Ksar Ghilane, Tunisia
My Friday can best be described as a train ride, a car ride and a camel ride … uh check that … no camel ride occurred, but I did eat camel meat for lunch. But more about that later.
We started out the day late because Hatem, my driver, had to rush his mother to the hospital very early in the morning. (As I previously mentioned, Hatem lives nearby and so he was visiting his family while I was touring the area. I later found out his mother was fine … a blood pressure issue.)
Anyway, because of the delay we left the hotel late and we had to fly (and I mean fly) down the narrow, bumpy high desert roads to Metlaoui where I was going to catch the famous Lezard Rouge (“Red Lizard”) train for a two hour trip through the Atlas Mountains along the route carved out by the Oued Seldja (Seldja river). The train left at 10:30 a.m. so I was nervously checking the time as we raced the clock. We arrived just as the conductor’s whistle was sounding, but managed to jump on and find a very comfortable seating area in the second car just as the train began to pull out of the station.
Now the Lezard Rouge train was built in 1910 and was originally owned by the bey of Tunis, who used the train to travel between Tunis and his summer palace in Hamman. In 1995 the Tunisian National Railway retrofitted the train and put it back in service ferrying tourists around along its present route through the Seldja Gorge in the Atlas Mountains. The train service stopped during the Tunisian uprising because of dangers in the area and has only recently commenced service.
The trip turned out to be wonderful. The old steam engine train retained a lot of its original elegance (including a fabulous woohoooooo train whistle). Our train car contained beautiful glass and brass light fixtures overhead, wooden windows (that were wide open for a better view) and carved wooden moldings. It was lovely (and the seating in our car was padded whereas the other cars were wooden benches).
The train traveled through several brilliant sections of the gorge with very weird rock formations. We passed through eight tunnels and several oasis. We were able to get off at two stops for pictures, but I was so paranoid about being left behind, I literally jumped off, took a couple pictures and then climbed back on the train. (The conductor blew his whistle when we were set to leave so there was no need to be paranoid, but that’s just me….)
Anyway, once we reached Seldja, the engine was disconnected from the train and fifteen minutes later it was attached to the other end of the train and we were on our way back to Metlauoi. I switched sides of the train so I could get a look at the other side. It was a lot of fun to hang my head out the open windows and watch the beautiful scenery come into view. And we even saw a camel hanging out in the shadow of the gorge.
Once we reached the Metlauoi train station, we met Hatem and we set off for Tozeur as the mid day call to prayer rang out through the Metlauoi. Tozeur is a small rural southern town on the edge of the Sahara,which has been continuously inhabited since 8,000 BC. We were going to stop here for lunch (lunch is always mid afternoon in Tunisia and not right at 12:00) and a walk through the Ouled el-Hadef (the old quarter).
We arrived in Tozeur after a short drive through a myriad of small oasis towns. The highlight of the drive was passing a number of camel crossing signs (seriously). Unfortunately, we did not see any camels.
Initially, Hassan was going to take me to a touristy hotel in Tozeur for lunch until I more or less scolded him and said “why is it you guys keep trying to take me to crappy tourist hotels for lunch. Can’t you find me a good local restaurant?” (I had already vetoed a number of lunch restaurants convincing them to find me “local”. And I was certain they could find me a good restaurant in Tozeur because this place happened to be Hatem’s hometown.)
Hassan immediately told me he had the perfect spot and five minutes later we were stopping on a dusty sidestreet. We wandered down a narrow alley in the direction of a sign announcing “Restaurant”. Le Minaret was a small local hangout that had been created on the first floor of an old Tunisian residence. The proprietors were a French ex-pat and his local partner and the food was basic and full of flavor.
