Through the desert to Djerba, the oasis of Ksar Ghilane

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.

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Berber woman and child near Matmata, Tunisia

Berber woman and child near Matmata, Tunisia

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

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.

Troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

Troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

Troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

Troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

Berber woman and child near Matmata, Tunisia

Berber woman and child near Matmata, Tunisia

Troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

Troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

Troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

Troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

Entrance to troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

Entrance to troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

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.

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.