Berber fortresses and desert landscapes, Tataouine

The deep blue and turquoise waters of the Mediterranean sparkled below as my flight from Tunis came in to land on the island of Djerba. The contrast between the brilliance of the sea and the dusty brown of the land was stunning. The lure of the water was almost enough to make me abandon my half-baked plan to hire a car at the airport and head into the southern Tunisian interior. How much more rewarding, I thought, would it be to return to this idyllic-looking place after a week in the desert?

I hired a car from a local outfit, largely because they were the only place that was open. It wasn’t the newest of vehicles but I thought that would help me to blend in with local traffic. I acquired a fairly old looking map, figuring that there was unlikely to have been a radical road building plan that made it obsolete, and set off for Star Wars country: Tataouine. First though I had to get off Djerba and onto the mainland. My route took me past one of the most ancient sites on the island.

Landscape near Tataouine, Tunisia

Landscape near Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tataouine, Tunisia

Fadhloun Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Fadhloun Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Fadhloun Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Fadhloun Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

The brilliant white 14th century Fadhloun Mosque is a stunning sight seen across the dusty landscape, but somehow it seems to fit perfectly with its surroundings of olive trees. The shape of the mosque is both attractive and surprising, I’d assumed its thick walls were a result of the climate, but it doubled as a fortification in case of invasion. It was one link in a chain of fortified mosques. I found myself alone in this atmospheric and photogenic place.

I stopped to visit a couple more mosques before heading off for the two to three hour drive. I didn’t want to miss out on seeing Ksar Ouled Soltane, one of the most famous of the fortified Berber granaries. A good place to base yourself, Tataouine is an eminently missable modern town that was established by the French as a garrison town at the end of the 19th century. The surrounding countryside though, holds some of the most extraordinary places in the region.

It is also home to some of the most evocative and gloriously beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen, especially in the ‘golden hour’ of sunrise and sunset. Which was lucky since it had taken longer than expected to reach the area close to Tataouine, and by the time I arrived at Ksar Ouled Soltane the sun was getting low in the sky. This brought with it the benefit of having the ksar to myself. This is definitely one of the more visited of the region’s sights but, with the exception of someone selling pencil drawings, I was alone.

The vaulted store rooms known as ghorfas that once would have held grain, and were built to be defended against marauding bandits, were glowing an impossible golden orange in the sunlight. I wandered around in the silence of the gathering twilight and tried to absorb the atmosphere of this truly magical place. As I left I stopped to chat to the guy selling drawings, I really wanted a cold drink but everything was closed in the late afternoon.

Ksar Tounket, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Tounket, Tataouine, Tunisia

Village near Tataouine, Tunisia

Village near Tataouine, Tunisia

Fadhloun Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Fadhloun Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tataouine, Tunisia

Hotel Sangho Privilege Tataouine, Tunisia

Hotel Sangho Privilege Tataouine, Tunisia

Back in the car I headed to Tataouine and the pleasant Sangho Privilege Tataouine, my hotel for the next couple of days. The landscape all around me glowed red and orange, it was so beautiful I kept stopping to take photos. On the outskirts of Tataouine a small miracle occurred and I found the hotel without a satnav or a functioning smart phone – in the dark. I was tired and just wanted to eat and sleep, but the lure of having a beer by the hotel pool as the stars came out was too enticing.

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.