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Road trips from Tunis: south into the Sahara

Join Oscar Scafidi on a journey through this lunar landscape while researching our first ever guidebook to the country.

When I moved to Tunisia in August 2019, I was amazed to find that this beautiful North African country did not have an up-to-date English-language tourism guide. But recent history has not been kind to Tunisia’s once-thriving tourism industry.

In December 2010 we saw the Tunisian Revolution, a precursor to the Arab Spring, in which a month of street violence led to the ousting of strongman President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. A terrorist attack at the Bardo National Museum in the capital city of Tunis in March 2015 was followed by a mass shooting on a popular beach in Sousse three months later. Tourism numbers plummeted. Last year it looked as though the tourism sector had finally recovered: over 9.4 million tourists made their way to Tunisia, the highest number of arrivals since before the Arab Spring. But then Covid-19 hit, and by March 2020 Tunisian airspace had shut down, a lockdown was imposed and any tourists in the country were air evacuated home. 

This is the context in which I am writing the first Bradt Guide to Tunisia. Given the circumstances it is certainly not easy, but in a few months I aim to get back out and restart my exploration of the country. Tunisia’s early response to Covid-19 was swift and effective, comparing very favourably with both their North African neighbours and nearby European countries. I hope that by writing a guidebook to the country, I can help contribute to the recovery of the economy once the lockdown is lifted. 

On the road from Tunis

Stretching for around 792km from the northern tip at Cape Angela to the southern borders with Libya and Algeria at Borj el Khadra, Tunisia is a very long, narrow country. I am based in the capital Tunis, which has excellent road connections to most other parts of the country. Fuel is cheap here by European standards; which is good, given that the national airline TunisAir is very unreliable and most journeys are best made by road.

From a guidebook writer’s perspective, this is a good thing: I don’t need to worry about packing the whole country into one hectic journey, like I did for my guides to Angola or Equatorial Guinea. Instead I can explore the country on a series of road trips from my base in the capital. Before lockdown hit, I’d already completed some of these journeys, including a day trip to Africa’s northernmost point at Cape Angela.

But my first long road trip from Tunis was down to Douz and back, a journey of over 1,200km. This was partly to test out the vehicle’s reliability on the motorway and in the desert. It was also because I really wanted to get out and explore the Sahara Desert, and Douz is known as the ‘Gateway to the Sahara’. I set off early one morning in February this year. Then promptly broke down by Sousse, less than 160km into my journey! This is one thing that has always attracted me to road trips across Africa: something unexpected always happens, and you are forced to adapt. 

The benefit of this breakdown was that by the time I hit the coastal town of Gabès and turned eastwards to head inland, it was sunset. This meant I was treated to spectacular vistas as I cruised along the desert plains towards the Chott el Djerid salt flats. 

The Gateway to the Sahara

Douz itself was everything I had hoped it would be. Perched right on the edge of the desert, this little town is a true oasis. Its most famous accolade is as the host of the International Festival of the Sahara, a 100-year-old celebration of traditional desert culture, focusing on the Bedouin. As I walked the streets I came across the H’naiech stadium, which faces out into the desert and hosts many of the festival’s activities including camel racing, dancing and traditional poetry recitals.

All was quiet during my visit, though – you could tell I was here out of season. Apart from a small group of Finnish tourists on a package holiday, I was the only other guest in my hotel, which gave the place an eerie, abandoned feeling. There was plenty to see and do, however: I spent some time in the Souk d’Artisanat, an old square bounded by porticoes, with each archway leading into a shop or coffee establishment. It was great to wander up and down surveying the tables of brightly painted pottery, carpets, clothing and desert rose (gypsum) plucked from the surrounding landscape.

The vendors were friendly but not pushy, greeting me in everything from Arabic to English, French, German and Italian. Their language skills were impressive, honed in preparation for the once-yearly influx of tourists for the festival. That evening, I bumped into a Spanish backpacker called Manolo, and we passed the evening in a rooftop shisha bar overlooking the souk, watching a Champions League match, seemingly with every man under the age of 40 in the town.

