Monday, November 10, 2008

TR - Tunisia Part 1

10/25 – 11/5/08
Part 1

Race Results
Defis Du Chott
Nefta (Sahara Desert), Tunisia
Sat, Nov 1/08
Marathon #310 – Country #95
4:13:27 - 5 OA – 1 AG

Country # 95 – FIVE down – FIVE to go!

Although this trip and marathon turned out very well, planning and booking the trip was one of the worst nightmares I ever experienced in all my travels! When I was planning my final schedule to break the world record I needed a marathon in late Oct/early Nov and there were only two options available – Tunisia and Kenya. Kenya never responded to my emails so Tunisia became the only option. I located a tour agency in Paris that was organizing a tour and marathon in the Sahara Desert. I contacted them and quickly negotiated a package to join a French tour/running group in Tunisia. And then the nightmare began! The tour operator insisted on payment before making any arrangements (reasonable) but demanded payment in cash! Attempts to wire the funds and send a bank draft both failed (and cost me more than $100 in service fees) – and the agency’s (arrogant and uncaring) attitude was “not my problem – no money – no trip!” I desperately searched for an alternative trip/marathon rather than risk losing more money trying to send money to the uncaring and unprofessional agency and fortunately I found another tour agency in Paris offering a similar marathon package in the Sahara Desert at the same time? I contacted that agency and they worked hard to develop a tour package around the flights I had already booked to Tunisia and accepted payment via credit card. The staff of Hypervacances were professional and a pleasure to work with. The reason I tell this story is to warn all my readers to avoid an agency called ‘Association Carthago’ and the owner Azdine Ben Yacoub unless you want to risk losing your money and suffer a similar nightmare in service!

After I solved my nightmare I was able to relax and go on to planning other marathons/countries until it came close to trip time and I had to train for a marathon in the desert. Fortunately I had run a previous marathon in the Sahara Desert (see Archives March 01 - Algeria) and knew what to expect. Thus when I returned from the marathon in Nicaragua in early Oct I trained for two weeks on the beaches on Longboat Key to get my legs and ankles accustomed to running in the soft/uneven sand. I also confirmed quickly that my trail shoes offered the best support for running on sand. I was ready!

My modified tour package had me arriving in Tozeur in Southern Tunisia one day before the main group arrived from France. Philippe, the tour operator, picked me up at the airport. He spoke very limited English so we communicated in French! He informed me that one of his staff spoke good English and would arrive on Mon evening with the main group. Since Mon was a ‘free’ day for me I woke early and enjoyed an easy 10-mile running tour of Tozeur and the Palmeraie. Tozeur (35,000) like all towns in Southern Tunisia is located on an oasis and has the 2nd largest Palmeraie in the country with 250,000 date palms. The dates were being harvested while we were there. By the end of the run I was familiar with the layout of the town and the main roads through the Palmeraie and later that day explored more of the town on foot. By the time the main group arrived I was ready to move out of our 3-star hotel – the TV and A/C didn’t work? When I complained the manager explained that the wind had damaged the Satellite system (and he wasn’t optimistic or concerned that it would be fixed soon?) and they had turned the A/C off for the winter? The TV I was willing to live without because it meant I would get no political/election BS from the USA for one week but the A/C was a bigger issue. It was still hot during the day and the rooms had no windows to open to let cool air in at night! I was hoping that the main group would also be upset but neither of these problems got fixed during our week-long stay?

When the main group arrived Mon evening I was relieved to meet Jean Marie who did speak good English so I could learn more details about the itinerary. On Tue we would visit the desert in 4X4s and he asked me to join him in his 4X4. For the first few days I stuck close to Jean M because few members of the tour group seemed to speak English? My French is OK for basic conversation but not good enough to understand lots of details! On Tue morning our 4X4 caravan headed out into the Chott (Salt Lake) el-Gharsa. There are two large Salt Lakes – Chott el-Gharsa and Chott el-Jerid near Tozeur covering
5,000 sq KM. The caravan stopped along Chott el-Gharsa so that we could ride Quads (ATVs) on the salt beds. The next stop was Ong Jemal (Neck of the Camel) – a rock formation that looks like a camel that overlooks Chott el-Gharsa and lots of sand dunes. Close to Ong Jemal is Mos Espa – a very well preserved Star Wars film set. After enjoying Star Wars we headed into some massive sand dunes to surf the dunes in our 4X4s. That was a lot of fun but some of the 4X4s were driven by race staff whom were not experienced in the desert and we spent a lot of time digging and pulling 4X4s out of sand dunes! There is a technique to surfing sand dunes that I learned from Bedouin drivers in the UAE a few years ago and the French drivers did not know it!

