Tunisia part three. Out of the desert

Day two of our sojourn and after a sound sleep in a comfortable bed we were awakened at 5-30 by the early morning call for breakfast. I mean who the hell goes away on holiday to be roused from a fitful slumber at 5-30am apart from a bunch of sadists? After a continental breakfast with lots of hard boiled eggs, croissants and copious quantities of coffee to wake us up we boarded the bus for a 6-30am departure. Just after sunrise we crossed the salt plains of what was once a salt water lake.  Some of the enterprising Bedouins and Tuaregs have created small stalls selling everything from pictures of the desert to desert roses and refreshments. I had to admire their ingenuity to entice people in. One of them had a large piece of plywood atop his stall with the legend “cheaper than a tip” emblazoned across it. Many of them have created sculptures out of the salt and decorated them with flags and artefacts just to get tourists to stop. They are truly fascinating and I had to salute the ingenuity of people who could make travellers stop in the middle of nowhere.

Our next stop was at an oasis. As Eddy the tour guide informed us most people think of an Oasis as a watering hole with three palm trees and a couple of camels. This was a thriving town and had built up because of the fact that there was water readily available. BC and me climbed aboard a horse and cart and were taken for a ride along the outskirts of the oasis to see the touristy bits. When we arrived back and dismounted the Tunisian minister for Tourism has arrived and there was a traditional band playing in his honour. Trust me the tune will not cause Itunes to crash with heavy demand for this number. Apart from drums the main instrument seemed to be a bagpipe made from a camel’s bladder.

Once back aboard the bus we continued across yet more miles of sand and through small towns. On the road and going through these small towns many things stick out, such as the butchers that had sheep hanging from the stalls, freshly slaughtered and the blood dripping from their throats across the pavement and into the road. What seemed particularly sadistic were the pens of sheep waiting in turn to be slaughtered while peering at the carcasses of the freshly killed. One butcher had a camels head hanging from a hook on his stall. It was sheer delight for some one like me who likes to spit roast stuff but not for the more squeamish on board. The second thing you notice is the amount of people selling petrol on the roadside from plastic containers. Petrol in Tunisia is expensive and low quality. Tankers driving in from Libya and Algeria where good quality petrol is not a problem will readily “lose” a few gallons to the enterprising horde who sell it on to passing motorists, at a reduced and tax free rate. Less palatable are innumerable small fires and heaps of burning rubbish which tend to compensate for the fact that it is hard to get a bin wagon into the desert.

We stopped in the middle of nowhere amid a sandstorm that stung our eyes and awaited the 16’s. These are 4X4 vehicles which the Tunisians cunningly call 16’s. We were to be split up into groups and taken out into the desert in these off road vehicles and driven into some of the harsher terrain. Again words fail me to accurately describe how beautiful this landscape is and herds of camel wander freely in the sands. After a bumpy ride we stopped at an Oasis in the middle of nowhere or to be precise in the middle of the Atlas Mountains. This was used for the film set of the English Patient and it is truly stunning. It has a large waterfall and this flows into a river that heads off into the sands and feeds some of the watering holes. After photos and coffee it was back into the 16’s to return to the bus.

From here we drove to Matmata to see the Troglodytes. These are cave dwellers and their homes are carved out of the rocks and sand. They choose to live this lifestyle and while few have running water many have satellite dishes and there is often a four by four off road vehicle parked out of site. I had mixed emotions about this lifestyle. True it is their choice and some are really poor. But it was the bus load of tourists that traipsed through their homes for a handful of coins that got to me. I wondered if I could cope with a several busloads of people stopping outside of my house each day to walk through it. The old guy who posed for me looked as though he hardly knew what day it was and maybe he did not need to but I felt as though he and his family had been reduced to mere zoo exhibits.

The trip was memorable for many reasons but several images will be ingrained within me for life. One was of a Bedouin dressed in national tribesman outfit with sun burnt features and heavily lined face. He looked resplendent as he strode out of a café, his dagger glinting in the sun and I expected him to mount a nearby camel and stride off majestically into the sands. It was therefore a huge disappointment to see him climb into a four by four and drive off in a cloud of dust and petrol fumes!

I was so relieved when the tour ended, not because I wanted to go back but I had spent hours on a coach seat and had travelled 800 miles in just under 38 hours. I am glad I took the tour. I may never get to do it again and if I was I am sure I would hire an off road vehicle and spend a few days to do it instead of cramming it all in to a short time frame.


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