The International Writers Magazine: Desert Trek
‘Sahara’ is the Arabic word for desert and in Tunisia there are three different parts: sand, stones and salt.
A two-day trip to see all three and ride camels as well was a chance that I couldn’t refuse so, as I was already in Tunisia on a week-long Easter holiday, I just had to sign up.A couple of days later saw a group of us eagerly piling into the coach (in the pouring rain!) before the driver began to thread his way through the morning traffic. Just outside Sousse the olive groves began. Olive oil is vital to the economy of Tunisia and whilst the main road south from Sousse is lined with houses, behind them are thousands of gnarled, grey olive trees planted in a regular checker-board pattern which was clearly discernible from the coach.
Two hours later we reached El Djemm which has the third largest amphitheatre in the World. Here we parked alongside the other coaches and like the other tourists we ran the gauntlet of the street traders.
“Finest scarves! You buy!”
“Look! Best material, very cheap…”
We hurried past, heads bent, until we found ourselves at the top of a wide semi-circle of steps. Towering above was a gently curving, golden sandstone wall decorated with pillars and tall arched windows. Although now incomplete, it was still impressive and the town snuggled up to its walls. It made a giant punctuation mark in stone in the middle of a flat, barren plain.
Once through the turnstile, I strolled through echoing passageways until I arrived in the centre of the arena where I saw that sadly much of the stone seating had been robbed away. Despite thousands of visitors, the site was immaculate: there was no litter and even the sand looked clean! It was hard to imagine 35,000 people crammed into this space; the noise of the cheering crowds would have been deafening. Under the arena were the cells for the gladiators and the animals. These would have been dark, fetid hell-holes stinking of human and animal excrement but today it was merely a tranquil haven of dappled sunlight.
On the move again, I saw villagers scrabbling to make a living. Some sold cheap Libyan petrol which they measured out with funnels and plastic piping whilst slaughtered goat carcasses and fly-ridden cows’ heads hung outside low whitewashed buildings. Oblivious children trotted to school; men relaxed in the shade; occasionally a woman scurried by.
Beside a dusty, brown-sand, terraced moonscape studded with stunted green trees, we stopped for a five minute break.
| This was the set for Tatooine in the film Star Wars and nearby was a troglodyte home similar to that used by Luke Skywalker. The house had been dug out of soft rock and the tool marks were still evident even through layers of white paint. Everything including cupboards, cooking platforms and shelves was either dug out of the rock or made of clay.
A bright striped curtain, hung on string, provided some privacy in the bedroom and bare electric light bulbs dangled from the ceiling; the vibrant fabrics, pictures and rugs provided relief from the unrelenting drabness outside.
Leaving the rock house behind, the road wound past deserted mud-brick villages to the stony desert. The ground rose and fell, sometimes gently, sometimes in sharp escarpments and amongst the rubble, small pom-pom like bushes struggled for a foothold.
Gradually, the stones shrank to pebbles, then gravel and finally sand. Our destination was the camel station at Douze and we entered the low, cool building to queue up for a loose zebra-striped over-garment and a lilac turban. Outside again, the sand blew uncomfortably into our faces so we covered our mouths and nose with a loose piece of cloth from our headgear. My spectacles held it in place; a crude but effective solution. But now we all looked the same and could only recognise each other by legs and shoes!
Lethargic camels, roped in pairs, lay in rows groaning plaintively; their legs were neatly and improbably folded underneath them. Behind each animal’s hump was a huge padded cushion which we straddled and then we grasped the handle of a small wicker basket in front. When the rear legs straightened, I leaned backwards before being jolted forward when the camel finally stood up. Its slow rocking gait was reminiscent of a gentle swell at sea – ships of the desert indeed. We travelled in small groups each supervised by a leathery-skinned local; sometimes we formed a long caravan like that favoured by the movie producers, but at other times we were just disparate groups seemingly wandering aimlessly. The wind whipped up the sand into a gritty mist but the camels continued on relentlessly. An hour later we were back where we started having passed undulating dunes, a grove of palm trees and several deserted mud-brick buildings.
The hotel was cool and inviting. Its vast entrance hall was lined with marble and had conveniently situated wicker seats and tables. Outside, the pool looked tempting but this was deceptive – it was so cold that it took my breath away. After only a few minutes of feeling as if I had been hit in the chest by a very large weight, I tried the indoor spa pool. This was at least warm but looked and felt like minestrone soup. After dinner, I strolled through Douze. There were few street lights to dim the bright stars and the silence was broken only by a whining motorbike and a barking dog.
||We were on the road at 5 o’clock the next morning and within minutes of hitting the main road out of Douze, there was an almost imperceptible brightening of the sky. Thirty minutes later, it was noticeably lighter and within the hour we were on the salt plains of Chott El Jerid, an inhospitable place where the road is almost the only sign of human habitation. The guide picked her spot carefully.