After enjoying lunch at a Bedouin camp we participated in camel races. That was lots of fun and served as a good way for the group to meet and bond. A few people even started talking to the ‘ugly’ American – in French and English! Jean M informed me that some of the dunes we had been surfing were on the marathon course and on the way back to the hotel we drove the final 10Km of the marathon course into Nefta – another Oasis town. During happy hour I met a few couples/families from the French Riviera (Nice and Cannes) who invited me to join them for dinner. We became good friends during the week and invited each other to visit our homes.

On Wed we loaded into the 4X4s again for another trip into the Sahara Desert - only this time Philippe changed all the groups to force people to meet others in the group. We drove along a causeway that separates the Chott el-Jerid and provides a spectacular view of the Chott and salt piles that look like snowfields. We stopped at the small oasis village of Bechri where winds had sculpted the sand into rugged and magnificent natural shapes and sculptures. Then we continued south through Kebili into the Southern Sahara to Es-Saiba where we encountered a sirocco – a sandstorm! The Bedouin call it “la neige de sable” – “the snow of sand”! I sucked in enough sand to coat my lungs with a permanent sand filter and will not have to worry about digestion for awhile! I prayed that the weather was better on race day! We quickly left Saiba to drive to Douz – the gateway to the Southern Sahara and the Grand Erg Oriental – the largest sand sea in the Sahara. Douz has the largest Palmeraie in the country with 500,000 palm trees. We ate lunch in Douz but the sirocco was also blowing there and we ingested lots of sand along with our food! After returning to the hotel it took me 30 minutes to wash sand out of every orifice in my body!

Thu was a ‘free’ day for the group so I decided to make one final easy 7-mile training run through the Palmeraie before spending the rest of the day walking around Tozeur to take photos to share with my readers. Tozeur is famous for its amazing traditional brickwork that is unique to that area of Tunisia. I spent a few hours touring and taking photos in Ouled-el-Hadef (the old quarter) where the brickwork and doors are spectacular! (See photos). Since most meals were included in the tour package I figured lunch on my free day was the best opportunity to enjoy a Camel steak. It was delicious – better than any buffet meal I ate at the hotel! After lunch I finished my walk/tour with a visit to the Belvedere Rocks – an outcrop of rocks with the head of Abdulkacem Chebbi (a famous Tunisian poet) carved into one end. Steps carved into the rocks provide a spectacular view of sunsets over the Palmeraie and the Tozeur golf course.

On Thu evening the rest of the tour group arrived – mainly hard-core runners who signed up just for the races! I was eager to find out how many more runners had arrived and how many were running the marathon. Most of the guests in the initial tour group were not runners and had joined the tour to play in the desert. I had not met one person running the marathon? When I picked up my race bib (#95!) Jean M informed me that there were a total of 115 runners – 12 in the marathon- 30 in the Half and 70+ runners in the 10Km.

Fri was another group activity – a hike into the Jebel en-Nebeg Mountain Range near the Algerian border. It sounded interesting so I decided to participate even though it was the day before the race.
We arrived in Chebika at the foot of the mountains at 10 am – it was cold and raining? We started off in a canyon below the ruins of old Chebika and past a spring-fed stream and brilliant blue pools. Then we started to climb into the mountains. After crossing two ranges I started to wonder if I had made a wise decision? The views were awesome but it was not an easy hike – and much longer than I expected?
Finally (3 hours later) we could see our destination in a canyon in the distance – Tamerza – and started our descent into a magnificent canyon. It reminded me a lot of the SIQ in Petra, Jordan. At the end of the canyon we emerged into the oasis at Tamerza with the green Palmeraie and a waterfall – a very contrasting and spectacular view! We enjoyed lunch in Tamerza while being entertained by some locals jamming with drums and flutes. A fun time – only hope it didn’t mess up my legs too badly?

There was a pre-race meeting on Fri evening (in French) followed by a pasta dinner. I got together with Jean Jacques whom laid out the marathon course to clarify some specific details that I needed to prepare for the race. I was ready!

Sat was Race day! However I will leave the exciting details of the race for Part 2 and let you rest up for the excitement!

Stay tuned!

A quick side note. During my stay in Tozeur I noticed many signs advertising the ‘other’ marathon. The Tozeur Trail Marathon was also being run on Sat and it started at the Ong Jemal – close to where the Defis Du Chott started? Yes – there were two marathons being run on the same day by different organizers! The ‘other’ race was of course the event that I tried unsuccessfully to register for. The Defis du Chott has been held for 15 consecutive years – the ‘other’ race is only three years old and the race operator is trying to put the older/established race out of business. Good luck with his arrogant attitude!

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