Sunny South Tunisia

Like a pale disk the sun rose from the sands surrounding the glorious oasis. The early morning sunlight, filtered by the palm trees, held only a memory of the fierce heat of the day before. Finally free of their burdens, her finely sculpted hand safe in his, they could start this new day dreaming of the future. He looked deep into her opal green eyes and decided to… hold it; this is supposed to be a travel story, not a Wilbur Smith novel!
…decided to get up and prepare breakfast. Sleepily he opened the roof tent, and climbed down to the back of the car to light up the stove. ‘Honey, want some tea?’ A grunt from above, followed by ‘Lemme sleep…’ indicated the ‘Allah Akbar’ of the muezzin had also rudely awakened her.

Sunshine, warmer temperatures and most importantly, no rain, since we started driving south in Tunisia. This has allowed us to start using our roof tent. The first weeks in Northern Tunisia were just too cold for comfort, and so hotel costs have taken a large chunk out of our budget for Tunisia. Thanks to our roof tent we are now free to sleep where we want. Not only does this marvelous piece of equipment give us the choice of what beautiful view we wake up to, it is also a safe place to sleep. And, having your bed on top of the car and not in a hotel means no more nagging doubts in the middle of the night: ‘Is the car safe?’, ‘Did you lock the doors?’ and ‘Oh **** I left the camera on the front seat!’

The landscape had changed dramatically along the way south, to craggy mountains, wide horizons and sand! Lots of sand! Along with the landscape the flora and fauna changed too, and we happily spotted our first camels in the wild. These incredible animals are a source of income for the local Bedouins, and a fun pastime for visiting tourists. Around Tozeur, an oasis town on the edge of the Chott El Jerid salt lake about halfway down Tunisia, there is ample opportunity for camel-excursions into the desert, sleeping in Bedouin tents and ‘fire-sitting’ (sitting by a fire we guess…). We found a perfect little camping on the edge of town, half in the palmeraie (date palm plantation), for our first days and nights of relaxation after the hectic roundabout of World Heritage Sites in Northern Tunisia.

Recuperated, even though the nights were still bitterly cold and the muezzin loud, we set out to discover the area. Three typical Wadi villages in the area are Chebika, Tamerza en Mides, where large parts of the movie ‘The English Patient’ were filmed. Beautiful gorges filled with clear streams feeding the small palmeraies where work is done by hand. On dusty tracks, weathered old men on donkey karts argue for room with entrepreneurs selling their tourist trinkets. Also close to Tozeur  is the movie set for ‘Mos Espa’, where a young Anakin Skywalker was found to have ‘unusually high levels of midi-chlorians’ according to Obi wan Kenobi in Star Wars Episode One. It is easy to drive some kilometers from the set into the dunes (with a capable car!). Set up your tent, sit by your fire and dream of Jedi Knights and Tataouine.

To the south-east of the Chott El Jerid, on the edge of the Grand Erg Oriental (a sand sea) lies Douz, another starting point for quick desert excursions. Although mainly a drop-off point for coach-loads of cruise- and resort-tourists, looking for a quick impression of Tuareg life including the inevitable camel-ride a few kilometers into the sand dunes, it is also the meeting point for serious off-road travelers. From here, a two-day piste (off-road track or set of tracks) leads to the oasis of Ksar Ghilane, also known as the ancient roman fort of Tivares, later a fortified stronghold of the Berber tribes in the 16th century. Hesitant to travel the 100+ kilometer piste to the Ksar without the back-up of another vehicle, we found the most unlikely pair of travel-companions on the local campsite.

‘Are you sure you are not French? But you have French number plates!’ was the question from high up out of the cab of the truck. As the truck was leaving the campsite, I had walked over to take a closer look at their awesome vehicle and waved them to a halt. They had been packing up their camping equipment from the moment we had arrived. ‘No, we are Dutch! Where are you heading?’ The ice was broken after several anecdotes of their earlier encounters with French overland travelers. Harry Sulak and Elk Ott were heading down to Ksar Ghilane, but only if they could find a back-up vehicle… afterwards they would travel through Libya to Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. Experienced desert travelers in their impressive 1970’s Mercedes 4×4 truck, we decided that we would tag along, and see where this encounter would lead.

After two days in the desert, travelling past some seriously large sand dunes and over some slightly smaller ones, a friendship had formed. Sharing food, drinks and fireside stories below a crystal clear starry canopy had shown Harry and Elk to be intelligent, funny, reliable and careful travel companions with a respect for the flora, fauna and culture of their surroundings. The two days to Ksar Ghilane also instilled in us a passion for the wide open spaces of the Grand Erg, and an understanding for the necessity of traveling with two vehicles. Knowing what awaited us in Libya, we arranged to hook up again across the border.

The experience of true desert travel is difficult to describe. On one hand the desolate wide-open spaces are the material of dreams and adventure, with the solitude and silence an inspiration for those fleeing hectic life. On the other hand it is also a lonely place. The silence is sometimes overpowering and tangible. The lack of background noise manifests like a thrumming in your ears, and the incredible size of the sky will remind you what a small place we occupy in this world. Though arid and hot, the sand seas are teeming with life, and the sound an ant makes as he upsets some grains of sand can be surprising. The emptiness will make you want to explore, to understand the nature of the Sahara. The incredible diversity of its many landscapes (it is most definitely not just a sandbox as some people think) is not easily understood, and most certainly not in two days. However, if it can inspire you as it inspired us in just two days, imagine what lingering here for a week, a month, maybe a year can do. A Tuareg saying goes that the desert cannot be described, but can only be lived.

The necessity to finish some bureaucratic business regarding our entrance into Libya, to update our website and some very dusty laundry brought us to the island of Jerba, a beguiling mix of sun, sea and sand. Though hot during the days, the chilly nights ensured it was still off-season. The cultural influences of the diverse ethnicities on Jerba, combined with her slow island-pace will have you constantly wondering whether you are in Greece, Italy or the Middle East. If possible, the people of Jerba are even more open minded, friendly and welcoming than their mainland brethren.

We decided to stay our last day and night in Tunisia in the amazing little Hotel Dar Ali, before the early morning drive to the Libyan border. The owner Carola greeted us in perfect English to our joy, and explained that before starting her hotel with her husband on Jerba 30 years ago, she had visited The Hague regularly. Her parents, British diplomats had been stationed there. Several hours happily chatting with Carola about Tunisia, her people, lifestyles, nature and culture completed the circle for us. Having only just penetrated the surface of true Tunisian hospitality, only barely discovered her rich and diverse history, and only glimpsed a minuscule fraction of the vast wilderness of the Sahara, made up our minds. We would return here in the future.  But first Libya, the impenetrable land of mysteries.