After a few days in Northern Tunisia, we made our way down towards Tozeur (gateway to the Sahara) for a few days in the desert. What an amazing couple of days! We got to link up with some young and fun Tunisians and a French guy…super cool that they were willing to have us crash their party as we all explored the desert region together.
18 March: Since we didn’t know if we’d have another chance to explore Tozeur, we set the alarm for 6 am and did a quick 20 minute hike into town. The old part of Tozeur (Ouled el Hadef) is easily accessible from Avenue Bourguiba. The traditional brickwork alone was worth the early morning wake up…we enjoyed having over an hour of hassle free exploring on our own. Heading back to the hotel, we made a quick detour to check out the Dar Cherait complex (exterior view only since the gates were locked), before having a dismal breakfast at the Residence el Amen (bread, butter and jam, coffee and milk). By 9 am, we were back in the lobby waiting on our driver for the next three days since Ali was in Gafsa picking up the group of five we were joining. Our driver was prompt and very business like, but the minute he found out we couldn’t speak French, all verbal communications ceased. He drove us directly to Metlaoui so we could board the Lezard Rouge (Red Lizard) antique train ride of the Seldja Gorge. The drive took about an hour and we were allowed to board the train without tickets. To our surprise, the Lezard Rouge is insanely popular with tourists, domestic and foreign alike. It was packed already even with 30 minutes to spare! We managed to get a space to stand between the carriages and soon had people squished in beside us. Somehow, Ali managed to find us and he invited us to join the group of 5 further down the train carriage. We told him that since we were into photography, we’d just stay put where we were at so he handed us our train tickets (25 Dinar each) and told us to have fun. The ride through the gorge was better than expected with fantastic scenery. The Tunisian school kids cheered happily through the tunnels and several stops were made for us to take photos. A police and military escort followed us the entire journey, which made us feel a bit more assured since the antique train is such a soft target for terrorists…we shudder to think of the carnage that would ensue if the Lezard Rouge was ever targeted! At one of the stops, Ali introduced us to the other travelers we were joining, and we were thrilled to see that they were a young, friendly group of friends (Ala, Nissaf, Aymen, Hela and Gregory – Hela’s French boyfriend).who spoke excellent English. This was shaping up to be a super fun trip, yay! From Metlaoui we drove towards Tamerza where we stopped to have lunch. Our meal of lamb was quite tasty but with way too much food. We left absolutely stuffed as we headed out to check out the old walled town of Tamerza followed by a brief stop at Tamerza’s waterfalls. Next up was a short hike through the small oasis village of Chebika, which was abandoned after the floods of 1969. Since we were running out of time, we immediately drove out to the desert as soon as our Chebika hike was over. First stop was Ong Jemel, a rock formation in the middle of the desert that looks like the neck and head of a camel. We got to play with a fennec fox which was both fun and sad because we realized the fox is a nocturnal animal and the bright sun must wreck havoc on its eyes. Finally, the moment we had been waiting for. A thrilling ride through the desert brought us to Mos Epsa, a Star Wars set from the movie The Phantom Menace. The sun was setting as we finished up at Nefta’s La Corbeille before the drive back to Tozeur. Ali gave us an hour to shower, rest and meet the group for dinner in town where we enjoyed a lovely meal of grilled meats over some fun conversation. To our surprise, we found out the group of 5 all had ties to one person, Ala, and he had arranged the weekend getaway amongst this group of strangers. The way they had been interacting, we thought they had been friends forever. Hela and Gregory both live and work in France, so they were on a 2 week holiday. Hela had grown up next door to Ala, so he was practically her brother. Nissaf, a dentist, was invited by Ala and she was keen on getting away for the weekend since she works crazy long hours at work. The funniest story was how Aymen was tricked into joining the group. When Ala asked him if he wanted to go South, he immediately refused, because he had weekend plans in Tunis. So Ala played along and told him that he could provide a ride to Tunis but to pack his bags for a bit of city and beach life. Unsuspecting Aymen was sitting on the curb when the group drove up in a 4×4 and he instantly knew something was up. Ala was filming the entire sequence of events…the look of poor Aymen’s face was truly hilarious whe he realized he had been duped. Dinner was fun and we were quite happy to have meet some fun travelers to explore Southern Tunisia with.
