Laid up in Tozeur Oasis
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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Tozeur lies at the western end of the string of oases that run across the width of Tunisia, about 40km inside the border with Algeria and on the edge of Atlas-Sahara mountain range that rims the true Sahara desert. Despite the early summer heat there is plenty to do and see here, so whilst I enjoyed the elongated siesta that is the norm (basically noon til 4pm), this entry will probably need to be split in two.
Even getting here was a great adventure. After doubling back to Gabes from Matmata I hopped a louage and made for Kebili on the eastern edge of Chott (Lake) el-Jerid. From here I could have headed south to Douz and Ksar Ghilane to see some Saharan sand-dune seas, but I just didn't have the energy. So onwards I went across the Chott to Tozeur.
This part of the journey was the good bit. Wind-blown sand gusted in waves across the highway as we approached the vast salt lake, and finer dust hung in the air for kilometres further reducing visibility. Eventually this hinter-desert gave way to the edge of the lake where strange troglodyte mounds had been dug from small, whitewashed mole hills pimpling the flat plain around, along with statues of camels and the like fashioned from the abundance of salt we were coming into. Some of caves were actually cafes and it would have been great to stop and in see the chott close up, but the louage powered on by.
Finally we hit the salt bed itself, a glorious expanse of blaringly light crust stretching off in all directions for miles. On both sides of the causeway an alkaline red strip of water guided our way, punctuated occasionally by salt dams that allow the locals to cross if they find themselves wandering in this beautiful but foresaken place. It was almost a shame to reach the green expanse of Tozeur which apparently contains no less than 266,000 of Tunisia's finest date palms.
After resting up from the journey I decided to head out and find more Star Wars sets, as the area around Tozeur was used to film some legendary sequences in the original movie (mainly revolving around the Jawas and Sand People) and a variety of scenes from later installments. First stop on the tour (the only way to do this unfortunately) is Ong Jemel, a large set from the Phantom Menace movie that has been abandoned to the elements 30km north of Tozeur.
Bordered by extensive sand dunes, much of it is showing the inevitable wear of the desert, but as the pics show it hasn't crumbled to oblivion yet. Chicken wire pokes through the sand coloured composite that was used to replicate sand walls. Inside it is just bare timber frames and sand drifts, as they didn't shoot anything inside. Industrial piping is a nice addition and the transmission beacon models complete the spacey scene. Pretty nice all up.
The parked dromadaires (French for camels) were an amusing sight as we drove out of Ong Jemel. Just sitting there doing nothing on the parched sands without a concern for the Land Rovers passing by. Half way to Nefta I gave permission to pick up a forlorn looking local on the side of the road, who it seems has to walk the 13km there and back each day to sell souveniers to the handful of tourists that visit. O course he promptly tried to ply his wares once we were moving again, to both the driver and my great amusement, but hey, why not when you've got a captive audience? He settled for the free ride home.
I was considering staying a night in Nefta but was glad I didn't when we arrived. About half the size of Tozeur it is far too big to retain that Arabian nights, oasis in the desert feel, so ends up being a delapidated small town far less developed than its big brother. It's most attractive angle was from afar and above so we didn't stay long in town.
No amount of explanation in pidgin French, diagrams, charades or expansive gesticulation could make the guide understand that I wanted to see places like the Star Wars canyon (where R2D2 hung out trying to evade the Jawas) or where C3P0 wandered past the sun-baked skeleton, so we settled on a trip down to the chott so I could actually walk on it. Just a mirage-creating expanse of salt but pretty in its own way none the less. More dromadaires were mooching around on its fringes and an interesting Roman-era military post in the shape of a large bottle still stands on the way out of Nefta (toward the Algerian border), which was good to see too.
The tour was cutting itself short so I managed to convince him to take me to some of Tozeur's sites. It's quite spread out and bikes are costly to rent here for some reason so it was good to save a dehydrating hike. The Belvedere is a pleasant, palm-lined irrigation channel that flows through town and has a couple of springs at the five star hotel end of town. The pools are quite attractive amongst the palms but the gushing of the water from large pipes reduces the tranquil feel a little. Still, good for a swim when it gets really hot here no doubt.
Date palms are the big business here and no visit would be complete without a cruise through the actual 'oasis'. All paved roads now, lined with fences made of palm fronds so it's a pleasant atmosphere and stroll. Peek over the fences and you see that the groves of palms are usually very well tended with grass and neat irrigation canals cut into the ground. The palms don't bear fruit until November or so but there are the first signs of dates emerging at the moment. The must love the summer sunshine.
Back in town and we wizzed past a number of giant decorative roundabout sculptures made of the distinctive and very small sand bricks that are the primary construction material in the area. More on that later but at least the roadways are pretty. A final stop that day was in Tozeur Medina, a maze of residential buildings and covered archways that is a little spooky to walk around by yourself. World heritage listed apparently and fortunately it hasn't succumbed to the commerciality of the souk like in Tunis.
That's just outside and you can't escape the touts whilst being polite, but with a firm 'no' you can still stop and chat with them for a while without having to buy anything. I did actually like the vibrant rugs that are available here but I couldn't jam one in the backpack so I'll just have to do without. Although the internet connections are pretty crappy here, I could probably buy one on ebay later...
Continued next entry ->>>