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TUNISIA — SAHARA DESERT ADVENTURE

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So seductive is the island of Djerba, that most visitors are tempted to spend their entire vacation here. A three-day journey into the Tunisian desert is a worthwhile endeavor.

Tunisian desert and palm trees
Tunisian desert and palm trees
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

From nearby Gabes, you can rent Land-Rovers, camels, guides, tents, clothing, water containers — just about anything you'll ever need for desert exploration. Packaged tours of desert villages are also available.

A Land-Rover is needed to cross the 100-kilometre-long Chott El Djerid (Salt Lake of the Palms). The glittering salt crackles like snow under the tires. The hot air distorts the landscape, giving the illusion of lakes and palm groves that recede as you approach. Over the centuries, similar mirages, enhanced by the burning salt, have led many caravans astray.

As you approach Tozeur, vegetation becomes sparse and roaming camels cross the road in front of you. Stop at Tozeur's Desert Zoo where you can feed a baby camel with a bottle of milk, or watch the zookeeper play with lizards, snakes and scorpions.

Star Wars film location

From Tozeur, a narrow road snakes its tortuous way up a rocky red canyon to the mud-brick village of Chebika. If the scenery looks familiar, it's probably because you've seen it before in the movie, Star Wars! Barely distinguishable from the tawny rock surrounding it, the stone buildings of Chebika cling to the mountainside like the notes of a long-silent chord. On our arrival, village children ran out to lead us by the hand through their garden — a tiny, but verdant oasis, formed by a spring.

A short drive further, followed by a hike through the imposing gorges of a wadi (a dried-out river-bed that catches the run-off from flash floods), you'll find the abandoned 18th-century Berber village of Tamerza and Sbeitla, the site of three spectacular Roman temples. Their buff-colored stone walls blush pale orange as the sun melts into the horizon. For the best sunset and sunrise views, spend the night at the hotel which overlooks the ruins.

Boy rides donkey loaded with baskets of hay in Nefta, Tunisia.
Boy rides donkey loaded with baskets of hay in Nefta, Tunisia.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Date palm oases and Berber horsemen

The most spectacular oasis in Tunisia is Nefta, a village of sand-colored dwellings overlooking 400,000 date palms, pomegranate, almond and apricot trees. Douz, another oasis village, is located southeast of the salt lake. Semi-nomadic shepherds bring their sheep and goats to the colorful market to sell or exchange for food, clothing and supplies.

In November, Douz holds a Sahara Festival, featuring shooting contests, dancing, feasting and a Fantasia with Berber horsemen performing acrobatics on galloping Arabian steeds.

Rent-a-camel

To see the desert much as it was meant to be seen, you must travel by camel. Rent-a-camel agencies are available in Douz and Nefta. Make your excursion in the late afternoon when the sun stretches the shadows of palms across the desert and gilds the sand in molten light.

Traversing the desert is like watching a movie in slow motion — a biblical epic where the characters and countryside seem straight out of another era: veiled women with tattooed faces and large silver earrings, turbaned shepherds watering their sheep at artesian wells, and a monotone sandscape punctuated with black Berber tents.

Riding camels to an oasis
Riding camels to an oasis
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Unable to make an excursion by camel? At least make a side-trip to Sabria, southwest of Douz. Here, in enormous dunes, rippled by the wind, you'll find palm trees, buried up to their fronds. Climb to the top of one of the dunes and listen to the desert winds. This is the Sahara — vast and overwhelming.

Underground homes

For some, the most fascinating desert village is Matmata. Hidden in the craters of a lunar-like landscape, subterranean dwellings house some 3,000 people. Only the television aerials give them away!

Family lives in underground dwelling in Matmata, Tunisia.
Family lives in underground dwelling in Matmata, Tunisia.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Years ago, Arab invasions drove the Berbers underground. Today, the cool, dark interiors keep them there. A tunnel leads to a courtyard surrounded by dug-out rooms for living, storage and animal shelters. Peeking into the open courtyards, eight meters below, one sees children playing, chickens scratching for insects and women weaving and hanging clothing to dry.

No tour of the Tunisian Sahara is complete without a visit to Chenini. Where does the village begin and the mountain end? It's difficult to say, for over 1500 Berbers live in grottoes tunneled into the top of this craggy peak. Sand-colored brick walls hide the entrances to homes, schools and stores. A narrow, winding path leads to a mosque at the top of the village.

Tunisian time-travel

From here, even with your eyes wide open, you can see the Tunisia of 900 years ago. Time dissolves as veiled women lead donkeys to branch-roofed stables, camels carry pottery jugs in hand-woven saddle bags and turbaned men play checkers with black and white stones in the sand.

Returning to Djerba, the modern resorts and topless beaches jolt you back to the 20th century. You may want to spend a couple more days here, enjoying the sun and sea before heading home. But you don't have to return through Tunis. All major European capitals are less than a two hour flight from Djerba. If you want to leave, that is.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Tunisian National Tourism Office: www.cometotunisia.co.uk

More information on Tunisia:

Tunisia - Food, Tunis Souks, Roman ruins, Djerba Beaches and Film Locations