The Fabulous South
Article & Images by Michael Morcos
Heat is one thing, but the desert in Tunisia brings it to a whole new level!
Luckily there are small havens throughout the country that can help you cool down and relax!
Started by the Roman Empire, Tozeur’s oasis is a paradise containing some 400,000 date palms, in place to provide shade for the myriad of fruit trees (peaches, apricots, pomegranates, figs, citrus fruits and bananas) throughout the immense plantation. The palms yield between 25,000 and 30,000 tons of dates each year, and include a limited 1,000 tons of top quality deglat en nour dates, which are particularly aromatic, semi-sweet, not too soft and grow only at the tips of palms. On top of the high quality soil needed, this arid oasis needs a lot of water. Engineering has filled the need with 1000 liters of water (per second) supplied from a multitude of ground sources.
A short 10 minute drive from the old town and right in the middle of an oasis in Tozeur is the Diar Abou Habibi. This relatively new eco-lodge is a nicely furnished, comfortable and clean. Rooms are individual bungalows in the palms with beautiful baths, a fridge, TV, coffee maker and minibar. All the comforts of home, plus they deliver a breakfast of croissants and eggs to your room whenever you want.
A highlight of any Tunisian trip is this very strange, odd and completely original park. Throughout the beautiful grounds are a gallery of what basically amounts to a 3D museum educating visitors about evolution, history and religion. The full size dinosaur replicas were particularly impressive, as were the excellent historical section with Hannibal and the Carthaginian wars, and the gallery of religious icons of the world’s major religions including prehistory from a biblical Adam and Eve perspective. The life sized Noah’s Arc and parting of the red seas were brilliantly kitschy!
Eden Palm –palm Museum
At first sight the Eden Palm palm museum may look like an usual choice for a visit, but once inside, you will discover a charming visit. The tour comes in two parts starting in the garden looking at multitude of palms and then an indoor tour. Our guide was passionate about date palms and it was quite infectious as he shared his enthusiasm with us. The garden is filled with many fruit trees growing under the multiple layered palm canopy. You even learn about the “private” life of the date palm and the way that palm wood is transformed to make pieces of furniture and decorative items.
Inside, there are wonderful displays showing its history and a range of date products for sale, a visit of a production unit of date syrup, used to make a lot of tasty products including “date honey”, “date butter”, “date jam with cinnamon”, and all is for sale. You can relax at a small cafe before heading back to the hot world outside.
We stopped at Nefta for panoramic view. Nefta is a town of cube-shaped, flat-roofed houses huddled closely together, with Tozeur-style architecture made from local kiln-fired clay or mud bricks. In some of the streets, the upper stories of the houses are held up on round- headed arches, project over the street and form a kind of tunnel offerings protection from the sun.
The next destination is a must for any fan of the Star Wars films – Onk El Jemal, dubbed the “Real Star Wars”. Luckily for fans, there are actually old sets of the Star Wars films that have been left untouched in the middle of the desert and it is an often-visited tourist attraction!
Dinner at ‘‘ DAR DEDA’’ which serves simple, local, gourmet cuisine without pretension, in a small room with warm colors. The special of the day was young camel, I passed for a wonderful all vegetarian dish.
The town of Douz is located on the northern fringe of the Sahara surrounded by desert and dry scrub land, but ringed by a large palm oasis. It was an important stop on the trans-Saharan caravan routes, and today tourists come in droves to get a taste of the mighty Sahara for themselves.
Within the town lies the Museum of the Sahara, with an interesting collection that explores traditional Saharan life, and the founder and curator will courteously offer visitors a fascinating tour of the collection. Through the main square, where all the tourist wares are on display, visitors can enter into the bustling local market for fruit and vegetables, dates and olives, bread and other delicacies. You can find good restaurants and cafés in Douz, or you could even go into the desert and make the sand bread “Mella” with dates!
Sunrise over Lake Tozeur
Chott El-Jerid is basically a rest stop between Tozeur and Douz and is the largest salt pan in the Sahara Desert. The salt crusts are unstable and the lake can fill and empty in a heartbeat, so it can be very dangerous to walk on. Like most groups, ours stopped here to enjoy the extraordinary sunrise over the salt pan and it is well worth the stop!
Racing across the desert
There is some adrenaline inducing adventures for those who are thrill seekers. We visited ‘Pedase’, where desert based sports took centre stage. There was camel riding, racing up and down the dunes in 4x4s, floating in the sky in an ultralight aircraft and Go-karts through the sand. I was an instant fan and like a kid I did them all!
On the last leg of this trip journey took us to Kairouan, the old capital of the south and the drastic change of scenery as we left southern desert and approached more fertile north.
Touring the Muslim holy city of Kairouan, which ranks 3rd after Mecca and Medina as a major place of pilgrimage, greets visitors with open arms.
We visited a local bakery, a traditional Tunisian pastry shop, the old medina itself and an eighth century well that was still being used. Brought to the surface by using a blindfolded camel, the driving mechanism that drew water up has not changed in centuries. Amazing!
A great way to end a trip through Tunisia…enjoying the Kairouan specialty mouth-watering baked goods like that of the Makraoudh and Zelbia, usually made with sugar and various nuts, like pistachios!
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