If we travel far enough, the sands of the Sahara – fine as flour, cool in the early mornings and fiery to the touch in the afternoons, change from creamy-white to orange, as dark as russet in places. Juanita Reimer, my guide, and possibly the only female escort who ventures into the depths of the Tunisian Sahara, tells me this as we make the slow trek atop our camels in single file, steered by Ali, a Bedouin cameleer who sports a fantastic moustache and a wide grin.
The camels, commonly known as the Toyota Hiluxes of the desert for their stability and reliability more than their comfort (I shift awkwardly the entire ride), are trussed with our belongings – a change of clothes, tents, sleeping bags, large blankets and water. I follow the shadows we cast in the early afternoon light, longing to walk with Ali. But I’m wearing open sandals, and the sands are scorching hot.
We’re headed to a base camp for the night, a large dune, where a group of Bedouins, whose love for the desert is so intense they regularly sleep uncovered on the sands rather than under the roofs of their homes, are setting up a large tent spun from sheep and goat wool by local women from Douz.
This is where our provisions and cooking station, manned by one Meki, will be housed. I hope that someone has packed the scorpion-bite kit, remembering the stream of warnings from friends to stuff my shoes with socks at night or, better yet, to wear the shoes while I sleep. I take these recommendations seriously; this is, after all, my very first time camping in the desert.
As to which dune we’re headed towards, it remains a mystery. Sand banks merge into sand banks, now glinting honey-gold in the late afternoon sun. We stare at Ali in awe: with no GPS or stone markers, he follows an innate directional system, as if it is coded in his mind, as if the Saharan sand coursed through his veins.
Reimer says that, no matter the frequency of her visits here, she’d never be able to find her way without the guidance of the cameleers, many of whom have become her Tunisian family since she moved to the North African country from Canada almost a decade ago.
I crane my neck, and in all directions the vast Sahara multiplies – an illusion, surely. It shifts as we trundle up and down the dunes. Before us lies a rolling ocean of sand, the erg, which extends for about 500km into neighbouring Algeria. Silence envelops us and demands that we relinquish control. We adjust slowly.
A few shrubs dot the landscape and the camels sniff at them as they plod (their “salad bar”, Reimer calls it), making greedy swipes and chewing languidly. Even when the camel walking behind me in our row nudges persistently against the flank of my camel, Ali makes no more than a gentle clicking sound to dissuade it, showing no signs of irritation or impatience.
Then we hear it: a tambourine in the distance, and the strains of men singing in Tunisian Arabic. The singing gradually gets louder, but it’s a while still before we can see our camp. When the sun drops over the horizon, first turning the sands a washed-out red, followed by an ethereal blue, we shiver. How quickly the temperature plummets from hot to cold here in the desert.
Europeans have long pursued the sun, the warm waters and reasonable prices of the pretty Tunisian seaside resorts such as Hammamet and Sidi Bou Said, and it may be hard to imagine that other regions experience a different range of temperatures. The topography varies wildly too, from sea to desert, from palm groves with waterfalls to arid Mars-like landscapes, from salt pans to mountains and deep-dipping valleys.
Tunisia’s topography varies wildly from salt pans to mountains and deep-dipping valleys.
We discover all this in an action-packed five days, as Reimer and Nurie, who’s been driving tourists since he was 15, guide us between Djerba, time-frozen Tataouine (an inspiration for George Lucas’s Star Wars movie series), Matmata, Douz (the gateway to the Sahara), Gafsa, Kairouan, the amphitheatre at El Jem and up to the sea at Sousse (where, on June 26, 38 mainly British tourists were massacred at a beach resort).
Meki, who nods but never smiles, prepares us a feast. We enjoy it on blankets spread on a nearby dune: tuna and egg brik (a local fried pastry), kousha (a stew of goat and potatoes and flat bread baked on the campfire). There is boisterous singing about loves lost and found, howls of laughter and energetic dancing around the campfire after dinner. It continues even after we retire to our little tent, clearly something the men enjoy, and not an act they just put on for tourists.
Before I pull on an extra sweater for warmth and close my eyes, falling into a leaden sleep against the firm sand, I stuff my socks into my shoes. It never hurts to be careful, I reason.
When journalist Tom Chesshyre ventured into Tunisia and the Sahara as part of his Maghreb adventure after the “Jasmine Revolution”, he didn’t intend to merely report on the civil unrest and political matters, but to visit as a tourist experiencing these Arab countries that were starting afresh. His experience gave rise to the travelogue A Tourist in the Arab Spring (Bradt), documenting his lone, brave journey from Tunisia to Egypt.
My understanding is that Chesshyre assumed tourism would flourish in the wake of the downfall of the despotic regimes. His work remains one of the very few recently published works on the region. Certainly that was the case when I was researching my trip in May.
When the Bardo attacks rocked Tunisia, embassies issued strict warnings against travel – not to Tunis, the capital, but to other regions, including the Sahara. After some consternation and a back-and-forth email correspondence with Reimer, she insisted that, if ever she felt unsafe, the desert would be the first place she’d seek refuge.
Unlike a cave or the Chaambi Mountains that lie on the Tunisian border with Algeria, and are known to harbour Islamic State recruits and jihadists, the Sahara lies open for miles. No one could hide there, said Reimer, or survive without skills and supplies.
And, though my friends and family were understandably nervous, I took a leap of faith and booked a flight to Tunisia.
In a troglodyte cave in Matmata, I sipped rosemary tea and savoured chunks of home-baked bread with the eccentric Saliha and her family. I meditated in the leaning Mosque of the Seven Sleepers and again at the lonely Colosseum at El Jem, built in 230 AD with a design superior to the one in Rome. I marvelled at the otherworldly architecture of the Berber ksars (castles) in Tataouine and the abandoned Star Wars sets.
I ate dates by the bunch in a palm grove. I accompanied Rabaa Dali as she cooked a magnificent lunch of traditional recipes in her home in Sousse, and I stayed until well after 10pm. I was treated with kindness, even by the insistent vendors at stalls that see no tourists.
I walked with Bedouins in the Tunisian Sahara, and I’d take a chance against the scorpions again.