Upside down in the Sahara, the desert oasis of Douz

I arrived in Douz at high speed in a wailing ambulance. After a visit to both the hospital and the police station, I was deposited at the hotel by a police car. The nice policemen waved goodbye, wished me luck and repeated their disbelief that I was still alive. News travels fast in the desert and the hotel owner already knew about the tourist who had crashed a hire car in the middle of the desert. When my car flipped over and came to a juddering halt on its roof, I was conscious but dangling upside down restrained only by my seatbelt.

As I hung there trying to make sense of what had just happened, it occurred to me that things might improve if I wasn’t upside down. Without thinking, I pressed the release button on the seatbelt and instantly bashed my head on the roof of the car. It was at this point a very unlikely thing happened. Three men, who had been camping amongst the sand dunes, had witnessed the accident and ran over to pull me from the car. They also seemed surprised that I was alive.

Grand Erg Oriental, Douz, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Douz, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Douz, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Douz, Tunisia

Date palms, Douz, Tunisia

Date palms, Douz, Tunisia

The route to Douz, Tunisia

The route to Douz, Tunisia

The route to Douz, Tunisia

The route to Douz, Tunisia

Car crash en route to Douz, Tunisia

Car crash en route to Douz, Tunisia

The famed hospitality of desert peoples is said to stem from a simple premise: always allow a stranger to water their camel at your well, because you never know when you might need water for your camel. These three men pulled me from the wreckage, got me water to drink, retrieved my belongings, called an ambulance, called the police, called the (very unhappy) car rental company and gave praise to Allah for saving my life. They stayed with me in the desert until the ambulance arrived.

A day later, one of them came to my hotel – the accident was pretty big news and I was something of a local celebrity – to make sure I was okay. The police came to check on me as well, although I suspect they were just making sure I hadn’t died in their town. I was largely uninjured, although every part of my body seemed to be in pain. Douz is a scruffy but friendly place with few distractions, but I was happy just to be here … and things improved once I discovered Boukha, an unpleasant fig brandy that’s good only for self medicating.

Accidentally, my visit coincided with the date harvest. Douz has over half a million date palms and, walking the sandy tracks between the plantations, I was offered fresh dates. Acts of generosity that made me glad I’d made the journey. I hadn’t come for the dates though. The main attraction here is the Grand Erg Oriental, an utterly beguiling part of the Sahara that spills across the nearby border with Algeria to form Douz’s backyard. I’d planned to drive to the oasis of Ksar Ghilane, but the car crash had made that tricky.

My day had began quite differently and I’d been having a nice time exploring even more Berber fortified granaries. The dramatically located 13th century Ksar Jouamaa sits on an isolated hill a short way from the main road, but blink and you’ll miss it. It seamlessly fuses with the surrounding landscape of hills and valleys. The views from the hilltop are spectacular and, yet again, I had the whole place to myself. So far so good. I visited one more ksar before pointing the car in the direction of the desert.

Ksar Jouamaa, Tunisia

Ksar Jouamaa, Tunisia

Ksar Jouamaa, Tunisia

Ksar Jouamaa, Tunisia

Date palms, Douz, Tunisia

Date palms, Douz, Tunisia

Donkey cart taxi, Douz, Tunisia

Donkey cart taxi, Douz, Tunisia

Ksar, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar, Tataouine, Tunisia

My camera had been flung from the car when I’d crashed, one of my rescuers had found it embedded in the sand. Sand, as the saying goes, gets everywhere, and it had certainly found its way inside the camera. The camera continued to work but every photo I have of Douz, and all the places I visited afterwards, has specks of sand on them. I spent a couple of days mooching around Douz, making alternate plans to get to Ksar Ghilane and then back to Djerba.

