STAGE 6 - FROM DOUZ TO TATAOUINE (ABOUT 310 KM): HIDDEN TUNISIA
It doesn’t take long to leave the silhouettes of the dunes behind us, making our way into a mountain desert, where the straight stretches give way to magnificent curves. After an hour of riding, we stop at Tamazret, right at the top of a particularly exciting stretch of riding. So, while some of us sip a very special almond tea and taste the “gazelle horns” (local sweets made of puff pastry filled with almonds and honey, reminiscent of the shape of a horn), we take advantage of the pause to take some photos of six die-hard bikers leaning in, who seem to never have enough of curves and kilometres.
While motorbike caravans are a rare sight in all of Tunisia today, this area looks completely unspoiled by the passing of bikes. With non-existent traffic and not a single tourist in sight, we enjoy even more the view of the wide valleys, while the narrow passages in the villages, which we cross at walking pace, gift us the sight of children, their eyes filled with wonder. They run around us, extend their hands to give us a high-five, sealing a silent and smiling agreement: neither we nor they have ever experienced a moment like this.
By the time we leave the sun has set, though the temperature has still not dropped. We cover the few miles separating us from Tataouine, hypnotised by the last flares of the vermilion sunset, projected onto the mountains as if they were part of an enchanting shadow play, with a long trail of red tail lights wagging joyfully in front of us.
STAGE 5 - FROM TOZEUR TO DOUZ (ABOUT 210 KM): KNOCKIN' ON SAHARA'S DOOR
As if the atmosphere of our expedition were not surreal enough, the first half of today really makes our imagination fly: a detour to the west from our southern route, passing through the village of Nefta, takes us to Ong Jmal, one of the most famous and best preserved cinematographic locations of the Star Wars saga.
Ong Jmal owes its name to a strange formation of sandstone that resembles a camel’s neck (literally: Ong Jmal), and it is said that it was right here that the American filmmaker found the inspiration to create the Star Wars universe. What remains today is a good part of the structures of the set of “Mos Espa” (as it was called in the films) and a group of locals ready to welcome visitors with their dromedaries: “Un dinar, un dinar pour la photo, s'il vous plaît!”. This “touristic” approach, in the most ordinary sense of the word, almost reassures us: at least here some of the business seems to survive. So, while we visit the set, we let ourselves enjoy a few camel rides, ending in a group photo of bikes, riders, and camels lined up, and finding ourselves shouting comically unclear instructions in a jumble of languages: “That camel needs to be moved at least two metres further over! Yes, like that, sitting, not standing!”. But it’s not just a chance to have a good laugh, as we also take the opportunity to wear the (VESPA 946)RED T-shirts, in support of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, which provides essential HIV/AIDS drugs to villages in sub-Saharan Africa. We’re sure that, just for today, the Moto Guzzi Eagle will forgive us.
Having seen the potential of the Tuttoterreno with our own eyes, one of us finds the courage to try his hand at challenging the dune, to baptise his own V85 TT with the sand of the Sahara, which is not just any desert, but one that gave its name to the iconic yellow, white and black livery of his bike. As they say, opportunity never knocks twice. The daredevil climbs with no problem, followed by a resounding ovation, but on the way down things gets complicated, and after just a few metres the soft dune swallows his front wheel, sending him legs in the air in slow motion, amidst uproarious laughter.
We ride on the very long straightaway (over 50 km) that runs straight on an embankment, while all around us the off-white colour of the salt glistens in the sun, bringing sky and earth together in a quivering mirage.
We complete the crossing and arrive at Douz, the starting point for most of the off-road tours in the Tunisian Sahara. We are reminded of this by the view of the dune that, unperturbed, reaches the town, untamed by the asphalt, sidewalks, and streetlights. From here to the south, sand reigns – almost – supreme, but our mission points in a different direction.
At the hotel, some of us take advantage of the hammam. We deserved it, and tomorrow’s going to be a long day!
STAGE 4 - FROM SBEITLA TO TOZEUR (ABOUT 290 KM): FROM ANCIENT ROME TO MOUNTAIN OASES
A few hundred metres from the hotel and we find ourselves strolling amongst some of the country’s best-preserved Roman ruins. The archaeological site of the ancient Roman city of Sufetula (“Sbeitla” comes from this name), although smaller than the one in Dougga, still surprises us with its many mosaics and the majesty of its very own Capitoline Hill. Three temples alongside one another, dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, which - unaware of the centuries that have passed - cast long shadows onto our shaky figures, which are slightly sleepy yet also thrilled. Once again, it’s just us here, together with a local gentleman wearing a Burnous, a traditional Maghrebi cloak generally made out of camel wool, who keeps watching us with a curious gaze. What is the real attraction of Sbeitla these days?
It’s mid-morning when we come across a number of strange handovers between Police cars, which since Tunis have never left us: everything is fine until the new escort goes off at warp speed, finally leaving us to our own devices (we’ll see them again only occasionally during the last few days of our journey): Tunisia is all ours now!
First came the Midès Canyon. Just one kilometre away from Algeria, hanging over a dizzying crack, we can admire the multi-faceted colours of the rocks, which have been eroded and smoothed down over the millennia by streams to form a perfect natural defence for this ancient village. To reach the bottom, we go past the ghostly remains of the village’s mud-brick houses, which were destroyed by the floods of 1969 that took several lives. A tragic scene that tells us how little knowledge these people have about water.
