We got on a bus at 5:50AM on Friday, May 3rd
to join a tour to the south of Tunisia. We had been trying for quite a few weeks to line up a tour, but weren’t having much luck. Finally we found someone that was able to tell us about this 2 day trip and we jumped at the chance. We typically aren’t ones to join large bus tour groups but we knew that if we wanted to see the area in a short period of time as well as have an English speaking guide this was our best bet. We had a little bit of a concern when we signed up, but now that we are just back from the trip we would highly recommend it!
The bus that we were on was a very modern air conditioned one that seats 51 people but our group was a total of 38 people which was big enough. We wondered if we would be the only English speaking people, but we didn’t have to worry as there were quite a few from the UK and Wales (although at times we weren’t sure they were talking English to us due to their
accents!) and the rest were from France. Luckily our guide, Amir, was fluent in both languages and went fluidly between the two when telling us of the many things that we were going to do in the 2 days of travel. After picking up the rest of the group at the various hotels we were then headed south to the historic amphitheatre in El Jem. We had been there in the fall when we first came to Tunisia so we didn’t have to take the whole time allotted within the amphitheatre but we did go in for a time to take another look at this magnificently preserved Roman amphitheatre which was built in 238 AD. El Jem sat 35,000 spectators while the Collisieum of Rome sat on average 65,000. We were allotted a little over an hour for this stop which gave us enough time to climb up to the third level to take some photos and appreciate the magnificence of this work of the Romans before taking some time to wander around the streets of the town of El Jem. With leaving so early in the morning we only grabbed a yogurt for breakfast so when we came across
a pastry shop we decided to enjoy a wonderful treat that looked like it came out of a French patisserie (pastry shop) and tasted just as good – a lovely morning treat!
On the way to our next stop we went through miles and miles of olive groves. The guide stated that there were 65,000 olive trees and I think we drove by most of them by the looks of the acres we saw. We learned that Tunisia had an excellent crop of olives last year and exported more olive oil than Italy, Spain, and Portugal. They export mainly to Europe but some goes to the US as well.
Our next stop for the day was at a cave home of a Berber family. The cave home we visited was in the old city of Matamata. The Berber’s were the original Arab settlers of this area and many of them still live in the cave homes as they are cool in the summer and warm in the winter. A few have built more modern homes next to the caves and in that way they can still retreat to the caves when the weather is too hot! There are
numerous rooms within each cave home off of a central open area. They do not charge to enter their home, but it is typical to leave a small tip as they are opening their homes to the public to see how they live – it is helpful to them as income and it allows us a peek into their lifestyle.
The guide was good about providing coffee/bathroom stops on the way and it also gave the smokers in the group a chance to get off to have their cigarette. Within the price of the tour package the lunch and dinner on the first day and the breakfast and lunch on the second were included. These were provided at various hotels that cater to the western tourist trade. The lunch the first day was a buffet which worked out well with giving everyone a chance to chose what they wanted to eat – it provided a nice combination of more western offerings of spaghetti, green salads, pizza and other easily known dishes mixed in with more local offerings of couscous and other meat dishes we have seen but do not know the name of. Even the dessert offered was a
combination of cakes, lemon sherbet (which is very common here) and a sweet made of dates and honey that we had a chance to taste last fall when we were here. They definitely did a good job of providing something for everyone.
The next big event of the day was the camel ride into the Sahara Desert near Kebili. The guide informed us that we could rent an outfit which consisted of the “typical headscarf” and a cotton covering. At first we thought we wouldn’t do this as thought it would be too “touristy”, but once there we realized that we definitely should as the winds had picked up and just having the headscarf to cover your mouth and nose was worth the 3 dinar rental ($1). Each person got to ride their own camel. We were told that these in fact were dromedary as they only have one hump while camels have two humps. The most “interesting” part is when the camel stands up and sits down – it is definitely quite a ride which you want to be sure to hold on to the handle of your saddle during! The ride itself is not a difficult one,
First Stop Was at El Jem
smaller than in Rome, but better preserved
but it is “interesting” when the camel goes down the side of a sand dune or “hurries” up the other side. On the ride out to the dunes it was quite windy and we were definitely happy to have the scarf to cover our nose and mouth – it helped give us a feel of what it must be like to be riding out in the desert with the winds blowing the red Sahara sand for miles. We were given a chance to get off the camel and walk around on the dunes – it really was something to look out over the dunes and see the moving sand as well as feel how fine the sand was. It was interesting in that the sand that we have been seeing on our boat in the marina is a very fine red sand; however, out on the dunes it looked quite white/tan. It was only as we were heading back to the starting location and the sun was getting lower in the sky could you start to see the red coloration of the dunes. It was a wonderful experience and we were glad we had the opportunity.
After such a
full day of activities we checked into the Sahara Douz hotel about 6:30PM and were given the information that the buffet dinner started at 7:15 PM and we might want to get there early as there were other bus loads of people at the same hotel. The other incentive was we had been told that we must be on the bus and ready to go the next morning at 4:30 AM!! We saw on the napkins in the restaurant that the hotel is owned by the tour company – a great idea with the number of buses running tours and the crazy hours of arrivals and departures. Our instructions were to bring the key down to the front desk with our luggage, take that to the bus and then head in for breakfast and be on the bus ready to go at 4:30AM as we had another full day ahead of us. So much for relaxing on this trip – fortunately there were times that we all could catch “cat naps” on the long bus rides between locations, but didn’t want to do that too much as wanted to catch the sights as we traveled.
