Tunisia, the desert comes to life

Salt lakes, sand dunes, gorges and canyons cut into the stone, palm oasis, mesmerizing mirages, houses carved into the rock, film sets, nativity landscapes… And the peoples of the desert: sedentary and nomadic, on camel or horseback, getting together in Douz for the International Sahara Festival, a gathering for an exceptional cultural heritage.

35.000km2 of the Grand Erg Oriental, the immense ocean of sand dunes shared with the neighbouring Algeria, are located inside Tunisian territory, between Nefta and Tozeur, Chott el Djerid and Bordj El Khadra. These are not very high dunes, 200m at the most, and at some points this sea of sand finds its harmony disturbed by rocky valleys. A very scarce vegetation, basically bushes, is home to insects, arachnids, snakes and the peculiar fennecs, the sand foxes.

We’ve come to the threshold of the Sahara to explore the Tunisian desert, its landscapes and culture. We stand on the ancient border of the Roman Africa Proconsularis, far away from the beach hotels and the country’s most notorious archaeological sites – like the legendary Carthage and the remains of their Roman butchers. The Roman footprint, though, reaches this far out, with the Tisavar Fort, near the oasis of Khsar Ghilane, which was once part of the Roman defensive line and invites us to ponder under a palm tree about the communication and defence logistics of such a vast empire.

But this trip is focused on Berbers, Bedouins and the nomadic peoples still living in modern Africa. Like the M’razuigs, who arrived in Tunisia on the 13thC. Today, and since not long ago, its near 50.000 members follow an almost sedentary life style – even though they still come out herding from time to time, around Douz. Our guide, Med, tells us the modern name of the city built on this historic oasis, and ancient caravan stop in Roman times, derives from the French word Douzième –the French set up the base for their 12th battalion here during the colonial era.

Nowadays Douz’s economy is based on tourism and dates – the fruit of the 500.000 palm trees growing in the oasis. Of the 250 existing varieties, the most valued is the Deglet Nur (meaning “finger of light”), appreciated for its texture and not excessive sweetness. Tunisia is the main exporting country of dates, tamera in Arabian.

The city is also famous for a very important event, the International Festival of the Sahara, which has been held for more than 50 years now around Christmas and which offers a mosaic of all aspects of the daily life of the nomadic peoples of this massive desert shared by 10 countries. They come with their camels and horses especially from neighbouring Libya and Algeria, although in some editions they have had participants from Mali and Niger. The Tuareg, for example, who were salt merchants, left Tunisia for neighbouring countries in 1963 after compulsory schooling and ID documents were implemented by law. They can be spotted by their dark blue scarf wrapped around their heads in a very distinctive manner.

Around 30.000 Bedouins live in the South of Tunisia, near Qafsa, north of Chott El Djerid. Nowadays they are divided in two groups, the “true” Bedouins, still nomadic herders, and the farmers, known as fellahin, who lead an austere and sedentary life at the edges of the desert. The ones with herds lead a seminomadic life, going into the desert for the rainy season in winter and coming back to the edge in summer. They speak Badawi, a variety of Arabian. The base of their cooking is a dairy product made with camel and goat milk named ghee. They wear light coloured clothes covering their whole body, hands and feet to endure the desert’s heat.

The Douz Festival is a display of traditions which takes on all aspects of life in the desert: tribes, oasis, agriculture, caravans, dance, clothes, crafts, traditions, music… It is held in several locations in town. The big Hanish esplanade is the centre of parades and Sahara daily life scenes, like hunting with hounds (of the Saluki breed), shepherding or camel and horse races. The Souk becomes the location for mehari beauty pageants (meharies are the fast and light dromedaries) and Berber traditional singing around a big bonfire after the sun sets – there is live music every evening on the city’s hotels during the festival. Other locations include the M’himed Elmarzougui cultural centre, offering exhibitions and poetry contests, or the Sahara Museum.

