Tunisia is Africa's smallest country, and the town of Douz in the south is gateway to the Sahara Desert, a place luring millions of people 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 clothing when they ride. It can be hired at the town's hotels.
Most of the time, Douz is a sleepy desert town, but things become lively at the Thursday souq which sells everything from animals to food, craft 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 and prickly pear plants, with each division being owned by individual families. Men shimmy up the trees to harvest the precious fruit.
About 70km away is Chott El Jerid, a lake composed of myriads of salt crystals and understandably chosen as the site for filming scenes in 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 one-and-a-half 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 of the population of Matmata lives 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 troglodyte homes' courtyard are five to 10 metres deep with a labyrinth of small rooms for sleeping, keeping grain and general storage. They were first built by the Berbers over a thousand years ago for two very good purposes they were excellent camouflage from invaders and provide comfort in the extreme desert temperatures.
Berber society is made up of small tribes which 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 to wear colourful clothing.
Around five of the underground homes operate as hotels, offering dormitory-style accommodation and meals. The Sidi Driss Hotel, which was Luke Skywalker's house in Star Wars, accommodates up to 130 people. It isn't luxurious, but is a one-off experience for the traveler. Basic rooms are not air-conditioned, and you can go to the hotel for just a meal.
The north of Africa
Atlantis Voyages offers six-day tours for eight people including domestic flights, transfers, meals, accommodation, camel ride and guide starting at around $1200 per person, twin share.
Qantas flies twice a week to Paris with connections to Tunisia operated by Air France. Return economy airfares start at $4151 from Perth, $4265 from Melbourne, $4272 from Darwin, $4273 from Brisbane, $4280 from Adelaide and $4285 from Sydney, per person. Prices include charges/taxes and are current at time of writing but may vary at time of booking. Seasonal surcharges and conditions apply.
Please note prices are valid at time of transmission and to the best of our knowledge are inclusive of GST.
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El Menzah VIII Tunis, Tunisia
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To book a flight, visit www.qantas.com.au
or call 13 13 13.