Friday, December 07, 2007

The Enchanting Erg

The train from Sousse to Gabes was comfortable with plush reclining seats in our first class carriage with a fare of only £6 each way for the four hour journey. The only things missing were the antimacassars. The train sped along the coastal plain through olive and almond groves interspersed with untidy towns and villages and their surrounding waste land where plastic bags of many varieties and colours are being cultivated with, I may say, some success.

We have discovered why the majority of buildings are unfinished. There is a tax to be paid on completion. The ‘posh’ villas of the rich are complete in every detail and surrounded by well manicured gardens and high walls. Such is the divide between rich and poor in this land.

Past El Gem with its magnificent Amphitheatre, then Dokhane where we witnessed a magnificent mirage, through Sfax and onward we hurried until we reached the end of the line in the industrial town of Gabes.

There we boarded a Louage bound for Tataouine some 130km further south through the yellow grey of the pebbly Sahara, the serir, laced with clumps of esparto grass, which is used to make paper and mats and the ever present plastic bag plants, particularly around habitation.

The Sahara with an area of 3,474,000 sq miles is the largest desert in the world and spans 11 countries from the Atlantic west coast of Africa to the Red Sea. It is not just a massive area of uninterrupted sand dunes as we might imagine but an area composed of three distinctive terrains; the rocky Hamada, the pebbly serir and the sandy erg.

Back to the Louage and in particular its kamikaze driver. We thought that we would not survive this helter skelter ride through the narrow and uneven roads with a man behind the wheel oozing testosterone from every pore, being spurred on by cacophonously loud music from the CD player and overtaking everything ahead of us regardless with his foot flat on the floor. I believe his approach to driving, like many of his Countrymen, is to assume there is no other vehicle on the road other and then, if such a thing is encountered, to disregard it.
The Louage is a popular and cheap (about 5 Dinars or £2 per 100km) form of transport covering the entire Country and over the borders. They do not run to any timetable but depart when they have their full complement of eight passengers thus offering a very convenient mode of travel. The vehicles are white ‘people carriers’ with a red stripe painted down the side if they cover routes throughout the Country and a blue stripe if they are licensed to serve purely local routes. The skill of their drivers is questionable and we have termed them as ‘white van with red/blue stripe drivers’.

Tataouine, otherwise known as the ‘gateway to the Sahara’ or ’mouth of the springs’ (from the Berber foum tataouine), is Tunisia’s most southerly tourist base. It is a featureless place but provides a base for exploring the local Berber villages and the Berber Ksour or fortified granaries many of which exist in the area. Star Wars was filmed in the area and fans may gather that Luke Skywalker’s mythical and wind-blown home planet, Tatooine, was named after this town

We negotiated with locals for the hire of a 4x4 necessary, so the guide books tell us, to take us across the serir and perhaps the erg the 100km or so to our chosen desert oasis of Ksar Ghilane. The rates branded about were exorbitant at about £160 for the return journey but we finally settled for what we were told was a Toyota 4x4 for somewhat less and we were satisfied and awaited our adventure into the desert the following morning with great anticipation.

Our Toyota 4x4 appeared at 0830 the next morning in the guise of a Peugeot estate of at least 20 year vintage with bits missing and other bits about to fall off – quite the vehicle for a drive across the Sahara! The driver in his smart carpet slippers had a problem or two pointing out the route he was to take on the road map I put in front of him to the extent that I guess he couldn’t read it! We and the car, the driver and the middle man then parted company in a truly British ‘No this won’t do at all my man’ way at the same time wondering how an earth we were to get to Ksar Ghilane now. We decided to travel back the 130km to Gabes and then another 40km out to Matmata where we had heard that agencies may be able to arrange appropriate vehicles for travel into the desert. We had visited Matmata, the troglodyte village, during our previous trip to the ‘sud’.

With some foreboding we boarded a Louage but found, initially to our pleasure, that the driver was a calm smiling man who set off at a reasonable pace. In fact as we proceeded he slowed to a snail’s pace as his attention was diverted to the good looking lady passenger sitting next to him. He talked to her incessantly and flirted with her only taking his eyes off her occasionally to look at the road ahead. In fear of death in a head to head collision with oncoming traffic, Miggy had to intervene to tell him to concentrate on his driving! So distracted was the man that, when filling with Libyan diesel on the roadside where it is poured from a 20 litre jerry can into a funnel and thence the tank, he lit up a cigarette. To add to the saga we were stopped at one of the many Police roadblocks that abound in this Country where the girls only, not Miggy I hasten to add, were searched vigorously for what reason we will never know.

