Sunday, 18 January 2009

The trouble with tourists... A short Tunisian tale.

Driving up a mountain with Celine Dion playing on the radio wasn’t quite how I’d imagine my trip to the Sahara to be, but it’s certainly made a lasting impression! Now every time I hear the warbling of the Canadian diva, I’m reminded of the driver who couldn’t speak a word of English, the camel guide who was not happy with his tip and the typically British tourists who I shared a bus with for nearly two whole days.

As a first time traveller, I wasn’t quite brave enough to set out on my own and discover the vast land of Tunisia so there I was, with the other half in tow and 400 Dinar signing up for a two day Sahara experience.

It seemed impressive enough. Travel 60% of Tunisia in two days, a night in five star hotel on the edge of the Sahara, visit tribes, old coliseums, villages and ride a camel at sunset.

However, if one thing is going to ruin the peace of driving through the desert it’s the fog horn voice of a woman who can only be described as hideous.

A 7am start was fine as unlike England the temperature was warm and we grabed seats at the front of the bus meaning we had the best views and were at least 7 rows away from the she devil and her gang of equally foul mouthed followers.

The tour guide and bus driver were two lovely men who made the trip all the more appealing due to their obvious love and passion for their country. While guided tours aren’t for everyone and can seem routine and banal, they made it interesting and worth the time and money.

Our first stop was at El Jem to visit the amphitheatre. We all left the bus and found our way to the impressive structure that was used in the Gladiator film. But despite the movie links, the history of the place is impressive enough. Walking through the underground cells where men were kept before fights was something pretty special and despite the 100 or so other tourists, there was room to walk about and do our own thing. An hour later and we’re back on the bus heading to our next destination.

Along with Gladiator, Tunisia has strong links with Star Wars and some of the film (I think it’s the Phantom Menace, I zone out at the mention of all things Darth Vadar) was filmed in Matmata where we stopped for lunch in an underground hotel. The Berber tribe of Matmata build their homes into the rock to keep them cool in the summer months as well as keeping them warm in the winter months. The hotel served a traditional Tunisian lunch of cous cous with lamb but this of course wasn’t good enough for the fellow passengers who moaned they’d rather be by the pool with a beer than sat underground or on a bus missing out on the sun. Using my polite British reserve, I kept my lips tight and smiled through their moans.

A look around the hotel and various photos with Star Wars poses followed lunch and we’re back on the bus waiting for our next stop.

Further into Matmata, we stop at the home of two Berber women. Welcomed into their home we got to watch as they ground grains used to make food and have a look around their house. The house is impressive, even the bed is made from the rock. Leaving a tip on the way out, we head back to the bus where we will spend the next few hours before finally reaching the desert itself.

We arrived at the Golden Yasmin hotel had a quick freshen
up, drop our bags off and we’re back on the bus heading
to the edge of the desert which only took 10 minutes or so. Once there and dressed head to toe in traditional Nomad gear, we’re lead to our camels.
And off we go, led by one man to four camels we’re trailing across the Sahara. Once the woman from the back of the bus had stopped the trip and headed back to the beginning of the desert on foot as she’d supposedly fallen off the camel twice without anyone else noticing, it was beautifully peaceful. The sun setting across the sand was unforgettable and luckily, a moment that was captured on camera.

A note to make here is that Tunisian’s tend to expect tips and if you find yourself sat on the back of a camel in an outfit with no pockets, stick a Dinar or two in your socks or your guide will not be happy with you as we found out when we had nothing but some spare coins to give him.
We had a 5am start the next day so back at the hotel, it’s time to eat, shower and sleep. Barely a moment after falling asleep and the phone rings with our wake up call, time to get ready and go for breakfast.

The bus was quiet as most people slept until we stopped just before 7am at a salt flat. When the sun hits the salt it looks as though it’s water and this is one of the main spots to see the mirage at the right time of year, which tends to be at the height of the summer about midday.
From there we watched as the sun rose over us and lit up the skies. I don’t think anyone moaned about this part of the trip.


Before heading back to Sousse, we stopped off at Douz which is known as ‘the gateway to the Sahara’ and bounded into 4x4s to see the spectacular Oasis’. Told we could split up and meet back in 45 minutes, we went the opposite way to the others and discovered the Oasis for ourselves. Beautiful greenery and streams intertwined through the rock until we came to the waterfall, small but lovely to see in a land of such dryness.

Even here though, we were pestered for money and the guys are on top form when it comes to chatting up the Brit women. Dodging the ones who’d harassed us on the way up, we headed back to our meeting point picking up small souvenirs on the way.

The main part of the second day was to get back to our hotel in Sousse but we stopped off at little villages and passed through some of the poorer parts of Tunisia. On first sight, it seemed as though a lot of Tunisia away from the coast, was living on the poverty line but on discussion with our guide he told us how the families sell the fruit (dates are lucrative source of income near the Sahara) and choose to live a simple life as opposed to being poor.

Four hours later and we’re back. The end of the journey. Certainly a trip I’d do again but from now on I’ll be making my own way there and back leaving the uncultured sun worshippers to their package holidays.

1 comment:

The Scribe said...

Your pictures look amazing!