Adventure in Tunisia  
 

Tunisia Odyssey: Eden to Oasis
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours

 
 

Dispatch 4 - Tataouine

 
  The flat, twenty kilometers to Bir Lahmir, the first town due south of Medenine, went quickly with a light tailwind.  Breakfast restaurant option are thin in Medenine so we opted to do the first leg before breakfast.  We had a good appetite when we arrived.  Breakfast was a simple, ad hoc assemble of good bread and spreads, pastries, yogurt, coffee and tea. The thé from the café was so strong and sweet, with strands of what appeared to be rosemary in it (though there was no discernable tasted rosemary taste) that, although only a small glass, it felt like it alone would power us to the next stop.

Back about year 2000, there was the "Year of the Environment".  Not long after that "Avenue de l'Environnement" or "Boulevard of the Environment" started to appear in many towns in Tunisia.  Often these were major widening and up-grades to the main road in town.  The first prominent sign on the route to Bir Lahmir -- an otherwise small, one intersection village on the highway between Medenine and Tataouine -- proclaims "Avenue of the Environment."  Isn't there some irony in having more paving a commemorative project for environmental awareness and protection?

The next leg is increasingly pleasant agricultural country with some small hills.  The next notably point of interest is the compact picturesque town of Ghomrassen, which is wedged into the zig-zag gorge cut through the centuries by Oued Ghomrassen (Ghomrassen River),  At this time of year the river is dry, but the river bed is wide enough to carry a lot of water.  It suggests that when it rains it pours. The wholly man Marabout Sidi Moussa Ben Abdullah's whitewashed mausoleum sits above the town on the north hill and the towns large ksar has a seemingly equally inaccessible perch on the cliff to the south of town. The town is also considered the home of a sweet treat made with honey, almonds and olive oil

called the "corne de gazelle" (gazelle horn).  To the west of the center of town, under a large over hang, are a series of old cave paintings, most showing animals. 

After a another gentile six kilometer climb, we reach Ksar Hedada by mid-morning. By Tunisian standards, Ksar Hedada is fairly new at only a couple hundred years old. We check into the even newer hotel, drop our stuff and had a snack. The hotel for the night is a converted ksar. The ghorfas (long barrel vaulted storage rooms which are stacked and walled to form a ksar) have been fitted with beds and bathrooms.  [Ed. note 2005: the hotel has since closed (see sidebar), but word in Ksar Hedada is it will open again by 2006.  Ed. note 2007 and 2009: It is still not renovated for lodging and the current word is that there are no plans to.]

If it looks familiar you have probably seen one of the Star War movies.  Ksar Hedada was used as the site of Tatawine (pronounced exactly like the Tunisian town, 20 kilometers southeast of Tataouine -- hardly original creativity) for 1997 movie "Star Wars the Phantom Menance".

After a break at the hotel we headed out for Chenini, 12th century mountain top village. It is about a thirty kilometer ride. Most of the route there is a delightful, generally flat ride with nice views of farm lands and mesas.  Along the way we passed another relatively intact ksar at El Firch and stopped to explore it for a bit.  The combination of symmetry and asymmetry, and the lighting, made the czar particularly photogenic.

The scenery on this section of the ride was spectacular. A line of mesas and peaks extended for a miles to our right and on our left was a mountain top and sheer cliff with the ruined city of Chenini along the rim, a shining white mosque dominating the earth-toned houses. A young burro crossed the road to its mother directly before us with a young, barefoot girl  right behind it, alternately shouting her displeasure to the burro and helloing us.

To get to Chinini, being on the top of a mountain, the last stretch has a hefty climb.  At the top of the road were the tour buses with lounging drivers and a nice restaurant. It was now past noon so we made for the restaurant where we split three standard plates between the five of us and still paid almost twice as much per person as any meal so far. However, the meal was plentiful with cornes de gazelle as part of the deal.

Afterwards, we made our way up the steep path to view the ruins of ksar Chenini, a twelfth century fortified hill village. There were as many vendors, inhabitants (for some of the structures have been renovated and are indeed still inhabited), and potential tour guides as there were tourists since this is not the high season. The ruined city is as impressive as its location lining the cliff. The view from the top went on for miles and miles.