19 March: We slept in till 8:30 am since we didn’t have to leave until 9 am and neither one of us was keen on having breakfast at our hotel again. It took us a while to escape Tozeur as we drove round and round in circles getting all last minute items taken care of. Ala wanted to buy some dates for his family so 10 KG of dates later (the ones from Tozeur are reputedly the best, and cheap at 3 Dinar per KG), he finally had enough. We retraced our steps into the old part of Tozeur to see if the later morning sunlight made a difference, photography wise. And then we had to stock up on beer, soda and water. Lastly, Ali had to fill up on some gas, so it was 11:30 by the time we finally left Tozeur and started the 300 KM drive towards Ksar Ghilane. First stop was at Chott el-Jerid salt lake where we took a couple of photos, including a couple of optical illusions. Our second stop was to see the sand formations of Dbebcha, which was pretty cool and warranted a brief stop. Then we drove to Douz for lunch at the excellent El Bey Restaurant. The food here is prepared within clay pots, which are sealed with dough and cooked inside an oven built in the ground. Very cool! The owner is friends with Ali so we were invited to see the chef in action. Needless to say, we left feeling completely stuffed. Then we settled in for a long drive to Ksar Ghilane, arriving at 5:30 pm. With just an hour to go before sunset, we all hopped on quad bikes for a ride out in the desert to the old fort (about 3 KM away in the dunes). It was loads of fun, although quite sandy! Our accomodations tonight was our own private Berber tent with a double bed. It was a bargain staying here at the campground since dinner, tent and breakfast was only $30 for the two of us. Dinner was of course way too much food again…we are noticing this trend down here in Southern Tunisia. After dinner, Ali took us out for a nice surprise with a party ride in the desert. With our music blasting, drinks flowing and spirits soaring, it was fun to completey let loose out in the sand dunes. Back at the campsite, an entertainer was performing on a traditional musical instrument and Nissaf sang along. She has such a pretty voice. The smoke filled bar was just too much for us to handle though, and we stayed as long as we could stand it. Thankfully, both Gregory and Hela are irritated by smoke so we had an excuse to leave when all of us succumed to the smoke fumes. Ali told us to be ready to leave by 8 am since we all had a long day ahead of us tomorrow.
20 March: The alarm sounded way too early at 7 am and we wearily lugged ourselves up from our deep slumber. Apparently our friends in the adjacent tent didn’t sleep as well as we did because Ala was snoring all night long!! Poor Hela looked exhausted and she later confirmed she is an extremely light sleeper and Ala’s changing snore tones kept waking her up. After breakfast, we pulled up to the Ksar Ghilane hot springs, waited for Ala’s traditional berber bread to be prepared, and then drove out a few km to another hot spring. There, both Ala and Robby decided to change into swim trunks for a dip in the hot spring. Local teenaged boys came zooming in on their motorcycles and stared at the crazy tourists who were dunking themselves in the hot water. It definitely felt like Ala and Robby were their morning’s source of entertainment. Next stop was a brief one at Cafe Bir Soltane where a couple of folks ordered tuna-harissa sandwiches. Becky tried Tunisian green tea and enjoyed it. Definitely not the green tea we are used to drinking back at home. After this pit stop, we drove onward to Tamezret where we climbed the tower of Dar Ayed for a view of the picturesque city. Ala bought a box of Gazelle’s Horns (Meilleur Corne de Gazelle), a traditional desert made with honey and almonds stuffed inside the “horn”…quite a tasty and addictive treat. Yum! And then we were in Matmata, where our first stop was at the Hotel Sidi Idriss, which has been used in several of the Star Wars movies going back to 1976. Tacky? Definitely! But a must for any Star Wars freak. Lunch was at another hotel in Matmata and we were completely stuffed by the time we had to say goodbye to our group. It always sucks saying goodbye but we did take a couple of fun group pics on top of the landcruiser before receiving our goodbye gifts from Ali (thanks Ali…great time had by both of us!!). Ala promised to create a facebook group so we could share our photos and we told everyone it might be a while before we had reliable internet access. From Matmata, we drove to Toujane where our driver stopped so we could take a photo of the Kasbah’s old stone houses. Very picturesque! Then it was onward to our very first Ksar, Ksar el Hallouf. We kept pinching ourselves…did we really have this entire