Travel, Explorer Guide to Tunisian Sahara
EXPLORER GUIDE: Tunisian Sahara
Text and photo by Chris Scott
The best way to appreciate the Sahara is strolling quietly alongside a camel, known to the Arabs as “The Ship of the Desert” for both its swaying gait and its load carrying ability. Following your taciturn guide through the dunes of the Grand Erg Oriental (Great Eastern Sand Sea), you soon slip into the rhythm of a desert journey: rising at dawn and resting in the full heat of the early afternoon, at the evening camp the beasts are hobbled to limit their grazing range as you slump down and prepare a tiny pot of mint tea.
The 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.
Here the dunes of Algeria’s Grand Erg Oriental spill over the border and smother the southwest of the country in unbroken waves.
Camel 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.
For a small country you’ll find extraordinary diversity, including some of the finest Roman ruins and early Arabic cities on the Mediterranean. Furthermore, if you’ve visited northern Morocco, Egypt or India, you can relax with the laid-back Tunisians whose ‘hard sell’ with tourists is so mellow you almost feel they’re ignoring you!
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.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, the town hosted a thriving slave market; the unfortunate individuals were brought up across the Sahara with other goods by Tuareg-led caravans. To this day the black-skinned people of West Africa share an age-old and mutual animosity with Arabs and Tuaregs who exploited their liberty for centuries. The town has evolved from this 1000-year-old trade into Tunisia’s principal desert resort. Because of this, it lacks the charm of sleepy oasis villages like Douz.
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.
The windowless walls are constructed of the region’s distinctive ornate brickwork whose geometric patterns are mimicked in the carpets you’ll find along Avenue Bourguiba, the main drag.
Tunisia caters primarily to beachside package holidaymakers who take off on an excursion inland when endless swimming and sunbathing gets a bit dull. All the beach resorts on Djerba and even those as far north as Monastir offer so-called desert safaris, which usually begin with a visit to the troglodyte pit-dwellings in Matmata. One rock-hewn bar here was the location for the famous ‘cantina scene’ in the original Star Wars movie. Read about it in GoNOMAD Lodgings articles.
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
The small town of Douz, 100 miles west of the coastal city of Gabes, is Tunisia’s camel HQ. Situated on the eastern edge of the vast Chott el Djerid salt lake, Douz, calls itself “the Gateway to the Sahara”.
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.
Local Camel Tour Operators in Douz
Les Amis du Sahara
(216 5) 472177
(216 5) 470178 Abelmoula Voyages
(216 5) 470282
Tunisia’s best hotels are situated on the coast to cater for the package holiday market. Inland, and especially in desert villages, accommodation still has some way to go to close the gap. Basic rooms are available for as little as $5, and from $20 upwards you’ll be sure to get an en-suite room with (hopefully) functional plumbing and maybe a fan. Above $40 you can be sure you’ll get air conditioning and a pool.
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.
Douz Hotel 20 Mars
(216 5) 470269
Centrally located near the louage station and market. Modest hotel built around 2 courtyards. Very clean and friendly. Rooms from $US 15 double.
(216 5) 470057
Fax: (216 5) 470313
Zone Touristique. Kasbah décor within lush oasis. Rooms from US $70 double
(216 5) 470481/471088
(216 5) 471589
3-star luxury hotel situated at the end of the Zone Touristique near the Ofra Sand Dune. Nightclub, 2 pools, hot springs. Rooms from US $80. Matmata Hotel Sidi Driss
6070 Matmata Ancienne, Tunisia
(216 5) 230005
Troglodyte hotel that served as Luke Skywalker’s home in Star Wars.
Check out GoNOMAD’s Lodgings articles.
Ksar Ghilane Pansea Ksar Ghilane
phone or fax (216 5) 900521
Check out GoNOMAD’s Lodgings articles. or Tunis office
fax (216 1) 846129
Luxury tented hotel with pool in the dunes. $105/ double.
*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 Chabbi. 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.
Check out GoNOMAD’s Happenings listings.
If you’re planning to visit these festivals book hotel rooms in advance. WEATHER Autumn and spring are the most comfortable seasons in the Tunisian Sahara. Winter nights are rather too long and cold to enjoy, while from June to August temperatures inland are far too hot for comfort. Today’s weather in Tunis
Note that the weather in the northern cities will be a lot cooler and possibly wetter than the Sahara south of the Djerid.
There are no direct flights from North America to Tunisia: you must fly via a European airport. Currently both British Airways and Lufthansa connect New York and Tunis via a 3 or 4-hour flight from London or Frankfurt. Fares range from around $800 for low-season weekday departures up to $1300 for a weekend in the high season. You may also fly from Europe or Morocco to Tunisia on Air Tunis or Royal Air Maroc. Because Tunisia is the premier North African seaside holiday destination for Europeans, inexpensive charters from London are available.
If you plan to bring a car from Europe, the best way is to cross on a ferry from Europe. Boats leave almost every other day from Marseille in southern France and Genoa, 200 miles further east in northern Italy. Both crossings take 24 hours, but prices vary by up to 30% for what is often the same boat, with Genoa being less expensive.
Booking, especially in the busy period up to and including Christmas, should be done well in advance. Prices from Genoa for two people and a car (including cabin, but not meals): 4560FF ($684). Prices from Marseilles for two people and a car including cabin but not meals:5790FF ($900). If you aren’t bringing a car or motorcycle, it’s definitely cheaper to fly. People expect rusty old banana boats chugging across to Tunis port, but nothing could be further from the truth.
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 Tunis ports:
London W1U 9DB
Tel: (44 020) 7491 4968
Fax: (44 020) 7491 3502
Alternatively you can try emailing CTN ctn.com.tn in Tunis for routes lines from Marseille or Genoa: firstname.lastname@example.org
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
Syndicat d’Initiative Touristique
Avenue Hedi Chakeur
Tel: 216 5 850 850
Fax: 216 5 850 999
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. Check out:
Embassy of Tunisia/Tourism Board
1515 Massachusetts Ave
Washington, DC 20005
Tel: 1 (202) 862-1850
Fax: 1 (202) 862-1858
Tunisian Tourist Office
1253 McGill College, Bureau #655
Canada H3B 2Y5
Tel: (514) 397-1182/0403
Fax: (514) 397-1647
Tunisian National Tourism Office (ONTT)
1 Ave. Mohamed V, 1001 Tunis, Tunisia
Tel: (216) 1 341 077
Fax: (216) 1 350 997
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