We ended up sitting outside in the lovely courtyard. After hearing recommendations from the French proprietor, I ordered the kafka (potato meatballs) and chicken shish kebabs (with peppers and tomatoes). Hassan ordered Tunisian salad and grilled skirt steak. After we ate the standard bread and harissa and our appetizers, the main course came, and Hassan insisted I try his skirt steak. I gave it a go, but it was rather dry, a tad tough and with an odd flavor. Hassan was raving about how good it was, but for me … Meh. It was not that good. And quite frankly not even in a league with chicken shish kebabs. In fact, I even thought to myself … geez these poor Tunsians don’t know what good steak really is.
Anyway, after stuffing myself I could not even eat dessert (which was unfortunate because it was apparently home made ice cream). The proprietor then gave us a tour of the inside portion of the restaurant and as we were leaving the proprietor said something to Hassan that caused him to laugh. I looked at both and then got the news … the “skirt” steak I had tried was actually camel. Seriously? Well that would explain the lousy taste. Now it was confirmed. Not only is the camel a crappy form of transportation, it is an equally crappy meal. (And no … eating camel is not something I can cross of my “bucket list”.)
So after the little surprise at lunch, Hassan and I walked out of the restaurant, back down the alley and across the street to the entrance of the Ouled el-Hadef. The medina dated to the 9th century and was once a great trading post during the Sahara camel caravan days. However, the medina was mostly a residential area now. We wandered the labyrinth of narrow alleyways which featured brickwork that was unique to the area as well as lovely wooden doors leading to residences.
We actually only encountered a couple of shops (which was VERY different from other medinas), and I ended up finding some unique local artisan paintings done on small wooden frames, as well as a hand carved Berber statute which I had not seen anywhere else.
After the purchases, we wandered through to the end of the medina in what was turning out to be a very hot day. We met Hatem (who had gone to check on his mother and was apparently doing much better) and began the long drive through the Sahara to Ksar Ghilane, the desert camp I would be staying in for the night.
Now the first part of the desert crossing was actually quite interesting. We passed through a number of desert oasis during the first twenty minutes or so and then we began crossing the Chott El-Jerid, an enormous salt lake covering almost 5,000 km. Now this was really fascinating. The Chott El-Jerid was vast and desolate with this huge white expanse shimmering in the searing heat and giving off a reflection reminiscent of waves in an ocean. In the far distance I swore I could see an island, but Hassan assured me it was only a mirage… and I wasn’t even thirsty.
At one point we passed a salt mining excavation site (apparently the only excavation site in this part of the salt lake). There were also the occasional “lake art” statutes near the side of the road that had been erected by clever people, including a wooden man holding a Tunisian flag and wooden camel among others.
When we completed the trip across the Chott El-Jerid (which was also apparently the location of some scenes from the first Star Wars film) we began to drive through a series of small desert towns. After three hours of driving, we finally stopped in a little town called Douz where we got gas (you do not want to run out of gas in this area) and picked up some water and fresh bread. In fact this bread was so fresh that it was still warm and filled the car with this wonderful fresh baked bread aroma. I wasn’t the slightest bit hungry, but even I was tempted to take a bite.
As the sun began to set we pulled over to the side of the road for a quick detour of sorts. Hatem turned to me and said one minute madame, grabbed a scarf, walked across the road to a spot in the desert, oriented himself and began the ritual Islamic prayer. (Five prayers a day for Sunni Muslims: just before sunrise, sunrise, midday, sunset and evening
I asked Hassan why he wasn’t praying with Hatem and he explained to me that Hatem had already done the ritual purification at Friday prayers (the Friday midday prayer) and so he could again pray at sunset. However, because Hassan had been with me for lunch Hassan had not attended Friday prayer and thus had not done the ritual purification. As a result, he could not join Hatem in prayer. Now I have to tell you that there have been explanations from Hassan that have confused me, but none more so than this one. I have been told on many occasions in visits to mosques that you had to wash before every prayer and if no water was available you could symbolically wash (ie go through the gestures as if washing which Hatem appeared to do). I’m still not sure why Hassan could not pray as well.
