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.

Troglodyte caves and beautiful views, Ksar Guermessa

Of all the unearthly places I visited in the southern Tunisian deserts, the ghostly Berber village of Ksar Guermessa has to count as the most haunting. Founded sometime in the 12th century, it was fortified in response to the growing threat from Arab invaders, and it shares similarities with many of the other Berber hilltop villages in this area: fortified granaries built on top of an original troglodyte settlement, and a brilliant white mosque burning bright in the brown, dusty landscape.

As you approach Guermessa, it’s hard to even tell that there’s a settlement built on and into the hillside, and along a ridge stretching across the skyline. The old village is split into two hilltops connected by a ‘saddle’ where the mosque sits, and if it wasn’t for the telltale white of the mosque you’d be forgiven for not noticing the village amongst the unrelentingly scrubby landscape. I parked the car in a small car park and set off up the hill to explore the abandoned village.

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Not for the first time on this trip I found myself wondering where all the other tourists were. Here is an ancient village, easily accessible from Tataouine, that not only offers a glimpse into the lives of generations of Berber inhabitants, but comes with spectacular views. As I walked along the ridge I came across the troglodyte houses for which the village is famed. Each has a surrounding wall with a door into an inner courtyard, more doors then lead inside homes carved into the rock. It’s extraordinary.

I literally got shivers down my spine as I entered these cave homes, the scattering of possessions that had been abandoned by their former inhabitants creating an almost supernatural atmosphere. The eerie silence amidst the ruins of a once thriving village was a surreal experience, and my imagination was conjuring all manner of dark and troubling illusions. I felt like I’d stumbled upon a place where the inhabitants had been forced to flee for their lives – I was expecting Morlocks to leap out from behind walls and drag me to the underworld.

The reality is far more prosaic. I’d passed through the new village of Guermessa on my way here, and from the ridge where I was walking I had fantastic views of it and the surrounding landscape. The government had built a new village with running water, electricity, schools, hospitals and paved roads. People chose to leave their old lives behind and start afresh in the modern world. While I’m sure people are far better off in their new homes, it has lent an air of tragedy to the old village.

I walked the full length of the village and visited a dozen or so houses, noting the small details of inhabitation: palm wood doors stained green with metal studs, a hand print in the mud of a wall, old olive oil jars, a box that had once contained tea. The women and girls of Guermessa were once famous for producing handmade embroidery, known as margoum. Woolen and brightly coloured, sadly the craft seems to be dying out in these communities, although you can still find it for sale.

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

I made my way back to the mosque, drinking in the views as I went. I thought about visiting the other half of the village, but decided it was too hot and instead headed to the new village to see if I could unearth somewhere to have lunch. I was out of luck. On my way back to Tataouine I spotted an unlikely sight, two dinosaurs striding across a nearby hilltop. After exploring the spectral delights of Guermessa, that didn’t seem so odd.

Six centuries of crumbling Berber history, Douiret

It’s hard to imagine as you’re wandering around the ruins of the once glorious Berber village of Douiret, but in the mid-19th century this truly extraordinary place was home to more than three and a half thousand people. As I walked the streets past abandoned former homes, it was as if I was exploring a ghost town. If there are people still living in the village I didn’t see them, although I did spot a single, solitary person walking along a ridge just outside the village.

Founded over 600 years ago, Douiret was once a busy commercial centre on a desert caravan route, and camel trains would spend the night here, inside what was a Berber citadel. Seen from the shallow valley between it and the modern village of the same name, the village rises up like a Pieter Bruegel painting of the Tower of Babel. Houses seem to be stacked on top of each other in a conical shape. Uniformly brown, it blends with the surrounding landscape, the gleaming white mosque the only real sign that it’s a village and not just a hill.

Chenini en route to Douiret, Tunisia

Chenini en route to Douiret, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Beni Barka, Tataouine, Tunisia

Beni Barka, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

The route to Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

The route to Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

I’d driven through the blasted yet beautiful desert landscape from Chenini to reach the village. It’s only a short journey of around 10km, but it cuts through post-apocalyptic scenery that makes you glad to come across signs of civilisation. Not that Douiret, old or new, really counts as civilisation. I’d passed through the new village to reach the road to old Douiret, other than a few palm trees there was very little evidence of life. You’d have to have a very particular personality type to live out here.

