Desert, rocky mountains and deep canyons
Rocky mountains, deep canyons, desert and green oases alternate in Tunisia. In between lie Bedouin villages, market towns and old grain silos. Exploring the Sahara on camelback, you see mirages. Sleeping in a tent or just beneath a cover of stars.
Travelogue & photos: Johan Siegers
We fly to the isle of Djerba via Tunis, where we arrived last night. This morning we leave our small hotel on Djerba in landcruisers (luxury 4-wheel drives) and take the ferry to the mainland. The coastline reminds me of the Algarve in Portugal: pretty red rocks sticking out from the water. There also is a regional bus on the ferry and we hear a goat from inside it.
One of the first places we visit is Medenine, which has a weekly market. Bedouin sell vegetables and cattle here and buy new goods.
The market is located by the former grain silos, which are mainly used by souvenir sellers nowadays. You can find nice things here, but negotiating is a must. The merchant will ask at least four times the amount that you are eventually supposed to pay. Don't show that you're eager to buy something and start bidding a much too low amount. The merchant will protest and tell you that he bought it for more. That's the moment to try to make a deal, but you should have a maximum price that you are willing to pay. If the merchant doesn't give in just before you reach that amount, walk away. If your price isn't ridiculously low, he will run after you, offering a better price.
It's crowded at the souvenirs stalls, but if you explore a little further, in the part of the market where the Tunesians buy their goods and produce, it's much quieter. The atmosphere here is completely different.
Spices are sold by the (at least half-a-metric-pound) scoop
The landcruisers takes us further to Tataouine. This non-touristic town gives a good impression of life in Tunisia. The men play dominoes fanatically.
The local butcher placed the head of a dromedary on his counter for decoration. In general, food is displayed hygienically in Tunisia. Meat is kept refrigerated.
There are many stalls with spices. They are not sold by the metric gram here, but in scoops of at least half a metric pound. In Tunesian cuisine lots of spices are used.
We notice that everywhere we go, we smell the scent of some kind of curry mix. Spices are much cheaper here than in my native Holland, especially saffron.
This afternoon we go on our first hike, something everyone has been looking forward to. A local guide leads the way.
Hiking in this mountainous area is an experience all by itself. Sometimes there is a path, but more often the route seems arbitrarily chosen between the rocks.
We start in the deserted Berber village of Douiret. The Berber who lived here were forced to leave the village to integrate with the local population. Only ruins remain.
It's remarkable that somehow plants manage to grow between the rocks. In the spring the landscape is even somewhat green, but in the course of the summer it gets dry and barren.
For now, we are walking between mountains and valleys in a beautiful rocky landscape, with here and there a palm tree. The climbing isn't very hard, but it is strenuous. When descending, we have to watch not to slip on the rocky bottom.
Hiking along former grain silos
Ksar Hadada looks like it's on another planet
After a two-hours hike we are picked up by the landcruisers, which take us to Hadada. Its former grain silos were used as a hotel for a while, but they are dilapidated now.
Part of the Star Wars movie The Phantom Menace was shot in Ksar Hadada. In the movie, the village is on another planet. If the silos still would have been intact, we would have spent the night here.
Today is our second day of hiking. People whose muscles still ache from yesterday's hike, can be dropped off half way our course, from where they only have to descend on a reasonably accessible path. Nobody makes use of the offer. Because we take a slightly different route than the one on the program, we arrive after only an hour, instead of an hour and a half. We have to make a choice: take the original route, or take a detour. The guide warns us that the detour is a difficult road. The group is split: the majority takes the detour, I join the group that takes the shortest way.
Because we can't go wrong on this short route, our group leaves without a guide. The advantage is that we can stop whenever we want to take a good look around us. We were told to walk straight on until we see a white minaret amidst palm trees. It's impossible to miss.
Ksar Halouf is a fortified storage for grain and it lies on top of a mountain. We have to climb, but it's not hard because there is a road.
When we arrive, we get brik à l'oeuf: a beaten egg with herbs in dough, fried in locally pressed olive oil. I had this typical Tunesian food later again, but it never tasted as well as the first time. Maybe that is because we are hungry from the hike?
We spend the night in Matmata in underground cave dwellings. The "apartments" are hewn out of the rocks. Often, a few rooms have a common courtyard, which is open at the top, as if it's a large well. The advantage of cave apartments is that they are nice and cool during the summer and warm during the winter.
Spending the night in the desert
Two days on foot and camelback in the Sahara
We drive to Douz, which is also called the gate to the Sahara. There, camels are already waiting for us, for a two-day Sahara trip.
They are actually dromedaries, because they only have one hump. The locals call them chameaux, though, so that's why I keep calling them camels. Riding a camel is no big deal. You sit on blankets and there is a saddle, to which you have to hold on when the camel gets up or kneels.
