Chott el Jerid Solo Crossing

April 6th, 2020 Chott el Jerid Solo Crossing

When Amir Ben-Gacem was a little boy, a family trip to the South of Tunisia marked him forever. Looking out the car window, he saw a magical, lifeless mirage: a vast land of dried mud, covered with a sheet of salt. As the hot sun beat down on the earth, the ground reflected shimmers of white, green, and purple. It was the closest he had ever felt to being on another planet.

Located between the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert, Chott El Djerid is unmissable on the Tunisian map. A never-ending mirage surrounded by oases and desert, this lagoon hard dried mud half the year, and dry land the other half of the year.

Years later, Amir is now one of the first Tunisian ultra-runners and, driven by his passion, is working to initiate an ultra-runner movement in Tunisia. In 2017, Amir and a group of friends-initiated Tunisia’s first 100km single-stage desert ultra-trail called “Ultra Mirage El Djerid.” The Ultra-Mirage race spans a variety of landscapes across the southern Tunisian governorate of Tozeur: oases, dunes, natural reserves, and, of course, a little bit of Chott el Djerid. Ultra-Mirage has grown more and more popular each year and a fresh new community of positive “Miragists” is growing and unveiling the secrets of the Tunisian south’s landscapes!

But this was not enough for Amir. In 2018, he decides to cross Chott el Djerid solo: a feat never accomplished by any living thing, not even a bird!

Amir started his 70km solo crossing on the 21st of July 2018 at 5am. He walks for over 10 hrs on a lifeless Salt Lake, where life is celebrated with every little step. Lonely in the nothingness, Amir walks with his GPS wrist clock, music in his ears, and advances towards water bottles strategically placed on hot salt, waiting for him to quench his thirst under the blistering sun. He stops for a drink and stands to take a rest, scorched by the sun’s heat, the salty ground burns to the touch and not hospitable to sitting. Amir then continues for over 8 hours, where the only sound is his feet hitting the ground, his breath, and the inner voice which reminds him to keep going.

This journey is almost an act of worship: disconnecting from the living and to connect only with the divine. A sky empty of birds, land void of insects or plants. Just Amir, oxygen, sand and mud underneath the big grey sky. A long path full of intense human moments, with a beginning, and end. Just 10km before reaching the end of his planned route, Amir realizes that he is short of water, and will not be able to continue without it. He stops sweating and his body begins to send panic signals of severe dehydration. Amr sends an alarm signal, but realises that help is at least an hour away. Amir gets weaker by the minute, but soon, his rescue arrives with water: Mohamed who extracts Amir from the Chott on his quad-bike, and Adel, a friend who terminates the remaining 10km path, as an act of support for Amir who did not fulfil his dream of solo-crossing.

Though Amir did not make it, he learned a lot., And the extreme lonely moments of his first crossing did not dampen his determination to succeed; So, one year later, in 2019, he attempts another solo-crossing of Chott El Djerid, but with more water stations and partly at night.

Amir set out again on the 15th July 2019 and at 10pm. This time, the crossing is lifeless, hot, and very dark. He planned to cross the Chott at night, when the temperature is cooler and guided by the light of the full moon, glittering across the lake of salt crystals. But that night, he found himself crossing Chott El Djerid under a cloudy, starless sky with day time heat that persisted into the night. Once more, the crossing was a celebration of life at every centimetre. In the early morning, as the sun started to bring natural light, Amir saw a sign of life for the first time. Looking down onto the salty mud, trying to keep the hot wind out of his eyes, he saw footsteps: his own footsteps from the previous years’ crossing! His path marking the previous year’s Chott crossing had been left untouched and unchanged, as if waiting for Amir to return and find himself again. No wind, no rain, not even an ant or a scorpion had altered his footsteps made in the mud by the same shoes he had worn the previous year. During that whole year, he was and still is the only creature to make this journey.

The second crossing was a success, thanks to friends who watched over, the planning behind the crossing path, and the love of a family that makes life worth living.

Amir awarded himself the medal of humanity, of determination, and love for extreme physical challenges. Amir’s commitment to his childhood imagination turned into a passion: a passion which is now an inspiring story for humankind.

But the thing with Amir is that he never rests and never stops dreaming. We can only guess what will come next…

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