Nick Redmayne walked 100km with camels through the Sahara Desert in Tunisia, our February Destination of the Month, and found the epic adventure less strenuous than feared. If that sounds a bit daunting, he’s recommended six less demanding desert and historical excursions so those on a beach break can see more of the country.
By the time we’d walked eight kilometres the heat of the day had receded, lengthening shadows emphasising relief amongst the sea of dunes. This first half-day’s trek from Douz was part of a well-honed plan, a Sahara shakedown, time to sort out minor niggles, adjust our packs, get acquainted with each other, with the camels and to make friends with sand. Over the next 90 kilometres to the oasis at Ksar Ghilaine such relationships would be important.
Leaving Douz, ‘The Gateway to the Sahara’, could have been a postprandial stroll except that we’d just kept on going. The road became a lane, then a trail. The low dusty town was soon incidental. Car tracks petered out to be replaced by those of motorcycles, then nothing, just five nights’ wild camping in the Grand Erg Oriental, Saharan sand and rock covering over 100,000 square kilometres.
By comparison with trans-Saharan 1,000-camel caravans of old, we were a tiny posse, more of a caravanette. Twelve dilettante trekkers, by our own admission more used to dessert than desert, were kept on the right piste by Ahmed, Mohammed, Marsine and Boubakar – all born with sand in their veins.
Gear, supplies and, most importantly, water were carried with grudging acquiescence by five camels, all brothers, whose deep disdain for the whole enterprise was plain from the outset. However, the greatest burden was shouldered by Amin, our guide and walking, talking, multilingual interpretative sign.
Nowhere in particular Marsine and the other cameleers stopped to share brief counsel, each agreeing subtle signs showed we’d reached our camp for the night. The camels needed no encouragement and had already folded up their limbs and sunk down immovably.
Amidst burping, farting and profoundly subterranean groans of relief, baggage was unfastened and cast off into the soft sand. The camels too were keen to be unencumbered, once freed hoisting to their feet, though now loosely hobbled to limit their nocturnal wanderings.
Mohammed and Boubakar morphed into camp cooks, quickly lighting two fires, one for boiling couscous the other, low and flat to bake bread. Looking down on camp activity from nearby high dunes most trekkers were silent, lost in their own thoughts – in my own case nothing more high minded than contemplation of supper.
The sky turned quickly from blue to orange, then ochre, the sand following suit, but once the sun finally disappeared, colour swiftly drained from the landscape leaving only grey and greyer. The temperature dropped, darkness fell, the campfire and the couscous drew us near.
While the pots bubbled Ahmed raked out an impressive circle of brightly glowing embers from the second fire. Upon this he deftly tossed a manhole cover-sized disc of dough, heaped ash over the top and on this a strategically placed pile of brushwood. The wood burned brightly, sending up a satisfying shower of sparks.
After a few speculative pokes with his favourite camel stick Ahmed determined the bread was ready and eased it out of the embers, shaking off the excess sand – one can have too much. He dropped the unpromising black object, still smouldering, into a old flour sack, held it up and proceeded to give it a good thrashing with his stick, occasionally invoking the grace of God, ‘Alhamdulillah!’, when his fingers got in the way.
Even by the fickle light of the fire Ahmed bore little resemblance to Nigella but the bread, thus subdued, emerged crisp, warm and delicious. Our stomachs were otherwise filled by watery stew and couscous, saved from an overpowering blandness by salt and harissa, a Tunisian chilli sauce so hot it should be covered by the Kyoto Protocol.
Once plates were ‘washed’ in the sand an evil-looking kettle was gingerly taken off the flames and an arrestingly bad brew of tea, twigs and grit was poured – even those without a sweet tooth heaped in the sugar. By now most of us were lying back looking up at the Milky Way, spotting meteorites and attempting to discern familiar constellations from an unfamiliar veil of stars.
Marsine took a drum from a flour sack and somewhat self-consciously built up a rhythm, the inertia overcome, Ahmed started to sing. ‘These are Libyan revolutionary songs,’ said Amin. ‘You know these guys from the south, they have nothing in common with the north of Tunisia, nothing.’ Ahmed stopped singing and tended the fire, then took up a flute, sending aloft breathy, reedy, whistling notes that wandered between music and a swirling breeze – Ahmed pied piper of the Sahara enticing us into the desert…
Of course this was local colour for the tourists and audience participation when it came was as awful as it was inevitable. Memories of our revolutions weren’t fresh and a verse of Fairport Convention folk fell flat, sending at least half the party scuttling to their beds. There was nothing for it, Billy Brag would have been proud, ‘I saw two shooting stars last night. I wished on them but they were only satellites. It’s wrong to wish on space hardware. I wish, I wish, I wish you cared…’ Marsine and Ahmed looked uncomprehending. ‘Thank you Nick,’ said Amin. Everyone else had cleared off. The cameleers started to play again… thankfully they knew more songs.
Other ways to experience the Sahara Desert in Tunisia
Siroko Travel runs a three-day Saharan sojourn, trekking from Douz with camels, tents, guides and no doubt enough couscous to sink a battleship. A good taster if time is short.
As well as 4×4 and quad bike safaris from Douz the guys at Pegase guarantee to put a smile on your face with a microlight or delta plane flight over the dunes, even if your grin is just an expression of sweet relief at being back on the ground.
Aeroasis (+216 64 52 577) flies hot air balloons over from both Douz and Tozeur. The best lift and calmest air is found horribly early in the day. However, it’s worth it, and the peculiar tranquillity of lighter-than-air flight – in between the pilot firing his pimped up barbecue – is even more memorable when sailing high over Saharan dune seas at sunrise.
Take Just Sunshine’s two-day excursion and you too can experience that ‘My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius…’ moment in the Roman amphitheatre of El Dejm, body double for Rome’s Coliseum in Russell Crowe’s Academy Award-winning Gladiator. There’s time drop in on the troglodyte dwellers of Matmata, visit the holy city of Kairouan and ride a camel in desert. No roughing it either, with four-star overnight accommodation.
More at home with horses than camels? Ranch Nomade tailors horseback trails from Douz for riders of all levels. Barb and Arab mounts are available for short hacks in the dunes or longer trails bivouacking overnight in the desert.
Picking up from most coastal resorts, Tunisia First’s three-day cultural tour explores Kairoaun’s Great Mosque, Mosque of the Three Doors and its busy souks. Beyond the olive groves of Sbeitla, there’s time at the well-preserved Roman site of Sufetula before heading to the palm-fringed oasis towns of Tozeur and Nefta. Feel the power of ‘the Force’ at Onc el Jemel and ‘Luke’s house’ in Matmata – both Star Wars locations, then cross the salt lake of Chott el Jerid and return via El Djem.