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A DRIVE IN THE DESERT                               by Robin Nowacki

It’s a bumpy ride to a campsite in the Sahara for Robin Nowacki, as he gets a taste of life in southern Tunisia.


It’s just three hours to fly from Britain to Southern Tunisia, and yet you enter a world so different to 21st Century Europe that you might be forgiven for believing you had travelled back to the times of Lawrence of Arabia.

 

It’s the North African equivalent of America’s old “Wild West”; a frontier territory onto the majestic Sahara Desert, where the nomadic peoples have only just stopped travelling. They still possess the same beguiling skills as their forefathers as camel jockeys and horse riders, and carry on embracing a traditional way of life that dates back countless generations.

 

It’s a vibrant tapestry of tradition is as richly woven as the flowing garments covering all but the face, which are worn by everyone here. It’s clothing that is vital to keep out both the constantly shifting Saharan sands, and shield from the baking sun overhead by day, as well as protecting from deep chill of the desert by night.

 
At the southern Tunisian oasis town of Douz, known as “The Gateway to the Sahara”, due to it being the last outpost before thousands of miles of open desert, these traditions are on display at the spectacular Sahara Festival that is held each year just after Christmas.
 































Here you’ll find elaborate and dazzling parades, daring horse and camel races, and mock fights - displayed by a people seemingly born in the saddle.
 
They are skills that would be familiar to the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, who was no stranger to fighting on camel back, in a desert a thousand miles to the east, at time of the First World War.

The ‘Ships of the Desert’, as camels were regularly referred to, remained the fastest and most effective way to move around these vast wildernesses until the development of the modern 4 x 4 motor vehicles.


Now off-road vehicles come in many shapes and sizes, but based on my observations over many days in the Sahara, together with several weeks previous experience on Uganda’s roughest roads, the king of the genre has to be the Toyota Land Cruiser.
 
In fact I am sure if Lawrence of Arabia could have chosen one of these seemingly unstoppable vehicles over his camel - he would have done.
 
It was aboard one such Toyota with two colleagues and our driver- the magic Majid, nicknamed thus due to the way he managed time and time again to make his Land Cruiser do the seemingly impossible - that I travelled over 100 kilometres from Douz into the Sahara.
 

















What passed as something resembling a road soon gave way to open desert and we found ourselves climbing up and down the sides of the larger sand dunes – whilst when it came to the smaller ones – simply going over the tops and down the other side – like a boat in a rough sea – it was the bumpiest car ride of my life.


The fact that we survived several hours of this each day testified to the strength of these vehicles, and surprised myself and the other passengers with just how much punishment we could also take.
 
We were heading to the Saharan tented village of Camp Mars, at a place called Timbaine. This was real camping in the Sahara, sleeping under canvas, with no running water and only candles and torches for light once the sun set over the red sand dunes.
 
We truly were in the middle of nowhere, and it wasn’t long before we were suffering the withdrawal symptoms from modern life. Not only was there no social media contact or internet connection – but not even any phone signal.
We were totally cut off from the outside world. It’s something most travellers would have experienced on a regular basis only a few decades ago, but now in our Global Village of a World, thanks to satellite technology, it’s an increasingly rare event.
 
However at Camp Mars we were not to go hungry or thirsty. In the large mess tent that night we were to experience the true generosity of the traditional Tunisian hospitality. There was wonderful spiced lamb with couscous, enriched by olives and cooked in large clay pots cracked open by swords. It was washed down with some fine Tunisian wines - a legacy of the former French colonial period - with the reds particularly pleasing.
 
Later, outside under the clear starry Saharan Desert sky, we gathered together forming a circle around a blazing log fire. It was the perfect way to keep warm, and listen to traditional Saharan music and song.
 
That night, as we lay in our camp beds under richly woven woollen blankets, candles flickering, a high wind whipped across the Sahara shaking and pushing at the tents. It was all part of the authentic desert experience, though, and yet another tale to tell.


USEFUL INFORMATION
 
Tunisair fly from London Heathrow to Tunis – Carthage several times a week.
 
Internal flights to Tozeur, on the edge of the Sahara, take just 40 minutes. Majid’s company, Nomades, operates from here. Tel: (76) 453.432.
 
Douz is a further two hours drive across Chott el Djerid - a large endothecia salt lake. The El Mouradi Hotel is a recommended, civilized refuge from the heat and dust of the Sahara.
 
Throughout Tunisia hotel accommodation, and eating out is very good value. The cuisine is some of the best I have encountered, even rivaling many in Southern Europe.
 
For more information - the Tunisian National Tourist Office is on 020 7224 5561,     or visit  -   www.cometotunisia.co.uk
 

ROBIN NOWACKI

A regular contributor to Pro Traveller Magazine, Robin has a vast experience stretching back to his time with TV Travel Shop.

He  enjoys trying different types of travel, and he written on subjects as diverse as Beer in Belgium, and cruising in the Caribbean.

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