Adventure in Tunisia  

Tunisia Odyssey: Eden to Oasis
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours


Dispatch 8 - Douz


In 2003, the road directly from Matamata to Douz, across the desert, was paved.  At that point this is a viable route for bicyclist.  [Though it was bicycled a least once while it was still a sand track, through sand dunes, sigh --see below.]  It a great chance to get a bit of a peek into the traditional life of the desert.  Occasionally [at least as late as 2009] you can see a traditional tent, herd of goats gazing and groups of camels foraging a meal from the meager vegetation,  dozens of miles from any obvious permanent settlement.  Because the tents lie so low they can easily be hidden behind, even a low hill, there might be much more "settlement" than meets the eye. All the camels are obviously owned because each has a plastic ear tag.  And to help their chance of survival, while there are no speed limit signs posted, there are multi-lingual camel crossing signs at regular intervals.

The first time I bicycled this route the "road" was a dirt track.  It passed through river beds, over rock hills and across certifiable sand dunes. The paving of the road, besides providing access to the largest tourist buses and swarms of tourist SUV's, is clearly bring more agriculture to the area, as evidenced by the work groups hand building jessours (dikes) and the increase in the amount of planted land -- mostly wheat and olive.  Year by year the number of jessours grow and this stretch is seeming less like the desert and more like irrigated arid country farm land.

In Douz, I could help but to marvel at the mastery of double-speak of some government bureaucrat – the United States has not cornered the market on this: The popular name around the country for new roads is "Boulevard of the Environment." Douz is not the first place that I had seen it. But in the case of Douz it is the new road that paves the desert and heads off to the horizon, bring plastic litter and more other environmental destruction to what was once a relatively pristine area.  Every town in the south has a Boulevard of the Environment.  Often it is the largest road in town.

Click to enlargeDouz comes in three parts: the old town, the oasis and the tourist zone. The town has a very working class feel to it. There is not much that speaks to the growing tourism industry in the area, except curio shops in the market square. This may be a saving grace because it means the traditional Tunisian culture is unfettered and the patients, pride and politeness persists.

The tourist zone is astounding. Built two kilometers away, across the oasis from town, it is a row of a half dozen huge, walled fortress hotels that emerge out of the edge a flat desert. Though the client came a long way to presumably see something of southern Tunisia and the desert, they mostly seem to stay within the air-conditioned confines of the Arabian-decorated fantasy bastions of the hotel; enjoying the irrigated garden, swimming pool and bar service. Though after a hundred plus kilometer bike ride and radiant afternoon, access to a swimming pool felt pretty darn nice to us too. 

Click to enlargeWhat would any self-respecting tourist do in the desert but go to the local rent-a-camel or "Camelot" for short ride. Presumably to make the experience more authentic and meaningful, most of the tourist wrap their heads and face in a scarf -- Lawrence of Arabia-style.  For the tourist-handles the scarves seem to have a different purpose because they seem to be color-code by group. Click to enlargeThough the tourist ride the camels, in real life, camels were used mostly for cargo -- hauling salt, gold, ivory and trade goods across the desert. A hour camel ride will convince you about why the camel jockeys generally preferred to walk along side the caravan.

Click to enlargeWe had known that the stores would be closed the night before so we had bought a picnic breakfast and ate it along the road side. Except for a jagged row of hills that changed colors as the sun rose in the sky the most exciting thing you can say about the landscape is it changes from dry to parch to desert. Actually, the landscape quite pleasant. The oases we passed in Limaguess, Kebili, Jemnah and Bechri proved that there was more water than meets the eye. And as we approached Douz tall sculpture dunes are abound with shape, texture and color. Most restaurants were closed for the holiday as well, so we chose a hotel with a meal plan. It was also by far the hottest day so far – even the locals were commenting on it – so it was nice that the hotel also had a swimming pool.

On one tour this day fell on Eid-ul-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice), an Islamic holiday that falls two month and ten days after the end of Ramadan. Because the Islamic lunar calendar is short than the solar calendar holidays shifts eleven or twelve days forward every year compared the Gregorian calendar. Eid-ul-Adha is compared with Christmas and Thanksgiving (but so is Eid-ul-Fitr, Festival of Fast-Breaking, at the end of Ramadan). The day starts with prayers and the sacrifice of a sheep. There is a lot of bleating and puddles of blood outside of many houses. This also explains why we had seen an inordinate number of trucks carrying sheep from the countryside into the cities for market for the last several days. In the afternoon families dress in their best, visit each other, give children gifts and congregate over a lamb dinner.

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