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A Magical Road Trip into the Unfamiliar
Southern Tunisia

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Southern Tunisia offers the chance to experience ways of life that have remained unchanged for centuries, says Sarah Shuckburgh

On our road trip through southern Tunisia, we drove through extraordinary landscapes – stony desert, rugged mountains, sand dunes, shimmering salt flats, wind-sculpted rocks, fertile oases. We passed remote homesteads with palm-frond roofs, and stopped at roadside shacks selling spicy stews or sweet pastries. In isolated villages we glimpsed ways of life unchanged for centuries - turbaned men in billowing white jellabahs, riding horses with embroidered and tasseled harnesses; veiled women with tattooed faces; souks selling dates, pomegranates, spices and garish pottery; muezzin calls to prayer; and everywhere a smiling hospitality which made us ashamed of our British reserve - “Vous êtes le bienvenu chez moi comme je le serais chez vous”. You are as welcome in my home as I would be in your home.

The Ksour region of southern Tunisia is remote, arid, craggy and fascinating. In this parched terrain, harvests are rare, and for centuries nomadic tribesmen have protected their precious stores of grain and olives in communal ksour.

Ksar Ouled Soltane doesn’t look like much from the outside – a high-walled, windowless compound of tawny mud, next to a hilltop mosque. But inside is a magnificent four-storey fortified granary, with one of its two courtyards dating from the 15th century – now a UNESCO site. A young guide told us that members of his tribe still use the Ksar for weekly prayers, community meetings and festivals. Each barrel-vaulted storeroom, or ghorfa, is about eight feet high and up to 30 feet deep; some still have ancient palm-wood doors with hefty peg-and-hole locks. Inside, the clay and gypsum walls are decorated with hand and footprints, family names, holy eyes and fish, and messages to Allah.

Ksar Hallouf is an even older granary, dating from the 13th century. In one cool, dark ghorfa, a yellow-toothed caretaker showed us a centuries-old oil press where, in his father’s day, a donkey still pulled a circular boulder to crush palm-frond bags of olives. In an even darker inner cave, a giant palm trunk once pressed piles of palm-frond filters, wedged between stones, and oil oozed into a clay pit.

Southern Tunisia’s steep escarpments are dotted with caves where Berbers have lived since the 11th century, when Arabs destroyed their lowland villages and farms. After a delicious morning snack of ftair, a sweet fritter, we visited Chenini, where 500 villagers still live in caves burrowed into the craggy cliff face. A youth in a blue turban and baggy trousers proposed himself as our guide. Like many local boys, Nagi had spent several years selling newspapers in Tunis, but now he had returned to look after his grandmother, and, he explained, to help preserve traditional customs and the Berber language which locals still speak.

He took us first to the village cemetery, each rocky grave marked with small standing stones – two for a man, and three for a woman. Nearby, in a cave-mosque, lie the tombs of the local marabout saint, and of the Seven Sleepers - imprisoned Christians who miraculously grew to four meters tall, awoke after four centuries, and died (again) as Muslim converts.

We followed Nagi up steep clay steps and along narrow paths to Chenini’s cave-homes, which are constructed in tiers following the geological strata of the cliff. We ducked through a low archway to a small whitewashed courtyard, where his 70-year-old grandmother sat at her loom. She was a startling-looking crone with purple tattoos on nose and chin, colourful clothes and clanking jewellery. Beyond her, the family ghar had been burrowed into the hillside - cool in summer and warm in winter. A separate cave served as a kitchen, with an ancient electric fridge.

At lunchtime, Nagi obligingly yelled to someone far below, and we stumbled down eight storeys of steep, earth steps, through a series of caves, to a burrowed-out café with two tables. As we ate chorba (spicy soup) and brik à l’oeuf (a crispy pastry envelope containing a fried egg) Nagi tucked into chicken and chips and asked if we had any Wayne Rooney souvenirs.

Driving northwest, we passed more troglodyte villages – some abandoned, a scatter of dark holes in a pink craggy hillside. Blank-walled granary fortresses stood alone, impregnable in the stony desert. In the distance, a skyline of sharp peaks loomed. A plump grey jerboa scuttled across the road. Sheep and black goats grazed on dry scrub by a long-dry oued, watched by a small child. As we gazed back towards the glittering Mediterranean, a convoy of 4x4s roared past, whisking holidaymakers from coastal resorts on a ‘safari’.