Then Tamerza: the largest mountain oasis in Tunisia. We are blown away by the colours on display across various market stalls, and by a small canyon with its enchanting 5-metre waterfall. It is the perfect moment and place to have a mint tea: just like the caravaners used to do in the past, we too are enjoying a refreshment today, drawing from the stubborn water source that gives life to this unique place. It is also the right time to "get our bikes' wheels dirty" along the short access dirt road: a few people can’t resist having a go at riding rally-style, standing up on the foot pegs of their V85 TTs or rallying around in the small ford.
Lastly, Chebika. A small, 1-kilometre detour and our convoy is hurtling down a pathway that goes through a lush palm grove. We come out on the other side and find ourselves immersed in an oil painting: behind us there is just palm trees and mountains, lit up by the warm light of the sunset, whereas in front of us there is an expanse of purple from the small salt lake of Chott el Gharsa, and then lastly, on our left, we even catch our first glimpse of some dromedary camels!
STAGE 3 - FROM TABARKA TO SBEITLA (ABOUT 300 KM): CHASING SUNSETS
As of this point in the journey and for the rest of it, we can kiss the rain goodbye, as the weather goes back to being more like what we were expecting from a Tunisian winter: almost 10°C of diurnal temperature variation, with 10/13°C in the morning and in the evening, and 20 wonderful degrees of sunshine in the middle!
Once we have taken off a few layers of clothing, we are more willing to tackle the long, straight, and well-paved roads that stretch out almost as far as the eye can see towards the plains up ahead. Upon the horizon, all we can see is the flat profile of an unusually shaped mountain: it resembles a chopped-down tree trunk, as its surface looks so even. It is Jugurtha’s Table: a natural fortress covering 80 hectares with a height of more than 1,200 metres, formed by differential erosion and used as a refuge by the Berbers for centuries. The top can be accessed via a stairway that has been carved into the rock, after passing a narrow and steep little road with the bikes. The view is breath-taking: the light is fading, but further down below we can see it seeping through onto the arid hillsides of the Kabylia, the area that separates the Mediterranean side of Algeria from the desert side.
STAGE 2 - FROM TUNIS TO TABARKA (ABOUT 270 KM): FINALLY ON THE ROAD! (HOW NOT TO GO BY UNNOTICED)
1) the hotels in Tunisia are huge, uncomfortably lavish, and semi-deserted; evidence that tourism is slowly picking back up after a decade of crisis;
2) this will be our daily departure time: “8.00 a.m.: butts on the saddles!”, our guide chimes in; and woe betide anyone who’s late!
3) the Tunisian government cares a lot about its tourists, especially if they’re motorcyclists: the Tourist Police are waiting for us at the entrance of the hotel (not that they were invited). They’ll be escorting us - or, even better, freeing up the road with sirens ablaze - for the first few days of the journey, with a string of changes from one car to the next, like a well-orchestrated ballet performance, at the border of every governorate.
Visiting this UNESCO world heritage archaeological site, one of the most important ones in the country, helps us to become familiar with the magnificence and perfectly preserved remnants of the various cultures that have left a mark on the history of Tunisia. In front of us, there’s a whole hillside to explore, as we walk along cobbled streets and beneath Roman arches, wander into Numidian and Punic temples and mausoleums, and discover a spectacular Roman theatre nestling on the hillside.
The expanse of the ruins of Dougga hits us even harder when we realise that we’re alone. But we’ll get used to it, especially in this north-western region of Tunisia, which is full of attractions but historically hardly ever touched by the tourist routes heading south. A godsend for group photos. Click: that’ll be the first of many! But not everyone is enthused by them, and so begins the running joke/nightmare/gag of the Experience, announced with a strong German accent: “photo di groupo!”, prompting everyone to pretend to run away.
STAGE 1 - FROM ITALY TO TUNIS: AWAITING THE AFRICAN SUN
Strong winds and pounding rain plough down on our 26 Moto Guzzi motorcycles, which are ready and waiting to embark upon the Moto Guzzi Experience Tunisia. Was it an adventure we wanted? Well here it is!
The staff begin their presentations. Three guides: two travelling by motorcycle and one that will be at the back of the group with the first four-wheeled support vehicle. Behind, there will be just one van carrying two Moto Guzzi technicians, together with spare parts and reserve motorcycles (better to be prepared!).
Attentive ears listen to the instructions about the strict plan that awaits us, and smiling lips savour the spirit of the journey, as well as that of the group. Speaking of the group, it is an international crowd from the United States, France, Germany, Finland, Switzerland and - of course - Italy. All united by their membership to The Clan and their passion for the Eagle from Mandello del Lario. Tunisia awaits us!
Rough seas wake us up early: it seems that the weather in Tunis is no better than what we’ve left behind. We’ve run into our fair share of setbacks, customs stamps and complications, but we don’t care: we made it! It’s late afternoon and the tyres of our Moto Guzzi bikes are on African soil! To be fair, it’s wet tarmac rather than soil, it’s dark, the streets are dimly lit, and it’s only a few kilometres to the hotel, but we’re already excited when we see our rumbling convoy ready to take on Tunisia… is it a bit too much? Not at all!