Not only were our sleeping arrangements not particularly inviting they were unnecessarily modern (flushing toilets, hot showers, electricity, etc.). It may sound strange to complain about such things but the whole scene reeks of excess when you consider you are in the middle of a desert. Phil and I were hoping for a cozy Bedouin-style tent on the edge of a dune, not a half-ass tent city (notwithstanding the restaurant, bathroom facilities, and souvenir shops) swarming with middle-aged French tourists. We wanted to shit in the sand, damn it! After reading this paragraph a couple of times I realize one could almost assume Phil and I were on some sort homosexual desert escapade. There is nothing wrong with homosexuals, Phil (he's quite lovely), or escapades but Tunisia is probably not the place to have a Big Gay Holiday just in case I gave that impression.
And our lodging was nowhere near the sea of dunes lying adjacent to the oasis but an inconvenient 3km away (there is accommodation nearby). Our location was probably directly relational to the discounted rate we finagled. This was to prove vexing later on. After lunch our driver brought us closer to the dune area, the location of some fairly decrepit cafes surrounding a hot springs. The water was closer to lukewarm but I suppose this is better. After all who the hell needs a hot bath in the middle of the Sahara? Not me mutha f***er!
So Phil and I sat there sipping Fanta Citron (that sounds pretty gay), staring into thin air, and trying to figure out what all the hubbub was about. And just to punctuate the mood an intoxicated local denizen placed his hands upon my head and gave my hair a tug as he made his way inside the café (also a little bit gay). At first I thought it was my driver but soon realized I was being fondled by a random asshole. I took exception to this and followed my groper inside to inquire as to what the **** he was doing. I gave him a 'Hey, man' followed by a reenactment of the incident with a 'what the f***' tone to my voice. It was then I realized just how drunk he was and gladly accepted his apology. Ain't no thang but a chicken wang.
It was not until I ventured out into the dune sea that I started to 'understand the power of the Sahara's lure'. Oddly, I did not even realize it was there and mistakenly thought the whole region was similar to the area around our camp (rocky and bland). This is what I had come to see. I found Phil napping at the foot of a dune covered with a thin layer of sand (Does this not sound like a great intro to a gay porno scene?). If I did not know better I'd say he collapsed there after a failed attempt to subdue the desert wilderness. As I stood there watching the light mist of sand waft just over the surface of the dunes I began to see what all the fuss is about. Take away the dune buggies, quad bikes, camel rentals, drunk hair dresser, refugee-like tent facilities, Johnny Ambiance (Mr. Berber Man), fleet of Landcruisers, and all the usual accouterments of factory tourism and one can see the mystical nature of such a forbidding landscape. You may have to squint a little.
I have never experienced such a finer (as opposed to coarse) type of sand. It is so insubstantial it feels like a pile of dust in your hand which I suppose explains the origin of the dunes themselves. I conducted my own 'mechanics of erosion' experiment by digging my foot in the sand and watching as wind shaped the small mound atop my foot as I lifted it above the ground. This fascinated me for an inordinately long time. Moments like that provide flashbacks to childhood and you can never have too many flashbacks. I continued this exercise (joined now by Phil) with an equally enthralling 'chuck sand into the wind' experiment. One word: dazzling. The way the sand would suspend in the air for a fraction of a second before being captured and snatched away by the wind was awe-inspiring. I stood there with a dopey grin imagining an invisible force at play, an entity manipulating the wind for its own amusement. As I stood there watching the sand disperse into nothingness a ghostly apparition would appear for an instant before floating off into the distance content to make but a cameo in the earthly realm.
I have alluded to the profane nature of finding modern intrusions like quad bikes shattering the illusion of solitude but I must admit that had the price of renting such not been exorbitant (around $40 for an hour) I might have deigned to give one a spin. It looked like a poopload of fun. However, as it happens I had the pleasure of experiencing a more traditional method of desert transport.
So I am standing atop a dune contemplating the mystery that is existence when out of the sea comes Mr. Berber Man galloping full tilt on a horse (a strange sort of dance). This struck me as a might queer (as in odd or strange). He was decked out in traditional Berber attire (no pants) and for a brief moment I thought he might be the real deal. Nuh-uh. I realized this when he saw me from afar and started shouting something about taking Mr. Ed for a trot. This is not to say that he was not of Berber descent or that his outfit was not 'authentic' but it was clear that he was not one of the nomads of desert lore forging his way across the Sahara. He was the dude that owned the horse stables adjacent to the oasis.
This magnificent animal (an Arabian horse) barely resembled the horse-like creatures I'd mounted in the past. This was the real McCoy underscored by the fact that Mr. Ed (unfortunately he didn't actually speak) was more responsive than my first car. It was f***ing awesome! So I trotted a short way into the dunes laughing like a hyena on nitrous oxide. I found it immensely entertaining when I approached the camel group being lead by a local on foot. They were a bit confused. They probably thought I actually knew what I was doing.
Before I dismounted I had the opportunity to actually gallop on that bad boy (or girl). It was phenomenal. However, I was laughing so hard and looked so out of control (probably not a stretch) that the owner called from a distance to slow down the runaway train. His worried countenance completely dissolved when he realized I was laughing like the Mad Hatter. It may not seem like much but I'd forgotten that long ago I'd written 'gallop on a horse' on my bucket list. Check. That all too brief experience made the whole trip worthwhile.
My equestrian inspired bliss was short-lived when I returned to the hotel. Staying 3km away from the dunes was a real buzz kill. Not only could I not venture out among the dunes in the dead of night I was also prevented from experiencing the sun rise. And if that was not enough poor Phil came down with a case of Vomiting/Caca Syndrome, no doubt the result of less than salubrious chicken couscous. Super.
Due to the nature of the environment (i.e. the existence of the fine sand) and my piss-poor attitude I failed miserably in the photography department. Maybe next desert.