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Published: December 28th 2010
Greetings from the Sahara Desert! This is truly an amazing place to be writing from, and despite only being around 3 hours’ flight from the UK, this is my first visit to the place and I must say I’m just so impressed, having a great time. I’m currently writing from the Southern Tunisian oasis town of Douz, after having spent the last few days traveling from oasis to oasis across the south from Jerba, and will tell more of this adventure here.
First off, Christmas on Jerba island! Decided to spend Christmas Eve in a bit of luxury, so caught a taxi from my 12 pound a night hotel in the central market town of Houmt Souq on the island, towards the Zone Touristique around 15km away, situated on an extremely fine strip of white sand on the shores of the shimmering Mediterranean, and one of the island’s 5-star hotels, the Ulysses Palace. I guess upon hindsight, this wasn’t too honest of me, but it was still a great idea - I walked through the hotel as if a guest there and spent most of the day poolside in a state of 5-star luxury, sunbathing through the
large windows of the indoor pool (it’s still only about 15 degrees out there during the day…!). It was only when one of the pool attendants brought up the subject of “vous avez votre carte?”, that I feigned non-understanding of French and thought it high time to scarper. But a lovely way to spend Christmas Eve after a week on the road. That night went to mass in the local Catholic church, one of only 5 or so in Tunisia, which was the reason I’d planned to be in Jerba for the 24th/25th December anyway, and met the local Polish priest whom I think I really impressed with my slight smattering of Polish (after all, Londyn is practically a suburb of Poland…!)
And if I hadn’t conveyed it in my last message, hoping everyone had a very Merry Christmas!!
Next day, early morning louage to the southern-most town on my travels this time, another desert oasis which gave its name to Luke Skywalker’s home planet (so much Star Wars stuff around here!), Tataouine. Last Tunisian stop in the desert before Libya, and pretty much a frontier town in all aspects of the phrase – a bit of a
rough-and-ready populace, with a few, dare I say it, red-neck types and the like. But a great place to base myself, as the next day I chartered a taxi for the day to take me on a tour of the surrounding “ksour” which make the region famous. A “ksar” (plural “ksour”) is an old hill-top Berber village built at a time when grain was so precious it warranted the building of hill-top fortresses all over the desert in the south of Tunisia and beyond to protect it in fortified granaries. The local tribes would build up their stores in these granaries during times of abundance, and then visit and withdraw from the granary, guarded by a local holy man, when food was needed in times of scarcity. An ingenious idea, which left behind some monumental ruined “ksour” and their surrounding villages, all perched high atop mountains from where you can see for miles around. Many of the ksour’s inhabitants built their houses into the hillside, living in troglodyte dwellings which were naturally cool in the summer and warm in the winter. My tour included the ksour of Ghermessa, Chenini, Duiret and Ksar Ouled Soltane, all of which pretty special in
their own way. Am attaching photos of each.
An evening of chilling in Tataouine, and my first hotel room with a heater at night – ah, luxury!! It’s not just a myth, it really does get cold at night out here in the desert!
Next morning, yesterday morning, two more louages, first to Gabes, transport hub of the Tunisian South, and then to here, my current station of Douz. The plan was to stay here one night, then do an overnight desert trek by camel staying in a local Bedouin tent the following. But alas, when I arrived at the hotel, they were completely full, but duly informed me that there was a tour leaving in 20 minutes with room for one more! So there I was, within an hour of arriving in a new town, riding on the back of a camel across the Saharan dunes! This was truly an incredible experience. My camel was a good girl – despite making massive protests when I climbed on it, it was truly a saint compared to the others while walking. The other 5 were bickering amongst themselves, foaming at the mouth and constantly making odd whistling noises (apparently
it’s mating season…!). Because I was a late addition to the group, they’d had to borrow my camel from another camel keeper, so I don’t think she actually knew the other 5 – I think we were in the same boat on that one, so we bonded well! We rode for 2 hours across the dunes of the Sahara (the first I’d seen so far, as contrary to popular belief, sand dunes make up only one ninth of the Sahara desert – the rest is scrubland, dirt and gravel), and encamped at sunset in a traditional Berber camp.
And I’ve found it to be completely true, everything they say about the desert I saw for myself. Not only was it warm by day and freezing by night, there were endless stars in the sky at night, completely pitch black for the first part of the night and then when the moon came out, you could see very well indeed, sound traveled very far as I could clearly hear conversations about 100m away, and the silence at night really was deafening. After dinner, the Berber hosts made a campfire, and we sat around it drumming and singing songs (I did
a great rendition of “Row-Row-Row-Your-Boat” when we did the rounds and an English song was requested, they loved the “merrily merrily merrily merrily” part…!). The only other sounds to be heard were the grumblings of the camels, and absolutely nothing else. Truly an experience to be remembered. Alas, there were a few difficulties out there though, in the most rudimentary places I’ve slept in my life I believe. Bed was but a mat on the floor, and even with two sleeping bags and four blankets, it was still freezing! Sand got into everything, including my mobile phone and camera, which seems to have lost its flash function… And the “toilet” was a good 100 metre walk from the encampment, and in my rush to get on a camel straight after arriving in Douz, I’d forgotten my torch! Fortunately my mobile is a bright one, and who’d have thought Nokia could guide anyone in the desert, least of all to the toilet in the middle of the night. And to top it all, my stomach had not chosen the best of times to go a bit dodgy on me – though fortunately nothing worse than a couple of night rushes through
the desert to the toilet hut…
Anyway, moving on - this morning, after brekkie and a goodbye to the Berbers, we trekked another 2 hours back to town and the hotel, and I spent the next hour delighting in the luxuries of the modern world which I’d missed so much in such a short space of time – a flush toilet with loo paper, white sheets, electric lights and a HOOOT shower! It doesn’t take long to miss these things, which makes me worry if I think too much about how we’ve come to depend on them in today’s modern world, so I don’t tend to think too much…!
Today so far just chilling around town, including a walk in the nearby “palmeraie”, the palm-tree area you find in oasis towns, and a stinkingly hot soak in the local hammam public baths which is fed by naturally heated springs – my legs are still pink.
Tomorrow, another louage through the vast Chott El Jerid salt lake of the south towards the mountain-desert oasis town of Tozeur, and beyond. Still 8 days left of this amazing trip to look forward to, and looking forward also to relating more
of it here and putting up some more great photos from this great country.
Hope you are all well. Until the next time guys, bi salaama!
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