Desert nights are shockingly cold. Sleeping in a ‘tent’ offers little protection from the biting temperatures. I covered myself in so many thick, heavy blankets that I could barely move under the weight. Worse still, I had come down with a horrible cold myself, and I spent the night simultaneously freezing and burning up with a fever. If there had been any other tourists staying in my encampment in Ksar Ghilane, they’d have been kept awake by my hacking cough. Sound travels swiftly through the empty desert night.
Still in pain from the car crash, sleep seemed impossible. Not for the first time, as I stumbled through the dark and cold to find a toilet at some time in the early hours of the morning, I questioned my sanity for making this journey in the first place. Then I looked up. A billion stars were glinting in the clear desert sky, a meteor streaked across the darkness. It almost made it worthwhile. Truth be told, there is little to match the glories of the desert night sky.
I must have slept at some point because I remember waking up in time to drag myself into the middle of the desert to watch the sunrise. I walked through low dunes to a suitable spot a few hundred meters from the oasis and sat on top of a sand ridge to await the sun. It was still frigidly cold and the sooner the sun made an appearance the better. As the sun rose, the sand began to change colour, from a light brown to glorious pinks and oranges. It was exquisite.
I’d arrived the day before in time to watch the sunset, walking into the dunes as the sun sank and the stars came out. I walked around the settlement, down sandy tracks and between date palms, and was surprised that there seemed to be so few tourists. This is one of the most famous of Tunisia’s oases and I’d been told it could get crowded with visitors, including day tripping convoys of 4x4s. While I was there it seemed deserted (no pun intended).
After my morning walk in the dunes, I headed back to the camp for breakfast before hopping on a camel and riding out into the dunes again. You can see quite a lot more from the back of a camel. In the distance I could see a building, or the ruins of one. This it turned out was the Roman fort of Tisavar, which must have been one of the loneliest and most isolated outposts in the entire Roman Empire.
The fort sits about 2km from the oasis and the plan had been to ride out there, but we were driving back to Djerba the same day, a trip of about 8 hours or more. I decided to skip the fort in favour of a soak in the thermal springs before we set off – also handy for getting rid of the smell of camel. I found my driver, Khaled, sipping a coffee in the shade of a palm tree and after half an hour in the pool we were on our way.
It would take 10 hours to reach Djerba, during which time Khaled educated me on the differences between Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian music. Algerian was definitely his favourite. We made one stop for refreshments on the way to Djerba, at the house of a friend. I say house, but hole in the ground would be a more accurate description. In the scrubby desert near Matmata, largely hidden from sight, a Berber family live in this traditional troglodyte home.
There are many similar homes in this region and although made famous by Star Wars – Luke Skywalker grew up in one on the fictional planet of Tatooine – and despite some being turned into hotels, many are now abandoned. Few young people want the same rural life of their parents and have migrated to the cities. The drop in tourism since the Arab Spring and a couple of terror attacks have speeded up that process. We had food and tea, and then were on our way.