It was nice to
be in a hotel for a change, but we had been really hoping for a nice shower especially after our time in the desert blowing sand, but the water pressure wasn’t very good and the hot water was definitely lacking, oh well...
The next morning everyone made it to the bus on time and we were on the road by 4:29AM along with a few other buses headed out on their tours. Fortunately we weren’t all going to the same places – the company is good about coordinating that so there isn’t a crowd at each stop. All the buses were escorted by the police both in front and back of the caravan of buses for extra tourist safety as we were getting close to the Algerian border and we were traveling in the dark.
First on the list for the 2nd
day was heading to the largest salt lake in Tunisia – Chott el Jerid. It is 160 miles long and 12 miles wide. As the guide told us sometimes it looks as white as snow, but at other times such as when we were there it looked completely brown due to the sand that had settled
on top of the salt. It was hard enough that we were able to walk on the salt lake and you had to dig down to actually find the salt layer. They do commercially harvest the salt for export and local use. With our early morning start we had a chance to see the sun rise over the salt lake which was pretty spectacular especially with a small amount of cloud cover. Unfortunately the photos never do it justice.
The next big event planned was the 4 wheel jeep rides into the desert to the set used for the George Lucas filming of Star Wars Episode 1. This is near Tozeur in south western Tunisia in a place called Onk Jmel (neck of the camel) due to the shape of one of the rock/sand formations. We broke up into smaller groups of 5 to pile into the various vehicles for our ride into the desert ending up at one of the set locations for the filming. Those of you that are Star War fans would be able to recognize the Mos Espa set which included Watto’s shop, the market and Sebulba’s Café. The Onk Jmel site was were Darth
Maul arrived on Tatooine and released the Sith Probes to search for Queen Amidala’s ship. Now that we have been here we are going to have to see the movie again to look take a closer look at the scenery rather than the action. The ride was pretty wild as we were on a combination of “washboard roads” for part of it, weaving up and down and around sand dunes (something like being on a roller coaster) and then we definitely got the adrenaline going when we drove up to the edge of a drop off and then quite suddenly he drove down the other side of the sand dune – the first time was quite the stomach turner, but then by the 2nd
time it wasn’t quite as bad although it still made for an exciting trip! We learned that many of the drivers knew these roads/trails well as they had been hired as drivers by George Lucas film company when they were doing the filming here for Star Wars. The tour operator that we had explained that the Tunisian people were very happy that the film company decided to leave the set in order to allow
the people here to use it as tourist destination helping their economy. It was interesting to first view the set from high up on a hill with it showing how desolated it was in the desert, then driving down a bank of sand to be able to wander around. Upon looking at it closely you could see how realistic it looked from the outside, but when you went into any of the structures it was just a shell with a minimal wood frame inside just like any set you would have seen on a stage. Fortunately it was made strong enough to be able to stand up to the desert winds, but we were told that it does get buried by the moving sands and must be dug out at times to expose all of the structures.
When we were finished with the jeep ride we got back into town and immediately were transferred to a horse drawn carriage. We had no idea what this would entail, but found out that it took us on a ride through a part of the oasis with trails that took us to see the numerous plants growing there. We had a guide
explain the various ones growing there, about the water system and the way the people that work the crops are paid with part of the produce. They have date palms, bananas, pomegranate, figs and lemons growing in this area that we walked through. The land in the oasis is owned by private individuals and those that work the land are provided 20% of the produce that is grown there. The water is held in large tanks and at times comes naturally from the springs but at other times it must be pumped into the tanks if the water level is low. The water source is located outside of the oasis and near the foot of mountains, not what you might think of from what you may have seen in the movies.
By this time everyone was definitely ready for our next stop – lunch! We had a lovely one in Gafsa in a very impressive place. This time instead of a buffet it was a fixed meal of chicken, rice and steamed vegetables with an orange for dessert. We then piled back onto the bus for quite a few hours more til we made our last planned stop in
Kairouan. We had been here last fall so it gave us a chance to walk around a few of the streets that we hadn’t been on before. This town is known for having the oldest mosque in North Africa as well as for the making of rugs. As we had bought 2 large carpets and 2 woven pillow covers in the fall, we knew to stay away from any rug shop this time (or at least not accept any mint tea!)
We typically aren’t ones to go on trips such as these with a group, but it worked out very well and we would highly recommend it. It was wonderful to have a guide that spoke excellent English, have all of the arrangements for the various activities planned out, have the hotel and all the meals arranged and all we had to do was be in the right place at the right time! It really took the worry about traveling around by ourselves and we learned so much from the experience. We never would have been able to pack all of these activities into 2 days and would have definitely been hampered in doing so without the language skills
of either French or Arabic. The price was also right – it costs 340 dinar for each of us which included everything except you paid for any drink that you may have at any of the meals and any tips for guides along the way. (note 340 dinar equals approximately $110)
It was truly a wonderful experience and gave us a great view of some more of this beautiful country. We got to see the Sahara desert, the lush agricultural area filled with olive groves, fields of grain and numerous other plantings, an oasis, a salt lake, the stark mountains rising out of the flat plains and a few towns and villages along the way. In total we traveled approximately 650 miles (1,000 kilometers) – quite a tiring but rewarding trip. We are so glad that we had the time to fit in this trip before we leave Tunisia.
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