Finally we had got settled in Tunis and by November 2003 we were ready for our first trip into the country taking advantage of the Ramadan holiday. I’m not sure why, but we chose the Jerid area – an arid land in the South West of the country. The guide book description hardly makes it the most romantic of getaways, “The Jerid is an arid land of bare pink hills punctuated by mining towns and sporadic oases – villages built around springs and deep gorges stretching to the Algerian border”. Having said that, it also said the oasis towns were good to explore including the popular tourist resort of Tozeur and this is where we headed first.
The bus to Tozeur was old but comfy, the seats having plenty of legroom and the quiet Arabic music wafting down the aisle added to the sense of relaxation. Snoozing was the best thing to do as the landscape was desert scrub and flat interspersed with rather scrubby looking villages. The six hour journey passed fairly quickly but I got rather peckish at one stage and had to very sneakily nibble at a packet of biscuits as it was during Ramadan. Arriving at Tozeur we quickly got a taxi to our hotel, the Residence Karim where once in the room we devoured our packed lunch.
We then headed off into the oasis which actually started right across from the hotel. In fact it seemed that the town was built totally in the desert and the oasis was entirely devoted to agriculture. There were loads of blokes passing by in pony carts laden with “golden fingers”, the famous Deglet Nour dates. Everyone seemed very friendly as we received plenty of “bonjours” from the locals. All the women were covered up in black cloaks with blue bands, the typical dress of Nefta women in the area.
In town itself there were lots of carpet shops but by 5.30pm the streets emptied as the Iftar cannon went off leaving the shops still open but deserted. We thought the old quarter was rather disappointing, I’m not sure why, as was the Belvedere with its 3 camels and a shack selling the ubiquitous desert roses. However, the saving grace was a decent view of the oasis and desert stretching into the distance. That night we had a decent meal in the Restaurant De La République.
The following day we got to the louage station pretty early as we knew transport was at a premium and it might take us a while to get to Tamerza. We were right. Although a full louage left just as we arrived we had to wait another hour and a half before the next one filled up. The trip was quite interesting. We headed north across one of the salt flats, or Chotts for which the area is famous. And then, out of the sandy haze, emerged a low pink range of mountains at the base of which was another oasis town – Chebika. From here we zigzagged up the mountains, which are right on the border with Algeria. Descending down the other side we got our first views of Tamerza, a green smudge nestled below pink hills.
Tamerza town was the usual hodge podge of cement and breeze block houses with quite a busy little centre. We went in search of the waterfall – this turned out to be through the grounds of the abandoned Hotel des Cascades. There was a small stream at the base of a small waterfall. My diary notes that it was in a not unattractive gorge but I didn’t take any photos so it couldn’t have been that great! There was also a small cafe overlooking the scene but was closed because of Ramadan. We walked back into town to the Tamerza Palace Hotel where there was a great view across the dry wadi to the abandoned town of old Tamerza. Apparently these mud and stone built house were abandoned in 1969 after torrential floods. Here I did take some photos. The hotel itself also looked quite nice, with a pool etc but we seemed to be the only people there except for the man who served us a lemonade (big hotels generally don’t have to observe Ramadan).
Wed 19th Nov 2003
The following day we were at the Louage station again and this time we had to wait two and half hours for a louage. This time we headed south across the main Chott, Chott el Djerid. So very flat and featureless except for the odd stall selling desert roses. Interestingly the guidebook said the area saw loads of tourists. There were tourist shops in Tozeur but we had seen few. It was the middle of winter I suppose and pretty cold but I wouldn’t fancy coming here in summer! In fact at this time of year in addition to the cold it was now drizzling and very grey. Anyway, we eventually arrived in Douz and booked into the Hotel 20 Mars. They’d obviously just renovated the place as we found ourselves in a brand new room, lacking in charm but spotless. My diary noted that it was my favourite town of the area, the centre actually looked finished – there were no building sites or vacant lots or half finished places and the town square /market place looked authentic and had a bit of character. This is where Jackie eyes fixed on a small collection of carpet shops. We held off on purchases for now. That night we dined at the Les Palmiers restaurant. My diary notes we had the same thing as the previous night which was probably lamb couscous. We also noted there were a whole load more tourists, especially Italians. Maybe they were there for the market as we were. I know that it was a popular spot for bikers as the restaurant had loads of photos of motorbike rallies.
The animal market was great, a seething mass of goats, sheep, camels and the accompanying interesting old blokes selling them. And of course the accompanying sounds and smells. The main market had the usual collection of things including leather shoes which were famous in these parts and here, is where we finally made the carpet purchase. After a long period of battering, which me and the seller loved, but Jackie not so much, we got one for 81TD (40GBP) and as I write this 17 years later (!!) it is still going strong.
After the market we were lucky to immediately hop into a louage headed for Zaafrane. In contrast to Douz, this was the ugliest town we had seen. But the best part was that just where the houses ended there was a great expanse of desert – the great Sahara. We checked into the Zaafrane Hotel (25TD each for a bungalow). As there was no one else there it was curious that we were shown the bungalow which was furthest away from the main hotel building. We headed across the road and into the desert. It was somewhat surreal to be wandering into the desert in the cold with a steady drizzle coming from leaden skies. We did see a camel train in the distance. Had it come from an exotic location deep in the desert or was it a party of Italian tourists? We shall never know.
The small village itself was rather scruffy but we did see one house had a plot of fenced-off scrub no different from any other area. On closer inspection it was a large, low mound covered in holes – it was a rabbit warren. The following morning the rain had cleared and we got much better views of the dunes but we were off again.
Today we actually caught a bus – to El Faouar – even further into the desert and yet another half finished ugly town. But it was market day again. This time there were quite a few woman for a change and they wore colourful green and red tartan. My diary notes that I got loads of great photos at this market but I lost the roll of film!! Then, it was back to Douz, stopping off at the museum which was pretty rubbish, containing a mockup of a tent and a few costumes. I had said the people were friendly but here is where two blokes came by on a donkey cart and made a grab for Jackie. Later that evening some small boys threw stones at us.
Next day we woke up with the mosque calling the faithful at 5.30 and we were up shortly after to get a louage to Gabes. Here we splashed out on the Chems Hotel 33TD each – again no one else staying. The man on the desk assured us that they had the Rugby World Cup final on TV (he lied to us, quelle surprise). We had lunch there which was pretty good and then a walk along the beach. Although we didn’t see the game itself (Thankfully England beat the Australians) we saw the highlights on the news.
And so it was time for home. We splashed out 20 TD for first class seats in the train. Big comfy seats and no one else travelling in the carriage – perfect. My abiding memory of the trip is at every stop people would pile into our carriage and then shortly after we set off, the guard would then move them out again. And of course views of scruffy towns and endless olive trees.