We were on the road at 5 o’clock the next morning and within minutes of hitting the main road out of Douze, there was an almost imperceptible brightening of the sky. Thirty minutes later, it was noticeably lighter and within the hour we were on the salt plains of Chott El Jerid, an inhospitable place where the road is almost the only sign of human habitation. The guide picked her spot carefully.
“Look!” she called and I turned to watch as a golden ball emerged out of the rosy glow illuminating the dark line of the horizon. The salt plains glowed pink but it wasn’t until the sun was higher in the sky that I could distinguish bright golden-brown rock, pale sky-blue water and coffee-coloured mineral ribbons. And over everything sparkled the salt crystals. Pulling my jacket around me to ward off the still cold morning air, I clicked away with my digital camera and collected a bag of the silkiest sand that I have ever come across.
After this, we coasted through the countryside and I dozed until we reached a small village lined with 4x4s into which we clambered. The taciturn drivers sped up a steep track to the oasis town of Chebika high on a plateau, its sheer cliffs rearing up abruptly out of the plains. Many of the buildings from the old Berber town had been washed away during a flood but now a new one was flourishing.
Ignoring the bustle of prospective salesmen, we strolled on a light dusty-brown sandstone path which accompanied a calm stream. Stunted palm trees with carpets of fibrous roots searched for water beside an olive green pool, their long feathery fronds offered little shade from the heat. Nearby, a green frog called loudly whilst behind a gentle mist, a small waterfall tinkled. Further on, a larger cascade sprayed the rocky path making it slippery. Now the walking got tougher. The steps were steep and interminable and the path became steadily more uneven. We crossed a precarious bridge before squeezing through a very narrow gap between two rocks. Here the plains unrolled before us whilst immediately below were the remains of the first village – the dilapidated walls clearly showing the different buildings but with no personal effects, it was hard to picture what it would have been like. On guard was an impressive prancing, curved-horn rock ibex carved out of the cliff.
We left Chebika and hurtled across the flat plains where we passed a flock of camels grazing on the tough vegetation. The Grand Cascade at Tamerza consisted of two thin streams of water which dropped some 20 feet into a gently rippling pool around which verdure seemed to sprout out of bare rock. By normal standards the Grand Cascade appeared puny and it took a few minutes for me to appreciate that I was seeing waterfalls in the desert! In a place which receives no more than three inches of water a year, this would mean the difference between life and death for anything or anyone living nearby. It made me stop and count my blessings.
||Next was the Tozeur oasis. Our transport was to be a metal-framed caleche with padded plastic covered seats and a bright fabric roof, pulled by one bored pony. My caleche was the last to reach the centre of the oasis because the wizened driver pulled up at a walled garden where he picked three fabulously scented, pink damask roses which he then presented to me with a toothless grin.
This oasis was a mini jungle. Towering banana plants with single dark-red flower buds dangling from hands of ripening fruit sat happily alongside date palms whilst running rampant were bright crimson hibiscus flowers and roses. It was cool and shady and the path underfoot was spongy from the fallen foliage. A young man scampered up a date palm as easily as if he had been climbing a ladder and showed us how the dates were harvested. There were plenty for sale as we left the serenity of the garden and emerged once again into the arid heat of the small town.
|Afterwards, the drive to Kairouan was long. Except in the bigger towns, there was very little traffic and the driver zipped past olive groves, prickly pears and cactus hedges until we reached the thriving metropolis which surrounds the Sidi-Uqba Mosque. This is considered to be Islam’s fourth holiest site and non-Muslims are not allowed inside so we viewed it from the roof of a nearby souvenir shop. The Mosque was made of the same blonde blocks as the other city buildings but their varying sizes clearly showed different phases of building.
Secreted behind high walls which were strengthened by enormous buttresses was a huge courtyard. This was surrounded by covered walkways constructed from hundreds of exquisite columns which supported gentle arches and over everything towered the minaret, easily the highest thing for miles around. Incongruously, bright fluttering bunting was fastened to its walls.
I made my way gingerly back down the narrow stairs into the shop admiring the colourful tapestries and rugs on the way. Then, yawning widely and nodding at people I recognised, I shuffled back onto the coach. Cigarette and nut vendors tried in vain to sell me their wares but I was too exhausted. Slumped low into my seat, I slept the rest of the way back to Sousse.
© Alison Reed 2010
ali_23_reed at hotmail.com