We left the hotel around 9:30 on Thursday morning for a trip around the area to see the three mountain oasis: Mides (1 km from the Algerian border), Tamerza (the town I was staying in) and Chebika, a 30 minute drive from Tamerza.
Now a little bit about these towns. All three are ancient Berber villages that were used by the Romans as outposts and a line of defense against invading Saharan tribes. The townspeople continued to inhabit the old mud brick villages until September of 1969 when the area was inundated with 22 days of nonstop rain, which left 600 people dead, 70,000 homes destroyed and 300,000 refugees throughout Tunisia.
The three Berber villages were particularly hard hit when the straw roofs of many of the mud brick buildings collapsed killing many of the villagers and wiping out all of their herds. New villages were constructed to replace the old mud brick villages, but the remains of all three villages still sit where the villagers left them.
And in addition, to being able to see the remains of the old Berber villages, the three oasis towns provide extraordinary landscape scenery: huge gorges and ravines, fragrant gardens, and flowing streams and waterfalls.
The first village we drove to was Mides. The village was a short ten minute drive from the hotel along a very narrow and very bumpy road. We passed by the Algerian border crossing and through the Mides oasis where we got out and hiked a short distance through the old village without seeing another person. It was remarkable to see how much destruction 22 days of rain could cause.
Now I had read that at the southern part of the old town there was a magnificent gorge, which at one time provided Mides with further protection from invaders. However, nothing, and I mean nothing, prepared me for the stunning site that came into view as we walked up the hill and over some rocks to the outer edge of a cliff. A deep 3 kilometer gorge had been carved out of the stone from millions of years of river torrents flowing through the area revealing multicolored layers of stone in red, yellow and brown. The views were stunning in every direction I looked. The gorge was without a doubt one of the most magnificent geographical sites I have ever seen (and I have seen a lot).
After staring and saying “holy crap”, “oh wow”, “oh my God” and “amazing” (as well as every other superlative I could think of), I finally and reluctantly turned to head back to the car. As I was leaving, a loan villager cornered me and began to show me camel bone jewelry. Yea, just what I need. More stuff. After shaking my head and seeing the forlorn look, I changed my mind. I ended up buying a rather unique hand made camel bone box and two camel bone necklaces. God knows when I will ever use the necklaces, but I clearly made the guy’s day so what the hell.
After the shopping trip, we climbed into the car and headed back and through Tamerza to a mountain gorge where the source of Temerza’s water supply is located. In addition, there were two small waterfalls that fed the water supply. The hike to the waterfall was short and sweet. The views were quite nice, but nothing could compare to the Picasso of views we saw earlier at Mides.
We next drove through the Tamerza oasis, over a washed out road and up and around and around a giant hill to the highest point in the region where we could view to the new town of Tamerza and the Chebika oasis (where we were headed to next). The views were beautiful and the contrast between the bright blue sky, the dry desert mountains and the sprinkle of green were rather stark.
Now a little bit about the oasis I have been mentioning. The south central area of Tunisia is very, very dry, except for the occasional underground spring. Wherever a spring exists you will always find a larger grove of palm trees (date palm and decorative palms used for wood), with the occasional fruit trees (lemon, lime and pomegranate) and grasses. This “oasis” is always located next to or near a town. The size of the oasis can range from tiny to hundreds of acres.
Anyways, as I was trying to take pictures of the area and the oasis below, a local village kid began to follow me around insisting he take a picture of me. Now this is a classic ploy. Take a picture, ask for money. If you don’t give him money, he won’t give you your camera back. I told the kid I wasn’t interested, but he wouldn’t let up. Finally, just to get him to leave me alone I told him I would look in his dad’s shop, but he had to leave me be. Well … bad choice. One woven Berber wall hanging later, I was back in the car and heading to our final stop of the morning: Chebika.
