Saharan flavours: You'll get more than just deserts

Whether camel trekking across the Sahara or relaxing at thermal springs, Tunisia has something for everyone - especially travellers with a sense of adventure who want to get off the beaten track

It was a scene straight out of
Lawrence of Arabia. To the right and left of our camels were plump dunes, tinted gold in the late afternoon sun. Disappearing jerkily behind us was the oasis with its thermal spring. Ahead, the smudge on the distant horizon was our destination - Ksar Ghilane, a Saharan fort already in use by the Romans before Christ was born. Of course, by rights, Michael, my 14-year-old son, and I shouldn't have been on the camels. We were bone weary and should have been having a relaxing swim at the oasis in the warm natural pool created by the thermal spring.

It was a scene straight out of Lawrence of Arabia. To the right and left of our camels were plump dunes, tinted gold in the late afternoon sun. Disappearing jerkily behind us was the oasis with its thermal spring. Ahead, the smudge on the distant horizon was our destination - Ksar Ghilane, a Saharan fort already in use by the Romans before Christ was born. Of course, by rights, Michael, my 14-year-old son, and I shouldn't have been on the camels. We were bone weary and should have been having a relaxing swim at the oasis in the warm natural pool created by the thermal spring.

It had taken nearly a day's driving to get us here from our base in Djerba, a small island off the south of Tunisia. The last 70km had been spent slewing off and on "road" in our four-wheel drive Toyota through an alien desert landscape that belonged to another world. Which is presumably why George Lucas chose it to represent Luke Skywalker's home planet, Tatouine, when he filmed Star Wars here.

Even the name belongs to one of the local Berber settlements. But, hey, how often do you get to go to the Sahara and ride into the sunset on a two-hour camel trek to inspect a second century fort in the middle of nowhere. We could be tired another day. So that's why we were perched on a pair of walking step ladders, our heads and faces swaddled against the sand-laden wind, eyes peeping out of our Arab headdresses. Our guide was a man on a donkey who spoke Arabic and a tiny bit of German, so conversation was out. The magnificent silence was punctuated only by the rather loud moaning noises my camel made, until I realised I didn't need to lean down quite so hard on the pommel of the saddle to stay on.

Far to the east I swore I could hear massed hedge trimmers. Can you have aural mirages? No, it was quad bikes disappearing in the distance. It took an hour to get to the fort, which is in remarkably good shape considering how long it's been around, but then you don't get much rain here. The roof has gone, but we walked through rooms which looked like they could have been barracks and grain stores. Above doorways, Roman lettering was still visible. From the highest point you could see for maybe 50km, with the oasis we had come from being the only feature in a landscape of undulating sand, tinged red by the setting sun.

We loped steadily back to the oasis through failing light and rapidly cooling temperatures. The oasis is named after the fort and consists of a lot of trees, the pool and a couple of tented "hotels". One of these has luxury tents with full en suite and electricity. We were staying in the budget one. Our tent was less Millets more Berber. It was a thick brown blanket draped over tree branches, a floor of sand and the door was missing, so there was a handy entrance for the local insect population. Nine mattresses lay cheek by jowl, there were toilets and showers in a block nearby and the light arrived when lovely Haddad, who had driven us here from Djerba, appeared with a candle. It was late in the season so only the mosquitoes shared our tent.

Our simple dinner consisted of lamb and couscous and Tunisian wine followed by pomegranate seeds. It was taken at a stone table - all of us wrapped up in trousers and jumpers, in the cold, starry desert night - with Magid, our wonderful, English-speaking guide. Unless you speak fluent French, it is essential to have an English-speaking guide or it is hard to get the best out of your visit. This is a country with a French past, where French has common currency with Arabic, and where English is barely spoken.

The night we were at Ksar Ghilane, a dozen or so French people arrived by camel train. The rest of the guests consisted of half a dozen Swiss bikers, who had ridden all the way there, and a party of Germans. They were on a Trans-Sahara race in enormous four-wheel drive vehicles, complete with a collapsible microlight to fly the sick and injured to safety if necessary. They might have needed it that trip. They had been caught in a sandstorm the previous day and were still missing some of the other participants.

We woke before dawn beneath our scratchy blankets and walked the few yards that divided the oasis from the desert. Shivering with the cold and scratching our mosquito bites, we watched from the top of a dune as the sky lightened, flies dive bombed us and low-flying birds dive bombed the flies. Patches of pink appeared and then suddenly, just when we thought we could stand the cold no longer, the sun was there and, within seconds, too bright to look at.

Then it was time for a quick cup of coffee and a sort of biscuit and we were off, bouncing and slithering across the dunes. The journey back to Djerba took us across a desert which was once the floor of an ancient ocean.

They have found dinosaur remains here but precious little water. The region is on the same latitude as California so if they could irrigate it they would be laughing. As it is the population is small. Nomadic groups of Berbers still wander from well to well with their sheep and goats and the rest live in Berber villages such as Matmata, where many of the houses were carved into the rocky hillsides centuries ago.

They were invisible then to attacking Muslims as they are invisible now to the passer-by. But time is gradually catching up. We went into one of these hill houses where the women were still grinding corn to make bread but where the teenager's stone bedroom was adorned with posters of Bruce Lee and Tunisian football teams. Homework books were lined up on a shelf, which had an adidas towel hanging from its corner. A television sat on top of the Tunisian flag. Satellite dishes are beginning to feature in this harsh landscape.

The area is still fairly remote but it is gradually being opened up to tourism by road construction, and there are some small hotels dotted around. We ate a superb three-course lunch in one of them for less than £2 a head, so you could easily spend more time exploring the wider area. There is a vast salt desert further to the west at Chott El Jerid, for example, where mirages are 10 a penny and you can buy natural crystalline "desert roses".

Combining a trip like this with some time on Djerba, as we did, gives you the best of both worlds. A few days on the beach based in a luxury hotel with the excitement of roughing it (a bit) on a desert safari. It makes you feel intrepid. Just don't forget the mosquito repellent and the French dictionary.

Oh, and a sense of adventure.

Wendy Berliner travelled with Wigmore Holidays (020-7836 4999). A one-week holiday, staying at the five-star Sofitel Palm Beach Palace in Djerba, starts at £599 per person for seven nights half board, including flights and transfers. For further information on the hotel, call Accor reservations on 020 8283 4500 or visit www.accorhotel.com.

The safari was a two-day private tour with a driver and English-speaking guide to Ksar Ghilane in the Sahara Desert from Djerba. Booked locally from Carthage Tours, the cost is £50 per person.

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