complex to ourselves? The photos do not do it justice…the ksours of Tunisia must be seen first hand to truly appreciate their beauty. To back up a little, a Ksar (plural: Ksours) is the quintessential symbol of Berber architecture. They are fortified graineries built to preserve and protect a communities’ crops. Each Ksar consists of several ghorfas, which are long narrow rooms built to resemble caves. The doorways to each ghorfa is miniscule, while the terracote storage vases (built inside the ghorfa) are quite large, hence preventing theives or enemies from carrying off the community’s food resources. An ingenious method of protecting the grain! The ghorfas can be stacked on top of each other, with most Ksars having two storeys. However, a few of them are three storeys tall and the behemonth Ksars are famous for being four and five stories in height! A narrow staircase leads to the upper stories and we did see a couple of ghorfas with a “makeshift” staircase created out of protuding stone…wicked cool. After our visit to Ksar el Hallouf, we were hooked on the Ksars. Next one was Ksar Hadada, made famous from the Star Wars movie “The Phantom Menace”. The date of shooting was in July 1997 and this put Ksar Hadada on the tourist map forever. George Lucas used Ksar Hadada as the town “Mos Espa” in Galatic Planet Tatooine and the rest is in history. We expected to have to elbow other Star Wars fans out of the way but eerily, we had the entire hotel complex to ourselves. A couple of workers were busy renovating the hotel, but other than that, we had free reign of everything. It was amazing!!!! It was getting late by the time we pulled up to Chenini. Our driver was keen to hit the road for his long return trip to Tozeur, so we quickly grabbed our gear and thanked him for his services. A young local named Ali greeted us and told us that he was the brother of our local tour guide, Ismail. He walked us up to the Residence Kenza, which was to be our home for the next two nights. Chenini is breath taking. Not only because you have to hike up several steps to get anywhere, but because it is such a well preserved Berber village. We instantly fell in love with Chenini and were wowed by the Residence Kenza. Our room, Egri 1, was a series of caves with enough beds to sleep at least 11 people (3 in the first cave, 4 in the second cave and 4 in the third and rear most cave)…truly fantastic. It was over 90 degrees outside but the instant we stepped inside our room, the temperature dropped at least 20 degrees. As Ali joked, it was natural air conditioning. We were eager to explore pretty Chenini but Ali gave us about 30 minutes to relax and fill in the hotel registration forms first. We set out at 5 pm and were given a superb tour of the village. From the solitary camel that provides olive grinding duties to the new white mosque at the hill top, we explored the entire kasbah area. Ali was fun and engaging, explaining that while all the houses in Matmata are troglodyte (built vertically underground, aka “pit dwelling”), the houses in Chenini are semi-troglodyte, as they are built horizontally into the mountain face. Since each house has to chip away massive amounts of stone, it takes over 1 year to complete a semi-troglodyte home and the village has 3 expert builders to support this village of 80 Berber families. Chenini is truly a gem, and we felt so blessed to be the only tourists in town. Simply unbelievable…where are all the tourists??? This place really should be overrun with them, its that beautiful. Since it was 6:30 pm by the time our tour was done, we decided to hang out and relax at the restaurant (located about 10 minutes downhill from our cave hotel, also part of the Kenza establishment). We easily killed 30 minutes over drinks and free wifi. The wait was worth it because dinner was really good with the best grilled chicken of our trip thus far. Our friendly waiter spoke German so we were able to communicate. On the walk back up to our hotel, we got a bit disoriented in the dark, but a security guard assured us we were headed in the right direction. We didn’t know it at the time, but he was part of a 3 man detail sent to ensure our safety for the night. Armed with rifles and flak vests, the men took their duty seriously and we were very happy to have the “Garde Nationale” watching our backs, especially after what happened in Ben Guerdane recently.
The Residence Kenza had lovely hot water for our showers. What more can we say about the excellent establishment? Its just a gem…truly one of the most unique hotels we’ve ever stayed at and for such a cheap price (with breakfast and dinner included)…we LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the Residence Kenza. Don’t hesitate and go, you will really enjoy your stay here.