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Tunisia (june 2013)

After a long weekend dedicated to the Ensisheim Meteorite Show, during which we officially presented the Beni M’hira meteorites, we are leaving for Tunisia the next day for a new hunt of the Beni-M’hira strewn field.

On Monday, June 24, 2013, we land in Djerba and get our rental car. At night, we sleep in a small hotel by the sea. We are the only occupants.

JUNE 25, 2013

We go to Tataouine, which is our usual base camp. We reach the city after 90 minutes of driving. The day is devoted to purchases of food and water for long days of hunting and to have fun in the town.

JUNE 26, 2013

We get up early and leave the hotel quickly to enjoy the cool temperatures of the morning. We are always looking for great masses to define the path of the fall and the full ellipse of the strewn field. We stop the car on the road track, near one of our southernmost discoveries. Our goal is to search the area up to the paved road towards the west.

After two hours of walking, having found nothing, we decide to return to the most prolific area of our explorations. Pierre-Marie discovers the first specimen of the trip. The heat forces us to make regular tea breaks. After an initial break along the trail, we head to the north with the hope of finding some stones. One find for this day is clearly not enough. Pierre-Marie discovers another specimen (PP02, impact melt) after an hour. Marie then gets her first meteorite of this trip. Shortly afterwards, she also discovers a very curious rock, probably a terrestrial basalt, exogenous, with a slightly rounded shape, as if oriented. The chances are slim that it is a meteorite but we will check it in France.

It is already 3 pm – the desert is a furnace and we head back to Tataouine.

While driving through the city of Beni-M’hira, we decide to have a drink to cool off. The first cafes are closed and we head towards the city center where we find the “Bar de la République”, the only one open at that time and where there are a few people seated. It’s the end of the daily market. People are watching us, as very few tourists come into the region. We decide to put one of the finds of the day on the table and invite the elders to meet us and discuss this curious black stone. All of them know the event that occurred in 2001 and remember it as if it were yesterday. At first suspicious or curious, they have a talk amongst themselves in Arabic. Then they talk to us about our stone and invite us to go to the place where the largest stone would have made a crater. But before this, an 85 year old shepherd, Mohamed Ben Ammarkess, who is the first witness of the fall, meets us.

He was in the desert at the time of the fall, tending goats and sheep. He heard a noise and saw a trail in the sky, “like an airplane” coming toward him. He then saw the object split into four parts – other witnesses indicate two pieces. Moments later, a large stone fell a few meters from him. The shockwave and the surprise made the shepherd fall but he quickly regained his senses. The terrified animals fled into the desert. He came to look more closely at the celestial object in a “one meter deep hole” but was almost burnt when touching it. Finally, he decided to let it cool down and returned to his cabin a few hundred meters away. There was a smell “like gas” in the atmosphere. The next morning, Mr. Ben Ammarkess returned to the place and saw that the stone was still hot.

During that time in the region, up to 40 miles away, people heard a muffled explosion.

A few days later, the local authorities in Beni-M’hira dispatched a team to the impact site of this large meteorite. The Tunisian army and locals quickly picked up several specimens. Hunting stopped when everything was picked up. At least, that’s what they thought.

Curiously, the area we explored had never been searched before. That’s why we think that the fragmentation of the meteorite in two parts is true. Locals and militaries had recovered stones from the second fragmentation and we have found those of the first fragmentation. But we still lack the precise trajectory. The people of Beni-M’hira that we encountered indicate that the stone had gone “over the mountains of Tataouine then fell in the desert.” This information theoretically gives us a northwest to southeast trajectory.

After having taken notes of all of these testimonies, we asked a resident to locate the crater. We returned to the same place where we met the shepherd in October 2012. He took us to the same area as the first time but all traces of the crater had disappeared. This is quite logical because of the climate and sandstorms. A hole would be filled quickly. In the late afternoon, we return to Tataouine, happy to have the evidence from the first witness of the fall! But questions remain. Is the trajectory from the northwest to the southeast as described by witnesses or, as we believe, from north-north-east to south-south-west? Were there two or four fragments ? How to explain that the whole area that we successfully hunted was not found by the previous research teams?