The art of carpet selling

We cannot visit the beautiful arcaded Zouk square without buying some souvenir, like a pair of balgha – the traditional slippers made with three types of leather (dromedary, cow and lamb), arguably the best shoes to walk in the desert -, a traditional headscarf to wear Berber style or a carpet. If you’ve already visited Arab countries you’ll know shopping takes its time. First, the seller – ours was named Chokri – will show us the goods. In our case we are interested in some carpets, so he brings us several with different colours and patterns. It is a difficult choice as they are all gorgeous, decorated with the traditional geometrical Berber patterns. Once we’ve made our choice, we go inside the shop to start negotiations sitting around a low table sipping some mint tea. When all parts have reached an agreement – which may include adding some piece to the lot both by buyer and seller, deal is closed. It is a ceremony that allows neither for rush nor grumpiness.

Camels and Quads

The tourist activity in Douz revolves around the desert. A trip to the dunes and some of the continental oasis in the area by hiking or riding – a quad, a camel or a 4WD. We choose the quad one afternoon to explore the dunes on the outskirts of Douz at sunset. Attired with our Berber headscarf to avoid swallowing dust we take a short tour following our guide. We stop to enjoy the landscape and to observe the little beetles striving up and down the sand. They seem curiously attracted by our presence. A light breeze lifts a fine layer of dust against the golden light, it is almost hypnotic. The desert seems to convey a special quietness. It is a pity we must go back to town but we are not too sad for tomorrow we are sleeping in the desert.

A night in the desert

One of the highlights of a desert trip, the experience that allows us to begin to grasp the immensity of the landscape and totally switch off from civilization is to spend a night in a desert camp. We drive, crossing a stony wilderness in our 4WD, to Zmela Labrisse, at the edge of Djebil National Park, a few kilometres away from Ksar Ghilane oasis (very touristic with a natural thermal spring).

The camp is rather basic, with austere big white tents furnished with a couple of beds and blankets – which I can assure you are going to be very thankful for by the end of December when the 20 comfortable degrees of noon plummet after sunset. There are toilets, showers, a dining room and a fenced area around a bonfire the cook uses to bake bread in the traditional style burying it under coal and sand. It is a nice moment that gathers all hosts around the fire.

Don’t expect any luxury and prepare yourself to keep getting rid of the thinnest sand from your shoes for days. What you can expect is to find it spotless, because in spite of austerity the maintenance of the site is imperative.

Getting there early in the afternoon, with a nice temperature, allows us to settle and enjoy the change of colour in the surrounding landscape and sort of a bumpy sunset when our 4WD gets stuck in the sand as we try to get away from the camp to catch the last light. Nothing that cannot be solved with a bit of help. These things happen in the desert. At night we are lucky enough to get the last full moon of 2018 that lights the dunes allowing us for a night hike in search of fennec footprints with no need for a torch.

The generator that lights the camp is switched off at 11, but actually, by then people have been under the blankets for a while. A bit after 6am we are already up to see the sunrise, have breakfast and go on our trip across the desert landscapes of Tunisia. We are heading for the mountains, toward the buttresses of the Djbel Dahar range, to discover the traditional Berber architecture.

Ksour and troglodyte houses excavated on the rock

A ksar – which means “castle” – is the typical Berber village, with adobe houses bind together alongside a wall. These ksour (in its plural form) are usually located in oasis and defensive strategic positions on top of hills – to defend them from raiders in the past. One of their most distinctive, and representative of the Berber architecture, features are the collective fortified granaries (ghorfas) several stories high, an amalgam of windows, doors and round shapes which remind us of a beehive and which are perfectly integrated into the surrounding arid landscape. We visit 13th C Ksar Hallouf, on top of a hill overlooking the valley, the surrounding mountains and the village at their feet.

This type of Berber structure looks familiar thanks to its presence in several Star Wars movies. And it is not the only traditional construction appearing in the films, which also made the Matmata troglodyte houses famous.

Built by Berber tribes running away from the coast, conquered by Arabs, during the 12th and 13thC, the Matmata houses are carved in the rock. They are distributed around a central patio of about 5 to 9 metres deep, from which tunnels spread to be used as rooms or to link to another patio in the most complex dwellings. The shelves, the closets, the sits and event sometimes the beds are also carved, like the steps to get to spaces or chambers on upper levels when available. An entrance tunnel leads outside from the central patio, usually in a slight slope to drain the water.  The door is protected by a drawing of the hand of Fatima or a blue fish – a pre-Islam symbol to ward off evil spirits.

