Take a journey into the Tunisian Sahara and discover a land of mountains, sand dunes and movie sets, writes Nick Elvin
SEVERAL miles away, across the vast, flat salt pan of the Chott El Gharsa, the morning sun catches the slopes of the Atlas Mountains.
Camels graze in unison on the scrub, while above them the warm, blue sky gives no hint that this is in fact winter. It is not the stereotypical rolling sand dune view of the Sahara, but in this barren corner of Tunisia there is more than enough beauty.
My tour group is travelling across the Chott El Gharsa, on a straight, flat road that eventually begins to wind upwards to meet the canyons and outcrops of North Africa’s most famous mountain range. We reach the oasis of Chebika, where tourism has arrived, but not yet in a big way. Still, salesmen are on hand to try to flog us jewellery, amethysts, encased (dead) scorpions and desert roses, which are not flowers, but a gypsum crystal that grows in abundance in this arid land.
We run the friendly gauntlet of sellers and descend into a palm-filled gorge, arriving at an idyllic pool where an unseen frog chorus croaks. In the water, their offspring have already passed the tadpole stage.
From the summit of a nearby hill, we get a view of the crumbling walls of a nearby abandoned village, and out over the salt pan. Large oases of palm trees break up the dusty landscape.
Leaving Chebika, we drive to the Grand Cascade, a reminder that the desert is not completely dry. The waterfall is impressive, given the arid nature of the land around it. Salesmen here seem to stock everything from fossilised fish teeth to that unlikely of desert traveller’s accessories, birdcages.
Our journey takes us past the watchtowers of the Tunisian frontier with Algeria, before we stop for a hearty barbecue lunch on the terrace of Tamerza Palace Hotel. It offers a grandstand view over the ruins of the old town of Tamerza, which was washed out by flash flooding and abandoned in 1969. The new town is built, sensibly, on higher ground.
After lunch, we head off-road in our 4x4, passing shepherds and their flocks and skirting the mirror-like lakes and mud of the salt pan. Our driver, Mourad’s navigation of the desert is nothing short of expert, and it is not long before he has found us some large sand dunes to drive over.
We arrive at an isolated village, whose small, rounded buildings look strangely familiar. Nobody seems to live here, and, in fact, the houses are made of fibreglass, and are empty apart from wooden supports.
This is one of the film sets that was used in the Star Wars films, for Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine (which takes its name from the Tunisian town of Tataouine).
Unfortunately, we don’t have time to dwell here. Unlike in those movies, only one sun is setting over this desert, and we now have to head at light speed to catch it descending over the dunes near Nefta.
We arrive at the perfect time – camel tracks cut across the rippled sand, the light is warm and a gentle breeze ruffles the sparse clumps of vegetation. The sun sinks to the horizon, reflecting on the wispy clouds to give red sky at night.
Little wonder then that next day is warm and sunny. From our hotel in Tozeur, we head into the centre of town to tour the medina. Once a wealthy trading post, much of Tozeur bears a style of yellow brickwork that is peculiar to the town and pleasing to the eye.
A shopkeeper invites us to climb up to his roof, from where we can look across the skyline, which is dominated by a minaret. Back inside the store, I have my eye on a jalaba, a hooded cloak worn widely here in the desert and suitable for wearing in both the hot sun and on cold nights. I haggle one down to about £20.
In another shop, a man proceeds to wrap a scarf around my head. When I look in the mirror it is revealed as a tagelmust, the distinctive turban of the Sahara. “Berber,” he says pointing at me. I get it for a couple of pounds, having used the bargaining method of taking it off, shaking my head and starting to walk out of the shop. As they say here, “a customer who leaves is a customer lost”.
It is soon time to get back into the desert, this time on quad bikes. We set out through the busy main streets of Tozeur, then reach the edge of town via its potholed back roads. A goat herder stops his animals and waves, to wish us safe passage through the Sahara, much like his forebears would have done to the camel trains of the past.
We spend an exhilarating hour speeding along the dusty tracks and negotiating steep sand dunes, stopping our engines occasionally to enjoy the silence.
It is our final encounter with the Sahara on this trip, and part of me wants to keep going – to ride all the way across the desert. Or maybe I’ve been in the sun too long.
TUNIS AND CARTHAGE
You could combine a trip to the desert with a couple of days’ stay in the Tunisian capital, Tunis.
Head to the modern centre of the city and you can follow the wide, tree-lined Avenue Habib Bourguiba, with its French colonial architecture, to the medina, a World Heritage Site surrounding the Great Mosque.
The passageways of the medina were built narrow, making it almost impenetrable to invasion – for the first-time visitor it is hard enough to tell apart the stores.
You’ll find leather goods, silver, carpets, jewellery, silk, dates, pottery, perfumes, and lots more. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, it’s fun looking round.
A few miles outside Tunis is the ruined city of Carthage, one of the country’s most famous sites.
Legend has it that upon their arrival on the Tunisian coast, Queen Dido and her followers were allowed to settle in an area no bigger than a cow’s hide.
But rather than choosing to live cheek by jowl on a piece of land of picnic blanket proportions, the resourceful Phoenician monarch proceeded to cut the skin into thin strips, which she stretched out to enclose a space large enough to accommodate an entire city. Whether you believe the legend or not, that city, Carthage, grew into an important Mediterranean trading post, and capital of this part of north Africa for 1,500 years.
Following its founding eight centuries BC, a number of civilisations had a go at capturing Carthage, including the Romans, Vandals, Byzantines and Arabs. Carthage was eventually swallowed up by the soil, and the ruins now sit shaded by pine trees, among hills that are dotted with some of the area’s most desirable housing.
The remains of the Roman baths, theatre and mosaics, and, in the museum, excavated pottery, statues, jewellery, coins and sacrificial items offer a fascinating insight into Carthage’s history.