Tunisia: Not just deserts

Travel across Tunisia's sand dunes on camelback or 4x4 and you'll discover fertile oases, bursting with life, and natural pools where you can cool off and relax, says Terri Judd

Zied Marzougui uncovered the couscous laden with peppers and meat with some ceremony. Already, on this, the festival of the 27th day of Ramadan - the Night of Power - we had broken the day's fast with fresh dates, a yoghurty drink, a spicy harissa-laden soup, olives and the traditional Tunisian brik pastry with egg.

I tasted the tender meat and inquired whether it was lamb. "Non, dromadaire," replied my host. Taken aback, I turned to his amiable, round-faced mother to ask how long it took to cook. A mere 30 minutes she replied, her youngest sons giggling unfairly at her broken French, as it was a "baby". Momentarily, I felt a pang of guilt as I thought of Maurice, or to be more precise his three-year-old brother Sultan. It seems I had started off the day riding a camel and ended it eating one.

My placid dromedary and I had met shortly before sunrise on the edge of the Saharan Grand Erg Oriental, near the oasis town of Douz. His good looking owner Fraj simply handed me the reins. Not, I suspect, because he could see a natural camel racer in me but simply because he was confident Maurice was unlikely to make a break for the Libyan border. Demonstrating the rebellious streak of his teenage years, however, the Arabian camel broke free from the crowd and - to my eternal gratitude - strode purposefully away from the din and chatter of my fellow tourists.

As the dromedary - little Sultan in tow - rocked silently through sand as soft as icing sugar, only Fraj's soft singing broke the silence. On what my companion bluntly described as the worst cloud-covered sunrise he had ever witnessed, the darkness slowly drew back to reveal an eternity of undulating dunes broken only by a pair of date palms - a scene of complete stillness. As we stopped for a break, Fraj picked crystalline "desert roses" from the sand and explained that in a few days' time, after Eid ul-Fitr, he would head deep into the Sahara.

"Pas de touristes, seulement les dromadaires et les étoiles," he said sombrely. He was the first Tunisian I had encountered not to swear that British tourists were a gift from god. I liked him for that. I contemplated what a serene mental detox it would be to spend a week drifting through the dunes on the ships of the desert, the stars providing the only night viewing. As if reading my mind, Fraj cautiously conceded that sometimes they took small groups of foreigners.

The lure of the desert proved intoxicating, but reality beckoned in the shape of Sahnoun Nafti - our charming history scholar and guide on our more modern-day 4x4 Saharan safari. We travelled over the Chott el Jerid salt lake - a legacy from the time when the Mediterranean flooded low lying Africa only to retreat to the Gulf of Gabes. Legend has it that 1,000 camels were once swallowed up below the crust of salt in a land so harsh it seemed to us that no life could survive without an air-conditioned, four-wheel drive Land Cruiser.

We crossed through the salmon-pink lunar landscape of the southern Ksour, where the Troglodytes fashioned cavernous homes underground, and on into the rolling dunes where crystals sparkled in the sand and jagged mountains sprung up suddenly from the featureless landscape. At times, the only other life around was herds of camels - so ornery and odorous in captivity yet transformed into majestic beasts in their natural habitat. Periodically we would spot the odd nomad, inhabiting camel hair and reed homes with their floppy-eared goats.

Our drivers provided a roller-coaster ride, speeding up dunes only to pause, perched precariously over the drop, before racing down. Once we just stopped - Arabic music blaring from the stereo - and danced in soft, ankle-deep sand like virgin snow. And then there were the southern oases - Chebika with its waterfall and cobalt blue ponds populated by small emerald frogs and scarlet dragonflies, and Tozeur where the date palms groaned with fruit in gardens resplendent with figs, pomegranates, limes, bananas, peaches, peppers, chillis and hibiscus.