Anyway, after the short stop, we turned off the main road and began the trek through no man’s land to Ksar Ghilane. Now I called this no man’s land because there was nothing and I mean nothing in site except for sand and camel crossing signs. Hell, we didn’t even see camels.
We were still about 45 minutes away from Ksar Ghilane when the sun set. Quite frankly at this point I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention since it was dark and there was nothing to see. The road was pretty rough and we were really flying along hitting bumps and rough patches every so often. So when we suddenly slowed down and stopped at stop sign mounted on a huge barricade in the middle of the road surrounded by razor wire and a man appeared at Hatem’s window holding an AK 47, I immediately thought UH OH! (plus a few other explitives that I will not share here.)
The man with the gun said a few words to Hatem who then played with his lights while the guy with the gun looked at the headlights. Then the gun guy walked around the car and peered in at me. I gave him what I can only describe as a very stiff no teeth smile and nod (uh what the heck else could when a guy with an AK 47 is staring at you … I had no idea what was going on).
Anyway, the guy turned his attention back to Hattem and said something else to him. Hatem then who proceeded to open the glove compartment of his car and show some documents to the guy. Then Hassan opened his wallet and showed some documents to the guy as well. At this point, I was really regretting not traveling with my Canadian passport. I was waiting for the inevitable request for me to show ID, but it never came. The guy with the gun waved his hand and two other fellows appeared out of the darkness moved the barricade and we were permitted to pass.
I sat there and said nothing until we were well out of site of the three men (uh at least the three men I saw) before I finally asked what the hell that was all about. Hassan told me that the area is very close to the Algerian border and not too far from the Libyan border. These militia were doing spot checks for the government to protect the area from “undesirables” from both countries. Now I wasn’t sure what the heck all that meant, but that big gun did not do a lot for me, and I was immensely relieved when we turned off the road and crossed a short sandy drive to the entrance of Ksar Ghilane (a fortified town lying within an oasis,which contains a number of desert camps). The original ksar lies abandoned about 2 km from the oasis.
Now the area around Ksar Ghilane (which I could not see because it was dark) contains some of the most incredible sand dunes in the Tunisian Sahara. The desert camps are built within the oasis, which includes a desert hot springs and small swimming hole. I would see the dunes in the morning.
The desert camp I was to stay in for the night was named Panasea and as I got out of the car it quickly became apparent how remote this area really was. The only power was coming from enormous generators housed next to a couple brick buildings, which contained the reception area, the eating area and a bar. There was also a beautiful swimming pool, a lookout tower and a series of canvas tents with huge comfy beds and built in bathrooms. I was ushered to a nearby tent, (after walking through the sand to reach it) deposited my things and went to find someone who could make me a drink. (I was still a little shook up about that AK 47 staring at me.)
A nice young guy by the name of Mohammed fixed me up a “Sahara”. I have no idea what was in it, but it could have used some ice (which I presume was in short supply in the middle of the Sahara). Oh. And if you are wondering about drinks and being in a Muslim country … Tunisia as well as Morocco are very liberal about alcohol. Not only do they serve alcohol in the restaurants and hotels, but many Muslims in both countries enjoy a glass of wine. Again, the French influence.
Anyway, after a nice chat with my bartender Mohammad (who spoke a bit of English), I was seated for dinner. Unfortunately, I was still full from lunch, but managed to take a few bites of a fabulous Tunisian salad (olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, vinegar and olive oil) with the requisite French bread, a bric (fried phylo dough stuffed with potato, a soft egg and tuna) and lamb kebabs (these folks love their lamb).
By now, all I wanted was to see the inside of that tent and crawl into bed. It had been a very long day. So I waded through the sand with flashlight in hand to my lovely little tent. Then I reconsidered. I couldn’t miss the fabulous desert sky. I mean how often am I going to be in the middle of the Sahara? I changed course. Found a nice seat and somehow managed to stay awake long enough to hang outside and take in the stars before calling it a night.