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

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Sport
Steven Fletcher scores the second goal for Scotland
cricketBut they have to bounce back to beat Gibraltar in Euro 2016 qualifier
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans is the favourite to replace Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing