Today we waved goodbye to our friends and Tozeur and rocked onto the vast endorheic salt pans known locally as Chott el Djerid. Famous for it’s acid-red waters, crusted salt mounds and also the filming of Star Wars where Luke Skywalker bolts across the arid landscape on his land speeder, it was something we were eager to see. With the wind gusting in on our right, we rode sideways into a landscape like no other. After half an hours ride the sheer vastness and arid views were phenomenal. In every direction we turned the empty horizons engulfed us. Had it not been for the singular road and the infrequent trucks carrying camels and carrots passing by it would have left us feeling quite isolated.
Having to fight and grapple against the winds we were relieved when we spotted an abandoned hut on the road and took pleasure in stopping in its shelter for a snack of baguette and soft cheese with halva to finish. We contemplated taking the bikes for a spin on the dried lake surface but after a mini trek on foot the surrounding land seemed to part collapsed and then sink rapidly under our weighty Sidi Crossfire boots! The sensation was comparable to stomping down on a couple of foot of prawn crackers! This caused me much amusement and jaunting along I spent ages having a huge crispy stomping session :D With our bikes fully loaded we realised the chances of them getting stuck would probably be quite high and considering we had another 350km to cover due to time pressures of our Libya visas it wouldn’t be the wisest of choices!
After miles more of clinging onto the road we finally left the salt pans behind us and entered into the small village of Qibili. It is through these areas we began to understand how much of an impact they must of had on George Lucas and his depiction of set designs, characters and communities in Star Wars. With curved stone buildings, constant bartering, stalls, the colossal deserts rolling out beyond with dusty mountains in the distance and even sign posts for a place named “Jeddi”, when you saw a bustling crowd of Berber jackets wondering towards you we kind of expected one of them to whip out a light saber! Or at least for a distant silhouette of a line of Banthas being ridden over a dune along to an angry outcry from the sand people! Disappointingly this did not happen!
For the next few hundred kilometers the villages we rode through were barren due to an impending sand storm on the horizons. We ended up hitting it straight on. Despite being better prepared than our last encounter with these storms, it took it out of us after riding for a good few hours against gusts of winds.
Eventually we entered into Gabes and after chasing through the streets after excited local kiddies they directed us to what we think was a sports ground where we set up camp for the night. We had read up about this campsite a few nights before and were quite looking forward to its “haven of beauty” and a “night under palm trees and stars” but in reality it was a playground for hundreds of mangy cats and mud with a group of disconcerting men lingering around. We thus retreated to the safety of our tent and sleeping bags and snuggled down.
Despite being completely exhausted from our exhilarating and yet muscular aching days ride Sam and I laid there quietly, eyes wide open, listening to the uncomfortably close activities of the cats fighting or mating, caterwauling in to the night and pondered the next days ride…. crossing the Libyan border.
We couldn’t sleep. We had done everything we could possibly do to prepare for Libya and remain safe when entering the war-torn country. Although we were in contact with a fellow travel who was currently comfortably making his way across it did little to calm our conscious. The current hostage situation in Algeria would be less than 200km away from the border – that was less than what we had travelled earlier that day. Having heard that militants a few days prior had taken a dislike for a local Tunisian killing him and his partner and taking his vehicle… we were feeling a lot of pressure.
It was about two hours later of staring into the dark, questioning each other whether we were doing the right thing and whether should we just get me up the duff so we had a good excuse to return home when Sam’s phone suddenly began to ring. After fumbling around in the dark he answered it only to hear panic: “Don’t go to Libya…. *static*… all *static static* bad… *static* hostage…. *static*…. Benghazi major outbreaks and *static*… News flash just *static* don’t *static* Libya… *static* people evacuated…”.
It was Sam’s family. After a few more phonecalls and repositioning of ourselves to gain better reception we learned of how within the past hour all hell had broken loose in Benghazi. British and Westerners had been evacuated due to the imminent threat of Al-Qaeda attacks and hostage situations. It was all over the news. Needless to say, Sam and I cacked ourselves. After a few prolonged silences, some discussions and confusion, more awful reception phonecalls, we managed to contact Sam’s family friend in Tripoli who we asked for advice. We were reassured by Mohammed that we would be absolutely fine up to Tripoli and to come but to drive straight from the border, do not pass go, do not collect £200… we would only get unwanted attention if we stopped. From there on in he said he had devised a plan… to load our bikes onto a Libyan truck and travel us across to Egypt. With this in mind we made the decision to continue to Tripoli. If all was to go to pot we could always fly out to Egypt from there or turn back.
Minds spinning and feeling slightly frenzied we did all we could to return to the night and grab some zee’s in preparation for a break of dawn start… it was a looong looong night indeed!