The following day I was able to check out the compact but well-presented Sahara Museum. Opposite the town’s military barracks, its crowning glory is a traditional Bedouin encampment, erected right in the middle of the hallway. There are displays on the importance of camels in local culture, archaeological artifacts as well as details on the more recent history of the area, including some impressive old rifles from colonial times. 

Exploring the real Tatooine

After a few days of exploration, it was time to move on. I offered to give Manolo a lift to Tozeur, and he gladly accepted, as my vehicle is a lot more comfortable than the collective taxis that ply the routes between major settlements.

The journey from Douz to Tozeur takes you over a 50km stretch of an endorheic salt lake known as Chott el Djerid (which translates as the ‘Lagoon of the Land of Palms’). Exploring this moonscape was a real highlight of the road trip. As you drive along the perfect tarmac, it is impossible not to pull over and have a go at walking across the crusty salt pan. Crunchy underfoot, you have to be careful where you step!

Depending on the sunlight, the ground can appear yellow like regular sand, but also white and frosty or even vibrant pink in some places. Star Wars fans might recognise this area, as the salt flats were used as a filming location for the exterior of the Lars homestead on Tatooine, first featured in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

A desert oasis

The final port of call on my inaugural road trip was Tozeur. Much larger than Douz, the town is better developed in terms of quality hotels and tourism infrastructure. Many visitors use it as a base from which to explore the rest of the region, which is exactly what I did, setting out northwards to see the oasis settlements of Chebika and Tamerza by the Algerian border. 

As with the rest of the journey, the road quality was excellent, so shooting northwards on the P16 road was quick and easy. Chebika is around 55km northwest of Tozeur, and although many tour operators offer day trips up here, it’s easily accessible on your own – although watch out for the camels on the road! We saw quite a few that afternoon, including a mother and child hanging out by the side of the tarmac, who did not mind us pulling up and taking their photo. 

Once in Chebika, the old town is easy to find. Most tour groups arrive in the morning as part of a wider tour, but as we visited in the late afternoon we had the place to ourselves for the most part. You park up at the foot of the old settlement, walk through a small market and then up through a gateway into the mud brick settlement, which is no longer occupied.

The houses are perched on a hill, looking down into the valley below, which is filled with palm trees thanks to the freshwater. At the top of the settlement is a large carving of a ram, watching over the inhabitants. You then descend a newly built staircase to reach the water’s edge. The pond is filled with frogs and all sorts of other smaller wildlife. 

Moving on from Chebika, we wound our way through a gorgeous mountain pass, stopping to take photos of the panoramic sunset over the Tunisian-Algerian border. Tamerza is only another 15km north. It is a much larger settlement, and much greener. We were rushing by this stage as the sun was setting, so I think we missed out on finding the most famous waterfall in the area. From our brief stop, though, it was clear that a lot of water flowed through this town, helping to irrigate the abundant palm plantations. After a brief look around, we jumped back in the 4×4 and headed back to Tozeur, racing through the desert in the last of the light. 

A bright future?

What I have seen of Tunisia so far makes me very excited to continue with this project. Since the Arab Spring, commentators have talked about ‘the Tunisian exception’ – while many other Arab nations have descended either into warfare or further authoritarianism, Tunisia has built a progressive, secular democracy.

The country’s well-developed Mediterranean coastline has much to offer those looking for a traditional beach holiday. The Ancient Roman archaeological sites are numerous, well preserved and nowhere near as crowded as their Italian counterparts. Star Wars buffs could spend days roaming the south of the country exploring the film sets and shooting locations. The unique cultural mixture here leads to a wealth of choice in terms of food, music and arts. Likewise, the varied landscapes have something to offer everyone, from racing 4x4s through the Sahara to kitesurfing in Djerba island’s clear blue waters. 

Please come and visit us when this pandemic is over. In the meantime, you can follow along with my adventures in Tunisia via my YouTube channel, Twitter and Instagram accounts.