Living it up in a Saharan oasis

Sunday Times
Published: 19th June 2005

What is paradise like?” I asked the driver as we negotiated the sand dunes on the way to my tented hotel in the Tunisian Sahara. The 4WD was essential. We were flung from side to side, and the wind shifted the scenery even as we watched — filtering sand across the road, dusting the windscreen with a fine film. The rougher the terrain, the more luxuriant became my driver’s vision of unearthly paradise — although, to me, Tunisia’s volatile landscape was Eden enough. But perhaps that’s why we un- believers travel: we need to find our paradises here and now.

It had been a full day’s journey to the oasis from the sleepy island of Djerba. And what a journey. The scenery had taken a dramatic turn soon after we crossed the Roman causeway, leaving behind the sybaritic hotels, four-handed massages, whitewashed mosques and mud flats of the tourist island. My last trip to Tunisia had been some 25 years ago, when I’d hung around an out-of-season hotel in northern Tunisia with a girlfriend. With the elderly guests on special offers and the waiters making us special offers, it was not a good experience.

Now we were in Tunisia’s magical south, where the landscape is stern but the people are gentle and welcoming.

For a culture shock a few hours from London, this takes some beating. Southern Tunisia isn’t as chic as Morocco, but its scenery was more astounding even before we reached the great dunes of the desert — take the troglodyte village of Chenini, for example, its cave dwellings carved out of the mountain like some strange ant hill, a white mosque wistfully perched up high, looking down on the arid, windswept plains below. Here, only the older people still speak Berber; the remainder speak Arabic and sometimes French, like the rest of Tunisia, which gained independence from France in 1956.

An inscription in one of Chenini’s storerooms bears a date, 560AH — AD1182 — though the village is thought to be older than that. I watched a mother shelter her child from the wind with her shesh, or scarf, and another child returning from school on a donkey led by a Frodo-like grandfather in a brown cape — and realised I could have been in any subsequent century. Nearby were a number of ksar, Saharan fortresses, honeycombed with storerooms where the nomadic people left their supplies to be guarded.

We drove on, through small towns where men stood in doorways in their Friar Tuck capes and peaked hoods called burnous — looking like extras from Star Wars. Indeed, this part of Tunisia starred as the home of Luke Skywalker, the desert planet Tatooine, niftily named after the town of Tataouine. Many of the scenes were filmed in the lunar landscape of Matmata, where the troglodytes live in underground pit dwellings, like desert foxes. You can stay the night in a cave at the Sidi Driss Hotel.

We lunched in a local Tataouine workmen’s cafe, where the white tiles were adorned with the flamboyant blue letters of the Koran. The chef chatted in French as he brought out finely chopped green salad, the most delicious couscous I have ever tasted and bread with harissa — a concentrate of garlic and red chilli pepper. The presence of a woman caused great but respectful interest: I saw no other women in any of the local cafes or restaurants. My only problem was expressing enough enthusiasm in eating the feast to match his enthusiasm in serving me.

By the time we were bounding over the caramel dunes towards the hotel, the wind was blowing in wisps, so that it seemed we were being led by a team of sand ghosts. Late afternoon was fading into evening, and I’d already decided this was one of the most enchanting countries I had ever visited — the Arabian Nights, Lawrence of Arabia and The English Patient all rolled into one. Later, after talking to the Bedouin riders who make their living from the travellers who visit the camps, I realised that what makes it enchanting is not just the beauty but a sense of innocence, a world unspoilt.

Next time, I shall arrange a long trip by camel, sleeping under the stars or in tents, the bread baked fresh every morning — in the sand, though, magically, no sand remains in it. The bread is made on a fire with brushwood that you find; curiously, there is always wood to be had in the desert, although all you can see is sand.

The Bedouins who lead these trips never stop talking to each other, gossiping all day about a camel lost some weeks ago, or how a western woman gave some villagers a sewing machine, and how they responded and how she responded.

My hotel, the Pansea Douar camp, in the oasis of Ksar Ghilane, is luxurious, with the floors of the tents made from pale Tunisian marble, air conditioning and an ensuite bathroom with hot water, but all surrounded by linen that shakes in the wind as if about to be wrenched off its pegs, and a roof patterned with sand. It has a restaurant, a bar, a sandy swimming pool and, on some nights, a discotheque. From an observation tower, you can see the oasis of palm trees and, on the other side, the dunes floating off into the distance, constantly rearranged by the wind, as if it’s bored and playing games. Not paradise, perhaps, but spectacular.

Here and there in the relentless wind, men stagger wrapped in their capes, their faces and mouths swathed in turquoise or orange turbans to keep the sand from their hair and eyes, as all the time the wind whistles and roars. For the visitor, at least, this is as good as it gets: watching wild eagles and falcons; bathing in the hot natural pool at the edge of the desert; taking camel and horse rides through the shifting scenery, one moment tufted with mohican-haircut bushes, the next climbing over vast drifts of sand. The men and women who live here have faces with deep lines, as if the wind has dredged through them, too.

In the morning, the sand had crept under the tent, into my hair, onto my face, into a jar of moisturiser, turning it into a useful exfoliator, and into my mouth, yet I didn’t feel dirty.

Most visitors stay only one night, then move on, so the camp was deserted in the day and I was able to walk out into the desert. The fine sand rose like heat off a cooker and drifts piled up here and there, constantly changing as the wind breathed over the sand.

In the afternoon, I was driven over 10 bumpy miles of sand to another, more basic camp, Campement Aïn Essbat, where a lone alsatian excitedly chased the car as we arrived and, later, refused to let it leave, as if it were desperate for company. One man looked after the camp, about an hour away from anywhere, and gave us tea and talk, refusing any payment, pointing out the direction of Algeria and of Libya, the two larger countries on either side of Tunisia, which is only about the size of Great Britain.

Later that night, I wandered out to walk in the oasis, through the date palms, by the hot stream, and was offered a ride on a black Arab stallion by one of the Bedouins, then invited to share bread by the fire and see their tent, where there were pin-ups of women on the walls. The photographs were all of women’s eyes: the rest of their faces and hair are covered in the shesh, the long scarf that can be five yards long and is used here for everything from modesty to filtering sand out of water. Compared to pictures of women on western walls, this was certainly tasteful. But the power of the eyes was remarkable all the same.

“I can’t understand why people want to live in houses,” one said, as he poured me tea. “They’re like graves. I get ill if I stay in a house.”

In this empire of sand and strange paradises and scorch-ing women’s eyes, there were different rules.

“This is the most beautiful place in the world,” the youngest one said. “Our family is all in Douz, but it’s like everywhere. It’s so busy and bustling. When I’m there, all I want to do is return here.”

It was hard to believe that the young man was talking about Douz, a small town, one of the gateways to the Sahara, about 60 miles north of Ksar Ghilane, where the Sahara Festival is held in December. He was enraptured by the beauty of Ksar Ghilane, the tiny, wild place where he lived and worked.

On my last morning, I travelled by camel to a Roman fort on a giant dune, walking slowly, deeper and deeper into silence, as the camel dug his feet into the soft sand for more than two hours.

On my return, as the camels approached the oasis, the sound of birdsong — high-pitched, delighted — broke the silence. Ever since, I have fallen asleep with thoughts of the caramel sand in my head.

Need to Know

Sally Emerson was a guest of Wigmore Holidays.

Travel details: Wigmore Holidays (020 7836 4999, has five nights in a five-star hotel in Djerba and two nights’ half-board at the Pansea Douar camp in Ksar Ghilane from £820pp, including flights from Heathrow with Tunisair and a private 4WD for two days. Or try Tunisia First (01276 600100,