The main thing with riding a camel is feeling the rocking motion of the animal. If you don't resist, but move along, it isn't all that bad. In any case, I don't get seasick.
The main disadvantage is that you have to sit with spread legs all the time. If you're not used to that, your groin will start to hurt. I expected the animals to stink, but I don't smell them at all. Maybe because we're outside. The heat in the Sahara isn't that terrible either in March. We are getting used to the temperature and even begin to enjoy it. We still have to be careful: we cover our heads and drink a lot. If you travel later, April or May, it can be very hot already.
The camels are lead by drivers, so we move at a brisk walking pace. I try walking for half an hour, but it turns out that walking fast in soft sand is very exhausting. I respect the camel drivers, who keep up this pace for two to three hours.
Some of the drivers go ahead of us with a donkey cart full of tents, blankets, food and water. When we arrive, two woolen Bedouin tents are ready in which we will spend the night.
They offer little protection: there's a gap of 10 centimeters between the ground and the tent cloth. The wind blows through it without a problem. Like some other people, I decide to take my sleeping bag and sleep in the open field. It's clear that the Sahara at this point is more than barren sand. There are a few shrubs, even though they are mainly bare branches with a little green on them. It's comparable to heather. It never rains here, so plants and animals drink dew.
The camels are freed of their saddles and luggage and can roam free to graze the tough, dry shrubs. The camel drivers have to go out and find them in the morning. Camels live in hierarchical groups, so the leader is tied to a long rope, because if he bolts, the others will follow.
The camel drivers prepare food in the desert, couscous, and at night they sing around the campfire, in Arabic of course. After they have sung the refrain a couple of times, we can sing along, even though we don't have the slightest idea about what we are singing.
At night it gets pretty cold. By the time I go to bed it's only 4 degrees centigrade. But the overwhelming view of the stars in the dark sky makes up for everything. Because there are no cities - with their lights - nearby, you can see more stars here than almost anywhere else. No need to worry about creepy animals: because it gets so cold at night, everything creepy and crawly digs itself in under the sand surface.
The next morning we have breakfast with bread that is baked in the sand while we look on. First, a fire is made and then a piece of dough is buried in the hot sand. It's covered with sand and hot ashes. I am surprised to find no sand at all in the bread.
We visit a Bedouin family who have made their camp near us. Before we leave, I take the opportunity, at less than fifty meters from the tents, to take a classic Sahara picture. There are parts of the Sahara where literally nothing grows, which are responsible for the well-known image of "sand all the way to the horizon".
On the way we take a break in the shadow of a somewhat larger shrub, after which we return to Douz. There we spend the night in a relatively luxury hotel. It has a heated pool, even.
Market in Douz
Beans, dried fish, spices and houseware
We start the day with a visit to the market in Douz, which has mostly food products, like beans, fried fish and spices.
The merchants are always willing to give explanation about their products. What we thought was some kind of tea, turns out to be used fot its aroma: sprinkle these herbs on a charcoal fire and a perfume-like scent will rise.
The market has both products for tourists and for the locals. Most of it is houseware.
There also is a cattle market, where goats, sheep and even the incidental camel are sold. Here it's so crowded you can hardly move.
We drive on the salt plain Chott El Jerid to Tozeur. The salt here is literally for the taking.
On the way we see some fata morganas (mirages). One time we see a row of trees on the horizon which definitely aren't there. They seem to float a little above ground and disappear as soon as you lower yourself.
The air over the salt plain is so hot that light beams are bent, so you can see a little beyond the horizon. The trees also seem to stand in water. It looks so real that I can imagine going in that direction when you're about to die from thirst.
Way down below flows a little river
Near the town of Mides is an impressive canyon. We all feel very small in this overwhelming landscape. Way down below in the canyon flows a little river. This region has a rainy season in which the river turns wild.
The landscape is rocky here, too. Still it looks different from the east coast, where we started hiking. The rocks here are more massive. It's as if all loose stones were flushed out. This also was used as a film location, for example for the final scene of The English Patient.
We walk for an hour in this rocky landscape. Part of our group wants to climb, the others descend into a dry riverbed. Here we find pieces of mica, which is used in electrical insulation.
Tozeur in the oasis
The water comes from natural sources in the ground
Our hotel in Tozeur is near the oasis. It's a newly constructed one and it has date palms and fruit trees like pommegranates and orange trees.
There are paths in the oasis which are no doubt used to carry out the harvest. Walking in the oasis, we again experience the friendliness of the Tunesians. No one asks what we're doing there. At most, they wonder why anyone would voluntarily take a walk.
The oasis has several natural water sources. The water is mainly used for irrigation of the trees, but sometimes it also has a more recreational use.
At night we visit the Stories of 1001 Nights, which are portrayed in a beautifully illuminated theme park. Tomorrow we get up at 4 AM to fly back to Tunis and then back to Amsterdam, The Netherlands.