I parked the car at the base of the hill and set off in the heat to climb a steep track into the village. There are a couple of places to stay in the village and I can imagine that it would be a spectacular and atmospheric place to spend a night or two – provided you’d brought sufficient provisions with you. The moment you start to gain some height, the views back down the valley are breathtaking, you can see the new village but also, at the base of the hill, the old village’s cemetery.

The route I took into the village passed a rock formation that, when I turned around to take in the view, looked like a human head. It was the closest I came to seeing an actual human for the next couple of hours. Wandering around the rubble of an ancient culture may not be for everyone, but I find places like Douiret fascinating. Silent in the intense heat, eerie and just a little other-worldly, the history is palpable. Scrambling amongst the broken buildings, the views over the valley are little short of spectacular.

The mosque here is known as Jamaa ennakhla, the ‘palm tree mosque’, and is the most striking feature of the village. I don’t know who paints the holy places of the desert with whitewash, but these buildings have a dramatic effect on the landscape. Brilliant points of light amongst drab surroundings, they almost scream to you that in such an hostile environment you should make your peace with God. I found myself cursing the very same deity as I sweated my way up to the top of the hill, determined to get a full panorama.

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

A head rock formation, Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

A head rock formation, Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

It was hot work, but I knew that when I returned to Tataouine I’d have access to cold beer and a (not much warmer) swimming pool. Ice Cold in Alex fantasies at the front of my mind, I walked back to the car, tomorrow I’d be leaving early to head into the Grand Erg Oriental and the Berber oasis of Douz, a different but similarly hostile landscape. There would be one final stop though, in Beni Barka, to visit yet another dramatically located and abandoned ksar.

Here I would tear a massive (and embarrassing) hole in my trouser crotch, the start of a streak of bad luck that would end with me dangling upside down in the desert.

Chenini and the legend of the Seven Sleepers

There are a few different versions of the legend of the Seven Sleepers, which dates to around 250 AD. In the Catholic tradition, the story is of seven Christians persecuted by the Romans who took refuge in a cave near Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey, where they were discovered asleep. The cave was sealed with them inside and still alive. Centuries later, a farmer discovered the cave and, presumably to his great surprise, opened it to find all seven men alive and well, and believing they’d only slept for a single day.

The legend is shared by Islam and a near identical version of the story appears in the Quran. In this the sleepers are persecuted for their faith and are said to have spent 309 years in the cave. During which time they had grown to be four metres tall. The Quran is silent on the exact whereabouts of the cave, but the stunning location of the Mosque of the Seven Sleepers near the ancient town of Chenini is dramatic enough to claim the right.

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Landscape around Tataouine, Tunisia

Landscape around Tataouine, Tunisia

In the brown, barren landscapes close to Tataouine, the brilliant white of mosques can be seen on hillsides for miles around. As I turned off the main highway towards the modern village of Chenini and the ancient ruined Berber village of the same name, the Mosque of the Seven Sleepers could be seen from several kilometres away. A side road took me underneath the ancient village to the mosque, where I climbed a nearby hill to get a view. It was magnificent.

The landscapes here are undoubtably harsh, and life must be tough for its inhabitants, but it is a region of extraordinary beauty as well. I’d seen photos of this area, but they don’t really prepare you for the reality of it. I wandered back to the car and drove back to the equally dramatic ruined hilltop village of Chenini. The oldest parts of the village date to the 12th century, and most of them seemed to be crumbling back into the earth from which they were first moulded.

From a distance it’s not easy to pick out that there is a village built on the steep sides of the hill, everything is a uniform brown colour and blends seamlessly together. The site of the village was strategic and defensive, communities like Chenini would have been easy picking from raiding parties otherwise. I parked the car at the foot of the hill and walked upwards through the steep maze-like streets. From afar it’s easy to imagine the village is abandoned, but I came across a few of the 500 or so people still living there.

It was clear that renovation works were well under way in an attempt to attract more visitors, and there are places you can stay in the village. Quite frankly, it deserves to be far more popular than the grand total of zero tourists that I encountered the day I was there. It’s hardly a hidden gem – it’s big and sits on a hilltop – but that day it might as well have been invisible to modern tourism. I suppose I should have been grateful, it was fabulous exploring the ruins by myself.

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

I wandered down the hillside looking for somewhere to get a drink and maybe a snack, most things seemed to be closed, if they’d ever been open. Eventually I found a place on the road beneath the village serving mint tea and some pastries, both tooth achingly sweet. I watched the world not going by for half an hour and then hit the road towards another ancient Berber hill village, Douiret.

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.