EXPLORER GUIDE: Tunisian Sahara
popular impression of the Sahara being a sea of dunes traversed by swaying
camel caravans tramping from oasis to oasis can come to life in Tunisia,
the best Saharan country to fulfill this romantic fantasy without venturing
into the more dangerous and arid interior.
excursions are most easily organized from the southern desert town of Douz or the adjacent villages. Away from a camel's saddle, the attraction of
Tunisia's Sahara is limited, although the appeal of the country itself--the
most liberal Islamic state--is indisputable.
The adventurous motorist or motorcyclist can follow the pipeline track (as well as a few branches) right down to the southern apex of the country at Bordj el Khadra.
Permits are required to travel beyond Tataouine (see below), but even then--apart from solitary camps in the roadside dunes--the driving in Tunisia is undemanding, and the rewards are sweet.
Aside from a visit to Matmata, the troglodyte village where "Star Wars" was filmed, camelling is the real attraction of the Tunisian Sahara. In the following towns and villages, camel safaris into the dunes can be arranged independently, and even if you only hit the dunes for a few hours, you'll discover the lulling rhythm and beauty of the desert.
Douz In the unlikely event that you find Tunisia rather too hectic, this friendly desert settlement is most agreeable. "Safari" Tourists from the coastal resorts hit the town in the late afternoon for a sunset camel ride and are gone next morning. In between, you'll have the place to yourself.
Apart from the popular Thursday market in the central square, bringing desert village dwellers from all around to sell and trade, there's little to do other than enjoy the laid back ambience. In the Place des Martyrs square you'll find a hot spring or hammam (open 6am-noon and 3-6pm) with water fed either into private baths or a pool.
Continuing down the road leading southwest out of Douz through the date plantation brings you to the Great Dune, popular with day-trippers. Camels can be rented and safaris arranged. Douz is also home to the annual Douz International Festival of the Sahara held in November, where the spectacle and splendor of the desert comes to life in a three-day pageant of horse riding, camel-wrestling, music and dance. Look at GoNOMAD's Happenings for more information.
Tozeur A medieval trading center, Tozeur's claim to fame is its exalted deglat en noir dates. A thousand tons are
harvested annually from the vast, 200,000-palm plantation spreading along the
town's southwestern borders. Dates were not the only commodity of Tozeur.
In Douz there are more
hustlers than you will find in other parts of Tunisia's Sahara. But a camel
ride through the oasis is worth the stop.
Apart from a wander through the
shady groves of the oasis, the old quarter of Ouled el Hadef, dating
from the fourteenth century, evokes the romance and intrigue of a medieval
Islamic medina. Archways along the narrow alleys feature palm trunk roofs and
doors, and from the latter hang three knockers: one for women, one for men and one
for children, forewarning the occupant with three distinct sounds.
From Matmata the safaris head southeast to explore the wonderful ghorfas or ksars found in the vicinity of Tataouine. A ghorfa is a honeycombed network of small chambers that was used to store grain and oil in medieval times. From here the tour heads west across scrubby desert to the Roman outpost and oasis at Ksar Ghilane and on to Douz for a camel ride. A typical three-day 4WD trip like this will cost around $60/day with food and lodging.
Organizing a camel trek
A short distance south of the town the dunes of the Grand Erg begin to rise, and several local operators in Douz as well as the nearby villages like Zaafrane, offer excursions into the dunes. The established operators in town offer camel trips for around 60TD ($72) but it's possible to get a deal for half that price by asking around in restaurants or your hotel. This does bring up the possibility of an unscrupulous operator, so for the dune-bound neophyte sticking with the established names may be best.
Most day-trippers are satisfied with a sunset ride and a night under canvas with a return the following morning-- something that can be arranged for as little as 30TD (about $36). Longer trips can be tailored to your needs. The 40-mile trek southeast to the oasis and former Roman outpost of Ksar Ghilane takes up to a week (around 250TD) but it's not pure dune roaming and there is a chance that you'll pass the jeep safaris plying the same route. Better to head south into the higher dunes where no jeep can follow.
Trucks may be used to transport the camp
each day, so while the experience may not be as fully authentic as in, say,
Mauritania, it's an easy and inexpensive way of boasting that you've camelled
in the dunes of the Sahara. And even a few days in this environment, barely
seeing another soul, will strongly evoke the spirit of the wild desert, so that
you'll find the return to town rather daunting!
Note that it's not customary and far from
comfortable to sit on a camel all day. The fore-and-aft swaying takes some
getting used to and you'll probably find walking alongside much more agreeable.
Camping in the desert is permissible, and
there are several tent encampments available with camel trek companies. But
there are also some recommended hotels in popular towns and villages.