The spartan, silent terrain in between only served to emphasise the richness of the watered enclaves and the bustle of the small towns where everyone from Romans to French Legionnaires once lived. At Douz's weekly market, old men clad in hooded burnouses or flowing robes picked through everything from spices to truck parts - bartering and gesticulating as they went. The fresh, sweet golden dates of the region - deglet nour or fingers of light - spilled out in mounds, while the heads of camels and sheep hung forlornly from hooks as the butcher deftly dissected their carcasses. The Tuareg people drifted amid the jostling human sea, head and shoulders above the rest, piercing brown eyes peering through the electric-blue turbans they wrapped around the lower parts of their faces. A horseman, the image of an Arabian knight swathed in black threaded with gold, trotted past.

"Why is he dressed like that?" I asked Sahnoun, presuming there must be some festival planned. His face a picture of bemusement, he replied: "Because that is the way he dresses." I pointed to the array of nomadic outfits and asked him to tell me which were the Berber or Bedouin. He laughed. Everyone was simply a mix, he said, of the bloodlines of countless invaders - not to mention the French colonialists who departed with independence in 1956.

"That is why we are so tolerant," he explained cheerfully. It was no idle boast. In a Western world that so rarely places Islam and tolerance in the same sentence, the southern Tunisians were a perfect and eternally generous example. Throughout Ramadan they happily proffered food before sunset. Refusal was greeted with profuse insistence that they would not dream of denying someone of another religion. Even the young insisted pragmatically that it was simply their tradition, they saw no harm in a month of abstinence but equally no reason why non-Muslims should follow suit.

Only once did I spot our driver, 22-year-old Zied - "Tunisia's Schumacher" by day and dutiful son by night - glance longingly at a cold bottle of water I was supping in the midday heat. The incident resulted in a comical exchange of abject apologies from both sides. When the sun went down, the small towns would almost shiver with glee as their residents prepared themselves for another night of revelry and little sleep. And so I came to break the fast on the 27th day - the night the Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation - with Fadila Marzougui and her family (from her 80-year-old mother Chahla to her four-year-old grandson Aziz) in Tozeur, a collection of ochre-coloured buildings with unique geometric patterns.

After far too much food, I drifted into town with the men of the family, past brightly-lit stalls and mosque minarets decorated with fairy lights. We sat in the square and drank the local coffee - heavily sweetened with condensed milk or topped with pine nuts - and smoked honey or apple shishas as the waiters buzzed around bearing silver trays laden with red hot, perfumed coals. Local men - in a town famous for its lawyers, poets and wit - arrived to be greeted like long lost friends before settling down to animated discussions, punctuated by laughter.

My trip took in the intricate beauty of the Great Mosque in Kairouan and the grandeur of the Roman coliseum at El Jem, but the greatest treat was the small Saharan towns with their delightful, dignified and easy-going people. In Tozeur, they eye the money flooding into the coastal tourist resorts up north with some jealousy. Already several westernised hotels have been built in the "zone touristique" on the edge of town, a golf course is planned and they are quick to insist that the airport accommodates international flights, albeit not directly from the UK. With reservations, I wish them luck.

Perhaps I do them a disservice and they will not allow this latest horde of invaders to taint the magic of their land. But, just in case, I would suggest visiting before the convivial local café in town discovers that pizza and beers are more profitable than sweet coffee and shishas and the Tuareg take up caddying.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled with Panorama Holidays (08707 582518; www.panoramaholidays.co.uk). The four-day desert safari by air-conditioned 4x4 costs £155 per person, full board. It must be booked as a supplement to a seven-night hotel package such as a week-long stay at the Hotel Dar el Andalous in Port el Kantaoui, starting from £259, including return flights from Gatwick to Tunis, transfers and seven nights' B&B accommodation. Tunis is served by GB Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Gatwick and Tunisair (020-7734 7644; www.tunisair.com) from Heathrow. Regional departures are available with Air France (0870 142 4343; www.airfrance.co.uk) via Paris Charles de Gaulle. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Tunis, in economy class, is £3.05. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

MORE INFORMATION

Tunisian Tourist Office: 020-7224 5561; www.cometotunisia.co.uk

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