Up to the independence of Tunisia, in the 50s, there were around 800 troglodytic houses. But with time people have slowly abandoned them for more comfortable options (they have neither electricity nor running water) and they are kept as museums or reconverted into hotels now. The first one we visit, a small one with a single patio, is still the home of a woman and we can ascertain her living conditions, really tough for us. Very basic and austere. It is understandable for new generations not wanting to live like this.

Our second visit is the Sidi Driss Hotel, much bigger with three patios, one of which was used as a location on the first and fourth Star Wars movies, and the owners kept as a tourist attraction. We get to recognize the Skywalker farm and the door to Mos Eisley canteen – where Luke met Han Solo.  

For the other famous Star Wars location we need to go past Tozeur. To that end we must cross a salt lake of 4500km2.

Chott El Djerid

A road built in 1979 by the army crosses Chott El Djerid (The lagoon on the land of Palms), the largest salt lake in North Africa, shared with neighbouring Algeria. In truth it is not a lake but a chott, a saline basin, 15m under the sea level and mostly dry. It only holds water permanently in the central area and although it can retain some water in its borders when it rains it quickly evaporates exposing salt, a product exploited by Sahara Salt.

Chott El Djerid offers the conditions for the occurrence of a type of mirage known as Fata Morgana, an optic phenomenon caused by thermal inversion which alters the vision of objects on the horizon so they seem to levitate in a ghostly manner. At some point in the chott we can see the salt layer covering the ground. We can also find the remains of derelict boats, which, over the whitish ground and with the distant mountains on the background, paint a surprising landscape with an apocalyptic feel. Crossing the Chott is an experience. It is worth stopping and stepping on its surface, to savour its quietness. It is an unforgiving and fascinating wilderness.

Before the building of the road, that needs constant maintaining as the terrain dissolves due to the erosion caused by phreatic waters, the nomadic caravans used to cross it following certain routes which, in winter, after the rains, could be flooded. Sometimes you can see herds of wild camels roaming or flocks of flamingos on the flooded areas in spring. Or some peculiar elements, like an abandoned rusty bus that according to our guide was left there after being used for a film or the Last Homestead set from Star Wars.

Tozeur: dates, mountain oasis and film locations

At the other side of the Chott we reach Tozeur, the capital of Djerid, the ancient Thusuros – a border trading post in the Roman way linking Biskra and Gabès, from where dates and slaves were traded. It remained an active trading centre for caravans reaching its high point on the 14thC.Tozeur is a natural continental oasis of 20km2 with more than 500.000 palm trees (there are three kinds of oasis in Tunisia: maritime, continental and mountainous). The land here is divided in plots among the families who exploit this ancient palm grove. The oasis offers vegetables, fruit trees (mainly citrus, even though the moors introduced bananas when they came here after the fall of Granada in 1492) and dates. This is the reason tangerines and oranges with dates are served everywhere as desert. Thanks to an ancestral system of irrigation designed by Ibn Chabat on the 13th C each family has an allocated time for watering, measured with a gadusse (jug) which works as a water clock. A water tribunal sets the number of jugs per week per family. When the time is up the canal must be closed for the next family to use it. Each family follows a strict schedule. The plot is inherited by the son who works it better.

We visit one of these estates, Eden Palm, property of the Chokmani family, who grow dates and make products like jam and date and chocolate spread. In their land we have the chance to discover the clever resource used to create building material. In a land with no forests, the dead palm logs are dried inside the salt lake. As you may know, palms are not trees but plants and their trunks are fibrous. But the salt condenses the fibre and solidifies it turning it into something similar to wood. A palm can live up to 250 years.

Tourism and trade are the economic pillars in this city of 100.000 inhabitants. One of the features that catches the eye in Tozeur is the traditional architecture of the houses, with exposed ochre coloured brickwork set in geometric patterns, the same we see in carpets and rugs, and reliefs. It is also a birdwatching destination thanks to the 160 species of migratory birds stopping by the oasis.  

The best of Tozeur, for me, is to be found outside the city. We drive, first, toward de mountain oasis to explore an amazing landscape which reminds us of the traditional nativity scenes we set at Christmas, with the adobe villages and the palm trees.