Once we parked the car just outside the village of Chebika, we found a coffee shop and sat and drank another of the tiny cups of coffee that Tunisians seem to love so much. Once we had our caffeine fix, Hassan gave me the option of hiking up and through the old village, over a mountaineous area and down the other side to the gorge where the Chebika springs and waterfalls are located, or we could take a shortcut along the springs and skip the hike. Uh … what do you think I want to do? I didn’t have my hiking boots on for nothing!
Now Hassan was clearly not dressed for hiking. He had on a pair of jeans and dress shoes (you read that right). Uh Hassan aren’t you going to at least change your shoes. Either he didn’t understand me or he didn’t think it was necessary. Hassan beckoned me and off we set. OK. I presume you know what you are getting into.
The hike up to the old village was easy enough, but once past the village, we had to climb over numerous bolders, squeeze through some very narrow crevasses and hike up, up, up a staircase that turned to a pathway that turned to dirt and stones. I was having no problem in my trusty hiking boots, but how Hassan was making it was beyond me. (And as much as I was enjoying the hike, I have to say that the hike I had in the Cappadoccia region in Turkey in 2010 with another Hassan was better if for nothing else than Hassan #1 himself. And if you don’t believe me go look at my Cappadoccia blog and look at the picture of Hassan!)
Anyway, we finally reached the crest of the hillside and began the decent into the gorge. This gorge was miniature in comparison to the Mides Gorge, but it was nevertheless beautiful with more extreme color contrasts between the burnt brown of the bare stone surfaces and the intense green of the palm trees and grasses.
We reached the first pool about 35 minutes after starting the hike. Because of all the mineral deposits in the area, the pool was a very unique turquoise blue. At this point there was a clear path leading from the pool back in the direction we just came. I presumed that this was the easy route I could have chosen.
The path led over the stream in a couple places and up and around a couple small turns, which led to a series of very pretty little waterfalls. Ten minutes after encountering the first pool, we were back at the steps where we had started.
Well that was fun. We stopped back in the little cafe where we had coffee and this time the fellow took three pomegranate halves, put them in a juicer and made me pomegranate juice. It had been a very hot hike in the mid day sun so the pomegranate juice was VERY refreshing.
At this point, my touring for the day was done. Once back at the hotel, I said goodbye to Hatem and Hassan and decided to take a little rest before figuring out what to do with the rest of the day.
Around 4, after the heat of the day had passed, I put my hiking boots back on, scrambled down the multiple levels of stairs of my hotel (which sits on a bluff overlooking the old Tamerza ruins) to the dry Oued Horchane (a dry river) and hiked across the rocky river bed to the ruins of old Tamerza. The view from my hotel to the ruins was spectacular and the hike around the ruins was a ton of fun. No one was around so I was able to climb into old crumbling homes and up abandoned staircases, peer into the old mosque and take in the scenery.
I finally had enough and crossed back over the Oued Horchane and went to my room. After a shower and a change of clothes, I sat on the deck overlooking the old Tamerza ruins and watched the sun set. My hotel was really quite beautiful and the service was first rate. Unfortunately, the area continues to suffer from a lack of tourists, so other than one couple I saw as I walked through the lobby area, I had the run of the place.
However, despite the lack of people, I could not get the fellow working the bar to come over and take my drink order (and I really wanted a beer). Rather than getting up and going over to order (which would result in the guy apologizing ten times over) I just let it go and drank my mineral water.
After the sun set I had dinner in the lovely dining room overlooking old Tamerza. Now the food had been very, very good. However, the young men working in this hotel spoke no English so we had to work with a combination of hand gestures and French. This meant ordering dinner had been a bit of a challenge.
Tonight I was entirely unsure what I had ordered, except that it was some lamb dish. The salad and appetizers were wonderful, but when the main course came and I took one bite, I realized I had somehow ordered lamb liver. Good God! I didn’t want to insult the poor kids, but I could only take two bites and was gagging. Now I really did need a beer! ACK! What a bad way to end a great day!!