*Note that the high summer season may see rooms hard to find, especially on the coast.
While eating out has never really been an Arab tradition, the French occupation engendered a widespread restaurant scene. On the roadside, you'll spot a hanging sheepskin or even a sheep itself, signifying a roadhouse where a typical meal will involve a spicy soup (chorba) or a salade mechouia, actually a spicy mashed mix of roasted vegetables or tomatoes, mopped up with a French-style baguette.
Main courses tend to be uninspiring lamb cutlets or chicken with fries or pasta followed perhaps by seasonal fruit. Other local dishes include Chakchuka (a vegetable stew topped with a fried egg), Merguez (a spicy sausage), Schwarma (marinated lamb kebab) and Mermez (mutton stew). One distinctive Tunisian food all should try is a brik; an egg fried inside a pastry. It's not especially tasty or filling, but it's unusual and very Tunisian.
In Tozeur and the other desert resorts you'll find the customary North African range of exuberantly patterned ceramics, leatherware, silver jewelry and brass ornaments. Of all these items, the colorful ceramics probably represent the best value as a souvenir. Carpets are also a local item, with the brightly colored and stylized ones from the Tozeur region vying with the more classical designs sold in the old Arabic capital of Kairouan.
The souks, or markets, are an attraction in themselves and all the more enjoyable in Tunisia because of the only mild levels of hassle experienced by tourists. The medinas of Tunis, Houmt Souk and Tozeur are all worth a day's exploration, should you find yourself in these places.
In December, Douz and Tozeur both host major festivals, however because the Muslim religious fast of Ramadan
is falling in December for the next few years, the festivals have been pushed
back to November.
At this time The Oases Festival of
Tozeur (Nov. 3-6, 2000) holds camel races and inter-camel wrestling, as
well as other Bedouin activities at a site just off Avenue Abou-el Kacem
Meanwhile, the Douz International
Festival of the Sahara (November 8-11, 2000) (see story) hosts more camel
wrestling, as well as traditional weddings, races, music, arts and crafts
exhibitions at a venue near the Hotel Saharien.
Note that the weather in the northern cities will be a lot cooler and possibly wetter than the Sahara south of the Djerid.
In 1999, the Swedish-built "MV Carthage" started operation, and it is as
modern and well equipped as you could wish. Most Europeans travel in first
class cabins: four berth affairs with en suite bathrooms and a sea view.
You have a choice of restaurants on board with reasonable prices and all in
all, you won't want to get off.
Arriving at Tunis port can be a
nightmare to the uninitiated. Sometimes immigration procedures are done on
board--it saves time, but means hours of exhausting queuing for one form and
another and frayed tempers.
For information on procedures for
If driving in the Sahara is your intention, Tunisia is the last choice. Compared to Morocco, the scenery is relatively undramatic and the tracks are poorly mapped and confusing. However, if you really want to get around on your own up to the Sahara, rental cars are available from airports and in the major resorts, but at around $400 a week and with gas at 25c/liter, they're expensive. Self-drive four-wheel-drive vehicles are in short supply from the main agencies and (quite rightly) it's forbidden to take ordinary cars off paved highways.
In addition to the Tunis airport, Hertz, Budget, Europcar and Avis all have locations in the Southern resort towns of Tozeur and Djerba.
VISAS AND OTHER OFFICIAL THINGS
No visas are required for North Americans or Europeans for staysup to three months (US citizens, four months) and immigration by air or sea is straightforward. If you're arriving by car ferry from Genoa or Marseille, things are a little more drawn out (see above). Desert permit from Tataouine If you plan to drive any further south than Tataouine, you must get a permit from the Tourism Board. To save days of shuffling about in bureaucratic infrastructure, it's best to apply in advance by telephone or fax (in French).
Monsieur Bechir Ali
Costs in modern Tunisia are relatively high compared to its neighbors, though cheaper than southern Europe. The current exchange rate is about 1.2 Tunisian dinars to a US dollar, with change available in any bank or bureau de change. Don't assume your credit card will be of much use outside the main tourist areas and big cities where you'll find the only ATMs. There is no black market.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Travel health in Tunisia is no more of an issue than it is in southern Europe and no inoculations are required. You may prefer to drink bottled water and should always avoid getting too much the sun. Tunisia is also probably safer than the tourist haunts of southern France and Italy. As ever, it pays to be alert for thieves and pickpockets in crowded cities and at beach resorts.
US State Dept Information Sheets
International communications are
straightforward. Mobile phones work over much of the country along with
reliable lines and postal services. The country code for Tunisia is 216.
Being a package holiday destination where
people try to get away from it all, cybercafés are relatively few and far
between, especially in the south.
Tunisian Tourist Office
Tunisian National Tourism Office
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