Eventually, I found a driver with a 4×4 who’d drop me at Ksar Ghilane and take me the 500 km to Djerba. Fate had conspired to bring me together with an inspired travel companion, who spoke only Arabic and broken French but who managed to teach me more about Algerian music than I’ll ever need to know. I’m still a big fan of Souad Massi. Early one morning we drove for three hours into the heart of the Grand Erg Oriental to Ksar Ghilane, where I hoped to sooth my aches and pains in the thermal springs.

A Tunisian road trip remembered

It was early, still dark, as the taxi took me from my Tunis hotel to the airport close to what remains of the ancient city of Carthage. We drove in silence, as much because of language difficulties as the unsociable hour. There was no other traffic on the roads, and there was just a hint of sunlight on the horizon as a dark coloured van pulled out of a side street and slipped close behind us. The driver looked in his mirror and, with what can only be described as disdain in his voice, said, “Les flics”.

It was like being in a French film noir. The police followed us for a couple of kilometres before deciding we were of no interest to them, and I was deposited at the airport to catch my flight to the famed island of Djerba. After spending several days in Tunis at various meetings, I was escaping to explore the other-worldly landscapes and cultures of southern Tunisia. There’s a good reason that this is where the Star Wars films were shot, it’s an extraordinary place that really does feel like another planet.

Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tatouine, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tatouine, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tunisia

Door in the Souk, Tunis, Tunisia

Door in the Souk, Tunis, Tunisia

Ksar Guermassa, Tunisia

Ksar Guermassa, Tunisia

Fish market, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Djerba, Tunisia

I had a vague plan involving picking up a hire car in Djerba and plotting a course south and inland towards Tataouine – Star Wars references are everywhere in this area. This is Berber country, their unique culture and history can been seen dotted throughout the region’s landscape. In particular, the fortified granaries and villages known as ksar, although often referred to as ‘Berber castles’. Their striking architecture makes them a ‘must see’, but since they merge seamlessly with the landscape that’s easier said than done.

The extremes of living amongst these beautiful and severe landscapes have meant the human population has had to adapt to survive. Here you’ll find underground cave dwellings and caves hacked from rugged hillsides. Homes designed to be cool in the ferocious heat of summer, yet warm in the bitter cold nighttime of the desert winter. Many of these traditional communities have now been abandoned for modern housing in ‘new’ villages a short distant from the original, but some still have inhabitants.

At both Douirette and Chenini, as well as plenty of other smaller places, I’d find myself exploring alone. It doesn’t take much of an active imagination to imagine yourself as a latter day Indiana Jones; it was a little spooky at times, the quiet desert landscape accentuating every single noise as I nosed through abandoned homes. Without people, many of these former villages have fallen into ruin, but some, like Chenini, are being renovated with the hope of a tourist influx.

If these old Berber settlements weren’t atmospheric enough, on a whim I decided to experience a couple of days in the ‘real’ desert of the Grand Erg Oriental. This vast sandy void of over 40,000kmin Tunisia alone is part of the Sahara Desert, and home to Berber communities and oases. It has to be seen to be believed, and was probably worth the freak accident that saw me crash my hire car in the desert about 60km from the town of Douz.

Grand Erg Oriental, Douz, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Douz, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Douirette, Tunisia

Douirette, Tunisia

Beni Barka, Tunisia

Beni Barka, Tunisia

Mosque on Djerba, Tunisia

Mosque on Djerba, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Happily, I was able to walk away from the accident with the help of three Tunisian men who had been camping in the desert. The same could not be said for the car, which was towed back to Djerba to be used for scrap metal and spare parts. Apart from the shock of the accident, it meant I was stuck in the desert without my own transport 500km from where I needed to be get my flight back to Tunis. I found a driver willing to take me to the oasis of Ksar Ghilane and then on to Djerba.

Rather than spend time on Djerba at the start of my trip, I planned to have a refreshing couple of days on the island on my return from the heat and dust of the desert. The car crash had put me behind schedule. In the end, I only had a day to explore this attractive place. It was a shame, but my flight back to Tunis was booked and time had run out. The beguiling landscapes and friendly people of southern Tunisia will remain with me for a long time though.