Without Nadia’s dramatic intervention, I may have restricted my travel through Tunisia to the country’s famed Northern cities and tragically neglected on visiting the South. Fortunately though, Nadia’s self-invited participation in my journey and her dictatorial command of the itinerary resulted in us discovering probably the most appealing region in Tunisia. The South is sparsely populated and it features a variety of intriguing dry landscapes. The isolated Berber communities of the region have built unique structural forms and created distinctive architectural motifs. Vast salt “lakes” and sublime mountain ranges abound while the mighty Sahara sweeps over most of the territory. Exploring the wonders of this area was certainly the highlight of my Tunisian experience.
Prior to Nadia’s emphatic and relentless campaign of coaxing me to travel South, I had never previously heard of the town of Tozeur (a diabolically embarrassing oversight in my supposedly thorough preparations). Tozeur is an unusual but very pleasant rural town located in the South-West of the country and very much isolated from other cities. The urban fabric is widely dispersed across a vast area, which is understandable since there is no lack of space as Tozeur is surrounded by effectively utter nothingness. While Tozeur does not boast any buildings of historical significance, the town’s unique architecture is quite intriguing. The buildings are composed of pale cream bricks and some of the bricks exude from the façades to form geometric patterns. The town is surrounded by an immense and lushes palmerie that was much more densely packed with trees than the oases I visited in Morocco. The most fascinating attribute of Tozeur though was the town’s collection of ATM’s, as one plays music for its customers and another apparently takes toilet breaks when it signals, “back in a few minutes”.
We joined a day tour of the nearby villages of Mides, Tamerza and Chibeka, all of which were abandoned in the late 1960s after a flash flood rendered their structures uninhabitable. Also on the tour were an old Kiwi couple and American Bryan (his claim-to-fame is having started the first internet café in Ecuador in 1997; although by 1999 there was a café on every corner so he was forced to leave). None of us could comprehend how the floods could so catastrophically destroy these communities, since the villages were situated on slopes or minor peaks above the valley floors in this mountainous area. Nevertheless, their skeletal remains and their surrounding palmeries formed picturesque vistas within the vivid landscape. The arid region is composed of dramatic mountains, gorges and jagged rock formations that exude a multitude of colours including creams, oranges and reds. Most beguiling was its existence beside the endless monotony and flatness of salt lakes. The group had the opportunity of hiking between the first two towns through Mides Gorge. The locals convinced us that we required a guide, though that was unnecessary since it was virtually a casual stroll through the flat and sandy terrain of a dry river bed which featured an obvious route. We also visited a serene waterfall that contrasted substantially with the surrounding dryness.
Nadia was delirious with excitement and anticipation that we would be seeing the gargantuan salt lake of Chott el Jerid in Tunisia, which was the fundamental motivation for her ambition to send us South. Nadia had the misfortunate of being in Bolivia during one of the rare occasions when the salt pans there were inaccessible; while on the tour in Africa, the Makgadigadi Pans were flooded. Third-time lucky was the theory, but my impression was that the salt lake was as monumentally uninspiring as Carthage considering the build-up. We viewed Chott el-Jerid from the minibus we caught between Tozeur and Douz, which travelled along the causeway that bisects the vast lake. The Chott is relentlessly and almost unimaginably flat, although the appearance of the surface changed intermittently from smooth earth to dry and cracked mud. In the heat of the day, the salt crystals can initiate mirages that are occasionally sighted on the horizon. Disappointingly though, the surface of the salt lake wasn’t utterly covered in salt crystals as expected, it was only peppered with them (pun intended).
