four of us turned up. Sam and Clare had already eaten the Berber Pizza in Tunis, which elevated them to the position of connoisseurs. Sam is also half Arab (and 100% Welsh) which the locals soon pick up on and it garners an awful lot of goodwill around here. Sam suggests we claim to have a distant Arab relative, I’m considering how I might get away with his, as I have ginger tendencies. Samir appeared and over the course of the next twenty minutes had a good laugh, quickly sussing Sam’s lineage and somehow acquiring himself the nickname Hot Chocolate. In among his banter he grabbed a battered wallet of photos, showing us an elderly lady sat in among palm-clad houses out in the desert: “family, in the desert, 30km”. I asked him who it was, but specifics were deemed unnecessary: “family”! The ubiquitous thin plastic bags, which cling to the countryside around here in thick clusters, were handed over, heavy and hot. When it came to payment time a normal commotion ensued: lots of heated discussion while we stood there wondering what’s happening but perhaps rushing them, as the price came down to 4TD. We paid up among more commotion, probably the owner arguing with poor old Samir as he’d done him out of a dinar!

Berber Pizza. Spicy, filthy cheap and delicious.
Berber Pizza. Spicy, filthy cheap and delicious.

Being the first Round the World bikers we’ve met, Clare and Sam strike us as exactly the kind of folks to make it, to relish the challenges, and to act as perfect ambassadors of the British as they move between umpteen countries. Brushing off challenges like erratic behaviour in Libya (they’ve planned a 1000 mile lorry trip after Tripoli to avoid trouble getting to the Egyptian border), being hospitalised in Italy and a string of visa/bike/kit/house sale issues, they’re a really fabulous couple. Today we hugged them goodbye, as the minarets chanted out to celebrate the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, and we left the site while they were gearing up. We’ve seen on their website they’ve made it most of the way across Tunisia today, ready for the border crossing tomorrow. Hopefully their inflatable butt-cushions helped with the discomfort of hours of riding. Bon voyage guys, go go go! We’re already enjoying tracking their progress with the SPOT GPS tracker they have fitted, which will see them travel the full lengths of Africa and the Americas. What an adventure, what an inspiration.

Our early exit from the site was due to a decision that yes, we wanted to go see the Mos Espa Star Wars filming location and no, Dave wasn’t going to be a good form of transport off into the desert. Benign and fun as ever (joking we could get our post delivered here as we’re staying so long) Amar called his friend Sassi. Think a freaky-haired genetic mix of Dr Who and Don King, he arrived about 3 minutes later in his shining blue pick-up to talk wonga. Pointing at the map, we showed him the two places we wanted to see: Mos Espa north of Nefta (the set for the Pod Racing city), and Luke’s house in the Chott El Jerid, south of the same town. “A hundred”. Hmmm, €50? Our body language and umming and arring was genuine, that’s a lot for a trip to not much. Ju picked up on the fact he’d included Ong Jmel when he replied, the (apparently) camel look-alike rock where a sith summut or other infiltrated. When we asked to exclude this spot the price came down to 60 and we shook hands on it. Taking the cash, he reversed off to get fuel, joking that he wouldn’t be back.

Sassi, a man with homes in three cities and two wives. And later on we'd discover how he acquired such wealth.
Sassi, a man (far more friendly than he looks here) with homes in three cities and two wives. And later on we’d discover how he acquired such wealth.

He came back. We got in, and drove off through the town, his palm bouncing off the horn with the rhythm of a drum, greeting friends and warning off rival tarmac grabbers through the dusty, rubbish-laden area away from the hotels. Within minutes we were in among pretty much nothing, having left behind the palm fences which attempt to fend the drifting sand from the roads, and the ‘what’s that doing here?’ airport.

Our piste track to Mos Espa.
Our piste track to Mos Espa.

The piste’s mood swung like an addict on cold turkey, one minute we cruised at 50mph, the next Sassi would make a last minute decision to switch allegiance to another track as ridges and bumps threatened to bounce a sick-looking Charlie off his seat. There were no other tourists, although the desert around us looked like a bucket full of knitting needles had been thrown across it, straight-line tracks everywhere, a 4×4 playground. Three camels appeared on the horizon. Not wild, Sassi told us, they can roam anywhere, but not into Algeria. We didn’t ask how they knew which political administration claimed whatever patch of lifeless dust they were clomping about in.

Eh? What’s this.

Camel rock?
Camel rock?

Isn’t that Oung Jmel? Of course it was, but Sassi didn’t acknowledge he was driving us past the place he’d knocked 40% off the trip price for missing. We bounced onwards, the area around us an entire expanse of nothing, dust, sand, track-imprinted rock, stubby bushes and more nothing. It was quite beautiful.

