Our adventures to the Sahara
26.04.2012 - 28.04.2012
For most people, the Sahara conjures up an image of desolate beauty. Harsh winds blow across rolling dunes, seemingly devoid of life save a few hardy camels. A place where only the most fool-hardy would venture. An impenetrable barrier separating North Africa from the Sub-Saharan nations. In truth, the Sahara is all these things and more. Stretching out to the horizon the desert draws you in, playing upon your sense of adventure, tempting you to enter one of the world's ultimate wildernesses.
Of course, reaching the Sahara from the north of Tunisia is an adventure in itself. Our destination was the small town of Douz, the staging point for all trips into the desert. To start the day, we found our way to the local train station, hoping to reach Gabes (the nearest major city to Douz). We bought tickets heading straight to Gabes, and sat down on the long train platform. Our train arrived on time, and we found our seats quickly. This seemed all too easy. It was. Five hours later, in the city of Sfax, we were told the train was going no further. “The price of a revolution, trains can stop at any time!”. This was little consolation for us, looking like bewildered turtles lugging our backpacks through the train station. With 200km to Douz, and no chance of another train that day, our hopes rested on the staple of Tunisian public transport, the louage. A louage is a service taxi, travelling back and forward between cities. The vehicles themselves, old white Peugot vans, have seen better days. Comfort has been sacrificed for extra seating. The fare is low, and the price comes with complimentary high speeds and dubious overtaking manoeuvres! But, despite all this, they offer a fast and efficient means of travel. Just what we needed. We jumped into a vehicle headed for Gabes, and waited for enough passengers to get the journey going. Once the van was crammed full we set off. Speeding along the road gives you a different view of Tunisia to the one you get on train, even if all you come away with is a grasp of Tunisian road rules, or lack there of! We arrived in Gabes within an hour, and were faced with finding a second louage to Douz. We walked through the station, our ears pricked, until we heard what we needed. “Douz! Douz! Douz!”, the driver shouted in between bites of his hamburger. We hopped in and we were off. We finally arrived in Douz almost 12 hours after we had left, exhausted but relieved, though our behinds were a bit bruised. Louage seats are definitely less comfortable after the first few hours.
Douz is nothing more than a desert outpost, a drop of civilization touching the vastness of the Sahara. Everything in Douz is covered in a fine sand, almost silt like, which fills every crack and crevice. Gusts of wind blow through the streets, lifting the fine sand particles up into the air and forcing people to turn away or cover their eyes. It felt like the edge of the world. Without any desire to stay in Douz longer than necessary, we organised a trip leaving the next day out into the desert. Our driver picked us up from our hotel the next morning and took us into the desert. With pop music blaring through the car speakers, he sped us out through the dunes, dodging shrubs and the odd camel. At first, the dunes were infrequent, small and insignificant, but as we delved deeper the land slowly transformed into the rolling sand sea of the Grand Erg Oriental. Drive a few minutes into the Erg and you lose yourself, unsure from where you've come and little idea where you're going. We drove further and further, until all we could see was sand. Suddenly in the distance we spotted a small swathe of green, contrasting against the red and white sand. The green was Ksar Ghilane, an oasis in the middle of the Grand Erg. The waters of the oasis have been confined to a small pool, fed by spring water, which makes for fantastic relief from the desert heat. However, as you enter the oasis the illusion of desert isolation is suddenly shattered. Ksar Ghilane is the closest and most convenient rest stop in the Tunisian Sahara, and every tourist, 4x4 enthusiast and general desert lover ends up there. It feels more like a resort than an oasis. We attempted to re-immerse ourselves in the desert, and procured ourselves some camels to travel back into the desert. We rode almost an hour, until we reached the Ksar (fortress) which gives Ksar Ghilane its name. An old Roman fort, the view of the desert from atop the walls is spectacular.
Now it's easy to write a blog and simply skip over the less exciting parts. After all, nobody wants to read about the boring day you spent getting lost or sitting around booking flights. But a special mention needs to be given to our second destination in the Tunisian desert. We left Ksar Ghilane by the nearby tarmac road (another thing that slightly spoiled the illusion of isolation!), and were dumped by our driver in Matmata. The old town of Matmata has been inhabited by the Berber's for hundreds of years, and is known for it's interesting troglodyte architecture, which the Berber's used to escape the oppressive desert heat. More recently it stepped into the spotlight as the set of Star Wars, being used in both the original 'Star Wars: A New Hope', and the more recent “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”. We had read a bit about the site and we were expecting the most kitsch place we had ever seen. We wanted to buy a lame Star Wars t-shirt, or a fake “Luk Skywalker” doll, whilst we explored some interesting underground architecture. In truth, Matmata is nothing more than a tiny town with a few old holes dug into the hillside. Most of the troglodyte homes were caved in and filled with rubbish. The few that were in tact have been made into rather shabby budget hotels. And the Star Wars merchandise? “Only in America!”, our rather lacklustre local guide told us. We arrived in Matmata around noon, and by 3:00pm we were back at the hotel, unimpressed, dissatisfied and generally disappointed. To make matters worse, the only bus out of the town left the next morning. It was a very long afternoon. I hate to complain, but lets just say Matmata was not our favourite destination.
With Matmata, our desert experience ended with a bit of a fizz. Although being out in the rolling desert had been exhilarating, and riding a camel across the dunes had been a lot of fun, we felt like we hadn't really got the most complete experience. Perhaps with a few more days in the desert wilderness we could have been immersed ourselves further. Nevertheless, the Sahara is still an inspiring place. An untamed, and untamable, wilderness of sand and sun. Definitely worth an extended visit. Just don't go to Matmata.
Some observations from the Sahara:
1. A camel ride isn't the most friendly on the groin!
2. No matter how good your sense of direction is, you will feel lost in the Sahara.
3. Sand will get into everything. Everything!