The troglodyte settlement of Matmata bustles with tourists and touts. Here 100 cave dwellings survive, some dating – incredibly - from the 4th century BC. Each consists of a large circular pit, 30 feet deep, reached by a rope ladder or earth ramp, with tunnel-like underground rooms leading off it. Many are now restaurants or hotels, and we had lunch in one – chakchouka (chickpea stew topped with a fried egg).

As we drove west, the stony hamada desert gave way to the erg – pale, ridged sand, scattered with grey-green tufts. To the north rose the dramatic peaks of Jebel Tebaga. The road was dead straight, and utterly empty. Discarded tyres were piled at the roadside like postmodern art installations. Mirages appeared and evaporated. A dust devil created a whirlwind of sand. Camels stalked slowly across the sand-strewn road – haughty, languid, heads held high.

In Douz, palm frond fences attempt to hold back the Sahara, and locals are wrapped in hooded cloaks against blown sand. At the Musée du Sahara, a guide explained nomadic traditions of swaddling bands, tattoos and the camel-hair burnouse. Bedouin brides wear black embroidered robes, and ride a camel pulled by a man who must be called Ali or Mohammed, and accompanied by a child to ensure fertility. The bride is concealed by a palanquin, with only her right hand showing - the hand of Fatima. Strict rules once governed nomadic life – a curtain in the tent separated men and visitors from women and children, and the wife communicated with her husband by banging a spoon on a wooden bowl, so that her voice would not be heard. Our guide said that he now lives in the town, but, like everyone he knows, he and his family return to the desert every year, to spend several weeks in a traditional Bedouin tent.

Passing Kebili, where black faces are a legacy of a 1000-year slave trade with Sudan, we reached the mesmerising Chott el Jerid salt flats, a vast, blinding landscape, dazzlingly white with glints of pink, purple, grey and blue. In the middle of this glistening, silent moonscape, we stopped at a shack selling wind-eroded quartz sandroses, and drank sweet mint tea from grimy glasses.

Beyond the salty chott, lies the oasis town of Tozeur, with its matchless 14th-century medina – narrow alleys of yellowish brick, doors decorated with studded nails, women veiled in black with a blue stripe denoting their marital status. The lush oasis has irrigation channels designed in the 13th century. Here, under vibrant bougainvillea, on a carpet of fallen pomegranates, we enjoyed plump, sweet deglet annour ‘finger of light’ dates, from some of Tozeur’s 200,000 palms.

We drove on across another shimmering chott towards red mountains with knife-edge peaks and corrugated ridges. The remote oasis town of Tamerza is ringed by knobbly hills of pale terracotta, with wind-gouged hollows and gunnels, scrunched, crumpled, pleated and gathered. Almost on the border with Algeria, the tiny village of Midès is spectacularly perched on a precipitous outcrop, surrounded by narrow crumbling canyons. As the sun set, each fold in the mountain range turned a darker grey, and the strata in the gorge below glowed red and gold.

As we headed back towards Djerba, we remembered arid hamada, windswept erg, glistening chott and jebel peaks. We recalled vaulted ghorfa in baked-mud ksour, and windowless ghar dwellings. We pictured men in billowing jellabah or hooded burnouse, and women in fluttering sifsari. We remembered delicious meals of spicy chorba and chakchouka, crispy brik, honeyed ftair and succulent deglet annour. And we felt pleased to have learnt the Arabic words for the unfamiliar and magical delights of southern Tunisia.

- Go between the end of September and May, to avoid searing summer heat.
- Fly to Djerba and hire a car there for this road trip.
- Roads in southern Tunisia are empty and well maintained, with Tarmac surfaces. Sarah hired a regular car, but if you want to drive further into the desert you will need a 4x4 vehicle.
- Few in southern Tunisia speak English, so take a French or Arabic phrase book.

Delicious deglet annour dates, woven rugs, painted pottery, brown quartz sandroses, and, from Douz, desert slippers (chaussures sahariennes).

- Organized ‘desert safaris’ sally forth from coastal hotels in convoys of 4x4s. As they roar past, you’ll feel very glad not to be on one.
- In Matmata, say “No” to the touts who vie with each other to escort you to the cave where Star Wars was filmed, or to the museum, charging exorbitant prices. The Star Wars hotel is called Sidi Driss (entry free); the small cave museum is interesting and is easy to find. Entry costs about £1.50, and the tout-guides are not allowed in.
- To avoid running out of petrol, make sure you fill up the tank whenever you see a petrol station. In remote villages, ask locals and a young lad will appear with a plastic container of petrol.
First published by the Telegraph

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