All around the mountain top trails switch back and forth along the faces to give people access to the warren of homes. The homes are a mixture of stone and clay-mortar houses and subterranean rooms, clinging to and dug into the steep hillside.  This was all done to provide protection from raiding groups that would attach in the area. Now that raids are not a threat, most residence have opted for the easier life and building houses and lives in the flat lands at the foot of the mountain. Consequently, the old houses on the mountain are falling into disrepair, but it is still a remarkable site. The best maintained building in the old hillside village is the mosque.  A few people also have businesses and maintain amusements, like a camel powered oil press, for the benefit of the tourists.  It is also the first place where we encountered a concentration of children persistently demanding to be given money.

And what a ride that next seventeen kilometers was! A steep, but gently curved downhill with a strong tailwind to start and then a strong tailwind with rolling hills as intermezzo. Most of the small hills you could take by coasting over or briefly pedaling hard to the crest; only a few required us to downshift and again only briefly. Very pleasant.

Returning to Ksar Hedada, by a slightly shorter route (but with seven rough kilometers of dirt road), we passed another similar 12th century village at and above the town of Guermessa. Except for the mosque this town has completely moved down to the flat lands.

We proceed through some remarkable country with stark mesas and bluffs that could have been in a New Mexico-scape. However, the stone and cave houses that appeared from time to time belied this notion. For those who love the American southwestern vistas, this ride was picture perfect.

With a day full of good adventure we ate and slept well. Sleeping in a ghorfa is like sleeping in a thick clay cocoon – no sound or light penetrates to disturb you. They are quite cozy and romantic. But Tunisians probably think that tourists are crazy to pay to sleep in "storage bins."

If we had left in the other direction from Chinini, in twenty-two kilometers we would have reached Douiret, another hillside ksar.  This is a very beautify section of road with river gorges, tessour, hills and valleys.   It Douiret is less inhabited and more in ruins than Chinini, but still very interesting to poke around.  One of its claims to uniqueness is a subterranean rock-hewn mosque.

Continuing another twelve kilometers and you will reach Ksar Ouled Debbab it has an impressive gorfa-style ksar that sits prominently on the hill about the town.

From Ksar Ouled Debbab it is ten kilometers to Tataouine or six kilometers to the junction of the road to Chinini and the road to El Ferch (six kilometers from Tataouine), completing a circle.

Addendum

On one tour we tried a non-standard route to Ksar Hedada.  You'll learn why it is not the standard route, but it makes a good story. It started out ordinary enough; we followed the obvious route for the first twenty-five kilometers. At that point there was a newly paved road to the right, which, on the map, looked like it should head directly to Ksar Hedada, but it was not signed. Not far down the road I spoke to a couple of men on a farm and we concluded that their comments and jesters meant that we could get to Ksar Hedada by this road. After six kilometers we came to a village and asked again. The message here was a little more confused. No one was encouraging us to follow our route, but no one was saying that it couldn’t be done. Clearly the Click to enlarge road changed from paved to dirt, but it was in good shape, flat and gently rolling, and fairly well travel. And it continued in the right direction. Well, that could be said for the next three kilometers. Here the "road", which had abruptly deteriorated, dropped into a dry river bed. The good news was it spotted emerging from the river bed  Click to enlarge
a couple hundred meters away. It had narrowed and was rocky but still headed the right direction.  That passes as the good news because the whole river valley was getting increasing narrow and steep sided. Our trail traversed the hillside near the bottom. Within the next kilometer of so it became clear that the valley was dead-ending into a horseshoe-shaped cliff and we need to find a way up to the top of the cliff and out. Conveniently, a solution appeared. At the head of the canyon was what can best be described as a donkey trails,
switch-backing up the cliff. We a little sweat we pushed the bikes the several hundred meters to the top, walk through someone’s backyard and front yard and out on to another paved road -- just a kilometer north of Ksar Hedada. It would be hard for there to be a more direct route, but there are definitely easier route.

 

Ksar Hedada has fallen into disrepair since its closure as a hotel.

One alternative lodging to the closed Ksar Hedada is the three star Dykanus, with one of the best hotel pools in Tunisia.

     
 

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