In Douz, we arranged our overnight excursion to an isolated oasis in the Sahara. After consulting several dodgy establishments, we settled upon an agency unusually operated exclusively by sub-Saharan Africans (I was just intrigued to see people of another ethnicity working in an essentially mono-cultured society, particularly in the South). This was when Nadia provided perhaps the most comical moment of our trip, during the briefing of the excursion with the manager. He explained that we could select between two routes to reach Ksar Ghilane and utilised the Tunisian map to outline them, which was clearly demonstrative of the huge distance we needed to cover. One of the routes traversed sand tracks across the desert dunes and Nadia unwittingly asked whether that was “on camel-back?” A deafening silence instantly transpired in response to the ludicrousness of the question. The manager and I exchanged glances, as I was sympathetic to his requirement to answer the diabolical question while he was sympathetic for me to be stuck with someone that would make such ridiculous queries. The answer, obviously, was “No. That would take five days.” Our driver actually claimed it would take six. The most befuddling aspect of that event was that the manager did not seem amused at all, as we descended into hysterics. Another amusing experience in Douz was our lunch in a local restaurant, where the shopkeeper pulled the most bombastic and fascinated expressions in response to our nationalities and other answers.
We collectively agreed that the highlight of our trip through Tunisia was the four-wheel drive journey to Ksar Ghilane (on the route with sand tracks). Immediately after departing Douz, we were surrounded by a flat landscape that was covered in fine white sand, which made it appear as though we were driving through an endless beach. Since we were driving through windy conditions, particularly during this early stretch, the sand was blowing all over the place which created quite a surreal spectacle. The desert quickly changed to a sea of relatively small and undulating sand dunes as we entered the imperious Grand Erg Oriental. Only around one-ninth of the Sahara is composed of sand dunes, although that still equates to a larger area than every country in Europe excluding Russia. “Ergs” are the Desert’s massive seas of dunes and the Grand Oriental is one of the Sahara’s largest. The tip of the Erg covers the entire far south of Tunisia and it extends deep into the massive territory of Algeria. For me, it made Erg Chebbi in Morocco seem infitisimal as I could at least see the edges of the erg from the top of a dune. On the track to Ksar Ghilane, we were definitely able to have a superior appreciation of the unrelenting endlessness the Sahara can exude. We arrived at the mirage-like Ksar Ghilane in the late afternoon and surprisingly found the oasis featured all modern amenities including bars and mobile-phone reception. Nonetheless, Ksar Ghilane provided tranquil environment of lush palm trees and exceptional views over the Sahara’s dunes.
No trip to Tunisia would be complete without visiting at least one of the country’s numerous Star Wars locations, although I was slightly ambivalent about bothering despite being a moderate fan of the franchise. After Ksar Ghilane, we departed the Sahara and drove through arid and rocky scenery. Within this mountainous landscape are the underground houses famously used for the home of Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars scene. We visited one which was carved from the side of a slope and featured a courtyard with “holes” surrounding it that led to cavernous rooms. In the town of Matmata, we also spotted several crater-like holes, which of course turned out to be more Berber houses. These featured circular courtyards which the below-ground rooms connected to with small openings.
Tunisia continued to deliver in the culinary stakes. On the road to Tozeur, we enjoyed a selection of ultra-sugar-loaded but ultimately delectable sweets, such as the previously mentioned makhroudh, baklava, triangle pastries with nuts, a soft cake-like dessert soaked in rosewater and honey as the filling among others. I assumed that Tunisia would just be a sample of sweet things to come in the Arab World, but Egypt has failed dismally to replicate Tunisia’s high standards. On our first night in Tozeur, we had a delicious and richly flavoured stew that was cooked in pot with the lid sealed in wax. The stew consisted of lamb, camel (not particularly special, just chewy), vegetables, rosemary and a tomato-based sauce. On the second night, we ate the best meal of the trip through Tunisia. For entrée, we had a simple yet amazing Tunisian salad of tomatoes, capsicum, garlic and olive oil with fresh bread and harissa. We then shared chakchouka, the best dish in Tunisia and a Berber specialty of the South. It consisted of chicken, chickpeas and a rich sauce that was served with a savoury pancake. We also had a delicious stew with salty fish, chickpeas, beans and lentils. In Douz, I had another brilliant couscous dish with lamb and a spicy sauce. Part of the four course meal we had in Ksar Ghilane was a different version of brik, which was like a deep-fried samosa.
Thus concluded what I would define as the southern component of our trip in Tunisia. Once more, I should reiterate that my sarcasm regarding Nadia should be taken with a grain of salt (I would claim that that’s a pun) as we had heaps of fun on this leg of the journey and probably laughed the most since the Africa tour.
That’s all for now,
PS I hate Hawthorn.