The town of Douz, population 28,000, seems to exist solely to cater to the needs of the tourists who come to ride a camel for the first time in their lives and get a taste of the vast, sandy sea that begins, just beyond the largest palm grove in the southern desert region of Tunisia. No one has set out to count all the trees, but residents claim there are over 500,000 palms producing dates, some of which are the prized deglat ennour (finger of light). Tiered farming is practiced here with fruit trees and vegetables being grown in the shade provided by the palmeraie.
Most visitors come for a taste of the Sahara, but the real thing is almost 150km south of Douz and we weren’t willing to park our rental car for a few days in order to join a tour group using camels or 4WD vehicles to navigate the shifting desert dunes of the Grand Erg Oriental. Besides, we had ridden camels before in Egypt, Rajasthan, and the United Arab Emirates. Our experience in a land cruiser, riding over the massive dunes in Abu Dhabi was so memorable; we couldn’t see how we could beat it.
The movie buff in me would have liked to visit Ksar Ghilane, reputed to have some of Tunisia’s most awe-inspiring landscapes. It’s located 138km south of Douz and the dunes there served as the backdrop for many films including The English Patient. As you are no doubt aware, choices have to be made when travelling; this one was easier than most.
Instead of heading south, we turned northwards towards Kebili, really just a pit stop before crossing between two vast salt lakes on our way to Tozeur. As we drove through the narrow streets, we noticed a tiny hotel called ‘March 20th Hotel’. It wasn’t much to speak of, but as it happened to be the 20th of March, we laughed and said to ourselves that if we weren’t prepared to stay there on such an auspicious day as this, we should at least turn around, set our camera to imprint the date on the photo (something I am usually loathe to do) and get someone to take our photo standing in front of the hotel sign.
It had been a busy morning, touring the troglodyte homes and instead of taking advantage of our clever idea, we drove straight on out of town and back into the barren landscape. We never thought to question why anyone would name a hotel after a date in March. Neither did we wonder why there were so many Tunisian flags strung across the streets of Douz and Kebili, or for that matter, most of the towns we had passed through in the previous few days.
We were moving at quite a pace. I was taking loads of photos and when we returned to our hotel rooms in the evenings, Anil would study our guidebook and I would load the photos onto the computer, delete the ones I didn’t like and make adjustments to those I wanted to keep. The adjustments turned out to be more than a little necessary because for the past few weeks, my camera seemed to be knocked off kilter and all my photos needed the horizon straightened by about 1.1°. Either that, or my spare glasses have me seeing crooked and I don’t hold the camera level when I take the photos.
For that reason, I didn’t feel I was properly prepared to navigate us into Tozeur. As Anil drove along the smooth highway, I poked my nose into our guidebook and studied the map of Tozeur for the next little while. When at last I looked up, I gasped at the dramatic landscape on either side of the road. We had been travelling through flat, scrubby terrain and I imagined it would be just more of the same.
Instead, there wasn’t a growing thing to be seen, that is if you don’t consider salt crystals growing out of a vast, evaporating salt sea (chott). In actual fact, we were moving along a narrow strip of land (the Jerid), which passes between two major salt lakes. Chott el-Jerid hugs the south of the 2-m high causeway, covers an area almost 5000 sq km and is part of a system of salt lakes that stretches from the Gulf of Gabès well into Algeria. Small boats, high and dry as we passed them, are testament that there is open water at times. I should have stopped to take a photo of a boat sitting on a pile of salt, but it seemed like a tourist gimmick to me, and I couldn’t imagine that boats would ever navigate here. I was wrong.
Chott el-Gharsa sits between the mountains to the north and the asphalt. While mapmakers label the Chott el-Jerid as a lake, for most of the year it looks like a moonscape. I read that it’s possible to make 1kg of salt from one litre of water. Now that’s salty! The wind can blow the salt into piles on the highway, and it looks like piles of snow, from a distance.
By summer, it will be bone-dry, but we were treated to the beauty of flowing water on either side of the pavement, water tinted by the minerals dissolved in it and the light of the afternoon sun. One side looked blue/green with white gypsum crystals forming small lumps rising out of the water, while the right side of the road looked as if blood was mixed with the water, at times quite red and at others a soft pink.
The causeway runs as straight as an arrow, just two lanes for the entire length of the Jerid, but there were a few spots where the road had been widened enough to allow for a small café to be built with room for some souvenir stands and a couple of ‘out-house-style’ toilettes. We zoomed right past these tourist traps, preferring to stop along the side of the road where there was no one else, nor any car, in sight in either direction. It was spooky to be in such a remote place, with the stark landscape stretching out in all directions. Apparently, this was where Luke Skywalker stood and observed the two moons in the first episode of Star Wars.