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Catriona in the Sahara.
Catriona in the Sahara.
Trekking through a sandstorm.
Thursday markets.

Southern Tunisia

Thursday, March 27, 2003
Catriona makes her way through the world's harshest environment — the Sahara, a place of sand dunes, nomads and palm oases.

Tunisia is Africa's smallest country. The town of Douz, in the south, is the gateway to the Sahara desert — a place where millions of people are lured to every year. With the world's harshest environment, the Sahara is a place of sand dunes, nomads and palm oases.

Douz has a population of around 12,000, who these days are semi-nomadic. They live in houses but lead their camels, sheep and goats through the desert in search of grass. The main attraction for tourists is to hire a camel and ride into the desert on a tour lasting anywhere from an hour to a few days. Sleeping under the desert sky is popular and most people like to wear nomadic costume when they ride. Clothes can be hired at the town's hotels.

For most of the time, Douz is a sleepy desert town, but things get lively at the Thursday souq, which sells everything from animals to food, crafts and clothing. The market has been operating for hundreds of years and it's best to go in the comparative coolness of the morning.

A kilometre out of Douz is the Palmerie, one of Tunisia's largest oases, growing 400,000 date palms. It is sectioned off by brick walls or prickly pear plants, with each division being owned by individual families. Men shimmy up the trees to harvest the precious fruit; the most prized having creamy flesh.

About 70km away is the 250 by 20km Chott El Jerid, a lake composed of myriads of salt crystals and, understandably, chosen as the site for the filming of Star Wars. Thousands of years ago, it was part of the Mediterranean Sea, and is dry in the hot season and wet in winter. It can be crossed by foot or vehicle, and along its shores are some of Tunisia's most prosperous oases.

Matmata, about 1½ hours from Douz, is on a small hill surrounded by a lunar landscape. It has 700 underground troglodyte dwellings, which, from a distance, appear to be just holes in the landscape. If you look into one of the holes, you will see man-made, two-storey dwellings with doors facing an internal courtyard. Half the population of Matmata live in the underground homes, most of which are open for tourists to visit. While you are very welcome to wander through and photograph their homes, a donation or purchase of a souvenir is gratefully accepted.

The courtyards of the troglodyte homes are 5-10m deep, with a labyrinth of small rooms for sleeping in, for keeping grain and general storage. They were first built by the Berbers over 1,000 years ago for two very good purposes: they were excellent camouflage from invaders and provided comfort in the extreme desert temperatures.

Berber society is made up of small tribes who carefully guard their autonomy and resist state authority. They are peaceful and hardworking and enjoy good health and longevity. They have light-coloured hair and eyes and love wearing colourful clothing. Around five of the underground homes operate as hotels, offering dormitory-style accommodation and meals. The Sidi Driss Hotel accommodates up to 130 people. It isn't luxurious — the rooms are basic and are not air-conditioned — but is a one-off experience for the traveller.


The north of Africa.


Atlantis Voyages have tailor-made packages. A six-day tour for eight people, including domestic flights, transfers, accommodation, camel ride and guide, starts at around $1400 per person, twin share.
Qantas flies daily to London with connections to Tunis. Return economy airfares start at $2339 per person from the east coast, Adelaide and Perth.
Please note prices are valid at time of transmission and to the best of our knowledge are inclusive of GST.

More information

Atlantis Voyages
36 Avenue Maaouia Ibn Abi Sofiane
El Menzah V111, Tunis, Tunisia
Ph: (0011) 216 1 703 236
Fax: (0011) 216 1 713 171
Qantas: Ph: 13 13 13
For a safe and healthy journey, talk to the travel doctor: 1300 658 844 or visit
Vaccinations: Tetanus/Diphtheria, Polio, Hepatitis A, Typhoid and Measles if under 30 years and no previous booster. Drink plenty of fluids and a medical kit is suggested for treating travel health problems quickly and effectively.

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