The landscape certainly did change as I proceeded south to Tataquine (Tah-tah-ween’)—proceeded very slowly, I might say, as I arrived at the Sfax louage station at 8:00 A.M. and the louage didn’t leave (didn’t have the required 8 passengers) until 12:20. Then it was a four hour drive although that included one potty break; a stop so the driver and most of the passengers could buy pomegranates and dates from roadside vendors; then a detour to accommodate a passenger; and then finally, Tataquine.
In this rural desert town I saw much more traditional dress, even among some of the young-middle aged people. And while the town didn’t have many attractions, I had come to see the Ksour around Tataquine.
Ksour (plural for ksar) are old time Berber villages built high up on limestone outcroppings for grain storage and fortification. The houses were partially cave-like (cool in summer). Most of them are now abandoned. They have three or four storey graneries in the middle of the village as the hot, dry climate preserves the grain that they raise.
I decided to take my chances with a camionette (like a louage but local and a pickup with covered back instead of a van) to visit the Ksour and hope for the best about getting a ride back to Tataquine.
In the camionette going to Douiret, there were two 18 year old girls that could speak a tiny bit of English and we had such a good time interacting. They both gave me their addresses before they got off in teeney, tiny villages along the way. One was with her grandmother who was wearing a red traditional dress and had tattoos on her face.
When I got to Nouvelle Douiret I asked the driver (signs—no English) to take me the two extra km uphill to the ruined old village—the ksar—which he did. Then we negotiated (more signs and writing of numbers) for him to pick me up in one hour, take me into the desert, then to Ksar Auled Debbed and then back to Tataquine. When the hour was up, of course he hadn’t returned. Now what? My plan was, if necessary, to walk to the new village and find the 18 year old girl that had gotten off there. However, just then, my guy showed up after all, we went for our jaunt into the desert—gorgeous scenery and we did go to one small dune—and then on to Ksar Ouled Debbab. Along the way he stopped and picked up many passengers who got on and off—one gave me some dates. We also stopped for a few minutes in several tiny villages. This really is the back of beyond and the most fun of anything!
Then for dinner that evening, I was armed with some info that I had gotten from a young Belgian over breakfast. Apparently in spite of Ramadan, a few restaurants are open for a brief time just after sundown. So at 5:15, about a half hour before sunset I found a modest local restaurant that looked like it was getting ready to open. I waited around and was beckoned in. There were just a few men there and I was directed to a table. A waiter took my order—I understood ‘soup’, ‘Tunisian salad’, and ‘poullet roti’ which is rotisseried chicken. I said yes to all three (!) In the meantime many men piled in—most sat at a long table in the middle. There were no women present except me. I recognized one man as the louage driver from the day before and we shook hands. Actually I don’t think I was supposed to do that but—.
The soup was put in front of me and then in front of each man, along with French bread. We all waited with great anticipation—finally we heard the ‘boom’ signaling sundown and we could begin eating. Many of the men brought in fruit which was shared with their tablemates.
The soup (chorba) was terrific, the Tunisian salad turned out to be a ‘briq’, a pastry filled with veggies and an egg and deep fat fried, then a quarter chicken, fries, and excellent salad. The bill? Three dollars. As suddenly as we had all assembled, everybody dispersed and the restaurant closed by 6:30.
The next day, more louages—one to Gabes and then immediately one more to Matmata. Right after I had booked a hotel room in a troglodyte hotel (underground) I ambled down the street for a walk about. A woman stopped her car, jumped out and said she was surprised and delighted to see a tourist woman alone. She was also traveling alone, but with a car, so she thought she would stop and talk to me. Her name is Inge, she’s from Germany and near my age. She is on a three-month trip, having driven through Italy and ferried her car from Sicily to Tunisia.
We walked about the town together, seeing the sites including the bar in the Sidi Driis hotel where a Star Wars episode was filmed—the area around Matmata was Luke Skywalker’s home planet. We decided to share my hotel room, and then we went driving around the area, visiting a troglodyte house with its own camel-driven olive press, and a Berber museum, also underground.
Having a car does give one more freedom to do just this. We went on to Douz, arriving about noon. Inge camped in her vehicle in a campground and I stayed in a hotel.
Douz is kind of a gateway to the Sahara and south of here about 140 km is where the Sahara scenes in “The English Patient” were filmed.
I got up early Thursday morning to see the weekly market. The animal market was stupendous with hundreds of sheep and goats, a dozen camels, two dozen horses, mules and burros, four head of cattle, chickens, turkeys, and two rabbits in a basket.
Most brought their animals in pickup trucks but some used donkey or horse carts which were parked in their own area. The market was held in an enclosure under the date palms so we all had shade and a nice ambience.
The animal market was well under way by 6:45 A.M. when I arrived, and closed up shop completely by 11:30. I was told that people come from very far away the day before and so have to leave by noon to get home before nightfall.
The next two days so far were the highlight of my trip. Inge and I arranged a two-day trip on camels into the Sahara. Early Friday morning we drove to Zaafrane where our journey started. Our guide loaded the camels and then we got on. For those of you who have ridden a camel—you know how this goes. The camel kneels down with all legs tucked under. I get on; then the camel lifts his hind legs and gets on his back knees—phase I. During this manuver you are thrown down and forward and, while hanging on for dear life, you do think you’re going head over teakettle over the camel’s neck. Just at the crucial moment the camel straightens his front legs and this sends you backwards (again hanging on for dear life) until you’re looking at the sky—phase II. Phase III commences then with the camel straightening his hind legs full out so that, lo and behold, if you haven’t fallen off, you are now sitting, semi comfortably, astride a very tall camel.
We traveled for two days, sleeping out under millions of stars with a 3/4 full moon. The sand dunes on both days were awesome. My guide book quotes somebody as saying, “The Sahara cannot be described but must be lived.” It was so beautiful—those majestic, perfect dunes, as far as the eye could see, the solitude, the sculpted, pristine, white, rippled formations that the camels were striding between, over, and around and there were more and more and more of them.
Our guide cooked four meals for us including baking damper bread twice which is cooked directly in the embers of the campfire. We had pasta with potatoes and onions and lots of pomegranates. The trip was supposed to be 50 km but I don’t think we traveled that far.
The downside? The flies, especially the second day, were really bothersome to us and to the camels, and yes, I did get a sore butt but not nearly as bad as other times that I have cameled. For me, it really was a unique experience that I won’t soon forget.
I shall spend another day in Douz and then move on to Tozeur–Inge will be going elsewhere. We really enjoyed traveling together these days. I will miss her, but encounter other travelers, no doubt.
I hope you’re all fine—