To get there we need to cross Chott El Gharsa, another salt chott of 200km2.

The Mountain Oasis

We climb about 600m into the desert range of Djebel el Negueb, at the border with Algeria, on our way to 3 oasis. An important fact: an oasis must have date palms to be considered an oasis by Bedouins. Our first stop is Mides. This small oasis was already known by the Romans and it is located by the narrow 3km long gorge of Seldja, carved by a small stream for centuries. Wedged between the rim of the gorge and the palm grove, we find the remains of the old village abandoned after a river flood in 1969 devastated the area. Did I mention it looks like a Nativity, right? And of course, we are a few days from Christmas and my mind is unconsciously going there all the time.

A few kilometres from Mides, beyond the village of Tamerza, also abandoned after the flood, we take a turn for the Gran Cascade– in another, wider, canyon we climb down to a waterfall. Here we find other tourists and local visitors, some souvenir stalls – headscarves, desert roses and food- and the occasional camel.

But without a doubt the most interesting of the three mountain oasis is Chebika. The town, also abandoned in 1969, was an ancient Roman post named Ad Speculum before turning into a Berber shelter. The Romans used mirrors to communicate with other nearby posts and warn them of incoming caravan. A trail treads into the gorge leaving behind the palms and following a stream, passing by small waterfalls and bridges and stone steps until it reaches a turquoise blue pond. From here the trail goes up to a vantage point abruptly leaving the vegetation behind. The top offers us a wonderful view of the contrast between the aridity of the general landscape and the greenery at the bottom of the gorge. A trail climbs down to the old village, that can be accessed passing a narrow pass between the rocks. We cross the abandoned streets down to get back to the starting point of the trail where we will find some souvenir shops.

We leave the mountains behind to go back into the chotts. By the road we can see the traditional Bedouin houses made with dried palm logs.

Mos Spa Spaceport and the English Patient

Crossing a barren wilderness we reach a col over a vast sandy extension that unfolds toward a distant rocky barrier of mountains rising on the horizon. A dirt road gets down to this big plain where we come to a curious rock formation, named Ong Jmal, meaning the camel’s neck. An amazing mirage can be seen from the foot of this rock, a big round hill that seems to levitate over a layer of water in the distance. You just need to walk a few metres up the trail that leads to the top of Ong Jmal for the illusion to disappear. The hill loses its mysterious aura in the middle of the desert lands surrounding it. The secret of mirages is that they can only be seen from the ground.

Ong Jmal was the location for some scenes of The English Patient, directed by Anthony Minghella. To film this movie released in 1997 they had to build the dirt road for the vehicles to carry all the crew and equipment. At the end of the shoot, it was named Imperial Road Saul Saentz, in honour of the film’s producer.

Here we find a few tourists and some stalls. A young man approaches us with a fennec on a lead like a dog.  He offers us to take some pictures with it in exchange for money. We decline, of course. It is a tiny cute little thing with very big ears – which act as a ventilation system to dissipate heat. The boy leaves the fox in the ground and it runs toward the stalls. Like a little dog.  

From the Camel’s Neck we cross an extension of dunes with our 4WD –it would be impossible with a normal car; the way is like a rollercoaster, we climb up and down the sand and take curves in dubious angles like only a 4 wheels traction vehicle can without overturning. Our driver is showing off. We reach the top of a high dune, a small valley opening at our feet with what it could be easily confused with a village. It is not.

The Mos Espa Spaceport was built at the start of the 70s by George Lucas for Star Wars. It is quite scruffy even though along the years it has been restored a few times to shoot some episodes of the saga. We are back in Tatooine (we had already been there in Matmata) and we make the most of it by taking a thousand photos because this does not happen every day… except in Tunisia. The truth is they could make a better use of the site. Probably, if the film had flopped it would be half buried in the sand by now.

We climb another big dune, at the other side of the valley, to enjoy the sunset over the desert. I take my shoes off and I walk on the cold sand. A line of fennec footprints remind me the desert is alive, even though it may not look like it sometimes. The sun sets and the dunes bathe themselves in golden light, first, before taking on a red hue. My last sunset in the Sahara. For now. The desert has a special magnetism that entices you to come back.


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