As soon as we arrived in Matmata after a shorter and totally uneventful Louage trip we were accosted by young men who, having told them what we were looking for, led us to a ‘middleman’ who, over coffee, arranged 4x4 transport to Ksar Ghilane for a more reasonable, but still outrageous, rate. After lunch of Chorba, a spicy soup made with barley granules and lamb stock, and a very good chicken couscous we set out with our pleasant and informative driver, Ahmed. We drove over the Dahar Hills to the Saharan plains and the 140km drive across the desert to Ksar Ghilane. We were unaware beforehand that the road to our destination had been metalled six months or so ago and we felt cheated not only by the price we had paid for a 4x4 because of the claimed ‘adverse terrain’ but also because we were looking forward to driving ‘off piste’ in the sand. We are told, however, that the road is still liable to blocking by sand during high winds. Little consolation we think.

During a stop in the drive across the flat and arid landscape Miggy was attacked by large ants having inadvertently trodden on their nest. We haven’t yet put a name to the dance she performed trying to rid herself of the swarms that attached themselves to her shoes, socks, trouser legs and even as far as her shirt.
When a settlement and trees appeared on the horizon of this flat land we knew that we were about to reach our goal, the Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, on the edge of the Great Oriental Erg (the sandy bit remember) that stretches from Morocco through Tunisia and Algeria and into Libya to the south.

I quote directly the words we wrote in our Journal:
“This place is like no other we have visited. The sand dunes form moving pyramids like an angry Mediterranean sea yet there is no anger here just a serenity and raw beauty as fine as the sand itself. It is as soft as powder and can be rubbed on the fairest skin without abrasion.

The dunes transform themselves with the lengthening shadows of the setting sun and change colour from yellow white to orange and red and then to a silky pink blanket as the sun disappear over the horizon.

The serenity and peace is complete overnight when the stars shine as bright as diamonds from horizon to horizon and the silence is overwhelming except perhaps for the screech of an owl”.

Miggy sat on the dunes one morning before sunrise with a Bedouin who motioned to her not to speak but just observe the quiet. She noticed that his footprints did not penetrate into the sand to the extent of her own. He had learnt to walk like the camel with its large flat plates as hooves. The faces of the dunes are alive not only with the wind blown ever changing wavelet upon wavelet but also with paw and footprint of the many animals and birds that roam the sand.

The oasis comprises arable fields under date producing palm trees all irrigated from a palm fringed pool fed by the waters of a deep natural hot spring, le source. In the winter when the night temperature is 8°C from a day time temperature of 20°C bathing in the desert under starry skies is a unique experience and one that Miggy enjoyed both as darkness fell and in the early morning while mist was rising from the warm water into the cool air above and nobody was about. The cafes and a souvenir shop or two surrounding the pool do not detract from its charm.

We spent two nights in a Bedouin tent or, should I say, a tent in Bedouin style equipped with a proper double bed, an en suite shower room with all facilities and heating and air conditioning! We were in fact in a four star hotel with swimming pool, bar, restaurants and beautifully manicured gardens.

There was even a 25m high tower in the grounds from which to view the sunset over the dunes. What’s wrong with a little luxury and pampering from time to time?

We walked through the cultivated fields and date palms of the oasis to the Berber settlement just outside. Unlike their Arab neighbours to the north, the Berbers do not amass litter and rubbish, the land around their houses being populated by sheep, goats, camels and donkeys instead.

The Berbers are self sufficient with their animals, including rabbits, for meat and trade and their crops, amongst others, of semolina, used to make couscous, carrots, dates, pomegranates, figs and oranges grown in the oasis. We wondered why it was so quiet in the village until we realized that there is no mosque here and thus no Muezzin wailing his call to prayer.

During our walk back to the oasis through a dried water course we spotted a large bird of prey just sitting on a rock preening and many other birds. One in particular with a crested head intrigued us that we later identified as a Thekla Lark.

We encountered both Berber and Bedouin people and there is a difference. The Berbers are the indigenous, non Arab, people of North Africa whereas the Bedouin are the wandering nomads of the desert.

They have much in common, however, in that they have each managed to maintain their respective ethnic identity and they appear to us as gentle, caring individuals. Bedouin nomads with their animals and tents can still be seen along the road to the oasis.

Miggy was very much taken with the Bedouin horses and the skills of their horsemen who glide across the sands proud and upright as if one. Actually I think she was besotted by the handsomeness of the young Bedouin men.

During our last night it in the Sahara rained! Ahmed had told us that on average it rains for one day every three years. After snow in Venice, Istanbul and Madeira and now rain in the Sahara Miggy is convinced that she is a witch. I didn’t say a word!

The following day we said a sad farewell to Ksar Ghilane and retraced our steps to Monastir and Bella ready to prepare for our next adventure, that of returning to England for Christmas.