I felt serene out here. The January air was sweet, the sun just warm enough and the expanse of nothing felt much like floating on a calm sea.
I felt serene out here. The January air was sweet, the sun just warm enough and the expanse of nothing felt much like floating on a calm sea.

Mistaking a bunch of tents for our destination, we tried to use our few common words in French and English to understand why they were there. Emerites, la chasse, birds. We’re non the wiser. Around a hump the scenery appeared, Mos Espa (see here for a nuts-detailed explanation of the place). Almost 14 years old, and sat out subject to baking sunlight, sand blast, hordes of tourists and questionable Tunisian tourist board protection, I expected little to survive.

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I was wrong.

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Although in places nature's inexorable procession towards chaos is eating away the place.
Although in places nature’s inexorable procession towards chaos is eating away the place.

A nipper scooted over to us, only a couple of other tourists in a white pick-up were there. A globule of snot hung from one nostril. My usual reaction to ignore the wee oik, and brush him off, was somehow overridden. Perhaps this was my chance to finally, finally do some successful negotiation, an 8 year old boy would be my assailant. He’d a handful of string necklaces. How much? “Five”. Nah, I started to walk off. How much? He fired back. “One”. He looked stricken, he was good, trained well he was. “Four?” I took one from him and looked at it. “Berber necklace”, he quickly threw in. “Non, Un”, I held firm. “Three for five!” he took three and tried to hand them to me. I pointed at Ju and explained I only had the one wife. “Un”. “Deux?” I’d got him on the ropes, trying to hand the necklace back a few times he eventually went for one Dinar, about 45p. Yeah, he may have been 32 years younger then me, about as high as Charlie, and had probably flogged me a 5p necklace for nine times it’s value but I felt I’d won out. Yeah, baby, I handed it to Ju as a late birthday present.

Taking enough photos to use an entire 24 exposure film (remember them? they still have them here), we headed back to the pick up and took off, almost literally at times.

More desert, miles of it, and finally the airport appeared again. Huh? Ju was sat in the back, and being The Navigator knew something was amiss. We got Sassi to stop, showed him the map, worked out he’d completely bypassed the detour into the Chott we wanted, and had headed back to Tozeur. But we agreed on two places? He feigned confusion, but that’s all the way back there, and we’re here? What? Eh? Forget it, just take us back. You don’t get, and keep, two wives, be called Sassi (although he reeled off about 6 names he said he used, when dealing with various security forces), and survive looking a bit like a despot without deploying the sleaze gun from time to time? We gave it up as bad job, a shame as he’d seemed a good guy, and later agreed we’d be more careful with instructions in future. He pulled in on the way through town to get bread, we got a fat fresh baguette too, for 230 (half the time prices are confusingly in thousands of a Dinar), about 12p, err, yeah that’s right, I think.

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MOT failed. On emissions.
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Tozeur’s previous generations.

Once we’d talked over what had just happened, as usual confused by the meandering Arab/Berber approach to business, we had a brew and went for a walk. Sassi had looked up at the pure blue sky earlier and said, rain, much rain later, as I stared at the heaps of arid sand and dust up against buildings. It’s clouded over, but no rain yet. Exiting a campsite in North Africa, with a Cavalier King Charlies Spaniel in tow, always has the same effect. Folks stare, in the same way we stare at their butchered beheaded camels and family-on-a-moped budget transport solutions. Nippers go nuts. Some throw stones (I told them off, until Ju pointed out that’s probably exactly what their parents insist they do), others leg it over to stroke him. One tiny fella dropped to the floor to hug our wide-eyed fur-meister like a teddy bear before kissing him right on his thin black lips! Another bunch of older guys scared us as they legged it through some back streets after us with their dog. Result of this encounter below.

Team Back-Street Tunisia, they loved posing for a photo.
Team Back-Street Tunisia, they loved posing for a photo.

Walking back through the gates into the walled enclosure of a North African campsite always has the same effect: relief. It is, for me, a perfect mix of excitement at dealing with the new, and sanctuary when we’ve had enough.

More tomorrow!

Jay

P.S. Sassi tells us if you want to buy a camel, it’ll set you back either two women (ha, ha) or 2500TD, about €1250 or £1100. A new Chinese 100cc motorbike is about €900, but less tasty and not as good on sand.

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P.P.S. The foot’s a bit sore.

P.P.P.S it’s started raining.

4 Comments

  1. Oh please!

    24 hours have gone by without an update – I’m getting withdral symptoms (and boosting your viewing stats from NZ)!

    best,

    Simon

    • Sorry Simon

      First time we’ve had no internet connection – but then when you see the photos you might realise why! We’re back now using the campsite owners personal wifi.

      Julie

    • I spotted it on the BBC news site last night – it was an amazing place to visit, so glad we did. We climbed up that sand dune to take a photo, with no idea it would soon engulf the place!

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