JUNE 27, 2013

Upon reflection, we believe that the first dispersal area is where we found all our specimens. To the south of the road track there is an empty area where no stones were found, and that’s the reason why research teams have not searched further north. Finally, to the south, around the shepherd’s hut, is the second area of dispersion with larger specimens, an area that was heavily hunted. We did not find any specimens there for that reason.

Today, we plan to search a new area north-west of our findings. We leave Tataouine at 3 pm to enjoy the cooler afternoon. Three hours later, the hunt is successful. We found eight stones! It was a lucky day for Pierre-Marie with 7 finds. Luck comes and goes, and varies by day. The area is so vast and there are so many parameters (tiredness, light, concentration, luck) that a lucky finder one day may return empty-handed the next.

JUNE 28, 2013

A big day of walking awaits us. The heat is more intense than the previous day but we get used to the conditions. It is more than 40° C. We find twenty stones, which is an excellent score. Pierre-Marie discovers a new chondrite, quite weathered, and we name it Beni M’hira (c) prior to classification. There is a small chance that it will be paired with the old chondrite Beni M’hira (b) found by Pierre-Marie in October 2012, 900 meters away. The analysis will confirm or invalidate it. This is, anyway, a great find. The meteorite is broken into many fragments with a total weight of 96 grams. By late afternoon, Fabien and Marie discover multiple beautiful specimens. Then shortly before leaving the scene, Pierre-Marie stumbles upon a beautiful meteorite, hidden under a shrub (PP18). We were able to slightly increase the area to the west on the map with Marie’s discovery. Also, we have searched areas we had never considered being in the ellipse of the strewn field.

JUNE 29, 2013

Today just two of us are prospecting. Marie stays in the city as the previous days had been tough for everyone. We start our search where we had left off last evening, in the west of the area. In the morning we find six specimens fairly quickly. We continue our walk for several hours, interrupted by a tea break, but we don’t find any more stones. Shortly before returning to the car in the middle of the afternoon, Pierre-Marie discovers a small oriented specimen of a few grams. Finally, Fabien finds a small dead scorpion, orange colored – an unpleasant creature if it were alive.

JUNE 30, 2013

We decide to take a day of rest. For a meteorite hunter, a day off means a day of hunting quietly at random. We go for a walk around Tataouine, in landscapes that seem nice for potential discoveries. We don’t fine anything, unfortunately. On the way back to the city, we are intercepted by the police who ask us what we were doing in the hills. An inhabitant called them, surprised to see tourists walking aimlessly in the desert. We explain to the police that we simply walked for pleasure but the concept of hiking seems to escape them. After the usual checks, they let us go.

JULY 1ST, 2013

The heat is stifling and it gets worse every day. What a bad idea we had to plan this expedition in summer. Despite the weather, we found five specimens today near the track. But after three and a half hours of walking, we decide to return to the hotel to rest. Our days of exploration are dwindling, but we have no choice. We must take care of ourselves.

JULY 2, 2013

Although practical and comfortable, we leave our usual hotel in Tataouine and opt for a hotel with a pool, out of the city. The atmosphere is less backpacker. We are almost the only tourists there, and the pool also serves as a municipal swimming pool where the young people of Tataouine come and have fun. We spend the day at the pool.

JULY 3, 2013

Despite the increasingly exhausting heat, we decide to explore the west of our theoretical ellipse. The temperature is unbearable, more than 43°C. In the first hour, Marie finds two small meteorites, one of which is completely oriented. We stop for tea in the car. Half an hour later, we continue the search. It’s a short
walk – thirty minutes later we collectively decide to stop prospecting the Beni M’hira strewn field. A miracle occurs when Pierre-Marie discovers, just before leaving and ten meters from the car, a beautiful specimen of more than 250 grams (PP27).

This is the end of our Tunisian adventure. We return the next day to Djerba, then to France. We are proud of the work done and excited to reveal it to the public.